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.