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NYC: Old School Kung Fu Fest 2017 is all about martial arts wonder women

Aug 18 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221831:43735:0[/embed] We can start by tying this into last year's Old School Kung Fu Fest, which showcased the films of Golden Harvest. The one Golden Harvest film this year is 1972's Hapkido, starring Angela Mao, Sammo Hung, and Carter Wong. (Both Mao and Hung made appearances in the Bruce Lee classic Enter the Dragon.) The boys do a lot of the fighting against the Imperial Japanese baddies during the first half of the film, which is set in 1930s China. Mao eventually takes center stage to avenge her brothers and the oppressed people of both China and Korea. Lecherous thugs from imperial Japan and Chinese turncoats generally make for solid baddies in kung fu films set during this time--they're the equivalent of Nazis and saboteurs. The word "forbearance" comes up throughout Hapkido. It's a keystone in many martial arts, and both patience and self-restraint help Mao's character survive until she can exact revenge. There's a scene in which Mao's pride is insulted in a dojo full of goons, and rather than take on all the laughing hyenas around her, she clenches her fist and seethes. Wait, her body language seems to say, or you'll be overwhelmed. Mao's fight scenes are fierce and well-choreographed. Though it's not the mega-quick, rhythmic/metered fighting of the later 1970s and the 1980s (a style that Hung would help pioneer), it's eye-catching for the era and brutal and rooted in story. [embed]221831:43737:0[/embed] Three of the movies at this year's Old School Kung Fu Fest are from the great King Hu, one of the maestros of wuxia pictures and kung fu cinema. The films are A Touch of Zen (1971), Come Drink with Me (1966), and The Fate of Lee Khan (1973). Hu's undergone a major critical reassessment in the west over the years, praised for his lush productions and style. He's influenced filmmakers as disparate as Hong Kong action madman Tsui Hark to staid Taiwanese arthouse director Tsai Ming Liang. In recent years, Hu's films have played a number of retrospectives, and two of his masterpieces, A Touch of Zen and Dragon Inn, have been released by the Criterion Collection. Though I haven't seen The Fate of Lee Khan, there's always been a strong woman as a central player in Hu films I have seen. In Come Drink with Me, it's Cheng Pei Pei as the hero Golden Swallow, seeking to rescue a political prisoner. Western audiences probably know Cheng best as Jade Fox in Ang Lee's 2000 wuxia homage Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In A Touch of Zen, it's Feng Hsu as a hero named Yang on the run in an artsy adventure that's also about Buddhist spirituality. I'm going to try to catch The Fate of Lee Khan this weekend and see if I can tease out some bigger idea about King Hu and his badass women. Like Dragon Inn, The Fate of Lee Khan is centered around an inn. I'm left wondering if the martial prowess of the women in the movie (Mao, Hsu, Li Li Hua) leads to gender confusion, which is a common and universal trope in many action/adventure stories--"You can fight, bu- bu- but, you're a woman?!" Such revelations are often disarming for the villains as well as the heroine's allies. [embed]221831:43736:0[/embed] It wouldn't be old school kung fu without something from Shaw Brothers Studios. This year's Old School Kung Fu Fest has two very different kinds of Shaw Brothers films nearly a decade apart. First there's 1972's Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, Chor Yuen's brothel-based wuxia picture that plays a bit like a semi-sexploitation/revenge movie, albeit a well shot one. There's sexual violence, a little lesbianism, and some S&M for good measure, with a kind of luridness that I wasn't expecting from an early 70s Shaw Brothers production. And on the other hand, there's Lau Kar Leung's My Young Auntie (1981), a broad Cantonese comedy starring Kara Hui as a demure martial arts master trying to keep a family's fortune away from the hands of greedy relatives. My Young Auntie is kooky and delightful (though maybe a fight-lite affair for some action movie fans), and might play a good double-feature with Lau's pseudo-screwball comedy martial arts picture Heroes of the East (1978). While the tone of both these Shaw Brothers films is different, Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan and My Young Auntie are, broadly speaking, about women seeking empowerment, justice, and dignity in their own ways. The newest film at the Old School Kung Fu Fest is 1985's Yes, Madam, a very merry 1980s Hong Kong action movie. The movie stars Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Rothrock as a pair of female supercops busting criminals and making them take insane, breakneck falls. It's so "Hong Kong in the 80s" that it features appearances by Sammo Hung and recurring players from the Lucky Stars movies. Yes, Madam kicked off the "girls with guns" HK subgenre, which basically meant action movies led by femme fatales. Other films in the genre include Magnificent Warriors (1987), Naked Killer (1992), Black Cat (1991), and Angel Terminators (1991). [embed]221831:43738:0[/embed] Yeoh is one of the biggest Asian actresses in the western world, though her Yes, Madam co-star, Cynthia Rothrock, is probably one of the most unsung female action stars of her era. Rothrock was an accomplished martial artist prior to getting into action movies. While her American output tended to be of low quality and direct-to-video, she made many great films in Hong Kong during the 1980s as a star or supporting player. Yes, Madam is easily among her best, but also keep an eye out for 1986's Righting Wrongs (co-starring Yueen Biao), 1987's The Magic Crystal (co-starring Andy Lau), and 1988's Righting Wrongs 2: Blonde Fury. Seven movies and one weekend isn't enough to cover the breadth of wonder women in kung fu cinema. An entire program might have been built around King Hu's output or Angela Mao's films alone using a similar theme. Though the 1990s isn't old school enough yet, I was hoping to see something familiar from my teenage years in the fest. For instance, I remember loving movies with Brigitte Lin (particularly The Bride with White Hair), in which the "You're a good fighter but you're not a man?" gender confusion was to be expected. There's also Johnnie To's Heroic Trio films, which starred Yeoh, Maggie Cheung, and Anita Mui as three ladies saving the day in a dystopian future. (Maybe in the seventeenth edition of the Old School Kung Fu Fest.) I suppose I bring those other movies up since Wonder Woman, Atomic Blonde, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens signal a genuine hunger for female-led action movies. People want stories in which the women aren't just damsels in distress or trophies for the heroes. Even Doctor Who finally acknowledged the need for more gender representation in male-dominated genres, naming Jodie Whittaker as the thirteenth Doctor. This need goes back decades, and maybe in this particular year these kinds of stories seem more necessary than before. Girls to the front, and don't be afraid to kick anyone who gets in your way. Cheng Pei Pei did it 50 years ago, and so can you.
Old School Kung Fu Fest photo
Those females are strong as hell
The seventh Old School Kung Fu Fest kicks off today in New York City at The Metrograph. The event runs all weekend, and celebrates the kick ass women of classic martial arts cinema. The official theme is "Wonder Women of the ...

Old School Kung Fu Fest photo
Old School Kung Fu Fest

NYC: Watch wonder women kick ass at the Old School Kung Fu Fest (August 18-20)


Subway Cinema returns to The Metrograph
Aug 15
// Hubert Vigilla
Subway Cinema's seventh edition of The Old School Kung Fu Fest is back this weeked at The Metrograph, running from Friday, August 18th through Sunday, August 20th. Last year's Old School Kung Fu Fest celebrated Golden Harvest...

Review: Endless Poetry

Jul 14 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221699:43659:0[/embed] Endless Poetry (Poesia Sin Fin)Director: Alejandro JodorowskyRating: NRRelease Date: July 14, 2017 (limited)Country: Chile/France While Herskovitz plays Jodorowsky at the start of the film, he's soon replaced by Adan Jodorowsky. It marks a jump in time in from Alejandro's early adolescence into his adulthood, and a move toward adult concerns. It was fascinating to see Herskovitz again, however, who's seemed to age so fast in just a few years. Adan, who was a child in Santa Sangre, looks so much like his father; Brontis, who was just a child in El Topo, looks like he could be Adan's father. Throughout the movie, Alejandro Jodorowsky himself appears on screen, offering a kind of wizened and reflective narration for these moments in his past. If The Dance of Reality was essentially a bildungsroman (a coming-of-age story), Endless Poetry functions more like a künstlerroman (a story about an artist's development and maturation). Alejandro becomes a poet, though it happens too easily, which is where Jodorowsky's flair for surreal and alchemical indulgence butts up against the mundane realities of the writing process, especially for people just starting out. Alejandro is fully formed as a poet the moment he reads Lorca for the first time, like a single book unlocks a preternatural facility with language. There is no struggle with bad poetry, there is almost no self-doubt, and no need to find his footing as a writer. The closest the film alludes to these conflicts is in one early scene at a typewriter. Alejandro pecks out a minor triumph as the giant spectral face of his father dominates the other half of the screen, calling his son a maricón over and over again, deriding the masculinity/sexuality of being an artist. But the film isn't much concerned about that. Alejandro is already great without the essential work to achieve greatness, and always certain about his greatness without a more troubled relationship with language. He's even gifted his own bohemian pad to have parties with all the rakes, wits, and creatives of Santiago. Art has no limitations, but it's part of the artist's journey to discover that on their own, and that journey isn't embarked upon here. We've already arrived at the outset. It undercuts one of the more powerful moments toward the end of Endless Poetry. On a circus stage, Alejandro transforms from a simple clown into a poet and then into a melancholic mime right out of Children of Paradise. This ought to feel like some transcendent apotheosis, a transformation from a fool into a different figure (at least a much wiser fool), like progressing through the major arcana in a tarot deck. Instead, it feels like a tautology. It's not built into the grand arc of Endless Poetry, but a smaller arc of some adjacent scenes in the movie. This sense of being fully formed as an artist extends into Young Adult Alejandro as a sage. He rarely does wrong around his friends, and if he does there's at least some justification for it. In a moment that nods to El Topo, Alejandro happens by the apartment where a dwarf friend is attempting suicide. He saves her life, teaches her a spiritual lesson about the value of living, and sleeps with her even though she's on her period. It's a little too saintly, and maybe even self-congratulatory, which undercuts the deeper sadness of the scene and what it means. This woman is the girlfriend of his best friend, Enrique Lihn (Leandro Taub), who is drunk and violent and asleep on the front porch the morning after the assignation. Alejandro's damaged their relationship, which has been built on their mutual anarchic virtuosity as poets, but Enrique was a jerk and the reason his girlfriend tried to take her own life. This is an autobiographical work, so of course Alejandro's the center of our attention and of this story, yet there's something that feels off to me about making yourself the Mary Sue/Gary Stu of your own life. In a lot of ways, Enrique seems like the classic and perhaps more compelling künstlerroman hero because of how flawed and embarrassing and raw he is as a person. The same guy who clowns with his best friend walking down the street as an aesthetic lark is the same raging drunk who can neglect those he loves. Maybe Alejandro and Enrique could be viewed in tandem as a composite of Alejandro's early life, where the desire to be wise was complicated by an uncontrolled appetite, and where a mastery of language was essential since other aspects of life couldn't be so controlled. But maybe that's my attempt to make this less compelling aspect of Endless Poetry work in context with the multi-film, autobiographical capstone to a career that has changed my life as a lover of film. Like I mentioned in a Cult Club piece on Santa Sangre, I keep finding Jodorowsky's fingerprints on my imagination. There's so much I love about Endless Poetry despite the middling moments and a lot of visual blandness that plagues much of the film. (Like The Dance of Reality, too much of the cinematography seems too flat, too plain, and uncinematic.) There's a strange 80s-deco art-bar like something out of Brazil where Alejandro is drawn to technicolor poet Stella Díaz Varín. She's played by the same actress who plays Alejandro's mother for maximum Freudian impact. There are a few scenes where art seems like the only refuge from the rising Ibáñez dictatorship; I'm missing that cultural and historical context that would enliven the film. There's a moment when Young Adult Alejandro and Old Alejandro must make peace with Alejandro's father. A complicated love emerges when one views a pivotal moment in the past knowing what the future holds. I might have liked more of Old Jodorowsky hopping into the film and commenting about the people and places of his life. He's the center of it all, so why stay outside when there's so much I'd like to know. What did he love about this woman? What did Lorca's poetry say to him as a young man, and what other poets spoke to him? What is machismo in the face of art? What does it mean to him to be a man? What regrets are there and what would he have liked to do differently? I wonder if the next film will be the last one, and what this all might feel like viewed as a single work rather than loose chapters with a looser shape. If this marks the end of Jodorowsky, it's fitting that it also feels like the beginning.
Review: Endless Poetry photo
A portrait of Jodorowsky as a young poet
In what may be the final years of Alejandro Jodorowsky's life, his work has turned inward and become sentimentally personal. He's exploring his own autobiography, but retelling it in his own odd way. Jodorowsky's previous fil...

NYAFF 2017 photo
NYAFF 2017

The 2017 New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) starts today


It runs from June 30 to July 16
Jun 30
// Hubert Vigilla
It's that time of year again. One of the best film festivals in the city is about to get underway. The New York Asian Film Festival kicks off tonight at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The annual showcase of Asian cinema ...

This Corner of the World photo
This Corner of the World

Trailer: Acclaimed anime In This Corner of the World looks like a moving war-torn romance


This looks like something special
Jun 14
// Hubert Vigilla
I'm not familiar with the films of Sunao Katabuchi, but after watching the trailer for In This Corner of the World, I want to seek out his previous anime features: Princess Arete and Mai Mai Miracle. Katabuchi was also a...
Okja posters photo
Okja posters

New posters for Bong Joon-Ho's Okja describe the characters in terms of choice cuts


Pleased to meat you
Jun 05
// Hubert Vigilla
Bong Joon-Ho's Okja looks like a hoot--a Spielbergian eco-adventure about a brave girl and her mutant super pig. Reviews out of Cannes have been generally positive, and Bong himself seems pleased with Netflix allowing him to ...

Tribeca Capsule Review: King of Peking

Apr 26 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221478:43532:0[/embed] King of PekingDirector: Sam VoutasRating: TBDRelease Date:  TBDCountry: China/Australia  Big Wong and Little Wong used to tour the countryside screening movies in small towns. A projection mishap forces them to come up with a new way to make money. Big Wong also needs to come up with child support to hold on to his son despite his abject poverty. Big Wong takes a job at a rundown cinema as a janitor; the whole movie house operation has a bizarre militancy about it. There, in that crumbling theater, Big Wong figures out how to bootleg movies and turn that into a meager subsistence. At its core, King of Peking feels like a mix of buddy movie and father-and-son bonding movie. Here are two people who care for each other and who come closer through their love of movies. Yet we rarely see the movies themselves on screen save for a few clips here and there. Probably a practical clearance rights issue, which just adds to the charm. The score also nods to famous film music, either using well-known classical compositions made famous in the movies or offering knock-off nods to famous cinematic melodies. Like Big Wong and Little Wong's bootleg operation, the film has an endearing handmade, small scale quality about it. The tension in Big Wong and Little Wong's relationship--like the tension in other buddy movies and father/son movies--comes when one person feels ignored or used, or both. Voutas adds some pathos to the feel-good surface of the film in the closing acts. It gives King of Peking a sense of fond nostalgia, like looking back at a time and a place that mattered in someone's life many years ago.
Review: King of Peking photo
Be Kind, Sell Bootleg DVDs
There's something undeniably charming about Sam Voutas' King of Peking. I smiled my way through a lot of the film, and snippets of its feel-good score (AM radio easy listening, in a good way) have been stuck in my head t...

Tribeca Capsule Review: Mr. Long

Apr 25 // Hubert Vigilla
Mr. Long (Ryu San)Director: SABURating: TBDRelease Date: TBDCountry: Japan  While recovering from his injuries, our hero befriends a boy named Jun (Runyin Bai) and his mother Lily (Yiti Yao) in an abandoned slum. Lily is a former prostitute turned junkie, and her story is where so much of the melodrama stems from. There's an extended flashback that shows her tragic fall. The scene initially seems to be dropped in randomly, but thinking about the whole film in retrospect, Lily's backstory comes after a period of slowness and inertness to increase its emotional impact. It's a mood swing done with purpose. The initial outbursts of violence we see in Long's life are eventually followed by cooking and a series of hesitant gestures toward domesticity. The pendulum can only always overcorrect. I don't think Mr. Long would work as well without these dull, silent stretches, and yet while watching the movie I felt bored in these moments. That's the point. What happens in those boring scenes implies a welcome tranquility in these tumultuous lives. To the outside observer, it's boring, but for the characters, a game or ping pong or a simple day making food or giggling with mom is a reprieve from past misery. For once, the present has some sort of order. The boredom can only last so long--maybe it lasts too long in the early going--before it runs the risk of interruption. There's a lot to discuss about the film's overall cruelty and fatalism, and whether or not SABU has contempt for his characters like a vengeful god, but that would be getting into major spoiler territory. If you're patient with Mr. Long and follow the film on its own terms, the reward is peaceful boredom for lives defined by pain and heartbreak. I'm not sure what to make of that exactly, but I keep thinking about the soporific/histrionic style of Mr. Long and how it deepens my appreciation for both its quiet and brutal moments.
Review: Mr. Long photo
Nihilistic Tampopo/Slapstick Unforgiven
Juzo Itami's Tampopo was a quirky blend of western tropes and epicurean delight. SABU's Mr. Long is sort of like a nihilistic Tampopo. We follow a skilled assassin from Taiwan named Long (a brooding Chen Chang) who gets wayla...

Tribeca Capsule Review: November

Apr 25 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221420:43534:0[/embed] NovemberDirector: Rainer SarnetRating: TBDRelease Date: TBDCountry: Estonia/Poland November is an adaptation of various Estonian folktales which are mashed together yet don't quite cohere. There's a werewolf girl in love with a peasant boy, but the peasant boy is in love with a sleepwalking girl who's part of the gentry. There's the threat of the coming plague, which leads villagers to resort to foolish remedies. The Devil wanders the woods at night, and for a little bit of blood he can give your kratt at soul. Somewhere and somehow these different threads might have braided together, but they instead feel too discrete. Even though I loved how strange these disparate tales were (though some of them didn't have any sense of an ending), strangeness alone isn't always sufficient. I longed for something more to care about than just weirdness--plot, character, a sense of direction, some basic set-ups and payoffs. Admittedly, my disconnect from November may be cultural. There are probably aspects of Polish and Estonian history and the national character that would have informed my viewing of the film. Instead I watched in a kind of baffled awe, wondering where it was going, just going with it, and not knowing what to make of things once I arrived at the end of the film. If anything, November is so exquisitely shot that I wasn't necessarily bored by it. There's always something beautiful or strange to look at. The kratts (which sadly don't play a major part in the story) are works of brilliant tool shed/junk pile puppetry. There's a procession of ghosts in the woods at night that only really comes up once, but it's so hauntingly beautiful, with figures in white moving past torches and trees with an elegiac grace. The sumptuous black and white imagery plays with shadow and fog so well that even when my mind check out of the story by the halfway point, my eyes were transfixed from beginning to end.
Review: November photo
At least it looks really good
I want to describe the opening scene of Rainer Sarnet's November because it's absolutely bonkers. There's a sentient creature comprised of three scythes and a cow skull. It moves in a herky-jerky fashion using its scythe...

Tribeca Capsule Review: Rock'n Roll

Apr 24 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221472:43531:0[/embed] Rock'n RollDirector: Guillaume CanetRating: TBDRelease Date: February 15, 2017 (France)Country: France  While making a drama about a pastor and his daughter, Guillaume's younger co-star Camille Rowe mentions he's of an older generation of French actors that her friends no longer find sexy. He becomes extremely self-conscious about his age and how people think of him, and embarks on a journey of self-destructive narcissism in the quest to be younger and more rock n roll. Canet allows himself to be a hapless buffoon as this goes on, and he's completely oblivious to how silly he is. Such is the power of this celebrity vanity. In movies about the elderly acting like younger people, there's a sense of comic nobility. Look at that old man drive like a 25-year-old racecar driver; look at that old man lead a tango with a woman one-third his age. In movies about middle-aged people acting younger, filmmakers often treat their 40-something heroes as clowns. For the first half of Rock'n Roll, Canet sustains an industry satire that consistently bites at Guillaume's ego. He falls further and further into a pathetic spiral of vanity, and can't recognize how pitiful it makes him look to Marion and the French public at large. Rather than learn some life lesson about aging gracefully, Guillaume doesn't learn. Vanity can metastasize. At that point Rock'n Roll shifts from satire to an off-the-rails farce, and I'm not sure it works. Sure, it subverts the explicit and implicit moralizing common in mid-life crises narratives, but are the 40-something clowns that senseless? Or maybe that's the point, and the indictment is about the persistent cycle of oblivious buffoonery that so many stars fall into and never escape. I guess I'm of two minds on Rock'n Roll, and it at least leaves me curious about Canet's other movies he's directed and the tone they strike. I'm also curious about my own desire for moralizing in this movie. Would that have made a difference, or maybe I should I just sit back and try to laugh. But am I laughing with the caricature or at some pitiable analog for so many stars who fell?
Review: Rock'n Roll photo
Vanity in middle age is a bad look
I feel like I might have appreciated Rock'n Roll more if I was familiar with French pop culture and the country's film industry. Writer, director, and star Guillaume Canet packs his comedy with real-life French celebrities pl...

Mary and Witch's Flower photo
Mary and Witch's Flower

New Mary and the Witch's Flower trailer showcases magic from ex-Ghibli talent


From Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Apr 13
// Hubert Vigilla
Even though Hayao Miyazaki is no longer retired, Studio Ghibli is in a transition period. The venerable studio went on a hiatus in 2014. The following year, producer Yoshiaki Nishimura and other Ghibli members started their o...

Review: Your Name

Apr 04 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221337:43448:0[/embed] Your Name (Kimi no Na wa, 君の名は。)Director: Makoto ShinkaiRating: PGRelease Date: August 26, 2016 (Japan); April 7, 2017 (USA)Country: Japan Our two body-swapped and star-crossed heroes are a country girl named Mitsuha and a city boy named Taki. Apropos of nothing, the two teens swap bodies. At first they think they're dreaming--as Mitsuha in Taki's body struggles as a waiter in a restaurant, she wonders when her long and bizarre dream will end. Taki in Mitsuha's body begins each morning copping a feel like a creeper. They intermittently lead each other's lives, and they come to enjoy the ability to live a life so different from their own day-to-day. The allure, like most body swap films, is in the contrast of experiences--metropolitan and pastoral, modern and traditional, the social norms of male and female, etc. My enjoyment of Your Name can be broken into quarters. I loved the first quarter of the movie, which was a great modern take on the body swap genre. The city boy and the country girl get to know each other obliquely, corresponding through their own cellphones with do's and don'ts about each other's lives. Shinkai closes that opening quarter with a fantastic montage of the joys and frustrations of living another life only to return to the mucked-up nature of your own. I liked the second quarter of Your Name, which, without spoilers, involves a mystery and a journey. Tonally it reminded me a little of Hirokazu Koreeda's charming I Wish, though an adolescent version. As for the last half of Your Name? It was all right. "Generally acceptable" may be a more accurate phrase. So much about Your Name hinges on a major plot twist and the way the narrative treats this revealed information. If I wasn't on board with the first portion of the film, the swerve at the halfway mark would have soured me on the whole movie. It's all dependent on a series of narrative conveniences that the story doesn't attempt to explain: spotty memory, technological failure, the loose rules of the body swapping, a lack of common sense from the characters, lapses in human curiosity. And yet, somehow, I think Your Name still works by the end because it is so earnest about its teenage feelings. There's the desire to be understood by someone, to forge a lasting connection, to make sense of your own life. That's all there. I watched the movie in a crowded theater full of teens and young adults. As a plot twist occurred in the second half, gasps rustled through the crowd. After that emotional gut reaction, the analytical bits in my brain stepped forward and processed the information. No, a little too convenient, but just go with it. This kept happening in the last half of the movie. I found myself liking moments even though I was of two minds about them. There's a gorgeous scene set at dusk before a dimming sky. It's quiet, it's memorable, it was enough for me to disregard a lapse in logic a few scenes before. A young woman in the crowd, excited by the connection that occurred on screen, whispered an elated "Yes". Minutes later, sighs from the crowd, crestfallen, like everyone had breathed out at once. I couldn't help but be moved as well--I felt what someone else was feeling, which is what Your Name is about at its best. Oddly, some of my qualms come from understanding Shinkai's point of view as a storyteller. To affect the audience the way he wants to, Shinkai needs to move the story in direction P, therefore actions L, M, N, and O have to occur. I saw the movie with Steve over at Unseen Films, and his immediate feelings for the movie were far more tepid than mine. The logical lapses were so apparent to him. My own fondness for the first half of the film led me to justify those logical lapses to him even though I noticed them as well. And I have to admit, my justification was because I understood Shinkai's storytelling motivations rather than any diegetic explanation provided by the film. I can't recall who said this or if I'm even getting it right, but there's a sandwich rule when it comes to storytelling. Say you make a movie. Part of it doesn't make sense. If an audience member doesn't realize there's a lapse in logic until hours later when they're making a sandwich, the story is successful. Your Name didn't pass the sandwich test with me, but I could sense it did with many others in the crowd. Even without the sandwich test, there was a lot to admire. If only the last half had hooked me more, not by plot twists but through the characters, not by letters signifying Shinkai's moves but rather that ineffable emotional stuff that's harder to figure out and impossible to name.
Review: Your Name photo
The body swap movie with a swerve
Makoto Shinkai's Your Name is the highest-grossing anime film of all-time, and it hasn't even come out in the United States yet. It beat Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away; give it a few more months and Your Name may beat Spirite...

Your Name US trailers photo
Your Name US trailers

Watch the US trailers for Makoto Shinkai's anime mega-hit Your Name


Dubbed or subbed for your pleasure
Mar 14
// Hubert Vigilla
Despite some of my qualms about its second half, Makoto Shinkai's Your Name was a good coming-of-age body swap film with an undeniable teenage earnestness. It's a major anime mega-hit in Japan. Not only was it Japan's biggest...

Review: Raw

Mar 10 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221293:43454:0[/embed] Raw (Grave)Director: Julia DucournauRating: RRelease Date: March 10, 2017Country: France/Belgium Justine (Garance Marillier) is an in-coming freshman at a veterinary college. It's the same school that her parents attended and where her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is a current student. She's a lifelong vegetarian; at a buffet en route to the college, her mom berates a clerk for an errant meatball in Justine's mashed potatoes. During a hazing ritual at the vet school, Justine gets her first taste of meat when she's force fed a raw rabbit kidney. That fetid little taste awakens something sexy and dangerous in her. Raw is set in an off-kilter place where fictional conceits co-mingle with quotidian problems. It's the location for weird literary short fiction, allowing anything and everything to function as a metaphor or a metaphorical space. There's the familiar trope of the teenage girl whose sexual maturation is a source of horror for herself and others. Justine is the gawky young woman trying to figure out adulthood and sexiness and desire and how to juggle all of these new cravings she has. But Ducournau avoids many of the simple 1:1 ratios of familiar genre metaphors by complicating her world and its characters. Justine's taste for flesh is borne of freedom from home, and it becomes a point of sibling rivalry. I mentioned Ducournau's knack for the visceral, which is evidenced early in the film during the first hazing ritual. The freshman are forced out of bed and into some on-campus rave. Ducournau's camera follows Justine through the flashing lights and the throb of the music. First she's annoyed and alone, but as the scene continues to play out, she and the audience find the exhilaration of the moment, and the underlying emotional current of the scene changes. When Justine gets the shakes like a junkie in withdrawal, Ducournau closes the whole of the world into the hallucinatory nightmare of Justine in fetal position under her sheet. In what's sure to be the most talked about scene of the film, a silly, sisterly moment of bonding between Justine and Alexia becomes a squirmy horror set piece for the ages. As it happened, I smiled at the brilliant audacity of the execution. That "brilliant audacity" is what I liked about so much of Raw, and it's often pulled off throughout the film with casual unexpectedness. Justine seems to be going mad with her rush of desires, and occasionally some unexpected image would appear on screen and haunt me a bit. A horse on a treadmill or an animal carcass ready for class dissection is full of such fervid, dreamlike weight. Marillier plays fragile Justine and feral Justine so well and of a piece. Any interaction between Justine and her male roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) gets loaded with an expectant dread. Will she? Is this hunger? Won't she? Is this desire? Why not both? The way Justine and Alexia's antagonisms play out over the course of Raw is fascinating as well, and hints at a longer history. There's affection tinged with enmity between these sisters. The fact that so much of Raw works so well may be why I come back to the closing notes of Raw and why they fell so flat for me. So much of the movie is a gut punch filmed with such great craft. Justine is built up and broken and humiliated and I was hoping for one last moment that would linger the same way as so many others. I felt like the movie traded its gut punches for a rote, tepid, expected wind down, and then punctuated it with a flimsy punchline. And yet that wind down makes sense emotionally, and that punchline opens up this rich, sadly unexplored avenue of the story. That may speak to the promise of Ducournau as filmmaker to watch--that I think there's something good wrapped up in a sour note, something exciting in the shadow of a disappointing coda. I guess sometimes even great cuts of meat have a little gristle.
Review: Raw photo
Flesh, sex, and self-destruction
While playing at film festivals last year, the hype over Raw was insane. Writer/director Julia Ducournau's coming-of-age horror/cannibal drama purportedly caused audience members to faint, to vomit, to leave screenings in dis...

Review: My Life as a Zucchini

Mar 03 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221336:43439:0[/embed] My Life as a Zucchini (Ma vie de Courgette)Director: Claude BarrasRating: PG-13Release Date: October 19, 2016 (France/Switzerland); February 24, 2017 (limited)Country: France/Switzerland My Life as a Zucchini opens with the accidental death of a boy's abusive, alcoholic mother. His father isn't around and never shows up, but he draws an idealized, superhero version of him on a homemade kite. The boy calls himself Zucchini (Erick Abbate), and as a police officer drives him to an orphanage, he flies the kite out of the car window. The moment is both beautiful and sad, just like so many other moments in My Life is a Zucchini. The other children at the orphanage are neglected, have had their parents deported, lost their parents in violent ways, or were physically or sexually abused. They're each around 10 years old. This is absolutely bleak material, and it's reflected in the look of the stop-motion puppets of the children. When a new girl named Camille (Ness Krell) arrives, one of the children remarks that she has sad eyes. It's a quality all of the children share. They all have huge, Margaret Keane-painting eyes, but they look wounded rather than doe-like, as if each of them might burst into tears at any moment out of sadness or a fleeting joy. While the situations these children face are so dark, My Life as a Zucchini is a hopeful film, and brimming with sympathy and empathy. I found myself crying through a lot of the film, which is a testament to the effectiveness of the animation. There's something important about the tactile nature of stop-motion I can't put my finger on. Maybe it's because the characters look like toys, and the settings feel like playsets--like the entire film functions as a space for a child to work through the dark things in their head. The English-language voice acting is commendable. The child actors sounded like actors rather than kids acting, if the distinction makes sense. Abbate and Krell have to do so much heavylifting whenever their characters are on screen, but there's no strain to it. I was so wrapped up in the emotion of the film that I didn't sense a flat line read or a sour delivery. Somehow, effortlessly, the child actors sounded vulnerable and true. The adult voice cast was good as well, with Nick Offerman, Will Forte, and Ellen Page disappearing into their roles as caretakers. Amy Sedaris' voice was distinct--very Strangers with Candy--though it fits with the brash, prickly character she portrays. Barras depicts kindness in various gestures between the kids and their caretakers at the orphanage. There's a snow trip with a tiny techno dance party in a cabin. There's play time. There's dress up and parties. When the children grow up, the psychological repercussions of what they've faced might be daunting, but at least there's this orphanage and these people who care about them. The adults try to create some semblance of a normal life free from from solitude and abuse. Things that seems so commonplace are suddenly imbued with a tremendous expression of love and humanity. How good it is, even if just briefly, to give someone the joy of a carefree childhood. My Life as a Zucchini is about children, but it's not a children's movie. That may have held it back in awards season. It was such a longshot to win a Golden Globe or an Oscar (Zootopia took both awards), and its bleakness didn't help matters. The film did wind up winning Best Animated Film and Best Adapted Screenplay at the Cesar Awards, however. Saying all this, part of me wonders how traumatized children might respond to the film. Would they feel less alone? Would they feel loved? Those concerns are more important than a statuette; they're what's most important in life.
My Life as a Zucchini photo
About kids but not a children's movie
There's this pervasive idea that children are resilient, that they're able to cope well even in dire circumstances. In stories about forlorn kids, a combination of optimistic pluck and boundless imagination helps them through...

Review: Ugetsu

Mar 03 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221341:43446:0[/embed] Ugetsu (Ugetsu Monogatari, 雨月物語)Director: Kenji MizoguchiRating: NRRelease Date: March 3, 2017 (limited)Country: Japan  Watching Ugetsu felt like walking into an austere room where an ancient handscroll has been unrolled, spread out, and hung up to observe. Its meters and meters of period narrative are told along the four walls. The scroll starts in one corner, traces the length of the room, and ends in the corner it began. Ugetsu is wonderfully looped and completed, wrapped neatly like an old-fashioned fable or tale. The return to the starting point of the story, that initial tableau, is marked by change, much like the lives of characters in the film. Ugetsu is an adaptation of two braided plots from Ueda Akinar's 1776 book of ghost stories of the same name. One story follows Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa), a bumbling peasant who dreams of becoming a samurai. The other story follows Genjuro (Masayuki Mori), a potter who is seduced and waylaid by a mysterious noblewoman called Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo). In the backdrop is a senseless war that ravages the countryside, with samurais pillaging and looting from peasants. In a tense moment early in the film, Genjuro risks his life waiting at a kiln as samurai approach on a rampage. His wife tells him to wise up and flee, yet Genjuro knows that the only future he and his family has are those pots that are firing away, just not fast enough. Throughout the film, the gentry and the warrior classes disregard the people beneath them, while Tobei and Genjuro dream of wealth and status. Both will risk everything for armor and kimonos. Ugetsu contains those perennial critiques of greed and vanity, sins for which the wives of the two men suffer. Even before researching Mizoguchi's background, I could sense his love of kabuki and painting in the visual style and rhythms of the Ugetsu. The film ushers itself in with traditional song, and there's a measured theatricality to the blocking, staging, and performances of this period ghost story. The first time Lady Wakasa appears on screen, she is an otherworldly presence. It's not just the manner of dress, but a manner of being. Her servant follows to her side slowly, and she approaches Genjuro at a pace of her own that defies the bustle of the market. She is not one of these people, that much is clear. Mizoguchi's extended takes are marvels of deliberation. Contemporary filmmakers tend to use long takes as a sort of spectacle, calling attention to ballsy filmmaking craft (i.e., the long-takeness of the long-take) while paradoxically aiming at audience immersion (i.e., this unfolds continuously like real life). There's little sense of how form and content are wed in the contradictory presentation. For Mizoguchi, the extended take is part of the period storytelling. I mentioned the wall scroll idea earlier, which is a fitting way to depict a period tale. The story is fantasy touched by reality; its form and content are rooted in a time and a place and an art tradition that is tied to said time and said place. The 4K restoration of Ugetsu looks excellent, and I was actually thrown by it for a moment. It may have been the digital projection, but there was an uncanny sense of movement about some objects in the frame. They moved a little too smooth, a little too fast, sort of like when watching a new movie on a new TV with the settings just a little off. I don't know if that's a flaw since I eventually adjusted to it, but maybe it speaks to the film being so much an evocation of a period centuries ago that a contemporary presentation made uncanny movement more apparent. But hey, a classic is a classic.
Review: Ugetsu photo
A wall scroll on ghosts, war, and class
The films of Kenji Mizoguchi have been a major blind spot in my life as a filmgoer. I've seen plenty of Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu films, but for some reason Mizoguchi had always hovered on my to-watch list, always put o...

Review: We Are the Flesh

Jan 12 // Hubert Vigilla
TRAILER IS NOT SAFE FOR WORK (NSFW) [embed]220963:43146:0[/embed] We Are the Flesh (Tenemos le carne)Director: Emiliano Rocha MinterRating: NRRelease Date: January 13, 2017 (limited)Country: Mexico  We Are the Flesh reminds me of early Clive Barker splatterpunk stories; one scene in thermal vision even recalls Barker's little-seen short film The Forbidden. There's also a hint of Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: The Iron Man, though it's shorn of the technological madness and kinetic stuff--this transgression is luridly organic. Maybe Tetsuo by way of Gaspar Noe, with occasional outbursts of hysterical excess straight out of Andrzej Zulawski (Possession). The film also has some moist, mucus-rich makeup effects that wouldn't be out of place in a Brian Yuzna movie (Society, From Beyond). This paragraph is either a warning or a recommendation--if you want blood, you got it. There's a man with a demonic smile (Noe Hernandez) who lives in an abandoned building. He gets high on homemade gasoline and gets off on solitude. A boy (Diego Gamaliel) and a girl (Maria Evoli), siblings, enter his building. They're desperately in search of food and shelter. The man lets them stay as long as they help him construct a claustrophobic landscape within the building. Think of something like a cave and a uterus complete with a pseudo birth canal; a psychoanalytic hellscape where the id can thrive. All the while, the man tries to coerce the boy and the girl to break social, sexual, and interpersonal taboos. Minter builds up dread through whispers and shouts as he mounts transgressions upon each other. There's incest, rape, murder, cannibalism, on-camera sex, and necrophilia, and even now I can't say what it all adds up to. We Are the Flesh may not add up to anything, to be honest. Even though Hernandez and Evoli give the film their all--Evoli in particular goes for psychotic broke--the movie may just be images and noise with the intent to shock. I think there's a political allegory about Mexico and poverty, that a lack of means reduces us to some base state of nature in which social mores no longer matter. But it's a bit of a guess. It might be a stretch. Sometimes extreme cinema is just extreme cinema, but I can't help but sense something more meaningful behind all of this given how repulsed yet affected I felt. When someone lets out a blood-curdling scream, there has to be a reason, right? Maybe? Or was it just the desire to scream? This struggle for meaning is probably an intentional provocation from Minter. When confronted with something shocking, I usually feel challenged to interpret it. Yet Minter evades overt meaning making. There seems to be 10 minutes missing from the final act of the 80-minute film. Several events take place off camera unexplained, and it leads to total narrative disorientation. We Are the Flesh was a feverish nightmare already, and then that skimpy dream logic breaks down completely. No order, not for this this movie. What Minter provides is a sustained sense of unease, however. That feeling remained with me even after a less than satisfying conclusion. Even if We Are the Flesh only prompts exasperation and disgust, it's such a strange trip into the abyss I want to send others down there into the dark who are willing. Minter, like or hate it, is a Mexican filmmaker to watch. I'm reminded of something Clive Barker said about movies once (paraphrased): I want to feel something, even if it's just disgust; better that than thinking, okay, let's go for a pizza. After We Are the Flesh, pizza was the last thing I wanted.
Review: We Are the Flesh photo
The ecstasy of pure id
Reviewing We Are the Flesh from writer/director Emiliano Rocha Minter is tricky. On the one hand, it's a deeply flawed film aimed at a limited audience. It's transgressive in the extreme, sexually explicit bordering on pornog...

Trailer: Kung-Fu Yoga photo
Trailer: Kung-Fu Yoga

Trailer: Kung-Fu Yoga has Jackie Chan and a CG lion named Little Jackie


This is like silly 80s HK schlock
Jan 06
// Hubert Vigilla
I don't think I've legitimately liked a Jackie Chan movie since 2004's New Police Story. There were good scenes and flashes of brilliance in Rob-B-Hood, The Forbidden Kingdom, and Chinese Zodiac, but they never really hung to...
Jailbreak trailer photo
Jailbreak trailer

Trailer for Cambodian martial arts movie Jailbreak looks like furious fun


This trailer needs a Thin Lizzy song
Jan 06
// Hubert Vigilla
My taste is eclectic, but I am, at heart, a simple man. Sometimes I want a long Hungarian art movie, or an oblique sci-fi existential meditation on trauma and pigs, or a reassuring week in the life of a working artist. Other ...
Trailer: The Lure photo
Trailer: The Lure

Trailer: The Lure looks like the sexy cannibal mermaid musical the world needs (NSFW)


But is it the one Gotham deserves?
Jan 06
// Hubert Vigilla
I had no idea about The Lure until last night even though it played at Sundance last year. The Lure is now one of my most anticipated movies of 2017. The debut film from Agnieszka Smoczynska, The Lure is a horror/fantasy musi...
Birdshot trailer photo
Birdshot trailer

Watch the trailer for Mikhail Red's Filipino thriller Birdshot


An award-winning Filipino festival film
Dec 27
// Hubert Vigilla
The second film from Filipino director Mikhail Red, Birdshot looks like a solid, stylish thriller. The film played at the Tokyo International Film Festival back in late October/early November, where it won the Asian Future Be...

Review: Toni Erdmann

Dec 23 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220911:43142:0[/embed] Toni ErdmannDirector: Maren AdeRating: RRelease Date: July 16, 2016 (Germany); December 25, 2016 (USA)Country: Germany/Austria I love Groucho Marx as a character, but I would never want someone like that as a father. In some ways, Toni Erdmann is what it would be like if Groucho Marx was Margaret Dumont's dad. Ines (Sandra Huller) is our girl Dumont. She's a high-level consultant working in Romania to negotiate an outsourcing deal. Like so many women in the business world, she needs to work twice as hard as her male counterparts, fighting the entrenched sexism of the workplace while out-politicking others in the office. She's always working and seems to get off on forceful shows of control. While trying to unwind at a day spa, she complains that her masseuse was too gentle. "I want to be roughed up," she smiles. Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is her dad Groucho. Rather than a painted mustache, Winfried's got a pair of ugly false teeth and a wig. It's not hard to see why Ines' mother divorced Winfried, or why Ines tries to avoid her dad. He imposes, he mocks, he's a bit of a chaos agent. The man can't take anything seriously. After his dog dies, Winfried spontaneously vacations in Romania to connect with his daughter, eventually adopting the persona of Toni Erdmann. The name sounds so serious and German (redundant?), but in English the name apparently translates into "Toni Meerkat". Ines is too ruthless and needs to lighten up, and her father is a potential catalyst for that change. Questions of value are pretty common in works about corporate life (i.e., human value vs. the bottom line), and these are often the weakest parts of Toni Erdmann. They're familiar in an obvious way, as if from another movie that's far safer and more conventional. Perhaps Ade sensed this slip into the obvious when sculpting the final edit. A character and a plot thread totally vanishes from the movie at a certain point. It doesn't prevent Ines' reconnection with the world of the common folk from feeling like an expected destination. Toni isn't just his daughter's Groucho but her Drop Dead Fred. Ade even uses the common grammar of these contrasts between wealth and poverty in the globalized world: from Ines' office window, she can look over a Romanian hovel. Consequently, other reconciliations in the movie felt inevitable to me. When Toni Erdmann lets go, it's at its best, whether it's a bit of kink involving pastries or a belting out a tune. Huller plays so many of her scenes like she's at the verge of a breakdown. She's a great straightwoman, but there are moments of absurd release that hint at the person Ines was before she bought into the quest for status. There are different Ines facades for the different roles she has to play or the tasks thrust upon her, but rarely does she get to be herself. Winfried is a little more one-note on the surface since his solution for everything is a joke, but there are moments of vulnerability between father and daughter that suggest that jokes are all he has left. Connecting with someone emotionally can be painful and awkward, and humor is one way of circumventing those difficulties. If the only tool you have is a hammer, you wind up hammering everything. That goes for both father and daughter. A lot of what works in Toni Erdmann depends on what the audience brings to it, which might be the case of any movie about parents and children. The way we measure other families inevitably winds up being our own family experiences, which is what makes Toni Erdmann familiar in a surprising way. What is it about Ines that I see in myself, or Winfied in my own dad, or vice versa? Sometimes I look at these on-screen family relationships and see myself or people I know. Other times I see versions of characters. Families are weird like that; so is Toni Erdmann.
NYFF Review: Toni Erdmann photo
Estranged daughter, strange father
There's no way Toni Erdmann could ever live up to its hype. Reviews from Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival touted the German film as a 162-minute screwball comedy masterpiece, packed with high emotional stake...

Kodoku Meatball Machine photo
Kodoku Meatball Machine

The trailer for Kodoku: Meatball Machine is blood-soaked and absolutely bonkers (NSFW)


Content and title are a perfect match
Dec 06
// Hubert Vigilla
If GWAR in its classic form decided to remake Tetsuo: The Iron Man, it might look like Yoshihiro Nishimura's Kodoku: Meatball Machine. That is all I can really say. There are no words. Just feelings. Strange, strange feelings. Seriously, watch this f**king trailer, dudes. Note: There is a lot of blood and some (maybe fake?) nudity.
9-min Great Wall trailer photo
9-min Great Wall trailer

9-minute trailer for Zhang Yimou's The Great Wall is more than just Matt Damon


Maybe the trailer is overcompensating?
Dec 01
// Hubert Vigilla
The old myth was that astronauts could see The Great Wall of China from space. A new 9-minute trailer for Zhang Yimou's The Great Wall has been released, and I'm pretty sure it can be seen from space. They have free wifi up t...
Mad Shelia photo
Mad Shelia

Witness the trailer and poster for Mad Shelia, a Chinese Mad Max rip-off


MEDIOCRE!
Nov 28
// Hubert Vigilla
Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the best action movies of the 21st century, and was one of the best movies of 2015 by far. We were bound to see some movies trying to capitalize on the look, feel, and stuntwork of George Miller's...

Review: Evolution

Nov 23 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220389:42858:0[/embed] EvolutionDirector: Lucile HadzihalilovicRelease Date: November 25, 2016 (limited/VOD)Rating: NRCountry: France The world of Evolution is mysterious from the get go, which is due largely to the coastal locale where the film is set. We don't know what year it is, or quite where this place is either. It's all so otherworldly, the sort of setting for tales, allegories, and de Chirico paintings. There are white stucco buildings built near the water, and the sand is black leading to the turbulent shore. It's beautiful in how stark it is. In the distance, there's a medical facility that looks like it was abandoned years ago, but boys and their mothers walk back and forth for periodic examinations. There are only grown women and young boys on this island. There are no men, there are no girls, and the mothers have a sinister uniformity about them. At night, the mothers leave their homes carrying hand lanterns and congregate near the water. The boys are just boys but are in the dark about their caretakers. The boys are raised on a diet of mashed kelp and something like worms, one of those foods that while heated in a saucepan still looks cold when it's served. Evolution centers primarily on Nicolas (Max Brebant) and his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier), and what Nicolas discovers about this town and where babies come from. We follow him into the night, down long corridors, to water in the dark, and in the process participate in the act of discovery, unwrapping the allegory along with Nicolas, sharing in his repulsion and curiosity. Roughly midway through Evolution, this dive into the unknown slows, maybe too much for what's revealed about the mothers and their boys. Yet even what's revealed is just enough to suggest larger possibilities and delve deeper into the thematic territory of the movie--sex, childbirth, asexuality, violation, flesh, reproduction, biological processes. I sensed in the film's lull that Hadzihalilovic was signalling a move away from an explicit exploration of the plot and the machinery of the world to a series of ruminative brushstrokes, each one a deliberate move to the film's finale, which is more conceptual than visceral. In the immediate aftermath of Evolution, I felt a little let down, expecting more of a resolution to what's introduced early on. Yet the movie has this strange, lingering quality thanks to its pervasive otherworldliness. I mentioned Lovecraft and Cronenbeg earlier, but Hadzihalilovic makes this movie her own, invested with unique hobbyhorses and a fascinating sensibility. It's rare to see a movie that sticks around in your mind after an initial sense of disappointment. The fact I'm still thinking about Evolution, and deeper now than in the hours after the first viewing, have made me reevaluate Hadzihalilovic's languid pace, which unfolds with the same speed as a dream verging on a nightmare but never quite arriving there. Cinematographer Manuel Dacosse does a magnificent job in rendering these images and giving them such a haunting quality that I can't get several of them out of my head. Evolution's grown on me, like a skin graft or like coral, or maybe it's grown in me, like the stuff of recurring bad dreams.
Review: Evolution photo
Lingering, haunting, and yet
There's so much going for Lucile Hadzihalilovic's Evolution, a film expertly lensed from the deliberate first shot: looking up to the sky from underwater. From beneath, the ripples and waves on the ocean surface produce undul...

Review: Elle

Nov 10 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220908:43150:0[/embed] ElleDirector: Paul VerhoevenRating: RRelease Date: November 11, 2016 (limited)Country: France  Elle starts with the rape, in media res. Verhoeven shoots the scene with surprising restraint. There's the noise of the assault off camera. Michèle's pet cat looks on blankly. The rapist, dressed in black with a ski mask, stands and wipes blood from his hip and groin and then walks away. Michèle tidies up around the kitchen and continues about her day in a daze. She's in shock, but it's subtle. A brief bubble bath scene is so artfully done and haunting. Michèle's a bit angrier at her son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) when he comes to visit than she would be otherwise. Vincent asks about the bruise on the side of her face. She says she fell off her bike. The rape goes unreported. When Michèle finally mentions it to anyone, she waits for the most awkward moment possible to bring it up. She says what happened as if she lost a credit card. Is it a coping mechanism or is it just the movie playing provocateur? Elle aims for the uncomfortable laugh, and for a while it succeeds in doling out its cringe humor. At a certain point, it's just cringes. While dealing with horrible things in life, one hundred other genres may be occurring in the world simultaneously. A portion of the film plays like a thriller, with Michèle narrowing down the suspects in her life while her attacker stalks and harasses her. As this thriller plays out, there's a family dramedy: Michèle's jealous about her ex-husband's new girlfriend, annoyed by her son's screwed up relationship with his pregnant girlfriend, and can't stand her mother's new boyfriend either. Then there's the matter of her father and an infamous trauma in her past, one essential to Michèle's character but never explored substantively in the story. Huppert's a saving grace for the film in that she plays everything so straight, even Michèle's unexpected actions and reactions. Yet these are just actions in a performance, not necessarily actions stemming from a character. I could rarely get a handle on who Michèle was or how she interpreted the world and the events around her. The rape is replayed explicitly in the film, and then played again as a kind of revenge fantasy. Later, Michèle seems to invite victimization. There's a harrowing scene in which Michèle seems turned on by the idea of the man she's with raping her, recreating the trauma that opened the film. Is she feeling pleasure? Is that pain and masochistic shame? Is it a mix of both, and if so, what then? Huppert wears an inscrutable mask before, during, and after the scene. The moment is never discussed afterward. I don't need on-screen psychoanalysis or to be handheld through a narrative, but I'd like to be given some hint of what Michèle feels about what's happened. Elle avoids exploring the emotional impact of rape. Instead the film tries to offer Michèle's detachment as some opaque and oblique portrait of her psychology, but even this amounts to a blank gray page. This is all extremely difficult and sensitive territory to explore, especially when Michèle's motives are so ambiguous. Sure, there's never a single correct way for someone to respond to trauma, but rather than provide an alternative portrait of recovery or greater insight into this personality in flux, I felt as if Elle was simply pushing buttons and inverting the traditional rape-revenge narrative for the shock value. That's easier and less painful than really getting into someone's interior life after such a traumatic experience. The film's MO seems to be keep the focus on the inscrutable surface, and make it shocking. It doesn't help that Elle's perspective is male dominated; it's directed by Verhoeven from a script by David Birke, and adapted from a novel by Philippe Dijan. Am I watching a woman's experience as she struggles to retake power as all the men in her life rob her of agency? Or am I just watching a male interpretation of all this that indulges in a little bit of rape fantasy? This might all be up for audience interpretation, which makes me surprised that so many critics have written that the film is so empowering to women and makes bold statements. I don't think it says anything at all, or intends to empower anyone; it's just well-orchestrated provocation. No surprise that by the end of Elle, I was left feeling a sour and empty frustration. Michèle is the head of a video game company, though this portion of Elle serves as a mild subtextual and metatextual backdrop. They're making a medieval action-adventure--think Warcraft by way of Assassin's Creed with really antiquated graphics. During a meeting, one of her designers--a man who may be the rapist--says that Michèle's pretentious literary background has gotten in the way of the game's basic playability. I think Verhoeven's penchant for provocation might have gotten in the way of the fundamental human concerns of Elle.
Review: Elle photo
Provocative, but is it saying anything?
Elle has been billed as a rape-comedy, but that's a misnomer. It's a comedy in the classical sense given the events of the story, but it's not necessarily funny (there are funny scenes, though). And yes, it's about rape. Elle...

Pokemon: The First Movie photo
Pokemon: The First Movie

Pokemon: The First Movie is coming back to theaters October 29th and November 1st


Gotta catch em at Cinemark
Oct 24
// Hubert Vigilla
The popularity of Pokemon Go spawned a forthcoming Detective Pikachu movie from Legendary Pictures. With the Pokemon resurgence, it should come as no surprise that the Pokemon Company is going to milk all of its adorable...

Review: Tampopo

Oct 21 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220968:43157:0[/embed] TampopoDirector: Juzo ItamiRating: NRRelease Date: October 21, 2016 (limited)Country: Japan  There's a familiar old west tale in Tampopo, with variations on cowboys and saloons and pretty schoolmarms. Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and Gun (Ken Watanabe) are a pair of truck-driving gourmands that mosey into town. They stop by a noddle shop in a sorry state run by a widow named Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto). She's quaint, mousy, often dressed in gingham, demure to a fault. Also, her ramen just plain sucks. Since they're good cowboys, Goro and Gun help Tampopo improve her shop, sort of like working the farm or rebuilding this here schoolhouse. Tampopo spends the the film perfecting her ramen and in the process attempts to perfect herself. It's not just a western but, philosophically, a martial arts movie. This is a story about the discipline of mastery. Think Jiro Dreams of Sushi, except ramen: self-improvement through a process of trial and error and practice. It's a familiar narrative, but when filtered through an unexpected intermediary, it achieves remarkable existential heft. Even in a decidedly lighthearted comedy like Tampopo, it's moving to witness someone try and try again until they achieve some ennobling dignity, no matter how small. All that effort for a good bowl of soup. But that's just part of the oddball/heartfelt appeal of Tampopo. Soba isn't the only noodle. The movie starts with a gangster in white (Koji Yakusho) and his moll (Fukumi Kuroda) entering a movie theater, ostensibly to watch the main story of Tampopo described above. The gangster waxes philosophical about life, death, and the movies, and then roughs up a guy crinkling a bag of chips in the row behind him. Later in the film, the gangster and his moll reappear periodically, using food as foreplay. By comparison, these scenes make 9 1/2 Weeks seem like the missionary position in Mormon underwear. Swirling around these two recurring narratives are a series of one-off skits on the role of food in people's lives. So many rituals, roles, and social codes are built around food and propriety, and we take a break from our gal at the noodle shop to get a survey of food culture in 1980s Japan. What Tampopo seems to emphasize in most of these one-offs is the sensual pleasure of food, and how our desire for sweets and richness and even just sloppy eating can't be restrained. Yet even when defying restraint, our taste for the sensual can be refined and in the process our appreciation for pleasure deepened. Tampopo isn't a movie for foodies. What a wretched, bourgie word that is. Tampopo is a movie for uplifting gormandizers who want to suck marrow rather than spoon it from the bone. Tampopo was just the second film from Itami, though it seems so assured and confident. Who else but a confident filmmaker decides to include a goofy rice omelet scene with a hobo? At numerous times the actors address some off-camera interlocutor by looking directly at the audience. This recurring quirk is sort of like Ozu, but not like Ozu at all. Tonally I was reminded a little of A Christmas Story, but then in comes a sexy or dark or sensitive moment redolent of some separate influence. Every couple minutes, unexpected surprises, and just more and more delight.
Review: Tampopo photo
Zen and the sexiness of ramen making
Prior to this week, the last time I saw Juzo Itami's 1985 food comedy Tampopo was in the mid-90s. I remembered so little of the movie save for the fact that I enjoyed it. Some isolated scenes are easy to recall, though. There...

Review: Fire at Sea

Oct 20 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220906:43140:0[/embed] Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare)Director: Gianfranco RosiRating: TBDRelease Date: October 21, 2016 (limited)Country: Italy Fire at Sea is two different movies. In one movie, dozens of malnourished refugees die from inhaling gasoline fumes from the ship's engine. In the other film, a 12-year-old boy named Samuele struggles to steer a rowboat at the pier. One moment's dire and heartbreaking, the other is played for laughs. There's the coziness of Samuele's town, and then there's the squalor of a refugee ship. We watch Italian boys shoot cacti with slingshots and play war. We also watch a man from a war-torn country hyperventilate after being saved from a ship; he might be dying, he might have died. Everything about the town seems inconsequential, particularly two or three scenes involving a diver who adds little to the film save for some nice underwater photography. While a mix of emotional highs and lows can work, here's it's just so mannered, calculated, and done with an off-putting emotional disinterest. Fire at Sea has so many obvious counterpoints to highlight thematic or symbolic material, it's as if Rosi cared more about the metaphors than the actual human suffering. There's minimal connection between the refugees and the people in town. None of the townspeople in the film work in the Italian coast guard, and only one person actually interacts with the refugees or talks about them meaningfully. For everyone else, the refugees don't seem to exist. Toward the beginning of the film, an elderly woman cooks while listening to a radio. The DJ reads a report about drowned refugees. Those poor people, she says, and carries on. There's a doctor in town who treats refugees fished from the Mediterranean. He recounts this in troubled tones. The things he's seen, the dire conditions, haunt his dreams. The doctor later appears in the film talking to Samuele about the boy's lazy eye. (A metaphor for how many people choose not to see or cannot see the horrors that refugees face--okay, yeah, I get it). Samuele goes off, performing for the camera like a neurotic elderly man. In another movie, this may be charming. In Fire at Sea, the moment made me angry, and probably not in the way that Rosi intended. Yeah, okay, I get it, the contrast is meant to upset the audience's comfortable lives and sensibilities. But isn't all of this also obvious? Fire at Sea is most effective when focusing on the refugees and the rescue teams. That's when the film feels humane rather than an exercise in contrasting aesthetics. A man who's been beaten on the boat literally cries blood. A woman breaks down before the camera, and despite being severely dehydrated, she first pours a cup of water over her head in relief. In a refugee processing center, a room of refugees prays as if in a Pentecostal revival, singing their story of survival. At night, refugees from different countries have a pick-up soccer game, as if some humanity, that dignity they risked their lives for, has been restored to them. But then back to Samuele, who slurps up spaghetti good and loud for laughs. I understand Rosi's intentions intellectually, and this collection of contrasts and disconnects does sound interesting in the abstract. But these are real people, and the last thing I want out of films or books is to be merely interesting. Being merely interesting is easy. The more I think about Fire at Sea, the more I'm offended by the choice to aestheticize human suffering for the sake of mere interestingness. Rosi may be well-intentioned, but Fire at Sea came across as unintentionally callous. That may have been the point. That doesn't mean I have to like it. It's telling that the final scenes of Fire at Sea are all about Samuele rather than the refugees. Those poor people, Rosi's film seems to say, and carries on.
Review: Fire at Sea photo
When refugees are a secondary concern
Sometimes I'll see a movie and that makes me shake my head and say, "Okay, yeah, I get it". These sorts of movies are ones that I can understand at a formal, metaphorical, or thematic level, and yet even though I understand t...

Review: Under the Shadow

Oct 06 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220388:42856:0[/embed] Under the Shadow (زیر سایه)Director: Babak AnvariRating: PG-13Release Date: October 7, 2016 (limited)Country: Iran  It's easy to spot shadows everywhere in Anvari's film given the nature of the beast. Set in 1980s Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War, there are frequent air raid sirens and the threat of missiles coming down on civilian targets at any moment. Anvari sets up a particularly memorable tableau of an unexploded missile that's come through an apartment ceiling. An elderly man lies prone on the ground as if pinned there beneath the shell; the pointed nose seems to have pierced him through the heart. Our hero Shideh (Narges Rashidi) lives in the apartment below, and that particular attack has left her ceiling a mess of cracks. For the characters who live in the building, their meager defense against being blown to pieces involves taping their windows and waiting in the basement for the terror to pass. There's more than the threat of bombs. Under the Shadow opens with Shideh getting kicked out of medical school because of her activism during the Iranian revolution. She's maintained a defiantly western mentality even after the Shah was exiled. Shideh rarely wears a hijab or chador (traditional headscarf and cloak, respectively), and she owns a VCR--a Jane Fonda aerobic workout is a form of dissent. When her husband is called away to the frontlines, Shideh is left alone to look after their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). The rest of the building seems to be fleeing, and there's talk of djinn, an ancient evil of legend, riding on the wind. Anvari gets a lot of thematic mileage out of the chador and masking tape on windows. Ana Lilly Amirpour, writer/director of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, said that wearing a chador felt very bat-like to her, which helped inspire her chic vampire film (sort of like the Persian-language cousin of Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive). For Shideh in Under the Shadow, the chador is a stifling metaphor: an invisible specter delineated in a sheet, a manifestation of Iran's political oppression, the symbol of a gender role she's disavowed. These things cannot be kept out by putting masking tape on windows. At various times in the film, the tape is peeling away. Anvari was born in Iran and lived there 17 years, but is now based in the UK. While he's sometimes distanced himself from the film's politics to emphasize the personal story between Shideh and Dorsa, it's hard for me to view Under the Shadow apolitically. It's a political movie because Shideh's a politically involved hero. Even if it's not always front and center, her actions speak to her politics. Shideh's struggles to keep the bombs and the djinn out aren't just for her own dignity but for Dorsa's future. Dorsa's little doll goes missing amid the chaos, and by extension we're left to wonder what future Dorsa's daughter might face if they were to remain in Iran. (Under the Shadow was shot in Jordan given numerous government restrictions/requirements when making films in Iran.) I'll admit I didn't find much of Under the Shadow scary, but I rarely find horror movies scary. It's eerie, however, and well-crafted. Most times I appreciate a horror movie for being memorable more than being scary. Rashidi is a solid emotional anchor for the film. Manshadi's not given as much to do acting-wise, but that says more about the nature of Dorsa as a character, who's a little one-note adorable. Rashidi plays Shideh with that exasperated air of a parent pushed to her limit, a woman who cares for her daughter so much yet can't help but feel she's also failing her in some way. It might be the all the other worries of country and career that makes her feel this way, pressing down more and more. The cracks begin to show, and they grow bigger, and it's always getting darker.
Review: Under the Shadow photo
Darkness, darkness everywhere
Some of the most notable indie horror movies of the last few years have been by women or about women. For example, see Jennifer Kent's The Babadook, David Robert Mitchell's It Follows, and Robert Eggers' The Witch. Each ...

Headshot trailer photo
Headshot trailer

The Raid's Iko Uwais beats the hell out of jabronis in this trailer for Headshot


BOOM! Headshot
Sep 07
// Hubert Vigilla
The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2: Berandal opened things up for director Gareth Evans and star Iwo Uwais. Uwais is back in action for Headshot, a film co-directed by Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto. If Tjahjanto's name lo...
Elle trailer photo
Elle trailer

Paul Verhoeven is back with Elle starring Isabelle Huppert, watch the trailer


An empowering, lighthearted rape movie?
Sep 06
// Hubert Vigilla
Though Showgirls eventually achieved camp/cult status, it was a major strike against Paul Verhoeven's career. He couldn't find steady footing in Hollywood afterwards, Starship Troopers notwithstanding. Showgirls also torpedoe...
Guardians trailer photo
Guardians trailer

Check out the trailer for Guardians, a Russian Avengers-style superhero epic


In Russia, love comes to get you
Aug 26
// Hubert Vigilla
In the future, all movies will be superhero movies and all restaurants will be Taco Bell. Search your feelings, you know it to be true. While the United States has flooded the market with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the...

Review: Train to Busan

Aug 04 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220738:43030:0[/embed] Train to Busan (부산행)Director: Yeon Sang-HoRelease Date: July 22, 2016Rating: NR I assumed while watching it that a big part of the reason Seoul Station was animated was the costs that would have been involved with making it for real. It's a sprawling narrative, going all around a city that I expect is very expensive to shoot in. A higher budget would have absolutely allowed the movie to be live-action, but the resources weren't available, so animation was the only way to tell the story. And that's fair enough; you do the best you can with the resources that you have.  Train to Busan solidifies that theory, because it works on a much smaller scale than its predecessor. Much of the film takes place in a train, bringing to mind Bong Joon-Ho's Snowpiercer (which, it should be noted, is another film I liked less than most of my movie-obsessed friends), though it's on an even smaller scale than that. This isn't a future world train. It doesn't have greenhouses or saunas or crazy engine rooms. It's just a train, albeit a pretty nice one. (The KTX looks much nicer than the Amtrak train I took this past weekend, and I'm now extremely jealous of South Korea's infrastructure. But I digress:) The potential benefit of a movie with a small scale is the ability to really connect with its characters. Without crazy set pieces to eat up minutes, there's more time to learn about (and hopefully care about) everyone. And caring is crucial in a film like this, where, let's face it, major characters are going to die. That's a thing in zombie movies, and Train to Busan is no exception. It's also a Yeon Sang-Ho movie, which means a whole heckuva lot of people are going to die. Probably in terribly depressing ways.  Or so I had thought. And, look, characters do die in some horrible and depressing ways, but it didn't feel as consequential as I had expected. Part of me missed that pervasive horror that has defined Yeon Sang-Ho's earlier work, but another part of me was glad that things weren't quite so dark. Things definitely get bad, and there are bad people who do bad things (and make good people do bad things), but it just doesn't feel as horrible as it did in the earlier works. I assume that this has to do with the live-action thing and the fact that a larger budget (I'm guessing) means that someone somewhere said, "Hey, we need people to go to this thing, so cut back just a bit." It's not neutered, necessarily, but it's definitely scaled back. For most people, I think that's a positive, but I'm kind of on the fence. I know I felt more from the deaths in Seoul Station than I did in Train to Busan, even though I was distanced from the action. The characters themselves were just better developed. And perhaps that's because it was less ensemble-y than its sequel. There may only be one protagonist, but Train to Busan is as much about the other people on the train. There are multiple character threads, and while they're easy to keep track of, they all feel like they needed more time to build up. The most interesting character by leaps and bounds is Ma Dong-Seok's Sang-Hwa, whose personality is obvious from the moment you see him in his absolutely fantastic getup. Costuming says a lot, and his costuming is particularly on point. Other characters have pretty good costuming as well, but nothing is so interesting. You know who the other characters are by their clothes, but you don't know who they are deep down. He is the only character who really feels alive. But don't let this sound like it's all negative, because it's not. It's clear that Yeon Sang-Ho has learned a lot from his time directing animated films, and I hope that he goes forward with more live-action films, because it's a very nice looking one. It's very well directed, and I want to see him go further (and with more money). It's also got a different take on zombie mythology. These zombies function solely on vision (and, I guess, sound, but to a different extent). As soon as you're out of sight, you're instantly out of their minds. (Worth noting: I'm fairly sure that was not the case in Seoul Station, which (if true) is problematic, but eh. It's not that big a deal.) It's a change, and it means that hiding is a very effective tactic to stopping a zombie attack. And because of that, the characters are able to do some interesting things. In the cloak of darkness, they can play tricks in order to move the zombies as they like. There are some very clever moments as the characters attempt to get through the infested cars, and there are definitely some very intense moments. Part of what makes it intense is that this is a zombie movie completely devoid of firearms. No guns means no bullets to the head means no dead zombies. They can just keep coming and coming. And while it doesn't quite work out that way (the tension is diminished somewhat by unclear rules regarding the zombies), it's genuinely refreshing to see how characters try to deal with an enemy that they cannot kill. I am fairly sure that I've never seen a zombie film without guns before, and for that alone Train to Busan deserves props. For all the times it feels like Just Another Zombie Movie, it also feels like something unique, and in a genre that's this stale, that means a lot.
Train to Busan Review photo
A bit more than just Zombies On A Train
In my review of Yeon Sang-Ho's Seoul Station from this year's New York Asian Film Festival, I said that I felt it would have been better as a live-action film than it was as an animated one. There was just something...

Godzilla Resurgence photo
Godzilla Resurgence

The new Godzilla Resurgence trailer is full of gravitas, pathos, and splosions


You'll cry, and you'll kaboom
Jul 19
// Hubert Vigilla
I wasn't that much of a fan of Gareth Edwards' 2014 Godzilla. While well-shot, the story was so-so and focused too much on Aaron Taylor-Johnson's bland lead character. It didn't help that Blandy McBlanderson was surrounded by...

Review: The Lobster

May 12 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219844:42633:0[/embed] The LobsterDirector: Yorgos LanthimosRating: n/aRelease Date: October 16, 2015 (UK); May 13, 2016 (USA)Country: UK, Greece, France  In the world of The Lobster, single people are social pariahs. After the death of a spouse or a divorce, a single person is forced to check into a hotel filled with other single people. They have forty-five days to pair up and get married, otherwise they are killed and have their consciousness transferred to an animal. Lots of people choose dogs, but throughout the movie we also see horses, pigs, and peacocks. Our hero David (Colin Ferrell, with a slight gut) chooses a lobster; he brings his brother (who is now a dog) with him to the hotel. You can earn extra time to prevent metempsychosis by hunting down single people in the woods with a tranquilizer gun. The hotel operates with business-like efficiency, providing scheduled social activities like some bad singles cruise from hell. To reinforce the importance of relationships, the hotel staff puts on skits: A single man pantomimes eating a meal alone, he chokes, he dies; a man and his wife pantomime eating a meal together, he chokes, she administers the Heimlich maneuver, he lives--applause. To determine whom you can pair up with, you're asked whether you're straight or homosexual (the latter sounds so much like business-ese in the context of the film). David asks if there's a bi-sexual option and is shot down--you can only choose one or the other, not both. Paper or plastic, soup or salad, efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. And it's blackly hilarious. The international cast adds to the oddball appeal of The Lobster, and they deliver their lines in an intentionally stilted manner. Olivia Colman's hotel manager strikes just the right balance between clinical, supportive, and fascistic to make her moments memorable. As for the guests, at times they seem like awkward pre-teens going through the early stages of adolescence. David befriends men played by John C. Reilly (with a slight lisp) and Ben Wishaw (with a slight limp), but they act like boys in the schoolyard. In some scenes the lines are bumbled or devoid of actual human emotion, like they're reading a script or they're pod people acting like humans are supposed to act. Flirtation is no longer about attraction or fun but learned behaviors about how people are supposed to flirt, or the desperation of a ticking clock scenario; relationships are a form of mutually beneficial transaction (i.e., we get to remain humans) that's not necessarily satisfying. Some of the best moments in The Lobster come from Lanthimos' exploration of the various forces that urge people to get into relationships against their will. The time limit might be taken as a biological imperative to have kids, or even just a desire to get married by a certain age; the pressures of the hotel staff are the different cultural, familial, and religious expectations attached to marriage and relationships. Any time your relatives have nagged you about dating, marriage, or kids, you have occupied a room in Lanthimos' hotel. Lanthimos also pokes fun at the arbitrary ways we sometimes choose who we want to be with. Limping Wishaw is looking for a woman who also has a limp, because something in common (no matter how arbitrary) might mean greater compatibility. Sometimes shared interests or traits are an arbitrary reason to get into a relationship. Does he or she really need to like your favorite band? Is a 99% match on OK Cupid really a guarantee of compatibility? A number is just a number like a limp is just a limp, and what people share together isn't a matter of arithmetic or mere reflection; there's a kind of private language and grammar that develops between people who are really fond of one another, and these things can't be forced or imposed from the outside. Since The Lobster is rooted in binaries, we also get to learn about the harshness of single-life out in the woods. In the wild and the damp, we meet the leader of The Loners played by Lea Seydoux, who's both a kind of political revolutionary and a radicalized kook. She asserts her own absurd will over The Loners that is in stark contrast to the rules of the hotel--instead of relationships, it's all about forceful solitude. And yet like the hotel, her rules are equally arbitrary, equally absurd, and also blackly hilarious. It's no longer a case of "paper or plastic" among The Loners, but rather "with us or against us." Lanthimos is equally suspicious of these denials of attraction and the repression of our desire to connect with someone else; it's another imposition on human nature and individual choice. In the woods, animals who were single people wander through shots. They're probably better off. For all the absurd and anarchic humor throughout The Lobster, the movie loses momentum before it comes to an end. It's as if Lanthimos exhausted the possibilities of his conceit and didn't figure out the final pivot his story could take. (I mentioned Barthelme earlier, and his best stories often have a sort of pivot near the end, revealing an additional train of thought that's been operating, parallel or hidden, all along.) The Lobster can feel a little one-note at times, but I suppose it's really one note that's played by two opposing sides, a kind of tyranny of logic. During the New York Film Festival press conference after the screening, Lanthimos said his screenplay was very logical. The comment drew some giggles from the press, yet it's true. The Lobster adheres to the logic of its conceit, and maybe too much. But there's still enough to love.
Review: The Lobster photo
Love is strange (so is loneliness)
I still haven't gotten around to seeing Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth, though I intend to. The blackly surreal 2009 film was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar and drew favorable comparisons to the work of Luis Bunuel ...

Review: Dragon Inn

May 09 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220493:42920:0[/embed] Dragon Inn (Long Men Ke Zhan, 龍門客棧)Director: King HuRating: NRRelease Date: May 6, 2016 (limited)Country: Taiwan An evil eunuch named Cao (Ying Bai) has seized power from one of his political enemies, putting him to death and exiling his children. Cao makes a power play to assassinate these exiles, which leads to a conflict with three heroes on a mission to prevent this from happening. There's a dashing rogue who carries an umbrella (Shih Chun), and there's a swashbuckling brother and sister duo consisting of a bullish hot-head (Hsieh Han) and a woman so skilled with a sword she causes gender confusion among her foes (Lingfeng Shangguan). There's conflict between these warriors, which has to be set aside to save the day. Sure, it's a familiar dynamic that isn't particularly complicated, but Dragon Inn is such an undeniable joy, like a grandparent's cooking. Yet to call it high-end cinematic comfort food sells Hu's craftsmanship short. He's mastering the form with just his second film in the genre. Like certain scenes of Come Drink with Me, much of the tension in Dragon Inn is the result of keeping heroes and villains in close quarters with one another. Cao's goons overrun the eponymous inn, which is situated in the middle of a rocky wasteland--part sanctuary, part target; a little bit Motel 6, a little bit Alamo. The heroes are grossly outnumbered, and they're always targets or under siege. When Chun's dashing rogue appears, there's a sense of calm about him, as if all is well while he tries to control the situation, eventually leading to a scruff. Lingfeng and Han have some comic moments, particularly during one scene where they dine with their enemies as a bit of subterfuge and do their darndest to avoid being poisoned. I mentioned the gender confusion earlier, which is a common trope of martial stories of all kinds--women warriors mistaken for men given their prowess. In many of King Hu's films, he has women as the front-and-center heroes. It's Cheng Pei-pei in Come Drink with Me (who would later play Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Hsu Feng in A Touch of Zen. Though Chun's mysterious rogue is the primary badass of the movie, Lingfeng's young heroine in Dragon Inn gets a fine moment to shine against dozens of goons, and this gender confusion offers a great way of undercutting traditional gender roles and gender expectations with the draw of action, as if skewering sexism, the patriarchy, and machismo with an elegant jian. The fights of Dragon Inn are staged like a movie musical, which may have a lot to do with the influence of Peking Opera. There's also the feel of a samurai movie about the fights since the visual rhythms and vocabulary of the Chinese martial arts movie were still in development. There's a major leap made between Dragon Inn and A Touch of Zen in terms of the pacing, staging, movements, and editing of the fight scenes, which makes both films essential for action aficionados. There's a softness to the fights here that hardens in Zen, as if Hu would ironically discover the visceral stuff of combat while making his meditative spiritual epic. A similar leap was made from Come Drink with Me to Dragon Inn. When the genre eventually turned away from swordsman pictures to the unarmed fighting genre, the vocabulary, grammar, and sheet forcefulness of the action would change again. Beyond its history, Dragon Inn is so watchable because it's a pure delight. The rousing Lan-ping Chow score is like some sonic representation of a dashing chilvaric code, all flight and blades and evasions. The height of the wuxia film in the late 1960s is still a glorious landmark nearly 50 years later.
Review: Dragon Inn photo
King Hu's landmark early wuxia film
While King Hu's 1971 epic A Touch of Zen is his towering masterpiece, his earlier film Dragon Inn may be the best entry point into the director's work. This 1967 adventure is one of the essential early martial arts ...

Review: A Touch of Zen

Apr 22 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220492:42919:0[/embed] A Touch of Zen (Xia Nu, 俠女)Director: King HuRating: NRRelease Date: April 22, 2016 (New York, with subsequent expansion)Country: Taiwan A Touch of Zen is such a singular sort of movie. After the success of Come Drink with Me and Dragon Inn, Hu had the creative freedom to do what he wanted, and the result was a movie of different moods and different modes. There is the wuxia element centered around a heroic fugitive named Yang (Feng Hsu), a swordswoman fighting for her life after corrupt government officials have murdered the rest of her family. She's one of Hu's many female heroes, though this movie doesn't have the same level of gender role confusion seen in other martial arts films. Yang is a woman but never mistaken for a man (the common genre convention), and she's the most capable fighter in the film. The centerpiece fight in the bamboo grove is an exhilarating bit of old school swordsman action. When A Touch of Zen was released as two films, the bamboo fight concluded the first movie and opened the second. Hu further adapts the theatrical movements of Peking Opera and the visual style of Japanese samurai pictures (en vogue at the time) to a swashbuckling cinematic form uniquely suited to Chinese martial arts. Trampolines give the heroes and villains a kind of superheroic flair as they clash with one another on rooftops and treetops. Hsu slashes, evades, and ripostes, and Hu cuts the action together to add intensity to the elegant movements on display. The action in A Touch of Zen feels like a transition period in fight choreography between the stage-like combat of the 1960s to the faster-paced cinematic combat that would be pioneered by later Shaw Brothers filmmakers Chang Cheh and Lau Kar-Leung. Yet the first fight doesn't occur until at least one hour into the film. Instead of rollicking adventure, A Touch of Zen opens with the banal rhythms of pastoral life. We follow a bumbling mama's boy/artist-scholar named Ku (Chun Shih), who takes an interest in Yang and a blind man (Ying Bai) who are hiding in an abandoned ruin. Ku is an archetypal fool, and a great vessel for the audience into the story (which has an archetypal opening: a stranger comes into town). While he's crafty, Ku's a coward and he falls in love too easily, which is a great contrast to Yang's ruggedly stoic heroism. Before A Touch of Zen, Chun Shih played the hero of Hu's Dragon Inn. In a subversive move, Hu has a previous star play against type and also against gender stereotype. And then there's the Zen Buddhism, which pervades the film's visual style emphasizing nature, seasons, and impermanence. I mentioned patience at the beginning of the review, and Hu's return to slow rhythms and long takes seems to give the audience a chance to breathe and take in each scene. A group of Buddhist monks show up when Yang is on the run, and they are unstoppable force and immovable object. They're shot with diffuse or star-filtered light emanating from behind them, and they seem to be followed by a supernatural veil of mist. The Zen aspects figure heavily in the film's unexpectedly bonkers finale, which I can only be described as 2001: A Space Odyssey meets El Topo.  The 4K digital restoration looks great during the daytime shots--you can make out the dust on King Hu's camera lenses as he lovingly absorbs hillsides and waterfalls and sky--though I noticed some major issues with image noise during the nighttime scenes. One of the pivotal action sequences in the last half of the film is at night, and it was often difficult to make out what was happening in each scene. Part of it may be the limitations of lighting and photography that Hu had to work with back then, though I sense there might have been an issue with the projection and/or the copy I saw during my screening. I'm curious to see A Touch of Zen again now that it's out in theaters, just to see for myself if the digital noise has been eliminated/addressed. Besides, I could use a little more patience and adventure in my life.
Review: A Touch of Zen photo
The beguiling wuxia masterpiece in 4k
A Touch of Zen is King Hu's masterpiece, yet unless you're patient and a bit adventurous, it may not be the best introduction to his work. Dragon Inn, his straightforward wuxia classic from 1967, might be a more palatable ent...

Review: April and the Extraordinary World

Apr 08 // Geoff Henao
[embed]220489:42898:0[/embed] April and the Extraordinary WorldDirectors: Christian Desmares and Franck EkinciRating: PGRelease Date: April 8, 2016 In an alternate 1870 France, scientists were being mysteriously kidnapped. As it's revealed, Napoleon III was in search of a serum that would turn his soldiers invincible, created by a scientist who successfully injected the serum into two lizards. Frightened by their ability to talk, however, Napoleon III destroys the makeshift lab and everyone inside. The next day, Napoleon IV signs a peace treaty with Prussia. As time passes, notable scientists like Albert Einstein and Alfred Nobel go missing, halting the advancement of science in the late 1800s. By 1931, the world is still reliant on steam and charcoal to run their machinery, essentially creating the steampunk setting of April and the Extraordinary World. The scientist's descendants are on the cusp of re-creating the serum that would essentially grant immortality. However, they are hunted down by a French officer under orders to kidnap them for enlistment into France's weapons program. The incident culminates in the loss of many lives and the family's young daughter, April, left alone with their talking cat, Darwin. Ten years later, April is on the brink of remaking the serum when she suddenly finds herself in the middle of a dark mystery that ties her missing family in with a secret government conspiracy that can change the entire world. April and the Extraordinary World is a mix of Hayao Miyazaki's fascination with machinery and strong female leads, Pixar's overarching theme of strong family bonds, and the distinctly "French" style of animation. As previously mentioned, the art style is more or less governed by steampunk, giving this alternate Paris a very bleak and dull look that permeates beyond the visual elements of the film. Everything is very detailed and looks technically amazing; however, it just lacks that certain "IT factor" that Studio Ghibli films have. The film's plot is very predictable, even down to the plot twists that you know are coming. Given the film's PG rating, there just weren't many risks that could have been taken with its plot. However, despite this, the film is aimed more so at adults, given the strong ties to issues that aren't important or captivating to the normal child. There's much to be said about the political issues at hand, the sci-fi elements of an alternate universe that runs on steam, and the outdated notions of a modern film falling into an all-too-familiar trope, but that's better left for armchair activists and essayists. While April and the Extraordinary World is a solid family film, I wish it explored its "extraordinary world" more. Given its title, one would assume the setting, which is admittedly the most exciting aspect of the film, would play more of a focal point in the film's narrative. All of this isn't to say April and the Extraordinary World isn't enjoyable, it just leaves you wishing for something truly extraordinary.
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