SHOCK WAVE (Hong Kong, dir. Herman Yau)
A year and a half after undercover cop and explosives technician Cheung J.S. (Andy Lau) busted most of the crew of ruthless crime lord Peng Hong (Wu Jiang), Cheung’s life seems to have settled down. He’s an expert at defusing bombs and he even has a long-term girlfriend in Carmen Li (Jia Song), a schoolteacher. But now Peng Hong has returned for revenge, and the stakes are much higher than last time he was in town. When his army of henchmen take hundreds of hostages in an underground traffic tunnel, can Cheung stop him before an unprecedented disaster befalls Hong Kong? SHOCK WAVE is the latest feature from legendary Hong Kong director Herman Yau, whose resume includes the notorious Category III shockers THE UNTOLD STORY (1993) and EBOLA SYNDROME (1996). Here he teams up with Andy Lau, one of the all-time most iconic Hong Kong actors, for a film that somewhat recalls the 90s heyday of Hong Kong action cinema but with some modern tricks. There is some very effective use of drone camera to cover a lot of ground where a lot of action is happening in some of the tunnel scenes, and the CG here is for the most part totally serviceable. The action is peppered with occasional splashes of gore and almost comically brutal comeuppance for some of the villains, just to remind the audience who’s behind the camera. SHOCK WAVE is a tense, action-packed and surprisingly emotional ride well worth taking.
78/52 (USA, dir. Alexandre O. Philippe)
Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO is unquestionably one of the most influential films of the 1960s, and one of the ultimate achievements in an incredible career. But one scene in PSYCHO truly set it apart from anything that had come before. Hitchcock meticulously planned and shot the shower murder scene over the course of several days—the title refers to the 78 camera setups used to shoot the scene and the 52 cuts employed in the finished version–and the effect on audiences was profound. This documentary speaks to a number of filmmakers including Guillermo del Toro, Peter Bogdanovich, Danny Elfman, Bret Easton Ellis, Bob Murawski, Gary Rydstrom, Karyn Kusama, Oz Perkins, and Jamie Lee Curtis among many others. Everyone approaches their discussion of the scene from their personal experience and/or particular discipline: Elfman talks about Bernard Herrmann’s score, Murawski examines George Tomasini’s editing, Bogdanovich recounts seeing a press screening of the film just before its original release. It’s a surprisingly wide-ranging documentary for something with such narrow focus, but everyone here has great stories and insight, and it’s fun to feel like they’re all just hanging out talking about what they love.
MADE IN HONG KONG (1997, Hong Kong, dir. Fruit Chan)
Fruit Chan’s 1997 feature MADE IN HONG KONG is notable for being the first independent film to come out of Hong Kong after its handover to China, and for its star-making lead performance by Sam Lee. For the film’s 20th anniversary, it has been given a full 4K restoration, and the results are beautiful. The film very much has the feel of the scrappy “indie” films of the 1990s, including some details which instantly dated the film (Lee’s character has a NATURAL BORN KILLERS poster in his bedroom) but also add to its charm. There are hints of Hong Kong gangster cinema here, but Fruit Chan is much more interested in mood and character than typical crime movie action. Writer/director Fruit Chan supposedly shot the film entirely on short ends of 35mm film, and the new restoration lovingly replicates the grainy look of its original celluloid presentation rather than sharpening and cleaning the image to make it look more modern. MADE IN HONG KONG is an underseen (in the States, anyway) classic of 90s independent and Hong Kong cinema, and this new restoration is a fantastic way to introduce it to modern audiences.
THE LAPLACE’S DEMON (Italy, dir. Giordano Giulivi)
A group of research scientists attempting to work out a mathematical formula to predict future events are taking a boat to an isolated island to share their findings with a like-minded scientist who has holed up on the island in an imposing manor. As soon as they enter the house, they’re locked in, and they discover a small model of the house set on an intricate clockwork. They find a videotape from the mysterious scientist, who informs them they are now a part of his experiment: the model runs on clockwork that exactly predicts and mimics the movements of the people in the house in real time. But they’re not alone, and something is stalking them. Will anyone live to see the morning, or will the experiment be a fatal success? THE LAPLACE’S DEMON is a black & white sci-fi/horror tale that is reminiscent of Isaac Ezban’s THE SIMILARS (2015), in that it takes place in a confined space and feels very much like an extended episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. But while Ezban’s film had a stagey low-tech feel, THE LAPLACE’S DEMON uses CG backdrops and animation that has its own retro charm. It looks nice and has some interesting ideas, but by the end it’s clear director Giordano Giulivi and his writing collaborators painted themselves into a corner leading to the film’s final moments. Still, this is an intriguing hybrid of film noir, 1960s horror, and the live action cut scenes from a 1990s PC adventure game that’s worth a look for the novelty value alone.
LOWLIFE (USA, dir. Ryan Prows)
Teddy (Mark Burnham) is a sleazy crook whose grimy fast-food taco place hides a chamber of horrors where he engages in human trafficking, involuntary organ transplants, drug dealing, and any other number of unsavory activities. His muscle is El Monstruo (Ricard Adam Zarate), youngest and smallest son of the legendary luchador of the same name, whose blackout-inducing rages have contributed to his fall. But El Monstruo is blinded to Teddy’s evil by his own loyalty and the fact that Teddy introduced him to Kaylee (Santana Dempsey), a struggling addict who is carrying El Monstruo’s child. When Teddy orders accountant Keith (Shaye Ogbonna) to track down Kaylee and bring her to the taco shop in order to make up for embezzling from Teddy’s side business, Keith’s freshly-paroled best friend Randy (Jon Oswald) and harried motel owner Crystal (Nicki Micheaux) are dragged into a violent and confusing afternoon that obviously will not end well for much of anybody. LOWLIFE is the feature directorial debut of Ryan Prows, who co-wrote the film’s screenplay with his writing collaborator Shaye Ogbonna and their co-writers on the web series BOOMERANG KIDS. It makes sense to be apprehensive when the opening credits list five screenwriters, but the final result certainly doesn’t feel like the kind of tonal patchwork many films with so many writers have. The film is gruesomely violent, but it’s also hilarious and touching, thanks to a spectacular cast. Its fractured timeline and criss-crossing cast of low-level criminals obviously owes a debt to Quentin Tarantino and PULP FICTION in particular, but LOWLIFE has its own highly unique charms and never feels like anything but itself. This is one of the best independent films of the year, and it sets a damned high bar for Prows and company to clear for their next feature outing. Whenever and whatever it is, I can’t wait to see it.
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Tags: Alfred Hitchcock, Andy Lau, Bernard Herrmann, Bob Murawski, Bret Easton Ellis, Danny Elfman, Documentaries, Fantasia Film Festival, Fruit Chan, Gary Rydstrom, guillermo del toro, Herman Yau, Hong Kong, Italy, jamie lee curtis, Jia Song, Jiang Wu, Karyn Kusama, Montreal, Oz Perkins, Peter Bogdanovich