Friday, May 26, 2023

Another Maintenance Phase

Because life is that way sometimes, I have to take a break from blogging for a week. Normal - depending on one's measure of normality - service will resume next Friday,  June 2nd.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

In short: The Samejima Incident (2020)

Original title: Sin Samejima Jiken

During the Corona lockdown. Nana (Rena Takeda) and a group of her former school buddies have an online drinking party to take a bit of the pressure off. Unfortunately, three of them have followed a website’s clues to the birthplace of a particularly curious urban legend, or rather, a terrible curse known as “The Samejima Incident”. Nobody knows much about said incident, for whoever hears the words “Samejima Incident” is already cursed and doomed to die. Obviously, Nana and the other of her friends who haven’t broken into some curse-bearing place will hear these words soon enough. Quickly, everyone finds themselves trapped in their own rooms, drenched in darkness only lit by the lights of their electronic devices, with something terrible picking the friends off one by one.

At least the internet works, so there’s perhaps a chance to find an out via good old internet research – about something that kills whosoever gets in contact with it.

This little pandemic set and made movie by Jiro Nagae certainly isn’t any great revelation to the long-time J-horror watcher. Its shocks are a little too generic, its plot a bit too silly, and its acting much too shouty for that.

Stylistically, The Samejima Incident has some interesting aspects to it, however. Nominally, this isn’t a POV horror movie, but it keeps so close to Nana and the things she sees on her devices, and uses so much footage from webcams, cell phone cams and shots of websites that it as well might be one. This isn’t something new, of course, and in part easily explained by this having been made under lockdown conditions, but I’ve seldom seen a movie that isn’t POV horror making this aesthetic shift in contemporary filmmaking quite this visible and obvious to me. All films are a bit POV horror now, as if they had been infected by the crazed spirit form of Koji Shiraishi.

Another interesting aspect about the film is that it makes explicit what has usually been implicit in movies about Japanese style curses (noroi): that they work like a virus, infecting – and potentially dooming – whoever they come in contact with, regardless of any morality or behaviour of the victims. That the film doesn’t do terribly much with this is somewhat unfortunate, but not surprising.

A little thought put into things is still appreciated, and consequently, I found myself pretty entertained by The Samejima Incident, despite its obvious shortcomings.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

In short: Wolf Manor (2022)

aka Scream of the Wolf

Up until its last night, a small film crew’s shoot of a cheap-ass vehicle for elderly gothic horror star Oliver Lawrence (James Fleet) has been going as well as you’d expect something like it to go. Which is to say, the star isn’t totally drunk all of the time, and nobody in the crew hates the rest so much you’d have to fear murder, though one supposes you could fix that in post.

Tonight, however, the full moon draws a werewolf to the dilapidated manor (once belonging to an illusionist who disappeared – under mysterious circumstances, of course).

Wolf Manor is yet another entry into the series of mildly self-ironic, very cheaply done, indie horror movies that have been coming out of the UK in the last few years, many of which seem to have curiously similar ideas about how a werewolf is supposed to look. This particular example of the form still in search of a good subgenre name was directed by Dominic Brunt, predominantly an actor who was in 2366 episodes of the soap opera Emmerdale (among other things). Clearly, taking part in front of the soap opera cameras has taught the man something about how to do things quickly and efficiently behind the camera, and so the film at hand may be – and look - cheap but not cheaper than it has to be. Staging and blocking always make sense, continuity is a thing that actually exists, and most shots make a clear effort at creating a degree of an old-fashioned horror movie mood, even though this is not a terribly serious movie, just one that seems to take filmmaking seriously even under non-ideal circumstances.

Many of the jokes about gothic horror clichés and filmmaking on the cheap actually land quite well. There’s little that’s original or new about them, but the film’s approach to irony is light, playful and silly instead of smug, and so left me with the feeling of watching something good-natured. There’s an affability to the whole affair, the feeling of watching a film that may be imperfect but that is having fun doing its best with what it has got.

Everybody here seems to be having a good time, and doing their best to provide the audience with one as well, so I found myself…having a good time, watching Wolf Manor.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

In short: The Cat and the Canary (1939)

You know the drill as well as the audience in 1939 did: a group of relatives is called to an Old Dark House for the reading of a will, trapped there by eccentric stipulations in said will that put a curious emphasis on death and madness, and somebody starts to murder people. Hidden passages, gorilla or “gorilla” costumes and such abound.

Elliott Nugent’s version of this particular classic of the Old Dark House formula recommends itself highly with an ability to keep hokey thriller and comedy perfectly balanced, never leaving the audience hanging without a joke for long, yet also not making the actual business of heir-murdering and heiress-gaslighting silly in itself. Or at least not sillier than it is by nature. This is a particularly remarkable feat since even by the time when this was made this style of film was not exactly fresh and original anymore. Certainly not in the second - or third, depending which movies you count - movie adaptation of this specific play.

The cast is rather fantastic: Bob Hope is at the point in his career when his persona hasn’t hardened into shtick, making for an actually likeable and funny lead, comedically stumbling through and upon a plot everyone around him plays rather seriously indeed without becoming annoying. Paulette Goddard isn’t exclusively there to be driven insane (INSANE! I tell you) and look pretty, but actually is allowed a degree of agency – not a given in 1939 or today – and never comes over as the fainting hysteric so many female leads of this time and sub-genre are. She projects enough personality to convince one she’d get through this whole affair alive and well even without Hope’s help. That these two have actual chemistry does help their romantic subplot quite a bit, of course.

I’m also particularly fond of the performances of genre stalwarts George Zucco and Gale Sondergaard here. The former does his knowing and dramatic lawyer in a most delightful way (and gets a very slasher-style body discovery moment to boot), while Sondergaard hams up her role as spiritualist, melodramatic housekeeper whose middle name must be DOOM to the delight of everyone who enjoys a good doom-laden housekeeper.

All of which turns The Cat and the Canary into a rather delightful example of its genre.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

The Pope’s Exorcist (2023)

1987. Gabriele Amorth (Russell Crowe), the Vatican’s very own exorcist, is in some troubles with church politics. A young career cardinal has made himself the speaker of people who find the whole exorcism thing rather problematic in the modern world, and tries to push Amorth out of office, making a pretty grumpy – when he’s not winking at nuns - old man even grumpier. The Pope (Franco Nero, logically cast as the Polish pope in a movie where Russell Crowe is supposed to be Italian) is on our rebel establishment hero’s side, though, so it’s clear right from the start of the movie that nothing will come out of this for Amorth. Why the sub plot is in the movie anyway, only god or the pope will know.

Anyway, once that business is pushed aside, the Pope sends Amorth to Spain. There, an American widow (Alex Essoe, again wasted in a plot point role, alas) and her teenage kids (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney and Laurel Marsden) have moved into an old abbey her husband has mysteriously bequeathed to her, and are soon in rather dire possession troubles. The abbey, it appears, harbours a particularly dark secret, that will need all of Amorth’s experience to uncover. Things are so dangerous, even the Pope will be affected.

As regular readers of my diatribes and vague ideas here will know, I’m not much of a fan of Western possession horror; I don’t even like The Exorcist. There’s just something about the sub-genre as it is practiced in American and British movies that sticks in my atheist craw, even though I’m usually perfectly capable of appreciating religious art and sometimes even thought. All too often, I find this sort of affair comical rather than horrific, even when it is not sprinkled with problematic moralizing like the Conjuring films (which to me stand in the direct tradition of things like The Exorcist).

Julius Avery’s The Pope’s Exorcist certainly is not the exorcism movie to convert me – or anyone else for that matter – to exorcism movies as a serious or effective horror sub-genre (I hope), but I found myself having one hell of a time with it. Though, it has to be said, probably not for the reasons the filmmakers wanted.

It is clear from the very start that this is a Very Serious Movie that goes for an overblown, turned up to Eleven tone, Big Dramatic Flashbacks, and Deep Dark Secrets (capitalization probably in the script this way) – it really is pompous as all that. What makes the film so amusing is that this pomposity is in the service of a story that may start as a drab, overly plotted exorcism-by-the-numbers tale but increasingly drifts off into the realm of extremely pulpy nonsense with gates to hell in abbey cellars, possession double play and blood-puking popes which rub against the self-serious nature of the storytelling in ways that can’t help but be incredibly entertaining. The film’s final act gets absolutely bonkers with this stuff in a way that I’d call absolutely gleeful, if the film’s general air didn’t suggest it’s simply not intelligent enough to actually be this way on purpose. Which does not make it any less entertaining, of course.

Watching an over-emoting, unkindly aged Russell Crowe with a terrible Italian accent throw himself into this nonsense with the full force of his old star personality is pretty great, as well; I’m not quite sure he’s buying into the absurdity or does mean his performance seriously, but I do salute his effort to make (weird) decisions and go with whatever is thrown at him; mostly it’s blood, as a matter of fact.

The Pope’s Exorcist gets special bonus points for an ending that desperately wants to open up the possibility of a Pope’s-Exorcistiverse, with potentially 199 other films. Personally, I hope for The Pope’s Exorcist vs Sadako next.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Three Films Make A Post: Tell Me Why You Don’t Like Sundays

Phenomena aka Fenómenas (2023): This Netflix production by Carlos Therón isn’t the remake of the Argento movie one might fear, but rather a film that seems to imagine the Conjuring series, but with bickering middle-aged women (one of them the inevitable Belén Rueda) replacing the sexed up version of two right-wing con artists. Which is such an obvious improvement, one wonders why nobody did something like it earlier.

Therón does a good job of mixing the expected stylistic interests of modern mainstream horror with a very Spanish sense of humour without things ever exactly turning into a horror comedy. The spooky business isn’t original but fun and done competently enough to make this a very pleasant surprise.

The Seventh Grave aka La settima tomba (1965): This often amateurish Gothic horror meets Old Dark House piece directed by one-time filmmaker Garibaldi Serra Caracciolo is certainly not what you’d call a good movie, or a hidden gem, but recommends itself to the likes of me through moments when exactly the film’s flaws – terrible continuity, dubious lighting, stiff yet overheated acting, and a complete lack of aesthetic taste – turn it interesting. It’s a very traditional psychotronic film in that way, blowing one’s mind a little by seeming devoid of any actual understanding of how to make a “proper” movie.

Terror in the Streets aka Akuma ga yondeiru (1970): The first third of this horror-tinged mystery by Michio Yamamoto portrays the increasing social and economical isolation of its heroine (Wakako Sakai) as if by some shadowy evil force that seems to prefigure 2020’s Invisible Man with wonderful paranoid and melodramatic intensity in a way that might even suggest some kind of feminist thought being involved. Any idea of that disappears in the middle of the movie, when things become increasingly silly and surreal, with an utterly bizarre nightclub marriage without consent scene as a particular high point.

Yamamoto unfortunately can’t keep the tension or the sheer hypnotic bizarreness of what came before up in the third act. But then, who wouldn’t crash and burn when tasked to tie up what came before in a standard mystery knot?

Thursday, May 18, 2023

In short: Back from Hell (1993)

Despite a wave of murders of priests, Father Aaron (Shawn Scarbrough) drives cross-country to his old friend Jack (Larry DuBois), now a big time Hollywood star. Jack needs priestly help rather badly indeed, for his Hollywood success is based on a deal with the devil. Though, to be fair to Jack, he’s shied away from paying his demonic debt via human sacrifice. Now, the demon wants to collect Jack’s own life and soul, mostly by sending goons against him to try and kill him.

It takes a while until Aaron believes his old buddy’s story, particularly since Jack tends to leave out unpleasant details like why he has half a dozen corpses in his cellar, but after an incredible scene of barely understandable demonic cookie monster babble from a possessed and some undead action, he’s fully on Jack’s wavelength. Turns out Satan and company are attempting the hostile takeover of Earth, and only Jack and Aaron can stop their vague plans in an equally vague way. Or something.

Matt Jaissle’s shot-on-16mm regional (Michigan) horror movie is quite the thing. It has the same kind of charm other films of its era and style can develop, though it is far from the kind of movie the best regional horror films from earlier decades were. Its feel is rather that of a SOV film that somehow stumbled into better technical opportunities. It is a very charming movie, however, highly energetic and of the kind of huge (therefore pleasantly misguided) ambition that attempts to create a movie apocalypse on a budget of a couple of ten thousand dollars, pulp invention and Evil Dead love.

A lot of this plays out like a cheap-shot action movie, with our buddy heroes murdering a lot of possessed homeless people as well as a bunch of guys in ski masks with “exotic” weaponry (Satanic ninjas!?) in sometimes awkwardly but never boringly staged action sequences, when they are not listening to the gurgling possessed or making their way through the country side. There’s a scene that creatively rips off the Ash vs Hand bit from Evil Dead 2 with a demonic hand that randomly comes out of a bible Aaron is reading to calm down, an incredible moment where a chainsaw is actually used for what it was made for during a fight, as well as a psychotronic/psychedelic flashback sequence with weird noises and negative effects that alone would be worth the price of admission.

Back from Hell has a lot of other joys to recommend it: be it the performance of DuBois, whose line delivery manages to be at once monotonously bland and totally over the top, which goes great with exposition about SATAN, Aaron’s exasperation about their body count, or the wild swings the plot takes whenever things threaten to calm down for too long.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

In short: Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

A circus attraction – including a dead whale and someone we never get to see and will only know as “The Prince” who agitates for maximum chaos – comes to a small town in Hungary. Its influence brings to the surface all of the hidden nastiness in the place and its people, the anger, the fascist longings - all very European, really. We witness the ensuing catastrophe through the eyes of János (Lars Rudolph), a young man who is at once incredibly naïve and the only one in town who has an understanding of how the world actually works on a physical and scientific level, finding a sense of wonder even in the blackness between the stars. You can imagine how this will work out for him.

This Béla Tarr/Ágnes Hranitzky (a lot of arthouse affine critics like to ignore Hranitzky’s co-director credits for three of Tarr’s films, probably because of something unsavoury about women getting in the way of someone’s auteur theory) joint based on a novel by László Krasznahorkai is an often strikingly beautiful film – typically in its bleakness – with some incredibly composed and choreographed long shots, a slow hypnotic tempo, and performances that manage to work inside of the film’s atypical ideas about pacing without feeling wrong or artificial.

Of course, all of this artfulness stands in service of a world view I would call nihilist if the filmmakers would make the impression they were actually alright with the state of the world as they see it. It’s about as bleak as they come in any case, with János’s destruction feeling as inevitable as it is painful – and really, much worse than the self-destruction of the town itself.

Apart from the obvious allegories about fascism, bourgeois humanism, and so on, as well as some more specifically Hungarian elements I’m not at all sure I really get, which at times feel a little too obvious and too pat to me (which is still better than most allegories do), there’s this sense of bigger and even darker philosophical concerns running through the film, a mood I’m rather tempted to call embittered cosmicism which to me is the true fascination of Werckmeister Harmonies. It’s an effusive and difficult sense, as if the filmmakers were expressing some dark and lonely feeling they themselves couldn’t quite put into words, but that could be put into a series of long shots called Werckmeister Harmonies.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

In short: Scream VI (2023)

Warning: there will be mild spoilers, but honestly, what’s to spoil?

The survivors of the last movie all have moved to New York. Yet another Ghostface Killer does their thing. There’s a subplot that plays on the non-existent problem of inheritable serial killer-ism.

There’s really no need to get into any details of the plot when its only reason to exist is keeping the franchise going anyway. Don’t get me wrong, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin’s and Tyler Gillett’s direction is still as traditionally slick as is typical of the Scream movies but this slickness is in the service of no substance whatsoever. The little character work involved is based on the mediaeval, and pretty offensive, idea of a daughter potentially inheriting being a serial killer/”evil”, whereas the meta level of the old Screams has turned into pointless monologues that have no impact on anything in the film. Worse, these meta parts are about as insightful as that soap bubble floating around my head right now.

James Vanderbilt’s and Guy Busick’s script is not at all improved by a finale that’s even worse than the killer reveal in the previous five movies, while it still shares their love for bug-eyed mad acting which annoys the crap out of me. This time, they’re going for quantity instead of quality.

Also going for quantity is the ridiculous number of characters in Scream VI that work under the Hero’s Death Exemption/Plot Armour rule. One or two characters, one can happily live with, but six? Even the film itself has problems juggling so many protected characters, so we learn about the survival of two of them only in a couple of lines of dialogue. Which leaves us with a slasher where the only characters who are actually dying are the introductory deaths, some nameless side characters and the killers. Seen positively at least here Scream VI innovates, though innovating away tension seems to me a peculiar direction to go into.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Marui Video (2023)

Original title: 마루이 비디오

Large parts of Marui Video supposedly consist of footage shot by a small documentary crew, seized by the police and only later made public, as is tradition. The fictional filmmakers stumble upon rumours about a curious “Marui Video” from a couple of decades ago. “Marui Video” is apparently the term used by Busan’s prosecutor’s office for film footage too gruesome to be made public. It shows a man brutally murdering his girlfriend in an inn under very curious circumstances that any regular horror movie viewer will easily identify as signs of possession. There’s also the face of a man visible in a mirror for a couple of seconds who can’t possibly be there. The video itself is supposed to be cursed, as well. At least, it is impossible to copy it by any other way but filming off the screen when it is playing, and the archive where it is harboured has a case of rather curious mould growing on its ceiling, which strikes everyone involved as rather unnatural and creepy.

The video and the murder case lead our intrepid investigators (predominantly a producer/director played by Seo Hyun-woo and a reporter played by Jo Min-kyung) on the trail of another, related murder which also has several aspects that never seem to fit quite right into a rational world. The further down they crawl the rabbit hole of the cases, the more their own lives are infected with strangeness: things in their office move around by themselves, electronic devices develop a mind of their own, and eventually, one of them will begin to suffer from a mental break-down of the possession kind. Fortunately, characters in a South Korean movie are not afraid to visit a shaman when the supernatural comes calling; unfortunately, shamanistic intervention doesn’t necessarily always work.

Most of the POV horror movies I’ve seen in the last half a year or so have been of the cheerful and ultra-cheap variant of the genre, where fuzziness is a given, pixelling out faces is a sign of authenticity, and wavering hand camera work the name of the game. So a sub-genre entry like Yoon Joon-hyeong’s Marui Video comes as a bit of a culture shock, for it was clearly made with a budget, something that comes hand in hand with actual, professional acting, a coherent script, and a visual language that uses all kinds of authentic looking yet high resolution found footage devices as well as a lot of material that looks as if it were shot by the professional filmmakers the characters are supposed to be. There’s still some wild camerawork, but this is reserved for some particularly intense scenes where this makes logical and – more importantly – dramatic sense.

Though I love some crazy low budget/low res POV shenanigans, and find the low budget realm the natural habitat of POV horror, when used as efficiently and intelligently as here (or in something like The Medium, which I have inexplicably never written about here), a certain slickness can work very well with the sub-genre, still keeping the feeling of authenticity that is part and parcel of POV (unless you’re one of those people who always need to ask why the characters keep filming), and turning it into something closer to a traditional narrative.

Interestingly enough, the type of narrative Marui Video is for large parts of its running time is an investigative one. The film spends much time on the filmmakers trying to solve its mystery as if it were a normal crime, so there’s a pleasant amount of scenes of the characters looking for clues, interviewing witnesses, and attempting to puzzle out the nature of the incidents that created the curse they seem to have stumbled upon. Obviously, this is always interrupted by the escalating supernatural threat surrounding them, which makes both the supernatural and the mundane halves of the film more effective: the former, it grounds in the feeling of reality POV horror is so often great at providing, while it adds a degree of unpredictability to the latter.

Adding to Marui Video’s strengths is how good  it is at showing both of its aspects. The horror sequences are genuinely creepy (and escalate wonderfully from the minor to the inevitable doom), and the central mystery well-constructed. There’s very little about the film I didn’t enjoy.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

Three Films Make A Post: A simple trip to Mars will become the journey of a lifetime

Kung Fu Elliot (2014): Depending on one’s position this film about Newfoundland’s very own self-made action hero and delusional dreamer turned manipulative asshole is either a pretty dull mockumentary (for once, I like the this term for a movie), or a documentary made by filmmakers who are either manipulative sociopaths themselves or completely incompetent. The filmmakers seem to insist on this being an actual documentary, which makes them look terrible: either, they begin a documentary with no research whatsoever on a subject, or they know things they only disclose to some of their subjects later own for maximum cinematic impact while egging on a guy who certainly is a manipulative liar but also psychologically not well at all, only to turn on him with the most hypocritical moral outrage imaginable.

If I had made this, I’d insist on it just being a very dull fake variant on American Movie, but if people insist on looking bad, who am I to disagree?

The Housemaid aka Hanyo (1960): I’m rather less happy I didn’t find much to connect with in Kim Ki-young’s classic of South Korean cinema. This is, after all a highly influential film on many of my favourite filmmakers from the country. Sometimes, I can appreciate the subversiveness of the film, and nod sagely at its social criticism, but for much of the running time, I found myself appalled at the melodramatic gyrations of plot and characters, none of which ever rang true to me even in the heightened realm of the emotional eleven this takes place in.

On an abstract level, Kim’s filmmaking is clearly stylistically very interesting indeed, but at this point in my movie watching career not in a way that works for me.

Cocaine Bear (2023): Then there’s this thing, a movie about a cocaine snorting serial killing bear that somehow manages to contain more continuity problems and gaffes than any film not shot in a backyard has any right to have. Also there and accounted for are gratingly unfunny humour, acting that’s all over the place and a script that’s trite, in love with an intelligence that’s never actually on display, and full of amateurish pacing problems.

From time to time, director Elizabeth Banks stumbles upon a cool gore gag or two, or manages to get a decent character note out of a cast – Keri Russell, Ray Liotta in his final role, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and so on – that could and should do so much more. Of course, as weirdly as this thing is edited, I’m not convinced coherent and great performances haven’t been left on the cutting room floor.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

In short: Missing (2023)

June (Storm Reid) isn’t too happy her mother Grace (Nia Long) is going on a romantic trip to Colombia with her new boyfriend Kevin (Ken Leung). Particularly not around Father’s Day, when June is especially vulnerable to the grief from the loss of her Dad (Tim Griffin) some years ago.

Things become rather more intense when Grace and Kevin don’t return from Colombia. They seem to have disappeared without a trace, and the official side is very slow to react. June, clearly not one to lose another parent, uses the various spying, snooping and investigative tools the Internet provides her to find her mother.

Nicholas D. Johnson’s and Will Merrick’s Missing is a curious film. On an emotional level and in its character work, it is as hackneyed as a movie can get. All of its emotions seem to come to it second hand, taken from other movies and scriptwriting handbooks instead of anything that feels genuinely human. Worse, the writer/directors use the tropes and clichés so obviously and inelegantly, they simply never evoke the emotional reactions they are so desperately grabbing for.

On a plot level, this is the usual concoction of increasingly absurd and improbable twists. The thing is, and there lies the film’s great strength, Missing’s presentation of its flat emotional content and its by-the-numbers twists is pretty spectacular. This is one of those movies where everything we see happens on a laptop screen, but I have never seen one that seems to get the possibilities of this format for a thriller so right. All of the creativity and energy the rest of the film misses seems to have been put into its formal approach; where the plot twists never really work, the formal twists with which they are presented are often clever, original and new. In fact, these qualities are so large, they often overshadow the manifold flaws of the film.

Of course, pairing this with a deeper and more intelligent story and characters would have resulted in quite the film, but even so, Missing is a lot more effective than you’d expect, despite of itself.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Tokyo Videos of Horror 3-5 (2012-2013)

Original title: Yami Douga 3-5

The third entry in Kazuto Kodama’s series of cheap POV horror movies full of digitally blurred faces, Mickey Moused-voices and slow motion repeats of pertinent sequences doesn’t try to change up anything in the formula. It does, however, feature some very fun little stories – and a couple of adorable vignettes, of course. I’m particularly fond of the first of the longer tales, that features yet another team of hapless fictitious paranormal documentary makers learning why you shouldn’t play Kokkuri-san (basically the Japanese sibling of Ouija) in the creepiest damn room of a creepy building.

Starting with the fourth movie and continuing in the fifth, Kodama starts to try variations on the formula that bring hints of more traditional narrative back into the segments. Suddenly, some of the tales have more than one scene; plots become more complicated; and the film’s paranormal investigators start to become involved ever so slightly in attempts at actually investigating phenomena. Never in a way that would make it necessary to give them actual character traits, mind you, nor in a way that would find them encountering anything of the strange stuff they present on the videos themselves.

Structurally, film number four puts its longest story – a woman’s attempt at rescuing her sister from the medium who seems to have taken over her life that ends rather catastrophically and with what might be time travel as if this were a Koji Shiraishi joint – in two parts separated by vignettes and another longer tale and ends it on a note that leaves the door wide open for a potential sequel in a later episode.

The films also begin to develop a taste for the exotic lure of the West, so film number three’s last segment features a haunted rosary, while number four includes a story about the creation of a Hand of Glory by a cultist, and film number five does connect its most grotesque and inexplicable tale with a Russian sect often mentioned by “the great writer Dostoyevsky”. I find particular joy in films not from the West treating Western culture and occult traditions in this weird and often slightly off manner. Not just as a fair payback for cultural borrowings and bad readings of foreign cultures from our side, but because it makes well-worn tropes and accoutrements suddenly look new and exciting again.

At the same time, some of the vignettes become increasingly surrealist. Obvious high point is a short shot of a tuna market with two giant, blinking eyes overlaid onto the bellies of two of the dead fishes, which the – perpetually wonky – subtitles comment on thusly: “The eyes that blink at the stomach of tuna fish. To whom do these eyeballs belong?”. Which may or may not be the greatest poem ever written about the freaky eyes on a tuna’s belly, or a prompt for a Werner Herzog documentary.

While none of this is deep or concerned with much of thematic resonance, many of the segments work wonderfully as urban legends and folk tales come to simple and direct life. Kodama clearly aims for this effect consciously: there’s really no other reason to include a scene of doomed characters telling each other true ghost stories and even mentioning 2chan (an important source for Japanese creepypasta) than to point this out.

Because that is the sort of thing I’m bound to admire, I just love that the series has no compunctions against not explaining anything in most of its tales, keeping the Strange and the Weird – or what you can see of it between all those pixelated faces and signs that can make some shots look like an AI’s attempt at doing impressionism – just that.

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

In short: Tokyo Videos of Horror 2 (2012)

Original title: 闇動画2 Yami Douga 2

Don’t worry, imaginary readers, I won’t give its own post to every single one of the ten or so entries into this Japanese POV horror series by Kazuto Kodama, but after the first one, it seems somewhat interesting to at least use a few words on (or if) changes develop.

Well, for one, none of the segments here go the “gore with little budget for gore” route of the first film’s final tale. Even the middle story about a stalker contains a supernatural element, and the film stays completely in the realm of the urban legend, creepypasta and simplified J-horror. The three main tales – about a nightly visit to a school that goes a bit wrong, a woman chased by a rather peculiar stalker with a thing for creepy paper dolls, and a visit to a haunted suicide bridge that ends badly – are all broken up with short vignettes which don’t feature the interview bits of the longer stories now, because clearly, spooky cheap CGI ghosts and ghoulies are everywhere in Japan, at least wherever low res cameras point.

The longer tales here feel slightly more substantial than in the first film, their set-ups and construction a little bit more complex. This does stand them in good stead, and though all of them are still much too simple to go into plot details productively here (you might as well just spend the hour watching all three), this does improve their creep factor nicely.

The series’ generally repetitive structure could become a problem if one mainlines the films as if they were a streaming TV show, but for me, the rhythm of video, interview, video, interview, slow motion and zoom, creates a mood of cosy creepiness I find rather delightful and effective enough to keep me coming back for more.

Sunday, May 7, 2023

Aniara (2018)

Things I didn’t learn in school: in the 70s, Harry Martinson won the Nobel Price for Literature predominantly for “Aniara”, a science fiction verse epic he wrote in the 50s. So this rather late but welcome film adaptation by Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja concerns the travails of the passengers and crew of the spaceship “Aniara” that was meant to transport settlers to Mars but is knocked off course, now pointing to eternity. The story is predominantly told through the eyes of a woman we’ll only ever know as Mimaroben (Emelie Jonsson), her job title as the person responsible for a half-alive room that works a bit like a more emotionally striking and individual version of Star Trek’s holodeck. Through her eyes, we witness the increasing weirdness of the now closed society of the Aniara, which slowly turns from a kind of cruise ship into an independent world full of increasingly damaged people. The captain (Arvin Kananian) – Chefone because names are weird – at first lies about the hopelessness for rescue and slowly begins to establish a quiet-ish kind of police state, though one clever enough to do little against the increasing hedonism and weird cultishness of the ship’s population. Part of the movie is the very slow love story between Mimaroben und ship officer Isagel (Bianca Cruzeiro), comparing and contrasting their different reactions to the madness of their situation.

In a move that at first seems puzzling but turns out to be rather clever, Aniara is shot in a style pretty typical for contemporary arthouse naturalism. Before things become strange, this mostly emphasises how much the interior of the Aniara looks and feels like that of a mall or a holiday cruise ship, emphasising the quotidian nature of the place and its population, even if all of this is supposed to take place in the future. The further the ship moves away from home, the stranger its people and their ideas and hopes become to us, the less natural the naturalistic filmmaking approach begins to feel to the material; the filmmakers create a conscious gap between what we expect to see shot in this way, and what they are actually portraying, making things weirder by following the visual rule book of things that are the exact opposite of the weird.

Aniara balances commentary on the contemporary world too obvious to get into with the strange psychological and philosophical states its characters enter rather brilliantly. There’s a real push here to portray emotional states akin to grief and loss and depression but not quite like them anymore, turning what could be something of a space bound disaster movie visionary and strange.

Because my tastes are what they are, I can’t help but particularly enjoy whenever hints of cosmic horror pop up. Relatively early in proceedings, Mima – the not-holodock – begins spouting stranger and stranger things in a very Lovecraftian manner, infected by the unbearable grief of the humans connecting with it, until our protagonist has to shut her down violently, which does not do much for her social standing. Then there’s the final scene, which I am not going to spoil, but which is the purest expression of cosmicism (not exactly cosmic horror) I’ve seen in quite some time, or ever.

That Aniara isn’t a film meant or made for everyone, and certainly far from the kind of adventurous science fiction you can at least sell to people (and which I love, don’t get me wrong) is probably quite obvious; one might leave this bored and confused, or get sucked into it as much as I was.

Saturday, May 6, 2023

Three Films Make A Post: The picture that is the sum total of all human emotions!

Leave Her to Heaven (1945): Often, John M. Stahl’s noir melodrama is listed among the very best noirs ever made, if not declared the very best. I don’t really feel that way about the movie, to be frank. I appreciate elements of it – certainly Gene Tierney’s and Cornel Wilde’s performances – but its very mild deconstruction of the femme fatale trope seems neither fish nor fowl to me, with much of what it does having been handled with quite a bit more depth in what we’d now call domestic suspense novels of its time. Some of the melodramatic business is over the top in a way that just doesn’t work for me, personally, as well.

Leave Her to Heaven does also walk into another one of my personal landmines, where the supposed climax of a movie takes on the form of a judicial trial, which to my eyes has always been and will always be what the less capable writer will use when they can’t come up with an actual dramatic climax. Which, to be fair, is my problem as much as the film’s.

Tora-San’s Cherished Mother (1969) aka Zoku otoko wa tsurai yo: In his second movie outing, as usual directed by Yoji Yamada, eternal grown-up child with aspirations on dignified manliness Tora (as always Kiyoshi Atsumi), is stumbling, drinking and blustering his way into an encounter with the mother he never knew. There’s room for a look on the further developments in the life of the rest of his family – Sakura (Chieko Baisho) is now married and still the sane one in the family – scenes of awkward drunkenness that end in embarrassment, an ill-fated crush, sentimentality that often feels rather real, and all the other elements of the series’ formula.

It’s a nice, simply fun but not simple place to visit, really, where human emotions and their ridiculousness are treated with kindness, and I’m still not surprised that there was an audience for the series in Japan for decades.

Children of the Corn (2020/2023): Kurt Wimmer’s Children update took three years to come out anywhere, and while it is certainly not a great movie, it isn’t the complete train wreck one might expect either. For the first half an hour or so, this even seems to be a very clever update to the franchise formula, playing on the very specific anxieties caused by very contemporary, ecologically-fuelled generational conflicts. The cleverness slowly dissolves over the course of the rest of the film, mostly because the film increasingly just handwaves its own themes away, favouring increasingly stupid set pieces and one of the worst monster special effects you’ll see in a film with a decent budget. And don’t get me started on the particularly egregious horror movie bullshit ending.

Thursday, May 4, 2023

In short: Kids vs. Aliens (2022)

Relations between kid Gary (Dominic Mariche) and his older teen sister Samantha (Phoebe Rex) have been pretty great until now, with Sam indulging Gary and his two buddies Jack (Asher Grayson) and Miles (Ben Tector) by starring in their home made lucha science fiction horror monster movies, and generally being the nicest big sister a budding nerd could wish for.

Things begin to change when Sam falls big time for bad boy Billy (Calem MacDonald), his obvious sociopathy notwithstanding. Soon enough, the siblings are hardly talking and Billy has talked Sam into using their parents’ house for a big party. And because he’s that kind of asshole, we’re talking the house-trashing kind of party.

Sam and Gary will have to reconcile their differences when a bunch of nasty, body-horror-ish aliens attack the house full of teens, looking for humans to turn into UFO fuel.

Aesthetically, Hobo with a Shotgun and Treevenge director Jason Eisener’s new movie reminds me rather a lot of the films of Joe Begos. Not so much in its depth and breath but in its insistence on drenching basically every single shot in beautifully ugly neon colours and featuring characters that’ll shout and screech at each other, the camera, and nasty aliens with the kind of unpleasant shrillness most films try and avoid simply to not alienate their audience.

Depending on one’s tastes, as well as one’s mood, this emphasis on ugliness and loudness – which is even further deepened by hectic and intense camera work – can be quite a turn off; like with Begos, being shouted at in blasting neon lights for eighty minutes is not going to be to everyone’s taste. Particularly since the shouty children of Eisener’s film are even more exhausting than the shouty and cursing grown-ups of Begos. After some starting difficulties, I found myself getting into the groove of the thing eventually, particularly once the aliens began to commit various practical effects atrocities, mixing body horror, unhealthily neon-coloured bio-organic sets and a grab bag of random, well-liked around here, SF horror tropes to my personal delight.

Kids vs. Aliens could have used a bit more subtext apart from Sam’s coming-of-age (and into alien ass kicking) moment, but since it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and has a very fun, mildly gross third act, I’m pretty okay with that.

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

In short: Our Little Sister (2015)

Original title: Umimachi Diary

Hirokazu Koreeda (often written as Kore-eda, but I would prefer not to) is one of the masters of contemporary Japanese cinema any way you look at it. He is a director steeped in the Japanese tradition – think Ozu, his peers and what followed - of calm, subtle, and artfully staged films that treat themes which should be all rights be over the top and melodramatic, but come to a delicate, complex and human life without following modern ideas of how to treat a plot. Quite a few critics – from the West as well as from Japan - love to set this sort of thing up as a big difference between Japanese and “Western” filmmaking as a whole, an idea that to my eyes seems to ignore the whole history of Japanese popular cinema, which follows very much the same rules as the Hollywood model. But I digress.

Koreeda’s films, basically all focused on family relations and absent parents in one way or another, move in ways and at a pace all of their own, demanding patience and concentration from their viewers. That focus they repay in slowly enfolding movements of deep humanity, compassion, and an ability to actually teach you something about people, their ways of life and a way of looking at them without any didacticism whatsoever.

Our Little Sister, about three sisters who take in their teenage half-sister after the death of their estranged father, their relations, and all the unspoken things – not all of them bad – between them might be Koreeda’s most Koreeda film. There’s particularly little plot here; the film instead moves through a series of intimately observed scenes that make a lot of other examples of “observational” cinema look boring and empty thanks to the director’s ability to not just look at characters’ lives but make us understand it through editing choices, camera work, great, subtle acting (Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho and Suzu Hirose are incredibly perfect here as individual actresses as as well as an ensemble) and something rather less technical – call it a vibe, call it soul, call it a direct line to the ineffable.

That I’m ending up on these latter terms I find particularly interesting in the context of talking about a filmmaker and films this naturalistic – apparently, feelings of transcendence really can be invoked by a piece of art that never leaves the natural, realist world.

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

In short: A Poem Is a Naked Person (1974)

For the longest time, this Les Blank documentary about musician and producer Leon Russell and the places and people surrounding his world was blocked by the artist himself, with Blank only able to show it at screenings where the director himself was physically present. This is clearly not the touring documentary Russell must have wished for (though why work with Blank of all people if you want that, even at this early point in the man’s career?), but Russell doesn’t really come over as a bad example of the 70s rock star. Like everyone, he sometimes goes off into stoned philosophising, and has more than one peculiar idea, but he never comes over as mean-spirited, stupid or nasty. In fact, the copious studio footage concerning his work as a producer and the stage footage shows the man as someone diligently working on his and other people’s art, finding ecstasy on stage through the abilities granted by focus on craft as much as inspiration. And ecstasy it truly is, with Russell’s mix of all kinds of American roots music coming together in ways that are physically and spiritually moving – and make his audience dance joyfully and without self-consciousness.

Much space and time is - of course given Blank’s preferred approach -  taken up by digressions into the life and times of people populating the parts of Oklahoma Russell’s studio is situated in, interviews with various back porch philosophers, and so on, and so forth. This is at once an expression of Blank’s seeming interest in everyone and everything – a great as well as an occasionally infuriating trait in a documentary filmmaker – and an attempt to explain what Russell does – musically as well as philosophically – by creating a portrait of the place he comes from.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

Tokyo Videos of Horror (2012)

Original title: 闇動画 Yami Douga

POV horror is apparently not just the great Koji Shiraishi’s obsession, but at least until the end of the 2010’s, there was a proper little cottage industry in Japan churning out cheap POV horror series for the DVD/streaming (or however you consume this stuff in Japan) market. Yami Douga – like the 25(!) other films in the series - was directed – possibly written, depending on the sources – by Kazuto (or Kazu, again depending on the source) Kodama.

Structurally, the films in the series consist of a number of found footage segments where the meat of the small supernatural horror tales is intercut with interview footage of generally one of the surviving characters, or simply a character who acquired the footage we’re seeing. Ghosts and ultra cheap CGI ghoulies appear in the background and are pointed out, rewound to and checked out in slow motion.

Contentwise, the tiny tales stand with both feet in the realm of Japanese creepypasta and J-horror traditions. There’s the tale about the couple shooting fireworks at the beach who are led to the corpse of a dead kid by its ghost; the tale of a man lured into cursing himself through a ritual on a grave out in the boons and who is then accosted what may be rokurokubi, and so on and so forth. The whole affair has its creepy moments, where the low res footage – often made even lower res by exhaustive use of pixeling out of faces, signs and so on –, the simplicity of the tales, how much they are of a specific time and place, and the general awesomeness of Japanese ghost (and yokai, and so on) lore combine rather wonderfully. At least wonderfully enough to charm someone like me who really likes this sort of thing. From time to time, there’s also a grand carnivalesque hokiness on display, when the film counts down from ten so one can run away screaming/close one’s eyes/fast forward away to the next segment before it shows something mind-blowing and haunting (or so it says). William Castle would be so proud, particularly when said mind-blowing thing is a cheap and cheery CGI effect of dubious provenance.

The final tale is quite different in tone, however, and seems to aim more for a bit of Guinea Pig nastiness, though Yami Douga doesn’t even have enough of a budget to pull the gore off properly. Here, a pregnant woman is mildly – for this particular genre – abused by yakuza, drugged, and then made to commit suicide on camera. Eventually, the camera lingers on a tasteless but unconvincing foetus until the instant grudge karma gets the yakuza off-camera, while we continue looking at the rubber thing for half a minute or so, with yakuza screaming in the background and some grudge-y CGI vapours rocking around the foetus. All of which rubs badly against the good-natured creepiness of the other segments but does suggest that Kodama likes a bit of variety, which can only be a good thing in a series this long and simply structured. I also can’t help but admire the chutzpah needed to go for the final shot of the story.

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Three Films Make A Post: A Disgrace to Criminals Everywhere.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998): After more than two decades, I’m still not sure if I exactly like Guy Ritchie’s debut movie, but then, I’ve been known to have problems with movies whose main characters are all arseholes and idiots, particularly when  the film they are in appears to loathe them (see also, Thor: Love & Thunder). What has endeared the film to me from the perspective of today is how insanely it is of its time: starting with the piss-coloured non-colour scheme, the showy editing, the post-Pulp Fiction ideas about coolness, and certainly not stopping with its very specific kind of digressive storytelling. As a time capsule, this is about as pure as it gets, and when the inevitable late 90s revival is coming around, this will be one of the aesthetic core texts.

Infinity Pool (2023): I was a great admirer of Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor, but this sometimes body horrific critique of the late-capitalistic mindset which is here exemplified in extreme hedonistic exploitative tourism doesn’t work too well for me. Often, it appears to be rather too in love with exactly the things it wants to criticize, but my main problem really is how little I found myself caring about anything and anyone in it going through their surrealisted-up version of rich people problems: Alexander Skarsgård’s doing his by now usual “weak man” shtick without ever finding a note from which to empathize with the guy, and Mia Goth’s ultra femme fatale is certainly riveting to watch but also empty of any nuance or humanity. The only actual identifiable human being, Cleopatra Coleman’s Em, is shelved relatively early, and from then on out, the movie is all about rich people being surrealistically horrible. The rather more interesting elements of the film concerning Philip K. Dick-style identity problems never really go anywhere interesting, so I found myself a bit bored by a very well shot film that uses the most obvious metaphorical systems in the most obvious manner.

Re/Member (2022): What would we be without time loop movies? Because you can time loop anything, Eiichiro Hasumi’s example of the form unites some typical YA business with ghosts and the fascination of Japanese pop culture with weird rules. Which does at least lead to a bit of originality, for there are very few movies about a group of teens bonding while time-looping through the experience of searching for the body parts of a dismembered little girl while being hunted by a monster.

The character work is very much like you’d expect in a Japanese teen movie, and Hasumi does tend to lay it on a little too thick in melodramatic sequences, but on the other hand, there’s also a sense of playfulness and fun on display when it comes to changing up the ways in which a group of teenagers might be ripped to pieces, farting around with game rules, or making third act twists entertaining.

Thursday, April 27, 2023

In short: Carmen Comes Home (1951)

Original title: Karumen kokyô ni kaeru

When her theatre closes for renovation, artistic dancer – or as most people would call her, stripper – Carmen (Hideko Takamine) and a dancer friend of hers return to Carmen’s old home in the country for a visit. Being a bit of a flake, as well as a someone who is clearly herself so totally, it becomes as admirable as it can be ridiculous, our heroine causes all kinds of chaos. She also opens up old family wounds in her deeply conservative father – Carmen herself, bless her, is clearly over that sort of thing – and does cause some hormonal troubles in parts of the local population.

When it came out, this comedy by Keisuke Kinoshita was an immense hit. In part, this is certainly because it was the first Japanese colour feature film. It never looks and feels like the first, though, for Kinoshita uses colour as if he’d been doing it all his life, studied what it’s good for in filmmaking, and is now calmly applying what he learned with the calm assuredness of a man who has worked in colour for ages. So visually, this is a pretty astonishing movie that makes wonderful use of the contrasts between natural country colours – this was mostly shot on location – and the joyous, colourful, artificiality of Carmen’s wardrobe and makeup.

The humour hasn’t aged quite as well, of course, so there are some stretches in the film that were probably very funny indeed when this came out but now simply feel old-fashioned and aged; at other times, things still work quite well, particularly whenever the film has its fun with the contrasts between Carmen’s overblown, paper-thin personality and her less flashy surroundings.

Pleasantly, particularly with this kind of material, the film doesn’t have a judgmental bone in his body: it sees and makes fun of the folly of Carmen as well as the conservatism and boringness of her former peers, but it does so in a way that lacks mean-spiritedness. Kinoshita is very willing to point things out and laugh at them, but he’s not here to humiliate anyone. In fact, whenever the film turns more melodramatic, it shows respect for the emotions of both sides of any argument, with less interest in one side being right but in people finding a way to live with one another despite their differences. Which is so much the opposite of 2023, I’m nearly becoming nostalgic for a world that never actually was that way.

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Layer Cake (2004)

A man (Daniel Craig) whose name we’ll never learn, let’s call him XXXX like the credits do, works as a new style drug distributor. He abhors guns, isn’t a fan of violence and aims for the professionalism of a modern business man. XXXX isn’t quite as stupid as he sounds, so he does employ ex-soldier Morty (George Harris) as his right hand man. Morty’s good for looking threatening so that things don’t turn violent, though he’d be perfectly capable if push came to shove. XXXX is not planning on staying in the business for very much longer – his retirement nest egg is basically complete. We never learn if the new school business drug lord retires to Spain like his elders would, alas.

Retirement is dangerous in the crime business, of course, and even more so in movies, so it’s not going to come as a surprise to the audience when our protagonist’s life turns rather more exciting and complicated than he likes it. At first, things seem harmless enough. The local mob boss Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham) just wants to enable a little business deal between XXXX and one of Price’s old pals, a man going by the moniker of The Duke (Jamie Foreman); also, XXXX is supposed to look for the wayward daughter of another old associate of Jimmy. Both of these things appear easy enough on the outset, but quickly, XXXX finds himself embroiled in layers of intrigue, is hunted by a Serbian assassin, learns some hard truths about the people he trusts as well as his actual position in life and on the food chain. Why, things will get so bad, there’s a good chance the only place he’s going to retire to is an early grave.

Matthew Vaughn’s feature debut Layer Cake is a very fine film situated in the British arm of the post-Tarantino tradition. In its approach to gangsters and its idea of coolness it is certainly also influenced by the early films of Vaughn’s old cohort Guy Ritchie, but lacks the latter guy’s vulgarity. The dialogue – script by J.J. Connolly based on his own novel – is tight, clever, often funny and rather more ambiguous than it at first appears. Which also goes for an intensely layered and constructed plot that manages to be complicated but also tuned like clockwork.

One of Vaughn’s great achievements here is how easy and pop he makes Connolly’s complicated script with a dozen moving parts look, providing a film that by all rights should get bogged down in exposition with an quick and clever flow, and elegant forward momentum.

Apart from being a great, post-modern (at least in the sense that it knows and thinks about all the tropes of its genre and stands in dialogue with them) gangster movie, Layer Cake also works rather wonderfully as a deeply sarcastic critique of the kind of modern businessman XXXX aspires to be, someone who believes doing morally wrong things in a professional way somehow keeps the responsibility for his actions away from him, but whose veneer of civilisation is pure hypocrisy once push comes to shove and he loses his illusions about his own importance and rank on the food chain. At the same time Vaughn never makes the mistake of turning XXXX completely unlikable – for one, there’s Daniel Craig’s patented charisma (bottled by some aftershave company or other, or so I’ve heard) but there’s also the fact this guy is loyal to his friends to a fault, and for all his sins, wouldn’t stab anyone in the back who hasn’t stabbed him before. Which is important, for otherwise, why would the audience care about him?