February 21, 2017

Cold War II

Cold-War-2-banner.jpg

Hon Zin 2
Longman Leung and Sunny Luk - 2016
Well Go USA Entertainment BD Region A

There the small hurdle of watching a sequel that was filmed four years after the first film, taking place about year after the first Cold War left off. Essentially, Joe Lee, a member of a gang of corrupt cops, is imprisoned by police commissioner Sean Lau. Lee is the son of a rival police commissioner, who was to gained political favor had the son's shenanigans not been exposed. In the meantime, Lau's family is threatened by an unknown person seeking Joe Lee's release.

Visually, much of Cold War ii is about Hong Kong as a tiny city-state where space is limited. There is an abstract quality with the very tall, steel and glass, skyscrapers where the more cerebral parts of the film take place, with discussions of power, politics and corruption. There are also frequent overhead shots of the various lines designating traffic lanes. At one point, the abstraction goes further when Leung and Luk cut between Aaron Kwok and Chow Yun-fat diagraming their theories. It is also telling that the three main action set-pieces take place in enclosed spaces - a subway station, a tunnel, and in a junk yard lined with stacks of abandoned cars.

The rivalry between Lau and former commissioner, M. B. Lee, father of Joe Lee, has escalated, with senior legislator caught in the middle. Aaron Kwok, as Lau, is the star with the bulk of action scenes, while Tony Leung Ka-fai as Lee, and Chow as the legislator Kan rely primarily on a dialogue hiding their respective agendas. Unsurprisingly, Tony Leung has been nominated by Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards, having set aside any hint that he was formerly a romantic lead, now with his closed cropped hair, playing a man with a very muddled moral code. It also struck me that Eddie Peng, playing Joe Lee, may be erroneously groomed to be an action hero as indicated in the past films he has starred in, when he seems much stronger here as antagonistic punk, and might be better served in more anti-hero roles.

Of the supplements, the most interesting is the one discussing the action set-pieces. The most elaborate of these is the scene in the tunnel, with a multiple car crash followed by Aaron Kwok shooting it out with a gang of bad guys. Unlike the scenes shots in a real subway station and junk yard, what takes place in the tunnel is a very convincing integration of green screen, practical and computer generated effects. What I also find interesting about Cold War II is that it seems to be part of a more pronounced trend of Hong Kong action movies supported by the deeper pockets of the mainland China film industry. Also, of no surprise especially to those who saw the first Cold War is that the ending of this new film opens the door for another sequel.

COLD WAR  2.jpg

February 19, 2017

Coffee Break

Hannah Arendt-00.06.40.jpg
Barbara Sukowa in Hannah Arendt (Margarethe von Trotta - 2012)

February 14, 2017

Shudder and the Daughters of Frankenstein

mujer_lobo 2.jpg
Mujer Lobo (Tamae Garateguy - 2013)

One thing leads to another, at least in my cinephilia. A couple of years ago, at the Denver Film Festival, they showed an Argentinian horror film, Mujer Lobo, also known as She Wolf. I was intrigued after seeing the trailer, because it was in black and white, looked a bit sexually transgressive, and was directed by a woman, Tamae Garateguy. There was no screener available for critics, and as I rely on public transportation, the date and time made seeing the film something I had to pass up. I kept hoping this film would get some kind of theatrical or home video release, but that didn't happen, or at least not in a way expected.

Not simply years, but decades of film viewing, and seeing various changes in how films are made and seen has left me with a skeptical eye, but I signed up for my first subscription based internet channel, Shudder. My skepticism comes from seeing specialized cable television channels veer far away from their original missions, remembering a time when I paid to see uncut French movies on Bravo, only to find cable turning into a vaster wasteland than even Newton Minow originally imagined. But, damn it, I really wanted to see Mujer Lobo, and if it meant subscribing to a new channel to add to my Roku, I figured I'd give it a shot. Even better, because of my Facebook connection with Women in Horror Month, I found out that instead of a weeklong free trial, I could get a free month.

My connection to Women in Horror comes from a Facebook conversation about a male film critic who was dismissive about female filmmakers making horror films, and his excuses of never finding time to see a single film. Anyways, I pointed out that the template for a good number of horror and science fiction films originated from a British teenage girl, back in the early 19th Century. I am admittedly not the most enlightened of guys, but its been fifty years since Roger Corman gave Stephanie Rothman her first shot at exploitation glory, and almost two hundred years since Mary Shelley's novel was published, so if someone within near shuffling distance of retirement age has no problem with women making horror films, why does this alleged film critic, certainly much younger than me, have a gynophobic reaction?

dearestsister.jpg
Dearest Sister (Mattie Do - 2016)

My other reason for diving into Shudder was the opportunity to see the second feature by Lao filmmaker Mattie Do. I first became aware of Ms. Do through the film critic known as Wise Kwai, who wrote for the English language Thai newspaper, The Nation. Through Wise Kwai, I found out about Do's Indiegogo campaign to raise money for her second film. What I saw on the website was very funny, about how funds were needed to buy more fake movie blood. I should mention, in the interests of full disclosure, etc., that I contributed to the production of the film known as Dearest Sister. This isn't the first time I've put my money where my mouth is - my first time at crowdfunding was for a modern day spaghetti western vampire movie. You might have heard of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. So I figure I'm two for two here, as Dearest Sister got more serious production money and played at several prestigious film festivals. And if you bother reading the credits at the end, you'll see my name, spelled correctly for westerners (Thank you, Mattie), and also rendered in Lao in some kind of close approximation.

As for the films themselves, I went on a Sunday binge. Mujer Lobo is visually stunning, though it took me a little while to figure out that there were three actresses playing the part of the title character. Though a bit more experimental visually, and in its narrative, Mujer Lobo made me think back to a couple of modern day vampire films from the mid 90s, Abel Ferrara's The Addiction and Michael Almereyda's Nadja. In this case, Buenos Aries replaces New York City, with Sami Buccella providing a scorching guitar score that is reminiscent of Glenn Branca or Sonic Youth at times. I guess there might be a few male viewers who'd feel threatened by Tamae Garateguy's predatory female in fuck me shoes.

mujer-lobo-1.jpg
Mujer Lobo (Tamae Garateguy - 2013)

Dearest Sister is about the young country cousin, Nok, who leaves her village for Vientiane, to help her visually impaired older cousin, Ana. There to provide money to send home to her parents, Nok is quickly distracted by the appearances of urban sophistication, and the hierarchies among the servant's in the home of Ana, and her western husband, Jakob. Ana sees ghosts, and after stumbling on deliberately misplaced furniture, utters three numbers which Nok discovers will lead her to win the lottery a few times. The paranormal aspects take a back seat to a narrative that is mostly interested in class distinctions, with a side glance at race. The film is distinguished by the shots from Ana's point of view, out of focus, and sometimes visually abstract.

Shudder has some of its films in collections, the newest, timed for Women in Horror Month, titled "A Woman's Touch". It was through browsing the collection that I discovered that Facebook friend, Briony Kidd, has a short film, Room at the Top of the Stairs, from 2010. The best synopsis is from Hobart, Tasmania, Ms. Kidd's home. Again, there's a nice payoff in reading the end credits and discovering that Briony Kidd's directing mentor was a filmmaker who would get worldwide recognition a few years later with what is arguably the most acclaimed horror film from Australia, The Babadook.

Top of the Stairs.jpg
Room at the Top of the Stairs (Briony Kidd - 2010)

February 12, 2017

Coffee Break

PASSION.jpg
Noomi Rapace in Passion (Brian De Palma - 2012)

February 07, 2017

Bleak Street

BLEAK_STREET 1.jpg

La calle de la amargura
Arturo Ripstein - 2015
Kino Lorber Region 1 DVD

Bleak Street may not be the best film for those unfamiliar with the work of Arturo Ripstein. For those who have seen The Place without Limits or Castle of Purity, Ripstein's newest film is a visit to familiar territory. What begins as a series of seemingly unrelated vignettes linked by a few crumbling blocks within Mexico City, evolves into a story about the fatal encounter between two twin brothers and two aging prostitutes. The brothers are both midget wrestlers, and amazingly, the film is inspired by a true incident. The title more literally translates as "The street of bitterness".

Ripstein's films are often about characters and their families who live in the margins of society. What took me a while to absorb is that with the wrestlers, prostitutes, assorted riffraff and family members filmed from a distance in medium or full shots, Ripstein's real interest was in the neighborhood. Ripstein has talked about how his early films were shot in black and white, and so it is here, almost fifty years since he began his career. This is a chiaroscuro dream of sorts, with limited flashes of light, and lots of deep blacks and shadows. Several shots are through bars, lattices and ornamental metal work. Rooms and streets are virtually barren. The exterior shots were filmed three blocks away from where the real life brothers lived.

BLEAK_STREET 2.jpg

The brothers live in figurative shadows as "mascots" to two wrestlers, sharing the pseudonyms of Death and AK-47, but with their size and status emphasized with the added appellation of Little. One of the prostitutes lives with her elderly mother, physically incapable, and trotted out in a wheel chair with a small, empty can to beg for a few pesos. The prostitutes are rapidly losing their business to younger girls, with the mother indicating their grim, and seemingly inevitable future. Love and money are never too far apart, and there is never quite enough of either.

Ripstein began his career as an assistant to Luis Bunuel on The Exterminating Angel, starring Sivia Pinal. There could well be a gesture of taking that career full circle with the casting of Pinal's daughter, Sylvia Pasquel, as one of the two prostitutes who have that fatal date with the twin brothers. Ripstein's final word, or last laugh, in a narrative devoid of a music track, is one of a perverse love of his hometown, with a 65 year old song performed by Spaniard Luis Mariano, in French, with lyrics, "Mexico City, Mexico City ...
Under your singing sun,
Time seems too short
To taste the happiness of every day
Mexico City, Mexico City ...
Your women are burning
And you will always be
The Paradise of Hearts."

More on two early films by Arturo Ripstein from Kimberly Lindbergs at FilmStruck.

BLEAK_STREET 3.jpg

February 05, 2017

Coffee Break

SLMIDVD.jpg
Lizabeth Scott in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Lewis Milestone - 1946)

February 01, 2017

Two Nights with Coffin Joe

AMITYS 1.jpg

At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul / A Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma
Jose Mojica Marins - 1964

This Night 1.jpg

This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse / Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadaver
Jose Mojica Marins - 1967
Synapse Films Region 1 DVD

Halloween comes a bit early this year with the release of the first two Coffin Joe films on new DVDs with a bunch of extras. I'm something of a latecomer here, having read about the films, but not seeing them until now. At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul is notable for being Brazil's first horror film, made around the same time as Brazilian filmmakers of about the same age were making the first wave of films that were part of the Cinema Novo movement. In one of the supplements, Mojica discusses showing is tiny studio set to Glauber Rocha, probably the most famous of the Cinema Nova filmmakers. Glenn Kenny shares anecdotes about that connection. It's not just a matter of genre, but in creation of a character that is specifically Brazilian, with Mojica taking on church and state, both off and on-screen.

Mojica wrote the first film in response to a nightmare in which he was dragged by a faceless being to see his tombstone. The character, known in Portuguese as Ze do Caixao, is an undertaker, always seeking the "perfect" woman to bear his son. Only a few are attracted to this bearded man in black, with the cape and top hat. Those who reject Coffin Joe, or get hysterical discovering themselves sharing a bed with a handful of big-ass spiders are dispatched in a variety of brutal ways. Men who attempt to stand up to Coffin Joe, or worse, attempt to kill him, lose fingers with a deftly placed broken bottle, or Joe's long nailed fingers stuck in their eyes.

AMITYS 2.jpg

I would guess that Mojica had seen one or two films from William Castle, as Midnight opens with a cackling witch warning viewers to leave the theater or get ready to be shocked. Coffin Joe lives in open rebellion of all religions, beliefs, and mores, starting with a feast of lamb eaten on Good Friday. The shot of Joe chewing on a leg, while a procession led by a priest is seen through a window in the back, is Mojica's opening shot that nothing is sacred, an image that has brought comparisons to Luis Bunuel. The film is mostly a triumph against a very austere budget, with one special effect achieved by gluing glitter onto the negative.

The popular appeal of the first film enabled production of the second Coffin Joe film. Seemingly left for dead, shocked at the sight of his victims putrefying bodies in their respective coffins, the second film takes up at the moment the first film ends. Eyes bulging out of their sockets, Joe is hospitalized, with bandages on his face, recovering completely. Going to a small town to serve as undertaker, the mission to find the perfect woman continues. Rescuing a young boy from getting hit by a motorcyclist, Joe lets us know that he loves children. It's the adults they grow up to be that he hates. Aiding Joe is his hunchbacked servant, Bruno. Bruno has a face that appears to have had a close encounter with a cheese grater.

this night 2.jpg

Not only does this second film have better production values, but Mojica pushes the envelop with both the sex and horror. Six would-be fiancees spend the night at Joe's wearing panties and diaphanous nighties, appropriate for a night interrupted by the nocturnal visit of dozens of spiders, each the size of a man'm fist. While the film was made in 1967, the town and its people could easily be from ten or twenty years earlier. And yet, the color sequence, when Coffin Joe goes to hell can rightly be called psychedelic in its use of color. That sequence is an elaboration of Mojica's inspirational dream. Human statues, a parade of crawling sinners, body parts sticking out of walls, and a riot of lurid colors, horrifying Joe, and delighting the viewer.

Both DVDs contain interviews with Mojica discussing the making of his films. Additionally, Midnight includes an excerpt from an earlier film, Reino Sangrento from 1952, quasi-Arabian Nights historical fantasy, shot in 16mm. The title translates as "Bloody Kingdom". This Night includes the short documentary, The Universe of Mojica Marins, with glimpses of Mojica's other films.

this night 3.jpg