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July 30, 2013

Robert Williams: Mr. Bitchin'

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Mary C. Reese - 2010
Cinema Libre Studios All Region DVD

When the opportunity presents itself to see or write about a documentary, my choice usually involves art of some kind. Maybe not the biggest stretch personally as I've always had some kind of connection with art for most of my life. I also feel you have no business writing about film if you known nothing about any of the other arts.

As for the subject of this film, I was vaguely familiar with Robert Williams from his work in the mid to late Sixties. Initially this was from some of his posters for the "psychedelic ballrooms" of San Francisco, followed a couple of years later by my introduction to Zap Comix. I may have been exposed to Williams' work a bit earlier without knowing it, through the models of customized hot rods of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth. (And all this time, I thought that Roth did his own artwork.)

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Williams' own story is about a young man, interested in art, who moves to California at about the same time that Californian youth culture started rumbling across the rest of the U.S. It's also about how a perpetual outsider to the art world eventually gained serious recognition for his work. I'm not an expert on these kinds of things, but in Williams' paintings there is a connection to be found, I think, with Hieronymus Bosch, with both the narrative subject matter and the presentation with the many tiny details that add to the story. The main difference is that Williams uses vernacular iconography and and visual style usually associated with popular culture.

Williams' story is also a narrative about the conflict between the art found in museums and the elite galleries, and art as expressed in comics, on customized cars and even tattoos. Near the end of the film, Williams is described as being to the art world what The Beatles were for music and popular culture. In a way this is appropriate as, just as several artists gained recognition for their work seen on Beatles' albums, Williams' most widely seen painting is the one done for the Guns N' Roses album, "Appetite for Destruction".

Members of Guns N' Roses speak about Williams, as does Debby Harry, Ed Roth and others. What's more interesting is seeing Williams talk about his work as well as showing some of it in progress. Williams' wife and occasional muse, Suzanne, also an artist, appears, discussing their life together based on shared passions for art and hot rods, as well as playing around with unicycles and and sting ray bicycles. There is also the artwork, some seen in a too short gallery. To enjoy some of Williams' art, keep a finger near the freeze frame button.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:40 AM

July 28, 2013

Coffee Break

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Laura Patton, Geretta Taylor and Elizabeth Plumb in Just the Two of Us (Barbara Peeters - 1970)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:48 AM

July 24, 2013

The Gangster

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Kongkiat Khomsiri - 2012
Magnolia / Magnet Region 1 DVD

Ghosts still figure in Kongkiat Khomsiri's films. Best known for this contributions to the latter two films in the Art of the Devil series, Kongkiat's characters here are at least initially guided by the sprits of Elvis Presley and James Dean, not literally, but in their choice of music and movies. The criminal gang is even referred to as rock and roll gangsters. The main characters here, Jod, is occasionally haunted by the ghost of a young woman he has shot accidentally, the result of using a defective gun.

Kongkiat's film covers some of the same ground as Dang Bireley and the Young Gangsters, which I wrote about previously. Rendered as Daeng in this new film, he is a supporting character killed off after the first third of the story. Jod and Daeng are not exactly the Robin Hoods of Bangkok in the 1950s, but are presented as principled gangsters, looking out for those who live on the margins. The two get caught up in gang rivalries, as well as a military crackdown enforced by a zealous captain.

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What may be baffling for some viewers is Kongkiat's choice to disregard historical accuracy. There is a comment about meeting James Dean in the U.S., even though previous scenes would indicate that he was dead at this time. The kids gather at a movie theater to see the 1960 Elvis movie, G. I. Blues, with live dubbing, a common practice for Thai movies at the time, with dialogue referring to World War II. At the same time, Kongkiat cuts to appearances of people offering their recollections of that era, a reminder that the film is based on real life characters.

Jod's story is also about how gangs switched from knives to guns as the weapon of choice. The ending is some kind of tour-de-force which reminded me of the climatic shoot out in The Wild Bunch. That's probably deliberate. Jod's code of honor reminded me of Ernest Borgnine's great line, "At least we don't hang people". Rival gangs give it everything they've got, on the streets and even a rooftop chase. Peckinpah's film is also recalled with the use of slow motion. On a thematic level, one can also see parallels in that both films explore the limits of male camaraderie. Knives are brought back when a bulletless Jod faces off against his sworn enemy.

Kongkiat doesn't shy away from onscreen violence, for those who have seen his previous films, this will be no surprise. There are a couple of brutal killings, with splattering of blood, even on the camera in one scene. Certainly both hilarious and horrifying is a killing in a restaurant. Who would have expected that a crab leg stuck in some guy's neck would prove to be an effective lethal weapon?

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:19 PM

July 22, 2013

Vanishing Waves

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Kristina Buozyte - 2012
Artsploitation Films Region 1 DVD

There is a scene in Vanishing Waves that serves as a metaphor for the film. The two main characters, Lukas and Aurora, are sitting opposite each other at a beautifully arranged table, with what appears to be a specially prepared epicurean feast. At first the two eat proper bites. This is soon followed by gorging, as well as spitting out food, splashing liquids on each other, as well as passing food to each other mouth to mouth. I'm not the only one to comment on how this film is reminiscent of the films from the late Sixties or early Seventies. The effect is not exactly a blend as much as a not fully digested mix of influences. It's a mix that I like.

Lukas is a young scientist who acts as a human guinea pig, enlisted to receive the brain waves of the comatose accident victim, Aurora. Admonished act only as an observer, Lukas and Aurora act out a tragic romance in the virtually reality of Aurora's mind. Lukas not only falls in love with this imagined Aurora, but also believes he can bring her back to consciousness.

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While Lithuanian filmmaker Kristina Buozyte may mention Antonioni as an influence, I felt connections to other films, some that Buozyte and collaborator Bruno Samper might not have even seen. While I assume the two have some familiarity with Alain Resnais' early films, I kept on thinking about the lesser known Je t'aime, Je t'aime. That 1968 film was centered on a scientific experiment with a man returning to his memories of a woman he loved. While the virtual reality in Buoyzte's film is generally in chronological order, the two films are meditations on love, loss and memory within a science fiction framework. In both films, the male protagonist knowingly puts his life in danger for an idealized love. The first glimpses of Aurora''s world combined some of the abstract computer animation of pioneer John Whitney with a dash of the hypnogogic visions of Stan Brakhage. There is also an orgy where flesh becomes more plastic, the kind of image found in something by David Cronenberg. There are also the scene of two people, maybe the only to people in the world, or at least isolated from others, as in Ingmar Bergman's Persona. Am I seeing something that isn't necessarily there or unintended? Could be. I'm fine with that.

I think the response of festival viewers to Vanishing Waves is that it is a reminder of a time when even mainstream films allowed for some degree of experimentation, and when the designation of "art movie" really meant something.

The two disc set here also comes with Buozyte's first feature, The Collectress, also written with Samper. What really distinguishes Buozyte here is that she is unafraid to make a film centered on an unlikeable woman. Made in 2008 for her Master's degree, the film is about a children's speech therapist, Gaile, who stages herself in filmed activities that are deliberately alienating herself from friends and family. With some of the recent chatter about female filmmakers, what they are doing, and what some critics thinks they should doing, this set is another reminder of why some of the most interesting work in film is done outside of Hollywood. Just how fearless is Kristina Buozyte? I'll only say that there is one scene with a dog in The Collectress that might have made W. C. Fields wince.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:30 AM

July 21, 2013

Coffee Break

Eva Henning in Thirst (Ingmar Bergman - 1949)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:34 AM

July 18, 2013

Hands of the Ripper

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Peter Sasdy - 1971
Synapse Films Region 1 DVD / Region A BD

For the first time since I got my Blu-ray player about a year ago, I've watched both versions of a film on a combo pack. The Blu-ray disc is the only way to see Hands of the Ripper with only a music and sound effect track. What I like about watching dialogue free versions of films is that it makes it easier to concentrate more on the visual aspects of a film. (My screencaps are from the DVD, by the way.)

The film takes place in London, about 1903, fifteen years after the death of Jack the Ripper. In this story, Jack's daughter has a traumatic vision of her father. The little girl seen in the beginning of the film grows into a young woman who is taken over by the spirit of her father, caused by a combination of reflecting light and a kiss meant to be comforting. Anna is taken in by a doctor spouting new fangled ideas from Sigmund Freud. The doctor, who's interest in Anna is eventually revealed to be not totally philanthropic, should have heeded the advice of the man who has a better sense of things, "You can't cure Jack the Ripper."

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I'm not certain who was responsible for the color schemes used here, but there seems to have been the influence of Rembrandt. While most of the color usage is naturalistic, and doesn't point to itself as in some films, there is a very judicious use of red. In many of the scenes, the predominant colors are black, brown and gray. The first glimpse of red is on the hat of a doll, seen briefly as part of seance held by a fake medium. Within a circular pan around the table, most of the film's main characters are introduced. Red is also very striking as part of the trimming of a police paddy wagon, and as the coloring of the wheels' spokes. Wear red really stands out it is in the costume of an overripe, aging prostitute, known as Long Liz.

I would also apply the adjective of painterly to the way some of the shots are lit. I especially like the shot of Anna, discovered by her would-be benefactor, Dr. Pritchard, at the foot of a staircase, pretty in pink save for her bloody hands. In the supplemental featurette, there is discussion about dissatisfaction with the screenplay. And there are, at the very least, certain factors that fall apart upon close examination. Peter Sasdy doesn't exactly transcend any the weaknesses in the screenplay, but the film is worth seeing for its application of visual intelligence.

One of the other interesting choices here is in how the character of Laura, Dr. Pritchard's future daughter-in-law, is introduced. Something seems a bit off when in conversation with her fiance, she is not always looking at him. It is not until her second scene, when she steps into Dr. Pritchard's house that it is made clear by both her actions and by the dialogue, that Laura is blind.

As the supplement that primarily covers the making of Hands of the Ripper mentions, the other time that Hammer had recently made a film connected to the legend of Jack the Ripper was with Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde. Also released in 1971, Roy Ward Baker's film gives Robert Louis Stevenson's story a transgender twist, in combination with the Jack the Ripper story. I don't know if there was coincidence at work here, with the concept of a female ripper at the heart of both films. The difference is that Baker's protagonist is a mild mannered man, while Sasdy's Anna is introduced as a meek, frequently withdrawn, female.

The supplement also discusses how Sasdy and producer Aida Young worked around a modest budget. The sets of the Whitechapel section of London were originally for use in Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. There is a bit of unintended irony here in that Sasdy and Young made a point of making a film mostly with actors and a crew not normally associated with Hammer films. One of the featured actors in Wilder's film was that Hammer mainstay, Christopher Lee.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:49 AM

July 17, 2013

Nurse Diary: Wicked Finger

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Kangofu nikki: Itazurana yubi
Shin'ichi Shiratori - 1979
Impulse Pictures Region 1 DVD

There's a gag in Nurse Diary: Wicked Finger which I would have thought would appear in a Farrelly brothers movie. A college student discovers that a pretty young nurse has moved across from the way from him, and he can observe her from his window. His sense of passion is aroused at the same moment that the landlady comes to tell the young man to clean his room. The young man takes matters into his own hands, so to speak, and the vacuum clean is used to hoover himself. When a pal comes by, the young man finds himself in a predicament resolved by a visit to the hospital where the nurse happens to work. While this is nowhere near as funny as Ben Stiller's accident with his zipper in There;s Something about Mary, there is a similar sensibility at work here.

Sad to say, this is the high point here. While I appreciate the historical value of getting these Nikkatsu Roman Porno films on DVD, I wish this was a better movie. Most of the flesh on display is from Asumi Ogawa as the gaudily dressed cabaret performer, frequently showing up for impromptu physical examinations. Star Etsuko Hara shows her flexible side doing some yoga exercises, but as the object of affection in the title role, seems underused. This film is probably of greater interest to the completist. It has to be understood that not every film from Nikkatsu was made with any greater aspiration than to get product out in time to fill a theater date. My hope is that some more of the earlier Nikkatsu films get DVD release since they are usually of greater interest both cinematically and in subject matter.

For me, the first rule of this kind of filmmaking is to find any kind of excuse to get the leading lady scantily clad if not outright naked. I think the scene of Etsuko Hara demonstrating her physical agility would have been hot had she not been in blue tights, but wearing a lot less, like a pair of panties. Such a scene would have allowed some of us to also crack attrocious puns about yoga bare.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:54 AM

July 15, 2013

Horny Working Girl: From 5 to 9

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Onna shinnyu-shain: 5-ji kara 9-ji made
Katsuhiko Fujii - 1982
Impulse Pictures Region 1 DVD

Both sleazy and silly, there is one scene in Horny Working Girl that I found remarkable. For those who are familiar with certain laws pertaining to the depiction of sex in Japan, there is the prohibition against showing any pubic hair. Certainly, anyone who has viewed any of the previous Impulse Pictures Nikkatsu series would be familiar with this law, with filmmakers skirting the law usually with strategically placed objects or simply blurring parts of the onscreen image.

Somebody at Nikkatsu was clever enough to get around the law. In one scene, an older man is looking eye to eye as it were with a blonde, or at least what appears to be a woman with blonde pubic hair. We hear lots of moaning, and see an extreme close-up of a woman's nether region, which got me to wondering, how did they get away with this. Only it turns out that what we see is part of a life sized doll. There is also a shot of a businessman, during a dream of sexual ecstasy, licking his hairy underarm. While that image is not in itself erotic, it's the idea behind that shot that shows how a bit of spunk on the part of Nikkatsu.

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The film follows the sexual misadventures of an "Office Lady", Chieko, played by Junko Asahina. Chieko is lured to a company based on her ability to snag a big client. Her boss is a horn dog who also finds time for his secretary. The wife finds out, and the three get together, and momentarily really get together, before hatching a plot of stiff revenge involving priapism and the threat of the most unkindest cut of all.

For myself, Asahina was seen to better advantage previously in I Love it from Behind!. The usual sexual shenanigans are here, although given the possibilities, this film is softer on the sapphic situations. There is a scene of misuse of a xerox machine, one of the few moments that would still be contemporary in an office full of huge selectric typewriters. The thudding disco music on the soundtrack is an audio blast that I'm glad is past.

One other moment worth mentioning involves a male acquaintance pursuing Chieko out onto the street. The scene itself is not significant. What is of interest is that the scene was shot on a very crowded Tokyo street, and one can see some of the pedestrians stopping in their tracks to take a look at the actors and film crew. Unlike a lot of films where the crowds are paid extras arranged to mill around the actors, there is no attempt to block off the gawkers. I don't know if any of those passing by the camera knew or cared they were in a soft core film. Even though Horny Working Girl: From 5 to 9 is not one of the better entries in the Nikkatsu Roman Porno series, I have to admire those moments of fearlessness from the filmmakers.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:18 AM

July 14, 2013

Coffee Break

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Barbara Stanwyck in Ladies of Leisure (Frank Capra - 1930)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:19 AM

July 11, 2013

The Wicked Lady

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Leslie Arliss - 1945
Eclipse Region 1 DVD

I had read about The Wicked Lady about thirty years ago, when Michael Winner's remake was released. I never bothered to see that version, but something about the plot, about a woman disguised as a highwayman intrigued me. And while I can't really explain it, I like to watch movies that take place in the centuries between Columbus sailing to parts unknown, through the years when France was ruled by some guys all named Napoleon.

The name in the credits that will still be meaningful to contemporary audiences is that of the editor, Terence Fisher. This was his second to last assignment as a cutter before taking up the director's chair. And in the cast is Martita Hunt, a character actress who was memorable as the well meaning Baroness Meinster in what may be Fisher's best film, The Brides of Dracula. I might be stretching things a bit here in thinking that Fisher's association with The Wicked Lady was a major influence on things to come. One of the attractions of the Hammer horror films were those comely women with their display, within the acceptable bounds of the time, of ample cleavage. The French have a word for it, decolletage, and Margaret Lockwood let's us know she's got, and knows how to use it. Thankfully, the filmmakers are historically accurate regarding women's fashions from 1683.

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It's not like I hadn't seen Margaret Lockwood before, most notably with several viewing of The Lady Vanishes. And in this film, her goody-goody rival, played be Patricia Roc, also has some low cut gowns, but it's not quite the same. The Eclipse notes mention how The Wicked Lady was reshot for American audiences, showing less of Lockwood's attributes. I'm almost certain that had stateside viewers taken a gander at Lockwood as she appears in the British release, she could possibly have given Jane Russell some stiff competition.

The other orbs of prominence are Margaret Lockwood's eyes. Just by the way she glances, you can tell she's up to no good. Faking a horseback riding accident in order to seduce and marry her best friend's fiance, to pretending to be a highwayman in order to snatch back the jewels lost in a card game, are just the beginning. Lockwood's Lady Barbara poisons and then suffocates the family's long time servant, joins forces with the real neighborhood highwayman, played by James Mason, bedding and betraying him, and mostly has a good, good time being a bad, bad girl.

Just as Lady Barbara is cheerfully amoral, the dialogue is full of brazen, for its time, double entendres. For some contemporary audiences, said dialogue might be considered too literate, but when James Mason talks about the ability to "drive a hard bargain" during his first close encounter with Lockwood, it's not difficult to figure out what he really means. According to Criterion Cast notes about the making of the film, some of the cast members did not think highly of the screenplay by director Arliss. It might not exactly be art or poetry, but there aren't too many films in which the English language is quite as colorful.

And before I forget, Margaret Lockwood flashes some leg for good measure.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:03 AM

July 09, 2013

New World

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Park Hoon-Jung - 2013
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

While New World follows a classic template about gangsters as members of an organization, run along similar lines as big business, there is an added emphasis on formality and protocol. Park Hoon-jung has several shots of arranged seating based on rank, whether in a board room or a hospital waiting room. The gang members are all in dark suits, with white shirts and dark ties. When four gangsters from the Yanbian Prefecture of China show up, with their garish clothing and lack of grooming, they look out of place, their comic presence quickly undercut by their deadly actions.

When the boss of a major criminal organization is killed in an apparent traffic accident, several rivals emerge. Police detective Kang has an undercover operative, Ja-sung, who in eight years, has climbed up the ranks as respected gangster boss. Ja-sung wants out, but Kang insists that he stay in while the ranking crime bosses fight it out as to who will be the new boss. Kang insists that he is powerless to make any change on Ja-sung's behalf. What emerges is a story of secret connections between cops and criminals.

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One of people Ja-sung reports to has a Go (the Chinese chess game) table in her living room. The game serves as an appropriate symbol for a film that is as much about strategy. The characters, like Go pieces, move around, sometimes finding themselves captured and surrounded, with the winner controlling the greatest part of the board and having the larger number of stones. Park has his characters keep their moves secret so that much of what follows in the film is unexpected.

The protocol of gangsters is repeatedly shown with kowtowing to the upper echelons, while underlings are frequently berated. Similar to American gangster movies are two scenes of funerals, but as Buddhist ceremonies. A bribe is offered in the form of money baked into a large box mooncakes, the Chinese holiday treat. Ja-sung is often called "bro" by top boss, Jung, but the only family connections seen are those based on professional ties, as police or criminal.

Jo Yeong-wook has an elegiac score that emphasizes the fatalism that pervades the story. At several points, characters think a situation is in control, a moment that is transient at best. All victories are temporary and contain the seeds of loss and destruction. A Hollywood remake is already in the works for this film that has been a commercial and critical hit in South Korea. While the story might be duplicated, I'm not counting on seeing a repeat of the scene where two large rival gangs of well-dress gangsters bring out the swords and baseball bats for a bloody rumble.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:15 AM

July 07, 2013

Coffee Break

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Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in In Bruges (Martin McDonagh - 2008)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:24 AM

July 04, 2013

When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep

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Nan fang xiao yang mu chang
Hou Chi-jan - 2012
IVL Region 3 DVD

Sometimes the sheep is a bit aggressive, while the wolf might be the one hunted. I'm not sure is calling this Taiwanese film a romantic comedy is quite right either as the mood shifts from lightly comic to an equally light melancholia. I'm not even sure if the wolf and sheep fall in love at the end. It's more like they fulfill some kind of emotional need, taking up the void created when their respective past loves left them.

This is a souffle of a movie, and for the most part Hou Chi-jan keeps it light. Some aspects are very culturally specific, such as having much of the film take place in a "cram school" on a street dotted with small shops run by one or two people, and street noodle vendors. Hou also makes use of puns that are untranslatable. There is still more than enough for those unfamiliar with the culture to enjoy. The location, Nanyang Street, is a famed location in Taipei, known for its cram schools. Hou makes use of animated cartoons and stop-motion animation along the way in this story about love lost and found, recycling, and the advantage of a good disguise.

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A young man, Tung, wakes up to find that his girlfriend, Ying, as left him. The post-it note left on his forehead states that she has gone to cram school. Eventually Tung realizes that Ying has gone for good. Literally stumbling into a job at a photocopy shop in Nanyang Street, where cram school exams are printed, Tung meets Yang at the school where she works as a teaching assistant. Yang's drawings of a cartoon sheep are eventually enlivened by the encounter of Tung's cartoon Big Bad Wolf.

Unlike the more conventionally attractive Ying, played by model-actress Nikki Hsieh, Yang (Chien Man-shu) , with her boyishly short hair and big eyes, gets into Tung's life mostly by frequently showing up. Part of their time spent is with indirect negotiations about what kind of relationship they want, especially in view of the disappointments that life has thrown at them. Dogs are lost while cats are found. Obsolete electronics are given new life. Much like his characters, Hou takes an indirect route in his story, taking time to enjoy rainfall in Taipei accompanied by an instrumental rendering the 1962 pop hit, "Rhythm of the Rain".

When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep has played at the Udine Far East Film Festival and the New York Asian Film Festival. The special effects, which include clouds that appear as numbers, were nominated in the recent Asian Film Awards, as was Chien Man-shu as Best Newcomer.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 02:07 PM

July 02, 2013

Blood for Irina

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Chris Alexander - 2012
Autonomy Pictures Regions ABC BD

The best preparation for viewing Blood for Irina might be to know that it is not a vampire movie in any traditional sense. While there is something of a story, it's more of an extended mood piece. If you're looking for a more traditional narrative film, this isn't it. Irina doesn't conform to some of the more common notions of a vampire, certainly with one scene from her past when she claims her victim in broad daylight.

The film might be better described as a series of dream images, of the title character wandering though a depopulated city at night, luring her male victims to their doom at the decrepit, possibly abandoned, motel that's her home. Sleep is in a blue bath tub. There appears to be an inner conflict. In one of the few voice-over comments from Irina, she says, "I drink blood. I breathe blood.", yet there are several scenes of her spitting blood in a sink, a suggestion that her body is in rebellion with her spirit.

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What also characterizes Blood for Irina as being removed from traditional narrative films is that it is dialogue free. There are a few moments of voice-over comments, so few that had the film been made about ninety years ago or so, there would be very little difference with the inclusion of title cards. There is much use of sound, whether from nature, such as the waves of a nearby beach, wind through the trees, and breathing, as well as a soundtrack that ranges from electronica to classical music. Some of the harsher electronic sounds help emphasize the sense of alienation, the pervasive disconnectedness of the film's few characters.

Chris Alexander, better known as the Editor in Chief of Fangoria magazine has spoken of his influences elsewhere. In the title role, Shauna Henry might remind some of the languid vampires that wander around in Jean Rollin's films. Alexander's biggest strength is his sense of imagery, he was one of the two cinematographers. To be sure, the sight of a female blood sucker walking the night with a pair of sunglasses is a cliche, though it works here, perhaps because Shauna Henry is not conventionally attractive, and her gaze is suggestive of a junkie rather than a vampire.

This is a good looking effort for "no-budget" filmmaking. For myself, this is preferable to the wave of "found footage" movies of youngsters lost in the woods, an insane killer on the loose, and . . . you can guess the rest. The Blu-ray (and there is only a Blu-ray disc version) comes with director's commentary, deleted scenes, and a short bit documenting the destruction of the Riviera Motel, where much of the film was shot.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:50 AM