Friday, March 23, 2007

Imaginary Cinema

My friend Arran, who goes by "Darth Homer" on the Tim Burton Collective, has started a website entitled Imaginary Cinema, a comprehensive history of science fiction, fantasy and horror films from the early 70's to the present. So far, there are just three biographical articles on George Lucas, James Cameron, and Tim Burton, although more is sure to follow soon. It's really nice to see someone put this much effort and intelligence into a site dealing with these kinds of movies - most of the internet sites I'm used to seeing are either focused on Hollywood's golden age, or on fringe b-movie drive-in fare. It seems a lot of critics and film lovers are somewhat ashamed to admit how much they love Steven Speilberg and Star Wars, but if you ask me, they're every bit as important to cinema as John Ford and Citizen Kane.

In addition to this, everybody's favorite movie-ubergeeks over at Aint It Cool News are compiling a new series of articles about movies that came out in the summer of 1982, one of the high points of 80's genre cinema. I usually don't read AICN, as their writing style could only be called "conversational" if I'm feeling really, really generous, but Alan "Nordling" Cerny's piece on E.T. absolutely warmed my heart. Thanks to Andrew for the link.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Freddie Francis 1917-2007

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A sad farewell to cinematographer Freddie Francis, who passed away this past Sunday. Francis' was the director of photography on such films as The Straight Story, Scorsese's Cape Fear, Dune, and The French Lieutenant's Woman. Fans of Hammer and Amicus Studios also know him as the director of several British horror classics, including The Creeping Flesh, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave and Dr. Terror's House of Horrors. Francis won two academy awards for his work as the DP of Glory and Sons and Lovers, although my personal favorite work of his will always be The Elephant Man, one of the most gorgeously shot motion pictures of all time. A true cinematic working man who embodied the very best kind of craftsman as artist, he will be fondly remembered.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Host (2006)

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In the morgue of a Korean US Army base, a belligerent officer commands his lackey to pour a cabinet of dirty formaldahyde bottles down the sink, despite the assistant's protests that it will flow directly into the Han River. Months later, a gigantic mutant beast resembling a cross between a tadpole and a velociraptor emerges from the Han, where the Park family runs a modest food stand. After rampaging through some picnics and eating a number of tourists, the beast snatches 11-year-old Hyun-soo Park up in its tail and pulls her into the water. To make matters worse, her family - buffoonish father Gang-Du (Kang-ho Song of Joint Security Area), grizzled granfather Hie-Bong, alcoholic uncle Hie-il and failed Olympic archer Nam-Joo (Du-na Bae of Linda Linda Linda) - are abducted at the victims' funeral ceremony on the grounds that the monster was the host of a mysterious virus. Soon after, Gang-Du recieves a cell phone call from Hyun-soo, who is alive in the monster's sewer lair. The family escapes from quarentine and vows to find their little girl at all costs.

The Host (or Gwoemul, meaning Monster, as it was known in Korea) is a monster-on-the-loose B-movie actionier that aspires to greater things, but never quite makes it there. Although its crowd panic scenes bear the obvious influence of Jaws and War of the Worlds, and its political subtext alludes to the films of George A. Romero, director Joon-ho Bong plays too free and easy with storytelling and tone, creating a movie that just barely falls short of the mark. As revealed in his interview with Cinema Strikes Back, Bong wanted to do away with cliches of the monster genre. Rather than building suspense around the monster for the first third or half of the movie, the creature emerges from the water to attack pedestrians in broad daylight within the first fifteen minutes of the film. It's the kind of thing that sounds like a good idea, but put into practice, it kills any kind of fear we might have had of the monster, which isn't the worst CGI creation I've ever seen, but isn't the best either. The film's depressing ending, which some might consider ingenious taboo-breaking, I found cheapened the movie as a whole. It's a perfect example of why the monster genre has cliches - because they work. Tired as some of them may be, if you take them away, you run the risk of making your movie something of a limp fish.

Another manner in which Bong falls short of his American critic-bestowed title of "the Korean Speilberg" is in his characterizations. Unlike Brody, Hooper, and Quint of Jaws, the Park family never feel like fully rounded out human beings. Gang-Du comes across as more of a bumbling older brother than a father, and although the rest of the cast do fine with what they're given, none of the parts are really written with that much meat. The cast, under Bong's direction, is able to pull off a number of brilliantly orchestrated scenes in which humor is injected into the serious or frightening - case in point, the funeral scene, in which the Parks all cry and hug each other hysterically until they all fall onto the floor like dominoes. The best scenes in the film occur in the sewer catacombs, where the family either track the monster or run from it. With the exception of a few bland and redundant spots, the scenes are all well put together and fun to watch, but unfortunatley, the whole film sum of the parts winds up being less than the sum of its parts.

I'm probably underselling this movie on the basis that American critics are traditionally softer on genre films from overseas than from our own soil. Like last year's The Descent, it seems that foreign accents or subtitles have way of hypnotizing them into thinking they're watching a better movie than they are. Asian movie fanatics, who gobble up everything that comes from the East like instant ramen, regardless of quality, do little to help. The Host is a good movie, and worth checking out if you don't feel like you're that interested in Wild Hogs. But the be-all-end-all of the monster movie it ain't.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Carrozza on Fukasaku

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My good friend, fellow filmmaker and Asian cinema expert Jules Carrozza has created a loving and compresensive documentary tribute to his favorite filmmaker, Kinji Fukasaku. Fukasaku is most familiar to us westerners for the Japanese language segments of Tora! Tora! Tora! and for his 2000 youth-gone-wild masterpiece Battle Royale. But the man produced some 60-odd films from seemingly every genre during a 40-year career, including yakuza gang films (the Battles Without Honor and Humanitiy series), science fiction (The Green Slime), samurai movies (The Yagyu Clan Conspiracy), disaster movies (Virus) and much more. Jules' documentary, in which he chronologically covers his 14 favorite of Fukasaku's movies, is in eight parts on YouTube.

Part 1 - Black Lizard and If You Were Young: Rage
Part 2 - Under the Flag of the Rising Sun and Battles Without Honor and Humanity
Part 3 - Graveyard of Honor and Cops vs. Thugs
Part 4 - Yakuza Graveyard and The Yagyu Clan Conspiracy
Part 5 - Message from Space and Virus
Part 6 - Samurai Reincarnation and The Legend of the Eight Samurai
Part 7 - Crest of Betrayal and Battle Royale
Part 8 - Battle Royale (continued)