Friday, July 29, 2011

The Innocents (1961)
UK --- horror

Dir: Jack Clayton

Quite possibly one of the greatest ghost stories on film. I first encounterered this one, when I recorded this movie several years ago off of FOX MOVIE CHANNEL during one of their Halloween marathons. I waited a little later one evening to actually watch it fully, and it spooked the heck out of me. The images still haunt me, and the ending left me with a feeling that most great films leave me with, one of  "what-did-I-just-see-here?". That's impressive, because you're not going to watch too many horror films that make you think afterwards. At the end of "The Innocents", you are left wondering if it was ever really a horror film at all.

Based on both the 1898 horror novella "The Turn of the Screw" by Henry James and William Archibald's stage adaptation, "The Innocents" opens quite eerie with a young girl singing a moribund children's song "O'Willow Waly" over a pitch black screen, ambiguously setting the tone of the film. The credit sequence features Deborah Kerr (our Ms. Giddens) in prayer as we go into the her recounting the events of the film. A wealthy bachelor (played by Michael Redgrave) interviews Ms.Giddens as governess over his neice and nephew, Miles and Flora, in an isolated country estate. He demands she be fully independent and trusts her with full authority over the dealings with the children with the assistance of a kinda dotty housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. She accepts the job and is whisked away to the estate where she meets Flora playing outside by herself. Ms. Giddens soon befriends Mrs. Grose, but as they converse, revelations about the children and the past goings-on in the house come to light. Flora begins to rejoice in her brother Miles, coming home from school, even though the school term is still in session.

Soon, Ms. Giddens learns from a letter that Miles has been expelled from his school, and is expected to return home. When Miles (Martin Stephens of "Village of the Damned") arrives, things really begin to heat up for Ms. Giddens, as the supernatural paranoia in the home rises. Ms. Giddens soon claims to see a man and a woman around the estate. She's informed from photographs left behind the house that it's the old caretaker Peter Quint, and the woman is probably Ms. Jessel, the previous governness. Ms. Giddens learns that both Quint and Jessel died in or around the house. Both of them were very attached to the children as well. So, Ms. Giddens concludes that through careful observation of the children's peculiarly advanced behavior, that they either know about the ghosts of Quint and Jessel or are somehow possessed by their spirits. Curiously, her apparition sightings increase. Finally she confides in Mrs. Grose that she has seen the ghosts, and when Grose reveals that the two were in a torrid love affair, Ms. Giddens confronts the children on what they may have seen around the house. Unfortunately, her inference brings her to the absolute brink of obsession over what is truth and what is reality.

"The Innocents" belongs in that kinda rare little subgenre of the ghost story, belonging to not only a haunted house film, but one involving a woman alone (or just in confronted) in a haunted house. I can't begin to find the origin of this, my first inkling is something like the fairy tale "Blue Beard" or any of them, really, that involve a little girl lost in the woods. This kind of film serves as a psychological character study. The film dredges up issues like Ms. Giddens repressed sexuality being a cause of her possible delusions. Nuances like Flora correcting herself during prayer, or Miles' ever-so-longingly seductive kiss on the lips to Ms. Giddens, make for the entire film to be wrapped in ambiguity; and it never misses a beat. We must always remember we are watching a first person perspective flashback of events that happened, which in hindsight can shed light on the film's narrative.

Deborah Kerr does an excellent job in this film, and is one of her best performances. Also, the young Martin Stephens is incredible for a child actor, who does a 180 degree performance from his "Village of the Damned" role playing lead alien David. Like most great horror films, this one utilizes sight and sound to mass effect, including a running theme of chirping birds, creepy statues, and deep focus widescreen shots that always allows the audience to check the background for something or someone that seems out of place. The score provided by George Auric is subtle and eerie, and it comes to no surprise he also worked on "Dead of Night". Also, Hammer horror vet Freddie Francis composes the gothic noir-esque cinematography, with deep blacks and appropriate blinding light when needed. A prequel of the story was made in 1971 called "The Nightcomers" starring Marlon Brando as Peter Quint.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Jajantaram Mamantaram (Land of the Little People) (2003)
INDIA --- fantasy

Dir: Soumitra Ranade

Diving into another Bollywood film, you never quite know what to expect, but odds are you will be entertained. This one also happens to be another Idian copycat film, but I decided to review this one because it has earmarks in Indian film and literature. I will explain that later. On the outside looking in, the film clearly steals its story from Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels", and like many adaptations focusing only on the first voyage to Lillput. However, this one blends in some more characters and action than what  Swift ever put in his first chapter.

In lieu of Gulliver, we have a shipwrecked Mumbai man named Aditya, who washes ashore the diminutive island of Shundi. When a young soldier named Jee Rang discovers the washed up giant, he returns to his village with the news, but they actually believe it's another giant named Jhamunda (whom we will meet later). They seek counsel from an oracle who conjures a mermaid, leading to the much-expected musical sequence. The king and his vizier/ sorcerer, Chattan Singh, arrive at the beach where they have Aditya tired up and bound. When Aditya awakes, Chattan orders the army to attack. Realizing their tiny weapons are useless, they soon retreat in fear, but the king overhears Aditya's request for water and returns to give him water, against the advice of vizier Singh. Soon Aditya and Jee Rang form a friendship as he reveals his feelings for the princess to the giant.

Meanwhile, vizier Singh is not happy with the giant Aditya's presence on the island, and he plots to destroy him with his own giant, a supernaturally conjured being called Jhamunda. He goes to an older sage with advice on the idea of conjuring Jhamunda, a spirit Singh apparently has been using during harvest season for human sacrifice. Singh kills the sage when he advises against it, and conjures the malevolent giant anyway. When Jhamunda goes to terrorize Shundi, Jee Rang convinces Aditya to fight Jhamunda, and he defeats him easy enough. Singh, however, orders Jhamunda to return to Shundi and face Aditya again, and Jhamunda is defeated again.

Frustrated, Singh then plots to kill Jee Rang, but when he espies him alone with the princess, he tells the king that Jee Rang has been plotting to take the kingdom from him. The king banishes him, and when Aditya tries to intercede for him, his words fall on deaf ears and is no longer welcome in Shundi. After a series of fights, Jhamunda finally manages to defeat Aditya with a supernatural sword. Singh uses the opportunity to usurp the throne for himself and force the princess to be his bride. Jee Rang gathers the villagers, children and all, to nurse Aditya back to health and forge for him a supernatural weapon of his own to combat Jhamunda. Ultimately, Jhamunda is conquered, Shundi is saved, Singh is defeated, and Aditya goes off to sea and they all live happily ever after.

"Jajantaram Mamantaram" is a somewhat original take on the old Swift tale, and yet it still manages to have its roots in Indian history. Interestingly, Shundi is the creation of an author named Upendrakishore Ray, who happens to be the grandfather of Indian auteur filmmaker Satyajit Ray. Ray actually filmed a version of the story himself called "Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne", one of his more celebrated films outside of the acclaimed Apu trilogy. Another interesting note is the name Aditya  literally means "Sun", but sounds similar to the name of the Hindi giant gods Daitya. "Jajantaram Mamantaram" doesn't have much going for it, but the cinematography is top notch, and really is one of the highlights of the film, even almost apologizing for the made-for-tv special effects. One thing I didn't get is there seems to be alot of mystical stuff afoot on the island, including a vizier Chattan Singh, an old sage he consults, and a mermaid and the oracle who conjures her up. Somehow, none of these people can stop the evil giant Jhumunda. Hmmm. Just take it as a harmless children's film, and all the logic will make sense.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (1981)
UK --- science fiction

Dir: Alan J.W. Bell

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Many many many many years later, he created a man who would be named Douglas Adams, who in turn would create a radio program he would title, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide the Galaxy”. Adams was a sort of lost member of the Monty Python comedy troupe who finally found success with the writing of the six-part radio show for BBC Radio 4 in the spring of 1978. The radio series became a cult hit and eventually was made into records, books, stage plays, and of course a theatrical film. Before the film though, there was this BBC produced miniseries adaptation, which I originally remember as a child from the heyday of PBS, which had brought me Sesame Street and Doctor Who among other things.

 For anyone not in the know, the story revolves primarily around a contemporary mild-mannered British man named Arthur Dent, who one day tries to save his house from being bulldozed by the city for the building of a highway. The only problem is it won’t matter, because as his friend Ford Prefect comes to tell him, the world will soon come to an end. A race of aliens named Vogons, have a constructor fleet also coincidentally about to destroy the earth to make way for an intergalactic highway. Dressed only in pajamas and a robe, Dent is whisked away from the earth by his friend Prefect as they literally hitch hike across the galaxy. As it turns out, Prefect reveals he’s an alien stuck on earth for the last 15 years. He’s been here researching the planet for the electronic book known as “The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” for a new edition including an update on Earth (which turns out is not just “harmless” but “mostly harmless”). The duo gets into a series of hilarious adventures and misadventures that involve everything from torture by listening to Vogon poetry (only the third worse in the galaxy according to H2G2), to a manic depressive robot named Marvin, and even the mind-boggling answer to the 7.5 million old question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.

High on satire, the miniseries stuck to Douglas Adams’ wry British humor when it aired in 1981 and even used original cast members from the radio show including Peter Jones (as the narrator and voice of the book), Simon Jones (as Arthur Dent), Mark Wing-Davey (as Zaphod), and a few others. Some diehard fans of course complained about its not keeping the spirit of the books, but this miniseries predates the books. Some people completely are oblivious of the original radio show too. It also brought a unique addition to the story by successfully visualizing the narration and Adams sense of humor through Rod Lords’ animation sequences. Shot on 16mm, and suffering from cheap special effects like the nearly inanimate second head of Prefects second cousin Zaphod Beeblebrox. This version however keeps to Adams keen, often brutally honest reflection of the human race, as he oversaw the production from start to finish.

I have not seen the 2005 feature film with Mos Def, but I have always wanted a film directed by Terry Gilliam and starring some of the Python troupe. I suspect the Python guys respected their friend Adams’ work, but weren’t that into it. I don’t know what Gilliam ever thought of it, but of course I don’t think he could direct something where his imagination was restricted. Still it might be interesting to see. Anyone who’s a fan of British sci-fi like "Dr. Who" or "Blake’s Seven" should definitely consider the original miniseries of “The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” a must see.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Honogaurai Mizu no Soko Kara (Dark Water) (2002)
JAPAN --- horror

Dir: Hideo Nakata

Japanese director Hideo Nakata returned to the world of horror author Koji Suzuki, with his adaptation of the short story “Floating Water”. The simplistic story revolves around a woman named Yoshimi Matsubara and her young daughter Ikuko, going through a turbulent divorce. The husband, Kunio Hamada, seems manipulative and unrelenting about his commitment to gain full custody of their five-year-old daughter. Yoshimi tries to convince their legal councils that she is capable of taking care of Ikuko, seeing how she’s already marred herself having gone through therapy over her job. She was a proofreader, and she claims that some of the books would sometimes give her anxiety and nightmares. Now, unemployed, she finds a way to convince them she can take care of her daughter.

The two move into a less than stellar apartment tenement plagued with plumbing problems and an untrustworthy landlord and worthless old janitor. The apartment they move into looks like it could be an unkempt relic of another time, including a foreboding water stain on the bedroom ceiling. Yoshimi learns that a young girl had disappeared from the building a year before, which doesn’t make her living there with her young girl any more pleasing. To make matters more interesting, Ikuko seems to repeatedly find a child’s red bag, one Yoshimi comes to discover is identical to the missing girl’s bag. The water issues are far more than plumbing problems, as puddles are found in the apartment building, a glass of water from the faucet contains hair, and that leaky ceiling doesn’t seem to cease.

After successfully landing a job, and getting Ikuko back into school at the local kindergarten. Her ex-husband begins playing games with her in an effort to gain custody of Ikuko. Meanwhile, just as Yoshimi and Ikuko begin to fortify their relationship, Yoshimi comes discover the little girl who disappeared may be haunting the building. Yoshimi finds conclusive evidence of this, when she learns that the girl lived right upstairs from their apartment, attended the same school that Ikuko is, and that the little red bag did indeed belong to her. All of this leads to a surprising yet melancholy climax, revealing just what truly did happen to the missing little girl and what her connection is to the water.

"Honogaurai Mizu no Soko Kara" is one of Hideo Nakata’s most atmospheric efforts, possibly better than Ringu. It evokes the dreariness of rain soaked streets, be it outside or indoors. The moody shots are tinged to a sickly yellowish filter to focus on flashbacks, and it’s effective. Nakata even takes use again of the videotape look of he utilized in Ringu with a security camera shot of the elevator, something that always made me wonder in a building that couldn’t seem to afford such a luxury. All in all, this film’s underlying story isn’t necessarily about the ghosts of children or the key signs of bad plumbing, it more or less is a sad cautionary tale about family or moreover the relationship between mother and daughter. The movie reminded me of John Mayer’s sappy Grammy winning song “Daughters” in that regard. However, it is a compelling ghost story, as most great ghost stories are primarily there for emotional exposition that the main characters must be guided through whether they know it or not.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Secret of Roan Inish (1995)
IRELAND/ USA --- fantasy

Dir: John Sayles

Mysteries of the ocean has enchanted mankind for centuries. The aquatic visions of another world beneath our earth is replete for storytellers to imagine wondrous creatures. Celtic myths and legends have successfully had a beautiful and long-lasting history on the world's cultures. We're all familiar with the leprechauns, banshees, will-o'-the-wisps, and faerie folk from these distant lands. The legends of mermaids are not exclusive to the Celtic, but they have had a unique signature and tradition from that part of the world. We are familiar with the sirens of Greco-Roman mythology and the cryptid Loch Ness monster of Scotland. The most famous tale we have is the fairy tale "The Little Mermaid" by Danish children's author Hans Christian Anderson, but the selkies is a different breed.

Based on a 1959 novel titled "The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry" by children's author Rosalie K. Fry, "The Secret of Roan Inish" delves into the legends of selkies and the traditions and beliefs that some Irish natives do not let go of. American indie filmmaker John Sayles (The Brother From Another Planet, Eight Men Out), transferred the book's locale of Scotland to the coast of western Ireland for the film adaptation. Taking place in the 1940's, this cordial family film is about a young girl named Fiona, who's mother has just passed away. Fiona's alcoholic father heads out to find work in the city and he sends his young daughter to live with her grandparents. She arrives to the shores of Roan Inish, a small village that seems untouched by the passage of time as many would have it be. Once there, she is regaled with tales of the old country and her ancestors by her grandfather.

He tells her of her own missing younger brother, Jamie, and how he was swept away in a cradle by the tide and given to the care of the seals. She then meets her older cousin Eamon, who gets in on the storytelling himself. They tell her of her own ancestry, and how they're great-great grandfather married a woman who was a selkie (a seal turned into a woman), and how she too returned to the sea. On these tall tales alone, Fiona begins to believe. She is egged on further by another relative who fills in more blanks in the story of exactly what happened. When Fiona decides upon herself to find Jamie, she goes out on her own adventure seeking out the mysteries of her own family lineage, and stumbling into her younger brother alive and stark naked. Her grand parents do not believe her, but upon her own faith and determination she convinces Eamon to help her build up the old cottage on Roan Inish for Jamie to return to. Eventually, once they fix up the cottage and with the looming threat of their own home being taken by landowners, her grand parents begin to come to terms that Fiona's belief may not be all imaginary, and that Jamie is truly alive and well, and that the sea has brought him back to them.

A whimsical children's film at it's innocent best. Sayles' almost precise documentarian style of direction makes the film's fantastic elements float through the realism seamlessly. Legendary cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, teams with Sayles again (They worked on "Matewan" and would re-team twice more) perfectly in this one, and not only portraying a very lush and mesmerizing Ireland, but pulling the audience into a world that feels outside of time. Director pet and composer Mason Daring utilizes classic ethnic Celtic themes in this, moving the film along with a haunting feeling like an old-time storytelling bard with an instrument.