Monday, May 30, 2011

Week(s) In Watching: Late May 2011 Report

As a three day weekend comes to something of a relaxed close, it felt like a pretty good time to go ahead and share some thoughts on a number of things watched over the last few weeks. And since Gamera: Revenge Of Iris is nowhere to be seen on Blu-ray, this feels like a good place to follow up my reviews for Kaneko's first two monster entries. And while the majority of what's been playing in the domicile veers relatively far from the Kaiju side of things, I'm sure there'll be something worth examining here as many of these are re-watches that are telling of how much certain views of them remain the same, versus others that may have changed over time (or rather, post-film education, podcasting, reading, etc.). It is an interesting thing to re-evaluate something that at one time may have had a more prescient place in the heart. But before getting to all that, here's something I wasn't sure was going to wind up on these pages...

Midnight Eagle (2007)

Oh boy. If there is anything regarding J-cinema that hurts like a rock in the shoe, it's television-laced sentimentalism, and artifice. And that pretty much oozes throughout Izuru Narushima's adaptation of Tetsuo Takashima's political thriller novel.It's the story of respected photojournalist Yuji Nishizaki (played half asleep by Takao Osawa), who's work covering not only war-torn lands in an unnamed Middle Eastern nation, but of vast mountain ranges becomes witness to what looks to be the downing of a U.S. aircraft into the snowy Northern Alps of Japan, where he is enlisted to attempt to cover the story, which could very well blow the lid off of several parties looking to gather the remains of the plane by any means necessary. The plot grows more suspicious when it is revealed that the pilots were not as one may assume, and the aforementioned unnamed parties are in hot pursuit of those responsible in order to silence them. All the while, Nishizaki & magazine rep, Ochiai are in the mountains, surrounded by not only JSSDF, but another unnamed party with full knowledge of a terrible secret, an explosive nuclear payload within the remains of the plane! And we haven't even mentioned Nishizaki's estranged son, his (also journalist) sister-in-law (Yuko Takeuchi) looking to gain custody, the Japanese Prime Minister looking to do the right thing, and a group of (again nationality unnamed) refugees chased by men with coats and guns. What it all adds up to, is a slow, tonally uneven piece that careens headlong into melodramatic (There are still apparently many in Japan who found Michael Bay's ARMAGEDDON impressive, and influential.) territory.

To muddle matters even further, is a clear decision to not name opposition. This treading on thin ice approach is not only naked, but it serves to make matters even more confusing than the film has to. Especially in nearly a decade after S.Korea took on regional tensions to great success with Shiri(1999), this feels ill-concieved, not to mention murky in the storytelling department. If we are meant to feel any sympathy for the refugee characters, let alone our heroes, it takes much more than showing a cute kid, and some treacly photos to make the viewer care about any of this. And considering the subject matter (US aircraft involved in potential conspiracy opening rifts between the long, tenuous relationship between the american military and the JSSDF, and the ramifications of Article 9.), this could have been a golden opportunity to further explore the debate in a way that Mamoru Oshii & Kazunori Ito so eloquently did with an anime film (Patlabor 2 - 1993). But as it stands, the film opts for languid pacing, tin characterization, and forced sentimentalization to wrench whatever crocodile tears it can. It's the type of film that requires the audience to know who is what, and what is at stake beyond the nuclear threat to drive such themes home, and as a movie experience, Midnight Eagle fails to do any of this. In fact, one can even argue that once the scripts comes to an impasse with the political plot, it cops the nuclear finale as a last resort. If one is willing to explore touchy subject matter, it's best to go as far as one can, or not at all. And From the looks of things, it feels as if there wasn't enough from the getgo to even warrant a release. JSSDF involvement, or no. It lacks the punch required to make something like this truly work, and is indicative of many trends bogging down recent Japanese film. It's like directing in a vacuum; cold, empty, and utterly devoid of risk. File Under: dreadfully dull.

And it isn't even that this is the kind of film to normally even be considered for the Kaijyu, but rather the spiritual connection to Patlabor 2 hovers over the film like a cloud. But the big obvious difference here, is that even when Oshii's film opts to give a little to the mecha otaku near the finale, it reverts quite nicely into the central debate, which ME clearly forgets halfway through the film.

Thank goodness for antidotes. Especially older, still potent antidotes!

Had the chance to spend some time in early 90s Hong Kong this last week with another semi-annual ritual  viewing of  John Woo's initial goodbye to British HK, Hard Boiled(1992), and it remains one of the last truly astounding pre-CG action achievements. Sure, it's loud, cartoony, completely illogical, and over the top, but hey, the film knows exactly what it is, and delivers the goods without regret. For those unlucky five who haven't seen the film, it is essentially a bombastic precursor for Andrew Lau's Infernal Affairs films, and the ultimate primer for virtually every first person shooter ever created. Simple plot: Renegade cop, Tequila (played with every last bit of charisma by Chow Yun Fat) is on the trail of the Triad baddies who's trail left him without a partner, leading him to a bright & dangerous killer(a still fresh-faced & pre-dramatic legend, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) who's obviously more than he seems. Mix in an almost meta-now Anthony Wong as the unstable gun runner, Johnny Wong, along with Phillip Chan, Teresa Mo & martial arts favorite Philip Kwok, and one has a "they truly don't make-em like this anymore" good time complete with insane stunts, pyrotechnics galore, and some great drama to hold it all together. It almost doesn't even warrant posting since this has become such a part of cine-geek royalty, but it just stands to reason. Woo's film was meant to be something of a Dirty Harry-styled epic sendoff before his mixed trip overseas, and it remains an influential piece of action cinema that any admirer of genre shouldn't miss. The mention here comes courtesy of finally getting claws on a copy of the Blu-ray, which for better or worse is lacking the trailer which is mentioned in the print (false advertising chaps, no matter what), and the three-year-old Dragon Dynasty commentary by Bey Logan is still very informative, if a bit dry. Either way, all this recent talk of a sequel/remake of Woo's films remains as ineffective for this writer, as it seems that more than ever, action films are at a place where story comes first. But can these projects ever come as close to death-defying as they were back in HK's heyday? Doubtful.

As for anime, well I guess it's going to be hard to be considered anything but a yearning for nostalgia, which in some ways can be true. But giving some old favorites a good re-watch lately has been interesting. Now granted a part of me is looking for a means to better explain these thoughts, as Anime Diet is in need of some more 80s anime discussion. But I will share here for now that these thoughts involve shows made during the early days of the OVA, and considering how rocky and still untested the medium was, the results were often mixed to almost revolutionary for an industry that remains shackled to an antiquated tv-based model. Again, now isn't the time to go into it all, but for now...

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Into The Wild Reviews: Gamera Attack Of The Legion (1996)


After the sudden success of Daiei's revival of its long-mordant kaiju icon, it was clear that the throne of Japan's big baddies was suddenly up for grabs. Which is why it was only natural to follow up the Shusuke Kaneko/ Shinji Higuchi hit that newly heated iron with all rockets bursting. Only a little over a year since the previous film, it was time to deliver a to-the-nines action piece with attitude to spare. Now a full-fledged new franchise, Gamera Tsu: Legion Shurai (Attack Of The Legion) comes at the audience with everything a bigger budgeted sequel could offer in terms of thrill factor.

                                Opening the film, we are witness to a Japan amidst reconstruction, and unyielding concerns regarding the whereabouts of Gamera, whom many still consider a threat to humanity. Trouble almost immediately rears its head with a bizarre series of meteor showers that end with a significant impact within the mountains of Hokkaido. Initially there with a busload of touring children, Youth Science Museum team member, Midori Honami (Miki Mizuno of Gilgamesh Night fame) witnesses the intense crash that ends with the supposed meteorite "vanishing" to the bewilderment of the scientific community.

                            No sooner does this happen that even more puzzling, and violent attacks on humans begin taking place, including a terrifying attack on the Sapporo train system. As the military, and scientists scramble to explain the rash of events, the ravaging insectoid horde creates a nestlike cocoon, along with plantlike vegetation around major structures in the city. And it is only after a massive attempt by the JSSDF, a familiar roar is heard, and the giant turtle returns for what could very well be a shocking final battle.

                             Now unburdnened by the admittedly hackneyed attempt to unveil the shelled-avenger via a so-called mystery plot in the previous film, Gamera: Attack Of The Legion hits the pavement with both feet firmly planted, delivering an aggressively paced actioner, complete with a significant upgrade in visual effects. True to Kaneko's rendition of the monster mythos, it is schlocky fun, but schlocky fun done right. By this point in tokusatsu history, the vernacular as explained last time is dished out in truckloads, and also ups the monster battle ante by offering one of the more intimidating villains in the genre's history; an army of large symbiotically linked, Hercules-beetle-like creatures that are attracted to electromagnetic waves, and overwhelm simply by their increasing numbers. Only made all the more trying by them protecting...SURPRISE..A giant, flying queen. Make no mistake, this is ALIENS to Gamera: GOU's ALIEN. A film that knows what has come before, and just gets on with the proceedings with gusto, not to mention real stakes.

                             And the stakes come in several well-implemented touches; Firstly, Gamera. As tough as this creature can be, to see Legion unleash its fury upon our hero is a truly impressive, and in some ways, unsettling sight. Second, this interstellar threat's predilection for the aforementioned waves also carries with it an additional battery of nasty. (Sure, one can attempt to quell the problem in Sapporo. But what about Tokyo?) Furthermore, with the public still concerned about where the giant turtle stands with us, the military are ready to consider taking out both sets of monsters if necessary. (Where's the Z-Plan when you need it?) So it's up to Honami, Colonel Watarase (played by Toshiyuki Nagashima), and others to fight to survive, and perhaps once and for all, see who's side Gamera truly is on.

No sooner that all of this madness comes down like an avalanche that we also see that Gamera's human contact from last time, Asagi Kusanagi (a seemingly shoehorned, but still welcome Ayako Fujitani) is almost among the many victims of Legion attacks after returning from a skiing trip.(???)

                             It is here that the film's want to have its cake and so-on almost detours the film into vintage 60s-70s Gamera sillyville. Thankfully, the urgency of the movie's running time helps from making matters more glaring than they have to. And even with Kazunori Ito serving writing duties, it is clear that this project is one of great admiration for the genre, and attempts to have fun paying tribute while making good on the action side. The cast is fun, but again nowhere near as exciting to watch as the meticulously crafted chaos takes place around them. Higuchi & Co. craft some truly memorable battle sequences this time around, utilizing some very clever camerawork, along with some interesting uses of CG animation for certain biological effects. But it is the image of an overwhelmed Gamera that sticks like a sliver in the brain. One can imagine some childhood nightmares being borne out of this moment.

                                 Again, the film also teeters into the expected hokum with egregious overacting, overlong takes, and some seriously dopey dialogue. But as mentioned, this is a style of filmmaking borne out of years of making giant monster films for largely young audiences. Naturally, kaiju films would have to evolve in some form after all those years, and in doing so, it was largely in two places a) the special effects and b) a sense of continuity. Thankfully, the Heisei Gamera films as slight as they can be, have an interesting thematic bridge between them in the concern for the monster's role in the lives of the people of Japan, as well as the possibility that we may very well become the greatest threat Earth has ever known. How different does it see us next to the ravaging masses of the fearsome Legion?

                         So the second entry in the Heisei Gamera series is nothing short of summer-movie style fun, high on energy, and short on logic (What's with that finishing move? Never seen Gamera do THAT before!). Yet it pays off the first film in many ways. And even carries with it sobering notions that may hit closer to home now than back in 1996. "Could we be destroyed by the little ones, or the BIG one?" The stigma of having to live in the shadow of calamity has long been a staple of Japanese myth, and yet somehow, the kaiju film has worn many hats since Gojira became legend in 1954. Not the least of which is to help us better cope with the difficulties within worlds we share, as well as alter on a daily basis.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Into The Wild Reviews: Gamera Guardian Of The Universe (1995)

"Sometimes you gotta fight for your right to have a monster!"  - Tori Amos

Upon first venturing this blog as an extension of the wall of busy that I often find myself chasing regularly, one of the prime inspirations was that of my love of not only reviewing the kinds of movies and media that pique the curiosity, but also of favorites from years past. Which leads to the site's namesake which hopefully aptly describes the often scattershot focus of material covered, as well as my adoration for old Japanese genre works which played almost ritualistically in the family home as a child. This upcoming review, while of a film reboot made over sixteen years ago, helps represent a major shift in not only how I enjoyed this style of work, but of how I looked at it in a broader context. As often as some may gripe about my giving giant monster movies a pass, while megadollar Disney revisions a brutal shaft, it's important to consider the mighty word..intent..

                                  Hard to believe it's been sixteen years since the theatrical re-interpretation of Daiei's rocket powered, hard-shelled answer to the big G hit Japanese screens with a more than welcome reception, and granted the classic kaiju feature a spectacular new visual arsenal. Combining the sure-handed direction of former Nikkatsu director, Shusuke Kaneko (later known for his films based upon the popular Death Note manga series), alongside former Gainax luminary & storyboard mastermind, Shinji Higuchi, and featuring script by Mamoru Oshii stalwart, Kazunori Ito, this version of the often laughable Gamera franchise that started in the wake of a Gojira-taming period in the 1960s, is a much more serious, kinetic affair that gives the origin of the legendary "Friend To All Children" a refreshing spin.

Beginning somewhere south of Japan, near the Philippines, a trawler carrying a hidden cache of plutonium runs into what is initially assumed to be a strange, "moving" atoll. Upon closer inspection, the so-called mini-island hosts dozens upon dozens of metallic mitama-shaped objects that are naturally collected, until crew members run across a stone slab covered in archaic writing inscribed into it. But after a few pictures are taken, and before further analysis could be made, a tremor hits the atoll, destroying the slab and throwing crew members into the ocean where one of them for a brief moment sees the terrifying vision of this questionable island...staring right back at them.

As this bizarre discovery unfolds, other nearby islands are experiencing attacks by what some are calling giant birds. The discovery enlists the expertise of scientist Mayumi Nagamine (Shinobu Nakayama of Fist Of Legend & Rakutenshi fame) with the assistance of bumbling inspector Osako (Yukijiro Hotaru), to which they help piece together the mystery that these two grand scale events are (surprise!) directly co-related. Soon, both investigating parties convene, while one of the investigators hands one of the many found mitama-amulets from earlier to the daughter of head sleuth, Kusanagi. And it is here, that the connection between child and you-know-who comes into play. And not a moment too soon as the flying enemy (behold, the return of fan favorite, Gyaos!) is on the advance(and possibly growing in number), and no military force seems capable of stopping them!

Not if this shellfull of turtle-meated badassedness has anything to say about it.

And that's pretty much the plot of this initial entry, which pretty much sticks to the formula of many a kaiju favorite. But what Gamera: Guardian Of The Universe lacks in terms of story nuance, it more than makes up for in sheer energy, and visual punch. Even as a costumed actors-in-suits rolling around detailed miniatures are concerned, the craft, cinematography, and editing congeal in ways that the Heisei Gojira films just weren't delivering at the time. There is a gravity and energy to the monster battles in this piece that while still scream toy set disaster time at the playpen, there is also a true feeling of enthusiasm for the work that truly goes a long way for films of this ilk. There is even a "humans attempt large scale plan to save Tokyo" sequence that works to nice effect. And while the Gyaos closeup effects resemble little more than done-up hand puppets at times, the articulation is much more versatile than its previous appearance in Gamera Vs. Gyaos in 1967. We even have a spirited take on the "attack the local train line" scene, which works.There are even some aerial battles here that are pretty reminiscent of indelible images from the classic Gainax anime, Shin Seiki Evangelion. And possibly the biggest standout image of them all is of a Gyaos perched into a nest-like crater made out of the Tokyo Tower as the sun grants us a startling visage.

Of the new decisions made to this rendition of the monsters, the concept that Gamera was in fact created to counter the advance of the also human-made Gyaos hordes is an interesting switch to the admittedly throwaway ancient god idea of the original. Adding a dose of ecological message not only granted Gamera a timeliness closer in tone to the original Gojira, but it also plants humanity square in the moral quagmire, as Gyaos was initially designed to cleanse the Earth from polluting forces. It makes Gamera on one hand our guardian, but it also makes the viewer wonder to which extent does this trust stretch. The implication that our bond with the legendary turtle is tentative at best helps set up a new franchise nicely.

And what of the human element in the film? Again, as far as these films tend to go, the humans are rarely given much shrift to work with, and with this one it's no exception. The acting is hammy at best, and awkward at worst. Which for most other films would be the kiss of death. But for this writer, this comes as no real shakes since when one considers it, kaiju, as well as most tokusatsu films are known for stilted acting, and occasional screen mugging (the classic "gasp" look always comes to mind). In fact, it has become part of the vernacular. When one watches a Kaneko film, or any other piece from the JFX world, it's almost expected. Regardless, the presence of Nakayama & veteran Onodera as Naoya Kusanagi are more than welcome. But even if little is done with the character, the real standout is Ayako Fujitani (Shiki-Jitsu) who's mostly unspoken connection with the heroic creature still carries visual impact. (Could it be the stare? Sidenote: Fujitani is also widely known as the daughter of the one-and-only Steven Segal

Another thing one can't help noticing this go-round is the multiple nods made to other films made around the time of the film's 1995 release. And when one thinks giant reptilian creatures on a rampage, and munching down on anything running on two legs, one can only really consider Jurassic Park(1993) for the expected samples. From the gag-inducing diet-check scene, to even a few snatches of Kou Otani's otherwise excellent score, it's clear that Kaneko & Co. took big notice of Spielberg's CG-drowned monsterfest.

So the first entry into Gamera's Heisei Era remains something of a kaiju classic. And while it still requires quite a bit more seriousness, and power to match that of the Great heavyweight, Gamera: Guardian Of The Universe at sixteen years continues to be a wholly entertaining marriage of FX schools, and genre era. It's cheeky enough for some great laughs, but it also offers some serious bang for monster-loving buck. Of the big G is still the king, then little G is the immovable prince. And with three more movies (including a well-noted "fan film", and a more recent "inspired"-style piece.) it was clear that this Testudine icon still bore some fire within.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Tweets From 2019 : Edward James Olmos Shares Memories Of Blade Runner

Looks like we may be hitting on a theme this month...

Last night, a near-regular ritual took on a whole new dimension when cinema favorite, Edward James Olmos joined up with film worker & maker, Marty Sader to pull off a MovieNightTweet celebration of Ridley Scott's science fiction landmark, Blade Runner. Which is to say that over the course of the week, Mr. Olmos advertised via Twitter for all to sync up their copies of the film (preferrably the Director's Cut, or Final Cut if around) to 5pm PST in order to follow him, and other followers as he took us back to 2019, Los Angeles and provided insights not mentioned on any previous documentary, or commentary. And what we got was a truly enjoyable, interactive experience where he not only provided some interesting tidbits about making the now legendary troubled shoot, but also answered the occasional question.

And those who know me, know that Blade Runner, from design, to cast, to execution remains one of my personal pillars of cinema, so this was a huge treat.

Among some of the more memorable quotes from the evening:

Regarding the scene in Bryant(M. Emmet Walsh)'s office as Gaff watches Deckard (Harrison Ford) do his best to not take the job of hunting Roy Batty(Rutger Hauer) & Company. A little about the soon to be consistent origami motif..

"welcome to a nightmare.... sebastians house..."

"..when I saw it the first time it freaked me out..."

Also made mention of Daryl Hannah's breakthrough performance, and regarded her as one of "Ridley's Girls", which he mentions that as of this time, there are six. Personally, I'm curious as to who the other five are.

And then regarding the classic rooftop confrontation between Deckard and a dying Roy..A little about Hauer's iconic performance..

"what rutger just did feeling the rain with his eyes closed and then moving ducking into the room is what I call imagination"

And finally, regarding Gaff's final line. (this is easily my favorite of the night)

"I gave ridley a chance to cut that last line but he ended up using it..."

All in all, a terrific night, and a wonderful way to revisit a longtime favorite.

Thanks again to @onenotemule & @edwardjolmos for making it happen. Hopefully more events will be under way soon!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

2005: The Year Genre Broke? (Serenity/Battlestar Galactica)

                                     While there will likely be discussion regarding this, and at much greater length by much more qualified geeks, but it must be said that the timbre of genre expectation has splintered into wildly divergent factions. It can be argued that while we have seen many works made recently that offer the realms of Fantasy/Science Fiction/Horror something reminicent of notions that it's all in good fun, genre fan friendly, nonintrusive, and guaranteed to win fans of all types, there has also been the more recently baggage of a heightened wish for grit, realism, and even literate take on what was once merely a forum for entertaining fantastical ideas while winking at the audience.

                              And since the "oughts", it has also been made clear that in the post-internet age that there was also a long-hidden viewer contingent ready for something more than fantasy for its own sake. Can it simply be pointed toward technology? It's the reason that a film such as AVATAR, while massively successful can also be seen as a 90s film with 00s visuals. But this is only a single component, as many shows naturally could only wish to have the budgetary, and directional might of a Jim Cameron. With the advent of not only visual effects, and production capability, writing has also come under a microscope, in many ways forcing television and screenwriters to alter the trajectory, and to offer something in less of a popcorny vein, leaving many viewers harder than ever to satiate. And there is no place more telling of this than in television.

While it can more properly declared that geek expectations transgressed into something far more complex sometime around 2007-2008, a part of me can't help but feel that the seeds of this change took place during 2005.

And it is this disconnect between a television series made into a feature film, and a reimagined tv series that began at roughly the same time that seems to carry much of the weight of this pop culture event horizon.

                              So when I mention the Joss Whedon's short-lived Fox science fiction western, Firefly, and its miracle film continuation, Serenity, it is by no stretch to say that the show's irreverent take on not only space operas, westerns & caper shows is a jumbled tribute to television of the century left behind. From Nathan Fillion's complex and disarming rogue in Cap. Malcolm Reynolds, to the colorful cast of crew members on his trusty Firefly-class ship, containing a mixture of both traditional western favorites, to cleverly remixed versions of them. Both traditionally well executed, and often witty-to-the-point of bemused annoyance, the 2001 series was practically killed on the runway before it ever had a chance, and yet it became one of the first truly successful shows to survive on dvd, creating an even larger fan following that hepled Whedon & Co. move from Fox, and to make a one-time feature film version to be released in 2005. And watching it with 2011 eyes, it has become more evident than ever as to the preoccupations of genre at the time it was released, let alone almost feeling dated upon arrival, which may have also contributed to its less than stellar theatrical performance. But considering the legion of fans the show garnered in the time since the show left the airwaves, and the continuing support the show collected via the inernet, the very idea of a film being made is something of an unheard of event that still must be considered today. And in the second half of a decade grappling with dramatic world changes, a shift in notions, and a general shake in security outlook, it became apparent that merely looking back to look forward was not going to be accepted by all.Which may be partially why Firefly/Serenity never connected with many admirers of science fiction, especially in lieu of fans more acclimated to either allowing a show to breathe beyond the creator's idiosyncratic habits, or containing more grit & science. As fun as this show is (and I admit to being a fan during its heyday), it certainly requires a certain freewheeling, aloof with irony mindset to the whole thing. The more one is familiar with the tropes, and cliches that Firefly is circumventing, the more amusing it can be.

                                 But when considering the decisions made with the feature film version, watching it now, it really does feel like a visually original, funny, and yet hopelessly rushed cap to a series that never really had a chance to show it's inherent advantages. And considering that Whedon clearly knew that this was a miraculous last chance at visualizing something of a dream prject for him, he and crew give it their all for themselves, and for fans, but it also grounds the show heavily within the era of its making. Whether it's making good on it's anti-Lucas stance by having Reynolds shoot an unarmed villain, or having the show's tabula rasa in Summer Glau break out into the so-trendy for the early 00s Wo-Ping-style kung-fu, the world of Firefly revels in its timely "coolness". So much in fact that it almost comes as something of a turn-off at this point in time. Now granted, science fiction also has this almost doomed stigma of always being dated upon the time of release, but there have been examples made in time that help the work transcend this problem. And it is within the writing that this can occur. And for someone with as much writing chops as Whedon to just run hog wild with the post-modern, it just grounds the film in this sphere of time that leaves it all in a campy realm that cares less about how it feels later, and remains hopelessly self-conscious.

                                Especially interesting considering that nearly two years before, a miniseries rendition of a late 70s network tv cult classic was released in the wake of historical events to paint a bleak picture of future space, complete with enough political and philosophical allegory to fill an entire decade's worth of genre material. When Eicke & Moore's take on the much-adored Glenn Larson series Battlestar Galactica was to experience an almost complete revamp featuring many of the names and iconography in his "mormons in space" allegory, the initial response was the expected type to come when anything is retrofitted for the new. And yet the unexpected success of the miniseries event led to the then Scifi Channel's decision to contract an episodic series to be made of a parrallel humanity's interstellar run from a relentless assault by a machine race they once created in the hopes of finding a new home in the mythical planet known as "earth".

                                While in all respects still a "remake", much of what fuels the current Galactica is a loosening of the reins of overt reflexive self-consciousness in the dialogue, and greater emphasis in immediate danger. Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos), & Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) form the parental backbone of humanity as it remains endless in its search for a means to survive neverending plots by the Cylons who have now advanced to almost perfectly replicating the appearance of humans, and have now begun to infiltrate the remaining poulace. It's a startling thematic symbol for the decade in which it was produced, and are notions that continue on to this day. And it is here that the series both excels, and suffers. It is a delicate balance to walk since viewers can easily see the time within many of the plots the show tends to throw out there. But the big difference remains in general attitude, and execution, which could easily make or break a series like this.

And while it can be said that Galactica had the advantage of being based on a culty, yet much respected series from genre past to become something that had a lot more storytelling fuel that lead to a moderately sucessful four and a half-season run (much longer than Firefly), it can also be seen as evidence that notions of change regarding how we look at material like this were indeed happening. And it was after an initial season starting in 2004, that it became clear that an audience for darker, headier, and less ironic talespinning was bubbling underneath the surface. Sure, the use of shaky, hand-based camerawork has been regarded as the current "cool", but it can also be seen as a compliment to the dialogue we hear. There's something to be said about dialogue in the immediate that can be considered timeless as long as it's done well. Just as soon as stationary cameras, stagy lighting, and clearly touched-up dialogue for its own sake can come off as artificial, and unrelatable, we have been in a sort of hydra-shaped plane of existence, offering multiple means of digesting our fantasy. And lending us new ways to experience stories, which is not so much a matter of quality, but of taste. And while this writer happens to admire both of these creations, they are for obviously different reasons. But if I had to pick a show for prolonged posterity, it would likely be alongside Adama & Co. No way I'd trust my hide with the likes of those on that little piece of junk.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Movie Review: Kichiku Dai Enkai (1997)


                                           There are those occasional impulses that lead one to explore some of the lesser regarded tenets of human nature. And it likely can be said that there are certain films often lumped in with the often maligned (often deservedly so) horror genre, that are less exercises in mere scares, but more brutal examinations of our more incomprehensibly destructive behaviors. In recent years, it has come in the forms of either our often shallow torture-centric output, or even in France's little horror wave. Films that almost revel in some kind of past-the-threshold manner, nearly stripping away seemingly every last taboo in the name of shock. But how often does it all come from a place as raw & ghastly as Kazuyoshi Kumakiri's 1997 festival favorite, Kichiku Dai Enkai? Having seen it only once years before, I felt it strangely calling me back to give it perhaps another look to see how its effects may have subsided in a post-SAW, post- MARTYRS world. Which isn't to say that this film even ranks amongst those as cinematic kin. In fact, I'm still not sure where to peg the film as it seems to be a product of an amalgam of factors. Being made by third-year university student, Kumakiri, the film has the distinction of being released as the embers of Aum Shinrikyo were continuing to cool down, and Japan's intense post-Bubble navel gazing was at an all-time high, while a horror boom the likes few had ever seen was just waiting in the hall. Even now, an intense display of violent emotions set amidst the student uprisings that befell much of the country in the 1970s seems like a bizarre choice, lest it be considered a form of protest.

But as it is, it's a mystery how many were up in arms over the film as some kind of blood-spattered tirade against Leftist political leanings during that era. There's far too much evidence (or lack thereof) to suggest that the creative choices visualized here were meant as satirical target.

So how to describe this film? We are first off, introduced to the confident and charismatic Aizawa, a young political leader who is now serving time in jail for his group's often violent actions and protests. The crime he is in for specifically is never mentioned, but he has now bid goodbye to cellmate Fujawara who has just been released, giving him instructions to meet the rest of his gang of radicals in the city, as well as to meet with the group's current leader in his stead -his girlfriend, Masami (Sumiko Mikami).

And off the bat, we see that the Aizawa-less group is in near anarchy with criminal activity on the rise, and the mostly male crew at the sexualized mercy of the promiscuous, and clearly unstable Masami. Whether it be robbing the local post office, or smuggling in weapons, it seems that her controls are of the most base level, and are on the verge of collapse as it is clear that certain members are unhappy with affairs as they are. And with Aizawa nearing release, it seems as if the group may finally experience the order, and activity it once exhibited in the film's opening footage. However, as loyalties begin to waver, and Masami's methods become less and less sound, it is clear that no real agenda exists, except for casual sex with troubles members in the means to allay their doubts, and late night parties.

So when Aizawa is found to have committed suicide in his cell, the remaining tethers to rational begin to tighten and snap once erstwhile member, Yamane admits to wishing to join another group after reporting Masami to the police. It is here that the film's slow first half suddenly descends into unrivaled madness, as Masami and her all-too-willing crew allay vengeance upon Yamane, and anyone else Masami sees fit to hurt deep within the nearby forests. And this is where the film's clearly no-budget trappings, camerawork, soundtrack, acting, and editing truly show their teeth. With the camera leading the viewer into an often schizophrenic verite haze, we are privy to some pretty grotesque acts that may even make some of the more gore-leaning viewers cringe.

And again, none of this works without Mikami's performance as the ever crumbling substitute leader. She plays the whole role as if on a fiery ledge, never aware of just how far she will go until it's all too late. The character is in no way sympathetic, and yet, it implies years of systematic trauma that it becomes frightening just to contemplate what led to her disposition. The majority of the film's performances are relatively flat, and yet the cast clearly is giving its all, as if this is that one-time dream shot of a project. Sometimes subjecting themselves, and each other to some truly horrific acts that have to be seen to be fully believed. Also worthy of note are the at-times impressive gore effects that perhaps feel even more potent now than ever. With no access to CG-blood, or anything of the like, the film's ugliness is tactile, and unflinching. And even then, the film seems to be a vision of apocalypse, a vision of habit & base impulse gone amok, with even basic humanity slipping away at the seams, until nothing remains.

The sheer energy of the direction makes this feel exhausting to imagine the hell cast and crew went through just to get the film in a can. So when some folks complain that the film never gets around to explaining the doomed political group's platforms, or their ideologies, I'd have to say that despite the clearly amateurish production, the film's internal dynamic seems less interested in this, and moreso into how groups like this stay together, despite the nothing happening. Which is perhaps what Kumakiri was truly targeting. Systems of leadership, one-upmanship, and order based on mere habit. Which would explain the drawn out, and dare I say it, explosive finale. The young director seemed to have it in for keeping matters as they are "simply because". Kichiku is a bare knuckles demand for real reasons, and a warning to those just letting it be.