Home Video Round-Up: 10/31/2017

Gerald’s Game (10/16/2017)

Though I read a lot of Stephen King books in high school, Gerald’s Game is one title’s I never read, in part because I never wanted to be seen reading it and have to explain what it was I was reading.  To my young mind the novel’s premise, which involved bondage sex, seemed wildly dirty and I couldn’t imagine anyone ever making a movie out of it.  Fast forward a decade and “Fifty Shades of Gray” is a mainstream property and “Gerald’s Game” seems a lot more acceptable by contrast, especially given that its bondage sex scene is not consummated.  The story involves a middle aged woman who’s gone to a remote cabin with her husband and after he’s handcuffed both of her hands to a bed he suddenly has a heart attack and she’s left chained to the bed with the key out of reach and starts having hallucinations of her husband talking to her and of a strange looking bald man who may or may not be the grim reaper.  This is certainly a high concept movie what with its single room setup and lack of real supporting characters.  One could perhaps imagine a version of it being performed as a stage play give or take a couple of moments… including one incredibly gory moment that is decidedly not for the squeamish.  Mike Flanagan directs the film well and has an eye for some signature visuals, but some of the writing is not great (the hallucinations are basically an excuse for inner-monologue, and King is not always the best writer of inner monologue) and while Carla Gugino is good in the lead role her performance is not necessarily the tour-de-force required of someone who needs to 100% carry a film.

**1/2 out of Five

Strong Island (10/21/2017)

The usual line on documentaries is that they should be made by people who maintain some objective distance, but there are other approaches, like the one used for the film Strong Island.  The documentary is directed by Yance Ford and tells the story about how his brother (an African American) was killed in 1992 by a white person during an argument and how the police and district attorney did nothing to bring him to justice.  The central case of the film is not necessarily the most elaborate and isn’t filled with twists and turns.  The appeal to the movie is less the case itself and more the effect it had on the family.  Yance Ford makes for an interesting subject given the quiet dignity he shows while a lot of the painful facts of the case are dredged up and it’s compelling to hear about this family’s private In the Bedroom.  Obviously this movie is increasingly relevant in a post Trayvon Martin world, I don’t know that it’s a story that’s going to change many people’s minds about the value of black lives but seeing the long lasting torment of the family of one of these victims can add a piece to the puzzle.

***1/2 out of Five

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (10/22/2017)

This Noah Baumbach film ended up going straight to Netflix despite having a number of stars and a major director, which may say a bit more about just how rich Netflix has gotten moreso than the film’s quality.  In fact this is probably the best feature film to debut on that platform, though that’s relative.  The film stars Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, and Elizabeth Marvel as the sons and daughter of an aging artist played by Dustin Hoffman who are dealing with their various feelings about their father and about their current situation.  The film’s set-up, with upper-middle class New Yorkers coming to grips with a large than life patriarch, is reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums but the style here is obviously quite different and perhaps has more in common with what you’d expect from other films about worried New Yorkers like The Savages, Please Give, and Little Men.  Adam Sandler has been getting a lot of attention for appearing in a respectable movie and doing a decent job in it, but I do think he’s perhaps been the beneficiary of low expectations.  Ben Stiller is just as good here but is getting half the credit simply because he’s done similarly good work in Noah Baumbach movies before.  Baumbach’s films, and really most movies of this New York indie scene, tend to be a bit iffy for me.  His movie are never “bad” but my interest in them almost seems to vary by the mood I’m in when I watch them.  This one only did so much for me, the story just felt a bit too familiar and while I liked a lot of the cast and characters the scenario just didn’t generate enough interest to push it past other similar movies for me.

*** out of Five

Icarus (10/26/2017)

Sometimes the best stories just fall into the laps of the most unlikely people.  Take the (rather poorly titled) documentary Icarus, which was directed by a guy named Bryan Fogel.  Fogel is an amateur cyclist who competed in a major bike race in France but suspected that some of his competition was doping, and experience that inspired him to make a Super Size Me style documentary where he would start taking steroids and show on film the steps he would take to beat his drug tests and thus expose the system.  Not a terrible idea for a documentary, but that’s not what the project ended up being because in the process of making that silly high concept movie one of the experts he was consulting with turned out to be a key figure in aiding the Russian Olympic team in beating steroid tests and much of the film ended up following him as he became an enemy of the state in Russia and ended up defecting to America and blowing the whistle on Putin’s entire operation.  I’m not necessarily sure that Fogel was the best person to be telling this story but he does do an adequate job of bringing this crazy story to the screen and it’s definitely worth watching.  The movie sold for a record breaking sum to Netflix at Sundance, but its profile hasn’t quite been as high as it could be.  Part of that might be the crappy title, but part of it might also be that it’s been somewhat surpassed by real events.  When we’re worried about Putin invading his neighbors and stealing elections and sowing mass discord within the country, worrying about him cheating in the Olympics just seems kind of quaint.

***1/2 out of Five

1922 (10/31/2017)

This year Netflix decided to step up their original film production arm and to do it they decided to purchase a pair of heretofore un-adapted Stephen King works and adapt them themselves and release both in October.  1922 is the second of these and unlike Gerald’s Game I actually have read the novella that this one was based on and quite liked it.  The story and film examines a Nebraska farmer who comes into bitter conflict with his wife when she proposes selling their farm and moving to the city with their son.  Not liking this option the farmer proceeds to kill her.  The rest of the story deals with the fallout of this both emotionally and otherwise and the various horrific manifestations of the farmer’s guilt.  Given a choice between this and Netflix’s other King adaptation I think I like Gerald’s Game slightly more.  That movie is a bit more unique and has more in the way of memorable imagry and is just generally a little better made.  However, I think 1922 has source material to work with that fits a bit more naturally to the format of film even if it has to use a voice-over in a slightly clunky way.  The film needs to stretch things a little to hit feature length, which may have been a bit of a mistake as the final film actually feels like it could benefit from a trim or two.  Ultimately I think the bigger problem is the film’s star, Thomas Jane, who I don’t really fits this rural character too well and adopts a rather silly voice throughout.  Had this movie gotten a theatrical release I feel like its shortcomings would have been even more clear, but I wouldn’t dismiss it as glorified straight-to-video trash either as it has scope and doesn’t necessarily feel cheap.  It’s ultimately just a pretty decent above average horror movie.

**1/2 out of Five

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The Killing of a Sacred Deer(11/4/2017)

Warning: Review Contains Plot Spoilers

There are weird filmmakers and then there’s Yorgos Lanthimos, who’s proven to be one of the more outlandish voices in modern cinema and who has managed to bring his curious visions to the screen on a larger scale than I would have expected without making any compromises.  Lathimos first emerged when his controversial 2009 Greek film Dogtooth showed up in Cannes and surprisingly won the Prix Un Certain Regard despite being a crazy disturbing movie.  It fascinated fans of international cinema so much that it even garnered a nomination the next year for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, a choice that was almost certainly made by the special selecting committee.  His follow-up, Alps, was something of a sophomore slump.  People didn’t dislike it, but it just didn’t really cause the stir of his nominal debut.  He did, however, rebound with his English Language debut The Lobster.  That movie didn’t fully work for me but it was certainly interesting and provocative and made me interested to see more.  Fortunately that “more” has arrived in the form of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, another English language film starring Colin Farrell and quite possibly his darkest film yet and that’s saying something.

The film looks at the life of a successful heart surgeon named Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) who lives in Cincinnati with his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), teenage daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and adolescent son Bob (Sunny Suljic).  The family is mostly happy despite a couple of strange quirks like Steven’s curious role-playing fetishes.  As the film begins Steven has recently reconnected with a strange sixteen year old boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan) whose relation to Steven is not immediately clear.  He tells his anesthesiologist Matthew (Bill Camp) that Martin is a classmate of his daughter with an interest in medicine who he’s been sort of mentoring, but he stills his wife that Martin is the son of a former patient of his who ended up dying in a car accident.   Wherever it was that Steven first encountered Martin it becomes clear that Martin is more and more finding his way into Steven’s life whether Steven wants him to or not and when his son mysteriously stops being able to walk it becomes all the more urgent to understand who or what Martin is and find out just what it takes to get rid of him.

This movie is basically impossible to talk about meaningfully without getting into spoilers so I’m going to get right to it.  The title “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is a reference to the Greek myth of Agamemnon, who found himself invoking the wrath of the goddess Artemis after he unknowingly kills a deer that was under her protection and was eventually forced to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia in order to satisfy her, thus allowing his troops to move on to the Trojan War.  A similar dilemma comes into place here when it’s revealed that Martin has cursed Steven’s wife, son, and daughter through some form of unexplained magic in retaliation for Steven having killed his father through malpractice and will let them all three of them die unless Steven chooses one of the three and kills them himself.  There are of course noticeable differences between the myth and the film, most importantly the fact that Steven is given less of an out than Agamemnon (who could have chosen to forgo going to Troy despite the incredible blow it would have dealt to his honor and reputation) was and unlike Agamemnon’s wife the wife here is ultimately on board with the sacrifice even if self-preservation is part of her reason.

The myth, at least in Aeschylus’ rather influential telling of it, is something of an exercise in an eye for an eye leaving the whole world blind.  Agamemnon’s wife never forgives him sacrificing their daughter and upon her husband’s return from the war she conspires to kill him and in turn her surviving children, Orestes and Electra conspire to kill her and are then only themselves saved from the furies through divine intervention.  Needless to say much of that isn’t paralleled in the movie so this probably shouldn’t be viewed as a complete one to one parallel of the myth but the film does have a similar interest in the morality of revenge and of what an eye for an eye truly means.  There’s a point in the film where Martin bites Steven on the arm and then suddenly bites his own arm similarly out of some kind of warped sense of needing to restore the balance of power.  I don’t, however, know that the film necessarily delves too deeply into the morality of this kind of revenge outside of the general ghastliness of Steven’s situation and perhaps the ending in which the family essentially turns the other cheek rather than perpetuating the cycle of violence that the myth descended into.

I found the overall plot of The Killing of a Sacred Deer fascinating and I also liked the way a lot of it was constructed.  The sticking point for me is probably the same thing that tripped me up about The Lobster: the way that Lathimos has his characters interact it weird and off-putting.  Where most writers and directors strive for conversational naturalism Lathimos is a filmmaker that tends to have his characters who speak in somewhat blunt and stilted dialogue and just do strange things when talking to each other.  This wasn’t as clear in Dogtooth, firstly because it was in a foreign language and secondly because it was assumed that the family at its center was a sort of aberrant cult in the middle of a world of otherwise normal people.  It also kind of made sense in The Lobster given that that movie was set in an otherworldly dystopia but was still a bit of a distraction that I pegged on Lathimos’ adjustment to making movies in English.  With his latest film I’m pretty sure it’s intentional and it’s increasingly hard to explain given that the movie seems to take place in the real world despite the supernatural element strange psychodrama that the principal characters are involved in.  It’s also distracting here because it becomes increasingly hard to tell whether it’s an important part of the puzzle that these characters are willing, for example, to discuss body hair and menstruation without any kind of filter.  Does that make some grand statement about the kind of people these are or is it just a quirky red herring?

This is not an insignificant problem, it makes it kind of hard to get a real grasp of the characters when their personalities are prone to swing a lot and that becomes an issue when much of a film’s appeal is in seeing how its characters are going to respond to a fantastical situation.  The benefit of the approach, I suppose, is that it primes you for the strangely casual way that the film introduces the supernatural at about the halfway point and also just that it adds flavor to the movie.  Was that worth it?  I don’t know but I wouldn’t say it was a deal breaker.  In many ways this is a film I maybe want to give another look before making a final judgment, but it seems like another bold film from a filmmaker who is doing things that few other people are doing right now in cinema.  It is however a movie that’s hard to pinpoint an audience for.  It’s certainly not a movie that I’m going to recommend to random movie-goers and even among cinephilles it’s going to be a film that’s hard to describe without spoiling, especially if I want to get across just how weird and dark the film can get.

Wonderstruck(10/29/2017)

 

Warning: Review contains plot spoilers

While I like to stay focused on movies themselves when talking about them, there do occasionally arise certain situations where distractions happen while watching movies that I feel obligated to disclose.  In this case I had the odd experience of showing up to a movie I barely knew anything about to find that it was playing subtitles at the bottom.  These were not subtitles translating a foreign language as the film’s spoken dialogue is in English, rather these were captions intended for the deaf and hard of hearing which transcribed every word of dialogue and also described all the sound effects and music ques.  They were annoying.  Really though my distraction had less to do with the captions themselves so much as my confusion as to why they were there.  Had I accidentally walked into a special screening of this intended for the hard of hearing?  Should I have waited for the next screening?  Why wasn’t I told ahead of time this was a special screening?  Or did the film’s director, Todd Haynes, actually intend for the film to have these caption given that it turned out to be a story about deaf people?  Doing research after the fact I took another look at the theater’s website I discovered that they were in fact turning on these “open captions” for every screening of the film, possibly in response to an online petition that is demanding that theaters do so.  It’s a fact that they apparently saw no need to alert their customers to outside of some fine print next to other “amenities” like reserved seating.  Some simple notice that this was going to happen would have gone a long way toward letting me just relax rather than stewing about this during the first act of the movie.

The film follows two children who live in two different times and places and whose fates seem increasingly intertwined as the film goes on.  The first is a boy living in the Midwest circa 1977 named Ben (Oakes Fegley) whose mother has recently died and has a burning desire to track down his long lost father.  When fate intercedes in the form of having him struck by lightning and left deaf he decides to take matters into his own hands and run away to New York City in order to follow a lead that could help him find his father.  This is intercut with the story of Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a young deaf girl living in New Jersey circa 1927.  This girl has never been taught sign language and her father seems to have very little patience with her.  Eventually this reaches a breaking point and she runs away and boards the ferry to New York City in hopes of finding her favorite silent film star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore).  Both characters paths lead them to the American Museum of Natural History and specifically an exhibit there called a Cabinet of Wonders where a souvenir book called “Wonderstruck” is sold.

Wonderstruck is based on an illustrated juvenile novel of the same title by Brian Selznick, who also wrote the book that Martin Scorsese’s Hugo was based on.  Selznick apparently has some pretty strong interests because there are definitely some commonalities between the two.  Both works seem to have an interest in silent films, both are about children, both have a sort of whimsical magical realism at their center, and both are very interested in fate resolving wrongs and reuniting people.  Let’s start with the silent film thing.  Early on in the 1927 section we see the deaf girl go to the movies and watch a fictional silent film and upon leaving the theater see a sign advertising that the theater is about to install a sound system and begin playing “talkies.”  This may have been the inspiration for the whole captioning thing at my theater and the fact that one more comfort is being taken away from her acts as a reasonable catalyst for her trying to run away.  It also serves a purpose to bring up silent film during this section because the scenes in 1927 take on a lot of the language of silent cinema.  The dialogue and sound effects in these scenes are dropped in the film to mimic the character’s affliction, but the non-diegetic musical score persists.  The sections are also in black and white and many of the actors do take on the somewhat exaggerated pantomime associated with silent cinema.  The scenes are not, however, a complete recreation of 1920s film style along the lines of something like The Artist and certain more modern techniques do persist.  There are no title cards in these scenes and the film maintains its widescreen presentation and continues to use camera-work that is 21st Century in nature.

That silent film style is pretty cool and the movie’s look at late 70s New York in the other sections is also pretty well rendered.  Todd Haynes certainly directs the film well and it’s generally pretty enjoyable to watch in the moment and up until the moment it ended I thought it was a pretty good piece of work.  However, I was not satisfied by the film’s ending and the more I thought about it the more I think the problems that led to be underwhelmed were baked into the film’s entire plot.  Central to the film is some sort of magical force that’s driving its characters to reunite at the end.  The magical force gives Ben the clues he needs, seemingly provides him a guide in New York, and even has him struck by lightning to spark his journey.  The film surrounds this magical force with whimsy and clearly sees it as a benevolent force setting fate into motion, but if you think about it this magic causes way more harm than good.  For one thing, the film couches Ben’s decision to run away from what appears to be a perfectly loving aunt in a whole lot of romanticism and then has seemingly no regard for the panic that Ben’s little runaway adventure is probably causing back home.  That’s perhaps forgivable given the film’s point of view but it becomes more and more clear that this “amazing” revelation the film is leading towards is not worth all the trouble that this divine intervention is causing.

At the film’s end Ben does not get his hearing back and is disfigured seemingly for life and his aunt presumably worried sick, and for what?  For his trouble he learns about a grandmother he was never looking for, gets a friend he probably won’t be spending much time with once he returns home, and I guess he can say he had an adventurous week in New York when he was a kid.  Did he need to be struck deaf by fate in order for any of this to happen?  I don’t see why.  The fact that he didn’t know who his grandmother was in the first place is odd, the film doesn’t give a particularly good explanation why this is meant to be some hidden secret.  What’s more there’s no particular reason why Ben couldn’t have come to this revelation in a less dramatic way.  There’s no real time limit on finding out who his father is and we aren’t given much of a reason why his aunt couldn’t just bring him to New York to find this bookstore instead of having to be sparked into running away to do everything on his own.  A lot of this isn’t readily apparent, firstly because the film’s supposedly happy ending arrives abruptly before Ben returns to his previous life having been permanently disfigured in order to learn some things that won’t really affect him in the grand scheme of things, and secondly because we as the audience get answers to questions that we have and are thus probably more satisfied by everything than the people who actually need to live with the consequences of all this should be.

Having said all that I don’t want to be completely dismissive of Wonderstruck even if I think the story is kind of daft.  The 1927 sections in particular are worth watching even if it sort of peters out towards the end.  The film also employs some interesting techniques involving puppetry and panorama towards its ending to explain a lot of the backstory in a way that doesn’t feel like an exposition dump and almost distracts form the aforementioned story problems.  This is of course nominally a family movie, which perhaps complicates how it’s assessed.  If you weigh it against some of the other movies aimed at that audience it is noticeably more artful than the competition despite its problems and some of its flaws might not be as apparent to younger audiences who might buy into the film’s whimsy rather than see it as a strange crutch.  However, when compared against other Todd Haynes films or against the movies that Todd Haynes films are usually compared against.  There are definitely worse movies to see than Wonderstruck, but I still can’t forgive it for its occasional laziness or for its ultimate pointlessness.

The Florida Project(10/23/2017)

When I was a kid my family was never overly prone to family vacations, but one year when I was about eleven we did go on the customary Orlando trip that most American families need to make at least once.  However, me being me, I had little interest in actually going to Disney World given my belief that Disney was for babies.  For me the big attraction was Universal Studios Florida, where I had a blast.  As a child the name “Orlando” seemed like some kind of wonderland that had wall to wall fun stuff everywhere and I could only help but be jealous of whatever kid lived in such a place.  Needless to say, I was rather oblivious of the fact that the city of Orlando actually had the reputation of being something of a tacky dump outside of its theme parks.  It’s simple economics really, it’s something of a one-industry town and people have little reason to live there unless they’re working at a theme park and that isn’t necessarily a very high paying job.  As such you’re left with a city that’s dependent on a significant unskilled workforce but also desperate to hide them away from the tourists.  It’s this hidden side of the “magic kingdom” which is at the center of the new film The Florida Project.

The film is set at a cheap motel near Disney World which, during the off season, has come to be a long term home for a variety of disenfranchised people with nowhere else to live.  We focus our attention on a young girl named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite).  The film is told largely but not exclusively from Moonee’s perspective and it doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining how Halley came to be in this situation, but it’s not hard to connect the dots.  Halley can’t be much older than 20 and she’s tatted up, talks like the “cash me ousside” girl, and doesn’t seem to have much in the way of long term plans.  She gets all her money through a variety of rackets and the hotel’s manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) is increasingly having his patience tested by her reckless behavior and often late “rent” payments.  However, Moonee is largely oblivious to these adult concerns and not particularly aware of how “ratchet” her surroundings are.  Instead she spends most of her time playing with a couple of other children staying at these motels like her friends Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera).

The Florida Project is director Sean Baker’s follow up to his 2015 film Tangerine, which looked at a few days in the lives of a pair of transsexual prostitutes in Los Angeles.  While The Florida Project looks at characters that are straighter and whiter than those of his previous film but both films share an interest in showing the lives of the people who are normally ignored by society.  Here he’s looking at people who would not even be called “working class” exactly as many of them aren’t even working and if they are it’s in highly transient minimum wage jobs.  Halley in particular feels like she could have been a character in last year’s Andrea Arnold film American Honey; she is young, not terribly well educated, exudes sexuality, and seems to be rebelling because the alternative is to become some kind of pathetic housewife.  In Arnold’s movie that kind of behavior seemed somewhat harmless, but unlike the characters in that movie Halley is a mother and that means she’s dragging a small child into her web of dysfunction.  However, Moonee does not seem to constantly be in abject danger and she’s actually pretty well adjusted to her environment.  Much of the film is told from her perspective and you can sort of nostalgically relate to a lot of the regular kid stuff she does even if she is in a different situation and occasionally behaves in rather unrefined ways.

Outside of Moonee and Halley the main figure of the film is Willem Dafoe’s hotel manager Bobby, who has the rather tricky task of playing someone who clearly has some respect for the various tenants of the hotel even though they test his patience at times and is helpful to them in some ways even though he is in other ways complicit in their exploitation.  There is an element of suspense around his character in that the audience wants to like him for a variety of reasons but they’re also constantly weary that he’ll disappoint them.  Sean Baker never does end up judging him one way or another and a big part of the film’s success is that it never judges any of the other characters either even though it doesn’t shy away from their less flattering characteristics.  The movie is not interested in lecturing its audience about the causes of income inequality and while there are some bad people in the movie there are no true villains that it places the blame for any of the troubles on.  Instead it wants to simply be this empathetic and in some ways actually kind of funny look at the lives of the characters in this particular time and place.

Sean Baker’s previous film, Tangerine, was famously filmed using a (modified) iPhone but still looked great and perhaps took on an added energy through the use of its unconventional medium.  Working with a bigger budget this time around Baker is now actually shooting on 35mm but is once again working in a rather colorful (both literally and figuratively) location and has maintained the vibrancy.  The film may confound some audiences looking for a movie with more of a traditional narrative with a three act structure and characters with more of a clear motivation.  This is not to say that it’s a completely formless movie by any means and compared to many arthouse films it’s downright conventional.  There is a clear ending that it is building towards but that isn’t always clear when you’re watching it and the movie definitely goes against convention by including a lot of scenes that exist more to fill in the world than to advance a plot.  That could hurt its commercial prospects and so could it’s rather unusual title, which sounds like a codename that no one bothered to change, but it’s definitely a movie that’s worth checking out for its energy, its wit, and it’s willingness to look at a world that generally goes unexamined.

Crash Course: J-Horror

In 1998 a Japanese filmmaker named Hideo Nakata made a modestly budgeted horror film called Ringu which brought the traditional Japanese ghost story into a modern context through a story of a ghost child who wrecks vengeance upon the rest of the world through a haunted VHS tape that kills people seven days after watching it.  I’m not exactly sure how unprecedented this was in Japanese cinema but it was a wild success there and it clearly sparked something of a movement because a lot of somewhat similar horror movies began to be made in its wake.  This sensation eventually crossed the Pacific in the form of Gore Verbinski’s 2002 remake The Ring.  Like most Americans that remake was my introduction to that story and this style of horror and frankly I think it was probably an improvement over the original film.  That sort of kept me from really digging into the rest of what this early 2000s explosion in Japanese horror had to offer and the generally toxic reviews that the various remakes of these J-horror movies ended up getting kept me away from them as well.  Now however I’ve suddenly gotten the urge to go back and take a look at how this little sub-genre came to be and what it had to offer beyond the Ring movies.

Pulse (2001)

 Pulse was one of the last big J-Horror movies to get an American remake but was actually one of the first of these post-Ringu horror films to be released.  While a lot of these J-horror films have kind of disappeared over time, this one has stuck around longer, partly because of the continued fame of its director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (who is of no relation to Akira Kurosawa).  Kurosawa has never really had much of an international breakthrough and Pulse remains his most famous movie but he has a following; his movies regularly play in high profile international film festivals and he certainly sounds thoughtful and interesting in interviews.  On its surface Pulse certainly shares a lot of similarities with Ringu as both involve ghosts using modern technology to reach out to the world and haunt people, with this one using the internet rather than VHS tapes.  The bigger difference is that in Ringu (and even moreso in the remake) the ghost had a fairly rigid set of rules that it followed when it went about haunting people what with phoning people and waiting seven days.  Here the rules are a lot less clear.  Sometimes the ghosts contact people through the internet, sometimes they haunt people in person, and sometimes they drive people to suicide but it’s not exactly clear who or why.

Taken as a literal narrative Pulse does not make a lot of sense.  There’s no real rhyme or reason to the ghost’s (ghosts’?) behavior and its format of having separate simultaneous narratives is a bit confusing.  Treating the film as a puzzle is likely to lead to frustration.  Instead the film is notable for its thematic undertones.  This was made right after the turn of the millennium and the internet was still new-ish.  People were still using dial up, Facebook didn’t exist yet and for that matter neither did MySpace.  People were still optimistic about the “world wide web” would connect the world, but this movie was fairly forward thinking in asserting that it would actually lead to greater isolation and at the same time a greater reduction in peace and privacy.  That theme is actually discussed fairly directly in the film although its connections to all the ghostly goings on are sometimes more tenuous than other times.  As far as how well the movie works just as a straightforward horror movie, well, I don’t know that it has quite the visceral effect that some of the better ghost stories are likely to have but there are certainly some potent moments along the way.

Dark Water (2002)

The director who more or less started the 2000s J-horror boom was of course Hideo Nakata, who directed Ringu and its sequel in 1998 and 1999, his first horror follow up to his Ringu movies was his 2002 film Dark Water, which came out in 2002, the same year that the Hollywood remake The Ring came out and hit it big.  Dark Water certainly shares some things in common with Ringu in that both films are about divorced women with small children contending with the vengeful ghosts of drowned girls, but there are also clear differences.  For one thing, the fact that the woman at the center of Ringu is a divorcee seems to largely be thematically incidental but here it seems to be rather important.  The film is playing on this woman’s anxieties and doubts that she’s truly providing the best life for her child by moving her into this rickety old apartment and away from her seemingly wealthier father.  It just so happens that the problems with this living environment aren’t merely economic but also supernatural.

The film’s ghost also differs from the one in Ringu as it doesn’t operate on a convoluted high concept and instead haunts people in the more traditional ways you might expect from a ghost story.  He leaves objects lying around ominously, she appears suddenly in the distance and then disappears, and if she has a gimmick it’s that she makes the ceiling of this apartment leak occasionally and makes other creepy water related occurrences happen.  I don’t know that it did anything particularly unprecedented but looking at it now it’s hard not to see the roots of some of the modern haunting movies like Insidious and The Conjuring in something like this and in many ways I do think this might have been made with something of an eye on Hollywood.  This is a more streamlined and understandable version of a J-horror movie, but that’s not to say it’s a sell-out or a lesser version of the form.  Instead it’s better viewed as a very well-crafted and confidently made example of what one of these movies can be like.  Dark Water was given a remake in 2005, but it got reviews that were mixed at best and only did alright at the box office.  Unfortunately Nakata’s winning streak did not continue after this.  He was brought in to do the terrible sequel to American version of The Ring and hasn’t made anything that’s made much of a splash since then.

Suicide Club (2002)

Suicide Club (AKA Suicide Circle) is a different kind of movie than the rest of the J-horror movies I’m looking at for this piece in a handful of ways.  For one, it never got an American remake, and it also doesn’t really revolve around a ghost per se even though there is still an unseen force going after people.  What’s more it isn’t even entirely a horror film so much as it’s a sort of violent provocation along the lines of something like Battle Royale or Ichi the Killer.  The film’s opening sequence in particular is incredibly disturbing: it depicts as many as fifty seemingly normal teenage schoolgirls at a subway station suddenly line up and jump onto the tracks as a train is coming, killing them all.  Did I mention that this never got a Hollywood remake?  The focus is ultimately on the way society reacts to this and continues to react as similar incidents seem to pop up occasionally.  There’s a certain resemblance to the premise of M. Night Shyamalan awful 2008 film The Happening but the suicide epidemic here feels more like a mysterious crime wave than an apocalyptic cataclysm.  Much of the film focuses on a group of detectives who are investigating these occurrences and start to put together certain clues that seem to be leading to some sort of force causing these seemingly random mass suicides.

Unlike a lot of the J-horror movies that I’m looking at in this piece, this movie has something of a (very) dark comedic streak.  It’s not going for laughs exactly but the movie plays out its suicide sequences with a certain satirical tone which does seem to be in pretty questionable taste, but it does in some ways make what you’re watching seem even more disturbing and it does have the effect it seems to be going for.  The problem is that this isn’t necessarily the tone the rest of the movie takes.  The scenes with the detectives play out using the rather straightforward language of a mystery/police procedural like Se7en or something.  This investigation side of the movie mostly works pretty well scene to scene but there are loose threads that don’t really come together perfectly, which is partly intentional but partly not.  So what is the point of this all?  I’m not entirely sure but Japan is traditionally known to have a higher suicide rate than a lot of other countries and this is presumably a critique of that.  Perhaps it’s making some sort of point that people are complacent when fifty teenagers kill themselves separately but are suddenly shocked out of that complacency when they suddenly do it all at once and publicly.  The ultimate culprit that the movie suggests is behind all this chaos may also be something of a stand in for a wider culture that seems to in some ways give people permission to take their lives, albeit subliminally.  I don’t think I have the cultural context to connect all those dots though and with the odd shifts in tone I’m not sure the movie works.

Ju-On: The Grudge (2003)

Though there are a variety of J-Horror movies out there, in the popular consciousness the genre is largely defined by two series: the Ringu series and the Ju-On series.  The latter of those series was the source of the 2004 American film The Grudge (a film I’ve never seen), which was largely based on the 2003 Japanese film Ju-On: The Grudge.  This was not, however the first movie in the series.  That distinction actually goes to a direct-to-video film Ju-On: The Curse, which was followed by another direct-to-video sequel called Ju-On: The Curse 2 (Ju-On, incidentally, is Japanese for “Curse Grudge”).  These micro-budget films were well received and led to their semi-sequel/semi-reboot Ju-On: The Grudge getting a theatrical release which was a hit and its remake would become the one clear financial success to come out of the gold rush to bring other J-Horror films to American after the success of The Ring.  All of these films including the direct-to-video ones and the American remake and its first sequel were directed by a guy named Takashi Shimizu, who by my count has directed at least six of these things and the franchise has gone on since then and has produced no fewer than twelve different movies across its various iterations including one released just last year which was a crossover between the Ju-On ghost and the Ringu ghost.

The sheer number of these movies suggests that there must be something to them that’s appealing, but I really didn’t care for what I saw in this first and presumably best film in the series.  The film, like a lot of these movies, is about people forced to contend with a vengeful ghost (ghosts?) and this ghost is particularly murderous.  The spirit’s modus operandi is to curse anyone who enters the house it died in and comes into contact with anyone else who already has the curse… and that’s more or less all that happens throughout the course of the movie.  People enter the movie, get cursed, then die something like ten minutes later when the ghost decides the time is right.  Few characters are in the movie long enough for you to really care about them before they’re killed, and just to make matters even less clear the movie is told outside of chronological order to no real effect.  The basic mechanics of how the ghost stalks and kills (appearing and disappearing, that croaking sound) have a certain creepy quality to them, but their effect is quickly diminished with repetition over the course of the film.  There also isn’t really much to this ghost at the end of the day, it’s not trying to tell its story like the ghost from Ringu, it’s not trying to make some elaborate statement about the loneliness of death like the ghosts in Pulse, and it’s not even trying to find a new mother like the ghost in Dark Water, it just wants to kill everyone and that doesn’t make for a terribly compelling film.

Premonition (2004)

Premonition was a movie that came out towards the tail end of the early 2000s J-horror explosion, or at least towards the tail end of Western viewer’s initial interest in that scene.  There was a 2007 American film that was also called Premonition but my understanding is that that is not a remake.  The film was part of a loose series of sorts called “J-Horror Theater,” which was meant to be sort of an omnibus label that various directors would contribute films to, a bit like what Tarantino and Rodriguez were envisioning with their Grindhouse label or maybe what J.J. Abrams was trying to do with Cloverfield.  The film tells the story of a father who picks up a strange newspaper and sees an obituary for his (very much alive) daughter in it and then moments later this child is killed in a car crash.  The film picks up again years later when this evil newspaper comes back into his life and again starts predicting disasters that he’s largely powerless to stop and whenever he does stop them there seem to be dire consequences.  This setup is reminiscent of this TV show from the 90s called “Early Edition,” but here this magical newspaper seems more like a curse than a gift, especially given that attempts to prevent these disasters are usually punished.

In fact, the film’s “don’t mess with fate” theme actually almost harkens back to Final Destination (which does predate this), though obviously without the gory sadism of that rather unsavory franchise.  This one probably more closely resembles Ringu than a lot of the films I’m looking at for this piece, in part because there’s a clear investigative aspect to it and there are also elements Pulse in the way it seems to deal with a supernatural phenomenon that a lot of people are simultaneously trying to figure out.  The scares, however, are not really there and I’m not even sure I’d really call it a horror film so much as a kind of Twilight Zone scenario.  It’s not the most visually adventurous of these movies either and I’d say that it was pretty average for a lot of its runtime but it does pick up a little in its third act as the man tries to break the cycle to varying degrees of success.

Blade Runner 2049(10/6/2017)

It’s no secret that Hollywood is pretty desperate to make sequels to pretty much anything, but there are certain boundaries that they don’t cross every day, and in making the film Blade Runner 2049 they were certainly crossing into dangerous territory.  Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner is a true science fiction classic.  It’s a film that has a truly remarkable look which holds up remarkably today and which has had a massive influence on pretty much every future city that has been seen on film since and its combination of science fiction with film noir was an incredibly smart move that was consistently fun to watch.  On top of that the movie is this really special, really deep mediation on what it means to be human and the ways societies abuse the disenfranchised and uncaringly discard unwanted elements.  It’s a brilliant movie and when I ranked my top 100 favorite films recently it came in at number 59, which also placed it as the third best movie of the last 35 years, it’s that good in my eyes.  I don’t think in recent memory I’ve been in the position or reviewing a sequel, made so long after the fact, to a top 100 caliber movie like this.  The last movie I can think of as being in a comparable position was probably 2010: The Year We Made Contact, the 1984 sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey.  In short, the movie has some really big shoes to fill so I was certainly going into it with some a lot of skepticism.

Set thirty years after the original Blade Runner (which was set in what 1982 assumed 2019 would be like) this new film establishes that sometime after the events of the first film the old line of replicants prone to rebellion have been replaced by a new more obediant form of replicant that is allowed to operate within earth society.  One of those replicants is KD9-3.7 (Ryan Gosling), who is an LAPD “blade runner” tasked with tracking down the few remaining old world replicants and taking them out.  After the completion of one of his assassination missions KD9-3.7 finds a box filled with the remains of a long dead female replicant buried near a tree.  When these remains are discovered the autopsy shows something disturbing: this replicant seems to have died in the process of childbirth, implying that a replicant was somehow able to reproduce and also that the child that was born may still be out there.  His commanding officer, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), orders him to cover this up and tie up whatever loose ends exist so as to not cause mass pandemonium.  Meanwhile Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) is also following these developments through various connections and plans to send his agent, Sylvia Hoeks (Sylvia Hoeks) to see to his own interests.

What’s immediately striking about the movie is, of course, just how well it manages of recapture the look and more importantly the feel of that original film.  That is no easy task as the set decoration of that original film is beyond iconic and Denis Villeneuve seems to realize this and is very careful to make this Los Angeles look like the Blade Runner Los Angeles rather than the various cityscapes that it inspired.  Part of the way Villeneuve accomplishes this is by knowing the value of restraint.  It would have been easy for him to pump up the CGI and gone full Fifth Element but he does hold back and it does look like that original film, but it also isn’t afraid to expand on the world of Blade Runner and show other areas of California and even another American city.  Even more impressive is that Villeneuve didn’t seem to bend to pressures to make the film more of an action movie and to speed the movie up to fit the pacing of modern blockbusters.  It’s a bit less indebted to film noir than the first movie but all the moodiness is still there and it also remains somber and doesn’t feel pressure to rush its way through its plot to appease short attention spans.

While he’s prominently featured in the film’s advertising, Harrison Ford actually has a fairly small role in the film.  Stepping into his shoes as a blade runner protagonist is Ryan Gosling, who unlike Ford is playing a character who is unambiguously a replicant.  To do this he adopts a sort of detached but not exactly robotic cool.  Unlike the replicants we saw in the last movie like Roy Batty he’s a newer model that “obeys,” but this is rendered more like a personality quirk than a hard-wired programing and Gosling does a pretty good job of rendering this spot between human and machine.  Also in a place of nebulous humanity is his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), another product of the Wallace corporation who certainly seems to have a higher degree of individuality than you’d expect from a literal consumer product and the bad guys played by Jared Leto and Sylvia Hoeks also prove to be interesting additions to the cast while smaller roles played by the likes of Dave Bautista and Robin Wright also fill in the world of the movie nicely.

When I first left the theater after seeing Blade Runner 2049 I was pretty high on it and was just gobsmacked that Villeneuve had managed to get something like this through the studio system and I pretty thoroughly enjoyed watching it.  In the week or so since then, my reaction has cooled on the movie just a little bit as I’ve re-considered some of its story implications.  I think in many ways the movie works better as a spinoff of Blade Runner than as a sequel to Blade Runner.  It’s great at recapturing the world of that first movie and populating it with new characters but I’m not a fan of what they do to connect all of that with the story of the original film.  Spoilers ahead.  I think the idea of a replicant having given live birth is… interesting, although it’s certainly never explained how a thing like that could happen which is perhaps understandable.  However, I kind of wish that the trail of clues related to this hadn’t led straight to Deckard and Rachael.  The romance between these two characters is not necessarily the most memorable part of the original film but it had a certain melancholy fatalism to it straight out of film noir.  This notion that they were in fact destined to give birth to “the chosen one” the whole time feels less like something from film noir and more like something out of modern franchise filmmaking.  The film also conveniently leaves certain plotlines like the fate of the Jared Leto character and the specter of a robot rebellion dangling, possibly for a future sequel if this thing does well at the box office.

Of course this movie’s box office success is far from certain.  Earlier I commended the movie for not pandering to the short attention spans of modern audiences, but truth be told this kind of pacing proved to be rather challenging for audiences in 1982 as well.  It was crazy enough that they managed to make a movie like this in Hollywood once much less twice.  If I have any reservations about where they took the story they’re more the kind of problems that emerge in hindsight than they are problems that really cloud the experience of actually watching the movie.  We don’t get movies like this every day and I’m not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  This certainly isn’t the classic that the original film was but it’s entertaining, well-constructed, and just generally better than most of what we get from big budget movies like this.