Thursday, April 20, 2017

'The Promise'

As the largest film production ever to deal with the World War I-era Armenian genocide, The Promise takes on a serious issue with the appropriate level of seriousness. Seriousness is about all this dull, ponderous movie has going for it, though, as the filmmakers’ efforts to build an old-fashioned sweeping romance around a historical atrocity fall far short. Oscar Isaac plays Mikael Boghosian, an Armenian medical student in Constantinople at the outbreak of the war, who endures terrible hardships as he attempts to save his family from extermination by the Turkish military. While in Constantinople, he falls in love with Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), a fellow Armenian and a world-traveling artist who is in a relationship with American reporter Chris Myers (Christian Bale).

The perfunctory love triangle isn’t compelling enough to carry the movie, but it’s almost always front and center, with the genocide serving as a backdrop for a gooey romance among three generically good-hearted people. Chris, who gets drunk once and is occasionally belligerent, comes closest to having flaws, but Bale’s mumbly performance is as terrible as his ridiculous facial hair. The dialogue by director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) and co-writer Robin Swicord is clunky and full of exposition (and is delivered by an international cast with a jumble of accents), the score by Gabriel Yared is syrupy and overbearing, and the CGI vistas are often distractingly fake-looking. The producers (including the late Las Vegas casino mogul Kirk Kerkorian, an Armenian-American who financed the entire $100 million production himself) have good intentions in shining a light on a historical injustice, but the drama fails to live up to them.

In theaters tomorrow.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Isola: Persona 13' (2000)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Also known as Isola: Multiple Personality Girl, Isola: Persona 13 is a second- or perhaps third-tier J-horror movie that never managed an official release in the U.S. or an American remake, even while riding on the coattails of movies like The Ring and The Grudge. Isola is, of course, not nearly as good as those movies, with a premise that turns out to be pretty silly, but it has enough semi-creepy moments that horror fans probably would have snatched it up at the time. As it is, the only way to view it in the U.S. is via questionable online means or on an import DVD. And for anyone who isn't a hardcore fan of Japanese horror, there's really no reason to seek this movie out. It doesn't blatantly copy the ghost-girl antagonists of the most popular J-horror, but it does still focus on a creepy, possibly malevolent young girl, as well as the vengeful spirit of a dead woman.

The focus is actually a bit inconsistent; it starts out with troubled young woman Yukari (Yoshino Kimura), who's traveled from Tokyo to Kobe to help with disaster relief following the 1995 earthquake there. Yukari is telepathic, although how those abilities work or how she got them or indeed anything at all about her background is never revealed. But while she's the movie's main character, she's not the one who's subject to the movie's horrors. That's teenager Chihiro (Yu Kurosawa, granddaughter of Akira Kurosawa), whom Yukari conveniently meets while out walking (there are a lot of convenient and unexplained coincidences in this movie). Chihiro suffers from multiple personalities, including the titular Isola, a personality (her 13th) that seems to have the ability to leave Chihiro's body and kill people.

So is Chihiro (who's generally aloof and menacing) the movie's monster? Well, not really. Although we do get some exploration of Chihiro's back story (including dead parents and an abusive uncle), it's kind of pushed aside once Yukari starts investigating the real culprit, and discovers the source of Chihiro's Isola personality. That involves out-of-body experiences and a sensory deprivation tank like something out of Ken Russell's Altered States, and it pushes the movie from mildly creepy to overtly silly, ending up with an absurdly melodramatic finale (and some chintzy special effects). Chihiro's sad plight, which has some resonance in its connection of mental illness with trauma and haunting, is minimized in favor of this much sillier storyline, and her character development gets cut off.

The mystery of Yukari's past is teased throughout the movie but never revealed; there's no explanation of where she came from or why she traveled to Kobe or why she feels connected to Chihiro. In Kobe, she just shows up at the home of the woman running the relief efforts (who is also Chihiro's psychologist) and seemingly moves in. At the end of the movie, the psychologist asks Yukari, "Who are you really?," and the movie seems to be building to some big reveal. Yukari answers, "I'm a psychic," the other woman laughs it off, and that's it. It's a haphazard ending to this odd, haphazard movie.