11/30/2009

THE GHOST (2004)


Country: South Korea

Year: 2004

Genre: Horror

Director: Kim Tae-Kyung

Cast: Kim Ha-Neul, Nam Sang-Mi, Ryu Jin

GHOUL RATING: 2+ **(*)


Story: Ji-Won is a bright student (or so we're told: we never see her say or do anything really bright). Only trouble: she suffers from amnesia. Something terrible happened in her past, but there's no one in the world to tell her what that was. Her demented mother doesn't tell her, her school friends don't tell her. Then some of the friends start dying. They're technically drowned (lungs filled with water), although found in their living or photo rooms. The police don't find this particularly strange, even after a mental patient who was tied up to her bed is found drowned in this very bed. Happens all the time. Anyway, the usual 'unraveling of the mystery from the past' follows, with the usual 'mean trick backfired' revealed, the usual 'revenge', the usual confrontation, and the slightly unusual (because so preposterous) twist ending.


Review: The hardest movies to review are the average ones: those that follow the rules established by their predecessors without ever really showing the slightest hint of ambition to transcend those. Comfortably snuggled in the confines of cliché they trod their ways through another 'been there, done that, got the T-shirt' tired plot. The film's title is the epitome of unoriginality: THE GHOST. Oh, yeah, no surprises there. Let's make it as obvious as can be (even if the alternative title is DEAD FRIEND).

The opening scene establishes the tried and tested formula of Girls+Ghosts: they either recount some spooky urban legend (as in RINGU, and dozens of its clones, including the recently reviewed ARANG) or meddle with ghosts in some infantile way, like here, where they're playing with an Ouija board. Have you noticed how these ghost flicks never have guys as main characters? It's because this particular subgenre is predominantly oriented towards the girl market: they seem to be eating up any ghost story they're served. That's why these flicks are always about a girl, or a bunch of girls, getting into trouble with ghosts summoned or unsummoned.

The plot is as worn out as can be: a group of girls did something bad in their recent past; someone was killed due to a silly prank; a vengeful ghost appears and kills the girls involved; the final girl tries to unravel the 'mystery'; it leads to the inevitable 'go to the death scene and find the body' conclusion; and of course, would you believe it, when everything seems to be fine and dandy at the end – there's (surprise! surprise!) a TWIST! And a twist on the twist. And the final turn of the screw that just explodes the whole construction. Yawn!

Images are all déjà vu: long strands of hair coming out of the sink; creepy water effects (in one would-be scary scene we're treated to what appears to be a footage in reverse of a girl peeing down her legs); photo developing lab as the setting (with the inevitable 'ghost appears on the photograph, unseen by the cheerful morons standing in the front' trick); dripping wet ghosts; spooky dolls; scary ghost-eyes staring behind the wiry hair; ghost hands crawling on the floor, slowly advancing towards the hapless victim… You name it, they have it, unashamedly. The direction is also along those lines of 'inventiveness': false scares, sudden movements in front of the camera accompanied by a loud noise, double-wakes (you know the drill: a girl wakes up: seems there's a ghost: she jumps: no, it was just her dress: everything's ok, go back to sleep: bang- there's a ghost in her bed! wake up again, this time for real)… No old trick is beneath these purveyors of cheap scares, not even that despicable evergreen: the hand on the shoulder jolt!

Since the basic plot is so… basic, they felt the need to spice it up with some unrelated and/or silly stuff. For example, it never really explains a couple of plot points, like: how does the opening witchboard invocation connect with the rest of the movie, and who is the first girl killed? If the whole thing hangs on the revenge to some very specific wrong-doers, why is this unrelated character killed? Also, there's a little girl ghost which appears in several scenes, though it's never connected with the big-girl-revenge plot. I guess she's there because ghost kids are scary, as seen in DARK WATER, THE GRUDGE and elsewhere. Well, maybe they were scary, the first five or six times, but now… they're an old trick used in the same old, same old way. You can crawl around with your wet doll all you want, girlie, but we've seen your ghostly brothers and sisters so many times now, you'd better give up and go back to your mommy.

The main 'spice' that's added to a boring, linear story is the twist ending. It is so convoluted and stupid that it inspired discussions on numerous forums about who possessed whom, whose ghost was in whose body at which point in the movie, who did what to whom, etc. The overall effect is that of a thoroughly bland, tasteless dish that someone felt the need to spice up with so much salt and pepper that now it's even more inedible than before, when it was just bland. It will leave you scratching your head or cursing or maybe throwing stuff at your TV… or perhaps you'll rush to the internet to see the explanation for what the filmmakers were supposed to tell you, but couldn't. My advice: save yourself some time – it's stupid, too complicated and makes no sense at all. Leave it be.

On the positive side: the acting is solid for this type of flick (with the exception of the asylum girl, who overacts so much you'd expect Leslie Nielsen behind the corner), the effects are good, the pace is passably quick, and the photography (by Moon Yong-Sik) is exceptionally good: if nothing else, this must be one of the best looking recent Korean horrors, and its visuals (if not the substance) are way above average. Sadly, the content is so immaterial it could scare and entertain only the most undemanding and the most uninitiated. If you've seen more than three Asian horrors about ghosts, you can freely skip THE GHOST, as it offers nothing new whatsoever.

11/29/2009

FAUSTIAN SCREEN: A Study of Devil in the Cinema

FAUSTIAN SCREEN: A Study of Devil in the Cinema

by

Dejan Ognjanović

Winner of the award for the best unpublished book-length study, in the competition organized by the City Library of Zajecar, in 2006.

FAUSTIAN SCREEN analyzes the image of Devil as presented in the films ranging from those made by George Melies until the most recent Satanic incarnations in HELLBOY, SOUTH PARK, THE SIMPSONS and CONSTANTINE.

Some of the well-known, but also lesser-known titles are present (including Italian, German, French, Spanish, Danish and Serbian films).

Each one is analyzed in terms of its iconography, symbolism, cultural context, genre relevance and its place in the author's oeuvre. Religious, mythological, folklore or esotheric sources are invoked where necessary.

This book represents a hidden history of the fantastic and horror cinema, and is indispensable to all cinephiles and genre enthusiasts.

At the moment, the book is available only in Serbian.


CONTENTS:

1. INVOCATION: FROM SATAN TO LUCIFER


1.1. INVOCATION

1.2. EVIL

1.3. ORIGIN

1.4. IMAGE

1.5. HISTORY

1.6. LUCIFER

1.7. FAUST

1.8. CAMERA

1.9. HORROR

2. EUROPE IN FAUST'S SHADOW


2.1. ALCHEMY

Le manoir du Diable, 1896

and other films by G. Melies

2.2. SOUL

Der Student Von Prag, 1913, 1926

Das Kabinet des Dr. Caligari, 1919

2.3. ALL OF THEM WITCHES

Der Golem 1920

Haxan, 1922

Vredens Dag, 1943

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, 1922

2.4. FAUST

Faust 1926

3. SATAN IN AMERICA: THE BOGEYMAN

3.1. SATANISTS-AMATEURS

The Magician, 1925

Seven Footprints to Satan, 1929

The Black Cat, 1935

The Seventh Victim, 1943

3.2. OCCULTISTS

The Masque of the Red Death, 1964

Night of the Demon, 1956

3.3. EXISTENTIAL HORROR

Rosemary's Baby, 1968

4. EURO-TRASH DEVILS

4.1. ENGLISH DEVILS

The Devil's Bride, 1967

To the Devil a Daughter, 1976

Satanskin / aka Blood on Satan's Claw, 1970

4.2. SACROSANCT DEVILS

The Witchfinder General, 1968

Mark of the Devil, 1971

The Devils, 1971

4.3. DEVIL AMONG THE SERBS

The Master and Margaret (Majstor i Margarita, 1972)

A Man to be Killed (Čovjek koga treba ubiti, 1979)

We're No Angels (Mi nismo anđeli, 1990)

Sheitan's Warrior (Šejtanov ratnik, 2006)

5. BLESSED ARE THE POSSESSED


5.1. HYSTERIA AND POSSESSION

The Exorcist, 1973

5.2. PREPOSTEROUS PREPOSSESSION

Exorcist II: The Heretic, 1977

5.3. DISCOURSES WITH THE DEVIL

The Exorcist III, 1990

5.4. SATANIC STUDIO

The Exorcist: The Beginning, 2004

Dominion: a Prequel to The Exorcist, 2004

5.5. EVILS OF AGNOSTICISM, BLISSES OF THE FAITH

The Exorcism of Emily Rose, 2005

6. DEVIL'S COINS

6.1. REVELATION AT THE BOX-OFFICE

The Omen, 1976

6.2. ANTICHRIST RISING

Damien: Omen 2, 1978

6.3. APOCALYPSE

The Final Conflict, 1982

7. FALLEN LAWYERS AND DETECTIVES

7.1. MILTON OF THE DEVIL'S PARTY

The Devil's Advocate, 1997

7.2. VOODOO NOIR

Angel Heart, 1987

8. DEVIL'S NEW CLOTHES

8.1. KINDERGARTEN DEVIL

Les Histoires Extraordinaires: Toby Dammit, 1967

The Last Temptation of Christ, 1987

Angyali üdvözlet, 1984

8.2. FAIRY TALE DEVIL

Legend, 1985

8.3. DEVIL IN THE FISH-TANK

Prince of Darkness, 1987

8.4. DEVIL'S TORTURE GARDEN

Hellraiser, 1987

8.5. AUTOPSY OF THE ANGELS

The Prophecy, 1992

9. ECCE HOMO


9.1. DEVIL IS A MALE, TOO

The Witches of Eastwick, 1987

9.2. DEVILISH SOAP

Riget I i II, 1994-1997

9.3. DEVIL AMONG US

El dia della bestia, 1995

9.4. SMALL-TOWN FAUST

Needful Things, 1994

9.5. DEVIL TOLD ME TO

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills, 1996

Pentagram, 1990

Fallen,1998

Mr Frost, 1990

10. ARCANE ENCHANTER

10.1. PRINCE OF THE OCCULT

Lisa e il diavolo / Lisa and the Devil, 1972

La Chiesa / The Church, 1989

La Setta / The Sect, 1991

10.2. IN THE CLAWS OF THE EVIL DEMIURG

Dust Devil, 1992

10.3. THROUGH THE GATE OF LIGHT

The Ninth Gate, 1999

11. DEVIL FOR THE NEW MILLENNIUM

11.1. FROM SURREALISM TO THE POSTMODERN

Simon del desierto, 1965

Lekce Faust, 1994

Lost Highway, 1994

11.2. THE PASSION OF THE DEVIL

The End of Days, 1999

The Passion of the Christ, 2004

11.3. DEVIL IN THE COMICS

Hellboy, 2004

Constantine, 2005

11.4. MOCKERY

South Park

The Simpsons

Satan's Little Helper, 2005

11.5. RECYCLING

Omen 666, 2006

12. EXORCISM: WHAT NOW?


11.1. APPEARANCES

11.2. DESTINATIONS

APPENDIX I: FILMOGRAPHY

APPENDIX II: BIBLIOGRAPHY

11/28/2009

CRAIG (2008)


Directed by:

Kim Sønderholm

Starring: Kim Sønderholm, Peter Ottesen, Christian Magdu…

Genre: Thriller


GHOUL RATING:

*(*) 2-


Craig is a pathetic Danish schlob whom we first encounter in a police station, questioned about the unconvincing digital 'fire' effects which we saw during the opening credits. Turns out the fire in his house killed both of his parents and a sister. He's mad at the investigators for inquiring into his whereabouts, and just plain storms out of their office. The police are too sensitive about his personal loss to insist on the procedure, so they let him go. "We always know where to find him", they reason. After all, only three people died in that fire, no reason to hurry with the investigation. As the matter of fact, they never return to question Craig again. The very beginning demonstrates a profound understanding of police modus operandi which reaches unsuspected heights at the very end of this Danish crime-thriller-horror drama.

We learn that Craig has some psychological problems. How do we know? Well, through a subtle hint: he goes to a psychologist and tries to tell her about it. The amateurish actress lacks anything remotely resembling presence but her looks pale before her actions: she cuts Craig in mid-sentence, informing him that his time is up just when he started opening his heart of hearts. I believe this demonstrates the director's profound understanding of how psychologists work. They're in it just for the money, damn bastards!

Poor Craig, nobody wants to listen to his problems. So he pays a hooker. She chews a gum while riding on top of him with a bored expression on her face. Always a bad sign. "Hey, act a little," whimpers Craig. "Try at least to pretend that you enjoy this!" So she starts moaning and screaming in mock-pleasure. All to the complaints of his threatening neighbor. Hell, even the neighbor's 6-year old son shows him the middle finger. Nobody likes Craig, for some reason. So he does the most natural thing: he throws out the hooker, naked (followed by her clothes), only to run after her and kill her in a dark alley. How? I don't know, the director did not think the murder should be shown.

Her dead body attracts the police. The same two guys from the beginning. It seems that they are the only defense against chaos and anarchy in the entire city. And they don't even look particularly competent. That's what enables Craig to kill several more people before they even begin to suspect him. But hey, they always know where to find him.

Meanwhile, Craig has a psycho moment. His father's ghost visits him in his car. Well, he's more like a zombie, with half of his face burnt. He's not transparent or anything. If any digital effects were planned for this scene, the money must have gone before the post-production. So, he's just an old guy with a cheap 'burnt skin' appliance on his face, sitting in a car. He admits that perhaps he was not the best parent. That's how we suspect that Craig might have been responsible for the fire; even more, that his parents were asking for it. They're to be blamed for his… psychological state. After a brief fatherly advice, his dead dad disappears. This scene demonstrates a profound understanding of psychology and motivation while presenting a critique of modern family as we know it. Pity it's too reminiscent of similar (far better, and funnier!) scenes from AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, where a dead and mangled friend appears to David Naughton who has psychological (and lycanthropic) problems of his own. A note to all directors out there: if you want to reveal 'ghosts from someone's past' in a would-be serious drama and/or thriller, there are dozens of better ways than to (unwittingly?) reference a horror-comedy classic.

And so it goes. Craig suffers humiliation after humiliation. Naturally, he goes over the edge and kills a few more women. For some reason, men don't bother him, although that nosy neighbor guy seemed more offensive to me than a poor stripper girl in a bar. But who wants to see men killed? We are not gays, are we? We're paying tickets (and buying DVDs) to watch bare-breasted women being raped and tortured. And Mr. Sønderholm provides some breasts here. Pity those Italians have already used the great horror-title: STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER. All the women in this film are either whores, strippers, or heartless bitches just asking for it! That's why we see their tits before they're killed.

However, Mr. Director seems to be ashamed of his exploitative elements, especially when it comes to the kills. They are either off-screen or implied through that lamest of all evergreens: let's show just the girl's feet and splotch them with some red-colored liquid. Let's leave the rest to the audience's imagination. See, we respect our audience! Which reminds me: even the color of blood is wrong. I've seen ketchup more convincing as blood than the pitiable stuff used here.

But, worry not. There seems to be hope in Craig's life after all. He uses an internet chat room to meet the woman of his life. "Wanna meet?" he types. "Sure, why not," is her response. The director demonstrates a profound understanding of modern cyber-culture and how it operates and affects us. "We live in a superficial society," says the chat room girl when she meets Craig in a bar. Yet, she is too superficial to notice the red-lettered writing on his forehead: "I'm a loony!!!" So, she falls for his charm, or whatever, and does not let him even finish his glass of wine. "Let's go to my place," she says. Now, that's a woman of the XXI century! No pussyfooting about it.

I will not spoil what follows since I'm sure you're intrigued to find out if Craig makes it or breaks it. Will he marry the chat room chick and have many children with her, or is he gonna go batshit insane and try to kill her? I guess you'll have to rent the DVD when you're in a particularly masochistic mood, and see for yourself. There's a lot to be learned from this flick. For example, Mr. Sønderholm demonstrates a profound understanding of human body and how it works. You'll see a character wounded in a shoulder who, only a minute later, grabs a knife in both hands and plunges it full-force into someone's back, without the slightest pain in the aforesaid wounded shoulder or arm. Not a grimace of pain, not a wince, nothing. It's just some ketchup on the back of the shirt anyway.

So, is this film a must-see? It depends on whether you're one of those art-snobs who insist on such fancy-shmancy 'qualities' like credible characters and plotting, decent production values or at least competent photography and such nonsense, or whether you're more inclined to forgive such understandable faults like amateurish acting, lazy story, bland camerawork, uninspired direction etc. for the sake of… well, witnessing a downward spiral of one of the dullest screen psychos in recent history. And there are numerous profound insights into our modern, superficial society to boot!

I hope you'll excuse me for having been ironical in this review, but CRAIG bored me to tears and I cannot possibly force myself to take it more seriously than it took itself. CRAIG is a dull character meandering through a dull plot that's shot and directed in an entirely dull way and I can't think of a single reason why anyone would want to watch this. I'm sorry. I wanted to like it, but it lost me at 'hello' and it kept sinking from there towards a thoroughly silly ending never to surface for a single breath of fresh air.

IRON MAN: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto



IRON MAN: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto

FAB PRESS

BOOK REVIEW


Shinya Tsukamoto is one of the major avatars of modern (trans) genre cinema – one of those authors who take genres only to deconstruct them from within, creating at the same time unique, personal visions which transcend the usual generic limitations and imbue what for all intentions and purposes are legitimate works of art. As such, he belongs to the group of 'technoperes' with the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky, David Cronenberg, David Lynch, Lars Von Trier and Gaspar Noe, while among the Asian directors his colleagues in this strategy are the people like Takashi Miike (who wrote an amusing foreword to this book!), Kim Ki-Duk and Park Chan-Wook. While thematic and stylistic approaches of these authors may vary, and are too different to be put under a single label, what they all have in common is a strong, violent vision which emerges, uncompromisingly, from the lower depths of independent (genre) cinema and rises straight into the undeniable trans-genre significance of pure cinematic genius.

IRON MAN, the book-length study of Tsukamoto's oeuvre, shows in a linear, well-argumented manner, his progress from the earlier days of teenage experimentation with Super-8 filmmaking, through the underground low budget excesses of 16mm TETSUO, all the way up to the his ultimate conquest of the most renowned film festivals in the world, like Venice, Toronto, Cannes, Tokyo, London, and others. It shows the development of one of the most independent filmmakers working today – one who, even after numerous prestigious awards, still battles for finances and works only under his own terms, with a constant, devoted crew and actors who participate for minimum wages just for the opportunity to work with him.

The book is written by Tom Mes, an expert on Japanese cinema and founder of the indispensable web site Midnight Eye, who's already dedicated a book to a detailed study of Takashi Miike's work (AGITATOR, one of the best-selling and most critically praised FAB Press books). IRON MAN is excellently organized so as to provide a clear-cut view of Tsukamoto's career: after introductory chapters dealing with this director's childhood and early short works, each following chapter is dedicated to a single feature film, in the order they were made. Furthermore, each of those chapters is divided into three parts: 1) the production background, the making and release history, intentions and results, anecdotes and awards; 2) detailed analysis of the themes and ideas, as well as style of their expression, in the particular film, viewed in the context of Tsukamoto's overall concerns; and 3) director's final words on that film.


A special chapter is devoted to Tsukamoto's acting in other people's films, and there's a special epilogue which announces that the long-awaited TETSUO III may be his next film (update: TETSUO III was released only in 2009)! The fans of his most popular film will be happy to learn that final words of the book are Tsukamoto's: ''I will make TETSUO III as dark and deep as a TETSUO film should be made, with no compromises.'' If you had any doubts, you can lay them to rest now. After all, this is the man who did not exactly jump at the opportunity to have TETSUO IN AMERICA made under Tarantino's production just because he had some doubts about the dangers for the integrity of his vision! The book is crowned by the detailed filmography, description of all available DVD editions of his work, and bibliography.

The background parts of the book profit enormously from Mr. Mes's direct contact with Tsukamoto and members of his crew: he is able to illustrate his points with numerous quotes from all the people involved (including the inimitable Chu Ishikawa, his composer and provider of the major input in creating the aural landscape of Tsukamoto's films), and thus provides a clear impression of all the work behind the scenes. The critical parts are deservedly serious and meticulously analytical, well-judged and supported with good arguments. Perhaps one might complain that Mes praises too much and criticizes too little (if at all), but when the subject is an opus like that of Tsukamoto's, there are very few complaints to write about. Constantly having in mind the context of his entire oeuvre, Mes manages to convincingly show, for example, that even work-for-hire titles like HIRUKO THE GOBLIN and GEMINI bear the imprint of Tsukamoto's major concerns and thus firmly belong to his opus.

Lavish illustrations – many of them rare photos obtained directly from Tsukamoto – add a further quality to the already excellent text, and serve to prove its major arguments. As such, they are integral parts of the book, which is luckily far more ambitious than a mere picture-book for this director's fans, and it actually ends up being a perfect homage to this great director. This study achieves a perfect balance between fact, information, entertainment and seriousness, never getting dull with either biographical or critical detail, and is thus a good, fluid read for both academics and regular otakus. FAB press is to be commended for yet another high quality publication, and Tom Mes for writing an account of Tsukamoto's work that this director (and his fans) certainly deserve.

After Miike, and now Tsukamoto, I only wonder – who's the next subject of Mes's midnight eye? Could it be Kiyoshi Kurosawa? Now that's a book that needs to be written!

11/27/2009

HIRUKO THE GOBLIN (1990)


Country: Japan
Year:
1990

Genre:
Horror

Running Time:
88'

Director:
Shinya Tsukamoto

Cast:
Kenji Sawada, Masaki Kudo, Tomoh Sano, Ken Mitisuishi, Hideo Murota

GHOUL RATING: *** (3-)


Story:
Professor Yabe, an archeology expert, discovers a site which seems to have something to do with demons. He disappears, but not before his letter summons his colleague Hieda. Hieda is a nervous, clumsy investigator of the paranormal, defamed for his belief in goblins. When he arrives at the spring-break abandoned school near the site, Yabe's son joins him looking for his father and several missing friends. Pretty soon the only thing that's missing of them are their heads. An unlikely duo is left to battle the spider-like decapitating creature in the dark school hallways and, later on, to find a way to prevent the demon invasion through a 'Gate' nearby…


Review: The most important thing about HIRUKO is having the right kind of expectations. If the name of Shinya Tsukamoto mostly reminds you of power-drill penises, metal rising out of the flesh and all kinds of mutations of the two, you may be disappointed. Also, if you want to watch a film called HIRUKO THE GOBLIN expecting an artsy exploration of Japanese man's millennium angst in the vein of his later films like TOKYO FIST or BULLET BALLET… well, read that title again! Because, what you're in for here is Tsukamoto's homage to SF and horror TV serials of his youth: infantile, silly, with thin and irrational plots and a lot of action. The DVD cover makes a ridiculous claim that the film is 'a surreal cross between David Lynch and David Cronenberg' which must've been copy-pasted from a TETSUO DVD cover by someone who hasn't seen HIRUKO.

This film could be best described as a mixture of EVIL DEAD (minus a charismatic performance of Bruce Campbell) and Carpenter's THE THING (minus groundbreaking and super-elaborate special effects) by way of WIZARD OF DARKNESS (minus the beauty of Kimika Yoshino). Or, to be more specific: zany, overacting characters are trapped in a single location (deserted school) and at the mercy of a shape-shifting demon who's obviously inspired by the famous disembodied-head-sprouting-spider-legs scene from Carpenter's masterpiece. The said demon (or goblin) intends to open the gates of hell and unleash hundreds of his cousins upon mankind. Watch your heads!

The first Tsukamoto's studio picture is certainly his most conventional. There are very few touches that are typically his own – like the frantic camera rides down the deserted school's hallways and close-ups of wide-eyed screaming faces, but the rest is only as weird as a typical Japanese horror (which is still quite a lot for a uninitiated Western viewer!). The concept is decidedly weird: a spider-like creature with ability to take over human heads and animate them, which uses a soft, sugar-coated song to hypnotize others into self-decapitation. The latter leads to a couple of joyful gushes of crimson, but otherwise – there is not much blood. The violence is, just like the rest of the film, comicky and not supposed to be taken seriously. Numerous instances of humor are based on exaggerated actions and reactions, mostly centered on the clumsy professor Hieda and his malfunctioning equipment for goblin-detection. They put HIROKU closest to a comedy that Tsukamoto's ever come. The atmosphere, general attitude, vivid camerawork and rapid editing may remind you of early Raimi phase (while he was making good, innovative movies), but as previously stated – central inspiration came from the B-serials of Tsukamoto's youth.

The story doesn't make much sense – nor does it try to. We get only the vaguest idea about what those creatures are, where they come from and what they want. The unsaid parts should be taken for granted, from other B-flicks (reciting certain words opens or closes the Gate, etc.) or just enjoyed as surrealistic leftovers from art cinema now translated into genre moviemaking. Some of those include: a bicycle ride down the school corridors; a vision-dream in which a boy with a chainsaw joins his girl's family picnic; the same girl's face singing, her face slightly above the water surface, while the mist is hovering and the spider legs emerging around the head… The camerawork is excellent, special effects serviceable (slightly on the cheesy side, but well suited to the light, schlocky tone of the film) and the only thing that's sorely missed is the music by the Tsukamoto regular Chu Ishikawa (here replaced by a generic, non-memorable soundtrack).

HIRUKO THE GOBLIN is a fine, enjoyable horror-fantasy-comedy, warmly recommended to all those big, but not really grown up boys who cherish B-flicks and comics in which the fantasy is outrageous, ridiculous and fast-paced. This is a no-brainer (or should I say no-header?): the fact that it's made by the director on his way to receive a Special Jury Prize in Venice (for A SNAKE OF JUNE) only makes it more entertaining.

11/26/2009

MAGIC (1978)



Directed by Richard Attenborough

USA, 1978

102 minutes

GHOUL RATING: **(*) 3-


Special DVD Features:

Screenwriting for Dummies featurette

Fats and Friends featurette

Interview with Cinematographer Victor J. Kemper

Interview with Anthony Hopkins

Anthony Hopkins radio interview

English and Spanish radio spots

English and Spanish TV spots

English trailers

Stills gallery

Ann-Margret makeup test

Region 2 / PAL

Anamorphic widescreen (in 1.78:1)

Stereo 2.0,

Optional 5.1 and DTS


When you look at the credits of MAGIC, you're tempted to expect some real magic dust floating around. What we have here is a film written by the Oscar winner William Goldman (ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, MISERY, CHAPLIN…), directed by the Oscar winner Richard Attenborough (GANDHI, CHAPLIN), scored by the Oscar winner Jerry Goldsmith (THE OMEN) and starring the Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS). Unfortunately, none of the Oscars were won (or deserved) for MAGIC. Actually, a more cynical mind could announce MAGIC thus: 'From the writer of DREAMCATCHER, by the director of A CHORUS LINE, with a star of FREEJACK!'' And such a blurb would better prepare you for the actual accomplishments of this particular flick.

MAGIC is based on a tired old shtick about a ventriloquist domineered (and ultimately driven crazy) by his dummy. In this instance, Anthony Hopkins is fighting an uphill battle for his sanity, but how much can you expect from a guy whose stage name is 'Corky'? 'Corny' is more like it: it covers perfectly both his appearance and his 'entertainment' act. When the card tricks fail he draws upon the dummy, and has a moderate success with his wooden, foul-mouthed alter-ego berating his corniness. A manager (Burgess Meredith, from ROCKY) immediately wants to place this nonsense act on national TV, but Corky's insecurities get the better of him, and instead of fame and money he grabs his dummy and opts for – a mountain resort run by his highschool-sweetheart Peggy (Ann-Margret). Will Corky be saved by his puppy love, or destroyed by the puppet love?

This being a horror film, there's never any doubt as to the outcome. After all, we've all seen numerous variations on the ventriloquist vs. dummy theme, and MAGIC is basically it: a TWILIGHT ZONE episode padded for length with some improbable romance. It's improbable because regardless of how bad her current marriage is, Peggy is not so desperate (or blind) to keep tolerating advances of a man so clearly unbalanced and dangerous as Corky (no matter how silly it sounds putting 'Corky' and 'dangerous' in the same sentence). She doesn't seem to mind him yelling at her, ordering her around and acting like Norman Bates's crazier brother: she invites him to bed nevertheless. Alas, a lady's love bringeth no salvation! Corky eventually goes off-balance and starts a killing spree. That is, if you can call a body count of two – a killing spree.

The technical credits are all-around decent: the photography by Victor Kemper (DOG DAY AFTERNOON, EYES OF LAURA MARS) is solid, and captures nicely the beauty of the Catskill mountains as well as some of the dummy's creepiness. Attenborough's direction is workmanlike, just what you'd expect from someone who agreed to make this film only because the producers promised to fund his epic GANDHI afterwards. Acting is very good, especially Meredith. Hopkins, in his pre-Hannibal days, is perhaps too convincing as a seedy psycho (his portrayal was much helped by his experiences from the trenches of anti-alcoholic battles). Surprisingly, Jerry Goldsmith let us down this time and phoned-in an unimpressive, utterly forgettable score.

They may try to sell MAGIC as a 'serious drama', but make no mistake: this is a third rate material straining towards something like respectability. As such, it reminded me of another similar attempt of an up-and-coming director and a big star to raise a silly premise to artsy heights. Yes, I'm talking about Oliver Stone's THE HAND (1981) where Michael Caine battled his disembodied hand (or was it just schizophrenia?) with slightly less psychological profundity or complexity than you'll find in Corky's schizoid fight with his own self.

As a drama MAGIC fails because it is so silly, one-dimensional and predictable. As a TWILIGHT ZONE wannabe it fails because it eschews the ambiguity of 'is-the-doll-alive-or-is-Corky-just-insane?' and instead presents its protagonist as a mere pathetic nut right from the start. As a horror film it fails, simply, because there's not much horror to be found anywhere around. Small body count, barely interesting characters and situations, unimaginative scares and looong stretches of pointless drama and romance work against the overall effect. Simply put, this was way better when it was a 40 minute segment in the classic anthology DEAD OF NIGHT (1945) or a 25 minute episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. At 102 minutes MAGIC overstays its welcome and mostly undercuts the magic of its ancient idea.

Although the film itself does not really merit a special DVD edition, it gets one nevertheless. On disc 1 there is only the film (pity they couldn't get Anthony Hopkins for a dual commentary: one as himself, the other as Fats the naughty puppet), and it is a Widescreen Presentation enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is probably the best that could be, considering the film's age, and there are only minor quibbles with certain scenes where the dark is not black enough. The sound is a very good Stereo 2.0 with optional 5.1 and DTS.

Disc 2 contains the extras, more than you'd expect from a half-forgotten film: 'Screenwriting For Dummies' featurette is a short but valuable interview with Goldman, while the most entertaining is probably 'Fats And Friends' featurette where a real ventriloquist who worked on the film talks about it and also showcases his skill with the actual dummy. You also get an 'Interview with Cinematographer Victor J. Kemper', an 'Interview with Anthony Hopkins' done for Spanish TV, Anthony Hopkins radio interview (accompanied by the images from the film and behind the scenes). There are also English and Spanish radio spots, English and Spanish TV spots, English trailers (some spooky stuff there!), a stills gallery and even a silent Ann-Margret makeup test. The additional features are approximately 75 minutes all together, and you can view them all as one single piece.

11/25/2009

SAMARITAN GIRL (2004)



Country:
South Korea

Year: 2004

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 97'

Director: Kim Ki-Duk

Cast: Lee Uhi, Kwak Ji-Min, Seo Min-Jung,

GHOUL RATING: 3 (***)


Story: Two teenage girls dream of traveling to Europe. In order to collect the money, they become freelance prostitutes, or more precisely, only one of them is actually doing ‘it’, while the other is arranging the business over the internet and cell-phone. For a brief while it seems to be going well, but very soon a series of tragic events takes the plot into progressively darker and darker territory that I’d rather not spoil for you. Is there any light at the end of this tunnel?


Review: The above synopsis may make you expect a slice-of-life kind of drama about the growing social problem of teenage prostitution – perhaps something along the lines of Masato Harada’s BOUNCE KO GALS. If you approach SAMARITAN GIRL with such expectations, you may be at least puzzled, if not even dumbfounded. The reason is simple: this film is not primarily concerned with social critique, nor does it insist on ‘realistic’ portrayal of characters and events in the strictest sense of the term. This is a film by Kim Ki-Duk – controversial Korean director of unique, powerful and unpredictable, genre-defying films of rare visual and visceral force. In numerous interviews he described his approach to filmmaking as ‘semi-abstract’, or, in his own words: ‘My concept of semi-abstract movie making is about doing more than just presenting reality. To the world as we see it, I try to add our thoughts and feelings.’ This is where he departs from Harada (whose film, by the way, is a decent and emotional drama about teen prostitutes, with perhaps too much sugar to actually have a desired impact).

SAMARITAN GIRL is not really about teen prostitution. It is, idiosyncratically for Kim, about big issues, such as Sin, Guilt, Shame, Revenge, Punishment, and Redemption. Just as in SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER…AND SPRING, the topics are universal and profoundly human, but the setting is not a detached temple: this time drama is set in deceivingly urban surroundings. All other issues are reflected through the central one, not only of this film, but of Kim’s entire opus: the problem of communication, or lack thereof. His works, especially THE ISLE, BAD GUY and 3-IRON, are centered on silent, moody characters, scarred by some unknown sorrow and left speechless. Instead of words, they mostly ‘talk’ through excessive acts of sex and/or violence. This provides opportunity for some beautiful, erotic, but also shocking images which, in their own way, ‘tell’ the viewers more than any words of dialogue could. In that respect it is important to note that nudity, sex and extreme brutality in Kim’s films are never exploitative, they are never ‘fun’: it is precisely in those extreme scenes that his characters are revealed, unmasked, nude: it is precisely in their misbegotten attempts at communication that we realize who they really are.

Jae-Yeong communicates through sex. She enjoys it, to the bewilderment of Yeo-Jin, her business-like companion: ‘Even though it’s brief,’ she says about sex with strangers, ‘we are still sharing something. I’m not dirty.’ Her friend still insists on ritualized attempts to literally wash away the sin (the film has strong Catholic undertones!). In the later part of the film, Yeo-Jin has to try to understand her friend by becoming her (‘I’m the real Jae-Yeong!’), and thus redeem her sense of guilt… Yeo-Jin’s father is a policeman who accidentally, standing next to a murder victim, glimpses his daughter with a client in the hotel across the street. Quite understandably, he is staggered. His only way of communicating his anguish is – violence. Unable to actually talk to his daughter, other than recounting stories about Catholic saints and miracles, he starts stalking Yeo-Jin’s clients and inflicting increasing doses of pain: it begins with slaps on the face, progresses with a particularly painful exposure of a pater familias in front of his family (which ends with his suicide) and culminates with a very bloody murder. With his own dose of guilt and confusion he takes his daughter to the countryside, to her mother’s grave. Significantly, it is in the nature – almost idyllic and pure – that last attempts at communication and redemption are to be made…

SAMARITAN GIRL is, just like Kim’s best work, intriguing, beautiful, painful, puzzling, spiritual, and thought-provoking. Unbearable physical cruelty and mental anguish are followed by sentimental passages of touching beauty: surprising acts of bloodshed precede lyrical and poetic scenes – and all of them, as a whole, reveal a work of profound insight into the human condition. All of it is presented in a matter-of-factly manner, with a distance which may alienate those expecting ready-made answers, but will certainly provoke others, willing to participate in a unique experience without a firm guiding hand leading them. You may stumble a bit - perhaps even the ‘guide’ is not fully certain about the place he’s showing you - but that is the pleasure of Kim Ki-Duk’s films: the sense of exploration, of a fascinating walk on infirm ground, and especially – of sharing the thoughts and emotions, fears and insecurities with an artist who has so much to show you. Kim is not working from an omniscient, God-like perspective: he is there, in the film, in each of the characters and in the setting that envelops them, experiencing and trying to understand the pain and the lack of communication that haunt him/them. If you allow him to take you into his ‘semi-abstract’ world, you may be haunted too, but –perhaps just a little bit – purified as well.

3-IRON


3-IRON

Country : South Korea

Year: 2004

Genre: Drama – Romance – Thriller - Fantasy

Running Time: 88'

Director: Kim Ki-Duk

Cast: Seung-yeon Lee, Hyun-kyoon Lee, Hyuk-ho Kwon, Jin-mo Ju

GHOUL RATING: 5-

****(*)


STORY: Young Tae-Suk wanders through the apartments of people on vacation: for a while he enjoys their homes, doing small repair jobs and then leaves quietly, without stealing anything. His ghost-like hauntings of these homes are matched when he encounters a battered woman sulking in a lush, apparently uninhabited house. They become attracted to one another, but there are many obstacles for their unconvential affair: an angry husband, police, murder charges, golf balls...

REVIEW: People are limited by their environment but also by their own inner being. And yet they try to reach out into the world, into someone else's existence and make a meaningful contact in their own very peculiar way. In Kim Ki-Duk's films this contact is never verbal; never could the debased words establish a real communion between souls. The method can be violence (BAD GUY); it can be eroticism (SAMARIA); it can be sado-masochism (THE ISLE); it can be even silence (THE BOW) – but never, never words. This director distrusts words more than any other I can think of; and whatever they do, his characters almost never talk to one another. It is not because they have nothing to say. On the contrary, it is precisely that they have too much on their minds, things too important to convey for them to be dragged down in words. In a world in which every soap opera or 'Reality TV' person is ''madly in love'', in which feelings are all too easily labeled, Kim Ki-Duk's protagonists cherish their private world too much to even try to verbalize it. Words like ''love'', ''hate'', ''passion'', ''revenge'', and the like do not even BEGIN to describe the essence standing behind their motivations (often mysterious to themselves as well).

Such is the case with 3-IRON, Kim Ki-Duk's best work so far. It is best because here he manages to capture the elusive essence of complex emotions in such a pure, unadulterated manner that by the end of the film his characters become more ethereal, more mysterious than they were in the beginning. The two outcasts, outsiders in a world governed by money, power and violence, ''live'' their solitary lives of Kafkean detachment verging on non-existence: Sun-Hwa broods, silently rejecting her husband's brutishness (undiminished – or, one could argue, even augmented by his wealth and social status), while Tae-Suk leads a vicarious existence assuming, at least temporarily, other people's lives. Both of them are trying to diminish themselves – to hide from the outside world, to be too small to be noticeable – to become no one, to be nothing. These are the same sentiments that made Gregor Samsa metamorphose into a bug. But in contrast with Kafka's universe, in Kim Ki-Duk's there is also love. Often strange, unspeakable, indescribable, beyond the grasp of external observers – but none the less powerful or life-changing for that.

So, the two outcasts meet, and immediately form a microcosm of two. It is through silences that they speak, it is through looks that they touch, it is through music (the stunning, elegiac Oriental mood piece by Slvain repeated several times in the film) that they make love. Never has Kim Ki-Duk been so adept in using silence, or music, or sparse sounds from the outside world. Never has he been so lucky with actors as in this film: Hyun-kyoon Lee practically carries the film through his body language and his looks, making Tae-Suk an astonishing character – one of the most likable (while, at the same time mysterious) in recent cinema. He's immensely helped by Seung-yeon Lee's portrayal of an abused but undefeated wife who is brought to life through the contact with her own silent partner. Together they are alone against the others, and with the newly-found power of love they dissolve from this world.

3-IRON is pure poetry in film: a visual, aural and atmospheric treat unlike anything you've ever seen, a great existential love affair painted with subtlety (and occasional burst of violence) by one of the greatest masters of world cinema working today. Absolutely recommended for all those who do not mind their entertainment heady, sentimental, ambiguous and a bit slow-paced. If, however, your idea of entertainment is mostly fast-paced action, suspense/gore-filled horror or laugh-riot comedy, be warned that the 'entertainment' score for this film would probably be 3,5 or 4. But I guess that no one comes to a Kim Ki-Duk expecting the usual fun. For the lovers of the unusual, the score is certainly 5.