Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Thieves (2012) Movie Review

Sometimes genre isn't merely a checklist of concepts tasked with reaching out to larger audiences, and is akin to a language that multiple diverse cultures must meet halfway upon in the name of a globalized populist cinema. In the last ten years alone, we have seen other countries rise to the challenge that Hollywood had long claimed domain, to occasionally classic-making results. So when we consider Dong-hoon Choi 's grand paean to the international heist comedy, it might come to no surprise that South Korea might very well be one of the last great bastions of movie scale outside of tentpole filmmaking. When a two mildly dysfunctional teams of professional thieves collaborate on a casino job for a one-of-a-kind diamond, matters are intensified by old flames, delicate bonds, and an ever complicated security arena. The Korean team, led by the younger and foolhardy Popie(Lee Jung-Jae), eager to prove themselves beyond mid-scale capers, and team Hong Kong, run by the smooth-natured, Chen (played to charismatic highs by HK favorite, Simon Yam), who's group contains its own idiosyncratic breaks in the armor seek a prized connection and mentor, whilst courting unprecedented danger levels with the addition of master thief. And while this simple premise is on the whole terribly familiar, much like the characters within the story, the secret to Thieves' blazing success lies in understanding the framework, technical chutzpah, and terrific ensemble.

Starting within an awkward comic setup involving a secretive art dealer's stash ( a con which will come heavily into play later), Popie and his crew show a quick flare for improvisation, but perhaps a tragic lack of grace. Popie's team consists of elder linguist and veteran, Chewingum(Kim Hae-Suk), ambitious cat burglar, Yenicall (Jeon Ji-hyun),  and cable assistant, Zampano (Kim Soo-Hyun) who find themselves capable, but have garnered something of a dangerous trail. Revealing something of a lack of foresight on the part of this weird cadre of career criminals, Popie receives a call from once penniless, but now legendary heister, Macao Park(Yun-seok Kim) in hopes of guaranteed success.  And with good timing as the authorities are practically knocking on Popie's door. So when the central hit involves a frightfully secure casino, and a plan to steal a jewel, only to sell it back to its owner - a notorious gangster, it really becomes a nasty rock & hard place scenario. So when Park also realizes that Popie has also tapped the newly released from parole Pepsee (Kim Hye-Soo), things are made even more unstable.

And the less we go into Chen's group, which includes only somewhat dependable talent such as Andrew(Oh Dai-su) , Johnny(Kwok Cheung Tsang), and a safe cracking legacy in Julie(Angelica Lee of The Eye fame), perhaps the better.

Right away, Choi's propensity for kinetics & humor confidently introduce us into the world, and makes no bones about this being little more than stylized fun. While stakes do in fact reveal themselves to be very real, a lot of it is done in a frenetic, decompression-happy manner where crap does in fact "get real", but is almost responded to with a sly gag or cool-headed display of sardonicism. Really more of a jazzed-up remix of his earlier hits, The Big Swindle, and Tazza: The High Rollers, Thieves is also quite eager to please in its attempts to match/surpass much of what has come before in the subgenre. The bulk of the film finds itself rather comfortable weaving and whisking in between the varied, and often dysfunctional characters, often revealing some satisfying dollops of complexity, even as the action ramps up to Mission Impossible levels at times.

Another exciting angle worth mentioning, it's the openness to a more globalized world that also makes Thieves stand out. With characters flippantly jostling between asian languages, the whole affair feels very much like how one would imagine an intricate spy or even futuristic science fiction novel. The diversity on display is not only inspiring but energizing for a glossy piece of escapist silliness. There's clearly a lot of effort being made on set to make this more than an Oceans knockoff, in fact, it seems far more involved than that series ever dared itself to be. It's perfectly comfortable in a contemporary world, and such a focus is kind of rare even now.  

Also worthy of major note, is the cinematography by Yeong-hwan Choi which takes impressive advantage of location shooting in Busan, Seoul, Macau & Hong Kong, which is often gorgeous, and evocative of the best caper films of the past. At times it feels more than ready to take on the Bond franchise, and could probably do with with simple ease.

Now where the film perhaps suffers a bit, it's perhaps in our lack of central emotional compass. It's no spoiler to declare much of the cast to be morally muddy, and that some of the more likeable characters do not see the final reel. But as this is a kind of almost classic Lupin III world that is bring portrayed here, it stands to reason that we are in a den of would-be anti-heroes, not necessarily working in the interest of the group. And yet somehow, Choi figures out ways to make us feel more than mere resentment for being around such a den of squabbling vipers for nearly two hours. In fact, there are moments interspersed within the action that are capable of leaving one perhaps even a little charmed. In classic caper fashion, there is always someone far worse watching from within plain sight, and it is here that the movie dares us to play the bad guy for a spell. He is having an opulent party at our moral expense, and it doesn't feel like a terribly steep price to pay.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Thematic Wanderings: Shozo Hirono & The Yakuza Politiq

Been spending so many months considering how film is often a forum for not only the requisite escapes and flights of fancy so many viewers come to expect from a night at the cinema, but also of challenging, and often regressive forms of political musing. Much in the way that classic art and literature, at their core presented interesting ways to serve the public without being harshly transparent. And while many works attempt to avoid this, it is undeniable that many of filmdom's most iconic works are in fact collage-like representations of social constructs, questions, and occasional rally cries based on daily life of the time in which it was filmed. Even as markets lean more and more toward remakes and adaptations, it is not without an often pointed concern that even more spectacle-centric features are capable of carrying with them very real questions about the role of citizens versus that of those running the show. And the further we look back, the more this is evidently obvious in societies young in this manner of film discourse.

Specifically in realms of more rough and ready forms of media of the late 1960s-early 1970s anime and Japanese film, there was so much happening outside local movie houses and homes, that it was hard to watch anything of impact without it alluding to some form of strife taking place throughout multiple sectors of the post-war era. Where in anime, much of this frustration and angst could be seen manifested in works such as Devilman & others, few filmmakers captured the full-frontal conflict of hidden societies, scraping desperately for ever-shrinking dividends than Kinji Fukasaku. A man who's Battles Without Honor and Humanity (aka - The Yakuza Papers) series furiously carved out a stifling vision of systems forged and unforged in real time, without what so many once imagined to be firmly established codes. In this series, centering on the twenty-plus year war over Hiroshima's gangland titans and small fries, each installment paints a bloody tapestry, loosely based on real events that rocked an already unstable nation weary from conflicts abroad, aching for some manner of new identity.

With the young and often idealistic Shozo Hirono (in an icon-making performance by Bunta Sagawara) struggling to maintain a sense of honor to an increasingly chaotic underworld, we are host to a full-tilt typhoon of violence, treachery, and tattered pride that was up until that time, unseen in Japanese crime dramas outside of some of Fukasaku's earlier excursions into post-war criminality. Where Street Mobster, and others flirted with the dregs of an economic rollercoaster, the Battles saga dives headlong into the beast's belly, often surrounded by antiheroes with varying degrees of trustworthiness. Most of which is displayed by Sugawara's Hirono, a weathered man who's struggles from the very bottom of the pecking order, take him to the highest levels in Hiroshima gangland. His central struggle being that a man of old fashioned codes and morals, almost constantly finding himself in danger of irrevocably being stained by the erosion, not to mention treachery coming at him from nearly all sides.

Perhaps this is best encapsulated by his almost bleakly humorous relationship with would-be kingpin, Yamamori (Nobuo Kaneko), perhaps the new face of Japanese leadership. Sniveling, petty, and cowardly to a tee, Yamamori's almost whiny money-man approach seems primed to infect generations of more "jingi"-based members of the local families. This almost absurd invasion of big business into the affairs of those who would rather see themselves as local "Robin hood" types soon reveals hidden motivations, and newfound lusts for power that find Hirono almost inescapably trapped in Yamamori's orbit. Even as he begins making a name for himself amongst the Kure City gumi, the old man is never terribly far away. Almost becoming the father he never wanted, Yamamori (and even his equally cartoonish wife) ingratiates himself into poor Hirono's life, often leading to some truly terrible conflicts and bloodshed. The absurdity simply being in that our hero's often hard wood stubbornness to be the more honorable man keep him from destroying this longtime rival once and for all. But alas, nothing is ever so simple, therefore the two often require each other despite such animosity.

 By the time we get to Proxy War, this is made into greater manifest once Hiroshima's gangs are met with a most unlikely leader in Uchimoto, "successor" to the Muraoka clan. Whiny, petulant and cowardly, he is in many ways a far more irresponsible rendition of Yamamori, only with that much more reckless pride. Even as Fukasaku front-loads the "messages" behind this third film, the story is no less potent in its satire as a multitude of the town's most brawny gangsters find themselves at the whims of a pair of niggling manchildren, ready to spill blood over the most shallow of justifications. In many ways a mirror to the tumult happening in the streets of Tokyo(Not to mention the world abroad) , with those in power squabbling over scraps as the young and powerful are meant to fight amongst each other (and often die) for what Fukasaku likely considered to be patently absurd reasons.

What makes the Battles series so singularly political, is evident from Fukasaku's unflinching rage that is painted with grand strokes and striking sound, often making no bones about the horrors that lie under the veils of propriety and tradition that are bandied over others in the name of order. Rituals of bonding and unification suddenly take on a mechanical, often transparently disingenuous nature, and are little more than showcases for which new schism is soon to appear, ready to unravel virtually seconds later. The worms of pride, and greed underlie virtually every "diplomatic" move that is made, often a false formality, and far from interested in anything as noble as peace. In the world of Fukasaku's yakuza, power is fleeting, honor is questionable, and even the strongest find themselves at odds with comrades, even to the point that they must grovel at the feet of their greatest rival for some infinitesimal piece of rotted meat on petrified bones.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Special Rumbles: Lessons From Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

Despite yesterday's news regarding his health, there was no part of me that was in any way prepared for writing up several thoughts regarding the importance of one Roger Ebert in my social, and written life. To be completely fair, noone is truly prepared for such a thing. But to give a complete charting of just how important one person's views can be toward so many angles of another's life, it is also something possibly foolhardy to consider. But what I can best deliver in a timely, and hopefully raw fashion, is to keep beacons glowing in the name of what makes criticism so important to not merely film, but to human culture as a whole. Much like how achaeologists derive theory from findings and disparate elements available, there is a deep importance toward our collective ability to see beyond mere positives and negatives. To dole out how something makes us feel, rather than merely take in everything at face value wthout second thought, or future evaluation. And there were fewer voices available to so many of us in the broadcast age with such a reverence for the unusual, and the accessible than Ebert, a man who's very presence on television or in print, exuded a yearning to understand not only an evolving artform, but a rapidly morphing world.

Growing up a remarkably addicted child of movies, Ebert's views on At The Movies remained an integral part of my weekend viewing diet. To be in my presence throughout a majority of the late 1980s meant that this ritual was an expected norm. And it wasn't merely because of access to clips of the latest releases, and whether or not they received a thumbs up or down, but rather my focus was largely on how both Gene Siskel & Ebert went from gentle confirmation to outright verbal blitzkrieg in mere minutes, and still retain a fair amount of sympatico by the end of each episode. And despite the often whispered revelation that the duo in fact didn't get along well outside the theater for a time, it was endlessly exciting to see such worldviews interconnect with such energy from their reaction to something as commonly seen as diversion as film. They spoke a mature form of a language I long wanted to be able to grasp, even as I grappled with the often humiliating trial known as grade school.

Moreso than any other televised movie critic, there was an inherent relatability to the way Ebert examined movies that told me, "I could do that". In fact, I vividly remember recording my first movie review "podcast" with my best friend by way of cassette tape, capturing our reviews of movies like Robocop & Rocky IV. This went even further come the early 1990s, when a good high school friend of mine fand I wrote a "He Said, She Said" column for our local newspaper's experimental "youth" section. Sharing impressions was a major part of what drove me to write, and perhaps it seemed inevitable that japanese cartoons would eventually follow. It wasn't enough for me to merely watch something and forget about it in preparation for the next life trial, it was vital that I take it down somewhere, or talk it out with a fellow weirdo. Discourse was on the brain from a very early point, and Ebert was unquestionably a large part of why.

And as I mentioned, growing up the only kid in a nearly 40-mile radius who was halfway interested in cartoons from across the ocean, as well as weird movies from other parts of the world, it was great to have someone on TV with the openness & enthusiasm he did. Whether it be his surprising segment on AKIRA, or opening up about Miyazaki's works, it was strengthening to see someone in the grand sphere talking about something so many were so quick to write off in those days. In fact when they happened (which was not at all often), it was this brief moment of relief that came over me. A reminder that I had indeed run into something that spoke to far more than a small niche of strange kids/adults, and that it was something worthy of merit on a world's stage. A confirmation that art could be found just about anywhere as long as one is taking that extra moment to look.

Among the more important lessons I took away from him being such a presence in my life, was that articulation was vital toward greater connection between very different types.  That it wasn't enough to merely say your piece, and abandon room for further discussion. Walls were malleable and filled with gaps and curves which can shift and bend based on shared experience. That the wheel must continue to turn in the name of a healthier ecosystem. And while differences are an inevitability, they are also what make us so valuable to others. Enthusiasm for art, idea & expression flowed naturally through him, and it was infectious, especially when meeting new people who shared a similar affinity for the language.

And to be even more on the even side, it wasn't as if I agreed with his views all the time. In fact, a there were multiple instances where I simply didn't understand where he was coming from with many films that have since become important in the eyes of the public. For instance, I have never, and likely will never understand his evisceration of Blue Velvet (1986). But perhaps therein lies the greatest lesson; that critique of any kind is less about the object being reviewed, and often more about the person doing the review, and the others they are reaching out to. It's continued communication in celebration of something shared, also made by human hands. There is something inherently natural about reacting to the world, and examining the results on an individualistic basis. Just as no two people will see the same sunset in the same way, there is something important about the ability to take a human work, and derive a nebula of thought.It is within this important activity that our futures are founded, and universes are rendered endless.

But another really important thing I learned by way of watching and reading him, was that I didn't have to agree with a person's assessments, and maintain respect. That it was indeed possible to trade barbed differences upon anything, and still seek to understand the other person, which should be one of our greater goals as a species. Ebert saw human civilization as a triumph, and there is no triumph without regard to the past, and at its most primal -- that is the cinema's greatest gift to all of us.

That is what I'd like to believe anyway.

Poster Discoveries: Captain Harlock

Courtesy of the honorable, August Ragone, the one-sheet for Shinji Aramaki's megabudget CG Harlock project has arrived. Both brawny and ominous, the project feels a little removed from the Matsumoto classic, but thrilling all the same.