Monday, November 08, 2010

Fantasies from around the world: Kuroneko, Monsters, and Action Replayy

... and I would have included Megamind in here, but I don't feel like giving it a full write-up and thus give it apparent short shrift as a capsule.

So, three days, three fantastical films that demonstrate just how broad the genre can be: A black-and-white ghost story set in historic Japan, partially incorporating the style of traditional Japanese theater; a contemporary, independent US/UK science fiction film shot in Central America for not much money; and a Bollywood fantasy that mostly takes place during the 1970s. It is really kind of amazing that we can get all three in the space of a week or so. It's potentially a nice crash course in understanding a broad range of cinema for the person used to blockbusters. Each, in its way, is accessible enough, and can be sold as sounding familiar, but I'm pretty sure that certain friends, upon buying tickets, would say they'd never seen movies like that.

Kuroneko, as I mention in the review, is tremendously formal; Kaneto Shindo and company are very deliberate and artificial at times, especially with the ghosts: They tend never move casually; in fact, they almost always seem to walk straight lines and right angles even when not constricted by the architecture of their house which encourages that. Their make-up strongly implies a mask without being one. While writing the review, I hit Wikipedia's entry on Noh theater up, and while much of what I observed as unusual in the film was probably just Shindo doing his thing rather than consciously integrating Noh, it's still very much the result of a movie being made by a different culture. It's fascinating for that, though; it made me consider how movies work while I watched it, but without feeling pedantic.

For pedantic, I give you something that bugged me about Monsters: If these creatures are basically things that grew from spores or eggs that came from Europa, who come they're menacing us on land at all? Although Europa is the most likely place in the Solar Sytem to find extraterrestrial life, that life would most likely be aquatic, living in an ocean submerged under a three-kilometer-deep layer of ice. And to give Gareth Edwards credit, he seems to be thinking at least partially along those lines - they are shaped like squid, and they are bio-luminescent, which would probably be pretty useful in that sort of "hollow-world" environment. Of course, they're running around on land, and one has to wonder why they would have evolved legs which can support them. After all, there's a reason that terrestrial fish, octopi, and cetaceans don't have them; they're not useful. But even assuming that there's a reason for them to be amphibious - Europa has even less gravity than Earth's moon; why would they be able to run around in gravity seven times what natural selection has prepared them for?

Remember - this is what you get for reading a movie review blog by a guy who still basically thinks like a math/science person. Similarly, I note that Action Replayy has the same plot hole as Back to the Future - if Bunty changes the past, then when he returns, why isn't there another Bunty who hasn't gone back in time, because why would he if his parents get along now. Well, maybe old Doc Brown Gonsalves leaves a note saying to make sure Bunty gets in the time machine, but where and when to? I mean, if he goes back to 1975, he's not the same Bunty, so there's two now. But there's a throwaway line about how the same person can't be in the same time twice - so maybe Gosalves tosses that timeline's Bunty much farther into the past or future, which potentially sucks for him, doesn't it?

(Yes, I have a couple time-travel screenplay ideas like this kicking around. Maybe getting the one that can be done as a short film written would be a good use of NaNoWriMo for a guy who just doesn't have time for a novel.)

Of course, the other way that the movie could have played it is as a predestination paradox, that Bunty's parents were never destined to get married until he pushed them at each other, and their mutual disdain is due to them being a bad match. Of course, that would not just be a lot darker than the makers of this musical comedy was going for, but it would maybe mean that the movie isn't playing up one of its themes - that love-marriages are preferable to arranged marriages.

At least, I think that's part of what the movie is going for; I really don't know Indian society close to well enough to know if there has been that sort of general shift over the past thirty-five years. It's something that I suspect would make the movie much more interesting if I knew one way or another; it's a film that makes reasonable assumptions of its audience, ones which non-Indian audiences may not fully get.

Yabu no naka no kuroneko (aka Kuroneko, or Black Cat)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 November 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (special engagement)

Kaneto Shindo's Kuroneko is a ghost story that derives its horror not from sudden shocks, but from the inevitability of events. It is as familiar as folklore and often seems staged in a way meant to remind the audience of its artifice, but it sucks the viewer in. It doesn't create an atmosphere of panic, but one of distinct unease.

The film opens with tired, bedraggled samurai emerging from the woods, drinking from a stream near a small farmhouse, and then going in. A mother (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Kiwako Taichi) are having their supper, and it doesn't take long before the soldiers sate their appetites. They burn the evidence, but a black cat chances upon the bodies. Later, a palace samurai happens upon a beautiful woman near Rajamon gate; he offers to protect her as she walks through the woods, only to find he's been lured into a trap. Many more samurai perish; the lord demands that Raiko (Kei Sato), the head of his army, get to the bottom of it. This, he decides, is a job for "Gintoki of the Glade" (Kichiemon Nakamura), the sole survivor or a battle in the north. Gintoki has his own mystery to solve, though - what happened to his mother Yone and his wife Shige when their home burned a year ago.

Though a ghost story, Kuroneko is certainly an art-house film by today's standards, and probably the standards of its time (originally released in 1968 Japan, a restored 35mm print is currently touring North America). Its sets and cinematography sometimes bring to mind a stage production more than those associated with film, a feeling enhanced by the stiff posture and occasionally flat, declarative manner of speech (which likely extends beyond period accuracy). Shindo will show things to the audience for a few seconds longer than need be to get the point across, or change from a full set to a plain black background with a smoke machine running. It's a deliberate formalism, likely more than a bit foreign for western audiences, but often fascinating and engrossing to watch. It enhances the folkloric feel of the story without relying on crutches like narration or captioning.

Full review at EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 November 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run)

Movies like Monsters often get graded on a curve because of how much they do with relatively little. Gareth Edwards shot it guerrilla-style and had to cram a fair amount of effects shots into a five or six-figure budget, but put together a polished and entertaining movie, and that's well worth celebrating. The end result has its flaws, but to put that achievement in perspective, he's made a better movie than others have with a thousand times the resources.

A probe sent to Europa (a moon of Jupiter) to gather samples crashed in northern Mexico six years ago, and wouldn't you know it, not only is there life on Europa, but it grows to the size of five-story buildings. Photojournalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is getting pictures of the devastation when his publisher tells him to check on his daughter, Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), and then get her home safely. However, there's no direct route between Mexico and the U.S. any more - the creatures' migration patterns make the entire northern part of the country unsafe - so they have to make their way to the coast and the last ferry out - and then, when that fails, up the river and over land.

Though it involves gas masks, alien megafauna, and tramping through the jungle under the dubious protection of men with guns, Monsters's formula is as much romance as kaiju horror. It is, when you get down to it, less about trying to find a way to defeat these marauding beasts than about a pair of intelligent people meeting by chance and getting to know each other. They both have things that they're initially reluctant to talk about - Andrew his estrangement from his son, Sam her distance from her family and fiancé - but they've got nothing but time to talk and a simmering attraction despite Sam being engaged and a certain amount of class envy on Andrew's part.

Full review at EFC.

Action Replayy

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 6 November 2010 at Entertainment Cinemas Fresh Pond #5 (first-run Bollywood)

Western movie fans may have some doubts about the provenance of Vipul Amrutlal Shah's new film, Action Replayy. It's an adaptation of a 1994 play with almost the same name (the play spells it correctly), although Warner Brothers, apparently not aware of this, made vague comments earlier this year about their lawyers being ready if it turned out to be a remake of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Seeing the movie, it appears Universal might have more of a case vis-a-vis Back to the Future. Probably not, though - the basic story has been used in a lot of places, and Action Replayy would be a much better movie if it had ripped off some details from Robert Zemeckis's film.

Bunty (Aditya Roy Kapoor) is a good-looking young man with a beautiful, outgoing girlfriend, Tanya (Sudeepa Singh), and he'd like things to stay that way; his constantly-bickering parents certainly doesn't suggest that he'd be happy after marriage. After a particularly ugly fight at their 33rd anniversary party, Bunty decides to fix things. Fortunately, Tanya's grandfather, Professor Anthony Gonsalves (Randhir Kapoor), has invented a time machine, which Bunty uses to go back to 1975, where father Kishen (Akshay Kumar) is a milksop and mother Mala (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) is a bully, with the goal of making a love-marriage out of the one Kishen's father (Om Puri) and Mala's mother (Kirron Kher) had arranged.

Action Replayy isn't a fatally flawed movie, but it's one that frequently feels somewhat off-kilter. There are numerous examples of how, somewhere between the script and the editing room, the filmmakers make some odd choices about what is going to stay in and what was going to go out. For instance, when the professor is explaining his time machine to Bunty, the director and cinematographer frame the shot so the Bunty's phone is in the foreground, recording it, and we see the professor on the device's screen; it's a strange and awkward enough shot that one expects the video to be played back later, perhaps to convince the younger Gonsalves that he did in fact invent time travel Doc Brown-style. Doesn't happen. Similarly, when we first see Mala's friend Mona (Neha Dhupia) in the past, it's clear that she's attracted to Bunty, but the movie never does anything with that, at least not until the film is nearly over.

Full review at EFC.

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