From Jupiter's moon to a Chinese drug war: four beyond-the-mainstream treats for genre film fans
FILM It's been a zzz summer at the multiplex. The number one movie of the year is Iron Man 3, a highly unmemorable blockbuster. (Quick: Who played the villain? Had to think about it for a second, didn't you?) With the exception of The Heat and The Conjuring, most everything that's grossed a crap-ton of dollars recently is either a sequel or based on some well-worn property.
Fear not, genre fans. This weekend, a quartet of films lurks just below the surface, lacking big-budget hype yet worthy of your attention. Among them are a chilly sci-fi epic, a high-octane cop thriller, a classic slab of Italian sleaze, and an eerily relatable (um, if you're me) documentary about VHS fanatics.
Directed by Ecuador's Sebastián Cordero (2004's Crónicas), deep-space tale Europa Report benefits from its interesting international cast, including Michael Nyqvist (Mikael Blomkvist in the Swedish Girl With a Dragon Tattoo series); Romanian Anamaria Marinca (2007's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days); Bay Area-born Daniel Wu, who's a megastar in Hong Kong; and South African Sharlto Copley, also in concurrent sci-fi release Elysium. Together, they comprise the bulk of a crew crammed into an elegant ship bound for Europa, a moon of Jupiter that may have water — and therefore, life — beneath its icy surface.
These journeys never end well, do they? As we're told by grim-faced Dr. Unger (Embeth Davidtz), what we're watching has been pieced together from "recently declassified footage" — and yes, that makes Europa Report yet another "found-footage" movie. By now, it's a stale way to tell a story, though it's mostly plausible in this case; time-stamped scenes are cut together from cameras mounted aboard the spacecraft. From the start, we know the mission is doomed. But even if its conclusion is a little abrupt and dissatisfying, at least Europa Report heaps on the claustrophobic atmosphere while rocketing toward the inevitable.
Far more unpredictable is the sleek, gloomy Drug War, the latest from Hong Kong's Johnnie To — a director who needs no introduction for fans of his prolific output (2001's Fulltime Killer, 2005's Election, 2006's Exiled, 2009's Vengeance). Unlike To's previous crime dramas, Drug War was shot in mainland China, where heavy-handed censors rule. According to the film's press notes, To decided "nobody will disagree with the idea of arresting drug dealers," particularly in a country fond of imposing death sentences for drug-related offenses. The tactic appears to have worked, since this thing's dripping with vicious shootouts — even as it subtly points out China's surveillance-state abundance of CCTV cameras, and examines how just far criminals will go to avoid those draconian punishments.
Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), for one, is terrified of execution. Busted for manufacturing meth after his factory explodes, Timmy runs up against Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei), a no-nonsense drug cop who reluctantly takes on a new informant with the goal of busting a kingpin higher up the cartel's chain of command. Timmy's a slippery character whose motivations remain murky right up until the last act; it's all Zhang can do to keep up, which he does for the most part.
In one incredible sequence, the cop pretends to be Chang, a taciturn junkie with important connections, accompanying Timmy for a meeting with the flashy "Haha," named for his booming, staccato laugh. With a quick wardrobe change and seconds to spare, Zhang then morphs into Haha to meet with the real Chang. In the process, tiny cameras are deployed, drugs are snorted, and loyalties are stretched razor-thin. It's a tour de force — yet remarkably unforced — moment for both actor and director.
Back to censors for a minute, since their kind used notoriously brutal shears on the works of Italian horror legend Dario Argento during his late 1970s-early 80s heyday. With the advent of special-edition DVDs and the like, films like 1982's Tenebre have finally been seen in all their glory. But how often do you get a chance to see Tenebre on 35mm? Thanks to Los Angeles' Cinefamily, the film — more erotic-thriller giallo than standard spook show — will unfurl for one night only at the Roxie.
The movie follows the nightmarish exploits of American author Peter Neal (Tony Franciosa), who visits Rome to promote Tenebre, his latest murder mystery. It's not long before a Neal-obsessed maniac starts dropping bodies (weapon of choice: straight razor; victims of choice: scantily clad women). Along the way, there's a pulse-pounding Goblin soundtrack; a sultry supporting turn by Veronica Lario (as Peter Neal's ex-wife — in real life, she's in the process of divorcing Silvio Berlusconi); B-movie sensation John Saxon (as Neal's agent) looking natty in a fedora; and all the spurting gore and bad dubbing Argento fans demand.
Argento isn't explicitly mentioned by the subjects of Adjust Your Tracking: The Untold Story of the VHS Collector, opening Friday at the Balboa Theatre, but it's a sure bet they appreciate his work. Dan M. Kinem and Levi Peretic's documentary peeks into the tidy lairs of borderline hoarders (all horror and genre fans) who oversee their massive VHS collections with a mixture of pride, good-natured defensiveness, and culty spirit.
A few celebrities drop by (Troma's Lloyd Kaufman admits he prefers DVDs "because of the extras"), but this is mostly regular-dude turf, with a home-video history lesson ("Blockbuster ruined it for everybody") mixed into the nostalgia. High points include extended discussions of "VHS covers that lie to you," as in, when box artwork promises wonders that aren't actually in the film; and of Tales from the Quadead Zone, a (terrible) film so exquisitely rare it sparked an eBay bidding war and inspired at least one tattoo. *
EUROPA REPORT, DRUG WAR, and ADJUST YOUR TRACKING: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE VHS COLLECTOR open Fri/16 in Bay Area theaters. TENEBRE screens Fri/16 at the Roxie.