Wednesday, September 22, 2010

DVD Picks for September 21, 2010

Unlike the past couple weeks, there is plenty to crow about. Some I have seen; some I am excited to see.

VHS/35mm/DVD: Trash Humpers (2009)
Distributor: Warped
Director: Harmony Korine

I feel like I'm slummin' with the DVD of Trash Humpers. The pimped up editions (either VHS or your own 35mm print) accentuate the film's ability to dance the low-brow jig while kicking the can into the high-brow court. Trash Humpers, in all its unadulterated depravity, is a film that will endure despite itself. I can't wait to watch this again.

DVD: Eccentricities of a Blond Haired Girl (2009)
Distributor: Cinema Guild
Director: Manoel de Oliveira

I was chalking this film up as one I probably wouldn't see this year, but, all the sudden, here it is. It is about time I get on board with Manoel de Oliveira and see what I have been missing. Although it looks like my first will be The Strange Case of Angelica in Vancouver, I'll start digging into his extensive back catalog when I return, starting with this one which earned rave reviews with many I respect.

DVD: The Actuality Dramas of Allan King
Distributor: Eclipse
Director: Allan King

Eclipse calls Canadian director Allan King "one of cinema's best kept secrets." Well I guess so. If I'm going to admit my negligence of Manoel de Oliveria, I may as well admit I have never heard of Allan King. Something new to discover! Five films included here: Warrendale, A Married Couple, Come on Children, Dying at Grace, and Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company.

BD/DVD: The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)
Distributor: Sony
Director: Juan Jose Campanella

Okay. I'd be hard pressed to say I'm excited about this release, as I was relatively underwhelmed by last years Best Foreign Film Oscar winner. The convoluted plot serves no purpose and I never felt half the sympathy I was supposed to for these flat characters. That being said, I do really like Ricardo DarĂ­n, the lead actor in this film. (Check out The Aura.)

BD/DVD: (Untitled) (2010)
Distributor: Screen Media
Director: Jonathan Parker

The trailer for this film annoyed me to no end, but then a friend said it was out-and-out hilarious. Now is my chance to find out.

BD/DVD: Ondine (2010)
Distributor: Magnolia
Director: Neil Jordan

Here's another one I missed in the theater - Colin Farrell and your long beautiful hair.

DVD: Fantomas: Five Film Collection (1913/1914)
Distributor: Kino
Director: Louis Feuillade

Whoo. These look awesome. I love the screen shots I've seen of this series and the reviews have piqued my interest. More discovery for me!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Alexandre Aja's PIRANHA 3D

My review for Piranha 3D is up on In Review Online and as my editor astutely noted on Twitter: I didn't like it much. I could have easily watched Piranha 3D and walked away from it, but forced with the task of thinking about it and critically assessing it...well, let's just say it didn't make me more fond of it. It is a ridiculous use of 3D, nudity, blood and CGI. Bitter about not being able to walk away from it, I give it half a star.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Pang Brothers' STORM WARRIORS

In 1998 Andrew Lau's The Stormriders offered a glimmer of computer generated hope to an anxious Hong Kong film industry burdened with waning hometown profits and productions (not to mention that it was all governed by a new landlord officing in Beijing.) Stormriders was a martial arts melodrama that propelled its elements of fantasy using computers, not wires. Based on a popular comic book, Stormriders starred dreamboats Ekin Cheung and Aaron Kwok as martial arts heroes, Whispering Wind and Striding Cloud. Wind is the sensitive and calm one who calculates his battles with patience; Cloud is the emotional and erratic one who acts before he thinks. Falling prey to the manipulations of Lord Conqueror (Sonny Chiba), and his beautiful daughter (Shu Qi), Wind and Cloud turn against one another in an epic showdown that eventually leads to their bond of brotherhood. Directed by Andrew Lau (of the incredibly popular Young and Dangerous series) added an artful new pizazz to a tried-and-true formula. The film cleaned up at the box office and almost everyone raised their hands in a communal cheer for Hong Kong film.

I bought into this brooding period drama, hook, line and sinker. It played a few times in town (courtesy of Asian Media Access) and I subsequently bought the import DVD for repeat viewings. Twelve years later, the DVD has gathered some dust, but I find I am equally susceptible to the stylish but light machinations of Wind and Cloud. Returning to the screen once again—this time at the hands of the Pang Brothers with Cheung and Kwok reprising their roles—Wind and Cloud find themselves even further enmeshed in special effects but with the feeling that they had even more to prove now than they did in 1998. Although some distance has no doubt made my heart grow fonder of Stormriders, I was realistic in my expectation of this new installment, generically titled Storm Warriors but surrounded with a halo of communal anticipation.

Storm Warriors picks up at a different point in the saga where Wind and Cloud and their master, Nameless, are up against a new nemesis in the form of evil Lord Godless (Simon Yam) and his equally evil but emasculated son Heart (Nic Tse). Lord Godless has situated himself as the king of the martial arts world by ruthlessly exhibiting his prowess against all the masters, most notably Nameless. His intentions of world domination (or at least the world known as the middle kingdom) are obvious and so are his plans to rule with an iron fist as his minions go about pillaging and conquering. Because Nameless was given the wu shu smackdown, Wind and Cloud are set to avenge their master and prevent the slaughter of innocents by any means necessary. In this case they must turn to Lord Wicked, the only person who has a chance of defeating Lord Godless and his seemingly unlimited powers.

As it turns out, one of the fair faced men must turn to the dark side to achieve the power needed to defeat Lord Godless. Wind, of rational mind and cool temperament, is chosen as the best candidate for the training in the evil arts while Cloud retreats to high mountain to train with his master in preparation for facing Godless. Both of the men face great danger, but the fate of Wind's soul hangs in the balance. Meanwhile there are two damsels waiting in the wings, Chu Chu for Cloud and Second Dream for Wind. Their task is to stop Lord Godless before he finds the legendary imperial relic, The Dagon's Bone, which holds the magical key to ruling the land.

Unfortunately, Storm Warriors is more an exercise in technical deftness than an exertion in creativity for the Pang Brothers, who have success in both areas, and sometime simultaneously. In this case, their film is sucked dry of any emotional grit and it fails to have the gravitational guilty pleasures of romance, passion and heroism of Stormriders, even if it was completely over the top. But nice to look at counts for something, and that is what Storm Warriors cashes in on, even with the actors. Neither Cheung nor Kwok are doing much acting beyond an occasional furrowed brow; Simon Yam simply works on his sinister smile; and Nic Tse simply emotes by clenching his jaw (not so unlike George Clooney in The American.)

One thing I will say about the Storm Warriors Blu-ray is: holy cow dts-HD. The picture quality is top notch, but the sound will blow the hair off your head. It has a thunderous and complex sound that you hardly care about the cheesy lines being spoken.

All in all, I can't find much difference between The Storm Warriors and Resident Evil: Afterlife, also recently viewed. Both engage with enthralling CGI and ride a wave set in motion by their respective successor(s). That wave is fun but limited. Twelve years was a long time to wait for a mediocre sequel, but I'm a sucker for martial arts fantasies, especially when they are visually well-executed. The Pangs have already signed on to Storm Warriors III, and I, for one, am hoping that they do a little bit more than resting on their entertaining, but finite, CGI laurels.

Monday, September 13, 2010

DVD Picks for September 14, 2010

DVD: My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (2009)
Distributor: First Look
Director: Werner Herzog

This collaboration between Werner Herzog and David Lynch solicited a WTF reaction from me when I saw it in the theater. Time to reassess!

DVD: Looking For Eric (2009)
Distributor: MPI
Director: Ken Loach

Very funny and very charming: a new approach for Ken Loach that won me over.

DVD: Return of the Five Deadly Venoms (1978)
Distributor: Dragon Dynasty
Director: Chang Cheh

Another Shaw Brothers title showing up in the US with the original soundtrack. Return of Five Deadly Venoms (aka Crippled Avengers) almost gives the original a run for its money.

New on Blu-ray: Breathless (1960), One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Delicatessen (1991).

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Summer Roundup: Home Movies

Kei Sato and Keiko Sakurai in some sort of surreal rapture
from Nagisa Oshima's Japanese Summer: Double Suicide.

In Review Online just published my summer DVD picks. Summer Roundup: Home Movies. Normally a monthly feature (that I will return to in September so I can finally gush publicly over Trash Humpers) Home Movies went on hiatus for the summer and I put myself in the impossible position of prioritizing ten. Even though three of the best picks—Oshima's Outlaw Sixties, Two From Ozu and The First Films of Kurosawa—came out on plain ol' DVD, they are nothing but pure gold. Follow the link to check out the rest of my picks and my persuading arguments for buying all of them and joining me in the poor house.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

DVD Picks for September 7, 2010

Paltry pickin's this week, but here's what I got:

DVD: Videocracy (2009)
Distributor: Kino
Director: Erik Gandini

Videocracy played at MSPIFF earlier this year and had at run at St Anthony Main a few weeks ago. It is a fascinating documentary about the celebrity and television culture in Italy.

DVD & Blu-ray: Blood Into Wine (2010)
Distributor: Dreamy Drawn
Directors: Ryan Page, Christopher Pomerenke

Ever wonder what Maynard from Tool is up to these days? Well, he's making wine and this is the documentary.

DVD & Blu-ray: That Evening Sun (2009)
Distributor: Image
Director: Scott Teems

Played a run at St Anthony. Hal Holbrook give a good performance as a crotchety old man.

DVD: The Photograph (2007)
Distributor: Global Film Initiative
Director: Nan Triveni Achnas

A decent Indonesian drama that played at MSPIFF a few years ago and was part of the Global Lens traveling program.

DVD: The Exploding Girl (2009)
Distributor: Oscilloscope
Director: Bradley Rust Gray

Newest film by indie filmmaker and husband to So Yong Kim, Bradley Rust Gray.

DVD: 8 Diagram Pole Fighter (1983)
Distributor: Dragon Dynasty
Director: Lau Kar-leung

Words cannot describe how good this movie is. One of the best martial arts films that the Shaw Brothers made. Is this the first time it's been available in the US with the original soundtrack? Wow.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Ben Wheatley's DOWN TERRACE

(Down Terrace played at the Sound Unseen Duluth International Film Festival earlier this year, and recently opened in NYC. Hopefully it will make a pass through the Twin Cities; it's a nasty litte comedy. This review was originally publish on In Review Online.)

Ten years ago some friends and I stumbled across a British SNL-type television series called “Jam.” Forget “Monty Python,” “Jam” was a mixed bag of some of the darkest and most off-kilter humor I had ever seen and continues to make me howl every time I watch it. Created by Chris Morris, director of the recent feature Four Lions, “Jam” is proof that the seeds for a film like Down Terrace had already been sown, as it traverses much of the same territory in tone and production. Director Ben Wheatley uses his television know-how from UK comedies “Ideal” and “Wrong Door” to create an unexpectedly wry and deathly dark comedy about a family of odd, low level gangsters.

The film opens as Bill and his son Karl are released from jail on charges that apparently did not hold up in court. They are eager to find who ratted them out, but not until they have had a few beers and smoked a little weed. Bill’s wife Maggie busies herself in making tea and helping Karl who has the ability to throw a fit at the drop of a hat. The three of them criticize and ridicule their random associates that show up to the house, but there is no evidence that they are any different. Bill waxes poetically about transcendentalism, Karl reunites with his now very pregnant ex-girlfriend (much to his parents chagrin) and Maggie emerges as the placid ball-buster of the family and, to some extent, the larger network of the family. Meanwhile the three of them independently start ‘cleaning house’ with droll brutality.

The handheld camerawork and the less-than-dynamic sound may be a form of necessity and comfort for Ben Wheatley, directing his first feature, but it also allows Down Terrace to masquerade its twisted intentions as a docile sitcom. Any attempt to pin down the genre is eventually replaced by trying to wrap your head around these absurd characters that seem less like hardened criminals than two-bit thugs trying to convince everyone (including themselves) that they are hardened criminals. Wheatley’s whip-smart script is perfectly complemented by the ease in which the actors fill the shoes of the incongruous characters. It’s no surprise that the actors who play Bill and Karl are father and son and that Karl’s girlfriend is also his girlfriend off screen. Despite their quirky nature, there is a comfort in which the family sways between clashing and cooperating.

Karl writes his manifest destiny in the family and surfaces as the unlikely star of the film. Played by Robin Hill, who also co-wrote the script with Wheatley, Karl is an unsympathetic man-child clumsily making his own rules. Evidence of coddling from his parents hilariously erupts and then disappears. Shortly after he reconnects with his girlfriend, they are up in his room having a heart-to-heart when Karl suggest they pull out some of the letters she wrote to him in jail as a way to rekindle their affection. He spends about 5 seconds looking for them in his cluttered room before he is convinced that someone taken them. Rendered immobile, he stands upright and simply starts screaming, “Mum! Mum!” at the top of his lungs like a toddler who just lost his teddy bear. Right at the moment you think he is going to go physically ballistic, he looks over and calmly says, “Oh. Here they are.” The bizarre moment is over, but scenes like this set an erratic tone for the entire film.

Down Terrace chronicles two weeks of events and non-events surrounding Bill, Maggie and Karl. The days are marked by on screen intertitles that remind you how much or how little happens, usually in the close confines of the trio’s small flat. The film spirals downward pretty quickly and unfortunately, due to the cheeky nature of the film, it fails to have the effect that it should. Although Down Terrace never rises above the dark cynicism of comedic surreality, it does so with such clever plain-spoken subtlety that the discarded weight of the body bags hardly matters. Down Terrace adds a fresh, but slightly bitter and dispassionate, take on the gangster genre that revels in low-gloss of filmmaking and dark idiosyncrasies of human nature.