Monday, February 10, 2014

Movie Review: The Conjuring - 2013

Please leave the ghost busting to "Ghostbusters" 

IMDB"The Conjuring" is similar to 1979's "Amityville Horror" in that it is allegedly based on a true story about a family that gets tormented by spirits right after they moved into a new home. Another similarity would be that the movie has a couple of ghost scenes that are quite creepy. However, I could not really get into it because - unlike "Amityville Horror" - the movie doesn't concentrate on the family but instead tries to establish two unlikely heroes from the most annoying demographic on the planet: paranormal investigators.

Said investigators are Lorraine and Ed Warren who, in the movie just as in real life, are a self-proclaimed medium and a self-proclaimed expert demonologist, respectively. They must be a real awesome experts, because not once during the movie does anyone dare to question their claims, whether the Warrens are lecturing large audiences or their clients. How does Ed Warren know there are human spirits and non-human spirits? How does he tell the difference? How does one become a demonologist anyway?

"The Conjuring" plays like a feel-good movie for fans of ghost hunting TV shows; all the claims about how the paranormal "functions" seem to have been taken straight from there. During the end titles, photos and newspaper articles are shown to convince the viewer once more that this was all really real. And, of course, the only skeptic in the movie is a doofus who in the end gets so lectured, haha.

But even if the movie didn't make me so aware that I was watching a piece of propaganda for fans of ghost hunting shows (and of the catholic church, for that matter), I would have had a hard time finding it overall scary. Because, in "The Conjuring", the supernatural isn't dreadful but trivial. The know-it-all investigators have an explanation for everything, and they fix the supernatural like a broken car. In fact, director James Wan even added a scene where Ed Warren and the dad are trying to fix an old car, as if to symbolize just that. Apparently, Wan deliberately missed the opportunity to make a genuinely disturbing movie and chose to make a fan movie for the Warrens instead. What a waste!

PS: Please, Hollywood, if you ever want to make a movie again about paranormal investigators, just make a "Ghostbusters" sequel. Oh, it seems they listened.

Rating: 4 out of 10 doors not-so-scarily opening by themselves.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Movie Review: Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Ichimei) - 2011

Debunking the myth of samurai honor

IMDB"Hara Kiri: Death of a Samurai" is another samurai movie by Takashi Miike which he made right after 13 Assassins and which is also a remake of a movie from the 1960s. It is a very different take on the samurai subject though in that it is less of an action movie and more of a bitter social drama that criticizes the hypocrisy of samurai culture in the Edo era.

Mostly told in retrospective, "Hara Kiri" is a story about a masterless samurai who requests a clan lord to allow him to commit ritual suicide on the lord's estate. The lord is suspicious though since such requests have become fashionable among poor samurai as a means to get alms. So the lord decides to make an example: instead of giving the samurai some money he forces him to actually kill himself in a ritual that turns out to be inhumanely agonizing. Two months later, another samurai arrives at the estate, with a similar suicide request. As a warning, the lord tells him about the fate of the poor wretch who died there earlier. But the man already knows about that. In fact, he knew the dead man very well, and he tells the lord the story of his life.

Major part of "Hara Kiri"is spent with the depiction of the poverty of the samurai's family. As your sympathy for him grows, you feel nothing but contempt for the lord and his hypocritical idea of honor, which is just as hollow as the armor suit exhibited at the center of his estate. However, while the display of poverty is crucial to establish the movie's moral, there is just too much of it for my taste. The beginning of "Hara Kiri" is strong and unnerving, but then it meanders in poverty melodrama for such a long time that its action packed last act actually feels out of place.

I have a hard time liking the movie since it is so bitter, but I still think that it is important since it contrasts Hollywood productions that mystify samurai honor, like "The Last Samurai" or the "Kill Bill" series. Or "Ghost Dog", which is about a killer living by the samurai code described in the Hagakure, which is a morbid book mystified in the West as some sort of esoteric business guide. Generally, there is a strong fascination in the West with Bushido, the samurai way of life, which is expressed by movies like the ones mentioned above. However, even the samurai code that the Hollywood movies claim to be based on is basically just a fabrication of the Edo era, which began with the 17th century. That era was way more peaceful than the previous ones, and it was the time when the samurai stopped being warriors and became a ruling class of government officials. Ironically, the more the samurai ceased to be warriors, the more they became obsessed with an idea of warriors' honor that actually hadn't much to do with the samurais' way of living during the previous millennium.

"Hara Kiri" plays in that era, and it is mentioned during the movie that most of the lord's samurai haven't actually fought in battle. The lord's hypocrisy isn't just a plot tool added to give the movie a villain. Rather, the movie appears to provide a fairly accurate description of the state of society at that time. Considering that, "Hara Kiri" is worth watching, so it's a pity that it loses so much momentum during the middle act.

Rating: 6 out of 10 chopped-off topknots.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Movie Review: Tetsuo - The Bullet Man - 2009

Tamer - and shakier - than the first

IMDBA man watches how his son gets purposely and repeatedly run over by a car. As if that trauma wasn't enough, his body starts growing metal, turning him into an invulnerable monster. Yes, it's Shinya Tsukamoto time again, and "Tetsuo - The Bullet Man" is the third installment of his "Testuo" series. It is similar in style and content to the former movies, but there are also some notable differences. Just like in "Tetsuo - The Iron Man", we get lots of frantic shots accentuated by industrial music. The title sequence is even identical to the original. Also, the protagonist has metal parts growing from his body in an organic rather than technical way.

But Tsukamoto also tried to make "Tetsuo - The Bullet Man" more accessible for viewers, particularly those from Western countries. The movie hasn't been filmed in Japanese but English, and it's a Caucasian, Eric Bossick as Anthony, who is growing into a metal monster. It has desaturated pictures with glimpses of color instead of pure black and white. And though it is quite as violent, it lacks the disturbing sexual images of the first installment. Most important, it has a story that can be understood and that explains why everything is happening. Yes, the movie definitely is more accessible than the first one. It is somewhat but not completely weird, it is somewhat but not completely confusing, and it even has an identifiable plot. Which, though, is also the reason why fans of the original will probably be disappointed. Although on the surface the movies appear similar, the tone is very different. This movie isn't quite as avant-garde, it lacks the pure freakishness of the original.

While it's a matter of taste which style you like better, there is a real problem with "Tetsuo - The Bullet Man" that spoils the experience quite a bit. It's the shaky cam - the ugly tool that only film makers like while everybody else on the planet hates it. The shaky cam in this movie is really annoying.

Rating: 5 out of 10 further things growing out of your body.

Movie Review: Tetsuo - The Iron Man (Tetsuo) - 1989

Industrial stop-motion madness

IMDBShinya Tsukamoto's "Tetsuo" is 67 minutes of screaming, violence, sex, stop motion effects, crazy laughter, and industrial music. It's also frantically edited and shot in black and white. That doesn't necessarily sound like fun, but it is.  As far as I could tell after a second viewing, the story is about a man with a metal fetish who cuts his body to insert metal parts, thereby gaining psychical power over metal that he uses to take revenge on a clerical worker and his girlfriend by making metal grow out of the man's body. Or perhaps it is about something completely different, who knows.

Do not mistake this for a Japanese version of Marvel's "Ironman". There are no fancy iron suits but messes of  pipes, wires, and other metal parts growing insanely fast like tumors and melding with bodies. The men aren't superheroes but monstrosities. And the style is avant-garde with lots of confusing images, making the movie feel like a vision from Kafka rather than cyberpunk.

So, how can this be fun? First, "Tetsuo" is frantic, it never gives you a break to ponder what you're actually watching. This could have turned out immensely annoying - well, I suppose some people will think of the movie just that way. But it worked for me. It made the movie a pure visual and acoustic experience unlike any other. Second, it's quite hilarious. The movie is so over the top weird that I had to laugh some times.

"Tetsuo" is one of a kind. Except for the two sequels that Tsukamoto made, which are actually more of the same. "Tetsuo - The Bullet Man", notably, was made by 20 years after the first one, and it's more accessible but - maybe because of that - also less fun.

Rating: 8 out of 10 strange things growing out of your body.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Movie Review: Confessions (Kokuhaku) - 2010

Trash with an artsy icing

IMDB "Confessions" by director Tetsuya Nakashima is an effective socio thriller that won't leave any viewer unaffected. I give it that. But it is also a stone-cold, calculated movie without a heart. Its primitive morality is covered by an artsy fartsy coating which, sadly, makes critics believe that the movie had something profound to tell.

The movie starts with a bang of an opening scene. A teacher tells her class of 7th graders about the value of life. Keeping the same calm tone throughout, she then tells them that her little daughter died; that she got in fact murdered by two students currently attending the class. She elaborates on how the two students will get away with their heinous deed because they are below the age of criminal responsibility. Before leaving, though, she reveals a nasty surprise for them: She has just infected the killers with the HIV virus. The film proceeds with showing from different perspectives what is going on in the kids minds and how the teacher's twisted revenge plan unfolds.

It does so with demonstrative artistic style. Whereas the cold color scheme and the frequent shots of dark clouds may be reasonable gimmicks to create a dark atmosphere, there are also countless slow motion shots that seem to have no purpose other than make the film look artsy. The same goes for the odd choice of music and some scenes that are deliberately out of place, like one where the students almost perform a musical act.

With its artsy style, "Confessions" apparently tries to mimic Chan-Wook Park's revenge trilogy, "Oldboy", "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance", and "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance". One could argue that those movies are also somewhat pretentious. But below the surface, their morality is complex. Park's revenge trilogy is about people who are basically good but who heap guilt upon themselves, and the revenge doesn't lead to redemption.

Contrary to that, Nakashima's world is simplistic and strictly divided into good and evil. All the kids in "Confessions" are monsters devoid of empathy. Not just the killers but even their peers, who are obnoxious brats trying to give their teacher as hard as a time as possible. Even when the teacher tells them about the death of her little daughter they don't care. Only the fact that the killers are among them raises their interest, as that seems a welcome opportunity for bullying.

So there is the message of "Confessions". All the kids are monsters, and the most psychopathic of them deserve to die. And then, I guess, the viewer is supposed to leave the theater with a feeling of satisfaction because the revenge unfolded so well. This ugly little package is all that "Confessions" has to offer below its aesthetic surface. I have to admit that the movie impressed me at first. But then I realized just how corrupt it is. I would take revenge movies of the "Death Wish" kind over "Confessions". Because at least those movies weren't as pretentious as this film that blinds the viewer with a shiny artistic surface to make them believe it was art.

By the way: Hey, directors, leave them kids alone! They are alright. This should be obvious, but I've seen comments from people who now believe that Japanese kids really were like this. Quite stupid of those viewers, but also quite an assholish achievement of a movie.

Rating: 1 out of 10 pretentious slow motion shots.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Movie Review: Higanjima - 2009

Cliche-ridden but quite entertaining horror-action flick

IMDBVampire movies are the Westerns of the horror genre; most people have had enough of them, except when they are exceptionally unique. The Korean-Japanese co-production "Higanjima" directed by Tae-gyun Kim, unfortunately, has neither a really original story nor unique characters. Nonetheless, it is quite entertaining, thanks to a lot of action that is delivered by an enthusiastic crew.

Akira (Hideo Ishiguro) is a normal teenager who is one day encountered by the mysterious and beautiful Rei (Asami Mizukawa). She tells him that his missing brother Atsushi (Dai Watanabe) is in trouble. In fact, he is trapped on an island inhabited by vampires. Joined by his friends, Akira travels to the island where the gang is confronted with a whole army of vampires lead by vampire lord Miyabi (Kôji Yamamoto).

Although the vampire lord looks like an albino, he is a walking cliche in that he is just as smug and aristocratic like 99% of all vampire villains in American productions of the "Vampire Diaries" kind. He also wears Victorian style clothing, which would make sense if this was "Interview with a Vampire" - instead of a movie playing solely in Japan. It is frustrating to see how the filmmakers tried to copy Hollywood, carelessly wasting the opportunity to come up with a unique vampire. When it comes to characters, I also wondered why Akira's friends thought it was a good idea to travel to a vampire infested island armed with (I do not make this up) one baseball bat and one bag of sandwiches.

On the plus side, there is a lot of action to keep you entertained for the movie's two hours. Most of it has been shot on-location on an island. If you happen to own the DVD, I highly recommend to watch the Making-Of commented by Dai Watanabe. I was impressed to learn that the actors did the stunts themselves, which is astonishing since there is really tons of fighting with swords, tree trunks and whatever else is at hand, and people thrown around by vampires and explosions.

Beneath the cliche-ridden surface of "Higanjima", I sense a great movie lurking. The end suggests that there will be a sequel. If so, I hope they will just try to be a bit more original.

Rating: 6 out of 10 useless fellow combatants.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Movie Review: Sadako 3D - 2012

Ringu goes 3D. And CGI. And Aliens.

IMDBIt's been quite a long time since Hideo Nakata's last Ringu installment, which was "Ring 2" from the year 2005. And which wasn't good, though not as bad as "Spiral - The Ring 2". Just to inject some more confusion, there is another movie called "Ringu 2" which was made by Nakata since "Spiral - The Ring 2" wasn't accepted by audiences. It seems that one must have studied rocket science to understand the Japanese versioning of movies since there is an even bigger mess when it comes to the "Ju-on" franchise.

Anyway, there wasn't that much left of Ringu to be ruined, hence the reviews claiming that Tsutomu Hanabusa's "Sadako 3D" ruined it are clearly exaggerating. Still, Ringu is regarded the flagship of J-horror, as is proven by exhibit A, the t-shirt I purchased for last Halloween:

Exhibit A: Ringu T-Shirt

So I was looking forward to "Sadako 3D", though I had a bad feeling about the "3D". I can see how 3D works for action based movies like "Final Destination", but for atmospheric, creepy horror it must be a distraction. And so it is for "Sadako". Every scene has been arranged to show off the three dimensions. Every effect is like glass shards in the foreground, background, everywhere, hands coming out of the screen, and so forth. There are scenes where people are talking, but they are pushed to the background just so one can see another person in the foreground. It doesn't make sense, but hey, the depth! It's like the movie is constantly yelling at you "Look at me, I'm 3D!". I yell back: "I know, but I don't care, and I'm watching in 2D anyway!".

As for the plot, there's nothing to write home about. An annoying young artist wants to bring Sadako back to life, and part of his plan is an Internet video of his that kills its viewers. It's quite simple, but "Sadako" wants to make sure that really, really everyone understands the plot, so it lets the protagonists explain it again and again. There is a police detective who appears to be there just for that purpose, to have the plot explained to him or to explain it to others.

What is not explained though is the occurrence of multiple creatures that all look like a mix of Sadako and a monster from the "Alien" franchise. And then, as if 3D wasn't enough, there is an overuse of computer graphics. The problem with CGI is that it is always sterile and thus ruins any sense of creepiness. But that's what you get for attacking people through video technology, Sadako! Eventually, technology strikes back and demolishes you!

Rating: 3 out of 10 dimensions I could have done without.