Friday, December 30, 2011

The Endless Envy: Battle Royale At 12

Initially had zero plans to write up anything regarding Thursday night's screening continuation of Cinefamily's unprecedented weeklong engagement  of Kinji Fukasaku's classic swan song, Battle Royale, but it didn't take long for the thought to spring forth to do so, especially due to the events happening around the film. Upon arriving, and subsequently waiting in line outside the retrofitted/resurrected Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax near downtown Los Angeles, I found myself surrounded by an impressive turnout for a foreign film, let alone one that has been such a phenomenon of the internet for nearly twelve years as of this event. One would think that such popularity in internet years would experience some kind of dropoff..Not so here in the slightest. But once the clock hit around twenty five minutes before the doors would be opened to allow us entrance to the movie house, something happened that came very close to causing such numbers to be decimated in quick measure.

 We were notified by Hadrian, the proprietor that their digital projector had apparently burnt itself out, and that they were being forced to delay the screening by roughly an hour as a reploacement was being rushed our way from Echo Park! And to be completely frank, this was a moment where part of me felt compelled to walk away. Having owned the film in multiple formats, and having already seen it in a large audience, there was little reason keeping me from soldiering on and waiting another hour to watch a film I had already seen surrounded by complete strangers. Initial plans was to go to this screening with perhaps another to bounce ideas off as BR is often want to do whenever I watch it with company. And since there was little else but perhaps the mere opportunity to see what form this version of Battle Royale would be, there was little keeping me motivated to stay.

Then I overheard people around me, and it hit me..After twelve years of almost complete internet saturation (or so I had long imagined), there were many in attendance who had not seen the film. And that alone, was enough to double-motivate me to stay. There is something inherently thrilling about the idea of a BR cherry. It has been so long since I myself could ever count myself as one of those. The film has within it, and incredible power that almost always leaves a lasting impression on those who see it for the first time. Much like the shockwave that rushed through the kids within the first thirty minutes of the film, the audience is often confronted with the book/film's wildly perverse premise, and are immediately either repelled, or inescapably transfixed by it. The film remains utterly incapable of leaving anyone inert, or indifferent. And the thought that a room that was at least 40% comprised of those new to the experience became quite the attractive thought. Add the influence of no traditional codes regarding alcohol in a movie theatre, and possibly even another Mondo Mix created by the folks at the Cinefamily, things just became that much more potentially exciting.

As hoped, the Mondo Mix was their Xmas themed one, and damn if it wasn't terrifying. And not for the scenes culled from the Silent Night, Deadly night film series, but for the inclusions of Tanglefoot & Shouji Tabuchi. (You can look them up...To explain here would kill the fun.)

And then came the new projector, and a crisp, high-definition presentation of...

                                                Battle Royale: Special Version

My night wasn't so much shot, as it was more mildly disappointed in the sense that someone either didn't check the difference between versions, or has some kind of preference for a version of a film I believe to be inferior to the original cut. For those unfamiliar, Battle Royale's smash hit status in Japan prompted Toei to invest in additional scenes to be shot for a rerelease edition of the film several months later. And the footage largely centers on a recurring flashback of a basketball game which is supposed to reinforce the relationships in the film, as well as offer a slightly more heartfelt denoument to the brutality exhibited on the island where the majority of the story takes place. The problem is that pacing gets hurt immensely by this footage, and it often elicited laughs from nearly everyone I have ever shows it to over the years, and deservedly so. Much of the added footage grants little to no real meat to the proceedings, and often overdramatizes many of the film's already hyperbolic emotions. They are more reminiscent of some of Fukasaku's son (and BR screenwriter) Kenta, and his great weaknesses as a writer which almost completely marr the deeply inferior Battle Royale II. It doesn't help that many of the actors were seemingly moving on from shooting the film when they were called back in, sporting slightly older looks in keeping with the fact that the movie uses real teenagers, who will go through the expected growth spurts, making these  scenes look double-awkward to the extra attentive. All we get with Special Version are these flashbacks, some "enhanced" CG bloodshed, and a few additional shots that add nothing to the narrative to the point of being distracting. In all, it's a much lesser version of the movie that should never really be the first way a newbie should experience such an amazing piece of work.

So do I still love the film? Emphatically, yes. It remains one of my personal favorite movies despite its myriad of flaws. There is so much passion, energy, and rage at work in this film that never washes away, mainly due to having among the most entertaining opening thirty minutes of any movie I have ever seen. Taking such an across the board kick to the head philosophy as this film adopts as a backbone of the plot, while still not completely sanitizing some of the more grotesque elements of Koshun's novel. It remains a brilliant intermingling of post Slasher film, seishun eiga, and sports drama with a dash of political horror that holds little sacred, and common sense in less regard. Being a product of its time, the often reeling impact of protracted economic recession, and near panicked impasse between the young and old continues to shine brightly in Japan as the elderly population continues to grow at an increasingly accelerated rate, and youth violence has reached untold highs. One can easily see a film like this being blamed for such an increase, but upon closer inspection, Fukasaku's film deviates quite a bit from the novel, in that the use of "weapons" serves as a much more potent metaphor for what it is we take with us as we move into adulthood despite our childish desires. It takes a more responsible approach, despite perhaps making the Kitano Takeshi character a little puzzlingly forced. Despite this, Fukasaku's message remains beautifully clear for future generations. Whether it be education, a hidden talent, or the ability to empathize with another person, these are BR's greatest weapons. What happens with them may not always bear intended results, but they often are what grant us greater meaning in the world. The film's questioning of both how brutal it is to be a kid, and how so many so-called grown-ups seem to have not learned anything while imposing so much on the coming generations is at the heart of matters, and it remains as powerful as ever.

Special Thanks To VCinemashow & Cinefamily for making last night possible!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

In The Meantime: Busy Packing 2011

Now that the holidays are winding down, and 2012 is scratching ever louder outside my door, there's little time to blog other than for compiling thoughts on the year in general, particularly in regards to anime. So that's the crux of the week. Been looking at the bulk of what I watched, and deciding that a standard list simply won't do for this year. Regardless, this should be a lot of fun. Keep watching us at Anime Diet for upcoming posts!

So while things are tied up, here's something that I shared on Tumblr that deserves even more notice. Pardon the fanboying, but this is super nice. (dig that quality!)

Monday, December 26, 2011

Blackmail Is My Business (1968) Movie Review

Being bombarded by nearly a week's worth of new films in no way diminishes the impact of this still-stunning, colorful early Kinji Fukasaku piece centering of the life of one ambitious, seemingly untouchable blackmail artist, and his small "family" of chinpira ("directionless punks") accomplices. Moving from mark to mark (and mostly small fry criminals), the quartet consisting of the charismatic leader, Shun (Hiroki Matsukata), his old buddy Seki (Hideo Murota), half-Japanese fighter, Zero (Akira Jo), and the alluring Otoki (played by Tomomi Sato), we catch up with their exploits through way of flashback early on which showcases Shun as a down on his luck clean-up guy at a local dive when he stumbles upon a bootlegging plot, and is eventually roughed up for not keeping quiet about it. Almost immediately, this spirals the toilet-cleaning nobody, and those nearby into a pact that steers them toward making new, and continuously more dangerous targets. From infiltrating secret pornography rings, to various other shady dealers throughout the city, it seems like Shun and company have found their place well on the outside of reconstruction era Japan. But when such reckless rebellion faces the corruption nestled deep within the nation's infrastructure, can anyone survive its wrath?

Before redefining the yakuza drama, Kinji Fukasaku was playing wildly with the conventions of the crime dramas which were being made indelible at the time by trailblazers like Seijun Suzuki & others. But this deceptively simple tale of wayward youth bares some prophetically harsh teeth when the story gets dicey. True to what would become one of his trademarks, his anti-heroes often breathe in the promise of success by gaming a system they assume to understand, only to be systematically choked by unexpected truths within it. The techniques displayed here are fiercely experimental in places, and often come off as ahead of their time with his uses of freeze-frame, color control, and other touches that would eventually become signature. Creating something of a life document/testament to a growing feeling of apathy to the point of invincibility that perhaps Fukasaku saw in the world around him as a great mistake. The first half or so of the film almost seems to be glorifying the cool of his characters as if to lure the audience in, which is betrayed once Shun is revealed to be a womanizer of the worst kind when he questionably establishes a relationship with a popular film actress Natsuko Mizuhara (Yoko Mihara), and when he and his company discover potential glory in retrieving a memorandum capable of not only great wealth, but of exposing a swath of double-dealing at the very heart of the society they so seem hell bent on one-upping. Piece by piece, the film unveils the revelation that such aimless rebellion can only end in tragedy, and that what has been put in place since the beginning of the post-war period requires something a lot less naive.

The film's style and aggressiveness aside, the performance of Matsukata is possibly its most memorable legacy as it creates a terrific analogue to a certain sense of invulnerability that was likely very visible in Japanese youth at the time. After years of seeing movies portray the life of gamblers and thugs as something exciting and even honorable, with so much prosperity seemingly in abundance, it was likely very easy to get caught up in all of it, and Shun seems like a classic case of it. After not having found himself within more traditional means, this recently discovered talent of his seems like the gold mine that has eluded him for long enough. The feeling of being beyond what he considers beneath him, and unwilling to avoid flaunting his talents makes for a troubling, yet strangely sympathetic portrayal as it soon becomes clear what he is neglecting in the process. This is especially obvious when regarding his one-dimensional relationship with actress Mizuhara, which only seems tailor made for the movies(the artifice made clear as he helps her rehearse a scene while on a getaway trip), while the looks he exchanges with partner, Otoki, seem natural, flawed and ultimately real. He can briefly taste the life, but can only maintain the real with his little gang who have become something of a family unit.

So when Fukasaku tightens the screws on Shun and his gang, it almost waits until the final moments to truly deliver on the growing cloud of nihilism that has developed over the film's latter third. And when it explodes, it is a truly memorable delivery with nary a brass-knuckle hit pulled. It's quintessential Fukasaku, and it remains as potent now as likely as it ever has.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011) Movie Review

After taking in what was thought to be the smoking gun behind one of Sweden's most powerful men by what was thought to be a trusted source, left-leaning publishing legend, Mikael Blomkvist has taken a massive legal hit, rendering him and his magazine in dire straits. In the interim of this near career catastrophy, he is suddenly contacted by a legal representative for one Henrik Vanger, former CEO, and elder lead of one of the country's most influential families. Haunted by mysterious mails containing a single framed flower for every year following a great family tragedy dating back to the 1960s. Vanger's hope is that the shamed Blomkvist could piece together the puzzle regarding his fractured, unstable family who mostly reside on the island of Hedestad along with him as winter ice relentlessly caps the region. The reluctant newsman almost refuses, until Vanger with his great influence and wealth, offers up a possible information bounty that could redeem him, securing his magazine's future. Meanwhile, in Stockholm, Lisbeth Salander, a young, withdrawn & dangerous information gathering genius who has been working under the table for one of the world's most respected security firms has fallen into hard times. Whether Blomkvist is prepared or not, an unlikely alliance is about to form, and a brutal mystery from decades past may prove to be their undoing.

Having mildly enjoyed the original Milennium novels, as well as the Niels Arden Oplev films, one could easily write this huge-budgeted remake as little more than a glossy paycheck for a director who has come quite a ways in nearly 20 years of filmmaking, and for the most part, they'd be considered pinpoint accurate. Working from a script by Oscar favorite, Steve Zaillian, and employing much of the same crew that led Fincher to great heights with last year's The Social Network, this take on the plane-fiction favorite is a classy, often beautiful piece of work. But the core question, as with most even halfway decent remake of a foreign film, is why bother? There is no real good reason as to why. Like so many puzzling studio execs seem to display, there is a severe lack of faith in works that audiences may have to make a little extra effort to enjoy. And it isn't merely the lack of subtitles that makes this version a little strange and borderline cold, it is an unerring lack of dirt or nuance that almost makes the film a sleek, sanitized version of the story, with very little grit to ground it in anything resembling the often grotesque humanity on display. Even for a director who delved into some of the grungiest depths of human depravity in the groundbreaking SE7EN, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is almost bizarrely bereft of gravity, so much so that it practically floats.

Most suspect of the film's problems lie within the script, which take some deep liberties with how the story is told, often to the detriment of characterization which originally was one of the factors that made the originals stand out. From granting the tethers of Blomkvist's life from on and off lover & business partner, Erika Berger (Robin Wright) , and his daughter, Pernilla (Josefin Asplund) time on the island, one almost feels as if the film is eschewing much of the original story's sense of deep isolation, and going out of its way to make the central lead more likeable- which Daniel Craig does a decent enough job of doing without. So many moments prior to his meeting with Salander, which takes up nearly an hour-plus before this happens, seem hell bent on this that it almost undoes emphasis on the investigation itself which almost borders on becoming less a mystery, and more a matter of revelations falling into their laps. If there was anything that Oplev's films did well, was characterize just how labyrinthian the Vanger family's ties made for an engrossing little mystery. In many places, the mystery seems a lot less of a concern here for Fincher, and that his real aim was in expanding upon certain themes he played upon in Social Network, largely regarding personal boundaries, and privacy. One almost might think that he expects viewers to be familiar enough with the source materials in order for him to highlight the relationship between the two leads, which only offers middling results if any. Perhaps the biggest problems come when the film seems required to inform us of their personal stakes in the matter, and never really plays things as honestly as they probably should. It's all more pat than it ever was before, and that's a problem, especially in a film that depicts violence against women the way this one does. The tale between Blomkvist and Salander was never one of love so much as a hint of trust.- in this the film commits its greatest sin, and it almost never recovers from this.

The film's visual and sonic palette however is almost so uniformly gorgeous, one could almost give it highest kudos for being borderline clinical in nearly every respect. From scenic snowy vistas, to near hospital white walls, and humming grays, the cinematography by Fincher favorite, Jeff Cronenweth is immaculate and painterly. Which is countered nicely by the ever nervous intensity of the music provided by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross which perhaps provides the film with the kind of bleak beauty more of the film needed. In fact, alongside which is an impressively out of place credit sequence at the beginning, one might even regard Fincher's Dragon Tattoo as something of a showcase piece no different than his 2002 effort, Panic Room, only with a moodier score. There is infinitely more weight in the craft on display here than is story, which is strange since upon closer inspection, Oplev's films were clearly inspired by directors like Fincher, and yet offered much more in the way of sprawling narrative that the book inspires.

Again, performances are solid enough, only really hampered by a script that seems less ready to delve deeper than it probably should. Rooney Mara is a pretty good Salander, albeit far cuter and domestic than she's ever been portrayed before. She lacks the rage and nuance of Noomi Rapace, but she offers just enough to make her memorable. Daniel Craig's Blomkvist is also a fairly good turn for a man who seems ready to shoulder the everyman hero just as much as a superspy. He lacks the scruffy charm of Michael Nyqvist, but does well enough the same. Also more than welcome is work by Stellan Skarsgård, Christopher Plummer, Joely Richardson and others.

It's just too bad so much of this talent on display seems so used in the name of what is ostensibly lacking in power where it should. As it is, Fincher's first foray into the Milennium trilogy is akin to a sleek, ergonomically brilliant piece of technology based on previous concepts, only with a new design, and half the features. There is clearly a lot of lovely work on display, but at the service of what eludes me.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Adventures Of Tintin (2011) Movie Review

Yes, the original plan was to post a few days from now. But I would be remiss if I didn't share several words regarding the newly released supergroup project based on Georges Remi (Herge)'s legendary comic strip creation, The Adventures Of Tintin. The much-awaited collaboration between Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, and featuring a script by Steven Moffat, along with Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish, offers a rip-roaring example of what is possible with three-dimensional animation technology melded properly with the very idea of bringing a comic character and his world to life. It's a seamless marriage that showcases much of what has made The Beard the cinema legend has has been for so long, and at the same time plays well with the source material that served as an inspiration for so many filmmakers of the past. It is also evidence that perhaps it was necessary for technology to reach a certain point in order to best sell certain storytelling approaches. For every time a movie fan decries a nuclear test sending a refrigerator into the sky, only to land, open and spilled out our hero unharmed as he continues to stare at a mushroom cloud a distance away, it is filmmaking such as this that can sell it, and work. Suddenly, the story takes center stage with the spectacle. Something that has often eluded fantasy film since the advent of computer generated effects. And as recently mentioned, had the story not been so well conceived, such an event would hardly be as potent..

Tintin is a young , Belgian reporter with a penchant for adventure who is again tumbling into trouble over a rare model replica of a lost at sea ship known as The Unicorn. With his semi-reliable Fox-Terrier companion, Snowy, things become ever more complicated as dangerous parties are relentless in the secrets that lie within the model. Complications which eventually lead Tintin into meeting the near-washed up drunkard ship captain Haddock(Andy Serkis), ultimately setting off a chase around the globe against the nefarious Ivan Sakharine and his gang, also intent on unlocking the secret of the Unicorn, while using the wayward helmsman as key. Also along for the ride, are geek royalty, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as the hopeless duo from Interpol, Thomson & Thompson. Straight out of three of Herge's book collections, The Crab With The Golden Claws(1941), The Secret Of The Unicorn(1945), and Red Rackham's Treasure(1945), Spielberg and company fashion a wildly entertaining cross between loving tribute, and adventure romp on par with one of the famed director's most beloved genre legacies before a certain Crystal Skull came to prominence.

Without delving any deeper into what in many ways is a simpler plot than the twists suggests, another arrow in the quiver is in just how much Spielberg and company are finally able to experiment with the motion capture technology in ways that not only drive the thrill level up by notches, but enhances the very concept of what it is to be an observer in a film. Geography and setup are key elements in delivering what are an impressive array of comedic and action sequences that deliver as much character exposition as raised hairs. The prep work must have been both liberating and punishing, as it become clear that the tools are being utilized to their fullest, even in ways that eluded James Cameron a few short years back. It's rare when we get this much direction in a film that contains as much slapstick and non-verbal action these days, and Tintin offers a textbook example in how much one can learn about characters merely by their actions. Great moments include our hero's "trusty" dog, Snowy, and his tendency to be distracted, and Captain Haddock's bumbling becoming a boon rather than an obstacle when held up near an dangling lifeboat..Perhaps the largest, most impressive example is the dizzying downhill chasing of a raven down the hills of Bagghar. It is an Indy special gone Rube Goldberg berzerk, and could only be done now. And in 3D, it is only made greater.

Again, as an honest to goodness adventure film, this is much less about nuance and character, but what is present is a bounty of wonderful performances by Jamie Bell, as a wide-eyed and likeable Tintin, and Daniel Craig(another Bond gone bad for Mr. Wright?) as Sakharine. But the biggest triumph (again) is the lovely work of Andy Serkis, who grants Haddock three dimensions that even the current CG couldn't do on its own. It's a winning role that cements the character as one of my favorites of the year. And as much of the story operates on a move, it's surprising how far an old school storytelling approach works when played perfectly straight. And seeing as how this is planned to be a series, the only misstep might have been the very end. But even at that point, the characters have proven themselves so likeable, it becomes hard to fault it when the adventure has only just begun. 2011 has ended with an unexpected bang. One that thrillingly answers some long elusive questions about approach, and challenges what we've known about adaptations. It's a welcome melange, and possibly Spielberg's best pure balls-out adventure film since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Pause Button (On a rock?)

And now...a little break..Won't be a long one, I promise. Two recent views of some favorites have left me with some pretty good material to type on about. But until then..

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Questioning Escapism

If there has been anything positive about being without sufficient work at the time, it has been an ability to take another look at several films with renewed eyes. Particularly after reading a pretty good little book on the subject - Mushroom Clouds And Mushroom Men by Peter H. Brothers, something I'll definitely delve into more on these pages in the near future. Combine this with my own internal notions regarding pop culture, particularly film's divide between sheer escapism, and a viewer's wish for actual catharsis, one can take another view of these works as something of a conundrum. How does one write for a blog centering on some of the most left-field, escapist-like fare, and not drive one's self crazy in the process? There is a simple answer to this. One I hope more "geek-media bloggers" take into account when talking fantasy & genre works.  So when it came time to take in another viewing session of 1964's Three Giant Monsters - The Greatest Battle On Earth (also known in the states as Ghidrah: The Three Headed Monster) it should come as little surprise that aside from the superb work on display by Honda, Tsuburaya & crew, it's still a middling mashup of Dogora, featuring a cool monster fight at the end. For most, this was the big shark-jumping turning point for the Gojira franchise, and it's hard to not see why.

By this point, it only made sense to take the nuclear nightmare metaphor, and chuck it for what the public seemed ready to embrace, Gojira as hero. And what better adversary could there be than a three-headed dragon from space? After ten years, perhaps TOHO and the public were ready to make off with their cathartic sides, and just break out the monster in a manner that would see him as a reluctant representative of humanity. Perhaps my favorite moment in the film involves humans asking the diminutive Shobijin (Yumi & Emi Ito - PEANUTS) to translate a crucial discussion between Radon, Gojira, and Mothra - one that could rouse all three monsters to join forces against the dangerously powerful Ghidorah. Upon pleading with Gojira to join the cause, his response is to the effect that humans aren't worth helping because they "always bully him". It is this one silly scene that somehow cements the film as an important moment in the series, as it is that rare moment where the audience is directly privy to what the usually punchy monster thinks of the human race he has suddenly been tasked with defending. By giving Gojira a relatable voice, as is the public's view of such calamity in the real world.

I continue to stand by the notion that the very best genre has to offer carries within them some tether to very real concerns and emotions. When discussions arise regarding wishes that stories could remain almost strictly outside the realms of reality, one cannot help but wonder where it comes from, especially when the public tolerance for story logic and reason have reached fever pitch in recent years. Possibly as backlash from years of being inundated with works that continuously wink and nudge the audience with a general attitiude of "Kid with us..You don't really buy into any of this, do you?" By the 1980s, films had shunned camp for the most part, and substituted it with over the top sensibilities, which do have their charms. But such as storytelling trends change, the constant has always been some semblance of the real, and how it pertains to daily life. From another take on the "Hero's Journey" or even a simple horror tale, nothing works like carefully considered stories, and multidimensional characters. Without them, all we are looking at is fanciful art for its own sake. (which in it's own way have their charms, just not in many ways that engross me, or inspire discussion deeper than what manner of model work was used here, or CG texture modeling there.)

If the story cannot connect beyond the artifice, then the artifice becomes the reason for being.

So when I read tweets, or blog updates, or even Facebook posts bemoaning the idea that films offering less than comfortable emotions, it begs the question of why one watches what one does. And while disagreement is encouraged and the very essence of a free society, one cannot help but wonder how it comes to be that certain questions, emotions, themes are considered verboten in lieu of tropes, cliches, and expected outcomes. Again, this is obviously speaking completely from a subjective viewpoint, but if catharsis is to be avoided, then what function does art serve in that respect?

Suddenly..."moe" begins to make all the strangest sense in the world.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Live Action Manga Blues Meets Anime Diet!

Suddenly a live action manga/anime project too wild and wooly for the Kaijyu to handle was unleashed upon audiences this last weekend, and only the halls of Anime Diet could contain it!

Join me, as I attempt to break down and parse the good from the bad of NTV's 90-minute Ranma 1/2 dorama special, starring Yui Aragaki! Kung-Fu! Water! Gender Confusion! Hard Gay Clones! Bar Hostess Middle Sisters! Panda!

Read Here.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Hugo (2011) Movie Review

At this moment, I'm completely beside myself with joy, and maybe a little irritation at the very idea that not only did I catch this film weeks until release, but that there is only so much time remaining before this theatrical 3D event comes to an end. There is such a universe of loving craft to be shared within HUGO's heartfelt 127 minutes, that a simple one-off review from a simple blogger would only do it a fraction of service. As the film's marketing campaign completely failed to deliver; there is something of a completely different film, no doubt dodged intentionally. One can see a studio getting cold feet upon realizing that what manner of tapestry this master filmmaker has fashioned; it is a family-geared work of the most classical nature, complete with the wistful imagination and patience of those so clearly inspiring generations past. With the latest in technology, Martin Scorsese takes Brian Selznick's beautiful semi-biographical book, and composes a spectacular and sublime love letter to the power of not only film, but of human ingenuity as a healing force.

Set in a romanticized version of Paris in the early 1930s, little Hugo Cabret, the son of a clockmaker has recently lost his father, and has been surviving day to day, maintaining the clockworks of a large train station central to town. With no guardians, or school to contend with, his core struggle has been to finish repairing a mysterious find his father made in the days before his death. This rusty old automaton remains the final link between Hugo and his father, and with the parts he occasionally steals from a local toy booth run by an embittered old man, the feeling that a cycle could be closed by getting the machine to work. His daily fears of being apprehended not only by the old man, but of the station's dogged, yet simple-minded inspector begin to come to a head when he is finally caught attempting to steal a mechanical mouse. And it is within this event that he meets Isabelle, herself once an orphan, and now in the care of the old man, Papa Georges, and his wife, Mama Jeanne. A storybookworm in the extreme, Isabelle eventually begins to serve as a branching point between Hugo, and Georges when it is discovered that they both share pieces of a secret, one that could alter both lives forever.

Immediately, Scorsese's obsession to master what James Cameron had helped pioneer into almost cinema ghettodom  is made apparent with perhaps one of the most thrilling opening shots of any film, anywhere. We are not simply told the story through John Logan's solid prose, the director's eye, along with the ever terrific design work of Dante Feretti, we are thrust into Hugo's world with the kind of love and reverence that even AVATAR couldn't afford itself. In fact, one could go so far as to suggest that this is the film Cameron's work was meant to be; a epoch making crossroads charting & celebrating the evolution of visualized storytelling. And in that, it may surprise some to know just how disarmingly intimate the film is. With the cameras flowingly shadowing our central character's movements, we are given a solid geography of what Hugo's life has orbited around, and the sights he is privy to on a regular basis. (which also grants us more insight into one of the film's more endearing sentiments; everyone has a story.) So when it comes to his and Isabelle's discoveries, it does so within an unexpectedly small, yet somehow lush environment that offers volumes more to consider than an alien planet ever could. It is in the observational, that the film milks its greatest strengths, again owing great amounts to the filmmaking pioneers of the long past, an age when film was virtually inseparable from magic, and that risk, ingenuity and an enterprising spirit were at the forefront of capturing the stories and dreams of a world. It's that rare mesh of story and technique that makes for a virtuoso experience in how substance can be defined by style. Made all the more refined by Thelma Schoonmaker's brilliant as ever editing.

In the performance realm, HUGO is packed with terrific work from Asa Butterfield, who's sad-eyed work is a terrific analogue for the director, and in turn the audience. Once again, Chloe Grace Moretz continues to impress as the adventurous counterpart who becomes key in the tale's engine. Her growing importance in the story, makes for an engrossing bait and switch theme-wise, and is only made greater by her sincerity in the role. Also great fun is Sacha Baron Cohen as Inspector Gustav, who's bumbling fool eventually becomes a complex & sympathetic extension of what is happening with the film's throughline. What could so easily have been what the marketing had suggested, becomes another arrow in the movie's arsenal, and it is effective. But the truest triumph of the film belongs to Ben Kinsgley and Helen McCrory in the roles of Papa Georges and Mama Jeanne, characters that truly evoke complete histories in almost miraculously short running time. Both shine so beautifully in these roles, that it become hard to not see them as the two they eventually are revealed to be.

Strangely enough, the sentiments brought about here, are not terribly far from what Scorsese had explored in the more adult-oriented Shutter Island, where inventiveness & patience run hard into harsh realities at the cost of forward progression. Themes of not only seeking self-purpose, but of how all good works fulfilling a human need flow like water throughout the narrative. These films embrace not so much technology, but of those seeking to heal and change their worlds through it. Unlike so many filmmakers who have come and gone over the decades, it is heartening to see such a legend embrace such changes by reminding viewers of the importance found in making peace and seeking solutions rather than avoiding past pains. In many instances, HUGO can be seen as an "antidote" response to Shutter Island, where hope thrives in the young and new, as well as respect & love to those that have come before. It is perhaps the most beautiful love letter to stories and film since Cinema Paradiso, and now my irritation has slipped into sadness because more people simply must experience this in the manner for which it was crafted. A unabashedly sincere, bravura performance.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

In Defense Of Scott Pilgrim's Detractors

After a most recent rewatch of what has over the last year and a half become one of my favorite mainstream films of the last several years, it finally came to my attention that there are other reasons why even those who finally got around to catching Edgar Wright's adaptation, and disliked it, or just felt outright ready to dismiss it. Stylistics & Michael Cera overexposure aside, there are some elements embedded in the film's approach that can easily be seen as ripe for ridicule, or dismissal. And while some of it may lay flat in the lap of the original source material created by Bryan Lee O'Malley, there is a bit of reality play that at times comes at the expense of what some audiences expect out of their central characters. Especially when the film almost defiantly asks the audience to laugh along with an anti-protagonist who's greatest triumph come when it barely steps onto the front porch. Mix this with a virtually cold, unsympathetic (to many) object of affections, and it is hard to identify with many of these characters on an amiability level...But many might still know many of them.

As mentioned in my review back upon it's release in August 2011, one of my minor gripes about the film was how this rendition of events gave the character of Ramona Flowers not only a more tattered, damaged demeanor, but little in the way of character agency, particularly near the finale when she reveals her reasons for returning to her last "evil" ex in the form of Gideon Graves. The addition of a computer chip implanted at the base of her neck, rendering her incapable of escaping the douchey record producer continues to come off as a sleight toward what was once a more bright, assertive, and understandable character. BUT - When taken in the context of the film, which is nearly completely taking place within Scott's ADDled mind/skewed imagination, it serves to support his view of Ramona, which goes all the way around to inform what some viewers are and are not willing to follow in a film of this size. Where the original comics spent more time wavering in and out of Pilgrim's head, revealing the reality of a world moving on without him, the film is much more comfortable within the silly, exaggerated confines of an aloof imagination.

It is this helplessly myopic worldview that at times comes at odds with the expectations of many. And even I, as a viewer couldn't help but notice it. But what always balances it out with me is in how Wright and co-writer, Michael Bacall granted the Knives Chau character enough of an arc to see through her erstwhile ex-boyfriend's irresponsible actions, going from a child to a self-respecting young lady. She becomes everything Ramona and Scott can't seem to get right. The near-stealthy manner in which the "middle-character" becomes the real protagonist is something of a kick in the pants to many to the point that some often don't even see it. It is missing these elements, and perhaps even disliking who are supposed to be the central characters that can fuel much of the divide between fans and detractors of the film. But what I do love about the film aside from it's eye-popping presentation, energy and musical editing, is the fact that it DOES make it clear that this is very much a parody of every mumblecore film ever made where the characters are blinded by whatever short-sighted selfishness the film demands of them. It dares those of us surrounded by subcultures to seek out the real behind the attitude, and is a reminder of what could be lost when we buy so much into the collective images of any pop-culture era.

REDLINE In L.A.: Catch it quick!

L.A. Area Animation Fans, A REMINDER:

Takeshi Koike's hyperkinetic REDLINE is now playing at the Downtown Independent, smack-dab in the middle of the city, near Little Tokyo for an engagement that lasts until December 9th. (ticket info and directions in the link!)

Whether this is the first time you've seen this amazing film or not, the presentation, featuring a new English dub produced by Bang Zoom! Entertainment is a wonderful way to experience what I feel to be a rare breath of fresh air to the modern anime landscape. A terrific presentation for a tremendously fun film.

My Review Here.

The Illusion Of Agenda

This post is in response to an article posted on Raw Story regarding Fox's Eric Bolling & Conservative Research Center member, Dan Gainor and their perception of a leftist political bias in the recent Muppets film: Again, boiling it down to the most shallow & remote from reality explanation imaginable.

In fact, many of recent film's more "Left", or even borderline anarchistic expressions are indicative of the triumph of the creators over the money-centric studios they work for. Like any collaborative art, it's not an agenda, but rather a reflection. Not to mention, that a lot of what Henson and company stood for in the early days is consistent with what was displayed in the new film. Again, while many major films, particularly in the last several years share some hard-left sentiments, it is done with the core writers and directors, who are taking into account current attitudes and feelings. Zeigeist plays a major part in the tone of especially mainstream film. They wouldn't be this way if the largest demographic wasn't feeling this way. After all, this is also business we're speaking of.

For best recent evidence of this: Major films of 2008-mid 2009. No Country For Old Men, Cloverfield, The Dark Knight, Wall-E, Watchmen, and District 9 all implement notions that western civilization has come to a moral crossroads, and is in deep need for some soul searching. While to the fearful, this may come off as some kind of political plot, in a volatile media climate such as now, would risking alienating the masses by pouring in millions of dollars to infiltrate the minds of the all seem like a fiscally viable model to anyone? If anything, the reason why these films were so successful, is because the public is actually resonating positively with these feelings.The studios took a risk, and it paid off. The last time we were here was perhaps in the early 1970s, and we all know what was going on then.

I can also tell you the last time the needle was in completely opposite direction: the 1980s. The ideology behind many of that decade's largest films carried with them a tone that could shock many upon closer examination. About the only massive genre stealth attack I can think of was RoboCop, and again, the public resonated with what seemed to be a prophetic & satirical look at where corporatization was leading the country. It was a ballsy shot in the dark, especially in wake of the RAMBO sequels which reduced the developing world into a charred playground, where the US won the Vietnam conflict as well as Afghanistan. It would have been impossible to have produced films like 2008's during the Reagan era. Noone would have gone. Studios need to go where the audience is...Simple.

So in short, the notions wouldn't be as present, if the feeling wasn't so prevalent in the public. So the argument presented in the story is missing a crucial point to how the business of culture works, particularly when it has become harder than ever to get seats filled in theatres.

Friday, December 2, 2011

In Less Wordy News..

You wish to know what has kept me away from additional blather regarding several viewing sessions over the past several days? Seriously? When the impulse calls, my more music-centric mind tends to win out, leading us to experiments like these. Overall, this is something of a prototype for potential future mixtapes. Seeing as once upon a time, this was a habit of mine where I would concoct a one-of-a-kind audio presentation by way of analog cassette tapes. And since podcasting is still a short time away, it seemed the right time to delve into these habits once again. Should you like, please comment & share!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Zero-Limiter Holiday

Just a speedy mid-holiday update as trip to visit family winds down, and mere hours remain before the journey home commences. Best thoughts to all who have been able to celebrate what is indeed in our hands whether they be friends, family, or both. Aside from spending time with the desert clan, much has been watched, mostly via a pair of absurdly large screens (One plasma, and the other with True HD enabled). And while I personally would never consider screens that opulent, it is a great way to explore the limits of certain works available on Blu-ray. Of the most notable I caught were Rebuild Of Evangelion 2.22 (Which looked and sounded terrific, justifying the very project's existence.), as well as The Mist, and the recently released Evil Dead II. Again, as nice as it was to experience with such grandeur, I'm not sure I would ever go this far for my movies. There is still a part of me who prefers the theatre experience, and home is home.

Regardless, being able to be in a house where in one room, Kiki's Delivery Service is playing while Lupin III: Castle Of Cagliostro is playing in another, feels like a massive paradigm has shifted. Not only with family, but with media in general. And that's pretty exciting, despite the new challenges that seem to crop up with each new technological growth spurt. My only hope is that ease of access doesn't cheapen this love of art and story to the point where everything is mere distraction, incapable of inspiring thought or discussion. Those who are familiar with this site know full well where these concerns stem from, and as access tinkers with value, the challenge becomes ever greater to have some kind of determined amount of impact. And while it took many years to finally reach a point where Miyazaki films could be treated as something wholly mainstream on these shores (memories of working at a major local video store, virtually forcing the sole copy of My Neighbor Totoro onto confused families swiftly come to mind.), there is always the danger of being seen as just more for the pile as entertainment overflows, and submerges our minds. Quality speaks-yes, but consumers also have limits.Much like how I can be with looking at the latest array of new shows available via Crunchyroll, or another legitimate anime streaming site, it becomes something of a blurring point, making writing off to become one of the more accessible options.

That said, it's exciting to witness this latest toy era, but I often question the cost. And as the family and friends section of the weekend becomes hijacked into yet another celebration of a culture's fascination with the material (yet endlessly ephemeral), it is at least good to know that not everyone has let their monitors speak for them, and allowed their thoughts and words come across. If the culture of the real remains the focus, and the audio-visual end continues to work as an extension of it, bringing out new ideas and debate, perhaps we're all the better for it.

And speaking of discourse...

Sunday, November 20, 2011

State Of The Kaijyu: Prelude To Revolution

Thanksgiving is right around the corner, and not a turkey in sight. (Lest you consider a belated session involving The X Files: I Want To Believe, anyway) With the weather bearing down on many of us in the So-Cal area, as well as an upcoming trip to the old hometown, things will likely continue to be mildly quiet around here. Which isn't in any way implying that I haven't had my hands full with new, and old stuff to watch over the last several days. In fact, true to my most recent Anime Diet post, it has quickly become a retro season of sorts for me as not only did I get another chance to look and share thoughts on an obscure 1980s favorite in California Crisis, but a healthy number of titles by way of several sweet sources. Now not initially ready to share about all of them on the Diet (after all, I find that spreading the fun around is a lot more interesting), there will be a few posts regarding a few on these pages. But for now, seriously give that AD post some loving, as I find that it's ambitious one-shot OAVs like those that helped solidify my love of the medium in those oh so physical days of the pre-wired.

In other, mildly online project related news:

Pretty exciting stuff, I feel anyway. After a year of running a show, a part of me is so ready to take it to the next logical tier. Updates as they come(via Twitter, of course!)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Between Tengoku to Jigoku

Aside from spending my Saturday at Pacific Media Expo, which was quite fun for the most part, I partook another viewing of the then-underappreciated Kurosawa favorite, High and Low, which helped me formulate more thoughts concerning the current state of affairs. And as thousands continue to speak out against criminality in the corporate and governmental worlds, it rang a particularly deep chord within me this time around, especially in regards to how the film portrays nearly self-made shoe powerhouse , Kingo Gondo's shifty, negligent board members, as well as his creditors who plot to wring control, and continue to abuse their positions for greater shares of wealth. Kidnapping plot aside, which seemed more a desperate act than anything truly diabolical, it is the action of those already on the "inside" that promote an unhealthy influence upon a society's only recently begun restoration. And while the morality of the film wavers, even within the ivory walls of Gondo's home, it is easily seen as a reaction to loss of status for not only him, but his wife and family. But when everything has transpired, it remains clear that his demeanor is that of a survivor, and not of those so easily pushed to the abyss that they themselves commit crimes beyond the redeemable.

I love how the film so easily could have portrayed the hardened businessman as a model from a simpler time, with a clean rep, and white-tinted actions, but it plays on our ability to empathize with the man as he grapples with negotiating with a kidnapper. Streaks of grey are all over the place, the film lives up to the title, and we are presented with an impeccably staged, refreshingly honest look at the lives of those in places of power, without allowing the compass to lean too hard to one direction.

But when I watch the online chatter via Twitter, news video, and read the testimonies, one cannot help but feel that many of those like the ones surrounding Mr. Gondo throughout his central crisis have been on the winning team for far too long, with a public at long last ready to hold them accountable. But the largest tragedy when considering the film, is the role of the police, public servants dogged in the pursuit of not only the perpetrator, but some semblance of truth for those willing to sacrifice so much for others. Not being able to see this reflected on the streets of a number of our major cities is enough to not only sadden me, but seek to further damage the very idea of democracy and social justice.

And when the film finally takes us to hell, it serves as a reminder of how much worse the human heart can be when it feels suppressed and impotent. It is something many in the current movement are fighting to rise beyond. Further sending home that we are all capable of so much more. Now if only more in the towers were to follow suit.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Uchu Senkan Yamato (2010) Movie Review

It is the year 2199,

After five years of seemingly endless attacks by an alien force known only as the Gamilas, nearly the entire surface of the Earth is rendered uninhabitable, forcing the remaining human population to retreat beneath the surface. After a major offensive by the Earth Defense Force, the Gamilas response is swift and fierce. And in the ensuing retreat, Captain Juzo Okita and his crew are saved from destruction due to the noble sacrifice of Captain Mamoru Kodai and his ship, the Yukikaze. Meanwhile, the younger Kodai, Susumu lives a life away from the military he once knew quite well, now salvaging decontaminated matter for sale back to the military. However, upon stepping out onto the desert-like surface, he is nearly hit by a falling object, which strangely contains blueprints and details regarding potential means for not only helping what remains of humanity survive, but to restore Earth to its former living glory. The catch is that this enigmatic device only exists on one planet, the planet which claims to be the source of the metorite, Iscandar, a world far beyond the Milky Way galaxy, and a journey fraught with almost insurmountable danger. And yet with this miniscule nugget of hope in hand, the EDF enlists Okita to seek volunteers for a mission that could very well decide the fate of not only the crew of the alien-technology restored space battleship, Yamato, but of the earth entire. But the Yamato is but one, and time is running out.

And so it is, one year after the initial release of one of the most anticipated live-action events of my moviegoing life, I have finally been able to catch Takashi Yamazaki's grand rendition of one of Japanese pop culture's most enduring creations.

Originally airing from 1974-1975, the brainchild of barnburning visionary, Yoshinobu Nishizaki, along with soon-to-be  anime legend, Leiji Matsumoto, Space Battleship Yamato was and remains one of the most, if not the single most important anime creation of all time. Blending a fresh mix of high romance, space opera, and historical rumination, Yamato helped usher in a wholly new form of fandom for an animated series initially geared toward younger, preteen audiences. Having initially been deemed a failure, demand by an unexpected demographic (older, college-aged fans) eventually roared new life into the series, leading to not only a feature film, and a new series, but eventually international success, as the it eventually found itself dubbed and released under the name Star Blazers. Which is how I initially experienced it as a wide-eyed grub, glued to the screen as an animated show took me places I never imagined possible by a cartoon.

And even as the series came edited, and with names & certain circumstances changed, it was clear to me that something special had been discovered, and that no matter what, one day the feeling I experienced simply by way of appointment viewing would return on my path one day. Yamato came at a time when science fiction & fantasy had suddenly shifted due to Star Wars a few years prior. However, the series' unique brand of unexpected grandeur and seriousness had affected me in ways that the Treks and Wars could not. It galvanized me into watching it, ever more curious as to how the story would unfold. Even as I was too young to fathom the series' deeper musings about Japan's feelings post WWII, it was the compelling characters and situations that kept me coming back for more. I won't lie, Susumu Kodai (Derek Wildstar) was something of an early fictional heroic foil for me as a child, and Shima (Mark Venture) was always at closer in spirit to me. And it didn't hurt that the show's most brutal hook, a continuous countdown of days remaining for our heroes to reach Iscandar and save Earth always hanged over the end of each episode like a shroud of doom. Far from subtle, it seriously played havoc with my young brain for weeks on end. And it wasn't until much later that I finally saw the series in its entirety, along with the films, each of which broke my heart time and again with bizarre ease. It is a series that embraces full emotion, and plays it to the hilt with a grand sweep most anime simply hasn't been capable of replicating.

So when speaking of this large-scale production, it may help to preface this by openly stating that up until this point, I have never been the biggest fan of Yamazaki. Upon discovering the news that he was to helm the live action duties for such a beloved series, concern was the first feeling that swept over me. Having seen several of his films, including Juvenile (2000), and Returner (2002), his brand of derivative mish-mashing can be reminiscent of a more sedate Roland Emmerich complimented by heavy digital effects work, and one-dimensional characterizations. Even his award-winning Always films tap into a more populist mindset that at times runs counter to the kind of nuanced storytelling required to handle such a grand tale. So it may surprise some to discover that at least 60% of the time, Yamazaki finds it in himself to not only do a decent job of bringing Yamato to life, but to help establish something I have always wanted to see done with live action anime; create a work that is different enough, and yet wholly reverent to the source material.

Naturally, having to tell such a sprawling tale within a 2 and a half hour running time makes for some compression issues that at times can be more than a little jarring. Oddly, what came to mind regarding story efficiency was Speed Racer(2008), where nearly the opposite took place. That film suffered from an almost unnecessary first hour, whereas with Yamato, the film virtually catapults into the central mission well within the first thirty minutes, which leaves little to no time for the viewer to get a good idea of not only who these characters are, but grant a foundation for how each individual arc will unfold throughout the film. This is easily the most auspicious issue I may have with the film as a whole, as relationships merely move, and aren't informed well enough, and far too much happens far too early to have any impact to anyone who isn't already familiar with the story. It's a clumsy start that the finale in many ways never recovers from, and yet there are so many other elements that somehow buoy the remainder. And a lot of this may be due to a sense intimacy granted in later moments where a pretty good cast rises well beyond some of Yamazaki's patently obvious direction. It is also very clear that nearly all involved know full well the world they are bringing to life, and it shows despite the at-times all-too-ripped from recent science fiction vibe emanating from much of the action. If one is able to overlook the Battlestar Galactica and JJ Abrams Star Trek, one may be able to be truly wrapped up in matters.

Some of the "new" that works:

Among the more obvious changes, are a few of the casting decisions, along with some interesting role alterations. Updating the often dismissible Yuki Mori(Meisa Kuroki) into a Black Tiger ace pilot was a particularly welcome change, although it would have been more exciting to have explored her character a little more. What winds up onscreen offers only a vague idea of who she is, and what she could bring to the mythos, especially in regards to her relationship to Kodai, which is a major lynchpin of the series. Something there was definitely needed in order to offer lasting oomph for the finale. Also, I actually rather enjoy the idea of Sado-sensei being played by Reiko Takashima. If there's any problems with her and Maiko Scorick as Communications Officer, Aihara, it's that they merely are there out of necessity. And Shima as dad to Jiro (previously his little brother) adds additional tragic punch to his backstory, which helps his role move a little faster. And then there's Analyzer...Well. The less said about Analyzer, the better.

In the "bold" department, is the representation of the Gamilas, which I will not go into too much detail here. But it is an interesting, more "alien" choice to go with, if not a wholly satisfying one since one of the original mythology's more compelling elements was that of an almost familar enemy which further blurred certain moral & emotional lines in regards to warfare. Dessler is here, just not in any way some might expect. It is another decision that in many ways isolates the Yamato crew, and keeps the threat from being anything more than an almost faceless nuisance until the final reel.

And as mentioned, despite Yamazaki's often awkward staging & blocking, there are a few notable performances that helped ground this rendition with unexpected aplomb. Most importantly, Tsutomu Yamazaki's Okita, who's frail and yet duty-hardened frame carries a burden too great to share with the crew. It's a delicate, unexpectedly effective weight he brings to the film when it often threatens to reduce itself to borderline camp when it comes time for the FX action to take center stage. And in an almost serendipitous case of casting, Takuya Kimura's Kodai is an almost dead-perfect portrayal of a young man rapidly seeing his destiny crystallize before him after years of remaining the brash, short-tempered kid with a chip on his shoulder. Seeing as how the Kodai character is pretty much the classic "hero's journey" archetype, Kimura adds just enough gravitas to make the character work. Also welcome to the proceedings is Hiroyuki Ikeuchi (Ip Man) who's take on Space Commandos' leader, Saito is fun and earnest enough. As is Toshiro Yanagiba's terrific take on Sanada, the ultra-serious Chief Science officer.

Back to the bold without spoiling the film. As a single outing event piece, Yamato goes out of its way to pay tribute to numerous famous images and moments, at times to the point that it seems like Yamazaki, and writer Shimako Sato were out to cover their bases in case the film was a financial failure. And as a result, I'm afraid that there is little left to be said once the credits roll. And while much of the finale is milked for emotional impact, again, it feels as if producers were ready to cut their losses, much to the detriment of the film. Which isn't to say that the final product comes without it's own effective moments, but it does leave a void in the "what could have been" department. There is such a bar to be reached when considering the legacy and emotional potential of a grand scale (preferrably three-hour) Uchu Senkan Yamato movie, that perhaps, at least as of now, it's a dream idea near improbable to reach. But fans can still dream, can't they? A fun and welcome tribute is perhaps the best one can ask for.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Things Happening- IN SPAAACE!

The landscape has changed, but a generation has yet to be fully forgotten. The last few years have seen a decent number of revivals, some much more long-awaited than others. Can one ever truly rekindle old passionate flames borne far in the recesses of deep space? What happens when a lifelong lover of early anime space opera takes the invite, and dives into not one, but three big budget exercises in nostalgia in the hopes of "Remembering Love"? Tune into The Wandering Kaijyu & Anime Diet!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Demon Gets Its Due: The Paranormal Activity Trilogy


So it comes to pass that what was once seen as a novelty work around for no-budget filmmakers to create effective, rudimentary, and in many ways experimental exercises in horror now reaches that divide where the more conventional world of franchise horror film oozes into the frame. Which isn't to say that this was unexpected, but in the challenge that comes with straining out a singular premise based on the technology available, it's virtually inevitable that their verite element would be compromised for the sake of sequel dollars. And since I was among the thousands who took the brilliantly placed marketing bait of the original hook, line and sinker, part of me knew upon seeing it that Paramount would go out of their way to make sure this become a protracted series of works, all in the name of being the next in the neverending trend of horror being allergic to singular success. Which isn't to say that in today's climate is not understandable with attendance numbers waning, and ticket prices increasing. Anything that is capable of engaging the crowd in new and interesting ways is bound to inspire a repeat. The problem comes when this method is so threadbare simple, that any greater expansion of the conceit invites contrivances and nuances that threaten the foundation of such an idea.

Which is at the essence of what has happened with Paranormal Activity as a franchise. Inevitable perhaps, but a part of the viewer in me can't help but be compelled by things happening in between what has become the films' expected pattern. And even when readers might already be asking the expected "whys" regarding my own interest in this series of films, I have to go ahead and admit that it has been years since a horror franchise has kept me coming back. Having grown up in the heyday of the trend (the 1980s was in many ways the petrie dish by which most of today's film marketing  and creation habits spring from) I have long since ignored most horror movies made to cash in on the success of the original. Especially when the sequels clearly have nothing more to say regarding the myth established, save for a repeat of the same, all the while increasingly wandering away from scares and thematic heft. While the same can be said regarding the PA films, there has also been an interesting set of themes that have sneaked themselves into the mythology.

Themes that help the films work in spite of their minimal nature.

But first, what is the surface mix? The initial hook? What is it about this take on the "found footage" verite subgenre that connects so well with the general public?
For me? Unassuming showmanship.

Particularly when thinking the $15,000 price-tagged original film made in 2007, and released wide in 2010 via purchase from Paramount Pictures, PA's secret weapon resides in the use of drawn out static shots, phantom sounds, and an absorbing lack of polish. It's resourcefulness being the primary element in delivering the scares made for a unique experience in mainstream multiplex horror. Suddenly, the audience was compelled to watch more closely than they had in perhaps decades. Not unlike a Where's Waldo book, or even a Magic Eye Painting, the viewer is required to involve themselves in ways unusual for a modern horror film. A technique perhaps best pioneered historically by the Lumiere brothers..

Since then , as viewer habits, and technique evolve, it has become increasingly more challenging to draw in the senses in ways that deliver a potent shock. Which brings us to the internet age, and perhaps a turning point for the genre in general.

In the years post- The Blair Witch Project, as well as the J-horror boom of the late 90s, a hunger had been growing for more entertaining means of exploring the unexplained, particularly in the realm of low to mid-grade video. In fact, as an extension of the Japanese fascination with ghosts in lieu of the success of such films as Ringu(1997), and Ju-On(1998), variety tv shows began flirting with so-called "found footage" of hauntings, as well as explorations into long spoken of ghost tales.

And as the internet began to gain ground on the international level, it also became prominent to share videos, often claiming to capture moments often inspiring fear and even more fascination. So once online video came to greater maturity with the advent of YouTube, a growing appetite, and openness for found video set the stage for a new type of vernacular that films like Blair Witch, and even Cannibal Holocaust flirted with. Only made more relatable by way of video technology's increased affordability, the last barrier dividing filmmakers and the everyperson has dissolved, making these movies ripe for pilfering.

Now onto the second-level, and this is where it truly piqued my interest.

For those unfamiliar, I had shared a few words regarding the original film. While a part of me admired the achievement, its bare bones nature, not to mention the reliance on a character to act beyond reason almost hurt the film. ( and of course, there's a tacked on scare in the last moment that cheapens a lot of what comes before) And yet despite these small quibbles, I found a lot to like in regards to its view of not only the unknown externally, but also internally.  It turned out that for my money, it was the internal conflict of the film's two leads that made the piece especially effective.

Quick Recap:

Paranormal Activity chronicled the lives of Katie & Micah (using their real names) whom soon after moving into a tract home in the San Diego suburbs, begin experiencing nightly disturbances. Leading Micah, already hooked on capturing life on video, decides to set up a camera on a tripod to capture them while sleeping for what he possibly hopes is a sense of comfort for Katie, who already seems more sensitive to the situation than he is. Over the course of several nights, the disturbances increase in their ferocity, eventually coming to a crescendo when it becomes clear that Micah's doubt has opened a door
 to what is ostensibly a doomed finish.

So what leads me to retain the opinion that the original once again claims more potency over later films, is the underlining notion that despite the American ideal of cohabitation, even in the most secure neighborhood & housing, living with others is fraught with an eternal nihilistic edge. From a universal perspective, security is merely illusory. No togetherness. No understanding. It is the classic "fundamentally alone" perspective that reigns supreme in the original piece. It is made even more evident in the film's original pre-studio version, where Micah and Katie's ending is even more viscerally pronounced. And this is possibly a fear that runs much deeper than any idea regarding malevolent spirits. The real malevolence, being our inability to connect and accept a more realistic view of a universe in perpetual flux.

Not sure if this was what original creator, Oren Peli had in mind, but it is worth considering.

Paranormal Activity 2:

So when it came time to franchise the film by following it up with a quasi-prequel involving the days prior to the events just witnessed, much of the same was employed, which not only expanded the mythology regarding Katie's family, but increased the number of cameras/opportunities to witness another rift between worlds. This time, involving Katie's slightly younger, married sister Kristie, her new husband, Dan, his daughter from a previous marriage, Ali, and most importantly, the newest addition to the family, infant son, Hunter. With a larger, more lavish home, a more diverse cast, and a handy home security video system, its safe to joke that the franchise has leaped beyond credibility right out of the airlock. However, there is enough care in the film's craft and tone that does well to keep the fear potent for those open to the experience. Not to mention a larger, broader thematic target. Just as it becomes easy to question the logic of all the moments captured on video of characters reading up on what could be haunting them via the internet, and reading it aloud to themselves, there are many new takes on the same stretches of eerie quiet once the family takes to bed. The dreaded "Day X: Date and Time" again marks the moments when the audience is asked to look closely before things take their expected turns. The expected bumps and shrieks unfold as before, but it is here that much of what was left vague in the previous film begins to coalesce, implying that the spirit that haunts this family may very well be the product of human desire, and not so much of universal apathy.

And while this may undermine my previous statement regarding the first film, 2's implications regarding two sisters either marrying into money, or loving into it begins to take a sinister turn when one considers the revelations here.

Which is where I bring in a most unexpected thematic bridge to this very writeup:

One of my initial film analysis writeups was regarding the fantasy-comedy favorite, Ghostbusters(1984), in which several down and out scientists, with the assistance of a sarcastic-salesman type, create a revolutionary business model based on age-old superstitions, only to awaken the wrath of generations worth of angry spirits. Upon good-boy character, Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd)s exasperated sadness at having sold an old family home to buy a loan to start this new (potentially fraudulent) business venture, we are in full 1980s zeitgest mode, as the film spins a fun FX-laden comedy regarding the era of Reaganomics, and the potential ruin inherent in its methodology. By the end of the film, Zuul & Gozer are vanquished, and despite all that occurs in the film, we see the classic Ghostbusters logo emblazoned on clearly street-made T-shirts, all while Rick Moranis asks a local New York firefighter who does his taxes. And while this was all in the name of comedy, there is this sneaky element that perhaps helps best inform what Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg's Poltergeist had warned of previously. A deal gone awry, only to incite future ruin by way of forces long neglected by modern pop-ideology and greed.
Actions of the past may very well have paved the lives of both Katie and Kristie, only to secure that a future simply isn't possible for any involved. Made all the more clear by Paranormal Activity 2's unquestionably bleak finale.

So what in the world could a third film- and also a bigger prequel, do for this theme? Well, to be honest, it does what virtually any other mythology building block can do in the horror movie landscape, repeat to mixed success.

Paranormal Activity 3:

In a quick prologue, we are introduced to the revelation as to how a certain item was found inside Katie & Dan's home, prior to the events of the first film. We also witness the dropping off of a box filled with VHS cassettes, many of which chronicle the childhoods of our central characters. Flashing forward to the burgulary that opens 2, we are informed that nothing was stolen amongst the rubble left behind, save for these cassettes. So what 3 will be, is the documented account of events both sisters hinted at in some of the more dramatic moments of the second film. This time, the video is captured by way of their mother, Julie's boyfriend, Dennis, who has his own wedding video and editing business. And once again(or perhaps for the first time), we witness the beginning through the eyes of Kristie & Katie's family, as an imaginary friend turns out to be anything but.

And again, I'm hesitant to grant this anywhere near a typical review as these pieces work less on a traditional level, and demand as such. That said, this installment can easily qualify as the most "movie-like" exercise of the bunch. In fact, many elements here play full well in the pantheon of an older school of horror sequel. To the point that the film begins to blur the line between traditional narrative film and verite-style document. When the piece makes open references to films such as Poltergeist, and even Back To The Future, one knows that we are in a warped mirror vision of reality. And yet, despite this, a good ninety percent of the film succeeds where most 1980s period pieces fall short. Helmed by  Ariel Schulman, and Henry Joost, the minds behind the controversial indie, Catfish, PA3 is as far removed from their dent-making debut as imaginable, but also offers decently unique scares and some truly impressive performances by the young actors playing the sisters, while remaining true to the spirit of the series. In many ways, this could very well have been the kind of film Book Of Shadows would have benefitted being more like: a traditional scare film, with an almost meta spine running through it all.

So naturally, the big question of this film's existence lies in just how Dennis is able to capture hours upon hours of video in the days of EP/SLP mode, and incessant tape changing. (Not to mention lesser quality video-which this film brazenly sidesteps for questionable reasons. There is also a welcome addition into the method involving an oscillating fan that not only made my inner DIY geek smile, but plays havoc with our line of sight.) The further down the rabbit hole we go with the premise, the louder the question of why the camera is there and only grows louder. The crux of the whole film being wholly dependent on how much one is willing to believe in this scenario. So when the expected flooring of the gas taken by the demonic presence reaches it's logical conclusion, the only way to go, is to bring us face to face with...Well...Perhaps it is best not sharing here. But if this franchise has any remaining thematic integrity in store, this is a most appropriate finale, which again supports the 1980s Baby Boomer Curse bridge theory.

The seething anger inherent in the subtext of these films can only remain as fresh as they are if the premise isn't taken beyond this point. There is a cutting, vicious edge to what has been shaped here in regards to our modern culture, and what we are waking up to realize about the generations prior to us. As Schulman and Joost performed an occasionally fun bonus chapter in the tale, taking advantage of whatever limitations the era and budget could provide, and based on the audience's reactions at my screening, it may be best to hoist up anchor and move on. Once the audience catches onto the format, ready to squash it tightly into a  neatly labeled box,  it's time for horror to find new ways to engage and surprise again.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Fleeting Fear

The last days of October are rushing by with almost distressing speed, and all the while I'm pretty bogged down with work and stuff to watch. So much in fact, that my annual diet of horror has been left more than a little wanting. And finally having a workable Netflix Streaming setup has run at odds with an unpredictable bandwidth- an unexpected development. Regardless, time will be made over the next few days to drink in a few of the more recent films available on streaming. Some of which include John Carpenter's The Ward, which came and went earlier this year with me unable to catch it. Also recently added has been The Last Exorcist, which has received enough positive talk to pique my curiosity. And speaking of the verité-horror, despite my more rational wishes (again), a part of me feels the need to check out Paranormal Activity 3 after such a strong opening weekend. Something must indeed be working with that kind of haul. And with the two guys responsible for Catfish at the helm, no doubt it should have a unique feel.

Also here to report that a review copy of a book covering the life of one of my original movie inspirations has been in my possession for a little while, and nearing completion. Am currently debating whether or not it would be best to review it in sections, rather than in one post. And seeing as how lunch has been my designated reading time, it hasn't been the most expedient manner to fully digest it. That said, there's a lot of illuminating stuff in it that deserves sharing about in these pages. Now if you'll excuse me, it's time for the Attack The Block Blu-ray extras. Oooh yeah..

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Fighting The Fall 2011 Anime Season Blahs..

That's right. Having not hopped onto the fall season's staggered roster of anime titles, a friend inspired me to take the time on a Friday night to go full-hog binge to see if there was anything worth crowing about. And since it may wander into the timing initially reserved for another protracted older anime writeup, Anime Diet will be host to a batch of mini-reviews set to be up sometime this weekend. And while I won't disclose said opinions here, I will say that the night wasn't all dreary.