Thursday, August 30, 2007

One Missed Call 2; Not Worth Answering

It may be fading now, but Asian horror films, predominantly Japanese horror films, have had a pretty good representation on American shores of late. Prior to the turn of the century, American audiences usually thought of Godzilla-style rubber monsters when thinking of Japanese horror cinema, and most never even thought of Chinese or Korean cinema at all. That all changed in 1998, when word started to get back to adventurous horror fans of what was being touted as a completely original and utterly frightening film from Japan called Ringu. In 2002 the sub-genre burst into the mainstream consciousness when Ringu got a first class Hollywood remake courtesy of director Gore Verbinski. Say what you will about remakes in general, and I don't mean any disrespect to the original, but the American remake was a perfect translation, a great way to take the horror sensibilities from Japan and inject them into American cinema. It was familiar enough to not be offputting, but different enough to scare the bejesus out of unsuspecting audiences used to the current lackluster Hollywood offerings. The success of The Ring meant that more would be coming, and we soon got American remakes of top Asian horror films such as Ju On(AKA the Grudge) and Dark Water. At the same time, for those purists interested in originals only, and those simply looking for more scares, the home video market was bursting with Asian imports.

The halfassed remakes that made it to theatres, the knock off films that followed the popularity of The Ring, and the overwhelming similarities between many Asian horror films, all led to the decline of the Asian horror boom. But waning popularity in America does not mean the market is entirely gone, and horror films remain a prominent export from eastern shores. One of those films testifying to the continuing J-Horror trend is One Missed Call 2, the sequel to the 2003 film from wildly divisive director Miike Takashi. And really, your enjoyment of this film is going to depend on your tolerance for logic-defying bullshit twist endings and halfassed philosophizing.

The problem with the original One Missed Call was that it came to the game a bit late. By the time it was released there had already been 5 years of horror films dealing with haunted technology and creepy long haired women. It was Miike's most generic and standard film, but he still managed to inject it with flashes of his own gonzo sensibilities(there's a scene of a ghostly murder captured live in a television studio that had my jaw in my lap). Made without Miike's involvement, One Missed Call 2 is no less well made, but has virtually no trace of the style which attempted to make the original stand out.

Most of the problem in this film comes from what plagued the original; a sense of 'been there, done that', with every stereotype from Asian horror cinema making an appearance, like a J-Horror best-of. There's the pale woman with long hair covering most of her face, slithering jerkily out of a well(the Ring) or sliding headfirst after her victim down a flight of stairs(Ju On), the creepy pale child(Ring, Ju On, Dark Water, Every Japanese Horror Movie Since 1998), and a general fear of technology that seems specific to Asia. Not that other countries don't have their own fears of technology, but it seems to manifest itself in a very specific way in Japanese cinema. In Buddhism, hate, anger, sadness and negativity aren't just emotions, they are physical ailments that can be passed on like a virus(think of Princess Mononoke where the hero has an ever growing wound from the mere touch of an angry boar-god), and as technology increases humanity's networking capabilities, it also increases our susceptibility to these curses. It's how we got the haunted video tape in Ringu, the haunted Internet in the excellent(and underseen) Pulse, and here the haunted cell phone in One Missed Call.

The basic premise is that you get a phone call, which on your caller ID is listed as you, three days in the future. On this call you hear your own death, and three days later you die. More so than Ringu, this setup has a built in fatalism, a sense of hopelessness against your own doom, that the first one was wise enough to capitalize on. The sequel, however, changes the rules a bit, and it no longer seems as dangerous to get that call, with it's creepy music-box ringtone. The virus, to continue a metaphor, has mutated, which explains how it's continued on from the first movie. The phone call no longer kills only it's intended victim, but anyone who happens to answer/hear the message, and getting the call no longer means certain death. A disregard for it's own internal logic is another mark against this film.

Without this inevitability, the film loses most of the tension inherent in the series, and must depend on carefully crafted scare scenes to spook the audience. And it does have those. Unfortunately the film never can escape the fact that everything we're seeing has been done before, many many times. One Missed Call 2 is slicker, more appealingly made than most of this sort of stuff out there, but it still falls short of the films it apes. However, enough time has passed between this film and it's predecessors that these stereotypes gave me a slight shiver of nostalgic horror, and they unfold in a way that I can admire and enjoy without actually being moved by them. All of this is ruined, however, by a twist ending that confused and angered me to such a degree that it almost rivals the ending to Mindhunters in sheer frustration(see my review of THAT film by clicking the title). I won't reveal it all here, for those of you interested in watching this series, but it will suffice to say that I no longer know who lives and who dies, who the killer is, or even if there was a killer. This may all lead up to the third movie(already released), but my suspicion is that the filmmakers thought they were totally blowing the audiences minds, not just confusing them into apathy.

I tried for awhile to think of what to rate this film, and whether or not to tell people I liked it, because to say I hated it would be untrue, nor was I bored by it; the film kept me interested once it got going. But then, I wouldn't say I liked it either, or that I'm neutral about it, because I have some very strong opinions about it. It's an odd film that straddles all of those categories. In the end, though, I honestly can't recommend it to anyone. Hardcore Asian horror fans may find some gems in there, but they'll also most likely be bored by all too familiar scenery. Beginners might enjoy it, but I'd really suggest they look elsewhere(perhaps to the predecessors I mentioned above) for their introduction to this subgenre.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Marie Antoinette

This weekend the Girlfriend and I sat down to watch, with some small amount of excitement, Marie Antoinette. The excitement came from director Sofia Coppola, of whom I would consider myself a fan after her first two, amazing films. The Virgin Suicides, which I was completely ready to dislike, ended up being a haunting, melancholy and beautiful meditation on that last summer before discovering sex and 'growing up', with an absolutely brilliant soundtrack. The scene where the boys call the isolated Lisbon girls and they hold an entire conversation using only the records they play into the phone was one of the best uses of popular songs in a movie I've seen in awhile. Lost In Translation was, to me, even better, with a bittersweet romance that is no less real because it is never consummated. In fact, it feels more genuine because the two main characters, so obviously falling in love with each other, never become physical. The relationship between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson is one of those fleeting romances that is so important because of it's fleeting nature, inspired as much by time place as by actual attraction.

Sofia Coppola's two big obsessions would be women ignored or mistreated, and the way time and place informs her characters. Indeed, from Virgin Suicides to Lost In Translation time and place became more important, and the character's less exposed. This doesn't mean that the characters were ill-defined, merely that the specifics of their lives were conveyed in very small, but illuminating moments, whereas the location of Tokyo became a main character itself. Ms. Coppola continues this trend in Marie Antoinette, the first of her films that I didn't downright love. Where Lost in Translation had very well defined characters and silences that were just as expressive as dialogue, Marie Antoinette treats it's characters as vague place holders, there to hold the viewers eye as the film explores the place and time.

Dunst, as Marie Antoinette, plays a variation on her character from the Virgin Suicides. A young woman just growing into her sexuality who is kept virtual prisoner, through a combination of personal neglect from her family and husband and nagging attention from various court members. Kirsten Dunst may be a bit too old to be considered on the verge of sexuality, but in a world where thirtysomethings can play high school students, it isn't a big stretch. In the film, Marie Antoinette isn't an elitist, self absorbed snob, uncaring towards the poor and disillusioned just outside her door. Instead she is a young girl, thrown into a world built entirely around providing for her, doing everything for her, and denying her the simple act of dressing herself. In this world, with a husband who will barely acknowledge her, let alone become romantic, and with no real friends only rich, bored hangers on, she retreats into what is deemed acceptable behavior. And this includes overindulging in sweets, jewelry, clothes and shoes. Eventually, as is historically infamous, she becomes a little too indulgent, and people begin to see her as the epitome of everything that is wrong with the French ruling class.

By now you will be aware of the fact that this movie features a soundtrack comprised of 80s pop songs, such as Bow Wow Wow's I Want Candy, and tracks from The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees. This is far from the only anachronistic touch. At one point a character is seen wearing a pair of Converse tennis shoes, and the dialogue is never what you would call 'period accurate'. Everyone seems to have a theory as to what this signifies. Roger Ebert eloquently supposed that this was a way to bring the past into the present, because too many period dramas seem to make their characters aware of living in the past, when to them it was always the present. The majority consensus is that this only paints parallels between Marie Antoinette and other rich, spoiled children of today, such as Paris Hilton or Nicole Richie. During a scene in which Marie has a small emotional breakdown to the sounds of the Strokes, I could only imagine that she was born into the wrong era, that she would be much better suited to the 80s. I don't mean this to say she is too 'headstrong' or 'independent' or whatever is usually meant when people say someone was born ahead of their time, I mean simply that in this film, Marie Antoinette is not suited for 1700s France, whereas in our time, she may have actually become a well adjusted young woman, given the chance to live without constant royal interference.

Obviously, this film's view of Marie Antoinette is much more sympathetic than the popular opinion, but it doesn't do a very good job of convincing the audience. Perhaps the film didn't portray her as such a cipher, with no clearly defined desires or wishes other than to be happy and carefree. She isn't alone in this, Louis the XVI might as well be a coat hanger, and the only character who has a clear desire is Asia Argento's Madame du Barry, an ex-prostitute and mistress to the king who is vying for a title.

I think, with Marie Antoinette, I can admire the aesthetics, and appreciate what Ms. Coppola is trying to do, but I don't think I actually enjoyed it. I wouldn't turn down the chance to see it again, and refine my opinion, see if I might have missed something crucial, but I'm not in a huge hurry to do so. For now, I'm willing to lay the fault of my dislike at myself, and say that Sofia Coppola has made an interesting, visually appealing, and watchable movie that I just didn't get.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Spout #3: Ten Canoes

This week's movie was a mild surprise, being about what I expected in terms of content, but happily exceeding my expectations in terms of form. Ten Canoes, the 12th film from Rolf de Heer(born in the Netherlands, raised in Australia since age 8), is easily the best film I've seen yet through this Spout Mavens project. That shouldn't reflect poorly on the other films I've seen- for my thoughts on those you can always read the reviews themselves- but is instead meant as a testament to how enjoyable I found this one.

Calling Ten Canoes a small film would be a bit dismissive. Although it certainly isn't bombastic or tightly paced, it's still an expansive film, with some excellent cinematography that lingers over the Australian wilderness and glides through the scenery and around the actors like one of the titular ten canoes. The film has periodic black and white segments which were well shot, but I think they were a bit unnecessary. I understand the need and desire to make a clear delineation between the two parallel stories, but the overly bright images on screen make the subtitles a bit hard to read at times, and the full color segments are so striking in comparison. Particularly when it comes to the elaborate full body clay makeup the warriors and mystics sometimes don.

The film, in one of those Russian-nesting-doll type stories a la Arabian Nights, is about a man who becomes aware that the youngest of his three wives has become the object of his younger brother Dayindi's affections. On a hunting expedition with several other tribesmen(most unnamed), Minygululu aims to teach young Dayindi a lesson by telling him a story of their ancestors that mirrors their own. In this story within a story, warrior Ridjimaril's younger brother(the brother is played by the same actor in both stories) lusts after his younger wife. This serves as the launching point for several comedic and tragic events, leading to a comedic and tragic ending. Over this, and serving to keep the two stories straight in the audience's mind, is our storyteller. To go any further into the story of the movie would be pointless. In this film it isn't the story that matters, it's the telling. More than a being about the peril's of coveting thy neighbor's(or brother's) wife, this is a movie about storytelling.
Storytelling is an art form that many people like to bemoan the death of, these days, complaining that instead of sitting around a fire and passing stories on to each other, we now sit in front of a flickering screen. This is, I think, a bit of faulty reasoning. Storytelling is still alive, there are still people who travel the nation(or world) telling their stories to new audiences. Also, I think it unjustly maligns movies and television, by dismissing outright the idea that either medium can produce great works of art. Cinema is just as potent a form of storytelling, and it really isn't all that different from more traditional forms. I recall going to see Dancer in the Dark in the theatre, and part of why I fell in love with that film was the theatre experience itself. Often modern movie audiences are just there to kill a friday night, and you can usually hear murmuring and text-messaging around you. In Dancer in the Dark, the entire audience grew silent, and in the end we were inundated with a great, communal wave of grief. A grief that simultaneously fed itself and comforted us, because we were not alone in it. It was the only movie I've been to where no one moved during the end credits, and when we finally did manage to stand and shuffle off into the lobby, everyone's face was wet with tears. It sound awful, but it was one of the best movie-going experiences in my life, and an example of what storytelling can do to a mass audience.
Our storyteller and guide through this film, voiced engagingly by David Gulpilil, is an affable man, clearly in love with his art, and his frequent asides and comments serve to draw you into the tale he is telling. He laughs at jokes onscreen, and often breaks the fourth wall by speaking directly to the audience, taunting us for our impatience with his meandering and old fashioned style of storytelling. And, yes, it does take awhile to get to the point of the story, and maybe the end isn't as climactic as an audience weaned on twist endings and third act reversals would be used to, but again, to complain about that would be missing the mark. Gulpilil, our narrator, makes frequent asides, and goes off on tangents, such as a sequence where the men sit in a circle and discuss their theories about what happened to a missing woman, as the camera shows us each of these scenarios in turn. This may not keep the action moving in a way most modern audiences want, but it fits perfectly into the whole 'gathered around a campfire' feel of the movie. A good storyteller allows his story room to breath, knows when to embellish certain facts, explore certain threads. It's not a style very inherent to film, which may test the patience of some viewers, and infuriate some people, but this is a movie you need to just sit back and experience.
In the end, whatever drawbacks may be seen in this film are outweighed by it's engaging and warm style. It's not big, it's not flashy, it may not even be as big of a crowd pleaser as I seem to be making it out to be, but it's easygoing, gentle style is infectious.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Tales From The Discount Bin #1

Hello, all, and welcome to the inaugural post in a series that I hope to continue indefinitely, albeit at semi-irregular intervals.

Awhile back, while on the tail end of my community work service tenure, I happened across a small used book store downtown called C&M Books. When I would work downtown, on my break I would wander around, and it was on one of these breaks that I found the shop. This wasn't my first exposure to the place, that had occurred over 10 years prior. My experience was not a bad one, quite the opposite in fact, I picked up quite a few excellent finds on that trip, but I so infrequently wander through downtown that I just never found myself back there. I had actually suspected the shop of closing down, since it seemed even then to be doing a fairly slow trade. Luckily, my suspicions were wrong.

C&M Books is the type of used bookstore where there are just as many books in piles on the floor as there are in the floor to ceiling bookcases, more, even! It's tipping the scale from 'cluttered' to 'messy', but it just adds to the charm, I suppose. The completely scattered arrangement of merchandise can make it pretty daunting if you actually go into the store with a specific title in mind, but that's beside the point. The type of books your likely to find in this store are generally older paperbacks, many from the 70s and 80s(although still plenty of new stuff as well), in pretty good condition, and mostly genre titles. Title Wave, one of the other few used book stores in anchorage, takes these types of books and crams them into one corner. At C&M the opposite is held true, with one measly bookcase devoted to 'literature', while sci-fi, fantasy, romance, horror, mystery and adventure take up the rest. The average price is half whatever the cover price was when the book first went on sale, and considering most of these were published back when books only cost a buck or two, that's a pretty fine deal.

I've taken this opportunity to indulge a woefully neglected guilty pleasure of mine; the tacky, irredeemable pulp novel. On my last trip there I picked up a stack of old sci-fi and mystery books, all of them with tawdry, lurid covers of alien princesses or grisly murder victims. I evened that out with some more culturally acceptable titles like a Dashiel Hammet novel and the first Ian Fleming Bond book, Casino Royale. My plan there is to start at the beginning and pick up one a month until I've read them all. The book that concerns my post today is the arrestingly titled 'The Gloryhole Murders'. If you don't know what a Gloryhole is, well, I'm not going to ruin the surprise. Google it, but be careful not to do it at work. The cover I picked up was, unfortunately, not as lurid as it could have been. It is, in fact, quite dull and non-descriptive. But with a title like that, that practically leaped off the shelf as I scanned the titles, you don't need a flashy cover.

This is the fairly nondescript cover I got.

Here's the cover I would have liked to have seen. Certainly it fits the whole 'lurid cover' aspect of pulp novels better than the other.

The biggest question, and biggest fear, frankly, was 'how much gay sex will I have to read about in this book?' The answer is, blessedly little(not that there's anything wrong with that). The book concerns antique shop owner Matty Sinclair, who becomes the prerequisite 'reluctant detective' when he's approached by the police to help investigate the murder of a prominent businessman in the restrooms of the Ramrod. Which, believe it or not, is a gay bar. There's a couple references to Matty's past life as a DA, something he quit because he didn't want to stay in the closet, but really, the cops come to him because he's gay.

Honestly, I'm thankful there's no gay sex(not that there's anything wrong with that), but the book isn't nearly as lurid and tawdry as one would hope from a cut-rate tale of murder during deviant sexual acts. Aside from the titular murder, described in detail only in the prologue(and yes, its gruesome... horribly so), the details are pretty mundane. In fact it's rather boring. The author intends her hero to be a riotous, deadpan narrator, the type of character intended to shock and amuse, who says what people wish they could say, but he actually just comes across as an ass. He's elitist to the point of caricature, calls all women 'fish', keeps an underage runaway lover, and is casually racist(upon finding himself chased into a darkened alley, Matty is relieved to find his pursuer is not a black man, only a possible mafia hitman). This racism may not be a character trait, but something the author herself is dealing with. Every black character in this novel, with one exception, speaks in a cliched pigeon English. Prime example: "HR was the bestest man I ever seed aroun here." I'm sure these stereotypes exist, and I admit I've never been to New Orleans, where this is set, but certainly not EVERY African American speaks in this manner. Our hero is also unconvincingly gay. He insults(mentally), the appearance and demeanor of all the men around him, but will spend page upon page describing the sensuality of the various women he encounters, at one point sleeping with one of them, for no real apparent reason(he does make a point of telling her he didn't enjoy it, but he comes back again and again).

In this way, and in a few others, The Gloryhole Murders has a kind of 'Will & Grace' attitude towards homosexuality. The idea being that every woman needs a gay man to make her life more meaningful, and that is, of course, the greatest honor a gay man can aspire to. To help a woman discover the best color palate for her wardrobe, to gossip about boyfriends, to provide that shoulder to cry on, and to never, ever have any sort of sex life outside of the occasional hetero tryst. Because two guys? That's just icky. What are you, some sort of deviant? I don't think this is homophobia, the author does appear to be comfortable with gay culture, but what would the term be? It's certainly condescending and demeaning, whatever it is. An outsider's look at what, at the time, was a subculture that the mainstream was only marginally aware of.

The book does manage to keep the killer's identity a surprise, but it does this with the twin tricks of keeping certain information from the reader until the end, and having the motive for the murders be more than a little implausible. I can almost understand the murder that starts the book off, but every consecutive murder is just a bit more far-fetched. Still, it does have one McGuffin that's fairly clever. Mrs. Fennelly isn't a bad author, and this was her first published novel, so it's quite possible she's matured well. I'm not sure if I'll ever take the time to find out, though.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things

It was with a mixture of trepidation and excitement that I put this weeks screener, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, into my DVD player and hit 'play.' My trepidation came from a few sources; since having a daughter three years ago, and because of my own experiences with an abusive step-dad, I find movies with child abuse difficult to watch. I had heard much about the extreme depths that this film goes to, had heard quite a bit about the source material, and was a bit nervous about how I would react to something that usually affects me so viscerally. On the flipside of that, I was also a bit nervous about the fact that Asia Argento had directed it. Argento's only previous full-length directorial effort was the vaguely autobiographical 'Scarlet Diva,' a film which promised the same soul-searing depths of raw, nasty emotion, yet delivered only mind(and ass) numbing boredom. Still, on the strength of that film, some shorts, and maybe her father's reputation(she is the daughter of Italian horror-master Dario Argento), she's become a favorite among certain indie directors including Gus Van Sant and Abel Ferrara. And maybe because of those same things I'll always be interested in what she does. Also, I have to admit, some of the excitement comes from purely prurient reasons; Asia Argento is, or at least was, smokin' hot. I've had a bit of a crush on her since I saw her get topless in Trauma when I was 16. But then, somewhere in between New Rose Hotel and Land of the Dead, she began taking on the appearance of a hardcore substance abuser. This new look for her actually fits for her role in this film, because that's a very important part of the character.

Based upon the memoir by JT LeRoy, the movie begins immediately with 7 year old Jeremiah being taken from his loving foster family and returned to his biological mother Sarah, played by Asia Argento with an infrequent Tennessee accent. We get absolutely no glimpse of what his life with his foster family was like, although it is clear he loved them and believed them to be his true parents, and it certainly had to be better than life with Sarah. On their first day together she tells him he's unwanted, that he would have been flushed down the toilet if she'd had her way, and then proceeds to give him hard drugs. This is, of course, only the beginning. To cover the litany of abuses in this film would take far to long, so it would be best if you just imagined whatever horrible thing you can happening to a child. Chances are it's in this film. Sarah encourages her one night stands to beat Jeremiah for wetting the bed, dresses him up in her clothing and introduces him at times as her sister, and frequently leaves him in the care of her boyfriends/'johns' for extended periods of time, at one point not showing up for years. And trust me, there's worse to be found between the opening and closing credits.

There's something here that the film never bothers to address; why would Sarah, who so resents her child, continually return to drag him back into her life? She takes him back from his foster parents, but immediately begins to ignore and abuse him. She leaves him with a man who puts him in the hospital through his abuse, but comes back three years later to kidnap him away from his grandparents. Maybe the filmmakers(Asia Argento is writer AND director, so I guess it would be her) assumed this is just something people do, one of those unexplained quirks of the heart, but to trust so implicitly that we won't question why someone who so hates being a mother would keep taking back her child only to ignore or abuse him is a bit lazy.

The beginning of the film, where young Jeremiah is hurled into this nightmarish existence, is the most harrowing part to watch. Eventually, however, the film gets into a pattern where Sarah meets a new guy, has sex in front of Jeremiah, mentally abuses him, does LOTS of drugs, and then leaves. Repeat this about half a dozen times, and the film becomes boring to the point where it becomes a game of spot the cameo; there's Winona Ryder as a clueless social worker! Marilyn Manson as a white trash boyfriend that sexually assaults Jeremiah! Peter Fonda as the ultra-strict head of an ultra-religious family!? One wonders how Asia Argento was able to convince this many name(or almost name) actors and actresses to be in her film(sometimes uncredited), but I imagine it's because they all saw this as the type of 'shocking' project that would garner divisive critical response and murmurs about how daring their involvement was. Or maybe I'm being cynical.

If it sounds like I lost interest in the film, well, it's true. I did. Which is not the reaction I expected to have. I expected to, at the very least, be disgusted, shocked, or depressed by the film. But bored? No, wouldn't have guessed that. Or maybe the problem is with me. This is one of those difficult indie movies that divide audiences at film festivals. The type of film that imparts some vital message about the human condition that I'm just not hard wired to receive. But then, that wouldn't account for the boredom. A film about child abuse shouldn't be this dull. Due to the construct of the book, the movie has no flow, but is instead a series of vignettes. This also makes the movie feel like a shopping list, a recounting of events in a rote chronological order instead of a heartfelt admission. And that, then, is the major, fatal flaw in this film; that it has less emotion than the Dateline special inspired by these events would have.

As a director, though, I do believe Argento has grown. This film shows more stylistic flair than Scarlet Diva, and more confidence behind the camera. At times the camera lingers, and at others it moves with a jittery, manic anxiety as the film sways from stark realism to dark fantasy(Jeremiah frequently hallucinates two red, claymation birds whenever things get particularly trying for him). Some of this may have to do with director of photography Eric Alan Edwards, who's worked on a wide variety of films, including Kids, Knocked Up, My Own Private Idaho, and Crossroads(not the good one with Ralph Macchio, the Britney Spears one), but I'll place enough stock with Argento to actually look forward to her next film.

In 2005 it was revealed that JT LeRoy had never existed, that the autobiographical books were actually written by a woman in her 40s, and public appearances were made by an in-law of hers(this was believed because LeRoy was, according to the 'memoirs', a fairly feminine man attempting to live as a woman). The DVD acknowledges this by having the word 'true' scratched out of the tagline 'based upon a true story by JT LeRoy'. It's an intriguing marketing gimmick, and hints at a different, possibly superior movie waiting out there. I'm not saying this should be remade as a Charlie Kaufmann logic puzzle, but if the movie had acknowledged that 'these events were horrible, things like this happen all the time, but hey, maybe our narrator is flawed', it would have been more compelling. Think Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as an example of a totally heightened movie experience. A 'true' story where most of what is reported didn't actually happen, but the messages and observations remain valid. Usually it's pointless and unfair to say what a movie 'could have been', because a movie is never anything other than what it is, but here it's just too irresistible a thought.

I've tried not to read any reviews of this film, because I didn't want anyone else's opinion to inform my own. Now that I'm done, I plan on rectifying that. However, I did go check out what Ebert had to say, and in the end he gave it a 2 out of 4, as a compromise between horror and admiration, and would not recommend it. I'll shorten that and just not recommend it.

Thursday, August 16, 2007


During a news story about local schools, I just saw this printed on a high schoolers shirt:

"If you don't like my attitude, stop reading my t-shirts!"

That joins "You laugh because I'm different, I laugh because your all the same" to my list of unintentionally-ironic-statements-punishable-by-death, to be enforced once I finally rule the world.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

'bout Spout

A few weeks back, on the invitation of my good friend and fellow blogger Rik, I joined the movie discussion site Despite it's flaws it's an incredibly fun site. I've slowed down on my movie ratings, despite barely putting a dent in my overall film collection, but that's mainly because of the slowness of load time. I have, however, been having a good time exploring the different groups(although most of them don't interest me), meeting some like minded film aficionados, and posting my reviews in an area where the types of people I'm trying to reach will actually see them.

So far I've mainly imported older blogs from here, and a nifty 'link to a movie' option means that anyone searching for said movie will see my review, if they are so inclined. A few things have been written specifically for Spout, and then moved over here, but for the most part it's the other way around. The main exception would be the Spout Mavens reviews, the first of which I posted the other day. Spout Mavens is a group that sends out free screener DVDs in exchange for the reviews that will be written by group members. I expect most of these to be direct-to-video, festival favorites. Probably many of them will not interest me, but I welcome the chance to see movies I would probably not even be aware of.

What this means is that my focus on my 'internet presence' is shifting a bit. WorkingDeadProductions will continue to be my home base, so to speak, with everything I write going on here eventually, but Spout will be the main focus for awhile. A lot of my writings will either directly or indirectly be on, for, or maybe even about, that site. Check it out. If your reading this site, than Spout would probably be right for you.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Let The Church Say Amen

Before I start, I think it's only fair to you that I make something clear. In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that I am aggressively not religious. It's not just that I don't go to church, it's that I'm inclined to treat most organized religion with a little wariness and disdain. It's not that I'm not spiritual; I have my own belief and faith, and have no problem with anyone else believing in whatever god they want, it's just that I don't exactly want to hear about it, and I think religion has done at least as much bad as good in our world. And so, with that in mind, you'd probably expect me to jump to an exasperated conclusion about the movie I pulled out of the mail the other day; a documentary about a small church in Washington D.C. You'd be wrong. I tell you this because it's going to be impossible to divorce myself from my beliefs while I review Let The Church Say Amen. As much as I try to clear the slate and watch it with an open mind, and as much as I try to think about this without judging it too harshly, my views are still going to come through. And I realize that most people would probably be more open to the messages in this film than I am.

Washington, D.C., the political heart of our nation, is a decaying, dangerous place. With one of the highest violent crime rates in the country, and a horrific class separation. On one end of the spectrum we have the wealthy politicians and lobbyists, and on the other end is everyone else, struggling not to drown beneath the poverty line. In the midst of this is the World Missions for Christ Church, on an inner-city street corner, in a tiny storefront, with a small but enthusiastic congregation. The members that the documentary follows are people with hard lives and hard luck. There's 'Brother C' who struggles to record a gospel record with himself and his 10 year old son on drums. David Surles who works at a homeless shelter and dreams of owning a house with a yard and a tree, and Darlene Duncan, a single mother with 8 children.

As interesting, nice, and decent as these people are, as noble as their quests may be, I don't think I'd actually like any of them. They belong to that segment of the church-going population that preaches on sidewalks and in subways, that rush up to cars at stoplights and preach into the open windows, and can't seem to put a sentence together without mentioning God or Jesus. These types of people, in person, make me deeply uncomfortable. But then, these are people who have gone through things I couldn't imagine, and faced with joining the homeless and drug addicts that crowd the streets, they have reached out and grasped onto one of the few places that will accept, embrace and encourage them; their church.

When Brother C's oldest son is stabbed to death during the course of this documentary, he begins to drive the streets of Washington, watching the men he holds responsible. Church before this tragic murder was a jubilant place, music and dancing, shouting and testifying, with everyone drenched in sweat. Following this event, World Missions for Christ Church became a twisted mirror version of itself. The shouting, testifying and music were there, but the tone was different. So overcome with their grief that they screamed, wailed, and fell to the floor in convulsions. It was a hard thing to watch.

Brother C finds no support from the police, who respond to his numerous requests for information with a rote 'we're still searching for the suspect, but we'll get him soon.' Indeed, he goes uncaught despite their claims to having a warrant for his arrest until the suspect turns himself in. Where I viewed this as proof of an uncaring police force, Brother C smiled and saw it as the killer giving in to the power of God. In this neighborhood, the citizens are all but ignored by the police and politicians. Darlene Duncan, single mother to 8 children, reacts to our uncaring health care system by going to nursing school and treating her children herself. All this despite having an education level below elementary school. Clearly these are better people than I.

Facing the rampant problems of homelessness, gangs and drugs, with a system that largely ignores these people, World Missions for Christ Church makes an aggressive front. Sponsoring 70 annual events such as food and clothing drives, and free health screenings, this is a group of people living in one of the worst places in our nation, who have banded together and chosen to believe and try to help those around them. That's something I can respect, even if I don't believe.

Had I written this review immediately upon watching the film, it probably would not have sounded quite so positive. But now, with reflection, I find that I wouldn't mind a follow up, to see what happened with Brother C's music career, or how Darlene Duncan is doing with nursing. The movie is a bit hard to watch at times, particularly if your of the mindset that I happen to be in. This isn't one of those crowd-pleasing, populist documentaries that make it to your multiplex, this is strictly for the PBS, NPR crowd. But if you make it through, you'll find that it's messages stick with you.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Host

A few years back, in one of his earliest columns for Entertainment Weekly, Stephen King compared horror fans to drug addicts; forever chasing that next high, and finding it harder and harder to accomplish each time. This is a notion that I agree wholeheartedly with, and find it so perfectly phrased. Indeed, for me this has held distressingly true. I don't believe this means that the quality of horror movies has gone down; the ratio of good movies to crap movies seems to remain fairly stable, it's only what's popular that skews the results. It may be more fair to say that I've become just the teensiest bit jaded, and maybe I expect more, or different things from horror these days. I don't for one minute think I'm alone in this. The desire for new and more extreme thrills speaks to the current trend towards torture porn, and explains the still ongoing(although not AS popular) fad for Asian horror films.

It may be waning these days, but Asian cinema turned out to be a great boon for the long-suffering horror fan. Not all of the films were classics, but they were so different from what we were familiar with, they were filtered through such a radically different set of sensibilities and cultural mores that it was like a breath of fresh air. Certainly some of the hallmarks have become a bit tired(how many types of haunted technology can there be?), but there are still some great movies being made overseas. Lately my interests have been veering a little bit away from China & Japan, and I've been watching more Korean films. I won't make any sweeping generalities, but it should be noted that every Korean film I've seen so far suffers from the same flaws; a willingness to go against the film's own internal logic for at least one inexplicable, infuriating moment, and a tendency towards overwrought melodrama. Still, I do find myself enjoying the film, even if in the end I find it a lackluster affair. Because, in exchange for those momentary lapses in logic, we get sweeping camera movements and a generous helping of gorgeous classical music in the score. They(and keep in mind I am only speaking of the dozen or so films I've seen, not the entire Korean cinematic output) exude a sense of gothic class and impending dread that has been lost from most American horror movies with the tendency towards flashy, music video editing. So I usually just go with the flow and allow the films to sucker me in until the end comes and I find myself a little let down.

Certainly keeping at least one foot in the flawed territory mentioned above, Gwoemul(The Host) still managed to stir those long dormant feelings, and give me that good old horror rush that I've been missing. And actually, the flaws are relatively minor. The focus here is more on adventure and political satire than scares, but it has a big giant monster, so it's still a horror movie.

In the opening scene an American doctor orders his Korean subordinate to dump gallons upon gallons of formaldehyde into a drain that feeds into the Han river(based on a true event, although with an outcome nothing like this film). What follows is a small montage that led me to believe the movie would be a slow buildup to the eventual reveal of the monster which was, of course, mutated by the formaldehyde. Yes I know formaldehyde wouldn't cause a fish to mutate into a gigantic bloodthirsty monstrosity, and it is a tad cheesy, but it fits with the old-school, mad scientist, monster mash vibe through the film.

Of course, we're so used to seeing the monster hidden in shadows, both as a stylistic attempt to keep it frightening, and as a pretty easy way to keep the special effect's flaws from being too noticeable. So it was quite a shock to not only see the movie kick off with a bang, but that this scene would also be in bright daylight, with plenty of static camera shots to show off the big nasty monster rampaging through crowds of people enjoying a nice summer day at the riverbank. Normally I'm against CGI, and it almost always takes me out of the movie because it's so obvious, but in this movie I wont even give it a second thought. The CGI may not quite be Industrial Light and Magic, but it's still impressive, and the scenes with the beast are so well staged and shot that it would be childish to say 'yes, but the effects are cheesy'. Indeed, this scene was such a surprise, and so well done, that even on the third viewing I experienced the same thrill, like the moment just before the big dip in a roller coaster.

With such a crowd-pleaser of a start, it's not a surprise that most people tune out and find the rest of the film boring. It is two hours long, and the monster is absent from a great deal of it, but there's still a pretty solid story there, with some action and humor thrown in just as it starts to get too slow. The film focuses on the quest of one family to find their daughter(niece, granddaughter) who was taken by the monster and who they still believe to be alive. Standing in their way, aside from the aforementioned monster, is the Korean government, and eventually the US government, which intrudes upon matters and begins enforcing their own brand of marshal law.

Of course the film becomes a not-so-subtle critique of America's style of foreign policy; IE, stepping into the middle of a situation it doesn't fully understand and taking over completely.
I'll admit the movie drags a bit during these parts, and by the time the end comes it seems about 20 minutes too late, but it's these segments of the film that I seem to enjoy more each time I watch it. There's more than one political statement being made, with references to the Vietnam war, Agent Orange, SARS, bird flu, and more. Still, I think there might be one too many subplots(the homeless children in the sewer system slowed things down at a point where it didn't need to be slowed down any further), but it's never quite dull. And I do enjoy how each member of the family- slacker dad, kindly grandfather, disappointed revolutionary uncle, and Olympic level archer(think that'll be an important plot point?) aunt- all get their own section of the movie. As the movie goes on various members of the cast take on the hero role, in the end, of course, coming together to each take down the beast.

So all in all I really enjoyed this one, which was probably obvious as soon as I mentioned watching it three times, although I'd stop short of calling it a perfect film. On top of the lagging in the film at times, there's a twist at the end that turns the film into a sort of shaggy dog story(actually, two of them, but one of them I really enjoyed), and feels like a betrayal of the audience's confidence. Also, one of those pesky scenes with a total disregard for the films own logic in a brief shot towards the end that implies the beast is actually made up of a bunch of fish somehow melded together. I use selective continuity and block that one shot out, which is easy to do since it's only 2 seconds long.