Friday, August 27, 2010

Sleep Dealer (2008)
USA/ MEXICO --- science fiction

Dir: Alex Rivera

As of 2010, illegal immigration has become and remains a major hot button issue. The collapse of the American economy has ensured what has always been overlooked, that the steady flux of immigrants into the country has got to have more and more beaucratic red tape. It would be one thing if the system worked, but somewhere down the line, Congress has made it there business to look the other way, for reasons that simply point to greasing their palms with the likes of lobbyists and big business. They make for bad bedfellows, always has, and always will. Science Fiction films have always been a lens into the underlying psyche of what society knows and yet cannot directly express, so taking it in the metaphoric realm of telling a fictional tale, is always a great way of getting the point across. I aliken it to something like Flintstone vitamins or cherry-flavored NyQuil of the mind. But whatever.

Most of these stories have been told from the somewhat askewed perspective of caucasian filmmakers getting their points across. Not that there's anything wrong with that if they're good at it, because usually they're underdogs who have to fight just to say what they deem is righteous as well. Often times to their own punishments. It is however a rare occassion when you get that lens of social commentary from someone who's very familiar and in the thick of the subject matter. Case in point, with Documentarian Alex Rivera who has taken the sci-fi storytelling to show what the world is experiencing right now, and not really doing it with kid gloves.

Rivera's debut film, "Sleep Dealer", follows Memo Cruz; a farmboy of sorts who lives a rural life with his family in Santa Ana Del Rio in Oaxaca, Mexico. We learn fairly quickly the near future, is no utopia, as all the predictions of the past about big business and government merging into one is also evident here. In this film's world "They" control the water and have it dammed up and protected by electric fences equipped with cash deposit machines and heavily-armed cameras. Memo also has a hobby as a hacker, who goes into some sort of social networking sites via radio waves. As he dreams of migrating into a better life by way of getting "nodes" (more on this later) like some of the conversations he hears, he also has to evade military drones that fly overhead and destroy anything they deem suspicious activity. Unfortunately one day, they do pick up his signal, and while he and his brother are away from home, the drones return to the farm and destroy it; killing his father.

The pilot, who is of Latino descent and from a military family, has been seen in recruitment commercials earlier in the film. They show that there's a better life in becoming a virtual worker, which is this future's immigrant labor workforce, who physically stay in their country and remotely work through robots. More in depth info is available here on this website created for the film:

At this point, when this kill goes down, we see the pilot's remorse. However, it forces Memo to leave for Tijuana and seek this remote labor. He runs into a young woman on his way named Luz, who calls herself a writer, but is more or less a blogger on the the TruNode internet. They discuss the process of getting "nodes", and she explains to him he will need to find a "coyotek" in the city to get the "nodes", then find work from there. After he tells her his story of just why he's forced to look for work in the border town of Tijuana, she goes home and uploads/transcribes her own memories of their conversation to the network. She discovers the next day that his story is pretty popular, and she tracks him down for a follow-up, and good thing too, since he's got no other choice after being robbed of what savings he had.

The two grow into a relationship later when she tracks him down for more stories that have become successful, and she helps him get hooked up with nodes. In a serenpidtous moment, the remorseful pilot finds her story, and realizes he's the man responsible for the murder of Memo's father, seeks him down to beg for his forgiveness. This leads to a climatic finale, in which the trio join forces to disrupt the system. All in all, "Sleep Dealer" is an impressive science fiction entry, despite its low budget. It successfully gets its point across, without being too preachy, or for that matter seemingly taking one side or the other on the issue of illegal immigration. Like many parables, it states the facts and leaves you to decide. If done right, you get immediately, for as many of these tales go, the mirror will also show you what you need to see.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Evil of Frankenstein (1963)
UK --- horror/ science fiction

Dir: Freddie Francis

When it comes to sequels, they are either good, bad, or equal to the originals. Which is really just a nice way of saying bad, but at least they tried. The unique thing about Hammer's Frankenstein series is each successive film seems to have a new take on the Frankenstein mythos. Often times, foregoing the events established in the previous films. "The Evil of Frankenstein" tries to go back to the root of Frankenstein films, not just to the "The Curse of Frankenstein", but all the way back to the Universal/Karloff era. Because this film derived its inspiration from those films anyway, it is the only reason why it, in my humble opinion, sustains its saving grace as one of the better entries in this series.

Baron Frankenstein returns to his nefarious intentions of creating artificial life, as seen in the beginning of this adventure into mad science. He has a hired hand steal another corpse from a cabin in the country. It is of course to use the heart of the dead man and reanimate it through the use of electrical power. But his blasphemous intent is never too far ahead of the "hounds of heaven", and when a local priest learns of his blasphemous efforts, he destroys his experiment. And so to flee the authorities, he and faithful assistant Hans return to Frankenstein's roots in the town of Karlstaad (what was in "Curse" called Ingolstadt) to see what he can pillage of his castle.

Upon arrival to town, they find a carnival fair going on, which provides the Baron a perfect cover to hide as a stranger in town. Unfortunately for the Baron, he discovers the Burgomaster has done his own pillaging of the Frankenstein estate, as it would appear he has acquired some of the Baron's belongings. Frankenstein only returned to see if he could find something of value to continue his scientific affairs, but alas, it would seem there may not be anything to return to. After outright accusing the Burgomaster of thievery in public, he blows his cover to the authorities in a bar, leaving Frankenstein and Hans to flee the town, with the assistance of a wild mute girl from the town, and into the wilderness of the hills. It is here that Frankenstein finds his true roots; his first creature is discovered frozen in ice.

We have just seen a speechless re-enactment of Frankenstein in the midst of his first creation. This was obviously scripted into the film for two reasons. As mentioned earlier, this was to reboot the past for audiences who do remember "Curse". Also to take advantage of the lifted embargo from Universal (now that they were distributing this film), which barred the filmmakers to have any visual references to the original 30's and 40's Frankenstein films and allowing them to use the distinct enlarged Karloff brow and the sophisticated electrical set pieces of the laboratory.

Upon freeing the monster from the ice, the trio return to castle Frankenstein as the Baron and Hans once again begin to resurrect the already undead creature. The Baron, however soon discovers the creature will not obey his commands, and so they recall a hypnotist in town for the carnival and plan to use him to control the monster. Albeit, a worthy effort at first, the Baron soon regrets his decision when the conniving Zoltan soon requires more for his gift of control over the creature. When Zoltan finally uses the monster to murder the Burgomaster, all bets are off. The Baron kicks the hypnotist off his property and must wrestle control of his creature from the locks of the unscrupulous Zoltan power, before he loses yet another creation.

In this venture, it's easy to see that in the beginning they are really trying to establish Dr. Frankenstein himself into being the true monster. With an early scene with Frankenstein and a little girl in the forest that seems to be a reference to the original Frankenstein story, except here it's not the monster. However, throwing in another antagonist does not help this effort, as by the end of the film, you do have a little sympathy for not only Frankenstein's monster but what his seemingly benevolent father as well. Aside from the fact the Monster's head looks to be made of plaster, this entry into the series, cinematography-wise, looks akin to its predecessors. Besides altering of the story and not much on scares or gore, it stands for me a harmless homage to the Universal films.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Kairo (Pulse) (2001)
JAPAN --- horror

Dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Since the information super highway invaded our homes for good about a little over a decade ago, it was never predicted that people would become further disenchanted from each other, but rather they would become closer. After all, a technology that takes a person from his or her bedroom in Denver, Colorado to talk to someone from Melbourne, Australia in an Internet cafĂ© seems to be the ideal tool for those who would never be fortunate to travel. In this age of Facebook, MySpace, and every other kind of social networking, are we really connecting to each other? In director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s insightfully spooky social commentary "Kairo" (Pulse), we see that that very same technology could have much darker ramifications than anyone would have predicted.

The film starts with a girl named Kudo Michi, who works in a floral shop and whose coworker and friend has been missing for days. She gets to the guys apartment only to find he’s committed suicide, within a few minutes of her being there, as he was alive when she arrived. She does however recover a computer disk from the apartment, one that her friend takes a look at, which leads him to a strange website. The website shows him a picture of his deceased friend standing in the shadows of his apartment, and then leads to the picture going back into infinity. This freaks him out and he goes to investigate, being lead to a room in the building where he confronts a mysterious woman in the shadows. He too goes missing for days and eventually ends up like his friend, dead.

While this is going on we’re also introduced to a new character, Ryosuke Kawashima who is a university student and a virgin to the internet. The character is not computer savvy and shows he has trouble getting connected, which is what makes it so eerie once he gets on for the first time and finds the exact same weird website that Michi’s coworker encountered. This time however, it’s another room but there are figures standing in the shadows, and finally a message appears: “Would you like to meet a ghost?”. Kawashima immediately shuts the computer off from fear. Later, the PC comes back on by itself connecting to the net and returning to the strange site on its own, which leads Kawashima to get some help into what’s going on. He seeks the assistance of someone from his university Computer Science department. He meets a beautiful IT student named Karasawa Harue, who listens to his problem and instructs him how to track down the source of the website.

Michi and her friend are freaked out by the events occurring to their friends and seemingly to people all over Toyko. People are missing all over town, and she and her coworker investigate their friend only to find the same taped up room. This time Michi sees her friend suffer from the room’s affects first hand, as her friend slips into a state of depression and loneliness for no apparent reason, eventually turning into a black ashy stain on the wall. Meanwhile, Kawashima and Harue investigate the origin of the website, until Harue’s partner in the lab reveals to Kawashima, it’s plausible, strange, and seemingly ominous origin. All this ultimately leads to an apocalyptic ending.

I warn those looking for a technophobic essay to stay clear of this one. Nor does it simply objectify supernatural goings on with a technological device like other J-horror films have done to death. Kurosawa makes a bold intelligent horror film, layered with many levels of thought. Characters are seen wearing yellow mostly before they’re lonely and red seems to be the fashion of choice for those who’ve been to the “forbidden room”. The film seems to be one of those in a crop of doomy late 90’s era parables foretelling Y2K or the end-of-the-world. Kairo tells two parallel stories of people who stumble upon a dark service of the Internet that inhabits the undead souls. It’s the last stop for the celestial search for a place to belong as it would seem that George Romero was right, when there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth. Except in this case, they’ve found a unique way to do that instead of coming back in the same old decayed mortal coils. Don’t let me steer you wrong, this isn’t a zombie epic, nor is it a ghost story set in a haunted house. It’s much more sophisticated and introspective. It’s more so about isolation and loneliness, the very thing that technology was supposed to attempt to end. The moral message I gather from the film is that we are all really alone in this world and in the next. It is an unfortunate truth, that every one of us is an individual spirit, and no matter how much we attempt to reach out and touch someone, we will still only be ourselves, alone.

Friday, August 6, 2010

La Decima Vittima (The Tenth Victim) (1965)
ITALY --- science fiction

Dir: Elio Petri

In the last couple of years, we have been inundated with a series of science fiction films that go behind-the-camera, if you will, of shocking futuristic televised game shows. We've had "The Condemned", "Death Race" (the remake of "Death Race 2000"), and "Gamer". This is a trend that most could aliken to social commentaries surrounding the phenomenon of the so-called "Reality T.V." boom in the last decade or so. It goes back a lot farther than that, say to ancient Rome, where the bread & circuses ruled with ruthless gladiatorial sports to appease the masses.

Such is the case with "The 10th Victim", an Italian sci-fi film based on a short story by author Robert Sheckley. The story takes us into a not-too-distant future where the world has replaced fighting massive costly wars by allowing individuals to participate in a new form of popular entertainment called The Big Hunt. The hunters must adhere to the following rules:

RULE # 1: All members must carry out ten hunts, five as hunters and five as prey or victims and will be chosen based on a computer generated lot.

RULE # 2: Hunters know everything about the victims.

RULE # 3: Victims know nothing of their hunters.

RULE # 4: The winner of each hunt will receive a prize. After the tenth hunt, they'll be declared a decathlete, and will receive (place pinky to side of mouth) one million dollars.

The film opens on a man in hot pursuit of a woman (played by Bond girl Ursulla Andress) on an open city street in New York. The casually dressed Asian man fires off shots at the woman, as they eventually converge in the Masoch Club, where she's poised on stage in a silver bikini for a strip tease. Miss Caroline Meredith, however, turns the table as she shoots her would-be assassin dead with a fully-loaded bra (Austin Powers style). T.V. cameras and paparazzi are there to celebrate Miss Meredith as the huntress is now ready for her tenth victim.

Her victim turns out to be Marcello Polletti (played by legendary Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni), who has enough problems with his ex-wife and his girlfriend Olga. Caroline then travels to Rome to take him out, by luring him with her feminine wiles. Soon though, in the midst of their deadly cat-and-mouse game, both Caroline and Marcello find themselves becoming more romantically involved than either one of them planned.

If the future looks this groovy, we'd all want a time machine, and right now. With a clear influence of the zeitgeist of its era, Mod fashion, kitschy art aestethic, and tongue-in-cheek spy movie tropes, the film sets you in this visionary future. The swinging 60's vision of the future was always full of high technology Jetsons-esque gadgetry and often coupled with a slightly sinister dystopian society (as opposed to the nuke-wary desolation nightmares of the 80's). So, besides the social political commentary that the film garners, it successfully predicts a future of societal disarray due to media influence and control and the lust and greed of everyone in search of their own celebrity.