Friday, June 24, 2011

Scanners (1981)
CANADA --- science fiction/ horror

Dir: David Cronenberg

We are well aware that most of us lowly humans are only using 10% of our brain power. The mind is a terrible thing to waste, and well most of our minds are wasting away anyway. There are beliefs that some ancient cultures did indeed tap into psychic power and astral planes. Ancient "lost" societies like the ancient Atlanteans and Lemurians (or land of Mu) supposedly utilized their psychic abilities in their infrastructure through psychokinesis. Ideas of psychic abilities helping mankind even stemmed into a secret covert groups during the cold war. Some people will take this phenomenon serious, others will not.

The "doctor" of genre cinema returns with "Scanners", his B-movie follow-up to "The Brood". A film that up until that point was his most successful. In this film, Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) is a self-proclaimed psycho pharmacist working for a shady corporation known as Consec. On the outside looking in, they are a security systems corporations, but behind the scenes, they are up to far more than that. They have been devoted to the use of individuals with telepathic and telekinetic powers known as "Scanners". Dr. Ruth in fact has a homeless man named Cameron Vale (played by a very wooden Stephen Lack) picked up and brought to a warehouse for safe keeping. He happens to be a vagabond "scanner", and Dr. Ruth recruits him for Consec's own purposes. Ruth also gives him a drug called Ephemerol, which allows "scanners" to suppress the invading thoughts of too many people.

Consec holds a conference with interested parties showing the abilities of what "scanners" are capable of. One of the audience members is a man named Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) who volunteers himself to be "scanned" by the representative "scanner" of Consec. Unfortunately, he doesn't know Revok is a rogue "scanner" himself, and in the most famous scene of this film, explodes his head before the audience. The officials grab Revok and detain him, but he eventually escapes. In light of this, Consec appoints a new director in charge of security, as they know through Dr. Ruth that Revok is an assassin and intentionally killed the representative "scanner". Dr. Ruth suggests that his new recruit, Vale, may be the only way to finding and killing Revok.

Dr. Ruth then shows Vale footage of Revok from the past, and trains him to be more focused into his powers, and sends him to another "scanner" named Benjamin Pierce (played by director pet Robert Silverman) for help. The guy's living as an eccentric artist, but is soon attacked by assassins under the control of Revok. After the attack, Pierce sends Vale to a small group of other "scanners" who are living in hiding. Among them is a powerful "scanner" named Kim Obrist, who after meeting up with Vale, her group is brutally attacked as well, leaving only her and Vale alive to fend for themselves. When yet another assassin is sent after them, Vale probes the mind of this one, and gets a clue to the whereabouts of Revok through a vial of Ephemerol the assassin is carrying. It leads Vale to infiltrate the labs of the company that produces it, which is run by none other than Revok. When Vale and Obrist return to Consec with this information, they quickly realize there's a mole in the corporation working for Revok and that their only resort to confront Revok head on. Ultimately, this does lead Revok to capture Vale and the conclusion does indeed lead to a face off of horrific proportions.

"Scanners" was an interesting concept back in the 80's. After all, we were just coming out of the very introspective state of the 70's. Besides that, this was coming off of the successful Stephen King vehicle "Carrie", which really launched the whole modern horrific "ESP" sub-genre. Well, unless you want to count "Village of the Damned" and it's lackluster sequel "Children of the Damned". Cronenberg kinda misstepped a little with this vehicle, though it continues the theme of most of his "body horror" films, the story is not what it could be. My personal opinion, Vale probably should have been a little younger, like a teenager. For the most part this was a kinda live action X-Men film, well before they came to the silver screen. The film spawned more than a few sequels and spin offs throughout the decade and into the 90's, mostly taking advantage of the billowing Home Video market. Cronenberg may have based his Ephemerol drug on a real-life drug called Thalidomide, which was used in the 50's for pregnant women and caused severe birth defects for most of the children born.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Rinne (Reincarnation) (2005)
JAPAN --- horror

Dir: Takashi Shimizu

From the filmmaker that pretty much single-handedly jump started the onryō (J-Horror) sub-genre of horror films, comes a slight variation on your traditional ghost story film. The film opens with a series of strange events happening to a select few people which include a school girl, a business man at lunch, and a truck driver. In Shimizu's style of making the freaky random scare tactics work, the beginning probably sets the tone for the film, but as we find out more of the story, it really doesn't matter to the crux of the film.

"Rinne" is the third entry in the J-Horror film series headlined by producer Takashige Ichise. The film proper begins with an audition for a horror film by a famed director named Matsumura. In a room full of actresses, one of them tries to convince the filmmakers she's fit for a role because she feels she has lived before and this horror film is familiar territory to her. Matsumura glares at another actress in the room, Nagisa Sugiura (Yûka) and dismisses them. Later on, Nagisa and her agent discuss her chances in the film on a train, when she notices a little girl with a doll. The train opens to the platform, and when Nagisa rushes toward her, she next sees her underneath the platform before the train leaves.

Not long later, Nagisa's agent tells her that the events of the film are based on a true story. Back in the 1970s a Professor named Kazuya Omori (Shun Oguri) murdered eleven people in the "Ono Kanaka Hotel", including his own wife and two kids; a son and a daughter. He even recorded the murder spree with an 8mm camera. Meanwhile, the director meets with an old woman, who gives him a box apparently connected to the real life murders. When he opens the box, he is visited by the mysterious little girl as well, though unknowingly, and quickly sends off a copy of the script to Nagisa. The next day, her agent gives Nagisa a copy of the script, and the ghostly girl with the doll once again appears to her. At a pre-production meeting for the film, the filmmakers discuss their plans with the cast and crew, and hand out the roles to the cast explaining who their real life counterparts were. The director gives Nagisa the part of the professor's own daughter, Chisato Omori, which is the exact same little ghostly girl Nagisa has been having visions of.

A college girl, Kinoshita, has very similar hallucinations, and confides in her boyfriend about having a recurring dream in a hotel she's never been to before. When researching her paper on the phenomenon of cryptomnesia, her boyfriend hooks her up with another girl (named interestingly enough Yûka, the actress who talked of reincarnation in the beginning of the film) who has been experiencing reincarnation episodes herself. Meanwhile, filming begins on the horror film "Memories", and during a scene Nagisa sees the ghost of the murderous professor. The filmmakers also decide to film the movie at the actual "Ono Kanaka Hotel" where the murders occurred. Nagisa's hallucinations begin to worsen as she not only observes the ghosts, but they reenact the tragic events. When the director actually finds the ball of the murdered son, he goes looking for Nagisa himself.

At this point, Yûka explains to Kinoshita how she gets information of her memories and possible memories of a past life. Yûka takes her to the library where she has done research on her past life, revealing she was a victim in the hotel murders. Kinoshita instantly discovers the "Ono Kanaka Hotel" is the very same location of her own recurring dreams. Unfortunately, Yûka becomes another victim of Chisato's doll, which now appears to have become animated on its own. Meanwhile, Nagisa continues to be tormented by her visions of Chisato and her doll, which are becoming one and the same. Nagisa questions Matsumura on his reasons for doing the film and he only shows her the doll that the old woman gave him as research for his film. Kinoshita, however, visits the old woman herself, and finds out that the professor may not have been insane, but was conducting a study of his own on the possibility of reincarnation. Thus, kinda explaining the purpose of him going on a murder spree, because of his strong belief that they would return, which goes on to explain the opening of the film. All the random people seen in the opening are the eleven spirits returning inside new bodies. Both Nagisa and Kinoshita discover the horrific ramifications first hand of the professor's experiment.

According to Shimizu, he deliberately wanted to make a film that was different from other J-Horror films, and he most certainly did so. The idea is original, but in that it is not a horrific as one conditioned to the genre would expect. This film kinda takes its inspiration from Stephen King's (or more specifically Kubrick's film version) "The Shining" with a little bit of the "Nightmare on Elm Street" series entry "New Nightmare". For me it kinda feels more like Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House" which King drew inspiration for "The Shining" in the first place. This is one of the better entries of the J-Horror series as it completely attempts to reinvent the horror sub-genre. Shimizu also appears to have developed a style and verve to his film making powers, and I like the use of changing film stock in scenes where the Nagisa character goes into a hallucinatory flashback. Keep a look out for a fun little cameo, as J-Horror director, Kiyoshi Kurosawa "Kairo" (Pulse) plays a professor in one scene. The hotel is interestingly enough named "Ono Kanaka", which by my very rough translation is interpreted "eternity sight-seeing". A nice summation of the film's theme, and let's hope Shimizu improves as a director.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Tiě shàn gōngzhǔ (Princess Iron Fan) (1941)
CHINA --- fantasy

Dir: Wan Guchan, Wan Laiming

Every nation has their own famous fairy tales and legends passed down throughout time. These tales usually are held in high regard because of their connection to the national identity. "Journey to the West" is a classic of Chinese literature and has gone on to be a retold for each generation. "Princess Iron Fan" is one of the very first cinema adaptations of the tale and was produced in the midst of World War Two. Besides that, it was really one of the very first full-length Chinese animated films.

"Journey to the West" is a 16th century novel which was based partly on Siddhārtha Gautama (Buddha)'s flight to the west in search of himself, Buddhist monk Xuanzang, Taoist philosophy, and Chinese mythology. Being an amalgam of these, the tale, uses a group of four heroes who must make their way through a long pilgrimage through mountainous terrain to obtain the Buddhist scriptures.

"Princess Iron Fan" has an opening explanation about how the film is not to be viewed as a fairy tale, but a life lesson. The tale is about the fiery mountain blocking the path of Tang Seng and is to be seen as a metaphor for the difficulties we all find in life. Our four heroes are Tripitaka or Xuanzang (basically meant to be Buddha), Zhu Bajie (a pig), Sun Wukong (the monkey king), and Shā Wùjìng. During their journey through the fiery mountains, they must find a way to reduce the heat, with the help of the palm leaf fan. The magical iron palm leaf fan is in the possession of a princess who lives nearby with her husband the Bull Demon King. If they get the fan from the princess, they can use it to not only put out the fires, but bring rain upon the land.

In their first attempt to obtain the fan from the princess, Sun Wukong  creates a powerful gust with the fan and blows him away. He lands on a mountaintop monastery where he is given a wind pearl by a monk. The pearl will enable him to become unmovable by the force of the palm leaf fan. When the Monkey King returns, he is indeed invulnerable to the palm leaf fan, and is able to slip inside the princess' house by turning into a bug. When he gets inside, he lands on a tea cup and dives in. The princess, of course drinks the tea and a the bug straight down, allowing the Sun Wukong to threaten her from inside her stomach in order to get the fan. The Monkey King escapes with the fan. When the Monkey King returns to the fiery mountain and uses the fan, he discovers it a fake.

Zhu Bajie reluctantly offers to go find the Bull Demon King, who is a friend of his. In the next scene, we see a princess in another form, that of a fox creature. Anyone familiar with the Chinese myth of a Fox spirit will be familiar that this does not bode well (as opposed to the Japanese Fox spirit which is benevolent). Outside in the forest, she runs into Zhu Bajie, thinking he's her lover the Bull Demon King. She runs back to the Emerald Cave where she blames her husband for bullying her. Zhu Bajie gets to the cave and begs his old friend for the palm leaf fan, but he refuses, blaming Sun Wukong & Tang Seng for his son's death. Zhu Bajie then transforms into a frog and sneaks into the cave where he encounters a dragon. He transforms again, this time into the image of the Bull Demon King, and rides atop the dragon to get to the Palm Leaf cave himself. In the guise of the Bull Demon King, Zhu Bajie charms princess iron fan into giving him the palm leaf fan. He steals it from her, and gloats about him being able to fool her. On his way back to the fiery mountain, Zhu Bajie is also fooled by a dose of his own medicine, as the Bull Demon King transforms into the Monkey King and steals the palm leaf fan back from him. When Zhu Bajie returns to his companions empty handed, the travelers realize that the only way to defeat the Bull Demon King is their combined efforts in order to extinguish the flames of the fiery mountain.

"Princess Iron Fan" took three years to make by brothers Wan Guchan and Wan Laiming. Some things are confusing like the difference between the Bull Demon King's wives, and which exactly is the princess. There's even some mention of his infidelity, which is interesting. There's a very fluid movement of the characters which was achieved through rotoscope techniques, which was used most of the time in animated films of this era. The voice direction and camera movement is very off at times in this film, and sometimes you can't tell who is saying what. The film's score can also be distracting in most spots of the film, but has some interesting spots like a musical interlude complete with a sing-a-long bouncing ball over the lyrics. So the film is by no means perfect, but this is a historical achievement based on the fact it was made during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. Though the film is directly inspired by "Journey to the West", it's also clearly influenced by the war, being the moutain as a metaphor for the Japanese.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Zardoz (1974)
UK --- science fiction / fantasy

Dir: John Boorman

The science fiction films of the 60's and 70's were all quite boring. Though they had great aestethic and often strong original introspective messages about . . . whatever, they often lacked the maschismo and child-like fun that later came in the wake of George Lucas' Star Wars movies. John Boorman's "Zardoz" is no exception from this trend. Made immediately after his controversial hicksploitation hit "Deliverance", Boorman delved into this more thought-provoking sci-fi adventure in a futuristic setting. Though the results are very mixed to say the least. "Zardoz" opens with a prologue of sorts of the floating head of a man named Arthur Frayn, who claims to be the titular character. With a penciled in mustache and beard, he proclaims to be immortal. We then see the beautiful mountains and a giant hovering sculpture-like head who is the god of a people called Exterminators, who are charged to kill the Brutals. They are a group of Anglo-Saxon men dressed only in orange straps and adorned with two-sided masks with the very same visage of Zardoz. From the head giant floating head, comes the voice of Zardoz who commands them to kill and to abstain from sex, and soon it emits guns and bullets.

Set in the year 2293, Sean Connery stars as one of these Exterminators, named Zed. He arises from some grain within the stone head, where he finds Arthur Frayn and shoots him dead. The stone head lands and Zed leaves searching his new surroundings. Zed stumbles upon Arthur Frayn's home, Vortex 4, where he finds a ring with images of Arthur and a computerized voice emaniting from it. He is soon found by a woman named May (Sara Kesteleman) who wishes to learn how he came to get inside the stone head. He claims to not remember, and he soon ends up on a table being mentally probed by May and another 'Eternal' woman named Consuella (Charlotte Rampling). We learn that Zed is basically a lower lifeform, and that those who live in the vortex are higher species called homo eternals. They are also a matrichal society where the women have more say than men, and while they all possess a psychic power and an erudite mentality, they lack many things. May takes on the task of keeping the Zed for scientific experimentation, while Consuella strongly adheres to its presence in the vortex. Zed, however gets a male guide through the vortex named Friend. Sarcastically calling him monster, Friend shows Zed that even their utopian society has its class system. He shows him the different parts of the Vortex, including the apethetic women devoid of feeling and the renegades, who much like Jonathan Swift's immortal struldbrug's grow ever older but never die, as a punishment. It's clear that Friend is becoming unhinged by the appearance of Zed, as he despises his own immortality and the female dominant society. Bringing a raw machoismo, Friend becomes envious of Zed's lack of not only immortality, but of a sensual freedom. The matrichial society is disturbed by Zed's presence, but Friend is more ambiguously inspired.

Both Friend and May defend Zed's presence in the Vortex as scientific research. However, Friend's impure thoughts and rebellious behavior lead him to being ostracized from the Vortex and marked a 'Renegade', to which the left side of him ages rapidly. May continues to probe Zed to find out what happened to Arthur Frayn. She eventually finds that he murdered Frayn, and that Frayn allowed him into the secret of how the outlands came to be. Frayn, however, is not dead, but has been regenerated and reveals that Zed is actually a superior "Brutal" through Frayn's eugnenics experimentation. It is also revealed through May's probing that Zed has learned the truth of the his god "Zardoz", being named after the L. Frank Baum book "The Wonderful WiZARD of OZ".

Confused? I won't ruin the ending, if you can call it an ending. Though the film is strange a little too heavy on its preaching and gratuitious nudity, it is a cult classic. "Zardoz", as Boorman admits on his dvd commentary, was much more ambitious than the budget allowed. The message was and is also lost. Though the film is an original piece, it features a hodgepodge of different myth references, but it's all too cerebral to catch in this package. The idea of genetic engineering was clearly ahead of its time. "Zardoz" is unique, as it is one of the very few scifi films you find an actual working utopia. However, as many utopian fiction, that is quickly unmasked as a dystopia.