Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Mad Fox (1962)

Director: Tomu Uchida
Notable Cast: Hashizo Okawa, Michiko Saga, Ryunsosuke Tsukigata

One of the best things that Arrow Video and their sister label Arrow Academy has done in the last few years is that they have really dug into classic Japanese cinema for release in the west. While Criterion certainly whets the whistle with their Akira Kurosawa releases and a few other key ones (notable for this review will be the Samurai Trilogy,) Arrow has picked up the pace and delivered iconic releases for both genuine classics and those of the cult variety. The Mad Fox represents a bit of both of those worlds. Directed by Tomu Uchida, a prolific director that is finally getting more of his films beyond the previously mentioned Samurai Trilogy released here, The Mad Fox is both a gorgeous classic medieval Japanese dramatic tale and one where the fantasy elements edge it further into genre territory than expected. While the film is certainly well executed in a variety of ways, it’s also one that has a rather intriguing and often baffling script that makes it uniquely odd. For those who want to dig into Uchida’s filmography or perhaps just watch a wild cinematic experience, The Mad Fox certainly delivers for both of those groups.

It should be mentioned at this time that, while I have seen my fair share of Japanese films, the romantic and fantastical dramas of the early 60s are very much not something I am well versed in and, thus, The Mad Fox is something of a punchy way to leap into it. For that reason, if you are in the same boat as myself – I cannot recommend this Blu Ray enough simply for Jasper Sharp’s commentary that truly helped me understand what film I just watched, why it makes some of the choices that it does, and why this film deserves some attention. Not that a film should require someone to guide its viewer through the entire thing, but for someone that is not well versed in the mythos, fantasy elements, or time period of The Mad Fox – it’s a must listen.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Inferno of Torture (1969)

 Director: Teruo Ishii
Notable Cast: Yumiko Katayama, Teruo Yoshida, Asao Koike, Masumi Tachibana, Mieko Fujimoto, Haruo Tanaka

One of the beautiful aspects of director Teruo Ishii, the king of cult himself, is that he always rides this meticulous line between pure exploitation, bonkers film making, and thoughtful artistry. Each film leans in one direction over the other, but when it’s in balance the material can be astounding. Arrow Video has been rather dedicated to the auteur Japanese director in the last year or so, although one their first US releases was his insane Meiko Kaji fronted effort Blind Woman’s Curse, and with each release one gets a better sense of why he has the dedicated following that he does in filmland. While this latest release for his 1969 effort, Inferno of Torture, is definitely one that fans will want to add to their collection, it’s also one that struggles to find the previously mentioned balance in a way that is best for the story it’s telling. It’s ripe with his visual flair for bold design and it features a third act that’s blissfully intense, but it’s elongated setup and eye-rolling extensive exploitation sequences can be a bit of a chore to sit through at first.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971)

Director: Sergio Martino
Notable Cast: Edwige Fenech, George Hilton, Alberto de Mendoza, Ivan Rassimov, Conchita Airoldi, Manuel Gil, Bruno Corazzari, Carlo Alighiero

Over the last few years, as I continue to explore the various genres of cult Italian cinema, there was a director that stood out as one of the more fascinating voices of the time period for his diverse work and incredible visual and tonal abilities. That director is Sergio Martino. One of the highly regarded genre classics that had alluded me was his erotic thriller, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh. Fortunately, the film finally received a gorgeous Blu Ray release from Severin recently (fully uncut too) and it unquestionably lives up to the hype surrounding it. Although the film roots itself in many of the tropes and formulas of the giallo, it’s a film that often deviates ever so slightly from it to deliver its stronger qualities. Mainly, it plays on the expectation of the genre and how seductress is used in the erotic thriller.  Playing on these expectations, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh creates an enthralling tale of lust, love, life, and death in a way that feels fresh even when planting its foundations firmly in the conventions of a murder mystery.

Following the exploits of the young wife (Fenech) of a diplomat, the film chronicles the arrival of an evil ex-lover, the potential new mister, and her crumbling marriage to her husband on her life. When a killer of women starts knocking off well-off ladies in town, she starts to believe that perhaps one of the men in her life just might be the killer.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Woman on the Beach (2006)

Director: Hong Sang-soo

Notable Cast: Kim Seung-woo, Ko Hyun-jung, Kim Tae-woo, Song Seon-mi

** This review copy was provided by Grasshopper Film **

The seventh film in Hong Sang-soo's library of works is one that I actually hadn't seen in the decade long obsession I've had with him, but thanks to this film seeing life once more through the newly restored 4k version, done by the Korean Film Archive, and being released by the aforementioned wonderful folks at Grasshopper Film, I was able to finally explore one of the few films of his I hadn't. Just how is Woman on the Beach? In a word, it is brilliant, and I think in part that has to do with the surprisingly straightforward approach to both the narrative and it's structure.

Kim Jung-rae is a director whom is currently writing a screenplay for his next film, but he finds himself struggling to complete it. He invites his friend, Chang-wook, to come out to the west coast to a beach where the two can relax and he can finish his project over a weekend. The problem is Chang-wook had already made prior plans to visit his girlfriend Moon-sook, but after some convincing and agreeing to let her tagalong for the weekend, Chang-wook agrees and the three set off towards the beach. After a small love triangle forms, a leaning for desires previously established seems to shift and flourish between director Kim and Moon-sook. Here, things begin to change between everyone involved and the story really stays simple all the way through, but Hong gives us so much time getting to know everyone here and these are some of his most fleshed out characters to date. I thought Kim was played to perfection by Kim Seung-woo (Yesterday). He is a typical male that seems to have a one-track mind in most of Hong's works, but then as the story unfolds and the characters develope, we see a lot of layers and complexities in Kim that make him one of the standout characters in any Hong outing. I really didn't like him at times, but he felt so layered and the same can be said for Moon-sook, who is portrayed brilliantly by Ko Hyun-jung. She works in the film industry as a composer and her attraction to director Kim is pure and instead of just being an object of desire, there is a serious albeit fractured connection between the two. I absolutley loved seeing the ups and downs between Kim and Moon-sook and found myself wrapped up in all their crazy feelings.

Technically speaking Woman on the Beach looks great. The beach setting and the overall atmosphere seems to be brimming with warmth at first but as things go along you begin to feel the chill of the ocean air settling in. The music is typically quirky in Hong's film, and while that is certainly no exception here, there are some very great moments accompanied by rather serious pieces of piano and orchestra that added yet again another layer to the overall effectiveness. Even a smaller moment, involving a dog that is a recurring bit throughout really stood out and is in part strengthened by the accompanying musical piece.

I absolutely adored Woman on the Beach and am very honored to have had an opportunity to see the newly released 4k restoration. The film looks fantastic, but more importantly the film is fantastic and is potentially my new favorite film by master Hong. It's his most straightforward structurally, but easily packs more of an emotional wallop than anything else he's done. I think it easily one of his masterpieces. An extraordinary and complicated love story brilliantly told.

Written by Josh Parmer

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Becky (2020)

Directed by: Jonathan Millot and Cary Murnion
Notable cast: Lulu Wilson, Kevin James, Joel McHale, Amanda Brugel

“There was a little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very good indeed, but when she was bad she was horrid.” So goes the Longfellow poem, and so says Becky’s creepy childhood doll almost by means of warning. Becky is the sophomore effort by directors Millot and Murnion (following 2014’s excellent child-zombie comedy Cooties) and it is a wholly different beast. In turns both brilliant and exhilarating while a little shaky and muddled, this film is a brisk entertaining horror-thriller that knocks on the door of excellence, though unfortunately will have to settle for just being good.

The eponymous Becky is a very angry young girl. Her mother recently passed and she’s furious that her father has already started dating again. Lulu Wilson (one of this film era’s multiple working child horror stars) and Joel McHale  (the famously sarcastic comedian playing wonderfully against type as a very genuine, loving parent) have an interesting, extremely believable chemistry. A really astonishing feat given that everything we see is a parental relationship in free fall. McHale’s Jeff is almost too understanding and it allows Becky to walk all over him. They’re spending a weekend in their summer cabin, along with Jeff’s new girlfriend and her son, a fact that enrages Becky. She storms off to be alone in the woods behind the house, which is why she’s luckily out of Dodge when a group of escaped convicts invade, led by the Nazi Dominick.

Scare Package (2020)

Directors: Courtney Andujar, Hillary Andujar, Anthony Cousins, Emily Hagins, Aaron B. Koontz, Chris McInroy, Noah Segan, Baron Vaughn

After not being able to see Scare Package at the Telluride Horror Show last year, I was remiss I was unable to attend one of the big hits of the film festival. Word of mouth was incredibly strong for the horror-comedy anthology and some of my fellow critics who saw the film highly praised it. ‘One of the best of the fest,’ they said. Thanks for rubbing it in. Fast forward to eight months later and Scare Package is finally getting a wide release in the US through the horror streaming service Shudder. Surprisingly, it was revealed to be on the most recent episode of Joe Bob Brigg’s The Last Drive-In and the entire horror community was going to be live-tweeting along with it for its premiere – myself included. While I am eager to watch the film again when it is uploaded next week, Scare Package is the perfect kind of film for this style of premiere. It is the quintessential horror party film. The jokes and gore blow by at a lightning pace while the structure lends itself well to more casual viewing on the surface, but the it’s also so loaded with genre heart that fans will eagerly embrace it. If the reaction by last Friday night’s crowd is anything to judge it by, the film is already a cult classic staple.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

The Wretched (2020)

Directed by: Brett and Drew T. Pierce
Notable cast: John-Paul Howard, Piper Curda, Madelynn Stuenkel, Jamison Jones

The quick and dirty review of this movie, and a comparison that everyone has pointed out, is Fright Night but with a witch. It’s one of those comparisons that’s got to be a little frustrating, in that it’s a great pull quote and it’s true enough that no one is going to disagree with it outright. A coming of age horror story about a troubled kid with a monster neighbor that no one believes him about. It fits as a series of bullet points. That said, I don’t think it’s necessarily a fair comparison, and it’s not just the significant tonal differences. Firstly, a small bit of business. As a long time nerd, and especially a DnD nerd (3.5 for life, I’ll fight anybody), I don’t think it’s accurate to call the monster in this movie a witch... It’s obviously some kind of hag, a witch-like creature. I refuse to bog this review down with that detail, but my soul needed it said at least once.

Dream Demon (1988)

Director: Harley Cokeliss
Notable Cast: Jemma Redgrave, Kathleen Wilhoite, Timothy Spall, Jimmy Nail, Mark Greenstreet, Susan Fleetwood

With relatively no expectations going into Dream Demon, it’s something of the perfect film to surprise its viewer. With a title like Dream Demon along with some of the taglines used for the film, one could regularly assume that this 1988 horror flick was simply a Nightmare on Elm Street or Phantasm knock off. In reality, the film is far more serious and traditionally dramatic than what those franchises had become by the late 80s. Dream Demon is certainly more in the vein of the atmospheric and European flavors of Italian cinema of the 70s. It’s an impeccably paced and surrealistic dive into the ‘haunted house’ film that hardly gets the love that it’s due. Unsurprisingly, it’s Arrow Video that’s unburying this overlooked classic for release and it’s definitely one worth the gander for horror fans.

When Diana (Redgrave) moves into a new house, in preparation for her upcoming public wedding to her military fiancée Oliver (Greenstreet,) she starts to have vivid and horrifying dreams. When she befriends a visiting American Jenny (Wilhoite) the dreams become so real that her friend starts to experience them with her – as if they were real. As the lines between nightmares and reality blur, the two women must decipher the messages and figure out why this is happening now.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Porno (2020)

Directed by: Keola Racela
Notable cast: Jillian Mueller, Robbie Tan, Glenn Scot, Katelyn Pearce

The Oxford dictionary defines the word “pornography” as “printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings.” In that sense, Porno uses the term well. Although not itself an erotic film, this entry into the storied “we accidentally summoned the forces of evil and are stuck in a single location with them” thematically explores that concept. Combined with a group of “after school special type” good Christian high schoolers, Porno explores a sketch of an idea about witnessing the forbidden, and premarital sex and sexuality generally. It doesn’t quite reach this goal, but you can see all of these heady concepts in the movie. If you squint.

It’s closing time at a small theater in a small Christian town in the 90s. We see the theater’s owner lead his crew in prayer before heading off, telling the young people that after they clean up, the pious, straight edge projectionist Heavy Metal Jeff (Tan, otherwise best known from a brief appearance from AMC’s Preacher) will run whatever movie the group chooses. Jeff as a character carries a lot of this movie on his shoulders. He’s the best-defined character and his earnestness leads to really good moments of levity, including trying to mentor a character through a crisis of sexuality by comparing it to his own struggles with nicotine addiction before letting God back into his life.

Arkansas (2020)

Directed by: Clark Duke
Notable cast: Liam Hemsworth, Clark Duke, Vince Vaughn, John Malkovich, Vicica A. Fox

Arkansas is the kind of movie that doesn’t come along especially often, something compelling and intense, while being extremely quiet and meditative. Existing like a Michael Mann script filmed by Vincent Gallo, this film is (typically comedic) character actor Clark Duke’s feature writing and directorial debut. And as far as that fact alone goes? I feel very badly for Duke that this film came out at the point in history, it did because this film should be making huge waves right now, and will likely at this point be lost amongst our world’s current real crises. Which is a shame, because this story of crime, vengeance, and miscommunication feels especially relevant to its release year of 2020. Though in the interest of keeping this review apolitical  and timeless, it’s worth noting that rumination on doing what it takes to survive, whether it’s with honor, hook and crook, or lies, both direct and of omission, and the fallout from all of those choices does feel like a message that could stand-in any decade.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Hill of Freedom (2014)

Director: Hong Sang-soo

Notable Cast: Ryo Kase, Moon So-ri, Seo Young-hwa, Kim Eiu-sung, Youn Yuh-jung

For those who have been following my Hong Sang-soo journey in reviewing all his features and short films in chronological order here on Facebook will probably be confused seeing me leap from 2004's Woman is the Future of Man all the way to 2014's Hill of Freedom, but I assure you fragmenting and jumping ahead this way is as a result of this write-up coinciding with the June release of the film here in the U.S. after six long years. Was it worth the wait for Hong fans?

Hill of Freedom tells the story of a Mori, a Japanese man who has come to Korea in search of a local woman with whom he had feelings for during his last trip to the country two years prior. He writes her a note, which does manage to get to her, and we see that she is very sick. He retraces his steps from yesteryear, revisiting old cafes, restaurants, and even her place of employment that he also taught as an English teacher. She is nowhere to be found. Seeming lost, Mori stumbles onto new faces, makes new friends, falls for a new woman, and downs a ton of booze in a typical Hong outing that features an English heavy dialogue as its new focal point, that further expands on the 2012 Isabelle Huppert driven In Another Country, which adds the awkwardness of broken common language as a means of communication, although here it's taken to new heights, becoming both a strong point and weakness to the overall work.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Blood Tide (1982)

Director: Richard Jefferies
Notable Cast: James Earl Jones, Martin Kove, Mary Louise Weller, Deborah Shelton, Lydia Cornell, Jose Ferrer, Lila Kedrova

Between the cast, the writers, and a ‘creative consultant’ credit to Brian Trenchard Smith, I was positively excited for Blood Tide to get its new Blu Ray release from Arrow Video. Could this be another long-lost forgotten cult gem that was discovered while dragging the waters? On paper, absolutely. It reads like a sure-fire hit with its combination of Greek island cult elements, an ancient monster, and the horror meets adventure narrative. However, Blood Tide is a film that oddly evades ever dedicating itself to any of those pieces. Instead, it leans heavily into the convoluted dramatic tension of its characters and takes itself wildly seriously as it loosely ties together its genre elements. At the core, there is a great film, but the results of this 1982 aquatic thriller is far from there and the film ends up being more of a slog than the film it looks like on paper.

When Neil (Kove) and his wife (Weller) end up on a Greek island looking for his sister (Shelton), they stumble onto an archeologist (Jones) who is trying to uncover an ancient mystery. When he accidentally unleashes a water monster that is hunting the local women, they must all band together to figure out what the creature is and how to stop it.