The Last Shaman


White privilege personified.

(2015) Documentary (Abramorama) James Freeman, Pepe, Sherry Haydock, Mason Wright Freeman, Ron, Guillermo, Kate. Directed by Raz Degan

 

Depression is not a medical issue to be trifled with. Every year, approximately 40,000 Americans take their own lives; anywhere from 50-75% of these suicides were motivated by depression. It affects over 25 million Americans, many of whom are unable to get treatment for it. In general, the medical industry treats depression with mood-altering drugs although regular psychotherapy is also used.

James Freeman has a severe case of depression. A young man born of wealth and privilege (both of his parents are physicians), his parents were able to afford to send him to the Phillips Academy, one of the most prestigious schools in the nation and a feeder school for Ivy League universities. However, elite schools of that nature tend to put an enormous amount of pressure on the students to excel. As Freeman graduated and later attended Middlebury College, he began to develop suicidal thoughts.

He did what he was supposed to. He saw psychiatrists, took the pills prescribed. He attended therapy sessions. As his condition grew more and more extreme, he even underwent electroconvulsive therapy, a kind of brain reboot which isn’t unlike electroshock treatment that is no longer practiced. Nothing worked. Freeman felt dead inside and his relationships with his parents and his girlfriend Kate suffered. James was a different person.

Desperate for solutions, he discovered testimonies about a plant found in the Peruvian Amazon called ayahuasca which had helped a number of people who were suffering from clinical depression. He decided to go down to Peru and find a shaman to administer the plant to him. His estranged father, who had approved of the electroconvulsive therapy, was not altogether pleased about the ayahuasca escapade; his mother also attempted to discourage him, but James was adamant. He felt that this was his last attempt to save his own life; if it didn’t work after ten months, he would be okay to kill himself as he would have tried everything.

So off to Peru and James finds that in some ways that ayahuasca is becoming commercialized. He meets several shaman and they seem more interested in money than in healing. Even a bantam-like America named Ron who had studied the rituals and knowledge of the Peruvian shaman ruefully exclaims “Every foreigner down here is out to exploit these people, myself included.” At one of the rituals, James witnesses the death by overdose of someone who shouldn’t have ingested the drug (and whom, the shaman emphatically states, he tried to talk him out of doing just that).

Finally, in a remote Shipibo village, he finally meets Pepe who refuses to take payment for his treatment. James is made to undergo a 100 day diet of tobacco and rice in isolation before undergoing the ayahuasca ceremony followed by being buried alive, for seven hours, then dug up and “reborn.”

During his isolation, James keeps a video diary and talks about having visions of the plants themselves (or representations thereof) talking to him and explaining that he is to be reborn. Following all of this we see James smiling, interacting with people and playing with local children. He seems to have been cured – but at a cost. Pepe is removed from the village for giving medicine away without charge. It seems the Non-Government Organization working with the village is trying to get them to use their medicines for profit and the betterment of the lives of the villagers. The capitalist rat race, it seems, has reached the Amazon.

The jungle locations are breathtaking at times, and also Degan gives us a glimpse into the local culture which is also welcome. Both of these items are what make seeing this documentary somewhat worthwhile. Unfortunately, the director makes some serious missteps. Much of the documentary feels staged, from James’ massive mood change and the shots of him interacting with the locals to the mood shots of the mom staring out the window in concern and particularly the sorta-psychedelic shots that are meant to convey the effects of the drug on James. Those moments don’t help the documentary at all and take the viewer out of the experience every time Degan utilizes them, which is fairly often.

The documentary also has to overcome James himself. It’s hard to sympathize with someone who is able to afford to fly off to South America for exotic cures; most people who suffer from depression can’t do so. It’s not really fair to minimize depression; it’s a very real and often deadly mental illness and there’s no doubt that James had a severe case of it. Mostly, it’s the perception of the audience; James often comes off as privileged and a little bit arrogant. The scene of him being paddled along a stream to the Shipibo village reeks of colonialism, even if unintentionally.

The film also comes off as an advertisement for drug use. We get almost no scientific reflection on the use of ayahuasca and how efficacious it might be. All we get is essentially anecdotal evidence. It’s like the stoner claims that marijuana is completely harmless; the fact of the matter is that nothing not part of the body that is added in excessive amounts is harmless. Even water can kill you if you drink too much of it.

It also feels that James isn’t confronting the source of his depression but merely medicating it. Maybe that’s something he intends to do and maybe I’m overindulging in armchair psychology but a lot about this documentary feels wrong. This is the rare instance in which I wish there’d been more talking heads; some expert commentary from psychiatrists, pharmacologists and physicians would have been welcome. I have to admit that I would be hesitant to recommend this line of treatment for anyone and despite the disclaimer that comes during the end credits, I can’ help that the filmmaker is advocating for just that.

REASONS TO GO: The Amazonian backgrounds are absolutely gorgeous. The look into indigenous culture is welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: This feels very staged and self-indulgent. The movie has to battle “poor little rich kid” syndrome.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of drug use as well as a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The director got involved in the story after ayahuasca was used to help cure him of a respiratory illness and also helped his mother with her own depression.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mosquito Coast
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Pop Aye

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The Light Between Oceans


Alicia Vikander may look content but Michael Fassbender sees trouble on the horizon.

Alicia Vikander may look content but Michael Fassbender sees trouble on the horizon.

(2016) Drama (DreamWorks/Touchstone) Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Florence Clery, Jack Thompson, Thomas Unger, Jane Menelaus, Garry McDonald, Anthony Hayes, Benedict Hardie, Emily Barclay, Bryan Brown, Stephen Ure, Peter McCauley, Leon Ford, Jonathan Wagstaff, Gerald Bryan, Elizabeth Hawthorne. Directed by Derek Cianfrance

 

Bad choices are part of human nature. We all make them but sometimes those choices are so monstrous, so heinous that even though we convince ourselves that we’re doing it for the right reasons, we cannot escape the fact that we’ve done something horribly wrong.

Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) is a veteran of World War I who witnessed many horrors in the trenches. He’s returned home to Australia to find some kind of peace but the press of people – even in the Australia of 1918 – is too much for him. He applies for and receives a position as a lighthouse keeper on a remote island off the coast of Tasmania.

The opening was there because the loneliness of the post had unhinged Sherbourne’s predecessor but the harsh weather, dull routine and meticulous nature of the job appeal to Sherbourne and he isn’t bothered by the isolation. That changes when on a visit to town he meets the daughter of the local schoolmaster, Isabel Graysmark (Vikander). She’s lively, vivacious and is completely smitten by the taciturn, wounded Sherbourne. The two correspond and eventually, marry and she moves to the island with him.

As young couples will, the two try to get pregnant but this proves to be difficult. A series of miscarriages turns a happy marriage into a relationship with a terrible cloud hanging over it. Isabel is beset by depression and Tom doesn’t know what to do to help – until they spot a dinghy floating onto the beach. In it there is a dead man and a living baby.

Tom is anxious to report the incident and get the authorities involved but Isabel is desperate. She needs that baby and she figures she’s as good as anyone to raise it. She convinces Tom to keep the child and bury the body without telling a soul. As far as the mainland knew, Isabel was pregnant (she’d just had another miscarriage when the dinghy floated ashore). Nobody questioned that the baby was hers.

Four years later Lucy (Clery) (as the baby was named) Tom and Isabel are a happy family. They visit Lucy’s grandparents when Tom spies a woman putting flowers on a grave. This turns out to be Hannah Roennfeldt (Weisz), the wife of a German national who had rowed out in a dinghy along with their baby daughter and disappeared. After a search, it was presumed the dinghy sank and both her husband and daughter had drowned. Tom realizes that this woman, whose life has been utterly destroyed, is the true mother of Lucy and guilt begins to eat away at him. This leads him to do something that will bring his happiness to a standstill and change the lives of everyone involved forever.

Cianfrance has proven himself a master of creating moods and displaying emotion-wrought images. He has come up with another film that is emotionally charged and beautiful to look at. He has assembled a plum cast for this and it pays off; Fassbender and Vikander make a terrific couple and the chemistry between them is undeniable (shortly after filming completed the two announced they were a real-life couple as well). They also have some fine support from the mostly Australian cast (and Bryan Brown makes a sadly too-rare appearance as Hannah’s rich father) as well.

The story itself has a great deal of power to it as an examination of how guilt affects us and how good people can make horribly bad decisions but there are times the movie gets a bit too over-the-top sugary sweet. Some actions and decisions defy logic and realism. Granted this takes place in a very different era but even so, it seems that a few well-chosen words would have certainly made more of a difference and spared the Sherbourne family a good deal of agony.

Fassbender, Vikander and Weisz have all flirted with Oscar with both of the women having won statuettes of their own. The acting in the movie is sound. The cinematography is breathtaking. Those two elements alone make this one of the standouts of a very disappointing summer, quality-wise. Don’t expect to see a lot of love for this one come Oscar-time, but Cianfrance is likely headed in that general direction already.

REASONS TO GO: Fassbender and Vikander have plenty of chemistry and both deliver sterling performances. The cinematography is out of this world.
REASONS TO STAY: It does get treacly in places.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of sexuality and plenty of adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Both Fassbender and Vikander have played androids in high-profile films; Fassbender in Prometheus and Vikander in Ex-Machina.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/27/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: To Keep the Light
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: For the Love of Spock

To Keep the Light


The loneliness of the lighthouse.

The loneliness of the lighthouse.

(2016) Drama (Quiet Rebellion) Erica Fae, Antti Reini, David Patrick Kelly, Jarlath Conroy, Gabe Fazio, Meagen Fay, Wass Stevens. Directed by Erica Fae

Florida Film Festival 2016

The lighthouse exists to warn sailors away from rocky shores. These days, radar, GPS navigation and other aids have largely relegated lighthouses obsolete but back in the late 19th century, they were a necessity; at night, ships wouldn’t be able to see where the sea ended and the coastline began and without these beacons they would wreck.

Being a lighthouse keeper was a prestigious and honorable job, a task to be performed by a man. However, there were approximately 300 women known to have performed the duties of a lighthouse keeper, many known only through the logbook entries they made. Abbie Moore (Fae) is taking care of the lighthouse that was entrusted to her husband who has been confined to his bed by some unnamed malady. One day a sailor washes ashore, a Swede named Johan (Reini).

At first he is more of a nuisance than anything else. There are no reports of any wrecks, although he claims that his ship went down. Brackett (Kelly), a local official, asks if ne’er do well named Eaton (Fazio) can help out around the lighthouse but Abbie is adamant that she needs no help. Her husband will recover shortly and she is handling the duties capably on her own. It doesn’t take long however for secrets to unravel not only Abbie’s tenuous hold on her position, but also Johan’s story as well. With a pair of inspectors (Conroy, Stevens) soon to come out to make sure that the lighthouse is in tip top condition and that the logs have been adequately kept, Abbie must find the strength to not only keep the house, the light and her husband’s health but to head off challenges from the drunken Eaton.

Fae puts on a clinic of camera composition. Every shot here is literally a work of art; this movie is like strolling through a museum where one great painting after another hangs on the wall. The lighting is also amazing; Fae utilized the light of the lighthouse itself in brilliant fashion, making a changing palate of light and shadows during one sensual scene in the film. While this is her first feature film (she’s also done short films) she is primarily known for her stage plays. With work like this, I sincerely hope Ms. Fae continues her work in the cinematic arts.

Fae has tended to write about women who, as the press notes put it, have been written out of the pages of history. While Abbie is not based on a specific lighthouse keeper, she is a composite character whose personality was created from the diaries, journals and letters of actual women lighthouse keepers of the period. Abbie’s strength and work ethic are admirable but Fae gives the character an inner core that is stronger than steel and grabs the viewer’s attention and admiration. She may be one of the most memorable female characters you’ll see in any movie this year and you certainly won’t be forgetting any time soon after the credits roll.

The movie does amble along at a fairly deliberate pace which might not be suitable for a 21st century ADHD audience but the pacing serves the atmosphere nicely. The time and place – 1876 Maine – is nicely recreated here, although I can’t really testify to its authenticity much, taking place more than 80 years before I was born. The ending isn’t clever or cute, but its sensible and welcome, putting a grace note on a movie that has plenty of them. If there is one movie you see at the 2016 Florida Film Festival, this one is the one I’d recommend in a year that the offerings are particularly strong. It also has a feminist tone which seems to be a theme at the FFF this year, which I also find pleasing. For those who think women aren’t suited temperamentally for the director’s chair (and hopefully none of those read this blog) I would point them in the direction in this film, which is an early candidate for my top films of 2016.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful cinematography and composition. Strong character performance by Fae. Wonderful use of color and light.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit slow.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sensuality and a gruesome image.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Erica Fae’s birth name is Erica Stuart.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score found. Metacritic: No score found.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Piano
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Other Kids

Unfinished Song


Terence Stamp is perturbed that Gemma Arterton refuses to kneel before Zod.

Terence Stamp is perturbed that Gemma Arterton refuses to kneel before Zod.

(2012) Dramedy (Weinstein) Terence Stamp, Gemma Arterton, Vanessa Redgrave, Christopher Eccleston, Barry Martin, Taru Devani, Anne Reid, Elizabeth Counsell, Ram John Holder, Denise Rubens, Arthur Nightingale, Jumayn Hunter, Orla Hill, Bill Thomas, Willie Jonah, Calita Reinford, Federay Holmes, Alan Ruscoe, Sally Ann Matthews. Directed by Paul Andrew Williams

Florida Film Festival 2013

We call ’em tearjerkers. They are movies that (sometimes shamelessly) manipulate us emotionally, bringing us to a nice cathartic cry. There are critics who can’t stand those sorts of movies and excoriate them up one side and down the other. Personally I think these scribes have a real hard time getting in touch with their feelings but that’s just a generalization on my part. However, it is also true that sometimes a good cry is what we need to clean out the old emotional tank and it’s not necessarily a bad thing if we are manipulated into doing so – if it’s done artfully.

Arthur (Stamp) is an elderly retired Brit who seems to be in a perpetual state of grouchiness. He hangs out playing dominos at the pub with his friends and lives with his frail wife Marion (Redgrave) who must be some kind of saint to put up with Arthur’s behavior. She’s a dedicated member of a senior choir who calls themselves the OAPz (for Old Age Pensioners, adding the “z” to show they aren’t out of touch – although that sort of thing is about five to ten years out of date). The choir mistress is the plucky, terminally cheerful Elizabeth (Arterton) whose song choices include the B-52s “Love Shack” and Salt-n-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex.”

Marion has cancer and so it falls on Arthur to take her to and from choir practice. A regional competition is approaching, but Marion’s days are numbered and everyone knows it, including (and especially) Arthur who becomes more and more fiercely protective of her as time goes on. However, as it often does, time runs out before Marion gets to sing at the competition.

Arthur is devastated and his strained relationship with his son James (Eccleston) grows even more so. In fact, Arthur wants nothing to do with his boy and says as much. James is crushed, essentially losing both parents in a fell swoop but  gamely continues to try reaching out until it becomes obvious that nothing will ever come of it.

Elizabeth forms an unlikely friendship with Arthur; both are wounded souls who need someone to lean on and to both of their surprise, it turns out to be each other. Arthur is at last convinced to join the chorus but whether they can defy the odds and beat much more classically-oriented choirs in the competition remains to be seen.

Of late there have been a number of fine movies regarding aging and the elderly coming out of Britain, including (but not limited to) Quartet, How About You? and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. This is indeed a worthy addition to that list and is so because of the moving performances of the leads, particularly Stamp and Redgrave. Stamp, best known for his villainous portrayals over the years, channels his inner curmudgeon and gives us a character whose inner bitterness is mitigated by the influence of his wife. When she passes, he is utterly lost and we see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice.

Two of the most affecting scenes in the film take place when Marion and Arthur sing to each other about their feelings, Marion singing Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” while Arthur sings Billy Joel’s “Lullaby” after Marion is gone. Definitely not a dry eye in the house for that one. Between them, Stamp and Redgrave have 106 years of experience on the silver screen and it shows here.

Eccleston, better known as the ninth Doctor in the hugely popular BBC series Doctor Who shows his dramatic side as Arthur’s somewhat life-wearied son. A single parent, James has a difficult time of things that Arthur doesn’t help much with; he seems to be a decent sort but is clearly frustrated at the gulf between him and his Dad and isn’t sure how to bridge it. Arterton is also building quite the satisfying resume in her career and this might well be her best performance yet which is saying something.

The one gripe I have with the movie – and to be truthful not just with this movie but in general – is its portrayal of the elderly. Yes, I know it’s cute to have them singing rap songs and pop songs from the rock era but I get the sense that the writers of these screenplays have little if any contact with actual elderly people. You know they do sing rock songs, they do dance and they’re more active than ever. Portraying them as cute but befuddled idiots, hopelessly anachronistic, does a disservice to those old people who are a part of our community and should be more valued than they are, but in all fairness Hollywood’s bias is just symptomatic of an overall disrespecting of the elderly going on in society.

That aside, the movie is definitely maudlin in places but is rescued by the dignified and assured performances by the leads. I knew that I was being manipulated but when it is done by master thespians, it’s hard to mind because the performances are so worthwhile. This is playing in limited release but is absolutely worth seeking out if it’s anywhere near you, or catching it on VOD if not.

REASONS TO GO: Affecting performances by the leads. Heart-warming.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit patronizing to the elderly.

FAMILY VALUES:  Arthur delivers a few choice rude gestures and there’s some intimations of sensuality in the film.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally titled Song for Marion under which name it was released in the UK.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100; the reviews aren’t scintillating but are trending towards the positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Young@Heart

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Purge

The 5th Quarter


The 5th Quarter(2010) True Life Faith-Based Drama (Rocky Mountain) Andie MacDowell, Aidan Quinn, Ryan Merriman, Andrea Powell, Michael Harding, Stefan Guy, Anessa Ramsey, Jillian Batherson, Ted Johnson, Patrick Stogner, Bonnie Johnson, William Smith Yelton, Maureen Mountcastle. Directed by Rick Bieber

 

None of us get through life unscathed. Sooner or later we all lose someone close to us. One of the worst things we can experience, however is losing someone long before their time. However, when we are in the depths of that despair we can sometimes find inspiration.

The Abbate family is a close, tight-knit family that is strong in their faith. Their son Jon (Merriman) is attending Wake Forest on a football scholarship and his little brother Luke (Guy) looks to be going down the same road. Mom Maryanne (MacDowell) is proud of her boys as is Dad Steven (Quinn).

But then the unthinkable happens. Luke goes out with a group of his friends; behind the wheel is a boy who is reckless, driving way too fast and too inexperienced to handle it. The car crashes. Some of the boys in the car are killed instantly; Luke lingers on for several days before the decision is made to let him go. Luke had signed up as an organ donor and the members of the family have a difficult time respecting that decision but after much soul reflection and speaking with their pastors, they at last give in. Luke’s organs are harvested.

The grief hits the family hard. Maryanne sinks into a deep depression while Steven throws himself into work. Jon goes on a bit of a rollercoaster ride; sometimes he is the rock the family leans on, other times he is furious at the Lord for taking his brother and other times he seems to have given up, sinking into a beer-colored haze.

After an intervention by Jon’s girlfriend (Batherson), assorted pastors and his weight trainer, Jon gets his life back on track. When the football season begins, he tells his coach (Harding) that he wants to switch his number from 41 to 5 which was the number Luke wore. As the 2006 season begins, the Demon Deacons – predicted to finish dead last in the tough Atlantic Coast Conference – start the fourth quarter of each game with Jon holding his hand with five fingers outstretched in tribute to his brother – the fifth quarter. Soon, his teammates take it up as a show of solidarity, then the fans pick it up and by the end of the year, even opposing players do it as a sign of respect to Jon and his deceased brother.

While the Deacons have an unbelievable season which ends up with an ACC title, a BCC bowl game (the first in the university’s history) and an eventual rating in the top 20, Jon’s family is still having real issues dealing with their grief and holding onto their faith, once a cornerstone of the family. Can they find their way back to happiness, or at least acceptance?

I’m not really a big fan of faith-based movies. I personally don’t like being preached to about how I should accept God’s plan and that if I accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior I’ll find eternal life and so forth. That’s all fine for Church but watching a movie isn’t going to convert me and if you need to have a movie re-confirm your faith, you’ve got problems, son.

Still, this one is a little more subtle about it than most which is fine by me – there is nothing wrong to my mind with portraying that a character or their family has faith, nor is portraying a crisis of faith something that should be avoided and it’s quite true that Hollywood tends to avoid anything that smacks of religious faith, so much so that Evangelical Christians have taken to making their own movies.

That’s fine and dandy. Most of them have been quite frankly just plain awful, having no edge to them whatsoever but kind of an attitude that no matter what life throws at you, everything will be better so long as you believe. The Polar Express is a lot like that but at least the visuals are better.

This at least has a bit of an edge, and some of the acting performances are all right particularly from Quinn as the grieving dad. While there are plenty of amateurish performances on the acting side, and a whole lot of cornball in the script, I’ve seen worse from more seasoned professionals so you can’t really complain too much.

This isn’t really a football story and the success of the Wake Forest team is really not what the movie’s about either; it is about the healing of a family. Personally (and nothing against the Abbates) but would a movie have been made if Jon Abbate hadn’t been a star football player and his team performed well above expectations? In making this a non-football story about a football player and his family, it kind of cheapens the similar experiences other families who weren’t lucky enough to have a star football player in their DNA have been through, and that’s really my main problem with the movie; if you’re going to use a football player in the movie, it should be a football movie. If you’re going to make it about a family, any family should do.

Otherwise, those who are devout Christians (and I’m not sure how many of those read my reviews to be honest) will find it a refreshing change of pace from typical Hollywood films. Those who aren’t can rest assured that they won’t feel too preached to during the course of the film. However to both sides I can say that the movie is merely average and won’t really tell a story with characters you can get to know and relate to. Perhaps that would have been the miracle this film needed.

WHY RENT THIS: An inspiring story. Quinn does a nice job as does MacDowell.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Definitely a film meant for a Christian audience; can be preachy in places. Overdoes the sentimentality.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes might be a little bit rough on the young and impressionable. There are also some medical scenes that are a bit strong and a little bit of harsh language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the pastors in the film are played by real-life pastors. The weight trainer in the film is played by Jon Abbate’s real-life trainer.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $408,159 on an unreported production budget; I think it’s likely the movie barely broke even or possibly even made a little bit of money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brian’s Song

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Cafe

The Strangers


The Strangers

Liv Tyler is upset because housekeeping hasn’t finished her room yet.

(2008) Thriller (Rogue) Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Gemma Ward, Kip Weeks, Laura Margolis, Glenn Howerton, Alex Fisher, Peter Clayton-Luce, Jordan Del Spina. Directed by Bryan Bertino

 

Simple is better. When in doubt, stick to the basics – these things are true for just about everything, including filmmaking. Some of the most effective movies are the least complex.

James Hoyt (Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Tyler) are driving on a dark road late one night. They are returning from a wedding reception and the drive is made in silence. James had proposed to Kristen and she’d said no, she wasn’t ready for marriage. They are staying at his father’s farmhouse, and an awkward evening it’s going to be. He’s very hurt and she feels…well, it’s hard to describe.

Once at the house things are decidedly strange between them but it’s going to get stranger. He goes out for a pack of smokes. There is a knock at the door; a young woman looking for someone named Tamara. There’s no Tamara there, but the young woman insists.

Soon there are mysterious figures in masks lurking in the shadows. Strange noises in the night. James comes back and at first thinks his girlfriend is being paranoid. Then he begins to hear the noises, see the figures. Soon the stakes go up and the couple realize that this isn’t a prank – they are indeed fighting for their lives.

And that’s it. That’s all the plot there is, and really all the plot you need. This gives the movie everything it needs to become a horror classic which it had every opportunity to be. It claims to be based on actual events, although which events seem to be subject to debate; the writer/director says that he experienced the late-night knock on the door but the events that followed thereafter are pure invention.

However, the writer, Bryan Bertino, had no experience as a director (he had been a grip on a different movie). He may have been ambitious enough to submit this for a project to Rogue, but he commits the cardinal sin as a director – he gives the ending away; we know who is going to survive and who isn’t. In order to make the movie worthwhile, we need to get to know the characters, feel their pain and terror. Sadly, this doesn’t happen and it’s just a matter of an hour and change of waiting for the movie to end.

Tyler and Speedman are both fine actors, Tyler in particular. She’s certainly easy on the eyes but she’s not what you’d call a typical scream queen. Still, she doesn’t  do badly here; however she isn’t given a whole lot to work with. I wish she’d have had more; an actress with her skills could have really made this movie soar. As it is, she gives it a shot in the arm that it needs. Speedman has a more sympathetic character in many ways but at the end of the day we don’t know enough about him to really invest ourselves in him.

What I do like is that the main characters panic. They don’t act with cool, calm reserve and show hidden martial arts skills – neither of them are former Army Rangers or MMA fighters. They are two ordinary people in the wrong place at the wrong time. The people who are stalking them are doing what they do without rhyme or reason. We never learn why they decided to inflict the terror and pain on this couple; the only explanation we receive, late in the film, is that “you were home.”

There is no point here. There’s no grand moral lesson to be learned other than that bad things happen. Most of us are well-acquainted with that lesson in any case. I do like that Bertino and cinematographer Peter Sova make the proceedings sufficiently tense and scary enough to keep our interest for the 86 minutes (88 minutes on the unrated version) that the movie runs. Sadly, the ending is so disappointed (and the rumor is that the studio had a hand in messing with the ending) that we feel that we went through that length of time terrified for no good reason. And terror for it’s own sake really doesn’t do it for me.

WHY RENT THIS: The tension is well-established. Tyler does as good a job as any.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: We fail to care enough about these characters to connect. Ending is given away at the beginning, turning this into torture porn. The ending is disappointing.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s plenty of bad language and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the film, “Mama Tried” by Merle Haggard is played several times. Haggard’s backing band for the song was called The Strangers.  

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $82.4M on a $9M production budget; the movie is considered a blockbuster based on its box office to production cost ratio.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Vacancy

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Paper Man

Tokyo!


Tokyo!

Something emerges from the sewers of Tokyo.

(2008) Drama-Comedy (Liberation) Ayako Fujitani, Ryo Kase, Ayumi Ito, Denis Lavant, Jean-Francois Balmer, Renji Ishibashi, Julie Dreyfus, Yu Aoi, Teruyuki Kagawa, Naoto Takenaka. Directed by Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Joon-ho Bong

From time to time, a producer will corral highly-regarded directors to make short films about a specific subject. Like any anthology, there will be both high points and low, but the question becomes will there be enough high points to make it worth enduring the low.

The subject of this anthology is…well, Tokyo. The sole link between the three tales here is that they are set in this, the most cosmopolitan of cities. Do we get some kind of insight into the glittering enigma that is Tokyo? Yes indeed, we do which is where the segments seem to hit their stride. There are also portions of each movie that could easily be set anywhere and that’s where the movie is at its weakest.

The first segment is “Interior Design” and is directed by French auteur Gondry (who lately resides in New York), and it is in a kind of a Kafka-esque vein. A would-be director Hiroko (Fujitani) and his mousy girlfriend Akira (Kase) move into the cramped apartment of Akira’s friend Akemi (Ito). The claustrophobic conditions only serve to exacerbate certain truths about their relationship; Hiroko is an overbearing untalented self-centered douchebag.

They look for affordable housing in the city, but like most mega-cities around the world, property values are sky high and affordable housing is at a premium. In overcrowded Tokyo, space is a luxury and some of the “properties” they visit are little more than closets with portholes. The stress and alienation begin to take their toll on Akira who undergoes a remarkable transformation to escape her reality, one that surprisingly brings her the serenity she craves.

The second segment is from avant garde French director Carax, who hasn’t made a film in ten years. In it, a strange, twisted creature (Lavant) emerges from the sewers of Tokyo to wreak havoc. Looking like a deranged leprechaun on a bender, he steals money, flowers and sandwiches from the hands of shocked onlookers and stuffs them all into his mouth with equal enthusiasm (Carax playfully sets much of this scene to the iconic musical score of Godzilla). He is loathsome, disgusting and vile and Tokyo recoils but the news media have a field day.

However, the story goes from curiosity to catastrophe as the creature finds a box of old grenades in his subterranean world and decides to lob them indiscriminately. Dozens are killed, maimed or wounded and the authorities tend to take a dim view of that. The creature is arrested and a dignified Japanese magistrate (Ishibashi) intends to prosecute, but the creature speaks a language that none can understand. How can a proper trial be held if someone speaks a completely unknown language. Fortunately, an ambitious French lawyer (Balmer) claims he can speak the language of the creature and a trial goes on in which everything is translated from gibberish to French to Japanese, which brings the segment to a crashing halt. However, there is a bit of a twist ending that will either leave you giggling or scratching your head.

The final segment is from Korean director Bong (who previously helmed The Host) and is in my opinion the best of the three. In “Shaking Tokyo” a man (Kagawa) lives as a hikikomori, which is the rough equivalent of a shut-in or a hermit, someone who chooses to remain in their apartment/home. With an inheritance from his parents enough to keep his bills paid, he orders pizza and stacks the boxes neatly against a wall. Agoraphobic to a nearly paralyzing degree, his house is meticulously well-ordered to the point it is debatable whether an actual human being lives there.

When a comely pizza delivery girl (Aoi) is there during an earthquake and faints, the man is unsure what to do. He eventually revives her by tapping a tattooed “button” on her arm. Her experience with him causes her to quit her job and live the same way. When another earthquake hits, a more serious one, the man, concerned about her welfare, takes to the streets of Tokyo for the first time in ten years. What he finds there is not what he left behind precisely.

All three segments have something going for them from the twisted metamorphosis in “Interior Design” to the senseless rampage in “Merde” (yes the segment title is a naughty French word) to the sweet underlying emotion in “Shaking Tokyo.” They all have an outsider’s insight into the megalopolis that is Tokyo, from the alienation that big city dwellers often feel in Gondry’s tale, to the sins of a people erupting from beneath the surface when they’ve been repressed to long in “Merde” to the isolationism that drives people to self-exile in “Shaking Tokyo.”

All three of the directors are world class, and they exhibit why they are so highly regarded here. I was particularly impressed with Bong’s piece, which seems to have much more of the soul of Tokyo than either of the first two segments. Gondry is an impressive visual director with a wild imagination; his realistic magic is on display here but as he sometimes is prone to doing, he gets a little too out-there for my own personal taste.

Carax’s segment is a little harder to peg. While the initial scene of the man-creature emerging from the sewers is fun and compelling, when he turns the piece into a courtroom drama it all falls apart. Having two sets of interpreters for the same dialogue may be all right for short periods, but it’s nearly 20 minutes of it; sorry gang, a bit too much.

I’m not sure that this will reveal enough about the soul of Tokyo to really make it worth your while, but there are some insights as I said. I’m just not sure that they aren’t general to any city rather than specific to Tokyo, and if not, why not set this anywhere?

WHY RENT THIS: There are some really compelling moments in each of the three episodes.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: As with any anthology, you take the not so good with the good.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief male nudity as well as some subtitled foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Gondry sequence is based on a graphic novel, “Cecil and Jordan in New York” by Gabrielle Bell.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Each of the segments gets their own making-of featurette, in some cases longer than the actual segment itself.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.2M on an unreported production budget; the film in all likelihood was a box office failure.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Faster