Thursday, July 25, 2013

Japanese Psycho (Horror): THE COMPLEX くクロユリ団地 @ Fantasia, 2013

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As paralyzing and hair-raising, as some expression of horror may be, those scares tend to diminish when faced with he passing of time. Many of the innovations that sprung out of Japan, be them original or just executed masterfully, and most strongly associated with films like Ring by directed by Hideo Nakata and Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on, are not likely to have the same effects on viewers who took in those earlier films, aghast, when seeing the same tricks employed again. So, it stands to reason the long haired emaciated figures of death, weird guttural sounds, and doors creaking open and shut that occasionally phase into being in THE COMPLEX (also by Hideo Nakata) bring few true feelings of fright. In fact, throughout a large part of its first act, it seems intent on delivering only a vague sense of creepiness.

            It almost feels like the film’s hand is being revealed too fast. Asuka, about to begin studying at a nursing school, who with her family has just moved into the old and rundown apartment building bearing the movie’s Japanese title (Kuroyuri Danchi), befriends a little boy who plays alone way too late at night. It feels like a clear giveaway that she has some communion with spirits of the no longer living.  And at the same time, the dread induced by a spindly, lurking, and seemingly corporeal next-door neighbor also seems to be coming to an anticlimactic head too soon.

Yet, there are little signs that things are amiss. The only kind of affective scares are mixed in with offbeat, even slightly humorous touches, like the alarm that keeps waking Asuka up or the repetitious, déjà vu inducing conversations of her parents. The arrival of a cleaner, whose job it is to clear out and purify the dilapidated dwellings of deceased individuals who went unnoticed, and the bond he forges with Asuka is the first strong suggestion that THE COMPLEX will take seemingly conventional horror into some unique and intriguing places. Altogether worth the somewhat lumbering start to get there.

As Asuka’s afflictions of terror persist and take on a more inward quality, the film delves into issues of loneliness, grief, and guilt…manifestations of horror that are far more real and for that, perhaps far more relatable to audience members that feel something akin to what Asuka is going through. It ends up evoking far more of an emotional response than the horror genre is wont to do. And in a time where cases of depression and discussions of mental health seem to be on the rise, it is admirable to see such issues dealt with head on.

So too is the challenge it poses to longstanding concepts of the nature of hauntings and the supernatural. Rather than focusing mainly on the unresolved feelings of the supernatural beings in question, it draws its horror in large part from the mental state of those being haunted, and typical symptoms of terror manifest in surprising ways, bearing resemblance to addiction, obsessive…behaviors that are not out of line with psychological disorders.

Instead of choosing one road or the other, the phenomenon is expressed as a strange flirtation between the presence of entities from the spirit realm and the victims’ psychological state. As there are few hard and fast rules that apply to genres dealing with the supernatural (as there are with say, zombies) there is a lot of flexibility in the proceedings, which can be frustrating if trying to pin a logic on the movie’s critical confrontations. Or it can be dizzying fun if you’re willing to just enjoy the ride. It involves an enraptured, blood splattered séance and a tug-of-war between realms that reaches a frenzied, clawing conclusion with confinement to a complete and utter isolation at stake. It is unexpectedly, breathtakingly terrifying, and the true finale to the film, although the flame filled sequence that follows is so vibrant in its excess, it is fun to take in all the same.  

            THE COMPLEX is nothing if not bold for its incorporation of real life issue horrors – it joins several other Japanese films in dealing with themes of loneliness – into a backdrop of traditional scares. Atsuko Maeda (of AKB48 fame) and Hiroki Narimiya inject a sense of sincerity into their characters that make their struggle seem that much more urgent.

THE COMPLEX plays the Fantasia Film Festival on July 26 at 4:45 PM. Visit the site for details.

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Me on twitter = @mondocurry

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Gentleman MANIAC

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Remakes have always raised the nagging question of ‘why’ – and often, other than cashing in on a name or updating an already proven script, worthwhile reasons are difficult to come by. But along comes director Franck Khalfoun’s take on MANIAC, the cult classic slasher film directed by William Lustig.  With a script written by Alexandre Aja and a riveting performance by Elijah Wood in the lead role, the intent of this endeavor seems clear: to both pay homage to an influential genre film while elevating the source material into something more meaningful. The result is a collision of visceral gore and innovative visual storytelling, making for a refreshingly thrilling modern entry into the horror genre.

This MANIAC is more a slow moving portrait whose mood you feel yourself pulled into rather than a story that has you wondering what will happen next. The path is a familiar and straightforward one of boy (Frank played by Elijah Wood) meeting girl (Anna, a visual artist), boy falling for girl, and boy coming to grips with girl’s unavailability - or rather losing his grip because of it - along with the ensuing carnage. Add to this equation the fact that Frank appears to have suffered a lifetime of psychological trauma up to his current young adulthood, leading to an unhealthy pastime with stalking and mutilating women, when not running the mannequin shop that has been in his family. What draws them together is Anna’s interest in the lifeless figures in the shop window, which she envisions as part of a gallery show she is working on.

While not complicated by twists and turns, the telling of the narrative is thoroughly engaging for its stylistic choices. First and most prominent is the use of a first person POV perspective, that of the film’s murderous subject Frank, consistently throughout most of its duration. It’s a daring move, taking its well-known lead off screen onscreen for much of the movie, save for his reflected image or sequences in his mind. Yet it also creates an unsettling experience as we are forced to share Frank’s rattled mindset and voyeuristic fixations from within. All too good a job is done carrying across the obsessive excitement he experiences as he tracks his victims.

In fact, the character itself is a unique departure from typical domineering antagonists in this sort of film. Slight of build, Frank is portrayed not only as physically frail (he often succumbs to overpowering migraines), but also wracked with emotional insecurities. Such as when his sexuality is questioned, or aspects of his past are brought up in innocent jest by those he encounters…his inability to react betrays his killer persona. Speaking with a reedy voice and in an overly articulate manner, Frank is the antithesis of trendy slasher cool. This more fragile characterization along with the POV perspective makes Frank an empathetic figure to varying degrees, something that must be distinguished as a completely different thing from rooting cynically for a character’s actions.

A brilliant soundtrack, by a musician known only as ‘Rob’ is a standout feature of the film that does more to add emotional coloring to the character. Besides referencing ‘80s electronic dance music, which accurately fits the time of the original MANIAC, it makes use of synthesizer washes, which much like the work of Klaus Schulze or Tangerine Dream, create a sense of emptiness and isolation that Frank is coming from. Even the catchier numbers support the film thematically: the cold synth-based compositions perfectly compliment statements on image conscious superficiality that the film seems at least somewhat concerned with.

This theme is carried through in the setting as well; moved from its 1980 predecessor’s locale of a famously grimy New York City, this version takes place in Los Angeles. Khalfoun mentioned the need for an anonymous city where moments of ominous isolation could plausibly happen. Yet the destination sought by so many seeking to make a name for themselves by flaunting a fashionable look lends itself to suggestions of the glamour and artifice that gets under Frank’s skin. At the opening reception for Anna’s exhibition, Frank comes face to face with plastic smiles and hollow laughter. Viewed through his agitated perspective, they come across as threats, assaults even. ‘I sometimes feel the mannequins have more personality than people,’ Frank confides to Anna.

Do not let the attention to concept suggest the film isn’t filled with primal brutality.  The team behind MANIAC is determined not to come up short in the gore department, as flesh is sliced with brutal precision and plenty of splattered blood.  And even here themes arise. Consider afterwards, if your stomach is up for it, the manner of violence rendered on different victims and it seems Frank is lashing out at prized physical attributes, savagely attacking the very parts of the body each victim seems to value most. And, perhaps the most signature of the film’s brutal acts (and one that is shared with the original MANIAC) are the scalpings aimed at the face and hair – how better to spit in the face at what our idol culture holds most dear?

The MANIAC of 2013 is fully functional throughout its concise hour and 29 minute running time, but truly soars when marrying the aesthetics of art house and grindhouse to create imagery both repulsive and chillingly captivating. Like the near-conclusion’s flesh tearing sequence, comparable to the body horror of Cronenberg’s films, signifying the layers of Frank’s psyche being stripped away.

Maniac's Gallery: If horror is in the eye of the beholder, it's interesting to consider different presentations on the notion of psychotic killer from around the world. While above is Jeff Proctor's stylized poster for the film's US release, below are posters from South Korea, France, and Japan, where the film has already been released.
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MANIAC opens Friday, June 21st, at the IFC Center and will also be available to watch on VOD.  Those that can make it to the 9:20 screenings on Friday, June 21 and Saturday, June 22, when Elijah Wood will appear in person, are strongly urged to do so. His enthusiasm for the horror genre is sure to make for an entertaining evening.  

Mondocurry on twitter = @mondocurry

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Tribeca Files 4: Suffering an Art Attack in MR. JONES

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If considering the film as a kind of journey, it is pretty amazing to think where MR. JONES, a new and unique horror film from director Karl Mueller, begins and the far off place where it ends.

It starts out with camcorder footage capturing a couple, Scott and Penny, enjoying a carefree drive through desert terrain.  Their dialogue is much like the cutesy cleverness of a car commercial, as they show total awareness that they are narrating an experience that could become an object of public viewing.

They arrive at a cabin where they intend to stay so that Scott, an aspiring filmmaker, can complete a nature documentary. However, the sunny skies grow darker after little time, hinting early on about the film’s shape shifting nature. Scott’s voiceover monologues reveal that his artistic vision is far from clear; it’s something he hopes will take shape once inspired by the location they have removed themselves too. Penny is growing frustrated with Scott’s lack of progress, and there are allusions to some kind of psychological condition that Scott has had to deal with in the past. There is also the issue of him deciding to go off his medication.

As unrest persists, a mysterious figure reveals himself. It is a harbinger of both terror and hope.  While ominous occurrences begin cropping up around his appearance, they determine that the desert dweller is Mr. Jones, an artist known in the public sphere, but only through mysterious stories and conjecture. There are no known facts about the man, who seems the stuff of urban legend, and traces of him have been found solely in totem like art pieces attributed to his hands. Their discovery of Mr. Jones is the jumping off point of the film’s journey, following the development of a documentary about the artist and the couple’s encounter with him, bringing them slowly closer to his true nature.

While it is fascinating to consider the start and end points of the film, Mueller’s direction of the trip as it unfolds can be a rough and at times confounding ride. A critique I have noticed among reactions to the film is that its story would have been far more successful if not shot in the style of found footage. It’s a notion I’ve tried to avoid discussing, not because I disagree – it is in fact an accurate assessment – but as a result of it coming up so often in reaction to this and other movies. Perhaps for this reason, I resigned myself to the fact that this is an exercise in that divisive genre, and focused my thinking on whether or not the story was suited the format.

At first it absolutely ia; the jarring thud of at first unidentifiable objects against the windows of a remote cabin at dusk is a chill best experienced with a greater element  of reality attached. Same can be said for Mr. Jones’ first inscrutable appearances. But the part of the story in which it serves best, and the most exciting part of the film to me, is the documentary in progress we see being made in New York, after the couple concludes Mr. Jones is their not quite next door neighbor. It is another odd move that makes for a total shift in gears. And moods – any sense of dread and horror is left behind for something completely different.

Suddenly we are in the world of pseudo-documentary as art historians, anthropologists, and regular citizens who have had unsettling encounters with Mr. Jones’ work offer perspectives on the mysterious being, of whom little fact is known. This artificial construction of a mythology, complete with fictionalized experts, is quietly thrilling in the way it blurs the lines of reality. While never quite suggesting it's real, it is easily the part of the film most readily confusable with actual documentary footage. It’s the stuff of art pranksters, making the mention of Banksy as Scott and Penny piece together their initial knowledge of Mr. Jones seem like it may just be a little more than coincidence?

Clearly I wish this part of the film continued much longer. It gets even more convoluted when you consider there is a real life artist responsible for the sculptures attributed to Mr. Jones. He creates under the moniker Pumpkin Rot. There is a doubling here, in the real world and the world on film, of figures with veiled identities. Are the works in the film more Pumpkin Rot or Mr. Jones? Do the ritualistic qualities of their arrangement in the film represent the real artist’s work, or is he just doing a job…The possibilities are fascinating to explore, and more layers added to the mythology, through mock interviews and realistic footage, would have been welcome.

In a sense, it is continued. By way of a return to Mr. Jones’ domain. Yet, while further scenes of research and explorations of the artist’s turf might have matched the camcorder style of shooting, the very surreal turn that the action takes does not. A great many ideas come out of the screen suggesting various possibilities about Jones: Suggestions that there are different layers of reality that he moves between, that he could be either an embodiment of evil or a protecting force, are explored. Recorded footage blurs together with events that are taking place, and multiple images of characters appear. If the ending shows what I believe it might be, then it is an amazing trip from beginning to end, indeed.

But the ‘if’ in that equation is the problem at large. So scattered are the visuals, there is more of a sense of disorganization than mystique. It becomes something quite difficult to follow and causes more frustration than curiosity.

Returning to consider the criticisms of the film’s visual style, I realize that I have been more tolerant of similarly disjointed narratives when they’ve blown me away with bold visuals. Indeed films that are open to interpretation have a great value, but they need stronger images, and a stronger connection between images, to make the forming of conclusions feel worthwhile.

MR. JONES received its world premiere screening at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. Release rights to the film have been purchased by Anchor Bay
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Tweet-tivity = @mondocurry

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Tribeca Files 3: Of Monsters And Men...Who Will Soon Be Turned Into Monsters - FRANKENSTEIN'S ARMY

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FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY is the ultimate found footage horror film. It’s a straightforward, free-of-complications depiction of a Russian platoon’s rescue mission into a remote World War II era Nazi occupied village. What they, and by proxy we fortunate viewers, find in this presumably alternate history are monstrous amalgamations of man and machine that decimate their numbers until the film reel ends. But not before introducing us to a devilish take on the iconic pop culture figure with a god complex.   

One watches the Czech production with a sense that something impossibly esoteric has been unearthed; from the rubble of battle torn ruins or perhaps the bottom of drawer containing secreted away, classified files. This footage is imbued with an old stock quality that blankets us with a warm antiquated feeling.

It also makes the viewing feel closer to being a head on experience. It’s an inherent quality of found footage films that is all too often neglected. The lurching stops and starts create disorientation and a sense that physical harm is rapidly descending upon us. Kind of like the most incredibly conceived of concept for a haunted house attraction ever.

The monstrous creations enlisted in FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY are literally the stuff of nightmares. When my dreams go dark, they rarely contain easily identifiable figures. They tend to be distorted mixtures of various cultural reference points. That’s what director –‘s inventions are like, adding another layer to the experience not unlike feeling trapped in a helpless dream. Another great use of the found footage mode makes it so they do not ever feel neatly framed. There is no outward acknowledgment that this is a movie. Instead they lurch awkwardly about, sometimes not even aware of our presence. Threatening to notice and turn in our direction at any given moment.

Yet they are not without their vintage historic scifi (re: Steampunk) appeal. propeller blades, divers' helmets, and other mechanisms are repurposed in thrilling ways. Terror intersects astonishment.

Also of note is the brilliantly oppressive soundtrack. Between the fade in and out of thundering, militaristic propaganda dirges are dense walls of sound. The racket of a giant generator, for instance. When it fades momentarily, you feel like you’ve been given a reprieve. (You’ll also probably notice the enthusiastic applause of other viewers.)

Can it not be said that FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY is a powerful statement on the horrors of war? Sorry for getting serious while we’re all glazed over with thoughts of propeller-faced behemoths and other warped monstrosities, but the instances of anti-heroism in FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY seem to form a pretty blunt statement on the subject. There is bullying behavior and bloodthirsty intent in the part of the team we follow. Nobility appears more in the meek civilians encountered along the way. And the rescue mission itself is tainted by hidden agendas. Yes, while the film does operate as a tour of sensory delights, it does in fact have a plot worthy of keeping your attention on the interplay between characters.

That Raaphorst has acclaim as an ad director is no surprise. He has an obvious gift for animating scenes that will remain in viewers’ unconscious. This probably has a lot to do with FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY being a successful exercise in form as well as content. The movie is in fact a shot in the arm to the realm of creature design, giving recent forerunners in this twisted art like Yoshihiro Nakamura cause to up their game. His cult-worthy Tokyo Gore Police has nothing on FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY.

FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY premiered at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. Its future fate is of no small amount of intrigue.

Follow this link for some sketches of the creature designs. But make a point of seeing their blessedly CGI-less animated forms on a large screen.

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Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Tribeca Files 2: Plenty of Bark and Bite in BIG BAD WOLVES

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Is it just me or are two of the settings in BIG BAD WOLVES mirror images of Korean suspense films? A not at all by the book (unless referring to its use as a weapon) interrogation scene seems transported to the open air level of a building where black market organs are sold in Sympathy forMr. Vengeance. Later, a frantic search in a school’s empty lot (or is it a greenhouse?) is reminiscent of a field where a major confrontation in I Saw The Devil occurred. This is not snark, I genuinely want to know if any of these scenes ring familiar, or is it just me? The idea of Israeli directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado channeling imagery from these films, either unconsciously or not, is an interesting theory – to me, anyway. In recent years South Korea has certainly been a go to scene for technically adept and innovative examples of suspense thrillers, particularly those dealing critically with the idea of vengeance. And Keshales and Papushado seem determined to deliver a crowning achievement in that very field.

In many ways the makers of BIG BAD WOLVES seem like they are ‘going for it,’ treating suspense filmmaking as a contact sport they are playing to win. Going back to my ‘Korean idea,’ I would not be surprised if they were studious observers of the shining examples from throughout the realm of suspense and psychological thrillers. They are extremely fluent in the genre.

The tone is set in the film’s opening moments. Children play what seems like an innocent game, but a bombastic score screws up the tension around the slightest movement or expression. Shot in a highly stylized semi slow motion, their eyes and smiles suggest malice. And indeed many moments down the line will feel similarly spring-loaded with potential catastrophe just around the corner.

At the core of this story is grizzly serial child murder and the resulting vigilante-like intentions of two characters riding a very blurred line between protagonist/antagonist. Their motivations are driven by frustration with the perceived red tape of bureaucracy on one part; pure and simple vengeance on the other. 

An investigation into the crimes is joined midway, a suspect in the crosshairs of law enforcement, with details on how he came to be there pointedly lacking. There is scarcely little insight into these crimes from the killer’s or even a forensics expert’s point of view. Instead, we follow a cop who’s been taken off the case for his questionable methods, and the father of the latest victim as they engage in a bizarre and darkly comic trial of errors with the meek suspect.

The film is a very purposeful button pusher. There are probably very good cops in Israel but they are not depicted between the frames of this movie. Everyone who has any kind of serious impact in the male dominated cast is corrupt, operates above according to their own interpretation of the law, or is just plain inept. There are implications that suggest everyone in is a secret, or not so secret torturer. Yet, the movie‘s script is playful throughout, perhaps making the seriousness of the cultural satire go down a bit easier.

Humor takes a much larger role in the production than one might expect. The pair so doggedly out for blood show signs of being both believably vicious and at other times, laughably flawed. Enter the ‘cameo’ of a Palestinian, on horseback no less, whose presence plays ruthlessly with cultural stereotypes and drops a heaping load of hypocrisy right in our laps.

Things move nimbly from the comedic to cringe inducing gruesome acts, with no lack of the red stuff, when it counts.  It even includes a moment of the now timeworn tradition of depicting sinister doings set to misaligned cheerful music. In short, Keshales and Papushado seem to be having a blast flexing their skills of execution with this sort of filmmaking.

My one complaint is an unresolved feeling at the film’s conclusion. Some courses of action suggested an outcome that would make a more coherent critical statement, yet it seems to be dealing with something else. While it’s a mostly powerful indicting statement from start to finish, the final allotment of outcomes doesn’t quite put a fitting cap on these ideas in my view. Still confused is a much lesser offense worse than dull, and there were few moments I did not find myself inching toward or already at the edge of my seat.

Big Bad Wolves receives its world Premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Visit the festival website for more information.

Twitter: @mondocurry
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