Friday, April 29, 2011

Valerie a Týden Divů (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders) (1970)
CZECHOSLOVAKIA --- fantasy/ horror

Dir: Jaromil Jires

There have been more than a few films that have explored the connection of fairy tales to a young woman's sexual awakening. You get plenty of male coming-of-age films, but seldom well-told female-centric films that show us a progression of growing up. The few we often do get are usually love stories, and they are usually told through fairy tale devices. It's safe to say, this film is none of the above, at least not to the status quo.

"Valerie a Týden Divů" is one of those films that doesn't particularly need to tell a coherent story, but just has the capacity to look like a beautiful work of art. It is an experimental film of sorts, but shows us through the rose-colored glasses of a young girls early youth, how she begins to awaken to the subtle change into a woman.

The opening has 13 year-old Valerie asleep (Jaroslava Schallerovà, who was really 14 years old at the time of filming), while a boy sneaks in the barn she's in and steals her earrings. The boy, Eagle, is scolded by a pasty looking man adorned in all black, with a cape and hat, and answers to constable. Symbolic visuals suggests, that Valerie is just at the age of losing her innocence. The earrings are returned to her. In the morning, after observing some women frolicking intimately among themselves, she goes to her pale creepy grandmother (in lieu of the evil stepmother), who is a bit domineering in her wishes that Valerie concentrate on the things of the church. Most certainly not playing with her mothers earrings. She states, missionaries are visiting and will be staying in their house. Curiously, most of them are portrayed as ghastly, Max Shreck-looking vampires cloaked in black.

By the time you get to the middle of the film, you realize everything is bent on stealing young Valerie's purity and innocence. Mostly sexual, but deeper than even that. The grandmother seemed to force her belief on  fräulein Valerie, one of the missionaries tries to take advantage of her, and yet the town parson seems to want to protect her. Confusing? A little, but the Catholic symbolism is pretty much speckled throughout the film in it's defense of staying pure and holy for God. Even mmarriage is portrayed in a pessimistic light, as Valerie observes a bride who seemingly enjoys her honeymoon with more than one lover, but yet begins to change in appearance. Also, Valerie's own love interest is revealed to be her brother, and lest we forget the vampires of the "church". Always a symbol of forbidden lust. Most films from the early 70's had vestiges of the free-loving sentiments of the ‘60s, and this film was seemingly being a harbinger of the introspective soul-searching films that would appear later in the decade.

All throughout the film, we see recurring themes such as Valerie being framed like a painting or even like an image in a mirror. Just another reason the film is art house masterpiece, filled to the brim with subtle expository shots one could pause and study. The composition, cinematography, and ethereal production design is gorgeous, and ten minutes into the film you almost get the feeling that you're watching someone's dreams like in the film "Who Wants to Kill Jessi?". Released in the same year as another surreal classic of experimental cinema, Alejandro Jodorowsky's "El Topo", "Valerie" has mesmerized many with a cult following for decades since it was discovered. It's theme has inspired films even to this day with Stephanie Meyers "Twilight" or author Angela Carter's short story collection "The Bloody Chamber"; which was adapted to film as "A Company of Wolves". In that, "Valerie and Her Week of Wonders" is inspired by the classic fairy tales like "Alice in Wonderland" and "Little Red Riding Hood". Both which have since become known for having underlying psychological themes of a young woman's sexual awakening. 

Friday, April 22, 2011

Solyaris (Solaris) (1972)
RUSSIA --- science fiction

Dir: Andrei Tarkovsky

Fifty years ago, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first man to reach earth's orbit. Prior to that, in 1957, the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite, sparking an intercontinental space race. However, the mysteries of space are still veiled by the seemingly endless fabric of the universe. No matter how far we go, we will still have to face the inner depths of the human soul. I believe this is the message of Andrei Tarkovsky's "Solaris". It seemed only fitting to explore this filmmaker's popular sci-fi thesis on the human conscience what can happen when those deepest thoughts and memories manifest themselves.

Based on reknown Polish sci-fi novelist Stanisław Lem's 1961 novel (coincidentally the same year Gagarin took to the stars) of the same name, "Solaris", opens on a shot of running stream of water, with flowing green grass; a very familiar signature Tarkovsky shot. We see research psychologist Kris Kelvin looking on the beauty of nature longingly. We're then introduced to his father and a vistor named Burton who has a young boy in tow. It's clear Burton and his father are former colleagues, and it's revealed Kris is about to take a voyage into outerspace himself. Burton has brought with him footage of some kind of scientific council debriefing, where we see a much younger Burton being questioned about his own voyage to an aquatic planet called Solaris. As Kris and his family watch the investigative proceedings, Burton looks on with disdain. Kris comments that the beareaucracy of the council has not changed. On the footage, the younger Burton describes an alien lifeform took shape from the planet's waters, attempting to become humanoid in appearance. It's then revealed later that his own mission is to check in on the scientists. Kris discusses the politics of space exploration with Burton, basically dengrating it to daydreaming. He tells Burton he will just as soon destroy the oceanic surface of Solaris than to continue fruitless research. Burton insists there is more going on there than they have knowledge of, possibly extraterrestial life. After he leaves in a fit of contempt, he calls Kris on a videophone from his car to warn him of what can happen out there, and that he should not think himself mad. With that, Kris does leave for the toroidal shaped space station orbiting Solaris.

Kris arrives with no welcoming party at all, and is left to seek out the remaining researchers. He gets to Snaut, who is surprised to see him and standoffish. When questioned on the other researchers, Snaut reveals Santorious is a hermit and Gibarian has committed suicide. Snaut tells Kris to return in the morning, but to not let anything he sees bother him. Upon departing Snaut, Kris notices he's not alone, as he sees someone in his quarters, besides the fact that it appears someone else is around on the station. He finds Gibarian's room, where he notices on the door a child's crayon drawing with the backwards notation for the russian word for man. He gets inside and a note is left for him on a screen, from Gibarian. It's a recorded video message with Gibarian telling Kris something similar to Burton's warning, about keeping his sanity. While watching this, Kris hears someone at the door, we instantly get that foreboding clue that all is not right in this space station.

Kris eventually seeks out Santorious (played by director pet Anatoly Solonitsyn), who is secluding himself in his room, even reluctant to talk to Kris. It's also clear he too has someone in his room. When he returns to Gibarian's room to finish watching the message, he sees a girl in the background of his recorded message. This same girl appears in the corridor in a turquoise dress and leads Kris to a freezer room where Gibarian's body is on ice. Exhausted, and probably quite perplexed at what is going on, Kris dozes off to sleep in his quarters. He does, however, awaken to the appearance of his dead wife Hari. We also begin to notice the oceans of Solaris are in movement, possibly over the psychological formations of new beings. She acts as if nothing is unordinary, and Kris quickly devises a plan to get rid of the shape by rocketing her off the station. This however fails.

When she does return, Dr. Snaut gives Kris a little advice about the very corporeal apparitions, and that the oceans of Solaris have the capacity to tap into their memories to create these shapes. His warning, however, is to not become too attached, because "they" can never leave Solaris. Hari however is like attached to Kris, as evidence when he tries to leave her in his chambers alone, she busts through the metal door even cutting herself up to shreds to do so. Of course, she heals almost instantly. Toward the end of the film, the doctors have a sort of meeting  about what to do, involving a brain probe into Kris' mind to expell Hari, but it too fails. It fails because as the doctors begin to notice, she has not only come into being more and more like Hari, but a new creation capable of her own decisions and free will. She too realizes this, and ultimately tries to rid herself of the guilt by drinking liquid oxygen. Interestingly, she is wearing a turquiose dress similar to the girl that lead Kris to Gibarian's body. Expectedly, she becomes resurrected. The ending is very ambiguous as Dr. Kelvin decides to leave and return home. We see him home, but this too is out of place from when we saw it in the beginning of the film, leaving us to believe many interpretations.

Tarkovsky's "Solaris" is one of the great science fiction films of our time. Wrongfully termed "A Russian 2001", the film didn't quite hit international audiences like Kubrick's film. There is no technical innovations or fear of technology, but like all of Tarkovsky's films, is about our human soul. To use the old axiom used by "Buckaroo Banzai", "No matter where go, there you are". The idea of sentient planets was not created solely by Lem. From a 1928 Arthur Conan Doyle story "When the World Screamed" to the recent James Cameron film "Avatar", the idea has never gone out of style. Many ecologists will argue that the Earth, in some manner, is a living being.

For anyone familiar with the cinematic work of Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, it should come as no surprise "Solaris" is a slow-burner. The film almost operates on the level of a futuristic detective film, or having inklings to a mystery that builds and builds with choppy character depth and layered moody early electronic score. "Solaris" is a great poetic essay into the human soul, and that we are never really alone in our own minds. The people we know and love shape our conscious as well over time, and cannot escape our lives. This is not the kind of film you get up in the middle of and nuke some popcorn, it demands your complete and undivided attention.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Ju-on: The Curse 2 (2000)
JAPAN --- horror
Dir: Takashi Shimizu
Following up on the horror hit Ju-on, the sequel keeps in the same vein as the original, but IMHO with added character development and scope. In fact, the first twenty minutes or so is essentially the end of part one. Also a television production, this film showcases the horrific events of the past and shows that those events has an infectious and exponential affect for all those unfortunate enough to be involved with the haunted house. The film opens with a segment titled "Kayako", which is basically an extended scene from the previous entry. We see the teacher, Kobayashi, visiting student Toshio and confronting the Onryō ghost of Kayako. This is almost indentical to the scene in the first movie. Though it embellishes a little more on Kayako's obsession of Kobayashi and serves as a good frightening refresher for the returning audience and passersby, it's skippable for those who've seen the first film. Kyoko Again this segment is an extended scene from its predecessor. Brother and sister, Tatsuya and Kyoko, visit the now haunted residence of Toshio and Kayako. Kyoko is psychic, so her real estate brother wants confirmation on the house. She does confirm it's haunted. In the middle of the segment, we get a new character; a boy named Nobuyuki, who we later learn is Kyoko's nephew. Kyoko begins a personal investigation into the house, and discovers the previous owner's mysterious deaths. When she goes to see her brother on it, she discovers his son has been attacked by the malevolent spirit. We soon learn the spirit has also moved into Kobayashi's old apartment, now belonging to Kyoko's brother.

The next part, titled "Tatsuya", introduces the unfortunate new residents of the cursed home. The mother gets a package in the mail which appears to be the manic writings of Kayako and Toshio's crayon art. When this woman gets in the house, it's apparent the package somehow possessed her with Kayako's spirit. Serving breakfast for her husband, she bludgeons him upside the skull with a frying pan, sits down, and eats breakfast without conscience. Next we see Kyoko's brother, Tatsuya, in a country house with his son. They are with Tatsuya's parents, and we see that Kyoko is with them, but seemingly appears to be possessed herself. He confers with his parents over his guilt of causing her apparent possession, as their father reveals, he too has psychic insight, and that Tatsuya must do something about the house before he is also possessed. He goes to the house to check on the new residents, and finds the horrifying revelation, they've been supernaturally evicted. At the parents house, the spirit appears to have found them as well.


The next episode we witness two police detectives Kamio and Lizuka visiting the household of former detective Yoshikawa, who has clearly become a distubed individual. Kamio and Yoshikawa were on the original case with the family murders. They next follow a boy we recognize as Nobuyuki, as Kamio discusses the case or cases of the strange murders of Kayako and Kobayashi as well as the disappearance of Toshio and some other people. Back at the station, Kamio shows Lizuka before and after photographs of Kitada, and points at that she actually seemed to become Kayako. Kamio tells Lizuka he's off the case. Back at Yoshikawa's house, we see him on the floor and his wife sees Kayako's face on the ceiling. Next at the police station, Lizuka is told by one of the officers he has a visitor. He points out a photo of Kayako to the officer as she tells him that's she's the visitor, but soon Kamio comes running out of his office and has become the next victim.
"Nobuyuki" is the next segment, which involves the real estate agent's son. He is in school with his classmates who make fun of him for being strange. He's been staring out the window, but we see he's actually staring at the ghost of Kayako. Very soon, we see her go to the school window and get in, as her Onryō spirit torments Nobuyuki. A creepy little finale, if not a little bit over the top.


Back to the haunted house, with a 'For Sale' sign posted outside. This scene is audio only, with a still shot on the house, as we hear two girls who apparently have snuck into the property. This final episode ties into the next film; the theatrical "Ju-On: The Grudge".

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Beowulf & Grendel (2005)

CANADA/ ICELAND/ UK --- fantasy

Dir: Sturla Gunnarsson

The battle between good and evil has been mulled over in myth, legend, religion, and history since before man could formulate a language. The tales of heroes have always found their place in our hearts and minds, and the ancient epic poem of "Beowulf" has had its lasting appeal for that very reason. In this loose adaptation of the poem, director Sturla Gunnarsson does a highly impressive attempt at retelling the legend.

"Beowulf & Grendel" opens with a segment of the poem and almost immediately, the film deviates from it by showing us the grendel's father (a character made up for the film). The scene depicts Hroðgar (or Hrothgar in this film), the king of Daneland, in his youth with a bunch of his soldiers chasing and killing the elder grendel on a mountaintop. However, Horothgar allows the young grendel to live, a mistake he will live to regret. When the soldiers leave, the boy grendel goes to the beach shore, where his father's body lain. Pining for his father, he takes a keepsake; his father's head.

Fast forward years later, we see the adult grendel in a cave with the mummified skull of his father. He beats himself upon the head with stones in a rage, clearly in a fit stirring vengeance against his father's murderers. We see that the grendel espies the warriors camp, and plots his violent one man war against them. The grendel kills twelve of Hrothgar's soldiers one night. We are next introduced to Beowulf, who arrives on the shores of Geatland after being shipwrecked out on the sea. Beowulf gathers a group of Geat soldiers to visit his kin, King Hrothgar, who they have heard is in peril with a troll. When Beowulf arrives to the shores of Denmark, he comes across the seahag first, in the ocean. Then he consults with the hermit witch Selma (Canadian actress Sarah Polley), who begins to help him unravel the mystery of the troll's campaign of bloody vengeance. This is another newly invented character to serve the films updated version of the tale. Soon, Beowulf begins to understand that his perspective in this little skirmage must change in order to defeat the creature on his turf. After some revelations about the grendel fathering a child from the witch Selma, who of course sleeps with Beowulf too, the deviations of the film turn confusing. The addition of the new characters are clearly not needed, and though they do bring some character development to the grendel.

The final battle with Beowulf and the Sea Hag is over way too quick. The performances are well done throughout "Beowulf & Grendel". Gerard Butler is here to fill the stoic hero role and does as well as he can, but not as good as he is in "300". Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård chews the scenery with relish, and that's not a bad thing as he puts in a brilliant portrayal as the fraught stricken King Hrothgar. Polley puts in a competent performance, but of course she's just a little too Western for the film in my opinion. Kudos to Iceland actor Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson for a down to earth performance as the other titular character. He plays the role with enough pathos and genuine primal nuance, you almost believe it's not a man. Gunnarson has a strikingly atmospheric direction. He has properly captured the cold yet beautiful landscape of the Iceland, which seems untouched by time. The major glaring mistake of this film is the use of curse words. It definitely feels completely out of place for these characters to be dropping the "F" bomb every couple of minutes. They could have used better make-up effects on the grendel. Albeit, the prosthetic effects they do use is very believable, and showing the monster in the beginning of the film prepares the audience for a credible version of the tale. Apparently they wanted to portray the grendel as more of a Sasquatch than a troll.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Uchū Kaisokusen (Invasion of the Neptune Men) (1961)
JAPAN --- science fiction

Dir: Koji Ota

I'm a Gen-Xer, not a baby-boomer. I did not grow up in the 1950's or 60's. So, looking back on the films and television properties of that era is always interesting for me. I guess my main attraction would be to see how the science fiction genre evolved. In Japan, Tokusatsu (which is loosely translated from meaning "special photography" or "special effects"), became a genre in the mid-1950's following the massive success and inspiration of the Gojira films. Theatres ran serials of a character called "Sūpā Jaiantsu" (Super Giant), which was a success. Of course, Japanese television began to air Tokusatsu shows, the first being "Gekkō Kamen" in 1958. Soon after this hit, a slew of copy cats invaded the airwaves for the children's television market. These shows inspired series that even came to America as late as the 90's with shows like "Ultraman" and "Power Rangers". Of course anything that gets too successful is going to have multiple knockoffs. This film is no exception. Uchū Kaisokusen (Invasion of the Neptune Men) is a pretty cheesy fun children's science fiction film from the cold war era.

This review is going to be biased because it's going off the dubbed American version, and not the original Japanese dialogue, though I doubt it would matter much. Featuring the debut of Shinichi Chiba (later to be named Sonny Chiba of The Streetfighter, Kill Bill fame), Uchū Kaisokusen involves a scientist, Tabana, who's alter-ego happens to be the superhero "Iron-Sharp" (or Space Chief in the English dub). When a group of boys mistake a UFO for a fallen satellite, they are attacked by bullet-helmeted alien beings; it's "Space Chief" to the rescue. After a quick defeat, the aliens rocket back into space and the hero "Space Chief" receives his name from the boys. Soon, a strange electronic band wave causes a series of odd events such as clocks running backwards and trains reversing. Scientists (including Tabana) learn that the wave is coming from the earth and emitted into space. Later, the kids find a left over piece of the alien ship, which eventually lead scientists to pinpoint the source of the wave is coming from Neptune. Of course, this means war, as the aliens plan to invade earth, and only "Space Chief" can save the day.

American producer Walter Manley snatched up this film along with the "Prince of Space" serials, which he edited together into films. The dubbed American actors over the Japanese dialogue has not aged well. Something that has become acceptably standard for the anime or Shaw Bros. kung-fu genre is not all that great here. Maybe it's just me. While this films progenitor, "Prince of Space" serials, had an over-the-top villainous Hitler-inspired Krankor and his minions, the aliens in this film are pretty lame. It also brings up the fact that using WWII file footage in a children's film is kinda strange.