Monday, October 24, 2005

High Tension, Miike madness and George Clooney!

High Tension (Haute Tension)

Alexander Aja's High Tension is a smart and claustrophobic thriller for the first 75 minutes. Then, the twist comes… and it's a twist that betrays the tight and suspenseful mechanics of the film's grandstanding first 2/3. It's sad…. In today's movie-going market, the few great twist endings of the past ten years (Fight Club, The Sixth Sense) have set up an entire generation of other filmmakers to fail. They taught them how to build exciting (if somewhat derivative) momentum, and then pull the rug out from underneath the audience not with genuine surprise or candor, but with laziness and a penchant for one-upmanship.

Marie (Cecilie de France) and Alex (Maiwenn) travel to Alex's parent's house in the south French countryside for a quiet weekend of studying. But things are not as pleasant as they signify, which Aja blatantly establishes with a quick cutaway to a man sitting inside a beat up truck in the same countryside, getting a blow-job from something. We soon learn he's getting it from a severed head. Inside the house, Marie and Alex settle for bed. Marie pleasures herself while listening to her headphones. Her lesbian tendencies are hinted at, coupled by her appearance and the juxtaposition of her masturbation immediately after spying on Alex in the shower.

Eventually, innocence and violence collide as the stranger arrives at the house of Marie and Alex during the middle of the night. Marie is the only one who escapes the killer's grasp through a gloriously well conceived cat and mouse game that takes place throughout the house. But Alex is taken hostage, so Marie sneaks into the back of the truck with her and the games continue across the marginally inhabited countryside.

The best moments of the film come from Aja's economical sense of framing and pace. The film's sleek gore (and there is a plethora, complete with a boldly established slashing in the bedroom and a beheading on a staircase that would make Sam Raimi proud) is underscored by true moments of hideous violence, made all the more terrifying by Francois Eudes' minimal score of high pitches and unnerving sounds.

But all of this becomes moot when seventy five minutes in, Aja deems it necessary to make a great statement on female inadequacy and multiple personalities. Yep, you guessed it… and I'm sure you know what the twist is without me expounding. What's so wrong with leaving some things unexplained? In this day and age, I find the idea of a rampaging redneck killer without a clear motive much more terrifying than wrapping clarification around something as juvenile and facile as sexual orientation gone horribly, horribly wrong.

Good Night and Good Luck

George Clooney's Good Night and Good Luck investigates the month long on-air verbal spar between television journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Straithern) and Senator Joe McCarthy with flair and dignity. Straithern plays Murrow in a fairly cryptic manner…. And it's obvious that Clooney and company didn't begin this project to surface the emotional undercurrents of its main players. Rather, like All the President's Men, Good Night and Good Luck is a film about responsible journalism in a time that denied and condemned autocratic political analysis. Both of these films contain liberal marsmanship, of course, but they avoid bleeding heart status, concentrating on the integrity of work over feeling (as the latter film explicitly suggests by eschewing a single exterior shot). The closest that Good Night and Good Luck gets to individual illumination is through the supporting role of a wonderful Ray Wise as Don Hollenbeck, a reporter and colleague of Murrow. The writings of one local newspaper man eventually force Hollenbeck to commit suicide. Straithern, again removing emotion from the forefront of his masterful recreation of Murrow, challenges the viewer with a simple and direct news flash of his friend's suicide. He plays the scene as he would any other news briefing, but there are small reflections of disgust and anger with the establishment that pushed his friend to the grave. It's a small moment in a solid film that chooses the intellectual way out of a very ignorant point in our history.

3 From Takashi Miike

Three films from Takashi Miike. First, let me say I love the oeuvre of Miike. He is maddening and humorous and twisted…. and through his prodigious 14 year, 60 plus film career, you never know what type of monstrosity he will spray across the screen. One Missed Call, filmed in 2003, is an obvious attempt to capitalize on the Japanese horror sensation of Ringu, Ju-On and Kurosawa's Pulse. The theme- teenagers are terrorized by an omniscient entity beyond the grave through their technology (in this case cell phones that ring, create a "missed call" message and then leave a voice-mail in the future allowing the girls to hear their own death). It's not very original, naturally, but Miike drapes the entire affair within an eerie, dank atmosphere. The final 25 minutes as a young girl explores a dilapidated mental hospital gets extra credit for its sinister tone and genuine aura of fear. Next comes Miike's 1998 science fiction drama hybrid called Andromedia, a tale of virtual reality love (I'm not kidding!). A young girl, Mai (Yora Kinoki) is killed in an accident and her scientist father re-creates her memories into a virtual reality computer program. Her boyfriend and half-brother are then responsible for taking care of her before a group of corporate yakuza types shanghai the computer program and use it for much more evil purposes. Once again, the beauty of a Miike film is certainly not in the liner notes. What ultimately erupts on-screen is a somewhat delicate and affecting love story. The other phenomenal thing about Miike is that no matter how hastily a film is produced, he never loses concentration on the images. Andromedia is a gorgeous looking film, exemplified by one scene where Mai and her boyfriend reminisce about their time on a merry-go-round and the scene morphs into a delicate gold and red flashback…. It’s certainly one of Miike's more poignant moments in a long career of image making. Finally, there's this year's film called Izo. I definitely don't recommend this for anyone wanting to gently immerse themselves into the cinema of Miike. Izo is a violent and intoxicating collage of genre and style. Nakayama Kazuya stars as Izo, an ex-warlord crucified for his actions on earth. He then becomes an avenging soul, and the next 2 hours and five minutes are spent as Izo bounces through time and space, slicing every single person who steps in front of him. Above all else, this is Miike's most violent and incoherent film. This is not always a bad thing. Gozu, Miike's 2004 masterpiece, features some of the same demented meld of genre and pace, but in a much more affective way. Izo is downright demented (and featuring the same type of finale where a grotesque birth ends or begins the madness all over). Perhaps a person more educated on Japanese mythology will understand all the motives and poetic dialogue, but as it stands, Izo is a film full of nightmarish images and fractured, cryptic performances from a host of Japan's most recognized stars (Takeshi Kitano, Miki Ryosuke and Ken Ogata to name a few).

Monday, October 03, 2005

A History of Violence

Fantastic film! A word of warning though- do not see this film on a Sunday afternoon in a crowded multiplex theater. It's interesting to see people when their confronted with an art film on their commercial film screen. Right from the opening, Cronenberg's western noir pastiche elicited the wrong responses from people- snickers during pretty intense sex scenes and laughter at the sight of people being blown away in visceral swipes of real time violence. It's almost too much irony to swallow; people lapping up and responding inapropiately to the exact type of action film that Cronenberg juxtaposes within this art house framework. But, that point aside, this is Cronenberg's best (and scariest) film in quite some time and one of my favorites of the year.

Cronenberg has created a 'fill the void' film- if you want to interpret it as a violent political outcry against the government and our societies' penchant for blood, you got it. If you prefer to see it as an extension of Cronenberg's sensation for the doppelganger, you've got that. And if you care to view A History of Violence as a fairly straightforward re-creation of a graphic novel that allows Cronenberg to confront his sexual and psychological fetishes, then you've certainly got that right. Me, I love everything about it. From the opening scene (as two "bad men" check out of a hotel), Cronenberg douses a supreme sense of dread over the film. The way the camera slowly glides along in one take, the lazy (almost hallucinatory) manner in which the two men carry on a conversation, and the slow ambiguous walk into the hotel office- all of it places us in the capable hands of a director refusing to play by convention. It's not too far off from the nightmarish suburban hinterlands of David Lynch, especially the dark greens and shadowy blacks of the film's final moments between Viggo and an excessively entertaining William Hurt as well as the cartoonish niceness of the small town Viggo and his family reside (where everybody on the street knows your first name). Still, none of this would mean anything if it weren't for the talents of the cast and Cronenberg's reluctance to play anything straight (and turn the film's second half into a dark mirror of the first). The playful and erotic sex between Tom Stall (Viggo) and his wife (Maria Bello) that preceeds the outburst of violence soon gives way to an angry, grudge fuck on a staircase that leaves the wife's back bruised after the killings. Even something as natural and expected as a brief shot of her naked body coming out of the bathroom in front of her husband carries mordant guilt and doubt. This is a film about transgression. This is a film about lies and the way a snake can shed it's skin, but never turn into anything but a snake. And for the record, there's nothing wrong with laughing or having fun at a movie, just not one as serious and determined as A History of Violence.