Saturday, September 29, 2012

#141: Kairo aka Pulse (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001)

Like the only other Kiyoshi Kurosawa film I've seen (Tokyo Sonata), which started out as a low-key family drama before turning into a wildly unpredictable dark comedy, Kairo begins as one type of film before slowly and gradually transforming into something else entirely. A very effective horror film about haunted websites and ghosts slowly becomes an apocalyptic sci-fi meditation on loneliness and existential dread in Japanese society. The exciting thing about both of these Kurosawa films is that the changes in tone and genre are so natural. They aren't tricks that sabotage what came before. Kurosawa is a skilled visual stylist and an exciting and unusual storyteller, and I'm looking forward to checking out more of his stuff.
Kairo begins with a cryptic scene that is not understood until the film's closing scene before following two separate story arcs. In the first, a group of young friends who work for a greenhouse haven't seen a friend and coworker for a week and are getting worried. He was working on a computer disk for them but has dropped out of contact. One of the group goes to his apartment to find him there, alone, acting strangely. He directs her to the computer disk before committing suicide. The friends check out the disk, after a surprisingly short period of mourning, and see some strange things. In the other storyline, a college kid with very poor computer skills decides to finally check out this thing called "the Internet," and pops a disk into his laptop that will help him get started. The disk, however, shows bizarre images of young people alone in rooms, moving strangely, with text popping up on the screen asking if he would like to meet a ghost. He freaks out and befriends a pretty computer science major in an effort to try to understand the bizarre disk and its strange effect on his laptop. These story strands eventually converge in the film's final third.
The film's first third follows a familiar pattern of Japanese horror films from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s: vengeful ghosts inflicting harm on people, using technology to transport themselves to their victims (VHS tapes in Ringu, cell phones in One Missed Call, a computer virus in this film). Unlike Ringu, One Missed Call, Ju-On (this one leaves out the technology angle), and their many knock-offs and sequels, Kairo's hauntings are not happening because of a curse. Instead, these hauntings are occurring due to what Kurosawa sees as an isolated, lonely culture, a culture so isolated and lonely that this existential alienation continues after death. The afterlife is simply running out of space to put all these undead sadsacks, so they have to go somewhere else. Why not use the Internet and a computer virus to head back to Tokyo? There are some problems for the living population, however. If your computer gets the virus and you encounter one of these extremely creepy ghosts, you become a shell of a human yourself, shuffling depressed through your day until you commit suicide or fade into the wall or floor, leaving a black smudged outline of yourself where you once stood. Needless to say, this virus spreads like a virus and Tokyo soon becomes an apocalyptic ghost town. This world ends not with a bang, but a whimper.
The film's first half contains some real jolts and suspense. The Japanese do a creepy, unsettling ghost better than any other country, and Kairo is a great piece of evidence to back up this claim. The weird shuffling contortions, the pace of the gait, the long black hair. I love this shit. The second half is more contemplative and distanced and uses dread more than shock and suspense. The characters are a lot less interesting than the unpredictable, multifaceted people in Tokyo Sonata, but Kurosawa's visual skills and ability to tell a compelling story without relying on standard cliches kept me riveted.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) has directed film and television since 1975, but it wasn't until 1997's Cure that he received worldwide distribution. That film made him popular with horror fans, and his other horror films have been among his most successful, but he's also directed crime thrillers, dramas, comedies, and indescribable films like Tokyo Sonata, and he's currently working on a science fiction film and a historical epic. Despite some international successes, most of his films are unavailable in this country, which is a shame. Kairo/Pulse and a handful of others are available, however, and I recommend you give him a try.
Apparently, an American remake of this film starring Kristen Bell and co-written by Wes Craven was released in 2006. Anyone seen it? Is it garbage?   

Saturday, September 15, 2012

#140: Irreversible (Gaspar Noe, 2002)

Here I am with the difficult task of writing about a film before I've managed to organize my thoughts into any kind of coherent position. I don't know how I feel about this movie, and I don't know if I ever will know how I feel about it. I don't share the intense dislike of J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, two of my favorite film writers, but I'm not one of its hesitant admirers (Roger Ebert) or ecstatic enthusiasts (Bilge Ebiri). This is an extremely accomplished, horrifying film that may also be stupid and exploitative. Surface-level shock cinema? Over-the-top pummelfest and narrative gimmick? Or something deeper about human behavior, time, and narrative chronology and achronology? I haven't made up my mind.
A warning: As a lover of form, structure, movement, light, shadow, performance, and directors' personal styles and how they arrange the frame and as a guy who is completely indifferent to plot (though I do also love storytelling and the ways stories are told), I don't particularly care about spoilers. Some of you, however, do care a lot about plot and don't want any big reveals, and I don't want to shit all over your sources of pleasure. I can't write about this movie without writing about what happens, so you may want to avoid this post if you haven't seen the movie yet and plan to see it in the future.
Irreversible tells a fairly horrific but movie-standard story of brutal rape and brutal revenge in non-movie-standard reverse chronological order in a series of 10-minute virtuosic single takes with a camera that (with one notable exception) never stops moving. The film opens with the closing credits scrolling backwards, followed by an extremely disorienting corkscrew view of flashing light that is eventually revealed as an apartment complex, where a nude old man sits on a bed with a clothed younger man, talking about time as a destroyer. The camera corkscrews down to the street below, where numerous police cars and ambulances swarm a gay S&M club called Rectum. In the following scene, two men (Vincent Cassel and Albert Dupontel) frantically storm through the hellish inferno of Rectum (I can't tell whether it's only the characters who have a deep-seated fear of homosexuality or whether it's Noe's hangup) as the disorienting sideways camera work rarely lands on a fixed image. The soundtrack continuously plays a menacing, minimal techno beat while low-level frequencies below the music cause actual nausea in the viewer. (I'm a fan of sound as a tool of audience assault, so I admired this portion of the film even as it made me feel a bit ill.) The two men, particularly Marcus (Cassel), are demanding the whereabouts of a pimp named La Tenia, sought for some unnamed transgression. The men are directed to a crowd of leather daddies and menacing muscled thugs, where La Tenia is confronted. Marcus is grabbed from behind and thrown to the ground, where his arm is broken with a sickening snap and a rape is threatened. Pierre (Dupontel) grabs a fire extinguisher and bashes La Tenia's face to pulp in an extremely graphic scene. What the men never learn is that La Tenia was standing next to them, grinning in pleasure at the murder taking place in front of him. They killed the wrong guy, but we don't find this out until the film's other tough-to-watch scene.
The rest of the film shows us in 10-minute increments the day's events leading to the murder:
A taxi is stolen and driven to Rectum when the driver refuses to take them. He is beaten and taunted with racial slurs by Marcus, while Pierre unsuccessfully attempts to reason with his friend.
Marcus, now joined by two other men, violently coerces La Tenia's identity and location out of a transsexual prostitute while Pierre, again, unsuccessfully pleads with his friend to stop.
The two men leave a party and see Marcus's girlfriend Alex (Monica Bellucci) on a stretcher, badly beaten. Marcus is overcome with grief, and then rage. Two men come up to him and tell him they can find out who committed the assault.
Alex leaves the same party and takes a subway tunnel home where she sees a pimp beating one of his prostitutes. He notices her, the prostitute runs away, and he rapes and beats Alex in an unbroken nine-minute scene, the only scene in the film with a stationary camera.
A wild drink-, dance-, and drug-fueled party rages. Alex and Marcus have an argument and she decides to head home alone.
Alex, Marcus, and Pierre ride the subway to the party and have a long conversation about sex.
Alex and Marcus lie on a bed, naked, after sex. They tease each other, talk. They're at ease with each other. Pierre, Alex's ex and good friend to Marcus, is coming by in 30 minutes to go to the party with them.
Alex finds out she's pregnant.
Alex lies peacefully on a blanket at a park. The camera pans up into an overhead shot of Alex on the blanket and continues to move upward until we're in space. The screen fades to black and then toggles from black to white in an epileptic-fit-inducing strobe effect.
And that's it.
Noe's film, if it had proceeded in a conventional narrative arc, would have been a skillfully told but thuddingly linear piece of adolescent shock exploitation. But is taking that same structure and simply flipping it backwards a gimmick posing as complexity, or is something else going on here? I just can't decide. To Noe's credit, I haven't stopped thinking about the film since seeing it last night.
Maybe I'm looking at it all wrong. Maybe it's not an either/or proposition and the film is both complex and adolescent. I did get a sick energetic jolt from the murder scene. I find movie violence an expressive visual tool and a cathartic outlet for my own stress, but maybe some other creep is getting the same jolt from the rape scene. I don't get any catharsis or pleasure out of sexual violence, but I'm sure some audience members love seeing the stunningly beautiful, voluptuous, famous, and wealthy Bellucci getting hers, albeit in simulated form, though the scene, whether you find it offensive or necessary, is clearly orchestrated to put the viewer in Bellucci's character's place. The film also seems to condemn revenge, a concept too many people, particularly Americans, disturbingly value.
I'm having trouble articulating my thoughts about what the film is saying about narrative and time, but in the simple gesture of reversing the events, complexity (whether intentional or accidental) ensues. The film provides a happy ending (at least until the strobe effect), but it's a happy ending packed with the sadness of what will happen to these people later that day. It's also there in the title, which contradicts the film's very structure. I think there's a lot about how we watch movies and the fantasies we generate in our own lives from those movies in this structure. Could a film have addressed these same issues without graphic rape, face-smushing, and sickness-inducing camera movements and sound frequencies? Sure, but Noe's style is to bash the ever-loving tar out of his viewers, and we always need a few filmmakers to do that.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

#139: The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961)

I've been reviewing a lot of 1940s, '50s, and '60s black-and-white classics and cult oddities with incredible cinematography on this blog in the past three months, and that trend continues with The Innocents. This 1961 adaptation of Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw" has a dream team of creative professionals behind and in front of the camera and some of the best black-and-white cinematography you'll ever see. It's atmospheric, creepy, funny, genuinely frightening, and beautiful to look at. If you haven't seen it yet, go get it now. If you do go now, I hope your travels are less arduous than mine. I drove to three different video stores. It was checked out at all three. I put it in my Netflix queue. When it finally showed up, the DVD didn't work in my player. I put it in the computer. My computer made the most horrible sound I've ever heard in my life. I inspected the DVD and some goofball at Netflix put the round donut sticker with the film's title and bar code number off-center so part of it was hanging into the middle of the disc. I spent twenty minutes peeling the gluey sticker back. Finally, the damn thing worked in my DVD player. No one has had a tougher experience in this life than me. I don't care how tough you've had it. I was momentarily inconvenienced. Take a few minutes and shed some tears. Now we can continue.
About that dream team. In the director's chair, we have Jack Clayton, the filmmaker behind Room at the Top, The Great Gatsby, and Something Wicked This Way Comes. In front of the camera, veteran pro Deborah Kerr, surprisingly awesome child actor (and present-day big-shot architect) Martin Stephens, and a small but excellent role for Michael Redgrave as The Uncle. (Cary Grant requested the part but Clayton had the balls to turn him down. Grant is one of my favorite actors ever, but his movie star persona might have been a little distracting in the role.) The screenwriting team is comprised of William Archibald, the man who adapted the James' story for the Broadway play, and Truman Capote. Harold Pinter also did some uncredited work on the script. For me, the biggest contributor to the film's success is cinematographer Freddie Francis. The guy was a genius with light. Francis enjoyed dual careers as a cinematographer and a director of schlocky but fun horror movies (including Trog, the tale of the complex relationship between Joan Crawford and a monster who lives in a cave. A childhood favorite of mine, by the way.) He did both in the 1960s, focused on directing in the 1970s, and went back to cinematography in the 1980s. Besides his work on The Innocents, he photographed Room at the Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The French Lieutenant's Woman, The Executioner's Song, the massively underrated Return to Oz, Glory, The Man in the Moon, and Scorsese's Cape Fear remake. Last but not least, he worked with David Lynch on The Elephant Man, Dune, and The Straight Story.
There are quite a few differences between the film adaptation and the Henry James short story, but it's been too many years since I read the story to lay them on you. James is one of my favorite authors, but the film's pleasures are more visual than literary, notwithstanding the source material and the contributions of Capote and Pinter. What we have instead of the genre-defying complexities of James' writing is a graceful, elegant, disturbing ghost/possession story told with enormous care, skill, and sense of visual space and not a little complexity of its own. The studio mandated that Clayton film his story in CinemaScope, strongly against his wishes, but Francis found ways to use that format more suited for spectacle, adventure, and western landscapes than intimacy by emphasizing vertical lines, using intense bright lighting and darkness, and placing characters on opposite sides of the frame. I keep banging on about this, but this movie looks so great.
The story is about a single, childless middle-aged woman, Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), who gains employment as the governess for two young children at their family's country estate. The orphaned children are in the custody of their uncle (Michael Redgrave) who very candidly tells Miss Giddens he has no interest in raising the children or even getting to know them and is only interested in selfish pleasures in the city, pleasures that children shouldn't be exposed to. The children need someone who cares, and Miss Giddens cares. Oh boy, does she care.
Miss Giddens arrives at the estate and meets the housekeeper and the young girl Flora (Pamela Franklin, who grew up to star in another great haunted house movie, The Legend of Hell House).The little boy, Miles (Martin Stephens), is away at boarding school, but he soon arrives after being expelled. Miles is a great character and Stephens plays the fuck out of the part. He's a little creep, a master manipulator, with great magnetic charm. He's an adult man in a ten-year-old's body with an inappropriate sexual precocity and a way of talking to Giddens as if she were a woman he's trying to seduce. He's a little devil and he's hilarious to watch.
Miss Giddens is "enchanted" by both children, she often says, but this repetition of the word begins honestly before becoming a desperate rationalization and feeble attempt at reassurance. Something is not right about the large, beautiful estate or the children who live in it. A mysterious man and woman keep appearing at particularly frightening moments, and this ghostly pair seem to have mysterious ties to the children, influencing their behavior in increasingly disturbing ways. As supernatural events escalate, Giddens becomes obsessed with ridding the home of their presence. Is the sexually repressed Miss Giddens unraveling from her isolated existence with emotionally disturbed children or is something more sinister going on?
Goddamn, this movie is good. Truffaut called it the best British film since Hitchcock moved to the United States, and he may have been right. Kerr considered it her best performance, and she worked for Powell & Pressburger, Otto Preminger, Leo McCarey, and John Huston. Highfalutin' praise, but it also works well as a straight-up horror movie. See you next time.