Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe is a lovely film, if a little out of balance with itself. Starring a handsome, unassuming Tadanobu Asano (the Japanese actor currently appearing on U.S. screens in Zatoichi), it definitely falls into the Moody Asia subgenre that’s gained some art-house currency recently. It’s one of those weirdly pitched oddities — it reminds me a little of a Wong Kar-Wai movie, a little of Takeshi Kitano — that employs brief outbursts of violence as catalysts of and punctuation for the inaction of its primary characters, who spend most of the movie moping around a dark house at the seaside.
“You must know by now: there’s a black floor, it takes three hours, nothing happens, the outcome is terrible. Nobody should say that they were not warned.”
— Lars Von Trier
For a filmmaker who thrives on confrontation, Dogville is some kind of crowning achievement. In just under three hours’ time, Lars Von Trier’s latest provocation expertly draws audiences into, drags them through and spits them out the other side of a sad yarn from Hell’s own storybook. The unctuous narration by John Hurt offers a comforting introduction to the sleepy Rocky Mountain mining town named in the title. But as the story is told, his sing-song vocal stylings are revealed as utterly cynical and more than a little sarcastic. For his voice is also the voice of the auteur behind the film, and Von Trier takes a pretty dim view of Dogville.
[SPOILERS ENSUE. IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN DOGVILLE, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND THAT YOU CHECK OUT MY CAPSULE REVIEW INCLUDED HERE INSTEAD.]
Here’s the bad news: it’s not as good as Dead & Buried. But it’s still pretty good. Director Gary Sherman’s 1972 feature, known in the U.S. as Raw Meat, is a spooky subway movie that takes place in the London Underground but features images of tunnelled emptiness that should send at least a mild shiver of recognition down the spine of any big-city dweller without the coin to take taxicabs every damn place under the sun. Like Dead & Buried, it involves a cop in over his head, but this time the cop — played in typically amiable style by Donald Pleasence — isn’t in any real danger. Instead, the protagonists are a hip young couple (their shared pad displays poster tributes to Hendrix and Che Guevara) who trip over an unconscious man on their way up the subway stairs after the last train departs the station. She wants to find help; he doesn’t want to get involved. And before a constable can be summoned, the body disappears.
Blue Underground released this notorious and oft-censored installment in the Black Emanuelle series, directed by the well-known schlockmeister Joe D’Amato and starring the knockout Laura Gemser as a labored metaphor for the free love movement. Emanuelle in America boasts the softcore action you’d expect, including some nude underwater frolicking and copious amounts of disinterested fondling and caressing. It also delivers the action you don’t expect — like a woman masturbating a horse (yes, this actually happens on screen) and some hardcore, ahem, inserts shot from the kinds of camera angles that might have been commonplace in the 1970s but now seem rather unusual.
Now here’s a real horror movie. So downbeat and unforgettably fatalistic that it almost qualifies as film noir, director Gary Sherman’s Dead & Buried was greeted on its original release without much fanfare outside of the genre community, though it was written and directed by smart people and was championed by horror specialists. Now, the scrappy young DVD label Blue Underground has given it the kind of release it deserves.
No thank you, online horror buffs, for starting the buzz that convinced me to take a chance on May, a quirky horror film from writer/director Lucky McKee. The presence of a front-of-DVD-case rave from Aint-It-Cool-News and a back-cover blurb from Film Threat was a clue that this indie horror film’s support is mostly limited to the Internet crowd. (Roger Ebert, the avuncular honorary leader of the online geek contingent, did give it a rave.) Early on, McKee displays a knack for genuinely discomfiting material involving contact lenses and animal hospitals, but such sharply focused moments are increasingly rare as he stretches his material to fill 93 minutes.
I wasn’t a fan of this, despite its enjoyable, blackly comic enthusiasm for scenes of elaborate death. The arrival of New Line’s special edition DVD enticed me to take a second look, and I’m still not a fan — but I appreciate the visual effects work even more than I did the first time through, thanks to the documentary features that underscore the extensive use of practical effects (that’s as opposed to computer-generated effects), such as carefully constructed dummies filled with disturbingly convincing blood and organs, that went into creating the wantonly bloody punctuation for the demise of each in a string of doomed lead characters.
In spite of my own tendencies, I’ve come to regard films with a cult following with some suspicion. As personal and extraordinary as many of them are, others seem to have gathered fans up in a single-throated horde like the unthinking masses heading to a fundamentalist rally or a Bon Jovi concert. The European horror genre, for instance, which is regarded with great fervor by a significant population of cinephiles, is home to a number of wonderful films, but also some of the grandest, most misogynist and misanthropic howlers ever committed to celluloid. Japanese anime is another one, a niche market of films that are regarded very highly by some very smart people but has largely failed to excite my interest, despite good-faith efforts to see highly lauded examples of the form in the movie theaters where they belong.