December 20, 2011

genre 2011

As the carcasses of prestige pics get picked over by awards committees and prognosticators, I like to distract myself from this pointless posturing by watching movies featuring actual corpses. After last year’s rundown of genre flicks received a good response, I return to the bloody well again, this time with twelve of my favorite action/horror/exploitation items released in the past year. Sure to be ignored by your local film critics circle, they are works of grim resourcefulness and ingenuity, deserving of more attention. I look forward to your criticisms, insults and recommendations in the comments. My picks are presented in alphabetical order.

Attack the Block, directed by Joe Cornish

With his origins in sketch comedy (the British “Adam and Joe Show”), one would expect Joe Cornish’s debut alien invasion feature to be episodic and tongue-in-cheek. While laced with humor, Attack the Block is instead a sleekly designed chase film, as a wanna-be gang of teens defend their South London project from the alien hordes. It was shot at the dilapidated Heygate Estate (which is now undergoing demolition), whose brutalist, prison-like facade emphasizes the kids’ status as second-tier citizens, convicts even in their freedom. They roam the streets and halls, led by Moses (played with sensitive stoicism, and shades of Gary Cooper, by John Boyenga), harrassed by cops while they harass (and rob) outsiders, as if outlaws in their own Wild West, Moses facing his own kind of High Noon.


Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, directed by Tsui Hark

I devoted an entire post to this pulpy marvel back in April (read here), so I’ll be brief here. Suffice it to say that Hark combines martial arts, Sherlock Holmes and steampunk into one of the most deliriously entertaining films of the year. Reveling in the sheer joy of storytelling, it hearkens back to Poverty Row serials of the 30s and 40s, telescoping an entire season’s worth of incidents and cliffhangers into its 2 hour running time. And yes, the CGI looks fuzzy and second-rate, but for me, it only added to its ramshackle charm.


Fast Five, directed by Justin Lin

I had not seen any of the previous iterations of this revived testosterone oil slick of a franchise, attracted only by the presence of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who enlivens whatever material he swaggers into. He is, of course, a magnetic presence in this one, his Diplomatic Security Service agent growling out orders with a starved pit-bull intensity. But the bombastic world that Justin Lin inflates around him is equally compelling – especially the turbocharged action sequences which are both outrageous and rigorously designed, from the moving train car heist to the torn-out bank vaults which are chained to cars and used as wrecking balls. Justin Lin is one of the few Hollywood directors to have firm control of the modern action film aesthetic, his quick cuts and mobile camera managing to convey a coherent geography (if this is “chaos cinema”, I’ll take it!). Examine the extended, wall breaking fistfight between The Rock and Vin Diesel for a meaty example.


Insidious, directed by James Wan

Finding creative solutions to monetary restrictions led James Wan to make one of the most profitable movies of the year. Insidious was made for $1.5 million and has since earned $97 million worldwide (figures from BoxOfficeMojo). Building tension off of long takes, smoke machines and a record playing Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoeing Through the Tulips”, this is an elegant shocker that also has the gall to build defined characters. Patrick Wilson is a distant, condescending husband and father, Rose Byrne an artistically frustrated songwriter turned housewife. Wan and screenwriter Leigh Wannell use the couple’s bad faith and turn it into the stuff of nightmares — their mutual resentments manifesting in the form of a vengeful wraith who absconds with their child. The second-half dimension-folding freak-out fails to exert the same slow-burn creep of the haunted first, but it still houses more indelible scares than any other film this year.


I Saw the Devil, directed by Kim Jee-woon

A cat-and-mouse revenge thriller where the roles of hunter and prey are continually reversible. The sociopathic killer Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) and secret agent Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun) engage in a pas-de-deux of sadism, each torturing the other in a game of gruesome one-upsmanship. Containing elements of fairy tales (a cannibal’s house reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel) and self-reflexive black humor, it attempts to encompass all forms of revenge narratives, seeming, as Dave Kehr wrote, to be “the natural endpoint in the revenge film cycle kicked back off by Tarantino.”


The Mechanic, directed by Simon West

The pick of the Statham platter this year (other options: Killer Elite and Blitz), this remake of the 1972 Michael Winner/Charles Bronson original is an effectively no-nonsense bruiser. Statham is upscale hitman Arthur Bishop, who takes on hard-headed Steve McKenna (Ben Foster) as an apprentice. Bishop is an ascetic aesthete, living in a gorgeous arts & crafts style cabin on the water, with a preference for high-necked cable-knit sweaters out of the J Crew for assassins catalog. McKenna is necessarily a bit of a drunk and a hothead, needing the guidance of Bishop’s meditative nowhere-man. Director Simon West, if not exactly a stylist, is at least efficient, and frames fight scenes of lucid brutality. Statham brings a coiled physicality and a reliably self-effacing charm, while Ben Foster continues his run of mannered, fastidiously manic performances, his McKenna exhibiting non-stop DTs. He pops off the screen with garrulous intensity, and he’s building a gallery of eccentrics worthy of the great character actors. He’s no M. Emmet Walsh yet, but he’s on his way.


Point Blank, directed by Fred Cavaye

A refreshingly brisk 84 minutes long, this breathless French thriller wastes no time on exposition and races headlong into a chase. Samuel (Gilles Lellouche) is a nurse in training who inadvertently interrupts the murder of a hood (Roschdy Zem) in the ER. Soon his wife gets kidnapped and he is forced to ally himself with Zem to save his wife and his reputation. They race through Paris city streets, with Cavaye’s camera following them in hurtling tracking shots. Structured as one epic sprint, there is no time to sketch in character detail or complicated plot maneuvers, so while there is no emotional investment here, it still packs quite a kick of adrenaline.


The Robber, directed by Benjamin Heisenberg

A resolutely anti-psychological heist film, it examines the daily routine of marathon runner and bank robber Johann Rettenberger with clinical detachment. The true story it is based on, of “Pump-Gun Ronnie”, a runner who also wore a Reagan mask during jobs, is more spectacular than what it is on screen. Heisenberg pares away any hint of backstory, forcing lead actor Andreas Lust to express everything through his sinewy body. Curling into himself, Lust rejects any outside help, even recoiling at the accidental touch of a stranger in a park. It is when he falls for his childhood friend Erika (Franziska Weisz) that he lets the outside world inside – which collapses his carefully manicured facades. Outside of this, it’s a terrifically staged action film, including an open air stunner in which Lust sprints from one bank robbery to another, weaving through hotel lobbies, parking garages and open fields – leaving the police huffing and puffing behind him. Using controlled handheld camera (no shaky cam here) in sinuous long takes, Heisenberg and DP Reinhold Vorschneider create one of the most propulsively exciting chase scenes of the year.


Stake Land, directed by Jim Mickle

My favorite vampire experience since Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It. So it’s been a while. Set in a post-apocalyptic America ravaged by the pointy-toothed beasts, it’s part survivalist horror, part road movie, and anchored by a quietly charismatic performance by Nick Damici (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Mickle). Damici plays “Mister”, a crusty self-sustaining loner who has built his life around a violent routine: rifle abandoned shops for food and dust a few blood suckers. He picks up Martin (Connor Paolo) along his desultory journeys, the lone survivor of a slaughtered family. Mentoring Martin in the ways of survival and vamp-killing, Mister gains a purpose outside of himself, and is determined to ferry Martin to “New Eden”, a supposed safe zone in Canada. Mickle shoots the film in a dusky low-light, as if in a perennial twilight, where danger lurks in every unexplored nook and cranny, from vamps to the fundamentalist cult which worships them. With haunting makeup and creature design, these are not the dapper vampires du jour, but demons in decaying bodies, oozing goopy fluids which can only be replaced by fresh blood. It’s a genuinely unique vision – and one that aids the film’s subtle allegory of American intellectual decline (it’s no coincidence the promised land is in Canada).


Unknown, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Following up the cold precision of his ace horror flick Orphan, Serra again churns out a film of with strong compositional lines and an entertainingly ridiculous scenario. What stands out this time is his tactile sense of place, a multi-cultural Berlin of five-star hotels and seedy flop-houses. It’s a huge improvement on its model, Taken, the previous Liam Neeson Euro-sploitation outing, which was directed by Pierre Morel. While that film took place in a world of Eastern-European stereotypes and chopped its action sequences to bits, here the city still seethes with racial tension (a taxi dispatcher blames the city’s perceived decline on immigrants), but Neeson is assisted in his quest by a Bosnian cab driver (played convincingly by Diane Kruger) and her African immigrant pal named Biko (a nod to South African activist Steve Biko, played by Clint Dyer). As with Orphan, its actions sequences are concise bits of legible brutality . Bruno Ganz steals the movie as a proud former Stasi member who aids Neeson in his quest for identity. In what is surely to be one of the finest scenes of the year, Frank Langella swings by to cradle Ganz in his arms, as they discuss how to die with dignity.


The Ward, directed by John Carpenter

The unjustly derided return to the big screen for John Carpenter, who shows his talent for slow-burn scares is as sharp as ever. Working with a hacky script, Carpenter turns this story of a haunted insane asylum into an experiment in visual repetition, evoking the ritualized circular movements of these girls’ daily lives. An example of form triumphing over content. You can read my full thoughts in my post from June.


The Yellow Sea, directed by Na Hong-jin

Na Hong-jin’s follow up to The Chaser, is an operatic bloodbath about a poor Chinese immigrant in Korea, trying to find the wife who abandoned him years ago. There are no guns in this movie – everyone gets stabbed or bludgeoned by an axe-handle– and there are some epic battles here. With South Korea’s highly restrictive gun ownership laws, even the underworld has trouble obtaining firearms. Without shoot-outs, each death becomes more personal, because you have to get close and smell the sweat of your opponent before taking their life. It is a ritual bloodletting to rid the world of the infection of humanity.

Honorable Mentions: Drive AngryWreckedBurke & Hare (which I wrote about here).


April 26, 2011

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The Tribeca Film Festival still exists. Having succeeded in its intent to help revitalize the economy of lower Manhattan after 9/11, the festival has spread out across the city, and has maintained its commerce-over-art stance. As a business venture it seems like an unqualified success, and has gained a little more respect as a market for distributors along the way. But as for the films themselves, it’s always been a bit of an embarrassment. Heavy on celebrity directorial debuts (this year: Billy Corgan and Vera Farmiga) and slumming stars in sub-Sundance “indies”, the movies are essentially waiting lines for the after-parties. With a festival this huge, there is always something to be salvaged, usually in the shorts or genre programs. But in recent years I haven’t been willing  to pay the price (Steve Dollar in GreenCine and Matt Singer and Stephen Saito at IFC News are two doing such yeoman’s work). The only title in TFF’s program I was aching to see was Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010), and as it was already available on DVD and Blu-Ray in Asia, I watched it at home instead of braving the beautiful crowds.

Detective Dee is the 50th film produced by Tsui Hark’s Film Workshop company, and has been hailed as a return to form by no less a Hark expert than Subway Cinema guru Grady Hendrix. A madcap mixture of Sherlock Holmes, steampunk, martial arts and historical melodrama, it’ll be sure to top any gargantuan Hollywood entertainment this year for most invention per square inch of screen space. It hearkens back to Hark’s salad days of Shanghai Blues (1984) and Peking Opera Blues (1986)  hyperkinetic magpie films that combined the classical art forms of his youth with high (and low)-flying action. Detective Dee is subdued by comparison, but still manages to pack in a trilogy’s worth of twists and turns. After his failed attempt to ape Johnnie To’s sleek geometrical violence in the omnibus film Triangle (2007), it’s an unmitigated delight to see him return to his wild pseudo-historical mode – “nationalism on speed”, as Stephen Teo described it in Hong Kong: The Extra Dimensions.

Detective Dee is based on the Tang Dynasty official Di Renjie, who was immortalized in an 18th Century Chinese detective novel entitled The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee. The Dutch diplomat and writer Robert Van Gulick translated it into English, and then modeled his own crime series on the character of Judge Dee, which ran from 1946 – 1967. From 2004 – 2007, the CCTV network of China ran a drama series based on the stories of his life, entitled Amazing Detective Di Renjie, which stimulated the interest for the big screen adaptation.

It is A.D. 690, and Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) is about to be coronated as Empress, the first and only female ruler of China. However! Two of her subjects burst into flames while working on the erection of a 66-story high Buddha statue. On the advice of the Imperial Chaplain (who appears as a talking deer, naturally), the Empress releases the legendary Detective Dee (Andy Lau) from prison, who had been jailed for opposing her rise to the throne. Dee was close to the Empress’ husband, the Emperor, who died under suspicious circumstances. Assisted by the albino swordsman Minister Pei (Deng Chao) and the Empress’ security officer Jing’er (starlet Li Bingbing), Dee uncovers an intricate conspiracy that relies on phosphorous emitting beetles and a face-morphing doctor named Donkey Wang.

Jumping from setpiece to setpiece, Tsui never lets the pace flag, although the set design shifts from the brilliantly gothic “Phantom Bazaar”, a foggy netherworld of rotting wood and noxious swamp, to the cartoon-y CG of the group shots outside the Empress’ mansion. In the first edition of Planet Hong Kong (2000), David Bordwell described Hark’s style as, “an exercise in extremes – manic knockabout, brutal violence, sentiment, irony, in-jokes. Period detail jostles superhero fantasy, lush costumes are swathed in fake fog, dazzling special effects are compromised by banal wirework. This is the man who told his scriptwriters to make something new happen every three minutes.” It is exhilarating and exhausting, inventive and chintzy. Even Sammo Hung’s fight choreography in Detective Dee swings from extremes – there is the “banal wirework” that Bordwell complains about, but also a strikingly original fight scene set in the Phantom Bazaar. The Imperial Chaplain shows up as a spectre in a brass-mask, a malevolent monster from a Peking Opera, perhaps. Filmed in menacing low light, the three investigators pin down the shape-shifter, only to have it wriggle away and morph into more nightmarish forms, from Opera villain to a glowing stingray-like beast, and then ultimately into a Ray Harryhausen-esque stop-motion death-bird.

That I had to conceive of such phrases speaks to the child-like joys present in Detective Dee. It’s the kind of serial style adventure that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have been attempting to recapture for decades. Dee lacks their polish, but makes up for it with its delirious imagination and complete lack of self-consciousness – an eager-to-please delight that would slot right in next to a screening of The Adventures of Captain Marvel or Daredevils of the Red Circle. There is no higher compliment.