The People Garden


Pamela Anderson perfects the pensive look.

Pamela Anderson perfects the pensive look.

(2016) Drama (FilmBuff) Dree Hemingway, Pamela Anderson, Franҫois Arnaud, James Le Gros, Jai Tatsuto West, Liane Balaban, Denis Akiyama, Geneviéve Brouillette, Donno Mitoma, Elina Miyake, Jaymee Weir. Directed by Nadia Litz

 

The forest is, in our psyche, a primal and frightening place. In the forests of our imagination, ghosts lurk and monsters dwell waiting to shred our flesh. While there are some who think they have the woods tamed, there are places that we cannot go without emerging from it completely changed for the rest of our lives.

Such is the Aokigahara forest at the base of Mt. Fuji in Japan. The Japanese consider it an unfriendly place; people have been going there to commit suicide for a very long time but only now has it become better known to Westerners largely due to the fact that three separate movies have been released this year with it as the setting; this is the third of them.

The somewhat bizarrely named Sweetpea (Hemingway) is traveling to Japan. When she arrives in customs, she’s asked the reason for her visit and she bluntly responds “To break up with my boyfriend.” Her boyfriend is Jamie (Arnaud), a rock star who has inexplicably chosen the Aokigahara as the setting for his latest music video.

Sweetpea is picked up by Mak (West), a young Japanese forestry worker who is told to “keep an eye on her” and then inexplicably leaves her at the edge of the forest with a crudely drawn map and police tape to help her find her way if she gets lost. Only with the help of a young schoolgirl who doesn’t speak a word of English – isn’t it convenient when a young schoolgirl wanders through when you’re lost in a forest – does she make it to the set.

When she arrives there, the director (Le Gros) and the producer (Brouillette) inform her that Jamie has disappeared, but nobody seems overly concerned. Sweetpea, who doesn’t yet know the nature of the forest (which everyone has apparently agreed not to inform her about) does some searching boyfriend but doesn’t find him.

Eventually it becomes clear that he has a relationship with Signe (Anderson), the aging 90s sex symbol who is co-starring in the video with him. It also becomes clear that something far more sinister is afoot than a rock star taking some personal time in the woods. Will Sweetpea find Jamie in time to break up with him?

I was of two minds of this movie. The story structure is a little bit vague; Sweetpea is an enigma, none of her backstory revealed. We have no idea why she wants to break up with Jamie, only that she does. Her past is shown in two segments in which she white-person dances with Jamie while they exchange soulful looks and private smiles. Hemingway, daughter of Mariel and great-granddaughter of Papa, doesn’t have the screen presence yet to give the audience a reason to care with so little information offered.

Litz makes good use of the bucolic setting and thus we have a very pretty film to watch. She also keeps the atmosphere reasonably tense without letting the tension become the entire focus. There is an air of surreality here that adds to the overall feel that something isn’t quite right. Unlike the most well-known Aokigahara-set film, there is nothing supernatural here, at least not overtly so.

While the movie is only 80 minutes long, the pacing is slow enough that it feels almost stifling. The fact that Sweetpea is so dissolute and whose main expression is the 1,000 yard stare adds to the feeling of lethargy that sometimes takes over the film. It is only in the last 20 minutes of the movie that it feels like there’s any energy whatsoever and the movie could have sorely used more.

REASONS TO GO: The forest itself is intensely beautiful even in the creepiest moments. The subject is quite fascinating.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is a little bit dissolute in places and slow-paced throughout.
FAMILY VALUES:  Profanity abounds here and there’s a bit of smoking as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  None of the forest scenes were filmed in Japan; instead, the forests of British Columbia subbed for this Canadian production.
BEYOND THE THEATER:  iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forest
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Hell or High Water

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The Forest


Natalie Dormer finds some of the plot points a little foggy.

Natalie Dormer finds some of the plot points a little foggy.

(2016) Horror (Gramercy) Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa, Rina Takasaki, Eoin Macken, Stephanie Vogt, Ibuki Kaneda, Noriko Sakura, Jozef Aoki, Yuho Yamashita, Terry Diab, Akiko Iwase, Nadja Mazalika, Lidija Antonic, Cami Djeric, Tales Yamamoto, Yasuo Tobishima, Osamu Tanpopo, Kikuo Ichikawa, Gen Seto, Yuriri Naka. Directed by Jason Zada

In Japan, the Aokigahara Forest has a lethal reputation. Located at the northwest base of Mt. Fuji, it has been for generations a place where people have gone to commit suicide, and thus has a reputation of being haunted even among some fairly rational Japanese citizens. It is not a place where tourists are encouraged to go.

Now that reputation is worldwide thanks to this horror film which kicks off the 2016 movie release year. Game of Thrones vet Natalie Dormer plays a dual role as twins; Jess, the black sheep who has left messes for her more grounded sister Sara to clean up all her life. The two have been inseparable since the death of their parents when both were six years old; Jess was traumatized because she actually saw the bodies (Sara was spared that by her grandmother (Diab) who raised the two of them afterwards).

Now, Jess who teaches English at a girl’s school in Tokyo has disappeared, lost in the Aokigahara and Sara, who refuses to believe that her twin is dead despite being told that since more than 48 hours have passed since Jess went into the forest that it was likely she had killed herself, travels to Japan to find her over the objections of her husband Rob (Macken). You see, Sara has this connection with her sister; she always knows how she’s doing, and her connection tells her that Jess is still alive.

When she gets to the Aokigahara, she meets Aiden (Kinney) an American travel writer doing a story on the forest for an Australian magazine. He is venturing into the forest guided by Michi (Ozawa) who the park rangers use to periodically go through the forest and pick up bodies of suicides who have been successful. He allows the distraught but certain Sara to accompany him on a run through the forest, but warns her to stay on the path and to disregard anything bad that she might see as the forest sometimes plays tricks on those who are sad. He reminds her that it is very easy to get lost in the 14 square miles of dense forest.

The three venture into what seems at first to be a beautiful mountain forest but soon Sara begins to hear things, and has visions of unpleasant memories from her past. Eventually they find Jess’ camp but not Jess herself. It is starting to get late and Michi is eager to return back home; they can search for Jess in the morning but Sara insists on staying the night to wait for her sister to return and reluctantly Aiden agrees to stay with her and make sure she’s okay. However, once night falls and with Michi gone, the Forest will begin its work on Sara’s mind and soon it becomes apparent that all of Sara’s inner demons are going to be used against her. Can she survive the night and find her twin? Or has Jess been dead all this time to begin with? Will the Forest claim another victim?

First-time feature director Zada is given a juicy concept to work with but writers Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai have let him down somewhat by muddling things up with the Sara/Jess backstory and making it more about their personal horror than about that of the forest. I would have preferred more focus on the Aokigahara and less on Sara’s childhood. The movie also suffers from dumb horror protagonist syndrome; who in their right minds would stay in an unfamiliar forest overnight, particularly one with as grim a reputation as the Aokigahara? And for someone who believes in a psychic connection between twins, Sara seems pretty disbelieving in ghosts and other supernatural phenomenon; seems to me that a character like that would be a little bit more open-minded. I get that Sara was frantic about her sister but you would think that level-headed sorts like Michi and Aiden could have talked her down.

But to the thing that brought you to see this movie in the first place. While there are some legitimate scares to be had here, there aren’t enough of them to make this more than of mild interest. Some of the images were downright creepy, but there’s nothing here you haven’t already seen before and in much better movies. The movie’s soundtrack also tends to give away every single scare, which after awhile tends to lessen the effectiveness of them.

Dormer, however, is another story. The Game of Thrones veteran has a rabid fanboy following and for good reason. However, more importantly, the girl has screen presence. With the right roles and a little bit of luck, she could be a big star in the not too distant future. She shows a good deal of range here, playing two diametrically different characters in the same film and making it work.

The rest of the mostly Japanese cast acquits itself nicely with Ozawa, a big star in Japan making his English language debut, also showing some big potential. Kinney, who is best known for his work in Chicago Fire, plays a role very different than that in his television show which bodes well for his future.

The Aokigahara Forest has a great horror movie in it, but this isn’t that. While it isn’t awful, there aren’t enough reasons other than Dormer to really go out of your way to see it. While this wasn’t actually filmed in that forest (the outdoor scenes were mostly filmed in Serbia), the Aokigahara is a looming presence here. I suspect that some enterprising writer and filmmaker will eventually come up with a movie based there that will scare the crap out of us somewhere down the road. Until then, this will do, but just barely.

REASONS TO GO: Dormer shows some star potential. Some of the scares are pretty intense.
REASONS TO STAY: Wastes a great concept and a better location. Could have used more good scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of terror, horrifying images and disturbing thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dormer visited the actual Aokigahara Forest to research her part and ventured five meters off the path to take photos while walking through the forest; her Japanese guide and driver refused to step even half an inch off the path.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 11% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Insidious
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Here Comes the Boom