Monday, December 31, 2012

Django Unchained (2012) Movie Review

Somewhere in Texas..

Two years before the Civil War, a group of chained slaves en route between masters is interrupted by a strange horse and carriage driven by strangely curious dentist, Dr. King Schultz. Apparently looking for a man who may lend him clues to the whereabouts of several violent criminals, it is abruptly (and quite brutally) revealed that the well-worded doctor is in fact a more dangerous sort than expected. Upon discovering that long-suffering slave, Django (Jamie Foxx, in prime form) is very familiar with his  potential bounty, Schultz promptly releases him, brings him up to speed, and offers him a percentage of his upcoming earnings should the duo succeed. Upon discovery that his new partner is surprisingly sure-footed, and a natural marksman, Schultz soon finds himself willing to take their partnership one step further by asking Django to remain his partner over the winter. In return, the good doctor will honor him not only in payment, but by assisting him in the search and rescue of his wife. Matters only exacerbate when the duo discover that she is in the hands of one Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a Mississippi plantation owner with a yen for Mandingo wrestling, and bottomless cruelty. Take this potentially explosive revenge & honor premise, and give it the vision of the ever irreverent Quentin Tarantino, and Django Unchained is both a bloody fun blaxploitation/spaghetti western mash-up, and greatest hits compilation, with a dash of a little extra.

One of the first things that came across my mind upon reading about the premise several years back, there was a moment of panic to be honest. Having been as much a devotee to QT's films as any other admirer, it both felt like an all too historically delicate wire to walk , and a patently obvious spiritual follow-up to his WWII fantasy, Inglourious Basterds (2009). And yet somehow, this tribute to two darling shelves of exploitation cinema of the past works in spite of its intense subject matter. As we become ever more acquainted by the relationship between our two leads, we are offered an interesting kaleidoscope of views shared by those less understanding, and those who cling to established pecking orders. While the film remains by all accounts a QT cartoon, there's a surprising amount of satire and complexity to the proceedings that don't hit all their respective targets, but have merit all the same.

The relationship between Django, and Schultz makes for a bulk of the film's most memorable scenes as they not only make efficient, and deadly bounty hunters, but also unexpectedly effective counterbalance toward each other. While Waltz's Schultz is an upstanding man with revolutionary ideals, they are tainted with the blood of others, and Django is able & willing to call him on it. Respectively, the doctor plays the role of mentor with the character of a man who has suddenly found himself a means to make his viewpoint a greater one in the world. By great, almost supernatural fortune, Django's wife is named Brunhilde(Kerry Washington), and speaks German. There is an almost Wangerian calling between the two men that harkens to legends of old. And even if both should not make it in a less understanding world, it is by their acts that perhaps new stories could be whispered of throughout the old south.

When QT takes on elements of the unfamiliar, it's fascinating to see how he and crew work Django into a remix that seems strangely recognizable. The first half of the film borders on episodic, until they run across clues to the whereabouts of Brunhilde, and it is once we are within the well-tended fields of CandieLand, it is vintage Tarantino through and through. Once the characters are allowed the chance to sit down, and either play along with Candie in hopes of tricking him out of possessing Hildy, the interplay settles into an interesting mixture of the familiar, and even unfamiliar as this is the first film in Tarantino's career, where the characters are completely unaware of future technology such as film. It is here, combined with the absence of late, great editor, Sally Menke, that Django takes on a curious new flavor with dashes of the past to keep up with tradition. This time making very obvious echoes of past films, most clearly Kill Bill & Basterds. Once within Candyland, it's all about the build of the plan, obstacles, and the unexpected that is bound to occur throughout the remainder of running time. When all is said and done, the entire piece is similar in structure to Basterds, yet without the ambition or polish of it. It is much more rough around the edges, again very much in keeping with both the surreal nature of Django films of the past, along with the best of 1970s Black Power action cinema.

One of the more compelling new wrinkles to the structure is where Django and Schultz find themselves at odds with the powerful, and those well-settled and unwilling to change. Just as much as our protagonists come to importance with each other in their quest, the malevolent Candie and family have with them an ever loyal head servant in Stephen (Samuel L Jackson), a crabby elder with more perceptiveness than meets the eye. It is this piece of duality that helps drive the second half with a little unexpected thematic heft. As the film plays within one of the more questionable chapters in American history, it also plays with the origins of certain adopted cultural attitudes. Often it is used to comedic effect as Django flexes his newfound freedom in strange and funny ways. It does also take on a more pointed, and potentially sinister turn as he intends to mimic the behavior of a "slave owning black man". His demeanor is strangely juxtaposed with certain observable attitudes in our contemporary lives. This is made that much more potent once in Candyland, as Django & Schulz meet Stevens, a man who seems eager to become the genuine article. While this could come off as a bit forced, and unnecessary, it's also very much in line with what the entire piece is playing with from the getgo. Where our heroes stick out like a splinter in the side of the establishment, the establishment itself has not only the muscle and firepower to protect itself, it also has converts, ready to protect the current system to the point of absurdity, no matter how masochistic. Candie relies on Stephen to be his eyes in places where he cannot see, just as Schulz is able to stay the course due to Django's perceptive nature.

Which perhaps leads straight into what will likely be one of the more talked about elements of Unchained, how it shares certain views of not only the slavery days of the American south, but of what led to our current array of mindsets in regards to race. While this is clearly a wild spin on the exploitation movies QT loves so dearly, there is just enough going on in the periphery to make it welt. As mentioned, the role of Stephens remains one of the most central ideas, but to a lesser degree, there is another character in the film who's constant sneer at Django later reveals a certain sadism, dressed in almost fetishistic threads. It's not enough that Billy Crash come off as a sadist, and a bit of a shadow villain-type, he engenders the role of poorly repressed homosexuality, turned demented. Not egregiously out of place as many spaghetti westerns often employed this for different reasons in the 1960s, but this time, it carries another purpose; repression breeds suppression. Not unlike the Candie house's decorum, much of the world in which these villains inhabit imply both a sense of the erotic, and of the flighty (check out Candie's maid's outfit during their first meeting). Django's bad guys are just as self-destructive as they are cruel to others. So it comes as no surprise when the wrath comes near the end of the second act, all the clues were laid out for us prior.

Which isn't to say that all goes smooth for the film. As mentioned, with a new editor, and perhaps a lack of script focus, Django Unchained is takes a little extra time to find its groove. While it has much in common with QT pictures of the past, it also does feel like it's winging matters a little more than usual. Also kind of strange considering how long it had been in the development. It's referential nature might not be as clear to viewers as they had been in the past. Lest there are more out there familiar with the works of italian western favorite, Sergio Corbucci (most notably, Django & The Great Silence). For what it's worth, the film's running time is only justified by the performances, and not so much by storytelling. There are indeed some great highs to be experienced, but as a Django film, it is missing something, even when the blood quotient is ridiculous and the camera is gleefully zooming. But as a Tarantino film, it succeeds in being rowdy, dangerous fun. It also works as a blood-spattered marker of where we are culturally with America's past tinted in oh-so grimy grindhouse colors.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Concerning The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Without going through all the normal writing steps I normally take when considering a review, I can go ahead and wonder on these pages if anything could have truly made Peter Jackson's much awaited return to Middle Earth something more to crow about. Arrived home mere moments ago, and still feeling like the proposed first chapter "An Unexpected Journey" came off little more than expected by that trailer footage I first set eyes on one year ago. For a story that was so well contained within a mere one-hundred-plus pages, there is an almost excessive amount of meat added to this particular bone, and yet matters feel so much less full than they did merely a decade ago when Jackson and his intrepid team unleashed the first two chapters of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy unto the world. And perhaps that's just it; we all knew this time around didn't have a great deal to offer outside of a means to flesh out the world's myriad of cultures and histories. All the while charting the first Hobbit adventure as unlikely hero, Bilbo Baggins joins Gandalf The Grey, and a cadre of dwarves, as they embark on a mission to reclaim their lost home from the clutches of a greedy fire breathing dragon. On one hand, it functions as part prequel, part victory parade, and that's perhaps my biggest disappointment.

And yet still, there is much enjoyment to be had as Mr. Baggins (Martin Freeman) is enlisted to leaving the safety of the Shire, to become the dwarves' much-needed burglar. And true to the original book, it's a brighter, happier affair with just that tiny hint of darkness for the days that lie years ahead. As expected by Jackson and his band of filmmakers, there is a definite feeling of home along certain stretches of the film; especially during the story's earliest sections as Bilbo's home becomes a meeting place for an unruly band of dwarves, and dwarf prince (played with brooding sincerity by Richard Armitage), and a wizard. It is here that much of the film's feeling of fun and comfort go on for almost too long before the adventure actually begins. This sequence, followed by perhaps the famous "riddles in the dark" sequence that carry with them not only familiarity, but a certain enthusiasm that only happens in fits and starts throughout. Andy Serkis's return performance as the lowly Gollum, while only a small section of matters, remains solid proof of how an actor can truly own a character, and continue to deliver us the same mixture of junkie's disgust and pathos that almost redefined creature performance with the previous films. Freeman makes for an effectively memorable Bilbo, and Ian McKellen slips back into his famous role like a favorite coat, albeit clearly feeling a little extra weathered. The return of Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett, and Hugo Weaving also contribute a healthy feeling of ease in a sequence that while pure fan service, also functions as thread creation for future films.

Which leads me to my overall feeling that the film is at best, adequate. While it does indeed have its charms, it may be important to keep in mind that as mentioned, as the film version had been in the filming stages, studio wishes eventually pushed toward this becoming another trilogy, when the original work was well beneath the length to necessitate it, creating more of a reason to pad the film with an almost insane amount of supplemental material often culled from other Tolkien works, such as the LOTR appendices, as well as his incomplete work, The Silmarillion. This leads to what could only be seen as less a narrative film, and more an overall celebration of the author's world, and the multitude of beings that inhabit it. Which plays so much more heavily into the reality that at one time, this was to be directed by fantasy/horror maestro, Guillermo Del Toro. And An Unexpected Journey is riddled with his fingerprints, even after court problems and additional production delays led to him leaving the filming duties to Jackson.

And despite much of Jackson's often affable work on display, this feels so much more like Del Toro film as it finds itself often more enamored with monsters, and action than the character work which was more present in Rings. And even if the original Hobbit book did little to flesh out but only a few of the main characters, we never truly get a proper essence of what hangs in the balance, most notably, the dwarves who have long lived without a true place to call home. The script by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Del Toro, does what it can to create an emotional bridge regarding belonging, and in Bilbo's relationship to this band of unlikely heroes. And there are moments when it does feel like it's working, but often important character beats are either poorly conveyed, or aren't present at all. Often cutting away to more spectacle, and plenty of ""nudge-nudge" nods to the previous films to cover up what is often unaddressed, especially in regards to how Bilbo sees himself amongst people with an actual purpose. Freeman does the best he can with the material he's given, but we never really get a good footing into his arc. If this was indeed to be the first in a trio of films, it might have been important to make sure we find ourselves more invested in him, largely because a quest tale like this requires its own identity, and the beasts and dangers out there are merely there to bring this out of the cast. It becomes more a parade of things our characters are witnessing, rather than interacting with, something the previous films took that extra time to flesh out. Underneath all the trappings, a human story is at the core of even this simple tale, and at a near now-standard 3 hour length, it should spend a little more time making this more apparent.

And speaking of borderline superficial, another more minor grip lies in the film's visual composition. Filmed on the Red 3D camera, what once looked lived-in, and grungy, often looks overtly bright, clean and flat in places. For a few moments, I quickly was taken back to Jim Cameron's AVATAR, with it's overt details in soft light, and occasionally strange feeling aura. While this may seem to be fine and good, it does make me pine a little for the grimy, almost elegiac quality which were understandably present before. A little additional textural hint of that future would have been nice. There is a less of a sense of the lived-in this time, and it leaves less of a burning impression. I'm grateful to not have caught it in its now controversial 48 FPS format, as it likely would have driven me up a wall.

And so the first part of a simpler, less world-shattering is at hand, and while I could say I enjoyed it, there was definitely a feeling of longing. Not so much for the next chapter, but for perhaps a more sensitive portrayal of the story, something less rushed, less..well business-driven. This time around, it seems that a certain spirit simply isn't there. Much like a certain urgency is not apparent in the source material, neither is the drive behind the scenes to push matters full throttle once again. An Unexpected Journey turned out rather as expected, and for that I guess it should be worth asking; Should they have bothered? Sure. Do I recommend this alongside the previous trilogy? Optional.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Karate Robo Zaborgar(2011) Movie Review

Fathered by a murdered Nobel Prize winning robot scientist, rides and fights alongside sweet transforming karate-wielding robot (who is also his brother), and wears sporty amounts of denim in the name of justice. What's not to love? J-cult nasty boy, Noboru Iguchi takes his Sushi Typhoon cred into the retro stratosphere with the shamelessly goofball Karate Robo Zaborgar, a big movie rendition of the classic 1974 tokusatsu TV series that pitts the hot-blooded special agent Yutaka Daimon (early on, played by Yasuhisa Furuhara) against the monster armies of the evil Sigma, an organization led by the bloodthirsty Doctor Akunomiya, and his cadre of cyborg megalomaniacs. Iguchi eschews a greater amount of his usual tendencies toward jiggle and intense gore to present what is more a cross between loving tribute, and almost bittersweet parody.

From the opening moments, we are introduced to a trio of dutiful Tokyo detectives sent to the Diet building to protect government officials targeted for abduction by Sigma, who's plans require their essence for an undisclosed plan. Led by sub-boss, the alluring, yet frowned upon at home, Miss Borg(Mami Yamasaki), Sigma's plans are quickly foiled by the appearance of the Flying Dragon Tri-Stage Kicking Daimon and Zaborgar, to the delight of the cops, and not so much by the clearly corrupt up and comer, Wakasugi. Easily the passionate youth with a grudge to bear, Daimon is approached by the police in their need for assistance in protecting the establishment, but with concern for the helmeted hero's instability. Matters become even more complicated when love unexpectedly comes into the picture, changing fortunes across the board. It isn't long before allegiances are questioned,  revelations pile up, and we are witness to some of the most delightfully bizarre sights ever displayed for a genre famous for being patently wacky.

Ever see a grown man breast feed his children in the absence of their dead mother? Ever witness the murder of a parent by way of lasers shot by a giant floating scrotum? Ever witness bizarre cyborg sex rituals?

Ever witness the manly tears of a robot of justice?

The film's TV episode-y format is taken full advantage of when our story flashes forward, boldly taking the entire premise into even further absurdity, but with a twist. A middle-aged Daimon (now played by comedian, Itsuji Itao) is now a virtually broken, penniless diabetic, having lived much of his life under the thumb of fate when destiny calls again, and Sigma's grand plans seem finally ready to be unleashed onto an unsuspecting recession-era Japan, and inevitably, the world!

Suddenly, the Iguchi of Machine Girl fame begins to kick in with some unexpected character, and much to say about the generations that have transpired since the salad days of tokusatsu heroes. The deeds of the past have far reaching consequences for all our characters, and it's up to all to save Japan. Rather than merely reveling in nostalgia, there is a mild attempt to bring a few grounded concerns to the fray. Elements such as the inability of the elder generation to gain a foothold in society as the corrupt on top collect, the enmity between children and their parents, and fears of youth gone absurd best illustrated by way of a giant schoolgirl waging a swath of destruction by way of casual mobile phone conversation. While not anywhere near as successful as it could have been, it's pretty fun to see these satirical dynamics flirted with within such a piece.

As with most J-throwbacks, it isn't all as functional as it likely could have been. While packed to the gears with such amazing imagery and action, the film's length does at times drag. And as previously mentioned, it is when Iguchi's instincts for parody go broad, the humor doesn't work very often. But when there are Iguchi-esque touches to popular Zaborgar tropes and characters. (Miss Ruggers - a group of American Football gear-sporting beauties comes ragingly to mind, exploding balls and all. There is also the matter of Dinosaur army..Ahem.) On the whole, Iguchi's large-scale retelling of Denjin Zaborgar is an unexpectedly sweet-natured, CG-heavy fun fest, sure to make many fans of Japanese genre TV smile one way or another.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The State Of The Kaijyu: Vengeance Of The Baytaku?

There are only so many excuses.

But I will go ahead and lament that while the holidays are near, and events at home have created an aura where it is perfectly fine to lay strewn across the bedroom floor in a daze. Even then, there has been much internal activity. It is merely the typing hands, and perhaps even a little misdirected drive that has been keeping me from updating as much as I should. And not merely here, but everywhere else. Which isn't to say that I haven't been paying attention to buzzings here and there. Especially in a November where a new Rebuild Of Evangelion has just graced Japanese screens to massive profits, and possibly even more massive bouts of WTF.

And why? Since I am likely months to years from actually getting the chance to see it, the Twitter/blog talk has declared the film most popularly titled Q, as something of a fan service free-for-all with little to no real grapple on sense, let alone the original continuity which the previous installment so spectacularly jettisoned. It's apparently unrepentant in how chaotic, and pander-heavy it is (even going so far as to aging several major characters, and resurrecting others). Many even went so far as to compare the 2 hour service-fest as something akin to a Michael Bay event film...Stop. Right. There.


Now. I didn't expect to get into this on these pages, let alone anywhere else like Anime Diet, but there has been something of a niggling little piece of rant-fuel that has been plaguing my mind on and off for several years. And I suppose it was more than time to go ahead and just express my concerns somewhere for posterity, so that perhaps one day I could look back at this one day and better have a grasp on matters.

Now Japan has long been famous/infamous for gravitating toward some of the more unusual ephemera emanating from the west. A long held myth along these lines (for older anime fans at least) is the one contending that Walter Hill's ill-fated rock n' roll fable, Streets Of Fire inspired many a popular series and feature. (perhaps most famously, the OVA classic, Megazone 23) Check out a decent amount of shows from 1984-on, and it's pretty hard to dispute as motorcycle toughs, 1950s fashion and iconography, and even poster parodies are to be found with a minimum of effort. Filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and the like have also see plenty of reverence in anime between the 1970s and early 1980s, and to be fair, anime can always be seen as a frugal alternative to live action filmmaking for the studios, and the leaps and bounds made by many a western pioneer can easily be considered an inspiration to animators of the day.

So when the decades pass, and technology and society changes in vast and unpredictable ways, it's still surprising to see that of all the internationally popular filmmakers/storytellers that could leave a deeply ingrained impression, one wonders what has happened when the ever-grating Michael Bay has become one of the most important global figures for the Japanese. A part of me has been listing these references over the last several years, and apparently this Eva thing just pushed me back into that corner once too many times.

A few that come to mind..


2007's anime TV series. Lucky Star.

It's a subtle, yet effective little gag taking place in Episode 12, where our main characters are preparing for a day's doujinshi shopping during the sprawling Comiket. Veteran otaku, Konata lays out well worn plans for where to shop and when, which includes instructions that very resemble battle plans. (even ending with her handing wallets and bottled tea as "ammunition") The tense, almost somber military music that plays in the background is very reminiscent of many Hans Zimmer/Trevor Rabin scores for Bay's films. Merely one small gag in a series famous for pop culture references.

2010's live action Uchu Senkan Yamato.

Right from the trailers, this Takeshi Yamazaki blockbuster touted multiple attempts to pay homage to the Bay by mimicking his almost fetishistic slow-motion montages of crew members, and pilots preparing for battle as inspiring music plays. The film even goes so far as getting Aerosmith's Steven Tyler to sing the major single for the film, "Love Lives". A song that almost completely clones his stylings for the Aerosmith ballad, "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing", which graced Bay's asteroid epic, ARMAGEDDON.

 Apparently, Armageddon remains a large favorite in the east as it is the one film that receives the most nods. And on a scale level, one could understand as it is perhaps one of his more "cohesive", universal works. But the love for it is far beyond so many other iconic filmmakers, one has to wonder what else has been influenced by this man that I've yet to witness.

Here's a bonus...

                           Yes. Even a great film like Fish Story makes a grand nod.

Just something I have been noticing on and off for several years. Pretty sure, I'm forgetting many other instances. And understanding that Japan has largely been hankering for "pure escapism" for some time now, I guess it's not too far fetched. How about you? It doesn't have to be a Bay film. Prove that it isn't merely the Baymonster getting all this attention. Should there be others, please let me know. I'd love to hear of others getting mentions. Just the thought that it has too infected the minds behind one of anime's more independent evergreens just renders me kind of sad.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Fish Story (2009) Movie Review

It is hours before a wayward comet barreling toward earth is to eradicate all life, as a sole figure rolls into a puzzlingly open record shop. Within the walls of the naturally quiet establishment, a pair of young men; one being the proprietor, the other a loyal customer, listen to some tunes, musing about the possibilities of salvation. This only vexes the defeated elder gentleman, set in his feeling that humanity is doomed. It is only within an old recording from a lost punk outfit that predated the Sex Pistols, that the fates of all just might hang in the balance. And such a strange setting is merely the beginning of an unexpected journey through the lives of several  seemingly random, yet inextricably bound souls in Yoshihiro Nakamura's  thoughtful fantasy based on Tamio Hayashi's novel. Very much in the vein of "hyperlink" films ala BABEL, or Crash, and even the most recent, Cloud Atlas, the film explores the threads that link a piece of creative work has toward possibly changing the course of history through a series of semi-vignettes, seemingly unrelated toward one another, yet somehow finding some manner of connective tissue.

Jumping back and forth through time with characters that on the surface, seem so distinctly different from one another(and often displaying varying tones), while is in no way is the piece as serious as the previously mentioned examples, but it is an unexpectedly rewarding paean to inspiration, complete with just a smidge of sly satire.

Without going into far too much detail as to avoid spoiling, the film covers several decades leading up to the central dilemma, as hope becomes a bit of a ping-pong ball, with the young, ready to embrace the possibilities, and the elders, ready to accept their fate with clenched fists. So as the stories begin with one in 1982, and a trio of young men listen to "paranormal recordings" before heading out for a night on the town, we are re-introduced to the track, "Fish Story", which was what we heard in the music store. A song by long-forgotten rockers, Gekirin. And in is within the rebellious sounds (and bizarre middle-section) of the song, that fate plays a heavy hand in the events of this initial tale. It is from here that we leap forward to 1999, where a doomsday cult sees themselves having better days. With the end of the world "postponed" for a later date, pieces begin moving that may (or may not) affect future events.

So when the film takes a sudden left, toward what almost looks and feels like any other quirky J-drama setup (ordinary schoolgirl oversleeps on a cruise ship, only to meet a most unusual do-gooder moments before the boat is hijacked), it is with perhaps a little disappointment as the segment itself veers between levels of sweetness as if primed to almost completely derail what had come before. And yet somehow, Nakamura and company figure out a way to make even this teeth-rotting cul-de-sac vital despite its pacing and tonal weirdness.

And just when it all becomes borderline frustrating, what the film is barreling toward is something of a welcome sucker punch once the final major sequence enters the stage; a dramatically laid back 1975 sequence involving Gekirin, the band whose song permeates the piece. During a tumultuous time in their days as a band, torn between success and artistic, freedom, the sequence is a leisurely, thoughtful, and sometimes even touching compliment toward everything prior. Made all the more potent via performances by Nao Omori, Atsushi Ito, and others, this is a lovely centerpiece that is all so familiar, and yet sensitively executed. It's a segment that echoes more of a western independence streak that is rare for a mainstream Japanese film. And with this affectionately non-consumerist theme in its arsenal, the remainder of the comet tale makes for a last heartfelt push toward destiny. Which is where I'll stop talking about the story in general as this is a work that is far more potent in the feel rather than the reality.

With limited resources, and the diverse color of the cast, Nakamura more than makes up for certain deficiencies with pure heart. Fish Story is not only a charming & fanciful musing on the power of rock n' roll, but is also a clever tribute to those who try, despite the lack of traditional means. One person's bungled inspiration, might be another's battle cry. One person's act of kindness may just inspire greater things in the future. It's a celebration of the wistfully naive, and meant for those who love dreaming despite the odds. Whether we know it or not, we all have a part in the same song, and boy does the future seem in good hands.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Wreck-It Ralph: Immigration, Eminent Domain & True Democracy

Kind of funny to consider that the last time I went on about a Disney-produced film taking on prescient socio-political issues by way of childhood playthings, it was at the hands of animation stalwarts, PIXAR whose films have continued to break box office records, conventions, and deliver on multiple fronts. And to add this to how 2012 has played itself out, it's also amusing to see these guys, and the more traditional Disney studios seemingly switch roles as Brave seemed more comfortable in continuing the ever changing Princess narrative. So in comes 's irresistibly charming Wreck-It Ralph, a film that not only makes a near-perfect play for this generation's Toy Story, but also carries within it, a bold set of statements regarding a changing, more aware American narrative. This couldn't be more clear from the opening scenes in which we learn of our title "bad guy", and the circumstances surrounding nearly thirty years of living in the shadow of video game hero, Fix-It Felix.

As the voice of John C. Reilly's Ralph, his hulking brute physique, and tendency toward violence toward the buildings within the game world he lives in is based on the limited programming of the era, but it wasn't without reason. The narration and flashbacks establish immediately that before Felix and the clean-cut, seemingly well-to-do citizenry of this world came about, Ralph was living on the land where this building now stands. Bullied off, and doomed to live in a literal dump, and understandably upset Ralph then took it upon himself to rebel, thereby wrecking this structure on a regular basis. And this ensuing battle between the estranged Ralph, and the ever persistent "fixing" of Felix, to the rejoicing of the diminutive citizenry continued on for decades, leading to an upcoming 30th anniversary of the game's existence. No small feat for a game largely surrounded by newer, flashier machines. ( A point which we'll get back to shortly)

So when the time comes, and Ralph wishes to be at the very least acknowledged for his role in the game's history, he is practically ignored at an anniversary party--even as Felix himself basks in the limelight, he too cannot help but hope Ralph remains in his "predestined" place. Cake metaphor goes even further to display his own tiny shred of hope that what he does serves a greater purpose. The game's mayor, and party attendees seem content in knowing that he live forever as an outsider, even as they neglect that without him, there is no game. So when Ralph takes it upon himself to break protocol, and escape the confines of his machine in hopes of seeking another way of attaining adulation and respect amongst the elite,  it shouldn't be too much of a stretch to begin putting the pieces together as his first attempt toward his goal, is to enter a hyper-violent first person shooter in the hopes of winning a medal. Proof that he himself is capable of respect in his home, he attempts to brave the horrors of realistic combat in a futuristic alien environment. Which is where he acquaints himself with Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun, a rough and ready soldier, a hardened warrior with a hidden past. Mere moments in, Ralph finds himself beyond over his head, but still figuring a shortcut toward his goal.

It isn't long after this, when Ralph finds himself within the colorful realm of the chibi-racer Sugar Rush, where he meets his match in Vanellope von Schweetz, a perky underdog with the distinction of being dubbed a "glitch". (an outsider feared for what she could mean to the game as a whole) Within the kingdom of Sugar Rush, the local monarch in the form of King Candy is seen as a befuddled, happy old chap with a seemingly benevolent nature, save for his concern over Vanellope, who is seen as something that could mean certain doom for a game's existence in the arcade. Sequestered to an unknown section of the game, Vanellope intends to race no matter what which perfectly mirrors the dilemma of Ralph, making them perfectly unlikely foils to a seemingly rigged pyramid.

This is made all the more explicit after Ralph's disappearance from his game renders his once-dismissive compatriots useless, forcing the game to be deemed "out of order".--[IE- Irrelevant]

So what does this all add up to in the end? I don't find it out of the realm of possibility that Wreck-It Ralph joins Cloud Atlas in this season's stories regarding the changing face of class, and the ever-present reality of eminent domain, meaning the role of a society's unseen, often those native to developing nations who are often politicized in a negative light in hopes of maintaining a currently popular reality. Ralph and Vanellope, natives to their respective worlds, find themselves displaced, and often ignored by those in power. Both eager to prove their mettle and value to the group, their mutual arcs reflect an idle worship of a system they themselves have surrendered to. Ralph moreso than Vanellope, who stands proudly alongside many of her own imperfections. So when he finds himself in his greatest inner conflict, it is within the faith of another with similar problems does Ralph find redemption beyond what the current paradigm could possibly reward. While so many in the worlds of these games adhere to an invisible order that resembles a top-down monarchy, it is Ralph and Vanellope's divergence that offers up a more realistic vision of the societies they inhabit.

So when we look at the clean-cut, blue eyed representation of infrastructure in Fix-It Felix, we are given a peek into privilege at a loss to understand a larger world view. His story, while endlessly perky, and helpful, is only so, like Ralph, due to his programmed fate. He is merely following protocol without question, to the adulation of the mayor, and clearly rich citizenry. Never considering that without Ralph, he is essentially useless. And as a bonus, his schoolboy yen for Calhoun is particularly suspect when considering the American narrative in regards to the privileged throughout history. Tying this back to Ralph's frightening tour within Hero's Duty, and the immigration ( and perhaps even the gentrification of so-called "lower" classes) issue, everything makes pointed, brutal sense.

When one considers the wacky, pixel-heavy world of Wreck-It Ralph, one may be able to see past the gloss to find themselves thinking a little more about where we as a nation are today, and perhaps once and for all consider how we all arrived at this point. And hopefully, those who do may consider a greater narrative that is perhaps more human than any play at generational familiarity a movie can be.  

Akumu No Elevator [Elevator Trap] (2009) Movie Review

In a hurry to reach his in-labor wife, young Jun Ogawa(Takumi Saitoh) finds himself knocked unconscious, and suddenly coming to within an elevator, now trapped inside with three uniquely peculiar strangers. One, a down on his luck yakuza(Masaaki Uchino). Another, an elderly man in a track suit(Fuyuki Moto) with a startling secret, and a teenager in gothic lolita garb(Aimi Satsukawa), seemingly ready to end her life. All three incapable of communicating with the outside, their personalities & circumstances clash, with unexpected twists unfolding as noone is what they seem. And all of this, merely prelude. Actor, Keisuke Horibe's directorial debut based on the novel by Hanta Kinoshita is a decidedly mixed affair that reaches impressive highs, and yet finds itself unable to tie matters together in any larger sense.

To be honest, I was ready for an entire film to be confined to this setting. There is enough sense of timing, choreography and performance here that it easily feels labored and well-executed. In many ways, this section alone qualifies as a classically-styled stage play, or short subject. Taken on its own, the entire film comes off like a well-storyboarded spin on flashback-laden tales of confinement ala LOST, with perhaps even a dash of The Breakfast Club. So once things truly get going, and headlong into a second act, there is definitely much more going on that unspools like a macabre game of reverse Mousetrap. Layers of truth slough off here and there, until reality is virtually upended top-down, and themes of living with fictions as justification take over-- even as bodies & revelations begin to pile up.

And while the latter end of this indeed has it's impressive moments of grim humor, a good deal of it feels unclear of what it's in the service of. And this is most likely due to a bookend structure that Horibe unnecessarily grants the piece, a structure that pleads to give it all meaning, but ultimately feels either underwritten, or lacking in clarity. When establishing at frame one as to who the film's true focal point is before the title-based sequence, there is either a need to make this a more prominent emotional core to the film, or else it feels forced, which it ultimately does. While its well and good that a film can attempt to pay tribute to mystery/suspense conventions, whilst nodding at human drama, Kinoshita's script simply finds itself unable to reconcile with all the additional baggage plaguing the opening and ending.

As it stands, Elevator Trap excels best when it's playing on genre expectations, parodying our love of the unexpected, and offering up a surprisingly funny satire of urban Japanese character-types. But when it tries to reach for something closer to the heart, it simply finds itself a little lost.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Cloud Atlas (2012) Movie Review

Cinema has reached a crucial turning point. That's what pop-movie alchemists, The Wachowskis, and Tom Tykwer have established with their grand-scale art experiment adapted from the 2004 David Mitchell novel. Spanning generations of human existence from the past to our distant future, and presenting metaphysical concepts of reincarnation, cause, effect, and the eternal bonds shared by all souls is visually expressed by way no major film has done before, and is even further bolstered by the audacious use and re-use of its cast (including Hugo Weaving, Jim D'Arcy, and Keith David) in various eras, locales & circumstances, all interweaving and in service of each other. Unlike the novel, the film takes a riskier route by intercutting all six stories into a tapestry of lives, often impacting each other unknowingly, and even carrying over certain consistencies, seemingly ready to repeat themselves until a cycle is found broken, thereby creating new paths. And as a film, it is a thing of often unwieldy beauty, punctuated by lapses in subtlety that have remained a Wachowski staple since the beginning.

Of the stories we experience..

On the Pacific Ocean, 1850..Young, and sickly notary, Adam Ewing(Jim Sturgess) has his morality tested as he befriends his ship's newly aquired slave, all the while he is slowly being deceived by the doctor Henry Goose(Tom Hanks), who claims to be capable of curing him, but only seems to be furthering his demise in hopes of stealing his inherited fortune.

Belgium, 1931. Young musical genius, Robert Frobisher(Ben Whishaw) seeks his fortune by attempting to become the assistant to long quiet composer(Jim Broadbent), only to find himself at the mercy of those who would ruin his future (even his inspirations) in a divided society. In letters, we are shown his loves, his secrets, and dreams shared with one Rufus Sixmith - a man who could very well be his lover.

San Francisco, 1975 where reporter, Luisa Rey(Berry), daughter of celebrated journalist finds herself at the center of an ecological conspiracy after a chance meeting with an elder Sixmith. With chance meetings and unexpected turns, things go from mysterious to deadly.

The UK in 2012, where panicked and aging publisher, Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) finds himself tricked by his own family into living in a prisonlike retirement home. It is here that he re-examines his choices, that ultimately fuels inspiration for a great escape.

Neo Seoul, 2144. Humanoid fabricant, SONMI-451(Doona Bae) recants a record of her life as a restaurant server in a largely techologized future, where she awakens to the horrifying plight of her kind after being liberated by Hae-Joo Chang(Sturgess), a man who believes she is key toward revolution.

The film is bookended by a tale told through the eyes of Zachary(Hanks), an elder with a story that charts the turning point from his days as a primitive villager, to his role in humankind's great turn after the fall of civilization. It is in the meeting of the enigmatic, Meronym(Berry), his fears and faith are tested as she comes, an emissary from an advanced people on the brink, with grave purpose.

So when the film takes on the bold task of intercutting all six stories in a manner antithetical to the more standard anthology format, the viewer is continuously whisked between characters' worlds, and what is clearly meant as a tribute to universal onenness, and eternal recurrence that is bound to divide, and likely confound. So when my impressions come off as more than positive considering a film that requires more than a little active viewing, it's all in the name of running one's hands through the sands of this major project in order to better figure out why it may not to be everyone's taste. And in doing so, for all the things that make the film an ambitious joy to experience, it is also (much like the Oshii-meets-HK action favorite, The Matrix) far more shallow than it purports to be. As each tale remarkably works as a showcase piece for some good to startling performances, there is always the spectre of a lack of complexity within what is meant to be a far more literary examination. By taking the cinematic route, much of the film's intended human subtext is often lost within a general love of all things film history.

That's right. In the end, Tykwer and The Wachowskis have fashioned not only a grand, loving tribute to movie mythology, but a summation of the works that have made them famous. Just as much as the stories involve causality, and the threads we weave, it is also a set of stories about seemingly ordinary pawns who awaken to their respective systems, only to find their way out of them. Whether it be by way of broken chains, hover bike, or gunshot, the spirit of rebellion punctuated by the kindness of others lies at the heart of the film. And even when these attempts fall flat in sections (most ineffectively in areas that likely shouldn't) there is certainly a celebration of visual language on display that perhaps will offer more upon repeat viewings. It's film education by example, and at places, says far more than most works explicitly about the medium, and its power to illuminate.

The issues that at least upon first viewing, kept me from a full catharsis remain in the hands of The Wachowskis who remain masters of pop filmmaking, only squeaking the surface of the drama, and often fashioned at arm's distance. This aversion to the more humanistic nuts and bolts contrasts largely with the 1975 segment, which has its own issues, but at least carries with it a weight that reverberates throughout. Tykwer clearly has a more personal stake in the project and it shows. And as stories that require more than the usual amount of intimacy, this comes as a series of minuses that dogs a lot of the film despite all the spectacle Cloud Atlas brings to the fore. Hanks, Berry, and the rest of the cast deliver universally well despite makeup issues that may as well serve as consistent thematic points.

But please don't allow the minuses outweigh the pluses, the genre-busting gymnastics of Cloud Atlas are a wonder to behold, and are far more invigorating than a dozen Avatars.

 To quote a certain inspiration, " And where does the new cinema go from here? The frame is vast and infinite.."

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Gothic & Lolita Psycho (2010) Movie Review

Somewhere deep in Tokyo, a grand party packed with rowdy yakuza, dancers, and generally unpleasant folk is taking place. Suddenly brewing amongst the gamblers, is a feud between an arrogant young american, and a cocky gangster and his lady(Asami) brews, only to be quelled by the oyabun throwing the party. It is only a moment after this altercation that the festivities are brought to a grinding halt by the messy entrance of a lone girl in gothic lolita gear, lusting after violent revenge. And this is merely the first five minutes of Go Ohara's ultra-schlocky no-budget actioner. A piece so geared toward a certain niche, that it is no way deserves any manner of serious discourse as it never intends to elicit any. Much like the recent output of one Yoshihiro Nishimura, and guys like Noboru Iguchi, one would expect this to maintain something of a kinship to what many may consider to be Japan's equivalent to Troma. But what happens instead, is more akin to a nugget of an idea awash in a basin of tinier, more scattered fragments.

After the sweet and innocent, Yuki and her family are attacked by a group of hooded evildoers, leaving the mother(Fumie Nakajima) dead, and father bound to a wheelchair, it is up to her (now inexplicably sporting a leather EGL outfit, something not terribly giving toward anyone looking for a fight) to hunt down each of these killers; each represented by a collection of tarot-style cards. With each confrontation becoming increasingly bizarre and challenging, Yuki's catholic priest father (Yurei Yanagi of Ringu & Juon) supports her by (again, inexplicably) supplying her with an assortment of multifunctional killer parasols. And after possibly only three minutes of exposition, Ohara just lets each ensuing battle take center stage, and often with zero to no context as to reason or rhyme. All we know is that Yuki's mother must be avenged, and that these villains can be straight out of a mid-to-low grade fighting video game, only with a much higher blood-gallon count. It's a goofy premise that could very easily make for an energetic and inspired sendoff to what was once a truly standout fashion movement. A look is never really over until it is cartoonized on film, and Gothic & Lolita Psycho has all the makings of what could be something special, but due to one issue or another, it never works beyond mere novelty.

Ohara's take on the revenge storyline never takes full advantage of an unfolding flashback that occurs through the film as we are introduced to each villain mere seconds before each confrontation. And this alone is enough to place a huge red flag over matters. One of the largest questions lingering throughout the film, concerns the reasons for the assault on Yuki's family, and subsequently, the death of her mother. For as simple a small amount of storytelling as this could be, the film never makes any real attempt to connect in any valid way in regards to the whys of everything including this. So all viewers are stuck with, are a series of fight scenes that range from mildly annoying (a school gym fight with a telekinetic teacher), to the absurdly amusing (Yuki versus the squeaky-voiced kogal Elle[Misaki Momose] is easily the film's highlight--John Woo dives, and grotesque amounts of god-ammunition make for an uncommonly fun ten-plus minutes). An exercise in incongruous ideas and improvised madness, one eventually has to throws their arms up with a film of this ilk, and just roll with it.  The problems come not because of it merely being so cheap, but rather that the piece never seems to find any balance between the revenge plot, and the ultimate goal. Stuff just happens in a goofy manner, and that's pretty much it. The final product feels like a majority of the budget went to Akiyama's outfit, the ever-present choir-of-doom score, and the FX which go from merely serviceable to terrible. It's bad enough that the makers behind the film offer no real reason for Yuki's demeanor, let alone her newfound interest in decadent couture. Again, films like this aren't meant to be pondered on too much, but these glaring issues are made moreso by a general lack of connective tissue. Closer in nature to Toxic Avenger 2 than to the original, there's a distinct lack of human grit to the proceedings that it becomes difficult to ignore. It's like an idea for a trailer that somehow got spun into full length, without any of the meat that justifies it.

So when we finally get to the "final boss" battle, and Yuki is brought to her limits, the movie piles on the absurd to the point where it simply lacks the fun necessary to sell it. Taking things back to Oneechanbara, an earlier film Ohara was involved in, we are witness to another exploitation piece bereft of many of the elements that made films like Iguchi's Machine Girl or Tokyo Gore Police. We are offered the promise of a fun, no-brainer night of action featuring kick-ass female leads often culled from the gravure/AV world, but it all lacks the one thing that is capable of even mildly redeeming the worst low-concept material..charm. (Frilly clothes need not apply)


Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Memory Lagoon - Female Convict 701 (Sasori) [1972]

The Memory Lagoon is a limited series involving second looks at previously reviewed works in hopes of attaining a more nuanced view, and perhaps..a little extra.

When Matsu(Meiko Kaji) is betrayed by corrupt cop, Sugimi(Isao Natsuyagi), the only man she ever loved, and locked in an oppressively run maximum security women's prison. From the opening scene, it is abundantly clear that the only two things surging through her tortured mind, are escape and violent revenge. It's only when Sugimi makes a pact with one of Matsu's inmates (Rie Yokoyama), when the already fevered tension between the innocent prisoner 701, and the horny, corrupt system of the prison, reaches an irrevocable bursting point. When considering the exploitation market, and what it is largely known for, one might be hard-pressed to ever consider the art level to even remotely be something to flirtatiously play with. But in the case of the first cinematic outing of Tohru Shinohara's long-haired heroine, director Shunya Ito takes an almost Seijun Suzuki route by making the world of Sasori into one of almost savage beauty. 

It is almost immediately that Ito's goal seems clear; that the film version of an already impressively violent comic was prime material for what many would eventually consider to be de rigueur for so-called "pinky violence" films of the early 1970s. And 701 lives up to this with a more impressive budget than many of its contemporaries, and with an almost hallucinatory style to cohabit the often lurid sexual violence that permeates Matsu's original adventure. The film's unique use of moody lighting, modular stages, and some truly original use of the widescreen format fuels the film to an almost point of panic. True to it's trashy roots, Matsu is subjected to all a manner of abuse, only to find that she possesses an almost superhuman endurance(a running theme in Shinohara's output). Not to mention a vicious streak that tends to incite often equally or worse violent reactions from those around.It is this element that rounds out the affair by granting it all a memorable freak factor to what could so easily have become another "women in prison" flick. It is almost as if Ito and company found themselves ready to prove their mettle regardless of the material on hand.

So when the Matsu trips up numerous attempts to destroy her within the walls of the prison in an "accident", the action finally escalates to a shocking and often jaw-dropping prison revolt.  It is within the sexual anarchy on display, that the film goes all out in search of ways to both trouble and possibly shake up certain gender predispositions. Matsu, caught between the warden and guards, and those determined to destroy her, is made into something that could possibly make even the "ironic" admirers of Riki-Oh blush. In many ways, it's hard to believe that this was made where and when it was lest readers forget the often radical politics happening on and around the streets of urban Japan during these years. It's a conservative's fiery worst nightmare that muscles beyond the confines of a the simple walls of a correctional facility, and ultimately ends on the streets of Tokyo in a memorable finale that feels lifted directly from the manga page.

Exploitation favorite, Meiko Kaji burns a deep impression as the titular heroine, a character so put-upon, so quietly simmering, that each of her victories seem incrementally huge regardless of their often questionable nature. Her performance, largely told in her eyes, is truly effective, while so many around her continue to fall victim to their own imagined stake in the game. The villains of the piece are often so over-the-top that it feels as if many are ready to burst from their own overworked blood pressures, while Kaji merely delivers a well-administered fatal push. Even as films of this ilk often engender an old world "women must be stoic" vibe, there is also a certain amount of playful humor, best encompassed by a scene involving a planted officer amongst prison ranks that backfires in a most comical fashion. For every other  "for the guys" decision of the film, there is often an equally absurd retort, which is uncharacteristically clever for the subgenre, and Kaji often makes for a singularly iconic hero that can dish out the worst with the best of the era's bushy-eyebrowed action avatars.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Why Johnson's Looper(2012) is a powerful post-summer gift

"Thirty years from now, time travel will be possible.."

- Only, it will immediately be outlawed, and only truly popular amongst those working on the black market, and in underworld circuits.

In a dingy, economically shattered future, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a well regarded career bagman of sorts, running a steady intake of kill jobs from his underworld overlords. Only these bosses are from the farther future, sending back their targets to his era for clean , evidence-free exterminations. Aside from dependence on a nice car, and a nagging drug habit, his concerns for those he is tasked with taking out have been little to zero. Only this comes to a head after a colleague fails to commit a "closed loop"; a boss' final means of tying up loose ends with former employees. With such a limited number of trusted allies, the screws tighten even harder when Joe himself is faced with an even greater shock, the appearance of his older self(Bruce Willis), without the usual bonds and face coverage, gold instead of the usual silver, and a clear mission in this time frame--prevent the future.

Rian Johnson's third film after the still impressive indie fave Brick, and the fun retro-caper The Brothers Bloom, is an at-times brilliant piece of fantasy pulp that gets plenty of mileage out of what could have been one problematic premise. It might be good to at the outset make it clear that time travel plots by their very nature are always inherently flawed. Whether it be one theory being used or another, it always leads back to time being not being a matter of science so much as philosophy. So when I make assessments on how this film works, or what manner of ways that it makes an effect, it is largely within Johnson's ability to make these conceptual leaps fundamentally human ones. In the hands of so many other filmmakers, it seems so easy to have rendered this into another standard chase piece, punctuated by time travel, but as it is, Looper remains at it's heart a film more concerned with our own investments in the moment. The ties in our collective memories of where we were at one moment, and that split second decision that dramatically alters course. In many respects, the plot structure in many ways resembles Minority Report in that it plays the lead character against a system they thought they fully understood, toward an irrevocable choice, only without the ever-safe Spielbergian ejection seat. So what begins as a nifty twist on gritty future noir, Johnson's tale (which he also wrote) is ultimately a dark western-style redemption tale with a morally ambiguous coating.

Complicating matters for Joe, are not only his localized boss (Jeff Daniels), and his small army of gunslinging, black coat sporting "Gat Men", but also a frighteningly powerful criminal entity known only as The Rainmaker. In an era where advances of technology might have altered humanity to the brink of telekinetic activity, this unseen force seems to be at the center of what has created this schism, and has brough older Joe into the same time frame as his youthful counterpart, willing to use any and all means necessary to undo a horrible wrong, whether the younger him likes it or not.  This wild twist alone is fuel for quite a bit of the film's thematic juice, as we are given equal reasons to sympathize, and dislike both renditions of Joe. He is a man split into mirror halves, both shaped by their circumstances, and unwilling to bend to what could very well mean an out for more than merely them. Loopers have been privy to this possibility, but it is clearly a bad thing for all parties if one should fail to kill their quarry. In the case of Joe, and the twists and turns spewing out from this rendition of events, it is less an exercise in time travel science so much as an engrossing new spin on the tale of people, unwilling to see past the fortunes they have been given in light of a possible gamble on an unforeseeable future.

Young Joe's frantic need to escape his well-alerted employers (as well as a stunning meeting between Joe and his elder self) leads him to a farm on the city outskirts, where he might find some answers. Only he meets lone mother (Emily Blunt), and child, living a simple life, but harboring a secret that could either make or break both Joes. It is perhaps this section (classic movie lack of subtlety kicks into high gear at this point--Farm, Mother, etc..) that offers up some of the clunkier aspects of the story, but the momentum granted by the performances, and the piling on of tension works well enough that a majority of it becomes easy to overlook. Suddenly, images of a human response to James Cameron's Terminator comes to mind, making Looper something of an expansion of similar ideas and concerns inherent in that film. Could a man, desperate for release from this tightening noose truly see it in his heart to kill a child? (possibly multiple) Without going any further into spoil-centric territory, the larger questions of how far we would go to maintain our favorite parts of our past, as well as what we would do if we met our younger selves, and how that might go over, reigns supreme, making the journey of the to Joes into something akin to two noir antiheroes battling it out over their inabilities to let go.

As the story begins, young Joe was in a place of comfort, as hellish and empty as it is, he is a man willing to do terrible things to maintain his part in what life has granted him. We see him hit a truly low point before the paradoxical meeting changes everything. Unwilling to self sacrifice, his isolation is made complete when he has noone to share his years of stashed silver with. Only when old Joe comes into the fray, and his entire world is torn to shreds, is he forced to improvise himself a life despite his constant protest. He is a tough guy, but still very much a kid. And old Joe's world is a mirror possibility of that once "stable" choice, unraveling bit by bit due to this Rainmaker business, and he is driven, unyielding, and confident that his path is infinitely more important than his more reckless, drug-addled younger self could ever realize. Johnson's film works at breakneck speed to catch us up on what this set of life choices has created, and makes the argument that whatever time we are in during the course of our lives, we are almost always different people with diverging sets of similar map milestones. From long held dreams of learning one language, and later mastering another, every little change..enormous.

The film delivers not only a wild and thoughtful premise, but some truly fun performances by not only JGL and Willis (in classic, near-Eastwood form here), but also of Daniel's turn as bad local boss, Abe, not to mention Noah Segan's archetypal role as an eager little cowboy, eager to make his name. Carrying on the original melding between retro crime drama, dirty western, and Twilight Zone bizarre, Emily Blunt  and Pierce Gagnon remain the story's human  center as two seemingly inocuous people caught amidst the affairs of criminals.

And this is perhaps where the film, for some, may wield a majority of the latter third's story issues. We are told early within the film, that a small percentage of the population has now attained mild telekinetic abilities (dubbed "TK" for short). It is this strange addition to the story that never really figures out a way to gel properly with the unfolding story. Even as the mystery of the murderous Rainmaker reaches center stage, it still feels inorganic to the whole of the time travel, and subsequent noir superstructure. And seeing as how much of what young Joe's life seems ready for a wholly new life path, what transpires never makes any properly built dramatic sense. While many of the choices regarding the farm, and his circumstances with the Blunt and Gagnon carry a certain amount of metaphorical sense, it becomes a little harder to swallow a film's need to pile on elements of the fantastical on top of each other. As visually impressive as it is, it really feels like an indulgent extra. Also hindering things, is the tacked on relationship between JGL, and Blunt that never truly forms in any believable fashion. It simply feels like a studio note, and in no way congruous to the story that befalls them on screen.

And yet these problems only provide minor dissonance in a symphony of ideas and emotions that are sweeping, thought provoking, and perhaps thrilling for those seeking greener pasteurs in those multiplex plains. Johnson's surehanded performance remains clear, even when it all borders on knowingness of Willis' image as a perennial badass. The action, visuals, and attitude make up nicely for what almost renders a balanced meal overcooked. Make no mistake, Looper is the film I most had hoped this summer would provide. So happy it came out to remind us how thoughtful spectacle could actually be.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Behind Older Lenses: Considering Previous Norms

 Ever wonder why it is many people tend to find themselves disconnected with a creative work that features ideas that do not gel with them on a societal level? Something that often intrigues me about even cult media, is its acceptance or denial by those who claim to be that much more well-rounded in their manner of discourse. It's like this wall that they've run against that is simply too high to even be bothered with it. That's the nature of subjectivity. But this isn't a post centered on say the current state of certain mediums. In no way are we talking about some of the more skeevy pander material either. In this case, I speak largely of works of the past that are capable of carrying what were even considered social norms of another era. From gender roles, to social habits. It turns out that upon spending more time to reading the blogs of contemporaries, or even listening to podcasts, there is at times an expressed deep urge to dismiss certain works because they either engender a world purview that doesn't jibe well with them, or makes the work seem regressive in thematic nature.

Take for example, my most recent post at Anime Diet... Some new thoughts regarding Wicked City (1987). It's a film that continues to burst with 1980s Japanese thoughts on sexuality, relationships, with a little extra grafted on to its dark fantasy milieu. The lead character starts the film as something of a playboy type, making bets on who gets to bed an attractive lady. It's an opening that many seem to take for granted, or at least seem to forget about because the scene following this is infamous for presenting one of the most terrifying visions of the female gender ever captured on celluloid. Skip to later though the film, we are then offered a vision of this man, inevitably settling down with someone who could more than capably be his equal, and yet the angle hovers very closely toward making this strong-hearted, independent character into something of a domesticized creature. And while Wicked City never spells out a complete transformation, it could very easily be construed that throughout the often terrible humiliation she goes through, that the narrative is something of a molding process. Adding the fact that she is of another race from a dimension dubbed, The Black World, there are some mildly intermingled messages happening here. And while it can also be considered, she retains a good amount of her own special nature come the finale, the finale takes its last moments of focus back to the male lead, who's role has been transformed from slick, tough guy lothario, to stone-jawed breadwinner. As expressed throughout the existence of Through Older Lenses, it is in many ways less a review series concerning older titles, but rather a way of looking back at something that might have had different meaning at one point in time/outlook, and coming up with new things to consider. It would be much easier to merely dismiss a work for some of a certain work's undertones, but some might also carry some hidden heft, some tiny hint of a more contemporary world view just scratching at the surface. Even if much of said film's views on male/female relationships seems dated, and perhaps even a bit sexist, it is also important to consider the time in which a work was made, and the audience it was specifically made for, where their minds were at this specific point. A bubble era, mostly male-driven society is not going to be the best place for any full barrage of progressive ideas, regardless of the industry's often impressively left-wing nature in those days. A production would grant some here, and lose some there. One has to appease sponsors and general audiences somewhere.

So when we look at other films of the era, like even John McTiernan's Die Hard(1988), and the dynamics regarding the marriage between the estranged McClane's, one can also see such notions snapping hard back toward the status-quo. One can still enjoy that film as the influential action spectacle that it is, but the subtext regarding Holly's gift Rolex remains more than a little suspect. For those partaking in the general discourse, it is perfectly fine to dub a work as something qualitatively strong or weak, but the layers past this are equally, if not more substantial.

But does this make a work worth dismissing outright? If art is the place where certain conversations, debates, and declarations can be made manifest in ways beyond the word, then isn't it important that those who comment either do so to further the discussion, or for those who make to respond in kind? If a work is able to successfully convey a hypothesis, or a political viewpoint, or even social norms, it is our role as those who are hosts to them to either confirm or deny them. It isn't enough that it didn't lose our attention, and more that we see where the author(s) involved were attempting to go with their project. Now this doesn't mean that works cannot disconnect, or even offend on an individual level. There are some creations where the lack of insight, or education, sensitivity, or whatever simply will not work with a person's internal worldview. So this is not so much about that manner of discord, so much as about bigger thoughts that concur with the mainstream of a specific era. If it succeeds in getting its ideas across, that is success on a level, but to be able to see how it connects to the population at large might be worth considering too.

Any form of expression is borne from the moment. It's a snapshot of a given time, place, or thought. And like any form of communication, the key invitation is for us to listen and consider. We're capable of doing much more than what a history textbook has ever done. And if this is all a matter of study, perhaps true discourse is about the consideration, and questions that follow.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Onimasa (1982) Movie Review

When young Matsue and her small brother are given away as payment by their poor business running parents, local Shikoku gang boss, Onimasa Kiryuin (Tatsuya Nakadai) sees potential heirs to his powerful Shikoku  gumi. But when the younger of the two runs away, leaving his elder sister alone to become a conflicted servant, it is an odyssey for this entire family of criminality as the modern world threatens to swallow them up. Dark samurai film master, Hideo Gosha's first major film of the 1980s, Onimasa (Kiryuin Hanako no Shogai) is at one instant an attempt to send off the classical gangster drama with a manner of grace, but on another, an admission of an auteur's inability to let go within a changing landscape. Based upon Tomiko Miyao's novel, "The Life of Hanako Kiryuin", for a film made in 1982, it is an unapologetically old-fashioned work that flirts with the pre-Fukasaku mindset in regards to the yakuza, but also reinforces the less-than-flattering-elements that are best seen through the eyes of Matsue (Nobuko Sendo- then later Masako Natsume) who recalls much of this story in flashback after the discovery Hanako's body by locals in 1940. - A choice that immediately makes for an unusual, almost sudsy opera with a feminine edge.

Starting her life under the wing of the charismatic, and old-world Onimasa, her greatest wishes to become more worldly comes at great odds with her new father's vision. So when he and his gang abduct Otsuru (Akiko Kana), a rival gang leader's servant who later gives birth to his only biological heir, it is this disconnect that bears the brunt of the film's thematic heft. While the headstrong Matsue grows into a well-rounded schoolteacher, it is his daughter, Hanako, who has become an insufferable brat of an adult. Gosha's delivery of this smoldering ball of hubris feels a less like a Coppola-esque epic, and something closer to a stage play rendition-- which is made all the more bombastic through Nakadai's larger-than-life performance. His pride & belief in a romanticized Japan of noble men, and sidelined women becomes more and more undermined by history, with new angles slowly caving in throughout the two-hour plus running time.

From her younger days, Matsue is seen able and more than willing to make her new family happy, without sacrificing her dreams in the process. Sendo's scenes carry with them a notable amount of bravery, especially in a sequence where Matsue not only is tasked with facing up to a potential lie with an elder boarder, but becoming a young lady in the process. Scenes such as these are hints of a much more contemporary nature for Gosha, and imply what will only become a deeply complex relationship between father and adopted daughter. As externally tough as his wife, Uta (Shima Iwashita) seems to be, it is the heart of Matsue that offers up a world beyond anything he is equipped to deal with. It's the kind of relationship that renders him completely out of his element, resulting in some truly challenging stumbles along the path. So when she grows up, and eventually falls in love with a local labor (Eitaro Ozawa) leader during a railroad strike, Onimasa is torn between his enduring love of Matsue's defiant nature, and her ultimate act of departure from him. What culminates here could so easily disturb some, but offers up such a payoff that says more implicitly than any hackneyed speech ever could.

And despite the original source material which was centered largely on Hanako, Onimasa's biological daughter, it is the weighty counter of Matsue that provides much of the film's drive. With her as the more cinematic odd-one-out, the film's use of objects (ex. her wish for money to buy a pencil VS. Hanako's wishes for a hair bow) makes for some non-subtle leaning. In fact, when she falls for a man, Onimasa bullies early on, and eventually acquiesces to, it is made clear by way of a German language book that she brings with her during her visit to him in jail. An educated, essentially cut-off man of society, he is of a quantity almost completely alien to the world of gambling, dog fights, and gang violence. Hanako herself (Kaori Tagasugi) becomes less a central character, and more a shadow of the world Matsue is attempting to carve. Even when the spoiled daughter becomes the lynchpin to the piece's finale, one wonders if the poor thing ever had a chance at all with such an upbringing.

Not unlike the title character, Gosha defiantly creates a film that fits firmly within the gangster and costume dramas of the past as if to openly admit that the 1980s is simply lost on him. The cinematography is at times classical, and often retro in heavy lighting. For as straightforward as the narrative plays out, events skip forward not unlike taking a peek at an aged novella with rotted pages beginning to fall out. What isn't seen is not always missed however, and the almost TV movie aura lends itself to the script's often soapy nature. Which is again largely buoyed by Nakadai's strangely appropriate turn as a remnant of the past on a single-minded quest to become a chivalrous businessman, to often tragic results. But the director also harbors a glimmer of hope, embodied especially in the radiance of Natsume who only a few short years later, passed away to leukemia in her late twenties. Somehow, their work here shines beyond what is ostensibly a heavy-duty melodrama in the old tradition.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Farewell To Inspirations

I wanted to just go ahead and mark today for a new post, not to share more thoughts regarding the ideas and work behind amazing works of fiction that infiltrate our minds, but rather to acknowledge and celebrate the passing (literally and figuratively) of a singular human icon that made its final pass over the skies of LA midday today. Was pretty much an ordinary Friday at work when the space shuttle Endeavour passed over the workplace during lunch hour roughly around 12:30 PM PST today. Making one of it's numerous passes over the LA/OC area today, I was able to get an ample look at the craft mounted atop an airliner at an impressively low altitude. Low enough to get a good look at the finer details as the suns rays bounced off their mutually sparking frames.

Not merely an unusual sight on a clear Los Angeles sky, but a shining, almost melancholy reminder of humankind's greatest attributes, all well represented in a flight that I'm sure left many with a sense of awe, inspiration, pride, and possibly sadness at the loss of an icon of an age. Of the possibilities inherent in the collaborative best in all of us.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Cold Fish (2010) Movie Review

Small town aquarium fish store owner & family are suddenly rescued from domestic strife by an elder, wildly charismatic business man(Denden) & younger wife(Asuka Kurosawa) with an even larger aquatic life establishment nearby. With a unhappy daughter(Hikari Kajiwara), and lovely but troubled new wife(Megumi Kagurazaka) of his own, the wallflower-like & ineffective Shamoto(Mitsuru Fukikoshi)'s own family seems instantly primed and happy to take in this sudden stroke of small fortune despite his natural reservation. It is only soon after that his worries about his own wayward family life are dwarfed by the revelation that the aggressively showy Murata and wife, Aiko, are in fact not merely con artists of the highest order, but serial killers with plans to make their new friend and family a part of their own freakish carnival of commerce.Yes, it may seem that I often stop up this moreover "genre" geared blog for reviews often concerning the darkest recesses of the human animal, but sometimes a point-blank approach says it better than any giant monster could. The often more subdued and sublime Sion Sono rips off the gloves, and offers us one of the bleakest, nastiest pieces of Japanese cinema in over a decade.

Working with an often incredible script by Sono and Yoshiki Takahashi, Cold Fish begins with some of the most aggressive approaches to what often could be construed as the mundane I have seen in a great while. From rapid cuts of an intense night of instant dinner prep, to a chance meeting, ending in tours of both central locations, it is a solid, tour-de-force of a prologue that sets up Shamoto's inner and outer worlds versus the almost absurdly giddy mirror image that Murata and Aiko present with their larger facilities, Ferrari, and brashy presentation & adoration of almost tourist-trap gaudiness. Almost elated that Murata is aiming to make the young Mitsuko one of his tackily-dressed live-in store staff, Shamoto and wife, Taeko, seem relieved that someone so generous seems so willing to help the couple with a child seemingly on a troubled path. But it is merely stage one of a larger scheme that involves Shamoto's own non-confrontational nature, something that could easily be used to win the confidence of others. It is this nature that also becomes central the the film's central concerns about the contemporary Japanese family, and its occasional flirtation with the morose. And as the film begins gathering steam, it is clear that the truth behind Murata serves as an aggressive, often shocking 180 degree response to such an existence. And the effects on Shamoto bear potential for dire consequences that stretch far beyond his own complicity in crimes that quickly begin to escalate from graphic insanity to almost infectious internal apocalyptic notions, threatening all within arm's reach.

Inspired by terribly true events, the film never shies away from immense heapings of gore,  yet always remains grounded in some relatable universe. With a film that deals with such often-horrific subject matter, it is often a safety button for many filmmakers to throw in an aside, a gag, or something to allow the events some manner of audience decompression. And dare I say, Cold Fish "gleefully" avoids this habit in favor of playing matters totally straight, keeping the dark comedy truly subjective. Sono's choice to keep matters subdued makes for some sobering thoughts concerning the roots of domestic evil, and the occasional monsters who fuel it.

So when I look at the film's "monsters" and see that Denden & Kurosawa are in no manner "classic" movie psychos, but lost souls with little remorse to keep them from making their paths in the world, it's a waking nightmare. Instantly evoking both the borderline huckster-esque, and the genuinely self-righeous, Denden's Murata is easily the film's most spectacular feature. A character so ridiculous in his sensibilities, and yet strangely true to life, that it's easy to see just how long his real-life counterpart was capable of eluding capture. And Kurosawa's Aiko, with her mix between streetwise beauty, and giddy liberation, is both compelling and utterly terrifying. Such laughter and enthusiasm from both him and Kurosawa make for some truly indelible characters, and it will likely be a long time before I can even consider a rival for such a position.

But the movie's most challenging balancing act comes from Fukikoshi, former gravure idol, Kagurazaka, and Kajiwara, who's Shamoto family comes rife with turmoil already primed to burst before this pair of TNT kegs came along. Kagurazaka impresses as the new mother of the family, someone with already enough baggage and guilt plaguing the household as she married into matters not too long after the passing of the original which has incensed the already acting out Kajiwara. A younger step-mother who has also inherited the family business that seems destined to go nowhere. The romance sequestered to merely a corner of a lonely stretch of highway, dosing on a lifetime of instant rice dinners, and tending to a family that is not very welcoming of one's habits let alone presence, or of even discussing matters of the future outside of the stars seems like a recipe for problems that are brought to full boil here. All events of course not going here or there due to Fukikoshi, who's entire life seems to be a giant, immutable compromise. His Shamoto, while on the surface, seems completely inert in his will to make change, is the face of "ganbare" pushed toward the breaking point. While a little piece of heaven is revealed to be Hades incarnate, it is his unwillingness to make any major choices that sets up the story's penultimate thematic detonator that goes off far beyond the monstrous acts happening before and around him. It is this belief that all will be better if he just soldiers on that creates many an undoing, and takes us into some truly unexpected territory.

Even as the film's third act rockets off into sheer fantasyland, the notion is clear; generations of stepping in line, and ignoring the base urge to survive fuels resent, violence, and an abyss capable of ensnaring even the most innocent. Cold Fish, while yet another challenge to ideas of decency, and "civilized" sensibilities, is the kind of response to South Korean revenge films many have been hoping to see from Japan, and a gnarled warning about how close we truly are to the nature we claim to be in control of, and how far we've wandered from stating our truest, deepest intentions.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Live Action Manga Blues: Fist Of The North Star (1995) Movie Review

At last, a review that has long been avoided is upon me, and I can only hope to figure out the parlance appropriate in order to best describe my reactions to this lesser-known footnote in the annals of anime-to-live action. But more and more, it feels as if there is no proper way to illustrate that which finds itself capable of maintaining a specific form. Now to keep things completely frank, Tony Randel's Fist Of The North Star is not the kind of movie one reviews, but rather endures. With this in mind, let me recall what all the hazy fever dreamlike tidbits possible without passing out due to rigor-mortis. Let it be known, Hara & Buronson's burly martial arts master did little to nothing to blow my mind. If it does anything at all, is remind us of just how much has indeed changed in this particularly troubled subgenre of film. Sure, we get Dragonball Evolution, but in order for that ball of misery to come our way, Fist had to be made.

Taking a cue from the initial story that begins the original Hokuto No Ken saga proper, earth is now a brutal wasteland after a nuclear holocaust where the frightened and mighty seem capable of lording over the scrappy remains of humanity, many of whom are either living like nomads, searching for what little food & water remains, or are partially settled into encampments such as Paradise Valley. It is here, that the simple drive for survival is clusterhumped by the oncoming forces of Shin, leader of the city known as Southern Cross. With his so-called "Cross Men" marauding and terrorizing the hapless locals, it is in the wayward hands (or dare I say- fists) of young master of the Hokuto Shinken (a deadly assassination art, carried from only one master to another, capable of making body parts not only work against their hosts, but heads to detonate with frightening efficiency.), Kenshiro, to head back into harms way to not only face up to an old rival and former dojo brother responsible for their master's death, but to also be reunited with his lost love, Julia, who still holds hope for something resembling a future for humankind.

With such a rich, wild mixture of post-apocalyptic fantasy & classic martial arts plotting, it seems like in better hands, what we could have here is something close to an nasty-minded, over-the-top action romp, but what we get, is much closer to everything that was pained and often dismissive about comic adaptations in the post-Burton Batman era. With Randel & crew, it's not only clear that this was a production that was beset by funding issues, but is also dogged by a climate that just sees no real understanding, let alone appreciation for such an adaptation to exist. It is something that was prevalent in all major cinematic adaptations of even comics, not to mention animated material, often punctuated with an attitude that only preteens, or neglected children would be interested in such works. As a result, a good majority of these films brought with them a certain element of childishness, and often a sense of being backhandedly dismissive(This was also the dawn of the video game adaptation, a subgenre that in many ways has persisted with this long after comics have reached a level of respectability in Hollywood). Such an attitude persisted in this era, that even the brightest lights of this era bore the sign of studios nervous that their investment would garner anything but the then-considered minority of geekdom.

Right at the offset, it's pretty clear that things aren't working well, as the establishment of the world, something that should be painfully easy to do, is foggy at best. The script by Peter Atkins, Wynne McLaughlin & Randel does what it can to compress the basics of the Shin storyline, but can do little to convince the ears that such verbose, yet almost unnecessarily eloquent dialogue simply doesn't work in Kenshiro's world. And further making matters painful, is the clear lack of confidence in the material outside of the occasional fan-button hit. This is also a film that remains egregious in that age-old offense of casting clearly Japanese characters, and having anglo actors continue to play them despite retaining their original names. So when we look at characters like Master Ryuken, and the aforementioned, Kenshiro..It's more than a little giggle-inducing. And when one considers the with-the-times strange casting of names like Mandylor, Malcolm McDowell, Dante Basco, Big Van Vader, and Downtown Julie Brown (!!), one need no further elaboration. One might not even mind genre favorites like Tracey Walter, and Clint Howard, but the damage is pretty much done once Chris Penn's "original" take on Jagi appears on the scene, unclear of the hell kind of movie he is in.

But let us attempt some fairness by establishing that it isn't as important to checklist what is present, and with is not, as it is to judge the film on its own pluses. This wildly diverse cast can alone make many curious enough. And there is also quite the Hellraiser II vibe, with all the soundstage and lightning work (after all, Randel & Atkins' big claim to fame at this point was working on Clive Barker's cult favorite). One can see the occasional attempt to lend HNK a classy feel, but it's constantly undermined by everything else being said, or punched. And to add greater insult, for a film based on a manga that is legendary for its gore and splatter quotient, this film is bizarrely restrained, making it all the more ineffective as an adaptation. Again, not checklisting here, but a major part of what makes the source material so indelible, is the hyperbolic violence. So without even a hint of what made the original versions, there is little going on here to garner any enthusiasm save for the bizarre ensemble on hand.

 At 90 minutes, the film just drags, struggling to find some manner of pace to boot. It opts for below old Saturday Morning cartoon levels of storytelling, and seems primed to just lie there.

For an action film, it does a fair amount to deliver, but it lives and dies dependent upon the heroes and villains, both of which just spend their time throughout the whole affair in a muddle, and are often completely inert. (at least until an awkwardly placed flashback fills us in nearly an hour into the running time!) Mandylor's Shin often comes off as bored & listless, while kickboxing favorite, Gary Daniels is a completely baffling Kenshiro, a character who is clearly missing a first act, and carries no weight throughout to make any manner of martial arts impress. And in a clear compromise, the film never revels in the explosively bloody action HNK is famous for, it just trudges by as Christopher L. Stone's Hellbound-eque score blares choir overkill throughout. Possibly more a matter of not being able to crack the main characters & their world, and just going with it. As a result, everything else in the piece feels top heavy to lopsided storywise. In fact, inaction seems to be the order of the day with this rendition. With a plot so simple, and such a meandering performance all around, it turns out that it isn't merely the main casting that hurts the central conflict, but it's everything else surrounding it. An adaptation openly distrustful of its audience, and ultimately too boring for camp value, this Fist is caked in marshmallow, the kind that upon getting mildly jawed, can only stick to your face long after.And getting that stuff stuck into such manes of hair..