Archive for the ‘World Cinema’ Category

Ida Movie Poster

Like everyone else who writes about films, I’m working on a year-end top-ten movies-of-2014 list. Here are some short pieces I wrote throughout the year about some of the contenders:

If I see a better movie than IDA released in theaters in 2014, I will consider myself one very lucky movie-lover. But I highly doubt that’s going to happen.

This is a movie about a young nun in 1960s Poland, about to take her vows when she’s informed that she was born Jewish. With her one known relative, a caustic aunt with a troubled history, she sets out to find her family’s final resting place.

IDA looks like a prestige picture and it is one, but also it’s a road movie and a buddy movie, a coming-of-age movie and even a detective movie. That’s not to imply that this is a film that is light of heart; it very literally carries the weight of the world. But I invoke those genre touchstones as a way to say that this is one highly watchable prestige picture.

Sadly, most people — myself included — look at a black-and-white period picture about a Polish nun, and worry it’ll be a chore to sit through, a homework movie. It’s not that. For a movie set in the 1960s that looks for all the world as if it could have been made then also, IDA feels remarkably alive, current, relevant. It accomplishes so much in half the running time of any given superhero movie.

This is a movie about faith, family, nature, nurture, history, pain, hope, hopelessness, and acceptance. It’s about so many of the most important things in life, and it’s only 80 minutes long. Time-wise, that’s a steal at the price of three modern-day superhero movies.

 

Ida (Blu-ray)

 

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THE RAID 2 (2014)

 

 

 

Having rewatched this movie this afternoon in a haze of antibiotics, I expanded my thoughts on THE RAID 2 from the short piece on it in my Blu-Ray column, which I posted earlier this week.

 

 

 

Gareth Evans is a new action director to take very seriously: He’s growing into a world-class directing talent, in my opinion. 2009′s MERANTAU was plenty promising, an able showcase for both star Iko Uwais and for Uwais’ specialty, the Indonesian martial art pencak silat. 2011′s THE RAID: REDEMPTION delivered and then some. It was one of my top five films that year, as much as that distinction matters.

 

 

Evans’ next directorial credit after THE RAID was ‘SAFE HAVEN‘, the piece he co-directed with Timo Tjahjanto for the anthology V/H/S/2. It’s a bolt of scarcely-restrainable horror electricity. All on its own, SAFE HAVEN made my top two last year.

 

 

Evans’ style has potency, a rare quality among younger directors, especially those working in the genres of action and horror. As genre directing has trended towards the over-use of hand-held camerawork, much has been lost in the crucial areas of clarity, continuity, and identification — if I can’t entirely see what’s happening or who it’s happening to, it’s harder to stay involved on any level.

 

 

By contrast, Gareth Evans creates immediate empathy in an audience for unfamiliar actors playing characters who only just appeared onscreen a moment ago. Through smartly-chosen camera angles and clever deployment of tactile elements and technical arts like sound, Evans creates believable environments with simple strokes: The scrape of a metal bat on a concrete sidewalk, the slow juicy slice of a golden scalpel through a human neck, and so on. These small details have heft, which accumulates and enriches the texture of the film terrifically.

 

 

As a cinematic storyteller, Evans can really put you in a room, usually a room you don’t want to ever be in — think of the early scene in the first RAID where the villain murders a row of captives only to run out of bullets before the last; how much you feel for that final man despite not even knowing his name. There’s a similar scene in the new RAID film. The bit still works. You can imagine how excruciating it must be to be the last man on the row. You can see yourself in his quivering place. What would you be thinking, if put in that position? What last thoughts might you choose? This is what this director can do with a day-player who never gets a single line of dialogue. He makes you feel for the cannon fodder. Evans’ approach to action is elemental, his approach to 2-D visual storytelling is tangible. These films don’t need a third dimension — the directorial orchestration provides it.

 

 

So everything that was so effective about the first RAID film works about the sequel. The key word is “more.”

 

 

THE RAID 2: BERANDAL is nearly an hour longer than its predecessor, with twice the characters and a more complex storyline, such as it is. The closest imagining is what would happen if John Woo made THE GODFATHER: PART TWO, minus the sumptuousnous and grace. It’s a back-alley HARD BOILED. This is a seedier neighborhood. The knives are sharper. Heads don’t get knocked around, they get pulverized into a red mist.

 

 

Where the earlier RAID film showed the events of one particularly arduous day, the sequel covers a longer expanse of time. Whereas the earlier scenario was confined to one building, THE RAID 2 opens up the action. There’s a car chase now. There are subways. There are rivers and lakes and ruins and killing fields. The villains are even more vicious this time around, if that can be believed. The redoubtable Yayan Ruhian, so indelibly fearsome as “Mad Dog” in the earlier film, plays a similar role here, only to be overcome by the new breed of vicious killer. Evans’ Jakarta is no country for old mad dogs.

 

 

There’s even a bit more black humor in the sequel, much of it courtesy of the silent siblings Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man, the film’s signature characters. (Better to experience those two without benefit of much foreknowledge.)

 

 

 

The end result of all this “more” by film’s end may be a faint sense of exhaustion, even among die-hard fans of THE RAID like myself. For my part I’m all RAID-ed out. “I’m done,” as series hero finally concludes. These are arduous films — for the viewer alone! One can only imagine how it feels for the active participants. Don’t get me wrong: I love THE RAID 2 and it’s clearly one of the superior action films of the year. It’s only that I’ve been through a long onslaught of fists, bullets, stabbings, and hammerings and now I’d like to see what this gifted filmmaker and his dedicated crew can do next. A third RAID film is planned; hopefully after that there’ll be a return to horror. Or a monster movie. Or a Western. Or a musical. The sky’s the limit, really.

 

 

 

– Jon Abrams.

 

@JONNYABOMB

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHY

 

Over the past two weeks I’ve been covering the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival for Daily Grindhouse. This festival is so well-curated that one doesn’t even need to be local to find use for it; their schedule is like a ready-made Netflix queue. One of the films that ran this week was the deceptively-named WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL?, which has a great title for a horror movie but which quickly turns out to be something very different. I was lucky enough to see it last year and this is what I wrote about it for my year-end top-ten:

 

 

WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL? is maybe, probably, most likely the most jubilant movie about movies ever made. Almost every prominent director seems to end up making a movie directly or indirectly about making movies — from Paul Thomas Anderson (BOOGIE NIGHTS) to John Carpenter (IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS), from Clint Eastwood (BRONCO BILLY) to Spike Lee (SHE HATE ME), from George Romero (KNIGHTRIDERS) to Martin Scorsese (THE AVIATOR) — and now here comes the one by Japan’s Sion Sono.

 

 

The story centers around a long-running feud between two factions of violent gangsters. Aside from war in the streets, the head of one mob is dedicated to making his daughter (the very young, hugely appealing Fumi Nikaido) a movie star. Towards that end, he recruits a group of would-be filmmakers calling themselves “the Fuck Bombers” to make it happen. One of them falls in love with the leading lady, which is problem enough, but the gang war is escalating, although ultimately, it provides the perfect setting for a very realistically bloody movie. WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL? runs over two hours but every single minute is full of boistrous energy. It’s as wildly funny as any teen sex comedy and as gruesomely violent as any horror movie — usually at the same exact time. The point, it seems, is that film-going and filmmaking becomes an obsession and a delirium, like love itself. Makes perfect sense to me.

 

FN-450x250

 


– Jon Abrams.

 

 

 

 

Sorcerer (1977)

 

 

Over at Daily Grindhouse I’ve been doing a weekly column on the newest DVD and Blu-Ray releases, which I enjoy doing because as random movies find their way to the newer formats, I get the chance to reflect on movies which I otherwise never would have written about. SORCERER isn’t like that — SORCERER is a movie I would have wanted to write about as soon as this beautiful new edition hit the shelves. The movie has been on DVD before, but it has always deserved better treatment than it’s gotten. Filmmaker William Friedkin has been working for months and years to get this under-seen great film out in the best possible picture quality. Now it’s ready to be seen, and in fact Film Forum has been showing it all weekend. There’s still time to get to the last couple shows today! Quick! You can come back and read this later! It’s playing through June 5th, so you still have the week.

 

The following is what I wrote for the weekly column. I hope to expound upon SORCERER further as soon as I get to sit down with the new Blu-Ray that just showed up at my door!

 

SORCERER

 

Out of the many picks of the week this week, this is the most underlined and bold-faced. The 1970s were arguably the artistically important decade in American film history, the place in time where Old Hollywood and New Hollywood intersected, featuring the last films of many of the canonical directors and the first films of their inheritors. Blockbusters and ‘blaxploitation’ were born in the 1970s, and the boundaries of propriety and expression were tested by the introduction of nudity and profanity and the integration of politics and unprecedented moral ambiguity. The horror film hit new hellish heights throughout the decade. Maybe the most important trend was the personalization of mainstream films. Filmmakers such as Clint Eastwood, John Carpenter, Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, George Romero, Jack Hill, Francis Ford Coppola, Wes Craven, Steven Spielberg, Sylvester Stallone, John Landis, George Lucas, David Cronenberg, and Jim Henson emerged as resonant voices whose films were invariably distinctive. Individuality was present in the films of the Old Hollywood, of course, but you had to squint a little more to catch it back then. On the other hand, there was no mistaking the sui generis nature of the intensely-felt films of the 1970s. And William Friedkin’s SORCERER is a film that deserves the hallowed reputation of the great films from that era.

 

SORCERER

 

For one thing, Friedkin had already made two immediately influential films that decade, 1971′sTHE FRENCH CONNECTION and 1973′s THE EXORCIST. Both were unlikely hits but both became sensations, and their respective effects on the crime genre and the horror genre, respectively, have lasted to this day. SORCERER, however, is a film that seemed lost to time. Released on June 24th, 1977, it was a small ship washed away in the tidal wave of STAR WARS, released on May 25th of that year. SORCERER was a small-scale, intense, and very dark film in comparison to STAR WARS, but then it would be that in comparison to very many films. Filmed in part in France and Israel and largely in Latin America, SORCERER is a bleak thriller in the mode of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 classic THE WAGES OF FEAR. Friedkin hired Walon Green, screenwriter of Peckinpah’s THE WILD BUNCH, to craft the script, which concerned four international rogues hired to drive trucks carrying nitroglycerin through the dense jungles of South America, an extraordinarily dangerous job which pits them against the elements, the landscape, and each other.

 

SORCERER

 

The cast features all-American Roy Scheider (Chief Brody from JAWS), France’s Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal from Spain, and Moroccan actor Amidou. By all accounts the shoot was remarkably arduous — in his autobiography Friedkin invokes Werner Herzog’s film FITZCARRALDO, a film from five years later more famously focused on madmen on mad missions in the jungle — and there were many factors which threw audiences, including the lack of an A-list star (Steve McQueen was sought for Scheider’s part), its then-unusual electronic soundtrack from Tangerine Dream, and the confusion around its title (which comes from a 1967 Miles Davis album that inspired Friedkin). The financial failure of SORCERER‘s release, along with a highly misguided critical response, basically derailed Friedkin’s career as an A-list director. He never stopped making films — and several great ones! — but these days he is rarely mentioned alongside the big-name auteurs who were his contemporaries.

 

SORCERER

 

That is an oversight. 2007′s BUG and 2012′s KILLER JOE proved that William Friedkin remains as vital and bold a filmmaker as any, be it the 1970s or the decade we are in today. Few filmmakers of any generation have made even one film as good as Friedkin’s handful of stone classics. His work is uncommonly vibrant, vigorous, and challenging. SORCERER is no exception. In fact, it is the ultimate example of what this terrific director can do. For years SORCERER has been relatively hard to see, but thanks to Friedkin’s  hard-won efforts, a restored, remastered edition of the film is finally out on Blu-Ray today from Warner Brothers. Buy it sight unseen if need be.

 

SORCERER

 

 

@jonnyabomb

 

 

 

 

Raw Force (1982)

 

On the Norwegian Wikipedia page for the 1982 exploitation epic RAW FORCE — probably the only time I’ll ever start a sentence that way — we are informed that the movie was banned in Norway in 1984. That’s the most attention any kind of majority, political or otherwise, has paid this movie. RAW FORCE is made for almost no one, because it is apparently made for almost everyone. Nearly every convention or trope of genre movies from the first seventy or so years of the existence of film is expended in this one rickety heap of madness.

 

THIS IS THE RAW FORCE.

 

As I tried to describe on our latest podcast focusing on RAW FORCEdescribing this movie is like fighting a giant squid. Just when you’ve bested one wavy storytelling strand, another one snaps up and grabs you by the throat.

 

Here’s the trailer, which is maybe the most dishonest trailer I’ve ever seen:

 

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That trailer literally sells a different movie. The clips are the same, but some of the character names and all of their backstories are totally different. The editors somehow cobbled together a cohesive story from several scenes that have no connection. This is the SHOGUN ASSASSIN of movie trailers. RAW FORCE is plenty of kinds of fun, but one adjective that does not apply is “cohesive.” This is the summary I gave on the podcast:

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NOT THAT EDWARD MURPHY

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First, a quote from Anton Chekhov:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

Okay. So early on in RAW FORCE, when a plane lands on a remote island and a character mentions that the waters surrounding the island are infested with vicious piranha, you can bet you will see those fish by the end of the movie. And if that character is a white-suited human trafficker who looks and talks exactly like Adolf Hitler, you may fairly assume he’ll be the one to meet them.

 

EVERYBODY HATES HITLER

 

Otherwise, RAW FORCE, also known as KUNG FU CANNIBALS, completely ignores the principle of Chekhov’s gun. This movie operates under its own rules, and also it doesn’t have any rules. If you somehow managed to drink up all the movies and television shows of the 1970s and then you barfed them back up, the mess on the bathroom floor might look like this.

 

RIGHT IN THE TUMMY-BALLS

 

Saloon fights, graveyard fights, bazooka fights, hippies in warpaint, gratuitously naked ladies, karate-chopping hobbit bartenders, giggling monks who dine on human women, ninja zombies, a BOOGIE NIGHTS style group of protagonists calling themselves the Burbank Karate Club, an ornery sea captain, a kung fu chef, an extended riff on ‘Gilligan’s Island’, and the aforementioned worst person in human history: All this and more in RAW FORCE.

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This was a fun episode even though I was delirious and feverish and congested and loopy. As always my co-hosts Joe and Freeman were terrific, engaging, and informative. You can subscribe and download the show on iTunes (please comment with feedback!) or you can

CLICK HERE!

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Here are our previous episodes, in case you’d like to catch up. We’re recording a new episode this week! Stay tuned.

STREET WARS (1992)

STREET WARS (1992)

Vigilante Force

VIGILANTE FORCE (1976)

GHOSTHOUSE (1988)

GHOSTHOUSE (1988)

THRILLER: THEY CALL HER ONE EYE (1973)

THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE (1973)

Find me on Twitter:

@jonnyabomb

 

BYE I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU

 

 

RAW FORCE

 

LADIES

 

 

Journey to the West (2013)

 

JOURNEY TO THE WEST is now available to download on iTunes and to watch on demand. If you have access to New York City, it’s playing at Cinema Village. This is the brief rave I wrote about the movie when I put it in my top ten of 2013. It’s not much but I hope it makes clear how emphatically I recommend it.

 

Journey to the West

 

Journey to the West

 

The way I feel about Stephen Chow’s movies is the way you probably feel about Pixar’s movies. KUNG FU HUSTLE alone is literally perfection. JOURNEY TO THE WEST may not be his single best film, but it’s a, incredibly strong addition to a beautiful filmography.

 

BIG TROUBLE

 

Fleet, funny, broadly universal, and unexpectedly moving, JOURNEY TO THE WEST is the story of a young demon hunter named Tang Sanzang (Wen Zhang) who takes on a wild menagerie of monsters and villains, looking to get them to change their evil ways rather than simply killing them. He’s both aided and bedeviled along the way by a pretty demon hunter known as Miss Duan (Shu Qi) and her gang of killers (including the insanely cute Chrissie Chau), all of whom would prefer the more extreme option. For stone killers, they’re as adorable as it gets.

 

SMILES

 

The relationship between Tang Sanzang and Miss Duan is the through-line of the movie, which otherwise progresses from demon battle to demon battle. The characters voyage through a variety of exciting environments; some inviting, like the open-air river battle against a gigantic fish demon, and others far less inviting, like the hellish domain of the nightmarish pig demon.

 

BIG FISH

 

Most prominently featured is the Monkey King (Huang Bo), the most duplicitous of the creatures but also the most likable and enjoyable. He’s the reason for the movie’s dance sequence, is all I’m saying.

 

DANCE FEVER

 

 

Like all of Stephen Chow’s best-known movies, JOURNEY TO THE WEST reaches heights of joy few movies can match, but it also comes packaged with moments of heartbreak. It’s an epic adventure stuffed with comedy and romance that ends up having agreeably spiritual resonance, based as it is on a classical work of literature dating back to the Ming Dynasty. But then again it also has a giant gorilla. This really does have everything you need from a movie.

 

@jonnyabomb

 

 

Xi you xiang mo pian

 

 

THRILLER: THEY CALL HER ONE EYE (1973) THRILLER: THEY CALL HER ONE EYE (1973) THRILLER: THEY CALL HER ONE EYE (1973)

Definitely, definitely, definitely don’t look at the title THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE and mistake it for having anything to do with the Michael Jackson album. Also known as THEY CALL HER ONE EYE and HOOKER’S REVENGE, this vicious, grubby revenge picture from Sweden is little known to mainstream audiences but has been massively influential on the grindhouse and cult-film circuit. You see the footprints of this movie all over Tarantino’s work, particularly KILL BILL, and even on our promo artwork for Daily Grindhouse.

DG LOGO

 

 

 

THRILLER: THEY CALL HER ONE EYE (1973) is a hard movie for normal people to watch. I’m in no way a normal person and I still had a lot of trouble with it when I finally watched it for the first time for our most recent podcast. In fact, I kind of hated it. Despite that knee-jerk reaction, we still had a detailed, rambunctious, hopefully informative conversation about it. Give us a listen!

Here are our previous episodes, in case you’d like to catch up. A new episode drops this week! Stay tuned.

 

STREET WARS (1992)

 

STREET WARS (1992)

 

Vigilante Force

VIGILANTE FORCE (1976)

 

 

GHOSTHOUSE (1988)

GHOSTHOUSE (1988)

 

 

 

@jonnyabomb