Thursday, January 29, 2015


(Japan - 2013; US release 2014)

Japanese auteur Sion Sono has several fascinating films in his back catalog--2001's SUICIDE CLUB, 2005's STRANGE CIRCUS, and 2010's COLD FISH to name three--but none on the level of his masterpiece, 2008's LOVE EXPOSURE, belatedly released in the US in 2012. A mammoth, four-hour epic about religion, forbidden love, and upskirt photos, LOVE EXPOSURE is a film like no other. Like the Takashi Miike of a decade and a half ago, the prolific Sono is always working on something, but WHY DON'T YOU PLAY IN HELL? is his first film to get a US release since LOVE EXPOSURE, and it's one where a little goes a long way. An absurdist satire that takes on the yakuza tradition and the state of Japanese filmmaking, HELL gets off to a funny start with the introduction of an enthusiastic but talentless filmmaking collective who call themselves "The Fuck Bombers." There's a long prologue set ten years ago before two parallel storylines kick off and finally converge around 80 minutes into the 130-minute film. Ten years ago, the wife (Tomochika) of yakuza boss Muto (Jun Kunimura) was sent to prison for going on a stabbing rampage that took out several flunkies of Muto's rival Ikegami (Shinichi Tsutsumi). This prompts a toothpaste company to take a popular series of commercials off the air that showcase a catchy jingle sung by Muto's young daughter Mitsuko (played as a child by Nanoka Hara), on whom Ikegami has an unusual and questionable fixation. Ten years later, Mrs. Muto is about to be released from prison and Mitsuko (Fumi Nikaido) is starring in a cheap yakuza thriller when she runs off the set with her hapless boyfriend Koji (Gen Hoshino). When Muto's men apprehend the couple, Mitsuko convinces her father that Koji is a filmmaker and was going to put her in a better movie to impress her mother. Forced to pretend he's a movie director, Koji recruits his childhood acquaintances in The Fuck Bombers, led by the delusional and oblivious Hirata (Hiroki Hasagawa), who sees this as his ticket to the big time and stages an epic, captured-on-film battle-to-the-death between Muto's and Ikegawa's perpetually-warring crews.

Sono is aiming all over the place throughout the often tedious HELL, but it improves quite a bit once Hirata starts shooting his magnum opus as blood, limbs, heads and appendages fly across the screen with wild abandon. Hirata insists on using 35mm and his resulting masterwork, also titled WHY DON'T YOU PLAY IN HELL? ultimately represents the death of film for Japanese cinema (I'm sure Sono is being facetious in his overuse of CGI splatter) as it goes out in a blaze of glory, where even the two-person camera crew starts firing assault rifles while making sure they get their shots. There's a bit of a STUNT MAN method to Hirata's Eli Cross-like madness, but ultimately, the film just starts getting too meta for its own good, with a late-in-the-game Buddy Bizarre wall-breaker that takes it into BLAZING SADDLES territory. There's some clever and funny bits scattered throughout, from offbeat humor (this is a guy, after all, whose EXTE: HAIR EXTENSIONS was a film about killer hair extensions) to simple sight gags (a bunch of yakuza goons bracing themselves and scrambling to avoid an approaching assassin that turns out to be a cat) and the message about the death of film being the end of an era is a poignant and elegiac one. But a dawdling Sono lets the pace drag and takes too long to say what he has to say, spending entirely too much time on standard-issue yakuza cliches straight out of any Beat Takeshi joint, and general goofball silliness with the Fuck Bombers (it's surely by design, but Hasagawa's performance is grating) that only serve to pad the running time. LOVE EXPOSURE was a four-hour work of art that I would've happily spent another four hours watching. With HELL, however, Sono could've trimmed it by at least 30 minutes and ended up with a stronger film as a result. (Unrated, 130 mins)

(Spain/US - 2014)

In the years following the phenomenal success of the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, Elijah Wood has done voice work in the HAPPY FEET films but has generally laid low in indies and offbeat projects like the cult TV series WILFRED. He's also embarked on an unexpected side career in European-made thrillers like Alex de la Iglesia's THE OXFORD MURDERS and Franck Khalfoun's MANIAC, a remake of the 1980 horror classic. OPEN WINDOWS, the latest from TIMECRIMES director Nacho Vigalondo, puts Wood in a similar predicament his character encountered in another recent Spanish thriller, GRAND PIANO. In that film, Wood played a famous and reclusive concert pianist, returning from a very public nervous breakdown and being taunted and threatened via earpiece in mid-comeback performance by the voice of John Cusack as a sniper perched in the balcony, threatening to shoot him if he plays one wrong note. It was a high concept that didn't carry through to the end but had enough De Palma-esque visual flourishes to keep it giddily entertaining. Wood is harangued by an unseen voice yet again in OPEN WINDOWS, this time as Nick, a dweeby blogger and webmaster for a fan site devoted to B-movie actress Jill Goddard (Sasha Grey). Nick is in Austin, where Jill is premiering her latest cheesy horror film and he's won a contest to have dinner with her. He's contacted in his hotel room by Chord (Neil Maskell), who tells him that the dinner is off and that the bitchy Jill never had any intention of meeting up with him anyway. Chord has inside knowledge of Jill's activities and convinces Nick that he's part of her team and is just trying to let him down easy. He sends Nick some links that give him access to her phone and its contents, and even hacks into Nick's digital camera to provide an inside look into Jill's hotel room, where she's stepping out on her boyfriend with her agent. Nick's naivete has allowed Chord to completely take over his laptop and use it to remotely hack into every aspect of Jill's life, and only then does the slow-on-the-uptake Nick realize there never was any contest and that Chord is setting him up to take the fall for his plan to stalk and eventually kill Jill.

Around the time OPEN WINDOWS got a limited and VOD release in the US, celebrity cell phone hacks of Jennifer Lawrence, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and others were making headlines, followed sometime later by the Sony e-mail hacks over the controversial THE INTERVIEW. OPEN WINDOWS blows a chance to be a smart and unexpectedly prescient thriller by going off the deep end and not taking better advantage of its high concept--almost the entire film plays out as pop-up windows on Nick's laptop. Yes, we've gone from found-footage to feature-length Skyping, but the first 30 or so minutes are terrific and very well-orchestrated by the director. But then Vigalondo makes the fatal mistake that so many filmmakers do when dealing with something like this: he should've kept Nick in his hotel room, glued to his laptop. That's what cranks up the suspense--when he's helpless and has nowhere to go. Instead, Vigalondo can't wait to get Nick out of the hotel and into a car, where he ends up being chased by the cops, laptop open in his passenger seat as Chord continues to terrorize him. There's also a team of French hackers who dial in to help Nick, and then there's a whole subplot about them mistaking Nick for a criminal known as "Nevada," who might actually be Chord but maybe not. Vigalondo also introduces one nonsensical twist after another, involving identity theft, doubles, and masks and no one being who they say they are. While Nick is in his hotel room, OPEN WINDOWS is taut, plausible, and terrifying, but as soon as he's out, it collapses almost instantly as Vigalondo not only subscribes to the belief that computers can do what they do in CBS police procedurals, but he piles on one ludicrous twist after another, digging himself into such a hole that the resolution makes no sense whatsoever. It hardly matters, since you'll have stopped caring long before that. OPEN WINDOWS gets off to a killer start but implodes faster than any fright film this side of LEGION. (Unrated, 101 mins)

(Mexico/Spain - 2014)

Pantelion Films, an offshoot of Lionsgate and Mexico's Grupo Televisa, is a specialty distributor of films targeted toward Spanish-speaking audiences in the US. Pantelion had a breakout hit with 2013's INSTRUCTIONS NOT INCLUDED and recently released the biopic CANTINFLAS, which wasn't quite as successful. Released on 178 screens last fall, where it had a respectable $3000 per screen average to land in 17th place its opening weekend, the 3-D horror film MAS NEGRO QUE LA NOCHE was so geared toward a particular audience that it went out under its original title instead of the translated "Darker Than Night." Other than its release pattern, there's absolutely nothing special about NOCHE, a remake of a 1975 film of the same title that's somewhat revered by Mexican moviegoers, though it didn't make much of a dent in the States. Presumably working from a checklist provided by Lionsgate, NOCHE '14 is yet another rote "vengeful ghost" saga that you've seen countless times before, loaded with jump scares and loud music cues. When Greta (Zuria Vega) was orphaned as a child, she was raised by her rich Aunt Ofelia (Lucia Guilmain), a spinster who lived with her beloved cat Becker and fiercely devoted housekeeper Evangelina (Margarita Sanz). Years later, Aunt Ofelia has died and Greta inherits everything, with the caveat that she must care for the seemingly ageless Becker. Greta moves into Ofelia's mansion with her cheating, dirtbag fiance (producer Josemaria Torre Hutt) and her three hard-partying besties, much to the chagrin of Evangelina as well as Aunt Ofelia, whose enraged ghost still prowls the grounds. When Greta's coke-whore friend Vicky (Ona Casamiquela) finds that her ferret's been killed by Becker, she drowns the cat in the pool, which sets Ofelia's ghost on a rampage of vengeance that eventually results in the possession of Greta, who starts offing everyone in a variety of gruesome ways. NOCHE '14 is an abysmally dull failure that takes forever to get going and when it finally does, it simply goes through every modern horror cliche in the book: predictable jump scares and fake-outs, a creepy music box, constantly flickering lights and creaking doors accompanying Ofelia sightings, and endless running and screaming down long corridors like some botched tribute to the slamming-door farce. NOCHE '14 clearly has some money up on the screen with some effectively dank and ominous production design (THE OTHERS and THE ORPHANAGE are major stylistic influences here), but when it's finally and mercifully over, writer/director Henry Bedwell's film is nothing more than a tired, D-list Guillermo del Toro ripoff, with loathsome characters, a dearth of scares, and the pointless bonus of ending with Marilyn Manson's cover of Carly Simon's "You're So Vain," for some reason. (R, 110 mins)

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