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By Joe Bendel. At a time when Hollywood has contracted “co-production fever” in hopes of pandering to the Chinese market, it is worth re-visiting the granddaddy of all co-productions. The fusion of the Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers’ kung fu and mysticism with Hammer’s gothic British horror was a true Reese’s peanut butter cup of a film. It was also a flop, but it is a highly entertaining flop. As a revered media titan well into his centenarian years, Sir Run Run Shaw (1907-2014) was more accustomed to turning out hits. Still, Roy Ward Baker’s The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (co-directed by the uncredited Chang Cheh) is a distinctive and only slightly eccentric choice to screen as part of the sidebar tribute to Shaw at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

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Prof. Van Helsing is visiting early Nineteenth Century China to research the eastern variations in vampirism, armed with knowledge of the Ping Kwei legend. According to the story, the villagers were constantly terrorized by a cult of seven vampires and their minions, until one peasant finally reaches his breaking point. Heroically, he kills one of the seven, but at the cost of his life. Everyone attending Van Helsing’s lecture assumes he is a crank, except Hsi Ching. He happens to be a descendant of the brave Ping Kwei farmer, who has come to ask Van Helsing’s help in liberating his village from the remaining six.

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Showing remarkable cultural sensitivity for a British colonialist in a 1970s film, Van Helsing stresses his inexperience facing China’s undead and the specific traditions and morays that make them different from the Euro-vamps. However, he cannot refuse a plea for help. Indeed, he becomes rather anxious to get out of town when his twit of a son Leyland shows up the local triad boss when putting the moves on a Scandinavian heiress. The adventurous Vanessa Buren is also eager to fund the expedition, so she joins the party over the professor’s objections.

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Of course, before they can face the undead hordes, they will have to hack their way through a small army of triads, but that will not be a problem for Hsi, his six brothers (each with a specialized weapon of choice), and his sister, Mei Kwei. However, there is another European visitor to Ping Kwei, whom Van Helsing is well acquainted with—cue ominous thunderclap.

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Everyone seems to love to pick on this film, just because it is admittedly an oddball concept. Yet, it deserves considerably more love. Action director Lau Kar-leung stages some very cinematic (and surprisingly bloody) martial arts sequences, presumably in collaboration with Chang. Perhaps inspired by the Hong Kong production, Peter Cushing brought his A-game as Van Helsing, as determined and authoritative as ever, but also protective of the youngsters and smart enough to know what he doesn’t know. In fact, Cushing looks quite comfortable and collegial with Shaw Brothers leading man David Chiang, who has all the right action chops for Hsi Ching and nearly makes his phonetic English dialogue sound natural.

From "The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires."

Shih Szu (who almost broke out during her time with the Shaws, becoming more of a cult figure instead) is also impressively steely and sensitive as Mei Kwei. Former Miss Norway and Penthouse Pet Julie Ege gives Buren a bit of an edge and a backbone too. Unfortunately, Robin Stewart’s Leyland Van Helsing comes across like Hugh Grant’s ineffectual forefather. Frankly, it is hard to believe he could live through the first act.

As if that were not enough, Golden also holds the distinction of being the only Hammer Dracula film in which Christopher Lee does not play the Count. Let’s just say he was missed. However, Cushing, Chiang, Shih, some cool fight scenes, and a full dose of Hammer atmosphere make up for his absence. Recommended for Hammer Horror and Shaw Brothers fans, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires screens yesterday (the Fourth of July) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of the 2014 NYAFF’s tribute to Sir Run Run Shaw.

LFM GRADE: B+

Posted on July 5th, 2014 at 2:22pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Master Fly Spirit’s food was sort of slow and reasonably local. Most of all, it was entirely traditional, making it difficult to replicate in these times. His daughter Chan Hsiao-wan is learning that the hard way. She had always planned to be an actress or a model, but she is falling back on the old family catering business after tasting the cold hard realities of showbiz in Chen Yu-hsun’s awkwardly titled Zero Pro Site: the Movable Feast, which screens during the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival.

Chan was always better at being cute than responsible, so she would be just the type to innocently co-sign on a deadbeat boyfriend’s loan. When he takes to the wind, two loan-sharks come to collect from her. Fleeing Taipei, she eventually reconnects with her stepmother, “Puffy” Ai-feng who is also evading debt collectors. Unfortunately, “Puffy” earned her new nickname when she sacrificed her savings and her late husband’s reputation in an ill-advised showdown with his faithless apprentice. However, Chan’s sunny personality and a few long forgotten traditional dishes start attracting customers to their greasy spoon.

Not surprisingly, Chan has been a poor steward of her father’s recipes, so she seeks help from a variety of sources, including his happily addled teacher Master Tiger Nose and the itinerant “Dr. Gourmet,” a.k.a. ex-con Yeh Ju-hai. However, just as things start to develop between her and Yeh, he jumps ship to assist his teacher, the gangster caterer Master Ghost Head. Even without Yeh’s help, Chan places her future hopes in a national catering competition, duly impressing the loan-sharks into kitchen service, as could only happen in romantic comedies. Yet, to truly cook in a traditional manner, she will have to fully engage with the past.

Yes, there is a lot of food in ZPS, as metaphors, comedic props, and a way to celebrate Taiwanese cultural identity. Yet, it only serves a limited courtship function. While the film certainly has a dash of romance it is more about familial legacies and finding one’s place in the world. Like Chan’s turtle-stuffed chickens, the film is also bursting at the seams with supporting characters, so if one is too goofy and outrageous for your tastes, just wait for a more understated type to come along.

From "Zero Pro Site: the Movable Feast."

As Chan, Kimi Hsia is relentlessly silly and sweet, without getting viewers’ nerves. She forges some respectable screen chemistry with Tony Yang, even though Dr. Gourmet largely vanishes during the second and third acts. Top-billed Lin Mei-hsiu initially mugs something fierce as Puffy Ai-feng, but she reins it in to some extent as the dramedy starts to develop. Although there is a lot of colorful wackiness going on, the film draws a lot of heart from its senior cast-members, such as the recently reunited old couple, who want Chan to cater their wedding in the manner they remember from their youth.

ZPS is fun, it is endearing—it really could have been ninety some minutes. Over two hours of food and nostalgia is starting to push it. Still, Chen ties up all his subplots fairly neatly. He might have more secondary characters than Around the World in Eighty Days, but he develops a rather high percentage of them. Frothy and pleasing, it delivers some potent wistfulness along with its liberal servings of food and scrappy underdog resiliency. Recommended for fans of generation-spanning culinary cinema, Zero Pro Site—The Moveable Feast screens today (7/5) at the Walter Reade Cinema, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

LFM GRADE: B-

Posted on July 5th, 2014 at 2:08pm.

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By Joe Bendel. FukuFuku Flats is a low rent complex nobody would ever confuse with Melrose Place. Tatsuo Fukuda, a.k.a. Fuku-chan, does not exactly have the sort of face you usually see on network television either, but an aspiring photographer from his past finds it inspiring. Lead actress Oshima Miyuki represents a rather unconventional casting choice as well, but she poignantly expresses Fukuda’s loneliness and fear of rejection throughout Yosuke Fajita’s Fuku-Chan of FukuFuke Flats (see clip above), which screens during the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival.

As the foreman of a crew of painters, Fukuda always sticks up for the underdog. He also throws a lifeline of friendship to the only tenants in his building more socially awkward than himself. His friend Shimacchi is constantly trying to fix Fukuda up with his wife’s friends, but it never works. The kite-flying enthusiast is simply too intimidated by women—and it is largely Chiho Sugiura’s fault.

While it school, she played a crucial role in a prank that still haunts Fukuda. However, karma has come around. Her decision to quit her job to pursue photography fulltime is not exactly paying dividends. To cover her cosmic overdraft, Sugiura finds Fukuda to apologize, only to be staggered by the character she sees in his face. Initially, he wants nothing to do with her, but it is hard to resist the attention of an attractive woman, despite their complicated history (or perhaps especially because of it).

Clearly, a connection is made, but does it have the same meaning for Fukuda and Sugiura. That is a question that concerns Shimacchi. Yet, Fajita is most forgiving of Sugiura, who is nothing like the mean girl she once was. She is just confused. There are no villains in FukuFuku, just people trying to get by as best they can. It can be especially difficult when you are stark staring bonkers, as is at least one of Fukuda’s neighbors.

From "Fuku-Chan of FukuFuku Flats."

While the casting of Miyuki (a comedic performer known for her old men characters) might sound like broad gender-bending comedy in the tradition of Hairspray, there is no ironic winking. FukuFuku is a comedy, but Miyuki plays Fukuda scrupulously straight. Frankly, a more apt comparison would be Linda Hunt in The Year of Living Dangerously, even though the film’s tone is radically different.

Asami Mizukawa’s Sugiura is also terrifically understated, but completely engaging as she wrestles with her feelings, while trying to figure out how she made a hash of her life. (Unfortunately, her creepy encounter with a would-be photography mentor feels out of place in the otherwise wistful and honest relationship dramedy.)

Aside from that rare misfire, Fajita agilely pirouettes from everyday comedy of observation, to halting romance, and even potential tragedy, while maintaining a deceptively light touch. Endearing but never cloying, Fuku-Chan of FukuFuke Flats is recommended for those who enjoy messy but mature character-driven films when it screens today (7/3) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

LFM GRADE: B+

Posted on July 3rd, 2014 at 11:29am.

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By Joe Bendel. Real massage therapists have anatomical and physiological training to rival doctors, but it remains a widely misunderstood profession. Perhaps in hopes of separating the therapeutic and sensual connotations, it has been one of the few avenues of employment traditionally open to the blind in China. The so-called “doctors” of such a Nanjing clinic are highly skilled, but also deeply human. Their lives will connect and conflict in Lou Ye’s ensemble drama Blind Massage (clip above), which screens during the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival.

The staff is blind, but the patients are entirely sighted, at least as far as we know. That itself is a role reversal. The Sha Zongqi Massage Centre is run by the gregarious Sha Fuming and his reserved partner, Zhang Zongqi, who always try to place new therapists in need of work. Their latest two recruits come with issues. Sullen Xiao Ma gradually lost his sight during his early teen years and has yet to come to terms with his blindness. In contrast, Dr. Wang had once amassed a sizable nest egg, but he lost it all during the financial crisis, forcing him to ask his old friend Sha for a job.

The relationships between staff members will become complicated, like a Chinese massage version of ER. Xiao Ma will be recklessly attracted to Dr. Wang’s partial sighted fiancée Kong, before developing a full-on obsession for local (fully sighted) prostitute Xiao Man. Despite Xiao Ma’s frequent brothel patronage, his beautiful colleague Du Hong nurses an attraction to him, while rebuffing the advances of the desperately lonely Sha.

About a dozen other characters factor into the mix somehow. Frankly, Blind Massage is a bit unwieldy with subplots, but it is hard to say where to cut, because they each work on their own terms. The film was adapted by Lou’s documentary filmmaker wife Ma Yingli from Bei Feiyu’s novel that has already been produced as a multi-part television drama—and it is easy to imagine these characters working in a telenovela format.

However, Lou’s approach is distinctly cinematic, approaching the experimental. His past films have directly raised issues of perception (particularly last year’s NYAFF selection, Mystery), but he takes it in a different direction during Blind Massage, visibly reducing the light and softening the focus during scenes driven by blind characters and reverting to standard levels for sequences involving sighted characters or expository housekeeping. He also employs a narrator to read the unseen credits and provide background information on characters, evoking the experience of enhanced visual descriptions.

Blind Massage captures the arbitrary unfairness of life in vivid terms, but that also offers an opportunity for unlikely cast-members to shine. As a case in point, Guo Xiaodong’s Dr. Wang seems rather unassuming, until blowing the doors off the joint in a confrontation with loan sharks dogging his irresponsible, sighted younger brother. It is a scene and a performance worthy of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

From "Blind Massage."

Mei Ting also pulls the emotional rug out from under us, as the ostensibly standoffish, Du Hong. She resents the fuss made by her colleagues (especially Sha) over the beauty they can never see, yet experiences some of the film’s greatest heartsickness.

On its face, Blind Massage is totally apolitical, but You is still pushing boundaries with its uncomfortable intimacy and matter-of-fact description of contemporary Chinese life for any sort of underdog population. It seems downright tame by our standards, but considering the Puritanism of Communist censors, many scenes represent no small risk to You’s standing. Yet, they are never gratuitous, well serving the characters’ emotional development at crucial junctures. Despite a bit of narrative messiness, it is an engrossing film that pulls viewers into the lives on screen in a vivid, ambitiously experiential way. Recommended for mature audiences, Blind Massage screens Wednesday (7/2) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

LFM GRADE: B+

Posted on July 1st, 2014 at 11:40pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Sure, a three hour baseball movie might sound like bizarre overkill, but it is still considerably brisker than many of Al Leiter’s outings for the Mets (we’re all fans here, by the way). It is long, but this scrappy underdog story of tolerance and resilience generally makes good use of its time. Taiwanese and Japanese players will indeed come together on the diamond in Umin Boya’s Kano, the centerpiece selection of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, which screens Sunday, so forget that World Cup noise.

Despite the spectacular revolt dramatized in co-writer-producer Wei Te-sheng’s Warriors of the Rainbow: Sediq Bale, Japan has consolidated its imperialist hold on Taiwan. Despite the increasing (but unequal) economic ties between the two countries, Taiwan is not where the Japanese go when their careers are on the way up. However, for tightly wound account Hyotaro Kondo, it represents a chance to start over following a vaguely defined public humiliation. Yet, against his better judgment, Kondo soon volunteers to coach the Kagi Agriculture and Forestry Public School’s high school baseball team (called Kano for short).

It was Kondo’s intense coaching style that led to so much grief in Japan, but he has never had a team like this. For one thing, it is an ethnically mixed squad, consisting not just of Japanese and Taiwanese players, but aboriginal and Chinese students as well. They also receive next to no material support from their school. Still, Akira Go, the kid on the mound, has a monster arm. Everyone scoffs when Kondo vows to take the team to Koshien, Japan’s national high school tournament, especially given their ‘O-fer record, but guess what happens next year.

Despite its incontrovertible status as a sports movie, Kano neatly sidesteps a number of the genre clichés. The big game will duly choke you up, but in a far more satisfying way than you expect. Coach Kondo even says there is no crying in baseball, but good luck with that.

Masatoshi Nagase is truly the coach of all movie coaches as the strict but fiercely loyal Kondo. He commands the screen just like Kondo commands his players, but when he lets his softy paternal side peak through, it is always heavy. Oddly, perhaps the most distinctive supporting turn amongst the players is actually Ken Aoki as rival pitcher Hiromi Joshiya, whose trip to see Kano’s dirt playing field for himself while on leave from the Imperial Army supplies the film’s framing device. British based Japanese actor Togo Igawa also adds a note of gruff dignity as Kondo’s former mentor, Coach Sato.

From "Kano."

Production designer Makoto Asano’s recreation of 1931 provincial Taiwan looks so real you can practically taste the mud and thatch. It is a high quality period production and probably the most epic baseball movie ever thanks to cinematographer Chin Ting-chang’s sweeping, wide screen visuals. Yet, the on-field camaraderie is not simply a good lesson in sportsmanship. It looks like a conscious attempt at Taiwanese-Japanese rapprochement , strategically coming at a time of high Mainland saber rattling (and frankly that is probably not a bad impulse to act on).

Happily, Kano does not feel like it runs anywhere near its three hours, but there is no getting around the generous helpings of baseball. As great as Nagase is, Kano’s appeal will probably be limited to fans of the game (which includes just about everyone in Taiwan judging from its domestic box-office). Earnest, entertaining, and appealingly old fashioned, Kano is recommended for lovers of baseball and those who follow Japanese and Taiwanese cinema when it screens Sunday evening (6/29) at the Walter Reade Theater, as the centerpiece of this year’s NYAFF.

LFM GRADE: B+

Posted on June 29th, 2014 at 12:14am.

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By Joe Bendel. Eight-Faced Buddha is the Al Sharpton of Thai drug lords. That ridiculous coif should be sufficient grounds to throw his butt in jail. However, he also has an extensive body count to his credit and a massive wave of heroin headed towards Hong Kong. The only thing standing in its way is an extremely tired undercover cop, his handler, and their boss and mutual boyhood chum. Their friendship will be severely strained in Benny Chan’s action conflagration The White Storm, which screens during the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival.

So Kin-chau is due for some R&R with his very pregnant wife, but Chief Inspector Ma Ho-tin keeps sending him out for one more sting. They were supposed to finally bust his longtime target Black Chai, but when Ma learns the trafficker has a deal in the works with Eight-Faced, So must engineer a last minute escape for the both of them. So reluctantly goes deep undercover with Black Chai – with only Ma, their third Musketeer Cheung Chi-wai, and another honest HK colleague for back-up.

Frankly, the boundary between cops and criminals in Thailand is rather porous. Ma and his colleagues have to go rogue just to foil the crooked cops trying to rat out So. Unfortunately, when Ma’s game-changing operation goes wrong, it goes massively, cinematically wrong. It will fatally sabotage his career and plague his conscience for years, until a big twist suggests his guilt might be a tad misplaced.

From "The White Storm."

There is nothing subtle about White Storm. It is all about projectile explosions and brooding, but it truly delivers some awesome over-the-top action spectacle. Nothing is off the table including a romance with Eight-Faced’s transgendered daughter, Mina Wei. Arguably, that is the most sensitively rendered element of this delirious gun-down. Evidently, Nick Cheung’s steamy publicity photo shoot with the transgender beauty queen Treechada “Poyd” Malayaporn raised quite a few eyebrows in HK, so mission accomplished.

In fact, all three big name leads are in fine form throughout. Louis Koo’s So slow burns like nobody’s business, while Sean Lau Ching-wan compellingly portrays Ma’s rapid descent from hot shot to a self-loathing shell of a man. However, Cheung takes viewers on the wildest character arc as his rapidly evolving namesake. Vithaya Pansringarm, who stole just about every scene in Only God Forgives, also turns up, playing a far more ethically ambiguous cop, but he is criminally under-employed.

While White Storm indulges in quite a bit of Thai exoticism, Chan never strays too far from an old school hail of bullets. Its super-charged energy level and tragic sensibilities follow in the tradition of some of the best HK action films. Highly recommended for fans of Hong Kong Cinema and the big name cast, The White Storm screens tomorrow (6/29) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

LFM GRADE: A-

Posted on June 29th, 2014 at 12:09pm.

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