Tag Archives: Thriller

CAPSULE: DEATH NOTE [Desu nôto] (2006)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Shusuke Kaneko

FEATURING: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Ken’ichi Matsuyama

PLOT:  A law student finds a notebook (deliberately dropped by the God of Death) that

Still from Death Note (2006)

allows him to kill anyone whose name he writes in it; soon, criminals across the world start dropping dead, while, with the aid of super-detective “L,” the police race to stop the mysterious vigilante.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Death Note has a unique premise and execution, particularly in the way it mixes the fantasy and detective genres, and has potential as a cult film even beyond its existing magna/anime fanbase.  The presence of apple-munching Ryuuk, a lurking angel of death whose motives for making Light his emissary are never explained, gives this film a small tinge of weirdness, but other than that it abides by its own internal rules with such rigid consistency that it registers no more than an “offbeat” on the Weirdometer.

COMMENTSDeath Note begins with a potentially interesting premise, but spends most of its first reel setting up that premise in such a routine way that I feared it was going to be just another uninspiring Ringu variation.  Studying the law with the intention of becoming a district attorney, young Light magically gets the power to dispense capital punishment.  He targets only the vilest unrepentant criminals who have escaped justice.  The anonymous vigilante who slays with a stroke of the pen is anointed “Kira” and is applauded by legions of Internet groupies.  For a while it looks like we’re headed towards a depressingly obvious morality tale, with Light destined to fall from grace, abuse his power and accidentally execute an innocent man.  The first twist comes when we meet Ryuuk, a god of death and the source of Light’s new-found power; his motives are unknown and he proclaims himself neutral as to whether Light uses the Death Note or not.  Ryuuk constantly hangs around Light, apparently because he’s fallen hard for the earthly pleasure of the humble apple and Light has become his produce pusher.  The angel of death is an interesting character, but his idiosyncrasies take a while to unfold, and he’s a disappointment on other terms: he looks like an artist’s black and white rendering of Heath Ledger’s joker with bat wings attached, badly animated for a cheap video game.  He even moves like a game character, hovering slightly in the air with a stock expression until the game cursor hovers over him, at which point he jerks back his head and delivers his dialogue with a cartoonish cackle.  It’s to the script’s credit that despite the cheap animation, Ryuuk’s role is interesting enough that we eventually get used to him and forget about his distracting appearance.

The second wrinkle comes with the arrival of another oddball character, the anonymous sleuth “L,” who first appears as nothing more than a voice on a laptop.  Faced with a worldwide pandemic of accused murderers dropping dead from heart attacks after juries acquit them, the baffled police turn to the techno-detective, who cleverly narrows down the list of suspects from the entire population of the world to a small pool of Japanese students using pure deduction.  But the story doesn’t really take off until the halfway point, when Light turns his attentions from criminals to those tracking him down and new rules are introduced for the Death Note allowing him to write out elaborate scenarios to cause his victim’s demise, rather than unceremoniously dropping dead of a heart attack as they had previously.  Light needs his victim’s name in order to off him, and the anonymous L, driven by his own amoral sense of sport, seeks to discover Light’s identity as well.  The cat-and-mouse games between the two masterminds turn complicated, clever and thrilling, with L playing the part of a high-tech Sherlock while Light becomes a mystical Moriarty.  The story is spread over two feature films; this picture wraps up one story arc, but ends with Light and L at a stalemate to be broken in Death Note: The Last Name (2006).

Death Note has become a small franchise: based on a popular magna, it had previously been adapted as an anime series, it has spawned not only the of-a-piece sequel but a spin-off movie featuring L.  It’s also destined for a horribly uninteresting Hollywood remake.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Light’s goaded into his kill spree by the God of Death; a lolloping CGI ghoul in rock star clothes, who appears out of nowhere and offers advice while munching on apples. Weird, huh?”–Jamie Russell, BBC (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE [CHINJEOLHAN GEUMJASSI] (2005)

AKA Lady Vengeance

threestar

DIRECTED BY: Chan-wook Park

FEATURING: Yeong-ae, Min-sik Choi

PLOT: Beautiful Geum-ja goes to prison for thirteen years for the kidnapping and murder

Still from Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005)

of a five-year old boy, a crime she didn’t commit, and on release commences an intricate and shocking plan of revenge on the true culprit.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With its series of flashbacks and dream-sequences coupled with Park’s trademark gratuitous style, Lady Vengeance just sneaks across the line separating “weird” from “arty”. There’s nothing about the story of Geum-ja’s revenge, however, that suggests that it’s best told in a weird way, and after a confusing first half, the conclusion unspools in a bloody but mostly straightforward thread.  The result is a film that’s trapped in a netherworld between the hyper-weird and the conventional; it could have been more successful if it had put its whole heart into one strategy or the other. The more satisfying Oldboy is a better choice to represent Chan-wook Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy” on the list of 366.

COMMENTS: After an absolutely gorgeous black, white and red credits sequence involving a living tattoo of a rose vine and blooming pools of blood, the first half of Lady Vengeance flings the viewer back and forth between the present and flashbacks involving a multitude of characters from a women’s prison, sprinkling in a few dream/fantasy sequences on the way.  The result makes a confusion of the story details, although the big picture is clear. It feels as if the audience is being jerked around in the early reels; there’s no good reason for the fractured narrative, and after all the groundwork laying out the large cast of characters who figure in the scheme to capture the villain, the actual details of the plan turn out not to matter much.  Lady Vengeance finally shines in the grisly, intense finale, an unflinching look into the dark depths of violence.  It follows this up with a brief beautiful scene of frustrated redemption before limping to an unsatisfying denouement with a mysterious final image that doesn’t really work, leaving audiences simply puzzled rather than intrigued.  Along the way Park shoehorns in a curious touch whenever an idea pops into his head, such as a wipe transitioning from the present to a flashback via an closing door, a radiating halo around his angel of vengeance, or a character’s inner monologue written in the clouds. Lady Vengeance ends up a jumbled bag of good and bad ideas, isolated beautiful moments and frustrating experiments.

Park has all the elements of a great director: an impressive visual sense, an ability to ferret out the heart of a character and a story, and an interesting and audacious selection of topics.  His well-recognized flaw is that he falls in love with style for its own sake, rather than using style in the service of his story.  Chan-wook is consistently interesting and make worthwhile films, but (with the possible exception of Oldboy) he has yet to hit one out of the Park.  When he does, watch out!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A kind of brilliantly realized perplexity is the predominant tone, and when Park sets these complex emotional nuances before some of the most riotously colorful and splashily off-kilter backgrounds (both literal and figural) ever witnessed, the resulting schism is akin to watching a pop-art paintball skirmish in the world’s most baroque ossuary.”–Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle

21. THE WICKER MAN (1973)

“I think it is a film fantastique in a way… a film fantastique can have almost anything in it, it’s based on facts but it can take flights of fancy which are still rooted to the truth, to the reality of the story, so the imagination can roam.”–Robin Hardy

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Robin Hardy

FEATURING:  Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland,

PLOT:  A devout Christian policeman flies to the isolated island of Summerisle off the coast of Scotland to investigate a report of a missing girl.  When he gets there, everyone denies knowledge of the girl, but he notices with increasing disgust that the entire island is practicing old pagan rituals and licentious sex.  As his investigation continues, he uncovers evidence suggesting that the missing girl was a resident of the island, and may have met a horrible fate.

the_wicker_man_1973

BACKGROUND:

  • Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer was a hot property in 1973 after adapting his own successful mystery play Sleuth into a 1972 hit movie with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, and penning the screenplay for Frenzy (1972) for Alfred Hitchcock.  His clout was so great that this film was released under the official title Anthony Shaffer’s The Wicker Man.  He later adapted Agatha Christie novels such as Murder on the Orient Express (1974) for the big screen.
  • Director Robin Hardy, despite doing an excellent job on this film, did not direct a feature film again until 1986’s Wicker Man variation, The Fantasist.
  • Christopher Lee, who had just come to the end of his run as Hammer’s Dracula, donated his acting services to the production.  He was quoted in 1977 as saying, “It’s the best part I’ve ever had.  Unquestionably.”
  • The “wicker man” was a historically accurate feature of Druidic religions that was first described to the world by Julius Caesar in his “Commentary on the Gallic Wars.”
  • In Britain the film was released on the bottom half of a double bill with Don’t Look Now, perhaps the most impressive psychological horror double feature in history.
  • Shaffer and Hardy published a novelization of the film in 1976.
  • “Cinefastique” devoted an entire 1977 issue to the film, calling it “the Citizen Kane of horror movies.”
  • In 2001, an additional 12 minutes of deleted scenes were added to create a “Director’s Cut” version.
  • Some of the original footage is believed to be lost forever, including part of the scene where Sgt. Howie first meets Lord Summerisle.  The original negative was accidentally thrown away when original producer British Lion Films went under and cleaned out its vaults.
  • The climax was voted #45 in Bravo’s list of the “100 Scariest Movie Moments.”
  • The 2006 Neil LaBute remake starring Nicolas Cage had as little as possible to do with the original story, was universally reviled, and was even accused of being misogynistic.  Some argue that it is so poorly conceived and made that it has significant camp value.
  • Hardy released a “spiritual sequel,” The Wicker Tree, in 2011.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The wicker man itself (although, for those of a certain gender, Britt Ekland’s nude dance may be even harder to forget).

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Hardy and Shaffer create an atmosphere like no other; it’s an encounter of civilized man with strange, primeval beliefs.  Select scenes are subtly surreal—observe how the villagers break into an impossibly well-choreographed bawdy song about the innkeeper’s daughter preternaturally designed to discomfit their sexually repressed guest.  Other weird incidents are more outrageously in the viewer’s face: the vision of a woman breastfeeding a child in a graveyard while delicately holding an egg in her outstretched hand.  Almost invisible details such as the children’s lessons scribbled on the classroom blackboard (“the toadstone protects the newly born from the weird woman”) saturate the film and reveal how painstakingly its makers constructed a haunting alternate world of simultaneously fascinating and repulsive pagan beliefs.  The rituals Sergeant Howie witnesses don’t always make sense (and when they do, their significance is repulsive to him), but they tap into a deep, buried vein of myth.  The viewer himself undergoes a dread confrontation with Old Gods who are at the same time familiar and terrifyingly strange.

Original trailer for The Wicker Man

COMMENTS: CONFESSION: The version reviewed here–horrors!–is the 88 minute theatrical Continue reading 21. THE WICKER MAN (1973)

CAPSULE: CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980)

AKA You Better Watch Out

DIRECTED BY: Lewis Jackson

FEATURING: Brandon Maggart

PLOT: After young Harry sees his father making love to his mother while dressed as Santa Claus, he grows up obsessed with jolly old St. Nick; one Christmas Eve, he snaps.

christmas_evil
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Christmas Evil has a few nice, weird little touches scattered throughout. Several times the film seems to switch perspective from an objective view to Harry’s skewed subjective view without giving the audience notice. The darkly witty Santa lineup scene, the out-of-left-field Frankenstein homage, and of course the memorable final shot, where Harry completely breaks with reality and takes the viewer with him, are memorable enough. There is also an eerie atmosphere throughout, helped greatly by an unsettling electronic score. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough such high points to justify placing Christmas Evil on the overall list of 366.

COMMENTSChristmas Evil is a serious character study—or, at least, an honest attempt at a serious character study—of a middle-aged loser who lives in a dangerous fantasy world of his own making. There are many little subtle details (catch, for example, the vintage Santa poster depicting St. Nick as a forbidding judge with a gavel) that provide a black comedy feel. On the other hand, it’s very slow to get started and the cheapness of the production often shows to its disadvantage–there’s one terrible editing glitch at the company Christmas party that’s so obvious and jarring, it suggests a loss of financing during post-production. Overall, it’s not nearly as bad as detractors would have it, or as as good as its few defenders (like John Waters) would like to believe. If Christmas Evil were a gift in your stocking, it wouldn’t be a lump of coal, or the keys to a new Mitzubishi Lancer; it would be a pair of cheap but comfy socks in a crazy color scheme that’s not to everyone’s taste.

When it debuted, Christmas Evil (then known as You Better Watch Out) was an oddity: the first film to depict the previously jolly ol’ St. Nick as a homicidal killer. Since then, the holiday vidscreens have been decked with Santa-slasher dreck such as Santa Claws (1996), Santa’s Slay (2005), and the Silent Night, Deadly Night series (1984-1991, with a remake on the way), greatly diminishing the novelty of a psycho Santa. Christmas Evil has little in common with it’s bloody progeny, and is probably the best entry in the sleazy sub-genre it inspired.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “…the best seasonal film of all time. I wish I had kids. I’d make them watch it every year and, if they didn’t like it, they’d be punished!” -John Waters, Crackpot