Monday

...with the Most


The many American studios vying for remake rights to Bong Joon-ho’s masterful blockbuster, The Host, seem to be missing a big part of the picture here. The film—while on the surface an old-fashioned King Kong-esque monster movie—is very unforgiving to U.S. foreign policies (and otherwise), to the point of bordering on being anti-American. Despite this, it’s managed to gross over a million here, in limited theatrical release. This is one I pray opens in my area, because (Canadian that I am) seeing it with a crowd of the flick’s targets would be quite an experience.

Right off the bat, Bong refuses to mince cinematic words by having a creepy, cartoonishly unreasonable American man (played by the dad in Junebug) instruct his nice, sensible Korean assistant to dump a whole lot of formaldehyde down the drain—knowing, and acknowledging, that it will ultimately end up in the Han River. It’s a moment that would be scoff-inducing and cheesy in its bold-faced unfairness, if it weren’t clearly done in satirical humor.

A few years later, those actions have produced a massive mutant sea (well, river) monster hell-bent on chowing down at the all-you-can-eat buffet local onlookers and unsuspecting tourists. The story narrows its focus (storywise) from here, onto a hapless ragtag family: an immature father, working for his own father at a small food stand, to support his preteen daughter, and said immature father’s brother (a college grad) and sister (a professional archer). They band together, in a touching display of bickering loyalty and constantly thwarted heroics, when their daughter/granddaughter/niece is snatched by the creature.

Unfortunately, authorities—by way of received orders from the U.S.A—are saying anyone who comes in contact with the mutant-fish needs to be quarantined in order to contain a deadly, highly-contagious (and highly-suspicious in its lack of details) virus. Before long, the entire family finds themselves forced to break out of a government hospital because no one believes that they’ve got a girl to save. The Kafkaesque absurdity on display as the surgical-mask sporting doctors shuffle around, administering anonymous medicine, and giving insincere reassurances, is nightmarishly gutsy—and executed awfully well.

The sometimes metaphorical, sometimes literal political commentary here is viciously funny, and more than a little disturbing. It’s this—even aside from the exhilarating, authentically thrilling popcorn fun at hand—that makes The Host deserving of the praise its been honored with, and then some. It’s the sort of film that gets me, at the risk of sounding extremely dorky and Ebertish, excited about movies. And relieved to be Canadian.

Sunday

Upgrade Who?


I don't know if Jay-Z is involved with Rihanna in something other than a professional or platonic context. And it's not really my place to speculate either. I'll just say that Rihanna's "Umbrella," to which Jay contributes a brief opening verse, is every bit as oh-my-shit amazing as "Crazy in Love"--and perhaps more tellingly, sounds just as head-over-heels passionate (the track ends with Rihanna repeating, "Come into me..."). Toss it in the mix with "Ring the Alarm" and "Unfaithful" and read into it what you will.

It should also be noted, however, that "Umbrella" is a very striking song, completely aside from the developing Jay-B.-Ri saga. Producer Terius "The Dream" Nash is clearly taking some cues from Timbaland here (right, who isn't, at this point?): With its pulsating, irresistible synth line and snare-heavy beat, "Umbrella" has one foot in the '80's with the other stepping toward some sleek, not-too-distant future--think "Promiscuous" meets "My Love" with discernible traces of Europop thrown in for good measure.

I'm penciling it in as my single of the year.
Horror Movies


I'd never been a fan of horror movies in the past. If a year ago someone were to ask me my favorites, I'd probably cite a handful of safe, canonical picks--Murnau's Nosferatu, maybe Herzog's too, some Hitchcock, The Shining, and, oh, I liked The Blair Witch Project--and confess that horror wasn't really my thing. Recently, however, Teresa's managed to get me more into scary movies, primarily of the Asian variety.

The other night she asked which ones I'd liked best. I mentioned Shinya Tsukamoto's haunting (and haunted) Vital as one candidate. She immediately begged to differ; it's one of her favorite films, but, she insisted, it's not a horror movie. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. Either way, it lead to some heated discussion of what exactly constitutes horror (and, in turn, inspired this post).

The Eye and its loosely, thematically related "sequel" certainly qualify. The first film is an initially creepy, eventually overly convoluted outing centering on a blind woman who receives functional eyes. Unfortunately, the used pair formerly belonged to a troubled Thai gal who haunts our heroine's vision. The "be careful what you wish for" morality tale has been handled far more effectively in countless other movies, but the Pang brothers bring enough sleek style to keep the proceedings fun throughout.

The Eye 2 is a decidedly more exceptional effort, with not just more style but more provocative ideas thrown in the mix. Some are only flirted with and quickly ditched--for a little while, I suspected this might daringly tread Dumplings-esque value-of-life territory, but then Shu Qi's protagonist opts not to have her planned abortion--yet this is, at any rate, a horror movie that will leave you thinking about more than just whether a goblin or serial killer is waiting outside your bedroom window. Plus, the Pangs here pull off one of the most breathtaking, exquisitely orchestrated sequences to ever grace the genre: It involves an emergency delivery in a hospital elevator and a ghost swimming ominously through the air, toward the exposed vagina.

Ju-On (The Grudge) and Dark Water are also unambiguous horror entries. I haven't seen either of the Hollywood remakes, but both Japanese originals have their merits. The former is notable mostly for its episodic, nonlinear structure, or more specifically, for how well director Takashi Shimizu handles the conceit. What at first feels gimmicky and unnecessarily confusing ultimately elevates what might've otherwise ended up your run-of-the-mill haunted house flick. Teresa informs me that the remake retains its Japanese setting, and merely plugs in SMG and (of all people) Bill Pullman. The fact that Shimizu helmed it as well peaks my curiosity: Did he rise to the challenge of Westernizing his J-hit? Might the latter version--regardless of whatever else it has to offer--serve as an interesting companion piece to Ju-On, a sort of essay on what English-speaking audiences find frightening versus what works in Japan?

I'm less curious to check out Motorcycle Diaries director Walter Salles' J-Conn-starring Dark Water retread, partly because I already know the original falls apart in its final act--and not in an enigmatic, Lynchian sort of way, but in the lazy "where the hell do we take this thing" sense. It's a shame, as up until the last twenty minutes or so, Hideo Nakata's film runs smoothly as an exercise in mood and memory (with some worthwhile things to say about parental responsibility, to boot). There's no debating Nakata's knack for getting the most out of creepy, cold urban locales, but narrative clearly isn't his strong suit. Personally, I'd like to see the generic J-horror ghost eliminated from the equation, the focus locked on the titular water seeping into the apartment (plus seemingly constant rainfall), and the material handed over to Tsai Ming-liang.

Yuichi Sato's Pray has the same problem--strong atmosphere, tense build-up, squandered pay-off. The biggest difference is that this one spirals out of control progressively rather than the bottom simply falling out at the end. The school building setting is inspired, and Sato's discipline in isolating almost all the film's action there is admirable. I only wish he'd thought Pray's plot out a bit before putting it together.

The most disturbing film I've seen recently can't be nearly so neatly pinned down, as horror or any other format. The most dead-on description I can think of for Terry Gilliam's underappreciated Tideland is the American Pan's Labyrinth; both movies concentrate on young girls who create detailed fantasy worlds for themselves in order to cope with the harsh circumstances of their everyday life. Where Pan's' Ofelia awakens the terrifying "pale man" by copping some fruit, Tideland's Jeliza-Rose dolls up her dead junkie dad (Jeff Bridges!) with make-up. Right, "unpleasant," a word dropped plenty in the film's numerous pans, definitely applies, but there's an entirely unique vision--appalling, claustrophobic, and in its way, beautiful--shot through this clearly personal affair. Excellent performances by Jodelle Ferland (better than Ivana Baquero in Pan's, compares favorably with Anna Paquin's Oscar-winning turn in The Piano), Brendan Fletcher (chewing major Gilliam scenery, a la Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys), and Janet McTeer (a far cry from Tumbleweeds) also make this one very worth a viewing. Repeat visits might be reserved for Gilliam obsessives and morbid souls.

Neither feature in Grindhouse is scary, and only one of the two is any good. Robert Rodriguez's double-bill opener, Planet Terror, is ostensibly "horror," a fanboy's homage to Romero and Carpenter. It's really just a useless piece of dull fake camp where every action, line, and gesture comes packaged in painfully hip quote marks. Tarantino's offering, Death Proof, on the other hand, uses the dubious project concept merely as a starting point for some fruitful meta hijinks. The winking self-parody--Reservoir Dogs's around-the-table small talk, QT's use of abrupt narrative fractures, and even his notorious foot fetish are each touched upon--is funny, the (extensive) girl talk surprisingly credible, and the final jolt of feminist payback exhilarating.

No question: Volver isn't a horror movie, despite the involvement of multiple murders and a ghost of sorts. Had, say, Bergman or the Dardenne brothers inherited this material we'd no doubt be discussing a very depressing movie. There are some dark, difficult subjects mined here, to be sure, but Almodovar handles it all impeccably, expertly straddling a narrow path between melodrama and slapstick, Greek tragedy and tv sitcom. The result is a luminous, poignant portrait of female camaraderie, family crises, and the symbiosis of community. It's my favorite Almodovar to date.

Another Public Enemy, the sequel to--yup--Public Enemy from South Korea's Kang Woo-suk, doesn't qualify as horror either, and isn't intended as such. This is an old-fashioned crime yarn--in the best sense, really. The film does suggest, though, a bogeyman ready made for the 21st Century: the white collar sleazebag. As a smarmy, silver spoon-fed tycoon/crime lord, Jeong Jun-ho's charismatic performance perfectly embodies the solipsistic sense of entitlement that haunts today's Forbes-certified global marketplace. Our hero (a passionate populist prosecutor who Alberto Gonzalez would've surely fired without batting an eyelash) nabs the villain just before his planned relocation to the United States. It's a good thing, too: The last thing we need here is another Donald Trump.

Saturday

The Stars Shine Bright


Between the frenetic quick-cuts, oversaturated, hyper-stylized visual language, and exaggerated, zany characters in Kamikaze Girls lies a thoughtful, affecting female friendship piece. The film also serves as solid evidence that director Tetsuya Nakashima can actually handle women much better than sophomore effort Memories of Matsuko would suggest.

Singer/actress Kyoko Fukada (the object-of-obsession pop star in Kitano’s Dolls) plays a disaffected teen living in rural Japan, and conveying what little personality and self-worth she has through her favorite style of dress: Lolita. For those unfamiliar, Lolita (usually paired with a Gothic in front) fashion is, more or less, frilly Victorian dresses and bonnets, most famously found in internationally known shops like Baby, the Stars Shine Bright (featured in the movie), and Metamorphose. Fukada’s Momoko asserts that her fascination with the decadent lifestyle of the similarly-outfitted Rococo period is the reason she wears the get-ups. At 17, she’s the right age to pull it off without being creepy or pity-inspiring, but is still an outcast in her farming village surroundings.

Eventually Momoko burns through her resources and finds herself too broke to feed her “happiness” (i.e. Lolita clothes). She remedies this by selling her dad’s old Versace bootlegs to a local, rough-around-the-edges girl biker Ichiko (Anna Tsuchiya). So grateful for the discounted price Momoko charges her for the junk, Ichiko starts to hang around. Little by little—through soul-baring confessions, favors, scooter trips, and head butts—Ichiko wears down Momoko’s indifferent exterior and the two become, yes, unlikely friends. This development is handled subtly, and with minimal cheese. The two leading ladies make it all very believable, and very adorable, right up to the mildly badass ending showdown.

Coincidentally, I’d recently revisited two of my favorite extreme/thriller films (Japan’s 2LDK, and Hong Kong’s Koma), which also happen to deal with the unreasonable love/hate nature of many (if not most) female relationships. While in the former two, the girls express their ‘hate’ phases much more violently, Momoko and Ichiko’s bond still fits perfectly next to them as an excellent depiction of the xx/xx dynamic. And they didn’t even have to fight over some man to get there.

Wednesday

Copywritten (So Don't Copy Me)


Or By the Numbers part deux.

Teresa

10
"The Way I Are"
"Fantasy"
9
"Bombay"
"Give It To Me"
"Time"
8
"Miscommunication"
7
"Release"
"Boardmeeting"
"Apologize"
6

"Come and Get Me"
5
"Scream"
"Oh Timbaland"
"2 Man Show"
"Throw It On Me"
3
"Bounce"
2
"Kill Yourself"
1
"One and Only"

-

Josh

9
"The Way I Are"
"Bombay"
"Give It To Me"
8
"Oh Timbaland"
"Bounce"
"Fantasy"
"Time"
7
"Come and Get Me"
6
"2 Man Show"
5
"Miscommunication"
"Release"
4
"Scream"
"Boardmeeting"
3
"Apologize"
2
"Kill Yourself"
"Throw It On Me"
1
"One and Only"

Saturday

My Wife Is Officially Cooler Than Yours


Granted I'm partial, but Teresa's graphic design work is flat-out amazing! Give it a look, then hire her (before her asking price is out of your range!).

Oh, and also check out her new Asian film blog, Gold Lion.

(How in the world did I ever get so lucky?)