Friday, April 30, 2010

Rough Cut (2009)

This was one of the hot ticket films at the 2009 New York Asian Film Festival. It concerns a hot actor who no one will work with because he tends to beat up his co-stars in the fight scenes. While partying one night he meets a gangster who once was an actor and who roughs up him up when a request for an autograph turns insulting. Everyone goes back to their own lives until the actor once more beats up his co-star and they need to find a replacement. The actor thinks of the gangster and before you know it the pair have agreed to really go at it in the fight scenes in the name of realism. From there the film spins out as the actor tries to handle his personal life and the gangster tries to get his boss out of prison while romancing the leading lady.

Well acted, especially by Ji Seob So as the gangster, Kang-pae, who manages to say so much without really doing anything. If the film works it's because of his performance which keeps you watching when things turn, how shall I put this? curious?

I say that because this is an odd film. Despite being billed as one, this is a film that isn't really an action film. Sure the film has action, both the movie fights but also explosive violence from the gangsters doing their normal line of work, but mostly this is a rambling tale of a couple of lost souls trying to find themselves. In someways I'm not sure what I make of it. Other than the plot thread of the making of the film, this film rambles around with in the lives of its characters in a directed but not particularly charted way. Its good, but at the same time its too rambling so bits don't completely connect the way they should. Don't get me wrong I like the film, the final fight between the costars is bound to become iconic and Ji Seob So is absolutely amazing in what hopefully will become a new level of screen cool, but the film never manages to reach the great level.

Reservations aside this is a film that is really worth taking a look at. To be honest for all my heming and hawing I'm still haunted by this film a year after I saw it for the first time. There is something about the ending...

Currently out on DVD as an import.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a blast- Tribeca Day 6

Jean-Pierre Jeunet reminded me why film festivals are fun. He was very funny before and after his film Micmacs. he simply was charming and funny and all of that. I wish his movie was better.

I saw two films today.

Feathered Cocaine was a world premiere about falcon smuggling into the Middle East. The birds can fetch millions of dollars each. Unfortunately they only last about a month's time in the desert. The "falcon" camps that are the time when Arab men get together to hunt with the birds are also time when a great deal of business, including terroristic business is done. Of course no one is doing anything about it. The film is good, but really needs to be a bit tighter. The first half when we meet Alan Parrot who is trying to stop the trafficking is a bit too rambling while the second half has too much information.

Micmacs is the new film from Jean-Pierre Jeunet. It's about a man who is accidentally shot in the head, has his world fall apart only to be adopted by "snow white and the seven dwarfs" before he decides to get revenge on the arms manufacturer who made the bullet that's lodged in his head and the mine that killed his dad. Its a visually amazing film that is rather flat. Yes its got laughs, great characters and amusing moments. But it doesn't add up to much. Jeunet said he loves to watch the last ten minutes with an audience. Why? The film provoked no reaction, or rather what was my and a couple of people walking outs feeling of "that's it?" Its fun to a point but as a movie unto itself it wasn't worth the effort.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Warlords (2007)

This film opened at the end of 2007 in Asia. I saw it on DVD in early 2008. It finally officially reached the US in 2009 where it played film festivals and now thanks to Magnet releasing its getting a wider release and eventual US DVD.

General Pang (Jet Li) survives a massacre when he and his men are betrayed. He does this by pretending to be dead. Wandering from the battlefield he staggers through the countryside. Collapsing near an abandoned house he is saved by a young woman who makes him food. In the morning she is gone. After selling his armor he falls in with a group of bandits who are stealing food for their village. After the village is beaten in an attack by a rival village Pang convinces the villagers to join one of the armies to get protection and food. To assure that Pang will not betray them Pang forms a pact with Er-Hu (Andy Lau) and Zhang (Takeshi Kaneshiro). The blood brothers then lead their men off to war and an uncertain future.

Cutting to the chase, this is a great film. Pretty much everything about this film is top notch. This is an epic action film that has a great deal on its mind. This is a film that has romance; examines war, both its glory and its cost (for example the trench siege of the city); high level politics; honor; the bond between brothers in arms; the promises we make and a couple of other things I'm too overwhelmed to recall. Its been rare that I've seen an action film that dealt with more than just macho notions of honor and right and wrong.

The action is top notch. There is everything from one on one combat to huge scale battle scenes. Its also very graphic and very bloody. Limbs and blood fly. No matter how they did it the action has impact, both in the "oh Wow" sense and the gut turning "this is the cost of violence" sense. The film also knows when to keep things off screen for heartbreaking effect. Its mind blowing.

Need I go into the costuming and set design? You must see this on as big a screen as possible. Its overwhelming in the sense of scale. These are real big places. These are huge armies. I'm floored. Its like the epic Hero, Curse of the Golden Flower, The Banquet or House of Flying Daggers but in a gritty real lived in sort of way.

The score is hypnotic. Several times the score drives the film, lifting it up from the realm of film to something much more lyric and poetic. For me the film is often a tone poem, a visual and aural meditation on the nature of the human condition as portrayed in the film. Yes, I can tell you what is going on logically and dramatically but thanks to the score and its marriage to the visuals both horrific and beautiful the film ceases to touch the intellect but instead touches the heart and the gut. More often than not I felt things more than I "thought things". which is why my words are severely lacking for describing much of the film. (Its also why I have forgiven pretty much any flaws the film may have, I was too emotional to care). If you want an example of what a great score can do you need look no further.

The acting is Oscar worthy. Andy Lau is as good as he always is. He is one of the best actors working in Chinese cinema. Takeshi Kaneshiro is equally good. The real revelation here is Jet Li. I was floored by his performance in Unleashed, but this is so much more. Here he gives a performance that is layered and touching. We feel his pain at the loss of his men in the early scenes, later we ache for the pain of his love that is just out of his reach. If there is any flaw in his performance its perhaps that in the second half as fortunes change and the situations begin to move out of his grasp he becomes too internal. To be certain there is the confusion in his eyes but his face is a bit too impassive.

If there is a flaw its that the film has almost too much going on. There is a large scale scope to the film and it has almost too many plot lines to resolve. It does so, I think satisfactorily, however there are times when I felt that I was missing something.

I can't say enough about this film.

Its not perfect (but pretty close)

Currently in limited US release with the recut International version which removed 15 or so minutes of exposition. See if you can find the longer Asian version which runs a couple of minutes past 2 hours, since I'm told there is a difference in what was cut, including a softening of some characters.

Blood and Rain - Tribeca Day 5

The last film at Village East Cinemas for me was a Colombian drama called Blood and Rain. It was a strange screening with 12 seats needed for the cast and crew, which turned into three seats when everyone showed up. There were tons of media people in attendance and several people from studios looking to buy it.

The film is a dark one and I don't think it's going to show up at your local multiplex with full frontal nudity, graphic sex and ugly violence. The film is punch in the face. I'm not sure what I think of the film, its dramatically odd and nihilistic doesn't even begin to describe it but there is still a chance I may end up doing a full review here down the road.

On a personal note, good bad or indifferent, it was so nice to see a real movie movie and not a film that should have been seen on TV as several films have been.

I have four more films two today and two Saturday before this nonsense is over. Wish me luck, I'm going to need it.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Youth Without Youth (2007)

Francis Ford Coppola turned out a finished film of his own for the first time in ten years with the release of Youth Without Youth. During the ten years that spanned the release of the film with The Rainmaker he had been caught up trying to work out how to do a massive film called Megalopolis (it ended up being abandoned) and doing rescue work on features in trouble. When Youth finally premièred it was met with confusion and skepticism and semi-quickly faded from view. Certainly most audiences had no idea what to make of the film and its magical realism.

Upon it's release I was curious, but I didn’t rush out to see it. It wasn’t until the film hit home video when my friend Lou called me immediately after seeing the film to say he was coming over with a copy of the film that I got excited. Lou and I have been talking about movies for the better part of 25 years. How important it is to see a film depends on the words used in describing the film to each other. The top of the list is the statement “Are you home? Yes? Good. I’m bringing you a copy of a film you have to see.” If we’re bringing the film to each other right after seeing it we know there is something to it.

When I finally cleared the decks and watched the film, I kind of had to agree that this was a special film. I was even more impressed with the film after listening to Coppola’s commentary on the film.

The plot of the film follows Tim Roth as an elderly gentleman living through the Nazi occupation of his country. His life in ruins and with all hope lost, he attempts to commit suicide, but fate steps in and he’s struck by lightning. The result is that he is taken to a hospital. There as the bandages are removed its discovered that he is no longer an old man, rather he is a man in his thirties. What happens next, and over the years that follow is the story.

I’m in love with this. Its not perfect but as flawed masterpieces go this is a pretty great film. It’s the sort of film that will haunt you.

The film is based upon a novella by Mircea Eliade. I'm told that the story is very much rooted in a "European" sensibility, what ever that is. The film does have a European feel that is very much in evidence, which is very much unlike any film from an American film maker that I've run across in the last 20 to 25 five years. Its a film that feels very much like it was forged in the studios of Europe. Watching it I kept having to remind myself that this was really made by an American, then again the film feels very much like the Godfather films, which in retrospect actually seem more European than American.

What really knocked for for a loop was that there are times when things aren't explained. Things are and we are left to work them out. For example there are times when its not really clear how much of the film is real. There are times when the film implies that what we are seeing is not real, but perhaps a misplaced memory or self image. Maybe Tim Roth isn’t as old as he/we thought (watch the way people react to him especially towards the end). What's the answer? Its not clear. While we may want answers the film and the filmmakers are assured enough to allow for the audience to make up its own mind. What I like is that the lack of absolute clarity allows for a discussion of the films themes. If, in the case I've mentioned, Tim Roth's appearence is not as we see it, then perhaps the film has one set of meaning, if it is literal then it has another set of possible meanings.

Its so nice to finally have an American director trusts his audience is going to be intelligent.

In watching the film a second time with the commentary that is on the DVD was enlightening. Coppola explains a great deal of why he did what he did. His goal was to get as much of the novel on to the screen, and in order to do that he couldn't invent things that wasn't there (say explanations). There were other times when things happen (the rose toward the end) when in order to be true to the book things had to happen that don't make "sense". What you can explain in a couple of paragraphs and have the audience believe will happen almost instantly on the screen and will have no explanation, which means you run the risk of losing the sudience. Coppola knew this and went ahead anyway. To me listening to Coppola talk about his choices, makes me like the film more since it becomes very clear that he made the best film possible. And as I said earlier its a sign that he trusted his audience to go with him.

I have a hard time really explaining this film sometimes. Its so easy to go off the rails and talk about the deeper meanings and visual tricks but at its heart this is very much a wonderful melodrama and character study. Basically this the story of an old man (or old feeling man) who suddenly finds that he is suddenly young and suddenly able to do all the things that time has denied him. Best of all he never ages. What would you do? It plays at times very much like a pulp novel, but that is almost a blind to keep us watching since as we are paying attention to the soap opera of our hero's life we are being asked to ponder other matters concerning life at large.

Its a masterpiece...

...though its at times flawed. It is at times too much of a melodrama, too soapy, too clear cut and some of the moments of "magic" are a bit too awkward to work on screen. However even though they scratch the surface of this work of art they don't wound it's marvelous heart.

I love this meaty little film.

Highly recommended, especially if you are willing to let the film do what its going to do. Let it be and you will be rewarded.

Currently out on DVD.

Ip Man (2008)

This film was the runner up to the audience award at the 2009 New York Asian Film Festival. I don't know if that's a vote of confidence or not, but it is a very good film.

Donnie Yen stars as the Ip Man. A well off man who spent his life studying martial arts and perfecting his technique to the point he was unbeatable. Often sparring with the heads of the local dojos behind closed doors he tried to learn as much as he could. Covering a brief period before the Japanese invasion of China in the first third of the film, the majority of the film deals with what happened after the invasion and how the man who "can't do anything" found he could.(He's also the man who taught Bruce Lee how to fight)

I have no idea how much of this is gospel truth, but whats on screen is very good. The film has great performance by Yen as the Ip Man, who conveys a great deal of our hero's humanity and sense of honor in the non-action scenes and really letting loose in the action sequences. Yen's quiet demeanor nicely covers his unstoppable ability. Even having seen Yen in numerous other films, I still found his battles utterly amazing (Thank you Sammo Hung). If you love action you really need to see this.

I really liked this film. If there is a problem with the film I found some of the Japanese sequences a tad cliche (bad Japanese monsters). Its not bad, but in a film that seems to strive to be more than a typical martial arts film, I found it kind of disappointing.

Then again when the end came I was moved, so I guess it doesn't matter.(I'm also looking forward to the announced sequel)

If you want to see a really good action bio, see this film.

This can be had from Amazon in a variety of editions.

ADDENDUM: This film was brought back and encored at the 2010 NYAFF

Capsule Reviews:Tribeca

Here are some capsule reviews of films from the Tribeca film Festival. I’m going to try and do a week of full reviews in May but for now there are a couple of films I want to write up before they get lost in the shuffle that has become Tribeca films.

The three films below are really good, with
Into Eternity, a strong possibility for my best of year list, however they are films that I can’t really find the words to write a long review for. In the case of the first two films a truly fair discussion of the film might make you think they are not as good as they are, I’m keeping it brief because it works in their favor. With Into Eternity, the trouble is that it’s a great film that is somewhere beyond words. It’s a film that is best experienced since words of description don’t serve it well. You just need to see it.

Andy Sirkis stars as Ian Dury front man for the group the Blockheads. The film covers Dury’s life from childhood until his death, It’s a time tripping film told in a fashion that has Dury talking about his life during a concert which leads into scenes from his life. Its an affectionate portrait that does show many of the warts of the man. It’s a good film that shines because of Sirkis’ performance as Dury. Sirkis once again inhabits the man to the point that he disappears completely. Why Sirkis isn’t better known as an actor is beyond me since he repeatedly turns in some of the best, though almost always over looked, performances. He’s good enough that he makes a good but rather conventionally unconventional film worth your time and money (On pay per view in connection with the Tribeca film festival, its getting a brief theatrical run in the US. It hits DVD over seas in May) A final note: I dare you not to tear up at the end.

This is the story of two guys on a Finnish rugby team over the course of the 2007 season. We watch as they try to get new players (they recruit a woman who’s better than the men), drink, talk, try to deal with home life and play rugby. Actually we watch as they try to remain high enough in the standings that they don’t get bounced to a lower bracket. (They are not the worst rugby team in Finland as the promotional material from Tribecea said). It’s the cinematic equivalent to hanging out with your buddies and shooting the breeze. Honestly this is one of the few films at the festival I didn’t bother to look at my watch at any point during the film, because I was having such a good time being in the theater watching it. If there is any flaw in the film its that its, as I said, the cinematic equivalent to hanging out with your buddies: namely It rambles all over the place and really doesn’t have a point. I’m not sure what the point of it all was and I would have loved more detail on some of the threads that are picked up and go nowhere, say what happened to the young lady who played with them? Still, it’s a good time and when this hits dvd or cable you really should make an effort to see this.(Oh how I would love a special edition DVD with deleted footage)

One of the better films screening at this years Tribeca film festival is a meditation on what we should do with the nuclear waste that’s left behind. More specifically it’s what Finland is doing with their nuclear waste. What the country is doing is digging a miles deep tomb in which they hope to bury all of their waste so that it will hopefully remain undisturbed for the 100 or more thousand years it will need to decay and become safe.

The film, is more an essay in the form of a letter to future generations, and isis a trippy affair with some of the most haunting marriages of image and music you are likely to find. The film masterfully ponders what are our options for waste such as this and how do we protect our children’s children’s children from its dangers.

I love how filmmaker Michael Madsen draws you in as if it’s a fairy tale and forces you to think. He also scores many points for presenting the people who are responsible for the project as human beings who are far from certain, but trying the best they can. Its nice to see a bunch of experts with the willies scared out of them.

If there is any flaw in the film its perhaps that its 75 minute running time is a couple minutes too long. But that is a quibble. This is a film that should be seen, preferably on a big screen in the dark where the imagery will work its way into your brain.

Okay- how good is the film? Out of the 11 films I saw from Tribeca so far this was the first and only film where no one moved when the end credits rolled. Everyone just sat there staring at the screen. Everyone seemed to want to stay to talk to the filmmaker at the Q&A. (except for the few of us who peeled ourselves out of our chairs to make trains or other screenings)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Longest Nite (1998)

I stumbled upon a copy of Longest Nite in a box set of Tony Leung movies. It was unexpected, but a happy accident since I had been looking for it since it showed up as listing as playing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival in 2009. I had wanted to see it at the festival but it didn't fit into my schedule. I was also happy since the set had a good number of films I didn't have and it was cheap since the place I got it is closing out the video portion of their operation.

This is a bleak dark nasty ugly film of the sort Hong Kong no longer makes. Tony Leung plays a corrupt cop who is trying to make a peace between two of three powerful crime lords on Macau. Things are going from bad to worse as word hits the street of a contract on one of the crime bosses. A tall bald headed fellow is wandering about and seems intent on collecting the cash reward no one knows who is offering. Worse for Leung is the fact that someone seems intent on making his life miserable beginning with a naked dead man in his apartment. Things only go down hill from there as Leung tries to unravel the plot and stay out of increasing trouble.

A fever dream of foul things this was started by one director, Patrick Yau, who shot five scenes before hitting a creative brick wall. It was then finished by the producers Wai Ka-fai and Johnnie To who stumbled around trying to stitch it together. The result is a really violent, bloody affair with no hope and no light. Much of the film operates in a seeming dream logic as it becomes clear that a greater power is operating just beyond Leung's view. Its all comes together in the end but until then its like being trapped in blood soaked nightmare with an occasional severed head. I'm kind of at a loss for words, this movie operates on a level somewhere underneath the surface and sends out shock waves.

I really like the film but at the same time find it rather disturbing. Its the sort of bleak rough edged crime drama that Hong Kong excelled at in the 1980's and 1990's but which it seems to have stopped making. If you want to know what all the hoopla was about Hong Kong Cinema in the late 80's and all of the 90's this is a great example.

Recommended if you can find yourself a copy and like rough edged mind warping crime dramas(the film seems to be out of print and only available on the secondary market at a ridiculous price)

Tribeca Day 4 - Triple Documentary Feature

It was a long wet day at the Tribeca Film Festival yesterday. Say what you will about the festival, and I will have a great deal to say when it's all over, the volunteers and staff are excellent. They are courteous helpful and make all the other problems at least bearable. Sixteen cheers for them.

As for the films it was a mixed bag yesterday.

Thieves by Law, a world premiere documentary on three Russian "mafia" men, is at best an okay Discovery Channel special. It was not worth the aggravation of shifting screenings (it conflicted with a fourth screening which I didn't attend) and dealing with the rain. Its unfocused and kind of pointless. Its a self congratulatory tale for the subjects, but says little else. If you've seen or read anything, you know more than is shown here.

Freetime Machos is a film about some friends on a Finnish rugby team. Its a film that flew and was enjoyable but didn't seem to have a reason to exist. (It's good enough for a more detailed review later)

Into Eternity is the third really good film I've seen. Its a meditation on what do you do with spent nuclear waste and how Finland is dealing with it. The images and music are amazing. (Another fuller piece will follow)

For now that's it. A day off from the festival before I go back tomorrow and the next day.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Notes from my Tribeca weekend

Only one screening over the weekend, The Korean film Possession. I won't say much beyond its the best of the eight films I've seen from the festival. Its a very creepy horror film that is also about faith. A full review will be coming when I find the head space to write up the film.

When I wasn't traveling back and forth to the Village East Cinema I was sitting in front of the TV watching more films on pay per view. I saw The Infidel with Omid Djalili (who I saw on the red carpet); Sex & Drugs& Rock & Roll the Ian Dury Bio with Andy Sirkis; and Metropia a dystopian animated film about a man manipulated into helping over throw an evil corporation and their shampoo. I'm not sure which, if any will end up here, but all are "good" films worth a look.

I should probably add that I watched The Trotsky a second time (thanks to a free re-view and a need to see something less disturbing when I got home after the Possession screening) and I'm considering giving that a piece here since it improved with a second viewing. Road, Movie also got a second (and third) viewing

That's it for now. I'm off to three or four screenings today.

Antique (2008)

This was one of the finds of last years NYAFF. Even though I didn't see it at the festival it was a film that I picked up on DVD, with the result that I've seen this film numerous times in the last year. Its not the best film I've ever seen, but its a film that puts a huge smile on my face.

This Korean film is based on Fumi Yoshinaga's comic called Antique Bakery which was the basis for Japanese TV series and an upcoming animated series. It concerns a man who can't stand cake who opens a bakeshop; his chef who went to high school with him and who is love with his boss; the son of the owners former house keeper; and a young man who answers the help wanted sign and is training to be a chef. How the quartet interact and how they build their business is the story.

And what a story it is. It mixes comedy, drama romance, food (lots of food-let's face it this is food porn) and musical numbers all together into a frothy confection that makes you feel good and smile from ear to ear. I've seen the film I don't know how many times and I find myself smiling every time thanks to the interaction of characters.

You like the four men and you care deeply about them, they are just a group of wonderful guys that you'll want to hang out with. Their chatter between each other is witty and on target and you can't help but enjoy watching them go through their paces. Yes, several of the characters are gay but don't let that stop you since the film is all about the people and not the sexual orientation.If you re-jiggered it to a heterosexual grouping it would still work.

I want to recommend this film simply because I really like it a great deal and because it makes me smile. High art its not. Heart warming and laugh inducing it is. As they say in the film "How can anyone be unhappy when they are eating cake?" This film is the cinematic equivalent of cake and will make you happy.

Its out on DVD.

Take Care of My Cat (2000)

In the early months of 2003, I had found my first post-college job and had moved out of my childhood home. I was suddenly out on my own, dependent on myself. With this freedom also came some fear -- I had to make it all up as I went along.

I know my experience was not unique. But it was in those days I first saw the Korean film Take Care of My Cat. It resonated deeply with me at the time and it still does.

In the years since then, much as been made of the The Bechdel Test (although comic creator Alison Bechdel will tell you that the credit goes to her friend for the concept). The test is this: A movie has to have at least two women in it. Those women must talk to each other. And they must talk to each other about something other than a man. It may or may not be a concept that you agree with, but it's an interesting way to judge movies.

Let's just say that Take Care of My Cat absolutely passes.

The movie follows five friends a year after they've graduated from high school. Haejoo (Yu-won Lee) is an ambitious office girl. Taehee (Bae Doo Na) dreams of escaping her overbearing family. Jiyoung (Ji-young Ok) struggles to reconcile her poverty with her desire to go to art school. Twins Biryu and Ohnjo (real-life twins Eung-sil Lee and Eung-ju Lee) mostly provide comic relief but try to find where they fit in as half-Chinese and half-Korean. The five friends struggle to stay close and stay in touch as they embark on their own lives. (I would like to note that I am using the spelling on the names that are in the subtitles of the DVD I have, which is the special edition from Korea; I understand they may be different on the U.S. release from Kino.)

These are problems that just about anyone coming of age has to cope with. Even though she desperately wants to be seen as glamorous and grown-up as she flirts with the men in her office, Haejoo comes to learn that clothes and status ultimately don't mean much. While some melodrama in the third act would derail just about any other movie, writer/director Jae-eun Jeong handles it with such grace that it works beautifully and reinforces the theme of the movie perfectly. It allows Jiyoung and Taehee to find each other and their escape.

One of the most striking things about this movie is the way it integrates technology. While it was made 10 years ago, the girls are constantly calling each other on their cell phones and sending each other text messages. (The content of the text messages appears onscreen in bus windows, on the sides of buildings -- it's surprising and effective.) But the more ways the girls have to keep in touch, the more separated they are. It's an obvious message, but the characters' isolation from each other is still communicated with subtly.

Since first watching it seven years ago, I've made everyone I know see it and I'm still constantly recommending it. It's still a wonderful glimpse into a period of young women's lives that is too often overlooked.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Keanoshow - A Collection Of Short Films by Dave McKean

The opening of the 15 minute short film “Kodak: Take Pictures Further“ contains the following lines written across the screen; “My head hurts. I’ve got too many images in my brain. Quick, somebody get me some more film before my head explodes.” Welcome to the world of Dave McKean.

The visual work of McKean, particularly his motion picture work, requires that you pay attention at all times. Being a visual artist first, his films are filled with bizarre imagery that may or may not be representative of anything, but are still a treat to look at. For those unfamiliar, McKean was the cover artist on the entire run of Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comic book series, and also was the director, designer, and co-storywriter of the film “MirrorMask” (Gaiman was the other storyteller). One of the things that is consistent about McKean’s work is that you can never be quite certain of just exactly what it is you’re looking at. Even if you think you do know what you’re seeing, quite often it will metamorphose into something else in a graceful and oftentimes surprising way. He also tends to combine images in a way that juxtaposes them wonderfully. He will alternate between a fixed camera position, with interesting images literally unfolding before the eyes, to giant sweeping arcs in and around computer creations seemingly floating in the ether. McKean never fails to visually dazzle the viewer. Some of the short films on “Keanoshow” don’t even center around a narrative per se, as much as they are just about stunning visuals.

As far as narratives, my personal favorite film on the disc is “The Week Before“, about the seven days leading up to the week in which God created the world. Featuring the music of Django Reinhardt (which is apparently the reason for the unavailability of “Keanoshow” in the US), we follow God (portrayed by Dean Harris wearing one of McKean’s trademark masks) as he works his way thru seemingly ordinary days of naming objects, fishing, and playing cards with his neighbor (who, since the world hasn’t been created yet, is The Devil, played by Eamonn Collinge in another of McKean‘s beautiful masks). It’s a lighthearted look into a life, made rather dazzling by the combination of live actors wearing some of McKean’s art, existing in worlds that are part physical set and part McKean’s computer art. It always seems interesting to me to see McKean’s paintings come to life, and that is in a nutshell what “The Week Before” is, more so than any of the other shorts on “Keanoshow“. “The Week Before” is also probably closest of anything on the disc visually to “MirrorMask“, and the excellent choice of Reinhardt tracks to accompany the days of the week makes for a truly engaging 23 minute film. It was actually the music of Reinhardt that inspired McKean to write many of the scenes for the film.

“n[eon]” contains a line that is very appropriate. Although the lead character, voiced by narrator John Cale, is talking about Venice, Italy (which is where McKean wrote the short) when he utters the line, he could well be talking about McKean’s work in any medium when he says “(It) rewards those who pay attention. The more you look, the more you see.” This is perhaps the most surreal, dream-like piece on the disc, which is saying something considering it’s context. It may also be the best piece on the disc. A seemingly somber short, you find your self thinking, a lot, as the film unfolds. A man searching for where he belongs wanders Venice and sees a ghost, as he wonders about his place in the universe. Obviously, there’s much more to it than that, but the 28 minute film has to be seen, not explained.

“Whack!” is a 14 minute live-action adaptation of the Punch & Judy puppet shows; just as violent, and perhaps more disturbing, in real life. The entire film takes place inside the tent that the puppet shows would be presented from, so the overly close perspective adds a bizarre quality to the visuals, making everything, even though comedic, seem more intense (no pun intended). The actors are members of Forced Entertainment, an experimental theater group in England.

“Dawn” is a 9 minute film made in 3 days because McKean wanted to remember that making films was fun, after spending 2 years making “MirrorMask” where it had become a tremendous amount of work. It stars his daughter Yolanda and is based on “conversations with (his) worrisome daughter”, and, while not featuring the look of his artwork, is visually unique in that it was shot on video thru glass bottles to add a sort of dream-like quality.

“Displacements” seems to exist solely for the pleasure of being able to create interesting images on computer for the camera, interspersed with snippets of an interview with Michael Moorcock that are layered and looped in to become another visual element of bizarreness. McKean is fond of distorting audio, leaving in scratchy noises that sound like a German Expressionist film looks.

There are also a dozen more short films included, varying in length from 1 to 15 minutes. These include music videos for artists as diverse as guitarist Buckethead (featuring Les Claypool on bass & vocals), opera singer Izzy, and a live performance at a jazz club by Iain Ballamy and Stian Carstensen, which McKean later added visual effects to. The music video seems to be a perfect format for McKean; I personally would love to see him add to his repertoire in this genre. He’s done well over 150 CD covers, it seems only natural that he would progress to this medium. Of the rest of the films, an especially interesting one is “A Short Film For Adobe“, in which the company’s Photoshop program is demonstrated within the context of a photo shoot in a rather clever way. Also of note is a short adaptation of part of “Signal To Noise“, originally done as a series for Face magazine, and then collected into a graphic novel, written by Gaiman and released back in 1992. A conversation shot in a living room from a single camera angle is transferred into a visually arresting image with the collage of images coming together to form the whole. Much like a lot of McKean’s work, in any medium, it needs to be seen, as it is rather difficult to explain…however, it is all very much worth it indeed.

It is also worth noting that much of the music for many of the films on “Keanoshow” is written and performed by McKean himself. Even the basic DVD menus are done in McKean’s style, making the entire disc a treat for fans of his work. There is an interview with him in which he discusses some of the work seen on the disc, and even that is infused with some of his artistic sense. McKean is a very talented visual artist in whatever medium he chooses to work in, having a very distinctive style which is on full display in this collection of short films directed and designed by him spanning a nearly 10 year period. As mentioned earlier, the copyright issue over Reinhardt’s music currently prohibits a release in the US, but it looks to be getting a release in Europe from Darkside in the next few months (this information direct from McKean himself via his Twitter account…well worth following, as his taste in film mirrors much of what appears on this site, and he often reports on his family‘s choice of film the night before). “Keanoshow” was very briefly available on Amazon in the US in late July, 2008, which is how I got my copy, but quickly became unavailable from them when the copyright issues arose. You can find it on eBay and things like that, and for those with a taste for visual flair who are willing to try something a bit different, you shouldn’t be disappointed…as long as you pay attention.

Special thanks to Dave McKean for the info and the images, and for being a pretty cool guy, as well as a helluva artist.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

MirrorMask (2005)

This weekend Unseen Films is going to take a look at a feature film and a collection of short ones by artist and filmmaker Dave McKean. McKean is probably best known for his comic work with Neil Gaiman. However McKean doesn't limit himself to any one medium and has produced amazing work in a variety of fields. One of the fields he works in is the realm of the moving image on film and video. Today we'll be looking at the feature film he created with Neil Gaiman and the Jim Henson Company called MirrorMask. Tomorrow we'll be looking at a compilation of his short films called Keanoshow.

McKean is one of the few filmmakers working today who's use of computer generated imagery makes sense. Here is a man who has been using the medium probably since the beginning and he knows how to make images that truly look real. Most Hollywood super productions spend millions of dollars on expensive graphics and when you look at them, and I mean if you really look at them, you can see that what you are seeing isn't real. Worse if it does look real it never integrates into the live action portions of the film.
That doesn't happen with Mckean.

What I love about McKean's work is that he doesn't use just movie tricks. He is a filmmaker who will use anything at his disposal. If one looks at his film you'll see a variety of styles and methods used. There are puppets and image collages and masks and costumes and props and computer generated gizmos. There isn't a limit to what he will use. He is very similar to true cinema masters like Jan Svankmajer or Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, who use a variety of techniques to get their stories told. I'm sure that the use of a variety of techniques comes from a lack of funds but at the same time it forces the artist to be much more clever and inventive.

McKean's visuals are works of art.
To be able to truly speak about Dave McKean's work seemed a bit beyond me. Honestly I didn't feel I could do them justice, so I've asked a good friend of mine and Unseen Films contributor Ken Fries to take over control for this weekend and really explain why McKean's work is so special. He is much better suited to get at the meat of the material than I am, since he's been a fan of McKean for longer than I have.

Before we get to the review itself I want to explain why not only I asked Ken to come aboard here at Unseen Films but also why he's the perfect person to review this weekend's films. Ken is a man of many interests, chief among them are film and art. With film he's the sort of person you can make an off the cuff reference to a film to only to find you end up in a two hour conversation about a variety of related films and subjects. It's never one thing its everything all at once. Not so long ago, before a few detours, Ken wrote regularly on comics and comic art for several publications. He was responsible for some of the earliest extended and meatiest interviews with people like Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. And when I say meaty, I mean meaty. He once interviewed illustrator Charles Vess for Comics Journal but the interview was so long and detailed that the magazine sent some one else to interview him because the act of transcribing it and getting it ready for publication was going to have the issue whiz past deadline. (The still unpublished interview is one of the best and most detailed you're ever likely to see on an artist.) Ken loves to make sure he's right on every detail which is what makes reading him so much fun. He's a guy who knows what he's talking about, and knows so much that odds are that even if you know a subject you're going to learn something from him.

With that in mind I'm going to pass control of Unseen Films over to Ken for his take on the works of Dave McKean.

Watching MirrorMask is like watching someone’s dreamscape gently drift across the screen. In this case, the someone happens to be the very talented artist Dave McKean, and the dreamscape, however bizarre, has a narrative, courtesy of Neil Gaiman. McKean has the ability to take the world of his dreams and visually transform it into something tangible for the screen, which isn’t an easy thing to do. Have you ever tried describing your dreams to someone? While it may make sense to you, the look on the face of the person you’re describing it to says something to the effect of “Why are you continuing to babble on about whatever meaningless nonsense this is? Please stop…” In this case, you wish for this world to continue endlessly.

The story is co-credited to Gaiman, who also gets screenplay credit. And while Stephanie Leonidas, who wonderfully plays the young girl Helena, along with Jason Barry and Rob Brydon, receive top billing, truth be told, it’s the visual unreality designed & directed by McKean that is the real star of the film. Helena is a mid-teen whose family owns & operates a small time one-ring traveling circus, and she wishes to run away and join real life. The colorful world she unhappily inhabits is disrupted by an argument with her mother in which harsh words are exchanged, followed almost instantly by the mother collapsing, being hospitalized, and in need of surgery. We are suddenly transported to a cold antiseptic grey block of flats where Helena lives, as she feels guilt over the exchange with her mother. She visits her Mum in an equally cold antiseptic grey hospital. All color and life has been removed from the visuals to a very great effect.

As Helena goes to sleep on the night of her mother’s operation, she awakens to McKean’s dream world, the visual cacophony that brings the film back to a vivid Technicolor life. The dream world she inhabits is a metaphor for what’s going on in her life, much like someone’s actual dreams are. It’s just a treat to see it translated so beautifully to the screen. Books are used as transportation devices, not in a metaphorical but a literal sense. Schools of fish swim by in mid-air, alongside people walking around who all wear masks, and look oddly at Helena for she doesn’t have a “proper face”, as she’s not wearing a mask. Talking winged cats with human faces threaten her. The entire dream world is a manifestation of Helena’s artwork (which is the art of McKean), which she draws to amuse herself, as well as to give to her Mum when she visits her in hospital as homemade get-well cards. All of these elements are presented in a stunning visual world that is a CGI transformation of McKean’s artwork, while the masks are also McKean creations.

The rest of the story concerns Helena's quest for the film's title, as it can be used to awaken the Queen of the City Of Light, and in turn return Helena to her real world. While the quest aspect of the story isn't exactly breaking any new ground, it's the visually exciting and beautiful way in which it's presented that makes the film so interesting to watch.

The DVD is packed with extras, including an extremely interesting and informative feature-length commentary by both Gaiman & McKean, sitting in the same room at the same time, so it’s a conversation, not just a mere recitation of facts. Made on an insanely modest budget of roughly four million dollars, this is an obvious labor of love that is an absolute treat for anyone who is already a fan of McKean’s artwork. For those who aren’t familiar with his work, but like things like Labyrinth (which in part inspired this film), this will be a delight as well. If you have an appreciation for a fascinating visual world, and always wanted to know what dreams would look like if they were brought to the screen (and would also like to see a librarian made partially out of books and voiced by Stephen Fry), this will be an enjoyable film. Just see if your dreams become any more interesting after watching this film.

Clash (Bay Rong) or Tribeca Day 2 (with a mention of The Trotsky)

A quick note about tonight's film at the film festival, the highest grossing film from Vietnam from last year, Clash. It concerns a woman working for a crime lord who brings together a group of men in order to steal a lap top computer. She needs to get the computer back so her boss will let her and her daughter go.

Good action sequences get lost in dramatic sequences which become more and more over wrought and to many in the audience silly (the looks at the end were making everyone laugh). It's not a bad movie, but it doesn't belong in the film festival. I mean based upon the description in the literature they haven't seen many of the current Asian action films (particularly from China and Thailand) since the film is far from the mind blowing film promised (its similar to any number of okay films I've found in the bargain bins in Chinatown). And of course one of my rules of thumb, when you have to trumpet the amount of money a film makes you're in trouble.

I can't believe I paid for this what I did. Either borrow the eventual DVD from a friend or wait for a possible cable run.
Saw The Trotsky on Tribeca pay per view. Its about a guy who thinks he's the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky as he takes on his family and the school authorities. Its an amusing tale that's well made if a more than a tad one note. Its a film that like its main character that feels it must hit all of the predestined marks for films of this type. While it won me over in some respects, in most others I just wish it did anything other then stay straight on course. Its cable fodder...then again I've seen it a second time thanks to 24 hour free viewings and its growing on me more.I think perhaps a fuller review maybe coming down the line.

Friday, April 23, 2010

I Sell the Dead (2009)

A grave robber is sitting in his cell awaiting execution when he is visited by a monk wishing to take down his last words for posterity. He hopes to use them as a warning to others about the horrible life he lead. At first reluctant, but with his tongue loosened up by drink the young grave robber is soon telling his story which is full of the dead, the undead and things that go bump in the night.

New York lensed horror film (filmed in part on Staten Island which no doubt brought the spirit of Andy Milligan lurking about) is one of the better horror comedies to come around in a while. This is an often very funny film that just spins its story out in every which way. There was no way to know where this was going to go at the start and even at the end one can't really believe its wandered all over the places it has.

The cast is first rate. Dominic Monaghan plays Arthur Blake the grave robber telling his story. Ron Perlman is Father Duffy the monk taking the statement and who is perhaps getting too involved in the tale. Both men are clearly having a grand old time and it shows. The rest of the cast is equally as good. They would have to be in order to sell the nonsense of this film as well as they do.

The music by Jeff Grace is excellent. The effects are perfect for this sort of ghoulish silliness.

The film is a great deal of fun. If there is any trouble with the film its that perhaps it throws its net a little wide so as the result has way too much going on. I don't want to give too much away but I don't think we needed the alien body in the mix.

Still this is a great deal of fun and its one I'm pretty sure I will revisit since I just picked up a copy on DVD to add to my collection.

Worth a look or two because bits do play better the second time through.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Buried Land(2010) Or Tribeca Day 1 (with a mention of Road, Show)

Tonight I went to what is being billed as the World Premiere of Buried Land at the Tribeca Film Festival. This was the first time at the film festival for me, and all I can say its already been an interesting Festival.

There will be a full Tribeca post coming up, as will posts of any of the good films that I see at the festival.

Regrettably Buried Land will never see a fuller post here at Unseen Films beyond the few words of warning I'm going to impart.

This is a film that concerns a film crew going to make a documentary about possible pyramids in a small town in Bosnia. Its a mix of fact and fiction. It has a good opening three minutes and a good closing three minutes. In between there 81 minutes of pretentious tediousness. Its a film that will try your patience. I'm still trying to figure out why I stayed to the end, on the other hand I was the first out the door when the credits rolled.

This blog is suppose to be about good films so I won't waste your time any more other than to say this film isn't worth your time or money.

Look for a review of Road, Movie, after the festival. It's a film from India about a man driving a portable cinema for a friend. Its utterly charming. Its on Pay Per View during the festival and worth your time seeing it.

Pontypool (2009)

A zombie invasion as experienced by the staff of a radio station. Stephen McHattie is a radio personality on the air of a small radio stationwho begins to field calls about the strange things going on nearby. We watch as he and his crew stay in the studio field the reports that come in of something horrible happening outside.

Creepy well made film is the sort of thing that lets your mind work at creating a horror instead of actually showing it. When we do see the zombies they are through a blood stained glass studio wall. Its a slightly unnerving effect.

Wonderfully acted by a small cast, especially by McHattie who is one of the most under appreciated actors working today, they sell a film with a unique way of dealing with a horrible event. I like that we don't know a great deal and only having phone call reports to go on since it is very scary. For the most of the running time the film really works.

Unfortunately the film looses steam as events begin to take a cerebral turn. What is going on is a clever idea, the virus spreading the disease is connected to words but the concept doesn't completely work. While the idea of it may be neat and cool, the revelation of it is a little too unbelievable. Even knowing what was going on at the start still made it hard to take and it took everything down a couple of notches once it was revealed.

Its not a fatal flaw, I do love the film up to a certain point but there's a moment were I became disappointed. This should have and could have been the next big thing in zombie horror (it actually almost is).

The film is worth a look since the scenes where we don't know whats going on are chilling, and the ideas are clever even if they don't work in a horror film (maybe this would be a better novel).

Worth a look on cable (I saw this on IFC in Theaters on demand service) or on DVD.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Unbelievable (2009)

I dislike the recent rash of ghost hunter shows that have flooded American TV. They all feel fake, and indeed several of the shows are not what they appear to be with some of the people involved being better show men than investigators.

While I like the idea of paranormal investigation shows, the fact that you have to come up with essentially a “monster of the week” makes things curiously questionable. If they don’t find anything people won’t tune in after a few weeks. It’s one of the reasons that the History Channel’s Monsterquest TV show ends up with some awkward moments when things don’t pan out in the end.

It was with not much hope I put in Unbelievable into my DVD player. To be honest I thought the film was a straight out horror film when I picked it up. It wasn’t until I started watching it I realized that this was a documentary, actually a feature film version of a long running Chinese cable TV show. It was at that point my heart sank since I was certain that the film was going to be complete and utter trash. Amazingly the film exceeded my expectations and ended up being one of those films I started handing off copies of to anyone who likes scary movies.

The film is supposed to be the stuff they couldn’t show on TV. It’s filled with dead bodies and séances and weird happenings and it moves along at such a good clip that you don’t have time to think about what you are seeing. The film begins with a set up and then tears through sequence after sequence as the crew visits the devastation of a Tsunami, rides shot gun with an ambulance crew, meets weird people and performs séances. Its just goes and goes until the final fade out and a haunting image that has stayed with me ever since I saw it.

I don’t know if none, some or all of the footage is faked, I don’t care because the building sense of unease and strangeness gets under your skin and stays with you. It certainly has more scares than all of the various ghost shows on American cable combined. This is one creepy film. If you want to see a quietly scary movie see this film.

Currently available as an import, this is one to search out.

Screen at Kamchanod (2007)

This is one of the best horror films I've seen in the past year. Certainly its hung with me more than most other films, even films I've thought were better after viewing them. This film has stayed with me and stayed in my dreams.

Supposedly based upon a true incident, as all "good" ghost stories are, this is the story of what happens when several people seek to repeat an event that had happened 20 years before. It seems that several people set up a film projector and screen in an open area in the jungle. When they started screening the film the field was empty. During the course of the film it began to fill with people wandering in from the woods. When the film ended everyone except the projectionist disappeared.

As the film opens a small group of people are trying to run down details of what exactly happened. The details from the news accounts are sparse. They try and locate anyone who was there, finding one man in a hospital sick and slightly unbalanced grasping tightly at an amulet. They try to locate the film that was screened, a quest which opens up many doors that should remained closed. What happens from there will shake them, and the audience.

This is a good, quietly disturbing horror film. It's a film that relies on mood and lighting and half caught images to slowly build the tension. When was the last film that sent chills up and down your spine with just the sound of a creak? Or a lot of creaks? This is a film that is mostly free of fancy special effects. The ghosts we see are decidedly low tech, but they are effective. They are glimpsed on the edges of the frame in the background, and occasionally right in front of one of our protagonists. It all helps to build to a real sense of unease. I don't know when I was left feeling this uneasy. Certainly I don't know when a film invaded my dreams and had me dreaming of ghosts all night. This is not a film of scares and screams, there are a few jumps and starts, but mostly this is a film of slowly building dread that never is fully dissipated.

Its not a perfect film. It's a film that has a great deal going on that isn't said. Things are implied between characters. The narrative kind of wanders and moves with a dream logic that seems to leave things out. It builds tension but also a bit of confusion. I kept feeling I was missing something. The biggest problem is a bit towards the end, which I'm sure was truly terrifying in a theaters, but works less well on home video. It still bothered me, but not as much as it would have had I been in a theater.

Over all this was a pleasant surprise for me. Normally I'm up and down with Thai horror films, finding them either truly scary or more times than not dull and boring. This was neither dull nor boring. This was a more than slightly unnerving experience. Definitely worth a look, especially if you're curled up in a dark room on a stormy night.

Currently available on DVD from various sources.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Tribeca Film Festival starts tomorrow and other news

The Tribeca Film Festival starts tomorrow in Manhattan with the world premiere of Shrek Forever. The Festival then goes into high gear on the 22nd with the start of a heavy rotation of screenings that will run until May 2nd (I believe there are around 100 films screening). The festival also has an online component, you can pay money to get movies on your computer and they have a different set of films on pay per view on cable and satellite.

I just want to let you know that Unseen Films will be at the festival, or if not the website, yours truly will be. I have one of the ticket packages and I've picked up tickets for a few more for a total of 11 screenings. I'm also planning on seeing at least three of the pay per view choices. Because its a great many films over a small number of days I'll only be giving brief reports during the festival with full reports on any good films when I get a minute to sit down and write up the films when the festival is over.

Wish me luck since I'll be wading in to the fray at 6pm on the 22nd.


The New York Asian Film Festival has announced it's first bunch of films and guests. Sammo Hung and Simon Yam, two of my favorite actors will be there. They will also be screening Bodyguards and Assassins which was one of the first films reviewed here at Unseen Films.

Click on the NYAFF link in the side bar to get more information.


Harry Brown,another film spotlighted a few weeks back is getting a theatrical release starting Friday. Its worth the trip to the theater to see it.


Those who haven't gotten to see Girl with the Dragon Tattoo only have to wait until July 6th for the DVD release.

In related news I've seen the sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire and found it extremely disappointing. It appears to cover the story, but removes any notion of characterization and shading to the Cliff Notes style plot.

House of the Devil (2009)

Ti West hit pay dirt and comes up blood soaked with this note perfect homage to late 1970's or early 1980's horror films. Having lived through the period and seen countless of the films he's copying I'm telling you he got it dead on perfect, and best of all its a scary movie in its own right.

The plot, which I'm going to tell as briefly and non-spoiler filled as possible, has a college student taking a job for a babysitter. Unfortunately the job isn't as a babysitter its actually to watch the mother of an older couple so that they can go out on the night of a lunar eclipse. Let's just understate things by saying things go horribly wrong from there. (I won't say more since some of the promo material, the local cable operator's description on the pay per view service reveals too much. Though to be honest because of who plays some characters you can kind of guess bits of where things are going)

A slow building tension coils up until the explosion at the end which leaves everyone and everything blood soaked. Its a corker of the sort no one does any more, not with the effectiveness that's on display here. The problem with other films is not that the plots are bad its just that in the hands of hack filmmakers the material getsdown graded. West's handling of the material on the other hand, is as perfect as they come, and while it doesn't do anything new, except maybe in the volume of blood, it takes a well worn plot and makes it look perfect and new.

Can you tell I really liked this? Part of it is the nostalgia, both of the time shown and of the movies it copies (down to the music and credit lettering); mostly I love the film because its a damn good horror film. Where is the drive-in movie when you need one.

Highly recommended (Rob Zombie should be jealous)

Currently out on DVD

Monday, April 19, 2010

Outpost (2008)

(Wednesday would have been my mom's 66th birthday. By way of celebrating the day I'm doing a week of films that would have tickled her to death -- every film this week is a horror film. Even the "matinee day" on Wednesday, which I normally try to mix things up each week is also a horror related title -though thats actually a documentary. So in honor of one hell of a "broad", I now share with you a week of films I never got to share with her)

A group of mercenaries are hired to take a man into a warn torn part of the Eastern Europe where his bosses have acquired some property. Their job is keep him safe while he checks out the property (a bunker) which lies between the army and a rebel force. Unfortunately they haven't counted on what is actually in the bunker and is dead set on killing everyone of them.

Add this to the group of similar films like The Bunker or The Trench where dead things lurk and hunt the living. Its yet another one of the small but growing sub horror genre of military horror. Even though this is similar to other films I need to state very clearly that this is a good little film. Its a creepy movie that operates in its own little world, and where that doesn't always work for other films, here its just helps amp up the tension. Once the film starts going, it takes almost half the film before its set up, the film becomes a creepy ride to the end. (I'm being intentionally lacking in details since what happens isn't what you think or expect and I don't want to give you any clues as to what really is going on)

Its a perfect popcorn movie that's worth a rental or picking up, as I did, in a bargain bin. Frankly its one of the few films I've seen recently that I would gladly watch again and will tell people about.


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Bran Nue Dae (2009)

With this review You are introduced to another contributor and a very good friend of mine Reg. I won't go into what a hell of a nice guy he is, since I'll leave you to discover that on your own. I will however talk about why I asked him to write for Unseen Films.

Reg is a hell of a writer. He writes regularly on music on his blog and he waxes poetically about music and uses it as a springboard for discussions of other subjects. Its like listening to the best disc jockey in the world talk about the music you love, or want to love or will love as soon as you find the music he's talking about. He truly kicks it into high gear when he does it as part of his trips to The Pelican Club, a feature where he does extended posts that are like being in a small club and enjoying an evening of music. (I'm trying to convince him to do a film version here at Unseen Films)

Reg has an encyclopedic knowledge of film. If you can get him talking about film he will amaze you with all that he knows. I'm still trying to figure out where he's picked it all up since he is not a typical film geek with his head buried in films and film books. The information kind of just spills out out of him. He has a great love of classic films, as well as a passion for science fiction. Since he lives in Australia he has wicked knowledge of classic films from the UK. He's pointed me toward any number of really great films that I simply never knew about because of my limitations here in the United States. Actually Reg knows a hell of a lot about just about any type of film out there. He's also a blast to go to the movies with. A few years back he and I went to see The Host at the New York Film Festival and we had a great time not only watching the movie but watching the audience.

Reg and I have been trying to get him on the blog for a while now but he's been having really wicked computer problems that have prevented him from posting directly to the blog. He's in the process of getting the problem solved, which I'm hoping will bring about a more rapid flood of pieces. Until then Reg has sent me his review of Bran Nue Dae which I've posted below. This is a film that he has been talking about from the instant I mentioned this blog to him. Its a film that he really wanted to write about but was prevented from doing so because of the computer problems. (I don't know about you but based upon what he says the mere thought of Geoffrey Rush channeling Dr Strangelove puts this on my list of must see films.)

And with out further adieu I now give you the first, of what I am hoping will be a steady stream of reviews here at Unseen Films from the ever wonderful (in a manly sort of a way) Reg.

How can you define a musical which in its' first ten minutes features an old school church spiritual and a rockabilly song about the benefits of condoms?

That sums up this film really because it is trying to be two things and it fails in at least one attempt.

The plot is simple. Willy is a young aborigine running away from his boarding school in Perth and trying to get home to the girl he loves in Broome.. Along the way he gathers together a group of fellow travellers, all of whom learn something and...Oh never mind. It doesn't really matter.

This is a film that works best when it forgets that it's a musical, even during the musical numbers. When it tries to be a musical, it is embarrassing. When it relaxes and just tries to be a road movie, it is delightful.

Overall, its flaws, Geoffry Rush's Dr Strangelovesque accent, Magda Subanski's being in the film for no good reason and a fairly muddled knowledge of religious practices, (the services Willy's mother attends are clearly Baptist and yet she has sent him off to a Catholic boarding school in hopes that he'll become a priest,) and the moments when the director remembers that this is based on a stage musical, are out-weighed by the moments of joy brought on by a brilliant cast, (Ernie Dingo and Deborah Mailman are deserving of singling out here, both playing characters who could be tragic victim stereotypes, but both playing with such gusto that the comfortable white liberal viewer is forced to question their own assumptions,) and a great sound track.

I walked away from this film smiling, which I believe was the intent of the people who made it.

Andy Milligan- An Appreciation

I'm guessing the vast majority of you haven't heard of Andy Milligan. And unless you are a fan of really bad horror films I would make a bet that even if you know his films you probably don't like them. They are to cinema what dirt roads are to paved road. They are rough and tumble and jagged and anachronistic and badly acted and a many other things, few of them "good". They are also not with out a certain amount of charm.

I'm going to be painfully honest I'm not a fan of Milligan's movies. I own a number of them but they are not something I watch with any regularity. I am on the other hand a great admirer of the man, of the artist. He was a man who made movies because he had to, there was a driving passion to create, unfortunately there was a gulf between what he did on film and what he was really capable of.

What he was capable of was to help start what we know of as Off and Off Off Broadway. He was one of those in the Cafe Cino just off Bleaker Street in the late 50's and early 60's when many of the icons (Sam Shepherd among others) of the Off Broadway theater were getting their start by putting on plays in violation of certain New York City ordinences. Milligan's stage work, was as best as I can find out, actually quite good. He has a knack for staging shows that were very much alive.

Unfortunately for Milligan he had the opportunity to start making films with the result he moved away from theater and into the realm of low rent, low budget cinema. Based on what I've read it was probably a bad move, but at the time it seemed like a big break.

(I'm not going to go into Milligans life, however I will strongly suggest that you all run out and get yourself a copy of The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan by JimmyMcDonough. Its not only a wonderful bio of Milligan, its also a fantastic look at exploitation film in the 50's 60's and 70's plus a wonderful look at the Off Off Broadway scene. I have to be honest here and say the best part of the book is the fact that Milligan- who could be a jerk- disappears for vast chunks of the story and the story suddenly is about these other wondeful things. It is one of the best books on film I've ever read. And there is no reason not to get it when Amazon e-sellers are selling it for under a buck)

Andy Milligan was most definitely a a New York filmmaker. He originally lived in the Village working in a dress shop by day and doing his plays and movies on the side. He then moved his filmmaking operation to Staten Island, I would guess because the location was full of the natural locations his stories needed and it was only a ferry ride from Manhattan.

He was a one man film crew, writing directing and editing (his prefered method of editing his films was to tear the film with his teeth) all by himself. He worked on the cheap and as several of his regular actors commented, the more money he got from producers the cheaper his films looked. No one was sure where the extra money went.

Most of Milligan's films have certain look. The framing is cramped and the sound is odd. This is the result of Milligan shooting with a fixed focus camera. This limited what he could do, so people often huddle together in the center of a frame. No one knows why Milligan didn't go for better equipment but then again with Andy no one knew why he did a good many things.

I'm not going to run through Milligan's entire film catalog, partly because I don't know many of his early films and partly because I don't know if many even exist any more. What I'm going to do is mention a few films you may want to try by putting in your Netflix cue.(I've starred the best films)

*VAPORS (1965) was Milligan's first film and probably his best. Its the story of a man in a bathhouse verbally sparring with the other men. Our hero is closeted, he isn't fully admitting why he's there. Men come and go. There is a strong sense of longing as he tries to connect with the people there. Its a very good film that completely unlike what followed, at least as far as what survives. Its supposedly closer to what Milligan was doing on stage than anything else and a real indicator that the man had talent.

GHASTLY ONES (1968) Milligan period piece about murders for an inheritance. Shot in that tight Milligan style where people seem to hug each other so they remain in frame. This is a dreadful movie that has a certain amount of brain dead charm. Its a movie in the "I can't believe they actually released this" sort of way. Again as with most Milligan films, it's little more than a home movie (stuff I shot looked like this and I couldn't release it). This is the sort of thing only masochists and bad movie lovers dare watch.

SEEDS (OF SIN) (1968) Dysfunctional family goes home for the holidays and murder and mayhem result. Violent sexy Milligan at his most home made. This is a trip into depravity 1960's style. Notable for the copious nudity and sex this film is neither sexy nor gruesome, playing now more as quaint.

*GURU THE MAD MONK (1970)- Story of a Monk who runs a prison who kills anyone he feels has slighted him or is putting him in danger. Typical representation of Milligan's films with wild characters doing wild things, garbed in obvious costumes and walking around sets (real locations) full of anachronistic stuff. This is a good place to start viewing his films.

*BLOOD THIRSTY BUTCHERS (1970) Milligans take on Sweeney Todd is a cramped retelling of the story. Not quite one of the worst films ever made, it does have a certain amount of charm. Definitely not one of the best movies ever made but enjoyable is an off quality sort of way.

*BODY BENEATH (1970) The best of Milligan's feature films I've seen. One of Milligans films from his stay in England, this movie actually is a good...okay...just...story of vampires and such trying to get new blood into their family. Technically competent which only has to survive the need to keep all of the actors in close huddle and some make up that would be too thick even on stage, this is a decent drama/thriller thats actually one of the few Milligan movies I can recommend on any level. Sure it dances the fine line around being a bad movie (and crosses over into that territory a few times) but its the sort of time killer you may actually watch to the end.

THE RATS ARE COMING! THE WEREWOLVES ARE HERE! (1972)- Story is that Milligan's orginal cut of a werewolf film was too short so he went back and shot a side story about rats. Its a just okay story about a family of were wolves trying to remain hidden and one of their members trying to break the curse

TORTURE DUNGEON (1970)- A duke plots to kill off all the heirs to the throne so he can become king. Okay Milligan film is enjoyable because its so clearly a dress up party. People wander in and out of locations that are so not the time or place the story is happening as to make the film silly.

The films I've mentioned are all on DVD.Whether you choose to see them or not is up to you. Personally given the choice I'd probably read his biography again, then again his films do have a certain amount of insane charm.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Notes: The Good, The Bad The Eden

Just a couple of notes about some general stuff and problems.

First up the bad stuff

My main computer is locking up when I'm accessing the comments. Its my computer which needs updating (which should be shortly). People are starting to read the blog and comment which makes me feel good. Unfortunately I'm having trouble replying. Please bear with me. I'm not ignoring you, I'm just hampered by what I'm working with. I'll get there I just have to use one of the other computers in the house. (I've also screwed up when I've revised a couple of posts recently so the corrections didn't take- I think I've fixed the problems)

Okay the good stuff.

As you can see in the side bar there are numerous contributors listed but for the most part most of the reviews have been mine. Yes, Eden (more on her in a minute) has been contributing regularly but there hasn't been a great deal of activity from anyone else. That's about to change. I've finally gotten some of my cohorts to get up off the couch and dive in. The first of the new people will be taking over next weekend for a double feature of films from the artist Dave McKean.

Now about Eden.

One of the joys of starting this blog was that I could ask a good number of people who I like, and who's writing I really like to help me out and to write up a film or two. As I said to Eden last weekend I'm not getting paid money for doing this blog, I'm getting paid by the chance to get to read new work by writers I like. Eden's writing is something I really like.

Eden is the chief cook and bottle washer over at the Comicsgirl website and she's a contributor at Geek Girl on the Street. If you like comics you should be reading her stuff, particularly her Comicsgirl material which is sterling. I suggest you start with her Revisiting the Sandman series which was the first of too many re-visits by comic fans of the comic series for its 20th anniversary. Its one of the best pieces on comics on a personal level I've read.

LinkWhat I like about Eden is that her writing is, no matter what she is writing about, always personal. There is a real emotion that comes through, and a real connection with the writer herself. If you have read her pieces here on Unseen Films I'm sure you've seen that. She's a person who writes from the heart, who gives her opinion based upon what she feels.

What sets her apart is that while she tells you how she feels she also has this bank of knowledge that is operating behind the words; its very evident in her comic writing and its something that comes through in her film writing as well. Its not just emotion, there's more. If she likes something she can tell you why. Look at her piece on the Heavenly Kings. Yes, she tells you why she likes the film, but she also lets you know that she knows what else is going on beyond a good time laughing at boy bands.

Eden is one of my favorite writers, period. The fact that she agreed to do some writing for me really amazed me. I'm sure if you read enough of her writing you'll become a fan too.

As with all of the contributors you'll find all her posts listed under a label that says EDEN in the side bar.

The Blood Island films

Tonight Cinematic Titanic, one of the off shoots of Mystery Science 3000 is playing in New York City. For those who don't know Mystery Science Theater was the originator of skilled commentators adding color commentary to films that are often of questionable quality. Think Plan Nine From Out Space or Santa Claus Conquers the Martians but add witty retorts concerning the insanity on screen. I have no idea what film they are going to pick on when I go tonight since I'm trying to remain an aware until I get to the theater. However in the spirit of Cinematic Titanic and Mystery Science Theater 3000, I'm devoting this weekends double feature to material that would be right at home on either show.

Tomorrow I'm going to talk about filmmaker Andy Milligan and his output of films. Today I'm going to talk about the Blood Island films that were produced the late 1960's and early 1970's in the Philippines as co-productions with the US.

(An aside after the fact: It's no secret that with this blog I'm often working ahead of myself. If I want something to appear on a certain date and I know I won't be around to write up the film I'll work ahead of the need. For example with the Tribeca Film Festival coming up this week I've pre-programmed material. Because I knew I was going to the Cinematic Titanic show tonight I wrote up material a couple of weeks ago never suspecting that when I got to the show that what they were showing Danger on Tiki Island was a cut of Brides of Blood which is talked about below. I think this means that I was right on target on picking material that was right on home for the show.)

Now I'm going to be upfront here and say that I really like most of the films in the series. They are just so wonderfully joyously exploitative and classically drive-in that I can't help but love them. I mean how can you not love a monster that's best know as the chlorophyll monster?

The Blood Island films are a loose collection of films that all take place on a place called Blood Island. The money men at Independant International up the ante by adding blood to the title of several other films so what is really three or four films in a series expands to six or seven. The focus of this article is not the entire series but the three core films Brides of Blood, Mad Doctor of Blood Island and Beast of Blood.

The series unofficially started with Terror is a Man, a 1959 version of the Island of Dr Moreau. Its a neat little film about a made scientist turning people into animals and vice versa. Its important to the series only in that it names the place .

The next film is a strange vampire film called The Blood Dinkers. which is an odd mix of black and white that was colored and color film. It concerns a vampire trying to find a heart transplant for his lover. Its actualy a very good. Its much better than the dopey title suggests.

BRIDES OF BLOOD (1968) is the first of the core series. Its a wild and over the top film that is a great deal of fun. The film concerns nature going berserk in the wake of nuclear testing on Blood Island. a Giant tree has become caneverous and is sending out tentacles to pull people in so it can feed. Animals are mutating and there is a lumpy creature running about that looks like the Michelin Tire guy on a bad day (he's very silly). A research team arrives to investigate.

Edgy and atmospheric this is a monster movie in the grand tradition. You have weird things going on, sexual tension between the cast members, and monsters running amok, what more could you ask for? This movie was a drive-in staple for years and its easy to see why since it gives you everything that a drive-in crowd would want sex blood and breasts. Its also lots of run, creepy and just a bit scary.

Its set in the same location as the next two films but is otherwise unrelated. For me the viewing of the next two films back to back is drive-in nirvana.

MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND (1968) has three people going to Blood Island for their own reasons. The beautiful young girl is there to find her father. The handsome islander is there to reunite with his mother. The doctor is there to investigate a supposed out break of a new disease. What they find when they get there is a monster on the loose that likes to disembowel and dismember (graphically) his victims.

"Sequel" to Brides of Blood this is more of the same only up a notch. Its mad doctor on the loose using science to create a monster that runs around killing people. Hooray for crackpot medical degrees.

What can I say about a movie that begins with the audience being given "the pledge of the green blood" other than see this movie? If you like old school horror, or drive-in style movies, this film is for you. This movie is a blast. It moves along at a good clip, has a great monster, some very graphic killings (you will see blood, limbs and intestines) and some topless women. Its the sort of movie they don't make any more.

My only complaint is that some knucklehead thought it would be a good idea to zoom in and out every time the monster attacks. Its the equivalent to whiplash and really distracts from the early attack scenes. Thankfully the effect isn't done as wildly in the later scenes and you actually can put away your neck brace and enjoy the film.

BEAST OF BLOOD (1971) literally picks up hours after the last film ends. The film begins on the boat sailing away from Blood Island. As John Ashley waxes poetic about his time on the island fighting monsters, the man beast from the first film appears (he was seen to have secreted himself in a lifeboat at the end of Mad Doctor) and a battle occurs which destroys the ship and leaves Ashley as the only survivor. A year or so later Ashley heads back to Blood Island to investigate stories that weird things have begun to happen again despite the death of the evil Dr Lorca. On the island Ashley finds that many people he believed dead survived the final battle of the first film and that some how the "green men" have returned. It isn't long before its realized that Dr Lorca is back and up to his old tricks.

Watching this in close proximity to Mad Doctor I find that the film plays much better than it does as a stand alone film. I was never a big fan of this film prior to the back to back viewings because I always felt that it was missing something. What it was missing was the set up that the first film gives it. If you watch the two films together I think you'll find it a better film than when it's viewed all alone.

A sequel it is, but its not as scary (nor as gory nor as titillating). Sure there are some horrifying moments, but on some level this is more an adventure/ mystery film than a real horror movie. The man-beast is effectively off camera for most of the film following the opening battle (I have to say the make up here is infinitely better than in Mad Doctor). Some of Lorca's victims do cause mayhem, but the majority of the film concerns trying to find Lorca and a kidnapped reporter. Its not bad, but if you are expecting a straight horror film you may end up very disappointed, despite a great monster.

What can I say? High art its not. Definitely worth seeing especially as part of a double feature with Mad Doctor of Blood Island.

After this the producers decided to continue the "blood series" and added two more films to the mix.

is one of the most painful viewing experiences I've ever had, and I've had it repeatedly as I've run up against this film under several titles. It concerns a family who have to deal with a dirty little secret, their mother is a vampire and she keeps coming out of the crypt to feast on people. Its a horrible movie and I can't recommend it.

The last film in the mix was HORROR OF THE BLOOD MONSTERS which concerns a plague on earth tied to a space probe on a distant planet where cave people battle strange monsters. The truth of the matter is the core part of the film, the space part was a black and white film they couldn't release in the US because it was black and white. So they had Al Adamson come in and shoot wrap around sequences that have nothing to do with the rest of the film. They then tinted the black and white footage and said the strange color was due to the alien atmosphere. Its actually not bad in a so bad its good sort of way.

That effectively ended the series.

For the most part the series is a great deal of schlocky fun with Brides, Mad Doctor and Beast all worth the time to see (especially with a bowl of popcorn and a soda.) If you want a great night on the couch seeing films that might have played the drive in or grindhouses in the early and mid 1970's see these films.

All are out on DVD. The best news is that Alpha Video, aka has appears to have re-released the Image release at a fraction of the cost, about 5 bucks a DVD. They come with trailers and super commentaries from Sam Sherman of Independent International.