A Trip To The Movies – “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” 2.28.15

I’ll just flat-out start by saying this was probably the most highly original, inventive, and exciting film I’ve seen to have come along in a while. In fact, had it of come out last year, it wouldn’t most likely have, it would have, landed a coveted spot on my “best films of the year-end” list. What’s so interesting about this film is that it kind of came out of nowhere. In fact, I don’t even remember how I heard about it. Since I really don’t read any film news/review anymore that’s not where I took notice of it. I do however somewhat regularly look at cumulative scores and saw that this one was graded rather highly. Then I saw the name of the title and it piqued my interest. And merely based on that and that alone, plus seeing a tagline that it was “the first Iranian Vampire Western”, I thought to myself well at the very least this sounds interesting. What I “didn’t” know while watching it is that it’s an American film. Even though all of the characters in the film are Iranian actors who speak in the Persian language and it’s written and directed by an Iranian-American filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour who has lived in America for practically her whole life. Which is ironic because the film feels totally foreign, and different from just about any other American film I’ve seen, bringing us into a poor desolate land known as “Bad City” which feels like a world far, far, away when in actuality it was shot right here in the States in Bakersfield, California.

The film opens with an old man, Hossein, a heroin addict who seems to be at the end of his rope in terms of his addiction. The only saving grace in his life is the assistance of his son, Arash, who is at his father’s beckoning call because like most sons (at least that I know) does just about anything to save his father. Anyways, Hossein owes quite a bit of money to the local town drug dealer, Saeed (whose look seems to be taken straight from Ninja of the rave/rap African group Die Antwoord). Saeed takes one of Hossein’s prize possessions much to the chagrin of Arash. Saeed seems to be the focus of the story, at least for about the first quarter of the film, along with his hooker, junkie, drug partner Atti. But one night Saeed happens to stumble across a young woman, called simply “The Girl”, that follows him to his apartment, which in that point in the story it shifts gears completely and this “girl” or young woman of whom I speak of becomes the central focus of the story. What’s even more notable is that said woman is a vampire, who goes around town wreaking havoc but does so with a conscience. She seems to only prey on the weak, sick, and degenerate members of society. It is by this chance encounter between the town drug dealer Saeed and the girl whom Arash crosses paths with, which involves the major subplot of the story, one that mirrors the one from “Let The Right One In” (2008) and the American version “Let Me In” (2010). But don’t be fooled, besides the reference, it’s undeniably unique enough (not to mention they’re adults and not children) to separate itself from those films. It is through their relationship that the rest of the story unfolds, and all of the characters previously mentioned are reintroduced back into (or out of, depending on how you want to look at it) the story.

As you can probably already tell by my comments at the beginning of my review I absolutely loved just about every aspect of this film. There is just so much I want to talk about that I feel like I would be doing it a great injustice to leave any of them out. But for the sake of not writing a novel, I will try to keep it to just the key elements of the film in which I really liked. First off was its stunning black-and-white cinematography. I’ve always thought a film is better when shot in black-and-white. As it takes the viewer away from the color palette and allows the images to speak for themselves. In this film this approach works brilliantly as it’s maybe the best looking black-and-white film since as far back as I can remember. This format also gives this chilling, noirish tale a look of authenticity that works perfectly given the content of the story. It’s also about as stylishly shot from a design angle and has a look and sometimes feel of an old Jim Jarmusch film (especially in the hipster department). The cool, sleek, and cold feel and tone matches the images on-screen magnificently. Another thing I think is important to point out, is that for a movie with this much style (Quentin Tarantino came to mind for me at times) it’s also loaded with substance. The central story and the many shifts in character arcs make it completely and utterly compelling from start to finish. There’s also a great “meta-ness” to the whole affair. While it certainly is a horror film at heart it also combines elements of film noir, westerns, comedy, drama, and romance. All genres that are balanced quite well considering how dense of a film it winds up being. The last thing I think that’s important to point out is that there is scene after scene of sheer beauty that seem like they have the potential to be iconic movie history (an example would be the dancing scene between John Travolta and Uma Thurman in “Pulp Fiction” (1995) – but imagine not just one but several scenes like that). Which had me looking up the screen with a shit eating grin for practically the entire film, so engaged by the style, story, and characters that I had to pass up a bathroom break in fear that I was going to miss whatever was next. This is hands down the most unique, stylish, and fresh take that breathes new life into what is otherwise a tired genre, that being the vampire film. It’s only two months into the year and this one has already secured a spot on my top 10 list of 2015.


Review: “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” 1.25.15

In what was amongst a dozen foreign films that I had been anticipating that came out last year, comes acclaimed Japanese director Sion Sono’s latest, whom I had really only been familiar with from his 2010 effort – “Cold Fish”, which basically encapsulated everything I loved and do love about Asian cinema. It was a warped and depraved look at one very weak man’s undeliberate affiliation with the Yakuza (Asian Mob). It resembled something akin to Takashi Miike’s “Ichi The Killer” (2001) (still considered in my opinion to be one of the best examples of what is true art house Asian cinema). That and it had some rather funny comedic undertones that aren’t usually found from films of this region of the world. At least from the genre in which it came from. Then came the release of Sono’s newest – the overtly titled “Why Don’t You Play In Hell?”. I had really wanted to see this film with an audience (“Cold Fish” was so bat shit crazy in its depiction of extreme violence and nihilism I could only imagine what it would have been like seeing with a large group of people) but since it had a very short one week engagement here in Portland I never got the opportunity to. That being said, I had this one queued up on my Netflix queue and had been highly looking forward to seeing it as soon as it came out on DVD.

Sion Sono’s newest (I just recently discovered this guy’s been around making films for 30 years) revolves around a rag-tag group of teenagers called the “Fuck Bombers” who go around town with their amateur video equipment trying to capture every crime, fight, or illegal activity that takes place (think J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8”). They’re just like any other novice film crew – their ambitions seem to be much higher than their actual talent. One day they catch a fight among the two Yakuza families in town. And in atypical fashion the families let the cameras roll allowing the kids unprecedented access to their first ringside seat in which they’re able to capture it all on film. Meanwhile another plot device pops up, one involving a flashback where the daughter of one of the heads of the two families, named Mitsuko, who is widely known not just because of her affiliation of being in a Mob family, but because as a toddler she was featured in a toothpaste commercial (the last part surprisingly important as it comes up multiple times throughout the course of the film). During one chance encounter the young Mitsuko comes home one day to find that her house has been infiltrated with the “Ikegami” Yakuza clan. Except her rival mob boss father, head of the “Muto” clan, doesn’t happen to be home, and her mother basically wipes out every member of the clan and leaves the boss of the Ikegami clan for dead. Except he lives. We then jump forward 10 years later…the Fuck Bombers are still trying to find their big break in moviemaking, Mitsuko is currently being held captive by the Ikegami clan as a truce between the two families has been broken, and Muto (Mitsuko’s mob boss father) is trying desperately to rescue his daughter so that she can play a big part in a movie which he thinks will be the ultimate gift to his wife, now serving 10 years in prison for wiping out the almost entire Ikegami clan. Mitsuko does escape and enlists the help of a random guy on the street named Jiro, who she buys out to be her boyfriend for the day in order to try to help ensure her escape. Once reunited with her father Muto who tries to kill Jiro in thinking that Jiro is part of the opposing clan, hoping to save his life she tells her father that the unsuspecting Jiro is actually a famous film director, and is ready to make his “masterpiece” with her as the star, in turn saving his life. Jiro enlists the help of the now twenty somethings Fuck Bombers to try to help him make the film Mitsuko’s father demand he makes or he dies. This is the central story and plot that makes for the rest of the film as Jiro masks as a director and with the help of the Fuck Bombers film crew he sets out to make an amateur film that promises Mitsuko’s mob boss father that this will be the dream role that he’s been waiting for his daughter.

“Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” winds up being a smorgasbord of different ideas all wrapped up into one. Never relenting in its execution or letting us forget that we’re at the hands of one of Asian cinema’s most unapologetic, creative, and original directors right alongside Takashi Miike, Chan-wook Park, Takashi “Beat” Kitano, Joon-Ho Bong, Kim Jee-woon, Yimou Zhang, and Stephen Chow, with a splash of Quentin Tarantino. At the heart it feels like the director’s homage to moviemaking, as once the Fuck Bombers are employed to film the two rival Yukuza clans, we’re thrown into every process of what it requires to make a film. It’s wild and unpredictable (trust me when I say nobody is making films like this guy) and goes beyond the borders of what we know to be even remotely conventional filmmaking. What we have here is essentially a film within a film. As along with the Fuck Bombers film crew the viewer is allowed access into DIY access into the proceedings. It’s a uproariously fun, violent, unrelenting, bizarre, deranged, utterly insane crazy universe that the director creates and stays prominent in feel and tone for its entire running time. My one complaint was where his last film felt more like a serious crime drama thriller, this lays the comedy pretty thick, at times reminiscent of a hyper violent Stephen Chow (“Kung Fu Hustle”) film. Its shift toward this about halfway in comes a little unexpected and in my opinion it could have been just a good of a film without all the underlying black comedy. The last thing I should point out is the entire last half hour of the film is so batshit crazy and excessively violent it makes the bar scene with Uma Thurman from “Kill Bill Vol. 1” (2003) or the ending battle in last year’s “Dead Snow 2” look restrained and tame. So if you’re the type of person like me that’s into this kind of material, especially fans of foreign and Asian cinema, you’ll have a rollicking good time. Everyone else might have a hard time getting into this sort of thing.

[strong B]