Archive for the 'film' Category

02
Sep
12

Dead Leaves (2004)

What did I just watch?

I don’t know what the producers had in mind while making Dead Leaves — an animation equivalent of LSD-laced pop rocks in sugar psychosis. No, really. That’s it. The story is really not worth mentioning, and the animation is on par with Powerpuff Girls. I think the value of this 45-minute flick is in sheer audacity of creating nearly an hour of non-stop colourblitzkrieg. Any longer, and I’d be scooping my brains out of the pop corn bowl! I thought it was hilarious. The plot was paper-thin, and I think I’d rather have seen it as something as tongue-in-cheek as the rest of the film. As such, the story felt like more of an afterthought, and more than just a little pasted-on. I think a more outrageous motivation for the plot might have worked better. This is definitely worth watching for the hand-animated action sequences full of split-screens, text/sound effects and sheer epilepsy-inducing hyperaction! I’m thinking it would be perfect as a backdrop for a loud party, and possibly the animation reads better as an extended music video than an animated story. Also — definitely not for kids.

Plot flash: The female lead gets pregnant from prison butt-sex with a guy with a television set for a head; the baby shoots bad guys through the womb, is born, grows up, gets old and dies a hero within the same day.

Dead Leaves is a work of art. <3

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05
Jun
11

One Missed Call (2003)

(Article first published as Movie Review: One Missed Call on Blogcritics.)

Takashi Miike, the director who gave us Ichi the Killer and The Happiness of the Katakuris (among others), is also the name behind One Missed Call (Chakushin Ari) from 2003. The Japanese original has been adapted to a Hollywood remake… and completely butchered. I just finished watching the original and I’m completely hyped! I’ve been searching for a film to give me the creeps, and One Missed Call got the closest so far… I am extremely pleased.

The premise of the film is basic scary teen flick fodder: three days before you are to die, you receive a phone call from yourself from the exact date and time of your death, along with your last words (or pictures, as it is). This is right up there with Final Destination (which was the first film of the horror genre I actually enjoyed) and, in this film geek’s humble opinion, that’s not a completely rotten place to be. Regardless of the fact that One Missed Call is filled to the brim with clichés, recycled ideas, stereotypes and really close-up shots of terrified eyes, I really didn’t guess the events beforehand. In this particular genre, that’s a rare treat.

Right off the bat, we are told everything we need to know of the main character, Yumi: she is afraid of peeking holes for fear of what she might see, and she is a little strange. No time wasted for nonsense, her friend Yoko arrives to inform of the death of her friend while diving. In the very next scene Yumi is present when Yoko receives a phone call from herself to her voice mail – from the future. The message bears her last words and her final scream. In no time at all, Yumi receives a phone call from Yoko, which ends just like in the message earlier.

Bu-ha-ha! I like the death toll already!

For the next death, Yumi is personally present; she is also there when the next victim receives her call. So far, we have killed the usual stereotypes: the hype girl and the player. The next stop will be with the goody two-shoes and then it’s up to Yumi to confront her own death. Happily, we have already met her hero, a detective called Yamashita, whose sister Ritsuko was the first victim of the mysterious mobile phone killer. We have also met the opportunist crowd; the cynical, gruff old male who refuses to believe anything that is going on; the cute but mute child who holds the key to the mystery.

The themes of the horror films I have seen so far seems to circle around family relationships and tragedies; so it is with One Missed Call. Yumi’s traumatic past bears the seed of her own salvation in the grips of the cursed phone call. Unfortunately, it doesn’t end the story as it maybe should have. Having two supernatural baddies apparently not working in unison is confusing and rather crowds the story unnecessarily. The story is transported into the confusion which seems to be the trademark of Miike’s productions, and although having a little twist in the end and an ambivalent solution, the final scene ends up leaving the viewer confused, disappointed and more than a little frustrated. And it was all going so well…

Acting performances in One Missed Call are average, with very little to stand out. The visuals likewise. The main attraction, the hook that brings the viewer on par with the characters, is the world of sounds. I would like to sit through the film again, just focusing on the audial work. The ringtone and the inhalator sound trigger the viewer’s emotions just as they do for the characters. I think the focus on sound, rather than on the visuals, is what lifted the film one step above the usual mass of horror flicks. Details in the story were all carefully built up and every detail carefully, but not too obviously, explained. The overall ratio between character development (poor) and story progression (pretty good) is unusually balanced for a genre film.

The story starts fast, but slows down to a lot of talk and explaining as soon as we get to Yumi, the protagonist – and the final death toll remains depressingly low. (I’m kidding. Kinda.) One day, I will write a paper on the use of children, clammy hands and long hair in Japanese horror films and become rich and famous. Meanwhile, I simply lament the fact that although One Missed Call gave me some rather sweet thrills and a plot I couldn’t write down beforehand, I still don’t feel sufficiently scared to call down the hunt for a truly frightening horror film.

And the ending was bogus.

Hello? Yes, I'd like to order a large pizza...

03
Jun
11

Dark Water (2002)

[First published on BlogCritics]

In my ongoing search for a truly scary horror film, the latest flick is another one of those great Japanese films which end up getting the mediocre Hollywood remake. Dark Water, or Honogurai No Mizu Soko Kara (仄暗いの水底から), literally ”something dark out of the bottom of the water”, the 2002 original, is a brainchild of the director Hideo Nakata, known for Ring and Ring 2.

The setting of the film is a family crisis. Yoshimi and Ikuto Matsubara, a mother and a child of six, move into a run-down high-rise. Yoshimi is in the middle of a divorce and is striving to secure Ikuto’s custodianship over her bastardly ex-husband. As soon as they have settled in their new home, a wet patch appears in the ceiling and water drips into the bedroom, but the superintendent isn’t inclined to do anything about it. Soon, Yoshimi learns about a little girl who went missing two years before and, somehow, it seems to connect with the strange goings-on in the building. Something is out to get her and Ikuto.

At a first glance, little details and flashbacks from Yoshimi’s life seem nothing but a poor attempt to grow substance on the protagonist. One is equally inclined to dismiss the similarities between her life, Ikuto’s life, and that of Mitsuko, the missing girl, as nothing more but cheap mythology. But if for some reason you were rather taken with the film, as I was, you might afford the story another look.

Water is the theme of the film, and the story is very much like that, too – it is transparent, intangible with some murky bits, and it moves around in circles. Water is the symbol of death and birth, and in a roundabout way, the story connects water, life, and motherhood. Yoshimi’s own life has been deeply impacted by her irresponsible mother. The film works the age-old ‘wronged ghost’ formula into the story; Yoshimi repeats the cycle of abandonment until she is forced to make good in order to save her daughter’s life.

Yoshimi Matsubara seems like a typical character of the genre: weak, scared and spineless (probably pretty close to a real person, if you think about it). In cultural context, she is a very typical Japanese woman who has had a career until she got married, and she lands on nothing when the marriage goes awry. The story also hints that Yoshimi was fairly successful before getting married, and has no problem securing a job in a small publishing company.

The psychological problems in her past seem to have been brought out in random – as if there has to be a token mental patient to make a horror film. As a storytelling tool, it is old and over-used. The idea is to make the viewer doubt the protagonist’s sanity and suspect that she is imagining everything. No doubt it looked good on paper, but the story simply does not add up for such psychological feat.

By Western standards the characters in the story are immaterial and true to Japanese storytelling stereotypes. Knowing the genre and the culture, it isn’t necessarily an entirely negative thing, as this way we are conveyed everything we really need to know about the characters: the building superintendent is old, disinterested and a little slow; the agent is eager to please and quick to sell; the lawyer is the voice of reason; the husband is the bad guy; etc. In general, I believe there are essentially two kinds of horror films: those focusing on the character, and those telling a story. A horror film with both qualities – Green Mile, Sixth Sense? – seems to lose in horror what it gains in storytelling.

The visuals of the film are nothing to celebrate, nothing to berate. The yellow raincoat and the recurring red bag (by the way, see if you can spot anything else in the film with such intensive colours) are powerful tools to hook they eye of the viewer. Making it an element of fear adds another layer to the horror. You end up being more scared because little girls in bright clothes are supposed to be adorable, or at worst annoying – not terrifying.

Unlike most Western horror films, and, I suppose, rather uncharacteristically for an Asian story, Dark Water closes the story with an epilogue of a grown-up Ikuto, who makes good with her own mother. There isn’t really much of a crack left to wedge a sequel in. Nice.

In conclusion: somehow I liked this film despite of its shortcomings. But my quest for a film to scare me out of my skin yet continues: Dark Water failed with all other horror films I’ve tackled on my mission. I wasn’t scared.

More suggestions welcome.

06
May
11

Severance (2006)

(Article first published as Movie Review: Severance on Blogcritics.)

I recently watched a 2006 horror comedy called Severance. The films gets right down to business, starting things off with a forest chase scene where two sexy girls fall into a trap, and giving the viewer a taste of the upcoming gore by displaying a middle-aged man trying to save his own skin instead of helping the girls. Shortly thereafter he gets his comeuppance by getting stabbed in the belly. I like this film already.

Severance is a film about how a group of employees to a weapons manufacturing corporate go team building somewhere in the mountains of Eastern Europe. It is obvious from the start the motley crew – an incompetent manager, a competent assistant, a handsome jerk, a nerdy lady, a happy camper, a stoner and an anorexic hot American – can barely stand each other. They are less than thrilled at a prospect of a team building weekend (and if you’ve ever been to one of those, you’ll know how they feel). Their only common factor seems to be the disdain for their brown-nosing manager. As the road gets cut off, the group takes a short-cut through the woods, despite the fact the local driver refuses to go down that route, and rather throws them out of the bus. They are left with little choice but to try to find the luxury lodge on foot. They do end up at a lodge which is somewhat lacking in the hot spa and luxury department… Not long after, people start getting killed.

Boy, do they learn team building.

There is something wonderfully gritty about British films. They feel more real than those gleamed-to-perfection Hollywood productions where the protagonist is always good-looking, and everything happens in perfect shooting conditions, and the heroine’s make-up never fails. The difference is probably cultural more than a matter of film-making ability: British sense of humour tends to be dry, black, and mostly focuses on things that go wrong. The wonder of the film is that no matter how gruesome the action gets – and believe me, it does get gruesome – that tiny little tickle that makes you think it’s actually pretty funny when someone’s leg gets chopped off by a bear trap is weaved in so subtly you find yourself laughing before you even realise how sick it is. Brilliant! The film is well-paced and offers some of the best horror flick one-liners I’ve heard for a while.

“Shall I make a cup of tea?” – ha! No? I guess you had to be there.

The characters have been simplified to pure stereotype, and go through no development during the film. Despite this, the film manages to make each character likeable in all of their one dimension. As the characters grow on you, you grow a certain fondness for them. You actually care when they get chopped to pieces. Perhaps it’s because anywhere a number a people gather, there is at least one of these prototypes present. You know them already.

The cast is mostly comprised of British TV actors who have very few film appearances, some only vaguely familiar to me. Not seeing same old faces all over again is a breath of fresh air. Because the characters are written the way they are, it’s difficult to tell if the cast is acting to the best of their ability, or to their worst. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Danny Dyer (Doghouse, Human Traffic) playing the stoner protagonist, Steve, gives the best performance. You can probably account it for the fact that, since the beginning, he is the least dislikeable of the characters – Laura Harris as the frigid heroine, Maggie, seems bland by comparison.

Is it scary? I have no idea. I’m the kind of person who laughs at inappropriately violent scenes, and I’ve yet to find a film to make me frightened (suggestions welcome!).

Severance is a brainchild of writer James Moran and director Christopher Smith, whom I’ve not had the pleasure of getting known to before. For a film which includes the best thriller stereotypes, the film succeeds in making it’s own mark, rather than imitating a bunch of other films. What other production of the thriller/horror genre can boast a logical insert of two Russian-speaking escort girls who are compelled to strip to save themselves? Su-perb! Despite mostly following the typical storyline of typical horror flicks, Severance manages to surprise the viewer on more than one occasion, cause genuine bursts of laughter as well as sincere eww‘s. Verily, Severance takes any other horror comedy and calmly head-butts it and kicks it in the fork all the while enjoying a nice, quiet spliff. Splendid work!

22
Apr
11

Black Swan (2011)

[This was first published at BlogCritics]

Word of mouth has it that the recently released (in Finland, that is) Darren Aronofsky film Black Swan is terribly creepy and suspenseful; a horror flick. This was pretty much everything I knew of the film beforehand, and, honestly, I wasn’t all that interested. Black Swan tells a story of a ballerina, Nina, who craves the queen role of the white swan in the famous Swan Lake ballet. Nina is the very epitome of the fragile white swan. Her obstacle to secure the role is her inability to portray the dark passion required for the second part of the role – the treacherous black swan. As Nina struggles to come to terms with the demanding double role, adapting to the part of the black swan threatens to destroy her own personality.

Natalie Portman is very pretty. She plays a squeaky clean perfectionist ballerina to a perfection (though I admit I can’t tell a good dancer from a bad one). Portman, with her porcelain doll face, is right at home in a role of the clinically clean character, Nina, so her transformation to the black swan is just as dichotomous as the transformation of the character. Casting Mila Kunis in the role of Nina’s imagined antagonist, Lily, is a stroke of genius. Kunis has just the passionate tomboy aura to contrast Portman’s innocence, and if her figure doesn’t exactly match the idea of a professional ballet dancer, she more than makes up for it with sheer boldness and attitude. Barbara Hershey puts forth an outstanding performance as Nina’s dedicated, overzealous mother.

I did not enjoy Black Swan all that much. I had expected to see a scary film and since that failed, the rest of the story didn’t carry my interest through the rest. About halfway through the film I was bored. Perhaps the fault can be partly pointed at the protagonist’s bland character – which probably means Natalie Portman did a good job – but the fact is the viewer doesn’t really get a good feel of Nina, her motivation, or her feelings. If you’re inclined to pay attention to such things, you might make a note that she is very repressed at home, but – again – not enough to really give a damn. Nina’s slide to a mental breakdown is beautifully depicted but, at some point, I just stopped believing. I wouldn’t have been able to sit through a longer version of the film, but the build-up of the story was so slow and subtle that the last destructive spiral seemed to happen way too fast. My thoughts were along the lines of “Nina seems a little bit disturbed, whoa hey what did she just stab someone?” I can’t decide if the fault is with the story, the director or the editor.

However, the cinematography is cleverly doing a double job as hiding what I presume to be Portman’s less-than-perfect ballet skills, while gently steering the viewer into the increasingly confused mind of Nina Sayers. Otherwise the visual look and feel of the film was pretty much invisible; neither disturbingly bad or notably wonderful. I felt that the film had such potential to be a truly frightening experience, but somehow the horror-ball was dropped and the film just failed to impress. The few scenes visualising Nina’s delusions were the best Black Swan had to offer, and though I hate to encourage toward stereotyping, I think the film would have greatly benefited from more of the same.

Since I was bored through large parts of the film, I may be biased – but I felt the last five minutes were the best Black Swan had to offer. I finally believed both the black swan and the white and the element of fantasy simply worked for me. Swan Lake turned danse macabre could only end one way, and if it is a cliché, so what?

PS: It wasn’t that bad. The longer it is since I saw Black Swan, the more OK it seems.

05
Apr
11

The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)

What do you get when you mix the Sound of Music, Bad Taste and the Japanese sense of humour? Excellence. It just so happens I love zombies, musicals and Japan; Takashi Miike‘s* The Happiness of the Katakuris (カタクリ家の幸福) is a musical family drama comedy filled with corpses.

As a result of the father of the Katakuri family getting fired from his salaryman job, the Katakuri family has moved to a rural area in the middle of nowhere. The dedicated father dreams to have the entire family working together to make their White Lovers’ Inn a success and to find happiness in each other. Together with his perfect housewife Terue, they have their hands full with an old grandfather and Pochi the dog, a son with an attitude, fresh out of prison, and a divorced, empty-headed daughter with a toddler in row.  The real trouble begins as the first guest to the inn kills himself, and for the fear of bad reputation from the incident, the family buries him in the forest behind the house. The deaths just do not end there, but the family learns the value of working together…

The gruesome theme of the film is wonderfully complemented by terrible acting, really awful musical song and dance, and truly brilliant special effects, and even some unexpected twists. I can’t say much of this film without spoiling it for anyone, except that if you love absurd humour and appreciate a bad film well-made – this is right up the alley for those of us who love Monty Python.

* The same who gave us Ichi the Killer and Sukiyaki Western Django, among other things.

02
Apr
11

Finisterrae (2010)

Wow. Absolutely not what I expected to see. Kino Engel in Helsinki hosts an annual Night Visions film festival, ”the biggest and the (b)oldest horror, fantasy and cult film focused event” and Finisterrae was our pick of the evening. The film is essentially a journey of two ghosts trying to become alive by travelling along the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route in Spain. Finisterrae is a Spanish production by Sergio Caballero Lecha, so the first thing you do not expect is for the entire dialogue to be in Russian and the ghosts being two actors under white sheets* with black ovals for eyes. The experience kind of went downhill from there.

The events made no sense, and some scenes seemed to be from a hobby project of a couple of fifteen-year old boys (opera-singing German hippie shaman woman in scant clothing?) and 80 minutes of almost complete randomness would have been a truly painful experience if it wasn’t for the visuals. The film would have benefited from a complete removal of the dialogue (somewhat reminiscent of the more laconic scenes from the Yellow Submarine**). Some of the scenes and shots were pure poetry, mysterious, beautifully surreal. The score (by composer Jimi Tenor) in the first ten minutes of the film is beautiful and builds expectations for a wonderful auditory experience, if nothing else. However, this part of the score was finished before the filming; it was clear more time and effort had been put into it. The rest of the music pretty much falls flat. Just like the film itself.

I think the story has lots of potential, and I would love to see it remade with actual philosophic thought and a sense of narrative; it would also work wonderfully as an animation film. I would love Studio Ghibli to make an artsy animation with it. There were scenes which made the audience burst out laughing. Some such moments were clearly unintentional, but there were a few moments of pure comedy. All in all? I was caught off guard. I think I would have enjoyed Finisterrae more if I was expecting to see an art film. As such, it settles uncomfortably between a fantasy film and an art film, succeeding at neither. But, kudos to the cinematographer Eduard Grau and the (director/writer/)art director Sergio Caballero Lecha for the beautiful visuals, which probably stay with me far longer than I care to remember the rest of the film for.

Also, the name of the film is clearly Finisterrae, but in the film the target destination of the ghosts is consistently called Finterrae. Why?

* Well, OK, the poster was a hint.
** Otherwise bears no resemblance to the fantastic 1960s animation film.




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