Friday, April 15, 2011

Week In Watching : The Revenge

In the attempt to gather steam now that a work schedule is back on the menu, I figure it was time to go ahead and continue with these updates before reviews and such come roaring back to these pages. And one of the cool little ways I've been able to do some re-watching, as well as finally pick up those titles that have slipped my queue for one reason or another, has been to make an occasional stop by the local Big Lots, and dig deep into their dirt cheap dvds. That's right. Just because things have been thin lately doesn't mean there hasn't been plenty of neat finds in the deep dark bowels of the LB area. Just as it has been a gold mine for sadly overlooked anime masterpieces (ala MEMORIES a few years back), it has also been quite a place to finally get my mitts on the kinds of films that I'm sure are well established cable tv material by now, except with all the added goodies one can hope for in the best days of the dvd format. And this week's haul was no batch of lightweights, I have to add.

The humorous part, at least for me is that much of this new batch is essentially like a vault of memories spanning the last five years for me. These were all notable favorites that either evoke strong, location-based feelings, as well as have been films I had been hoping to own at one time or another. And even if one selection is almost completely for a commentary track, it all bears the markings of that all-too-familiar cliche of measuring compatibility by looking at a new date's shelf. Just another means to know my more pop-cineaste side. That said, one might be surprised at my last pick..

But first comes the original cut of Neil Marshall's 2005 XX-chromo horror opus, The Descent. I have to admit this right now. Upon seeing the as campaign for the US release back in '06, I was ready to hate it. And why not? Much of H-town's treatment of horror at this point in time, either catered for a hopelessly impatient youth market that apparently prefer wanton jumps as opposed to actual dread. And by the looks of that trailer, it looked like more of the same tripe that had been packing the houses up until that point. And no, I hadn't yet experienced Dog Soldiers. So upon finally seeing this on a weekend with little to do, nothing prepared me for just how over the moon I was going to be with this. For the first time in possibly decades, did we have a true gut check of a horror piece that actually believed in build-up before any hint of freakish fireworks. A true breath of minty air, the film is that rare breed of horror that actually compliments its femininity, while kicking unholy ass.

For those unfamiliar, The Descent is the tale of an international group of outdoors adventurers setting out to explore an apparently well-documented cavern deep within the Appalachians one year after one of their members suffered a horrific tragedy, losing her husband and child. Two of these members, having been estranged of sorts since the accident, see this as a potential means to rekindle their fragile friendship as new, seasoned adventurers join them. But it is when the group travels deep into the wild, and away from civilization, that their trek into the deep dark unknown that the film takes some truly amazing turns. And after having only seen it once before, and considering that hindsight might prove my initial impressions moot, I would gladly report that the film still very much delivers with interest. There just hasn't been a genre film like this, let alone a horror one, in a very long time. And even though I haven't even spoken a word about what renders this a "horror" film, let it be known that for those who still have yet to catch this, there is a certain joy that comes from not having all of the plot spoiled for you. And even if the internet proves too strong, and one does see what the film has in store, it works regardless. And mostly all due to the steely hand of Marshall, who not only filmed the show in sequence, but also kept quite a deal away from the cast in the process. It's an old school approach that evokes memories of favorites like ALIEN, and The Thing, which this movie really does feel like a fond love letter to. And that's welcome to me in any cinematic climate. We can go ahead and lament that Marshall has yet to helm anything since with this type of originality and ferocity, and pretend that a sequel was never made to this. As far as I'm concerned, there is only one Descent worth taking, and this is it.

And speaking of The Thing, I couldn't pass this up..

Some may know this of me, but I am a huge sucker for the early films of John Carpenter. Even though I could perhaps be lumped in there with the legion of 80s children who grew up as part of the Amblin generation, who were granted a sort of wild funhouse mirror of filmic past through the films of Spielberg, and the like, there was a dark side residing in me at an early age that Carpenter certainly spoke for. Even when this film was my least favorite of the era between indie and mainstream success, his follow up in The Fog was still an atmospheric ride that still emitted the creeps in good measure. I used to catch it on tv every year. And it was one of the few Carpenter films that I could watch with no problem with the parents without having to sneak around. (nervous laugh) There was something both romantic, and quietly distressing about the seaside town of Antonio Bay that Carpenter, Debra Hill & co. that truly hit that nightmare sweet spot in me as a little one. It introduced me to Adrienne Barbeau, and helped instill the notion that girls who reminded me of Jamie Lee Curtis were super cool in my book.

And the film is as simple as it can possibly get. A town cursed by a terrible secret, haunted 100 years later by a relentless presence shrouded in a glowing plume of fog. A threadbare idea for a campfire tale is all it takes for this film that plays it loose and fast, and is more about essence than anything truly tangible, which can also be considered to its detriment. And yet, it's still a very memorable experience with several iconic Carpenter moments. All done on the cheap, the dvd is also worth getting for the commentary by the man himself, along with the late, great Debra Hill who recount the tales of making the film in an environment that was quickly changing into one of splatter quotas and cheapening scares. This is also something known about me, I love the commentaries for Carpenter's films, as they are as entertaining as informative; especially when regarding just how obvious it is that this is his life. These commentaries are always so candid, and unpretentious that it feels like sitting there with a relative recanting a favorite story. He's one of my favorite film commentators, and there's no shortage of goodness in this pick.

Now to step out of the horror milieu, and into another well-regarded name from the past that had left a deep impression on me as an undertall tyke in the Caifornia deserts. Many would probably never pick me for a "Rocky"-kid, but I have to admit it. Like so many others of the time, Stallone's underdog saga had a grip on me that rooted deep. And while even I as a young boy could see that the films became increasingly mechanical and silly, there was something about the core characters that kept me coming back. But none of the sequels would ever have the impact that Avildsen's earnest first film had. A simple populist classic, it is an archetypical song, directed and performed to a perfect pitch, and remains an undeniable metaphor for untapped potential, and the power of dreaming. So when a series so long dead after such an upsetting fifth installment, there seemed to be no way that the character could ever figure out a means to thaw my iceberg heart. In 2006, I was so happy to have been dead wrong. The Stallone written & directed Rocky Balboa, for me remains an understated perfect finale that has unfortunately revitalized the icon's penchant for unnecessary sequels, and cash-ins. But there's still something to be said about this almost unthinkable sixth chapter that emotionally plowed me like a steam truck, seeing it with siblings. It was as if IV & V only existed as some kind of bizarre fame-induced drug haze, and someone, somehow found the central characters' long neglected hearts, and allowed them to be exposed to all to see without any guile, or self consciousness. I won't say much more about this, but for all the mixed talk it still gets, there is still enough for the little fan in me that laps it all up with a huge, horrible grin. I'm all a goo for Rocky Balboa, and I don't care who knows it.

And lastly....Oh how I didn't expect to find this in Big Lots! of all places.

The last time I saw this left-field manga adaptation, it was as I myself was becoming more and more surrounded by the then already-in-transition American anime industry. So wearing thin with how television anime has been growing at the time, STUDIO4°C had been something of a respite from formulas as many of their shorts, and experimental projects, alongside their entries for The Animatrix. And when it was established that their follow-up to the brilliant MIND GAME was to be a feature version of Taiyo Matsumoto's three volume manga TEKKON KINKREET, I was intrigued to say the least. And not only because this made for such the militant denial of what the anime medium is largely known for, but because of the name attached to direct, former FX artist, and producer Michael Arias. Such the ballsy series of decisions deserved a watch, and the film lives up to the studio's reputation, and still offers enchantments for those seeking something less overt, and more on the symbological side. Much like a collage, and less like a concrete narrative, the film tells the tale of two very young orphans, and their struggles to survive the streets of the imaginary Treasure Town, all the while taking on rival gangs, yakuza, and bizarre interests bent on recreating the town's underbelly for their own ends. While embracing much of what the casual viewer sees as "anime", the film also carries with it a more mischievous exploratory side that leaves much of what happens open to interpretation with the harmoniously divergent "Cats" at the emotional center of the tale.

While it does suffer from coming off as a bit remote in places, the film is also a breathless display of experimental animation that melds hand in glove with Matsumoto's unique visual style that feels less like commercial manga, and closer in spirit to street art. This second viewing yielded an interesting response in me that was unexpected, as I felt that the most interesting element in the whole film is a subplot involving a yakuza character experiencing a rather personal arc that in many ways was far more involving than that of the two kids, Kuro & Shiro. And perhaps this is where the film reveals itself as more a tapestry of ideas rather than a structured story. Which I supposed is par for the course for a studio best known for omnibus material like MEMORIES, and GENIUS PARTY. But the essence of what is being attempted is best summed up in a simple visual motif involving what looks like the red sun of Japan that recurs several times throughout the whole film. A call for diverse ideas in a place growing increasingly small, filled with minds only centered on shallow ideals, and less about community. However way one looks at it, Tekkon Kinkreet bristles with energy, and originality, and stands as a reminder of how the anime art form could diverge into new, and interesting creatures. Still a fascinating piece of textured animation, and well worth the find. 

So yes, hopefully this will continue to be a surrogate means of catching up, while matters improve. Feeling the itch to write a lot more, as well as podcast, so look forward to more digests like this in the future.

So at his rate, would it mean that I should check this place out again within a year, and perhaps find another film from STUDIO4°C ? (Kidding, naturally.)

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