Wednesday, March 30, 2011

My Cinematic Alphabet

Thanks to the prompting of the wondrous Rupert Pupkin Speaks (which was in turn influenced by Sherrie at I have put together my person Cinematic Alphabet - documenting my favorite (or pretty darn close) film for each letter of the alphabet. I apologize if you see these same films pop up on other's lists, but I've tried to vary as much as possible while still being true to my genre-loving taste. 

Let's begin!



C is for CATCH-22



F is for FREAKS




J is for JAWS





O is for OLDBOY





T is for THE THING


V is for VERTIGO




Z is for ZOMBIE

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Great Assbeatings In Movie History: Flash Point (2007)

I'd be lying if I said that I emphatically loved Flash Point. To be quite honest, I found it rather unimaginative and story wise, there is nothing in Flash Point that would distinguish it from the cornucopia of mindless circa 1980's Hong Kong police movies.

But we're not here to discuss plot. We are here to discuss ass beatings, to which you have to give this film an A+.

You really have to admire the fight choreography in this movie and you have to respect Donnie Yen's commitment to his craft. Yen looks absolutely diesel in this movie and the hybrid MMA style he utilizes clashes well with the more traditional Wu-Shu stylings that Colin Chou employs.

The result? A fight scene for the ages.

In addition to this masterpiece of violence, you really have to check out the street brawl between Yen and Louis Koo that comes complete with a German Suplex so awesome that it would make Karl Gotch shed a tear from beyond the grave.

Unfortunately, most of the websites I have visited have either disabled video embedding for this particular scene or have added a ridiculous amount of advertisements to the clip.

Even so, I urge you to check it out on YouTube, Metacafe, or wherever video sharing site you haunt.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Hobo With A Shotgun (2011)

Hobo With A Shotgun is a colorful, violent and profane bit of nastiness that would have sat well along some of the messier cult films of the 80s such as Street Trash or The Toxic Avenger. While posited as a tribute to Grindhouse cinema (thanks to its origins in a contest for the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez double-bill from a few years back), Jason Eisener's often ridiculous revenge flick actually owes more to the VHS generation, even up to casting 80s mainstay (and former Paul Verhoeven muse) Rutger Hauer in the lead. This bit of inspired casting ends up being the film's ace in the hole, as Hauer brings some surprising gravitas to his frequent scenes of suffering - and eventual retribution.

Hauer stars as the titular Hobo who arrives in the impossibly corrupt and violent Hopetown (a post-apocalyptic looking Dartmouth, Nova Scotia) on the rails, only to almost immediately find himself the target of Drake - a psychotic gangster with a love for decapitation - and his two fratboy sons. Bonding with the requisite hooker with a heart of gold (Molly Dunsworth), the Hobo soon seeks revenge with the help of a pawn shop shotgun and a seemingly unlimited number of shells. Drake attempts to turn favor against the hero Hobo (and the homeless in general), before calling in some heavy hitters - the Plague - to take the pair down for good.

The film falters in its opening scene, which introduces the baddies in an appropriately gory and over the top way (and features a small appearance by Robb Wells from the Trailer Park Boys) but feels so ridiculous that it gives the impression that the film as a whole is going to be sillier than it ends up being. In fact, the film isn't a spoof or take-off on the genre films that influenced it, and aside from some creative profanity and a few choice lines from the Hobo - and the extreme violence on display - Eisener (along with writer John Davies) chooses to treat the material with some surprising seriousness. He also wisely forgoes an attempt to replicate the look of gritty 70s exploitation films, choosing instead to ramp up the color with lights and pastels to give the whole thing the feel of a comic book by way of Dario Argento.

Production quality is high, though you'll never mistake this for a Hollywood film, and the filmmakers wisely decide to avoid the overused CG violence of recent years for bloody squibs and plenty of generally impressive physical effects. Eisener finds a respectable balance between gross-out gags and cartoonish gore, and he shows a respectable adeptness with the film's later action scenes - which bodes well for his plans to next film a Canadian martial arts epic.

The acting is a bit uneven, with Brian Downey (from Lexx) giving a pleasantly demented performance as Drake while Molly Dunsworth's Abby is sort of underdeveloped and doesn't carry enough presence for her big speech in the final act to be taken seriously. Supporting performances can be a little iffy, but who cares? This is Rutger Hauer's show, and he brings it lock, stock and (shotgun) barrel. Hauer blows away criminals, eats glass, and gives a few great monologues to raise the whole production up a few notches. Getting Hauer in this role was a huge coup for the production, and Eisener makes the most of it.

I do want to briefly mention the film's impressive score by Darius Holbert and Russ Howard III which blends John Carpenter minimalism with moments of enjoyable synth-rock (think Fabio Frizzi) that underscores the action nicely. Despite these echoes of other soundtracks, however, the main themes feel fresh and are a nice change from the forgettable rock soundtracks you see in similar splatterfests.

Canuxploitation has a long and impressive history, but in recent years Canadian genre films have been all but forgotten, even with the success of filmmakers like David Cronenberg and Vincenzo Natali. Hobo With a Shotgun is exactly the shot of adrenaline the sadly stagnant film industry in this country needs, and I would love to see it kick-start a new wave of Eastern Canadian horror and exploitation. Likely a pipe dream, but Eisener's trip from youtube trailer to cineplex can be an inspiration for any kid who spent the 80s and 90s devouring VHS tapes at their local video store. An incredibly fun and bloody piece of entertainment that can stand proudly next to many of its influences.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Nowhere to Hide (1999)


NOWHERE TO HIDE is a movie about cops chasing down a murderer, one who keeps using "Sabotage"-style disguises to avoid them.

That's it, that's the plot.

You're not even sure who he murdered, or why, and the route the cops take to capturing him are ill-explained and often baffling. But that's not the point, anyway.


I'll admit right now that you'll find better reviews of this film. I recommend checking out The AV Club Review, and one from Sense of Cinema. Which is, perhaps, to say that I have nothing to add to the discussion of NOWHERE TO HIDE. But I hope that isn't the case.

What the two reviews above share is a deep admiration for Lee Myung-se as a filmmaker, and a deep respect for this film in particular. I'm only guilty of the first of those two. NOWHERE TO HIDE left me cold, which is weird, because in many ways it's exactly the type of film I love to watch.


NOWHERE TO HIDE is an experimental film. This doesn't mean that it's an avant-garde film in the vein of EL TOPO or 8 1/2 or something; no, it's experimental in its aesthetics, not its storytelling. If I was being derisive, I'd say that it's experimental in the same way a film student's final project is experimental: in it, Myung-se uses trick upon trick, including film speeds, editing techniques, colour changes, freeze frames, you name it, to constantly keep the aesthetic of his film warping and changing.

Borrowing from the Sense of Cinema review, I see that Myung-se has described the film this way: "The story and the characters are not the main focus of my film. Movement is. This is a film about movement and kinetic energy."

And that's fine, and I get that, but the film's experimentation is still harnessed to an extremely conventional plot, and it's that plot that continues to drive the film, even if the aesthetics are what make it so interesting. Ideally, the experimentation in the film's visual would be used to reinforce some sort of thematic or narrative experimentation; instead, the conventionality of the plot undercuts the expressiveness of the film's images.


And so I find myself in the awkward position of thinking that, perhaps, a film should have been more conventional. I don't think I've ever made that statement before, and it perplexes me. So let me explain. Lead actor Park Joong-Hoon is a charming fellow, who reminds me a great deal of Song Kang-ho (THIRST, THE HOST). You immediately like him, so it's a shame that character remains so unimportant in this film. Adding some emotional content to his character, or at least some complexity, would go a long way to adding a real anchor to the film's experimentation.

Another note: while it's obviously a horrible idea to get an idea of the real-world situation of a country based on its cinema, I can't help but notice that Korean films continually depict the police as corrupt, ruthless, and (perhaps worst of all) incompetent. I have no idea if this is a reflection of the actual situation, or a convenient narrative device; I'd hate for someone from Korea to watch BON COP, BAD COP and assume that that's reflective of the Canadian police system. Still, it's such a recurring trope in modern Korean cinema that I'm left wondering.

NOWHERE TO HIDE might appeal to you, based on it's frenetic energy and kinetic excitement, but it left me wanting to watch something with a little more weight to it.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Voice (Someone Behind You) (2007)

If you are a fan of horror movies, then you know what it is like to be snakebitten by the After Dark Horrorfest. Instead of "Eight Films To Die For," I sometimes think the tag "Eight Films To Kill Over" would be more apt, as the productions rarely match the hype or meet my expectations.

Usually I can at least count on the token J-Horror or K-Horror entry to be acceptable if not a tad contrived, but lately that has not been the case.

Someone Behind You aka Voices (not to be confused with Voice aka Yeogo Goedam 4: Moksori aka the fourth entry in the Whispering Corridors franchise) is a K-Horror film loosely based on the Manhwa, It's Two People by Kang Kyung-ok.

The tale begins with the obligatory mysterious and brutal murder that we tend see at the beginning of any movie working the DarkGrudgeRingMissingCall formula, and then shifts to an introduction to the film's heroine, Ga-In (Yun Jin-seo); a normal student at a normal Korean private school with a normal family living a normal life.

Events progress... well... normally... until a tragic occurrence at the wedding of Ga-In's aunt. Ga-In's aunt survives a fall from a balcony at the hotel where the wedding is taking place (i.e. she was pushed) only to be stabbed to death in the hospital by the aunt's younger sister.

Someone Behind You then borrows equal parts from Ju-On and A Tale of Two Sisters as the movie touches on just about every Asian horror standard from family curses to malevolent spirits to urban legends gone horribly wrong to teased schizophrenia, yet still finds time to weave in the demonic possession version of the Rage Virus from 28 Days Later as nearly all of Ga-In's friends, acquaintances, and teachers try to kill her during fits of violent behavior.

I am a huge fan of chthonic horror and I really wanted to like this movie, but there was one element that really bothered me and that is the lack of proper horror movie rules.

The whole point of introducing an occult entity into a horror film is so that the protagonist is presented with the opportunity to triumph over overwhelming odds against a nigh-implacable foe. Supernatural movies from the classic (i.e. The Exorcist) to the awful (i.e. The Unborn) all have a firm grasp on this fundamental mechanic.

The protagonist doesn't necessarily emerge victorious, but a level playing field between man and demon usually lends itself to a more satisfying storyline.

I'm sure that Director Oh Ki-hwan thought it was a pretty novel idea to introduce a preternatural force that was completely unbeatable. The problem is that by taking that route, you completely telegraph the ending. It is inevitable that Ga-In will eventually die, so any plot twist involved in the ending will just make the conclusion all the more pretentious.

Sadly enough, Someone Behind You continues the trend of Asian horror films that strive to be clever and complex, yet only succeed in outsmarting themselves.

Despite the fundamental flaw, Someone Behind You has enough jump scares and meaningful plotline to entertain you during the runtime, provided that you are totally unschooled when it comes to Asian horror.

I can't really recommend it to any veterans of Asian horror because, to be frank, you have seen it all before and you have seen it in far better films that this one.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Cruel Winter Blues (2006)



Jae-Mun is a seasoned veteran of the gang. Although a physically imposing black belt in Taekwondo, Chi-Guk is a soft-spoken newcomer to gang life, who is quietly offended by Jae-Mun's arbitrary and random acts of cruelty and rudeness against him and others. They travel to a remote town to perform an assassination of rival gangster Dae-Sik, who was responsible for the death of a friend of Jae-Mun.

While waiting for an opportunity to perform the hit, Jae-Mun coincidentally befriends Dae-Sik's mother (played by actress Na Mun-Hee) and spends some time with her. She comes to treat him as another son, even buying him clothing. A tragic plot develops, culminating in a bloody showdown between Jae-Mun and Dae-Sik.

--via Wikipedia



Lee Jeong-beom's CRUEL WINTER BLUES is an impeccable film. It manages to be a revenge movie with very little revenge, an action movie with very little action, and a gangster film with a very low level of crime (comparative to the rest of the genre). You aren't getting the type of revenge you might expect if you come to this with expectations picked up from viewings of Park Chan-wook's Vengeance Trilogy. You might be a little upset if you're expecting the type of action found in a gangster film like Kim Jee-woon's A BITTERSWEET LIFE. No, this film offers an entirely different aesthetic experience. But you won't be disappointed, since CRUEL WINTER BLUES is every bit as good as those films.

What you do get is a very low key film about revenge. Most revenge films depict revenge as an overwhelming impulse capable of overcoming all others (OLD BOY, KILL BILL, etc), and one that offers a surety that, while not strictly moral, at least ensures the overall trajectory of the plot. In CRUEL WINTER BLUES, revenge is an important motivating factor, but so is honour, and cowardice, and compassion. Revenge cannot simply overwhelm these other important motivations, though each can twist around or support the other.


Two characters are central to the film: the gangster Jae-Mun (Sol Kyung-Gu, the actor who portrayed Rikidozan) and his enemy's mother (Na Mun-Hee). Jae-Mun is accompanied on his quest for revenge by Chi-Guk (Jo Han-seon), and the movie plays against expectations by making the elder, meaner gangster (Jae-Mun) the centre of attention, over his younger, more conflicted, and more likable partner. Jae-Mun immediately comes off as unlikeable and mean spirited (he even pees on a dog--that's low), and instead of showing that he's actually a sweetheart underneath it all the movie decides, instead, merely to complicated and articulate his unlikeability and mean spiritedness. And this works; the protagonist of a film need not always be a hero, but if he isn't, he needs to be human.

The mother (if she's named, I can't remember it, or find it anywhere) is an old proprietress of a restaurant that only sells stew, and demands that customers get their own water. She's surly and hard-headed, much like Jae-Mun, but is in no way as corrupt. She's a survivor, one who has gone through two sons leaving her behind.


Since Jae-Mun knows only that Dae-Sik, his enemy, will show up in the small town at some point, and that he will inevitably visit his mother, he sticks to the old lady, and in doing so the two unavoidably form something of a relationship. This relationship is rapidly accelerated when Jae-Mun offers to drive her into town for a day of shopping; ostensibly he's being kind to his elder, but in actual fact he needs to make sure that she's not meeting up with Dae-Sik. In the act of keeping tabs on her, he's forced to model clothes for her, since he's roughly the same size as her younger son, Dae-Sik's brother. While the film doesn't dwell on it, you can see from Jae-Min's face that the act of trying on clothes for a man whose brother he intends to kill, and helping out the woman he intends to heinously betray, is weighing on him.

It's an excellent scene, and it speaks to the inherent tension of the film: as time progresses, it's impossible to tell if Jae-Min will go through with his revenge or not. This narrative tension mirrors the viewer's tension: as a compassionate human being, you want Jae-Min to transcend his need for revenge, and take a more humane way of things; as someone watching a revenge film, you demand vengeance, brutal and bloody. And what the film does so well is to make the outcome more and more difficult to foretell.

Everyone should see this movie. Watch it now.

Robbery (1967)

"Money breeds money. Mine must be on the pill."

They don't make heist movies like this anymore. Hell, they don't make movies like this anymore at all. These were the thoughts I had while sitting through a special screening of ROBBERY at The Film Society At Lincoln Center last week. Peter Yates, one of the UK's most influential and important directors, had died earlier this year and Lincoln Center was screening one of his best films, one that is still completely unavailable in any format in the United States.

It is a film of extreme historical importance -- a film that prefigures the explosive craze of 70's crime films, of gritty tough-minded sociological realism and a scaling back of 50's & 60's epic melodrama. It was ROBBERY that brought Yates to the attention of Steve McQueen and it was BULLITT that begat THE FRENCH CONNECTION which begat THE SEVEN-UPS and so on: an endless cavalcade of elaborate heists and careening car chases -- this is their genesis.

Inspired by The Great British Train Robbery of 1963, ROBBERY jettisons the romanticism that other film makers brought to the incident and goes straight to the bone, touching off the film with an elaborate set-up heist that escalates rapidly into one of the best on-location car chases in cinema history:

We are left with more questions than answers at this point. The film, having thrown us in at the deep end, leaves us plenty of time to tread water. It's only with the arrival of crime boss Paul Clifton (played with lived-in gravitas by Stanley Baker) that the film's cards are actively laid on the table. He's putting a gang together to knock over a post-bank holiday mail train worth over 10 million pounds. The film goes into elaborate detail on the set-up: meticulous coordination and planning of routes and maps, exits and entrances; the rounding up of collaborators and drilling them on their timing and duties; the financing of supplies, including shake-downs and pay-offs. No modern film could withstand this level of deliberate pacing but it pays off huge dividends at the end as each element previously hashed over is executed in a thrilling, suspenseful, (and most important of all) plausible manner.

Layering the suspense, of course, is a smart, world-weary Scotland Yard detective (played by James Booth) who pinched one of the gang earlier on but can't make him squeal. He leans on every possible angle and doggedly pursues Clifton and co. at all turns. The film doesn't shy away from the simple truth that one cannot be truly clandestine in one's operations. Cops know who the criminals are and what they are doing, even if they can't prove it. While Booth seemingly gets nowhere near the gang until the very end, his mere shadowy presence is enough to unnerve them, allowing a tightly-coiled spring of a plan to slowly unravel.

It's hard not to over-hype this film, it really has it all: heists, car chases, a prison break, an intense game of procedural cat-and-mouse, and a double-cross romantic sub-plot that actually pays off. How often can a crime film say that? ROBBERY hits all these bases and more, setting a crime film template that has been often imitated but rarely duplicated.

Given its pedigree, it's hard to believe this film has languished as long as it has. The original print I saw Lincoln Center was grainy and faded, one of the only ones remaining. The DVD copies in England are lifted from the television master, compromising the original cinematic vision. Given how inexpensive it is to transfer 35mm to streaming digital, one wonders how, especially with Yates' passing and the subsequent renewed interest in his work, this film can continue to languish. The print I saw won't last much longer and shouldn't be allowed to deteriorate further.

ROBBERY (Yates, UK, 1967)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok) (2003)

I was embarrassingly late to the party when it comes to the work of director Bong Joon-ho. All I felt after my first screening of The Host (Gwoemul) (2006) was a mix of confusion and disappointment which, despite consistent raves, kept me from checking out 2009's Mother as well. It was only after re-watching his earlier family drama monster epic that I finally clued on to his unique, refreshing style of storytelling - a style that was already quite evident in his breakthrough film Memories of Murder. Perhaps slightly more traditional - and based on an actual incident - the film is no less flush with the director's dark and quirky sense of humor. 

Memories of Murder focuses on the investigation of a series of true-life killings which took place in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province in South Korea between 1986 and 1991. The plot at first focuses on the bumbling, somewhat dim Detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) along with the unhinged and violent Detective Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roe-ha) who find themselves quickly overwhelmed by brutality of the killings, along with the lack of any tangible evidence (not helped by their incompetent crime scene security and willingness to torture to attain confessions). They are joined by a detective from Seoul (Kim Sang-kyung), who finds himself immediately at odds with the pair's methods, but slowly gains their grudging respect as he uncovers further victims and connections between the killings. 

Initially, much of Memories of Murder reminded me of David Fincher's Zodiac, with its stylish focus on detective work and serial killings, but it wasn't long before the moments of bright (and bizarre) humor showed this to be a different animal altogether. Bong Joon-ho's willingness to improvise dialogue (and action scenes!) creates a freshness and energy that could easily have backfired under such weighty material, but actually serves to buoy the sometimes slow pacing. There are only a few moments of action in the film - usually just brief fights or chases - but they feel so unhinged and filled with the capability for violence that they are absolutely exhilarating. 

Much credit must be given to the performances - particularly Song Kang-ho, who has continued to be a huge part of the rapid ascent of Korean film-making over the last decade. His role could easily have been totally unsympathetic, particularly in his willingness to beat and torture innocents, and his complacency and general incompetence regarding his police-work, but the performance is filled with a nuance and charisma that makes his eventual minor transformation totally believable. Kim Sang-kyung's role as the slick, troubled big-city cop is a bit more traditional, but grounds the goofiness of the other characters, and he shows moments of great intensity at the film's climax.

I've repeatedly mentioned the humor, but part of Bong Joon-ho's skill is to deftly keep moments of levity from overwhelming what is a brutal and ultimately distressing look at the way violence transforms people. Partially adapting the story from a 1996 play by Kim Kwang-rim, the director obviously knew better than to shoehorn in stylistic flourishes (which is the major flaw in Zodiac) and instead makes the progression of the case seem natural and fluid, despite the conclusion being common knowledge to anyone familiar with the case. The period detail is minor, but a few moments - the slightly retarded Baek Kwang-ho cheating in a video game arcade, the detectives watching the TV show "Investigation Squad", the persistent air-raid drills - help build vital texture and detail to the small-town environment. 

Filled with memorable performances and great moments - the three detectives staking out an outdoor masturbator who likes to wear women's panties certainly fits the bill - the film does start to slow a bit over its over two hour run-time, and some of the connections made by Kim Sang-kyung's Detective Seo Tae-Yoon seem a little dubious (perhaps a necessary summary of what amounts to months of detective work), but these are minor complaints in what is a massive accomplishment. Memories of Murder marked the true arrival of a vital piece of what has become one of the most exciting and original film movements in recent memory.