J-Horror cash-in: One Missed Call (Takashi Miike, 2003)

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I’ve done my best to question the first reaction I had to One Missed Call: that it’s not much more than a dull cash-in on the J-horror craze of the early 2000s. This questioning is based less on the film, and more on the fact that I want to give the genre itself the benefit of the doubt. The high-profile American remakes made repetition feel inevitable, and viewing black-haired, white-robed female ghosts as stale simply misses the cultural context of these type of spirits. Besides, enjoying a genre comes from appreciating how well a film uses its familiar elements and in recognising how it does something new. Post-Ringu, there’s still a lot to be done with technologically aided curses. But does this film manage it?

The plot of One Missed Call won’t surprise anyone who’s seen any J-horror at all: a curse spreads amongst a group of young people through their mobile phones. Each victim receives a phone call from themselves that gives a premonition of their final words and violent deaths. One woman, Yumi (Ko Shibasaki), tries to understand the curse and its origins.

The first hour or so of the film is hard to get through, not just because so much of it is familiar, but because Miike seems to be going through the motions. There’s no energy or sense of inspiration, and the grey colour palette adds to this. The deaths rely on questionable CGI and aren’t remotely scary. There’s also nothing interesting about the acting or the dialogue, and scenes drag on and on. Watching this emphasises just how well Ringu and Ju-On made a virtue of the mundane. Those films also managed to maintain tension in the lead up to their various death scenes, which were just as inevitable as the ones here.

As a viewer way ahead of the characters in understanding how the curse works, it’s impossible not to nitpick. One victim has an outright lame reason for speaking his final words, which is hard to believe, given that he had listened to his message multiple times and feared the curse. The cutesey, melodic ringtone that the curse uses is nowhere near as threatening as a traditional, piercing “ring, ring”. And why does the curse use one victim’s severed hand to dial the next victim, but later seems to use some sort of barely visible, ghostly force to accomplish the same task?

The film improves once it reaches a sequence in which a death is exploited and captured live on TV. Whilst the death is broadcast directly onto screens above Tokyo’s crowded streets, no one outside the studio pays much notice. The victim, realising no one can save her, says, “I’m all alone,” which is almost more horrible than what the vengeful spirit does to her.

One Missed Call’s derivative nature becomes more egregious, however, as its focus shifts towards motherhood, or, more specifically, to bad mothers. Abuse leads to more abuse, and breaking the cycle comes at a price. One Missed Call cannot, however, come close to depicting these ideas as powerfully as Dark Water. That film had an emotional impact that overrode its flaws, and it’s a little nauseating to see One Missed Call try something so similar.

One Missed Call has another decent sequence, set in a hospital, once it stops focusing so much on the curse’s mechanics. The lighting is markedly improved, the curse takes different forms, and the plot is no longer so predictable. The real question is whether or not the ending is going to be so bleak as the ones in other films of this genre.

The film concludes with some puzzling events that are unclear about which characters are dead, alive, possessed or at peace. It demands that the viewer think back through what they’re already seen. However, there’s not enough clues to come up with an answer that’s mentally or emotionally satisfying. This ambiguity may be a Miike flourish – but it’s meaningless if it doesn’t conclude a strong film. Thinking about One Missed Call leaves me feeling that it was not made with ambition or respect for the audience. It’s not entirely dull or without merit, but it is certainly a cash-in.

More than a stoner comedy: Humboldt County (Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs, 2008)

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Humboldt Country is more or less a Garden State for the US’s West Coast, but although describing it in this way emphasises the fact that Zach Braff went nowhere near it, which is certainly a plus, it also does it something of a disservice. This film is unassuming and does not demand attention or appreciation, and yet is remarkably endearing in the way it simply does not feel the need to try too hard. It’s about Peter Hadley (Jeremy Strong), an emotionally destitute medical student whose life is reinvigorated when he becomes involved with the free-spirited Bogart (Fairuza Balk) and her pot-growing family, residents of Humboldt County.

This film is a little comedic, a little beautiful, and a little quirky, and becomes slowly but surely ever more immersive as its story progresses. It is greatly helped by a cast full of strong actors who fill their roles solidly and believably, avoiding the superficial wackiness of their characters. The prime example is Brad Dourif as Jack, Bogart’s adoptive father, in perhaps the best of his post-Deadwood roles. (The fact that there’s little competition is some kind of crime against art.) For a change, he’s playing an outright lovable character. Jack is an eccentric, and Dourif makes him at turns intimidating and supportive. The character seems so sure of himself and his place in the world that his concealed self-doubt, and his eventual heartbreak, hit all the harder.

The other parts are just as well cast. Strong makes his film debut here, bringing just the right amount of blankness and confusion to Peter. Balk seems to effortlessly fill Bogart with vitality, and Chris Messina constantly shows the internal conflicts bubbling away within his character, Max, that will eventually come to a boil. Twelve-year-old Madison Devenport as Charity is a fine child actress, capturing the character’s precociousness without losing her innocent qualities, while the more experienced Frances Conroy as Rosie shifts from airy indifference to confused turmoil and back again with ease. Peter Bogdanovich is an odd casting choice as Professor Hadley, Peter’s father, but works as a reasonable though distant authority figure.

Humboldt County gradually reveals the complex relationships of Bogart’s family, and in doing so, refutes the film’s seeming premise that these people live in a pure paradise. The county has its own problems as much as anywhere else, but still has something of its own to offer to the right person. There are no easy answers for any of the characters, and the connections and similarities between them are subtly drawn. For instance, both Professor Hadley and Jack (himself a runaway academic) hear their children say they love them, but the context, and the way they respond, says everything about who they are as parents.

Humboldt County is not a great film, nor a essential one. Nonetheless, it has a better understanding of human nature than the stoner comedy it appears to be. With quiet confidence it can endear itself to you, if you’ve the time to spare.

Impermanant, recursive: Ashes of Time Redux [Dung che sai suk] (Wong Kar Wai, 2008)

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The story behind Ashes of Time and its Redux release in 2008, 14 years after it was originally made, is a little complicated. Suffice to say that you don’t need to know it, or be aware of how the film compares to the rest of Wong Kar Wai’s oeuvre, to appreciate Ashes of Time Redux in and of itself. This film ostensibly centres upon Ou-yang Feng (Leslie Cheung), a man who acts as an intermediary between swordsmen and their clients, but the story onscreen requires patience to understand – something that definitely is worth trying to do.

Ashes of Time Redux is structured around the Chinese Almanac, divided up into seasons. This ties it into the natural world, the passage of time, and the inevitability of fate. The film was shot in an isolated desert area, which gives it a constant sense of liminality, its characters on the edge of existence, surrounded by inhospitable and indifferent landscapes. The seasons move in patterns that are unaffected by human passions and hopes.

The characters’ lives are at once impermanent and timeless. The past recurs with a power that diminishes the present; a man narrates his own death; we see a woman’s story long after she has died; and we are told in a brief caption, without emotion or context, that in years to come two of the people we have been watching will fight a fatal duel.

Although this is a wuxia film, the first fight scene occurs so late that it’s easy to forget the genre. As it happens, the scene is more psychological than physical, bound up in natural elements as well as one character’s divided soul. It’s an improbably beautiful moment and each subsequent fight scene, while not as powerful, is deeply concerned with emotion as well as action. Water, light, and earth all feel vital to these scenes. The characters are inseparable from their world.

Ashes of Time Redux is an intangible, restless film. Its beauty lingers but the hearts of its characters prove to be elusive as windborne sand. It’s one of Wong Kar Wai’s most little known works – but I’ve found that it’s not a bad one with which to start.

A director/star’s indulgence: Pollock (Ed Harris, 2000)

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I made a concentrated effort to find something to appreciate about Pollock, largely because it was a highly personal project for Ed Harris, who directed it in addition to portraying the infamous Jackson Pollock. He had wanted to make the film since the late 80s, and contributed some of his own money towards it. However, I’m left with the conclusion that Pollock is a vanity project with only a few aspects that elevate it above being just another dull biopic.

The film details Pollock’s life from around the time he met his future wife, fellow artist Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden), through his struggles with fame and alcoholism, to his accidental death in 1956. As is the problem in biopics with this broad a focus, it feels disjointed, made up of moments that stand in for longer-term changes in Pollock’s life, and that hardly flow into each other at all. Harris gives us, with his performance, as much of an insight into Pollock and his inner torment as anyone seemingly could. Harden is even better as Krasner, portraying a woman who sacrificed much of her own life and career to support the man and artist she believed in, and got little in return. Another actress may have made Krasner flat or harpyish, but Harden shows how tragic, and important, she really was. These performances are not enough, however, to compensate for the film’s lack of energy.

Pollock does come alive in the scenes depicting the artist at work. Harris developed his own painting abilities to make these moments better, and they do quietly convey an exciting creative process. There’s an intense irony in the fact that Pollock’s technique can be accurately imitated due to film sources such as those made by Hans Namuth, and yet this film suggests that working with Naumth drove the artist back to drinking.

With little sense of focus or progression, Pollock doesn’t form an engaging narrative and it raises many ideas that it doesn’t sufficiently explore. The film skirts around putting Pollock in a larger context, not delving deeply enough into his cultural significance or the theories that informed (or even didn’t inform) his work. Mostly, the film shows Harris performing as Pollock, and in this I suspect, it has far more meaning to the actor/director than it will to just about anyone else who watches it.

The myth of Max Schreck: Shadow of the Vampire (E. Elias Merhinge, 2000)

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Shadow of the Vampire is a film about film that manages to be both playful and cerebral. It gives a fictional retelling of F. W. Murnau’s making of Nosferatu, drawing on the myth that unconventional leading man Max Schreck was himself a vampire.

The film is grounded in its performances. The supporting cast is an eclectic bunch, including Udo Kier, Catherine McCormack, Cary Elwes and Eddie Izzard. The real draw, however, is the two stars, John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe; they are given dream roles as Murnau and Schreck, respectively. Malkovich’s particular strain of intense fervour is well suited to Murnau. Dafoe has the more difficult task, acting from beneath transfigurative makeup whilst wearing a corset and platform shoes. He is contorted towards resembling Schreck’s Orlok, but Dafoe embodies the character in his own way. His movements and expression are mesmerising whenever he’s onscreen, to comedic, tragic and horrific affect. He received a Best Actor in a Supporting Role Oscar nomination for his performance.

Shadow of the Vampire is reverential of Nosferatu even while deconstructing it. Snippets of the original film appear, blending into Merhinge’s as though affirming Murnau’s dream of creating something eternal. Certain scenes from Nosferatu are recreated, vividly and with affection. Many other scenes show Murnau at work, which brings to life the process of creating silent film.

Film as an art form is Shadow of the Vampire‘s central concern, but the viewer many simply be wondering if Schreck really is a vampire, or if he and Murnau are just deluded. The revelation occurs in the midst of the truly unpredictable final scene. It’s a thrilling conclusion that casts the film in a different light, and demands that the viewer question and think about what they’ve seen here.

One to respect, not to like: Frozen River (Courtney Hunt, 2008)

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Respecting and liking a film are two different things. In the case of Frozen River, I definitely feel one more than the other. This film is about Ray (Melissa Leo), whose husband disappears with the money she’s raised to buy a new trailer, and Lila (Misty Upham), a Mohawk woman who deals in people smuggling across the nearby Canadian border. Made for less than a million dollars, it is a fine example of low-budget filmmaking, as well as a complex examination of race, gender and class.

If I didn’t know Frozen River was directed by a woman, I wouldn’t have found it hard to guess. This film puts more emphasis on Melissa Leo’s acting than how flatteringly it shows her. A few semi-nude scenes are done matter-of-factly, in ways that contribute to a greater sense of who her character is. Meanwhile, Misty Upham had the freedom to decide to cut off most of her hair and gain more than 30 pounds to add to her character, and how this would effect the film’s financial prospects was never an issue. Upham has acne, and she’s Native American, and she’s not skinny. And hey, she’s the co-lead, how about that.

Beyond their appearances, Frozen River is a rarity in how it treats its female leads. They are the centre of the story, with a complex relationship, and are each complex in their own right. They are unlikeable in some ways and sympathetic in others. There’s no romance. This isn’t the case for countless Hollywood movies; perhaps women like this are easier to find in an independent film like Frozen River, but at least the fact that it’s been financially and commercially successful is heartening.

None of this meant that I actually liked watching Frozen River. A slow and understated story, combined with a pervasively cold feeling and some near-unbearably dark plot turns, meant that I couldn’t get drawn in. It’s an interesting and even valuable film, but not one I can talk about without mentioning this caveat.

The dictionary definition of “misguided”: Halloween (Rob Zombie, 2007)

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It’s tempting to say that Rob Zombie has completely misunderstood why John Carpenter’s Halloween is a classic. Giving us Michael Myers’ origin story goes against everything that made the character frightening; he’s not meant to seem like a person formed by his environment and experiences, but like an ill-defined figure filled entirely with evil. There’s a reason the character was originally billed as The Shape. I’ll try to give Zombie some credit, however. It’s possible that he could have shown us a slant on the original story that was more interesting than a slavish remake.

The problem is not that Zombie took a different tack – it’s that he adds very little of worth to the story. So Michael’s from a turbulent household and was bullied at school? That makes him a character no different from many others we’ve seen onscreen before, and not even a partway interesting version of the type at that. The first half of this film, before Michael sets out on his Halloween rampage, is simply dull, and the second half can be all too easily compared to the original in an entirely negative way. At no point is there any atmosphere or tension; all we get is bursts of pointless violence inflicted on barely written characters. The final insult is Michael’s climactic pursuit of Laurie, which is so interminable that I watched it on fast forward.

Zombie was extremely fortunate to get Malcolm McDowell for this film, because McDowell makes Doctor Loomis the only interesting primary character. He doesn’t play the role with the you’re-really-not-helping-yourself levels of crazy that Donald Pleasance brought to Loomis. Rather, this Loomis genuinely cares about Michael and wants to cure him. In seeing Loomis spend so much time trying to cure Michael, we can also believe that he understands how dangerous the killer is.

Aside from Brad Dourif, Danny Trejo, Udo Kier, and Danielle Harris (all of whom are underused), McDowell is surrounded by poor actors who are nowhere near as capable of wringing any sort of believability out of this script. The worst has to be Scout Taylor-Compton as Laurie, if only because she contributed to the character by agreeing with Zombie that girls as shy and naive as the original Laurie don’t exist in the 2000s. I’m not going to say that Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie was particularly complex, but Taylor-Compton doesn’t give her character anything to make her worth caring about.

I’m so befuddled by Zombie’s choices that I really would watch the four hour making of documentary if I could get my hands on it. I’ve had to settle for some less detailed extras, but it turns out that the bloopers are much more interesting than the actual film. Though I’d heard that McDowell is bonafide nuts, I now feel like I’ve seen actual proof. In between making Sheri Moon Zombie laugh helplessly, spouting rather offensive nonsense about Nazis at Udo Kier, and generally seeming very unprofessional, he gets in some hilarious adlibs. And my life is genuinely the better for knowing that Brad Dourif’s response to being yelled at in a cockney accent is to respond in kind. Still, I’m not going to give Zombie any credit for that.

It’s not just the accents: K-19: The Widowmaker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2002)

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I couldn’t find the time to go see Zero Dark Thirty at the cinema, but spent more than two hours of my life watching this? What am I, an idiot? Don’t answer that.

K-19 might be set on a submarine, but it is not an action movie. It is a character-focused story about comradeship, suffering, and loyalty in the face of naval incompetence and impossible circumstances. (Not unlike Das Boot, really.) I was highly disappointed to realise this halfway through K-19, because it had established its characters so poorly that I knew it had no hope of affecting me in the way it wanted to. Terrible things happen to the people in this film, but I could only connect with them in a small way by remembering that it is based on true events. Given that K-19 sincerely tries to humanise these Russian sailors, this is a double shame.

For the record: Harrison Ford gets a lot of flack for his accent in this film, but some of the cast aren’t even trying at all, and even though Liam Neeson might be, he still sounds Irish.

Hey, I like the ending: Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007)

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Some people say that Sunshine‘s third act betrays the first two. They say that it’s unintelligent, that it’s nonsensical, that it ruins the entire film. I heard this opinion enough times before watching Sunshine that I expected to feel the same way. However, I found that while I can see why they take offense, I don’t agree with them at all.

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Only Cillian could make it worth it: Red Eye (Wes Craven, 2005)

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I didn’t like Red Eye, but at least I already knew why I wouldn’t like it. I’d previously seen a portion of it on TV, namely, some of the middle and then the very end, which were a pretty clear indication of what’s wrong with it.

Two things make this film seem as though it’s going to be better than it is, or indeed, better than it’s aiming to be. Firstly, the premise sounds reasonably clever and like a strong setup for psychological drama and low key action. Secondly, Cillian Murphy is predictably excellent and Rachel McAdams, who I’d say always has the potential to put in a strong performance but may not be so reliable, is also quite good.

Unfortunately, the film takes on a totally different tone in the last act. Its goofy qualities are amplified, most egregiously so in its treatment of its villain. It just seems to have just run out of ideas. The premise is not a good reason to watch Red Eye, as the film can’t commit to it. However, Murphy and McAdams may just be enough.