Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Life Upside Down: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's Headshot (2011)

An extremely well-made and exciting work from Thai filmmaker Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, Headshot (2011) is one of the coolest and most bracing action-films in recent memory.  Focused on a former-cop turned hitman named Tul whose world is literally turned upside down after he takes a bullet in the head during an assignment, Headshot is a thrilling work that solidifies Ratanaruang as one of the most visionary young directors working in cinema today. 

Headshot is the first feature-length work the talented Ratanaruang has delivered since his award-winning Nymph (2009) over three years ago.  The Bangkok born Ratanaruang has been one of the most consistently daring filmmakers on the planet since his emergence in 1997 with the exhilarating Fun Bar Karaoke and Headshot continues a winning streak that includes an array of dazzling feature-length works as well as a number of acclaimed shorts.  A former illustrator and graphic designer (Ratanaruang was an art history major at New York’s Pratt Institute) Ratanaruang’s works are as visually captivating as they are intelligent and Headshot stands as a rare action film that is as thrilling for the eye as it is the intellect.

While Headshot is based on a novel by writer Win Lyovarin, it is clearly a very personal work for Ratanaruang who writes in his director’s statement on the film that it is, among other things, a work about, “the inevitability of karmic retribution”.  It is also a clearly political work focused on, as Ratanaruang writes, the fact that it is the, “politicians, military generals and wealthy businessmen”, that, “still write the laws and live above them.”  Headshot is an angry work but it is also a corrosively elegant film that has a brutally poetic quality about it.  It’s a protest movie posing as a modern action film and it’s an incredibly resonate work that will linger in the mind days after experiencing it.
 
Key to the success of Headshot is the terrific lead performance by Nopachai Chaiyanam as the doomed cop whose life was unfairly taken away from him by the very corrupt powers that be.  Chaiyanam gave a similar daring and great performance in Ratanaruang’s Nympth and it’s easy to see why Ratanaruang praised his “intelligence, instinct and commitment” in a recent interview.  The whole cast of Headshot is particularly strong, with special mention also going to the lovely Chanokporn Sayoungkul, an extremely sexy model (who reminds me a bit of Laura Gemser) making her film debut. 
Still Courtesy of Kino Lorber

While Headshot is an absolute ‘directors’ film Ratanaruang is helped by an extremely talented crew with cinematographer Chankit Chamnivikaipong giving the film a wonderfully sleek and uber-cool look that reminded me a at times of the legendary Cinema du Look films that came out of eighties French Film.  The haunting score by Vichaya Vatanasapt is also particularly powerful and provides a wonderfully menacing counterpoint to Ratanaruang’s vicious action set pieces throughout the film.
Headshot had its American premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, where it received much justified acclaim, and it is starting its commercial theatrical run on September 28th before arriving on DVD and VOD on October 2nd from Kino Lorber.  I highly recommend the film to both action and art-house lovers…it’s a smashing work.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Return of Misty Beethoven is Almost Here!

All the information on the upcoming DVD set, the Blu-ray and the soundtrack of Radley Metzger's masterpiece can be found here.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Bava Goes Blu!


Save for a British import of his Twitch of the Death Nerve (Bay of Blood) from Arrow a year or so back the works of legendary Italian director Mario Bava have so far been absent on Blu-ray. That is thankfully changing this next week when Kino Lorber and Redemption release the first three titles in their new HD Mario Bava Collection. Kino is releasing two of Bava's greatest films (Black Sunday and Lisa and the Devil) while Redemption (in conjunction with Kino) is unleashing the underrated Hatchet for the Honeymoon. I'm happy to report that all three films (all mastered from original 35mm negatives) have never looked better, than they do on these releases, and Hatchet for the Honeymoon is a particularly marvelous upgrade from its older Image DVD.

A fitting introduction for newcomers to Bava's magical world is 1960's Black Sunday (La maschera del demonio), as it was not only his first feature-length film but also remains his most celebrated. Time has taken nothing away from this seminal black and white work starring the mesmerizing Barbara Steele, and Kino's new Blu-ray is a real beauty and a nice upgrade from Anchor Bay's 2007 DVD. Offering up the longer original Italian cut of the film with English dubbing, Kino's Blu-ray of Black Sunday looks quite wonderful throughout and Bava and Ubaldo Terzano's evocative black and white photography has never seemed quite as eerie and seductive as it does on this new disc. It's a real beauty and fans of the film should be thrilled to have such a sharp looking print now available. Extras include trailers as well as Bava biographer Tim Lucas' absolutely essential commentary track, ported over from the older DVD releases.



Redemption steps up to the plate next with one of Bava's most undervalued works, 1970's Hatchet for the Honeymoon (Il rosso segno della follia). Of these new releases in The Mario Bava Collection, Hatchet for the Honeymoon was the one that needed the biggest upgrade as all past releases have been disappointing in both the video and audio department. Before I put the new disc in I played a bit of Image's old DVD just to test my memory on how faded and beat up the film looked on that release (my memory wasn't lying) so with a big gulp I put in Redemption's new disc and I immediately breathed a great sigh of relief. While some very minor print damage in on hand throughout, Hatchet for the Honeymoon looks absolutely marvelous here. We can now finally see just how hypnotic and inventive Bava's use of color is on this film and hear Sante Maria Romitelli's groovy score without an annoying echo of static surrounding it. Redemption's English-dubbed Blu-ray of Hatchet for the Honeymoon is one of the best restorations of the year and I have never enjoyed Bava's extremely crafty and surprising film more. Extras again include some trailers as well as a brand-new Tim Lucas commentary track, which is of course an extremely valuable addition to any Bava film.



Finally we come to my favorite Mario Bava work, the unbelievably haunting Lisa and the Devil, a mindblowing film starring lovely Elke Sommer and Telly Savalas as the two title characters. As on its previous laserdisc and DVD releases, Lisa and the Devil is joined by its crazed sister film, the enjoyable abomination The House of the Devil (an Exorcist rip-off work made mostly by producer Alfredo Leone made up of new footage of Sommer along with portions of Lisa and the Devil). Both films look dazzling here with Lisa and the Devil looking particularly sharp. Even though Anchor Bay's 2007 disc looked quite good, Kino have done a great job here with Lisa and the Devil and this new HD transfer brings out the wonderful visual color poetry of Bava and cinematographer Cecilio Paniagua in incredibly vivid detail. Sommer has never looked quite so fetching and Savalas quite as menacing as they do in Kino's new disc. Extras again include trailers as well as both the great Lucas commentary and the House of the Devil track with Sommer and Alfredo, both ported over from the 2007 release. New to this release is a fascinating talk with Lamberto Bava by documentary filmmaker (and former Jean Rollin assistant) Daniel Gouyette. The only downside to the new Kino disc is that it doesn't have the deleted footage featured as a supplement on the late nineties laserdisc, otherwise it is a smashing release.



As with their ongoing Jean Rollin Collection, Kino and Redemption have brought another one of cinema's great visionary directors to HD with a lot of care and love. These discs are absolutely worth an upgrade to already converted fans and I can only say that I am jealous of newcomers who get to see these three classics for the first time via these fine releases.

-Jeremy Richey-

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"Forever an Extra, Never a Star"

In honor of Brian De Palma's birthday here is a repost of my article on one of his most undervalued films.

***This article is my contribution to Cinema Viewfinder's terrific Brian De Palma Blog-A-Thon. Thanks so much to Tony at Cinema Viewfinder for inviting me to contribute.***



It’s one of the most breathtaking shots in Brian De Palma’s entire canon. Nancy Allen, at her loveliest, walks through a doorway in slow motion towards a visibly stunned Keith Gordon, who is frantically pounding away at some mashed potatoes. Pino Donnagio’s score grows more and more lush and dramatic as the luminous Allen walks straight towards the camera, as if some unseen force is inviting her. This classic De Palma moment isn’t from Dressed to Kill, or Blow Out, or any of the other classic films that he shot with his (then wife) Allen in the late seventies and early eighties. It is from the almost totally forgotten 1980 release Home Movies, and the unseen force inviting Allen to come closer is us, the audience.




The magnificent introduction of Nancy Allen in Home Movies is just the kind of moment that critics loved, and continue to love, to pick on De Palma about. Instead of recognizing it as an enduring ode to not only his lovely new bride, and a tip of his hat to the kind of glamour that Hollywood had all but abandoned by the seventies, De Palma was vilified as a director who objectified women as purely sexual objects.




The charge against De Palma as being a cinematic misogynist is absolutely bogus, as were most of the charges railed against him by most of the critics of the day who failed to see the significance of now classic films like Dressed to Kill, Blow Out and Body Double. Equally false is the accusation that De Palma was simply a Hitchcock rip-off, because the work of rip-off artists might provide momentary thrills but the don't survive, and the films of Brian De Palma have done just that, and the best of them resonate far more in our post Pulp Fiction cinematic world than perhaps even his most adoring fans would have even hoped.




While we are celebrating the bona-fide classic works of Brian De Palma let us not forget the smaller films that have slipped through the cracks of cinema history, such as the hard to find Home Movies, a film that returned De Palma to the savage satiric tone of his early works like Greetings and Hi Mom!.




Of course, De Palma had never totally abandoned the comedy that was found in his early films as all of his thrillers had a sharp wit to them, even though the humor was sometimes so subtle that it was hard to even notice. The comedic touches found in otherwise deadly serious works like Sisters, Carrie and Dressed to Kill were so easy to overlook that by the time of Wise Guys in 1985 everyone seemed totally surprised that De Palma was releasing an out and out comedy, an ironic state for one of modern cinema’s most clever satirists.



Starting out as an extremely low budget attempt by De Palma to help his students at Sarah Lawrence College shoot their own film, Home Movies quickly turned into a freewheeling production directed almost exclusively by De Palma with his students working as the crew. A wet dream of sorts for De Palma enthusiasts, the film stars a number of the most recognizable faces from his work in the seventies and it is filled with humorous nods to not only his own work, but also his life as a director and the critics who were so quick to vilify him. Also, like all great satires, there is a real anger running underneath every moment in Home Movies that helps make it one of the key, if little seen, works by De Palma.




Attempting any sort of clear-cut plot description of Home Movies would be more than a little frustrating and pointless. Let’s just say that it concerns a young student whose life is being filmed by a college film teacher named “The Maestro”. At the same time another film crew is filming The Maestro’s day-to-day life and, on top of that, De Palma’s crew is filming the documentary crew filming The Maestro who is filming the young student. Got it?




Home Movies is an easy work to criticize as it is technically (but deliberately) all over the place, but it’s a wonderfully self reflective and knowing film that works as both a very funny comedy, as well as a tribute to the many styles of filmmaking De Palma had mastered during the seventies. Hardcore De Palma fans will have a blast spotting all the different references to films like Hi Mom!, Get to Know Your Rabbit, Sisters, Carrie and The Fury, while casual fans will get a kick out of such a famous director willing to go out on a limb with such a loose knit and near anarchic production.





From the hilarious and incredibly smart opening credit sequence in which everything from a house to a doctor’s fingers take on a sharp and leering voyeuristic viewpoint, to the idea that everyone can be the star of their own film (an idea that might have seemed like a novelty in 1980, but has become a terrifying reality in our modern world), Home Movies is one of De Palma’s most intelligent productions. If some of his thrillers had paid homage to the Italian Giallos from the likes of Dario Argento (a director, much more than Hitchcock, that De Palma should be aligned with) then Home Movies owes more than a passing debt to the many Italian sex comedies of the seventies. Even the wild and audacious score by the ever present Pino Donnagio sounds like it could be the soundtrack to any number of Laura Antonelli or Gloria Guida productions. Home Movies is much more than just a silly slapstick farce as De Palma, and his young crew, use the film as an audacious platform to combine all of his trademark touches into a sort of greatest hits work (every De Palma trademark is here with the exception of the split-screen montage). The film also works, much like Scorsese’s later After Hours, as a much needed back to basics work by an physically and emotionally exhausted filmmaker. The ‘break’ paid off as De Palma’s next two films, Dressed to Kill and Blow Out, proved to be arguably the finest of his now near five-decade career.






De Palma fans not familiar with Home Movies will not only be surprised by the number of odes to his past films but will be shocked by the iconic cast on hand, which stands as a who’s who of De Palma players from the seventies. Nancy Allen, who is so wonderfully funny and utterly charming here, appears alongside Keith Gordon, and the two of them successfully capture the chemistry that played such an important, if often unnoticed role, in Dressed to Kill. Other familiar faces include Kirk Douglas, fresh from The Fury, in hilarious form as the egomaniacal Maestro, as well the incredibly gifted Gerrit Graham who parodies his famous role as “Beef” in Phantom of the Paradise brilliantly. Many more appear as well and its hard not to be overwhelmed on first viewing by all the familiar faces from De Palma’s past works, who are all clearly having a good time simultaneously paying tribute to and gently mocking their past work.




De Palma doesn’t allow his actors to be alone in the self-parodying department as he delights in poking fun of himself throughout the film. It is De Palma’s own ability to laugh at himself though that makes Home Movies finally one of his most profound works. While the character of The Maestro is De Palma’s comment on the soulless and ego-driven director that so many critics accused of him of being, it is Gordon’s role as the good natured student cast in his own film as an extra that says more about the real Brian De Palma than the caricature of The Maestro. It’s as though De Palma recognizes his place as a bit of the 'lost man' amongst his peers and friends (Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas and Spielberg) who had all achieved both the acclaim and respect that had eluded the deserving De Palma throughout the seventies. The reoccurring image of the dejected and frustrated Gordon alone in a train station is a telling one for De Palma, a director so many have tried to push to the sidelines of modern American cinema.












Home Movies stands as a wonderful tribute to the versatility of Brian De Palma as a filmmaker, as well as a sharp reminder that he is at his best when he is allowed to work with people he is most at home with. De Palma’s films before he was forced into a director for hire role in the mid eighties were very much family affairs and Home Movies feels today a bit like a missing section of what has become an enduring and quite distinctive legacy. It’s also a sweet tribute to the team of De Palma and Allen, a wonderful combination that was broken up by the unfair and often savage criticism thrown at both of them after Dressed to Kill.






Home Movies can technically be labeled as a minor Brian De Palma film, but it is worth much more than the footnote status it is often given. Briefly available on VHS and laserdic in the eighties, the film has been out of print in The United States for nearly two decades. Out on DVD in Europe the film, sometimes known as The Maestro, is more than deserving of a re-release in America. Nearly universally ignored at the time of its brief theatrical release and rarely mentioned even by die-hard De Palma fans, Home Movies is a lost little treasure from one of America’s most important directors.

-Jeremy Richey-

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Magic in Movement: Celia Rowlson-Hall's A Study in Color (2011)



While her masterpiece so far is undoubtedly the mesmerizing Prom Night (2012) all of the short works of New York based filmmaker Celia Rowlson-Hall are deserving of serious recognition and study. Among my personal favorites is the dazzling A Study in Color, a three-minute film made last year for Brooklyn's Keller clothing and shoe company.





A Study in Color was one of the first films from Rowlson-Hall I saw after I was introduced to her work via the haunting Prom Night. Directed by, and starring, Rowlson-Hall, the dialogue free A Study in Color is a wonderful example of absolute pure-cinema...a work of striking visual impact that is a model of both economy and vision.






A bold short-film powered by some of the most exquisite speed-manipulation I have ever seen, A Study in Color finds Rowlson-Hall questioning the notions of time and space in film, within a work that could have just been a simple advertisement for shoes. Along with her director of photography Ian Bloom and composer Jonathan Melville Pratt, Rowlson-Hall created a work that feels especially close in spirit to several early cinema pioneers (her willingness to play with the speed of the film recalls The Lumière Brothers, while her jaw-dropping imaginative visual style is more in line with Méliès). Everytime I watch Celia's films, I am always struck by by the idea of what those early mavericks would have done if they would have had access to today's technology.




What I love most about Celia Rowlson-Hall and her films is the joy of creation found in each. These are some of the most original and distinctive works I have come across in some time and Rowlson-Hall's love for film and movement shines through in each. To say that Celia Rowlson-Hall is a young filmmaker to watch is an understatement. She is, simply put, one of the most brilliant and daring young American directors in recent memory and the news of a possible upcoming feature-length work is extremely exciting.




A Study in Color is an especially jubilant and joyous celebration of the power of film as a visual medium and Celia's smile that closes it says more than any dialogue could hope to.



My chat with Celia can be read here and the majority of her work can be found at her Vimeo page (follow her at Tumblr as well). Ideal starting points are both Prom Night and A Study in Color as well as One Sunday, Pinata and Mariah's Lollipop, her recent collaboration with Lexy Hulme but all of her short films are extremely valuable.

...