Wednesday, May 23, 2018

PERFECT STRANGERS (2017)


2017 was a unique year for Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia in that it is the only year in his whole career that he premiered two feature films. The first was the very funny and disturbing “The Bar” (read my review here), whereas later in the year saw him release “Perfect Strangers (Perfectos desconocidos)”; a film that was another first for him in that it was the first remake he had ever been involved in.

Perfect Strangers”, which is a remake of the 2016 Italian film of the same name, has a simple but brilliant (not to mention, very funny) idea at its core. On the night of a rare Blood Moon, a group of long time friends come together for a dinner party. After being friends for around twenty years, with these dinner parties being a semi-regular occurrence, there is a feeling among the group that something is missing. While the occasion is pleasant enough, it is lacking something; a spark to elevate this get together from something more than just the norm. In an effort to add spice to the evening, it is decided that everyone in attendance must place their mobile phones on the table in front of everyone and any message, voice call or photo received must be shared with the rest of the group. For a group of friends who have known each other so long, and share everything with each other, surely such a game would be pointless......then why was everyone so hesitant or nervous to play this game? Whatever the outcome, it is safe to say that his dinner party will be unlike any other; but will the friendships and relationships survive this night after their secrets begin to be revealed?

I feel I need to point out that I have never actually seen the original film that this is based on, so I am unable to report on how this film works as a remake nor if it differs in any way. Looking at trailers for both films, as well as reading their synopsis, it appears that Alex de la Iglesia and his regular writing partner, Jorge Guerricaechevarría have stayed very close to the Italian original. While I would never assert that this is one of Iglesia's best films, I will say that I had a very enjoyable time with “Perfect Strangers”. I think he has done a great job of casting the film and creating a believable atmosphere where after being with these characters for just a brief time, you can tell that they have been friends for ages. The seven friends all come from different walks of life but there is an easiness between them all. The banter between them is natural, funny and with a lot of ribbing of each other. They feel like long time friends, rather than just a cast of actors put together for a film. The highlight for me was Pepon Nieto who plays Pepe, a former gym teacher and the only one of the group who is unmarried. He brings depth and a sadness to his role, mainly due to the way society has treated him because of his secret that is eventually uncovered from a phone call. He comes across as a genuine person of good, and this is shown in a great scene where he becomes angry when he is forced into a situation to protect another one of his friend's secrets, that he does not in any way approve of. The other standout in the cast was Eduard Fernandez who plays Alfonso, husband to Eva, and the only character who truly appears to have nothing to hide during this game. When it comes to the women characters I must say that they have been portrayed much broader then the men, to the point that two of them come across as rather neurotic. I must say though that Dafne Fernandez is a stunningly gorgeous woman, and with her character of Blanca, is the standout of the female cast.

The whole point of this film is to ponder the question just how well can you know someone, even when you have known them for so long. Everyone has a side to themselves that they hide from others, so can you truly know someone. As such, the text messages and phone calls that follow begin to reveal secrets of each of the characters. As this is the crux of the film, I do not have a problem with such a conceit but the amount that comes out in such a little time is both convenient and quite unrealistic. Sure, I understand that everyone of these characters could have these secrets, but to have them all exposed on the same night is a stretch. While the game starts off innocent enough, each successive secret dramatically alters the status quo amongst the friends, as affairs and fetishes are exposed, one of them is outed as a homosexual, while a few of them realise that their partners are unhappy within their marriages. Iglesia does an expert job of keeping and increasing the tension as secrets are exposed within the group, to create a film that is both incredibly funny (in his usual dark way) and at times, quite suspenseful. Being that this is a film that is essentially set solely around a dinner table, he is unable to have the visual flourishes that are the norm for an Iglesia film, but instead he keeps the performances real and the film moving at a natural and fluent pace, making the whole thing a joy to watch. The film has been edited superbly by Domingo Gonzalez giving it an effortless feel to it all; it just flows so beautifully that you never are aware of a jarring edit once. It feels very natural and again real (which I assume to be a hard task as Alex de la Iglesia's films tend to live in a slightly heightened world). While much of the enjoyment found in “Perfect Strangers” is due to the dark comedy as these friendships dissolve in the most amusing ways, the absolute highlight of the film comes from a phone call a father has with his teenage daughter about whether or not she is ready to lose her virginity that night. It is such a beautiful moment, stunningly performed, that is also so powerful. It is not a secret that is revealed here but just how great a father this man is, and how lucky a daughter she is to have him love her and to trust her. Seriously, for a film of such absurdity to have such a powerful moment like this within it....; I cannot talk more highly about this scene, it is just a brilliant moment.

From brilliance to what I felt didn't work in the film, and that was the whimsical nature or events that happen from time to time in “Perfect Strangers”. I really cannot go into too much detail in regards to this because it all has to do with the film's ending, but for me, it just did not work at all. Not only did I feel it went totally against the tone of the entire film, it also felt like a massive cheat. It also adds very little to the film, and if it was removed, you would never have felt like the film was missing something. I understand that the same ending was used in the original film, but personally I felt like this was a chance where Alex de la Iglesia could have made a change, and the film would be stronger for it. Obviously this is my own opinion, but I thought this level of whimsy and dare I say it, magic, ruined part of what made the film so great. Another thing that I did not like was the visual representation of the blood moon; it was very cheap and a poor CGI creation.

Overall, while I did have a great time with “Perfect Strangers”, it is not what I would call one of Alex de la Iglesia's best. It is almost like a “B-side” movie from him, which may seem a little harsh as the results are very entertaining. The film is well cast, and moves fluently and quickly through its story and is very funny. It is an interesting look at how technology has taken over our lives and how it is complicit with our deceits and secrets, asking the question as to whether or not it has improved our lives or changed them for the worst. It is interesting stuff told in a comedic manner that is the trademark of director Alex de la Iglesia. While I preferred “The Bar” more out of his two 2017 films (mainly due to its ambition), “Perfect Strangers” is still a fun, if minor, entry to this talented director's oeuvre.


3.5 Stars.


Wednesday, April 18, 2018

FOREBODING


Okay, so stop me if you have heard this one before:

A unknown number of aliens head to Earth on a fact finding mission in preparation for a mass invasion by the rest of their race. The aliens first find a host body to inhabit and then find a guide to help them gather as much information about the human race as possible. Due to the fact that words and language are so cumbersome, complex and easily misunderstood, the aliens prefer to steal “concepts” from humans instead. They get a human to think of a concept such as ownership, work, family or even love, and when they have determined the human has a focused, complete definition of that concept, they tap them on the head with their finger taking that information from them, causing the human to faint in the process. When the aliens deem that they have enough of an understanding about the human race, the destruction of Earth and annihilation of the human race is set to begin. Is there anything that the humans can do to stop this event from happening??

No, this is not another review for Kiyoshi Kurosawa's “Before We Vanish”, but rather for his companion film of that story, “Foreboding”, which actually started life as a five part television miniseries before being edited down into the feature format that it is now. What is so exciting about “Foreboding” is that it gives director Kurosawa the opportunity to tell the same base story as “Before We Vanish” but to do so with a completely different tone and outcome. It is such a rare occurrence to see two variations of the same story being released by the same author at around the same time. Personally, I am not sure of the genesis of this project but you could imagine Kurosawa wanting to attempt to tackle a different tone to the one that he committed to in “Before We Vanish” and “Foreboding” has given him that chance. I guess its a case of having your cake and eating it too, because by doing two different projects of the same material, you can experiment as to which approach was better, the lighter mood and larger scale of “Before We Vanish”, or the much darker and intimate, “Foreboding”.

As you can see above, I describe the film as being the same “base” story because, while both films are about aliens collecting data from humans, there are enough differences between the two stories to make each film unique. While “Before We Vanish” is much lighter in tone, almost to the point of being comedic at times, “Foreboding” has been imbued with a much different atmosphere; it is dark, grim and......wait for it.....foreboding. This version plays much more like a horror film with the aliens themselves being much more sadistic in their thirst for knowledge. They use their ability to steal concepts in a way that causes much mental anguish upon their victim, and appear to enjoy the pain they are causing. It gets to the point where the aliens, once they feel they have reaped enough concepts from the humans, give the sense that they are a totally superior race and we are nothing in their eyes. Also, different from the other film, these aliens share a physical bond with their human guide, as they make the human's right arm numb and can supply the arm with intense pain whenever they want. It is also up to the guide to choose the humans that they reap from, and maybe it is this that gives the alien a sadistic feel to them, because the guides obviously choose humans that they aren't particularly fond of or who have wronged them in the past.

One aspect of “Foreboding” that is very successful is the exploration of what exactly happens to the victim once they lose a certain concept from their mind. The big one is the concept of “family” which is essentially glossed over and used for laughs in “Before We Vanish”, whereas in “Foreboding”, the poor girl who loses that concept, can no longer live or even look at her father because she does not recognise him as such. To her, the only thing that he can be must be a ghost, and she lives in total fear because of this. It is actually very sad because the poor father does not understand why his daughter, who he has loved her entire life, now rejects him so completely. This element is one of the strongest of “Foreboding”, however after awhile the story focuses in different directions than the plight of the victims.

As I alluded to above, “Foreboding” is much smaller in scope than the more ambitious “Before We Vanish”. There are no big action scenes, no attempt by the army and governments to fight and stop these aliens. Instead we have a more intimate story of really, only three characters: the alien, Matsuka (played by Masahiro Higashide), his human guide, Tetsuo (Shota Sometani) and his wife Etsuko (Kaho). Between these characters we get an insight of the reaping process and the potential outcome of this future alien invasion. A nice touch to the proceedings is in the character of Etsuko, who turns out to be something of a special human, and someone that the aliens cannot reap from. It is within her that we sense hope for Earth. I must say though that I was not a fan of Kaho's performance as Etsuko as she walks through this entire story with only one expression on her face the whole time. She is told that the world is going to end: stony faced. She is told her husband is a slave to an alien: stony faced. She is told that the supermarket is out of corn flakes: stony faced. Okay, that last one didn't happen, but you get my point. On the other hand, I thought that Shota Sometani was very good at portraying a man struggling with the enormity of what he is forced to do and the guilt that is associated with that. I have been a fan of Sometani since I saw him in Sion Sono's “Himizu” where I thought he was amazing in the lead role. Masahiro Higashide was fine as the alien, although his portrayal was a little loose and carefree, and he made the alien totally unlikable, but I guess that was his job.

In my “Before We Vanish” review I stated that I enjoyed it because it wasn't as serious as I was expecting nor as is the norm for Kiyoshi Kurosawa. In a somewhat contradictory statement, I must say that I loved the more serious and grim tone of “Foreboding”. Kurosawa did a stellar job at creating a very uneasy atmosphere and even giving the film a number of horror sequences. Scenes of the aliens walking through crowded rooms with the humans collapsing all around them are genuinely creepy and frightening. For me though, it was the constant uneasy atmosphere that Kurosawa built that I found most impressive. His direction is phenomenal in this and it is very easy to see that he understands horror and feels right at home at creating scenes of it. While I was impressed by his direction in “Before We Vanish”, I felt that this was at a whole other level. Maybe that is because it played more to my sensibilities, I am not sure, but I was so impressed. Especially when you consider the fact that this film started life as a television series. Kurosawa is definitely not slumming it here or even falling back on television style courage. He shot the entire thing as if it was one of his films and it is one of the reasons why “Foreboding” works so well as a feature.

Where its television origins work as a negative though, is in some of the film's pacing. At times you can feel that scenes are moving at such a pace to fill the episode run-time, and as a result the film is (once again) far too long. It loses a little bit of momentum in the middle of the story, almost like its wading in water waiting for the finale to come. When that finale does arrive though, it is does so with aplomb. While not to the scale of the end of “Before We Vanish”, the humans still attempt to fight back and there is quite an impressive sequence involving some large metal pipes in a warehouse. What I loved most though is that the ending of the two films are completely different. Personally I think that the ending of “Before We Vanished” is the stronger of the two, but the ending of “Foreboding” fits everything that has come before it and works perfectly for this version of the story.

Overall, I really had a great time with “Foreboding”. While it shares the same base storyline as “Before We Vanish”, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's handling of the material is completely different with its very serious and dark tone. It is much smaller in scale than the earlier film, but for mine, I preferred this version of the alien invasion tale. As usual, Kurosawa's direction and Akiko Ashizawa's cinematography are the highlights here, but I found “Foreboding” endlessly entertaining while being both creepy and terrifying in parts. I must admit that I have been shocked by the negative reviews for this film, because for me “Foreboding” is another Kiyoshi Kurosawa success.


3.5 Stars.


Wednesday, April 11, 2018

BEFORE WE VANISH


The past few years have been a particularly productive period for Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Since 2015, he has directed five films including the soppy, romance-from-the-dead story “Journey to the Shore”, his return to the crime genre “Creepy”, his underrated and sadly under seen French ghost story “Daguerrotype”, which brings us to his two 2017 features: “Before We Vanish” and “Foreboding”. “Before We Vanish” tackles the science fiction genre and is Kurosawa's version of a Hollywood staple: the alien invasion film. However his handling of the material is about as far away from the Hollywood norm as possible, as it is subtle, quiet, full of humanity and heart and only has the bare minimum of explosions and blood. But does any of that means it is any good? Lets take a look, shall we?

Three aliens head to Earth on a fact finding mission in preparation for a mass invasion by the rest of their race. The aliens first find a host body to inhabit and then find a guide to help them gather as much information about the human race as possible. When the alien takes over the body of their host, they also take over their essence so they essentially become different people completely to who they initially were. Due to the fact that words and language are so cumbersome, complex and easily misunderstood, the aliens prefer to steal “concepts” from humans instead. They get the human to think of a concept such as ownership, work, family or even love, and when they have determined the human has a focused, complete definition of that concept, they tap them on the head with their finger taking that information from them, causing the human to faint in the process. The aliens then must find each other (as they have been separated around different parts of Japan) and then set off a transmitter to signal its time to invade. However along their journey, the government learns of their presence and is attempting to hunt them down, while they also start to find parts of humanity intriguing.

I must admit that when the first trailers for “Before We Vanish” came out, I was a little disappointed and I wasn't expecting a whole lot from it, to be honest. Well I am happy to report that I had a great time with the film, mainly because it wasn't as dead serious as I was expecting it to be. In fact, for a Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, I was pleasantly surprised by how light the tone was and how the film didn't take itself too seriously. While you would never call “Before We Vanish” a comedy, it has been created with a light touch, finding funny moments where it can, with some fish out of water moments from the aliens (literally in one case). From a directorial standpoint, Kurosawa is at the top of his game. He, along with his regular cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa, are in total control of the images and story, and it is all expertly handled. In fact some of the camera moves in the film are both complex and impressive, but they never feel like he is showing off; they suit the story perfectly. Its funny, but I never really know how to explain Kiyoshi Kurosawa's visual style, even though it is easily identifiable, which is still the case in “Before We Vanish”. It is a clean, no fuss style that gives off the vibe that none of it has been prepared extensively, when it obviously has. Another thing that Kurosawa is great at is using low-fi effects, and with this film I am mainly thinking of the explosions and plane effects towards the end of the film.

The interesting notion of the film is the aliens stealing concepts from humans, because as a side effect it then leaves that human without any notion of that concept. For example, one of the aliens steals from his guide's sister the concept of “family”. Once she comes to, she no longer recognises her sister as someone from her family, and immediately flees this, now, stranger's house. Similarly, removing a concept from some humans is the source of a lot of the comedy in the film, as we suddenly see very serious humans revert to a childlike state once the concept of work has been removed from their mind. A cliché often found in these types of films is that the aliens find something that they love about humanity or learn to love humans, and while “Before We Vanish” is a victim of this too, it has been handled in a much different manner. No matter how much they are impressed by us, the aliens are determined that no matter what, the invasion will happen; it is only a matter of time. Kiyoshi Kurosawa has handled apocalyptic tales before in “Kairo” and “Charisma”, but as I have mentioned already, this time around it is a much lighter approach. The stakes are the same, but it just doesn't feel as heavy, which could mainly be due to the fact that very few of the humans actually know that the world is about to cease to exist.

While there is a lot I loved about this film, I did have a couple of problems with “Before We Vanish”, although none of these are major. First up, the film is just far too long. This is a problem with cinema in general these days, but I think that a good twenty minutes of the film could have been removed to make the film better. Its not because some of the scenes are terrible, rather that they are making the same points already made earlier, so the reaping of concepts starts to become a little repetitive. Another issue I had with the film was the characterisations of the aliens. Two of the three are very goofy and always smiling to the extreme, whilst the other alien (played by Ryuhei Matsuda) looks constantly sullen and doesn't smile the entire film. There is no explanation in the film as to why Matsuda's alien is so different from the other two, so it comes across as a little odd. Speaking of lack of explanations, there is also no indication given as to how the alien's presence on Earth has been discovered by the government. I assume it is during the time one of them is given a blood test, but it is never explained which I found very frustrating.

What I loved about “Before We Vanish”, besides the fact that it was so damned entertaining, was its finale, which I guess you could say is two fold. Some may find the end very anti-climatic, especially if they are expecting a huge Hollywood ending (don't stress guys, there is still explosions, guns and blood), but all this leads up to the most beautifully, heartbreaking end to the film. This is where the real heart of the film lies and it shows its true humanity, as it examines what true love is and how painful it is to live in a world without love. Kurosawa does not overplay the finale at all, and it is all the better for it. As I said, I found the ending so beautiful, but totally heartbreaking. It is all the more so, due to the scenes leading up to the end, where actress Masami Nagasawa just owns the screen with her performance. She plays the wife of one of the human's taken over by an alien and she is the best thing about “Before We Vanish”. She is perfectly grounded and on the edge of wanting to fall in love again with the husband who has hurt her in the past, even though she knows that he is no longer the same man. Its a complex position her character is put in and Nagasawa is perfect at displaying this.

Overall, while this is not top tier Kiyoshi Kurosawa, I found “Before We Vanish” to be a hell of a lot of fun. His tale of alien invasion has been handled with a lighter touch than is usual or expected from this director and this lighter tone is complimented by the, at times, silly and goofy score from Yusuke Hayashi. While I had a few issues with some lack of explanation and the characterisations of the aliens, these were minor issues that didn't really effect my enjoyment. As usual, Kurosawa's direction is superb and I was a big fan of the film's ending which I found both beautiful and heartbreaking. For those expecting an alien invasion film the likes that Hollywood make, you are likely to be disappointed, but for mine, I found “Before We Vanish” to be hugely entertaining and I look forward to watching its companion film “Foreboding” in the next week or so.


3 Stars.