Thursday, June 30, 2011

Mondocurry NYAFF report vol. 0: Don't laugh at the Ninja Kids!!!

For the past few years I've been blogging about the wonderful experiences I've had attending the New York Asian Film Festival. I'll continue to do so at the fancy (and friendly!) new digs of Unseen Films. In getting involved with DB and Unseen, I've had the privilege of watching an advance screening of one of the festival's selections, Ninja Kids!!! I won't call it my first report since that starts when the festival does. So let's call it report 0, a review of the film, with accounts of the screenings beginning July 1st on the way.

Subway Cinema has a reputation for putting more than the usual restrained art house fare in their New York Asian Film Festival lineups. When it comes to the Japanese portion of their menu, they avoid many of the cliché pitfalls that other New York organizations fall into: easily marketable trends (I won’t name names, but to any publication, store, or cultural institution that has brought attention to the Parapara Dance or an “Akiba maid café style performance,” you’re doing the culture a disservice!) and films aimed mainly at shocking and disturbing viewers. These take a back seat to commercial productions that are unpretentious and genuine parts of Japan’s entertainment fabric, but considered too local or trivial to be directed towards overseas audiences.


This year, Subway Cinema is highlighting one such film as its centerpiece presentation: Ninja Kids!!! It’s a slight children’s action comedy, which feels like the kind of movie that’s aimed at putting families in theater seats for weekend matinee entertainment. It is also directed by the infamous Takashi Miike, who’s left his mark with disturbing films like Visitor Q and Audition. It’s hard to imagine a film maker with a resume like that directing an adaptation of a nationally loved comic and animated television program (Nintama Rantaro, also widely unknown in the US) but he seems to keep things true to the spirit of the original material…With a few twists here and there, to be certain.


The movie starts out with a boy leaving home for a school that is to ninjas what Hogwarts is to wizards. The stage seems set for a fantasy quest of epic proportions. Yet, instead of the characters banding together to learn about themselves and unravel castle mysteries, a series of events that are silly, hilarious, and puzzling unfold according to a very offbeat logic. We meet some of the zany students (who by the way are all FREAKIN ADORABLE) and staff that populate the academy. Before you can guess what’s going to happen next, we enter the bewildering realm of Miike: meaning whatever catches the director’s whimsy goes.

After the introduction to the school’s daily goings ons comes the portion of the film one might expect to be filled with characters developing bonds and building up the courage and skills to face a great adversity. Instead, it is devoted mostly to a story about flamboyant hairdressing ninjas, told in part by one of them in the fashion of a traditional song. I am not sure how much of the story I actually understood, it was that bizarre. After this long diversion, things slide suddenly into final competition mode: the ninja kids versus a grumpier clan of adult ninjas in a race with stakes that are not all that high.

Throughout all of those proceedings, there are sight gags galore, many of them side splittingly funny and naughtier than what one finds in children’s comedies produced in the US. Bad guys are forever falling into holes, cartoonish bumps and pockmarks launch themselves off of faces, and the screen is occasionally ripped open by a guide who dispenses ninja fun facts before the scene is literally taped back together.

The film is far more laughs than action. Even when the final confrontation comes around, the villains are bumbling through and through, posing no more of a serious threat than Yatterman’s Doronbo gang. This probably owes to Miike’s reverence to the original series on which the movie is based (which also has the look of a comedy) and is reminiscent of Miike’s great adaptation of the old aforementioned Yatterman anime. One gets the sense that Miike really understands the material, jumping from visual to visual in a manner that really mirrors a hyperactive modern day anime aimed at short attention span generations.

While aimed squarely at kids, Miike also gives a wink and a nudge to grownup audiences, with self referential jokes, in a way that many Hollywood produced kids movies don’t, at least not very well. Look out for an army of Takashi Miikes, for instance, that appear as back up to the leader of the rival ninja school.

Like other movies directed by Miike, this one does not fail to confound. Despite the movie’s comedic tones, Miike at times spares no expense to make an action sequence look as slick as could be. And in case you are beginning to wonder how all of this eccentricity could add up to a movie for mainstream Japanese audiences, the message that lies in the conclusion has been a mainstay of traditional Japanese values for years: contributing to the team is more important than taking the individual’s path to glory.

If you have a high threshold for goofy and even thoroughly outlandish humor, you may want to spend one of your evenings at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival with the Ninja Kids!!!

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The NYAFF starts tomorrow or 22 films reviewed in a post that's way too long (including some of the Best of the Fest)



The New York Asian Film Festival starts tomorrow. After tonight we'll be hip deep in the festivities as we try to see as many of the films as humanly possible. While Mondocurry, Eden and myself sit in the darkness and only come out to briefly report, Unseen Films will still be giving you a film a day every day which will have nothing to do with Asian film.

The big problem with this year's festival (well it's not really a problem) is that it's FULL of good films. For the most part everything they are running is a good or great film. (And even the one I really didn't like is well made, but stupid)

The original idea was to run long pieces on all the good films we saw before the festival started. Unfortunately the sheer weight of good films have kept us from doing that. We simply don't have time to write up another 17 films fully in time for the festival. (We've seen 30 of the 46 films and we're already exhausted.) The only way we can hope to get word out on what we've seen is to put them together in one giant capsule review post.

Before I get to the 17 new capsule reviews I should point out (once again- sorry loyal readers) the five reviewed prior to the announcement of this years schedule.

Reign of Assassins was on the best of the year list for 2010.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame has gotten three reviews here at Unseen Films. It's an amazing movie that I said was one of the best films I've seen in 2011 when I saw it on the big screen at Tribeca. (The big screen really helps since it just missed the best of 2010 when I saw it on import DVD.

13 Assassins is one of the best films of 2011. It absolutely MUST be seen on the big screen, especially in it's uncut form.

Raw Force is a blast and a perfect midnight movie (More so when it follows the incredible Machete Maidens Unleashed)

Riki-Oh The Story of Ricky is another must see midnight movie. Just be prepared for lots of over done blood and guts.

Now I give you capsule pieces on the remaining films from this year's festival that we've seen, but not fully reviewed.

I want to start by saying the NYAFF is running two films by one of the co-directors of Rign of Assassins, Su Chao-pin. These are real hidden gems of the festival.

Sadly I suspect that the one time midday screenings will be rather empty, as most comedies screened at off times tend to be passed over, but based on past years that's where the real treats hide. Believe me, you want to make the effort to go see both The Cabbie and BTS: Better than Sex while you can.

With The Cabbie the screening is an especially big deal. Trust me, this may be your only opportunity to ever see this in English because while it is out on DVD overseas, there is only one edition and it's only in Chinese and only has Chinese subtitles.

Don't listen to the NYAFF write up there is more to the film than what it says. The write up is wildly incomplete since it only mentions the cabbie's romance with a cop which starts about an hour in (That leaves two thirds of the film to be about other things). The truth of the matter is this is the story of the cabbie, his fares, his friends, romances and assorted other bits.(Though be warned the film is gruesome in a few spots since one character is a medical examiner- which it results in a unique meet cute incident.)

I really liked this film a great deal. I know some people dislike Chinese comedies because their sensibility is very rooted in the culture, but that's not the case here. This is great little film that would be funny no matter where it was. I think that if you remade it here in the US it would pretty much work as written. It's just a great comedy never mind where it's from.

Do yourself a huge favor and go see this film. If you want to see something really off the radar that's really good, and one you can be damn sure almost no one else has seen see this film. I would love to see it again but I can't get out from my day job. I loved it so much I ordered the non-English version just to have it. One of the finds of the festival and the year.

BTS: Better Than Sex is a good smutty little comedy. I don't think it's as good as The Cabbie, but it's still an enjoyable film about a cross section of characters, one of which is obsessed with sex, or porn.

While the film is decidedly NOT for the kids, adults should have a good time with it, especially once it starts to connect things up. Yea, this is one of those films with lots of characters, all of whom seem unrelated, but who come together at one point in time. I would love to really try and explain the plot, but it's so convoluted that I would have to tell you the whole thing for it to make any sort of sense and I'm trying to be brief(it took me about 40 minutes to have the film click).

I liked the film. While I don't think it's as good as either of the other films by Su Chao-pin that are screening (it's poorer for the comparison), I still think it's worth trying. One piece of advice, stay with it to the end. As I said the film takes a while before the various character lines start coming together and until that happens the film feels terribly scatter shot (which is the reason the film is the weakest of the three, and the reason I just like the film and I don't love it.)

By the way the title refers to a couple of things with in the context of the film, but mostly it's about finding love and friendship.


ZU: Warriors from The Magic Mountain

Tsui Hark's ground breaking game changing martial arts epic was the point at which Hong Kong Cinema became what we know today. It's the story of a group of super warriors (played by a collection of super stars) taking on a great evil in order to save the universe. Its an often told story that was done on a scale and with such a style that it shook up the film industry first in Hong Kong and later the world. Forget the plot, its the visuals and the action that are important here. Its an amazing piece of film making and the fact that you actually have a chance to see this on a big screen is a rare one that should be jumped at.


VERSUS(2000)
One of the portals to hell opens in the Forest of Resurrection with the result that demons and zombies are crossing over and battling well armed gangsters. I know many people who absolutely love this bloody action film (even to the point of buying each new special edition). I'm not a fan of the film finding it loses the little plot it has not long after setting it in motion with the result that its two hours of bloody action. If you like well done action sequences uninterrupted by plot give this film a shot. Actually my DVD reservations are minor with the thought of seeing this in a theater with a large audience who really love this sort of a thing.


BATTLE ROYALE(200))
Officially unreleased in the US since its release eleven years ago this story of a future where each year one class of school kids is randomly put on an island and told to fight to the death. The film is an underground classic. It's a kick in the pants, which sadly may not seem like the game changer it was when it first was released (it's been ripped off so many times since- just think of the up coming Hunger Games -that it's lost some of it's power.) Finally the film has a US distributor and it's coming to a theater near you. Until that happens you should get your butt down to the Japan Society where I'm sure all hell will break loose when people who've worn out their bootleg/import tapes and DVDs get to see a modern classic on the big screen for the first time. The screening is going to be insane- probably almost as insane as this movie. One of the must attend events of the festival.

BEDEVILLED (2010)
I think this is the only real horror film of the festival (Horny House of Horror is something else entirely)

You'll either love or hate this film (it was a big hit in several film festivals). I really dislike the film a great deal. The plot of the film has a put upon bank officer, with a run of really bad luck, taking up her childhood friend's offer to visit for a while. The friend lives on the island where she summered with her grandfather. Now the population has been reduced to 9 people and the its all one big abusive family. As the friends become reacquainted, the abuse continues, this time against the new comer as well, until it all explodes in a nasty round of violence.

I'm not the audience for the film which does it's best to unsettle the audience by having the women abused (physical, emotional, sexual verbal)for over half the film before there is an explosion of "cleansing" violence in the final 45 minutes. I don't see the point and find it little more than really unsettling torture porn. If you want to feel bad this is the film for you. As I said some people I know LOVED this film so I leave the choice to see it to you.

THE CHASER (2008)
A film that changed the Korean film industry when it came out to the point that every film seems to be compared to it.

The plot of the film has a dirty cop turned pimp, trying to figure out where all his girls have gone. He thinks they have run away or were sold to someone else. The reality of the film is much worse, they have all gone out with the same guy and he's a serial killer...and our hero has just sent the last of his girls into his clutches.

Brutal violent and darkly funny this is a film that opened the door for a good number of similar films (I don't know if we would have gotten I Saw the Devil with out it.). It's a modern classic of a sort. It's also the kind of film that really should be seen on a big screen with it's rich compositions and frenetic style crying out to be seen on a big screen (Yea I know you may have seen this on DVD but you haven't experienced it until you see it on the big screen)

CITY OF VIOLENCE
(2006)
Cop goes home for the funeral of a boyhood friend. Things don't seem right and he begins to investigate. Sometimes you can't go home again. Funny, witty (we should all be this this clever) and full of violent action this is a nice little distraction of a movie. You may not come out saying it's the best film you've ever seen, but I'm pretty sure you'll have had a great time at the movies. (and yes this too is on DVD but it is sooo much better on the big screen)

SHAOLIN (2011)
I mentioned this film back in February when I saw it sans subtitles. I've since seen it twice with subtitles and quite frankly it's even better the each additional viewing.

The plot has Andy Lau playing one warlord among several battling for control of China in the ear;y 20th century. After a run in with the Shaolin monks Lau's fortunes change as one of his aides turns against him. With no where else to turn he ends up seeking refuge with the monks. When the civil strife he helped foster comes crashing at the door of the temple he and the other monks have to come up with the plan to help the people caught in the middle.

Forget the Chinatown DVD's that are missing as much as 15 minutes of the movie, you need to see this on the big screen where the widescreen vistas and great action set pieces will be even more impressive then they are on home video. One of the must see films of the festival.

It's so good that I'm going to try to see it, but as of right now it's a film slot I'm leaving as optional- I've seen it three times and the film there are so many other choices....You on the other hand need to go see this.

Osamu Tezuka's Buddha: The Great Departure (2011)
This opened a month ago in Japan and is a highly anticipated bit of anime in the US as well on the basis of the questions I'm getting. I've seen it, and a full review will be coming when the film premieres at the festival by some one other than myself (Eden is making a special effort to see and review the film).

The reason I'm not reviewing the film is that I'm too close to the source. Osamu Tezuka's Buddha is one of the milestone novels of my life. It's a story that radically changed how I thought and saw the world. Fifteen minutes into the film I realized I was not the audience for the film. I found the paring down of the narrative too extreme (this is the first of three films that is trying to compress roughly 3200 pages in 8 volumes into say 6 hours of screen time) and the characters are more typically anime in style with only the barest hint of Tezuka's artistic style.

Does the film work? For me no. But I'm the wrong person to ask. I have personal issues which is why I'm having some of the other people here at Unseen Films take a run by it. That said I am very curious as to how the second and third film will play since the film finally feel focused in the closing moments. (If and when you see it I would be curious to hear what you have to say)

LAST DAYS OF OF THE WORLD (2011)
Its a world premiere about a high school kid who gets a message from god and decides to go on a wild,sometime violent spree. I've seen the film, and Unseen will be running a review once it premieres (Eden is going to tackle this one), however I should put out that the film is less a Ha Ha Funny comedy then a meditation on what someone might do if they think the world is ending. There is dark humor but it's not strictly speaking a comedy. (I liked it but I'm not sure what I make of it)

MAN FROM NOWHERE (2010)
Mysterious fellow connects with the the outsider young girl living his building. When the girls mom gets caught up with some gangsters she's kidnapped and it's up to the mystery guy to rescue her. It's a good, if slightly over long action film. I like the film but outside of a killer finale I'm kind of puzzled by the attention the film has gotten in America (It got a well publicized DVD release this past February). Definitely worth a look if you haven't seen it.

BUDDHA MOUNTAIN(2010)
Messy story about three friends who move in together in the flat of an older woman who is feeling terribly lonely. Their clashes with each other and with life is the film. Sorry I'm being intentionally obtuse. I was not a fan of the film finding the three young leads likable jerks. I also have lots of other problems. It's an okay film but nothing special nor a must see film. On the other hand a large number of people who attended the press screening really loved it, and since I know and trust their taste (I've seen several rave reviews for the film elsewhere) so I'm taking a neutral stance (I may write up a full review later when I see it again on DVD.)

THE BLADE (1995)
Tsui Hark's legendary film finally plays NYC in a real honest to god film print. If you've seen the film and love it comes see it for the first time. This film has never has an official home video release even in Asia (according to Marc of the NYAFF) until a recent restored version showed up in France. Trust me if you've ever seen this in one of the myriad of piss poor bootleg releases from Asia you've not seen this film before. (Trust me I own a couple of them)

This is one of Hark's favorites of his own films, but it's largely under appreciated by most film audiences- including myself. Sorry guys, I find this film to be a real mess. Sure it was great to see it complete on a big screen, but the film is wildly over the top, disjointed, and weird. I laugh at it more than with it. Sure the weirdness is explained away by the sting in the tail ending, but until you get there this film is an endless string of WTF moments.

On the other hand this film has a strong vocal following (everyone at the NYAFF LOVES it) so you may want to try it, especially since this film NEEDS to be seen on a big screen. If you do understand this is largely a form over content film where plot is optional.

NINJA KIDS!!! (2011)
This is one of the best films of the film festival, and the only reason I haven't done a full bore review is Mondocurry wants to write it up. (It will be up this afternoon)

Takashi Miike's adaptation of the anime series is one of the best anime to live action films as you'll ever see. Keeping the weird designs of characters (many have distorted facial features) the film has the feeling of a cartoon come to life. The film follow Rantaro, the son of an ex-ninja now farmer as he goes to the ninja academy.

Its a kids film for real kids since it's full of jokes about farts, snot and dog poop. There is also a level of unreal cartoon violence that may freak out parents (I spoke with someone from the New York International Children's Film festival who said he liked the film but wasn't sure how parents would react.)

Not only one of the best film of the festival it is easily one of my favorites of the whole year. Mondocurry said to me after the screening that if I said anything other than I loved the film he would have called me a liar. I loved the film. If you can score tickets see this. I'm trying to figure out how I can see both of the screenings and still have time to eat.

A Must See.

DRAGON INN (1992)
Donnie Yen, Bridgette Lin, Maggie Cheung and a boat load of other big stars star in this Tsui Hark martial arts epic. On the surface this is the story of a small band out to stop a power crazed eunuch (Yen), the film is actually an excuse to show off spectacular fight scenes (with tons of wire work)and witty dialog.

For many this is the pinnacle of martial arts epics of the 1980's and and 1990's right before public taste and studio budgets shifted toward urban crime dramas. Its a dizzying achievement that should be seen on a big screen where the Oh Wow factor will be even higher.

Personally I like the film but I don't love it. It's purely the matter of too much form over content in the fights (which get way out and really silly, something that killed the genre when done elsewhere). Still it is a classic and a must see.

BATTLEFIELD HEROES (2011)
Darkly comic look at war and it's stupidity. During the medieval period in Korea the Emperor sets in motion a war between states with a promise of additional land for the winner. Once the wheels are set in motion the film shifts gears and we are thrown into the trenches of the warring armies, most of whom have been forcibly conscripted and just want to go home. While the generals and a few crazies dream of glory, most of the men dream of just staying alive.

It's a funny film, but considering the state of the world, it's one where the laughs often catch in your throat. I've read reviews that have compared it to the work of Terry Gilliam, and on some level it's true. Mostly it's it's own dark little animal...and a very good one at that.

I'm not going to lie, I like the film, but at the same time it left me feeling rather uneasy and unsettled. It took me three tries to get through it (I have the import DVD), since the first time I was called away before I got very far, and the second time I had to pause because the film wasn't what I expected (a straight on comedy). Its a funny film but the under currents and the absolute displeasure toward anyone other than the low man is rightly bothersome.

For now that's it. 30 films down, and another 16 or so to go- plus the short films , plus repeats, plus...

If you're in New York over the next two weeks do try to get to the Lincoln Center and the Japan Society since they are screening some great films you may not see any other way.

If you want to see all our coverage from the New York Asian Film Festival simply click on the NYAFF 2011 tag below or in the side bar.


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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Japan Cuts 2011- Four Capsule Reviews


We’ve been talking about little else other than the New York Asian Film Festival and we’ve almost completely ignored the sister series at the Japan Society, Japan Cuts. Japan Cuts is the more straight laced sister of the NYAFF and once the wildness of the co-presentations is over it settles down to more normal and less way out fare. It’s an excellent look at current Japanese cinema and definitely worth investigating.

In addition to the ten films that are co-presented with the NYAFF they are running an additional 22 films for a total of 32 films. We at Unseen will be seeing all of the co presentations and approximately another ten films. Since we’ve already done reviews of some of the co-presentations, it’s time to get a jump on some of the Japan Cuts films and give you a taste of what they are presenting exclusively.

Toilet
Shot in English in Canada, the film has less in common with what you think of as Japanese film. It’s the sort of film that had you not been told was made by a Japanese director and studio you would have sworn the film was actually the work of an American independent director…

…this to me is the problem with the film, its cut from the same cloth as any number of other quirky inde comedies.

The film follows what happens in wake of the death of the mother of Ray, Lisa, and Maury . Ray is a 30 year old scientist who wants everything to go as planned, he hates change and takes comfort in Gundam TV episodes and toys. His brother is a reclusive concert pianist who hasn’t left the house in four years. Their sister is a college student who looks down on everyone. They are saddled with their grandmother from Japan. She had been brought to the US just prior to their mothers death and she speaks no English. How they interact is the film.

I’ve read some glowing reviews on line about the film and I’m sure if you like quirky (in the extreme) inde comedies you’re going to love this. For me the film is good but it’s annoying in it’s effort to fit into the typical inde mold. It’s very arch, very knowing, very rib jabbing in making you notice the silly people on the screen. Basically the quirkiness is forced.

It’s not a bad film, it’s just..well unremarkable. Frankly if it wasn’t for it’s pedigree-an English language comedy made by Japanese director, this film would completely get lost into the void.

If you like inde comedy give it a shot, on the other hand if you have a low tolerance for quirky things steer clear.

(By the way the title refers to an effort to determine why the grandmother sighs loudly before leaving the bathroom)


Railtruck(2010)
My desire to see this film was forged by an image of the import DVD cover at Yes Asia of two boys sitting in a rail truck in the woods. Its a simple and unremarkable image that haunted me until I got the chance to see the film.

The plot of the film has a Japanese widow and her two sons going to Taiwan to bring her in-laws her husband's ashes. It charts the struggle of the various family members both Japanese and Chinese to come together and form a real family in the wake of a shared loss. It also deals with the the struggle of trying to find a place to belong to culturally.

A haunting score and magnificent photography help to sell a simple story. It's a seemingly familiar tale that often kicks you to the curb with its combination of sound and image. I dare you not to be moved to stupid smiles or tears by the beauty of much of the rail truck sequence.

I liked this film a great deal. I like I went in expecting one thing (something based upon the image I had seen) had it confounded by what the film really is (a slightly cliche family story) only to be surprised in the end by it going beyond the cliche into a place of really beauty and emotion.

Is it the best film at Japan Cuts? probably not, but it's definitely worth seeing .


Vengeance Can Wait (2010)
I haven’t seen a super number of the Japan Cuts films yet but along with Ninja Kids and Milocroze: A Love Story, this is one of the gems of the series.

Based on a play that has been produced across the United States (including one at PS 122 here in New York) this is a manga and anime influenced black comedy about vengeance and waiting (which is the literal translation of the title).

The plot of the film has a couple moving to municipal housing on the out skirts of a city. Banjo is unemployed, his wife,Azusa, runs a bar and is expecting their first child. As Banjo makes the rounds introducing himself to his new neighbors, he encounters Nanase, a strange young girl who is living with her brother, Hidenori…or maybe he’s not. Despite being married Banjo’s smitten with the young lady. Things get weirder when it’s discovered that the two women know each other and that there is bad blood between them going back to high school…but wait theirs more….However I’ll leave that for you to find out.

I really liked this. It made me laugh. It made me smile. It made me wonder who the hell were this crazy people? I really liked that it didn’t follow all of the quirky paths that many comedies of this sort normally would have taken (one review I read of the film said this is actually better than the play since it fixes the rough spots). It’s a wonderful inde comedy that doesn’t feel like everything else out there (See Toilet above- actually don’t, see this instead).

I freely admit that the film isn't perfect. there were a couple of times that you had to take things on faith, but I was too busy being carried along to care and the problems only bothered me in retrospect.

For me it’s the sort of film that pisses me off in that I had one shot at seeing it and because I was having such a good time I wanted to be able to see it again right now (as of right now there is no official English release and I want this in my collection). I had to twist an arm to see it the one time.

Go see this film. It’s playing the 21st at the Japan Society and worth the trek out there. Seriously I liked it enough to consider rearranging my schedule so that I can actually see a proper screening of the film.


Wandering Home(2010)
Non-judgemental look at alcoholism, the destruction that happens in it's wake and how things flow out from their, including the (dark) humor.

The film is the story of Yasuyuki, a once great photographer who is now fighting to get into good health. As the film open he's finishing up a binge that will leave him hospitalized. Over the course of the film we watch as Yasuyuki tries get better and to reconnect with his estranged family even as the disease destroys his body.

Atypical from almost every look at alcoholism I've ever seen in that the tone isn't overly doom and gloom. No, it is not a happy story, and no it doesn't pull any punches but the film kind of sees it simply as life. These aren't the grand cinematic drunks of Barfly or Leaving Las Vegas, but the people who live down the street from all of us. In it's way it's a more devastating look at the disease than any other simply because it doesn't gloss over anything or shy away from what happens. We see what the drinking does to the drinker and his family. We also see how the drinker sees the world which makes for a few odd and darkly funny moments as we experience the delusions and zone outs.

When the film was done I was left feeling very odd. One some level there was a great sadness, the final sequence left me feeling incredibly sad... But at the same time there is a life to it all, that kind of makes it all... okay. I can't explain it. I'm not saying that it makes drinking one's self to death okay, but at the same time there is more to it than operatic tragedy.

Sitting here, not long after having seen the film, I find I'm completely bewildered. What sort of film did I see and why do I feel this way?

Yes, I'm feeling slightly kicked to the curb, but at the same time the film has made me ponder so many other things.

As the write up for Japan Cuts said, it's a powerful film. I'm going to be contemplating this for days. I'm going to have to revisit this one after Japan Cuts ends.(Thank you import DVD)

I reserve judgement as to how good the film is until a later time, but it's definitely one of the must see films of the series, if for no other reason that it looks at it's subject in a truly unique way and makes you feel something.

NYAFF: The Recipe (2010) (possible spoilers)


I was going to put this in tomorrows capsule post but I found I wrote a bit more than I was planning on and so I moved it here.

This is a film that you will either love or hate. It's a film that is going to make some people tear up at the end and make others shout obscenities at the screen.(I full expect someone to scream ala John McEnroe "You must be joking!!!)

As for me it didn't blow my skirt up.

The plot of the film begins as follows: a soldier on leave to attend school goes to a TV reporter, of the 60 Minutes variety, with a choice story. The reporter refuses to listen until he tells him that it has to do with a recently executed mad dog criminal. It seems that the his final statement was that he missed a certain type of stew. Everyone thinks it was going back to when he was a child, actually it was what he was eating when he was arrested. This opens a box of worms and sets the reporter on a course to find out what was so special about the stew and it's cook.

This rambling magical realism story is going to be a matter of personal taste (no pun intended). You'll know whether this film is for you pretty much once you see the slow mo fanciful recreations of the arrest. If that clicks you may have a shot at what follows. If you don't buy the magic from the start you're going to be doomed.

I found it well made and well done but the shifting tones from real, to magically real, to goofy, to other things made me less than thrilled.I also wasn't all that into the quest which never grabbed me. I kept waiting for a revelation or emotional hook that was going to pull it all together but it never did. In the end I was kind of left wondering if that was all. To me it was a shaggy dog story about stew.

My ambivalence aside, I know about four people who would eat this film up (pun intended). This would be a film that they would put on when they wanted to see a weepie love story. I've mentioned this to a couple ladies at the day job and they want to borrow my import DVD (which I can't loan them since it's region 3).

I'm not going say don't go see it, nor am I going to say see it. All I'm going to say is read what I've written and decide if it sounds good to you. If so go see it. If not take a pass and see something else.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

NYAFF: Machete Maidens Unleashed (2010)


This is one of the hidden treasures of this year's New York Asian Film Festival.

I'm going to bet that a bunch of you who are reading this may not put this on your list of must see films at the festival because it's a documentary, but trust me if you love action, if you love blood, if you like bare breasts, or if you love to know how movies get made you need to see Machete Maidens Unleashed.

The film is the story of the exploitation films that came out of the Philippines in the 1960's and 1970's from companies like Independent International (The Blood Island films) and Roger Corman's New World Films (The Big Bird Cage among others). Its a film that's full of blood, guns and breasts. It's also full of interviews of all the right people from Eddie Romero, Roger Corman, David Sherman, Joe Dante, Pam Grier, Sid Haig, Jack Hill, and John Landis (who will forever deflate any and all notion of these films having a deeper meaning).

As a documentary on the subject of these wonderfully over the top films the film is a fantastic primer. It's a film that tells you the basics of everything you need to know about the hows and whys of the creation of these films. It's full of great lines from the films, great sequences, lots of T&A, gallons of blood and bad monsters. The commentary by the filmmakers is priceless and puts everything into context. (I should point out that this is not the story of all of the films, primarily just those released and produced by New World. There are so many more films that were turned out that there was no way that this film could have touched on them all. For a more detailed look at the films you should check out Pete Tombs' Mondo Macabro or the British TV series of the same name.)

I will freely admit I screwed up big time when I saw this film. I should have seen this at a regular showing in a theater full of crazed film fans instead of one arranged so I could simply review the film.

Machete Maiden Unleashed is a party film of the highest order. It's as much an exploitation film as the films it talks about. This is a film that needs to be seen with a large rowdy audience that is making noise, laughing and carrying on. Watching the film sans crazed audience, I was keenly aware by how much more fun this would have been had I been not so alone in the dark.

Why?

Because this is everything you want out of an exploitation film all rolled into one film. As I keep saying, this film has everything you want in an exploitation film but in one place. In it's way it's a super exploitation film. It's the ultimate midnight film that's filled with all the good parts we know and love (and gasp it teaches you about exploitation films in the process)

If you like films like The Blood Island Films, The Big Bird Cage, For Your Height Only , Raw Force or any of the countless other films that have come out of the Philippines this is is a must see. And if you want to see a great film that is going to pump up it's audience this is it.

Absolutely this film is a must see at the film festival.

(If you can't make the screenings, this is coming out on DVD toward the end of July)

Monday, June 27, 2011

NYAFF Heaven's Story (2010) (with addendum)


This is not so much a recommendation, more it's an explanation about what you maybe getting into if you decide to try this very long film at the NYAFF.

Takahisa Zeze's four hour and forty minute, two years in the making story about what happens in the wake of several murders will either strike you as a masterpiece or sleep aid. I'm not going to lie, I think the story is brilliant. I think everything, except the pace, is wonderful. The pace is probably best described as incredibly slow.

The plot of the film has to do with a girl named Sato. Sato's family is killed by a madman and she is sent to live with her grandfather. She runs off but takes strength from the story of a father who has vowed to kill the man who killed his wife and child. Over the next several decades the lives of Sato, the father, the killer and several other people ebb and flow. Its all joined together by the story of a monster who became a fox spirit and who created other monsters accidentally.

I have no idea what to say except it's a brilliant story...but...

The make or break of this film is the pacing. This is a film that takes its time getting where it's going at it's own pace. The film is full of long takes, silent sequences, things that seem like uncontrolled digressions-but aren't and odd conversations, and so many characters (at different points in time) that the film can seem like a Russian novel.

I'm not going to lie, this film was a long tough slog for me. I wanted to scream. So often I wanted it to tell me where it was going. Even when it did reward me with an AH HA! moment I still couldn't believe it took so long to get there.

On the other hand the film has a story that is actually good at its heart, some moving moments (the Christmas sequences touched me), some great philosophy, and some beautiful images. There is enough here that had this not been so damn rambling I would recommend it with out reservation. But to me, and this is just my personal opinion, its just way too long. Frankly I stopped caring and paying attention, which hurt me when things finally really came together at the end.

Simply put I intellectually like the film and it's something I'd like to discuss and pick over, but as something to actually watch again, I'll pass.

Whether you make this a choice for the NYAFF you're going to have to decide whether or not you feel about a long, deliberate film that ambles to its conclusion.

Addendum
For better or worse Heaven’s Story has been haunting me since I saw it. When I wrote the previous piece up several hours after I saw the film that was how I felt. Now, several days later I find that while I still think the film is too long and too slow, I think the central story and it’s themes including the frightening notion that by coming into contact with monsters we maybe come monsters haunting. Other films have come and gone but Heaven’s Story’s themes still haunt me on the fringes of of psyche.

I still can’t really recommend the film if you don’t think you can deal with its pacing, but if you can you might find a film that kicks you to the curb a couple of days after you see it.

NYAFF: Haunters (2010)


It's the Monday before the NYAFF starts and I'm going to take a step back from should see films to reveal the only one of twenty eight I've seen that I think is the can miss film of the festival. It's well made but it's got a plot that is just the wrong sort of stupid.

Haunters is not a horror film as the title might imply, rather it's a battle between two super powered humans. We meet our villain back in 1991, he's a little boy traveling with his mother. She is insisting he keep his eyes covered. We quickly learn why, because with them uncovered he can make people do what ever he wants them to as if they were puppets. 20 years on he meets his match when a robbery goes wrong and he comes in contact with a young man who has incredibly rapid healing which makes him immune to the manipulations.

Whether you like this or not will depend on whether or not to notice the massive plot holes and logic gaps - Like why are these two even fighting to begin with? Okay, yes, I know why, revenge, but as battles of this sort go it's not worth the trouble since our villain really isn't enough of a bad guy and the good guy isn't all that bright. What makes them turn this into a never ending battle of knuckleheads is beyond me, actually most of this is beyond me. I suppose we just haveto take it on faith that these two guys fighting means something.

To be honest outside of the first half hour, which sets up our characters this film is a non-starter. Once we kind of know the characters and the plot is set in motion it all came crashing down because there was nowhere for this to go. You either blindly accepted what they were doing or you didn't. I couldn't do it and the remaining 90 or so minutes were a battle to get through. Sure there are some stunning sequences, but the central plot just isn't there and there is nothing to hang it on.

This was the 24th of 28 films from the festival that I had seen, and in all honesty was the first (and only) film, where I had no idea why the guys behind the NYAFF picked it (sorry guys). Yes, there are other films I don't like or I'm ambivalent about, but at least I can understand why the film was selected. With this film I'm kind of clueless as to why it's here because it just doesn't work.

Not to put too fine a point on it it's the first (and so far only) film at this years NYAFF where I can say, it's just not worth your time. It's not a bad film,it is well made and well acted, it's just an incredibly stupid one.

(Correction I'm the stupid one for picking this up as an import for 30 bucks from Yes Asia)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

NYAFF: Troubleshooter (2010)


Kang Tae-Sik (Kyung-gu Sol) is an ex-cop turned private eye. He's very good at what he does. When a simple job to photograph love birds turns into a frame up- a women is dead (killed by a psycho he sent away several years earlier)and the police are crashing in- our hero finds himself on the run the and forced to do a special job for the man on the other end of a cellphone.

This is my pick of the first real must see popcorn film of the NYAFF.

It's fast, it's breezy and it just moves like the wind.

Sure you've seen a version a thousand times before, but as with 900 of those thousand time, who the hell cares when the you're having fun. Actually this is towards the upper end of the good scale and I'm definitely adding this to my collection- I can not wait to show this to my dad-that's a rave folks.

I know the mere fact that this is an action film is going to put butts in seats but truth of the matter is that this film that probably isn't going to get the publicity it should with all of the other big action films at the festival. It should but it's not. This is a neat little thriller of the sort that needs to have tickets pressed into the hands of the right audience to make this a mega-hit.

Consider this my pressing a ticket into your hand.

Go see this.

Just keep mind this isn't going to be your big OH WOW film of the festival, this is going to be the one you curl up with a big bag of popcorn and a big soda and just go with it. Its the sort of a movie you wander into on a hot afternoon to get out of the heat and discover a small little favorite. (I'm sure it's one that you'll end up having as a comfort film that you'd watch every time you ran across it on cable-if it ever plays cable)

How good is the film?

When it was done I wanted to start the film all over again just as soon as I made a few phone calls to tell people to buy tickets.

Go get tickets NOW!

NYAFF: The Unjust (2010)


From Tyoo Seung-Wan,the director of City of Violence , comes a film that isn't an action film. The film is a bleak black examination of corruption through out Korean society. I'm writing the film up prior to the start of the New York Asian Film Festival where it's being run as part of the Sea of Revenge series, because if you go in looking for one thing you may end up slightly disappointed as a film that is one of the very best films at the NYAFF this year loses its way in it's final moments.

The film begins in the middle of the chaos of a serial rape and murder scare. Someone has been kidnapping young girls and doing unspeakable things to them. Chasing down a suspect one of the police officers shoots and kills him. You would think case closed but it's not, the shooter was an uncle to one of the victims. Worse while everyone is reasonably certain they got the right guy, they don't have any viable evidence. With the public (and the President) clamoring for a real solution, what do do?

Frame a suitable suspect of course.

From here the film gets up to full steam as the higher ups in the police set up a good cop, who isn't in the Academy clique and who has problems with internal affairs, to head the patsy investigation. The trouble is that things are complicated, thanks to everyone (police and prosecutors) having loyalties on either side of a big real estate deal.

This uncomfortable and often unsettling look at the corruption in public places works for most of it's running time. Buoyed by a killer visual sense and some great performances. The film can't help but disillusion you about how things are done by the police and by prosecutors. For most of the film's running time this is one of the best films you are going to see this year anywhere.

The problem with the film is that for about 95 of the films 119 minutes the film is largely a drama, with a few fleeting moments of "violence". Then something happens. The film changes and becomes a a more conventional crime story where the film begins to twist and twist again and the film loses it's way. Actually the conclusion of the story seems to have been added to satisfy people other than the filmmakers with a little bit of violence and a denouncement or two that ring very hollow. (I'm guessing the govenment didn't want there to seem to be so much corruption they had it toned down)

I like the film a great deal but I would have loved it had it not flip flopped around in the final twenty minutes. For me it was jarring and as if I switched the DVD to another movie.(I have an import DVD). It was a switch that even my Dad, who was watching the film with me, noticed. Its that sudden shift in the end that makes me want to warn you about a mostly five star film that suddenly goes flat in the end.

Reservations with the ending aside this is one of the best films at this years NYAFF.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

NYAFF: Milocroze: A Love Story (2011)


The Opening Night film of the New York Asian Film Festival and a co presentation with the Japan Society's Japan Cuts series is a must see film. It is not the best film of the festival, but it is an example of the wild and way out anything goes style that only seems to work in Asia.

I'm going to try and give you an overview of the plot. Forget the character names, other than Milcroze, since they are so out there I couldn't keep up (and IMDB doesn't have them and any reviews on line I found were not in English).

The "plot" goes something like this:

A young boy falls in love with Milocroze when he meets her in a park. For a while they are happy until she leaves him for someone else.He is so broken hearted that he covers the hole in his heart with a pot lid.

Next we are introduced to a man who will help guys solve their romantic problems. He is hip happening and very abrasive. His car runs over a man in the street...

...which leads us into the central part of the film, a love story involving a samurai (kind of) guy who is trying to get back his lost love.

Eventually we get back to the story of Milocroze, but some thirty years on.

That does none of it justice, since justice is impossible other than handing you the film and saying "here watch this". This is a film that is impossible to tell you about, you have to see it. And when you see it you'll know why I can't adequately explain it.

Lets face it, it's a head trip film. It's a film that is not content with staying in one style or genre, it's going to be all things to all people.

The opening style is like an animated cartoon come to life. The second section is like a gangsta infomercial cum music video. The samurai section is like a scifi samurai movie drizzled with sappy romance and western.

It's all over the place and the film is both better and worse for it.

I'm not going to lie and say it's all good. It's not. Chunks of this film don't work. Some pieces go on way too long. Then again other pieces, particularly the samurai part are as good as anything as I've seen this year (and that's damn good). By the time the end of the samurai part was rolling around I was getting misty and I couldn't believe what I was seeing, one of the most romantically heart breaking sequences you're likely to see...

Basically the film works in fits and starts but when it's working, WOW. (Of course when it's not it's tough-some of the Milocroze stuff is just off)

Watching the long sword fight sequence I was struck that this was the hybrid film that Quentin Tarantino always seems to be aiming at, but never reaching. No, it's not as good as some of Tarantino's films (on the whole), but there is blending that strips away any notion that you are watching riffs on other films that never happens in Tarantino's films.

I loved this film, in pieces more than the whole. I think it's a stunning piece of filmmaking that is jagged and incomplete and messy and perfect. It's a film that is all over the place but still manages to work thanks to the strength of it's parts,like many Asian films- which is why it's the perfect film to open the NYAFF.

If you can you really should see this on a big screen with a theater full of people because it's that sort of fun movie.

This open in a few months in Japan.

NYAFF: Ocean Heaven (2010)


We are less then a week away to the start of the New York Asian Film Festival. We at Unseen Films were not planning on really starting coverage until Thursday with a post that basically reviewed a bunch of the films we'd already seen in capsule form. From there we were going to do coverage of each days events and then we were going to give a week (or two) of full reviews at the end of July.

That was the plan.

The trouble was that between our DVD collections and press screenings we suddenly found ourselves overwhelmed with really good films. Frankly there are just too many good films being shown that there was no way we can do what we planned,namely save full reviews until after the festival, especially since there are a number of films that were going to fall right under the radar if we didn't point them out.

A perfect example is the first film in this series Ocean Heaven. This is a wonderful, if heartbreaking, film that most people are going to steer clear of for no other reason in that there is no violence what so ever.

That's a big mistake. This is a super little film that will surprise the hell out of you.

The plot of the film has single dad Jet Li trying to teach his autistic young adult son how to get by in life. Dad works at the local aquarium and his son loves to hang out and swim with the fish (hence the title). Unfortunately for Li's character there is more than a sense of urgency in his task since he is dying of liver cancer, and if he can't prepare his son, odds are terrible things may happen to him.

I'm not going to lie this is a heartrending film. You will be moved. Odds are you will get misty, perhaps you will even cry. I'm not proud, I got blubbery. Say what you will about the somewhat by the numbers plot, the characters and the performances make this way better than this really should be.

The film is being touted as the first dramatic role for Jet Li, but that's not true, if you saw Danny the Dog (aka Unleashed), Warlords or some of his more recent action films you realize that Li has been trying to stretch as an actor. I would love to say something snarky, as some people have, about how surprising it is that he's as good as he is, but I can't since I've been championing Li's dramatic prowess for years. Simply put Li is one of the most under appreciated dramatic actors working today. Here he does something truly amazing, he takes his super action persona and junks it in order to play just an ordinary guy. The fact that you buy Li as just a dad says volumes about just how good he is.

Its a stunning performance and if there is any justice it will set Li on a new career path as a dramatic actor.

I really like this film a great deal. It's not by any means the be all and end all film, but it's one that manages to take the best ingredients it had at it's disposal and make a wonderfully bitter sweet film out of it.

Go see this film. Yes I know you can pick it up in Chinatown and you can get it as an import DVD, but go buy a ticket and see this film at the Film Festival.

Why?

Because the point of a film festival is not just to see the films you expect or know you want to see before the fact. No, the point of a film festival is to find films you didn't know you wanted to see. The point of the film festival is to find films you might never have seen other wise. Ocean Heaven is one of those films. Its a small little treasure of the film, that isn't going to win any awards but is going to move you more deeply then some of the bigger budget and more heavily promoted films.

Trust me, you may not love, hell I don't love it, but you will really like it, probably enough to recommend it to your friends, which is exactly what I'm doing.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Notes, links and comments and stuff before we get distracted by the NYAFF and Japan Cuts (fixed)

It’s been ages since I’ve done an update post and things are at the stage now where if I don’t do it now, it’ll be several weeks before I get a chance to do it.

First up, starting tomorrow Unseen Films will be starting it’s full on coverage of the New York Asian Film Festival by flooding you with reviews of the 28 films we’ve already seen. We’ll be doing two a day between tomorrow and Thursday when we hit you with a huge post of capsule reviews of the rest. The good news is that out of the 28 movies there is only one I can’t really recommend (check back for Monday morning for that one). If you want a taste of what I think are the best films try Ninja Kids!!!, Troubleshooter and Machete Maidens Unleashed, all of which are so good I wanted to watch them again as soon as they ended.

If you think I’m going to be the only one babbling at you with reviews, you're wrong; Eden is going to be chiming in with a couple, as will Mondocurry, who will also be on the ground and in the trenches once the screenings start up.

As of right now it looks like we should be reviewing every feature film that screens. We’re working on attending the two short film collections, but those, like interviews we’re trying to line up, will depend upon our day jobs letting us out to play.

I want to point out that next Friday we’ll be running capsule reviews of four of the Japan Cuts titles that are not being co-presented by the Asian film festival. (I’m going to at least an additional five non co-presented Japan Cuts films during and after the NYAFF- so we’ll have coverage of 19 of the 32 Japan Cuts films).

During the film festival and Japan Cuts we’ll be running counter programming to the Asian film coverage so if you don’t care about those movies you’ll still have a reason to read. As a counter to to the FF coverage we'll dive into some documentaries designed to keep you out of the water, a week of westerns, Ken’s annual British Comedy series and a series of useful film reviews (I’ll explain that when it’s closer to time). We’re also going to be beginning our Wednesday summer matinee series, the eight films about Renfrew of the Royal Mounted.

Now that I’m done talking about the NYAFF it’s time to move on to some updates on films we’ve covered in the past before I end with some of the many many links I’ve been collecting since the last update post.

On the DVD front one of my favorite films from last year, Bodyguards and Assassins is finally getting a US DVD release in August. It worth the effort to pick it up.

Also coming out is Clash, the Vietnamese action soap opera I saw at last years Tribeca Film Festival. I recently saw it again via an import DVD and it’s still a mess. Great action but a plot that is a joke.

The devastating film Little Pond which screened at last years NYAFF and which left me depressed for days afterward is out on DVD under the title The Bridge at Nogunri.

Serial killer film Cold Fish hits US DVD on August 23rd.

BKO: Bangkok Knockout which is playing the NYAFF hits US DVD on August 30th

Trollhunter which I loved when I saw it at Tribeca (and which is in theaters and pay per view now) hits DVD August 23.

A good film from Tribeca Bang Bang Club hits DVD on the August 16th

The documentary A Matter of Taste yet another Tribeca favorite is running on HBO this month.

The Guard with Brendan Gleason and Don Cheedle is coming out at the end of July and worth your time.

Some up coming series here in New York:

The Museum of Modern Art begins a retrospective of Pixar films tomorrow until July 9th.

July 15 to the 19th Lincoln Center presents a series of films that were preserved by the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

July 20 to August 9 Lincoln Center will be running All Singing All Dancing All Judy Garland. A related series of Garland's TV work runs at the Paley Center from July 20th.

And now some links for your amusement:

Has Comicon stopped being a launching pad for big films is pondered here.

Who was almost cast in iconic roles?

Real Life Muppets?

Things they should have put in the up coming Star Wars Box Set.

Abandoned Theaters from around the US.

Hidden in Movies and TV Shows...

Kill Bill Remixed

Bad Yeti Films

100 Post it Notes of Vincent Price

NYC Time Lapse

What is this ad for?

Lured (1947)


It has a cast to die for, George Sanders, Lucille Ball, Charles Coburn, Boris Karloff, Alan Mowbrey George Zucco, Cederick Hardwicke and Alan Napier (playing Detective Gordon, which is amusing in retrospect of his later Batman role). It has a first class director in Douglas Sirk and a well written script. It’s a neat little film that is a great unseen treasure.

The plot of the film has Scotland Yard chasing a serial killer who sends notes to the police announcing each murder. As more and more women disappear they enlist the aid of an American dancer (Ball), to act as bait. This puts her into contact with Sanders, a notorious playboy.

The main stars of the film are Sanders, Ball and Hardwicke, with the rest of the cast being sterling support. Watching the film recently on Turner Classic Movies I was in heaven as each new familiar face wandered on screen. Normally we’d be lucky to get one, perhaps two of these great actors, but here it is we have 8. For the most part this film works like gang busters. It’s a great cast going through it’s paces. It should be an out of the park home run, instead the film is a very respectable triple.

For me the film never quite comes together the way a classic should. All of the elements are there but something is missing. In a weird way I understand why the film was a failure upon it’s initial release. Douglas Sirk blamed it on change of title (they changed it to Personal Column), I think there is something else wrong. For me the problem is that the film has an odd tone. The film’s story has a down and gritty noir feel but it’s dressed up in fancy clothes that make the film feel more pretend then real. On a certain level many of the notes feel false.

I also think that Lucille Ball, is kind of wrong for her role, she’s a tad too brusk compared to the rest of the refined cast. It’s not fatal, but it does make this a should see instead of a must see.

And you really should see this, for Sanders if nothing else. Watch the scenes where he’s interrogated by the police and you quickly realize how good (and under utilized) an actor he was. I kept thinking, he was never allowed to cut loose like this before why?

Worth searching out. Its currently in the TCM rotation. It’s also on DVD from Kino (though the front cover has Lucille Ball and Boris Karloff on the front, which is kind of a come on since Karloff has only a very brief role.)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Max Reinhart"s Midsummer Nights commentary


An amazing commentary track about the making of the epic, atypical film of Shakespeare's play is truly mind blowing.

Despite the fact that I will dip into the well of the Bard I am not a fan. Put me into the camp of those who feel he’s over rated. On a certain level its beautifully worded soap opera. Normally I have to have a hook to get me to watch a production, usually there has to be an actor I like.

In the case of this version of Midsummer the hook was the fact that I had only seen stills from the film, but I had never seen the film itself. Finding a copy of the film in a discount store I picked it up.

The film itself is a work of art. It’s a beautiful fantasy that rightly gave Warners a huge boost of prestige. It’s a film that is truly a work of art whose influence you can see in many films that followed including many MGM films and even Fantasia. On a certain level the performances are uneven, but then again none are truly bad or out of place. They are if nothing else interesting choices and probably close to what Julie Taymor’s disastrous Tempest would have been had she managed to pull it together. I like the film.

What I love is Scott MacQueen‘s audio commentary on the making of the film. It’s a wonderful look into the studio system and what happens when a stage director crashes into a film studio. It’s a battle of commercialism vs art where,surprisingly, both win.

It’s all here from the film’s genesis in the legendary Hollywood Bowl production (an aside the only thing wrong with the DVD is that there is no visual record of that production. Since the show is heavily talked about, it would have been nice to see something) to the films release and cutting down to a version that was screened at popular prices. We get the battle for casting. The endless battles over the look, of what they were going for, what they tried to shoot and how the studio screamed bloody murder since the footage was often so dark that it needed a very bright lamp to be seen (bulbs were something that many theaters skimped on and went for cheaper dimmer bulbs). There is the talk of the putting a section during the intermission which was going to be a classical music concert (the idea was scrapped).

Using memo’s and sections from biographies and other materials from the period MacQueen paints a wonderful portrait of how a film was made in the golden age of Hollywood that was a real eye opener to even my jaded film fanatic’s eyes.

I can’t recommend the commentary enough.

Best of all the DVD has many of the promotional bits that were mentioned during the commentary, the actor introductions, the A Dream Comes True piece which consisted of extra footage, plus trailers and other fun tidbits.

If you are a fan of Hollywood’s heyday you should see this. I don't know what else to say but go out and find yourself a copy and watch it. I'm going to guess that not only will you watch the film a couple of times, you'll also listen to the commentary a few more times as well since there is just too damn much to take in on one go through.

One of my finds of the year.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Time Shift-The Kneale Tapes- Nigel Kneale (2003)


Way too brief look at the life and work of writer Nigel Kneale who changed television programs and the notions of science fiction in the 1950's and 60's.

Kneale started out writing short stories set on his Isle of Man. His publisher wanted him to follow it up with a novel, Kneale wanted to try and write for the infant television.

His fame came when the BBC had a program go belly up and they needed something to fill the slot, so Kneale pitched the idea for the Quatermass Experiment. It was a radical departure from anything on TV at the time. Here was a show that was more than what the BBC was doing at the time, which was essentially Radio with pictures. In one huge move Kneale changed the face of television by using the medium as best as possible and by presenting adult heroes for adults.

The show was a huge success and the film got lots of attention for it's mixing of horror and science fiction. Rarely had anything been done so graphically. The people and even the BBC were horrified. (The BBC wanted no part of Kneales monster so Kneale had to make the costume and the creature himself)

From there Kneale went on to do an adaptation of 1984 that horrified the country, but had one big fan, the Queen.

The film uses a mix of clips, interviews with experts and with the man himself, to show that Kneale was working decades ahead of everyone else. We see how his Year of the Sex Olympics predates reality TV by a good thirty years. We also see how the stories of superstition and fantasy having a "real" basis gave birth to TV shows like The X-Files (Which tried to get him to write for it but was turned down).

This is a super little film about the man and his work. The only problem is that at 40 minutes it's way too short. Things blow by and we get only passing references to several stories he did. I understand that it was the limits of TV slot it was produced for, but at the same time here is a man who changed culture and he deserves more.

If you can find a copy this is definitely worth a look if you can run down a copy. I picked one up from a collector at a nostalgia show.

Port Sinister (1953)


The plot of the film has an oceanographic institute bankrolling the investigation of a long lost pirate hideaway that raises up from the ocean depths periodically. It was sunk centuries ago during an earthquake. Unfortunately for the man who's behind the expedition some bad guys learn about the islands supposed treasure and they arrange an accident. Eventually everyone makes it to the island...unfortunately there be monsters, specifically giant crabs, on the island.

Low budget cheese ball film is amusing fun for those in an undemanding mood. High art it's not, good fun it is.

To be honest the film isn't all that good. The enjoyment of it comes from the odd mix of genres and images. You have the high seas schooner that gets much of the cast there, you have the monsters, you have the treasure hunt, and the end of the world style landscape. As the film goes on you can't help but wonder where in the world the film is going to go next. Its a tall tale well sold.

The film is helped immeasurably by it's brief running time. Running just over an hour the film is just long enough to spin out its fantastic yarn and but brief enough that it doesn't overstay it's welcome.

This is exactly the sort of film that I used to get up in the middle of the night to see. Give me anything with monsters and I'm happy, more so when they are real animals filmed with a macro lens.

get some friends, get some drinks and few other similar films and make a night of silly fun in front of the TV.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

1930's jungle double feature- Jaws of the Jungle and Beyond Bengal

Today a double feature of two travelogue/nature documentaries from the 1930’s

Jaws of the Jungle (1936)
This is a semi-documentary story of a village in motion across the island of Ceylon after an attack by vampire bats. While much of it seems staged- the human sacrifice and other things- the over all effect is realistic (after all one could never believe that they would have allowed a baby and woman to be pitched over a cliff, and as for the big cat attack as tense as it is its there are too many cut aways.) The plot isn’t important here. What is important here is the nature footage, which is spectacular. Also important is the little bits of every day life of the people are nicely documented. This is an old school look at the life and time of the people and it’s definitely not your typical discovery channel special.(IMDB lists the running time as as short as 26 minutes, but the two different prints I have put the run time closer to 50 minutes)

Beyond Bengal (1934)
This is Harry Schenck’s record of his trip into the jungles of the Malaysian peninsula via an elephant train. Stunning real life nature footage mixes with some staged footage (romance, crocodile attacks) for a wild hour long trip back in time to another time and place.

Beginning with the party taking leave of the sultan and then heading out, we watch as the supplies are sent ahead via ox cart and the main party sets out days later via elephant. If you ever wanted to know what it took to be an explorer back before satellite imaging and helicopters, this is it. This is very much not a Hollywood adventure and it's clear from many of the non staged scenes things were not comfortable.

For the most part the film works, with scenes such as the monkey/python fight. the valley full of elephants and much of the monkey and gibbon footage over coming the clunky bits, like the "cat hunt" and the staged bits.

While not perfect by today's standards the film is a nice flash back to a time passed when we had to hope for a film like this to see anything similar.

Worth a look.

NYAFF needs volunteers

Basically if you help out you can see movies for free. It's a great deal and I will be all over it if I can adjust my day job work schedule.

Information can be found here.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Drums of the Desert (1940)


I keep forgetting to post a review of this film. It's something that has been on the must post list pretty much since I started this blog, but I never can find the time to sit down and actually wite up the film anew. To that end I'm going to respost the piece I put up at IMDB for the film so I can cross off another goodie off the list.

I'm going to make a stab at simply explaining the story of this film. Because there are a good many characters and a great many plot threads its going to sound much blander than it is since I'm compressing so much into so few lines (trust me its much better than this): Ralph Byrd plays a member of the French army stationed in Morocco. Taking a ship from France to Africa he meets and woos a young lady who suddenly disappears when the ship docks. Picking a contingent of Senegalese troops he heads off to his fort where he's to teach them to be paratroopers. Upon arriving at the fort he again meets the woman who has stolen his heart and who is the fiancé of one of the officers stationed there. While out on training maneuvers Byrd and his men are attacked by Arabs who want them out of the country. They manage to capture one of the attackers who is the brother of a sheik that Byrd had met on the ship from France. The brother denies his involvement to the sheik, who then plots revenge when the brother is executed.

This is a very breezy very complicated little movie moves like the wind. Byrd and the rest of the cast are excellent in this tale of conflicting loyalties, romance and action.

I must single out Mantan Moreland as the New York native now in charge of the paratroopers. Moreland, best known as Charlie Chan's butler Birmingham Brown gets to be an action star showing little of his trademark fear and anxiety as he charges in with his men on more than one occasion (his method of getting information will be positively frightening to Chan fans). Moreland also is allowed to be more than just comic relief in a role that is more than just jokes and reaction (The scene where he asks Byrd if they can bury one of his men with a parachute is especially touching). This film is more proof that Moreland was an under used actor.

I really liked this movie a great deal. Clearly a low budget programmer, this film some how rises above its humble origins to become an excellent little adventure film. Regrettably its not better known. This is one to keep an eye out for.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Cafe Noir (2009) Korean Cultural Service free screening


Tuesday is the last of the Korean Cultural Service's series of independent films. Its been a hit and miss series, with Re-Encounter coming off the best and Missing Person coming off as the worst.

The final film in the sequence is probably going to be half the audience's best film and half the audience's worst film since Cafe Noir is the sort of film that is going to divide audiences right down the middle.

The film is a two part film, the first part is in color and the second is in black and white. It's a film that examines the idea of lost or thwarted love in a style that is very much like a Russian novel but by way of Korea. Its told with long takes, long silences and frequent deeply serious conversation about things. You're either going to click with this film for you won't. For me the film took most of the first half before I clicked with it...and at that point there was still almost two hours left to go.

I forgot to mention this is a long long movie running just under three hours and twenty minutes. If you are not liking the long takes this film is going to feel even longer. (The opening credits don't appear until the film is about halfway over.)

As I said I liked the film, but I have lots of reservations.

First and foremost is the films pace is often glacial thanks to the long periods were nothing is said. Had I seen this in a theater and not as a screener I would have walked out of the film about a half hour in, possibly sooner. One of the first lines of spoken dialog is "we can't go on like this" and it comes some 8 draggy minutes into the film, and I was thinking if the remaining three hours and ten minutes are like the first 8 no we can't. (Up to that point we've watched a young woman eat a cheese burger in one continuous take and watched lots of shots of Seoul pass by from a speeding car.)

It gets better, but you have to make an effort to stick with it. Somewhere around the hour and a half mark things began to click and I was enjoying some of the quirkiness of it all.

Another problem is that the film is one of the most pretentious I've seen in along time. The film is the work of one of Korea's top film critics, and all I can say if this is the sort of thing that he likes, he must hate almost every film out of the box. Meaning bleeds off the screen. There is endless steals from other better film makers (the long takes remind me of Bela Tarr).

Lastly I have no idea why this film runs as long as it does. Pacing issues aside, why the hell is this three and a half hours long? I have no idea. Don't get me wrong, I liked it once I got to a certain point , but at the same time, there is this point where I realized that the film just was repeating itself and could be cut down to half it's length with out losing anything.

I completely see how this film has split viewers on the festival circuit, with half the audience loving it and the other half thinking its utter crap. I'm somewhere in the middle, and I'm able to see how people can love and loath the film.

What's my recommendation?

It's worth trying.

I would be more generous toward saying giving it a go if you could see it on DVD. Since that probably isn't an option, I'd give the film a try at the screening on Tuesday night at the Tribeca Cinemas. Just be willing to walk out if it doesn't thrill you. If you think you'd like to see a very long film as I've described go for it. If not, hold off and hope it gets a DVD release.

Human Rights Film Festival: When the Mountains Trembled (1983)


This is the prequel to Granito which I reviewed yesterday. I had had a ticket for the screening which followed Grantino but I left because this terrible head cold got the better of me. Before I left I picked up a copy of the DVD of this film which they were selling in the lobby.

The film tells the story of the internal war that happened in Guatemala between the military and ruling class against pretty much everyone else and in particular the Mayan descended population.

Quietly affecting the film tells the terrible story with an ease and economy that is often lacking in many other documentaries, including this films sequel (which I will discuss shortly). Its a warts and all portrait of a country in the grip of a nasty civil war that was being orchestrated by it's leaders against it's population basically for profit. The film is held together by the narration of Rigoberto Menchu, an activist (and later Nobel Peace Prize winner) who fled the country and worked to shine a light on the terrors that were happening in her homeland.

I was moved. Yes, the film wears it's heart on it's sleeve, but it comes by it honestly and I have the feeling that any skewing towards it's point of view isn't all that terrible. Besides it has a depth of passion that helps to drag you along.

If you read my earlier piece on Granito you know that I was less then happy with the film. I thought the film didn't say very much (I missed about 20 minutes and felt I didn't mess anything) and was probably too long for what it was. I also compared it to the films I had seen earlier this year by saying that Granito didn't have the passion of those films. That isn't the case
with When the Mountains Trembled, which has enough heart and feeling that it kind of makes me wonder what happened to Pamela Yates in the intervening 30 years. Everything Granito did wrong, When the Mountains Trembled did right.

Sitting in my room watching the film I got a bit annoyed when the phone rang and it was a friend calling to just shoot the breeze. I went along with them for a while but I ultimately hustled them off the phone because I wanted to get back to this film.

You really should see this film. Its a a film that will fill you in on something I'm pretty sure most of you aren't aware of. Certainly you should see this film if you are seeing Granito, since this film fills in a great number of details you may not have been otherwise aware of. (Watching this made bits of Granito play better to the point I don't think you should see the newer film with out seeing this one first)

Definitely worth tracking down.