Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Happy Hurloweeeeeeeeeen!

Firstly, a shout-out to my Brotha'z in the NH Hood. Within the rustic pines of Keene, New Hampshire there was recently held the annual Keene PumpkinFest. For more than a decade, Keene has been making and breaking the Guinness Book of World Records entry for "The Most Jack O' Lanterns In One Place." It all began, I believe, as the small city's attempt to build up tourism, stimulate local identity and economy and to give the children and families a sweet, wholesome holiday occasion to share in and savor for their lifetimes. Anyone who's ever attended the PumpkinFest has will likely never forget the New Englandy beauty of the occassion. The main street is closed off to auto traffic, bleacher-like shelves are erected all over town on every sidewalk and street corner, food vendors and performing artists peddle their wares in a carnival like setting, and the creativity of thousands of kids (and grownups, too) is proudly displayed for all to see as the carved pumpkins cover nearly every square foot of shelving for two or three square blocks. It's one of those timeless, classical events you typically associate with times gone by and scenes from Norman Rockwell paintings. And this occurs every year. And it's wonderful.

Unfortunately, the city of Boston chose to get into the act this year. One can debate the fairness of such a move -- having a major American city of close to one million people going up against such a small-town flavored event. It seems Beantown was only too happy to "go Wal-Mart" on us in it's attempt to take this year's record, and television news reports delighted in showing Boston companies proudly trucking in their pumpkins as if they were Bush's forces invading the Middle East. Like a bully making the rounds with a group of thugs in tow, the city took the record this year. I may live in the Boston area, but Keene is just as much my home as my neighborhood is... and I'm sorry but while I'm local to the Bay State, I've gotta side with my Neighbors From the North on this one. Besides, you damn well know that once New York gets wind of this they'll get into the act and next year we'll probably see something like a million Jack O'Lanterns lighting up Central Park like it was another Times Square... which would be kind of cool, come to think of it. But don't forget, People of the Cities: before it your record, it was ours...

And speaking of New Hampshire, those aforementioned Brotha'z of mine up there are enjoying a bit of success with a community television series called Saturday Fright Special. Hosted by the frightening (but exceedingly well-dressed) Scarewolf and produced by my fellow KSC alumni Isaac Kennell, Mark Nelson, Rick Trottier and Tim Hulsizer, the show is a throwback to the classic "movie shows" of our youths like USA's Night Flight, WLVI 56's Creature Double Feature with Dale Dorman and the Horror Host likes of Elvira and such. Scarewolf -- the knowledgable and film-savvy lycan draped in fashionable cape and top hat and rumored to be "possibly a bigfoot, possibly Episcopalian" -- presents public domain movies pepperred with old fashined PSA's, classic interstitials and animations. Anyone interested in catching the show can tune-in to Cheshire TV in New Hampshire or visit the show's official site and MySpace pages here...


As a fan of Japanese film, I just caught a matinee of the recently-released ghost story The Grudge 2. SPOILERS FOLLOW....

Directed by Takashi Shimizu, this film is (follow me, now...) a sequel to his remake of his original film (called Ju-On), which itself was a remake of his direct-to-video film back in Japan... So that makes it the second chapter in the third series of films regarding the now-legendary haunted house in a suburban Japanese neighborhood. I mention this because it's important to point out that after making six films covering pretty much the same ground, it might be time for Shimizu to change things up, a bit.

Last year's The Grudge featured Sarah Michelle Gellar as an American social worker in Japan who gets caught in the web of evil surrounding a mother ("Kayako") and child ("Toshi") who were brutally killed by their patriarch in their family home. The legends state that "if someone dies in a horrible rage, a curse is born that will consume all who encounter it." In this current chapter, Gellar's sister (played by Amber Tamblyn) arrives in Japan to find out what happened while a parallel narrative shows similar events unfolding in Chicago, USA.

The Grudge films are known for being told out-of-sequence and not everything is spelled out clearly for the audiences, so the films are a challenge to view and decipher, which is always welcome. The Grudge 2 is no different, though the filmmakers do attempt to inject an "origin" story into the narrative and outright explain a few things. The film also stars Hong Kong actor Edison Chan and American goddess Jennifer Beals.

On a technical level, I think the visual methods Shimuzu employed in shooting the film were perhaps wrongly chosen. The film features that "slightly drained of color tone" look that so many so-called suspense movies are shot in these days, and I much prefer the more clean and realistic cinematography used in homegrown Japanese films.

As far as the origin story, I have to agree that it's somewhat unnecessary. Your average Asian film fan might be more attuned to such open-to-interpretation storylines than the average teenaged moviegoer to whom these American incarnations are so tailored to. For the most part, it could be said that your typical "Joe Suburban" catching The Grudge 2 at the strip-mall cineplex might desire a little more understanding of how and why the curse might actually operate -- and one can see why the filmmakers put it in there, even though the additions actually sort of dispel a bit of the mystery surrounding it all. I thought it was most interesting that Kayako's mother even went so far as to state that what she did to her daughter during the exorcism rituals as a child had "nothing to do" with the exponentially-expanding curse -- as if director Shimuzu were trying to play both sides of the fence, adding exposition for the newbies while trying to retain the ambigiousness for the longtime fans.

And about the seeming intention to now "move" the Grudge, itself, to the United States (Chicago)... I think that's a mistake. Again, I much prefer the ending of the Japanese Ju-On 2 -- where the entire neighborhood of the Cursed House seems abandoned, hinting that eventually all of Japan were falling prey to the Evil and then slowly the rest of the planet -- as well as the apparent rebirth of the Evil Spirits within a newly born girl. I thought that ending was great and it really gets me psyched up for the final chapter in the Japanese Ju-On Trilogy, which is now in production. I'm not sure I feel the same wonderous expectation for a further chapter of the American Grudge Trilogy.

All that said, I thought Tamblyn did decently with what she was given to do, and Edison Chen was fine. The standouts by far, though, are Arielle Kebbel, who's victim role gets a bit much even though her character remains the most identifiable, and Jennifer Beals. (I soooo loved her in that little "goodbye" shot.) In fact, the best material in The Grudge 2 comes in its final 20 minutes, so if you're in the audience and beginning to tire of everyone's favorite long-haired and bleached-white ghosties, stick around and maybe you'll get something out of the film, as I did.

Overall, The Grudge 2 lacks the punch of it's homegrown counterparts. But it's still got a few tricks up its sleeve. I'd easily want to see more of this kind of old-school, haunted-house thriller than any more Texas Chainsaw or Freddy/Jason flicks. But here's hoping Shimizu-san remembers to really give the ghosts their due on any futher installments. They've been creeping around croaking and meowing long enough. Now let's see what they can reallllllllly do. :)

And with that (and the usual reviews below), have a safe and Happy Halloween! Mwooo hooo haaaaaaa!!

The Grudge 2 **1/2


The Maltese Falcon (1941) ****
Dragon Tiger Gate (Hong Kong) ***
Smallville: Season Five ***

Monday, October 23, 2006

"Into The Night"

Well, here we are again. Just a few weeks later than I'd hoped to be. Apologies, as always, for the delays in-between blog entries. The last few weeks have been nothing special, but never boring either. Some drama at work, of course, a New York City trip that went quite well, a movie here and there. Nothing super-spectacular, but a few notes to report on the daily grind of yours truly...

Sometimes on my days off from the video store, I get a little down about things. It's natural, I suppose, considering my still-burning desire to make movies and being trapped in a job that surrounds me with "great works of cinema" like My Brother, The Pig and Vampiyaz. On a recent bike ride through Boston, two little moments of sweetness occurred that I've been enjoying relating to people.

This particularly warm and pleasant night, I'd ended up over at the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge for a showing of a French, animated, sci-fi/detective film called Renaissance. (More on that film, another time.) On my ride home, I was pedalling down a back-access road behind MIT near some old freight train rails and caught an unusual sight: a real, honest to goodness circus train. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Travelling Circus company was in town and I just happenned to be gliding by the place where the carnies were kicking off their oversized clown-shoes for the night. No animal cars, mind you. At least, not where I was biking. These were the "people cars." I thought I'd get a little closer for a better look, hoping to see something magical... The World's Fattest Man on his Stairmaster, maybe. Or the Bearded Lady trying to figure out which hair conditioner wouldn't be too harsh for her chin. That kind of thing. I didn't catch anything outlandish like that, though. A presumed Train Conductor was chatting on his cell phone and some others looked like they were cooking something. But, on my way off, I did catch one little vision.

There was a youthful looking man, probabaly in his late twenties but appearring a bit younger, trying on a top hat in a mirror. Seemingly checking his reflection for what might be the best angle, he moved the hat around and turned his head from left to right, sizing himself up. I imagined him to be some sort of assistant to the Ringmaster, perhaps. Or maybe a behind-the-scenes type, dreaming of his own big break, which I'd identified with immediately. Reconizing this presumed moment of spiritual synchronicity, I smiled to myself, wished the fella a silent "good luck" in my mind, and pedalled off again into the night by the Charles River and back again toward my own hopes and dreams.

Then, about half a mile away, a surprize of a different kind. At the foot of the BU (Boston University) Bridge between Cambridge and Commonwealth Avenue, I found myself approaching three Tough Guys. Shaven headed, muscle bound, goateed and pierced, they looked like they'd just walked out of Grand Theft Auto III and decided to hold court on my regular route home. "What was this to be?" I wondered. Would they notice me? Would they bust out an insult or two, relying on their size and safety in mumbers? Would one of them reach out and try to clothesline me, knocking me to the pavement while another tries to grab my usually-close-to-empty wallet? The night was going so well, after the Circus Train Moment, and now it could all just go straight down the tubes. They began waving their arms in what looked like a heated discussion and, given my experience with guys like this in the past, I immediately braced myself for trouble as I began to coast near them. And as I passed by, unnoticed, this is what I heard...

Thug #1: Nah. Nah way, man. He's too busy being fuckin' Governor, man.
Thug #2: Yeh, you know that.
Thug #3: I say we don't need no Terminator 4 anyways.

Here I am, ready for a beatdown, and these guys are just hanging out discussing Arnold Schwarzenegger's future film career...

Works for me. :)

This month's reviews...

The Departed ***1/2
Renaissance **1/2

Dashiell Hammett. Detective. Writer. (Documentary) ***
Brick ***
Re-Cycle (Thai/Hong Kong) ***
Jungle Fever (1991) ***
Clockers (1995) ***1/2
Black Rain (1989) ***
Black Dawn (2005) *** (for a Steven Seagal movie)
Mercenary For Justice (2006) **1/2 (for a Seagal movie)
Yamato (Japan) **1/2
You Shoot, I Shoot (Hong Kong) **
Blackjack (1998) **
Inspector Clouseau (1968) *1/2
Head Trauma (2006) **