June 30, 2011

Marebito (2004)

In the year 1998, a young Japanese film student named Takashi Shimizu was invited by his mentor, filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa to make two short films for an anthology TV film. The resulting short films, "Katasumi" and "4444444444" became part of "Gakkô no kaidan G", and kick-started Shimizu's career as an horror director. Five years later, Shimizu had become one of the most recognized names of the New Wave of Asian horror cinema, thanks to the enormous worldwide success of his horror film series "Ju-on"; which after 4 installments in Japan, was going to be remade in the U.S. by Shimizu himself. However, right before working on the remake, Shimizu teamed up with fellow director Shinya Tsukamoto (of 1989's "Tetsuo" fame) and writer Chiaki Konaka (of the anime "Serial Experiments: Lain"), took some days and a small crew to return to his roots and make a very low-budget horror movie; pretty much in the style he used to make when the "Ju-on" films were straight to video releases. The result was "Marebito", a Konaka screenplay directed by Shimizu and starring Tsukamoto.

In "Marebito" (literally "Stranger") Shinya Tsukamoto is Masuoka, a freelance cameraman almost completely detached from the world and entirely focused on his preference for videotaping and doing camera-work, literally carrying his camera everywhere he goes. Onde day, Masuoka accidentally tapes the suicide of a man named Arei Furoki (Kazuhiro Nakahara) on a subway station. The strange characteristics of this event makes Masuoka to be obsessed with the idea of fear, a fear so powerful that only death can erase. So, in an attempt to understand Furoki's fear, Masuoka descends into the underground tunnels of Tokio, discovering the entrance to a bizarre cavern that seems like a passage to the underworld. Is in this caverns where he finds a naked girl (Tomoi Miyashita) chained to the wall. He unchains her and takes her to his apartment, but soon he discovers that this girl (whom he names "F") is not a normal person, and that her presence in his world will make a darker side of him to come out.

"Marebito" was written by Chiaki Konaka, adapting it from his novel of the same name. Like most of his oeuvre, "Marebito" is a dark psychological story of inner horrors that makes a thinly veiled cometary on the relationship between humans and the technology they produce. Narrated by Masuoka, the story is entirely told from his perspective, allowing a deeper insight on the character's complex psyche and its development through the movie. Full of Lovecraftian elements (Konaka has also written some Cthulhu Mythos stories), "Marebito" follows Masuoka through his discovery of mysteries that should be better kept secret and the terrific consequences of his actions. However, "Marebito" is more than a homage to Lovecraft, as it covers as well themes of videophilia, obsession and isolation, all within the context of Japan's contemporary life. Japan's underground becomes the connection to a world that lives hidden under the urban metropolis. Masuoka's bizarre relationship with F conjugates all these themes in a dark tale of madness where nothing is what it seems.

It seems that this "return to roots" that represented "Marebito" was really beneficial for Takashi Shimizu, as the work he offers in the film is once again a very fresh and original horror movie that proves that there is more in Shimizu's vision than the haunting yet somewhat repetitive "Ju-on" series. Working again on a shoestring budget, Shimizu is able to vividly capture the simple and monotone life of his character, Masuoka. Putting to good use the work of digital cinematography by Tsukasa Tanabe, director Shimizu mimics the world as his main character sees it: a world seen through the camera lens. This truly enhances the claustrophobic atmosphere of "Marebito" as, Masuoka sees and communicates with the world employing through the frame of his camera's eye. While the movie moves at a very slow pace, Shimizu keeps mystery and suspense on the rise as Masuoka's slowly uncovers the secrets of the underground. As in "Ju-on", Shimizu showcases his skill for creating ominous, haunting atmospheres of horror in common settings of everyday life.

While better known as the director of remarkable and influential films such as "Tetsuo" (1989) and "Tokyo Fist" (1995), Shinya Tsukamoto has had a career as an actor in films, not only in his own, but also in those of other directors (most notably in Takashi Miike's "Koroshiya 1"). As the certainly disturbed Masuoka, Tsukamoto offers a very restrained performance, as an everyman kind of character whom is fully dedicated to his passion: videotaping stuff. Dedicated to an obsessive degree, and in this aspect, his characterization as a common man enhance the believability of the role. Certainly, Masuoka could very well be the next door neighbor so, his uncovering of the mysteries that lurk in the shadows is all the more disturbing. Nevertheless, the movie's highlight is Tomomi Miyashita, who gives life to the feral child "F", with a frighteningly believable performance that definitely gives the chills. The rest of the cast is effective, but certainly the movie belongs entirely to Tsukamoto and Miyashita.

"Marebito" is an excellent example of how imagination and a good plot can make a film work even with the most limited resources. The strength of the movie is entirely based on Shimizu's powerful visual style and Konaka's haunting story, which together craft an interesting and nightmarish descent to hell. Of course, the movie suffers the most in the special effects department, with some of the most fantastic visuals looking tragically bad in their making, making sharp contrast with the realism captured by the camera. The use of digital cinematography plays a big part in this realistic tone, which has an almost documentarian visual style, pretty much in tone with Masuoka's vision of life through the lens. While Konaka's story is indeed a tad too convoluted for its own good (not to mention the fact that's filled with many details and obscure references), it is truly captivating because of its nightmarish, surrealist atmosphere; and that disorienting unpredictability that makes it refreshing amongst Asian horror stories.

If the "Ju-on" series of ghost stories helped to make Takashi Shimizu became known worldwide as part of the new generation of creators of Asian horror; "Marebito" is definitely the movie that truly reveals him as a horror author beyond regional or generational classifications. With its surreal atmosphere and its disturbing storyline, "Marebito" offers a new view on Asian horror, different from the classic ghost stories based on Onryō spirits. Certainly, "Marebito" is not a movie destined to be a hit, but it's one that shows Shimizu's stylish brand of cinema. While maybe "The Grudge" is the movie that most people relate to Takashi Shimizu, "Marebito" is ultimately a much better experience and more satisfying movie on the whole.


June 29, 2011

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Creator of immortal classics of modern literature such as "The War of the Worlds" and "The Time Machine", author H. G. Wells is without a doubt one of the most important writers of science fiction in history. Amongs his varied output, "The Island of Dr. Moreau" stands as one of his darkest "scientific romances", not only because of the horrific experiments it details, but also because of the complex personalities of complexities of its characters. Though officially adapted to cinema on just three occasions, many other "apocryphal versions" have been done about Dr. Moreau and his creations, as the novel continues to capture the imaginations with its dark pessimist tone, its theme of "nature versus nurture", and the horrors it contains. The first official film adaptation of the sound era, 1932's "Island of Lost Souls", is a film that takes a very strong focus on the horror side of the novel, something that Wells himself decidedly disapproved. However, it is this particular focus what makes "Island of the Lost Souls" a real classic of the horror genre.

The movie begins when traveler Edward Packer (Richard Arlen) finds himself the sole survivor of a shipwreck. Rescued by a freighter, Packer gets into a fight with the Captain (Stanley Fields) while the boat is delivering cargo to the island of Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton), a scientist conducting a secretive research in the tropics. The captain resolves to leave Packer in the island, so he ends up making a forced stay at Moreau's installations. Following Moreau's and his associate Montgomery (Arthur Hohl), Packer is invited to dinner, where he meets Lota (Kathleen Burke), a beautiful woman who seems very interested in him. However, soon Packer discovers Moreau's "House of Pain", where he finds a humanoid monster receiving surgery from Moreau and Montgomery. Packer tries to escape, but he finds himself surrounded by other monstrosities, humanoid figures with animal features. Saved by Moreau, Packer begins to realize what is going on in the mysterious island, where Moreau is a God and the animal-men follow his law.

Writers Waldemar Young and Philip Wylie crafted the screenplay, in what could be seen as the passing of the torch from the seasoned veteran Young to débutant Wylie (who later would pen several science fiction classics). Young and Wylie's take on Wells' novel is decidedly one based on the horror aspects of the tale, making Packer's venture into the island of Dr. Moreau quite a nightmarish one. Written in the days before the enforcement of the Hays code, "Island of Lost Souls" implies a fair amount of grizzly violence and disturbing imagery, as well as a good dose of eroticism. While indeed it could be stated that the story has been simplified and the characters reduced to archetypes, the essence of the story remains intact, with Dr. Moreau being more complex than a mere mad scientist. Moreau's obsessive dedication to science and quest for perfection is in sharp contrast with his cruelty, and his fascination with being a God gives the movie a quite interesting point regarding similarly minded totalitarian rulers.

Director Erle C. Kenton crafts his movie with an effective mix of sober elegance and an aggressive, visually arresting style that is quite unlike anything else he ever directed. With an ominous, haunting atmosphere courtesy of cinematographer Karl Struss (who had previously done a masterful work in "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" in 1931), the movie has an increasingly nightmarish, almost surreal look as Packer enters the island and discovers its secrets. Taking advantage of the jungle setting, Kenton crafts a nightmare where the jungle is set to represent the savage nature of the beast, the wild nature that Moreau is trying to suppress in everyone of this creations but that lays dormant in each and every one of the animal-men. In "Island of Lost Souls" the jungle is a dark beast that preys and devours the sanity of Moreau, whom Kenton makes perhaps less the scientist of H. G. Wells and more the self-proclaimed God of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness". The make-up, by Wally Westmore, is effective for the most part, though Struss lighting is what makes it work nicely.

However, "Island of Lost Souls" would not be the same without one person: Charles Laughton, whom in this movie, one of hist first American films, demonstrates his enormous talent. As Dr. Moreau, Laughton crafts a complex character that, while at first sight seems like a jungle variant of mad scientist archetype, is actually much more than that. Classy and elegant, yet viciously cruel and aggressive, his Dr. Moreau is quite vivid and intense, and his powerful presence can be feel through the island even when Laughton is not on-screen. As Packer, Richard Arlen is not really a match for Laughton, and is easily the weakest link in the cast. Arlen plays the handsome hero in a very basic manner, which at least this time works, as the inhabitants of the island are much more interesting than his character. As Lota, Kathleen Burke is quite effective, appropriately sexy and owner of a wild eroticism that's perhaps better used in "Murder at the Zoo". As the Sayer of the Law appears Bela Lugosi, whom despite having limited screen presence completely owns some of the best scenes in the film.

While a flexible filmmaker, Kenton was more adept to making comedies than serious horror (even the rest of his horror output always verged towards comedy in some way); however, "Island of Lost Souls" is a powerful tale of horror and madness by its own right, eerily disturbing and full of unforgettable scenes. An interesting feature of "Island of Lost Souls" is how purely visual it is, not merely as a collection of disturbing or shocking images, but as a visual trip through a nightmare. The intensity that Laughton and Lugosi bring to their characters is so powerful, that even without sound their strength is felt. Kenton began his career directing silent films, and that background can be seen put in action in "Island of Lost Souls", blending that visual style captured by Strauss with the strong performances of the cast. And on this subject, whereas it could be said that Laughton overacts, his work is perfectly appropriate, as it goes well with the character's Victorian elegance and self-made image of God and ruler of his island.

Less famous than the horror films made by Universal in the same decade, but no less interesting, "Island of Lost Souls" stands as a masterful display of 30s horror and pre-Hays code filmmaking. The eroticism inherent in the film, though perhaps less suggestive that the one found in the afore mentioned "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" or "Murders in the Zoo", is in the film an intrinsic part of the plot, relating it to the wild nature that is present in the human being. Along with the diverse examples of violence in the film (in which Moreau, a human, ends up as crueler than the animal-men), one wonders if perhaps H. G. Wells was wrong in his statement that the film lacked his philosophical ponderings. In my opinion, they are there, under the guise of a very different though no less magnificent beast.


June 28, 2011

From Prada to Nada (2011)

While generally well-received when first published, the works of British author Jane Austen only achieved their well-deserved status as masterpieces of literature until 1869 (more than 50 years after her death), when James Edward Austen-Leigh's book "A Memoir of Jane Austen" was published. The twentieth century saw a greater interest in Austen and her works, becoming important pieces of academic study after proving to be highly influential in English literature. This influence, of course, extended finally to the cinema, the most popular art form in the last century. Since the very first adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice" in 1940, the works of Jane Austen have been the basis for countless adaptations and re-workings, with Austen's themes and characters been translocated to a variety of settings such as a teen comedy in a Beverly Hills High School ("Clueless", 1995) or a Bollywood musical ("Bride and Prejudice, 2004). In 2011s "From Prada to Nada", director Angel Gracia takes Austen's "Sense and Sensibility" to the Latino neighborhood of East L.A.

"From Prada to Nada" tells the story of sisters Nora (Camilla Belle) and Mary Dominguez (Alexa Vega), whom live in a sumptuous mansion in Beverly Hills. One day, their father Gabriel Dominguez (Alexis Ayala) suddenly dies of a heart attack, and the Dominguez sisters discover that everything they have is now the property of their older step-brother Gabriel (Pablo Cruz). Alone and penniless, the girls take the offer of their estranged aunt Aurelia (Adriana Barraza) and move to her house in Boyle Heights, deep in the Mexican heart of East L.A. This change proves to be a shock for both girls, but while the more reasonable Nora takes it with philosophy, Mary refuses to acknowledge her Mexican heritage. In the wake of their new situation, the serious and responsible Nora tries to find a job and discovers love for the first time in young attorney Edward (Nicholas D'Agosto), while her sister Mary will begin to discover her roots when meeting the new teacher's assistant, Rodrigo Fuentes (Kuno Becker), a handsome and rich man who seems like her trip back to Beverly Hills.

Adapted to the screen by Fina Torres, Luis Alfaro, and Craig Fernandez, "From Prada to Nada" attempts to give a refreshing spin on "Sense and Sensibility" by taking the action to the East L.A. and adding the Mexican-American background. Certainly, this was potentially an interesting take on the subject, as it opens the chance to use Austen's novel to make a point in the relations between Mexican and the United States. But unfortunately, while this is certainly touched by the scriptwriters, it all ends up done in a quite superficial and banal manner that ultimately renders the whole Hispanic background as irrelevant. To make things worse, not only the added Hispanic flavor feels superficial, the themes adapted from Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility" are worked in an equally shallow manner that it would seem that the only element the writers adapted was the plot line. This results in a sadly inane and vacuous screenplay for "From Prada to Nada", where things just happen in a mechanical, predictable way without any sense or sensibility.

Certainly, the screenplay has problems, but a skilled director could had managed to find a way to make it work. Unfortunately, in his theatrical debut, director Angel Gracia fails to sort the script issues and with a sloppy narrative style pieces together a predictable and mediocre romantic comedy. "From Prada to Nada" is carelessly crafted with a visual style closer to a cheap TV series than to cinema, where the poor work of editing brings out the worst of Héctor Ortega's work of cinematography. Gracia seems to had just filmed the screenplay as it was handed to him, as no attempt seems to be done to build an atmosphere, an emotion or at least, a proper visual narrative. Everything seems to just happen to be captured by the camera in the most mechanical way, following without passion or emotion every single step in the same old recipe for cooking a typical romantic comedy; as if Gracia was more interested in following the formula (checking every typical plot point in the genre) than in crafting his own take on the genre.

Unfortunately, the cast is also a victim of the sloppy storytelling of "From Prada to Nada", as the performances are actually good for the most part. As the Dominguez sisters, Camilla Belle and Alexa Vega showcase their natural talent for comedy, and a great care in building up their characters (specially Vega, whom truly shines). As their aunt, Mexican actress Adriana Barraza oozes charm as their strict but loving estranged aunt. It is a shame that her character seems to be diminished in the final product. Wilmer Valderrama is a real surprise, perfectly transforming himself into a tattooed mechanic in love with the spoiled Mary. His rival is the dashing Rodrigo, played by Kuno Becker with a smooth suaveness that feels quite believable. Nicholas D'Agosto, who plays Nora's love interest, is probably the weakest link, but it's actually not so bad, it's just that his character is so poorly constructed that one wonders if even the actor felt awkward when playing it. Even those in minor roles like Aldonza Vélez and Oliverio Gareli are truly up to the challenge.

It is almost sad to see good performances and a potentially good idea being wasted in such a bland and average product. Perhaps that's what's more frustrating about "From Prada to Nada", the fact that it is not necessarily bad, it's just plain mediocre. There are indeed moments where the idea works, brief sparks of good comedic timing and cuteness where a glimpse of what this could had been comes up to light. And of course, it is impossible to deny that there, deep inside the shallowness, the stereotypes, the superficial caricatures that the characters are, not to mention the bad cinematography and the overall sloppy directing; deep inside all the blandness mediocrity, there is the plot of "Sense and Sensibility", which despite having been transmutated into a romantic comedy formula, it still works, it still shines with that light, warm and familiar, of the genius of "dear aunt Jane". Too bad that the rest of all that is "From Prada to Nada"'s screenplay is plain mediocre at best, and offensively dumb at worst.

In the end, what could had been a nice spin on a classic Jane Austen story, touching the grounds of ethnic heritage, immigration and the relationship between two countries, results in an average, shallow and utterly typical romantic comedy. Predictable to the point of being redundant (even to those not versed on Austen's work), "From Prada to Nada" leaves its Mexican-American background as a mere gimmick and fails to do anything with it other than exploiting the usual clichés and stereotypes. Unfortunately, "From Prada to Nada" brings nothing new to the genre, and remains an unsatisfying movie that even hardcore lovers of romantic comedies will find predictable. Perhaps this kind of movies are worse than those rightfully bad. The bad ones may offer involuntary fun, the mediocre ones offer nada.