Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Japanese horror films have been on a roll in the US the past few years, so it comes as no surprise that latest arrival Pulse has found its way to our DVD shelves, although it took nearly five years from its original theatrical release. Following in the footsteps of The Ring, The Grudge, and Dark Water, it has also been deemed worthy of a US remake, no doubt sealing the decision to finally release the original here. The similarities carry over to the subject matter as well, which ends up being both a blessing and a curse.

The simple description of Pulse is The Ring with computers instead of videotapes, but there’s much more behind the idea. Instead of The Ring’s focus on one spirit’s quest for revenge and companionship from beyond the grave, Pulse takes the scenario a gigantic leap forward with the interesting concept of what might happen if the souls of the dead outgrew the confines of their current realm and sought new homes among the living. Unfortunately for the living world, all of those souls have been very lonely in the spirit world and can only seek comfort by having living people commit suicide to join them. This sets up a tale that takes on apocalyptic proportions by the end of the film, although the worldwide scope isn’t made clear until the final moments.

The spirit foray into the living world begins with shadowy, jerky computer images that ask viewers if they would like to visit a website to meet ghosts. Sounds like a Match.com experiment gone awry, but the hapless viewers can’t refuse this creepy offer in spite of their best efforts since the images continue to appear even when their Internet connections are terminated. The main plot follows one computer newbie who sees the images at his home and reports them to a couple of university computer lab workers in the hopes of finding out how to stop them or at least determine where they’re coming from. While they carry out their investigation, they learn of an exponentially growing suicide rate that begins to include their friends and colleagues.

On the surface, Pulse is just a simple suspense-fest, long on atmosphere but short on logic or character development. However, the deeper theme is alienation in modern culture as the film explores the loneliness of the spirits as well as the living people they’re haunting. It does an admirable job of expressing just how alone people can really be, even when they’re in heart of a bustling urban city. When faced with such crushing loneliness, the embrace of a spirit friend via suicide suddenly doesn’t seem like such a losing proposition.

While The Ring is the first influence that comes to mind, Pulse also shares similarities with the earlier anime series Serial Experiments: Lain, which featured a teen suicide who started communicating with former classmates via the Internet. Lain delved more fully into the concept of the Internet as another world, but Pulse’s plot point is so derivative that the film ends up feeling much less original as a result. It also borrows liberally from the style of The Ring, especially the spooky computer images that seem like they were lifted directly from the infamous videotape.

The pace is slow enough that it allows the suspense to simmer rather than boil over, and there’s practically no gore involved so squeamish viewers are welcome. It’s great for fans who just couldn’t get enough of the thrills and atmosphere of The Ring as well as the later films Dark Water and The Grudge, but it would be even better for viewers who have never seen any of them and won’t be distracted by the similarities.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The War Within

It’s difficult to view any film about terrorism in the US with an open mind due to the extremely sensitive and volatile nature of the subject matter. In the wrong hands, this subject could easily lead to a sensationalized or overtly patriotic mess, simply adding to the unnecessary anti-Arab sentiment in this country. It’s questionable why any filmmaker would even attempt to mount a production focused on this topic at this juncture, let alone center it around a terrorist cell in New York City, so it’s all the more surprising that The War Within is a well-balanced, thought-provoking effort.

The film follows an American-educated Pakistani engineer named Hassan as he is accosted in Paris and imprisoned in Pakistan for no apparent reason, tortured and shown pictures of his mutilated dead brother, then released three years later. This whole sequence left me puzzled since it wasn’t made clear why he was targeted, who was torturing him, or what they wanted from him. My interpretation is that his brother was involved in a terrorist plot and was killed by US forces who then tracked down Hassan under the fear that he was also involved and the hope that he would provide more names to target. In any event, during his time in prison, his cellmate gave him a copy of the Koran which apparently led to his indoctrination into a terrorist cell. Again, how he made the leap from innocent prisoner to radical terrorist isn’t made clear, but the main purpose of this sequence was simply to provide a limited backstory for Hassan’s infiltration into the US.

Hassan is sent to New York with other members of his cell as part of a coordinated terrorist plot. They all split up to become sleeper agents until the time of the attack, which allows Hassan to contact and stay with an old friend of his named Sayeed. Sayeed is fully Americanized, loves this country, and condemns acts of terrorism, setting up an inevitable showdown between the two friends. When the other members of Hassan’s cell are captured before they can launch their attack, Hassan is left with a crushing decision: leave his one true purpose behind and return to normal life, or carry out his part of the attack on his own.

The performances are uniformly understated and believable, helping the production seem like a realistic portrayal of difficult circumstances rather than a tabloid-style movie of the week. There are no cartoonish evil terrorists or flag-waving patriots, just conflicted individuals faced with difficult choices. As a result, the movie succeeds as a well-balanced study of the effects of terrorism on the individual and the community.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Future Retro

You know you’re officially old when CDs with music from your high school years have the word “retro” in the title. Another bad sign is when those retro hits get reworked by modern studio magicians to appeal to today’s listeners. In theory, I should hate the concept and execution of Rhino’s new Future Retro compilation CD, but somehow it works by both honoring the subversive hits of the 80s and making them relevant for modern tastes.

The track selection is especially impressive and cohesive with the exception of one head-scratcher unfamiliar to me, Book of Love’s Boy. The original song selections can mostly be labeled New Wave and thankfully steer away from any pure pop hits, instead focusing on songs that mostly never cracked the US charts but are instantly familiar to any alternative music fans of the 80s. In fact, the original tracks could stand up well as a compilation on their own, a solid time capsule of a bygone era.

The original artists were revolutionary pioneers of their time, fusing traditional rock music with futuristic synths for an entirely new sound that launched alternative music as a viable genre and legitimized club culture after the disco crash. It’s fitting then that the electronic talents of today were called into duty to put a new spin on these songs that launched the culture currently supporting them.

Thankfully, Rhino chose a credible stable of remixers for this project. They’re not huge artists for the most part but they’re also not cheesy Eurotrance hacks. Actually, there’s only one track that veers near the trance style, and it’s the weakest of the set, the Hamel Album Mix of Alphaville’s Forever Young. In fairness, the original song is a bit of an albatross to start with but in different hands it might have had some promise. The styles for the rest of the crew range from breakbeat pros The Crystal Method remixing New Order’s Bizarre Love Triangle to progressive house legends Way Out West on Echo & The Bunnymen’s Lips Like Sugar to hard house diva DJ Irene on the aforementioned Book of Love track.

It’s refreshing that the remixers didn’t strip these songs down to just a vocal sample from the choruses. For the most part, they include all of the vocals and enough basic music framework from the originals to appeal to the oldsters. I can’t go so far as to say that they improve upon any of the originals, but they all offer their own unique and refreshing spins on them that add up to an enjoyable trip down memory lane and a worthy bid to return them to club prominence twenty years after their prime.