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Review: Pulse

During a Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, one sits in anticipation of the horrors lingering just outside the frame.




Photo: Magnolia Pictures

During a Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, one sits in anticipation of the horrors lingering just outside the frame, and there’s a profound sense of unease in those moments of stillness and indecision. Existential dread is an easy catchphrase to toss around, and has become the label for many a psychological terror tale dabbling in the fragility of the human condition. Kurosawa’s movies have a genuinely unnerving effect on the viewer because they deal with the kind of loneliness that exists in an overcrowded world. The characters are alone not because they’re isolated shut-ins, but because they interact too closely within a world where all of our neuroses crash into each other. Pulse is his strongest elucidation of this theme, treating the World Wide Web as a literal snare forging sinewy connections between strangers where the ultimate destination is chaos. Imagine anyone who’s grown too close to you for comfort multiplied to apocalyptic degrees and you can see the logic of Kurosawa’s brand of horror.

When the Internet made its first appearance, e-mails and chat rooms seemed to me a deadening force. Sitting in front of a computer screen that long cannot be good for you, and the so-called friendships made over an electronic field seemed to be mostly imaginary, where you and your correspondent had the possibility of saying and being anything within the realm of the mind’s eye. Kurosawa takes those fears and broadens them: a group of young computer programmers are disturbed by the suicide of one of their colleagues. Their search leads them to a floppy disk and a website known as the “Forbidden Room” offering transmissions of sad looking, isolated figures sitting in their rooms, staring into nothingness or making grim eye-contact with their web camera. It’s like a distress signal from human beings who have discovered just how alone they are within the universe, trapped in a limbo of a daily repetitive life without change.

We learn that these figures are ghosts, yet their impact on the human characters is the gnawing realization that urban life is a series of grim repetitions and routines, and to be a ghost is to truly live inside one’s own skin. By distilling life beyond the grave to solitary activities in one’s own apartment, Kurosawa taps into a fear greater than death: the nightmare of a life not being lived. Perhaps to save the film from being completely grim and esoteric, Kurosawa does an excellent job portraying his human computer geek characters in as sympathetic and compassionate a light as possible. The characterizations are simple but deft, and more is revealed about these college kids through their cluttered rooms, ultra-sleek computers, nerdy passion for the technical, and casual intellectual slacker clothing and backpacks.

But the character that stands out most prominently is an economics major named Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato), a longhaired and sleepy-eyed Luddite who drinks endless cans of Coca-Cola and lives in a state of casual messiness. He’s first seen in a state of maximum frustration installing the Internet for the first time, talking to himself through a series of “OK” clicks and scrolling down endless “I Agree” licensing agreements until he sighs, “What is all this crap?” Kurosawa’s a master at lingering on moments of indecision or passive frustration to the point of comical absurdity. When Kawashima stumbles across the “Forbidden Room” and his computer is hacked into by the dispossessed, he goes to the computer lab for help and in his befuddled helplessness falls for Harue (Koyuki), a model-perfect nerd girl. Their relationship is played out exclusively against the backdrop of creeping horror, and is less Boy Meets Girl than that old X-Files dilemma of Kawashima’s unwavering belief in the physical versus Harue’s increasing dread of the meta.

If their attraction brims from Kawashima’s interest in arguing that the act of holding hands means we are both here, present, and existing together, Pulse finds a distressing and all-too-human wall in Harue’s belief that, ghosts or no ghosts, people cannot ever truly get close to one another. If she doesn’t allow herself the possibility of feeling, she will be able to resist the consequences of getting hurt. Kurosawa’s able to interweave a complex give-and-take within a supernatural horror film without having the characters reduce themselves to conceptual ideas—perhaps because the subject they’re talking about is life, and what it means to live, which is connected to what it means to love.

Pulse is told slowly, mostly through atmosphere. The turning on of a computer becomes a pinprick of fear, and as the characters struggle to retain their survival and individuality while ghosts infiltrate their thoughts and will to exist, a series of disappearances and suicides slowly pervade their way through Tokyo. Unlike George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, there’s no panic; just a slow rational realization that doomsday is approaching. Without histrionics, Pulse interprets the end of the world as a gradual decrease in people until one day the streets are desolate and empty. Death is represented not through a sea of corpses but a Hiroshima smudge of black on the wall where an increasingly troubled human being once stood. And when the apocalypse finally does happen, it happens not through an atomic blast but a vast emptiness. When Kurosawa finally does cut loose with overt, explosive, fiery violence and carnage, the effect is shocking and devastating.

In his previous film Charisma, which Kurosawa described as an Indiana Jones story if Indy were a regular guy, the action revolved around a mysterious evil tree and was mostly about Darwinian uncertainty within one’s environment. After nearly two hours of contemplation, when Kurosawa cuts away to a city burning into cinders and billows of sinister black smoke rising into a poisoned sky, the filmmaker insists he’s dealing with end-of-the-world scenarios that begin with the individual in society, not society imposed upon the individual. That makes his hell exceedingly private. Through his use of long takes, often in very wide master shots, and his disturbing sound design that makes the squeak of a chair or the rustling of leaves a rattling of deep silence, he captures that internal, infernal state of terrorized spectatorship.

But Kurosawa’s nightmare scenarios are not nihilistic. In fact, they are resoundingly empathetic in that he cares about the world and the people who live on this fragile planet. His frequent casting of Kōji Yakusho (the hapless businessman hero of the original Shall We Dance) as his protagonist puts a man at the center whose face is lined with experience, his eyes brimming with thoughtfulness. In Kurosawa’s Cure and Charisma he was a police investigator whose very humanity made him not quick to make snap decisions about the nature of evil. If those protagonists were ultimately doomed (or changed, depending on your point of view), Kurosawa elicits his most hopeful casting of Yakusho in Pulse. He only appears in the opening and closing scene, in a fleeting but vital cameo. He’s a ship captain traveling with survivors of the apocalyptic incident, en route to a foreign land, and he goes about his business tending to the ship and encouraging his few passengers. He doesn’t have much dialogue, but when his earnest, hard-lined face looks into the eyes of one of the main characters we’ve been following throughout, saying, “Be strong. Don’t give up. We have to keep trying.” It’s a Sisyphus moment, a human moment, and one that implies that we are all perhaps doomed to the same fate, but true courage and conviction comes through the very act of being. That’s not the statement of a nihilist. In fact, Kurosawa’s follow-up film, springing off of the end of the world in Pulse, is reassuringly entitled Bright Future. Of course, that one’s about a character’s caring relationship vis-à-vis a poisonous jellyfish…so you can be the judge.

Cast: Haruhiko Kato, Kumiko Aso, Koyuki, Kurume Arisaka, Masatoshi Matsuo, Kenji Mizuhashi, Jun Fubuki, Koji Yakumosho Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa Screenwriter: Kiyoshi Kurosawa Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2001 Buy: Video



Review: An Acceptable Loss Is a Morally Urgent B Movie

The film is a cynical critique of American foreign policy wrapped up in an uncluttered narrative that thrives on pulpy thrills.




An Acceptable Loss
Photo: IFC Films

Writer-director Joe Chappelle’s An Acceptable Loss is a B movie with a morally urgent message, a cynical critique of American foreign policy in the Middle East wrapped up in an uncluttered narrative that thrives on pulpy thrills. By positioning the U.S. government as the film’s primary antagonist, Chappelle takes to task the repeated killing of innocent lives as collateral damage in the hunt for terrorists and other ostensible enemies.

The ethical quandary that arises from such an operation is embodied by Elizabeth “Libby” Lamm (Tika Sumpter), a former national security adviser to Vice President Rachel Burke (Jamie Lee Curtis) who’s taken a teaching gig at a Chicago university. As Libby secretly transcribes her experiences, and faces civilians who are angry over her role in a controversial military operation in Syria, Chappelle shows a surprising empathy for the character. The filmmaker outlines that Libby’s memorializing of her experiences and her honest attempt at assimilating within a society that more or less shuns her is borne out of feelings of regret.

But An Acceptable Loss’s compelling take on moral reckoning is compromised by the distracting presence of Martin (Ben Tavassoli), a grad student who consistently exposes lapses in the storyline’s logic. Martin mysteriously stalks Libby and sets up an elaborate surveillance system in her house, but it’s never explained how Martin can operate with the skill, knowledge, and proficiency of some kind of intelligence officer. Dubiously, when Libby and Martin need each other’s help in a moment of crisis, the film oddly passes on holding the latter’s disturbingly voyeuristic behavior accountable; Libby shakes her head, and then the film drops the matter completely. For a film eager to ponder the ethics of people’s actions, it comes off as strange that Chappelle doesn’t scrutinize Martin’s own.

Still, it’s difficult not to get swept up in An Acceptable Loss’s technical virtuosity. The film’s propulsive narrative is nothing if not efficient, aided in no small part by crisp editing that relishes the fine art of cross-cutting. The dark interiors that Chappelle favors create a Tourneur-like atmosphere of dread that subsumes Libby, underlining the covert nature of her documenting her secrets; even scenes in daylight have a strangely nocturnal feel to them. This visual style complements An Acceptable Loss’s pessimistic view of America’s foreign policy, which is sustained right up to the film’s hopeful coda. The film shows that if policy is to change, it greatly helps to be supported by people like Libby, someone who had been complicit in committing atrocities but ultimately embraced her humanity.

Cast: Tika Sumpter, Ben Tavassoli, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jeff Hephner, Alex Weisman, Clarke Peters Director: Joe Chappelle Screenwriter: Joe Chappelle Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: The Heiresses Is a Contemplative Look at Class

Ana Brun’s performance as Chela anchors our attention where Marcelo Martinessi’s understated visuals might otherwise lose it.




The Heiresses
Photo: Distrib Films US

In writer-director Marcelo Martinessi’s The Heiresses, middle-aged lesbian couple Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irún) live together in a bourgeois household with only the leftovers of its former grandeur. The house and its furnishings, Chela’s inheritance from her parents, have a dated, hand-me-down quality, and the couple is gradually selling off the expensive furniture and china to pay for Chiquita’s debts. The emptying of the house of Chela’s possessions reflects the greater emptiness that Martinessi makes the audience feel in the space, where hardly anybody but the couple appears, and where the lights seem to always be off, presumably to save money.

But selling off Chela’s inheritance is to no avail, and Chiquita ends up in what’s essentially a debtor’s prison (the bank she owes money to charges her with fraud). Chiquita had been the dominant personality in their relationship, and after she’s sent to prison Chela finds herself in an even emptier house, without much to do. When an elderly neighbor, Pituca (Maria Martins), asks her for a ride one day, and insists on paying her for it, Chela finds a new vocation, becoming a kind of unofficial chauffeur to the neighborhood’s still-wealthy ladies. Although she doesn’t have a license, she begins driving Pituca and her friends around the city, picking up a regular gig driving the younger Angy (Ana Ivanova) to visit her ill mother. Initially flummoxed by the way she has fallen from her bourgeois indolence into a working-class job, Chela begins to embrace the relative freedom offered by driving, as well as the independence her bourgeoning relationships with the other women give her from Chiquita.

Martinessi cites Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant as his inspiration for the film, but The Heiresses has little of Fassbinder’s grandiose flair. This film’s characters spend more time staring contemplatively off screen than they do erupting into sudden emotional outbursts, for example, and Martinessi doesn’t accentuate the superficiality of Chela’s bourgeois home by arranging a literally glittering mise-en-scène, as Fassbinder might have done. Instead, Martinessi’s images are rather static and quite dark, relying on the natural lighting of the dimly lit house and Chela’s cramped Mercedes, the two places where most of The Heiresses’s scenes take place. The result is a film that’s more grounded—and more stylistically pared down—than Fassbinder’s performative melodramas.

In other ways, however, The Heiresses does recall Fassbinder’s drama of failed domesticity. In their shared home, Chela and Chiquita are surrounded by the signs of a disintegrating upper-middle-class patriarchy, represented in the ornaments of wealth Chela identifies as coming from her father. And like Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, though patriarchy is a structuring absence in The Heiresses, Martinessi’s film is overwhelmingly female: Angy has an ex-boyfriend who appears in the background of a couple shots, but no man’s face is seen throughout the entire film. While The Heiresses presents an almost exclusively female world, it uses very few exterior shots, communicating a feeling of confinement—most literally in those scenes in which Chela visits Chiquita in the women’s prison.

This sense of confinement reflects on Chela personally, as well as on the women in the film more broadly. As the nouveau riche come to look over her possessions, Chela spies on them through a cracked-open door. Martinessi presents these scenes from Chela’s voyeuristic point of view, reflecting her isolation and trepidation in relation to the outside world: She’s ashamed to now be reliant on selling her family’s possessions, but she’s also afraid of making contact with anyone outside of her and Chiquita’s world.

At times, paradoxically, the visual and dramatic quietude of The Heiresses feels a bit excessive, but Brun’s performance as Chela anchors our attention where Martinessi’s understated visuals might otherwise lose it. In downward glances and semi-dazed glares, she captures a character who at once is overwhelmed by her new circumstances and emotionally shields herself from them. Slowly and ambivalently, Chela finds a sense of self apart from her overbearing partner and the legacy of her father—breaking away from, rather than merely avoiding, her oppressive circumstances.

Cast: Ana Brun, Margarite Irún, Ana Ivanova, Maria Martins, Nilda González, Alicia Guerra Director: Marcelo Martinessi Screenwriter: Marcelo Martinessi Distributor: Distrib Films US Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Fyre Is an Empathetic Look at an Epic Fail

Chris Smith’s documentary about the 2017 Fyre Festival implosion resists the urge to revel in cheap social media schadenfreude.




Photo: Netflix

The video ads for the Fyre Festival looked amazing when they first rippled through the Instagram feeds of influencer models like Bela Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski in late 2016. For a certain kind of status-seeker, marooned somewhere cold and just waiting for the next warm-climate EDM gathering, the marketing for the music festival promised a bro heaven populated only by models. The lavish images of white-sand beaches and Jet Skis cutting slashes across crystal-blue waters were interspersed with slow-mo laser-strobed nighttime concert footage and promises of “an immersive music festival” featuring “the best in food, art, music, and adventure” on a “remote and private island once owned by Pablo Escobar.” The implication was that of a more exclusive Coachella in the Caribbean.

What director Chris Smith’s incisive and infuriating Fyre reveals isn’t that the founders—the unlikely team of Manhattan VIP party promoter Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule—promised something audacious and failed to pull it off, but that it was a smoke-and-mirrors scam all along. As everyone knows, Fyre imploded spectacularly, with festivalgoers showing up in April 2017 to discover no restful bungalows, supermodels, or VIP dining, but rather a half-built concert stage and some rain-soaked tents. The same hot-take networks that emoji’d the hell out of the original announcements couldn’t wait to mock the attendees—many of whom had paid thousands of dollars—for their naïveté.

From American Movie to Jim & Andy, Smith has shown himself to be nothing if not an empathic filmmaker. So instead of indulging in an easy round of social media schadenfreude, he investigates who and what was behind it all. The result is closer to a Frontline episode on Bernie Madoff than something like Netflix’s shallow and irksome faux-documentary The American Meme. Working in collaboration with Vice Media, whose reporting seems to provide most of the grist for Fyre’s mill, Smith interviews various former employees of McFarland and Rule’s organization. Nearly all of them exhibit the sort of dazed disbelief registered by the victims of a Ponzi scheme. The story Smith extracts from them is part old-fashioned scam and part millennial suspension of disbelief.

The original and far less exciting concept for the Fyre Festival concocted by McFarland and Rule was to produce a category-killer app for booking talent. With the kind of hubris that comes from too many Manhattan nights spent behind velvet ropes swilling champagne, McFarland and Rule concocted the idea of a music festival that would essentially be a launch promotion for the app, “the Uber of booking talent.” They paid a platoon of supermodels to party in the Bahamas with McFarland and Rule while being filmed by a team of marketers who then cut the footage into a white-sand VIP fantasia.

Smith covers the known part of the fiasco in sharp detail, showing how an overwhelmed and inexperienced team worked like dogs over the course of four months to pull off the kind of festival that normally takes a good year of planning. The interviewees tell Smith it was readily apparent that there was no “there” there. (Nobody thought to book the music for a supposedly transformative music festival until almost the last minute, at which point the organizers managed to scrape up Blink-182 and Major Lazer.) But they soldiered on, nearly universally in thrall to the mystique of McFarland, a Steve Jobs-ian figure of limitless cheery chutzpah who had always pulled off the impossible before.

The film reaches an almost fever pitch as the festival’s opening approaches and the Fyre team’s moxie starts to dissolve in panic at the swirl of chaos engulfing them and their leader’s glassy refusal to admit defeat. Smith’s narrative threads are then knitted into a dark realization about the festival: Not only was the tail wagging the dog, but there may never have been a dog to start with. Stylistically, Fyre isn’t particularly unique. It doesn’t have the vérité grit of American Movie, the panicky paranoid atmospherics of Collapse, or the inside-out meta-narrative of Jim & Andy. In terms of format, this is straightforward cine-journalism with a clear point of view and a riveting story.

What Smith brings to the documentary isn’t just an assembling of footage along a narrative pathway. He invests the story with a humanity that nearly all the earlier news coverage of the debacle had missed. While chronicling McFarland’s misdeeds, Smith keeps a focus on the true victims. The most salient moments in Fyre admittedly aren’t the dramatic cascade of chaos leading up to the final collapse, or even the brazen scams McFarland continued to pull off afterward—once again, promising exclusive access to things that he couldn’t deliver but pocketing the cash anyway. Instead they come when Smith shows the infuriated Bahamian laborers who worked grueling schedules for weeks, or the tearful local businesswoman who lost her life savings. These are the black, working-class voices who never featured in all the ha-ha finger pointing after the festival’s implosion. They’re the ones who went unpaid so that a Manhattan grifter could, as he put it, “sell a pipe dream to the average loser.”

Director: Chris Smith Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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