Thursday 26 November 2009

Sequences Of A Titular Nature #2

Adventureland (2009 - Greg Mottola) - There was just something warm and almost comforting about watching "Adventureland" the first time. Maybe it was all the lovely blurred images of the amusement park's blinking lights from the titles that just pulled me back to my own late teens and early twenties. It won't be my favourite film of the year, but I couldn't wait to get it on DVD and I watched it again the very night I got it. There's a few things that don't play perfectly well towards the end of the film, but I liked the characters so much that I was easily able to forgive it all.

Mansion Of Madness (1973 - Juan Lopez Moctezuma) - The overall hallucinatory feel of this particular adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's "The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Feather" is foreshadowed right at the outset by blue and red titles. It's as if we're experiencing someone's actual hallucinations. The film has some great visuals and that off kilter feeling remains for much of it, but it loses a lot of its built up strangeness with long expository sequences.

Scream Blacula Scream (1973 - Bob Kelljan) - Perfect indication of the fun that is to follow. I only wish they had more of those characters that look like they were made with tangrams. I've now seen the original "Blacula" as well and though I liked it, this tops it on all fronts.

Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun (1969 - Robert Parish) - There's nothing overly stunning about this set of titles - except in retrospect looking at all the old technology which at the time may have appeared futuristic. You have to love those banks of lights...The film itself was reasonably solid stuff too. It didn't quite take the idea of a clone Earth (in our same orbit directly opposite us) as far as it could have, but it still ended in an interesting place. And it had terrific looking sets throughout.

Thursday 12 November 2009

One Of Those Moments - "The Woman In Black"

The Woman In Black (1989 - Herbert Wise)

Previous posts in this series have concentrated on moments of heartfelt emotion, but I thought it was time to look at a different kind of moment - one that kinda stops your breathing for a second, sends a chill down the old spine and raises the hairs on your arms.

Mike over at Mellotron Sounds recommended The Woman In Black to me as a good addition to my horror viewing for the month of October. Though I missed that window, I caught up with it just this past week. He was right - it's a solid creepy ghost story.

Starting out very much like a British turn-of-the-century period drama, the story starts to delve into the murky waters of a particular incident that occurred in the marsh surrounding the mansion of a recently passed away old woman. The lawyer responsible for cleaning up the estate's affairs makes a trip to the town nearby and discovers a population of people not overly eager to discuss the mansion - especially when he mentions his sighting of a woman in black at the funeral. There also appear to be an inordinate amount of children's gravestones in the local cemetery. The central performance by Adrian Rawlins isn't quite strong enough to withstand all the screen time he has, but the story is intriguing and contains some disquieting moments.

After returning from the mansion and several "encounters" with its remaining presences, the young lawyer is resting in his hotel bed when he is finds a little toy soldier which has dogged him the last few days. He feels that the ghost of a young boy named Nathaniel has come to visit and thinks that perhaps the little boy wants to show himself. He asks with a smile "Nathaniel?":

A shadow looms over him and in response to the question he gets this:

The stills don't quite get across the "Holy crap" feeling I got when I saw it. The slow movement towards the camera is matched with a piercing, eerie scream that is unsettling in how relentless it is. There's a couple of cutaways to the solicitor's frightened reaction (as per the top screencap), but otherwise that hovering woman keeps coming closer and closer and won't stop screaming. Originally made for and aired on British TV, I can imagine numerous households cringing and recoiling on their couches.

It's a bit reminiscent of this scene from Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Retribution (though the sound field is used in a different manner). A direct, unwavering gaze that slowly but steadily approaches you with a feeling that it might actually go through you. That's a hair-raising moment.

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Cinema Kabuki: Triple Lion Dance

Previously posted at Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow.

One of the great things about watching "World Cinema" is the window you get to open on other country's cultures. You likely won't learn all the ins and outs of the people, politics and religions of the planet, but you will likely find aspects of these cultures that intrigue you and encourage you to investigate them further. Kabuki theatre is one such example. Like many non-Japanese people, I had heard of it but never really had a good idea what it really was - until I began watching Japanese films. The beauty of the costumes, the smooth and precise mannerisms of the dancers and the reverence given to these actors has made me curious to better understand the art form. The Cinema Kabuki Festival (running from November 11-15 at the Scotiabank Theatres here in Toronto) is primed to treat many of us to entire Kabuki presentations on the big screen and further whet our appetites.

One of the films being screened is the captured performance of "Triple Lion Dance" from a 2007 show at Tokyo's Shimbashi Embujo Theatre (the Canadian premiere of this film is Nov. 14th at 1:00PM). There's nothing fancy about the presentation here - a theatre, a stage, a backdrop and the actors and musicians. Place numerous HD cameras around the environment, don't get in the way and make sure the dance and its actors remain the focus. It's to director Yoji Yamada's credit ("Twilight Samurai", "The Hidden Blade") that he indeed does all of this and ensures that the end result is not overly edited or manipulated to take anything away from the play. The colours are vibrant, the sound is sharp and clear and the performance is quite extraordinary. I'm a novice at Kabuki, so I can't give a detailed review or comparison to other performances, but I'm sticking with the term extraordinary. Even though this can be a very slow, methodical art form, everything flies by in what seems to be about half the 55 minute run time. It's likely due to the play being broken up into three distinct sections: 1) the introduction to the shishi (protectors of the stone bridge which leads to Buddhist monk Monju's paradise), 2) the comic middle act of two rival faction Buddhist priests wandering through the mountains in search of the bridge and 3) the final dance of the shishi among the peonies showing off their strength.

The Lion Dance in Kabuki is usually between a father and son character, but in this particular telling, the legendary performer Kanzaburo is joined by his own two sons (Kantaro and Shichinosuke) to expand the tale to three lions. The story itself is actually based off a classical Noh play called "Shakkyo" (or "The Stone Bridge"). Opening with the musicians playing their shamisen (three stringed instruments akin to banjos and plucked with large picks called bachi) and the singers expanding on the background of the story, the dancers begin to tell their tale. The singers help of course, but the body movements, gestures and facial expressions take care of most of the storytelling by themselves. The occasional booming and echoing stomps on the stage by the dancers feel like exclamation points tacked on after a particularly important or emotional moment. The costumes are remarkable - beginning with shishi masks in the first section and ending with full outfits complete with flowing manes as befitting the stature of these lion guards. While almost floating through the play at times, it's easy to see that the dancers/actors have an amazing ability to control their movements; especially when they jump up in the air. This isn't a Hollywood style dance movie by any stretch, but these actors are as aware of their body's every move as much as Fred Astaire ever was. Meanwhile, onscreen text tells the viewer some background of the play as well as translating most of the singing. The first act is primarily concerned with the father shishi testing his sons' strength by repeatedly throwing them off the mountain. This allows for some wonderfully creative interactions between the three of them.

Though the comedy of the middle section is a bit broad for my taste (via character facial expressions and vocal intonations), it's never boring and does make fun of the idea of rival Buddhist monks. The flute and percussion music that opens the third act sets a dark tone and derives from the Noh style. The shamisen take over again to bring the feeling back to the stylized kabuki staging and pacing. Peony blossoms adorn the stage as the three shishi begin to parade their strength as they protect the bridge and prevent any humans from passing. The long twirling manes of these kings of all animals should be enough to warn off any travelers and the performance appropriately ends as the shishi finish off their display. Extraordinary. My appetite has grown.

Tuesday 3 November 2009

October Horror 2009 #10

47 horror movies in 31 days. I'm pretty happy with that. They were all first time viewings and many were a great deal of fun. My list of need-to-see horror hasn't shrunk though - it's probably grown by close to double the amount I actually saw because of recommendations from others and new films that I found after doing some digging on the ones I saw.

Not really a bad problem to have is it? I've still got a bit of a stockpile at home of horror to watch, but now I'll be mixing in other fare too. I'll hopefully continue to write up the horror films, but will likely move them to the Cesspool series of posts (and probably skip over the films that don't garner much of a reaction).

Eyes Of Laura Mars (1978 - Irvin Kershner) - A mix of 70s American grit and bright Italian horror, this is a great concept that occasionally works very well and sometimes falls flat. I love Faye Dunaway, but she's up and down here - her wide eyes are sometimes too incredulous looking and she overplays several scenes, but then she flashes a subtle smile and all is forgiven. Her new found ability to see the murders of her friends from the killer's point of view makes for several really well done sequences, but just never quite completely takes advantage of the idea. It's easy enough to guess early on that at some point she too will become a target of the killer (and see herself through his eyes), but they use that idea too early and again don't take full advantage of the concept. The fashion photography shoots are a hoot though.

Dorothy Mills (2009 - Agnes Merlet) - A surprisingly effective ghost story that takes place on a remote Irish island. A young girl is accused of assaulting her charge while she babysat and a psychiatrist from the city takes the case. Of course there are secrets a-plenty in the village and it occasionally gives off the vibe of The Wicker Man, but there are further secrets within the village as well. The lovely Carice van Houten plays the doctor as sharp, perceptive, perhaps a bit too empathetic (she has her own reasons for wanting to save this girl which make her more susceptible to the ghostly presences) and very foreign to the islanders. It's beautifully shot and paced and leads to disturbing revelations. I hadn't even heard of this film previously to seeing it on the rental shelves, so I'm glad I took a chance on it.

Drag Me To Hell (2009 - Sam Raimi) - OK, I could have done without some of the CGI effects and a few too many scenes of bodily fluids, but now I understand the praise thrown at Raimi's return to horror - it's a hell of a good time. Alison Lohman's young bank employee (aiming for the assistant manager's title) turns down an old hag's extension request on a loan and forecloses on her house. Suddenly she finds herself cursed and with 3 days left before her soul is taken to hell. In the mean time, she'll be haunted and terrorized by spirits unless she can figure out how to reverse the curse. Raimi throws gross moments, fake scares, sudden scares, slow building tension, high anxiety thrills and humour at the screen and most of it works. The CGI is more hit and miss - some of it meshes with the live action quite well and some of it sticks out like, well, bad CGI. Still, the film doesn't miss a beat and flies by in no time flat.

The Howling (1981 - Joe Dante) - I wrapped up my October viewings with a couple of werewolf features I've been meaning to get to for literally years. I'm not sure why I haven't as yet - there just always seemed to be something else I wanted to get to first and I vaguely remember some bad reviews at the time for both films. Fortunately, my first pick, Joe Dante's The Howling, proved to be a fine take on the genre with an investigative TV reporter (Dee Wallace) getting involved with a serial killer, a psychologist and group therapy before finally learning how everything ties together. It has some early 80s issues - some bland performances, made-for-TV style lighting of some indoor scenes, etc. - but after a slow meandering build up from the TV studio to the group therapy commune, it begins to take its shape...Dante wisely holds back all the werewolf effects until deep into the movie at which point he begins to unleash them everywhere possible. And why not?

Wolfen (1981 - Michael Wadleigh) - This odd entry into the werewolf genre is the only fictional feature film made by the director of Woodstock. It's not exactly about werewolves though - it's about wolfen. They are wolf like creatures that have developed a high level of intelligence which enables them to track and hunt down their prey within the confines of a city. It's wrapped into a conservationist message and gets a bit too spiritual and preachy at times, but it does also manage to impress in spots such as the opening killings and numerous other setups in the film. It is longer than it needs to be at 2 hours, though, and tends to overuse its "wolfen-vision" a bit much.