2018년 12월 31일 월요일

Kanopy and Hoopla: Free Movies on Streaming Service

It will be less than 48 hours before the calendar page turns to 2019, the year in which the fabulously wealthy among us live in Off-World Colonies and Tyrell Corporation is developing its next phase of human-like androids known as Replicants.  Aren't we all excited? ^ ^

This is a brief public service announcement for the visual media instructors and students. I would like to direct your attention toward two websites/apps, Kanopy and Hoopla. Both services operate like other streaming services such as Netflix, except that your membership is registered through library cards. They both stock an impressive number of feature films, TV shows, short films, documentaries and a huge number of audio-visual educational sources. The most important thing about them, of course, is that they are free. Yup, that's right, you don't have to pay for watching a movie at all, not even monthly membership fees.

The only catch is that, like libraries with books, you can "rent" motion pictures only a certain number of times in a given period.  I have registered through them using my local library card with Berkeley Public Library.  This entitles me to watch seven films per month.  Seven per month might be a bit sparse as the main supply source of movies if you are a film addict like me, but I think it is just fine as a supplementary setup.  You can also try it with the affiliation via UC Berkeley, although UC Davis currently does not allow it (I promise to inquire about this in the near future! This would surely benefit UCD students a lot).

Kanopy has recently received a high-profile coverage here and you can read the article to see how it compares to the paid streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon. Hoopla allows you to have access to a ton of children's materials and e-books in addition to the movies. Both services are available through Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV and Google Play TV, so if you know how to wrangle these gadgets, you can easily watch your choices on the big screen TV, not just through computers.

I of course wouldn't recommend them to anyone without having browsed through the collection, and I can attest to the fact that their titles are quite impressive.  They might be in essence library collections, but they do include many excellent, contemporaneous stuff, mainly, but not limited to, just the right kind of independent, local and/or award-winning titles that you might have missed from the local theaters. 

For instance, Kanopy, which currently boasts about 4,000 titles, has a collection of the hot indie cinema distributed by A24, including Room, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Women Walks Ahead, and Moonlight, the winner of the 2017 Oscar Best Picture. Not surprisingly, the pedagogically useful contents in Asian Studies are curated with care.  Typing in "Hiroshima," for instance, yielded such titles as John Junkerman's Hellfire: A Journey from Hiroshima, Tsuchimoto Noriaki's Hiroshima no Pika (an animated short based on the mural paintings of Maruki Toshi and Iri) and Hara Kazuo's ultra-disturbing Emperor's Naked Army Marches On. I also checked Korean cinema at Kanopy not expecting much, and to my surprise found a decent chunk of New Korean Cinema's genre titles-- the ones used to be released via Tartan Extreme Asia imprint, now the rights are apparently held by Kino Lorber-- the first three Whispering Corridors films, Save the Green Planet, Old Boy and Lady Vengeance.

For the more recent Korean titles, Hoopla has a relative advantage, allowing you to have access to, for instance, Along with the Gods (both Two Worlds and its sequel), The Villainess and Train to Busan. However, Hoopla is apparently still new and is obviously in the process of expanding its titles, so the number of selections is not huge at this juncture (checking the titles under "Asian Movies" by the way would miss out some Korean films, such as Cinderella and I Saw the Devil, which show up under "horror" and other generic categories).  Meanwhile, their selections are greatly eclectic: their genre collections range from SF classics like Silent Running to Sharknado 5 (...) and Birdemic.  

I hope both services would pay more attention in the new year to collecting more Asian titles, especially Korean and Japanese ones that tend to get buried amongst the rows of new release movies on the Amazon Prime or Netflix homepage.  I might get back here to update specifically on the audio-visual quality of streaming, especially whether the (relatively) old genre titles are direct copies of the SD presentations, or updated HD versions.

2018년 11월 13일 화요일

Il cento notti di orrore Part 2: DEVIL'S DOORWAY (2017), THE SUPER (2017) and HALLOWEEN (2018)

Finally catching up with the second installment of Il Cento notti di orrore or The One Hundred Nights of Horror series, here it is.  I am just as crazy-busy as I was a month ago but that is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future, and meanwhile I need my weekly or at least bi-weekly doses of horror/SF/fantasy cinema.   

As before, the rating system is done with a white star counting for twenty points, and a black star for five points.  
3. Devil's Doorway (UK-Ireland, 2018). A Northern Ireland Screen/23Ten/yellowmoon/KEW Media Group Co-Production. 1 hour 16 minutes. Academy ratio 1.33:1. Directed by Aislinn Clarke. Screenplay by Martin Brennan, Michael B. Jackson, Aislinn Clarke. Cinematography by Ryan Kenaghan. Makeup by Liz Boson. Edited by Brian Philip Davis.  Music by Andrew Simon McAllister.  Purchased: Scream Factory Blu Ray, 2018.  Devil's Doorway is another recent IFC Midnight pickup.  The company has displayed good taste in showcasing a bunch of low- to medium-budget horror cinema, hailing primarily from Europe and Latin America.  It looked like for a while that the found footage craze, along with torture porn, would spell the death of horror genre in the last decade and a half. But interestingly and perhaps surprisingly, the former sub-genre has shown more resilience than we had any reason to expect, adapting to different forms of media (such as ubiquitous surveillance cameras, smartphones, laptop screens, etc.).

This UK-Irish production adds a new wrinkle to the subgenre, as well: the "found footages" that constitute the film are deliberately archaic 8-mm film and magnetic tape recordings, with all the unexpected flares and splices as well as bumping and grinding noises left intact.  The "documentary" is being filmed by a young Catholic priest Thornton (Ciaran Flynn), who, along with the more seasoned Father Thomas (Lalor Roddy, who played the town drunk in a fun monster-fest Grabbers [2012]), sent to investigate an incident of possible miracle at a Magdalene Laundry, one of the Catholic charity organizations for the homeless, infirm and "fallen" young women (based on the real-life Magdalene Asylums, the Dublin branch of which became scandalized when a mass grave of 155 bodies was discovered in 1993 in the convent grounds).  The Laundry is managed with an iron hand by Mother Superior Mary Campbell (Helena Bereen), who expresses no interest whatsoever in the verities of an allegedly miraculous event-- a Virgin Mary's statue shedding tears of blood.  Soon, Thornton is plagued by what appear to be ghosts of dead children-- most manifestations of them are captured in the films and recordings we are privy to as the viewers-- while Father Thomas expresses his despairing loss of faith in God. 

In fact, some of Devil's Doorway's strengths is derived from its serious engagement with Catholic theology. This being a film made in 2018, it has a notable subtext regarding the church's mistreatment of women and sexuality running through it, with Mother Superior hurling some barbed comments at the hypocrisies of the male-dominated church at one juncture.  The cramped and murky setting and positively primitive technologies used to record the supernatural goings-on actually help the debuting director Clarke maintain the atmosphere of dusty oppression and darkness liquefying into muddy, foul underground trenches.

The film is pretty scary for most of its short running time (one hour and 16 minutes), but missteps when, unlike William Peter Blatty's Exorcist series (and Paul Schrader's Dominion [2005]), it abandons its Catholic concerns and submits itself to the by now well-worn shock tactics familiar from The Blair Witch Project and its successors.  Father Thomas's secret relationship with the Laundry also fails to resonate, although Lalor Roddy's restrained performance restores some urgency to a rather conventional climax.  I will concede that Devil's Doorway is a strong debut feature that makes us welcome Clarke's next project with anticipation. ☆☆☆★   

4. The Super (US, 2017). A Fortress Features/Wolf Films/Saban Films Co-Production. 1 hour 30 minutes. Widescreen 2:35:1. Directed by Stephan Rick. Screenplay by John J. MacLaughlin. Cinematography by Stefan Ciupek. Production Design by Kaet McAnnery.  Rented: Amazon Prime Video.  You know that your film is in trouble, when one of its most compelling elements turns out to be the wizened Val Kilmer as a Ukrainian building superintendent, decked with a pair of granny-style bifocal glasses, and intoning portentous mumbo-jumbo.  And he is not even the protagonist of the film, even though I assume the title refers to his character.  The actual protagonist is Philip (Chicago P. D.'s Patrick John Flueger), a nervous ex-cop who, along with a sullen teenage daughter Violet (Taylor Richardson) and her cute but domineering preteen sibling Rose (Mattea Conforti), moves into an old NYC apartment as a security personnel after the tragic death of his wife.  The viewers already know-- via a disastrously out-of-control prologue sequence that just goes on and on-- that the apartment is haunted by a vicious killer, and his daughters are his possible targets, and yet the manager Johnson (Paul Ben-Victor) pays no heed, keeping himself busy covering up the physical evidence of the bloody shenanigans, one of more than one insensible plot developments in the film.  

The Super is produced by the bigwig behind the Law and Order franchise, Dick Wolf, and written by a notable Hollywood scribe MacLaughlin (Black Swan, Hitchcock), which explains some of the familiar faces among the supporting cast, but not its bewildering incompetence.  It is in fact one of those bad Hollywood films cobbled together from the elements that, when isolated and observed, appear to be either ingredients for a sure-fire hit or at least for a serviceable entertainment.  

Was the screenplay the culprit?  I don't know if this was MacLaughlin's unproduced early work that had, at one point, resonated with the NYC residents in the way Andrew Kevin Walker's work apparently did with the makers of Se7en, although whether his original conception or vision survives intact in the finished product is unclear.  I can only judge by the available evidence, and as far as I can see, The Super suffers from a very familiar symptom of making the viewers slog through numerous red herrings and false starts, in order to maximize the impact of the Big Twist near the end, which then completely fails to pay the dividends.   

However, I can only blame director Stephan Rick for his work with the actors, seemingly directed to act as sulky, unfriendly and self-possessed as humanly possible, completely cancelling any emotional investment on the part of the viewers.  The horror effects are plentiful, if mostly obvious and routinized: the film could really have used the kind of pizzazz or even downright perversity that energizes the lurkings, grabbings and stabbings in, say, a comparable Italian or Hong Kong production.  Those who have made this film obviously had talents bigger than those displayed in the screen: here is my hope that they have successfully moved onto better projects.  ☆☆★★

5.  Halloween (US, 2018). A Universal Pictures/Blumhouse Productions/Rough House Pictures/Trancas International Pictures Co-Production.  1 hour 46 minutes. Aspect ratio 2:39:1. Directed by David Gordon Green. Screenplay by David Gordon Green, Jeff Fradley, Danny McBride. Based on the characters created by John Carpenter and Debra Hill. Produced by Malek Akkad, Jason Blum, Bill Block. Executive Producers: Jaime Lee Curtis, John Carpenter, Zanne Devine, Ryan Freimann, David Gordon Green, Danny McBride, David Thwaites, Jeannette Volturno.  Cinematography by Michael Simmonds. Special Effects Makeup Supervision by Stephanie A. Ford, Christopher Allen Nelson, Vincent Van Dyke.  Production Design by Richard A. Wright.  Music by John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter, Daniel A. Davies.  Watched: AMC Emeryville Theater.  The horror specialty outfit Blumhouse and Universal team up in their latest bid to revive one of the most popular American cinematic horror franchises, Halloween.  As you all know by now, it managed to become a megahit, having opened on this year's (2018) Halloween day, earning whopping 157 million dollars in three weeks, no doubt paving way for further installments.  I am actually pretty non-commital to this prospect, given that I have never been a huge fan of either Carpenter's original film (1978)-- among his earlier low-budget opuses, I vastly prefer his poetic-macabre The Fog (1980) or even the crude but brutally Hawksian Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)-- or the series itself (which I have not followed since the Halloween III: Season of the Witch [1982]).  Perhaps for that reason, I rather like this 2018 iteration of the Michael Myers mayhem, taking place at the suburban town of Haddonfield, Illinois, as opposed to those who remember Carpenter's original as a kind of classicist or minimalist masterpiece. 

Granted, the original is solidly put together by a very talented director (unlike, say, Friday the 13th), who is also a supreme wrangler of actors, an aspect of Carpenter's talent often underappreciated, and it certainly is a pretty scary hoodoo.  But is it really a modern horror masterpiece? 

I will concede, with little to begrudge, that the original Halloween is a stripped-down, lean and mean killing machine with the muscular simplicity of a good campfire story. Maybe its non-ironical, non-hipster approach was the key to its widespread appeal, especially to the suburban teen demographic, who probably appreciated its almost primal, uncomplicated scares-- just a guy in a William Shatner rubber mask, wielding a knife, and killing you for no reason whatsoever (Neither Carpenter's original nor this film really "punishes" teenagers for engaging in sexual activity or some other socially frowned-upon behavior, contrary to the usual misconception).  Michael Myers is indeed a prototypical slasher, a monster who has been pared down, distilled and essentialized into a figure of random murderous violence.  No motives, no logic, no character tics, no colorful, smart one-liners: when the viewers, critics and even characters in this film speak of him as "pure evil," I have a sense that they are actually referring to the fact that Michael signifies nothing. He is not a metaphor for psychological perversity, social ills, the ethnic "Other," conservative political ideology, or conversely the ressentiment of the oppressed classes.  He is a "pure" bringer of death, a hulking reminder that all deaths, no matter how much we want to justify or rationalize them, are ultimately pointless, and beyond our comprehension.   

It is this unknowable, almost spiritually blank character of Michael Myers that David Gordon Green (Joe [2013], Manglehorn [2014] and Stronger [2017]) brings back in his take, a strategy markedly different from the quasi-Jungian, mythopoeic one assumed by Rob Zombie in his own reboot attempt (2007). Zombie's Halloween was in fact a not-bad try, but in retrospect too cluttered and stylized, very obviously taking place inside a horror film universe.  Gordon's version, instead, is firmly grounded in the character-oriented naturalistic world of his previous works (and therefore, recognizably real-life and small-town), wherein the lethal violence already arrives with both everyday banality and startling arbitrariness (see, for instance, the scene in Joe in which the teen protagonist's alcoholic father casually murders a fellow drunk, all for the possession of a bottle of liquor).  Throughout the film many characters, including the supposedly "disposable" supporting ones, receive close-ups that occupy a large section of the film's expansive scope visual field, and this intimacy accentuates the essential decency and moderation of Halloween's personages, especially the three generation of women unprotected by a succession of male authority figures, Laurie (Jaime Lee Curtis), her estranged daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and sympathetic granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak).

I am guessing that one of the reasons for Curtis's commitment to this project-- she gives a fully rounded, powerful performance as the original's sole survivor Laurie-- had to have been Green's decision to entirely abolish the family relationship angle between Michael and Laurie (amusingly but tellingly made fun of in the film's dialogue).  And thus, the new Halloween, especially in its third act, inevitably becomes a treatise on the victimized women's need for mutual trust and solidarity (in the face of the utter uselessness of male authority figure's gestures toward "protection").  The climax, a riff on the final sequence of Silence of the Lambs, emphasizes Michael's positionality as an invader of not just the private spheres of women but also their consciousness: the original perpetrator who keeps exercising his hold over his victims, largely due to the inability of the society to heed their stories.

I do not think Halloween rewrites the rules of the commercially viable Hollywood horror, or transcends its identity as an updated slasher film, with its just a bit too much reliance on gross special effects makeup, which was wholly unnecessary.  For these reasons, I cannot quite give it the ringing endorsement I have given to Hereditary or Get Out.  Yet I believe the film speaks to the anxieties of the young demographic of today just as eloquently as the 1978 original did to its fans.  ☆☆☆★★

2018년 11월 6일 화요일

Voting papers in their wrinkled, callused hands

 No long diatribe or preaching today. 

Let this old black and white photography eloquently speak for me.  This is from a Kyonghyang sinmun report dated May 24, 1971, showing a Korean rural village members waiting patiently in line to cast their votes for a National Assembly election.

As the result of this election, the military dictator Park Chung Hee's Democratic Republican Party, established in 1963, still held the majority, but despite the disarray suffered by the opposition New Democratic Party it managed to garner 44.4 per-cent of the total votes, as opposed to 48.8 per-cent for the ruling party.  

Did this election end Park's dictatorship?  No.  But the NDP gained more than 11 per-cent of the electoral support compared to 1967.   

Incremental changes.  One step, one vote at a time. 

These cumulative changes eventually produced South Korea of today, a fiercely democratic nation that, despite being in a state of war against a hostile, potentially nuclear-armed military regime, successfully impeached and brought down a corrupt President just last year. 

So never say your vote does not matter. Nor say that, despite your vote, the bad guy still won, so it was for nothing.  Your vote does matter, and it was not for nothing.  Histories of all societies and nations that have ever become functioning democracies will tell you that. 

(Photo source: http://db.kdemocracy.or.kr/isad/view/00733142) 

2018년 10월 31일 수요일

Happy Halloween! Surprisingly, Halloween Increasingly Popular with Korean Kids

Happy All Hallows Eve!  Preparing the second installment of The One Hundred Nights of Horror, I thought it would not be appropriate if I missed out a Halloween greeting. 

By the way, one thing I have noticed in the last half-decade or so is that the young South Koreans celebrate Halloween these days to the point that the holiday crowd could claim a pretty noticeable presence, especially in areas like Itaewon and college campuses. Like Valentine's Day, celebration of Halloween in the current Asianized, predominantly youth-oriented, commercialized form, was developed first in Japan and imported into Korea, but these days Halloween in Korea appears to supersede the Japanese version in its popularity, at least in some respects.  

 --courtesy: 중소기업신문

Japan of course has a long history of "adapting" Euro-American social rituals into their own hybrid forms: commercialism plays a big role in this.  Those who have spent some time in Japan might have recognized that, for instance, Valentine's Day in Japan has been transformed, following their gender-segregated customs, into a day when women gift men-- boyfriends, husbands, attractive co-workers, etc.-- with boxes of chocolate. Men are supposed to reciprocate by buying women "return gifts" in "White Day," March 14, which as far as was entirely invented by Japanese, but it has now apparently spread to South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia and China, among other countries.    

Professor Yi Taek-kwang, Kyung Hee University, in an interview explains that the Halloween celebration in South Korea first took off in the day-care centers and private academies teaching English. Combined with this is the Japanese practice of kosupure or "costume plays," (now exported into the US and becoming super-popular here as well) dressing and making yourself up into your favorite popular culture character.  So, even though the horrific, thrill-seeking aspect of Halloween remains recognizable in Korean celebrations of it-- dressing up as traditional Korean "virgin" ghosts or zombies seem to be very popular--, it also provides young folks to essentially stage costumed parties.  Not surprisingly, social media such as Instagram and Twitter have played an important role in boosting its popularity among South Koreans.

-- countesy: 단국대학신문

A fascinating, but also in a way predictable pattern, isn't it? English-learning, the US, plus commercialization of social rituals, Japan, plus the influence of social media, equal what we have today. But who am I to complain?  Halloween is one of my favorite celebrations (along with Thanksgiving) of a year, and perhaps in the near future theatrical bookings of the new Korean horror films would all take place around October 31, rather than in the summer season, as they traditionally have been.   

2018년 10월 25일 목요일

Ghost Whispers-- THE CHANGELING (1980) Blu Ray Review

THE CHANGELING. A Joel B. Michaels & Garth H. Drabinsky Production, presented by Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna. Canada, 1980. 1 hour 47 minutes, Aspect Ratio 1.85:1. Director: Peter Medak, Screenplay: William Gray, Diana Maddox. Story: Russell Hunter. Cinematography: John Coquillon.  Music: Rick Wilkins, Ken Wannberg. Production Design: Trevor Williams. Editor: Lilla Pedersen. Supervising Editor: Lou Lombardo.  

CAST: George C. Scott (John Russell), Trish Van Devere (Claire Norman), Melvyn Douglas (Senator Carmichael), John Colicos (Inspector De Witt), Barry Morse (Parapsychologist), Madeleine Thornton-Sherwood (Mrs. Norman), Jean Marsh (Joanna Russell), Eric Christmas (Albert), Roberta Maxwell (Eva), Helen Burns.

The Changeling's copyright seems to have been owned for some years by HBO, which had released it in 2000 as a serviceable but barebones DVD (apparently still in print). Parts of the film's reputation and cult status come from its rather incongruous position in the evolutionary history of North American cinematic horror: it is a serious, non-flippant ghost story in the classical mold, with no direct showing of ghosts or employment of special effects makeup (which had since become the quintessential component of any modern horror film), but released right at the cusp of the moment in which the whole genre was sliding into the low-budget blood-and-guts formula of Friday the 13th (1980) and its slasher brethren. Personally, I believe The Changeling's cult reputation rests much on the advent of cable TV, wherein the unsuspecting viewers who had entirely missed out its theatrical run could run into its late night broadcast-- and find themselves genuinely scared out of their wits, unable to immediately go back to sleep after a nail-biting viewing experience. It is precisely the kind of spook show-- like Ju-on and Videodrome (1981)-- that perhaps works better if seen in the comfort of your bedroom, preferably with dark corners of the ceiling and walls serving as the framework for the screen. The Changeling is a rather unassuming production, not really aspiring to reach the height of the top-level haunted house opuses like The Haunting (1963) or The Legend of Hell House (1973), but seen today, it surely can run rings around many more successful box office hits from the same era, such as The Amityville Horror (1979).

The film is a stalwart foray into the orthodox horror territory by the Hungarian Peter Medak, who had scored big in English language with the outlandish black comedy The Ruling Class (1972), featuring one of Peter O'Toole's most riveting performances, and subsequently made a series of interesting and eccentric film noirs, notably The Krays (1990), Let Him Have It (1991) and Romeo Is Bleeding (1993). Mostly, his feature film career has been a mixed bag (with some unfortunate turkeys such as Species II [1998] thrown in). Much of Medak's best work has been done for television, including memorable episodes of such British and American TV shows as Space 1999, The Wire and Carnivale.

The Changeling tells the story of an American composer/music professor, John Russell, who had recently lost his wife and daughter due to a tragic car accident, relocating to Washington State (filmed in Canada, of course) for a teaching position in a local college. With help from a Historical Preservation Society representative, Claire Norman, Russell rents a sprawling Victorian mansion unoccupied for the past twelve years. Naturally, weird things happen, starting with very loud pounding noises that awaken him in the night. The phantasmagorical events escalate to Russell having visions of a young child drowning in a pool of water. He decides to dig deeper into the local history with the help of Claire, realizing that the child's ghost seems to have some secret connection to the septuagenarian Senator Carmichael, a local fat-cat who does not take kindly to a stranger digging up his family past. 

The distinctive quality of the film partially comes from having the irascible but traumatized protagonist Russell and his equally tough antagonist Senator Carmichael, played by George C. Scott and Melvyn Douglas, respectively. Scott provides a nice star turn, suitably understated for the most, and expertly conveying the befuddlement and frustration of someone attempting to communicate with, and eventually help bringing peace to, the dead spirit of a child who had lived decades ago. Douglas also gives a charismatic performance as a square-jawed, weather-bitten bigwig who refuses to believe that the specters of the past could haunt the present, and treats Russell with absolute contempt. He cannot think of any motivation for the latter to dig up potential scandals of the remote past, other than greed for money. Yet the grizzled star, following up on his Oscar-winning turn as the President-maker in Being There (1978), manages to suggest the pathos, even a sense of tragedy, behind the man's willful denials of the unconscionable truths. Senator Carmichael is not really a conventional bad guy, and we do feel sorry for his predicament to a considerable degree, when all is said and done.

Van Devere is fine in an essentially expository role. The IMDB's profile of her is rather unflattering, subsuming her career under the narrative of an aspiring actress ending up a not-quite-a-muse-for-a-great-actor via marriage to Scott. In other co-starring features I have seen, I have never gotten the sense that Scott is just keeping her around as a part of the deal, as sometimes I get from Charles Bronson movies with Jill Ireland. Indeed, one of The Changeling's scariest horror set pieces, involving the dead child's wheelchair, hinges on her acting ability to transmit abject terror to the viewers, and she does a better than acceptable job. John Colicos (an actor I still somehow associate, after all these years, with Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica) and Jean Marsh have basically one-sequence cameos but are nonetheless memorable.

Aside from the high-powered cast delivering their goods, the Carmichael mansion set, meticulously constructed and blended in with the location-shot exteriors, is in many ways a character in and of itself. The British veteran John Coquillon (Witchfinder General [1968], Straw Dogs [1971], Absolution [1978]), working with Medak, ably captures the pools of darkness congealing in the attic corners and stairway landings, and as showcased in the remastered Severin Blu Ray's HD transfer, wrangles striking visual imageries out of the bubbling water surface of a bathtub, orange flames in the climactic conflagration, and yes, that red rubber ball bouncing down the stairs. Another great asset for the film is its measured, non-exploitative music score, based on hummable melodies composed by the noted Canadian saxophonist Rick Wilkins, and reconstituted to better fit the movie by the veteran Ken Wannberg, best known for editing John Williams scores for Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Superman franchise.

A minor complaint: this is certainly not a problem unique to The Changeling, but I find the movie's designation of the limits of the dead spirit's supernatural powers largely arbitrary. I can accept as the story premise that the boy's ghost did not make any meaningful contact with a live human being for more than seventy-five years until Russell arrived. However, after his communication with the composer, the ghost seems to rapidly grow in power. If he is capable of destroying one character via telekinetic powers outside the mansion, what stops him from simply reaching out to Senator Carmichael and killing him? If the gold medal, which the ghost directly pulls out of an old well and practically shoves under Russell's chin-- what prevented him from doing that weeks ago?--, was some kind of conduit that allowed the ghost to exercise his power over the senator, this could have been made clearer.

Perhaps the confusion and illogical behavior of the ghost is one of the points of the story: after all, he was a little boy barely capable of understanding the cruel circumstances under which he left this world. In the end, the movie's ghost never fully becomes a character, yet he is unusually sympathetic among his cinematic cohorts, given his genuinely disturbing (and fairly well thought-out) backstory. It does evoke the sense of collective guilt among the people for whom today's prosperity and complacent peace have always been built on the whitewashed sacrifices of some unknown "small people."

To reiterate, The Changeling's scares are often predictable and not particularly original, yet its set pieces are unfailingly effective without relying on a platter of big-budget Hollywood-style gimmicks. The film is safely recommended to the discerning fans of the restrained, old-fashioned haunted house thrillers, who prefer things earnest, with no tongue in cheek.

Blu Ray Presentation:

1) TC Entertainment/Studio Canal. Region A. Video: Aspect ratio, 1.85:1, 1080i. Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Stereo. Subtitles: Japanese. Supplement: Trailer. Street date: November 5, 2014. 2) Severin Films. Region Free. Video: Aspect ratio, 1.85:1, 1080p. Audio: English Dolby Digital HD 5.0, English, German, Italian and Spanish 2.0. Subtitles: English SDH. Supplements: Audio commentary with Peter Medak & Joel B. Michaels, moderated by David Gregory, documentaries The House on Cheesman Park, The music of The Changeling, Building the House of Horror, The Psychotronic Tourist episode on The Changeling, Mick Garris on The Changeling, Trailer & TV Spots, Still Gallery. Street date: August 7, 2018. Amazon list price: $20.50

The Changeling has been released as a Blu in Japan first, apparently utilizing the source provided by Studio Canal. Unfortunately it is a huge disappointment. The encoding is 1080i and badly interlaced, and overall the resolution is hardly above the level of a SD DVD. The disc includes the Japanese dubbing track recorded for its 1983 TV broadcast, a practice increasingly popular with the Japanese Blu Rays. I hope this does not indicate that the genre releases are exclusively marketed to the nostalgia seekers in the island nation.

In any case, English-speaking consumers are directed toward the powerhouse special edition Blu Ray prepared by Severin Films. The transfer is 4-K remastered from camera negatives (identical elements seem to have been used for the British Second Sight Blu Ray, not reviewed here). The details and contrast levels are massive improvements over the pale and blurry Japanese version, although those who remember the movie from VHS tapes and DVDs might feel that the Blu Ray version appears considerably darker, with its color scheme just a tiny bit tilted toward blue and magenta. The audio is not spectacular but manages to properly present its competent sound design and the delicately atmospheric music score. I am not sure what the sources of European language tracks are (could be TV broadcast dubs, like the Japanese Blu Ray's own dub track), but it is nice to have them included.

I am not sure whether Severin's transfer accurately reproduces the theatre-going experience circa 1980, but it certainly gives the Home Theater consumers the best option of watching this film currently available.

The supplements are very well stocked and professionally curated. Top of the list is the audio commentary recorded by director Peter Medak and producer Joel Michaels. Aside from the usual anecdotal information about production history, we also find out that Medak is quite proud of this old-fashioned shocker, and that many filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, have expressed their fondness or admiration for it. The House on Cheeseman Park is a rather amusing documentary that examines a real-life haunted house in Denver, Colorado, that allegedly inspired The Changeling. The wealth of information about this house and its residents is told with eccentric gusto by a public historian Phil Goldstein (Not surprisingly, the narrative of a child ghost haunting the house on Cheesman Park told by Russell Hunter, a music arranger for CBS-TV, seems to have been largely fictional: Denver Public Library actually has an article examining the veracity of Hunter's claims, linked here). Other short-form docus examine Ken Wannberg's musical contributions, Art Director Reuben Freed's construction of the highly realistic stage interior, and the location spots. Mick Garris's short appreciation of the film, plus still gallery and promotional materials round out the robust special edition supplements. Severin has also released 5,000 embossed-slipcase limited edition units with the CD soundtrack included as a bonus, and they are still available from various retailers as of today [October 25, 2018].

*Japanese TC Entertainment/Studio Canal Blu Ray screenshot

*Severin Films Blu Ray screenshot

It had taken some years before we finally received a deserving Blu Ray presentation, but I am glad Severin was able to nab the rights to The Changeling. Their special edition Blu Ray must be counted as one of the more notable vintage horror HD releases of 2018.  

2018년 9월 10일 월요일

Il cento notti di orrore- The One Hundred Nights of Horror Relaunched: DOWN A DARK HALL (2018) and COLD SKIN (2017)

Today, I have decided to revive one of the less "academic" features of Q Branch prior to my unexpected hiatus in 2013 due to health reasons, Il Cento notti di orrore or The One Hundred Nights of Horror series.  After Q Branch had been relaunched, I was pretty much trying to use WATCHA and Twitter as archiving platforms for the films I watch, but I have grown frustrated over them for various reasons.  Make no mistake, I like Twitter (although the stinking presence of The Great Orange Leader there is almost enough for me to quit it altogether sometimes), but trying to archive my movie watching habits there has become a bit like trying to subsist on eating cupcakes and party mixes only.  WATCHA is a great movie-watching app but is very thoroughly Korean, and too focused on those movies connected to Korea (at least so far, in 2018). So I have come back to try it out again in the blog space.  Below I have cut and pasted the rambling introductory remarks I have written in 2013, pretty much the way it was, only updating a few time-specific references. 

The cinematic art itself may be biting the dust worldwide, as the endless parade of Marvel and DC superheroes colonize Hollywood, the indie cinema is selling out, film studies graduate students are watching source materials via Netflix streaming in their spare time, left over from decoding hallowed writings of Lacan and Deleuze, and Lars von Trier is lauded as the world's greatest filmmaker.  But hey, horror cinema is alive and well.  Even if future consumers of cinema would have to watch their “movies” on six-inch screens attached to their wrist-phones, you can guarantee there will be horror films, about haunted Google Glasses, your latest wonder drug with a side effect of turning you into a purple-skinned carnivore (“Your loved ones suddenly crave meat!!”), even maybe a teenage space-shuttle astronaut vampire, who loves inhaling human blood globule by floating globule, in the zero gravity. 
Watching horror films has always been one of the less mentionable-in-polite-company cultural habits of mine. And you are right to call on this sense of mild embarrassment as hypocritical. After all, what dumb English lit major would publicly state that Edgar Allan Poe is inferior to, say, Herman Melville, because the former mostly wrote morbid stories about the supernatural? My closest friends and loved ones can certainly testify to my ongoing and never-flagging love of the genre.  My wife, Angela, remembers me sauntering off to catch the third installment of Hellraiser playing at a Somerville theater all by myself, in between caffeine-induced bouts of paper-writing and seminar preparation.  In my youthful days a dinner conversation could easily slide off to a loving description of the effects of a “Stonehenge chip” embedded inside the Silver Shamrock Halloween mask in Season of the Witch... you get the idea. 

Now I am enjoying motion pictures on a staggering variety of platforms-- In addition to Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu, Film Struck, Amazon, Shout! Factory TV (such a thing truly exists… I am currently fast-forward watching, of all crazy things, Ultraman Leo on it) and other glut of streaming and VOD services, I still catch a chunk of horror films not only through Blu Rays and DVDs but at the local theaters-- and horror genre is far from shrinking in proportion and importance in terms of my movie-going life. It certainly remains an important sector of the archival Blu Rays and DVDs I purchase-- especially among the cinema of '70s and '80s-- but even among relatively new films, its power and influence have not diminished.  Now whether there are more good horror films these days than, say, '80s: that's another set of ballgame. Has the quality horror cinema gone the ways of civil discourse in American politics and VHS tapes? Or are we in fact facing another renaissance of ingenious and creative horror cinema? 

So I had this idea of watching one hundred horror films in one year, regardless of national origins or year of production, the only condition being that I watch them in proper venues (with the correct aspect ratio, preferably HD presentation) and that I have not laid my eyes on them before.  Call it a tribute to horror cinema from a fan.  In terms of Korean cinema, I am politically more invested in seeing a truly excellent SF film (a goal partially met in 2013 with the release of Bong Jun-ho's majestic Snowpiercer), but that's for the future happiness of South Koreans. For the future happiness and philosophical growth of the mankind (I hope you do not take my pronouncements as juvenile humor or even misplaced irony, thus revealing your hideous cultural prejudices against the genre: I will remind you again, Edgar Allan Poe did HORROR. Mary Shelley did HORROR. Dostoevsky did HORROR. Goethe did HORROR. The truly great masters ALL did horror), we could still do much more with horror.
As I am reviving this series in September 2018, I will give it until December 31, 2019, to tally up one hundred horror films. I don't think this will be difficult at all, in terms of keeping up with the supplies. Shucks, I could probably fill in the quota even if I limit myself to only Asian horror films, or North American ones. I will also discard my long-held feature-film-only prejudice and include TV series and short films in the roster: the rather arbitrary rule of thumb will be to count three or four episodes of a series or the same amount of short films as one feature film, although obviously exceptions could be made.  

A word regarding the format: I am not going to list the usual detailed staff and cast information, and the reviews will be shorter than my full-on Blu Ray-DVD reviews, or other academic pieces such as interviews with scholarly colleagues or creative personages.  A word on the star rating system: I use the black-and-white star ratings system developed by the Japanese film critic and hardboiled mystery specialist Futaba Juzaburo 双葉十三郎 (1910-2009), with a white star counting for twenty points, and a black star for five points. The average score falls somewhere between fifty five ☆☆★★★ and sixty ☆☆☆, as few movies actually score less than twenty points.  I might drop the star ratings after a while, as rating the movies is really not the point of these lists. It is really for 1) archiving my movie-watching habits, and 2) discussing the evolution of cinematic horror as an ineradicable component of the broader cultural expression of the global mankind.   

1. Down a Dark Hall (U.S.-Spain, 2018). A Fickle Fish/Nostromo/Temple Hill Entertainment Production. 1 hour 36 minutes. Widescreen 2.35:1. Directed by Rodrigo Cortes. Screenplay by Michael Goldbach, Chris Sarling, based on a novel by Lois Duncan. iTunes, Rented. Down a Dark Hall brings together two strong trends of today's genre cinema, the Spanish-language Gothic thriller tradition on the one hand, and young adult literary resources a la Hunger Games and The Maze series, on the other.  The result is reasonably well constructed but entirely predictable Gothic hokum, with the central idea that really sounds like it was daydreamed up by a suburban-bourgeois teenager sick and tired of having to go through piano lessons or math tutoring classes. 

Considering the already existing countless stories about girl's boarding school it would have required some other ingenious turn of events to elevate Down a Dark Hall above average. But the filmmakers have little ideas other than the admittedly interesting casting of Thurman in the tyrannical headmistress role (she seems to be a tad too sincere: a kind of droll, Lynn Redgrave-on-oxycodone approach might have worked better).  AnnaSophia Robb does what is required as the suitably harried young heroine Kit, but the materials she is given to work with are just not up to the snuff.  Rodrigo Cortes, director of Buried (2010) and Red Lights (2012), keeps the kettle boiling and the Blackwood Boarding School set is pretty impressive.  Jarin Blaschke's (The Witch [2015]) cinematography, while plenty atmospheric, sometimes becomes so pitch-black as to entirely obscure the goings-on.  Probably appropriate for a popcorn-munching spook-show screening during a junior-high girls' slumber party (they wouldn't know Uma Thurman from Meryl Streep, I suppose?), I was not seriously bored with the film, but still can't give it a score higher than ☆☆★★★. 

2. Cold Skin/La piel fria (Spain-France, 2017). A Babieka/The Ink Connection/Kanzaman/ Pontas Film & Literary Agency Co-Production. 1 hour 48 minutes. Widescreen 2:35:1. Directed by Xavier Gens. Screenplay by Jesus Olmo & Eron Sheean, based on a novel by Albert Sanchez Piñol.  Purchased, iTunes. Cold Skin is another classically-oriented horror opus filmed in English language with the British leads but dominated by the Spanish-Catalan sensibility. The director is Xavier Gens, who has primarily worked in the Francophone cinema, and, as evidenced by his previous films, Frontier(s) (2007) and The Divide (2011), has tended to gravitate toward the characters in confinement forced to reveal their animal-like true colors.  This particular film, about a young, unnamed weather observer (David Oakes) stationed at an isolated Antarctic island (nicely location-shot at Canary Islands and Iceland) running afoul of a disgruntled, possibly insane lighthouse technician Gruner (Ray Stevenson) as well as a horde of amphibian humanoid creatures, is inevitably going to be compared to Guillermo Del Toro's The Shape of Water.  There is even a female humanoid christened Aneris (impressively embodied by the Spanish actress Aura Garrido under layers of blue-grey latex) who Gruner keeps as a sexual slave.

The creatures and the desolate, salt-bitten island-scape are quite effectively drawn, and the screenplay does not dawdle on, quickly introducing the otherworldly menace and keeping the viewers on their toes for the most part.  The human characters, on the other hand, are simply not interesting. Gruner is such a thoroughly unsympathetic rapist-cum-mass-murdering-scumbag that the young meteorologist's initial willingness to join in the former's daily routine of extermination campaign against the humanoids comes across either as a form of transmitted madness, or an irredeemable moral failure on the latter's part (possibly both?). Gens possibly intended all this as a political allegory (heavy-handed references to the genocidal character of the First World War,-- the movie is set in 1914, following the source novel, I assume-- not to mention a groan-inducing epigram taken from Nietzsche-- that's right, that "you gaze into the abyss and the abyss gazes into you" jazz--, seems to corroborate this interpretation), but without a sympathetic character or even a relatable villain, the movie tends to fall back on creature-attack action scenes and other monster-movie boogaboo stuff.  Concerning those things, at least, this film is not too bad. 
I didn't expect Cold Skin to be as powerful or genuinely weird as The Shape of Water or Splice (2009), but given its considerable technical prowess, I wish it had the temerity to swim beyond its sub-Jack-London, men-are-the-true-beasts literary-trope atoll and to genuinely surprise the viewers. ☆☆☆   

Well the class is starting soon, and I still have many, many things to do, so I will resume at No. 3 hopefully in a few days.  I know, I know, it is a constant struggle to keep the blog going, but seeing that some of the people I know or read, who are far more prolific and diligent than I am, eventually shut  their blogs down or keep them unattended for months on end, I take solace in the fact that this problem is not unique to me.