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October 31, 2012

Evil of Dracula

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Chi o suu bara
Michio Yamamoto - 1974
Shadow Warrior All Region DVD

Dracula's not in this film. Then again, he's not named in the Japanese title which translates as "Bloodthirsty Roses". And there are a few gaps that the more discerning viewer will puzzle over. One the other hand, the third of Michio Yamamoto's vampire trilogy can be enjoyed for being more ambitious, even if those ambitions are largely half-baked.

Like the previous two films that seemed inspired by ten year old Hammer productions, this film seems to get some of its inspiration from Roger Corman's Poe series. The film takes place at a girls' boarding school, somewhere in a remote part of northern Japan. The principal lives in a large, Gothic style mansion. Inside are lots of paintings of men and women previously connected with the school. They resemble the kinds of paintings that are often seen in Corman's films of the main character's mad relatives, one of the recurring elements in those films. Also, one of the teachers in Yamamoto's film goes about quoting the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, adding a bit of literary weight.

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Yamamoto also addresses the competition from the other studios. While rival studio Nikkatsu was devoted to Roman Porno, and Toei remained commercially viable with their Pinky Violence films, Toho shied away from the more exploitive side of cinema. In Evil of Dracula there are a couple of big, bold close ups of single breasts, one with the puncture marks of a vampire's fangs, as well as a partially masked display of female nudity. Pretty racy stuff by Toho standards.

When the psychology teacher, Shiraki, first arrives at school, he finds that the principal's wife was just killed in an auto accident. The wife also happens to be in a coffin in the basement of the principal's house. Of course Shiraki goes to the basement to check things out for himself. What is interesting is that the wife is to be in the coffin for seven days before burial, a custom more common in China and Thailand, than in Japan. It's one of the couple of times that non-Japanese culture is used in the story. The other reference to foreign culture is the explanation of how vampires first came to exist in the part of Japan where the film takes place. The school's doctor relays a story about a caucasian survivor of a shipwreck, two hundred years previously, who was tortured for being Christian. Somehow, his denouncing Christianity did nothing to endear himself to the local populace. Wandering in the desert, this person with no name drank some of his own blood to quench is thirst, later coming across a young girl whom he also turned into a vampire. Again, as in Yamamoto's previous vampire film, one might interpret the presence of vampires as symbolic of the ills of contemporary Japan caused by outsiders.

Even if one doesn't care to consider whether there's any symbolic meaning to the story, there are a few visual pleasures to enjoy for their own sake. The trio of school girls that fight each other for the attention of Shiraki, also have the habit of pricking themselves with thorns from a white rose thoughtfully provided by the vampire principal. At one point, we see the white rose turn red. Also in Shiraki's class, during a slide show of the Rorschach test, one of the ink blots appears to be covered in blood. There is also the student body to consider, several young women with resumes of maybe three films, cute young hopefuls on the Toho lot. They may have fangs, or wield sharp instruments designed for a truly bloody death, but they are also pretty darn cute. There is also some poignancy in seeing Mr. and Mrs. Vampire, in simultaneous death throes, reaching out to each other one last time before disintegrating into a pair of steaming skeletons.

Posted by peter at 07:47 AM

October 29, 2012

Eleven Samurai

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Ju-ichinin no samurai
Eiichi Kudo - 1967
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

There is a remarkable shot in Eleven Samurai, one that clearly delineates the difference between classic filmmaking, and the kind of visual laziness that happens too often in contemporary films. The camera focuses on a forest road. Fog obscures the road. The shot is held for several seconds. Nothing seems to happen although one eventually hears the galloping of horses getting louder. Samurai on horseback faintly, and then more clearly emerge, in and then through the fog. The camera zooms back to provide a perspective of the samurai who are staging an ambush. It's the kind of filmmaking that is almost forgotten, where the filmmaker demands that the audience pay attention to what is happening on the screen, and done with a single take.

The story is inspired by a true incident that took place in 1839. While hunting, the younger brother of the Shogun crosses into the land belonging to a clan without permission. Shooting a farmer for being in his way, the vassals of that clan ask that the brother and his entourage turn back. The brother, seeing his status challenged, kills the clan's vassal. Even though the members of the Shogunate are aware of the crimes of the brother, it is the other clan which is to be punished with abolishment. A secret plan is hatched to take revenge.

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The third film of Kudo's samurai trilogy, there is some similarity in the setup and even the story to the two previous films. What is different is that a good portion of the film is devoted to the relationship between the leader of the samurai gang, Hayato, and his wife, Orie. The scenes of tenderness between the two, played respectively by Isao Natsuyagi and Junko Miyazono, are not often found in jidaigeki films. Hayato and Orie are not just spouses, but lovers in the truest sense, as Kudo cuts to extreme close-ups of hands caressing each other.

As in his other films, Kudo has extraordinary use of wide screen black and white imagery. Another forest shot could well have been inspired by Ansel Adams, with the various shadings, and the shafts of sunlight striking through the trees. Not one to make it easy for himself, his crew or the cast, Kudo places the final, extended fight sequence in the rain, in a muddy field. As in his previous films, Kudo also finds ways to film his characters in silhouette.

The music is by Akira Ifukube, best known for his score for Godzilla. Much of the music here is minor chord, and elegiac. Ifukube's music here is as recognizably his work in much the same way as one identifies the film scores of Ennio Morricone.

I unapologetically love wide screen black and white movies, which may partially explain why I usually enjoy Japanese movies from the late Fifties through the Sixties that used that format. There are Hollywood movies as well, notably Sam Fuller's Forty Guns and Jack Cardiff's Sons and Lovers. I bring this up because even though Eiichi Kudo is now being discovered by western viewers for his samurai films, he also needs to be acknowledged as a master of light and shadow.

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Posted by peter at 08:05 AM

October 28, 2012

Coffee Break

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Ana Torrent in The Haunting (Elio Quiroga - 2009)

Posted by peter at 08:10 AM

October 25, 2012

The Italian Horror Blogathon: Autopsy

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Macchie solari
Armando Crispino - 1975
Blue Underground Region 1 DVD

Autopsy is over the top within its first few minutes, and as such, is something of a masterpiece of excess and dubious taste. The only part of the film where Armando Crispino shows some restraint is in the gore, but that's almost like describing an overcooked meal that spilled out of the pot and onto the stove and part of the floor, but at least didn't splatter the entire kitchen. What may make some viewers nostalgic is that Autopsy was made during an era when everybody got naked on screen, not just those corpses that poor Mimsy Farmer is examining, but Mimsy in all her skinny glory, as well as Barry Primus and Ray Lovelock.

Farmer is an intern at a Rome hospital, doing a thesis comparing real suicides with those those deaths that are made to appear like suicides. It's summertime, and apparently the sun is driving a lot of people crazy, so crazy that they kill themselves rather than spend a few bucks on a decent fan. Dr. Mimsy has her hands full checking those who've checked themselves out. In those days when sexual harassment was dismissed as "boys being boys", Dr. Mimsy also has to fight off the advances of a goofy looking associate. Even worse, Dr. Mimsy thinks she sees the dead come alive, and at least a couple of those reanimated corpses have the hots for each other. Some of these characters are both the naked and the dead.

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Even getting together with stud muffin photographer/race car driver Ray Lovelock offers little relief, when she starts seeing dead people, leaving poor Ray a bit frustrated. A young lady, Betty, appears at Dr. Mimsy's door very late, an acquaintance of her philandering father. Betty is next seen on a beach chair, barely recognizable from shooting off part of her face. It turns out that Betty's brother is a priest, played by Barry Primus. Father Barry is a hot headed, epileptic, former race car driver. Even when Father Barry's spirituality is questionable, the way he whips Dr. Mimsy's car through the streets of Rome makes the locals look like Sunday drivers.

Armando Crispino isn't the stylist like Dario Argento or even someone like Sergio Martino, but the movie moves along at such a nice clip that any plot holes are easily ignored. The most discomforting scene takes place in a place described as a criminal museum, full of statues of various malefactors, and giant images of distorted and mutilated bodies. There is also the wonderfully nutty scene of Dr. Mimsy defending herself against the harasser with nothing but a dinner fork conveniently left in the autopsy room. In a scene where Crispino wants to remind viewers that he has the female star of Four Flies on Grey Velvet, there's a weird science moment when Mimsy's paralyzed father wears a pair of goggles attached to some electronic device, and blinks a partial clue.

Because it was the law at that time, the music is by Ennio Morricone. The beginning part is very uncharacteristic, the kind of music that might have been called experimental, very similar to the atonal compositions by Gyorgy Ligeti. There is also a theme more expected from Morricone, a plaintive oboe based melody. The literal title of the film is "sun spots". Crispino begins, ends, and periodically cut away to solarized shots of the sun. My only familiarity with Armando Crispino is with a war movie, Commandos starring Lee Van Cleef and former "Maverick" television star, Jack Kelly. Like several of Crispino's other films, this was cowritten by Lucio Battistrada. More significantly, another writer on this 1968 film was a young guy named Dario Argento.

For a gialli time, Kevin Olson is hosting the Italian Horror Blogathon at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies.

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Posted by peter at 08:06 AM | Comments (2)

October 23, 2012

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

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Ichimei
Takashi Miike - 2012
Tribeca Film

Takashi Miike's version of Hara-kiri is so stately, that I found myself missing the nuttiness of the little Yakuza attack dog from Gozu, or the piling up of unexpected shocks as in Audition. If anything, Miike's film is lacks the bite of Masaki Kobayashi's 1962 version. The films are adapted from a novel by Yasuhiko Takiguchi, and the structure of both films are similar. There are also some differences as well.

Kobayashi's film is one of a handful during early Sixties that might be considered anti-samurai films, part of a generation of filmmakers that examined the abuse and absurdity of protocol during the Shogun era, and rules of samurai life. These filmmakers came of age during World War II, so they grew up with the notion of the invincibility of Japan and the Emperor, followed by the cultural upheaval caused by Japan's defeat. Classical ideas of samurai honor were questioned in films, part of a trend of some of Japan's "new wave", a covert way of questioning pre-war culture.

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The basic outline is that during 1634, out of work samurai would show up at houses of local lords, requesting use of the courtyard to commit ritual suicide. In some cases, these ronin would be offered jobs, or be given some money. In Harakiri, the chief retainer calls the presumed bluff of those who come to his door. The major difference between the two film versions is that Kobayashi spends more time showing how Hanshiro Tsugumo gets his revenge on behalf of his son-in-law, Motome, while Miike shows in greater detail the events that led to the destruction of the fief that employed Tsugumo, and the events leading up to the dissolution of his family. Both films have similar running times, yet Miike's, with the emphasis on family life, might be described as domesticated, lacking the verve and snap of Kobayashi's version.

This is Miike's second remake in a row, following his acclaimed redo of Eiichi Kudo's 13 Assassins. That he would remake a better known film from a better known director, a film considered a classic by some, might not have been the best idea. Miike also shot this in 3D, although the version I saw was flat. I'm not sure why anyone thought 3D would even be considered. Most of the shots are done from a stationary camera, in dark spaces. Except for getting a greater sense of depth of field, there was nothing visually distinguishing. Considering past Miike movies, you might think that he'd stage a sword fight with a cut off arm or at least an eyeball flying towards the audience. Nothing like that here. If the point was to show how one could subtly use 3D, I can only say that subtle filmmaking is not what audiences expect, or necessarily want, from Takashi Miike.

I can only hope that Miike will inspire more people to check out Kobayashi's film. Among the strengths of that version are performances by two of Japan's top stars, Tatsuya Nakadai and Tetsuro Tamba. Visually, this is beautiful and stark, black and white.

Posted by peter at 08:12 AM

October 21, 2012

Coffee Break

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Jonathan Haze and Beverly Garland in Not of This Earth (Roger Corman - 1958)

Posted by peter at 08:57 AM

October 18, 2012

Lake of Dracula

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Noroi no yakata: Chi o su me
Michio Yamamoto - 1971
Shadow Warrior All Region DVD

The lake in the film is part of the background. And except for references by name, Dracula doesn't make an appearance here, either. Then again, in the Hammer classic, Brides of Dracula, there are no brides and no Dracula, so I'll allow some leeway here.

In other ways, Michio Yamamoto's second vampire film makes more effort to transpose Hammer horror to a contemporary Japanese setting. Vampire purists might have trouble accepting the selectivity of vampire lore used here. Others might be scratching their heads at some very big plot holes and lapses of logic. Even though the film was made when Hammer was taking advantage of new screen freedoms to up the ante in sex and violence, Yamamoto's film could well have been made about ten years earlier.

The opening scene is of a young girl, five years old, sitting by a beach with her small dog. The dog runs away, and the girl chases after him. Running into a cave, the two discover a large western style on the other side. The dog runs into the house. The girl doesn't find her dog, but sees a very pale woman, sitting at a piano. The pale woman falls down, apparently dead. The girl looks up to see a man dressed in black, with very strange, orange eyes.

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Flash forward to the present day, where Akiko is vacationing with her sister, Natsuko. Akiko has been working on a painting of a pair of orange eyes, staring from a forest. As far as Akiko and everyone else is concerned, the painting is inspired by a childhood nightmare that refuses to be forgotten. For unexplained reasons, a coffin is delivered to the small lakeside resort where the sisters are staying. Not long after the appearance of the coffin, strange deaths occur, with the victims marked by mysterious punctures along the neck.

Again, as in The Bloodthirsty Doll, the main point of interest is seeing how the vampire genre is used in a non-Christian environment. Akiko's boyfriend, Saeki, explains that the vampire is killed with a stake and then burned. None of the other trappings of classic vampire films are used or mentioned, so no crosses or garlic or holy water. The main vampire, who is never named, has no reflection on a mirror, but doesn't have the ability to change into a bat. Recalling Hammer films, especially Brides of Dracula, the female vampires are a handful of cuties from the Toho lot, although unlike Hammer films, there is no emphasis on cleavage. One pretty vampire does display her legs underneath her short nightie.

I'm not sure if greater care in the screenplay would have made a significant improvement, but the sibling rivalry between Akiko and Natsuko is neither fully explained nor explored. Also, as the presence of the vampire is explained as being a descendant of "a foreigner", one might consider as indirectly providing a political critique of contemporary Japan. Whatever faults or weakness are in Lake of Dracula, the film does contain some undeniably delicious imagery, especially of when the female vampire, played by Sanae Emi, smiles and flashes her fangs.

Posted by peter at 08:00 AM

October 16, 2012

Legendary Amazons

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Yeung Moon Nui Jeung ji Gwun Ling Yu San
Frankie Chan - 2011
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

Does anybody know what Frankie Chan was doing for the past decade? I have to admit that his filmography is impressive, with a career that began as a composer of movie scores. I was unable to find anything that explained what Chan had been doing between 2002, when he made his previous film, and his return to filmmaking. I also have to wonder if Chan was paying attention to what other filmmakers were doing during the past decade as the biggest problem with Legendary Amazons is what also plagued several films that came after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with the over-reliance on wire work and computer generated special effects.

The film is a remake of the Shaw Brothers production, 14 Amazons, from 1972. The original production features Betty Ting, Ivy Ling, Lily Ho and the still active octogenarian Lisa Lu. Chan and Cheng Pei-pei comprise the new film's Shaw Brothers connections. The two share credits on the 1971 movie, Lady Hermit, one of several action movies starring Cheng, one of the pioneer female martial arts stars, with a score by Chan. I haven't seen 14 Amazons so I can't make any comparisons, but having seen other Shaw Brothers movies from the same era, there's a charm to the older movies that is missed here.

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A general, Yang Zangbao, is assumed to have died in battle. His son, by order of the emperor, has been enlisted to lead 10,000 soldiers into battle against an army of 100,000. The remaining members of the Yang family, all women, led by the family matriarch, have decided to go to battle as well. In the opening credits, their various martial arts skills are established. Additional troops are to meet up with the Yang army, but their support is held up by a rival general who would rather undermine the Yang family in the name of military law rather than fight their common enemy.

Lisa Lu was a mere 45 when she played the part of the great grandmother in 14 Amazons. At age 84, she would have been perfectly cast and perfectly legendary in the new film. While it's great to see 65 year old Cheng Pei-pei in action as the family matriarch, what distracts from Legendary Amazons also is that it is not clear we are seeing three generations of women. While not every actor has to be the age of the character they are playing, it gets confusing when there is little difference in appearance. For all of the attention spent on a series of elaborate action sequences, it didn't seem important to put in any effort in making Cecilia Cheung look like the mother of an eighteen year old son. Even worse is that Richie Ren looks almost as old as the actress who plays his mother. One might conversely argue that the two grandmothers, played by Liu Xiaoqing and Yukari Oshima are both extremely youthful in appearance.

The best moments have nothing to do with big battles. The first few minutes when Richie Ren is challenged to a duel by Cecilia Cheung make for fun viewing. There is also the scene when their son, played by young Xiao Ming-Yu, discovered seemingly dead in a tree, is rescued by the ragamuffin known as Little Douzi (Little Bean), part of a gang of scavengers. What too many current filmmakers forget is that special effects are not so special anymore when used as a substitute for old fashioned story telling. It's not enough to dazzle the eye if you fail to touch the heart.

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Posted by peter at 08:00 AM

October 15, 2012

Starz Denver Film Festival 2012 - The Schedule

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Before I discuss any of the movies schedule for this year, I have to express some enthusiasm for the new festival venue. In terms of watching movies, the UA Pavilion 15 will provide a much better viewing experience with nicer seats, more legroom, as well as bigger screens and stadium seating. The former AMC Tivoli provided a history of seeing some great movies, but was not always that good if you wanted to actually watch the film, forcing me to usually grab a seat in the rear to minimize the possibility of someone blocking my sightline, and always from an angle as the seating was split widely down the middle. The other bonus is that there are plenty of open restaurants in the Pavilion itself, as well as nearby throughout the heart of downtown Denver. The Starz theater was part of a shopping center, repurposed as part of a school campus, and the few restaurants that usually cater to students were inconsistent at best during the film festival. Not everybody is going to see movies back to back, even if they see more than one film in a single day, so it's nice to know there will be several places warm and opened during a lull between screenings.

Other screening will be held at the Denver Film Society's year old venue, with a choice of several nearby restaurants. The theater itself provides a good viewing experience, one that in some cases might be aided by the availability of alcoholic beverages on the premises.

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The festival is in its 35th year, and is in a peculiar situation. Back when it started, there wasn't the proliferation of film festivals that currently exists. Major stars and filmmakers like Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Jonathan Demme and Robert Altman came to town. George Miller held a Q & A after a screening of The Road Warrior. This is the second year that the festival is held during the same time as the AFI Film Festival. Even though some of the same films will be screened, most eyes will be on the AFI's festival. Not as many stars will be seen at the Starz.

One star that will be coming is Tippi Hedren, appearing in Billy Bob Thornton's Jayne Mansfield's Car, but also for a special screening of The Birds.

The schedule features a few high profile films making the festival circuit, most notably The Silver Linings Playbook. Argentina will be the country featured extensively, featuring films and festival guest Daniel Burman, whose films I've written about earlier. One of the more significant inclusions in the schedule is Mark Cousin's The Story of Film, the fifteen hour documentary, to be shown in the course of seven individual screenings.

Due to a new job and work schedule, my coverage will not be as heavy as before. In terms of Asian cinema, the festival is very light, and I have written about Headshot in conjunction with its U.S. release a couple of weeks ago. There will be the newest film from Hong Sang-soo, In Another Country, starring sabelle Huppert. I will have a better idea of what I will write about when I am able to spend more time reviewing the schedule, and my own postings should coincide with the November screening dates.

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Posted by peter at 08:46 AM

October 14, 2012

Coffee Break

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Eline Kuppens in Left Bank (Pieter Van Hees - 2008)

Posted by peter at 08:21 AM

October 11, 2012

The Screen at Kamchanod

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Pee Chang Nang
Songsak Mongkolthong - 2007
Welcome International All Region DVD

I'm not sure of the incident that inspired the film is true or not, but the legend of a screening at an outdoor theater has certainly taken hold in the Udon Thani region of Thailand. And while Songsak does include a bit of what the audience might expect or even demand from a ghost story, the film can also be seen as something of a love letter to the act of watching movies as was done in the the past, whether in the mobile, outdoor cinemas in the rural parts of Thailand, or in the large, now abandoned single screen palaces of Bangkok. At one point, the researcher stumbles upon an outdoor theater on a city street showing Wisit Sasanatieng's The Unseeable.

Songsak is not interested in a literal, straightforward narrative. What there is of a story might be perhaps too elliptical. Essentially the story is of a researcher in paranormal activity trying to duplicate the same situation as in 1987, where a group of ghosts might have shown up to watch a movie that otherwise had no living audience, save for the two guys operating the projector. Even before the researcher and his friends see the recovered movie in an old theater, ghosts seem to be drifting in and out of their lives. While watching the movie, the ghosts seem to be awakened, causing havoc well before the scheduled screening in contemporary Kamchonod, in the same location.

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One of the early scenes is of a woman observed at a commuter train station. Walking parallel to the tracks, the woman briefly disappears and reappears. The shot is done in such a way that the viewer isn't sure if the woman dematerialized, or simply was hidden in the shadow of the station. There are a couple of appearances by ghosts that are more in keeping with the more traditional Thai ghost movies, but those appearances are so brief, designed to make the viewer uncertain about what was seen and heard.

The ghostly aspects of the film are steeped in Thai culture. At one point, a Buddhist monk is visited as the incident of 1987 took place near a temple. The monk explains about ghosts not always crossing over to the "other side", reaffirming the belief of the researcher that the two worlds of the living and the dead overlap. The idea of the two separate worlds is nicely illustrated by by an overhead shot showing the division between the abandoned temple grounds, and the road where the researcher has parked his car. The temple grounds appear to be gray-brown, void of color, while the road appears normal in appearance. That the monk does not appear in the rear view mirror of the car suggests that he may also be a ghost.

Especially in the early part of the film, Songsak has several shots just of the legs of his characters walking, as well as many shots using shadows, sometimes in combination. The shadows are seen on walls or floors, as well as on the movie screen. One moment would have been more effective to have been seen in a theater that projects celluloid film, giving The Screen at Kamchanod an unplanned nostalgic twist as cinema is pushed into the digital age.

Also at several points, it appears as if ghosts are trying to push their way from behind the screen. It's moments like that which make me wish I had seen this film in a theater with a Thai audience, screaming followed by some quick laughter, and perhaps a quick glance to make sure that the person in the nearby seat is not a film loving ghost.

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Posted by peter at 08:33 AM

October 09, 2012

Basket Case 3: The Progeny

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Frank Henenlotter - 1991
Synapse Films Region 0 DVD

In time for the (Halloween) festivities, a new DVD edition of Frank Henenlotter's movie, part of the cult series. For anyone who is unaware of Basket Case, it's the story of a young man, Duane, and his formerly conjoined twin, Belial. Basically an extreme upper torso with arms, sharp teeth, and psychic powers over the often dim-witted Duane, Belial is kept in a basket, hence the title. Those who allow their curiosity to get the better of them find themselves with their faces chewed off by the often belligerent Belial.

The third film begins with footage from the second film, taking place in Granny Ruth's sanctuary for freaks. Belial is having monster sex with Eve. True love doesn't work for Duane as he accidentally kills the woman of his dreams when it turns out she's as much a freak as anyone else in the house. Flashback over, Duane is in a straightjacket, and Belial refuses to talk to him. The freaks go on a road trip to Georgia, to the only doctor who can tend to pregnant Eve.

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Enjoyment of this film will vary upon the individual viewer. Henenlotter was probably inspired by Tod Browning's Freaks, although the "unique individuals" in this film are much more fanciful. Underneath the gore and black humor is a story about family ties, both biological and those based on shared identities. Not that anything is meant to be taken too seriously, but Henenlotter loves his freaks as much as Granny Ruth does, even though they have the attention span and coordination of excitable four year olds. There's splashing of blood, guts, and ripped off heads, all in the spirit of kids trying to top each other with the exchange of gross out jokes.

That legendary jazz singer Annie Ross appeared in the last two films in this series would have to be a testament to her own sense of humor. Taking advantage of her presence here, Ross gets to sing a little bit here. Mention should also be made of Jim O'Doherty as the inappropriately named "Little Hal", giving a glimpse of his stand-up delivery, offering several truly funny moments.

I wouldn't be surprised if the DVD looks far better than when the movie played at second run houses and drive-ins back in 1991. Just as audiophiles sometimes miss the hiss and crackle of vinyl records, with a movie like Basket Case 3, it somehow doesn't seem quite right without a couple yellow scratches in the middle of the frame, or the jump due to torn sprocket holes.

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Posted by peter at 08:00 AM

October 07, 2012

Coffee Break

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Allison Lohman in Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi - 2009)

Posted by peter at 08:17 AM

October 04, 2012

Bedevilled

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Kim Bok-nam salinsageonui jeonmal
Jang Chul-soo - 2010
Well Go USA Entertainment Region A BD

What is interesting to me about Bedevilled is how the film works as a social critique on the victimization of women, mostly by men. But also that victimization is at the hands of other women, both actively and passively, usually on behalf of men. Several examples are presented within the first few minutes as we see a young woman being beat up by a couple of thugs on the streets of Seoul. It turns out that a woman, Hae-won, is the only witness. Hae-won feels intimidated by the two men in the line-up, and again outside the police station, feeling it best not to speak up. In her position as a loan officer, she denies a loan to an older woman, living on her own, due to bank rules. When another banker is able to resolve things in Hae-won's absence, a series of misunderstandings causes Hae-won to be told to take a vacation after striking her coworker.

Hae-won goes to a remote island where her grandparents use to live, her first time in fifteen years. During that time away, she received letters from a childhood friend, Bok-nam. The notion that this island would provide an idyllic retreat is quickly dissolved. Hae-won observes Bok-nam abused by her husband, brother-in-law, and the quartet of older women, the handful of people who still live on the island. Bok-nam hopes that somehow Hae-won can rescue her, or at least her young daughter, from life on the island. By the end of the week of Hae-won's visit, several events push Bok-nam to take matters in her own hands.

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The relationship between Bok-nam and Hae-won is played against some flashbacks of when they were younger. The scenes give indication of the lives the two women would have as adults, with Bok-nam a victim of abuse, and Hae-won, the silent witness.

Bedevilled is the directorial debut of Jang Chul-soo. While chiefly known for his association with Kim Ki-duk, what Jang shares, if this film can be considered indication, is an interest in the most marginalized people in Korean society. The people of the island, Moo-do, live in an enclosed society with their own rules. What also makes this particular group unusual is that it is dominated by a matriarch, the mother of Bok-nam's husband and brother-in-law. The two men are prized as they are the only two men capable of work, the third man on the island being a drug addled elder. In its very basic outline, Bedevilled shares some of the same framework as Straw Dogs, about a big city outsider coming to a small, entrenched community in a supposedly bucolic setting, setting off a chain of events that culminate in violence.

While Jang does not have the same overriding formal concerns as Kim Ki-duk, there are some visual moments to savor. There is an eerie beauty to a shot of the matriarch hiding at night in a bamboo forest, evading Bok-nam who has gained the upper hand on her tormentors. There is also a nice dissolve between a shot of Hae-won, lying on the floor of her apartment, with a long shot of the island.

The title translates as the clinical "The Whole Story of the Kim Bok-nam Murder Case". Maybe not the most enticing title, but the English language title sets up expectations for a horror film. And while Bedevilled does get bloody and violent, there is also serious intent as indicated by the methodical buildup during the first hour and a half. Seo Yeong-hee has rightly won several awards for her performance as Bok-nam. Seo was previously in another controversial Korean film, The Chaser. For some, Bedevilled may not be an easy film to watch, but it is a film worth the challenge presented to the viewer.

Posted by peter at 08:47 AM

October 02, 2012

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate

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Long men fei jia
Tsui Hark - 2011
Indomina Region 1 DVD

It's appropriate that Flying Swords of Dragon Gate begins with Shang Yi old school fanfare, the kind of music associated with Chinese opera or some of the older martial arts movies from Hong Kong. The supplemental interviews reenforced what I had sensed while watching this film, that it was a continuation of Tsui's Dragon Inn from 1992, as well as that film's inspiration, the original Dragon Inn made by King Hu in 1967. Not that knowing either of these two older films is a requirement to enjoy Tsui's newest work, but it may provide an extra level of enjoyment.

At around the same time that Tsui produced his version of Dragon Inn, he was also in the midst of making his series of Once Upon a Time in China series, the films that helped establish Jet Li as a top martial arts movie star. As such, Flying Swords represents the opportunity to revisit wuxia filmmaking with the kind of budget and means that were unavailable twenty years ago. What hasn't changed for Tsui is his penchant for having women disguised as men, although nothing here rivals the flirting between Maggie Chueng posing as a young man, with Brigitte Lin, in Dragon Inn. Tsui also has a running joke regarding a password, a plot device from Peking Opera Blues. As in many of Tsui's films, it is the women who are the more interesting characters.

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Without getting too involved here, we have Jet Li, an independent fighter for justice, pursued by an ambitious eunuch's soldiers. The eunuch is also chasing after a pregnant maid to prevent an unwanted heir to the throne. The "knight" who is following Li from a distance, acts as the protector of the maid, using Li's identity. Gathering at the Dragon Inn are also a gang of Tarters, looking for buried treasure reputed to be nearby. These various rivals are virtually trapped at the Dragon Inn due to the imminent mother of a sand storms.

Even with the bigger production staff and several teams of special effects artists, Tsui uses what he has judiciously in support of his story. There's more than just special effects, be it the wire work with Li and company seeming to fly around, or when one sword seems to multiply during a duel. Tsui still relies on old fashion virtues like filming the action in a way that stays consistent with where the characters are within a given space, and using dramatic and precise framing. One of the best visual moments is an overhead shot following a sandstorm, a visual joke, with the camera filming the characters far enough overhead, that they appear like ants emerging from a hole in the sand. Those with 3D Blu-ray sets can get a fuller visual experience, especially during the fight sequences.

While Jet Li gets top billing, the film is more of an ensemble effort. Gordon Liu, whose presence links this film to those produced by the Shaw Brothers, has a small role here as well. Most of the dramatic weight is carried by two younger actresses with more recent association with Tsui, Zhou Xun and Kwai Lunmei. Both actresses have been awarded for their performances, Zhou as the Lady Knight, and Kwai in a frequently funny performance, in Mongolian, as the leader of the Tarter gang.

The DVD comes with "Making of" and "Behind the Scenes" supplements, as well as the interviews. For those unfamiliar with the actors, it would have helped to have onscreen identification. That woman with the short hair talking about Tsui Hark's intentions? She's Nansun Shi. Not only is she one of the producers, but she's also Tsui Hark's wife.

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Posted by peter at 08:13 AM

October 01, 2012

The Bloodthirsty Doll

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Chi wo su ningyo: Yurei yashiki no kyofu / Fear of the Ghost House: Bloodsucking Doll
Michio Yamamoto - 1970
Shadow Warrior All Region DVD

I must say that the transfer of this movie is so dark that some scenes are heard but barely visible, unintentionally making me think of Val Lewton's productions, that suggested various unseen horrors.

Nonetheless, The Bloodthirsty Doll should be of interest in the transfer of the vampire genre to Japan. It is worth noting that the film was from Toho, the biggest and most conservative of Japanese studios, from a time when the studio system was collapsing. One could also consider this film as one that helped pave the way for Obayashi's House, seven years later. The film is a curious hybrid of mixed cultures.

The basic story is of a young man, Kazuhiko, who drives to a remote, western style mansion to reunite with his girlfriend, Yuko, after being abroad for six months. He finds out from Yuko's mother that he is two weeks to late, and that his beloved died in a landslide. Spending the night, he hears strange sounds, and sees what looks like Yuko, alive, and later follows her to a wooded area. Yuko softly begs to be killed. The Kazuhiko's sister, Keiko, alarmed at no contact for over a week, shows up with her boyfriend to find out what happened to her brother. Keiko finds out things she probably didn't want to know.

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The film mostly takes place in a mansion that is pointedly very western in design, with lots of stairs, a creepy cellar, and creaky doors. One of the characters is a deaf-mute servant, Genzo, a variation of the stock characters found in many Hollywood and European horror films. What might throw off some western viewers is a small plot twist, when it is revealed that Yuko was buried rather than cremated, cremation being the standard treatment for the dead in Asia. Also, Yuko is not your standard blood sucking vampire, slashing the blood from her victims. Not entirely successful is the use of a harpsichord based music score, adding more western flavor.

There is little in English on director Michio Yamamoto. While an early stint as Assistant Director was for Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, Yamamoto seems to have primarily worked under Kihachi Okamoto before ascending to his own directorial assignments in 1969, at age 36. That Yamamoto was a bit older when making his directorial debut indicates how Toho was unlike several of the rival studios that made a point of courting a younger audience, with filmmakers of about the same age like Nagisa Oshima and Masahiro Shinoda already with several features behind them. Ei Ogawa was one of several writers to have a hand in Okamoto's Age of Assasins. His best known solo credit is Space Amoeba.

Posted by peter at 08:59 AM