Not often do you come across a film that fashions itself as an “existentialist eco-thriller,” but it’s a label that feels strangely appropriate for this 1999 film from director Kiyoshi Kurosawa. The film opens with a city detective shaken by his failure to negotiate his way through a hostage situation, which resulted in the deaths of both the hostage and the hostage-taker. The detective is given a reprieve from his duties after it becomes clear he was strongly affected by the outcome. Looking for a change in his surroundings, he travels out into the country, where he finds himself caught in the middle of a spirited fight over a very old tree that supposedly carries some sort of mystical significance but is also sapping the life from the rest of the forest. As the detective moves between the two sides of the fight, those who want to save the tree and those who want to destroy it, he finds himself presented with a dilemma: is the life of a single special tree worth sacrificing the health of the forest around it?
The only Kurosawa films I had seen before this one are Cure and Pulse, both of which I found to be incredibly rewarding experiences. Charisma is a tougher film to get a handle on, with its constant changes in tone and character actions that are more metaphorical than realistic. Attempting to find some much-needed context for what I just watched, I was relieved to discover an interview on the DVD where the filmmaker expresses his own doubts on the type of film he ended up making. It definitely feels like a film that was made without a clear idea of what was trying to be accomplished, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to admire here. Compared to the more urban-set narratives of Cure and Pulse, the forest environment of Charisma is a welcome change. The different setting doesn’t hinder Kurosawa from his usual mastery of conjuring up atmospheric dread out of seemingly nothing, which in itself is something of an accomplishment. But Kurosawa also seems to recognize the sillier nature of the film’s premise; in the later stages of the film, a supporting character makes a remark to the detective about how the entire situation is just a little ridiculous. It’s a statement that seems appropriate for the film as a whole, but Kurosawa deserves some credit for taking that ridiculous scenario and presenting it in a way that manages to be strangely compelling, even if it never feels entirely successful. 6/10.
There probably isn’t any way to talk about this film without getting into the unique methods behind its production, so let’s get right into it. To tell the story of a schlubby, recently-unemployed dad’s nightmarish day at Disney World and his creepy stalking of a pair of French teenage girls, director Randy Moore and his production team brought cameras into the Magic Kingdom/Epcot and “covertly” shot footage within the park premises, without the permission of Disney. The way the publicity campaign has hyped up this fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking the filmmakers got away with murder during production. But it seems to me all this talk about Moore’s “guerrilla” filmmaking style is much ado about nothing. As far as I’m aware, Disney theme parks allow cameras to be brought onto the premises, and there’s nothing really risky about any of the footage that has been shot within the parks; despite the sometimes-artfully composed black-and-white images, this isn’t ever too far removed from simple home movie footage. Whatever “objectionable” content that is present in the film comes entirely from terrible, obvious green-screen work or closed-off sets that are clearly not part of the park. The more remarkable story here is that the film has been given a commercial release at all. On that point, Disney has taken the stance of refusing to acknowledge the film’s existence, and I would urge any interested viewers to do the same.
The reason there has been so much emphasis on how the film was made is because it’s a much more interesting topic than the value of the film itself. I’m not completely adverse to the idea of a horror film set inside a Disney theme park. Even though I am someone who grew up with Disney vacations and still enjoy going to this day, I can sympathize with the idea that there is something inherently creepy about the “Happiest Place On Earth.” If done properly, I could see that being a really fun idea. In fact, it has been done properly, in a short film called Missing In The Mansion, which explores some of the more sordid Disney lore in a playful way. Escape From Tomorrow is a different kind of beast though, one that forgoes any kind of invention in favor of cheap exploitation and obnoxious snobbery. I was reminded of the moment I lost patience with the Banksy film Exit Through The Gift Shop, when the notorious street artist went into Disneyland and set up an inflatable doll of a Guantanamo inmate, sparking panic in the process. My feeling both then and now is that subversive graffiti art is one thing, displaying an image with associations to terrorism in a highly-populated vacation destination is something else entirely. I felt there was a level of mocking derision directed at something that’s never particularly warranted it, and there is an element of that in Escape From Tomorrow. And because Moore’s film isn’t involving in either its construction or its commentary, that “let’s thumb our noses from atop our mighty throne” feeling takes center stage and never exits. My advice is to skip this completely; go watch Westworld instead, or the “Itchy & Scratchy Land” episode of The Simpsons. They make similar points, only with a sense of wit and ability that is almost completely absent here. 2/10.
Hirokazu Koreeda’s 2008 film Still Walking was for me about as perfect an introduction to a filmmaker as you could possibly have. After being completely captivated by that film, I suppose it was inevitable that my second pick from the director would feel like a comedown, and this 2006 effort probably wasn’t the best choice for a follow-up. Set in the early 1700s during Japan’s Genroku era, the film follows a young samurai who has ventured out into the world to seek out his father’s killer and take revenge, despite his almost complete lack of skill with the sword. His journey leads him to a slum, where he ends up settling down and getting distracted by the plights of the local poor. During his stay there, he grows to care about the various people, and contributes to the small society by setting up writing classes, taking part in local theater activities, and lightly courting a widowed mother. His pursuit of revenge falls by the wayside for a good while, at least until he discovers that the man he’s been searching for is a part of the community.
The film carries the subtitle The Tale of a Reluctant Samurai, but a traditional chambara film, this is not. There are no swordfights, or really any scenes of violence for that matter. Instead, the film plays more as a mash-up of a bunch of other types of films, combining surprisingly lowball comedy, a charming romance, and even some heartwarming moments that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Frank Capra film. The focus ends up being less on samurai exploits and more on the interactions between the peasants and the various relationship issues that play out between them. There is a parallel story that concerns the classic Japanese legend of the 47 ronin, but Hana is more about what was happening off to the side when this famous story was going on close by. With Still Walking, there was an easy connection to make to the films of Yasujiro Ozu, and that connection, although less overt, can also be made here. The film has a relaxing pace, almost too relaxing I’d say, to the point where it sometimes come across as aimless. It seems content to glide unassumingly by, even if that means never making a particularly strong impression on the viewer. 6/10.
30 years ago, the prospect of Italian horror master Dario Argento tackling Bram Stoker’s Dracula would have been incredibly tantalizing. Today, not so much, but that didn’t stop the 73 year-old director from trying anyway. You should know the story by now: naive Jonathan Harker (Unax Ugalde, who bears a strong resemblance to Keanu Reeves; in fact, it seems like everyone in this film has been cast to look like their counterparts in Francis Ford Coppola’s famous 1992 adaptation) journeys to an isolated Transylvanian town to work for the reclusive Count Dracula (Thomas Kretschmann, the sensitive Nazi captain from The Pianist). Soon enough, Jonathan discovers the Count’s abnormal thirst for blood and finds himself a prisoner in his secluded castle. It is then that the Count turns his attentions to Jonathan’s virginal fiancé Mina (Winona Ryder lookalike Marta Gastini). It’s up to her and renowned vampire hunter Van Helsing (a craggy Rutger Hauer, looking like someone just woke him up from his nap) to battle back against the evil vampire, all leading to a hilarious final confrontation. To put it simply, Argento’s Dracula 3D is a disaster, the kind of film where you’re just left shaking your head, wondering how it could’ve all gone so horribly wrong. It’s with a certain degree of sheepishness that I admit the film’s greatest virtue is in its levels of skin shown. It’s not quite on the same level as something like Blood For Dracula, but it comes close, and at the very least you can say Argento brought back some eroticism to what has always been a tale full of simmering sexuality.
It would be easy to point to the terrible acting, or the cheesy digital effects, or the mangling of a classic story as the main reason why Argento’s Dracula 3D crashes and burns, but what stood out to me to be the most perplexing element is just how damn bright the whole thing is. Not in that colorful way that Argento is famous for, but in a “why is everything so overlit?” way. My guess is that it has something to do with shooting in digital and in 3D, and the filmmakers overcompensated on their lighting to combat the darkening effects of the 3D glasses (for the record, I saw the film in 2D On Demand at home). Whatever the reason, the overwhelming lightness results in one of the more non-atmospheric horror films I’ve seen. I’m tempted to throw out the old “so bad it’s actually really entertaining” chestnut, but honestly there’s something disheartening about seeing a formerly-great horror director completely losing the plot. Maybe the film will have some life down the road as a sort of ironic cult classic, but I feel it’s just as likely that people will go out of their way to forget it. 3/10.
*Couldn’t find a trailer for Charisma*