The Contact (Cheob-sok) 1997 • South Korea

This is the feature film debut of actress Do-yeon Jeon who went on to win best actress by unanimous decision for her role in Secret Sunshine at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. If you are a fan of her work you should definitely see The Contact. It's not a great film but her performance in it makes it more than worthwhile.

The Contact is the story of two people, each involved in their own forlorn love triangles, who meet on the Internet and slowly build a friendship acting as advice-givers to one another. They share the same space onscreen several times without knowing it because neither one knows what the other looks like. Comparisons have been made to You've Got Mail which came out a year after The Contact, but beyond the, uh ... internet connection, there's not much else in common. You've Got Mail was a romantic comedy, which suited the actors starring in it, while this film sports a somber quality, more suited to the actors starring in it. Do-yeon Jeon has a wistful glamor about her that comes from the inside, and Suk-kyu Han, who plays the male lead, has a "woe is me" air about him that is not the least bit amusing and comes off as a little introspectively self-important.

There is about three minutes of (in)-action just before the end of this film in which you will hate Han's character for the decision he seems to be making and the effect it has on Jeon's character. If there were a little more plot substance to account for his inaction, well ... there'd be a little more plot substance.

It's substance that this film lacks in the overall, especially in Han's character. He's a radio show producer who is always being reprimanded for inserting 20 minute songs into the playlists. He receives an anonymous package one day that contains a Velvet Underground album which becomes the link between our protagonists. Han is convinced his long lost love sent it to him but doesn't know why. He plays "Pale Blue Eyes" from the album and receives a request via the internet the following night for the same song, and that's how he connects with Jeon.

Han contacts the person, Jeon, who made the request, hoping it is his old flame or someone who knows her and made the request on her behalf. Jeon lies and says she knows the person Han is looking for. As that little fiction plays out, so do the characters' back stories.

Han's long lost love broke up with him many years ago and fell for his best friend, an army buddy. When the army buddy is killed in an accident, Han thinks the girl will come running back to him, (now that the competition is dead!) but Han is somehow implicated in the cause of the accident and a tangled web is weaved. Han also deals with internal office politics complicated by a beautiful woman who becomes his main writer for the radio show and an emotional distraction.

Jeon, on the other hand, marches forward emotionlessly after her unrequited true love falls for her best friend and roommate instead of her. While Jeon's love triangle plays out a little more interestingly than Han's, it's the emotionlessness of her character, which isn't cold and unkind, but sympathetic and sad, manifested in her inability to cry, that we come to focus on. In a train wreck of plot development, Jeon is driving her car the night Han first plays "Pale Blue Eyes." She witnesses a terrible accident, but it is the song, not the tragedy, that almost makes her cry. Hence her request to hear the song again. She wants to cry.

The Korean film's plot was made more complicated to this viewer, as train tickets, movie stubs, and other written materials are passed around without translation. Even without a good story or all the facts to go on, I was swept away by Jeon's portrayal of a woman who wants to find love but must discover first what it might look like. She's a tremendously skilled and nuanced actress. I recommend this film to anyone looking for a night of romance rental theater or a romantic character-study.


The Uncertain Guest (El Habitante incierto) (2004) • Spain

The problem with this movie is it could have been written better. The hyper-expository monologues Claudia dishes out are so unrealistic I laughed. It's a sign of a director in trouble when he has to give lines to a character, for the sake of the audience, that can't be delivered organically by that character. Those plot-getting-in-the-way-of-the-story lines polluted an otherwise poetic, dream like, and metaphorical film. It's a beautiful essay on loneliness.

I would never call this film "Lynchy" ... which is just shorthand for "I don't get it but I liked it anyway ... I think. Didn't I? Did you?" David Lynch's films can be difficult. This film is just a beta release, ya know, like everything from google.

Hence, the sudden remake. El Habitante incierto is a brilliantly conceived film that should have been executed better so the director is taking a mulligan. That's cool. I look forward to it and hope he does a better job explaining Vera's sudden muteness upon being shot in the plot hole we all saw coming like an eighteen wheeler.

OK. She was shot in the mouth and it just took a couple days without food or water for her to get her voice back at film's end. Yeah, that's it.

I give the first half a 9, the second half a 5. Let's call it a 7 and anxiously await the do-over. It's a lovely film to look at and it frustrated me so much I'm going to watch it again and again until version 2 comes along.


Trust [1990] • UK

Post modern disgust at its finest and most endearing. Hal Hartley at his best. Nobody acts in this film, they just deliver lines. Lead character carries around a hand grenade at all times ... "just in case."


Strawberry Shortcakes (2006) • Japan

I let this one sit in queue too long. The title, Strawberry Shortcakes, led me to believe it would be a silly slapstick chick-flick about young women engaged in madcap antics which is second only to adolescent comedies about the sexploits of silly young men on my list of film genres I hate, Asian or otherwise. Turns out, Strawberry Shortcakes is an engaging indie film that takes a rather bleak look at the lives of four (at times I thought there were five, read on) young women who live mostly on the margins of life in contemporary Tokyo. Sex in the City it's not, quite.

One could critique this film as being superficial because it focuses primarily on the angst-ridden side of these twenty-something women's quest for love and happiness. This is a two hour movie about four very different women and I would, if I could, ask for a hand in marriage from any one of them because they are all intelligent (and dumb) and strong (and weak) and kindness means a lot to them. The portraits of these women are, almost unnervingly, complete.

There is a religious theme running through Strawberry Shortcakes. The film begins and ends with questions and thoughts about God (big G). One of the characters is commissioned to draw a picture of God for a book cover. Hope is a constant companion to these women throughout. It's the brand of cigarettes they smoke. At one point one of the women stops by a vending machine to buy a pack and they are unavailable. She looks to the sky and asks, "Is Hope all sold out?"

A brief synopsis of who these women are:

Toko Iwase is a bulimic, intense, sometimes bitchy, but very true to her art, artist, who makes a living doing illustration and designing book covers. Her onscreen, very visceral scenes of (binging and) purging are frighteningly realistic—very, very painful to watch. She masturbates while lying on the bed, and reading the "secret" diary of, her superficial roommate. She also folds her roommate's clothes, fixes her alarm clock, makes sure she gets to work on time, and she takes care of the funeral arrangements when her roommate's pet hamster dies. Her roommate is:

Chihiro She is a beautiful, perhaps naive, perhaps sheltered office worker who sucks up to her male superiors to the disgust of her female colleagues. She's the type of woman who doesn't have any girl friends. She tries and she hopes, in the face of all things pointing against it to have a meaningful and lasting relationship with some punk loser from her work. She buys herself a pair of shoes and has them gift wrapped for her birthday because no one else is going to honor it. When her boyfriend is too busy to see her on her birthday, she calls some dude, presumably from her past, that does nothing more than deposit his manhood on her face.

Satoko is a kind-hearted, sweet, plain but very cute, charming and adorable dreamer ::sigh:: who works as a receptionist at an escort agency named Heaven's Gate. When her boss asks her why she doesn't put herself on the market she says "I am not pretty like the other girls, no one would pick me." Her boss, who turns out to be falling for her responds, "Our customers like all kinds, even ugly girls. You should think about it." Ouch. She eats at a local shop where the noodles suck and the cook and sole proprietor is a young Chinese man. His "Japanese is no good" so she answers the phone for him and takes orders. She ends up working there after her boss at the escort agency treats her to an expensive dinner and makes his feelings for her known, causing her to quit. She's the type who is attracted to, and befriends, other loners such as:

Akiyo She sleeps in a coffin at night and works as an escort at Heaven's Gate. She has a suitcase full of cash, saving up for a condo. It has to be fifth story or higher, for when her body fails her but before she's senile. "Anything below five stories and the fall might not kill you." She's in her late twenties and the other girls, in their early twenties, don't like her because all the customers do. She has a certain Lena Olin tough beauty and submits to all kinds of sexual degradation in her job because it nets her more customers and more money, and because her long-time crush on an old college friend remains unrequited. Here's where the mysterious, non-existent fifth woman comes in.

Akiyo wears high heels, her hair down, a lost in space demeanor, and other escort garb to work at Heaven's Gate. When she jumps on her bicycle to meet her old college friend, a self-described late bloomer (i.e., he doesn't have a full time job yet) for beers at a local dive sushi bar, she wears Converse gym shoes, frumpy ripped up blue jeans and t-shirts, puts her hair up and dons a pair of very bookish glasses. She appears very sharp, happy and focused when she is with him. It isn't meant to be ambiguous, or a secret that this is the same woman, as a second screening of the film revealed to me. I just missed it first time through.

There are many, many more subtle and poignant events that make up the complex portraits of these complex women. For me, and I don't think I'm alone in my opinion, Toko is the centerpiece, the rock, the glue that holds this film together. The t-shirt she wears throughout most of the film has the Led Zeppelin lyric "TO BE A ROCK" on the front and "NOT TO ROLL" on the back. Turns out this actress who plays Toko is the artist/writer of a very popular manga, of nearly the same name, that this film is based upon. She is not an actress by trade and it took quite a lot of coaxing to get her to play the part. Her presence gave this film a realism I don't think it would have had without her. Strawberry Shortcakes is not an accurate portrayal of all women in contemporary Tokyo, not even a majority, but I think Toko, real name Kiriko Nananan who writes under the pseudonym Toko Iwase, put her heart and soul into painting a wonderfully authentic portrait of a segment of that population.

Having said all that about a picture I clearly enjoyed, the director's signature is all over this film as well. It's very episodic, sometimes unsatisfying in nature; many scenes are captured in an almost documentary fashion; I think the person who adapted the screenplay put in the stuff about God and Hope in an attempt to give the film a meaning others could talk about (successfully, I think, it just didn't appeal to me); and the ending was too happy and abrupt. I can't wait to watch it again.


World of Silence (Joyong-han saesang) (2006) • South Korea

When I saw the poster for this movie of the two guys and the girl with the big red clown lips painted on her face I said, "That's messed up, that's freaky. I'll gamble." It paid.

World of Silence, a.k.a. Missing Girl, is a classic who-dunnit mystery/suspense/thriller/melodrama drama/buddy cop comedy from South Korea. At its heart is the story of a world weary cop and his goofball partner investigating a series of murders of young orphaned girls who appear to have been tripping on non-indigenous magic mushrooms and otherwise treated very well before being killed. No visible signs of trauma. Dressed nicely. Woven into that is the story of a man who possesses extra-sensory abilities and a constantly unfolding history of sadness and loss who, coincidentally or not, appears ahead of the cops at each of the crime scenes and who, as plot would have it, takes custody of a young orphaned girl who has a plot moving special disease.

This film is sprinkled with throw-popcorn-at-the-screen, Crime and Punishment style coincidences and delivered with a controlled ominosity worthy of Brian De Palma and General Hospital. The more films I see from South Korea the more I see that this kind of mixed mellow drama genre bag is quite common. It might take a little patience and getting used to, but when it's as well executed as World of Silence it's a very fulfilling film experience. I hesitate to throw melodrama into the mix because it often conjures up associations of chick-flick, which this flick is certainly not. In the capable hands of director Jo Ui-seok, melodrama is a key ingredient, used almost as a heat check, a dare, alongside mystery elements and light-hearted humor to keep the audience engaged.

Despite the groan-out-loud-inducing plot moves and a few eye-rollers to boot, I loved this movie. The performances are all top-notch. Yong-woo Park (My Scary Girl) plays the world-weary detective with a cynical sense of humor, unkempt hair, and a cool leather jacket he steals from a co-starring criminal who plays a key role in solving the murder case. Sang-kyung Kim, who played that cool cop role in Memories of Murder, plays the mystery man here looking good in an elegant, long black overcoat putting some freak in the head of the world weary detective. A very pleasant surprise is the uncredited young girl who plays the orphan Soo-yeon Park. She is adorably able to transform her screen presence from sad orphaned girl whose father died in a car accident and whose mother's been in a coma for two years but is described to her as just having a really bad cold and needing to take a really long nap, a nap that Soo-yeon hopes she will awaken from in time to attend her upcoming talent recital, to a smiling and feeling-loved 3rd-grader in the length of a breath.

World of Silence peels off layer upon layer, uncovering about five film's worth of internal demons and other dramatic tragedies, but it ends, and it seems to end a few times, like a sportscaster screaming "No! No! I don't believe it! Don't ..." and then "Great shot!" when it goes in.


Rouge (Crocodile) 2007 • Australia

As far as mean monster croc movies go this one is pretty decent because the characters are fairly well drawn and the environments both creepy and beautiful. It's more of a suspense film than a chew 'em up slowly gore slasher. We get only brief glimpses of the angry man eater until the third act which takes place in a different location from the first two.

The first act is devoted to character development, some basic saltwater crocodile facts, and lots of beautiful scenery shots of Australia's rugged Northern Territory. It's here that we decide who we hope gets killed and who we think will be the heroes. The second act finds the group of tourists and their guide trapped on a tiny little island after the big croc takes a bite out of their boat. This island is in a tidal river which means it will soon be underwater; and it will soon be dark.

The second act sees the group attempting a number of escape routines, as tensions build and the population shrinks. We still don't see much of the monster, just people who are there one minute and gone the next. An attempt is made to trick and trap the crocodile, if only for a few minutes so the group can make a run, er ... swim for it.

One of croc-o-facts we learn is that they often don't swallow their prey whole right away, but rather they take it to a hiding place and save it for later. This is where the third act takes place. The hero attempts to rescue the heroine from the crocodile's den. It's a pretty cool looking lair and we get lots of angry croc shots here. It looks and acts pretty realistic, revealing its CGI inner child only briefly. And it's big. But we've only got the hero and heroine left so there's not a lot of snacking going on. If you like your croc flicks gory, give this one a pass. If you're just looking for a little suspenseful fun, Rogue is not too bad.


An Affair of Love (Une liaison pornographique) (1999) • France

A cute, yes cute, 40ish French couple recount the stages of their pornographic affair to an interviewer while we are treated to flashbackical scenes of meetings and memories. I call the couple cute because most of their acting is thoughtful, sincere reflection, and they are cute doing it.

BIG SPOILER: We are never told nor shown what kind of kinky sex constitutes the affair even though it is referenced a number of times. Instead, the focus is on how they come to actually like one another, going against the code established for the relationship, and then sadly decide to stop seeing one another.

Even though I liked the characters the film seems a bit of a cheap tease, and tries to pull on the heartstrings too much, too artificially. I don't know what the goal for the film is and the ride by itself isn't good enough to compensate. It is not particularly erotic nor sexy, and for a talkie film it has too much yardage between the goal posts. This is one of those films that comes off like a screenwriter's catharsis more than a slice of life.


Cold Prey (Fritt vilt) (2006) • Norway

Not much here except for some beautiful shots of the Scandinavian Mountains at the beginning. It takes 45 minutes before there are any clues that this might be a scary movie, and then all we see is a anonymous swinging pick axe.

The heroine of the film is the only likeable character; I'm glad the rest of them get killed but it's annoying that it takes our Leatherface clone a couple of goes at each one. This is one of those stupid slasher flicks where somebody takes a pick axe to the face, end of scene, and then shows up later so they can be violently killed again. Their friends don't get to see the first kill which is done in private to try and build tension as the non-killed-yet wonder and fight over "what happened to so and so".

There is more gore to the snowboarding accident than any of the kills. The goofball of the group breaks his shin and we get to see the bone sticking out. Big whoop.

Fritt vilt fails to deliver on all fronts and the film's final shot at humanizing the big jerk Leatherface clone with the pick axe by going full circle with backstory is not worth mentioning. The film comes off like a genre exercise by a director who's not cut out for it.


Blue Gate Crossing (Lan se da men) (2002) • Taiwan

Dreamy, Romantic, Tender. OK We're given those on the poster. They are not the words I would use. Instead, I'd go with: Adorable, Sweet, Sensitive. This is a well-acted, well-directed, well-written movie, a joy to watch.

It took me a few minutes to warm up to the characters, but only a few. We meet the two girls first, a girly girl who seems to be in control, and a brooding follower. Not much to go on with that. Girly girl spots sensitive boy and wants him but insists that brooding girl act as the go-between. The film focuses on the friendship that develops between brooding girl and sensitive boy after that. Brooding girl becomes razor-sharp, adorably-mixed-up-commando-teen when paired with sensitive boy—who falls in love with her.

This film (the director?) does a remarkable job of capturing teens as they are: insecure and passionate; as easily hurt as they are to fall in love. They provoke each other without knowing why and then act like it never happened. One of the many highlights of this film is when the boy and girl, having run out of verbal ammunition, begin a shoving match. It goes on for some time and then they stop. They talk again. The director cuts to a scene of the two of them straightening up their surroundings together. He makes many decisions like that to keep us focused on the big picture: shit happens, and then something else happens. There's no stopping it.

I have to point out that watching this Taiwanese film with English subtitles added quite a bit to the adorableness of it. For example, after brooding girl sets up sensitive boy with girly girl, who knows he likes brooding girl, (you have to see the film to see how that happens), sensitive boy walks girly girl home. After an uncomfortably done good-bye, girly girl calls out after sensitive boy as he's about to mount his bicycle and says: "Zhang Shihao, (pause) can you date with me?" I don't know exactly what was said in Taiwanese, but that odd translation seemed to capture the moment perfectly.

I smiled from ear to ear while watching this movie from the time sensitive boy was introduced until the very end. This is an exceptionally well done film, off-the-charts-delightful.


In Love with the Dead (Chung oi) (2007) • Hong Kong • Danny Pang

Good Pang/Bad Pang. I thoroughly enjoyed this Danny Pang film, surprisingly, after suffering through his Forest of Death catastrophe. It's a well shot and well acted dark and creepy melodrama, just like I've come to expect from the Pang Brothers. My faith is restored.


The Aura (El Aura) (2005) • Argentina • Fabián Bielinsky

It's sad Fabián Bielinsky died (young) after making this film because El Aura demonstrates clearly that its director has mastered his domain. There are a few puzzling moments in the script and its characters, but this isn't one of those "Don't go in that room!" thrillers, it's old-school/neo-noir; quietly intense and full of suspense.

Ricardo Darín's peculiarly charactered performance is executed with such subtlety and nuance that it's hard to believe he's acting. The sound design and original score are beautiful, and so perfect for the film they seem to be growing out of it rather than being imposed upon it. There are times when the lack of any soundtrack is deafening. The droning tensions and lilting piano ennui disappear, punctuating the moments of action with a moribund silence.

Sometimes I complain when a film ends with such ambiguity it appears to be a cop-out. But not here. The ending will make you rethink the journey you were just on but it won't devalue its magnificence. This is one of those rare films where the ride is so engaging that its hard to imagine anything but disappointment merely because it does end.

"Aura" is what doctors use to describe the moment before falling into epileptic seizure. Ricardo Darín's character describes it as a moment of pure freedom. The inevitable is so clear that decisions are impossible, hence ... Freedom. Clarity.


Anamorph (2007) • USA

Some films are intentionally ambiguous leaving the final interpretation up to the viewer while others simply fail to tell a cohesive story causing the viewer to invent all kinds of theories about what the film was trying to say. Anamorph falls into the latter category.

This is one of those films where the death/crime scene is a work of morbid art, in the tradition of Se7en and Silence of the Lambs. The film looks good with its fiery cinematography. It's paced well and Willem Dafoe turns in a smoldering performance as the aging cop we're never clear on just how torn apart are his insides. And that's where this film fails. It's never clear about much of anything and tries to justify itself via the concept of the anamorph whose rendering "Depends on where you stand." Flashbacks and reflective turmoil are used to try and fill in the blanks as to why Dafoe's character is so intimately connected to the crimes. The film's denouement gives us a silly special effect suggesting multiple personalities may be involved. But maybe this and maybe that aren't good enough and I'm confident that at film's end you will scratch your head and say "Whaaaa"? It's also disappointing that, surprisingly, we weren't treated to any really good anamorph illusions. Given the title of the film, I'm just saying ....


The Ruins (2008) • USA

And now for something completely different. An angry temple that eats people; no over-sized half-wit with a chainsaw in this one. Instead, we have blood thirsty shrubs with the ability to reproduce sounds they hear, like cell phones and screaming. They literally get under your skin and when you die they drag you away. If you scream they mock you.

There isn't much particularly scary in this film, but there are a handful of squirm in your seat moments. I like the trend in recent horror movies to keep the gore less gratuitous and more necessary to the plot. Quality over quantity. Give the the special effects department some props for this one.

Jonathan Tucker is a little miscast, I think, but the two girls are pretty good. A couple other bearded guys play meat puppets. They all suffer while we look on. It seems a little odd that this group of kids witness the vines killing and dragging one of them away and then the rest of them just go to sleep in a tent and get up the next morning ready for more worries. Aside from that ....


Forest of Death (Sum yuen) (2007) • Hong Kong • Danny Pang

It's no secret that the Pang Bothers aren't big on script talent, but good lord, this was embarrassing.

A rape/murder takes place in a forest that is infamous as a mecca for suicide. A botanist is researching the ability of plants to communicate with people. His girlfriend is a tabloid TV reporter sensationalizing the ghostly aspects of the forest. A detective, investigating the rape/murder case, believes that plants can act as witnesses so she gets the botanist to bring his equipment to the forest and sets up a re-enactment of the crime where the plants will act as lie detectors.

I'm not kidding.

I'm not necessarily against inadequate stories but the hilarity of this one infiltrates everything else to the point that it becomes impossible to take it seriously. The actors don't seem dedicated to their characters, nothing appears genuine here. I love the Pangs and think they often make engrossing films, sometimes despite the stories, but this one is just too in-your-face dumb.

Irina Palm (2007) • UK

Rarely have I enjoyed a film this much when I also found so much wrong with it. The biggest reasons for liking Irina Palm are Marianne Faithfull and Miki Manojlovic. They are terrific, both humble and genuine in their roles of hand-jobbist and sex-club owner, respectively. I hesitate to call them prostitute and pimp because that would grossly overstate their actual vocations, and it's gross overstatements that slightly mar this otherwise delightful film about a woman who, apparently, stoops to a pretty low standard in her efforts to save the life of her gravely ill grandson.

I write apparently because I couldn't help but conclude from this film that giving hand-jobs for a living is not all that bad. Maggie (Marianne Faithful) receives the moral high ground in her confrontations with both her friends and her son when the truth of her vocation is revealed. Her son makes a fool of himself, vastly over-acting and over-reacting when he discovers his mother working in a sex club. He sees her dressed in a typical day dress walking through the club. All the other women are half naked but her son concludes that she is working as a whore. He calls her a whore, screams it at her without a single question. As the audience we see this display of ridiculous emotion as misplaced. Maggie's daughter-in-law, who up to this point didn't seem to care if her son lived or died, rises to the defense of her mother-in-law. Maggie entered this degrading lifestyle to save her grandson.

Maggie finds strength and a new, authentic life in refusing to accompany her son and grandson to Australia for the operation that will extend the grandson's life, and instead returns to the sex club and kisses (and presumably falls in love with) the sex club owner, who, in response to Maggie's declaration that she likes his smile, affirming their budding closeness, says "I like the way you work." Gracious me.

Dorka Gryllus is also wonderful as the young veteran glory-hole worker but after developing her character, and her relationship with Maggie, she is abruptly tossed aside. The two of them had become friends, but Louisa (Gryllus) is unrealistically fired because Maggie has taken away all her clients. On her way out, Louisa curses Maggie who has no idea why. When Maggie later approaches Louisa at her home in a run down housing project (isn't that where you'd expect a glory-hole worker to live?) to attempt reconciliation, Louisa opens up a can of class-consciously aware worms in response, but then is shut out, turned off, and eliminated from the rest of the film entirely.

The script to Irina Palm (palm, hand-job, get it?) has to have some tongue planted firmly in cheek. For those who are curious, there are no penises shown in the film, only arm movements and careful camera angles that suggest the size of the unseen units must average one to two feet in length. The rise of this mild-mannered, fifty-year-old grandma who can't even say the f-word, from nobody to the "best right hand in London", with men in long queues to receive her services is absurd. It's just not that kind of skill. It's a very small segment of a larger talent pool.

Maggie wears her right arm in a sling for most of the film, suffering from penis elbow, which is akin to tennis elbow only from a different vocation. Enjoy the film and don't sweat the details of this simple and touching story, just soak in the wonderful performances amidst the (inexplicably chosen) mildly raunchy milieu.


Loft (Rofuto) (2005) • Japan • Kiyoshi Kurosawa

It's not worth two hours time to sit through this, a deliberately poor movie, a weak self-parodying movie, to show the audience that even in the context of pointless nonsense, the director can still frame a shot well, or set a mood of dread filled (dreadful?) anticipation. I'm just not a big enough Kurosawa fanboy to try and make excuses for a film like this.

Is this film funny? Yes. And here's how it's funny: in one scene, after the presence of the J-Horror Goth Chick Ghost has been established, the director strings together a sequence of shots where the lovely Miki Nakatani spots said JHGC's feet in another room and inhales with a shudder as she runs into a corner. Miki doesn't do a good job of running away. She begins to creep anxiously closer to the ghoul again, and upon visual confirmation inhales with a shudder and runs to a different corner, and then creeps anxiously closer, shudder, corner, creeping, shudder, corner, creeping, shudder, a calm acceptance, CUT TO A NEW SCENE. Ha ha ha!

If you see this film think of it as taking a night class in Kiyoshi Kurosawa technique. You'll learn something.


Love and Other Disasters (2006) • UK

I like Brittany Murphy a lot but this is not the right vehicle for her. She's not a fashionista and lacks the kind of poise it takes to walk comfortably in high heels. Almost all of the shots of her 'strutting' are cut to less than a step so you can see what she looks like but not how she moves. It's the same with the tango dance scene. Quick edits work as a disguise. I don't think the beehive hairdos work on her but if you like Brittany Murphy you should see this film. It won't make you dislike her and the film is mildly clever.

A handful of male actors perform well and give the film most of its charm. The two female actors, besides Brittany, are junk. The two women, mother and daughter, try to act likeably eccentric but are simply annoying, shallow and superfluous to the story. They aren't even acceptable caricatures of likeably eccentric. Chain smoking cigarettes does not eccentric make.

I don't think it really counts as a spoiler to let people know that Gwyneth Paltrow and Orlando Bloom are on the screen for about 20 seconds. That's part of the cleverness of this film. They play the parts of the 'happily-ever-after' couple in the Hollywood version of the movie we're watching as it is written by one of the characters in the movie.


The Signal (2007/I) • USA • David Bruckner, Dan Bush, Jacob Gentry

Lotsa fun. I didn't know this was going to be a very funny movie. It's got blood and more blood, a decapitated talking head, dead bodies everywhere, and kill scenes with realistic and unnerving sound effects that will make you wince. Those aren't the funny parts.

At times AJ Bowen seems to be channeling Bruce Campbell of Evil Dead fame. He even looks like him in certain moments. The Signal has a surreal, over-the-top sensibility like Evil Dead, but it's humor is not derived from that. This film is witty and subtle; the humor more cerebral than gut funny. Scott Poythress turns in a wonderfully comedic performance as the third wheel.

This is akin to Dead End and Five Across the Eyes in its humor. It's not a spoof or send-up. I think this is a new genre-crunch for horror. Smart, gory without being torture porn, and funny. It's a cult classic in the making because it makes fun with the genre, not of the genre. It drags a little at the end but it's been a full meal up to that point.


My Mom's New Boyfriend (2008) • USA

A few chuckles, a little bit of plot, and some star power. I wish there'd been more Selma Blair on screen. I like her but ... her part could have been played by anybody.

It's kind of scary when Meg Ryan smiles (her face is a small disaster and her lips are ill-freaky) but other than that, even despite that, she looks good and can still pull off her Megness like no one else. There are a couple scenes that are pure Meg: when Antonio is fawning over how hot she looks, she responds "Yeah! I know!" Only Meg could do that and not make everybody throw-up. In another scene she gets mad at him and throws a fit, punching and screaming into the air. Antonio just watches until its over and is speechless (so was I) but for a genuinely soft-spoken "Wow." It is nice to see those scenes. Meg's still got it and Antonia doesn't seem like he's going to lose it any time soon.

It is a pleasant surprise to see how good Antonio looks. Maybe I just haven't seen him in a while. I've always liked him in comedies. If you like Antonio, you will love the scene where he ends up with each hand in a glass of water (or white wine?). Antonio could charm the socks off ... I dunno, somebody who really needed their socks.

That's what these kinds of movies are all about, right? How good do our stars look? How much do we enjoy seeing our favorite celebrities prance about ... acting.

There's a light twist at the end of the film so everybody can be happy. Upon reflection it explained a few unanswered hmmmm's from previous scenes but I didn't see it coming because I wasn't expecting it; I didn't need it and I had forgotten about the earlier scenes because this isn't a movie you keep score on.


The Eye 2 (Gin gwai 2) (2004) • Hong Kong • Pang Bros.

Typical Pang Brothers: inventive camera-work, thoughtful sound design, well constructed scenes, a few jolts, and a story line that mixes fantasy, flashbacks, hallucinations and dreams with some present tense reality and impossible events (like jumping pregnant off a building roof and ending up with only a few scratches and a healthy baby). Call it a script.

No secret that the Pang Brothers have their own personal logic and/or they can't be bothered with cohesiveness to their stories as long as there's a general thrust of somebody doing something questionable so that the scaries can come after them until they fess up in some ambiguous way. I don't care. They do everything else well enough for me to enjoy their films.

A big pleasant surprise is anorexic super-model Shu Qi nails her part. She is beautiful and convincing.

There is no reason for this film to be called EYE 2 except for capitalizing on the success of the original EYE which dealt specifically with a blind person getting an eye transplant from ... drum roll please ... someone who didn't die right--the basis of most Asian horror--so they haunt until a remedy is found.

I'm pretty sure Shu Qi has 20/20 vision in this movie, but she is messing around with a married guy which causes his wife to commit suicide (she doesn't die properly) and comb her hair over her face, like a good Asian horror girl should, so she can effectively haunt the nasty mistress who is pregnant with her cheating husband's child.

The MIA husband of some other pregnant girl also haunts our heroine for some reason. I dunno.

They don't show it but at one point Shu Qi practically bites the face off some other guy. That was fun to think about.


Re-cycle (Gwai wik) (2006) • Thailand • Pang Bros.

One of the reasons the Pang Brothers' films are so engaging is they have an excellent grasp of sound design and good taste in music. Both this film and Diary (an Oxide solo effort) reach operatic proportions at times. They are not content to hire up a few jingles and play them over and over throughout the film in some sort of branding effort. Each scene has its own soundtrack. Oftentimes the soundtrack seems to lead the scene. I hesitate to call it music video-like because that smacks of demotion, but it is like a music video in the sense that the music is as important as the video.

Re-cycle reminded me of Terry Gilliam's work, but it's not as desolate or oppressive. It's a beautiful film made edgy by the Pang Brothers tendency to genre hop, mixing in horror and melodrama. I think most would agree the Pangs are quite skilled and creative in the visual department but seem to lack a command of the story telling part. I say, so what. I'm happy to be fully engaged while the film is playing, with my only after thoughts fond memories of the ride. I don't always need a deep philosophical discussion of what a film is trying to say.

There may be better ruminations on the basic idea of this film, and it's a good one--exploring a place where all that's forgotten or abandoned congregates--(Spider Forest comes to mind), but few will be as engaging as this multimedia masterpiece. I had no idea this film was going to take off into fantasy land and stay there for the duration of the film. It came as quite the surprise, and kept surprising me.

I loved Angelica Lee's man-shoes, and ... is there anything more adorable on this planet than an eight year old Chinese girl? Big round of applause for Yaqi Zeng!


Funny Games (2007) • USA • Michael Haneke

This is a shot for shot remake by the same director of the 1997 film. It's not quite as slimy or as creepy as the original, probably because I knew the story, Naomi Watts is too beautiful, and Michael Pitt's shorts aren't short enough.

Pitt and Brady Corbet do a stand up job, as good as the original duo, which is a pleasant surprise, but Roth and Watts, while good, don't seem as terrorizable as the original pair of vacationers. Maybe Tim Roth's resume precludes the requisite suspension of disbelief.

My vote is for the original and recommend it over this one unless you don't like subtitles. Both films are very good, but for American audiences I think it adds to the WTF? effect if the characters are unfamiliar. This version is definitely worth seeing if you don't want to go the subtitled route. The bad guys are a unique and surreal experience in terror.

As I wrote in my comment on the original, all the pretentious talk about "making a film that sends a clear message about violence, and the audience's view and involvement with violence on film" or "a deconstruction in the way violence is portrayed in the media" is (utter and complete) NONSENSE. Where does that kind of silly talk come from? Feed someone sugar and then berate them for liking it because it's sweet? There is nothing didactic or pedantic about this film. It is terror for terror's sake. Sweet.


Funny Games (1997) • Austria • Michael Haneke

White short shorts (we're talking John Stockten short), no socks and deck shoes, white gloves and an ivy-league education. That's creepy for a serial killer. Said outfit and his friend Butthead make a bet with a vacationing family that they will be dead in 12 hours. This is one of the creepiest films I've seen.

All the pretentious talk about "making a film that sends a clear message about violence, and the audience's view and involvement with violence on film" is NONSENSE. Where does that kind of silliness come from? There is nothing didactic or pedantic about this film. It is terror for terror's sake.

One of the 'synopses' states "the viewers are forced ... to share a certain complicity with the criminals." How's that? Wouldn't that be true of watching any film? Is it because the director breaks the 'fourth wall'?

When this film was over I didn't contemplate my complicity in media violence, I applauded the writer, director and actors for giving me a great ninety minutes of terror.


Diary (Mon seung) (2006) • Hong Kong • Oxide Pang

Criticisms of the writing and screenplay aside, this is an engaging film on the surface. I loved it even though I didn't get it. The creative camera angles, the mostly gray/green color palette accentuating a sense of disease or decay, the original music and sound design, and the physical beauty of the actors add up to a sensuous ninety minute delight. At times the film seems adrift on a sea of music carried along by the score instead of leading it, while at other times the conspicuous absence of any sound almost embarrasses the viewer in moments of voyeuristic character study. There isn't much depth or background to the characters in Diary but the focus on their moments of here and now is sharp and clear.

Charlene Choi is magnificent as the schizophrenic, sad and lonely Winnie. Her face has a beauty suited to suppressed evil or desperate sadness inside, and she presents this facade so convincingly that in her very few, very brief moments of happiness, the shy and hopeful smile that accompanies the change evokes the poetic innocence of a rescued child. It's captivating and magnetic, drawing the viewer into a collaborative dream of promise that when quickly and sadly broken the feeling of empathy is profound. That's good acting and directing.

The ending very clearly presents a major twist. The cast credits only three people, so one must conclude that the real instigator was Winnie's neighbor, but it sure didn't look like the same person to me. Her character is presented as a likely ne'er do well but I'm not sure if it was her or if it was some alter ego, some schizophrenic other personality of Winnie. I think the ending twist is unnecessary and even though I didn't grasp the director's intent, it didn't bother me remotely enough to spoil the film.

Another aspect of the sensuousness of this film comes from the language and subtitles. This is a Hong Kong film, the language is Cantonese. I understand about three words of Cantonese but find the language wonderfully lyrical. Even in the few instances where the characters scream at one another there is a musicality to it. Most of the film drifts along like the melody of a bedtime lullaby, perhaps a byproduct of Charlene Choi's other profession as a (rather famous in Hong Kong) canto-pop singer.

Regarding the English subtitles—at least the set that accompanied the film I watched. Subtitles are a spongey issue. I imagine that one of two things are usually expected: that they are translationally accurate, or that they convey accurately the mood and intent of the speaker. One phrase uttered several times in this film by Winnie is, "I like to make puppets as I always think they are able to share with me". I don't know what that means because it could mean so many things. I hope the native language meaning is also as wonderfully ambiguous.

Anyone familiar with someone learning English as a second language has experienced moments of questionable grammar that are crystal clear in meaning and intent. I'm glad the subtitles appear to have been done by someone whose English is a second language. There are many examples, but a few gems for me were: "I like to make puppets and write my diary", "Do you have an affair?" (for, Are you having an affair?), "She instigated me!", and my favorite, "Seth often complained of my cookery." (You'll have to see the movie to enjoy the full impact of that last one.)

Diary is for the most part a dark, moody, mellow drama. But Oxide Pang throws in a little horror scene, a common practice in much of Asian cinema. I like to call it genre-hopping. I love the way he fuses a very sensual moment with fangs.


The Red Shoes (Bunhongsin) (2005) • South Korea

The Red Shoes uses every J-Horror (and K-Horror) motif we've seen many times before. Most notably the young, attractive, professional female lead who's got a cheating husband and a daughter that goes freaky. Its plot is constructed around some thing that connects the natural and supernatural worlds via the kid. There's a hip, interested, and understanding other man hanging around, helping when he can. The infamous J-Horror Goth Chick even makes appearances. If all this is a deal breaker with regards to your viewing pleasure, skip this one. If it's not, then add it to your queue immediately.

The red shoes, referred to with the singular it in this film, are really more of a fuchsia pink set of come-fuck-me pumps. The Red is surely meant to symbolize blood, as in "blood on your hands", but I digress.

It's the production values of The Red Shoes that make it worthwhile. This is a good looking film whose creators clearly cared about doing it well. The cinematography is creepy and creative, accentuating the sense of dread with distortions, colors and inspired scene locations. The soundtrack is understated and almost peaceful—it's not used to create tension where none exists. And the script, typical of Asian Horror, is loose enough for the viewer to choose from a number of interpretive styles: is it a dream, a figment of some dreadful imagination, or is everybody a different aspect of a multiple personalty? The Red Shoes doesn't break any new ground but if you are a fan of the genre this is a professionally put together package that delivers.


Five Across the Eyes (2006) • USA

Every frame of this real time 90 film is shot from inside the van. Yes, it's grainy and hand-held, but it's creatively envisioned and executed. You are the camera, along for the ride. When filming the girls changing a flat tire you can only get the shot via the side-view mirror. Priceless. Most of the humor in the film is achieved by being that omniscient, yet part of the mix, set of eyes. The one-liners are eaves-dropped upon, not thrown in your face.

This isn't gore, though there is a fair amount of blood splashed around. There is nothing supernatural. There is just waiting for the next, possibly horrible thing in store for these girls at the hands of a psycho soccer mom. When something really horrible happens it's downplayed, like pulling a screwdriver from between the legs of one of the girls, or watching from inside the van as another girl gets a shotgun up the butt. Another girl gets her mouth taped shut after loading with fish hooks. But these 'gorable' moments aren't the focus. You really have to see this film to enjoy how subtle and understated it is.

What I found most entertaining in Five Across the Eyes was the emotional back-and-forth between dread-filled screaming teenagers and the dead-pan humor—which is NOT AT ALL like cheap horror comedy humor. This is not a send-up and it's not meant to be satire. The humor is achieved through the comic timing of the director and editor and the choices they make. There is no setup to the punches, you catch them peripherally, and that's what makes them good.

A mom with a big perfectly white teeth smile haunts these girls. Genius. How many more masked hillbillies can a horror fan take?

The sound design of the dialog is a little sub-par . I really want to watch this again with subtitles. It seems that the psycho soccer mom is charging the girls with ruining her family and she scolds them over and over at extremely high volume. It's as if she is taking the role of uber-mom to all these girls. She's rather large physically, not fat, and has a very big mouth (filled with perfect white teeth, as I mentioned before ... and they almost glow, adding to the surreal nature of things). That we can't really discern what her motives are puts us in the same state of mind as the girls.

The girls themselves go back and forth between bitching at one another to last-rites declarations of love and apology as they sense the end may be near.

Forget Blair Witch, and all its pretentiousness. If you've seen the Spanish horror film REC and liked it, give this one a shot. I thought it was going to be a cheap exploitation flick. The fact that the first thing the soccer mom does when she catches the girls is make them take all their clothes off and put them in a pile and then make one of the girls pee on them, well ... I thought, yep, exploitation it is. But then the crazy lady just drives off. And there we are, as befuddled by what just happened as the girls.


Watching the Detectives (2007) • USA

The basic premise: Neil (Cillian Murphy) owns a small independent video store and lives passively in a world of make believe movies. Violet (Lucy Liu) lives a life of adventure. She would rather do than watch. She stages real life scenarios of situations Neil can hardly imagine. Most of her escapades are well thought out (My favorite being the picnic scene) and leave both the viewer and Neil wondering just what's going on and how things will turn out.

I wish we'd gotten more background story on Violet, maybe a little input on why she puts the moves on this particular guy, but it's thoughts like that ... film criticism ... that will spoil the fun.

Don't go in expecting too much unless you are a Lucy Liu fan. It's not a mature or edgy film. There's not much to it except a delightful 90 minutes spent adoring Violet. Nothing wrong with that.

Lucy Liu gets to wear all these cute outfits, many are low cut but not unduly provocative. The wardrobe department should get some props here. She looks great. She gets to act all femme fatale (though this film is inappropriately labeled 'noir') as she pulls prank after prank in an effort to deal with her "rare, exotic disease."

We get the quirky Liu here, not the tough one. She looks like a college student most of the time, except for the close-ups. Her body language and delivery are free spirited and charming in a predictable but nicely done way. From standing pigeon-toed to sniffing her armpit for odor, she's as cute as a button. I don't imagine the film makers were shooting for anything beyond that.