Friday, August 26, 2011

Los Cronocrímenes (Time Crimes) (2007)
SPAIN --- science fiction

Dir: Nacho Vigalondo

We all make mistakes. Whether we got into a car accident or ran a red light. Said something that escalated into an argument. Paid too much for something, when we didn’t really need it. We all have done something stupid and in hindsight had to wonder, what if? What if we turned left instead of right? What if we stayed silent, instead of speaking our mind? In these instances, some of us truly fancy the idea of just what would happen if we literally could go back in time and change those things? On the whole, we know it is impossible. For the man in this film, it isn't.

There have been many a tale of time travel in some form or another, whether it’s Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle", Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court", or HG Wells’ masterpiece "The Time Machine". "Los Cronocrímenes " from director Nacho Vigalondo continues in this tradition, and in great form. One of the issues I have always had with time travel films of any genre, is each film seems to be unto a universe of its own with its own rules about what can and cannot exist. Much like vampire films, where they disregard Bram Stoker’s rules and often branch out into ideas that really push the themes so far, they are no longer about vampires per se. The time travel genre is similar in this regard, and the complications are far more detrimental than vampire films. If you don‘t get it right in establishing the rules in time travel, you don‘t have a plausible story at all. Which may stand to explain why they are few and far between. This film appears to take on the task with unflinching bravado, and in every instance upon multiple viewings, pulls off its story perfectly.

"Los Cronocrímenes" tells the story of a man named Hector who lives with his beautiful wife in a country home they seemingly have just bought and are in the midst of renovating. One day, he is sitting outside his home with a pair of binoculars, and as we've learned from Hitchcock, those are almost always a device of great trouble. Hector sees a woman in the woods just outside his house who seems to be getting unclothed, and as any man, his curiosity is greatly piqued be it through lust or concern. When his wife goes out to town, he ventures into the woods by himself to find out what's going on. Hector finds the young woman lying unconscious in the forest, he gets a little too close and is stabbed in the arm by a mysterious man in bandages and a trenchcoat, sending him in flight for his life. Hector runs until he finds a building to hide out. Hecleans his wounds and searches the place for somebody to help, and eventually comes across a walkie-talkie where he contacts someone for help. On the other end is a young man (played by the director himself Nacho Vigalondo) who works in the building, who comes to help Hector.

Soon Hector is brought into a lab by the man as he explains he's being chased by a crazy masked man. By this time, it's early evening, and eventually, the masked man catches up with Hector as the man tells Hector to get into a circlular pool-like (not a hot tub) machine that closes shut from the top. In seconds he is immersed in the liquid of the machine, and yet the machine opens once again. This time it is daylight outside. Hector stares in wonder as Hector stands by bewildered. he runs outside only to come to the realization it's not just daytime, it's the very same day he is about to live over again. The man explains to Hector that the machine is a time travel prototype, as the two of them try to put their heads together to avoid messing up Hector's life, let alone time itself.

"Los Cronocrímenes" (Time Crimes) is a low budget science fiction film that keeps its concept very simple. It manages to be that as well as a taut Hitchcockian thriller. The director was smart enough to isolate the characters. The less characters and locations involved in a time travel story, the better. The filmmakers create an interesting color scheme. Not so much through cinematography but through wardrobe and production design. Both Hector's wife and the nameless young woman are both wearing red and the van that hits Hector A causing his accident in the first place is . . . you guessed it; red. There's a play on this where Hector A's bandage and makeshift mask is pink from him getting in the milky liquid of the time machine. My suggestion is the red is trying to streamline the people caught in this time paradox, and Hector himself kinda weaves in and out of it for the majority of the film.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Вий (Viy: Spirit of Evil) (1967)
RUSSIA --- horror

Dir: Georgi Kropachyov, Konstantin Yershov, Alexander Ptushko

"And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief." King James Bible - MARK 9: 24

Some stories never go out of style. Some tales can be relevant for ages. Some legends just stay with us. It may be marked by some inkling of truth and a very powerful message about the human condition. Faith will always be a part of the human condition, and the struggle between good and evil isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

The film Viy is about this very matter, faith and the struggle between good and evil and what happens when one's faith is put to the test. Based on an 1835 Ukranian folk tale published as a short story by Nikolai Gogol, the film tales the story of a young priest named Khoma Brutus (translated Thomas Brutus), who is on leave from seminary. He and some other students all leave in a big group to go out into the villages and return to their respective homes, but three get separated. So Khoma, Khaliava, and Gorobets soon find themselves out in the countryside alone, when they come across an isolated farmhouse. They go there to seek shelter for the night, when a reluctant old woman puts them up for a night. She then separates them to different sleeping areas, and leaves Khoma in the barn. Later that night, the old woman goes into the barn awakening him, and at first Khoma thinks the old woman is just attempting to seduce him, that is until he sees that something is far more wrong with her than sexual advances. She wants to get on his back and ride him like a beast of burden, which eventually through some enchantment, she does. The witch rides Khoma all over the countryside even flying above the ground, and when he is released from her spell, he beats her, only to witness her transformation into a beautiful young woman. Startled, he flees for his life, and returns to the Monastery.

Upon arrival, Khoma is soon told by the dean that the daughter of a rich Cossack has returned home beaten near to death, and is requesting for Khoma specifically to perform a vigil over her corpse for three nights after she dies. A bunch of cossacks are there to escort him, and to make sure he arrives in the village and does as promised, all Khoma wants is to go home. A short stop over at an inn with his escorts gets him drunk enough to brave the ride into the village. By the time they arrive, they learn the young woman has died. Khoma visits her the next day and her father begins to question him and his association with his daughter. Khoma is told, per her request to pray for her salvation for three nights and he will be richly rewarded. That day, they lay her body in an open coffin in a dank empty church, where he is to go and pray for her. The local Cossacks begin to tell Khoma of a huntsman who was fell in love with the girl. They tell a tale that sounds all too familiar to Khoma, about her riding on the huntsman's back. That night they lock Khoma in the church with the body, and as they say, the horror begins.

Khoma's first night is spent in fervent prayer, as he sets up candles around the church, with peering Rublev-esque icon paintings surrounding him. This doesn't stop the body of the woman to be creep out of her open coffin, as she heads to Khoma. Khoma draws a chalk circle around him and again prays for the lord's holy protection from such a clearly demonic spirit of evil. The witch disappears when the cock crows. Khoma does indeed survive his first night in the chamber, but after some borsch for breakfast and questioning from the village men about his night, he's reluctant to return with getting drunk on some vodka. Night two, the witch takes flight in her coffin and begins once again to break Khoma's faithful circle. She fails again, but not before casting a spell on Khoma that turns his hair white as snow. That day Khoma has pretty much lost it, as he takes to drink and dance. He goes to the rich cossack begging him for release from his duties. The cossack promises him one thousand lashes instead of one thousand pieces of gold if he fails to pray for his daughter. Khoma tries to flee for fear that he may not survive his final night. He may not have been wrong in that, as his third and final night turns out to be his most terrifying.

"Viy" is a witty and simplistic horror film that weaves its tale with simple suspense and a minimalist charming style. The film has a very gothic Hammer Studios-esque veneer. The filmmakers utilize very practical in-camera special effects. The gloomy but crisp analagous cinematography adds to set pieces, the actors all play their parts without a hitch, and the imagery of barnyard animals in all their noisy glory throughout the film lends to the toning down of the horror and suspense. What is "Viy" really trying to say? I believe it is about faith. The fact that this character is named Thomas can not be a coincidence, as we all know that the disciple/ apostle Thomas was remembered as being the one who doubted the appearance of the resurrected Jesus. The very idea that the town knows full well of this witch, and puts the student priest in the thick of danger is a testament of our own walks in faith. Notice the church was dank and desolate with cold candles, gloomy paintings of the dead saints, and no sign of any having been there for worship. The church was dead and Khoma's faith may have been as well. Whether Gogol was making a statement about the Russian church in his times, is up to the reader. This is a rare horror film from the once fully communist U.S.S.R., who sternly frowned upon such stories and this one actually marks the very first Russian horror film. The filmmakers were able to push it through because of its humourous take on the folktale and legendary Russian fantasy director, Alexander Ptushko,  I'm sure put his visionary stamp on it besides contributing to the screenplay.

Friday, August 12, 2011

La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) (1946)
FRANCE --- fantasy

Dir: Jean Cocteau

Tale as old as time and such, the fact is this story never gets old.  Many have seen the Academy Award nominated Disney take on the tale and possibly even the award-winning American television series, but a priveleged few have seen the story unfold in its original language and properly adapted for screen. Based on the original fairy tale by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve written back in 1740 and then again by Madame LePrince de Beaumont, the tale of a monstrous creature with a kind, loving soul and the beautiful young damsel who learns to tame and love the beast, has larger than life implications that were just meant to be enacted either on stage or on film. Jean Cocteau was a regular renaissance man, besides being an auteur film director. In the midst of World War Two, he set out to make this fairy tale film that eventually became a truly evocative and haunting classic in its own right. This 1946 film version of "La Belle et la Bête" takes some liberties with the tale, but makes those liberties worthwhile.

As the tale is told a rich merchant lives in a manor with his son Ludovic and three beautiful daughters, however only the youngest is appropriately named so; "Belle" (translated in French as Beauty). After losing most of his fortune at sea, he is forced to downgrade to a smaller farm house, but as they toil, the daughters still act entitled. All but the humble Belle. She is courted by a handsome young man named Avenant, a friend of her brother. Avenant is not exactly a Prince Charming, and Belle's brother is a drunkard who is running up a tab with a local moneylender; a tab on his father's belongings. One day, the merchant gets word of one of ships being found and his merchandise possibly restored. Before he rushes out in high hopes of finding his riches again, he asks his daughters what they would wish as a gift upon his return. One of them suggests a monkey and the other a parrot (interesting both being beasts/animals that mimic human behavior), but Belle only requests a rose.

Unfortunately, he is dismayed to learn his ships were not recovered and all his fortunes are gone. Penniless, he must venture back home that night during foggy weather conditions, that is until he happens upon a mysterious castle hidden in the woods. Sheltering his horse, and seeking out the owner, he is met with no one, but looks upon the empty castle with wonder as it surely appears enchanted with candlestick holders shaped like human hands and statues with eyes wide open and smoke emanating from their nostrils and mouths. Eventually he arrives at the dinner table with a plate of food prepared for a guest, and once again more human hand servants. He indulges himself with some wine and passes out. The merchant awakens and is still determined to find the owner of estate, until he comes across a rosebush, remembering his promise to his daughter Belle. Just then, he finds himself confronted by the owner, a grotesque creature dressed in fine attire. The beast is set to kill him for trespassing, but tells the merchant if he offers one of his daughters for his own life to come and live with him, he will spare his life. The merchant agrees and flees back home.

He tells his family what happened, and that the beast will send an enchanted horse to pick up the promised daughter. Belle rightfully takes the responsibilty because she was the one who wanted the rose. The enchanted horse does indeed come for the merchant's daughter, and Belle rides off. Belle arrives at the enchanted castle and comes upon her personal chambers. Within she finds a mirror, where she views her own father sick unto death. In despair, she decides to search around the castle, and runs into the beast where she passes out. From this point on the beast attempts to forge a relationship with her going so far as to ask her hand in marriage, which she politely declines due to her unwillingness to let go of her attraction to Avenant. The relationship is not without its complications, as Belle becomes slowly affectionate of the beast beyond his harsh appearance. Ultimately, as time goes on for the two, she longs to return home to see after her father, but her family has other plans as they desperately conspire to kill the beast and steal the fortunes for themselves. However, in this tale, true love will win out.

I have grew up thinking "La Belle et la Bête" was another Charles Perrault or Grimm Brothers fairy tale, because it bore some resemblance to many other famous fairy tales, however it may have been inspired by those but is a fresh work on its own. Though Jean Cocteau borrowed the evil sisters directly from Cinderella, as the original tale had two brothers. Jean Cocteau's visionary masterpiece took unique practical effects to create a world where one can truly believe in magic and the triumph of love. Cocteau succeeds in correctly contrasting the sunny yet drudgery-soaked real world full of bickering, back-stabbing sisters a father at the end of his rope, and a vain suitor who seems to mean well, but can't really offer Belle the true escape she deserves. It's a story that has gone on to inspire countless other classic tales such as "Hunchback of Notre Dame", "Phantom of the Opera", and of course "King Kong".

Friday, August 5, 2011

Cube (1997)
CANADA --- science fiction/ horror

Dir: Vincenzo Natali

We've all seen this kind of minimalist psychological character study. I usually notice most of them are based on stage play with a very small cast and contained space of people. Stuff akin to Samuel Beckett's work, but these are often very well done character pieces designed to get into the human psyche. Alfred Hitchcock gave us "Lifeboat", we also had the excellent "Twelve Angry Men", and even the johnny-come-lately gore porn horror films of the "Saw" series get in the act. I came name more, but one such entry took the inventive and cheap low budget idea and took it into a very creative direction in "Cube".

Canadian director Vincenzo Natali locks us in the "Cube". The opening teaser features a man who attempts to escape a cubical room and is suddenly sliced and diced to pieces. Next we see a group of individuals come together to one room, all trying to find their bearings as they admit to just waking up. They all are dressed in plain grey clothes with their name on them like prisoners. There's Quentin an ex-police officer, Leaven a student, Worth a mysterious young man, Holloway a female doctor, and Rennes a serial escaped convict. Rennes appears to be the veteran of the group as he knows how the place operates, explaining that some of the different rooms are booby-trapped. Quentin is the first to recognize that Rennes is in actuality "The Wren", a kinda Robert Stroud "birdman" of several prisons, so they follow his lead as he tosses boots. Soon, Leaven begins to notice that the rooms are numbered at the hatchways, and they can't be there for no reason.

Ironically, Rennes ends up as the first to die, after jumping into a room that is booby-trapped. The group recover from the death and realize they have to find some kind of order, as Quentin quickly takes the reins as the leader of the group. He elects Leaven as their new guide to decipher the arithmetic meaning behind the serial numbers in the hatchways, and she does eventually discover a logic behind them. Just as they are ready to go forward with ease, a new member falls into their path, an autistic man named Kazan. Some of the group find him to be a burden and others are humane enough to realize it is their responsibility to help him out. As tempers shorten and time seems to be running short, they realize if they do not find the way, they'll all eventually die with no food or water. Quentin becomes increasingly abusive to the group, ultimately going so far as to be responsible for the death of one of them. While Quentin becomes a ticking time bomb, the remnants of the group must find a way to survive their Judas and escape the cube alive.

Clearly shot on a low budget, "Cube" is a tiny little thought-provoking sci-fi masterpiece. As mentioned earlier, it is done in the style of a small ensemble stage play, focusing on character study. This particular piece, however, appears to be directly influenced by a classic episode of the American TV series "Twilight Zone" titled "Five Characters In Search of An Exit" by Rod Serling based on a short story called "The Depository" by Marvin Petal which in turn was inspired by a philosophical play by Luigi Pirandello called "Six Characters in Search of an Author". It is not without it's own inventions, like the fact the characters are all named after prisons. Quentin is named after San Quentin, Leaven and Worth are collectively named after Leavenworth, Kazan after a Russian prison, Holloway is named after a female prison in England,  as too is Rennes after a female prison in France. All in all, "Cube" is an interesting film full of suspense, character arcs, and even a little action.