Sunday, August 15, 2010

I really liked this Korean cultural mash-up.

I've not posted DVD reviews for a while so here are some of the films I've recently seen:

How to Make Love to a Woman

I must admit a grudging respect for some old school exploitation values exhibited in this new sexually tinged romantic comedy.

First, the title sounds like something one of the old road show producers would have brought 60 years ago from one theater to another. There was once a kind of movie that low budget producers made and showed to men-only and women-only audiences discussing intimate subjects that invariably included a live lecture from a "hygiene" expert!

Second, the design of the cover art suggests the film might be part of the "American Pie" series. It's not. Deception was part of the exploitation experience.

Third, while one might expect there would be some nudity in the film, there isn't any. Explicit language, yes, nudity, no. "Bait and switch" is also a fine tradition of the exploitation film.

Lastly the inclusion of adult film legend Jenna Jameson in the cast puts forth the promise of some hotsy-totsy action, but guess what? Jameson's cameo role is certainly demure and brief.

Having noted all that, "How to Make Love to a Woman" isn't a bad little comedy that plays on basic miscommunication between two people who love one another, but it's not a truly notable film at all.

Josh Meyers of "Mad TV" is a record company executive who realizes he isn't much of a lover, even though he cares deeply for his girlfriend. He goes on quest to improve his skills, but hits a roadblock when his bumbling and ego causes her to consider accepting a job offer in another city.

There are some talented character actors in the cast, including Ken Jeong and James Hong, who brought some additional mirth to the proceedings and Meyers is fine as the lead as is Krysten Ritter as his girlfriend.

There is nothing particularly outstanding or memorable, though, about the film and that's the problem.

The DVD extras include the usual making of feature in which the producers actually describe just how difficult it is to make a film in just 19 days.

The Good, the Bad, the Weird

I've sung the praises of Asian films before in this column and this 2008 Korean "western" set in Manchuria in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation would be a great introduction for a newcomer.

What always fascinates me is how Asian filmmakers -- whether they are Japanese, Chinese, Korean or Indonesian -- have pushed their own history, culture and attitudes through a filter of film grammar, technology and iconography that is largely American. The results are films that look familiar in some ways but take viewers along paths they didn't expect. As a film fan, that's what I live for.

In this case, Korean director and writer Jee-woon Kim has clearly been influenced by westerns in general, but especially by Sergio Leone's classic western, "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," which in turn was the great Italian director's reimagining of American westerns.

Kang-ho Song is "the Weird," a Korean outlaw who steals a treasure map that is the object of desire by a Chinese crime lord as well as the Japanese occupying forces. Byung-hun Lee is "the Bad," a skilled assassin who understands the value of the map and seeks to have it for himself. Woo-sung Jung is "the Good," a no-nonsense bounty hunter who dresses like a cowboy and seems to have patterned himself after Gary Cooper.

The director knows how to stage great action sequences -- from an outstanding train robbery to some spectacular fights -- but he also infuses the film with a uniquely Asian perspective. The Korean outlaw longs to return home, now occupied by a brutal Japanese regime. The cultural and historical differences of Asian people come into play in this film.

Jee-woon Kim also understands how to use humor and sentimentality to sustain the viewer's interest.

I really liked this film and think you might as well if you can suspend your disbelief a bit -- I can't quite believe Manchuria was as much as like the wild west as it was portrayed -- and give the subtitles a chance. I always opt for subtitles, as I really want to hear the performances of the actors even if I don't understand the language.

The Dungeon Masters

I'm not much a game player, so if I can't finish a game of Monopoly one can see that I would never be able to immerse myself in video games or in the game featured in this documentary, Dungeons & Dragons.

There are a lot of people out there, who do plunge into playing a game and it becomes more than a recreation, but a lifestyle for them. This new film looks at three people who devoted a substantial part of their lives not just playing the game but being a game master and organizing a game.

While fictional movies and documentaries about fanboys and their pursuits is nothing new -- "Trekkies" probably invented the genre -- director Kevin McAlester manages to avoid clich s. He doesn't laugh at his subjects. He presents their lifestyles and allows the audience to react.

McAlester follows three very different people: Richard, a married sanitation worker and member of the Air Force Reserve; Scott, a married apartment building manager and struggling writer; and Elizabeth, a single woman trying to find employment.

McAlester shows that in each case the role of game master gives these people a sense of control over some part of their lives. Scott is clearly very smart, but he seems incapable of applying himself to anything meaningful. Elizabeth is searching for a solid relationship as well as a job. Richard, who seems to have a very full life, obviously yearns for something dramatic.

While these three people may dress in costume and talk about elves, trolls and dragons, at the core they are no different than anyone else who is a fan of something. Is the person who regularly wears shirts showing his or her allegiance to a sports team and can reel off facts, stats and analysis of the latest game no less a geek than these three?

Considering that I have spent much time with fanboys -- I'm one myself -- I think this film is an insightful look at how people can give into a hobby to the point of near obsession.

The extras include some great outtakes and a series of "not outtakes, exactly," that have some interviews with folks who make our three subjects look pretty normal -- whatever that means.

Don't Look Up

At last, a DVD horror film release that isn't some lame low budget vampire film. "Don't Look Up" is a genuinely creepy film with some good shocks.

Reshad Strik stars as a film director named Marcus. He's going through some personal and professional hard times -- his girl friend is dying of cancer and he walked off the set of his second movie -- when he receives an offer to film a script based on a lost movie.

A Hungarian director -- look for director Eli Roth in a cameo -- disappeared in 1928 when he attempted to shoot a film based on a medieval legend about a village doomed by a supernatural spirit. Marcus wants to make his version of the same story in the very studio his counterpart used more than 80 years ago.

Anyone who has seen any horror movies knows this can't be a good idea. For Marcus, the extra wrinkle in the story is that he has psychic abilities and can "see" the events that took place years previous.

It's not too long before the spirit makes herself known and members of the crew start dropping and she has some plans for Marcus.

The shocks include far more than the standard gory deaths. Director Fruit Chan, a Hong Kong filmmaker known for a horror film called "Gaau ji (Dumplings)," makes sure not only are his actors allowed to build a characterization, but also to vary the chills.

One of the most disturbing moments in the film for me was a scene in which the director and his producer -- played with an oily charm by Henry Thomas -- watch the dailies from the first day. Their footage contains that shot 80 years earlier, long thought lost. It's a subtle but effective moment.

This is the kind of horror film I like: original, unpredictable and free of dumb vampires!

The extras include the standard interviews and behind the scenes footage.

"Shinjuku Incident" may certainly be a disappointment to Jackie Chan fans who expect silly comedy and stunt-filled action. Instead, they are going to find a very serious film dealing with illegal immigration and organized crime.

In an interview included in the DVD's extras, Chan said he would like to extend his career as an actor and director, like Clint Eastwood. To do so, he has to take on more dramatic roles and clearly this is a step in that direction.

With the success of the re-make of "The Karate Kid," American audiences are starting to see this new Jackie Chan, but he has been around for awhile -- in his Chinese movies.

Chan tried a straight drama in his 1993 film "Crime Story," and returned to it with his performance as a failed alcoholic cop in "New Police Story." His burglar character from "Rob-B-Hood," was also a departure from his standard good guy parts.

In his recent American films he has reverted to his standard screen persona, such as in "The Spy Next Door." The sad thing is his more interesting films, such as "New Police Story" and "The Myth" haven't received any theatrical release here though they eventually come out on home video.

If you're a fan of Chinese cinema or of Chan, I recommend adding those two productions to your Netflix list.

"Shinjuku Incident" tells the story of Nick, a Chinese tractor mechanic who illegally comes to Japan to search for his girlfriend, Xiu Xiu, years after she immigrates to find fame and fortune. Although at age 56, Chan is a tad too old for this role, he delivers a moving under-stated performance as a man who is attempting to do the right thing, but whose choices are limited.

Once in Japan, Nick encounters prejudice from the Japanese plus the challenges that come from being an illegal alien. Nick lives on the streets until he meets a friend from back home, Joe, who introduces him to a group of a largely Chinese illegals all living in a communal home.

Struggling to find any meaningful work, while working in a sewer he rescues the life of a sympathetic police officer. He also sees his one-time girlfriend, now the wife of a powerful Japanese mobster, Eguchi.

Although resistant at first to do anything against the law, Nick eventually begins stealing and scamming. When he saves Eguchi's life, he's given the crime territory of the would-be assassin. Eguchi is not being generous. He plans to use Nick and his Chinese gang as pawns in his game to take over leadership of the mob.

Director Derek Yee handles this gritty drama pretty well, although there are moments in which the passing of time is not presented well and creates a little confusion.

For instance, the audience has no idea Xiu Xiu has been gone as long has she has before Nick begins his search for her and until we see her young daughter, who is about six or seven years old.

Overall, though, this is an above average crime drama that plays out in the same vein as the classic gangster films from the 1930s such as "Public Enemy" or "Little Caesar."

One note of caution: there are several moments of graphic violence that are also very uncharacteristic for previous Jackie Chan films.

And Chan demonstrates that he not only has a place in cinema history as one of world's best action stars, but also as an effective dramatic performer.


When I was teaching a film class at Western New England College, I frequently showed one of the worst movies I had in my collection: an obscurity called "Terror in the Amazon."

I showed that film to illustrate what constitutes good direction. I learned my students couldn't really tell what good direction is like because they didn't have a benchmark of really terrible direction for comparison.

"Terror in the Amazon" provided that. It's truly incompetent.

The difference a director makes to a film can be crucial and that's the problem with "Stolen," a murder mystery that takes place over the course of 50 years.

"Stolen" features a pretty intriguing script. John Hamm plays a present day cop who is still grieving for the disappearance of his son eight years ago. He suspects an incarcerated child killer, but can't prove it.

His obsession with solving the case increases when a construction crew discovers the corpse of a young boy who had been murdered about 50 years ago. Through flashbacks we learn of the boy's story.

While I thought Glen Taranto's script had much merit, director Anders Anderson made a bit of a mess of it. An average episode of "Criminal Minds," has a better use of production value and a closer attention to detail.

Because this is partly a period film, one can't help but notice the haircuts and clothing are too far off, something a good director would notice. The use of a roadside diner supposedly a busy location is on a dirt road. Huh?

There is never a true sense of location established or that these events are actually taking place in a "real" place.

The film has a fine cast, but too many characters have too little to do and have been given throwaway roles, such as the lovely Morena Baccarin whose talents are completely wasted.

This is Anderson's first film and he has a lot to learn.

While flawed, mystery fans might find some interest in "Stolen."

Left Bank

This horror movie from Belgium came with some high recommendations and I was expecting a lot. While it also has many good points, watching it was fairly irritating.

Marie is a young runner who is headed for great things when she contracts an unknown ailment. Her doctor recommends a month's worth of rest and Marie decides to move in with her new boyfriend.

Slowly but surely she discovers the apartment building in which they live on the left bank of the river in Antwerp has a disturbing history. It is supposedly built on the site of literally a hole to Hell and the place where generations of devil worshippers have conducted ceremonies.

Now Marie, in the worst traditions of the horror film protagonist, sticks around even as she realizes that things are not what they seem. A sensible person would have tried to escape well before she does.

That's where this film is frustrating. There are some good performances and some good ideas that hole in the basement is pretty damn creepy but the film is agonizingly slow. The writer and director apparently want to stick with the conventions of the genre rather than do something new.

This film is unrated and while the violence isn't explicit, there are a number of sex scenes and ones with nudity that are fairly revealing. While low-budget director Fred Olen Ray once accurately said that "nudity is the cheapest special effect," these scenes certainly don't make "Left Bank" a better story.

© 2010 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

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