Friday, October 28, 2011

Videodrome (1983)
CANADA --- science fiction

Dir: David Cronenberg

Technology has vastly expanded our horizons and imagination in the late 20th Century and on into the 21st Century. The industrial revolution had nothing on the computer age. What was birthed through incremental thoughts of vast communication in the current space age, has become a massive link-line to being able to create a dimension as knowledgeable as the ancient library of Alexandria to man's first doomed accordance of a mission to reach the heavens with the tower of Babel. Now we have the power to link with each other by the swift press of a button, be it by picture, words, and voice. The accelerated rate of technology is somewhat disconcerting to many. Some recent psychologists theorize by bringing us closer together, it actually distances us. An interesting concept. However, having a separate identity in a completely virtual setting is something relatively new to the world. Through the use of video games and alternative identities on the Internet in various forms, the idea of having a new virtual life has come to pass.

David Cronenberg is mostly known for his body horror masterpieces in unique art house science fiction and horror films. He did, however, step into the world of science fiction when it became necessary to compose an essay on a subject matter that tied into his main theme of horrors of the body. Back in the early eighties everyone who was anyone began to notice that technology was beginning to become more and more advanced than they had ever dreamed. The preordained year of "1984" was fast approaching, and it seemed that, while Orwell's dark dystopian novel hadn't quite come to fruition, the foundation for such a future existed. Cronenberg as well as other filmmakers (Terry Gilliam with "Brazil"), found ways to incorporate the idea of "1984" in their own films. "Videodrome" is loosely cut from that vine.

Taking place in contemporary Toronto, the film is about a kinda Al Goldstein-esque cable access television producer, Max Renn, who's always in search for the next bit of sleaze to push on his network for ratings. His CIVIC-TV Channel 83 Cable 12 needs something new, and the soft core porn they do televise isn't enough to keep the viewers. Thanks to a nerdy cohort of his named Harlan, he comes upon a show called "Videodrome" via a snowy satellite transmission from "Pitts"burgh in the U.S. of A. The show features masked men beating and torturing unknown persons in a red room covered in clay. Renn is instantly hooked and has a producer friend of his try to track it down. Meanwhile, he meets the lovely radio talk-show psychiatrist Nicki Brand (played by Blondie lead singer Debbie Harry), who has her own counter-culture demons that, much like "Videodrome", Renn becomes instantly hooked on her too. They meet at the taping of a televised talk show discussing media with a media guru named Prof. Brian O'Blivion (a character based on media theorist Marshall McLuhan); who happens to appear via a  television on the set of the show. Max and Nicki later hook up when she reveals she's into BDSM, and later she tells Max she's taking a vacation to Pittsburgh to check out Videodrome herself.

Not long after, Max' producer friend tracks down some info on Videodrome, and she reveals it is not just a show but real. She gives him a lead with naming Brian O'Blivion as a direct contact. Max heads to a place called Cathode Ray Mission, where homeless derelicts can come in and watch television. Prof. O'Blivion's daughter Bianca runs the place, and Max inquires about meeting the professor to discuss Videodrome, but she insists he will only send him a taped message. Soon later, he does get a tape from O'Blivion, and this is where, as they say "the fun begins".

The rest of the film swings into a high speed technological nightmare for Max Renn, as he witnesses O'Blivion murdered by Nicki Brand. She, however, seduces him through the tape as his television set comes alive and is almost physical in nature as Renn presses his face into the image of Brand's lips on the screen, a scene that would later inspire the "tv witch" Sadako from "Ringu". Max ultimately realizes through O'Blivion's message that Videodrome has caused a physical tumor in the brain which causes him to hallucinate. The hallucinations increase, but to add fire to the gas a corporation named Spectacular Optical are the ones responsible for Videodrome in the first place, and soon Max is drawn into a web of technological conspiracy that will cause him to risk his life "in this world" to survive.

"Videodrome" was and is a cyberpunk masterpiece. It's predictions of cyberspace and even video game interactivity are unnervingly accurate. On the outside looking in, the film is an essay on violence and sex and the result of such on personal reflections on the populace who consume them. However, at the same time, the film managed to go a step further, by predicting through the science fiction elements that pornography and violence could be so interactive that the media would ultimately consume the viewers. Through the use of the Internet, pornography has reigned as king. However, that is only one facet. The communication of being able to have another life through the cyberspace or through games such as "World of Worldcraft" or "Second Life" allows for much much more than that. What began as entertainment is capable of becoming a lifestyle. Cronenberg would return to the notion of video games specifically with his film "Existenz", but "Videodrome" laid the foundation for correctly advising us through cautionary social commentary the dangers of such media consumption on a society that feeds on animalistic nature.

Such tiny predictions such as the use of "windows" throughout the film cement the theme. This actually predated Microsoft's popular program, but other there are other hints such as the characters being bathed in blue light as such we can be from the television sets or computer monitors. Max is subjected to being used like a walking videocassette player, which the villains insert a "program" to utilize him as an assassin. This is more than a little preachy of the times when media was blamed for vigilantism, but looking around in the 21st Century, the programming seems to have continued. No coincidence that Nicki Brand first meets Renn in a red dress, which she calls "stimulating"; as stimulating as the "red" room featured on "Videodrome". She also becomes the sensual commodity of Videodrome to seduce Max into their will, how telling of the "American Idols" or "Top Models" of this generation. Let alone the rampant pornography of the Internet. "Videodrome" has become a quintessential cyberpunk cult classic for many reasons. Much like its predecessor like "Alphaville", it inspired such films as "Tron", "Blade Runner" or "The Matrix". Cronenberg managed to invoke a theme from his first film "Shivers" about "New Flesh", which must be somewhat inspired by the bible. Surely, in this film Bianca O'Blivion even paraphrases the bible in talking about "the word becomes flesh", a passage specifically talking about Jesus Christ. This ultimately reprograms Max Renn as the cyberpunk hero destroy the rising Orwellian power of Videodrome before it's too late.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Ju-On (The Grudge) (2003)
JAPAN --- horror

Dir: Takashi Shimizu

The malevolent mother and child spirits continue their vengeance fueled haunting of Tokyo in this bigger budget theatrical sequel to the Ju-On television and video films. In the first film we saw the origin of the horror, as well as in the follow-up. The body count and victims increased, creating more and more horrific circumstances in a small vicinity that no one will be able to stop. The difference in this film, it seems to focus on one woman's encounter with the Ju-on Onryō spirits, creating a familiar vibe in the haunted house sub genre.

The feature film "Ju-On" expands the universe and attempts to give us some form of explanation of the exponential nature of the ghosts, while scaring the heck out of us. Keeping form of its predecessors, the film is told in non-linear construction, which makes us even more unnerved; adding to the suspense. In the opening, we get a short abstract visual to key events that set up the horrors of the film, though we don't know it yet. First off we find a young volunteer welfare worker named Rika assigned to visit an old woman home alone. Setting us smack bang in the very familiar ghost story trope of "the woman in a haunted house tale". She finds the house in absolute shambles, and the old woman shes' to check on, sitting in a room of the house alone. As she goes about cleaning up around the house, Rika eventually has an encounter with Toshio, the ghost child (except here he curiously appears in human form). She contacts the welfare department but when she goes to check in on the old woman, she finds a black figure hovering above her; the other ghostly resident of the house, Toshio's Yūrei mother Kayako.

The next sequence titled "Katsuya", takes us back in time with the old woman's son Katsuya Tokunaga and his wife (the old woman's daughter-in-law) Kazumi. We meet Katsuya as it appears they have just recently moved into the home looking after their elderly mother. When Katsuya goes off to work, Kazumi is left home alone with her elderly mother-in-law, but soon discovers it isn't just the two of them. Later that day, Katsuya gets home from work and looking for Kazumi he runs into the ghost of Toshio. After finding Kazumi in a catatonic state she dies, and he is soon possessed by an evil spirit. I presume based on the dialogue he later mutters to his sister, that he is possessed by the spirit of Takeo Saeki. Soon when his sister Hitomi comes home for a visit, she confronts him and is quickly kicked out of the house, until Katsuya takes Kazumi's dead body up to the attic.

The following vignette features Katsuya's sister, titled "Hitomi". The beautiful young woman becomes haunted by the ghosts. She contacts her brother from work and has what would normally be a mundane way back home, turned into a living nightmare. We even see the abilities of the Onryō spirit somehow transcends just the physical in being able to control or affect electronics, something which I'm sure was possibly inspired by "Ringu". Next up, in "Toyama" another welfare worker (Hashini; the worker who originally assigned Rika) visits the Tokunaga residence. He finds the old woman dead and Rika in a state of shock. The police are brought in on the case, and they end up finding the corpses of Katsuya and Kazumi Tokunaga in the attic. When one of the detectives question Rika about what happened, she reveals finding a boy named Toshio, which was reported a missing child. The police bring in a retired detective named Yuji Toyama, who was assigned to the case of the house Saeki family. He is seen with his daughter Izumi (here shown at a young age as opposed to the following segment), and soon joins the detective to help on their investigation. Toyama goes to the police station to watch the video camera footage of the Hitomi's last whereabouts in her building. The security guard is shown checking the ladies restroom, she had him check. Toyama checks the video footage and finds that he sees the same black spirit that Hitomi saw. As mentioned, the Onryō spirit is no longer bound by space, as she comes through the television screen Toyama is watching. Meanwhile, the film continues to follow Rika, who is still being haunted by the ghosts. By the end of the segment, Toyama decides to burn the house of Saeki down, but ends up apparently looking into the future as he witnesses his daughter as a teenager leaving the house after chickening out on the bet to stay in the house. Ultimately, it is all a ploy to lure him upstairs as the Yūrei Kayako gurgling and creeping like a spider, ends up chasing him. The police detectives happen upon him too, but run into the ghost themselves, and succumb to it.

The horror continues, as we follow some schoolgirls in the chapter titled "Izumi". We are now either a year or two later, as we discover Toyama is dead and his now older daughter is distraught over the haunted house of Saeki. Somewhere between her father dying and this episode, she went into the house with her three friends and they never made it out. This was the seen in the last episode, where her father actually saw her. When her school photograph comes out distorted her friends try to console her. It's already too late, as she knows that her number is up. In the final chapter, "Kayako", we find Rika must rescue her co-worker who has unknowingly went to the haunted house to check on Toshio. Rika, however arrives too late, as she realizes the spirits have taken her friend and Kayako's Onryō spirit taps into her psyche. This allows Rika to see, and in a sense relive, all that Kayako has been through (at least in this film). By the end of the film, we realize, somehow Kayako has possibly been reincarnated in Rika as, Takeo Saeki, the third and final member of this preternatural family continues his violent legacy.

The events in "Ju-On: The Grudge" have been seen and done before in film. For Americans, it is not so dissimilar from "The Amityville Horror", the difference being the latter is based on reality. The film series, however does have a few roots in classic Japanese horror cinema. For those interested, the tale seems to throw in the use of the black cat which does not quite fit into the Onryō spirit legend. There was a film in 1958 called "Borei Kaibyo Yashiki" (Mansion of the Ghost Cat aka Black Cat Mansion) by 50's horror maven filmmaker Nakagawa Nobuo, which seems to be a progenitor to the Ju-On film series in some way. This theatrical entry of the "Ju-On" series of films is a classic in the subgenre of "J-Horror". For Japanese horror films, sound design is essential. This has pretty much always been the case in all ghost stories, going back to the campfire. It is probably the most psychologically robust cinema genre one can watch, working on the parts of your mind you really don't want to explore. Visually, they rely less on gore and place more emphasis on creeping you out. For this entry in the series, director Shimizu really elevated his filmmaking prowess making not only a great horror film with more texture and characterization, but even allowed for humor and simple entertainment. Shimizu also remade this very film for American audiences with "The Grudge" and sequels continue to this day.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus) (1959)
BRAZIL --- fantasy

Dir: Marcel Camus

This fine entry of a fantasy film comes from the country responsible for Cidade de Deus (City of God) and the old Coffin Joe horror films; you guessed it Brazil. Except this is quite some time before the drug wars and such. In what is quite possibly the oldest of all tragically beautiful love stories, "Orfeu Negro" weaves a tale of music and the power of love. In the Greek myth Orpheus was the son of muse Calliope who married a woman named Eurydice. His wife was being taunted by a satyr one day and fell into a vipers nest. When Orpheus found her, he played music for her that made the gods weep on end. Eventually they advised him to travel to the underworld where he played the music for Hades. being overwhelmed by his music, they allowed him to return to earth with his wife, under the condition she was to follow behind him and that he may not look back until they arrived. However, when they do reach the upperworld, he hurriedly looks back, but she had not stepped foot yet and she is lost forever.

"Orfeu Negro" transplants this classic love story from ancient Greece to contemporary Rio de Janiero. Orfeu (Breno Mello) is a trolley conductor, who has a gift for playing the guitar. He's due to marry his beautiful, yet (for lack of a better word) bitchy fiancee Mira. However, he comes across Euridice (Marpessa Dawn) who rides to the last stop on the trolley in search for her cousin. She is directed by another conductor, appropriately named Hermes, to her destination. Meanwhile, Orfeu and Mira go to get the official paperwork for their marriage license. Orfeu even gets somewhat of a premonition of things to come, when the clerk asks Mira if her name is Euridice, like the old, old tale of tragic romance, he says. He admits to just joking to Mira, and she's so consumed with herself, the upcoming marriage, and Carnaval, she blows it off, but keeps an eye on him from then on out.

Euridice arrives atop the hillside of town to meet up with her cousin Serafina, who has just spent her savings on a costume for Carnaval. They discuss what she's doing there, when Euridice confides she ran away from home from fear of a man who is attempting to kill her; death. Serafina says she is perfectly safe now. When Orfeu gets his guitar out of the pawn shop, he escapes the arm of his fiancee and begins to play with the local children who believe he can wake up the sun with his music. During his child-like time with them and teaching one of them how to play guitar, unbeknownst to him he's serenading Euridice who is listening on from the neighboring shack belonging to Serafina. When he ducks out to hide from Mira's girlfriends, Orfeu's plans quickly change when he discovers the pretty new visitor is named Euridice, his destined lover.

He spends most of the film protecting her from death (the satyr), a man who appears clad in an abstract skull mask and black costume. However, fate finds them out, as the tale begins to weave out exactly as the ancient legend did. She eventually tries to escape the man and ultimately falls victim to him under her own circumstance. Orpheus loses her, but is given one final chance during a religious ceremony.

"Orfeu Negro" is a classic and beautiful love story, the best of which usually don't always end in happily ever after. The film uniquely pays careful attention to the homages to the greek legend with familiar characters such as the Satyr, Hermes, Cerebus, and Charon the ferryman of the river Styx. Like most films made in the 50's it features the ubiquitous musical sequence. The cinematography is vibrant and colorful. Even the scenes of Euridice's death is bathed in red light. In fact one of my favorite images in the film is  with Orfeu and the janitor decending a long spiral staircase, in which the bottom is again bathed in bright red light. Many film critics loved "Orfeu Negro", but deemed it a French film made in Brazil. Fair enough. However, I'm certain 3/4 of the product including the mostly Afro-Latin cast, the boss nova bumping soundtrack from Antônio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Floriano Bonfá, and local film crew contributed to its success. I can't see much French influence, especially new wave, on this film. Though I'm sure if made on the nickels and dimes of Brazilian money it wouldn't look and feel nearly as polished as it is. According to Barack Obama, via his book "Dreams of My Father", he wasn't so impressed with the film either.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Сталкер (Stalker) (1979)
RUSSIA --- science fiction

Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 science fiction film, “Stalker”, is based on a novella called “Roadside Picnic” written by sci-fi Russian novelists Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. The original story deals with aliens having visited earth and left behind various equipment and such of advanced technological nature. The places these things reside in have become danger zones, as some are affected by the alien’s visitation. People have begun straggling around the areas around the “Zone” and some venture within illegally to recover these alien artifacts; they are called “Stalkers”. One in particular is called the “golden sphere”, which is rumored to be able to grant anyone his or her greatest desires.

The film adaptation changes things a little, as it follows three men in search of a room that will grant their greatest wishes. They are led by a “stalker”, one who illegally traverses the “Zone” on a regular basis and hires himself out as an escort to the “room”. He tries to provide for his wife and child named Monkey who has no legs. We meet the “stalker” in his humble abode with his wife and child as he prepares yet another trip into the “Zone”. He is hired by a scientist and a writer to journey into the “Zone” in search of the room, meeting them in a bar and from there they evade the police constantly patrolling the vicinity around the “Zone. After finally crossing into the “Zone”, the “stalker” warns them to be careful and to respect the It, for It can kill them. He throws out metallic nuts to test areas for safety on their journey, when they finally do reach the room the scientist and the writer begin to disbelieve in its power to grant anyone anything, and the scientist reveals he plans to destroy it with a bomb for the simple logic that if it can will anyone their greatest desires, then in the wrong hands it would be detrimental to all of mankind. The writer agrees with the scientists, but the “stalker” tries to stop them, for the “Zone” and the room itself are literally all he has in the world to live for. It is his livelihood. In the end, they decide to leave it alone.

Like any Tarkovsky film, this is a very long drawn out sci-fi epic, not suited for impatient audiences. The film remains a prophetic sci-fi cautionary tale for Russian society, as it predates the Chernobyl disaster by about seven years. Tarkovsky is a master craftsman of cinema, as he doesn’t just make films, he makes thought-provoking works of art. The first time it was filmed the original negatives were destroyed in a lab, so the whole film was shot all over again. It features amazing poetic fluid shots of desolate landscapes, the most unsanitary water ever to be photographed, and gritty sepia-toned passes into the post-apocalyptic world outside of the “Zone”. He captures a distant life of contemporary society with songs like “Ode to Joy” billowing from a passing train.

There aren’t actually any conclusive science fiction ideas in the film like alien visitors, but you are left, as the director wants to leave you, questioning whether it was ever real or not. Andrei Tarkovsky had a recurring theme in his films that show men searching for God or meaning of life. With that rationale, you can see perhaps what his message with this film was. As I look at it, it is layered to mean many things to many different people, but the simplest approach is to see the “stalker” as a believer in faith, and the writer and scientist as many of us in society are cruel realists too much in this world. As the ending may seem to prove, even a little beacon of hope remains vitally important.