Tales of the Unusual (2000)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
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Tales of the Unusual

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Our rating: three LAVA® motion lamps.

New Japanese game show:
Iron Undertaker!
Tales of the Unusual? Unusual, certainly, in that it's a movie anthology piece. It's been a while since we've seen one of those, particularly one that was any good. In true Twilight Zone fashion, the film (also based on a TV series, released to Japan in 2000, and sadly unavailable in the West) collects four unrelated stories and connects them through a framing sequence – but more about that later.

The first story goes straight for the creep-out. Five people survive a plane crash on a snowy mountain. One of the women has a broken ankle, so they bury her in the snow to protect her from the blizzard conditions until help can come. Surprisingly close by, the four remaining survivors find a one-room cabin that provides heat, clothes, and food. An attempt to retrieve the fifth survivor goes horribly wrong, so the four bunk down for the night, though evidence is mounting that they might not be alone on the mountainside . . .

"Can you hear me now?"
As is standard in this kind of story, the four survivors are as different types of people as is possible, which can make you wonder why they were taking the same flight. Each has his or her own ideas about how best to survive, so an uneasy truce is the best that they can manage. The cinematography and atmosphere of this segment is reminiscent to that of Ring, although we found little evidence that common cast or crew connects the two films. The script teases us with a story-within-a-story (also about people stranded on a snowy mountaintop) that is trotted out at least twice before its resolution is revealed. The eventual discovery of the truth behind the main story suffers only from the fact that it goes by so quickly that it can be a bit difficult to put all the pieces together mentally before the film moves on to its next segment.

Samurai Cellular is by far the most entertaining Tale of the Unusual -- just the title makes you want to see it, and the execution really delivers on the concept. The year is 1702, and a minor minister named Oishi must respond to an injustice that led to the death of his clan's leader. Oishi is more interested in getting some nookie from his mistress, but the other members of the clan pressure him to mount an attack on the offending family. After leaving his sweetheart's house one day, however, Oishi finds a cell phone sitting in the road! The voice on the other side teaches the hapless samurai the basics of cell phone usage (turn it off before you go into a movie theater!), and then informs him that the voice is from the far future. The future, it seems, wants to check on the veracity of certain historical events. Oishi agrees to help out, but not before he is certain that he won't be billed for roaming 300 years outside his service area.

The hook here is obvious: you can't observe history, even from a cell phone, without affecting it. The questions the caller asks begin to push Oishi toward his destiny -- although one wonders if he really could have avoided it. It's a simple story, but handled with humor and style.

The third story is Chess, which was influenced more than a little by David Fincher's The Game. The set-up explains that Japanese chess champ Akira was defeated by a computer named Super Blue. Years later Akira is living on the street, his confidence destroyed because, the subtitles tell us, he was the first human ever to be beaten by a computer on chess. We assume this is a glitch in the translation – we've had personal experience in the digital defeat department since TRS-80s and VIC-20s handed us our asses back in 1981. And while Super Blue is a towering machine with numerous techs constantly attending it, the computers that used to trounce us had upwards of 4K of RAM and could display nearly 10 colors. Basically, we assume the movie really meant that Akira is the first human champion to lose to a computer in regulated play.

Akira is essentially kidnapped out of homelessness by a rich old man who wants to play him in a game of chess. After much convincing Akira starts to play but freaks out when he sees the moves of the game being played out by people on the street below – complete with bloodshed when pieces are lost. Akira runs for it, and begins to search for help, but everywhere he goes he sees reflections of the game he was playing, and the people around him constantly ask: "What's your next move?"

A show with everything
but Yul Brynner.
There are some nice set pieces here, as when Akira steals a car but finds that it will only drive diagonally – in the parking lot-turned-chessboard, it is a bishop. However, the ending tries far too hard to tie up all the loose ends, stretching credibility where it needn't have. In addition, the plot's resolution is based on Akira's execution of an illegal move, which made us wonder if the writer was completely familiar with the actual rules of chess.

The fourth section, entitled The Marriage Simulator, is predictable but heartwarming. A young engaged couple, in the process of arranging their wedding ceremony, is offered the chance to see a computer simulation of their marriage, based on questionnaires, genetic data, and their own emotional responses to the virtual reality simulation as it progresses. After some prodding, they agree to participate, and we are treated to a speculative preview of their first ten years of marriage. The concept is interesting, and fortunately there's a bit of twist to the story that speaks to the paradox at the core of most virtual reality prediction stories.

Where it breaks down, however, is in the fact that in other respects, Simulator is little different from any other modern love story picture. The movie's events are seen mostly from the woman's point of view, and it contains not only a repeating "meet cute," but also a sassy, plain-spoken girlfriend for the female lead and a number of other Nora Ephronesque conventions as set forth in When Harry Met Sally. Not that this makes for a bad film, exactly, but there are few moments in the movie during which one doesn't know exactly where the story is going. Someday a modern moviemaker will make a romantic film that breaks free from the mold, but alas – this is not the film to do so.

iPod - of the future!
The challenge in any anthology film is to unify the parts in a way that makes sense, or that at least makes the transition from film to film entertaining. Tales of the Unusual, having already borrowed heavily from The Twilight Zone in tone and subject matter , continues its (ahem) homage by putting the transitions in the hands of a storyteller character. The storyteller is essentially a Japanese Rod Serling: a soft-spoken man in a dark suit who, along with a group of commuters, is stranded at a train station by pouring rain. The storyteller himself appears as much a part of the station as its lighting fixtures, as if he were installed there by the train company against the possibility of just such an entertainment emergency. (We examined him carefully for slots that might accept coins, bills, or credit cards, but apparently the storyteller is a free service.)

While this character is an interesting conceit, what with his tendency to pick his stories based on character quirks of his listeners, his contributions to the film's creepier qualities are outweighed by his artificiality. There's something not quite human about this narrator, so when he approaches the audience at the end and tries to explain the feelings that go along with the telling of stories, we find it tough to believe. There's some doubt, in fact, that this placid yarn-spinner has feelings at all. (He's still head and shoulders above The Cryptkeeper, though.) Still, even with an ending that falters and some occasionally weak moments, Tales of the Unusual delivers originality and atmosphere enough – particularly in the delightful second segment - to make it worth a look.

Own it!

Review date: 07/28/2003

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