January 23, 2008

THE DOLL MASTER (2004) - mainstream Korean horror


THE DOLL MASTER

(2004, South Korea, IMDB: Inhyeongsa)

Region 3 NTSC Hong Kong DVD (from Winson Entertainment)

Not all Korean horrors are gloomy, extreme, perplexing and non-linear. This is a good-looking mainstream horror full of good-looking actors. My only reservation is that while it doesn’t pull its punches, it should have been much, much creepier…

Plotwise, if Stuart Gordon had made Dolls (1987) in South East Asia, he’d probably have ended up with something very similar to this.

It's also surprising that nothing similar has been made in Japan, where doll mania is regularly the rage. Life-size adult dolls with full wardrobes are on sale as companionship surrogates, highly sophisticated sex dolls can also be tailor-made, girls dress like dolls, people collect dolls, and then there's the nation's obsession with lifelike robots...


Anyhow, I rewatched The Doll Master because I really liked the premise and the look of the film, and discovered it had more than a little comedy than I remembered, at least to start with, before the body count kicks in.

A group of youngsters are invited to a famous doll-maker’s mansion. (You guessed it, it's up in a forest and everyone's mobiles are out of range.) If they’re lucky, one of them will be honoured with a doll crafted in their image. All of them are relaxed, except for one girl who’s a little too old to be nursing an impeccably dressed doll.


The doll-maker shares his house with a wheelchair-bound sculptress. Together they make incredibly life-like dolls, in all scales. The main hall has a display wall, filled with impeccably dressed tiny mannequins.


Creepier still is the use of full-sized dolls in the furnishing. In each of the guest bedrooms is a figure, one emerging from a wall to hold a mirror, another built into the ceiling to hold the chandelier. You could almost think they were alive… The look of the sets and particularly the hall look impressive and modern, rather than the traditional gothic.

Hae-mi also keeps seeing a girl in red dress running around the grounds. What she hasn't seen is the prologue, which introduced us to a man who fell in love with a doll, and murdered his wife just so he could be with it all the time. He was strung up for his crime before the titles rolled.


The Scooby Doo cast of characters are amusing but not overdone. There’s enough twists in the story, even a little gore, but not nearly enough scares considering how creepy dolls should be. Perhaps it’s more frightening for those who can’t stand dolls.

Actress Yu-Mi Kim as Hae-Mi particularly impressed me with her prolonged and sustained level of realistic hysteria! She was previously a star in another South Korean horror hit, Phone.


The Doll Master is currently available in Hong Kong, with 5.1 Korean sound and good English subs as well as the Chinese language options. It’s also out on DVD in the UK, but the US release is now going out of print and harder to track down.



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January 22, 2008

NIGHTMARE DETECTIVE (2006) a Tsukamoto classic


NIGHTMARE DETECTIVE
(2006, Japan, on IMDB as Akumu Tantei)

Region 2 PAL Italian DVD (RaroVideo)

The films of director Shinya Tsukamoto are always interesting but usually challenging. His two films of Tetsuo the Iron Man were extreme and disorientating, Haze was short and experimental, Hiruko the Goblin and Gemini bizarre and surreal.

Nightmare Detective appears to be his most mainstream, high profile project. A short plot summary looks accessible enough - a psychic who can enter other people's dreams doing battle with a nightmare killer. This sounds familiar, in the vein of the many Elm Streets, but appearances can be deceptive...

Detective Keiko Kirishima (played by Hitomi) arrives on the scene of a suicide, but is suspicious that it's not as it appears. When the case is linked to another violent and bloody death, her colleagues are astonished when she insists that it’s not only a murder case, but also in need of a psychic to solve it.

But her contact, a Nightmare Detective, is a tortured suicidal soul who only works for his friends. He hates diving into peoples dreams for mere money. But when the unseen, ferocious and terrifying killer claims more victims, all of the detectives find themselves in danger.

The result is a dark, disorientating descent into a world of suicide and psychosis.


The cast are excellent. Although Ryuhei Matsuda has the title role, the majority of the film is shouldered by Hitomi, giving an astonishing peformance given this is only her second film. Actually, both characters could be called the Nightmare Detective of the title, one in the police force, one in dreamland.

Youthful-looking Matsuda attracts many difficult roles, like his first in Gohatto, though he recently had a welcome break from angst in the comedy Otakus in Love.

I failed to recognise Masanobu Ando as Detective Wakamiya. He was enjoyable as the star of the Red Shadow remake, one of the many schoolboy victims in Battle Royale, and is in the soon-to-be-cult-classic Sakuran.

Tsukamoto, the writer/director also appears in the film. Is there anything he can’t do?


For the many nightmare scenes, the Hollywood answer would be to build dreamscapes from scratch on soundstages, like they did for The Cell. Instead, beautifully crisp location photography uses the skyscrapers of the business district of Shinjuku, together with underwater footage, to evoke a disorientating unreal world bathed in blue.

The ‘Tetsuo style’ of camera shake and machine-gun editing was too much for the entire length of a feature film, but is aptly used here for the frightening instances when the killer attacks in a frenzy. Anyone at all can wave a camera around and edit fast, but Tsukamoto has perfected the method, enabling the viewer to still follow the action.

This is an ambitious and involving experience. Though I was a little disorientated towards the climax, when I started to lose track of the rules of the dream logic. I was even wandering at one point if the story was going to return to the scenario of Haze, his previous project. The ever-present theme of suicide haunts most of the film, and may be too dark for some.


Japan is spoilt for talented directors who can deliver original, stylish, effective horror films on limited budgets. Together with Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Takashi Shimizu, Sion Sono, Higuchinsky... all proved that there's more to J-horror than long black hair.

Thankfully, Nightmare Detective has been a success and a sequel is already well on the way – ironic considering how much the hero hates to use his abilities.

It reaches region 1 US DVD in February. I've got the good-looking Italian DVD, which has decent English subtitles, though the additional interviews haven't. It certainly has far better cover art than the US...


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January 21, 2008

GEGEGE NO KITARO (2007) the live-action movie


GEGEGE NO KITARO
(2007, Japan)

A disappointing adaption of Japan's much-loved spooky cartoon hero

Japanese region 2 NTSC DVD (Fuji)

This is based on my favourite old anime, that's been running since the 1960's. The stories are jam-packed with Japanese monsters, ghosts, and goblins both old and new. (For more about the many anime series, see my extensive beginner's guide, here.)


Of course I was really looking forward to this new live-action feature film, thinking it might be on the same scale as The Great Yokai War (2005), which also featured some of Kitaro's friends.

Basically, Kitaro (also spelt Kitarou) has returned from the dead (along with his father) as a powerful ghost in the form of a young man, and uses his powers to keep the peace between the human and the spirit worlds.


When a multiple haunting strikes an apartment block, Kitaro investigates and meets teenage Mika and her little brother. Their father has accidentally found a magic stone that could give a gang of shape-shifting foxes unlimited power. Can Kitaro save their father from the greedy foxes, without upsetting the higher echelons of the yokai hierarchy?

There's some exposition for newcomers, but the bizarrest creatures may still confuse... his dad is a huge eyeball with a tiny body, there's a man running around with nine foxtails, a lardy blubber monster, a gigantic straw sandal demon... but really all creatures that are only scary for 5 year olds.

The film is very faithful to the manga and anime stories, except for Kitaro himself. He's now both grey-haired and teenaged (instead of brown-haired and ten years old). I suppose grey hair suits his being 350 years old, but doesn’t remind you at all of his usual appearance. You can also glimpse the actor’s left-eye behind his hair in several scenes - it's supposed to be an empty eye socket.

Pop star Eiji Wentz doesn’t act like Kitaro normally does, far less confidently and brave than his cartoon counterpart. It’s a tough role to fill, but the rest of the cast seem to be more lively. Besides being made old enough to be caught in a love triangle (between Mika and his friend Cat-Girl), he's now a slacker who has to be thrown out of bed in the morning.

Unlike The Great Yokai War, not enough money has been spent on the background monsters. In crowd scenes, like at the yokai nightclub, several extras with inanimate masks are too visible for too long, looking exactly like what they are. The quality and intricacy of the CGI FX is also inconsistent. Some are highly detailed, like the beautiful location composite paintings, but the unrealistic movements of the umbrella monster, set a low benchmark early in the film. It may have been an attempt to be less scary, and even funny/cartoony, but it's shoddy compared to the rest of the film. Especially when compared to the complicated and extensive Rokurokubi FX (the snake-necked woman), and the entrancing vision of the Fox Queen.

Also impressive is the full-size outdoor set of Kitaro’s lakeside house, which is bigger than usual, almost too much of a desirable residence for a poor, homeless boy.

The success of the film is that the regular characters, Kitaro's crew of friends, are faithfully recreated. Yo Oizumi, as the unreliable and smelly Ratman (‘Nezumi Otoko’), delivers a fantastic comedy performance, though he's sadly missing from the second half of the movie. The beautiful Rena Tanaka plays a likeable Cat-Girl, breathing as much into her role as possible, but like in the anime, she's very underused.

The plot elements are all familiar from a dozen different old Kitaro stories – a desecrated shrine, greedy humans, quarreling yokai, even a flying ghost train. It succeeds in creating an alternate world, where even the human characters appear to be stylised, carefully made up to look like artist Shigeru Mizuki's original stock characters of salarymen, police detectives and careless businessmen.

But I felt the film kept losing its momentum. The flat direction constantly drops the pace and lost any possible drama. Even the action scenes were short and faltering, providing little more than money shots for the trailer.

I'll probably enjoy it more a second time around. But the good news is that the film was such a hit in Japan, there's now a sequel well on the way. Hopefully this time, they’ll keep all the marvellous actors, lose the umbrella, and pick up the pace.

The Japanese DVD editions (three of them) all have very good English subtitles. I think I saw that the rights have been picked up in the US, but have not heard confirmation of an actual release.



January 20, 2008

THEM (2006) - French horror filmed in Romania


THEM
(2006, France, aka 'ILS')


On region 3 PAL DVD from Thailand (PMEG)

There haven't been many French horror films until recently. This is one of the 'new wave' of hard-hitting and effective genre movies from France, like Switchblade Romance (aka Haute Tension), The Ordeal (Calvaire) and even Brotherhood of the Wolf. It’s received quite a decent release worldwide, considering it’s a low-budget movie shot on video, and has been reviewed extensively, but I'd like to add the following...


A French couple have settled down in a large remote house on the outskirts of Bucharest, while teaching French in a Romanian high school. Little do they know, there's been a mysterious murder nearby, and at night it’s their turn to be victimised, frightened, then hunted…

The opening scene, of a car breaking down on a forest road, builds nicely to a somewhat cliched climax. The story then starts properly with Clementine (played by Olivia Bonamy, the star of offbeat comedy horror Bloody Mallory) returning home from work. After she goes to bed with her boyfriend, Lucas, the trouble begins. The movie builds atmosphere and panic pretty effectively from this early point in the film, all the way to the climax in a sustained barrage of suspense.

While the menace at first appears to be invisible and supernatural, as it's slowly revealed, the film takes on a different complexion, as much social comment as horror.

Purporting to be inspired by real events, this is most probably a ruse, overused by so many horror films that I now assume that they’re all lying. I can only trace the vaguest of links between the events described here and any actual ones. The viewer is therefore being needlessly encouraged to fear the same easy targets in society that the trashier newspapers also favour. Like any movie, the horror genre can be subversive or establishment – Them is definitely the latter.


While Hostel also chose to portray an actual village (this time in Slovakia) as a well-orchestrated killing machine, Them portrays Romania in a way completely at odds with the true horrors that the country has endured. All while getting a cheaper deal for shooting in Eastern Europe – very cheeky. Nowhere in Europe seems safe now, as even rural Ireland came off far worse in Shrooms, than the deep south did in John Boorman's infamous Deliverance (1972).

Any country is fair game for a horror movie location, but if Them is the only film you see that's been set in Romania, then that could easily shade your opinion of it. It's a very different matter for someone to make a horror film set in their own country. Similarly, this could easily have been shot in Romania while pretending to be in France.

But it’s an expertly made film. Indeed, the directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud have already been whisked to Hollywood to remake the Pang brothers’ classic The Eye. As an experience, I enjoyed Them to the last drop. But like many movies with twisted endings, it’s probably not one that can be enjoyed twice.

I bought this on DVD in Thailand early last year. It suffers from muddy compression in the shadows and a fairly soft picture, but has good English subs. It’s presented in 16:9, whereas elsewhere the film is detailed as being 2.35 widescreen (presumably looking more like the screengrab above). The Thai disc is completely no frills.


Them is also available on region 2 DVD in the UK, and will be released region 1 in the US in February.

Not on DVD: BEN (1972) spawn of the original WILLARD


BEN
(1972, US)

I recently looked at the original rat-attack classic Willard, but unlike the 2004 remake, the 1971 film instantly spawned a sequel.

In the early seventies, movies were slow to get to TV and of course couldn’t be scrutinised on home video. This meant that film-makers making sequels could re-use footage, and flashbacks could be unecessarily long. Ben opens with a hefty recap from the climax of Willard running under the opening titles.

The story then picks up at the moment when the police arrive at Willard’s house. Almost immediately, it’s a different kind of movie – with all the police cars and crowds, this one has scale rather than character-driven claustrophobia. It’s about the police and the city taking on a new type of rat problem – an intelligent rat directing thousands of others…


Ben is big budget but far less even than the first. On the plus side there’s more rat action, special effects on an almost disaster movie level, flame-throwers in the sewers… and an atmospheric motif of crowds of public that gather around accidents, silently watching for glimpses of calamity. They reminded me of pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers – emotionless.

The minus side is in the form of… music. Ben, the leader of the rat pack, befriends a young boy down the road from Willard’s house. Danny has a heart condition, a rich imagination and unfortunately a puppet show in his den. He also likes to write songs. These two talents collide in a scene that never works in horror films – a musical interlude where Danny sings as he plays with his puppets. The scene belongs in a live-action Disney film, not a horror. Considering the movie is about rats attacking people, I have no idea what the producers were thinking. It’s like a Disney making a musical sequel to Jaws. Of course, the other song Danny ‘writes’ in the film is a love song about his friend, a rat called Ben. “Ben’s song” wasn’t written by Michael Jackson, but it was his first solo hit and was recorded for this film. It’s probably the music royalties that are preventing this movie from being released on DVD anywhere. Or it could be Danny’s unbearable harmonica solo.


Lee Montgomery plays Danny and bravely copes with multiple rat scenes - he was also very good in a scary horror a few years later, Burnt Offerings. He’s good in this, but not when he’s singing. It’s hard to empathise with his character, especially when he lies to his family and even the police about what he knows. As the rats lair remains elusive, the attacks continue – in beauty salons, supermarkets and the sewers.

Special effects are used to multiply the rats numbers (there’s a horrifying shot of hundreds of them hiding in the walls of Willard’s house), and to protect them from actual harm (like in the scenes where swarms of them are hit by flame-throwers). The effects look OK because of the murkiness of the scenes. Cleverly, most of the action takes place at night, adding to the mood.

Although there are quite a few deaths, it’s not a very violent film, but it preys upon people’s fears of large numbers of rats. If you’re not bothered, then it’s not scary. It's also never clear quite how the rats can bring down truckers and policemen so quickly.

The story then descends into the logistics of pest control, with only Danny and his sister wandering around in the sewer to provide any narrative thread.


I started wondering if there was any message to the movie, the authorities stampeding in, declaring a curfew, and using all their technology to exterminate the enemy. It’s very Hollywood to deliver exciting conflicts and portray both the public’s fears of an epidemic, and the maudlin friendship between a sick little boy and his pet (“I love you, Ben”). But in real life, rats wouldn’t actually behave like this, and controlling them takes brains, not brute force.

For all it’s sentimentality, the finale is quite heart-breaking, certainly for animal lovers, and Michael Jackson’s rendition hits all the right buttons at this moment.

There weren’t any more sequels, but ratty horror soon continued across the Atlantic, when James Herbert published his first horror novel in the UK, The Rats, which lead to many book sequel, all seemingly written for bloodthirsty schoolboys, like I was.



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January 17, 2008

DEATH RACE 2000 (1975) another cult classic up for a remake


DEATH RACE 2000
(1975, USA)

Finally, a decent DVD release of this bloody black comedy

I thought this would be better known nowadays. But it seems that video games like Carmageddon have stolen its thunder without much respect. Even sitting in the car, I keep hearing passengers making jokes about pedestrians being worth different amounts of ‘points’, without knowing the film that started it all.


Over 30 years ago this was the first adult movie I ever sneaked into. I put on one of my Dad’s jackets to try and look old enough to get in – it worked! Back then, Death Race 2000 was seen as a cash-in on the big-budget Rollerball – another future vision of televised sport that incorporated onscreen murder to satiate the masses and somehow provide an alternative to warfare and civil unrest.

But where Rollerball was quite dry and downbeat, Death Race 2000 delivered sex and violence, while delivering a satirical black comedy with a cheeky anti-violent message!

The film portrays a future where the annual Death Race sends five cars coast-to-coast across America in search of first place or the highest score – points won for pedestrians killed, higher scores for those of least use to the State. Big scores for old folks and babies. Extra points for women!

The cars have blades, missile launchers and teeth, to maximise their killing potential, and are all themed to reflect the cartoony characters of the drivers. WWE meets Wacky Races. Besides a cowgirl (Calamity Jane) and a Nazi (Mathilda the Hun), there’s a Roman hero (Nero), a 1920s gangster (Machine Gun Joe Viterbo) and a sci-fi monster (Frankenstein), the latter a patchwork cyborg pieced together after previous car crashes.

But as soon as the race gets underway, saboteurs try to challenge the world president and bring down the institution of the Death Race. The film is presented by three characters that lampoon both sport and chat show hosts.

The racers continue to knock down the foolhardy citizens who venture onto the streets, while the organisers try and prevent the race itself getting wrecked.

A simple enough premise, but with interweaving stories running around all the competitors, the organisers and the saboteurs. Fast editing includes all the viewpoints and tries not to miss any of the improvisations or any last word from the witty script.

The cinematography for the action scenes is tight, with dynamic wide angles, and cameras bolted onto the cars to keep you in the action. There’s no back projection – the actors simply keep acting while they’re driving. There’s a fantastic wide-angle shot of David Carradine at the wheel while a micro-fighter-plane buzzes low over him in a perfectly symmetrical money shot.



Roger Corman, who produced this at the height of his powers, seems to have relaxed his usual tight purse strings on the budget, because there's actually plenty of stuntwork, car wrecks and explosions, without any stock footage. At the time, this film delivered just as much excitement as Hollywood A-movies, without appearing to be cheap.

The bizarre music - a mixture of synths like A Clockwork Orange, and rambling soul guitar solos - dates the film the most, along with the sub-psychedelic paintings of the opening title sequence. But the fast-paced action, humour, pathos and inventiveness of the script should still score a few points nowadays. The sharp satire and tongue-in-cheek atmosphere is set up early on when the director, the late Paul Bartel, cameos as Frankenstein’s mad surgeon.

The cast famously includes a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone, then in danger of being typecast as Italian hoodlums. But the star is David Carradine (Kung Fu, Carquake, Kill Bill) as Frankenstein who confidently carries the film. Essential Corman regular Mary Woronov again proves she can fight, act and lose her clothes at the drop of a direction. The film's nude scenes, an integral part of the Corman movie-making formula, still surprises today, now that actors and actresses no longer disrobe unless 'it's integral to the plot'.

According to the new DVD extras, Bartel was aiming to deliver a comedy, but the second unit team amped up enough gore to secure a controversy on the film’s release. Even with an X certificate in England, most of the bloody point-scoring kills were cut.

Home video releases of this film have always looked soft, making an excellent b-movie look far cheaper than it should. Even on DVD the film has only previously been available in 4:3 full frame.


The latest release has finally had a digital widescreen transfer. The film no longer looks like 16mm film via analogue video. The far sharper and brighter image now highlights the richly colourful green paintwork on Frankenstein’s car. The picture looks well-framed in 16:9 widescreen, and the audio is now clear enough for all the dialogue to be heard over the constant sound of revving engines.

This US DVD should be the last time I have to buy this film – I’ve triple dipped for it on DVD now! This new transfer will be on DVD in the UK shortly.

Naturally, there’ll be a remake released this year, with Jason Statham in the driver’s seat. His hard-nosed but humorous touch will make for a different kind of film, but it should be fun, if only Paul Anderson can muster comedy. It’ll be hard to better the original for invention and economy.


Pity it won't be called Death Race 2008.


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January 15, 2008

JUNK (2000) gory Japanese oldschool zombies

JUNK
(2000, Japan, IMDB: ShiryƓ-gari)

I like the way you move...

Region 2 PAL DVD (Artsmagic)

I love zombie movies, but nowadays find that classic ones are hard to, um, find. I like my zombies slow, creepy, and hungry for the flesh of the living. I'm fed up with zombie comedies (like Bio-Zombie), shot-on-video first-timers, or stuff that fails to remember the rules (like Undead forgetting how to shoot them in the head).

I’ll also include fast-moving zombies as a pet hate, the exception being the Dawn of the Dead remake which I enjoyed. But this 28 Days Later sub-genre should really be put in a Rabid category, not a zombie category. David Cronenberg’s Rabid (1977) visualised a city of humans that had caught rabies and turned into mindless psychopathic animals. An action-packed horror, but still not a zombie movie.

In short, the last slow-moving, staggering, flesh-eating zombie film that I enjoyed was from Japan. There they strictly stick to the George Romero-zombie rules. Their zombie movies are still a mixed bag, but Junk is well-acted, professionally produced and faithfully recaptures the atmosphere of the seventies zombie genre.


It’s given a gangster twist as jewel thieves meet up with the yakuza to trade their stash for cash. Little do they know, the disused factory chosen for the rendezvous was the site of a military experiment that has gone very wrong.

Soon there’s a three-way stand off between the thieves, the gangsters and the living dead…


This is low budget, but at least not shot by first-timers. The film-makers previously made the gangster actioners Score and Score 2. Junk is expertly and energetically put together, with agile, taut photography, and a more than able cast, (apart from the Americans). Like Romero's films, a woman takes centrestage in the battle for survival.

The gory shootouts and zombie dinnertime scenes are on a par with the original Zombie Flesh Eaters and the original Dawn of the Dead. Indeed, many of the early scenes have been recreated from those movies shot-for-shot! For instance the first zombie incident is framed and blocked like the 'banquet scene' from Zombie Flesh Eaters. Further into the film they get creative with some new zombie action. You won’t forget Kyoko, queen of the zombies in a hurry. There's good ensemble zombie acting and make-up, grisly gore, and lively splattery gunfights (albeit where no-one gets hit if they duck).


The opening robbery scene looks a little unimpressive, using one of those little wobbly white vans for the getaway, but the film looks convincing when everyone reaches the abandoned factory. The major drawback in the film are the scenes involving the American military – once again cast members have been recruited for their ability to speak English rather than any acting skills. The actor playing a Japanese scientist also joins in with some particularly cracked English.

Versus may have scored highly with critics, on a similar story premise, but I enjoyed Junk much much more.


The UK DVD is standards converted from NTSC so badly that it looks more like video than film. It's further compromised by a bad aspect ratio conversion (making a full-height anamorphic image out of a letterboxed image), but cropping off the base of the picture it also chops the original Japanese subtitles in half! This DVD also stupidly subtitles all the spoken English.


But any DVD of this is not too easy to find now. The US DVD isn't anamorphic widescreen, but obviously hasn't been standards converted. The US DVD is the best release out there at the moment, until the film is remastered anamorphically. Ironically the UK DVD is the only one still available, and at rather high prices.

I still have no idea what the title refers to! It’s been overused for recent film titles, (there are seven different entries on IMDB), so be careful when you’re DVD-hunting by Google.

Bon appetit!


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January 13, 2008

AIRPORT 1975 - the good, the bad and the parody


AIRPORT 75
(1975, US)

The rise of the franchise...

Searching around for new disaster movie ideas, Hollywood made a sequel to the original template for the genre - Airport (reviewed recently here) - at a time when sequels were rare.

To identify it closely with the disaster trend, Earthquake stars Charlton Heston and George Kennedy (who also appeared in all four Airport movies) are drafted in to head the cast. The promise of the title is cast aside as the action moves up and away from the airport and firmly into the air. It set a high benchmark for mid-air diasaster movies, before TV movies milked the genre for ideas.



A packed passenger Boeing 747 collides with a private plane, piloted ironically by Dana Andrews the star of Zero Hour. (Airport 75 and Zero Hour together form the butt of most of the gags in AIRPLANE.) With the crew incapacitated, an unlucky stewardess (Karen Black) is left to fly the plane. But she has no piloting experience and certainly doesn’t know how to land it…

Obviously no travel company wants their markings on a crashing plane, even if it’s only a movie. So the producers hired a real 747, painted it up in the fictitious markings of a fake airline, dressed the exterior up to look like it’s been in a collision, and took off. There’s some spectacular shots of it flying low through snow-capped mountain ranges, below the height of the peaks – it’s certainly better than the fakey model shots used elsewhere in the series, but obviously an expensive alternative to special effects – do it for real!


The highlight is the scene with formation-flying of the 747, an air force jet and a jet helicopter with a stuntman being lowered out the back! Exceptionally exciting, but the sequence is sabotaged by intercutting it with grainy back-projection footage of the stars scrambling around among the movie sets. This rescue method was earlier seen in as a plot point in a couple of episodes of Thunderbirds, notably the pilot episode Trapped in the Sky. The highly dangerous air-to-air transfer was again attempted for real in a stunt-sequence in Sylvester Stallone’s Cliffhanger (1993).

Airport 75 is seriously compromised by the underwritten script. Unlike the intricate interwoven story strands of the original Airport, the subplots here are feeble and barely connected. The action comes to a deadening halt as a singing nun grabs a guitar and summons a truly unmemorable song to comfort a sick little girl - it makes you realise how far popular music has come. Linda Blair has to smile in appreciation, here inbetween The Exorcist and Exorcist II, she’s in danger of being typecast as permanently bedridden.

Karen Black helps keeps the movie afloat, single-handedly tidying up wreckage in the cockpit, flying the plane, talking to traffic control on what’s left of the radio, and keeping her hair out of her eyes. Despite starring in Alfred Hitchcock’s last ever film, Family Plot (1976), and Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), this remains her most iconic role. She famously returned to horror films recently in House of a 1000 Corpses.

Charlton Heston had been a leading man, square-jawed hero and star of many biblical epics since the fifties (Ben Hur, El Cid, The Ten Commandments, Touch of Evil), but still hung onto starring roles in the seventies with some unusual choices, like disaster movies and science-fiction. After doing one sci-fi film, Planet of the Apes, he appeared in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, and Soylent Green.

But aside from Heston and Karen Black, the viewer is stranded with a mixture of ancient Hollywood stars and TV regulars - their characters are so poorly sketched that they look like they are playing themselves and improvising their dialogue. Slack editing of these interior scenes almost puts the hard work of the second unit to waste.


The high-danger scenario, mixed with the lazy melodramatics provide dozens of opportunities and even indentical camera set-ups for the Airplane parodies (1980 and 1982). This is now the core pleasure of watching the Airport films. There are many awful moments, but you can enjoy that they were rightfully later exploited.

Even before that, all of the best aerial footage was recycled for a TV episode of The Incredible Hulk only three years later. What a rip-off!

Despite its many shortcomings, Airport 75 lead to two more sequels, neither of which I can sanely recommend.



The movie deserves to be watched in full 2.35 widescreen - it's on DVD either singly, or as part of the Airport 'Terminal' collection. Enjoy!


January 06, 2008

PAPRIKA (2006) a dazzling animated fantasy for adults


PAPRIKA
(2006, Japan)

Director, Satashi Kon - a Miyazaki for grown-ups

The following review also appears on the
24framespersecond website

Paprika has justifiably been gaining glowing reviews after appearing at film festivals around the world. Personally, I think it’s the most internationally accessible anime feature film since Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away. It retains a very Japanese identity, but is easily understandable by western audiences. The film is brimful with imagination, attempting to visualise the impossible. While many Japanese anime focus on portraying schoolrooms and street scenes realistically, why not just try and push the narrative medium to the limit?


The eye-boggling portrayal of dreams and dream-logic is a crazy challenge for most directors, but Satoshi Kon has been rehearsing for this in his previous animated projects. Particularly the anime series Paranoia Agent (2004), which also pushed the limits of narrative by presenting puzzling scenes and allowing the viewer time to try and deduce what's going on. The wonderful Millennium Actress (2001) also has a pivotal female character who constantly rushes across the screen in search of an answer.


Paprika is about some (fairly fantastical) technology built to enable psychologists to access the worlds of patients’ dreams. Some unexplained and dangerous incidents then spark an investigation – what is going wrong with this new technology, and where will it end? Luckily, a young woman called Paprika acts like a ‘spirit guide’ within the worlds of the new device.


We then flip between the investigation and the dreams of various characters, fantasy worlds where they envisage themselves as fictional secret agents, or even Tarzan. Kon has a hard time avoiding various copyright issues while trying to show the popular fictional characters that many people's dreams are influenced by. Tarzan isn’t recognisable from any of his screen portrayals, but as a generic figure from the old stories. The secret agent fantasy resembles a fight from an old James Bond film (specifically the train scene in From Russia With Love) – suggesting it without copying it. Another dream/fantasy is of the Asian god Monkey – an ancient legend rather than the specific TV series.

It's quite an achievement that the animators have populated the film with so many characters, and there are an awful lot… the screen eventually overflows with the non-existent, in a barmy parade of the impossible.

This is huge fun, not hard to follow at all, despite having a complicated narrative if you try to think about it too hard! There are certainly extra layers to be explored in the film, examining the relationship between film-maker’s dreams and their films, and how they invade audiences’ fantasies.

Paprika is based on a novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui (whose Girl Who Leapt Through Time has also been animated recently). Interestingly, both the author and the director voice a pair of pivotal characters in the film.


While the story is a fantasy, it’s not really for children. I’d put an age limit of 14 on this at least. Some of the sexual violence may be impossible, but it’s still pretty nasty. Some of the gender-obsessed torture reminded me of the extremes of his first film Perfect Blue (1998), the story of a murderous stalker of young pop stars, which actually made me avoid Satoshi Kon’s work for several years. I'll have to reassess that film to see if I was missing something - as I now really love all his other works.

The animators also ensure we get a peek up Paprika's skirt (a tradition in anime with all female characters, no matter how young). There are also several nude scenes, though the film ducks the issue of exposing male nudity – women’s genitalia can be successfully smoothed off stylistically, but not men’s. Male genitalia is still very much taboo in Japan, even in adult entertainment.

But it’s still the best animated film that I saw last year. I’m annoyed that it didn’t get a release comparable to the recent Miyazaki films. This is just as inventive, and better suited for an adult audience. It's a better film than many recent live-action ones from any country. It’s a film that, like Akira, could help an older, western audience overcome the stigma of watching ‘cartoons’ and enjoy what anime has to offer.

The almost no-frills DVD (well, there’s a commentary track) is out in the US and UK. There is now also a Blu-Ray disc available in the US, with also has numerous featurettes and interviews. It’s good news to see such new Japanese anime titles coming out so promptly – Tekkonkinkreet has also wasted no time in reaching our shores, also from the Sony Entertainment label.


As with Satoshi Kon’s Paranoia Agent and Millennium Actress, composer/performer Susumu Hirasawa has provided the soundtrack for Paprika. The title music is enervating and emotional, perfect for the opening sequence, as she flits between dozens of possible incarnations and media.

Upon first hearing his theme music for the anime series Paranoia Agent I was by a thunderbolt – it was such a different sound. I was compelled to hear more of his music, finding that he’d made over a dozen albums since the eighties. He occasionally wrote soundtracks for anime series, but usually released albums like any other musician. Only recently has he been working with Kon, but their professional relationship continues to be as powerful as it is complementary.

I suspect his music is an acquired taste for most, but I just can't get enough. Some of Hirasawa’s music can easily be heard on the many pop promos on YouTube. Most of his music, including some free downloads, are all available from his website, which has plenty of English text on it.



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January 02, 2008

AIRPORT (1969) the mother of all disaster movies

AIRPORT
(1970, USA)

The story so far… ex-RAF pilot Arthur Hailey becomes an author and scripts a hit film in 1957 about a mid-air crisis where the pilots of a passenger plane all get food-poisoning - Zero Hour. When his (very thick) hit novel Hotel turns into a huge smash hit movie in 1967, he re-uses the formula of multiple storylines and a huge cast of characters (long before Stephen King) for another very thick book, an airplane disaster novel. A sort of airbourne Hotel.

The movie of Airport spawned not only three sequels, but set the pattern for the disaster movie cycle of the seventies. Big casts, big names, big disasters, big posters full of big stars...
Unwittingly, the other legacy of Zero Hour, Airport and Airport ’75 was to provide the raw material for the Airplane movies. So it’s now difficult to watch them and take them totally seriously – they often work dramatically, but are constantly sabotaged by occasional stupid characters, dialogue or an excess of melodrama. Rewatching the Airport movies, I was just as impressed by the technical achievements of the films, with actual passenger jets being used for stuntwork.

In Airport, a Boeing 707 drives off the runway into the mud during a snowstorm. It doesn’t look faked at all – they do it for real! The only discernible model shots are the exterior shots of planes in flight, with dry ice unsuccessfully doubling for clouds – making it a perfect double for the opening shot of Airplane!
The script of the first Airport is actually carefully constructed, interweaving multiple storylines that makes all later disaster movie scripts look very lazy. Also, a minimum of peril goes a long way, with very little disaster, but a suspenseful threat of danger tackled not sensationally, but practically. This mostly works thanks to an impressive cast.

Burt Lancaster holds the film together, slowly revealing his affection for assistant Jean Seberg (star of the original Breathless). The charming Jaqueline Bisset has an early starring role, opposite Dean Martin who appears to be reading his lines from offscreen. The fact that most of his TV shows centred around his love of cocktails, must have made his casting as a co-pilot raise a few eyebrows – indeed he’s the least convincing in the cast, despite his star power.


Maureen Stapleton, as the bomber’s wife, acts most of the cast off the screen, but it was Helen Hayes comedy turn as a sweet little old serial stowaway that won an Oscar.

George Kennedy (right) assured his place in later disaster movies, most notably Earthquake, and all the Airport sequels, with his no-nonsense portrayal of teeth-gnashing aviation engineer Joe Patroni.

Apart from a couple of really stupid “there’s a bomb on board!” lines, the technical accuracy of the dialogue really holds up – what may have been too much jargon at the time, is now a fascinating insight into the behind-the-scenes operations of an international airport, back when tickets were expensive and flying was a treat rather than a chore. I felt that audiences in 1969 were being reassured about flying for the first time and being told what it would involve.

The 2.35 widescreen frame is constantly filled with flashy split-screen effects, used for phone calls and three-way radio hook-ups. It’s a bit gimmicky, but it effectively tells the story.

The action focusses on the airport rather than the airplane, because clearing the blocked runway may be the only way to save a passenger flight with a mad bomber on board. The airport manager and his team are made up of characters that you’d certainly wish were on duty if you were ever in the same situation on a plane. Making tough cigar-chomping decisions quickly and acting on them promptly. Cutting through red tape, rules and regulations to get the job done.

I must mention the opening title music by Alfred Newman – possibly the most exciting start to any movie, despite nothing actually going on!


Airport should definitely be seen widescreen, and is available in a single-disc edition, or as part of the entire franchise collection of four films.



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