Friday, May 30, 2008

The Other Kurosawa

It's strange to me that Kiyoshi Kurosawa is so strongly associated with J-Horror. Maybe it's just a personal thing. I don't really like connecting a director I have a great deal of respect for with a genre that I find to be... well, lacking. With a few obvious exceptions (Kaidan anyone?) I'm just not attracted to the setups, the actors, the imagery... I'm basically just tired of scary little girls with long wet hair, which in my mind is the most elementary building block of any J-Horror film.

Yet then there's Kurosawa, who isn't working in any genre, really. Suspense, maybe? But that's such a vague a classification. Charisma is an interesting example, and one that's discussed a lot less than his better known (masterpiece?) Cure. The plot is either entirely inexplicable or completely mundane, depending on your point of view. Basically: a disgraced cop leaves Tokyo, heads to the middle of an unnamed forest, and ends up stranded. He meets three weird groups of people, whose actions all seem to revolve around a strange tree in the middle of a clearing. He ends up living in an abandoned sanitarium with a former mental patient who uses whatever means necessary to ensure the safety of the tree (which he calls "Charisma"). Oddness ensues.

"Charisma" in all its glory

Tom Mes, in his review, draws connections between Charisma and Suna no Onna. He doesn't go into great detail and neither will I... the parallels are there if you feel like drawing them. Yet while I was watching it I wasn't thinking of Teshigahara (or Kobo Abe for that matter), but was instead reminded of Haruki Murakami, that other brilliant Japanese author.

It's tough for me to say why, exactly. Granted, I'm a little biased--Murakami's been my favorite writer for some years now--but it's not just that. There are links between the two, stylistic and otherwise. Charisma's protagonist, Yabuike, is strangely detached, and overly accepting of whatever's presented before him. In an otherwise "real" world, he finds nothing odd about a seemingly enchanted tree, or any of the other bizarre elements of the story. Given no other choice, both he and the viewer have to deal with the dissolution of reality in the best way they know how. And this is another thing that brought Murakami to mind: the fragmentation of reality, especially within some isolated, obscure, enclosed setting. His writing is rife with buildings, rooms, forests, and (especially) wells, all of which exist in their own unique "reality." Whatever happens there isn't strange--it makes perfect sense according to the rules of that place. And there's always the chance that these places aren't "places" at all, but something far more subjective and abstract... closer to a state of being, you might say (though I don't think that's entirely accurate either).


And much like Murakami's writing, Kurosawa's lens presents this strange existence in a straightforward, unintrusive style. Wide shots, long takes, little to no camera movement--we get the necessary image, and no more. In fact, in keeping with a typical Japanese aesthetic, he manages to give us just a little less than we'd normally expect. The viewer is almost always kept outside the action, looking in. In another film we might consider this a voyeuristic gaze, but here it feels like something different. The image isn't obscured as much as it's framed by these enclosures.

Outside looking in

I suppose I should clarify one thing: I'm not suggesting that Kurosawa is in any way influenced by Murakami directly (although I certainly can't be sure either way). It seems more likely that (at least with Charisma) Kurosawa is working within a very similar--but unrelated--aesthetic and thematic realm. I've actually noticed a unity in style among almost all Japanese directors who cut their teeth working in V-Cinema, churning out endless straight-to-video yakuza pictures. Takashi Miike, in particular... if any consistency whatsoever can be claimed across his heroic oeuvre, it's an adherence to this particular style of shooting. Long takes, wide shots, little camera movement. My personal belief is that what began as economy evolved into aesthetics, but I'll leave that discussion for another time.

The typical setup for a Kurosawa dialogue scene

Now that I think about it, I suppose the strongest connection I can draw between Charisma and Murakami's writing is a little vague, and entirely personal: they both leave me with a similar feeling, a certain undefinable taste in my mouth. One that I quite enjoy, obviously. It's not even that it's a such great film, necessarily. It just... appeals to me. I guess it might be useful to stop comparing them to each other and instead look back further to a body of work that likely spawned both Murakami and Kurosawa: namely, Kafka. But I'm tired, and this is probably already too long.

This post brought to you by several tasty bottles of Guinness, which I blame entirely for any lapses in spelling, grammar, or logic.

Friday, May 23, 2008

David Byrne Would Be Proud

Sometimes a tagline says more than I ever could:

"Herbert West has a good head on his shoulders... and another one on his desk."

Accurate? Yes. Hilarious? Slightly. Intriguing? You had better goddam believe it. This is Stuart Gordon's greatest film, his magnum opus: Re-Animator. Like many of Gordon's films, it's based on an H.P. Lovecraft story, but only in the loosest possible sense. It takes place within the Lovecraft universe, certainly, but transposed into the "contemporary" era of the 1980s. I've actually read the story, so I can go ahead and sum up the major differences between the film and its source:
  1. The movie isn't the most racist short story ever written
  2. Due to Lovecraft's intense hatred of females, there are considerbly fewer boobs in the story (none?!)
...and that pretty much covers it. If your appetite for racism is matched only by your distaste for the female form, definitely check out the story. I can print you out a copy. It's surprisingly frightening.

Otherwise, I can't recommend the movie enough. Despite its unfortunate lack of lumbering Negro murderers, it still manages to capture that certain something that makes reading Lovecraft occasionally worthwhile. The plot is more or less your run-of-the-mill Frankenstein ripoff, but with an exciting twist! Instead of harnessing the the mysterious power of the ALMIGHTY ELECTRON to raise the dead, Herbert West simply injects corpses with his own carefully researched "re-agent." The result--depending on the freshness of the corpse, and the amount of re-agent administered--is a mindless, violent, zombie-like creature.

Re-Agent: mostly glow stick innards, some radiation.

Things start getting tricky when Dr. Hill (the film's main jerk-ass) discovers West's secret, and attempts to blackmail him so he can claim the discovery as his own. Lucky for us, this leads to one of the all-time great decapitations in film history. Which in turn leads to one of the all-time great oral sex scenes in film history! Yay!

Barbara Crampton, as always, is a delight. Keep up the good work Barbara! Way to get sexually munched on by a corpse!

As hard as it is to imagine, things escalate even further from there. A trip to the morgue means more corpses, and more corpses means more fun! The film actually starts to get pretty scary toward the end (thanks to some ridiculous lighting and fog effects), and there's plenty of excellent gore. It also completely stops making sense. Apparently the re-agent has capabilities that West hadn't planned for, like exploding people's torsos open so their intestines can drag bystanders away for some sinister corpsely purpose. I guess it's about as logical as anything else in the Lovecraft universe...

I mentioned Barbara Crampton already, but really everyone in the movie is great. Bruce Abbott as the spindly med student hero, David Gale as the lecherous Dr. Hill, Robert Sampson as Dean Halsey (who sounds exactly like Dick Van Dyke, I don't care what anyone says), and of course Jeffrey Combs as the brilliant and terrifying Herbert West. And a special mention goes to Combs' forehead, which manages to inspire a particular variety of inexplicable dread previously thought to be long extinct.

Please note: forehead terror.

And while we're on the subject of dread, I should probably mention one of Re-Animator's major selling points. It's chock full of everyone's favorite film phenomenon: dead nudity! Since the majority of the "zombies" are coming straight off the slab, very few are clothed. Once they ditch that white sheet, they're 100% free and natural. White corpses, black corpses, male corpses, female corpses, fresh corpses, hideously mangled corpses--all are given equal opportunity to flap their junk around on screen for your enjoyment. I respect that.

Finally, I should probably note that Re-Animator has two existing sequels: Bride of Re-Animator, and Beyond Re-Animator (both directed by Gordon's friend and coworker, Brian Yuzna). Neither are worth your time. Rather than watch the sequels, I'd just suggest watching the original another two or three times. Then watch it again. Recently there's also been talk about Gordon trying to get a new sequel off the ground, somewhat unsuccessfully. Entitled House of Re-Animator, it's supposed to be set in the white house, leaving plenty of room for hilarious political satire. In theory. Yuzna has already expressed interest in directing the two shitty sequels to THAT one as well. (I'm not making that up.)

So to summarize: racism, boobs, glow sticks, cunnilingus, intestines, forehead, dead nudity, white house. Equals Re-Animator! Capiche?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Pretty Boy... Surfer

The time: 1993. The place: California, USA.

Our scene opens as the walking hairflip that is Mitchell Goosen (as portrayed by Shane "Mitchell Goosen" McDermott) is coming home from a long day of surfing, only to find that his parents are making plans to head to Australia for 6 months, leaving him to rot in the snowbound wasteland of Cincinnati. Gasp! Can Mitchell survive so far away from his beloved Pacific? Can he nail the antagonist's sister? Will Cousin Wiley (Seth Green) ever be cool? Can all the former enemies in the film come together as a team to beat those jerky Preps in a death-defying skating race down the infamous "Devil's Backbone?" All this and more in the "world's only rock 'n rollerblade movie!" Airborne, directed by the incomparable (ha!) Rob Bowman, is a testament to the importance of being a white guy with jean shorts and a sparkling smile in a world gone sour.

Unfortunately, this little flick has been largely ignored by the greater portion of nostalgia-hounds that would normally eat this kind of bullshit up. Shame on them. If you're going to obsess over ridiculous movies from your childhood, obsess over the best. I suppose it doesn't help that the only place to get it on DVD is from Germany (dubbed in German, no English subtitles) or from Hong Kong (pirated, naturally, but at least it's in English). I got mine from Hong Kong. But there's always VHS! And strangely enough, there was also a period of about a year (somewhere around 2004, I believe) where this was played on almost a weekly basis on various movie channels (HBO, Showtime, &c.). I'm not really sure why this was, but you might still be able to catch it while you're flipping channels. Just make sure it's not the Steve Guttenberg Airborne from 1998. That is exactly the opposite of everything Mitchell Goosen stands for. That is dog shit.

In any case, here are some important Airborne facts:
  1. Jack Black is in it (Oggy!)
  2. Seth Green is in it (the Wiley-Man!)
  3. Shane McDermott is in it (and nothing else, ever, no matter what)
  4. That one chick who played the secretary in Ferris Bueller is in it
  5. Nobody else is in it
  6. It manges to represent just about every extreme sport that existed at the time, thanks to roughly 60% of its running time being dedicated to extreme sport montages
  7. Another 30% is Mitchell making love to the camera
  8. The final 20% is the most important part: the tits-out orgy of a rollerblade race that simultaneously acts as the conflict, climax, and resolution of the film
  9. Although it seems like those add up to 110%, keep in mind that Mitchell spends at least half of the final race making love to the camera
Mitchell Goosen... he's a dreambag!

Rather than go on and on (and rest assured, I could talk about Airborne for quite some time), I think I'll cut myself off here and just suggest that you go rent/buy/borrow it immediately, and enrich your life in a way you had perhaps thought impossible. Just make sure to keep your ears open for my favorite line of the film, delivered with appropriate disdain from the musclebound Jack:

"Pretty boy... surfer."

Until Airborne opens your eyes to the ways of the world, you might not understand how such a statement could be the most venomous insult you've ever heard. But you will.

Oh, and for those adventurous/alcoholic movie fans out there, I've thrown together an Airborne drinking game that you may want to try out. It's pretty simple: you take a drink every time the movie is awesome. Be careful though--this movie is pretty fucking awesome, most of the time.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Matter of Quality

I've constructed something that will only be funny to people who enjoy both The Seventh Seal and Silent Hill, although I am beginning to suspect that I may be the only one of these people to actually exist. Hailed as "a peice of shit" by famed youtube user and avant-garde speller AgatheDeLaBoulaye, this video will truly test the limits of what it means to be alive.