Suicide Club (Jisatsu Saakuru)

Dir: Shion Sono
2002

I’m always up for a good Japanese horror movie, but this one didn’t do it for me.
The film felt like it began with a series of striking images (a mass suicide in front of a train; a roll of stitched-together flesh; a woman blithely cutting off her fingers; a theater filled with scary-looking children) and then a script was written to contain them.
Taking a lot from Kiyoshi Kurosawa (especially his classic “Kairo”–you should know this is one of my favorite films from the current Japanese horror renaissance), Sono creates a whole lot of questions, emotional and logical, and then confuses not explicitly answering them with not having an answer.
The plot centers around a rash of group suicides around Japan, and the detective (Ryo Ishibashi) called in to solve the case. The film opens with a bravura set piece where 50 or so high school girls jump in front of a subway. Trouble is, the editing reveals the budget, and the soundtrack (a kooky march) ruins the shock. It’s actually (intentionally?) funny. Big waves of blood shoot out from beneath the train as it plows through the tender flesh–it’s something that Dario Argento would love. But it is rather silly.
Much better is a later mass suicide set on the top of a high school where horsing around leads to the entire rooftop of students jumping to their deaths (although we get some more buckets-o-blood splashed on the ground floor windows). It’s a well-written scene and the tone is just right. No marching music either.
Then there’s a completely unrelated sequence set in a hospital with two nurses and a security guard–this is shot very dark, and is reminiscent of Kurosawa or Nakata (Ringu). In the context of the film though, it doesn’t follow the “mass suicide” theme. Seems to me it’s either mass suicide or just random suicides–Sono seems to change his mind depending on the effect. When things drag, Sono goes back to this set up for one more scare with the security guard–where he sees the nurses’ ghosts. But this isn’t a ghost story–and so we never see anything like this again.
Then there’s some bits about an online Suicide Club (a bit reminiscent of Kairo’s ghostly website); a mysterious child who calls the detective and offers up cryptic clues (don’t they all?); and a 5 member “idol” group, a bit like Morning Musume, who seem to be everywhere, and who also seem to be singing cryptic messages. Gee, you think…? Naaaah.
Then there’s Rolly. Who? Rolly.
This guy is a sort of glam rocker who was popular when I lived in Japan. Think Ziggy Stardust, but less subtle. He turns up as the head of a murder (or is it suicide?) cult in the third reel, and, whaddya know? he sings a song! I don’t think this sort of thing has happened in film since Mick Jagger’s Memo From Turner walked onscreen in Nicholas Roeg’s “Performance” and baffled all. The movie really skids off the rails when this campy fella turns up.
Suicide Club wants to make us think, but more importantly, it wants to make us quietly depressed, like…well, like “Kairo” I’m afraid to say. But thinking back over the film only reveals its weak points. If young children are behind the murders, then who is producing the music, filming the shows, setting up the websites? Who is the (adult) guy in the executioner mask who planes off the victim’s flesh? If–as we see–it’s that hard to get into the flesh-planing place to start with, how come more and more people are offing themselves, as membership suggests? Well, you see, the film sort of falls apart.
The reason why Kurosawa is so good at his horror films is that, in Cure and Kairo in particular, once the “mystery” is solved, the film doesn’t end–the knowledge is the horror, not a solution to it. Kurosawa takes the solution then expands it beyond what we’ve expected. Sono doesn’t do that because, as I said at the beginning, he’s working backwards.
For a rave review, for I could be wrong, check out the one at Snowblood Apple, although I feel Mandi Apple is reading way too much into the film.
Oh, and this is one of the first DVDs released by TLA Entertainment. I don’t know whether the lack of a 5.1 mix is their fault, but unremovable subtitles? C’mon now…

David Lynch’s Cigarette Ad

Dating apparently from 1998, this is one of a series of cigarette ads for French cinemas only. Other directors included Wim Wenders, Roman Polanski, and the Coen Bros. Lynch’s commercial features his usual obsessions: fire, electricity, smoke. But it also features two black dudes who seem to entice fish to rise up into the sky. If this is selling out, go for it.
You can see other Lynch commercials at Lynch.net, and the other cigarette commercials over at LDM Productions.

Matrix Revolutions

Dir: Andy and Larry Wachowsky
2003
I come not for the philosophy, but one law: the law of diminishing returns.
The Matrix “trilogy” is over and thank goodness. Revolutions is essentially two hours of being hit over the head with a electric hammer. So disappointing to see that all the philosophical conundrums of the first film are solved in Zion with a big gun battle and hitting the smart bomb button on the game console, and then in the Matrix with a punch-up in a mud puddle. And so once again science fiction in American film is reduced to “things-blowing-up-in-space”, what was once exhilirating is now mastubatory, what was once multilayered is now Bush Administration good-and-evil. “Agent Smith is the yin to Neo’s yang” is not the most revelatory observation by a long shot, but it’s presented as such. Holmes/Moriarty, anybody? Superman/Lex Luthor?
Setting most of the final film in the “real world” of Zion makes for some great questions: If an EMP (or whatever) blast from a ship has the ability to knock out all the metal squid monsters and the fair people of Zion have enough technology and skill to build the city in the first place, why didn’t they set up their own EMP system as civil defense? Also, knowing their enemy, why weren’t the exoskeleton robotech machines designed to protect their pilots? As it is, it leaves the pilot exposed to the claws of the squids. I mean, ask a crab–does that have its tender juicy meat on the outside?
And so now Zion is saved, who really wants to live there? How depressing a place–if they’ve had to live there for centuries, couldn’t someone splurge on a coat of paint? What’s the economy of Zion? How does it feed itself? Who grows the space-cotton to make all those wool sweaters?
I don’t blame the Wachowsky Brothers for not letting a good idea alone, but it just looks like they couldn’t answer their own questions. And maybe the secret is that they weren’t supposed to.
And why do evil places have to have such bad weather? If you controlled the earth, wouldn’t you make sure you chose the best spot to set up HQ? I hear it’s often sunny outside the offices of Halliburton, so what’s the deal?

SANTA BARBARA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL’S GALA OPENING: Film locally, screen globally

4.1.1

From environmental artists to family dramas that span generations, this year the Santa Barbara International Film Festival is more home-grown than ever, with many films and many more of its filmmakers sporting Santa Barbara addresses. And the festival’s new artistic director, Roger Durling, said it’s about time.

“This year we’ve put much more thought into (the Santa Barbara filmmakers) section,” said Mr. Durling. “I’ve been banging the drum about this since we started. We should be more community-focused.”

To attach Santa Barbara to the name and not show our own artists, he said, “would be hypocritical.”

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Honey

Dir: Bille Woodruff
2003
Yesterday I chuckled over a recent (?) Boondocks cartoon where Riley is asked to write a “what I did for my summer vacation” essay for school.
He turns in a page of paper completely covered by one phrase: “I KEPT IT REAL!”
“Honey” is all about keeping it real, but not as funny as Boondocks. In fact, the film treats its cliches with a straight face.
While it often feels like Jessica Alba is trying to channel Jennifer Beals from Flashdance, I couldn’t believe I was seeing a third act twist straight out of a Little Rascals or Andy Hardy film from the 1930s: Lets raise money for the youth center by putting on a show! Mmm, smell the mothballs on that one.
I also felt that a lot of what we were seeing was warmed over sentiments from the last 20 Jennifer Lopez videos. Never has a pop star sung so often about “keeping it real” and being just “Jenny from the Block” and other self-aggrandizing platitudes as Lopez, so much that I suspect she either a) absolutely doesn’t believe it and it’s just her “image,” or b) she has an incredible guilt complex about being so rich and famous.
That’s the sense on display here. Honey barely has time to sell out and be mean to her friends–she skips out on a friend’s birthday trip for a black tie party, but we’re shown that she didn’t know this going in–so we’re never worried about her not “keeping it real.”
Anyway, the previews show Alba all hoochied out with the midriff and lip gloss and this and the that, so is there a lot of that, really, for the furtive overcoat brigade? Nope, only at the beginning, then New York gets chilly and Honey wraps up.
Any other reason to see it? Well, Missy Elliot has a funny one-and-a-half scenes, but the preview shows 80 percent of that. The smallest of Honey’s young charges is also cute as the dickens and we get to see him try to dance. Honey also has a pug, but we get no pug reaction shots. Surely we could have had some pug head-cocking, maybe when Mekhi Phifer is trying to get his groove on (Mekhi Phifer is an appealing actor though, more than Alba, who doesn’t really invite us into her character). And the sleazebag video director guy who winds up getting bitch-slapped for wanting a “taste of honey” hurh hurh hurh, is called Michael Ellis, which I desperately want to be some scriptwriter’s reference to the similarly named Monty Python skit.
So, you get some early midriff, some 1930’s “save the schoolhouse” malarkey, a whole lotta product placement, a cute friend (Joy Bryant) who wears less than Alba, a righteous Mrs. Honey who wants her daughter to travel and broaden her horizons, but who also wears some frightful necklaces. But best of all, nearly everybody in this film, save Mr. Ellis, KEEPS IT REAL.
Addendum: There’s a silly part in the film where Honey finds choreographic inspiration from watching basketball players and girls playing jumprope. With the intensest look that Alba can muster, Honey starts trying out her versions of dribbling and jumping for the upcoming dance. “Hey!” the film says, “This is how artists work!” I am now annoying the wife by studying her mundane movements (chin in hand and the other hand using the mouse) and coming up with my own hip-hop choreography.
Also: If you follow the link to www.jessica-alba.com, you wind up at the Dennis Kucinich campaign site. Ewwww.

The Last Samurai

Dir: Edward Zwick
2003
Well, me and “the missus” just came back from this film and boy are we disappointed (bordering on anger) on how they dropped the ball on this one.

Now, I have to discuss the ending of this film, so if you’re still achin’ to see it (because of that “Oscar®©™ Buzz” you heard about), then stop reading. Go click on a link, why dontcha.
Back to the issue at hand.
I understand that maybe there’s a lot of people out that who are only just learning about this crazy island called “Japan” and that maybe some people have never seen a samurai film. I’ll let it go, as I will all the long scenes of Algren (Tom Cruise) learning how to say “hashi” or “samui.” It’s wacky, it’s cute, it’s educational. I’ll also let the audiencese have the orientalism that romanticizes the entire culture as this pure and noble people.
But the fact that the filmmakers blew the ending by having Algren live instead of die in the field of battle was, in a word, bullshit. Yep, bullshit. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. Unko. Kuso. (There’s some Japanese to learn!).
America hates to have its heroes die, especially these days when the Prez avoids military funerals like pretzels, but even before that (the 80s was the sea change). But I could really sense in the theater that the filmmakers could have gotten away with it. The film wins you over to the samurai code of honor, just as Algren is won over, and it would have made sense to have him fall alongside his former enemy, now blood brother, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe, who does the role justice while Tom Cruise still seems concerned about his hair). In fact, the scene is filmed like he does. The entire samurai clan has been mowed down by American machine guns–the way of the sword is over, as are the old ways, and around the corner is WWI, then WWII, then Hiroshima. And Algren had faced his past and his mortality and learned something about honor.
Not only that, but earlier in the film, the story begins to parallel contemporary events in Iraq. When asked if the Western-backed forces will defeat the renegades, the commander says, all hubris, “Of course, we have superior firepower.” Add a few more lines about them being savages, and the script looks back to the genocide of the Native Americans, and forward to the invasion of Iraq and our other imperial adventures. Substitute rail lines for oil pipelines and you’re nearly there.
Of course, this is nothing new; “Dances With Wolves” also towed this squishy liberal line.
But like that film, the Western character can never totally assimilate.
No, he has to survive, understand that he has learned a great life lesson, conquered his alcoholism, and now is ready for a full and happy life.
After the battle, he retuns for an audience with the young Meiji emperor (apparently, it’s easy to bluff your way in to see the mortal deity) and returns the dead Katsumoto’s sword. Algren’s gone all samurai’n’stuff! Why he even offers to take his own life, just like Katsumoto offered earlier! And the young emperor, who hasn’t found his own voice–that is, he hasn’t been on the self-improvement course that Algren’s been on–suddenly realises that the old ways weren’t so bad after all! In fact, he casts out the American businessman (sorry, Halliburton!) and his Japanese representative (sorry, Chalabi!) and announces plans to distribute the wealth to the people (huh?)!
Then a further coda where we see Algren and horse companion returning to the village where Katsumoto had originally taken him when he was captured at the beginning of the film. “Some say he finally found his peace,” says the narrator (who I take to be Timothy Spall, who is quite good in a Charles Laughton way).
Okay, now wait.
First of all, you kill off your best, most charismatic supporting character (Katsumoto), but not the lead, and don’t have that as your closing scene (which would have devastated the crowd, but in a good way). Instead, you give the long closing speech to the teenage emperor, whose English is hesitant and bland, and who offers some crap-o platitudes about Western Influence. And maybe Honor.
Then you have Algren returning to the village–THE VILLAGE WHO JUST LOST THEIR ENTIRE MALE POPULATION TO A WESTERN MACHINE GUN! Do you think the women want to see this Western guy, even though he was on their side? They are going to either starve because there are no men to provide the hard labor, or some roving gang is going to either kill or capture them. Is Tom Cruise going to help?
But really, we’re not supposed to care, because IT ALL WORKS OUT FOR THE AMERICAN. Tom’s studied Zen, he’s dry and at peace with himself. Isn’t that enough? And now he can retire to the mountains and live out his days with the widow of the man he killed at the beginning of the film. Won’t that be romantic?
So, kids, honor can only take you so far. First you have to feel good about yourself.
Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.

Moonlight Whispers

Dir: Akihito Shiota
1999
A tender coming of age story masked as a psycho-sexual treatise on sado-masochism…or vice versa?
Akihito Shiota’s film is based on a manga by the same name, and came out in 1999. I got to watch it on a VHS copy taped off a Chinese VCD (with English subs).
The film starts off with a typical young high-school love relationship beginning during the spring semester. The nervous few months of Takuya and Satsuki’s relationship rang very true and for a brief moments I felt like I was watching a very good realist film (it certainly brought me back to memories of my first girlfriend in 1986). But soon after she gives up her virginity to him, she discovers his true fetish.
Remarkably, Aota doesn’t push the switch in our faces, and doesn’t try to make us feel bad in a true miserablist way (such as a Solondz would do). Satsuki is pissed, but Takuya is persistent and won’t give up after being dumped and humiliated. In fact, he likes being humiliated, and Satsuki begins to realize she loves to humiliate.
By the end, Shiota even brings us back to a world of innocence, only shifted to accomodate a relationship beyond the norm of society, and does so without reducing anybody down to something less than human. The movie is a good lesson for filmmakers in how to explore the most outre material without resorting to snarky nihilism. Fascinating.
Equally fascinating: lead actress Tsugumi, with her moony face and a bullet-bra that couldn’t help reminding me of the cold war.

Don’t Look Up (a k a “Ghost Actress”)

Dir: Hideo Nakata
1996
Got around to watching this after having friends tape it off the Sundance Channel last year,
during their “Japanese Horror” week, where I was able to tape “Cure” and “Spiral” as well. “Don’t Look Up,” given the absolute straight-to-landfill title of “Ghost Actress” for some reason, is Hideo Nakata’s first film and the one that presumably got him the gig to make the original “Ring” film.
At a very speedy 75 minutes, it’s more like an extended TV episode than a movie, but there are plenty of chilliing moments here, almost from the beginning, when the mysterious outtakes of an old movie turn up superimposed on recent footage shot at a studio. These initial scenes, when the crew watch the dailies in silence, are very effective. The look of terror in the actresses eyes when she glimpses something awful offscreen shocked even me. The movie deserved to have a script that fleshed out the characters a bit more, and music that matched its mood of creeping menace. Instead there’s some terrible cod-reggae that pops up in all the wrong parts.
The parallels between this film and Ring are certainly there in the mysterious footage and the slow unconvering of the truth as well as the subtle way that Nakata has history double over on itself. Much more could have been made with theme of acting and identity, and of the film that’s actually being shot, the story which seems to be about supressing the horror of the Second World War. The ghost is particularly frightening, especially because it doesn’t give you all the goods at once. At first it looks harmless, then the more we see it, the more we want to look away. That’s good–most filmmakers would give you the money shot immediately.
On a greater level, the reason why Japanese horror is so effective is that it really is about death. American horror isn’t about death in any tangible sense, just artifice and actors exiting the screen in spectacular ways. The recent Cabin Fever was awful because it couldn’t even begin to look at disease and death in any real way.
Anyway, the film so freaked out Jessica, who takes these ghost stories so seriously that she can’t even say the word (she says “G” instead), that she refused to speak to me about it afterwards.

demonlover

Dir: Olivier Assayas
2002
Certainly one of the strangest films I’ve seen this year,
I caught this in Pasadena at the Laemmle, sure that it will never come to Santa Barbara. What starts out as a chilly tale of big business quickly turns into something broader in scheme. This isn’t a film about pawns caught in capitalism’s game, this film is capitalism itself. It’s a relentless blurring of identity until characters get reduced to units to be fucked or killed. Connie Nielson plays Diane, who at the beginning of the film, drugs her coworker, an event that allows her to take her place in a multinational corporation that is shuttling back and forth between Tokyo and Paris to buy shares in an anime company specializing in porn cartoons and 3-D CG porn. There’s Hervé (Charles Berling), who Diane may be involved with, and a subordinate, Elise (Chloe Sevigny), who hates her guts. Then there’s the American representatives, one of whom is Gina Gershon. There’s a secret website called “The Hellfire Club” that offers live snuff feeds for a price.
About halfway through I kind of gave up on the plot and, like giving up on trying to pick out notes and melody in a wash of feedback, just let the movie roll over me. (Soundtrack is by Sonic Youth, and I’m glad I saw this in the theater, as the effective sound levels are something that would get me evicted.)
The film is intentionally hard to listen to, hard to watch, and hard to follow. Here and there you start to pick up on clues that Assayas has left. Why so many shots of credit card machines? Why a scene similar to the hotel scene in Assayas’ own “Irma Vep”–and why does Diane’s costume in that scene return as a PVC Emma Peel suit? (Emma Peel–Avengers…wasn’t one of the episodes in which she nearly got tortured to death called the Hellfire Club? And wasn’t the Hellfire Club a front for the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in the XMen comic book…and didn’t Storm get captured by them? And doesn’t a character at the end of the movie request a victim dress up like Storm? And by making all these connections, does that make me closer to an understanding, or does that make me a sad, sad man?)
Nobody has any background or connection to anybody or anything. Though the movie teems with lascivious sex, there’s barely any to be had, and nothing to come of it in terms of humanity.
“demonlover” alludes to the website, but also to the multi-phallused and tentacled demons of Japanese porn anime, able to send out their tendrils to fill every orifice of their young nubile victims. Tattoo “21st Century Capitalism” across the demon’s chest and you have a rough and ready metaphor of the film.
Following up, there’s a short essay over at The Film Journal on the film that brings up an interesting point regarding video games and the scene in which Nielson fights Gershon (a “level boss” in videogame terms). That the film is one big video game is suggested, and reminded me of my friend’s worry that in fact The Matrix Revolutions will end with this po-mo joke (they wouldn’t be so blatant or so bold, methinks, but the trailer for that film looks like the makers are cashing in their chips for a full-on Death Star like battle to the death).
In a later conversation with Jon, I added that those critics who think the whole thing is a videogame fall into the same apathetic trap as the teenager at the end–that nobody is worth caring about because they’re on the computer screen.