Wednesday, January 27, 2016

OVER YOUR DEAD BODY


Prolific Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike is a master of many genres but it has been a long while since he has tackled a horror film. This is all the more surprising for the fact that his most famous film is arguably his 1999 horror classic "Audition". Although he has skirted the edges of horror with a number of his features since, it would be fair to state that "Over Your Dead Body" is his first pure feature length horror film since "Audition". You would think such a return would be greeted with great expectation from both the public and critics worldwide, but the film has come and gone with barely a whisper. So does this lack of recognition have anything to do with the quality of the film or is this just a film that has fallen through the cracks and has yet to find its audience?

The story of "Over Your Dead Body" is about two actors, Miyuki and Kosuke, who are romantically involved, and who are in the middle of rehearsals for their latest play, an adaptation of “Yotsuya Kaidan”. The play is a famous Japanese ghost story about a samurai who is haunted by the ghost of his wife after he chooses to betray her for a younger woman. Miyuki and Kosuke both play the leads in "Yotsuya Kaidan" and as they get deeper into rehearsals they find life imitating art, as Kosuke starts an affair with a younger co-star. As reality and fantasy begin to merge in Miyuki's mind, she starts to have a break down where she attempts to go out for revenge against her boyfriend in a similar manner to that of her character in the play.
With every review I write for a Takashi Miike film, I seem to mention the fact that he is very hit or miss with me. The man is very technically gifted and understands how to put together a great looking film always, but my problems with him are a result of his massive imagination and the fact that I feel he over stuffs his films with so many ideas that they become bloated, and exhausting to watch, not to mention that they start to become a little messy, narratively speaking. There are times when this "balls to the wall" approach pays off in spades ("For Love's Sake" being a perfect example),but more often than not I usually come away from Miike's films wishing he restrained himself just a little more. "Over Your Dead Body" is the most restrained effort I have seen from Miike for quite some time and the film benefits immensely from this. This is a very deliberately paced film, with the story taking its time to unfurl. The biggest surprise of the film is that the majority of its running time is devoted to the rehearsals of the play so we essentially get to see its story play out from beginning to end, with the actual story of infidelity between the two actors being close to a footnote. This is perfect for a western audience who may not be familiar with the famous story that the play in the film is based on, but I'm not sure how it would play to a Japanese audience, as this may come across as unnecessary padding.

Whilst I mentioned that "Over Your Dead Body" is a very restrained film for Miike, it is also a very low key effort too. There aren't really any big moments in the film, rather it is a film that relies on atmosphere rather than sudden bursts of violence. That said this is still a Miike film and fans of the director will likely be impressed by this film's final twenty minutes, which is when it takes a turn towards the bizarre and bloody. The main problem with the film is that because the majority of the film is actually a play, there is no suspense or danger associated with it because we know that none of what we are watching is real. Again, for Western audiences this would be less of a problem because we are learning the story that is going to end up relating to the "real life" story later in the film, so we are still invested in the play.

Again, because the majority of the film is a play, Miike is able to use this to his advantage in regards to the lighting styles he employs. He is able to get away with using quite artificial and theatrical (not to mention dramatic) lighting to create a bold and unique look to the film. Nothing comes across as looking real or natural and yet due to the nature of the story, it works perfectly. Likewise the set designs, are all stage bound and thus look artificial but stylized in a way that gives the film an extra kick to it. The scenes set in the real world have a pared back and slick look to it, to the point of it looking sterile. The lighting is either very straight forward and flat looking, or extremely dark. Unfortunately this causes the audience to respond more to the play rather than the narrative behind the scenes which I'm sure was meant to be the point of the film.

In terms of acting, like the film itself, most of the performances are of a low key nature, with most of the roles being underplayed. I thought Ko Shibasaki, who plays Miyuki, fared a lot better than her co-stars at portraying two distinct characters and making them both easily identifiable. She also does a great job convincing us of her character's extreme mental breakdown. Ebizo Ichikawa, on the other hand, really gives a flat performance throughout when playing Kosuke, and the samurai character he portrays in the play. He barely emotes through the whole film and looks bored the entire time. He walks through each scene with nary a presence and unfortunately I thought he was the weak link to the film. I say unfortunately because his character has the longest amount of screen time. It's true that “Over Your Dead Body” is a quiet horror film, but you can still bring an intensity or an intent to a performance without needing to go over the top.

I mentioned earlier that the film's final twenty minutes are quite bizarre and bloody in nature, and I am sure that long time fans of the director will really get the most out of these scenes, however from my perspective, the whole finale seemed rushed to the point that at times it is a little incoherent. To be honest, there is one part of the finale that I am thoroughly confused about (I have my theory as to what is happening, but have no idea if this is actually correct). Whilst there are no moments like the infamous scene from “Audition”, there is one scene towards the end that involves household utensils that will get everyone talking. It is a scene that comes out of nowhere, (in terms of the intensity behind it) and is the film's bloodiest. It is also a scene that will make you feel sick to your stomach when watching it. The reason why I think the finale is rushed, and thus doesn't have the necessary impact I expect was intended, is because of the majority of the film is about the play and as such we are invested more in the characters of “Yotsuya Kaidan”, as opposed to the characters of “Over Your Dead Body”. The final twenty minutes is about them though, and since we have spent little time with them until now, it is hard to care (or understand) about what is happening between them. Just as you start to invest in them though, it is over, which is a little frustrating.

The above review is actually for the 95 minute version of “Over Your Dead Body” that is found on the U.S blu-ray.  After watching the film, I was horrified to learn that there was a director's cut, available in Japan, that is an extra sixteen minutes longer. Unfortunately I have no idea what this extra footage entails, but you would think that the finale may be lengthened to make more sense or the more “meta” qualities of the film may be explained more or better layered into the story. It frustrates me no end knowing that there is another version out there (and one that is called a “director's cut” no less), and if I ever get around to seeing it I will amend this review to include some details of it.

Overall, I found Takashi Miike's latest horror film “Over Your Dead Body” to be a bit of a mixed bag. From a directing point of view, I was highly impressed. I loved Miike at his most restrained (it reminded me of his part in the omnibus feature “Three....Extremes”, which was entitled “The Box”), but unfortunately this low key approach seems to have affected some of the performances within the film. I also felt that he got the balance wrong between the narrative of the play and the narrative of his movie, focusing too much on the play even though these scenes were better and more artistic in nature. Fans of Miike may also be disappointed because the madness of his previous films is toned down here, although that is not to say they are totally absent. At the end of the day, I would call “Over Your Dead Body” a near miss, but I would really like to check out that director's cut before declaring that conclusively. Until then though, I can only give this version of the film.....


3 Stars.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

REGRESSION


 Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar finally returns to his genre roots with his latest film, the thriller "Regression". His previous entries in the horror/thriller genre, "Thesis", "Open Your Eyes" and "The Others", had all been fantastic and as much as I enjoyed the dramas he made after these films, I really wanted Amenabar to go back and make another thriller. When I heard that his latest film was going to be just that, I was very excited, and it immediately become one of my six most anticipated films of 2015. As luck would have it though, the film was dumped from its original August release date, and as of yet still does not have a release date for both the US and Australian territories. Thank god for the UK though, as they have just released the film on blu-ray, finally giving me the chance to catch up with it. So did it meet my lofty expectations or did Alejandro Amenabar deliver his first dud?

"Regression" begins with a father being accused of an inexcusable crime against his daughter, with the man confessing to the crime even though he has no knowledge of committing the said crime. The police enlist the help of a psychologist who believes performing a technique called regression therapy on the man would be beneficial. By plumbing through the man's repressed memories, the truth could be revealed. However once the therapy begins, it becomes clear that there is a lot more to the whole story, including the cover-up of a group of alleged Satanists with a large number of the town's residents being members of it. Soon, our lead detective on the case, is fighting for his life against a secret group who will do anything to keep their secret quiet.

I think it would be remiss of me to not mention that reviews from the festival screenings were not kind to "Regression" and I assume that these are the main reason the film was bumped from its original release date. The film was accused of being boring, with a premise that felt very tired, and that coming from a director the caliber of Amenabar, it could only be thought of as a disappointment. So whilst this was a highly anticipated film for me, I went into it with tapered expectations. After viewing it now, I think "Regression" has been unfairly maligned. As you would expect from a film made by this director, "Regression" has been expertly made. It has been very well shot and edited, and Carol Spier's production design creates a lived in world full of little details that never draw attention to themselves but help contribute to the dark atmosphere of the film. However in saying all that, "Regression" is an ugly film to look at, which is due to the colour palette used. The world created is a very hazy dreary world, full of dark blues, greys and browns. Bright colours are never used and as such the whole look of the film is never pleasant to the eye. I suppose Amenabar chose to use these colours to represent the increasing tension and darkness associated with the town, but I personally found it a bit of an eye sore.

The main problem with the film, at least for me, is the actual premise of the story which is about the "satanic panic" that apparently was quite widespread in the U.S during the 80's (so the opening scroll of the film tells us). This film is set in 1990, at the tail end of the panic, and although it has been documented to be a real fear back then, it is something I find very silly and am unable to take too seriously. In this regard, "Regression" already is at a disadvantage in that as well as telling its story, it also has to convince me that such a panic exists. Unfortunately, I still couldn't buy into this idea, and as such my enjoyment of the film was tainted right from the beginning. I will say that I appreciated the fact that Alejandro Amenabar attacks the panic with the utmost seriousness and never makes fun of it. In fact whilst watching it, it hit me that his approach was similar to William Friedkin's with "The Exorcist", in that he gives a potentially silly subject all of his respect. However, I still could not buy into it, but this is my baggage I bring into the film and is no fault of the director at all. I will say that Amenabar does a great job of increasing the tension and suspense of the film as it continues along, but sadly the images of the satanic cult performing their rituals came across as far too unbelievable in my mind; again, that's my baggage.

What is great about the film is the lead performance from Ethan Hawke, who I really think is an underrated actor these days. He plays the head detective investigating the case and he does a great job of portraying a man whose paranoia is increasing as he gets more involved in the case. You can feel him slowly losing touch with reality the deeper he gets. This is a man whose dedication to his job cost him his family, and you can see how he lives and breathes through the cases he is involved with. He never shuts down, he is constantly on in regards to the case which makes him a good detective, but not necessarily a good person in that he finds it hard to relate to other people. Ethan Hawke portrays this man with quite an intensity and a hardness that his co-workers on the force bristle against. The big shock of the film is just how little Emma Watson is actually in the film for, considering she is all over the marketing of "Regression". I doubt she would be in the film for any longer than fifteen minutes in total. She plays Angela, the daughter who accuses her father, and it pains me to say that she is not very good in the role at all. She just never comes across as believable for one second, and does not give her role the necessary gravitas needed to make it work. The things she accuses her father of are of a very serious nature, but the way Watson portrays her character you never feel the girls pain. In fact,, I believe Watson has been totally miscast here. I've actually liked her in other roles before but she just seems off here. David Thewlis is fine as the psychologist, but no standout.

I think the reason why "Regression" has so many negative reviews all has to do with the ending of the film. Whilst I will refrain from going into detail about the ending, I will say that the film ends on a whimper rather than a bang and as such Amenabar leaves the audience with a feeling of indifference towards the film. You have to give Amenabar credit for having the balls to end the film on the note he does, because it is not going to please the majority of the audience watching the film who will most likely want a sense of closure to the story, but I guess this is where he sees the story ending in regards to the themes of the film that he is exploring. Personally I found it ended "Regression" on a very flat note, and as such I felt a lot of frustration towards the time I had spent watching the film which could be perceived to be wasted.

Overall, "Regression" is something of a disappointment, especially coming from someone as great as Alejandro Amenabar but it is nowhere near as bad as early reviews suggested. It is a film that never soars, and whilst I appreciate the seriousness Amenabar takes towards the satanic panic, I still couldn't buy into it. Technically though, the film is very well made, and from that point I respected the film but in the end, "Regression" became a kind of nothing film for me. By the time the finale comes around, it felt pointless and I was left feeling frustrated by the whole thing, despite a strong leading performance from Ethan Hawke.

3 Stars.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

2015 - IN REVIEW: MOST ANTICIPATED FILMS OF 2016

Just like every year that has come before it, there are a plethora of new releases that are slated for release in 2016 that I am eagerly anticipating. From last years list, I'm still waiting for Jeff Nicols's “Midnight Special” to be released (it was pushed back to March of this year), but Nicols has another film due in 2016 called “Loving” that I am also eagerly anticipating. Also on the cards for 2016 are new films from talented directors, the likes of Steven Spielberg (“The BFG”), Denis Villeneuve (“The Story of Your Life”), The Coen Brothers (“Hail, Caesar!”), David Michod (“War Machine”), Tran Anh Hung (“Eternity”), Kiyoshi Kurosawa (“Creepy”), Derek Cianfrance (“The Light Between Oceans”), Tom Tykwer (“A Hologram From the King”), to name but a few. All of the above I am looking forward to greatly, but the next seven titles below are my most anticipated films of 2016.




This is the brand new film from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, and next to nothing is known about the film at the moment. In fact, this wasn't going to be a part of this list, until right at the last second I found out that Farhadi had secretly shot this film back in November, but that he had also submitted it to a film festival. Farhadi is such a talent (his “A Separation” is the last film that I gave a perfect five stars to) that any film he makes from now on is almost guaranteed to make these lists. I'm sure if I had more details on the film, it may have been my “most” anticipated film of the year, but for know lets just say I am extremely excited for it and am hoping for it now to screen at MIFF later in the year.




After his previous film, “Only God Forgives”, turned out to be something of a disappointment, my anticipation for the latest Nicolas Winding Refn film has tempered just slightly. Although knowing that this new film is a female centric horror film set in the L.A fashion scene, just gets me all excited again. The last time Refn shot a film in L.A it was his brilliant “Drive” so lets hope history repeats itself here, but most of all I hope the film turns out to be dark, disturbing and scary. “The Neon Demon” stars Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, and Christina Hendricks which sounds like a great cast, although the fact that Keanu Reeves has a small role in the film does have me a little worried.




I must admit that I hate having to justify my love for Rob Zombie's films time and again. Sure he is not as “arty” as some and must people react against the white trash look of his films and characters, but personally I love the dark grittiness to all of his films. He has a keen visual eye too and is able to always create disturbing visuals to accompany his horror films; they never feel like the clean, sanitized horror that dominates cinema screens these days. I also love the fact that he casts adults in his films, rather than teenagers. He has a great knack of finding old forgotten stars and giving them a chance to shine again. Anyway, “31” is Rob Zombie's latest horror film and he calls the film his darkest and most bleak to date (which is saying something). It is about five carnies who are kidnapped on Halloween 1976 and forced to take part in a game called “31” which involves trying to stay alive for twelve hours against an endless gang of maniacs intent on killing them all. When reading the synopsis, I must admit, it does sound a little silly but from the small number of stills that have been released so far, it certainly looks like a Rob Zombie film which makes me very happy indeed. The film has been in the news recently because it was rated the dreaded NC-17, twice no less, however after further cutting, Zombie was able to achieve the R rating he wanted, although he stresses that the director's cut will be released on blu ray and dvd. From this, we can gather that it certainly sounds extreme.




This is the latest film from South Korean filmmaking superstar, Park Chan-Wook. This guy is a genius and any of his films would make it onto these lists. After making his English language debut with his previous film, “Stoker”, Park Chan-Wook has returned to Korea for his latest which is a crime drama about a young heiress who falls in love with a petty thief. Apparently there is also a lesbian love angle in this film as well, and although the original novel that the film is based on was set in Victorian London, Park has transposed the story to take place in both Korea and Japan for his film version. Thankfully, Park has continued his working relationship with his regular cinematographer Chung Chung-Hoon because the two of them just work beautifully together.




Normally any film directed by Martin Scorsese would make the top of my anticipated list and yes, I am greatly looking forward to “Silence” for that reason, but the topic of the film does leave me a little cold. The synopsis on imdb states that the film is set in the 17th century and is about “two Jesuit priests who face violence and persecution when they travel to Japan to locate their mentor and propagate Christianity.” Being someone who cares little for religion, I find religious films to sometimes be a hard slog to get through because I find it hard to relate. That said, I thought I was going to have similar issues with Scorsese's previous film “The Wolf of Wall Street” and ended up loving every minute of it, so I will definitely be entering the film with an open mind. This film is something of a passion project for Scorsese though, in that he has been trying to get it made for decades, so you would think that he would bring his best to it.




A director who I think gets little respect for just how great a technical director he is, is Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven. It seems that due to both “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls”, two films he made in quick succession, that he has a reputation of only being interested in smut and what is never taken into account is just how well his films are put together. Not just those two films but all of his films throughout his career. He has crafted great entertainment that are often filled with subtext and meaning. His most recent film “The Black Book” came out ridiculously ten years ago now and for mine, it was his best film to date. Thus the reason I am so looking forward to his latest film, “Elle”, which also marks the return of Verhoeven to the erotic thriller, although if the reports on “Elle” are true, this is more of a rape/revenge film than anything “erotic”. Interestingly though is the fact that this is the first film that Verhoeven has shot in the French language. “Elle” stars Isabelle Huppert. I am so looking forward to another Paul Verhoeven thriller!




My most anticipated film of 2016 is none other than Pedro Almodovar's latest film, “Julieta”. Now that he has gotten rid of the urge to revisit his comedic past with “I'm So Excited”, Almodovar returns to the melodramas that he excels at and is so famous for. Like most of the films on this list, not too much is known about the film except that it is about a woman named Julieta who, in present time, seems in the edge of madness but thirty years prior, we are witness to the events that lead to Julieta becoming this way in the present. The result of some sort of silence apparently. In fact, until recently “Silencio” was the title of the film, but Almodovar agreed to change his title so as not to cause confusion between Martin Scorsese's film. Personally I prefer the older title and think it would have been fine because they were using the Spanish variation of the word. It also appears that Almodovar is working with a predominantly new cast, because the majority of his regulars seem to be absent in this new film. Although one actress who used to be a regular in the earlier films from this director is Rossy DePalma who shows up in “Julieta”. Thankfully, the film is meant to be released in Spain in March which pretty much guarantees that I will end up seeing the film in 2016; in fact about an hour prior to writing this I got to watch the first teaser trailer for “Julieta” (without English subtitles though) and it looks very promising. 


 Well, that is it. My enormous round up of the year that was 2015 is finally over. Hopefully you enjoyed reading it and got something out of it, but how about we go back to watching some new films now?