Sunday, January 27, 2013

Re: Mike Hama- The Most Terrible Time In My Life (1994)

Residing in a small office above the Nichigeki Cinescope in Yokohama, young private eye, Mike Hama (Masatoshi Nagase) has long been known in the area as the guy to go to when seeking out missing family members, pets, and the like. His goals are simple, live the life of a freelance seeker for hire, and raise the money for his teenage sister's(Mika Ohmine) college expenses. So when he meets a young Chinese waiter in search of his long-lost brother, matters are complicated by the revelation that this case is far more steeped in the town's nastier elements than Mike and his local buddies are ready to handle. No, this is not your granddad's dingy black and white crime saga. Existing within a 1990s dream of detective dramas of old, the initial entry in this one of a kind trilogy oozes with love for the classics with a sly comic edge. This is the wacky and violent world of Mike Hama.

Even as Hama's dogged lo-fi approach to detective work carries with it a welcoming aversion to prejudice, what lies ahead for him borders on spiraling headlong into Japan's growing fear of becoming a melting pot. It is soon after better getting to know the seemingly innocent Yang (Yang Hai Tin), it is revealed that his brother is in deep with a violent gang known as "The New Japs", that the unflappable sleuth (and the film) finds himself in something increasingly grim & desperate. With Yang's brother now fixed to be a prime mover in a newly growing underworld, and nothing quite being what they seem, it is up to Hama and buddies to at the very least, minimize the damage. Something that becomes an important distinction for the Hama trilogy; each film begins with a breezy, almost cartoonish tone, only to plummet into some truly bleak territory.

Even as a lot of what Hama and pals do regularly is almost reminiscent of say Tora-san, or even Lupin III to a degree, it is often a sleight of hand that underlies a shadier side just waiting around the edges.  We see Hama spend time with many of his local informant friends, and local business owners just happy to see him, and often oblige with some of his more questionable requests. And it's because Hama is by and large a cool, nice guy. But once we meet his great mentor in Joe (Played to tough guy perfection by the great Jo Shishido), we are made privy to a nastier delinquent past. One could almost see Hama as a sort of Robin-type; ready to do right, but prone to explosive violence once the pressure gets to be too much. It is this dynamic that is played at subtly, but also serves to not merely threaten the bad guys, but what remains of his family, and his more welcoming self. Nagase embodies this with just the right balance of sweetness, and almost uncontrollable menace.

The first of three Hama projects he worked on (the third not being the final feature "The Trap"), director Kaizo Hayashi lovingly turns mid-1990s Yokohama into a place half embraced by shadow, and caressed by smooth lighting provided by DP Yuchi Nagata. The entire world of Hama, is that of a moviehead's subsconscious not unlike the more flamboyant worlds of one Quentin Tarantino. Even as the world clearly contains items and apocrypha commisurate with the stark worlds of film noir, the film never shies away from making it clear that we are very much within the latter days of more direct, pre-digital communication. Hama may drive an absurd classic car, but so much of his work requires demanding amounts of door to door. Very real locations highlight much of his city's charms. And again, much like Hama's home, it is a world glossed in often gaudy charm, housing within it a troubled core.

So yes, much of the initial Maiku Kama outing is more about style than substance. And Keizo Hayashi adds quite a bit of warmth, regardless of how borderline melodramatic Daisuke Tengan's script gets. Big nods go to indie maverick, Shinya Tsumamoto who plays the film's scary toady, Yamaguchi, which brings to mind many of Kinji Fukasaku's most famous knife-wielding baddies. And because Hama is nothing like his american inspiraton, the jeopardy is thick despite the limitations of budget. The Most Terrible Time In My Life is at times a truly joyful hug to generations of detective stories that continues to deserve more eyes.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The War In Space (1977) Movie Review

Our story opens as a menacing galleon-esque spaceship descends toward the blue earth with only the glowing red eye of conquest fixed upon our planet. When space transmissions begin interrupting communication abilities across the world, members of a disbanded earth defense unit are in dire need of return. And when admired star pilot Koji Miyoshi (Kensaku Morita) returns to Japan in time to witness the alien treachery engulfing the globe, can he and his loyal team, the crew of the UNSF Gohten be more than a match for the unholy terror that is the Roman-like kingdom of Yomi? This is the core story that comprises the heft of Jun Fukuda's wild & wooly The War In Space (AKA -The Great Planet War). A late 1970's piece of TOHO space madness that  appeared in the wake of not only George Lucas' little noisemaking indie, but of a number of surprise elements.

With the second half of the decade seeming primed for a renewed interest in more romantic science fantasy, War is also looking toward anime as a means of influence. Taking a major lead from Ishiro Honda's beloved Atragon, the film is also conceptually combined with many elements borrowed from the newer-edgier science fiction favorite, Uchu Senkan Yamato to create something that could combine the special effects ingenuity of maestro, Teruyoshi Nakano, and old fashioned high drama. And while this was not something that could just so easily be conjured for live action, director Fukuda and crew give it the ol' college try, and deliver some sincere, ludicrous fun. And while it pales in comparison to the works that inspired them, there is a pace and sense of energy at work here that became harder to replicate even as tokusatsu movies entered a more sophisticated era.

One of the bigger components Fukuda and company heap on in the spirit of the classic space battleship, it's in its cast, and an unabashed lean toward the cartoonishly dramatic. Miyoshi's investment as the story's central character is very much in the classic hero vein, complete with return home from afar, and with unresolved issues. From a long-neglected love, to a best buddy with wedding plans for said love. It's all compounded by the ever-popular mechanic of having the elder chief of the Gohten be the father of Jun(Yuko Asano), who comes along for the a fateful mission to Venus the newly reformed space defense force undertakes for the remainder of the film. This is perhaps as dense as the characterization for this film gets, and while the film packs on the bombastic emotions, a lot of what makes the whole thing work is in how swift the cut moves in between the ingenious effects which include some terrific ship and fighter battles. There is an undeniable desire to pay tribute to what was to become a major cornerstone of Japanese genre media for at least the next twenty years.

And all of this is especially impressive considering that films of this ilk were not in the best of budgetary shape around this period. By this point, producer, Tomoyuki Tanaka and his folks at Toho were nowhere near the giants they once were in the 1950s and 60s. And as such, War In Space is a unique work that takes great advantage of said limitations by either reusing a lot of model shots, some questionably poor monster costume choices, or just having plenty of events happen offscreen. And while this can be considered a minus, it also does plenty to just get us knee-deep in the moment. Even as the crew of the Gohten find themselves obligated to taking the fight to the aliens, there is little fat on these bones. It's actually a tribute to the cast and crew who play matters straight from start to finish. It's heartening to see such sobriety applied to what so easily could be a hopeless schlockfest. The whole thing is a go-for-broke wave hello to a new era of Japanese fantasy, the "Space War", which eventually became a huge part of anime in series' such as the original Gundam.

So, yes. Is this at all what it could be? No. But it hardly matters when considering the era, and the budget onhand. And there is a corporeality to all that craftsmanship on display. (there are even shots here that hint at the astounding miniature work to come in films such as Sayonara Jupiter) It truly comes from a place of inspiration and love. And the soundtrack by Toshiaki Tsushima, oozes fuzz guitar dreams and brass galore. If I had any gripes to bear regarding The War In Space, it's the lack of more Jimmy (David Perin).

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Last Stand (2013) Movie Review

Not as invested in the much-publicized return of one Arnold Schwarzenegger than of the American film debut of one Kim Ji-woon, this by-the-numbers tribute to all things Spaghetti Western is only mildly punctuated by moments directorial panache.

 On a sleepy weekend in Sommerton, New Mexico, town Sheriff, Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger) & his young and less than experienced staff become entangled at ground zero when a major drug cartel leader & escaped federal prisoner bullets down the American southwest, toward the Mexican border. With the feds (led by an often bewildered Forest Whitaker)in hot pursuit, and suspicious activity happening in the outskirts of town, Ray and his team must make do with what little they have to stop the Corvette 01 speeding Gabriel Cortez(Eduardo Noriega) from getting past them, even if it includes deputizing a few
 unexpected individuals.
And with this simple premise, and even more lightweight script by Andrew Knauer, the film is often better executed than the bulk of 80s action hero returns over the last several years. It isn't so much a chest-thumping celebration of old school tongue-in-cheek action, but rather an often sincere love letter to some of the earliest ancestors of the genre. And while the trappings and violence seem more on par with modern action films, the nods to most notably the spaghetti western are grand and obvious from the battle plans, to the end goal.

Problems arise when the supporting cast is often given uneven coverage, and the messages inherent in setting the film in modern day lead to some questionable notions. The villain and FBI footage often flounders in generics to the point of feeling like a cable television movie at times. And as a result, the heavy lifting goes to Owens and his town which often feels like a stand-in for "anytown USA", which could have been so much more. But as it stands, we never really get the stakes, nor a solid foothold as to what his character truly values. And while a lot of what is on screen is well-intentioned, it really feels like the cut on display felt desperate to get to the action(which does take up nearly the entire second half). Ji-woon does what he can to weave an exciting action melange, but is often whittled down to results that many might just consider average. It also doesn't help that so many character names don't seem to jibe in any sensical manner. (and just what is Peter Stormare's character supposed to be?) And while it does deliver for the most part, The Last Stand really is an American demo reel for a director who is capable of incredible things.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

V/H/S (2012) Movie Review

A rowdy group of thugs, high on videotaping their small town exploits land themselves a shady, but simple enough gig: Break and enter into an abandoned house in hopes of retrieving a single VHS cassette. What it contains, what the value is, none of them know, all that matters is the payoff. So when the house in question doesn't seem to be abandoned, and the guys have clearly wandered into something profoundly horrific, we are there to witness not only their fates, but those of others captured forever in their recorded hubris. Having pretty much seen the most convincing examples of the "found footage" approach to horror film, perhaps it was more than time to catapult the genre into pure spectacle mode. After the approach has already graced other realms of the fantastic in recent years (Chronicle, Cloverfield), so perhaps it was a mere matter of time before the fantastical infiltrated the horror world. No longer content with implications of terror outside, or around the frame of vision, this at-times ballsy anthology featuring directors Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, & Radio Silence dares to go ahead by merging both technical limitation and popcorn silly, and what results is a mixed, yet impression-making bag.

As mentioned, V/H/S's anthology format is wrapped together by the main frame narrative called Tape 56, where the search for a valuable VHS cassette in a darkened home bears not only the collection of eerie tapes featured throughout, but possibly someone watching the watchers. Wingard's entry is both daring in its premise of having such unlikeable guys be the focal point of the action. Early on, we are witness to their depravity as they cause immense property damage, and even assault women in public in hopes of creating sellable "reality porn". Immediately, we are introduced to what will become a major theme of the entire film; the alpha male is a scourge, and is conversely self-destructive. The frame narrative of the piece comes into play when the supposedly empty house seems to be host to a dead man in a living room that doesn't seem comfy staying dead. And all the while, one of the guys is tasked with seeking out the prized tape. And since most are not particularly well-labeled, the thief opts to play through each tape in the living room, thereby showing us the ensuing shorts that make up the film's running time. Much of it is classic dark rooms, threatening corners, and everything else one might expect from such a premise. And as we come to the end of each short, we return back to the living room, often with the tension quietly mounting upon the guys as it becomes very clear that they aren't alone. What it brings to the fray, little in the way of new, save for some seriously unsavory leads. There is enough psychological play to make it interesting, but in all Tape 56 works as little more than an easy to digest framing device.

The first found tape on the pile is "Amateur Night", directed by David Bruckner, a short that takes the previously established themes of alpha-male jerkassery, and captured results of their boundary-violating by way of three city pals, out for a night on the town in hopes of making a sex video via the weaker friend wearing webcam-fitted glasses. Right away we are exposed to a trio that is easily the worst the American collegiate system could offer, stopping by a noisy bar in hopes of picking up a few random women to take to a hotel room for the night. It isn't long until something resembling success comes in the form of two women. One if which is classically drunk, and almost to the point of passing out. And then there's Lily, a quiet, sober, and VERY strange young lady. And as the short takes us out of the overall noise of the bar, and into the streets, heading to "home base", is becomes incredibly clear that something simply isn't completely right about the girl who seemingly has her eyes singularly on the cam-glasses-wearing Clint. This all comes to a head once the group arrive at the hotel room, and the friends attempt to close escrow--then things go horrendously wrong. Now right away, the theme established in the previous footage is amplified by way of these main characters here, and while there are some truly memorable images here, this is perhaps where I state that a large part of what made verite horror work for me in the past was in how it didn't tip its hand to far by showing us the fantastical in full frame. And throughout Amateur Night's build up, there seemed to be some hope that we'd witness something a little more grounded, but what we get by the end is so giddily preposterous, that it changes the timbre of where these films had been going, but just throws caution to the wind, and just goes for it. While it does take a certain amount of guts to do so, it's an aim that won't work with all tastes. For what it's worth, Bruckner's goals are made pretty clear. If only there was more to offer..

Next comes Ti West (House Of The Devil), and his entry, Second Honeymoon, which follows a handcam carrying couple traveling the deserts of the american southwest, only to discover that they might be in the process of being followed. Now this almost wholly stylistic about-face from the previous two is worth considering as West is no stranger from applying a slow-burn structure to his tales. It's so seemingly ordinary in it's milieu and in the performances, that it feels culled together for a completely different film. The closeness, and unique characteristics of Stephanie (Sophia Takal) and Sam (mumblecore favorite, Joe Swanberg)  take center stage as the whole piece feels authentic enough to detail even their more unflattering sides as things develop. The trip feels relatively fine, and even the horror element plays at it slowly and methodically. And yet, upon closer inspection, the themes resurface in a most unexpected manner.  One thing West is adept at, is finding the scariest things in the most mundane of circumstances. It's bad enough that the couple seem to be going through some mildly simmering difficulties, but when there's a stranger outside your door, West and his tiny cast figure out ways to milk what has yet to be done with the horror verite style, apply the horror of the everyday. The end result is both shocking, and mildly frustrating. But a might more interesting when all is said and done.

And then comes the much talked-about Glen McQuaid entry, Tuesday The 17th..Havoc strikes a quartet of college kids on a trip to the woods, led by secretive friend, Wendy (Norma C. Quinones). And again, the kids are largely an obnoxious bunch, but with the obnoxious pumped to almost irritating levels as they are led deeper into the woods, with half-breathed words such as "you're all going to die out here" via Wendy, who has mentioned having been out here before and survived a tragedy years prior. Obviously here with an agenda, her and her new friends are then stalked by a savage killer entity, unseen by the human eye..but strangely visible via a camera's viewfinder! Easily, the short's creative masterstroke, what is easily the weakest written and acted entry of the series, is also host to one of the most unique horror concepts in recent memory. A villain that can only visually be manifested by way of video distortion is an incredibly unique and effectively creepy one. It's all too bad that the schlock level is so high in its tribute to 1980s stalk n slash that it never lives beyond the novelty. Film school level silliness ensues, buoyed by one really cool idea. And once again, the themes established ring loud and clear here.

And just  when it felt like V/H/S had relegated itself into an uneven collection filled with forced themes, and mostly missed opportunities, in flies Joe Swanberg's The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger. This incredible short make using the video chat software, Skype details the chatting sessions between Emily(Helen Rogers) and her new doctor boyfriend, James(Daniel Kaufman) while he is out of state. He has come into Emily's life as she has been suffering what seem to be increasingly terrifying hauntings within and around her city apartment. In hopes of proving this to James, she continues to call him to be present whenever the disturbances return, to often mixed findings. With the hauntings becoming more severe, and her behavior becoming increasingly destructive, matters reach a head that is on multiple levels gut twisting and deeply eerie. The largest revelation is that of Rogers' performance that painfully encapsulates one's descent into the mind's most troubled recesses, and all of it completely out of her reach to control it. Unsatisfied with what has been previously done with the style, Emily is a brilliant exercise in misdirection, character development, and truly dark notions. Completely well-executed, acted, and directed within an inch of micro genius, this is the shining surprise of V/H/S's collection.

Lastly, we have director collective, Radio Silence's 10/31/98, which details the hidden cam experience of four LA friends out in costume, headed for a Halloween party in a seemingly abandoned house which is host to all manner of freakish occurences. Easily one of the more straight-forward entries, this final piece lightens up on the "bros are horrible" a little, and delivers a simple, yet spooky little funhouse. And while it doesn't offer up much of anything in regards to character, let alone story, it does have a great deal of fun in coming up with ways to allow the foggy VHS color degradation to become a unique way to see some of the house's spectral beings in bizarre and visceral imagery. Strangely, this feels more like a fantastical, more FX-laden rendition of the spanish outbreak horror, REC, with just a little more humor injected. After the grim inscrutability of Emily, this seems like an appropo choice to round out the series, yet it all feels familiar. And while there is a lot of successful dating achieved in making this indeed look like a video made in the late 1990s, the angry spirits haunting the place fit well in line with years of hokey CG-laden horror films of the last decade. Fun, albeit tame.

So when the finale comes around, and all of these guys have been rightly punshed for their transgressions, does it feel like V/H/S comes together as a cohesive whole? Not particularly. While there are some great ideas and two good to great installments, the rest is more a success in how modern horror fans are capable of making good in a new film landscape. Having been produced by some of the guys behind the horror fansite, Bloody Disgusting, this is a fun, but uneven first outing with some real gems stuck amongst an interesting rabble. With the Paranormal Activity movies leading the charge as the de-facto series to top in the verite horror sweepstakes, V/H/S is more like an experiment in the future of an accidental genre. And if the goal is going full bore toward jumping the found footage shark, it's at least 70% there.

Curious to know more? The film is currently available on Netflix, here.