October 23, 2014

Crazy Dog

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Canepazzo
David Petrucci - 2012
One 7 Movies Region 0 DVD

This Fall has seen a couple of the smaller DVD labels offering films that are a bit outside their usual offerings. Crazy Dog is a relatively new film, from two years ago, from a company better known for excavating some of the most obscure European movies from the Seventies and Eighties, stuff from the most forgotten corners of film history. The writeup on the DVD cover attempts to make the case for the film as something in the style of Italian cinema from the Seventies, a blend of some giallo and police thriller, but the film is, for me, nothing like that at all.

What we have is a pretty good mystery, possibly inspired by a true story, although I take such declarations with a grain of salt. Crazy Dog is the name of a serial killer who has murdered a slew of people, seemingly at random. Marco, the son of one of the victims, interviews a criminologist who seems the best informed about Crazy Dog. The criminologist recounts events from twenty years ago, when Crazy Dog struck, and then disappeared, pursued by a freelance journalist.

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The serial killer signs his work, on the body of one victim, the painting of another, and in blood on the doormat of the journalist. The film ends with a flashback tying several of the victims together, but not all of them. The explanations don't entirely make sense, suggesting that when David Petrucci wrote his screenplay, he hoped that the viewer wouldn't notice plot holes the size of craters.

Petrucci tries to goose up interest with cameos by Franco Nero and Tinto Brass. Nero actually has a fair singing voice that should have been used more. Here, he's an abstract painter of sorts and philosopher, like several of Crazy Dog's victims, living in the margins. Tinto Brass, with his ubiquitous cigar, is a mobster who makes a point of getting the respect he thinks he deserves. The inclusion of Nero and Brass is an attempt to provide some tenuous link to the glory days of Italian cinema as a provider of commercially popular, if often critically maligned, films in the Seventies.

Petrucci plays with color, tinting the scenes with the murders, but otherwise, any resemblance to earlier genre films is tangential. There are no extended point of view shots, and the scenes of violence are restrained, so much so that I almost wished that Ruggero Deodato, of Cannibal Holocaust infamy, would have stepped in to show Petrucci how to make the audience pay attention to what's on the screen.

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October 21, 2014

Kundo: Age of the Rampant

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Kundo: Min-ran-eui Si-dae
Yoon Jung-bin - 2014
WellGo USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

I would think that if anyone were to listen to the soundtrack to Kundo without knowledge of the film, hearing it cold for the first time, they would assume that the music was from an unfamiliar Italian western, and the score, if not be Ennio Morricone, than someone under the influence of the maestro. The ghost of Sergio Leone is in the film as well, with the close-ups of eyes of men challenging each other, the shots of horsemen riding the barren plain, and the lone warrior who comes alone, with a huge, where the hell did that come from?, machine gun. While this South Korean film is not as overtly indebted to Leone as The Good, the Bad, the Weird, the influence of the Dollars trilogy is impossible to miss.

Taking place in 19th Century Korea, the fate of a region is primarily played out by two outsiders, a butcher (considered the lowest in the caste system of the time) against the illegitimate son of a former governor, who acts on behalf of his father in hopes of gaining official position and acknowledgment of his paternity. The son schemes to eliminate any future heirs, and finds ways to force the peasants to give up their land, becoming slaves for a chosen elite. The butcher is compelled by circumstances to take up with an army of thieves who live in a hidden, mountain community, planning to take revenge on the injustice of the local government.

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There are a couple of nice set pieces. In one, their is a fight between the government soldiers and the thieves at night. The illumination from a nearby fire and lighting provide a stroboscopic effect. The second is the final duel between the butcher and the former governor's son, done in a bamboo forest, with the trees cut down in the course of the fighting, providing both barriers and temporary platforms for each man. A chase through the bamboo forest unsurprisingly evokes memories of similar lateral tracking shots from Akira Kurosawa. Humor is provided by some very earthy dialogue, mostly provided by the band of thieves.

I think it worth pointing out that WellGo USA has significantly shortened the gap with the initial theatrical run of Kundo, last July, to its new US home video release. That short wait time for US viewers would be meaningless if Kundo wasn't worth watching, and not just a record setting box office hit in South Korea. Yoon tries to help the viewer with little freeze frame introductions to several of the characters, and there is some supplementary narration that provides historical context. Mostly, though, I would give credit to composer Jo Yeong-wook for providing the audio cues for the viewer, providing a musical shortcut to introduce the kick ass action, which needs to translation.

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October 19, 2014

Coffee Break

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Anna Hopkins and Paul Giamatti in Barney's Version (Richard J. Lewis - 2010)

October 17, 2014

Violette

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Martin Provost - 2013
Adopt Films Region 1 DVD

So much of Violette seems to occur in shadows or in darkness. And some of this might be a visual signifier, with Violette LeDuc emerging from relative obscurity to late fame and fortune at about the same time that she ditches overcast Paris for sunny Provence.

As to how much of LeDuc's life was accurately portrayed in the film, I don't know. I only knew of LeDuc's literary reputation, primarily after her death. The film version of LeDuc is more complicated in terms of her sexuality, or more precisely, the disconnect between literature noted for its eroticism, and LeDuc's life mostly alone. There is the passion for Simone deBeauvoir, who refused LeDuc sexually, but in other ways proved to be of constant support, spiritually and financially. There is the constant neediness that puts off some that rightly or not, can not provide the kind of affection she seeks.

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Provost's film provides a glimpse also of the politics and celebrity of the French writers who emerged after World War II, sometimes erroneously lumped together as "existentialists". LeDuc is initially helped by Albert Camus, who sponsored a series of novels by promising writers. Jean Genet thinks of LeDuc as his sister prior to their falling out. LeDuc is frustrated that her novels do not sell. The film chronicles LeDuc's fighting her own self doubts at being a writer, first encouraged by Maurice Sachs, and later by deBeauvoir, first tentatively taking pen in hand, and later pouring out her thousand paged memoirs which she assures deBeauvoir was pared to the essentials.

The film is organized by chapters, named after key people in LeDuc's development, by their first name. The first chapter is the most problematic in that if one does not know that Maurice is Maurice Sachs, the viewer might think that this is no more than a gay man, some kind of writer, who is married to LeDuc, has gotten her pregnant, and ditches her at an inconvenient time.

Arguably, it is also easier to make a film about a painter than a writer as the viewer can see examples of the art work, whereas for the writer, the hope is to convey the value with a few choice quotes and the endorsement of a few famous people. Provost's Seraphine was a more successful film because it was about a visual artist, and perhaps also because the historical setting was more remote, and the scope of the film smaller. Much of that film was from the point of view of the title character. In Violette, there is the feeling of observing a conversation where it is assumed you know what every one is discussing, that the names of writers and publishers have an understood significance.

Provost does attempt to create a visual corollary in frequently filming Emmanuelle Devos from a distance to indicate the aloneness of LeDuc. Devos, unconventionally attractive, but attractive nonetheless, is not convincing when LeDuc makes claims regarding her lack of beauty. It could well be that making a biographical film about a writer is a questionable endeavor. The films that seem to best convey what it means to be a writer are fictional, like Alain Resnais' Providence, or fanciful as in Spike Jonze's Adaptation. Ultimately, Violette is closer to a textbook, technically perfect but emotionally uninvolving, when it should have attempted to be messier and more transgressive, closer to LeDuc's life and literature.

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October 15, 2014

Nekromantik

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Jörg Buttgereit - 1987
Cult Epics BD Region A

Just in time for the holiday season, that is, if Halloween is your holiday, comes this infamous film released as a Blu-ray disc. I don't recall when I first was made aware of Nekromantik, but I was disappointed when, right after I joined Netflix in 2001, Jorg Buttgereit's film was no longer available. I guess this is an example of how good things come to those who wait, as the Cult Epics disc is loaded with both the director's version, the "grind house" version (complete with scratchy images), an earlier short film by Buttgereit, Hot Love, filmmaker's commentary tracks, and more.

Admittedly, a love story about a man, a woman, and a corpse, isn't going to appeal to everyone. On the other hand, the one left on the side of the road, I was not prepared for a film this funny. Sure, some of the over the top gore makes Herschell Gordon Lewis look like a master at discretion. Shooting Super 8, with friends over the course of many weekends, Buttgereit is closer to the Hollywood in the Bronx aesthetics of the Kuchar Brothers, if more transgressive than dared by the twins.

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The tone of the film is set when a young couple, driving in the dark, try to look at a map instead of the road. Of course this leads to an accident, and what an accident. Buttgereit probably never heard of the Kuchars, and probably never heard the Jimmy Cross novelty song from 1965, "I Want My Baby Back", a parody of songs like "Leader of the Pack" and "Last Kiss". After waking up from a car crash, Cross looks for his sweetheart - "Over there was my baby. . . and over there was my baby . . . and way over there was my baby!". Hey, for some of teenagers at that time, this was pretty funny stuff the first fifty or so times we heard this song. "I Want My Baby Back" ends with Cross climbing into the coffin of his sweetheart. In short, young people, black humor, necrophilia - nothing new. Buttgereit has put on film the kind of stuff that was considered somewhat acceptable if kept in the imagination.

There has been serious analysis of Nekromantic by others. Suffice to say that this is the kind of film that will evoke different responses from different viewers, some plainly more interested in the visceral impact of the transgressive imagery than any meaning that might be derived from the strange love of Rob and Betty. For fans of Nekromantik, this new Blu-ray might constitute an embarrassment of riches. For those insisting on more tasteful artistic expressions, Nekromantic will be dismissed as an embarrassment.

October 13, 2014

The Devil's Business

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Sean Hogan - 2012
Mondo Macabro All Region DVD / BD Region ABC two-disc set

What, ahem, possessed Mondo Macabro to take on The Devil's Business? The inclusion in their catalogue is unexpected as it is a relatively new film, made by people for whom English is their native language, and hardly what one might expect for a genre mashup that starts off as a gangster film that turns into a horror movie of sorts, where even the blood and gore might be considered done in good taste. Writer-director Sean Hogan is frank in the commentary track about the debt owed to Harold Pinter in this dialogue heavy film. I can imagine that someone picking up this film for the title might be infuriated that there is more time spent on atmosphere, with extended scenes of a couple of white guys sitting around talking, while the kind of person who's familiar with Hogan's reference to The Dumb Waiter, possibly might be dismissive of a film featuring a vampiric homunculus.

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In print, it might not sound like much, but there is something intriguing about Irish actor Billy Clarke, with only the left side of his face illuminated like a sliver of the moon, talking about the ghostly apparition of a woman who appears at night. The older Pinner, and the young Cully, two hit men, sit and wait in home of their victim, out for a night at the opera. For Pinner, "A job is a job", and waiting is part of what is required. Cully is impatient for something to happen. What begins as the story of two hit men waiting in the dark, turns into something else when the pair finds a room with a giant pentagram, a goat's head, and dead body.

This is also the kind of film I like to recommend to other filmmakers, to see what can be done with just a handful of actors, and a small digital camera. The commentary track is worth listening to, as producer Jennifer Handorf discusses some of the last minute changes done when the original location was lost, and production moved to the family home of her in-laws. Sean Hogan doesn't shy away from mentioning some of his sources for inspiration. Hogan doesn't attempt to pad things out, so that the film clocks in at about seventy minutes, taking in the lesson from Val Lewton that it is better to suggest horror with what you don't see, and let light and shadows do most of the work.

The DVD/Blu-ray set discs include interviews with Hogan, Handorf, Clarke and composer Justin Greaves, as well as a couple of music videos by Hogan.

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October 12, 2014

Coffee Break

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Andy Lau in Firestorm (Alan Yuen - 2013)