Saturday, July 24, 2010

Fantasia 2010: Black Lightning (2009) Russia

Fantasia 2010: Black Lightning (2009) Russia

Black Lightning aka Chernaya Molniya (2009) Russia imdb Directed by Dmitriy Kiselev and Aleksandr Voytinskiy Written by Dmitriy Aleynikov and Aleksandr Talal, based on an idea by Aleksandr Voytinskiy and Mikhail Vrubel and Dmitriy Aleynikov, with participation from Rostislav Krivitskiy and Vladimir Neklyudov.

Produced by Timur Bekmambetov (the director of Wanted) who is currently developing a U.S. version, the Russian film Black Lightning is simultaneously the best flying car movie and the best Spider-Man movie ever made. (Replacing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Spider-Man II respectively - Blade Runner is a movie with flying cars not a movie about a flying car.)

To be exact it is a Spider-Man pastiche about a Russian kid named Dima (your Peter Parker substitute). After Dima drops broad hints about needing a car to date the prettiest girl in his school, Nastya (your Gwen Stacy substitute), his parents give him a beat-up antique Volga for his birthday. Dima is disappointed because the Volga is an uncool tank of a car and no competition for his best friend's cooler Mercedes. What Dima discovers is that his car is a lost Soviet experiment and it can fly. (The best friend being your Norman Harry Osborn substitute and Dima's rival for Nastya's attentions.)

In case it is not obvious, Black Lightning handles the soap opera that surrounds Dima's life very well hearkening back to the Stan Lee/John Romita Sr. run on the Amazing Spider-Man.

In typical Spider-Man fashion, Dima uses the flying car to become... the best (and best-paid) flower deliveryman in Russia, using the money to date Nastya. And naturally he learns a lesson about great power and greater responsibility.

It should be said that the film does not use those words. The film is built on a theme of selfishness vs selflessness, framed a bit as a nostalgic longing for socialism compared to the out-of-control kleptocracy version of capitalism that controls Russia today. The film is not completely nostalgic. The Soviet experiment that created the flying car in the first place failed (or rather appeared to fail) because of an act of selfishness.

The MacGuffin that fuels the plot (and makes the Volga fly) is a device called the nano-catalyst, created using a crystal from the Moon, implying that the Soviets either flew to the Moon or stole the a crystal from the Americans. The nano-catalyst converts regular fuel into fuel that is millions of time more efficient, powering the engines of Dima's flying car.

If that sounds like a silly use for such a device, you would share the opinion of the Big Bad of the film, a ruthless industrialist who is a cross between Norman Osborn and a Bond villain. He wants the nano-catalyst to power a drill to break through the bedrock underneath Moscow and access the diamond deposit hidden there. Worries that penetrating Moscow's bedrock foundation night cause earthquakes that would destroy half the city are dismissed as inconsequential compared to the diamonds.

Ironically, Russia kleptocracy works against the industrialist. When his stooges find the lost Soviet lab where the nano-catalyst experiments took place, they steal and sell the Volga (to Dima's father) because it is obviously not the nano-catalyst their boss is looking for. Similarly, Dima's florist boss and the purse-snatcher Dima refuses to stop both act for their own selfish reasons unknowingly frustrating the desires of the industrialist.

What makes Black Lightning great is its careful blend of crowd-pleasing Silver-Age Marvel super-hero soap-opera with astute (and exotic) commentary on contemporary Russian society.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Fantasia 2010: Raging Phoenix (and Fireball) Thailand

Fantasia 2010: Raging Phoenix (and Fireball) Thailand

Raging Phoenix aka Deu suay doo (2009) Thailand imdb Directed by Rashane Limtrakul Written by Sompope Vejchapipat.

I am not sure if anyone reads these because they are looking for films to watch (or avoid) but if you do, here is why you must hunt down Raging Phoenix in three words:


My work here is done!


You need more convincing? You need a slightly longer review? OK. How about a full sentence.

Raging Phoenix stars the girl from Chocolate as a young alcoholic who learns Drunken Thai Kick-Boxing to fight human slavers.



No not Juliette Binoche. Yes, Carrie-Anne Moss would make more sense, but not her either. Look we are not talking about the Lasse Hallström film Chocolat, we are talking about the Thai martial arts film Chocolate that introduced the world to the best female martial artist on film since Michelle Yeoh, namely JeeJa Yanin aka Yanin Vismistananda/Yanin Vismitananda.

What makes her special is that she hits people like Tony Jaa (that relentlessly physical Muay Thai style); she combines martial arts with dance like Jackie Chan only adding break-dancing to the mix; she uses team martial arts choreography like Jet Li and Miu Tse in My Father is a Hero and she has more emotional range than any of the men. She is also completely willing to get dirty and look unglamorous.

The plot of Raging Phoenix (such as it is) sees JeeJa playing Deu, a morose alcoholic who has lost or alienated everyone in her life with her combative ways. When slavers try to kidnap her, she is rescued by a troupe of drunken Thai kick-boxing break-dancers (I can hardly believe that you can list those words one after the other into a phrase that exists on film), named Pig-Shit, Dog-Shit, Bull-Shit and Sanim. All four men have lost someone in their life to slavers and have dedicated their lives to drinking and beating up slavers while drunk.

To be exact they practice the art of Meyraiyuth, a combination of drinking, Muay Thai, breakdancing and parkour. There is a bit more philosophy here than in Jackie Chan's Drunken Master films. As Bull-Shit explains to Deu, "Meyraiyuth is about pain. Alcohol is just the way that pain becomes violence."

In other words, when Jackie Chan practices Drunken Style Kung-Fu, the drunker he gets, the better at Kung-Fu that he gets. Which is why Drunken Master 2 ends with Jackie drinking alcohol so strong that it sets his breath on fire. When Jeeja Yanin practices Meyraiyuth, the more emotional pain that she is in, the better at beating people she is. Which is why Raging Phoenix ends with a heart-broken Jeeja flat-out killing people with knees and elbows.

While melodramatic, the film does have villains who create Jeeja's emotional anguish and deserve her wrath. They are slavers, so it would seem obvious that they are kidnapping girls for forced prostitution, but that would be too simple. (One almost feels like the change was made at the behest of some official in Tourism Thailand worried that horny tourists might see the film and feel guilt over their sex trips.)  Instead of simple sexual slavery, the Jaguar gang in the film kidnaps women to create an expensive perfume so intoxicating that its wearers become addicted to sex. The perfume is made from human pheromones and when this is announced it conjures thoughts of some hideous rendering factory which feeds beautiful Thai girls screaming into its gears to be ground down into tiny perfume bottles.

Again, too simple an idea. The slavers make their perfume from the rarest substance know to man: the tears of genuine sorrow from beautiful women.

There will come a time and soon, when Jeeja Yanin is given a script worthy of her amazing talents. Until that time, we can enjoy the immense guilty pleasure of watching her in action.

Key word there is watch. Despite its incredible high-concept premise, I can't recommend this next film because it is literally unwatchable.

Fireball aka Tar Chon (2009) Thailand imdb Directed by Thanakorn Pongsuwan Written by Thanakorn Pongsuwan and Kiat Sansanandana and Taweewat Wantha and Adirek Wattaleela.

Fireball is built on a brilliant, simple concept: Bloodsport for Basketball. Tony Jaa's stunt team play the assorted thugs entered in an annual underground full-contact basketball tournament run by the Thailand gang-lords. Each team is sponsored by one gang-lord who view the tournament as important for bragging rights, for the winner-take-all cash prize and as an augury to predict their future successes.

The rules are simple and brutal. Each team starts with five players. If a player gets injured or killed during the tournament, you can't replace him. You win games by either scoring 1 basket (!) or by making the other team unable to play by either killing or injuring all of them. Most teams consider winning by scoring a basket a tactic for pansies.

The plot of Fireball (such as it is) revolves around twin brothers Tai and Tan both played by Preeti Barameeanat. Tai is the criminal of the duo. When he is spring from prison early thanks to a hefty bribe from Tan, Tai discovers that his brother raised the money by entering the Fireball tournament and the injuries Tan suffered as a result have left him in a coma. Tai decides to enter the tournament posing as his brother hoping to find out who injured his brother and take vengeance on them.

So you have vengeance paired with paranoia as Tai has no idea who he can trust. Each member of his team including the gang-boss who funds it have their secrets. And those are the ones who are supposed to be on Tai's side, never mind the other teams who are just trying to kill or cripple him.

Pure melodrama, but that's not the problem. Most martial arts movies are paced like porn: Plot, dialogue, fight. And the plot is usually just as critical to the success of the film: a good plot can improve the film, but a bad one can't really hurt it that much.

No, the problem with Fireball is that you can't see what is going on. The film is shot with the dark, twitchy style of really bad rap videos. One of the games takes place at night, in a raging rain-storm with erratic lighting and for no good reason at all dry ice on the court. All of the bad habits that have popped up in recent sports films, where the games are shot with the herky-jerky hand-held style in extreme close-up.

Call me old-fashioned, but I like being able to tell what is going on in the game in a sports movie (or a martial arts film - or a porn for that matter).

And call me an idiot because if they make a sequel to Fireball, as they are threatening to do, I will pay to see it.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Fantasia 2010: Fish Story (and 20th Century Boys I & II)

Is it possible to judge how good an adaptation is without having read the source material? I am not asking about judging the adaptation on its own merits, rather I am asking whether you can judge how faithful the adaptation was to the source material?

Before Fantasia 2009, I would have said: No, of course not. Now I am not so sure.

20th Century Boys aka 20-seiki shônen: Honkaku kagaku bôken eiga (2008) Japan imdb Directed by Yukihiko Tsutsumi, Written by Yasushi Fukuda and Takashi Nagasaki and Naoki Urasawa and Yûsuke Watanabe, based on the manga by Naoki Urasawa.

20th Century Boys is based on the very popular manga about a group of kids who build a clubhouse together in the summer of 1969. Nearly three decades later, they reconnect during a school reunion. Their leader Kenji, once an aspiring Rock star, now runs his family's convenience store while baby-sitting his niece Kanna. When one of Kenji's childhood friends falls off a building, an apparent suicide, Kenji investigates - convinced that it is murder. Kenji (and his childhood friends) gradually come to realize that someone is recreating the doomsday scenario from a comic book that they wrote and drew as kids.

That someone is called Friend and he (or possibly she) is the masked leader of a doomsday cult, who instead of waiting for a predicted apocalypse are bringing one about. Their blueprint for the end of the world is the comic written by Kenji and his friends as children. In the comic-book, Kenji and his gang rose up as a kind of justice society to save the world from Armageddon. Now as middle-age failures can they be the heroes that they imagined as children that they would become?

The film is visually stunning. The acting is incredible. And the plot is imaginative, but there is so much of it and it feels like the filmmakers have a plot checklist that they feel they have to check-off and only so much time to do it in. The film (and its characters) rarely has a moment to breathe. And it's a shame because beyond its visual imagination, this is a smart story about ideas. One of the great lines of the film comes when Friend talking about the 1969 moon landings observes that (and I am paraphrasing here) we (humanity) are not Neil Armstrong, we are Michael Collins, the pilot who flew all the way to the Moon, but stayed in orbit and watched Armstrong and Aldrin actually land on the surface. In other words, humanity did not go to the moon, we just observed as a favoured few went. 

As I hinted above, I have never read 20th Century Boys, so I have no real evidence how faithful this adaptation is, but the film certainly smugly believes that it is doing a fine job of an adaptation. The tell-tale signs are the scenes with a visual flourish where the film stops dead as if to announce, "See, it's a panel from the series! Aren't we doing a good job?" Like a comedian pausing for a laugh when only half the audience is in on the joke.

The ironic thing is that the story is about the dangers of adaptation. In role-playing games, when a game master forces a party down a certain path, he is railroading them. Kenji and his crew are trapped in a scenario that they devised years before, boxed-in on an adventure on rails that they wrote and drew and which the mysterious Friend is adapting.

There is one moment in the film when Kenji grabs his guitar, plays a chord and it seems like the film will be about the salvation, rebellious power and freedom of Rock and Roll. But the moment quickly passes. It is also incredibly fustrating that when Kenji finally stops acting like a wet blanket, and gets the childhood gang back together to try and stop their childhood apocalyptic vision... the film essentially ends with Kenji having a confrontation that reveals to him information that the audience won't get until the third film.

In a sense, the film is the Japanese version of Watchmen. It even has the same fractured time perspective as the film bounces from a mysterious and imprisoned narrator in 2015, back to 1969 and forward to the late 90s heading for the cataclysm at the end of the 20th Century. Like Watchmen, 20th Century Boys clearly does an excellent job of visually adapting its beloved source material, but, in both cases, the filmmakers obvious reverence for the original does more harm than good.

Unlike say Akira where the original creator (Katsuhiro Otomo) took apart his original work and reassembled a brilliant anime from his equally brilliant but completely different manga series.

In a sense, the filmmakers are trapped in that prison cell with their unseen and mysterious narrator, forced through their own reverence and artistic cowardice to tell their story in a visually stunning but sterile way.

20th Century Boys: Chapter Two - The Last Hope aka 20-seiki shônen: Dai 2 shô - Saigo no kibô (2009) Japan imdb Directed by Yukihiko Tsutsumi, Written by Yasushi Fukuda and Takashi Nagasaki and Yûsuke Watanabe, based on the manga by Naoki Urasawa.

The second film in the trilogy focuses on Kanna, making her a rebellious hot-head from the beginning. After the cataclysm that ended the first film, Kenji is missing or dead and the rest of his gang are either imprisoned or hiding out like rats in the walls, plotting sedition from their hide-outs.

The dangers of adaptation are ramped up a notch as Kanna and her Uncle's gang gradually come to realize that someone wrote a sequel to the gang's original comic and that sequel is now being adapted to the real world. Since they never had and never find a full copy of the sequel, they have no idea if their actions will help stop this adaptation or help it happen. While this might cause doubt and paralysis, it is instead oddly freeing, allowing them to pursue their own agenda without feeling like Fate's puppets.

The entire film feels free as the mysterious narrator escapes from his prison to rejoin the resistance. Even the filmmakers are freed: from comments on the imdb page, it seems like the second film takes more liberties with the original text. The only thing that handicaps the film is that you had to watch the first one for the second film to make any sense.

It would only be apparent to someone watching the sub-titled version, but the best symbol of the way that this more relaxed adaptation improves the film comes from an apparent error in translation. Early in the film, when the restaurant where Kanna works is endangered by a gang war, Kanna walks through a hail of bullets to yell the two gang leaders into a truce. One of the gang leader remarks about Kamma's ability to walk through a fusillade without being touched. In Japanese, he almost certainly says that Kanna has the ability to dodge bullets. In the subtitles, he says "Bullets dodge her!"

It's an accident, but even accidents have meaning. And there is something right and true about Kanna being so bad-ass that bullets avoid her in fear. And it's the kind of film magic that the first film in the trilogy would never allow to happen.

Fish Story aka Fisshu sutôrî (2009) Japan imdb Directed by Yoshihiro Nakamura, Screenplay by Yoshihiro Nakamura based on the novel by Kotaro Isaka.

Fish Story opens on a deserted Tokyo. It is 2012 and a comet is five hours away from colliding with Earth. With Tokyo expected to be engulfed by 100 meter waves ("Two times taller than Godzilla") it seems like everyone has deserted Tokyo for Mt. Fuji, except for three men listening to songs in a Japanese record store, one that looks uncannily like the one from High Fidelity. As one of the men remarks sourly, even if they made it to Mt. Fuji, and even if the wave didn't sweep over the mountain, Fuji would probably become an active volcano - killing everyone clinging to the mountain.

The record that they end up listening to is "Fish Story" an obscure Japanese punk classic recorded in 1975, as the film remarks frequently, one year before the Sex Pistols formed. The argument that the men get into and the argument of the film is: Can a punk rock song save the world?

From there, Fish Story bounces back and forth through time telling the story of how the song came to be created and how the song influenced the lives of a wide variety of people. This includes a fantastic set-piece on a Japanese ferry that quotes the original Karate Kid and Steven Seagal's best film: Under Siege.

Everything that 20th Century Boys aspires to be, Fish Story simply is. Both films are about the salvation and freedom of Rock and Roll; both films have a fractured sense of time; both are about the dangers of predictions; both feature doomsday cults and the possible end of the world; both have unexpected bad-asses and both ultimately are about the dangers of too faithful of an adaptation and the benefits of being less reverential of the source material.

In the first few minutes, Fish Story references the Sex Pistol cover of My Way in an admiring tone. I am uncertain if the filmmakers knew that the original Frank Sinatra version of My Way was itself an adaptation by Paul Anka of a French song called Comme d'habitude. Or that Anka wrote the song's lyrics trying to fit words and phrases that he had heard Frank Sinatra use, again adapting those words and phrases to the song he was writing. This mirrors the way that the song Fish Story is created, the lyrics based on a Japanese translation of an American novel.

Fish Story is all about the glorious accidents that happen when works are adapted from one medium to another. It is impossible for me to tell how faithful an adaptation it is, but it seems impossible that the novellist Kotaro Isaka would insist that the filmmakers religiously recreate his novel.

To a certain extent it is unfair to compare Fish Story to 20th Century Boys, at least when it comes to arguing about the dangers of too literal an adaptation. Fish Story is based on a novel and the song that the novel is based on could only be imagined by its readers, but had to be created for the film. With no visuals, there is less for the filmmakers to be chained to. By the same token, it could be argued that one of the weaknesses of 20th Century Boys is that by including real cultural referents like the T. Rex song it limits the artistic choices available to the filmmakers.

This argument of adaptation reminds me of my favourite Leonard Cohen lyric from his song Anthem, "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." It is my favourite Cohen line because it encapsulates everything that makes him great: the combination of sexual suggestion, religious spirituality, bitter cynicism and profound elegiac hope.

The filmmakers of 20th Century Boys are like the little Dutch boy hoping to plug the cracks with their finger, while the filmmakers of Fish Story celebrate the cracks knowing that that is how the light gets in.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Fantasia 2010: We Are What We Are (2010) Mexico

Blame Cerebus for this.

Maybe I should explain...

I have been a member of a message board run by Christopher Robin Zimmerman called virtually since it opened 8 years ago. Cerebus is another long-term poster. Like me, he likes obscure cinema. Unlike me, his taste runs more to the demented and the extreme. Films that would leave me whimpering and catatonic, Cerebus considers effete and feeble. If I called Cerebus a sick, deviant fuck, he would probably take is a compliment.

Case in point, Cerebus' reaction to The Human Centipede, "wasn't really all that great to me. Probably cause I've see the same type of stuff (extreme body modification) up close and live. When you see a guy strap his cock and balls up causing the blood flow to stop and use an exacto knife to cut his junk off... something like THAT kinda ruins it for you I suppose."


Because I am an idiot, I sort of let Cerebus pick a film for me to see at Fantasia each year. Last year it was Embodiment of Evil. This year, the film he picked for me was just as sick, just as deviant and just as evil as Cerebus himself. Not because of in-your-face gore and horror. This film is as subtle as a frozen-water icepick. It sneaks oh so softly into your cerebellum and gently, gently, gently sodomizes your conscience.

We Are What We Are aka "Somos lo que hay" (2010) Mexico imdb Written and Directed by Jorge Michel Grau

We Are What We Are begins with a desperate, bedraggled tramp of a man, the very picture of Poverty, lurching through a Mexican outdoor mall, leering at lingerie-clad mannequins through a store's plate-glass window. The store's manager (owner?) chases Poverty away and polishes his window back to a shine, wiping away the drool. Poverty sees his reflection in the window as if for the first time, or the first time in years and the sight stuns him like an electric shock. Stumbling to the ground, spitting out black bile on the polished mall floor, Poverty falls and dies.

The film pauses for a second, as if to ask if there is room in this Mexico for sympathy, rescue or hope. Then two mall security guards arrive and efficiently carry the body away. Behind them a mall maintenance man arrives with a mop to wash away Poverty's bile. In this Mexico, the poor are so wretched that they can not even leave behind their stains.

We come to know this man through the family that he leaves behind. We come to understand that he was neither a good man to his community, nor a good husband to his wife, nor even a good father to his children. But if this man's family lived lives of quiet desperation and hopelessness while he was alive, with him dead they are doomed.

We become so invested in the survival of this family, that we begin to not just condone almost unspeakable acts of evil that this family plans to commit. we begin to cheer these atrocities and root for the family to succeed and get away with it.

There is a moment in Psycho, when a detective comes calling at the Bates Motel, looking for the Janet Leigh character. After the detective is killed, Norman Bates places the P.I.'s body in his car and pushes the car into the murky swamp behind the Motel. The car sinks and sinks and sinks and then... pauses... half-buried and half-exposed, teetering between secrecy and exposure. When the car slips under the surface with a breathy gurgle, most people guiltily realize that they have been holding their breath, suddenly Norman Bates' silent accomplices. We Are What We Are is like that without the guilt.

Imagine that you are standing in front of a lake on a blistering hot, sunny day. The lake is fed by mountain springs and you know that the water will be bitterly cold, but you will feel better in the lake's icy water than out in the sun. You stand torn between diving quickly into the lake and getting it over with, or walking slowly, gradually into the cold of the lake. Imagine further that the water of the lake is suddenly removed and you walk out into the middle of the suddenly dry lake bed. It begins to rain: cold, cold, cold teardrops all around you. The rain falls slowly enough that the cold water is refreshing in the hot sun, but fast enough that the lake quickly refills and before you know it you are floating in the icy water at the center of the lake.

That is what We Are What We Are is like only rather than icy cold water, you are gradually being immersed in evil.

Watching Somos lo que hay is like drowning in Evil - one teardrop at a time.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Fantasia 2010: Alien vs. Ninja (2010) Japan

Alien vs. Ninja (2010) imdb Written and Directed by Seiji Chiba

I first read about Alien vs. Ninja on Rob Bricken's blog Topless Robot, first announcing the title and showing the poster and then showing off the trailer. And well, I have been a bit excited about the idea ever since.

I am not a big believer in grading films on a curve, but there is something to be said about looking at what the Director was trying to achieve. In this case, it was pretty obvious that the Director was looking to make a fun, slightly cheesy action movie where rubber-suited Aliens fought leather-suited Ninjas, spilling tons of fake blood in the process. And in that respect, Seiji Chiba succeeds and then some.

But the film manages to succeed even a bit more through its attention to detail and the way that the Director scavenges bits of pop culture from everywhere he can. The film is set in a very specific time in Japanese history. The Ninjas are from the Iga clan, paranoid that the ball of fire that they witness (the crashing Alien spaceship) is some kind of weapon created by the Koga clan of Ninjas. Since the Iga clan still lives in their villages and they are still arguing whether they should support Oda or Tokugawa, the film must take place before 1581 when Oda Nobunaga invaded the Iga province and destroyed the villages where the Iga clan trained and raised their families.

The Ninja costumes are fantastic - if a bit on the fetishtic side. Mika Hijii looks especially fetching in her leather cat/ninja suit inspiring lust even from the Alien. Speaking of lusty Aliens:
I am willing to bet real money that the girl ninja gets raped by aliens.
-Monty Prime from Topless Robot
Monty Prime would be wrong. Mika remains unmolested, although not from lack of trying on the Alien's part. Mind you, in this case "rape" is more like "cop a feel of Mika's incredible breasts", because even non-mammalian Aliens are breast obsessed. Mika's strategy for fighting off gropers is pretty awesome though since it involves brass knuckles and a moment designed to reference The Monster Squad.

The other cultural reference that I was not expecting was the four main Ninjas who are essentially Ninja versions of the Warriors Three. Mika is Lady Sif, the super-competent female warrior who can be both compassionate and deadly; Yamata is Hogun the Grim, who would rather kill everything in sight than sneak around; Yamata's rival and best friend is the vain (and possibly gay) Fandral the Dashing and comic relief is provided by the fat, older Ninja who is both cowardly and gadget-obsesssed, a fine, if slightly insulting, doppleganger of Volstagg, the Lion of Asgard. Hogun the Grim's mustache even makes a caneo appearance though not sadly on the baby-face Yamata. I am not actually arguing that Seiji Chiba read Walter Simonson's run on Thor, but based on the characterization it certainly felt like it. It may just be that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were drawing on cultural references that were a lot more universal than we imagined!

Compared to the Ninja's stylish gear, the Alien costume is a little bit rougher, looking like someone molded an H.R. Giger Alien from memory, left the mold out in the sun and it got gloopy before hardening again. On the plus side, the Alien life cycle is well thought out and distinct from the original franchise.

And I suppose, now would be a good time to give a warning that here there be spoilers lurking.

The Ninjas' motto for the film is "Anything that bleeds, Ninjas can kill." Fortunately for the Ninjas, the Alien blood is not acid. The Aliens do have a few other unpleasant quirks that make them harder to kill though.

Rather than eggs, the Aliens have a series of holes from their head from which the first cycle of Alien life emerges. I have no idea if all the Aliens in the film have these or if just the Queen does - all the Aliens appeared identical to me - but there is clearly an alpha-dog Alien leader of the pack. What emerges from the holes is not a face-hugger but a... well, the best description is a nose shrimp.

As the shrimp grows in its victim's esophagus, they control their victim's movements turning them into automatons, making the Aliens a bit like Starro the Conqueror. In this stage, the Aliens are actually a bit cute: looking like bright pink hairless baby rabbits. Finally the pink rabbit stage migrates down the esophagus to the stomach where the traditional chest-bursting occurs.

In case you were wondering about who is better Alien or Ninja, the Aliens throw in the towel about 2/3 of the way through the film when the pink-bunny throat Aliens animate a group of dead and dying Koga clan Ninjas to fight off the remaining Iga clan Ninjas. If you have to create Zombie Ninjas to fight live Ninjas, you are conceding the supremacy of Ninjas over Aliens. (Admittedly, the Aliens are piloting the Zombie Ninja bodies.)

Not that the Aliens have anything to apologize for when it comes to their fighting skills. They don't fight much like Aliens though. They are fast as hell and fight more like a weird mutant combination of the Predators, the burrowers from Tremors, Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario (the Gooba Stomp is a move used by both sides in the conflict), a boxing kangaroo and a female Gelfling from The Dark Crystal.

Ultimately, AvN is a great hoot and holler exploitation action comedy that succeeds at being the low-brow entertainment that it aspires to be.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Fantasia 2010: 'Bruce' Leung Siu-Lung given first Fantasia Kung-Fu Star Award at Gallants Canadian Premiere

'Bruce' Leung Siu-Lung was presented with the first Fantasia Kung-Fu Star Award Saturday night by onr of the Festival's Directors of Asian Programming, King-Wei Chu, during the Canadian Premiere of Leung's latest film Gallants.

Gallants, a cinematic love letter to Hong Kong's Kung-Fu flicks of the 70's and the stars of those films, just won the Audience Award at the New York Asian Film Festival and the reception in Montreal was no less enthusiastic. The line-up to get into the film already stretched a block while the audience was getting seated for the Greek Zombie film Evil: In the Time of Heroes which started two hours before Gallants. The packed crowd gave Gallants and its star a standing ovation at the conclusion of the film.

Started in 1996, the Fantasia Film Festival is one of North America;s biggest and most successful genre showcases. Last year they sold over 90, 000 tickets. Fantasia has a history of being on the cutting edge of genre films, being early champions of Japanese Horror like Ringu, Korean Cinema like The Host and Thai Cinema like Tony Jaa's Ong Bak. Eli Roth, who successfully launched Cabin Fever at Fantasia in 2003, considers the Festival important enough that he personally brought a print of Inglorious Basterds to Montreal last year to close the 2009 Festival.

The Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office agrees with Eli Roth. They sponsored the screening of Gallants and paid to bring to Montreal star 'Bruce' Leung Siu-Lung and the film's director and co-writer Clement Sze-Kit Cheng. They were probably less than thrilled when Leung joked while introducing the film that paying to bring him to Montreal was the first smart thing that the Chinese Government had done since taking over Hong Kong in 1997. The quip was especially ironic since Leung was blackballed by the Hong Kong film industry in 1988 after making a good-will trip to mainland China hoping to convince the Chinese government to lift a ban on his films. Leung only made a film comeback in 2004 when Stephen Chow brought Leung out of exile to play the villain in Kung-Fu Hustle.

After the screening, director Clement Cheng revealed that he had been shopping the script for ten years until Hong Kong star Andy Lau (Infernal Affairs) put up the entire budget - approximately 8 Million Canadian. The film was shot in 18 days and opened in Hong Kong last month. According to Cheng the film has done well at the box office in Hong Kong and is currently in the top ten for films released in Hong Kong this year.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Fantasia 2010: The Secret Reunion (2010)

The Secret Reunion (2010) aka Ui-hyeong-je imdb
Directed by Hun Jang, Written by Hun Jang and Min-seok Jang

There is only one reason to see The Secret Reunion, but it is a good one: lead actor Kang-ho Song. He is not just Korea's best actor, he is one of the world's best. It shouldn't be a huge surprise that I am totally in the bag for Kang-ho Song. I have been using his role as The Foul King for my avatar since 2001. What impresses most about Kang-ho Song is his range - able to play tragedy, melodrama and comedy - sometimes switching from one to the other during the same scene without incurring emotional whiplash as a result..

The strength of Korean cinema (and sometimes its Achilles Heel) is its ability to switch genres in mid-scene, to inject laughter into drama, danger into slapstick and terror into the mundane. The willingness of Korean directors to run risks and blend genres makes their films fascinating and unpredictable. It also demands actors with the emotional flexibility of Kang-ho Song. If he didn't exist already. Korean directors would have had to invent him.

The Secret Reunion is a bit of a twist on Infernal Affairs. Kang-ho Song is Agent Lee, a maverick police detective in charge of a shift of the anti-terrorism squad trying to track down North Korean spies and protect North Korean defectors. The baby-face Dong-won Kang is Song, a North Korean agent working for a ruthless assassin known by the code name Shadow. When the two sides collide, the ensuing blood-bath causes Lee to be fired and Song to be branded as a traitor to North Korea.

Six years later, Lee is a private detective specializing in tracking down runaway Vietnamese brides and Song is on the run both from the South Korean police and his fellow North Korean spies. Lee runs into Song and recruits him to join the detective agency (such as it is.)  Both men recognize each other, but fool themselves into believing that the other man failed to identify his former enemy. In the byzantine world of spy and counter-spy, simple truths are the hardest to believe, so Song and Lee become convinced that the story of being fired by their respective organizations is a cover story designed to confuse.

There has been some complaints about the middle stretch of the film where it morphs from a tense espionage thriller into a domestic sit-com, but this stretch is vital to the film's theme of the hope, despair and tragedy surrounding any chance of reconciling the two Koreas. On a human level, friendship and trust sometimes seems possible, but humanity plays little part in the larger political conflict that is constantly interfering in the lives of the cast and by extension the lives of all Koreans.

Oddly, the film that The Secret Reunion most reminds me of is L.A. Confidential, a brilliant film that runs five minutes too long - spoiling a perfect albeit downbeat ending to give us a cop-out bullshit Hollywood ending that ties a happy bow around the characters. The Secret Reunion has the same downbeat ending, one that makes perfect tragic sense for the film, for the countries and especially for the characters, but betrays those characters and the situation to give us a cop-out bullshit Hollywood ending that ties a happy bow around the characters.


(Also I should add that the sub-titles were TERRIBLE, not in the badly translated sense, but in the "I can"t read white text against a white background" sense. Learn to use Drop Shadow, For Fuck's Sakes.)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Fantasia 2010: Mandrill (& Mirage Man)

The 2010 Fantasia Film Festival started tonight in Montreal. I have been going since the very first Festival back in 1996. Given that the YoungCuts Film Festival pays my bills, I would be hard pressed (slash embarrassed) to call Fantasia my favourie film festival, but it's definitely in my top two.

Fantasia kicked off with The Sorcerer's Apprentice in Concordia's Hall Theatre, but while I am sure that it will prove to be a fine example of Hollywood excess, I was safely counter-programmed across the street in the smaller De Seve Theatre watching a Chilean James Bond pastiche starring The Rock's stunt double from The Rundown, Marko Zaror.

Zaror is an amazing physical specimen. As you would imagine for someone who could pass for The Rock's twin, he is built like a brick shit-house, but where Dwayne Johnson is solid, Zaror is liquid. He moves likes a genetic cross between a panther and a cobra. Like Jackie Chan, Zaror's moves are as much dance as martial arts, but where Jackie uses his moves as much to evade as to attack, Zaror attacks with all the sudden lethality of Bruce Lee, but from directions and angles that Bruce Lee never dreamed were possible. If Jackie Chan is Fred Astaire than Marko Zaror is Gene Kelly tap-dancing his opponents into sudden unconsciousness.

Also like The Rock, Marko has an impish sense of fun. While The Rock demonstrates this through a lightning wit and impeccable sense of comedic timing, Marko brings to his roles a childlike sense of wonder and the furious intensity of a small boy trapped in a giant's body. Fortunately for Marko, his director Ernesto Díaz Espinoza knows exactly how to frame that intensity. You never feel like Marko is playing a part, you always feel like Marko's characters are the ones playing a part in their own lives.

Marko and Ernesto have now made three films together that have all played at Fantasia. I never saw their first film, Kiltro, but it was described to me as a lost Sergio Leone spaghetti western filmed in Chile as a kung-fu epic.

Mirageman (2007) imdb Written and Directed by Ernesto Díaz Espinoza

Proof of the impact that Mirageman had on me is that I have a clear recollection of virtually the entire film three years after I saw it at Fantasia 2007.

Marko plays Maco Gutierrez, an obsessive gym-rat and fitness nut, orphaned after criminals killed his parents, put Maco into a hospital, and Maco's younger brother into a sanitarium. While jogging, Maco stumbles into the lookout man for a home invasion. Putting on the lookout's mask. Maco ambushes the criminal gang, in the process saving a pretty (and ambitious) lady reporter hostage. The film quickly endears itself with little realistic touches: Maco's willingness to sucker-punch the bad guys, Chile's crime-infested streets which make wearing a mask as a crime-fighter seem like a reasonable precaution - it is helping people that seems like insanity.

For Maco, fighting crime was an accident, but when the pretty reporter makes her "Mirageman" headline news, Maco's brother comes out of his catatonic state. For Maco, fighting crime is not about revenge or trying to impress a pretty girl (those are happy by-products) it is about putting a smile on his brother's face. As Mirageman, Maco is Archie's Captain Pureheart crossed with the original White Tiger.

Maco begins fighting crime using the internet as a way for the public to tell him where he needs to go, even if he can only get there by bus. If that sounds familiar, one of the reasons that I hated Kick-Ass was that Mirageman told the story of a "real" super-hero so much better.

Not that Ernesto Díaz Espinoza would object to the swipe, if one occurred. When I saw the film, the producer cheerfully acknowledge that Ernesto is a pop-culture scavenger who draws influences from far and wide including Will Eisner's Spirit, Lee Falk's Phantom and shots that looked they used Bernie Mireault's The Jam as storyboards.

This jumbling of decades of film and comics has its greatest resonance in the relationship between Maco and the pretty reporter Carol Valdivieso (María Elena Swett). If Maco resembles Mike Murdock era Daredevil (sweet, happy-go-lucky, willfully blind martial artist in bright primary color mask) then Carol is Silver-Age Lois Lane (super-competent, viciously ambitious and an incredibly ruthless bitch).

Frustrated at the lack of good film of Mirageman in action, Carol fakes her kidnapping to lure Maco to a hilltop mansion filled with hidden cameras and stocked with Chile's best martial arts instructors. This brilliant construct allows Ernesto to film an old school kung-fu romp, revelling in the artificial nature of the scenario. The only man unaware of the artifice is Maco, which is why he keeps winning the fights, blowing thtough the goons with a grim childlike seriousness. (Which makes Carol's cynical betrayal only that much more heart-breaking.)

The other benefit of the artifice of this series of fights is that when Maco confronts real evil at the climax of the film, the outcome is very much in doubt, because while the actor may be a childlike romantic, his director is a Latin fatalist and cynic.

Mandrill (2009) imdb Written and Directed by Ernesto Díaz Espinoza

Mandrill is the James Bond pastiche that I mentioned above.

Mandrill is a better film than Mirageman albeit slightly less fun, because, as the Bond-inspired assassin Mandrill, Marko Zaror shoots a whole bunch of people, but every victim that he shoots with a gun is one less that he could be kicking in the head.

The film is proof of Ernesto's growing sophistication as a director drawing three levels of performance from his star who plays Mandrill as a cool (and successful) Bond clone, while just underneath lurks a desperate young man terrified that he can never live up to the legend of Bond and that he will be outed as a poser and a fake. And underneath that is the wrathful young boy who witnessed his parents' murder and became an assassin to wreak vengeance on the world that left him alone.

Ever the cynical Latin fatalist, Ernesto frames his action star in a cinematic trap built on the engine of Greek tragedy pitting Mandrill against the dangerous Bond Girl femme fatale Dominic (Celine Reymond) who like Mandrill is trapped by her perception of the film character whose life she is trying to be.

The film that Mandrill reminds me of the most is The Krays. The gangsters in that film couldn't just be gangsters, they had to perform the role of a gangster as they understood it from watching (Hollywood) films and TV about gangsters. In the same way that reenacting those gangster performances trapped the Kray brothers, Mandrill and Dominic are trapped by the roles that they feel that they must perform and reenact.