Tuesday 28 November 2017

Why Haven't You Seen...? Assassination (2015)

What’s It All About?
There’s a LOT of plot here, but essentially Assassination is a fact based action drama full of twists about the Korean resistance to Japanese occupation. A team of resistance fighters (Gianna Jun, Cho Jin-Woong and Choi Duk-Moon) is sent to assassinate a high ranking Japanese general and a Korean aristocrat who has thrown his lot in with the occupying forces. What the team don’t know is that their handler Yeom Seok-jin (Lee Jung-jae) is also a Japanese spy and has sent a hired gun named Hawaii Pistol (Ha Jung-woo) and his partner (Oh Dal-su) after them.

Why Haven’t You Seen It?
Like so many foreign language films, Assassination has, at least thus far, entirely missed out on a UK release (despite the fact it seems an ideal fit for several distributors). This is just another case of, unless you’re already a fan of the cast and on the lookout for their next project, a movie that can all too easily slip through the cracks.

Why Should You See It?
As I’ve mentioned before, I often find myself despairing the state of action cinema or rather of mainstream US and other English language action cinema. Action filmmaking is a very particular skill and, for my money, there aren’t many people working who have mastered it. Assassination shows that Choi Dong-hoon has.

Choi takes his time setting the pieces here, but he weaves the complex web of double and triple crossings through a series of action setpieces that begin with a high energy prologue, set in 1911, in which Yeom Seok-jin attempts to assassinate the politician who, 22 years later, he’ll be covertly protecting. As well as being an exceptional sequence that establishes the ruthlessness of the collaborator Kim Goo (Kim Hong-fa) and the deadly conviction and will to survive of Yeom Seok-jin, it demonstrates that Choi has a firm grip on the geography and the pacing of his action. You’re confident, minutes in, that if you’re ever lost in an action sequence in this film it will be because Choi wants you to be disoriented for a moment, not because his shooting or cutting are shoddy.

The cast are excellent all round. My memory of Gianna Jun (or Jun Ji-hyun) is as the lead in the rather grating, but very well liked, My Sassy Girl. She buries that memory here, with a no nonsense turn as resistance sniper An Ok-yun. Ok-yun is designated as the leader of the group of assassins and Jun gives her a steely resolve, but also lets us see the emotion under that exterior, especially when Ok-yun learns a key twist, setting up the film’s third act for a confrontation that has suddenly become more personal. Jun is great in these scenes as sadness and regret give Ok-yun even more drive. Cho Jin-Woong and Choi Duk-Moon provide some comic relief, which lends poignancy to Cho’s role in the film’s massive climactic shootout.

The standout performance comes from Lee Jung-jae. The physicality of it is interesting, every move seems purposeful and calculated, as if Yeom Seok-jin considers everything, even down to the way he walks into a room. It’s striking in the contrasts of his work, for instance, the way he moves furtively to meet Hawaii Pistol for the first time but even putting a coat on after he’s promoted towards the end of the film feels performative. Lee lets us read Yeom’s every calculation, we can almost he the gears turn as he tries to find a way to position every person, every situation, to his advantage and the quick way that he re-calibrates, he does this right up to the film’s coda, and it’s this aspect that makes a scene that could otherwise be dealt with as a caption compelling.

Ha Jung-woo and Oh Dal-su have fun as Hawaii Pistol and his older, more mercenary, partner Young-gam, but they give the two a convincing connection and you get a sense of the adventures they’ve had before, as well as the respect between them, from that. The connection between Hawaii Pistol and An Ok-yun, by comparison, feels a little perfunctory.

For all the historical detail (and the production design is excellent) and the refreshing depth of the characters and their motivations, this is primarily an action film, and it succeeds brilliantly in those sequences. Choi Dong-hoon keeps the film moving at a fair pace for the entire near 140 minute running time, never letting the pace flag for too long without an incidental beat of action (an especially good one comes when An has to leave her platoon, but won’t do so before taking out the machine gunners about to launch a surprise attack on them). There are also several large scale action sequences, which fall one in each of the film’s three acts. The wedding shootout where the film climaxes is outstanding, with Choi keeping track of a wide array of characters who are sometimes fighting their own individual battles, before drawing things together several times and revelling in the chaos of the moment.
The standout action scene, however, comes mid-film with the first attempted assassination, which takes place at a petrol station. Things go awry and an incredible chase ensues, which ends up in a moment that visually quotes Raiders of the Lost Ark, if you can imagine the truck sequence with Indy handcuffed to Marion. It is an awesome sequence, mobile and breathlessly exciting sadly, but only slightly, marred by some distractingly ropey CGI fire.

I suspect that Korean audiences and those who are more au fait with Korean history than I am will find Assassination easier to follow, and get the most from its historical detail. For me it was simply a great entertainment with a welcome amount of character depth and some of the best action sequences I’ve seen in ages.

How Can You See It?
As I noted earlier, there is no UK release to date. However, the film is available on (bare bones) US blu ray. Unfortunately the Spanish Region B blu ray appears only to be subtitled in Spanish. 

Thursday 23 November 2017

Brakes By Mercedes Grower

Reviewed By Andy Zachariason

Actor-writer-director Mercedes Grower has countered Hollywood’s holiday rom-com films with a nifty little improv film set in London. It has the pieces of a romance film told through multiple relationships but it’s more daringly put together and created than the traditional romance or comedy you might see at your big theater chain.

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Why Haven't You Seen...? Mirror Mirror (1990)

What’s It All About?
17 year old Megan (Rainbow Harvest) and her mother (Karen Black) move into a new house, 3 months after Megan’s father has passed away. Megan takes a liking to an old mirror that has been left in her room, so they buy it. One night Megan wishes, while looking at her mirror, that her father would come back, that night she has a dream about him. Soon she comes to realise that asking for things in her mirror has a tendency to make those wishes come true, and she uses this newlyfound power to become more popular and to take revenge on the people who victimised her and her only friend at school (Kristin Dattilo).

Why Haven’t You Seen It?
Mirror Mirror is one of many thousands of films that I can understand getting lost. It’s a teen horror movie from the wilderness years between the boom of the 80s and the genre’s mid 90’s revival. A low budget and lack of big names - at least beyond Karen Black and the always welcome William Sanderson - probably didn’t help its position among a raft of other choices on video rental shelves.

Why Should You See It?
Rainbow Harvest. That’s her real name, and that’s almost as much as I know about her. She has only 11 credits and 3 feature films to her name and I’ve only seen one of the others, her debut, the wonderful Old Enough, a great teen movie from 1984 that we’ll definitely get to in this series. Since making a TV movie called Pink Lightning in 1991 she has, in effect, dropped off the face of the planet. It’s fair to say that’s a pity, because Harvest definitely had something about her.

As Megan, Rainbow Harvest definitely fits the mould of the high school outsider. With her jet black hair, blonde undercut, heavy black eyeliner and especially individual taste in hats, Harvest is an arresting sight, but beyond the look you buy Megan as a shy girl who both craves to have more friends and uses her outsider status to push them away and protect herself. The look shifts during the film - from Bettlejuice Winona to Heathers Winona - but Harvest is always an intriguing presence.

The film itself draws influence from the likes of the Amityville series (I’m sure there’s one about a haunted lamp. Hell, there’s probably one about a haunted mirror) in its high school sequences it looks to Heathers as well as Carrie (which gets a nod in the dialogue) and, to some degree, anticipates The Craft. The bullying that Megan goes through is fairly standard stuff, and few of the characters, even Megan herself, develop that much depth, but as the mirror’s powers become clear Harvest is great when Megan, rather than be shocked or frightened by what she can now do, instead embraces it and uses it to enact a brutal revenge on popular girl Charlene (Charlie Spradling) for what are ultimately rather small slights against Nikki (Kristin Dattilo), the only girl who has even tried to be Megan’s friend. 

This and other sequences involving the mirror (especially one where Megan uses it to make sure that if she can’t have the popular guy in school, nobody can), are solidly shot by director Marina Sargenti and reasonably scary, particularly as Megan's powers become more extreme, slipping out of her control. The film also scores points for hitting on a genuinely haunting ending.

There is fun to be had with a supporting cast full of cult names. Karen Black is restrained, but good value, as Megan’s mother and William Sanderson, even in a benign role as Black’s new suitor, still has a creepy vibe to him that underlines Megan’s discomfort with her mother dating again so soon after her father’s passing. There are also small parts for Stephen 'Ned Ryerson' Tobolowsky and Lily Munster herself, Yvonne DeCarlo. Like her star, director Marina Sargenti did little work after this film, though her immediate follow up, a TV movie called Child of Darkness, Child of Light, sounds interesting. She hasn't directed since an episode of Xena, 20 years ago.

Mirror Mirror isn’t a great lost film, but it’s never less than fun to watch and at its centre there is Rainbow Harvest. The 90s appear to have decided that we only needed one Winona Ryder which, much though I love her, I question. Harvest clearly had talent and, despite their physical resemblance, a presence that was offbeat and individual even next to Ryder’s. In the two films I’ve seen her in, she steals just about every moment she’s in just through that presence and I really wish there were more for us to see. I’d recommend Mirror Mirror just for her, but also as an entertaining, if not wildly original, teen horror movie in its own right

How Can You See It?
To my surprise, there is a UK DVD. It’s a poor quality transfer from Hollywood DVD, but at least it’s out there. It’s 22p on Amazon UK. In the US the news is even better: both Mirror Mirror and Old Enough are available on Amazon Video for free streaming.

Suburbicon By George Clooney

Reviewed By Linda Marric

Despite knowing exactly what its makers are getting at, it is hard for anyone to regard Suburbicon as anything else but deeply flawed. Directed by George Clooney from a Joel and Ethan Coen screenplay, the film which is set in the 1950s and deals with issues relating to preconceived notions in white America, attempts to be daring in more ways that you can imagine, but ultimately fails to fully convince even those of us who were rooting for it from the start.

Tuesday 14 November 2017

Why Haven't You Seen...? Anita (1973)

What’s It All About?
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A nymphomaniac (in this case Anita, played by Christina Lindberg), finding herself isolated, takes shelter at the home of Erik, a psychiatry student played by Stellan Skarsgård. In flashback, she tells him about her many sexual encounters and how her compulsive sex drive has never made her happy. He, of course, falls in love as he’s trying to treat her.

Why Haven’t You Seen It?
Vintage Swedish sexploitation is, it’s fair to say, something of a niche interest. I discovered this film (and some others that we may cover in the future) because of Christina Lindberg, who I discovered in the brilliant and hugely influential Thriller: A Cruel Picture. Unless you’re an obsessive fan of exploitation cinema, Lindberg or Skarsgård I’d be surprised if Anita has ever come on your radar.

Why Should You See It?
Anita is an unusual exploitation film. It’s full of the basic ingredients you’d expect, chiefly the stunningly beautiful lead actress, the copious nudity and the one lesbian scene, thrown in purely for the enjoyment of the male audience. What sets Anita apart is tone. This is both a more serious and a more downbeat film than much seventies sexploitation (contrast it, for instance, with the lightness of Felicity). It’s not pretending to be anything other than sexploitation, but writer/director Torgny Wickman’s screenplay does at least aspire to offer some psychological depth to Anita and her compulsions, and the writing and visuals both have a certain grimy realism that sets the film apart.

Christina Lindberg is a good reason to watch just about anything. She is impossibly beautiful; a delicate face with huge eyes. She's well cast here, given her capacity to look like a confident, seductive woman one minute and an innocent who desperately needs protecting the next. A year after her brilliant mute performance in Thriller, she again excels at putting across what her character is going through purely with her face and body. One striking moment sees Anita pick up a man as he gets off a train at the local station. She takes him to an apartment and they have sex. Wickman portrays their encounter quite explicitly, but this isn’t a titillating scene as, in common with many of the other sex scenes, Lindberg’s body language here expresses need rather than desire, something only underlined when, after the brief sex is over, she turns over and cries. 

None of this is to say that Lindberg isn’t also very good in her dialogue scenes, indeed she holds her own with a young Stellan Skarsgård, who seems to bring his customary dedication to the part of Erik, you get the sense that he saw this was a richer piece of character writing than was typical in the genre and he plays Erik’s earnest dedication to helping Anita well, while also letting us see the desire that lies behind it. This is perhaps the best point to note the similarities to Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. Indeed if the ending were different it would be easy to suggest that Erik might actually be a young version of that film’s Seligman. At the very least one has to wonder whether Skarsgård reflected on this film, and his performance in it, before making Nymphomaniac. The similarities in plot and tone are certainly too marked to imagine that Von Trier wasn’t influenced by Anita and there’s a mischievous twist to the casting of Skarsgård if that’s the case.

The film takes a genuine interest in the psychology both of Anita’s nymphomania (though it defines it pretty broadly, as a reaction against the repressive parents who favour her younger sister, or as a quest for the orgasm she’s never had) and of the way that people react to her. The film definitely regards Anita as someone with an illness, but the people around her don’t and the script seems to posit that the abuse she gets, both verbal and, on occasion, physical, only strengthens her compulsion. There are definitely times at which Wickman is using this as a framework on which to hang the film’s sex and nudity, but he does at least have some serious intent, and it’s matched by Lindberg and Skarsgård's work.

For all its nudity (and there may be as much in 90 minutes here as there is in the 4 hours of Nymphomaniac), Anita is seldom conventionally exploitative. This, along with the lack of reaction from the other people in the room, is probably why Anita’s impromptu striptease at a party given by her parents feels so out of place in the film. The reactions are so muted that it almost seems like a fantasy, a story she’s made up for Erik. That’s emphasised, perhaps accidentally, by the tinny sound of the scenes at home. There may be a technical reason for this, and for why these scenes seem dubbed when the rest of the film is obviously using live sound, but it does give an edge of surrealism that could lead you to question how honest Anita is being about her relationship with her parents.

Visually, Torgny Wickman gives the film a gritty feel. Everything has a grimy look to it, from the shared student apartment Erik lives in to the roadside tent that Anita has a couple of her sexual encounters in. Only the scenes in Anita’s parents home feel clean and put together, another thing that sets them at a slight remove from the rest of the film.

Overall, Anita (best known under the title Anita: Swedish Nymphet, though the on screen title is Anita: The Story of a 17 Year Old Nymphomaniac), is a cut above for sexploitation. If you’re just in it for the sex and nudity then Christina Lindberg made lighter films that are probably more up your street (and also well worth watching), but here we get to see her deliver a strong performance in a film that at least aspires to have ideas and to be taken seriously. 

How Can You See It?
The UK release is in the Swedish Erotica boxset, which is a highly recommended set of six films, including two others with Christina Lindberg. Unfortunately the set is now out of print. The print is 4:3 and battered, but there’s something about the streaks and marks on the film that make it feel all the more authentic. I wouldn’t say no to a proper Blu Ray upgrade though, the film deserves it. There does seem to be an (out of print) Region 1 release on Amazon as well, but it doesn't look very official.

Tuesday 7 November 2017

Why Haven't You Seen...? Mr Vampire (1985)

What's it all about?
A hybrid of comedy, horror and martial arts, this franchise spawning Hong Kong classic is about a Taoist priest (Lam Ching Ying as Master Kau) and his two rather inept assistants Man-choi and Chau-sang (Ricky Hui and Chin Siu-ho) and their attempts to help contain and, if required, fight the undead. When they are asked by Mr Yam (Ha Huang) to arrange the re-burial of his father they discover that the body has become a vampire and that they must protect Mr Yam's 18 year old daughter Ting (Moon Lee).

Why haven't you seen it?
When talking to movie fans I find that they go one of two ways on martial arts cinema, either they love it and immerse themselves in the genre or they've seen Enter The Dragon and some of Jackie Chan's US films. Mr Vampire is a film I suspect won't have crossed over to that second group, but it should and could be an interesting gateway drug for them.

Why should you see it?
It's a comedy martial arts movie with hopping vampires. So, I'm done with this section, right?

In all seriousness, the challenge with any genre hybrid is getting the balance of elements right and this is one area in which Mr Vampire excels. Not only does it manage to balance the levels of action, comedy and horror but it combines them well in many of its setpieces. The opening is a good example of this. As well as establishing a creepy mood with its slowly but inexorably hopping vampires it shows us the kind of graceful slapstick kung fu that we'll be seeing throughout the film and introduces the different styles of the cast. It also gives us some laughs thanks to Chau-sang appearing dressed up as a vampire to scare Man-choi and gracefully introduces many of the elements of Taoism that will come into play during the film, without a massive exposition dump.

The directorial style of Ricky Lau shifts a little depending on what kind of scene he's doing. The martial arts scenes are clearly influenced by the kung fu comedy of producer Sammo Hung and by his opera brother Jackie Chan, but when the storyline of Chau-sang falling for a ghostly woman (Wong Siu-fung) the smoke filled and otherworldly atmosphere strikes closer to something like John Carpenter's The Fog, at least until the wire work begins.

Comedy can be very geographically specific and, with much of this film tied up with intricacies of Taoist belief that won't be familiar to most Western audiences you might expect that to be an issue, but slapstick needs little translation and, while it might be a bit broad for some tastes, the comedy translates. The martial arts aren't the most intricate in Hong Kong cinema history, but Chin Siu-ho's choreography is interesting for the way it mostly seeks to block or deflect rather than to attack (the priests often have to protect the undead as much as they do the living). One of the more ingenious moments comes from a bit of Chinese vampire lore, that they detect you by your breathing, so Man-choi and Ting, trapped in a wardrobe, use a bamboo pole to redirect their breath.

Lam Ching-ying is for me one of the great unsung kung fu movie stars; a charismatic and versatile actor as well as an incredibly gifted martial artist. He became iconic as Master Kau, reprising the role many times before his premature death, 20 years ago tomorrow. You can see why, it's an assured performance, the whole thing summed up in the tidy movements that his fighting style consists of, even when he's on the losing end of the battle. Lam radiates confidence, knowledge and authority, but he's also able to play the comedy of his frequent irritation with his hapless assistants in a way that feels in keeping with the character. Ricky Hui and Chin Siu-ho start out with essentially the same role; comic relief, but it's clear that the more classically handsome Chin is going to be the one who gets to expand from that. It's the right choice, the comedy is broad, but Hui plays up to it and gets laughs while Chin gets to show the prowess that allowed him to choreograph this and many other films. 

It's also worth mentioning, though you don't see his face, Yuen Wah, famed as the bad guy with the staccato kung fu style in Dragons Forever and Eastern Condor, plays the main vampire. The other notable name, making her debut here, is Moon Lee. In this role Lee is cast as a demure beauty for Hui and Chin to fall for – something she does essentially effortlessly – but she would later carve out her own niche as a star in many of Hong Kong's 'girls with guns' action movies. It's interesting to see her in a different context here.

Mr Vampire is an ideal introduction to the wider world of kung fu cinema. It deliberately makes clear the more esoteric cultural references and it combines generic tropes to entertaining effect, all of it anchored by an underrated actor in his defining role. I urge you to give it a go.

How can you see it?
There is a US DVD, but the definitive edition is the UK DVD by Hong Kong Legends (which, happily, was one of the few titles re-released by Cine Asia). The picture quality is about as good as you could hope for, given the age of the film and the transfer, but it's the exceptional commentary by Bey Logan that makes it the only version worth owning.

Wednesday 1 November 2017

78/52 By Alexandre O. Philippe

Reviewed By Andy Zachariason

In the current cultural climate of fandom, clickbait, and fan theories it feels like genuine film criticism and worthwhile analysis is being drowned out. Obsessions over plot and character theories and “what’s going to happen in the sequel?” feel misplaced and stray away from appreciation of art. The new documentary 78/52 is an hour and a half analysis and ode to the famous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal film, Psycho. The 78 and 52 refer to the number of setups and edits in the scene that took a week to film. It’s fanatical and analytical in a way that feels meaningful and offers a glimpse of what film analysis can and should be rather than the current superficial fandom fads.