4/18/04:

It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day today. My friend Star, who was going to accompany me to my second movie today, decided it was too lovely outside to be inside for so long, and backed out. I understood her decision, but I stuck to my guns and saw all my scheduled films today.

In the lobby while standing on line for my first film I ran into my friend Alex and we talked for a bit. When she mentioned how many films I was seeing, another of the all access pass folks became interested and started talking to us as well. Ah, my fellow movie geeks.

When we got inside the theater, the person presenting the film was impressed to see so many people inside on such a nice day. It's too bad we were in for a rather mediocre film...

Films I saw today: A Problem with Fear, Hanging Offense, and Dragonhead

A Problem with Fear

This was the east coast premier of A Problem with Fear, a film about (unsurprisingly) fear. The main character, Laurie, is a scaredy cat of huge proportions. He has fears of escalators, of elevators, of crossing the street, of walking over grating, of large open spaces, of commitment. He has his sister Michele walk him to work at the mall every morning. But his sister and his girlfriend Dot are nearly fed up with his laundry list of hang-ups and phobias. Michele works for a company called Global Safety, a company that makes personal safety bracelets and PDAs, both of which are meant to warn the user of impending danger of all types. Laurie, so obsessed with fear and danger, of course owns their products.

But something's not quite right at Global Safety. The film opens with one of their employees freaking out about some new system. Storming out of a meeting, he heads for the elevator, but seems afraid to get on. He does so anyway, and his fears are immediately realized, as the elevator suddenly plummets to the ground at incredible speed.

Soon fears are becoming realized all across the city. Laurie sees what's going on almost immediately, but soon enough other people notice it, too. Then TV news reporters pick up the story, referring to the series of accidents and strange events as a "fear storm." People start repeating the phrase "Happy thoughts" to one another, as a kind of greeting or warning. "Don't think about cancer," one friend says to another, and they all stare at each other with expressions of sickened horror. Stocks start falling sharply, but Global Safety is making plenty of money.

Laurie is certain his sister and the Global Safety company are the source of the problem. Somehow they've hooked him into their danger warning system and now his fears are being realized all over the world. He realizes that the only way to save everyone and put everything back the way it was is to finally face and defeat each of his fears, one by one.

It's a clever story idea, rife with dramatic and comic possibilities. And, given the current climate of fear and danger in America and the world at large, this is a timely film, too. And it does end up being a pretty interesting and funny movie. But it seems to me it could have been a lot more. A Problem with Fear is a silly, fluffy, vaguely surreal bit of nonsense. Laurie is its weird and selfish but sympathetic hero. I suppose we are meant to root for him to get it together and commit himself to his relationship with Dot. But it's hard to like Dot. She's a ridiculous, over-the-top, comedic character, rather vapid and stupid, constantly trying to interview people for her project on personal style (something about which she clearly knows very little). She's actually kind of icky, and we'd rather Laurie got together with somebody else.

And the story is a bit unrealistic, unbelievable and confusing. Just what is causing the "fear storm"? At times it seems to be Laurie himself who is at the center of all of the strange events that are occurring, but at other times it seems that it's not just his fears that are being realized--it's all kinds of random people's fears. And how exactly could a bracelet or a PDA read someone's mind and then transform the workings of cars, elevators, escalators, and indeed fate itself, to cause horrible accidents?

Admittedly, the film doesn't pretend to realism. It paints broad, cartoonish strokes with a big, silly brush. We are meant to accept the premise on its own terms and then move on and enjoy the humorous examinations of human nature that arise from it. But that's a pretty big premise to swallow. And it could have been explained in some more cohesive and logical way.

My Poll Rating: Very Good, but I'd change it to Fair on further thought

Intermission

On my way out, I was surprised to hear someone behind me say, after looking at his ballot, that he wished there were a rating lower than poor. I didn't love the film or anything, but it certainly wasn't that bad.

Anyway, a quick trip across town on the El got me to my next theater, but I was hungry and there was time, so I stopped at...well, I stopped at McDonalds. It was my first time back at the golden arches since I'd seen Super Size Me. I lasted a week without the greasy goodness, and then I caved in. Ah, well.

When I got into the theater after my culinary transgression, I found it nearly empty. I guess not many people were up for a French metaphysical cop movie on a nice day in April.

And apparently the lovely weather distracted the theater workers, too, as this screening was the site of the worst series of technical mix-ups I've ever seen in a theater. The movie started upside down, stopped, then started back up with the picture black and the sound backwards. Then we sat around for a good chunk of minutes waiting for something to happen. Then the movie came back on again, this time with the wrong lens on the projector. When finally everything seemed to be working smoothly and some minutes of the film had gone by, it suddenly stopped again and the lights went up. The whole thing was pretty frustrating, but from that point on everything went smoothly. I wonder if the technical mistakes caused me to miss anything that would have made the movie make more sense. I doubt it. This is a French film, after all.

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Hanging Offense

A seriously disturbing, strange, inconclusive and cerebral French detective film, made by Guillaume Nicloux, who contributed another seriously disturbing, strange, inconclusive and cerebral French detective film to last year's festival (A Private Affair). And, in fact, the main character from that film makes a cameo in this one. But this film's main character is not a private detective, like Francois Maneri, but a police detective. Her name is Michele Varin, and she's a rather distant and quiet person. She lives alone now after the recent death of her son, which she's having a hard time dealing with. She's haunted by terrible, realistic nightmares--and we are haunted by them, as well. The movie is constantly pulling the old nightmare trick, wherein we watch a scene thinking it is actually happening only to see the main character awake and realize that it was all only a dream. Which in most cases is a great relief, as Varin's dreams are totally horrific.

It doesn't help that she's investigating the death of a woman who was hanged in the park, and who turns out herself to have been haunted by visions of demons and ghosts and men in large black capes. Her death at first appears to have been a suicide, but nothing is ever that easy in a French detective film. Things only become more disturbing as Varin digs deeper. Other people start dying, apparently killing themselves, but a shoe is always missing. What does it mean? Soon Varin's dreams are all about suicide. Is she considering killing herself? She starts seeing a shrink. Meanwhile, she's trying to keep her son's pet rabbit alive and have a relationship with a suspected arsonist.

The film is full of strange details, disturbing images, half-glimpsed ideas. Varin is working on a jig-saw puzzle throughout the movie, and also throughout the movie we keep seeing sudden, unexplained shots of places and things that will appear later on. Are they visions of the future? What does it mean that Varin keeps seeing a stone alley, which turns out to be the image on the puzzle she's been putting together, and which she ends up walking by at the end of the film? And was there a strange man in a black cape standing in the alley or not?

Hanging Offense is a very odd and unsettling film. It leaves you questioning--questioning pretty much everything. It takes place in a world where fate, black magic, and visions of the future may actually take a hand in shaping events. But nothing is clear; the case is left unsolved. The puzzle has been together, but when we stand back and look at the finished picture, with all the pieces put finally in their places, it still resists understanding. Again, as with A Private Affair, this film is more about the detective than the case. And by the end of the film, Varin has decided to live, and has left her nightmares behind her. Although frankly, after experiencing what she does, it seems she should have even more nightmares.

This is not a movie for everyone. If you find yourself turned off by the above description, you should probably pass this one up. But I would like to add that the movie is crammed with style. It is visually arresting and very effective emotionally, with excellent acting, editing, and direction. It is completely engrossing and involving, even if the story did ultimately leave me puzzled. So if you feel up to a French existential mystery, check this one out; it's one of the better ones I've seen.

My Poll Rating: Very Good

Intermission

After crawling out of the dark world of Hanging Offense back out into the actual darkness of the night, I hopped the El back across town to the Ritz East to check out my next film. I arrived a bit late, but the theater wasn't too full, and a friend of mine, Sam, had saved a seat for me. It was the first time in the festival that someone had gotten the chance to save a seat for me!

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Dragonhead

I don't want to spend too much time or space talking about this movie, but I probably will. It's very long, very slow, and very, very bad. Apparently it's based on some comic books; I can't speak for whether they're good or bad. All I know is, this movie is really bad. It was a true ordeal to sit through. It went on and on, and got worse and worse. I couldn't believe that it just kept going. It was directed by Joji Iida, who also directed a movie variously known as Rasen, Spiral, Ring 2: Spiral, and Ring: The Spiral. It may be a sequel to the original Ringu, it may be a different version of the same story, or it may be something completely different, depending on who you talk to. But most people do tend to agree that it's a really bad movie, which makes sense to me, after I watched this example of Iida's workmanship.

Dragonhead starts promising, with the end of the world. A train full of students crashes in a tunnel, and one of them, Teru, wakes up to discover that pretty much everybody is dead. He slowly (oh, so achingly slowly) makes his way out into the tunnel and starts stumbling around (seriously, this guy has to be the clumsiest person ever to live--he falls over every other second) looking for other survivors. Eventually he comes upon Nobuo, who is one of those kids who gets picked on all the time by all the other kids. He seems to have survived the accident because bullies locked him in the bathroom. Unfortunately, in the process he has gone pretty much completely insane. He threatens Teru with a knife, beats an injured teacher to death, and starts painting himself with lipstick and arranging the dead bodies into little tableaus.

Meanwhile, Teru finds another survivor--a girl named Ako Seto. The two of them ultimately escape the unstable tunnel only to find themselves in what appears to be a snowy wasteland under a black sky. When we realize that the snow is ash, and that the world has very likely undergone some kind of horrific final cataclysm, the movie achieves one of its few moments of true power and horror.

But it's pretty much all downhill from here, folks. The kids make their way to what looks like a deserted and destroyed town and try to gather supplies. But soon they discover that the place is populated by a gang of insane survivors who want to blow the place up, or something. Their plan is vague and confusing, but it definitely involves burning people up who disagree with them. Luckily our heroes are saved by a few guys in a car with guns. One of their saviors, after getting them to a slightly safer location, offers an explanation for what has happened--volcanoes and earthquakes have upset the magnetic balance and caused the "neuronic havoc" that is driving people crazy. Or maybe it was nukes, or a meteor, or a dragon, or it's just Judgement Day. Whatever. Anyway, the usual Japanese preoccupation comes up again--man versus nature. If Japanese movies have taught us nothing else, it's that if man messes with nature enough, it will eventually fight back with giant lizards or giant moths or earthquakes that drive everyone insane for some reason.

Anyway, the movie plods paingfully along, introducing us to even creepier and more depressing characters, like the two kids who were lobotomized by their Dad so they wouldn't be afraid. More people go crazy, more accidents and acts of violence occur, and Teru and Ako discover that they have the weird ability to survive pretty much anything. Seriously, this gets ridiculous pretty quickly. How is Teru always the guy who is not hit by the falling fireballs and not crushed by the boulders or the crashing jeep?

Eventually, after surviving all kinds of unbelievable catastrophes and being split up multiple times and desperately trying to find each other again, Teru and Ako both end up back home in what's let of Tokyo. And by this point in the movie there has just been so much misery and escapes and accidents and deaths and destruction and ruin, that you are just literally sick and tired of it all. But the movie keeps going on for another like half hour, mercilessly grinding forward towards its grand message.

And what is that message? (I'll warn you here that there are spoilers ahead, although by this time I hope that you would have understood that you should never see this movie and that it can't really be "spoiled" as it is already completely rotten.) Well, one of the problems after the apocalypse is finding food. Luckily, there's a whole bunch of these amazing rations lying around; I don't remember exactly where they're supposed to have come from. Probably the movie doesn't tell you. Anyway, the only thing with the rations is, if you eat them, you immediately lose all feeling and fear; you "embrace the darkness" and become just like the lobotomized kids--a kind of empty zombie. Most folks have apparently given in and eaten the rations, but Teru refuses to do so, and tries to get reunited with Ako before she gives in and eats them, too. "What's the point without emotions?" Teru asks when he finds her. "I wanted to be able to cry when I thought about you." Pretty soon after this, Tokyo starts blowing up some more, and a huge volcano rises out of the ground. The movie ends with Teru yelling, "You can't kill us!" at the volcano. I guess we're supposed to feel triumphant or defiant or something. But I never really liked the main characters very much to begin with, and about a half hour before this I started actively disliking them, so at this point I really was cheering on the volcano.

My Poll Rating: Poor

Epilogue

It was a dark and terrible way to end the night. And really the movies in general today were dark and depressing, and all about fear and death and destruction. Still, there was a good one in there, and plenty more to see tomorrow!

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Jim Genzano





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