August 28, 2014

Baby Blues

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Po-Chih Leong - 2013
Well Go USA Entertainment Region ! DVD

He doesn't talk, or stalk his victims with any tools for murder, but the malevolent doll in Baby Blues will probably remind a few viewers of Chucky, especially in the earlier films from the Child's Play series. This is a Hong Kong film, in Cantonese, made primarily for a local audience, and as horror films go, fairly mild. As a film from the director best known for The Wisdom of Crocodiles, Baby Blues is a disappointment.

An affluent young couple moves to a huge, modern house. The previous residents have left a doll that looks like a pasty faced Prince Valiant, that has somehow captured the heart of the wife. Hao is a staff songwriter for a record company, while his wife, Tian, is an obsessive blogger. Pressured to come up with a big hit, and a new direction for the company's popular singer, Bobo, Hao gets the idea to write songs about death, inspired by legend of "Gloomy Sunday. Hao's attempts at song writing get an unexpected hand, actually a couple of small feet, when the doll jumps on the keyboard of Hao's piano. As the film continues, it becomes apparent that the doll has more on its mind than writing a song that seems to coincidentally make the listener vomit or find themselves in a life threatening situation.

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Even worse, Tian becomes pregnant with twin boys. One of the infants dies after birth. Tian names the doll Jimmy, the name of the dead child, and becomes obsessed with treating the doll as a member of the family. Post-partum depression becomes Post-partum obsession. Later, Hao learns that previous victims of the house were two sets of twins.

The film was originally presented in 3D. The record company president blows perfect smoke rings at the audience while smoking a cigar. The doll frequently points an accusing finger towards the audience. The only other time that the 3D might have made a difference when a car spins out of control, briefly flying, before crashing in a nose-dive.

A bigger mystery might be about the making of this film. Calvin Poon, a filmmaker of some acclaim, is credited for a first draft of the screenplay. I've been unable to find anything in English concerning Poon's work on this film, although I suspect that Baby Blues was compromised in various ways primarily to pass mainland Chinese censors. Inadvertently, Baby Blues reminds me why I have a possibly irrational love of Thai horror movies. What I love about horror movies from Thailand is that no matter how utterly nutty, bizarre or downright stupid the given premise or the characters, Thai filmmakers usually run straight ahead without fear of such concepts as logical plotting or good taste. When a horror movie has neither smarts, tension, nor any frightening moments, you have to wonder what's scaring the filmmakers?

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August 26, 2014

Ghost Bird

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Scott Crocker - 2010
Matson Films / Kino Lorber Region 1 DVD

A bird thought to be extinct, the ivory-billed woodpecker, is thought to be seen in Eastern Arkansas, in 2004. The discovery brings in ornithologists, reporters, and bird lovers to the small, depressed town of Brinkley. For a very short while, Brinkley is a boom town with gift shops and a couple of new restaurants. There are questions about whether the observed bird was in fact the bird reportedly last seen decades ago. Kind of like the fictional bird, The Maltese Falcon, the ivory-billed woodpecker becomes the stuff that dreams are made of.

Whether that particular woodpecker was seen becomes less important than how the alleged discovery becomes follows a classic trajectory of the fleeting nature of any kind of celebrity, or as the old adage goes, putting one's eggs in one basket. Even without the brief fame from the woodpecker sighting, the story of Brinkley is one of a small community that has its existence based on transitory industries. The forest that once was home for eight species of woodpeckers was cut down by a lumber mill that eventually closed down when there was no more forest. The garment factory that made clothing for Wal-Mart closed when Wal-Mart chose to have their manufacturing done for less money in Third World countries. The forest now is a vast soybean farm. And the nearby Wal-Mart store, the creation of Arkansas native Sam Walton, has devastated Brinkley's small downtown.

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By focusing on Brinkley and the elusive woodpecker, Scott Crocker also provides a better understanding on how changes in the environment, frequently brought about by commercial interests, have caused the extinction of over one hundred species of North American birds. There is also the mind-boggling discussion of proposals to spend millions of dollars to save the ivory-billed woodpecker, some of which is discovered to be at the expense of documented rare birds.

For all of the environmental alarms, this documentary is not without humor. It's easy to see the story of Brinkley's brief brush with fame, and some of the town's more colorful residents, being the source of a comedy by Preston Sturges. That Harvard University has rooms with drawers and drawers of hundreds of stuffed birds almost begs for a reunited Monty Python "dead parrot" sketch.

There is also the clash of egos of the various academics and experts regarding what was seen by various bird watchers. That the woodpecker was thought to be seen in the bayou country for Arkansas makes it a perfect place for a mystery.

August 24, 2014

Coffee Break

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Cowboy (Delmer Daves - 1958)

August 22, 2014

Triad

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Jat jik
Daniel Chan - 2012
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

I would think it deliberate that the main narrative in Triad begins in 1997. Aside from being the year of the handover of Hong Kong from Great Britain to mainland China, the film can be seen as a reclamation of sorts of the kind of genre cinema that belonged distinctly to Hong Kong. Triad is a film specifically about Hong Kong, made primarily for a Hong Kong audience, and in Cantonese, as opposed to the Mandarin language productions made to appeal to mainland audiences and the Chinese diaspora.

Nothing here will come as anything new to those who have seen the now classic, or even not-so classic Hong Kong gangster films from John Woo, Tsui Hark, Johnnie To and a host of others. What distinguishes Triad is that it does place extra emphasis on the organized aspect of organized crime. Most of the crime is in the beatings and killings between gang members, and it is less important that respect for position and a sometimes complex structure of relationships. Blood oaths are made where the gang relationships take precedence over everything else. Gender is even set aside in the case of a female gang leader, given both honorifics of Big Sister and Uncle.

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The basic setup of three young friends who join the triads is familiar enough. The smart one, university educated William, comes to the aid of his mother, attacked by a self-styled gang operating a protection racket. The mother's extremely modest fruit stall hardly looks like it's worth the effort of extorting more than pocket money. William is assisted by his two best friends, but it is local gangster, Patrick, who puts an end to the street brawl. William vows to join Patrick's organization when he graduates, ultimately climbing the ranks with a combination of street smarts and book smarts.

It's the two main supporting players who are of the most interest here. Both are older, about the same age, and more interested in staying behind the scenes. Patrick, who acts as mentor to the the three friends, chooses to dress casually most of the time, and conduct business in the fruit market section of Hong Kong, away from the high rises and the expensive clubs and shops. Irene is something of a Lady Macbeth, who has men, especially her husband, act as her proxy for the physical violence meted out to various enemies. The two deaths near the end of the film might even strike some viewers as being Shakespearean with the bloody stabbings that take place.

A reference that might be lost on stateside viewers is when one of the characters mentions that he felt like he was in a "Teddyboy" movie. While the British roots can not be denied, what is actually referred to here is the graphic novel that inspired the Young and Dangerous film series. The visual aspects of Triad often appear inspired by the Hong Kong manga, and it is probably what has led Daniel Chan to have followed up this film with Young and Dangerous:Reloaded, renewing the Hong Kong gangster movie for a younger audience.

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August 20, 2014

Worm

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Doug Mallette - 2013
Synapse Films Region 0 DVD

Talk about support for independent filmmaking, Synapse Films has come through in a big way. Filmed in "Middle Tennessee" by a gang from Watkins College in Nashville, for a stated budget of almost $10,000, Worm is about as independent as a film can be. At the very least, this film may prove encouraging to those who think a degree from one of the better known universities and / or a budget of at least six figures, if not seven, is required for that first step in cinematic glory.

The film takes place in an unspecified near future where people apparently just completely go blank when they sleep. A new product allows people to dream, the kind that offer refreshing sleep, in the form of worms that are offered in jars with daily delivery. The worm are placed in the ear, and induce an immediate, dream filled sleep. And yeah, the premise is creepy, and you can guess that nothing good is going to come out of having a live worm, actually bunches of them, trolling around in your noggin.

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Socially inept Charles, the son of the apartment maintenance guy, tries to ingratiate himself with one of the residents, Reed. Trying to get at Reed's stash of worms under the pretense of fixing a light, Charles meets June, Reed's girlfriend. Not having much money, Charles gets the lower priced dream worms which he switches with Reed's higher priced variety. Charles also starts having dreams of being with June, with disastrous consequences in real life.

One might consider Worm something of a parable about the various "miracle cures" that turn out to have unforeseen, and deadly consequences. I don't know if this was intentional, but the basic premise of Worm reminded me of David Cronenberg's Shivers. The big difference is that Mallette's worms are suppose to be benign, so much so, that there is a cartoon mascot for the company, Fantasites, as well as children's masks and a stuffed Fantasites worm doll.

The DVD comes with a commentary track by Mallette with three members of the production team. One of the more interesting aspects is to know that while the basic story structure was planned out, the dialogue was improvised by the cast. For novice filmmakers, the commentary may prove useful in having an idea of what to watch for when making a film on an extremely limited budget, especially something like Worm that makes use of a few special effects. In some instances, the limited funding is a hindrance, as shown by a dependance on available light. The DVD also includes the original short film that inspired the feature.

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August 18, 2014

When I Saw You

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Lamma shoftak
Annemarie Jacir - 2012
Kino Lorber Region 1 DVD

The first image in Annemarie Jacir's film is a pair of roller skates worn by a young boy. A title announces that the film takes place in Jordan, 1967. On the soundtrack is Arabic rock music. That opening scene belies what is to follow, although those with some knowledge of history should pick up on the clues immediately.

The young man, Tarek, lives in a refugee camp in Jordan with his mother. They are among the Palestinians displaced by the Six Day War. The population increases seemingly with another truckload of passengers. Tarek gazes at each truck with the hope that his father will be among those new residents, or that someone will at least have news of this father. While Tarek is illiterate, and barred from school for distracting the other students, he proves his ability with numbers, figuring out large sums in his head. For a moment there is the dread that what is about to come is a Palestinian variation of Rain Man.

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That Jacir indirectly addresses the political context of When I Saw You is ripe for interpretation. Tarek expresses his longing to return home to his mother. The reasons for why the two live in a camp in what is later revealed to be a more remote part of Jordan are never explicitly stated. Seeing Yasser Arafat on television discussing the Palestinian fedayeen, Arafat's paramilitary group, Tarek only understands that these are people returning to the Palestinian territories. Wandering on his own to return home, Tarek is discovered by a man he recognizes from the village, and is taken to a fedayeen boot camp. It is later at the camp that a news report mentions an attack by the Israeli military of the refugee camp.

There may be other reasons why Jacir chose indirect historical references for her film. In the greater scheme of things, Jacir's story might be understood as that of Tarek seeking out a place where he belongs. A perpetual outsider even in the refugee camp, Tarek seems to find a temporary home with the fedayeen, where his ability with numbers is noticed by the Mao enamored military leader. While home is a specific place for Tarek, Jacsir also suggests that home is an abstract ideal.

That the DVD is released at this time makes watching When I Saw You more difficult. For that matter, it's impossible for me to be entirely objective regarding the tangled history of Palestine and Israel, and that whole, messy, conflicted region. On the other hand, I'm not one to run away from a film or filmmaker that might want to challenge my point of view, because I like the idea of writing about independent filmmakers. And I hope to see Jacir's debut film, Salt of this Sea.

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August 17, 2014

Coffee Break

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Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher (Jake Kasdan - 2011)