4/14/05:

All three movies I saw today weren't what I expected. Unfortunately, in two of those cases, the movie wasn't nearly as good as I'd hoped it would be. Ah, well.

I enjoyed Travis Crawford's introduction to my first film, One Missed Call. Normally before each film, the person introducing it will give a series of basic announcements, including a request to turn off your cell phones. But since the horror in the film is centered around cell phones, Crawford suggested we leave them on, as a sudden unexpected ring would only add to the terror.

Films I saw today: One Missed Call, The Voyage Home, Throw Down



One Missed Call

One Missed Call is another entry in the rapidly growing Asian horror genre, with all the regular cliches included, almost as if the director went down a list of them during filming and ticked them off as he added each one. And, given the identity of the director and his stated purpose in making this film, it's very possible he did just that.

That's because One Missed Call was made by maverick Japanese director Takashi Miike, in a deliberate attempt to create a by-the-numbers commercially successful film so he could generate enough money to go back to making the insane, violent, decidedly uncommercial films that he's known for (like his other film in this year's festival, the time-travelling Samurai splatter film/Buddhist tone poem, Izo). The good news for Miike is that he succeeded; One Missed Call is a perfect amalgamation/imitation of other Asian horror films, and it was a smash hit in Japan. The bad news for us is that it is also a ridiculous film with a plot that makes very little sense, and it was made with marked contempt for its subject.

As in Ringu (the film to which this one owes the most in terms of story and style, though it certainly steals from plenty of others, as well), the death and horror in One Missed Call are passed on like a virus via modern technology, but in this case the technology is not a video tape, but a cell phones. This is a canny choice on the part of the filmmakers, as the cell phone is currently probably the most ubiquitous piece of technology in Japan, and is an essential part of life for the teens who are the film's characters and intended audience.

Anyway, the way the horror works is like this: you get a call on your phone, but the date and time of the call are in the future, and when you answer, you hear your own death. When the date and time of the call arrive, you are doomed to die in just the way you heard on your phone. Then, as you die, your phone will dial someone from your phonebook, and they will hear their own death, and so on, and so forth.

It's kind of a clever idea, and makes for some pretty scary, interesting death scenes. Even though you know what the scene is going to sound like, you don't always know exactly why, or what the sounds mean, until you actually see it happen.

So yeah, there are some genuinely frightening moments in the film, and some original, inventive stuff. But there's a lot more stuff that's just silly, and doesn't make any sense at all, even in terms of the strange supernatural rules the film establishes. I'm sorry, but I hate it when a movie breaks its own rules, and this one does that multiple times. It also, especially near the end, is constantly playing with us, misleading us, and pointing us in different directions, as we attempt to discover the actual source of the horror. It is clear that the filmmaker couldn't care less what the actual source of the horror is. He just wants to fiddle with us for a while. It's kind of insulting, really; the feelings that came through to me were amusement (as in, Miike laughing at us from behind his hand), and outright contempt. After the final, strange, inexplicable, open-ended shot, I wrote down in my notes, "Miike, you fuck!"

But really, can you blame a guy for trying to make a little money? And the movie isn't all bad. It manages some effectively atmospheric scenes, and some real jumpers (by which I mean, a shocking development that causes one to leap out of one's chair). Still, I expect more from Miike. Compared to his other films, this one is almost boring.

My Poll Rating: Fair

Intermission

This was another one of those times where I had to dash across town between films with almost no time to spare, but again I managed to make it on time. I even found a good seat amongst the impressively large crowd that had assembled to take in The Voyage Home, a period film set during the fall of ancient Rome. The director was in attendance and had a few halting words for us before the film started (his English wasn't the best). During the extended introduction, one of the speakers mentioned that this film was not The Gladiator, and we shouldn't expect something like that. I found this particularly humorous because I'd added The Voyage Home to my schedule in the hopes that it would be...well, like The Gladiator.

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The Voyage Home

The Voyage Home is a sad and beautiful film about a man going back to his home in the hopes of saving it from invaders and rebuilding it, only to find when he arrives that it has already been defeated, and its people have already given up. The place he loved is gone, and the friends he had are either dying or have betrayed him. It's therefore undeniably a sad film--a contemplation of loss and the ends of things. But there's also anger here, hope against hope, and life and passion in the face of death. It is above all a film of ideas, talky and thoughtful, warm and careful. I had felt, intuitively and rather inexplicably, that I would love it when I first read about it on the festival website, and I was delighted to find that I was correct.

The Voyage Home is an Italian film set during the fall of ancient Rome, and is actually based on a true story--the story of one Claudius Rutilius Namatianus, to be exact, as told in his diary. Namatianus is thus the main character of the film, and his name is rendered into Italian as Claudio Rutilio Namaziano. Namaziano is an elder statesman, still rather well-off, who fled from his home in Rome when it was taken over by the Christians. Now he feels enough time has passed, and he must return and try to help in any way he can in taking his homeland back. But the voyage and the task both turn out to be far more difficult and dangerous than he had supposed. He travels mainly by boat, with a group of horsemen following his progress overland, and protecting him when he comes ashore. But he's surrounded by bandits and traitors, and the Christians are closing in.

Even though it is a slow-paced film that's more about ideas than it is about story, there's a surprising amount of violence and sex in The Voyage Home. Namaziano may be a middle-aged, balding guy, but it seems like everywhere he goes, hot young women are throwing themselves at him. In a particularly sexy sequence, an Egyptian priestess sees him during a morning ceremony and then comes to visit him later in his rooms, telling him, "I embody sin." Namaziano tells us in narration, "Giving way to passion is not our way, but I did not resist."

The film is actually quite quotable. "The advantage of being defeated," Namaziano tells us, "is that all hope is lost." When Namaziano and his fellow travellers come upon a group of Christian hermits, Namaziano finds himself drawn into conflict with them, both ideologically and physically. "Nature gives you the chance of having a soul," he says, "but it does not give you a soul. You have to earn it." The Christians, he says, act blind and deaf, and believe in tales and illusions. (Though the film is set long ago, the director, Claudio Bondi, does a wonderful job making its characters and its story feel very vibrant and alive. And it was easy to feel sympathy for a character who wants to save his country from a group of Christians who are slowly taking over its government.) A particularly quotable character is Protadio, the aging, suicidal philosopher Namaziano meets later in the film. Protadio is another man who's given up, and he tries to convince Namaziano that it's time for him to give up, too. "Our ideas are old and crazy," he says. "Nothing is as generous as age and madness." At the end of the film, Namaziano is preparing to set out to sea again when he sees a group of horsemen galloping along the beach toward him--to kill him, certainly. He is mid-journey, he says, but of this journey, or the other?

This excellent screenplay is coupled with fantastic cinematography. Admittedly, it's nearly impossible to make an ugly film when your backdrop is the incredible Italian countryside, but Bondi and his crew enhance the natural beauty with skilled camera work, costuming, and set design, filling the screen with a blend of lovely colors bathed in wonderful warm light.

Perhaps the film's only flaw is its tendency to become talky and preachy. Luckily it is well-written, and I found its wordiness and its slow pace just helped to put me into a peaceful state of thoughtfulness and contemplation, a state I experience only rarely in a movie theater.

The Voyage Home is certainly not for everyone. If you're looking for fast-paced entertainment and bloody battle along the lines of The Gladiator, you should stay away. But if you don't mind taking it slow and thinking things out for a change, you will enjoy it.

My Poll Rating: Excellent

Intermission

After such a sad and thoughtful Italian period film, it was strange indeed to find myself walking into a goofy fighting movie set in modern Hong Kong.

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Throw Down

I went to see Throw Down because it's a fighting film, and I like a good fighting film. I would have gone to see it regardless of the predominant fighting style used in the film, but that that style happens to be judo--a style of fighting rarely highlighted in a film--made the movie that much more appealing to me.

But it turns out Throw Down is a lot more than just a judo movie. It's also a gangster movie, a wacky slapstick comedy, a buddy movie, a melodrama, a musical, and an homage to another judo movie by Akira Kurosawa. Like a lot of other Hong Kong films, Throw Down makes multiple sudden, violent shifts in tone and pacing, jumping from pure high-speed wackiness to achingly slow, tear-jerking mawkishness and back again. And, unfortunately, as with most other Hong Kong films of this type, I found these shifts jarring, the wackiness often rather childish and irritating, the slow scenes absolutely agonizing, and the corny melodrama--including the matching over-emotional, over-the-top, and just generally overdone soundtrack--nearly unendurable. The only thing that saves the film from being completely awful is a few genuinely funny and clever comedy sequences, and a couple of entertaining fight scenes.

The film has three main characters: a young judo fanatic named Tony who just wants to fight everybody who knows anything about judo; Sze-To, a once-great judo fighter who's now a washed-up drunk, petty gangster, and night club-owner, and who refuses Tony's requests for a match; and Mona, a young woman itching for fame and fortune who's willing to do nearly anything to get a job singing at Sze-To's club. The highlights of their wacky adventures include the following: Tony claims he's slowly going blind and wants to have a match with all the great judo fighters before he loses his sight completely; Sze-To uses some clever trickery to steal money from a real gangster appropriately named Savage who, it turns out, also used to be a judo fighter; in a hilariously complex scene, a bunch of folks show up at Sze-To's club all at the same time, all wanting to do harm to our three main characters--or at least to force them to do things they don't want to do--and a wonderfully confusing three-way argument ensues, followed by some wacky escape attempts, and then a fantastic all-out judo bar brawl.

But soon enough, the film takes a sudden turn toward the serious. (Warning: Some spoilers ahead.) Sze-To ends up having to look after a mentally challenged man (who will sing the theme song from Kurosawa's judo film, Sanshiro Sugata, at the drop of a hat) when his old judo master, who was taking care of the fellow before, dies suddenly after taking Sze-To's place in a judo tournament that Sze-To refused to train for. Besides being wracked with guilt, Sze-To also realizes that he is actually going blind, and decides to get back into shape, track down all his old opponents, and challenge them to matches before he loses his sight, exactly as Tony was pretending to do. Somewhere in the middle of all this, Tony, Sze-To and Mona all work together to get a red balloon untangled from a tree (!!!), and then Mona heads off to Japan to find fame and fortune. (I said that the film has three main characters, but that's perhaps unfair; despite the suggestion of a possible romance between Mona and Sze-To, she isn't really in the movie that much, and Throw Down is more about Sze-To and Tony and their eventual friendship.) And then, perhaps inevitably, the film ends with a tense, climactic blind judo match.

Throw Down definitely takes some unexpected turns. So it's not very predictable; I have to give it that. I thought it was going to become a goofy, fun sports film, where the drunk would work his way back into tip-top shape, enter into the tournament, and win it for his old master. But we never even see the tournament (Sze-To ends up hanging out outside the building, so we just hear the fighting from there), and instead the film veers off in a new direction and things suddenly get dark and serious. The various subplots, characters, and seemingly random turns the story takes make me wonder if Throw Down wasn't scripted using some kind of stream of consciousness technique. Perhaps due in part to its weird, rambling plot, the film manages to seem overlong despite its running time being only just over an hour and a half. Still, as I said, Throw Down has its moments; that big bar fight, and everything leading up to it, is really quite entertaining. And when it comes to judo movies, Throw Down is certainly one of the best. Even if that is just because there are only two of them.

My Poll Rating: Fair

Epilogue

By the time Throw Down was over, it was late at night after a long day of movie watching, and I was glad to get home and rest up for the much easier day I had planned for the morrow.

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Jim Genzano





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