March 2008

Vampire Sisters

From 1976 to the end of the 1980s, Don Dohler wrote, directed and produced several science fiction and horror films. To say that the budgets for these films were low would be a bit of an understatement. Don Dohler was effectively making direct to video films before there was a video to go direct to.

But these films, such as The Alien Factor, Fiend and The Galaxy Invader had a real heart and, if nothing else, reflected Dohlers real passion not just for genre cinema but also the process of making films. These werent the greatest films ever made but Dohler did manage to secure an international distribution for every one of them and built quite a loyal following of fans who recognised and enjoyed these films for what they were.

In 1988 Dohler decided hed had enough and didnt make another film for eleven years. He returned in 1999 with Alien Factor 2: The Alien Rampage, during the shooting of which he met Joe Ripple. The two men began to collaborate with Ripple taking on the directing duties, allowing Dohler to concentrate on cinematography and editing.

However, the world had moved on during Dohlers hiatus and, with direct to video films coming to dominate the independent landscape, he found himself having to include more exploitative elements in order to secure the distribution deals he needed. All of which brings us to Vampire Sisters.

This is the story (a term I use very loosely here) of three lesbian vampires (Darla Albornoz, Jeannie Michelle Jameson and Syn DeVil) who – taking advantage of the internet – have set up a porn website to lure unsuspecting schmucks to their lair. Again, and again and again.

To be fair, there are some good ideas in this film and a couple of scenes that are genuinely painful to watch. But the whole thing is dragged down by the sheer repetitiveness of the titillation followed by violent death – endlessly repeated – structure of the film.

If, from the above couple of paragraphs, you have the impression that this film is entirely plot-free youd be right. Almost.

There is a rather desultory attempt to give us the semblance of a plot in the form of a couple of vice cops (Mark C. Lassise and Leanna Chamish) who notice that the website is offering special favours to local men and decide to keep an eye on it. Eventually they cotton on to the fact that lots of people are going missing and they all have the girls website bookmarked. So they decide that they should go undercover.

And there really is a lot less here than implied by the above.

Unambiguously exploitative films can be a huge amount of fun but only when the people making these films have a sense of fun which they can bring to the screen. In the case of Vampire Sisters, the film feels far too much like a by-the-numbers exercise and, even with this much flesh and blood on show, the whole thing very quickly grinds to a creaking halt.

PTU: Police Tactical Unit

Johnny To has already established himself as one of the better directors to come out of Hong Kong in recent years and he’s on fine form with this stylish crime thriller.

Following a run-in with a gang of thugs led by Ponytail, Sergeant “Fatty” Lo (Lam Suet) loses his gun and turns to the brutally efficient Sergeant Mike Ho (Simon Yam) of the PTU to help him retrieve it. It’s late and Lo agrees to search for the gun until dawn, after which he will follow procedure and report the missing weapon.

Things take a turn for the worse as Fatty’s search for his gun intersects with a gangland assassination that threatens to escalate into an all out war on the streets of the city. Of course, a murder such as this doesn’t go unnoticed by the police and the CID, led by Inspector Leigh Cheng (Ruby Wong) becomes involved. Cheng is also very interested to know what Fatty and the PTU are up to…

Taking place over the course of a single night and against a background of dark and often deserted streets, PTU has a very noir feel which comes across in both the cinematography and the pacing of the film.

Tos cinematographer, Siu-keung Chengs portrayal of Hong Kong is remarkably unique. The shops have closed and most of the population are at home, leaving the PTU operating in an almost eerie netherworld. Its a look which, while being neither tense nor intrusive in itself, manages to convey a genuinely menacing airr throughout.

The pacing of the film is also remarkably restrained, almost static in places, and its with this steady progress through the accumulating events that To reveals the casual brutality of the police. And in the middle of it all is Yams frighteningly impassive sergeant for whom every beating is nothing more than another step towards achieving his goal.

Although PTU does feel like a character driven film, the characters portrayed are very much archetypes rather than rounded individuals and, as coincidence and bad luck pile up on each other, it becomes increasingly apparent that they are not in control of events. But, bound together by overlapping loyalties, they continue to try to clean up the growing mess.

All this makes for a very fatalistic crime drama which touches on themes of honour, loyalty and friendship as it progresses, almost fatalistically, towards a genuinely explosive climax.

PTU: Police Tactical Unit may be a little light on substance, but the style of the film more than makes up for this.

13: Game of Death

Things arent going too well for Chit (Krissada Terrence). Hes missing his sales targets and is getting deeper and deeper into debt. Then, to top it all, he loses his job. Things are pretty desperate, then, when he receives an anonymous phone call telling him that he has a place in a game show. All he has to do is complete 13 tasks in order to become a multi-millionaire.

The first task is pretty easy and the second is pretty gross. But, after a long hesitation, chit finds that the money on offer is enough for him to go through with it.

From here on in things get much, much worse.

Based on a comic by Eakasit Thairatana, 13: Game of Death follows the descent of the films everyman hero, and willing victim, as humiliation after humiliation is heaped upon him. Terrence does a superb job here of maintaining our sympathy as his character becomes increasingly degraded and disconnected from the rest of the world. And its because he manages to remain a sympathetic character throughout that the film packs such a horrific punch.

Thematically the film is reminiscent of Falling Down, but goes further and takes a look at the sort of social and economic pressures that lead to the emergence of people like Chit.

Chit, like those around him, is under pressure to conform to the expectations placed upon him by society, his friends and his family. He feels the contradictory pressures to be materially successful, to maintain a successful relationship, to have time for his family and to be a model citizen. There arent enough hours in the day for him to be able to meet all of these expectations and, by trying to do too much, he ends up failing to do any of them.

And whoever it is that is organising the game in which he finds himself knows this as becomes apparent in the way that the tasks set for Chit repeatedly echo the humiliations and traumas he faced as a child. Someone has spent a huge amount of time building a very detailed picture of Chit merely so that he can be tormented for the entertainment of an unseen, online audience.

13: Game of Death is a shocking and smart horror/thriller with a darkly comic streak and a lot to say. Not only does writer/director, Chukiat Sakveerakul have plenty of visceral observations to make about materialism, the increasingly debased nature of reality type entertainment and and the connection between the two, but the film also reflects on the rapidly shrinking nature of the private space.

No matter where Chit goes, no matter what he does, his every move and action is being watched, recorded and transmitted. And in many ways, this is the most frightening aspect of this film.

Baystate Blues

Baystate Blues is nothing if not ambitious. Describing itself as an intimate epic, the film follows a single day in the life of an extended blue-collar family in small town America.

The story centres on Mike (Scott Lewis) and Devon (Allyson Sereboff), a married couple who have passed their first flush of youth and are trying to cope with the aftermath of a car accident Devon was involved in. Also in the mix are Devons two sisters, the superficially controlled Virgina (Sharon Maguire) and the much flightier Alex (Steffi Kammer).

At first, Mike does not come across as a character you would want to spend a huge amount of time with. But as the film progresses it becomes apparent that his loud and occasionally obnoxious behaviour reflect the frustrations of a man who has resigned himself to the hand life has dealt him and is doing his best to make the most of what he has. As such, he becomes an increasingly sympathetic character and Scott Lewis does a great job of bringing some real humanity to the character.

Devon, on the other hand, is a much more self-centred character and her dissatisfaction becomes more and more apparent as the day wears on. She was injured in the car accident and is clearly still in a lot of pain, but she is also both unhappy with her lot and unwilling to [do anything]. As much as Mikes wants to support her, she rejects his efforts, preferring to wallow in self pity and regret all of her lost opportunities.

Things start to come to a head when Devon meets an old friend and culminate, over drinks, at an evening get-together.

Baystate Blues does get off to a slow start and this isn’t helped by some overly mobile camera work in some of the early scenes. But once writer/director Mark Lewis gets into his stride the writing really does shine through.

This is a very well written film. Lewis clearly knows these characters, is interested in them and likes them and is willing to take the time to allow them to develop, grow and become increasingly well rounded as the film progresses. None of the characters are flawless and none of them are irredeemable. Ultimately, they are all just people, but people who are able to draw you into their lives until you genuinely care about what happens to them.

It helps, of course, that the acting is so solid throughout. This is very much an ensemble piece and all of the cast deliver superb performances, allowing their characters – and the relationships between them – to emerge both naturally and believably.

With Baystate Blues, Mark Lewis has certainly achieved his aim of telling a real story about real people. Well written and populated with a group of engagingly familiar characters, all of whom really do come to life, the film quickly becomes utterly engrossing.

And the combination of imagery and music in the final scene was nothing short of superb.

Mr. Video

Its not often that I watch a film that has me laughing during the opening sequence so Mr. Video started off very strongly for me.

The film centres on Will (Gary Holt), the owner, manager and sole employee of a high-street video store of the sort familiar to any of us who were around during the original VHS boom. But the time is now and the shop – Mr. Video – is struggling in the face if larger chains, newer technologies and rampant piracy. It doesnt help that many of Wills customers are more interested the semi-social environment his shop provides than they are in actually renting anything.

When a, frankly obnoxious, young man enters the store, Will finally snaps

Mr. Video is very much a comedy, and one that manages to remain very funny throughout. Much of this, of course, comes down to the writing which is smart, entertaining and packed with ideas and references which will provoke a (possibly guilty) smile from anyone who has taken any interest in the state of the film industry over recent years.

That isnt to say that you need to be a film buff to enjoy Mr. Video. Gary Holt manages to invest so much into his beleaguered everyman that you really can identify with both his struggles and frustrations. So much so that when he does reach his breaking point, he still manages to retain both the sympathy and the empathy of the audience.

This is a hugely funny film, and one with a huge amount to say about film piracy and about the way in which small businesses are often flattened when large retail chains start taking over the high street. And these points are worth considering.

While the big retail chains are often cheaper than their independent rivals, they invariably lack both the variety and the personality of smaller stores. As such, these larger chains are able to push their smaller competitors out of business on the basis of their lower prices, but when this happens we lose far more than we gain.

But the real target of Mr. Video is film piracy. All too often people justify copying or downloading films by claiming that “Steven Spielberg doesnt really need the money.” Maybe he doesnt but, if hes made a film that you want to see, then hes earned it.

More to the point, if you download or copy a film without paying for it you are not just ripping off the millionaire directors at the top of the chain. You are also ripping off everyone else in the distribution chain, right down to the Wills of this world who are struggling to make ends meet by providing these films to the people that want to see them. At the end of the day, if you want to see a film, pay for it and if you dont want to pay, dont watch it.

Mr. Video is a film that makes you laugh and one that makes you think. With this film, John Gray and Alex Masterton have managed to cram a lot of thought into a very short run time in a manner that is both very easy to digest and very watchable. It is a film that I can certainly see myself pulling out in the future and one that is well worth catching if you get the chance.