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'The Assassin' is like watching paint dry

Between its title and the cover art “The Assassin” (2015 / Well Go USA / 106m / $29.98 BR / NR) might well be mistaken for yet another oriental martial arts romp. While Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s film does have some swordplay this is anything but an action film. It’s more like an inaction film set in China in the ninth century, during the Tang dynasty, when some of the provinces wavered in their support of the emperor. Political assassin Nie Yinniang (Qi Shu), trained by a martial arts nun (I take it on faith there are such individuals) is sent out to murder several political leaders but cannot fulfill all her missions when she finds one target cradling his infant child. Then she is tasked with killing the man she had once been betrothed to (his mother discovered a more powerful alliance and broke the contract). The marriage that did result has its share of political intrigues as husband and wife do not necessarily share the same agendas.

Or something like that. The story is more than a tad opaque (and my attempt to grasp what was transpiring was not aided by white subtitles too often set against white or very light images. The images however are quite astonishing but between the ravishing colors of the sets and the costumes this film looks more art directed than directed. Its creeps along at a steady, glacial pace and viewing it is like watching paint that refuses to dry. Perhaps the idea is to induce a Zen-like state of tranquility, such as the one apparently being experienced by the titular character. I didn’t get there. I kept waiting for “The Assassin” to get to its point; it didn’t get there. It may be beautiful to look at (and that’s actually an understatement) and technically superb but I can’t help feeling that it isn’t nearly as profound as it hopes to be.

If watching it is a lethargic experience viewing “Uncaged” (2015 / RLJ Entertainment / 95m / $27.97 / NR) is a downright painful one. This low-budget werewolf effort has young Jack (Ben Getz) invited to his uncle’s rural abode (looking abandoned on the outside but with a quite spiffy interior). Once there he finds himself waking up naked, far from the house – fortunately he always manages to nab a lawn and leaf bag to make a poncho and return. Donning a headband camera leads (eventually) to the discovery he has abruptly become a werewolf (all that fresh country air I suppose). It also gets him involved with a gangsta who suspects his wife of infidelity and thinks Jack’s video of his nighttime prowl might provide evidence of same. Why bother telling you more? The plotting is capricious and if the characters didn’t do completely stupid and illogical things the story wouldn’t be able to proceed. The film is so financially impoverished it can’t even manage a proper transformation scene, which wiould seem to be the chief reason anyone would watch a werewolf moivie. The briefly glimpsed final result – looking for all the world like a crazed Amish farmer with fangs – makes Bela Lugosi’s makeup in “The Ape Man” look like a stunning achievement. To its credit “Uncaged” has some good performers and my heart goes out to them for getting trapped in this stinker.

The work of Edgar A. Poe has provided fodder for moviemakers almost from the beginning of cinema. Translating his short tales to feature length has always been problematic however and short films or anthologies have served the source material best. The latest of the latter variety to reach home video is “Extraordinary Tales” (2013 / Cinedigm, Gkids / 73m / $29.95 BR+DVD combo / NR), which collects five of the author’s tales in animated form: “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” and “The Masque of the Red Death.” Each story is rendered in a different style, ranging from comic book to oil painting in its look. The animation is all computer rendered and so it does have that unfortunate CGI effect where characters glide across floors and never quite seem to come into contact with the objects they’re touching but the designs are striking. As these brief adaptations, each running about 10 minutes, were intended for younger audiences I can forgive such things as stopping just shy of the gruesome ending in “Valdemar” but I’m less keen on the decision to rewrite the tales – not so much to change the plots but to alter Poe’s prose. I understand that some pruning might be necessary but if the intent is to introduce younger folk to the author oughtn’t his words be left intact?

On that score “Tell-Tale Heart” fares best because it is read by Bela Lugosi, courtesy of an ancient radio broadcast that uses the original text as its script. The segment is also the most visually impressive in its use of high contrast black and white. “Masque of the Red Death” (with its single line of dialogue uttered appropriately enough by Roger Corman, who through his films has probably done more than anyone living to popularize an author whose works were, not so very long ago, considered trash) is a runner-up for its animated paintings conveying a story that’s more mood than plot. The other stories are narrated by Sir Christopher Lee (“House of Usher”), Julian Sands (“M. Valdemar”) and Guillermo del Toro (“Pit and the Pendulum.”) The linking segments feature a talking raven conversing about Poe’s work and life with a graveyard statue. Alas these connecting passages display a woeful unfamiliarity with the author’s biography (he was not buried in a common grave, for one thing), making it less than useful as an introduction to the author. But if “Extraordinary Tales” isn’t quite as good as it ought to be it’s certainly better than it might have been.

While not trumpeted as such fir a change “The Clearstream Affair” (2014 / First Run Features / 102m / $24.95 / NR) is based on actual events involving financial chicanery and murder in Europe and the Orient at about the same time as the Enron collapse (and involving some of the same players, such as the Arthur Anderson accounting firm). The engrossing thriller is a cerebral one (meaning no car chases, no shoot-outs and not one dang thing gets blown up) and begins when reporter Denis Robert (Gilles Lelloluche) has his story on chicanery involving a military contract pulled, encouraging him to quit and explore the story in more depth. He discovers payoffs and secret offshore bank accounts that hide those transactions. A whistleblower on the “cost overruns” (bribes actually) is killed in what initially is declared a suicide but isn’t. The international banking firms that Robert exposes in his two books unleash their expensive lawyers and initially Robert, his publisher and some of his sources are found guilty of libel in numerous cases.

The subject, with its reliance on high finance – a mystery to most of us – could have been mind-numbing. The facts and procedures aren’t dwelt on so they never become confusing because this is essentially a good old fashioned Frank Capra set-up of the good little guy up against powerful, corrupt forces. Director Vincent Garenq keeps the focus on the people rather than the issues or the details. That Robert’s marriage is strained to the breaking point both because of his immersion in the investigation and the financial hardships caused by the litigation is as important – maybe more so – than the convoluted financial transactions and cover-ups. And Garenq knows the importance of keeping things visually interesting and his running time succinct, not to mention leaving a few questions unanswered (as perhaps they were in real life). The cast is entirely unknown to me but they do a lovely job, particularly Lellouche who is barely ever offscreen. Given the attention large banking institutions have been getting in the presidential debates the subject matter is as timely as ever.

I tried very hard to like “The Looking Glass” (2015 / First Run Features / 110m / $24.95 / NR) more than I ended up liking it. It’s obviously a very personal film, particularly for star Dorothy Tristan, who also scripted, and her director husband John D. Hancock. She plays an actress, Karen, retired to her extensive farm, who takes on guardianship of her troubled 13-year-old granddaughter, Julie (Grace Tarnow). The young woman has been depressed since the death if her mother (Karen’s daughter) from cancer and dad’s new wife doesn’t want the kid around. The relationship is rocky between grandma and granddaughter because Karen clearly isn’t up to speed on what young folk do these days (such as spending hours on a tablet). Discovering Julie has a pleasant singing voice, Karen all but forces her to audition for a local theater production of “Alice in Wonderland.” The older woman is aware (but in denial) that her mental and physical faculties are failing and she wants to pass on what she knows before time runs out. This being a movie her early onset Alzheimer’s will progress at record speed, prompting a struggle between her and her son-in-law over Julie’s custody.

This might have worked better shaved of about 20 minutes and presented as a Lifetime movie. Tristan’s script is episodic and falls back on clichés and predictable outcomes far too often (of course the theatrical involvement is precisely what Julie needs to bring her out of her funk). It’s also rife with unbelievable situations such as Karen waking up in a hospital after a heart attack, hooked up to no monitors or IVs to impede her roaming the halls in search of her granddaughter’s room. The dialogue is generally awkward; the people here seem to be announcing things to each other rather than conversing. Tristan’s acting on the other hand is luminous and she dominates the film with her sensitive, delicate performance. The onscreen chemistry between her and Tarnow (who looks anything but 13) is the kind of thing usually only seen with actors who have known each other and worked together for years. I was also taken by Jeff Puckett as the ex-biker who is now Karen’s handyman (and there’s a revelation about him that really isn’t that big a surprise). While it works intermittently, the film is never as moving or insightful as it wants to be.

I got a far than I expected from then Korean film “The Beauty Inside” (Byuti insaideu – 2015 / Well Go USA / 127m / 29.98 BR / NR). I’d have to term it a romantic dramedy because it starts out sweet and funny – even a tad silly – and progresses to poignant and even heartbreaking before it resolves. The premise involves Woo-jin who wakes up every morning in a different body. On the outside, he might be old or young, male or female or even a different nationality (which means he sometimes can’t speak or understand his native language). The main drawback initially is that he has to keep a room full of different sized clothes for both genders and spectacles in a variety of prescriptions. Then he discovers the woman of his dreams, E-soo (Hyo-ju Han), and has to wait until the day he wakes up handsome and male to approach her. Then he has to stay awake as long as possible to get a relationship started. Eventually of course he has to share his secret with her (he can’t stay awake forever) but after freaking out she concludes it’s the person inside she cares for, not his physical appearance. Complications ensue, particularly because E-soo is seen with a different man every day and is suspected by her employer of being promiscuous.

The supernatural aspects are simply a given (it’s explained Woo-jin has inherited his condition from his father and left at that). What’s being explored here, and very wittily, is the nature of love. Is it dependent on physical appearance – and, though it is more inferred than depicted, is it dependent on gender? “The Beauty Inside” is too much in the vein of a frothy and fantastical romance – with a hint of screwball comedy – to deal with weighty subjects head on. It might even be a mite subversive in the way it surreptitiously delivers food for thought without force-feeding the viewer. The film’s most remarkable achievement however might be the way a fleet of actors all manage to convince that they are the same personality of Woo-jin. Had that not been achieved no one would be able to believe or care about the protagonist’s relationship. Beats me how they did it – aside of course from casting dozens of remarkably good actors – but color me mightily impressed. It may run a smidge longer than is good for such a soufflé but it’s a charming gem of a movie.

In “Kansas City Confidential” (1952 / The Film Detective / 99m / $14.99 BR / NR) former cop Preston Foster, ousted through political ageism (though the term hadn’t been invented as yet), plots the perfect bank robbery. He enlists three confederates (Jack Elam, Lee van Cleef and Neville Brand), none of whom will see him or each other without wearing creepy, full-face masks, thus guaranteeing that if any are caught they can’t rat on each other. The cops mistakenly arrest delivery van driver John Payne because the crooks used a van identical to his. When they discover he has a record they “interrogate” him for several days until they discover the actual getaway vehicle. Oops! (The investigating detective actually says, “These things happen,” on releasing him.) Brutalized and now jobless as well, Payne determines to track down the real culprits; when he finds them, it turns out the scheme is not at all quite what it first appeared. Adding to the complications is that Foster’s daughter (Colleen Gray) shows up and she and Payne take a shine to each other.

Director Phil Karlson is not much remembered these days and he was hardly a name director even during his most active years; he started out in B pictures (even guiding the reputedly mirthful antics of the Bowery Boys on more than one occasion) and stayed there, eventually moving into television. But for a short while he got projects with decent budgets and some A-list stars who were starting to lose a bit of their luster. His forte during this time was crime dramas and Karlson’s are notable for being especially hard-boiled and (for their time) quite violent. Here Payne is beaten up by the cops and later by the crooks; in return he also gets in some licks of his own. In fact the film is barely underway when Foster slaps Elam silly. Karlson was a notable visual stylist – surprising considering his tenure in “Get it in the can and get in the theaters” –and his compositions here are often striking. Not all B films of the 1950s (or other decades for that matter) are worthy of restoration for BluRay but this one is.