Friday, November 20, 2009

Wayward Impulses

I had a brief exchange with my friend, Kevin Lee a couple of days ago, in which he was composing his "best of the decade" list and I casually mentioned that I hadn't seen any films by Ming-liang Tsai, one of his favorite filmmakers. Most of these blind spots are reserved for filmmakers of recent vintage and are the result of spotty distribution of recent foreign films in North America, and some of them are deliberate. After my experience with Abbas Kairostami, another of Kevin's favorites, I've been, well, kind of avoiding Tsai. Not necessarily because I'm using Kevin as a barometer, mind you--I've greatly enjoyed the Hsiao-hsien Hou films I've seen at his recommendation--but mostly because descriptions of his work tend to mix the words "minimalist" and "transgressive" a little too liberally. Anyway, Kevin's surprise at my admission kinda sorta impelled me to seek out something by Tsai, and the most immediately available film for me was The Wayward Cloud from 2005.

Which was probably not the best place to start.

Anyway, the first shot in the film is long, characteristic of a minimalist director. The second shot, however, is something else entirely. Here are a couple of screen caps from this shot (well, actually, I think it's from the third shot, but they're similar enough):

To which, my brain started going: "What the fuck am I watching?"

The story here involves two people who are drawn to each other during an acute water shortage in Taipei, with the male half of the couple concealing his career as a porn star. The long-take, minimalist idiom at work here, combined with the text of the movie, is fairly alienating, but unlike some alienating movies, this film is ultimately about connections. That the connection involved involves fairly explicit sex is almost beside the point, until the end of the movie, in which the connection becomes literalized with an on-screen oral copulation. I never thought I'd see a blow job that could be considered "touching" in a movie, but this comes close. It is placed, however, on the other side of a sequence of profound nastiness. Our hero's Japanese co-star finds herself unconscious for the last quarter of the movie, but that doesn't stop the filmmakers from using her to complete their porn film. The sight of a man fucking an unconscious woman, whoever she is, is so troubling that it kind of makes the ultimate end of the movie ring a bit hollow, if not a more than a bit misogynistic. Maybe that's the point.

Oh, and this is a musical. Really.

The rhythms of this films are such that the musical numbers are particularly jarring, though not necessarily out of place. Some of the imagery in these sequences is striking, and for the most part they got me wondering whether a movie that cries out for some variety of gonzo film making really benefits from a minimal approach. I'm not really sure. In fact I'm not really sure about what I think of this movie generally. It certainly makes an impression, but I'm not sure it says anything that I can hold on to. I do know that the film has terrific moments that I can hold on to, like a scene in which several live crabs escape into a kitchen, and a foot fetish scene that would make Tarantino weep. Is this the point? To take the moments when they come? Maybe.

I dunno: whenever the art house and exploitation intersect like this all bets are off.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Light Fantastic

So, a couple of days ago, I saw a preview of something called Leap Year, due out in early 2010, starring Amy Adams and Matthew Goode. As I watched the preview, all I could think was: "Hey! That's I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)." And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that a LOT of romantic comedies are I Know Where I'm Going. As much as I love this movie, you'd think I would have noticed that, say, Pixar's Cars is an Nth generation descendant. In my defense, I've only seen I Know Where I'm Going! twice, a decade and a half apart. I notice on the IMDB's trivia page for this film that Paramount used this film as a guide for screenwriters in the years after it was released. I'm not surprised.

Anyway, the preview for Leap Year also reminded me that my local art house, the excellent Ragtag Cinema in Columbia, Missouri, was showing I Know Where I'm Going! this week as part of their ongoing Ragtag 101 series. This was my second viewing. I've never seen I Know Where I'm Going! on a television screen and I'll probably keep it that way*, because, like many of The Archers' movies, this one is what movie screens were made for. It's the light fantastic, conjured by those two sorcerers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Oddly enough, it doesn't start that way. It starts out as a screwball comedy. We find our heroine bullying her way through life and dreaming of a life of luxury and money (the dream sequence in this film is one of its best magic tricks). Then we come to the stark beauty of the Hebrides and mournful shots like the one at the head of this post, and the tone of the movie shifts so dramatically that it's hardly the same movie. It shifts again, later. The structure of the film is one in which Wendy Hiller's character is constantly walking through doors into other worlds, each wilder and more primal than the last.

Along the way, the filmmakers puncture the social structures that still held sway as WWII came to an end, particularly the lordship of the aristocracy. Hiller's foil, played by Roger Livesey with restrained grace, is aristocracy that has already had his place in the world transposed. He's come to terms with a world that doesn't conform to his expectations. And here, the film shifts again, because Hiller can't come to grips with this and follows her determination into the maelstrom. The Archers weren't shy about turning their movies into horror stories, though this one is milder than the end of, say, Black Narcissus or The Red Shoes, but you can see Poe all over this one, though in the end it's far more humane a film to descend fully into the abyss.

One of the things that I noticed during the film was how much the thick Scots accents reminded me of Scandanavian accents, and the occasional Gaelic dialog increased that impression. The association came mostly from the light, though. This film has Bergman's light, and the compositions from the middle of the film onward are occasionally as tenebrist as anything in Bergman. Cinematographer Edwin Hiller famously shot this film without a light meter, relying instead on a painter's feel for light and darkness. It's a tour de force, one that imbues what might ordinarily be a run of the mill romantic comedy with a whiff of other worlds, and turns the whole movie into a waking dream. The interesting thing about this is how concrete the film is while it turns this trick. Take, for instance, the sequence in which Livesey goes about fixing the engine of the boat while they're being sucked into the whirlpool. Another film would show the actor mucking about in the engine without bothering with the details, but here, we see each meticulous step of the way. This has a dual purpose in the film: first, it ratchets up the suspense during this sequence; second, it grounds the film in reality as a means of counterbalancing the mythological elements (Herman Melville would have envied this).

*actually, I'll probably relent on this. I mean, this is a film that rewards careful viewing, and I'm told that the Criterion edition is lovely.

Friday, November 13, 2009

October Wrap-Up pt. 2

Okay. This is waaaay late. I'll get back on track this weekend. Promise. Anyway, wrapping up the October horror-palooza:

October 26:

Altered (2006, directed by Eduardo Sanchez) is a less gimicky sci-fi horror film from one of the directors of The Blair Witch Project. He knows his way around a camera when directing a conventional film. The movie, on the other hand, is pretty bad. It concerns a group of former abductees who capture an alien in the woods. While this might sound fun, the filmmakers have given the proceedings characters by giving us human characters who are a bunch of foul-mouthed rednecks. I had more than enough of THAT particular screenwriting convention half-way through The House of A 1,000 Corpses, thank you very much. Some interesting gore effects, but the story is an ungodly mess that pushes credibility way past the point of snapping.

The Blame (2006, directed by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador) finds an abortionist developing an unhealthy obsession with her nurse and her nurse's daughter after taking them into her home as live-in help. Serrador is the ring-leader of the Six Films to Keep You Awake series and is currently the grand old man of Spanish horror (having a career that stretches back to the 1970s). He knows how to turn the screws, and, as he did in Who Can Kill a Child?, knows that pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting are a minefield of raw nerves to be mercilessly exploited. He's good. I wish more of his stuff was available.

October 28:

Bob Burns Hollywood Halloween (directed by Lindsey Keith Jackson) is a kind of love-letter to the Monster Kids of the 60s and 70s, focusing on superfan/pop-culture collector Bob Burns and his famed Halloween haunted house shows. These shows were a proving ground for up-and-coming talent that would soon become big players in Hollywood, including special effects guys like Rick Baker, Dennis Muren, Greg Nicotero, and William Malone, as well as genre stalwarts like Dorothy Fontana and Walter Koenig. I watched this with a fair degree of envy. These shows looked like a gas to produce (and they've given me ideas for next Halloween). Perhaps the best part of the documentary, though, is the rescue of George Pal's Time Machine from prop museum hell, much to the delight of George Pal himself. A portrait of the fun that creature features used to engender in the young and young at heart.

Red Eye (2005, directed by Dong-bin Kim, a Korean film not to be confused with the Wes Craven film of the same name), is another Asian film in which the ghost is in the machine. In this case, it takes place on a late-night train between Seoul and Pusan which has cars from a train that had been involved in a horrific wreck. Of course, the souls of the dead rest uneasily. The first two thirds of the film are a standard slow burn, but the end explodes with violence. This has a lot of ideas, but it doesn't connect the dots very well. It's a disjointed effort, though not without pleasures.

October 29

MOH: The Black Cat (2006, directed by Stuart Gordon) casts Jeffrey Combs as Edgar Allan Poe, drinking his life away as his tubercular wife spirals downward. In his need, he falls into a delirium in which the events of his short story, "The Black Cat," enact themselves in his marriage. Combs is a surprisingly good Poe, and Gordon seems on top of his game with this. Of the big name "masters" assembled by this series, Gordon is the one whose work is most typical of the films that made his name, and reuniting with Combs gives this an added kick.

October 30:

A Real Friend (2006, directed by Enrique Urbizu) finds lonely Estrella living in a world populated by imaginary friends. Estrella loves horror movies, and her friends derive from the movies she watches when her mom isn't home. This installment of the Six Films to Keep You Awake series isn't wholly successful--in fact, I would call this the weakest of the lot--but it has several unforgettable images, including the unexpected and touching sight of Leatherface giving comfort to a lonely little girl. Whatever the merits of the film itself, this image is going to stay with me for a long, long time. Call it a personal quirk.

October 31:

The Spectre (2006, directed by Mateo Gil) is a character piece, concerning a man who recently lost his wife and who is haunted by the affair he had with a woman who might have been a witch when he was 16. This film is probably my second favorite of the Six films to Keep You Awake, but it's a hard film to talk about without dismantling the surprise of a first viewing. I will say that it's beautifully filmed and beautifully performed and adds a touch of bittersweet to the horror. Take it as a recommendation and be surprised if you like.

A Christmas Tale (2006, directed by Paco Plaza) closes out the Six Films to Keep You Awake series for me, and in many ways, it saves the best for last. It's the least cinematically subdued entry, and it's certainly the most playful. The story here involves a group of kids--reminiscent of The Goonies and Stand By Me--who stumble upon a woman in a sinkhole who has stolen a huge amount of money. Rather than turn her in, they extort the woman for the money and torture her when she doesn't comply. Unfortunately, she escapes. This set-up plays like A Simple Plan crossed with The Lord of the Flies, and I can't recall any American film that has as clear an eye when it comes to he cruelty of children. What's really interesting about this point of view is how it contrasts it with a name-dropping cultural milieu intent on evoking nostalgia for the 1980s. It's a heady mixture.

The finale of this film is an addition to the cinema of killer Santas, deliberately recalling Tales from the Crypt's ax-wielding Santa and placing her in the funhouse. And after that's all said and done, the movie turns a neat trick as it slips its reality sideways. It's totally earned by the film from the first frame, but it's unexpected. This is very much my favorite of these films, and it makes me even more anxious than ever to track down a copy of director Paco Plaza's other films (particular Second Name).

The Ring Virus (1999, directed by Dong-bin Kim) closed out my October. It's the Korean remake of that constant font of Asian horror, The Ring, and, like the American remake, it alters some things in subtle and not so subtle ways, returning to Koji Suzuki's book rather than the film for many of its alterations. The biggest difference between this film and its source is that it replaces Hideo Nakata's deadpan dread with oodles of atmosphere. Like most Korean movies of any pith or moment, this is a showcase for the craft of filmmaking, though also like many Korean films, it is a failure at the craft of screenwriting. This gives its characters short shrift, for the most part, and without an investment in the characters--something that both Nakata and Gore Verbinski got right--I was adrift, because, when it comes right down to it, The Ring is a ridiculous story, and if you don't buy into it, it comes crashing down. Bae Doo-na is in this, so it has some interest for me, but I was more than a little irritated at the way she was wasted. Ah, well.

And another October Challenge ends.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

October Wrap-Up pt. 1.

For various reasons, I've been unable to keep up with blogging the October Challenge. I got hung up about two thirds of the way through. Here's an effort to get caught up.

The total number of horror movies I saw this year was 32. Of those, 29 of them were movies I had never seen before. Here's the list of what I saw (I've listed first-time viewings in red):

October 2:

The Baby's Room

Comments here:

October 3:

To Let
The Curse of Frankenstein


October 5:



October 7:

What Have They Done to Solange?

October 8:

Who Can Kill a Child?

October 11:

The Vault of Horror
Tales from the Crypt


October 12:

MOH: Deer Woman

October 13:


October 14:

MOH: Valerie on the Stairs

October 15:

Underworld: The Rise of the Lycans
The Uninvited (2003)

October 17:

Evil Dead Trap
The Beyond


October 19:


October 20:

MOH: Sounds Like

October 21:

Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.

October 23:

Thirst (2009)

October 24:

Blood: The Last Vampire (2009)

October 26:

The Blame

October 28:

Bob Burns Hollywood Halloween
Red Eye (2005, Korean film not to be confused with the Wes Craven film of the same name)

October 29

MOH: The Black Cat

October 30:

A Real Friend

October 31:

A Christmas Tale
The Spectre
The Ring Virus

Here are some general comments about the films from the second half of the month (I'll be splitting this in two to accommodate the tags):

Hatchet (2006, directed by Adam Green). This kind of sucked. A lot. I knew this was going to be one of THOSE movies when Robert Englund gets killed off in the first five minutes. Tony Todd is in it too. But the filmmakers obviously didn't want to pay for any extended work from either of them. Oh, and Kane Hodder is here, too, but since I don't like the Friday the 13th movies in the first place, I didn't really give a flying fuck.

October 20:

MOH: Sounds Like (2006, directed by Brad Anderson). Very much a variant on X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, and pretty much assembled from stock horror elements, but the addition of a director who hasn't used television as an excuse to leave behind his own cinematic intelligence makes this into one the series best episodes.

October 21:

Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003, directed by Masaaki Tezuka) was a surprise, because, for the most part, the Millennium series Godzilla movies have kind of sucked. This one was really fun, though. The initial sequence, with some fighter planes encountering Mothra, was really cool, and the monster mayhem in the back half is really satisfying.

October 23:

Thirst (2009, directed by Chan-wook Park) is a box full of wonders, but it's all over the place in terms of tone. This isn't a criticism, per se, so much as it's a description, because this film is endlessly fascinating. This is a weird conflation of the vampire film with film noir--it's what you'd get if you crossed Dracula with The Postman Always Rings Twice--but that's a really facile description. This is one of those horror movies where the tropes of the horror film aren't necessarily used to scare the audience--though this has some amazingly horrifying scenes--so much as they're used to dissect the film's characters. Kang-ho Song is now officially my favorite actor in the world right now, and he's wonderful in this, but he's arguably upstaged by Ok-vin Kim's femme fatale, who could give Barbara Stanwyck some pointers. The final ten minutes of the film are existential comedy at its finest, and it's last shot is a magnificent visual pun.

I'll have a LOT more to say about this one once I get my hands on the DVD. Thirst hits DVD on November 17th.

October 24:

Blood: The Last Vampire (2009, Chris Nahon) remakes a well-known anime, and you can see the influence all over this thing. The story follows a vampire working for a shadow agency, tasked with exterminating demons, all the while looking for the arch-demon who killed her father and mentor. The film contrives to dress its heroine in a schoolgirl outfit, in spite of there being no dress code at the high school where it sends her undercover. For the most part, this is pretty much crap, with lots of motion (the fights were choreographed by Hong Kong director Corey Yuen), and no suspense or any kind of investment in characters. The performances are uniformly awful.