Philadelphia Film Festival 2006

Philadelphia Film Festival: Cheesy Horror Double Feature

To conclude the Philadelphia Film Festival, I took in a pair of low-budget, cheesy horror films. One was good, the other not as much, but they’re both worth a watch (if you’re a fan of the genre).

  • Evil Aliens: Back before they were A-list directors, both Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi were known for their low budget, gory horror “splat-stick” films. Whether we can expect the same trajectory from new British director Jake West remains to be seen, but his first feature certainly owes a debt to the early Jackson/Raimi horror films. The movie starts with an abduction, followed by a television tabloid show going to investigate. The tabloid show doesn’t believe any such abduction took place, they just seek to exploit the story. Naturally, they’re wrong, and the coasal island they travel to is actually being invaded by, well, evil aliens. Along the way, we get treated to abductions, anal probes, decapitations, inbred Welsh farmers, shotguns, cattle mutilations, hot alien-on-human lovin’, and blood spraying mayhem in general. Obviously, this film ain’t for the faint of heart, but it’s a lot of fun for fans of the genre, who should also be able to pick apart all of the references. Perhaps not as seamless and inventive as, for example, Evil Dead II, but still a solid effort. Also, as I mentioned earlier, this appears to be a part of the recent revival in British horror, though unlike The Descent, Evil Aliens plays the monster story more for laughs and gory fun than anything else. Excellent for its genre, though it’s graphic depictions and the like are certainly not for everyone. (**1/2)
  • Tokyo Zombie: An interesting Japanese parody of zombie Films, Tokyo Zombie has a lot of potential, but ultimately falls a little flat. Like Evil Aliens, Tokyo Zombie is not playing it’s story straight, but it doesn’t quite have the rapid-fire pace that other films of this nature require. On the other hand, it is more ambitious than Evil Aliens, and it even follows through on some of that ambition. Two blue-collar laborers with a penchant for jujitsu have thir plans cut short by a sudden invasion of a zombies from “Dark Mt. Fuji” (essentially a landfill where all sorts of garbage is dumped, including industrial waste and, of course, human bodies). The duo (sporting hilarious haircuts, including a Japanese afro) are separated, and the film take some interesting turns, including an unexpected Kill Bill-style anime sequence that bridges five years in the story and a Romero parody featuring wealthy survivors pitting zombies versus poor human survivors in battle. Compared to Evil Aliens, the gore is practically nonexistent and the laughter is slightly less. However, it tries to leaven its story with a little more depth. Unfortunately, when compared to another brilliant zombie parody, Shaun of the Dead, it still doesn’t really stack up. A bit of a disappointment, but probably still worth seeing for fans of the genre (**)

And that about wraps it up. It was a fun experience, though I wish I had taken some time off or something, because I certainly would have liked to have seen several other films during the week. For those interested, I’ve created a category for all posts from the Philadelphia Film Festival.

Philadelphia Film Festival: A Bittersweet Life

The next film in my marathon was the Korean gangster flick, A Bittersweet Life. The recent surge in ultra-cool Korean action films intrigued me (particularly Chan-wook Park’s “Vengeance” trilogy, which I have not yet been able to see) and so I figured I’d check this one out. It’s a decent enough film and it kept me entertained, but it ultimately left me unfulfilled.

Sun Woo is an “enforcer” at a hotel bar run by an organized crime syndicate led by President Kang. As we see in the first scene, Sun Woo is your typical icy and efficient mobster, and has earned the trust of the syndicate’s leader, President Kang. When Kang needs to leave town for a few days, he asks Sun Woo to do him a personal favour. Kang wants Sun Woo to look after his young mistress, Hee Soo. What’s more, Kang suspects that she is cheating on him. If she is, Sun Woo is supposed to kill her and her lover on the spot. Of course, she really is cheating on Kang and it doesn’t take long for Sun Woo to catch them in the act. Naturally, Hee Soo has stirred something in Sun Woo and he can’t follow through on his orders, instead telling the lovers that they can never see each other again. This small act of mercy is the catalyst for the rest of the story, as Kang immediately realizes what happened and is none too happy. Meanwhile, Sun Woo has also seen fit to offend a rival syndicate, and refuses to apologize for his insolence, so they’re none too happy as well. Betrayed by his own boss and on the run from others, Sun Woo seeks to exact revenge.

Let’s be clear, the story here is nothing special. Writer/Director Ji-woon Kim plays the formulaic and derivative story straight, and while it works for about the first two thirds of the movie, it’s strained in the final act. There are no twists, no double crosses, no big surprises. We don’t go too deeply into characterization, and the neo-noir action story goes pretty much exactly how you’d expect it to go. However, we are treated to a number of excellent scenes along the way, including several humourous touches. The most notable action sequence of the film comes as Sun Woo manages to escape his captors. Stylish, violent, and original, it was the highlight of the film. Other highlights include Sun Woo’s attempts to purchase guns from a group of wannabe gangsters (including a brilliant moment when their leader realizes that Sun Woo is faking), and the final gunfight.

While the story might not be anything special, the execution is top-notch. The direction and cinematography are stylish and the performances, especially by Byung-hun Lee (who plays Sun Woo), are excellent. Writer/Director Ji-woon Kim knows he’s not blazing a new path, and he manages to have some fun with the procedings. The film ends the way you’d expect, but it lingers a little too long and the characters didn’t seem deep enough to warrant the ending. Sun Woo’s motivations are left open for interpretation (there are obvious and no so obvious interpretations possible), but the very last sequence, featuring flashbacks and imagery from earlier in the film, is a little too overt and it defiinitely goes on too long.

There’s a lot to like about the film, but as I mentioned earlier, it begins to lose steam about two thirds of the way in, and by the end, it’s straining the limits of implausibility. What initially drew me to this film was the description that it contains “shootouts that make vintage John Woo look like romantic comedies by comparison.” Perhaps my expectations were too high, but with the exception of the aformentioned escape scene (which is not a shootout, but harrowing nonetheless), the action sequences don’t begin to approach vintage Woo gunfights. Nevertheless, it is an above average action film and well worth the watch for fans of the genre. (**1/2)

Update 4.15.06: I’ve created a category for all posts from the Philadelphia Film Festival.

Philadelphia Film Festival: Adult Swim 4 Your Lives

Well. That was interesting. Hosted by Dana Snyder (voice of Master Shake from Aqua Teen Hunger Force) and featuring a veritable plethora of other Adult Swim creators, Adult Swim 4 Your Lives was a show that defies any legitimate explanation. As such, I will simply list out some highlights, as well as some words that I would use to describe the night:

  • The Paul Green School of Rock kicked things off. Yes, Paul Green was the inspiration for Jack Black’s character in the film The School of Rock.
  • Skeletor singing show tunes (notably the song Tomorrow from Annie)
  • In fact, lots of singing was happening tonight.
  • Burlesque.
  • Beethoven vs. Bach (featuring Camel Toe)
  • Evil Monkey Boy (and hula hoops).
  • Suggestive dancing.
  • Twirling tassels.
  • Preview of second season of Tom Goes to the Mayor and a new series, Minoriteam. I got a t-shirt!
  • Aqua Teen Hunger Force Feature Film (!?) preview.
  • Did I mention Burlesque?
  • Dana Snyder was either putting on his Master Shake voice all night, or that’s really the way his voice sounds. Also, that man is crazy.

Basically the night was filled with Dana Snyder saying (usually singing) wacky stuff, followed by some sort of weird performance (usually featuring elements of the burlesque). It was quite a night, though from what I understand, last year’s event went on much longer and was even crazier. Nevertheless, if you’re a fan of Adult Swim and if such an event is ever going on near you, I’d recommend it. Unless the thought of watching Skeletor belt out a few show tunes turns your stomach. Then I’d suggest avoiding it.

Update 4.15.06: I’ve created a category for all posts from the Philadelphia Film Festival.

Philadelphia Film Festival: The Descent

The first film in my little marathon turned out to be The Descent. It played in a sold out theater at the Ritz East in Philadelphia, and if this experience was any indication, I’m going to have a good week… Since this film is scheduled to be widely released in the US this summer, I’ll try to make this a spoiler-free review.

Horror films are often marginalized and given little examination, perhaps because of it’s low budget and exploitive origins. However, I’ve often observed that producing a good horror film is one of the more challenging tasks a filmmaker could take on. Horror stories often require certain leaps of faith, which, in turn, places more emphasis on all other aspects of the film. For a good horror movie, everything needs to be there, including the writing (important for any movie, but horror films usually require a little more imagination), the characters, the acting, the cinematography, and the music, amongst many other aspects. In short, for a Horror movie to be good, it has to do everything a regular drama does, and then some.

With The Descent, director Neil Marshall has succeeded in crafting a genuinely creepy and engaging horror film. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a good horror film in the theater, and the packed house of movie lovers no doubt made the experience of seeing the film that much better.

The film is about a group five female friends who regularly engage in adventurous activities like white-water rafting, hiking, and, in this film, spelunking. Naturally, one of the more reckless members of the group takes her unsuspecting friends to an uncharted cave, and the group promptly gets lost. To make things worse, it appears that they’re not alone in the darkness…

Set almost entirely underground, the lack of light provides a lush canvas for Sam McCurdy’s gorgeous cinematography. Films set in the dark are often confusing and disorienting, and while there are times when Marshall uses that to emphasize the claustrophobic environment, he also uses lighting to contextualize the situations with great effect. The score is also notable, though not showy. It doesn’t call attention to itself the way a lot of horror scores do, and it is quite effective at setting the mood.

The film is filled with well-orchestrated “boo!” moments, but there’s more at work here than just cheap thrills. From the moment things start to get really bad for our heroines, Marshall is relentless. He plays the monster movie straight and even after the monsters are revealed, he’s able to keep the intensity high. This is partly due to great execution (especially in the first reveal), but it’s also because Marshall actually spends some time giving a little depth to the characters so that we care about them. The characterizations and relationships are effectively communicated through very subtle touches, and I liked that Marshall trusts his audience to pick up on such cues. The actresses do a quality job here as well… indeed, I can’t think of another horror movie where all of the main characters were women. In any case, it’s a fine ensemble.

The film is gory, but nothing struck me as being excessive. There are lots of homages to other films, including Deliverance, Carrie, and Predator (amongst others).

The film’s been getting a lot of buzz here, and it has already met with international success, audiences often proclaiming it the best horror film of the year. There is some controversy over the fact that the US version has a different ending, but I think that is a topic for another post. I’ve read about the original ending, and to be honest, I think they both sound effective. The film is not perfect, but I’d recommend it highly for those in need of a scare. (***)

Update 4.15.06: I’ve created a category for all posts from the Philadelphia Film Festival.

Philadelphia Film Festival

The Philadelphia Film Festival started a few days ago. Despite living in the area my whole life (and a love of movies), I’ve never actually attended the Philly festival (or any other film fest, for that matter). So I’ve decided to change that and make my way to a few screenings this week and next. Naturally, I’ll be blogging my thoughts on the festival and the films I see. Depending on traffic and time, I’ll probably be able to catch a few screenings, but not a ton.

In any case, there are definitely a few films that have caught my eye (particularly in the Danger After Dark category, all horror and action films)

  • A Bittersweet Life: It looks like a rather standard Korean gangster flick, but part of it’s description intrigued me – it apparently features “shootouts that make vintage John Woo look like romantic comedies by comparison.” Sounds good to me. I’ve already bought my ticket for Wednesday night…
  • The Descent: There’s a lot of buzz claiming this British flick is the scariest horror film of the year. The last few years have been filled with lots of enthusiasm for Asian horror cinema, but from recent horror offerings, it looks like the UK is now leading a charge to challenge the Asian masters. There are a couple of other British horror flicks being featured this week, and I intend to check a few of them out…
  • Lady Vengeance: Well, I won’t be able to see this film because there’s only one showing and it’s already sold out, but that’s not so bad because I haven’t seen the first two films in director Park Chan-wook’s “Vengeance” trilogy (both of which will be at the top of my Netflix queue, when I get around to setting one up). For those interested, Samael (loyal Kaedrin reader #5) reviewed the first film of the series, Sympathy for Mr. Vengence, not too long ago on the Kaedrin forum. I would have loved to have seen this one, but alas, it was not to be…
  • Two Days: Another film which caught my attention solely because of the description: “Blood Simple meets True Romance in this witty modern-day film noir where a marriage proposal rejection sends a hunky poet on a bloody path of unexpected revenge.” Also from the description: “The inventive screenplay will keep you both guessing and laughing and the exceptional cast of quirky characters – including a voyeuristic Mexican motel owner, a wandering hippie-like seeker of the truth, a cackling but duplicitous gay man, and an alluring femme fatale – make this tragi-comedy a true standout. ” Sounds like a good one to me…
  • The Forth Dimension: Interesting sounding supernatural science fiction. Seems reminiscent of Pi, a film I loved. From its initial showings, it appears to be rated rather highly, so perhaps I’m in for a treat (if I can find a showing that fits my schedule).

I’m also going to try to make the Adult Swim 4 Your Lives show (featuring the Aqua Teen Hunger Force’s Dana Snyder (aka Master Shake) and Jay Edwards (ATHF director)), which a friend went to last year and highly recommended.

There are probably a hundred movies I’d like to watch this week, but I’m not even sure I’ll be able to make my way to the ones listed above. Anywho, stay tuned, it should be a busy week…

Update 4.3.06: I saw The Descent last night and I was quite pleased with the film. A full review will be posted on Tuesday.

Update 4.15.06: I’ve created a category for all posts from the Philadelphia Film Festival.