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November 30, 2016

Call of Heroes

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Ngai Sing
Benny Chan - 2016
Well Go Entertainment BD Region A

Call of Heroes starts off with some visual and musical queues taken from Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone, before taking on the brutality more associated with Sam Peckinpah. Chan's film can be read as a sort of western, taking place in rural China, in 1914, where the only mode of transportation is by horse. The main characters resemble the kind of archetypes one often finds in westerns, with Eddie Peng as the wandering hero, Sean Lau as the sheriff in above his head, and Louis Koo as the totally amoral, murderous villain. Without pressing the point to hard here, Call of Heroes would be part of what might be called a cinematic dialogue beginning with John Ford's influence on Akira Kurosawa, reinterpreted by John Sturges, Leone and Peckinpah, and back to Asian filmmakers such as Hideo Gosha and Benny Chan.

Initially, Call of Heroes recalls the Leone produced My Name is Nobody, with Eddie Peng in the kind of role more associated with Terence Hill than Clint Eastwood. Sleeping at his table in the rough little roadside restaurant, the bearded Peng's slovenly appearance belies his lethal capabilities, unleashed when woken up to an attempted robbery in the restaurant. Similar to the kind of laid back ethos of Hill's on-screen characters, Peng blindfolds himself, letting his horse decide on the next destination.

The basic plot would appear to be inspired by Rio Bravo, with Cao, the son of a warlord imprisoned after murdering three people. The small town of Pucheng is threatened with destruction by Cao's army unless the sheriff releases Cao. Any resemblance to Howard Hawks begins and ends at this point.

Action director Sammo Hung gets his screen credit immediately after Chan. The four main characters each have their own weapon, with Peng handling swords, Louis Koo's Cao known for his golden gun, Sean Lau's sheriff wielding a whip, and Cao's right hand man, played by Wu Jing, using a spear. Most of the fights are filmed with two to four characters within the frame, intercut with brief close ups of detail within the the action. Visually, the most impressive of the action set pieces is a duel between Peng and Wu on top of what appear to be thousands of clay urns all laid sideways, on top of each other to form a small hill. One can only guess at how the film might have looked when viewed in 3D as was seen by Chinese audiences, with my favorite single shot that of the camera looking directly at Sean Lau behind his whip swirling in front of the screen.

The blu-ray comes with a "Making of . . " bonus that is essentially a series of very short vignettes. The previously mentioned duel between Peng and Wu took almost three weeks to film. The main set was built from scratch in Shaoxing Province, south of Shanghai. As in classic Chinese language martial arts films, there is a lot of wire work, and here we can see just how complex it is to create the appearance of physical dexterity.

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Posted by peter at 07:50 AM

November 27, 2016

Coffee Break

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Carlo Cabrini in I Fidanzati (Ermanno Olmi - 1963)

Posted by peter at 11:41 AM

November 20, 2016

Coffee Break

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Tilda Swinton in A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino - 2016)

Posted by peter at 09:30 AM

November 15, 2016

I Drink Your Blood

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David Durston - 1971
Grindhouse Releasing BD Two-disc set Regions ABC

While it's touched upon in the liner notes for this new blu-ray release, what really struck me about I Drink Your Blood can be viewed as a parable about Richard Nixon's America. Taking place in a small, virtual ghost town, the remaining population is a handful of white people and a nearby construction crew. It's not enough that the visiting outsiders are devil worshipping hippies, but that the scariest of them include their East Indian leader, one very tall African-American, and what appears to be the archetypical Oriental Dragon lady, played by Jadine Wong, niece of Anna May Wong. Whether conscious or not, the threat in Blood are very clearly representative of the otherness that was, and for some, still is, what frightened "Middle America".

I have some vague memories of seeing the newspaper ads for the double feature of I Drink Your Blood and I East Your Skin from the time the films were released in February 1971. To be honest, I was living in New York City at the time, as a "serious" film student, mostly catching up on classics and European art films. As it turns out, the scariest images are those on that double feature poster. I can imagine that watching the film theatrically, the section of Blood that would cause the most screaming would be of the rats, hunted and barbecued. Of course the scene with the hippies gorging on meat pies tainted with the blood of a rabid dog would get the crowds whooping and hollering.

Does anyone know if David Cronenberg had seen Blood? Unless there's a film I'm unaware of, Writer-director David Durston may well have been the first to present horror through sexual transmission, well before Cronenberg's Shivers / They Came from Within. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Cronenberg's followup was Rabid. There is also that Lynn Lowry connection. I had first seen Lowry in Shivers, which was the first film to lure me to 42nd Street (because the New Amsterdam was the only theater in New York City showing the film, and I had read great things about Cronenberg in "Take One" magazine). Lowry's not credited here, and it was through reviewing the cast and crew list in IMDb that I realized the identity of that cute, mute girl who has dangerous ways with an electric carving knife.

Why a two-disc set? On Disc One, the complete theatrical version of Blood as approved by producer Jerry Gross. There is also Durston's preferred version which runs a little longer, has some humor that Gross cut out, and a better, more disturbing, ending. Plus there are commentary tracks by Duston and star Bhaskar (full name Bhaskar Roy Chowdhury) from the earlier DVD release, and a new commentary by actors Jack Damon and Tyde Kierney. Also cast interviews and an "Easter Egg".

Disc Two features I Eat Your Skin which was the Gross retitling of a Del Tenney film known either as Zombies or Zombie Massacre. No skin is eaten. Made around the same time that Tenney made Horror of Party Beach, Skin managed to sit on the shelf for seven years before Jerry Gross figured out how to show the film to an unsuspecting public. It's not scary, but it is mildly entertaining. A writer, modeled after Harold Robbins, is invited to a hidden Caribbean island where a doctor is finding a cure for cancer. The zombies turn out to be heavily drugged locals with eyes that look like friend eggs, and skin the texture of cottage cheese. Filmed in Florida, Tenney's zombies might be considered the unintended missing link between Jacques Tourneur and Lucio Fulci. The chief villain is portrayed by Walter Coy, most famous for playing the part of John Wayne's brother in The Searchers.

There's also the inclusion of Durston's soft core mystery, Blue Sextet, in which six people gather to discuss their relationship with the mutual friend, whose death was either suicide or murder. Even for a soft core film, the sex scenes are quite tame. For younger viewers, Blue Sextet is an example of that brief time shortly after movie ratings were introduced, when even some of the major studios released films dealing with erotic matters. As is usual for Grindhouse Releasing, there is an abundance of bonus features.

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Posted by peter at 07:02 AM

November 13, 2016

Denver Film Festival: Actor Martinez

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Nathan Silver and Mike Ott - 2016
Mary Jane Films

Sometimes I'll see a film and wonder if there's any way I can write about it. With Actor Martinez the operative word would seem to be meta. Filmmakers Nathan Silver and Mike Ott and actor Arthur Martinez made a movie about themselves making a movie about themselves. Yeah, it's deliberately confusing, so that you're never quite sure what's staged or may be improvised in front of the camera, or when we are watching unstaged and unplanned reality.

Unlike films about filmmaking that still can be said to be part the narrative film tradition, such as 8 and 1/2 or Contempt, Actor Martinez is filmed documentary style for its entire length. Whether we're seeing Arthur Martinez at his day job of repairing computers, sitting in on the audition of actresses playing opposite him, arguing with the woman who portrays his girlfriend, or discussing his philosophy of acting, Actor Martinez seems to operate on the same principle as the found footage movie, which is to say, it is filmed reality because it looks like filmed reality.

Everyone in the cast plays a character with their same name. The genesis of the film was with Arthur Martinez meeting Ott and Silver, and his desire to make a film that would showcase his talents. The narrative of the film within the film changes with cast changes, especially when the main actress walk off the production. Prior to this, we see a networking session, one aspiring thespian who seems lost in his own reveries while a scene is being filmed, and Martinez performing in smaller, industrial projects.

One small moment that I liked was with Martinez appearing to want to run away from his own movie. Giving a sense of disorientation is Paul Grimstad's music, which reminded me of the kind of discordant scores sometimes heard in low budget horror films in the Sixties.

I'm not surprised to come across two very different reviews of Actor Martinez from when it played last Spring at the Tribeca Film Festival. Richard Brody, in the New Yorker looked deeply into the film, while Frank Schenk of the Hollywood Reporter was fairly dismissive. I don't mean to seem cagey, but this is the kind of film that is idiosyncratic enough where milage will depend on the individual viewer, to be embraced by some, and shrugged off by others. And it could well be that one viewing is not enough. Sometimes, just the challenging any preconceived notions of filmmaking, whether successful or not, is worth consideration.

Posted by peter at 07:52 AM

November 12, 2016

Denver Film Festival: Headshot

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Timo Tjahjanto & Kimo Stamboel - 2016
Vertical Entertainment/XYZ Films

Hammer Girl is back! Anyone who has seen The Raid 2 will know what I'm talking about, and why she was my favorite character in that film. Actually, it's Indonesian actress Julie Estelle who appears here as the lone bad girl in Headshot.

And if you're thinking, didn't they show this a few years ago at the Denver Film Festival, the answer is: same title, different film. The film shown in 2012 was a terrific Thai neo-noir by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang. Original titles aren't the Mo Brothers strong suit, what with Macabre, The Killer and now Headshot. And honestly, if you've seen enough Asian action films, you should recognize more than enough familiar elements at work here, beginning with the premise of the amnesiac gangster who's unaware of his identity or why people are after him.

Iko Uwais, familiar to those who've seen The Raid films, plays the amnesiac, cared for by young doctor, Ailin. Discovered washed on a beach, and in a coma for two months, the unknown patient is called Ishmael by Ailin, who just happens to be reading Moby Dick. I maybe be reading too much into this, but I think that literary reference was a Mo Brothers joke. In the meantime, a vicious criminal, Lee, has escaped from prison, and takes over the operations of another thug with his deadly use of chopsticks. Lee spares the life of a henchman who has heard rumor of a gang member, presumed dead, found in a hospital, alive in spite of being shot in the head.

In the pursuit of Ishmael, Lee kidnaps Ailin. What follows is a series of martial arts set pieces with Ishmael fighting off Lee's gang with guns, knives, and Indonesian martial arts, in-between flashbacks of people and events that eventually make sense to Ishmael.

The martial arts scenes are intelligently filmed, with a mobile camera pulling in and out of the action, with editing done that logically follows one movement to the next. As with the Mo Brothers' previous film, The Killers, the violence gets excessively bloody. Unlike that film, there is no sense of exhilaration here. There are no unexpected plot twists once we know Ishmael's true identity. The two hour running time is also part of the excess here. There are quiet moments, not enough of them, and they are also beautifully photographed. The Mo Brothers need to have story that's as well thought out as their visuals.

Posted by peter at 07:09 AM

November 11, 2016

Denver Film Festival: Old Stone

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Lao Shi
Johnny Ma - 2016
Zeitgeist Films

There is a repeated visual motif in Old Stone of overhead shots of a bamboo forest, the trees rustling in the wind. Bamboo usually symbolizes the concept of simplicity and of life moving in a straight-forward fashion. For the taxi driver, Shi, nothing is simple or straight-forward after he accidentally hits a young man on a motorcycle. The title translates as "too honest" or "naive" in addition to the literal meaning. Like a heavy stone, Shi's honesty, and his belief in the honesty of other people turns out to be a burden that is his undoing.

Away from the glitter of Beijing or Shanghai, the Chinese-Canadian Ma's debut feature was filmed in Guangde County, land-locked, and generally shabby. Some of the writing about Old Stone discusses the film in terms of film noir, but I think the film is spiritually closer to film noir's antecedent, neo-realism. While marginally better off that Vittorio De Sica's Antonio, Shi is similar as a guy whose faith in other people gets shattered while trying to do the right thing, while Ma indirectly comments on class and bureaucracy in within a small city.

The story was inspired by a true event in which a young girl was the victim of a hit and run van driver, who was run over a second time by the driver, and then a third time by yet another vehicle. Essentially, it is less expensive to provide the victim's family with a one-time payment, than to be saddled with the hospital bills of a survivor. After calling for an ambulance, Shi is surrounded by a crowd, half telling him to wait for the police to arrive, the other half encouraging Shi to take the injured man to a nearby hospital. Shi takes the man to the hospital, with the surgeon informing Shi that the man's life was saved in the nick of time. What follows is trouble after trouble due to Shi's failure to follow the protocols of the police and an insurance company. The injured man, Li Jiang, is in a coma for several months, with Shi taking responsibility for those expenses.

In interviews, Johnny Ma has discussed how he had trouble setting up financing for Old Stone until he presented the film in genre terms. It is significant that the executive producer, is Nai An, who also plays the part of Shi's wife, Mao Mao. As a producer, Nai An has been associated with filmmaker Lou Ye, whose films such as Suzhou River and the generically titled Mystery have incorporated thriller elements. Currently making the rounds of several film festivals, Old Stone marks the return of Johnny Ma to the Denver Film Festival, where his short film, A Grand Canal was the winning student film in 2014.

Posted by peter at 07:22 AM

November 10, 2016

Denver Film Festival: Bang! The Bert Berns Story

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Brett Berns and Bob Sarles - 2016
Ravin' Films

Even with Bert Berns' eldest son, Brett, as a producer and co-director, Bang! The Bert Berns Story is hardly a hagiography. Even if the name Bert Berns is unfamiliar, it would seem to me almost impossible for anyone to not have even fleetingly heard a song Berns wrote, or had his hand in as a producer. And if one had to whittle the list down to one song, that would have to be "Twist and Shout".

Bang! is something of a documentary about the short, colorful life of Bert Berns, but what is also of interest is the history of some of the individual songs. In the case of "Twist and Shout", a more frenetic version produced by Phil Spector, sung by the vocal group, The High Notes, was recorded in 1961. Berns felt that Spector ruined the song he had in mind. Still just getting himself established in the music industry, Berns produced the version sung by the Isley Brothers that proved to be a much bigger hit, soon catching the ears of a struggling British rock band cutting their first singles.

Bert Berns was very much a part of the history of popular music of the 1960s. As a teen who use to obsessively read liner notes on record albums back at that time, I had come across Berns' name several times. The then thirty-one year old songwriter had his first hit writing "A Little Bit of Soap", with hits first as a song writer, and later a producer, culminating in Berns' having his own label, Bang!, best known for Van Morrison's early solo hits and introducing a singer-songwriter named Neil Diamond.

The narration was written by Joel Selvin, author of the biography, Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues, and read by Steven Van Zandt, in his inimitable voice. The film is a combination of documentary footage of musicians performing Berns' songs, as well as street scenes of New York City, and interviews with Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Solomon Burke, Cissy Houston, as well as fellow songwriters of the era including Jerry Lieber, Mike Stoller, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry. Among the family members, most significant is Berns' wife, Ilene, who is frank in discussing some of the darker aspects of Berns' life.

Which leads us to Carmine DeNoia, who may have not been a gangster, but knew people, and could be intimidating when he felt it necessary. DeNoia's few stories would suggest the best music industry movie or series that Martin Scorsese never made. Even without DeNoia, we still have an amazing story of a young man who outlived predictions of an early death due rheumatic fever, and overcame years of setbacks to be associated with some of the most popular songs recorded, before dying, at age thirty-eight, on New Years Eve, 1967. Even if Berns' life was not totally happy, and it is pointed out that there are several songs with "Cry" as part of the title, there are humorous moments, such as the story of that fake Australian band, The Strangeloves. That Berns' songs continue to get cover versions is enough of a reminder that many of these fifty year old songs are more than "Golden Oldies".

Posted by peter at 07:59 AM

November 09, 2016

Denver Film Festival: Score - A Film Music Documentary

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Matt Schrader - 2016
Cinetic Media

While I like the idea of a documentary about the composers of film music, Score is not the film I would have hoped for. There are nice bits of information, such as learning that Alfred Newman's "Fox Fanfare", the music that usually plays with the animated spotlights at the beginning of films from 20th Century-Fox, was originally composed for Sam Goldwyn. Darryl Zanuck, founder of Fox, might not have known much about music, but he knew what he liked, and what Goldwyn rejected has become famous integral to the studio.

There is also discussion regarding how composers Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith would create groups of musicians playing a limited number of instruments for specifically composed scores, rather than use a full orchestra. Goldsmith is cited for incorporating some avant-garde sounds, notably for Planet of the Apes, as well as stepping in to replace < href=http://j-j-gittes.blogspot.com/2014/03/chinatown-lambro-score.html>the rejected score for Chinatown with his own score written in only ten days.

What may be the biggest problem with Score is that there's a lot of talk about music, but not enough music. Also, there is a greater emphasis on contemporary composers working in mainstream English language films. Max Steiner is given some mention for composing the first orchestral film score, for King Kong. Electrifying are the brief excerpts from A Streetcar named Desire, and Alex North's debut work on film, incorporating jazz in a way not done previously. Elmer Bernstein gets a shout out for his Aaron Copland influenced music. No mention is made of Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman, David Raksin or several others from classic Hollywood. Ennio Morricone is known here only for his work with Sergio Leone. Mervyn Warren, Quincy Jones, Rachel Portman and Deborah Lurie very briefly remind the audience that it's not just white men writing the music.

While the filmmakers may not be deliberately racist or sexist, discussing the inclusion of different forms of music into film scores without being inclusive in the choice of musicians that appear in this film strikes me as tone-deaf. That kind of worldview makes even more sense with the more than ample time given to John Williams and his work with Steven Spielberg. Williams is praised for bringing back the sound of the classic Hollywood movie score. I think of Williams as the contemporary equivalent to Max Steiner for some of his memorable work. And in looking back at my own history of films and film music, the first score that made an impression on me, due to it's popularity on the radio over fifty years ago, was a Max Steiner composition, "Theme from A Summer Place".

Posted by peter at 07:31 AM

November 08, 2016

Denver Film Festival: Tip of the Iceberg

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La Punta del Iceberg
David Canovas - 2016

Well, yes, I've been a fan of Spanish actress Maribel Verdu since Y tu Mama Tambien, but as it turns out, Tip of the Iceberg is my favorite of the narrative films in this year's Denver Film Festival as well. Verdu plays the part of a financial analyst, Sofia, who is assigned to investigate why three executives committed suicide at one of the offices of a corporation within a period of a couple of months. The three men shared parts of a project called Iceberg.

All we know about the project is the name and that the executives are under a short deadline for completion. In the best Hitchcockian tradition, the project is the MacGuffin of this film. The real iceberg is the discovery Sofia makes of corporate culture from the top to the bottom, where people work excessively long hours, are expected to produce the demanded results, and rationalize why they allow themselves to be dehumanized for the good of the company.

Sofia wonders why someone from Human Resources, that contradictory name that implies people as commodities, is not chosen to do the investigation. Sofia herself at first would seem to be someone of hard surfaces, almost physically bound in her tight, formfitting black jackets and pencil skirts. The two offices are the proxy icebergs, modern, shiny, glass, concrete and steel, white and gray.

Canovas' film was adapted from a play which was inspired by true events in France. Because of the set-up as a mystery, with characters revealing secrets about themselves or others, the film never feels dialogue heavy. Sofia's ability to stay impersonal is challenged. Even the executive who is considered responsible for his heavy-handed treatment of his employees is given a brief moment of humanity. What may be said about corporate culture may not be new, see Rod Serling's from sixty years ago, as an example. This is one very good feature debut by David Canovas that stays intriguing through the very satisfying end.

Posted by peter at 07:00 AM

November 07, 2016

Denver Film Festival: After the Storm

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Umi yori mo mada fukaku
Hirokazu Koreeda - 2016
Film Movement

The Japanese title translates as "Even deeper than the sea", which may be more abstract, but also more accurate regarding Koreeda's new film. While there is a storm, a typhoon which awkwardly brings a former novelist, his son, his ex-wife and his mother together, what takes place after is a temporary resolution that closes the film.

With Hiroshi Abe in the lead role, Koreeda looks at Ryota, a once promising writer who won a literary prize fifteen years ago, now casually working as a detective, investigating straying spouses. As a divorced father, Ryota barely make enough money for child support, made worse by the losses incurred from his gambling habit. Like Koreeda's other films, it's a look at how families either stay together or fall apart. Koreeda also looks at how one reconciles the life one has with the promises and expectations of the past. The tone here is lighter than Like Father, Like Son, with several moments of humorous banter.

As Ryota's mother, Kirin Kiki brings deadpan delivery and several moments of laughter. I highly recommend seeing Kiki's starring appearance in Naomi Kawase's Sweet Bean, as an older woman whose special pancakes become unexpectedly popular. For Koreeda, Kiki cracks wise comparing herself to a scratched floor, and explaining that she prefers being a lone widow because at her age, more friends mean more funerals.

What struck me is reading an interview with Koreeda conducted in conjunction with his previous film, Our Little Sister. Autobiographical elements are incorporated into After the Storm, such as when a friend of Ryota's father tells of how the father, who reportedly never read a book, gave out free copies of Ryota's novel to several neighborhood friends, inspired by Koreeda's mother who gave out videocassettes of her son's films. Perhaps more autobiographical is a scene when Ryota's sister berates him fifteen years after publication, for using the family as a basis for his novel. Very much closer to home is that part of After the Storm was filmed in the low rent neighborhood of Kiyose, on the outskirts of Tokyo, where Koreeda grew up.

Posted by peter at 07:44 AM

November 06, 2016

Denver Film Festival: A Good Wife

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Dobra Zena
Mirjana Karanovic - 2016
Films Boutique

Lately it would seem that the best known films coming out of Serbia would be the most sensationalistic, like A Serbian Film and Life and Death of a Porno Gang. And to some extent, after watching A Good Wife, I have a bit more understanding of the kind of environment which would produce the more notorious films. Violence is never too far away in A Good Wife either in the way some friends treat each other, domestic violence, or in the memory of the period known collectively as the Yugoslav Civil Wars that took place between 1991 and 2001.

Milena is the good wife of the title, who lives an upper class life with her husband outside of Belgrade, frequently socializing with a close-knit group of friends. Eventually it is revealed that the husbands fought together during the civil wars. The continual new shows discussing war crimes becomes less abstract when Milena discovers a video tape of her husband and friends, in their role as Serbian soldiers, executing Muslim civilians. Simultaneous to this revelation is Milena's diagnosis of breast cancer, and the advice that she needs an immediate double mastectomy.

The symbolism may be obvious, but Karanovic, as writer and director, treats it with enough restraint to allow the viewers to draw their own conclusions. Karanovic, an accomplished veteran actress best known for her association with Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica, also plays the title role. Milena feels the tug not only of the relatively recent past, but also the deeper past of the church in addition to trying to face an uncertain future. Through her characters, Karanovic also poses the question of what it means for Serbia to be a modern country rather than one defined by its past.

The film's ending is deliberately left open. In an interview, Karanovic stated "It's not that I'm judging anybody, I'm just trying to stimulate people to think about it on their own. I don't want to send a message of how to think, but I want to provoke an emotional response to the story, and it could start an intellectual response because I think it is important. It's important to face the truth. It's not good hiding this and trying to pretend that nothing happened, so that's what I want."

Posted by peter at 07:10 AM

November 05, 2016

Denver Film Festival: Psycho Raman

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Raman Raghav 2.0
Anurag Kashyap - 2016
Reliance Entertainment

As in Gangs of Wasseypur, Anurag Kashyap has again been inspired by true crime in India. The real Raman Raghav was a serial killer from the 1960s. Kashyap has created a fictionalized and contemporary version of a man who takes Raman's name for himself as part of his killing spree. The murderer is pursued by a cocaine addled cop who increasingly becomes not much different than the criminal he seeks.

Because it doesn't have either the meshing of historical events, or the drama of two warring crime families of Gangs, the brutality of Psycho Raman is reduced to nihilism. Ramanna is introduced as a manipulative man whose motivation for killing is vaguely explained as a combination of revenge and religious belief. Even when caught by Mumbai's most incompetent cops, Ramanna easily escapes. Credibility is challenged by the sight of Ramanna openly walking the streets with a heavy crow bar, his favorite tool for bludgeoning his victims.

What I did find interesting about Psycho Raman was Kashyap's incorporation of standard Bollywood musical elements in a film that in other ways goes against the grain of current Bollywood films. The opening scene takes place in a disco, visually striking with the strobe lights. We hear a song with a female vocalist. It turns out that this is not a record, but singer on the stage, in this case Sona Mohapatra, a popular playback singer. Explanation: In Bollywood films, it is acknowledged that the actors are dubbed when singing, and those known as playback singers are credited and are also stars. Sona Mohapatra's brief appearance functions as the "item number", a song that appears usually in the middle of a Bollywood movie, that has usually has nothing to do with the narrative, and is often as risqué as is allowed by India's censors. As has become more frequent in Bollywood films, rather than stopping the narrative to allow the stars to perform songs, songs are instead used on the soundtrack as commentary. In this case one in which Ramanna misdeeds are the subject, rather than the usual songs dealing with the agony or ecstasy of romance.

Absolutely unlike Bollywood action films is that both main characters, Ramanna, and the cop, Raghavan, are unlikeable. With a relatively low budget of about half a million dollars, Kashyap shot much of the film on the streets of Mumbai. Unsurprisingly, while the craftsmanship has been uniformly admired, the critical response has been mixed towards Kashyap's uncompromisingly dark vision.

Posted by peter at 07:05 AM

November 04, 2016

Denver Film Festival: Zoology

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Zoologiya
Ivan Tverdovsky - 2016

A middle-aged woman faints at work, and later wakes up to find she has a tail. Not just a small growth, but something two feet long, that wags and twitches. It's the kind of premise that might be the basis of a comedy, but is instead is much darker. The second feature by Russian filmmaker Ivan Tverdovsky, by the end of the film, I concluded that even well into this current century, there are beliefs so ingrained from past eras.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, the plain Natasha works at a small zoo, where she gets along better with the caged animals, than with trio of female co-workers who subject Natasha to cruel humor. There is no explanation as to how Natasha got the tail, but what ensues is a sometimes painful journey of self-discovery. In trying to get a satisfactory x-ray of the tail for a doctor, Natasha meets the younger x-ray technician, Petya, who indicates interest in Natasha. Getting her hair styled, wearing make-up, Natasha makes tentative steps towards a relationship with Petya.

In the meantime, as relayed by her mother, and people within her neighborhood, Natasha hears rumors of the existence of a witch, with a tail, who brings death and disease with her. The rumors, as rumors often do, become more outlandish, with Natasha even adding to the legend when speaking to one gullible woman.

I don't think it's much of a stretch to assume that with the film title, Tverdovskiy views all of his characters as animals of one kind or another. In interviews, Tverdovskiy speaks of his film as being about the demands for conformity in contemporary Russia. With the reference to witches, Natasha's mother's deeply held religious beliefs, and even Natasha's visit to a fortune teller, there is this sense that spiritually, Russia is no different than it was five-hundred years ago. I even briefly thought that if discovered for her tail, Natasha would be burned at the stake. Countering the old superstitions, Tverdovskiy also takes some potshots at new age philosophy.

Running less that ninety minutes, Zoology might have benefitted from a little, er, fleshing out, with some brief explanations for a couple of scenes. Tverdovskiy's had previously directed eight documentaries, with the camera here darting between characters in several scenes. That the story goes into a very unexpected, and potentially controversial, direction is to Tverdovskiy's credit.

Posted by peter at 07:02 AM

November 03, 2016

Denver Film Festival: Lily Lane

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Liliom Osveny
Bence Fliegauf - 2016
Films Boutique

The concept may be a bit timeworn, a narrative about an internal journey simultaneous to a young boy's travels between several family homes. The Hungarian filmmaker, Bence Fliegauf, also provides a visual correlative with shifts in the visual video imagery, ranging from low-res black and white to hi-def color.

The story, as such, is the odyssey of seven year old Dani, and his mother, Rebeka. Rebeka tells Dani "fairy tales" about a fairy and a hunter, possibly herself and her estranged husband, and a stuffed and mounted fox that appears to be reanimated at night. Dani is full of questions about life and death, and the nature of the universe.

One critic has described Lily Lane as reminiscent of both Terrence Malick and Andrei Tarkovsky, though in some ways more abstract. One way Fliegauf undercuts the drama is by having the conversations between Rebekah and her husband play out as online conversations, with the camera focused on Rebekah's computer screen. The one truly emotional scene is when Rebekah screams and tosses most of the belongings from her childhood home out of a window.

The casualness of the pacing helps create a dreamlike quality. There are moments of realism as when Dani contemplates the aged body of a woman at a public swimming pool. In an interview, Fliegauf has stated that the inspiration for Lily Lane came out of conversations with his own son, asking similar questions about life and death. It should also be noted that Lily Lane in a real location in the Buda Hills of Budapest.

There is some sense of resolution at the end of the film, where Rebekah and Dani have a place to call home. And yet, in learning about Rebekah own relationship with her parents, there are lingering questions regarding the insular relationship of mother and son here.

Posted by peter at 07:19 AM

November 02, 2016

Denver Film Festival: Off the Rails

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Adam Irving - 2016
The Film Collaborative

Off the Rails was brought to my attention as an audience favorite at the Hot Docs Documentary Festival last May. And it's easy to see why this film has been popular, and why the story has not only inspired a play, but an announced dramatic film film version. Darius McCollum is a big, exceedingly friendly guy, almost always seen with a smile. His story is one where a very unique flaw goes against inflexible and unimaginative government bureaucracies.

Even as a youth, the Brooklyn native has been obsessed with New York City's mass transit system, going as far as memorizing every route for every train. Friendship with those who operated the subways eventually led to McCollum first learning how to operate a train and later unofficially substituting for a driver at age 15. A report by a passenger resulted in McCollum's first arrest. McCollum's criminal career, if one could call it that, consisted of impersonating various New York City transit personnel, "working" in some capacity, and in some cases operating a bus. The kicker is that what have been described as "joy rides" were actually nothing of the sort as most of us would understand that term. When impersonating a bus driver, McCollum would drive the bus route, stopping to pick up passengers at the designated locations.

It was only much later that McCollum had be diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome which explains his particular obsessiveness. McCollum's psychological needs have been addressed minimally at best, untreated and ignored at worst. And due to his repeated arrests, McCollum has been imprisoned far longer and with undue harshness by a criminal justice system that is too bound up in the letter of the law to find a way to allow McCollum to use his knowledge and abilities legally. Especially in light of various news reports where judges find extenuating circumstances not to punish convicted rapists makes the imprisonment of McCollum all the more infuriating. And in spite it all, Darius McCollum remains cheerful when speaking to the camera.

Adam Irving's documentary is a combination of dramatic reenactments, talking heads and documentary footage. What also makes the story incredible is that the unanticipated conclusion took place while Irving was making his film. McCollum's last arrest was just a year ago, November 11, 2015, when he returned to New York City, finding life with his mother in Winston-Salem, North Carolina too quiet. Burning his collection of uniforms and related equipment proved not enough, with McCollum returning to the scene of his "crimes", driving a Greyhound bus from the Port Authority Terminal in Manhattan.

Off the Rails is Adam Irving's directorial debut, following stints as a camera operator on a couple "reality" television series, and production support on other documentaries. In this film, truth is far stranger than fiction. After making headlines in New York City newspapers, a wider audience should find the story of Darius McCollum totally absorbing.

Posted by peter at 09:30 AM

November 01, 2016

Lost / Assassins

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The Lost Bladesman / Guan yun chang
Alan Mak & Felix Chong - 2011
Anchor Bay Entertainment Region 1 DVD

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Reign of Assassins / Jian yu
Su Chao-Bin and John Woo - 2010
Anchor Bay Entertainment Region 1 DVD

Two Chinese language martial arts films rescued from the shelves of Harvey Weinstein. I have to wonder if The Lost Bladesman is getting an overdue home video release due to its two stars also appearing in a much anticipated science fiction epic, in roles somewhat similar to the ones they have in this film. Also puzzling, for myself, is with the success of Infernal Affair and especially the Martin Scorsese remake, the team of Mak and Chong haven't had any significant stateside releases since Initial D. Better late than never, though I'm still hoping the pair's Overheard series is given a shot for North American viewers.

This is yet another adaptation of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, albeit one that is loosely inspired by the classic. The main narrative centers on the uneasy alliance between Cao Cao (Jiang Wen) and Guan (Donnie Yen), two enemy generals in the battles for unifying China between 169 AD and 280 AD. Guan also acts as protector for Qilan, the concubine of the warlord Liu Bei, and the object of Guan's unstated love.

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Literary or historical fidelity is of less interest than the action set pieces here. Donnie Yen also served as the action director, which works well in conjunction with some of the visual stylization. Guan's weapon of choice is a long blade attached like a spear. In one scene, he is pursued through a series of narrow alleyways, and at one point uses his blade to tear off rooftop tiles, which fall upon his pursuer. There is also a scene that might have been inspired by Track of the Cat, taking place in an almost monochrome set of white, black and gray, with red gates and pillars. Perhaps also taking its queue from Hollywood classics is a fight unseen when the compound doors are closed, and the viewer is left with the sounds of Guan fighting a team of soldiers, until the doors open again.

As much as I usually like Donnie Yen, historical veracity might have been better ignored rather than trying to look past the obviously fake looking wig and beard. As it is, that's not Yen's voice, but someone else speaking Mandarin on behalf of the star from Hong Kong. And while there is disclaimer stating that no animals were harmed in the production, I certainly hope that is the case with what appears to be a tripped horse that catapults Yen, flying into a fight, in spectacular fashion.

As in Infernal Affairs, Buddhism is touched upon here, though more briefly. In discussion with a monk, Cao Cao discusses the perceptions of heaven and hell and how elements of each can be found in either state of being. There are also some beautifully filmed quiet moments, as when Guan encounters Cao Cao in a rice field with the harvesting farmers.

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Reign of Assassins is an attempt at bringing back the old school Hong Kong martial arts film, with wire work, editing tricks and and twisty swords. There is some historical basis in that there was a monk named Bohdidharma who introduced Buddhism to China as well as the foundation for kung fu. Known throughout this film as Bodhi, rival gangs are in pursuit of the remains, based on a legend that whomever is in possession will have great magical powers. The female assassin known as Drizzle snatches the upper torso of Bodhi, gets facial surgery, and tries to live as an ordinary woman. Known as Zhen Jing, she marries a poor stranger who turns out to be a man, also with facial surgery, who she would have murdered had she known that his internal organs were reversed.

Su Chao-Bin showed much promise with his directorial debut, the horror film, Silk. Since then, most of his career has been as screenwriter for other directors. Su also provided the story for the enjoyable College Confidential which I caught at the Udine Far East Film Festival. How much of the film was actually directed by John Woo may be a matter of dispute, though he was certainly on the set. Even the presence of Michelle Yeoh doesn't make this attempt at reviving Nineties style wuxia more interesting. Barbie Hsu almost steals the film as the conniving assassin, Turquoise, who has no problem shedding her clothes when it serves her purposes, only to be embarrassed when her attempt at seduction totally fails.

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Posted by peter at 07:43 AM