Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Memory Lagoon: Full Metal Gokudo (1997)

Oh, that Takashi Miike.

Every time I go back to his early works, my relationship with him grows more complicated and admittedly  strained. And with his now long-legendary streak of flirting with almost mercenary mainstream success, looking back at his often schizophrenic V-cinema days only highlights at why cult film fandom zeroed in on him so intensely. With his often languid, pacing, and clear budgetary limitations, what tends to get praised about the outsider auteur is laid out for all to see with his fifteenth feature, Full Metal Gokudo (aka- Full Metal Yakuza). And yet as this is done in largely cheeky, tonally whacked fashion, it's in the details that this straight-to-video effort takes parody, and grinds it headlong into walls of sobriety without taking a breath. And while it doesn't work for me the same way it did nearly fifteen years ago, there's enough here for fans of the odd to consider.

When young yakuza flunkie, Kensuke Hagane is murdered alongside his admired leader, Tosa (Takeshi Ceasar), his body is sold and rebuilt as a heroic machine by an insane robotics professor. Taught that his past life was mere prelude to this new one as a champion of justice, Hagane foresakes his resurrector in hopes of exacting revenge on the gang members who betrayed him and Tosa. Now no longer the incapable loan shark, and ladies man, Hagane is on a quest to know the truth (especially now that his body has been combined with parts of his powerful - and well-endowed inspiration), and finds that vengeance has its price. This description alone doesn't describe the feelings this recent screening evoked. Entire generations of yakuza and even chanbara are paid homage, and ultimately broken by Miike's unwillingness to play it safe. And considering the limitations of the home video film market (which largely works with budgets well below 500,000 US american), it's a miracle a film with this manner of oddness can come through with just enough emotional punch to make it work.

And while problems do persist in the pacing department, and the effects are decent to flat-out awful, what makes Gokudo so strangely charming is in how it never seems resolute in being one type of story. Much like a stream-of-consciousness porn film, there's an almost improvisational quality here that lends to uneasiness that becomes hard to stomach by the largely queasy finale. And yet it's all quite true to the yakuza dramas of yesterday. Miike never lets us forget how silly this all is, yet never succumbs to the kinetic overkill of ironic tokusatsu horror that saturated and defined the Sushi Typhoon lineup a decade later. Tsuyoshi Ujiki's robo Hagane, is played for giggles, and yet a tragic element remains when he exposes his back to his adversaries. Their lost leader's tattoo now back to haunt them on the body of another, once thought useless errand boy.   

Also worth noting, is this theme of "combining" with your "Big Brother", which is something that Miike has explored in other places. There are elements here that smack heavily of his Dead Or Alive series, not to mention his gonzo epic, IZO. But the idea of young, incapable upstart, trading places (and often literally forms) with an admired leader. Taking not only the visage of your alpha counterpart, but the affections of their beloved as well. In this case, it is in the form of Yukari (played by Shoko Nakahara), who finds connection with Hagane, but cannot be due to his unique circumstances. Where this theme is played for squirm-inducing sexual satire in Gozu, here is done on that level and more. While the repressed sexual elements are indeed here, it must remain true to its classic yakuza roots complete with romantic tragedy complete with single swordsman against a virtual army of gangster soldiers.

So after this viewing, it came clear that it's alright to not completely excuse Miike's occasionally rocky results. And that perhaps it was this very unique voice that made for a more interesting cinema landscape toward the end of the twentieth century. It certainly was a bland time. One in dire need of some adventure. So he came about in the international scene in just the right time. Despite this, there is something happily outsider about his works that ring true in ways that even the most straight story cannot capture. Sure, Tomorowo Taguchi's mad scientist feels made up on the fly. But that plays well into the no-budget, no time playbook that is V-Cinema. In such a savage filmmaker's world, one has to film or die. And the end results are rarely clear or profound. At best, it can be merely fascinating just to see all that resourcefulness just fly.

While not "good" in any classical qualitative sense, there is no doubt that Miike's approach to whatever lands on his plate is freeing in rare and often telling ways. Even if it means kicking a gangster boss's head across town.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Thematic Wanderings: The Art Of Getting Away With It

Fellow co-conspirator and book creator E. Hsu, often questions the stuff we watch. Not always the hidden messages, but as a graphic artist herself, the approach. She recently called out the opening shot of Gone Girl, with the head of Rosamund Pike being caressed by an unseen, but clearly masculine hand as the words of Ben Affleck posit questions about his beloved - only to turn ugly in contrast to the hyper-stylized beauty before him.  And suddenly these reminders of what savvy visual storytellers do with their images to let us in came rushing to mind. That cinematic sleight of hand can be employed as a means of drawing in an audience who may not have considered a film's baggage otherwise. Especially considering our rapidly evolving media intake, there is a growing complexity to film that often plays it coy, to occasionally insincere degrees, playing the audience in order to implant conflicting thoughts. Considering the particular filmmaker in this case, it became quite clear that this was a deliberate attempt at playing viewers at their own game. While we have certainly over the past few years seen a few filmmakers over the years employ tactics on the level of a sledgehammer, the hidden, is often the most dynamic, and the style most effective in gathering years of heated controversy. The belief that post-film dialogue is far more constructive than a blunt-forced message (See- The Wachowskis. See- Snowpiercer.). After several discussions regarding the validity of hidden themes in mainstream cinema, the blog seemed to call out for a teensy bit of extra light on this often rocky topic.

Such a contradiction is classic Fincher, where he will often present an evocative visual, but use the soundtrack to offer up either sly humor, or an unreliable establishment to stir matters up. Among his most famous, is the final shot of Fight Club. The slowly pulling image of the narrator and Marla, hand-in-hand while the city's bank buildings topple one after another before them to the almost chorus-like sounds of Pixies' Where Is My Mind?, playing over the devastation. All we had seen up to this point, revealing the ultimate personal revelation of the narrator's journey, with the apocalypse of a confining banking system. Our so-called "villian", is gone, but his plan has gone off without a hitch. Our characters now reside within a new world. The film is asking pointedly about seeking new routes beyond the mundane & self-destructive to achieve our dreams. It's both giddy and harrowing, and ultimately feels emotionally resolved.We have reached thematic critical mass.

"Free yourself".

Chock it all up to your classic scene design and final construction. One can either use the field of vision to convey a clear-cut idea, or mix everything from costume, to set, to lighting, editing, and even music to occasionally blur certain thematic lines. One of the dicier things a filmmaker and crew can do to enhance, and often botch a scene, is with a risky mix and match. Happy music when something sad is occurring on screen, or perhaps a moody voice-over during the scene of a wedding, the means by which films can achieve a complex fabric of emotion is often infinite. But it can also lead to confusion among viewers not savvy to what is happening. And this is often where some critique can diverge between individuals. Mise-en-scène, remains something of a delicate art, and can work wonders depending upon its usage.

So when filmmakers take on more straightforward material, it's pretty easy for the casual viewer to miss elements that are uniquely them. Especially when they are often more adventurous in their projects. It's something that I have witnessed more than ever in recent years, which often leads to many an interesting discussion. Because certain scenes may mean different things to whoever is discussing it, the dialogue can occasionally break down - which can be anathema for some.

A classic recent example is the final montage of The Dark Knight, where a voice-over justifies a cover-up by our heroes, while we witness the fallout from the film's harrowing story. Everything leading up to this moment grants us a picture of an antagonist that has spiritually one-upped the city and it's defenders to the breaking point. And with the last bastion of hope to the community gone, and many dead in its wake, the need to lie to keep his legacy intact is played to the hilt with Batman defending his role as an outsider. What's thematically interesting about this scene, is the score which takes some recurring musical motifs that were introduced in Batman Begins, now take on broken form. They are now in a minor key, mixed with an almost triumphant wail, as if to say that everything we are seeing here is a compromise. Wayne's mission has taken a turn, and is now in an even more morally grey place than he was at the offset. The sweeping camera pans over Commissioner Gordon's speech, flag waving in the background, followed by his destroying of the Bat Signal, all imply that none of this is an ideal outcome. And yet, many a conservative pundit found this ending to be a condoning of certain tactics being used by private entities during the height of the Iraq War. They ultimately missed the part where all of this is proof of how the Joker actually prevailed on a philosophical level. The city will no longer be the same. Criminality may be on the run, but corruption can even ensnare the most well-meaning. It's a psychologically complex, and challenging way to end a blockbuster sequel, and yet it completely got away with positing an uncomfortable truism regarding western civilization.

So for every conceptual swerve a storyteller can dish out, there is always potential for involved dialogue. Which is pretty much a most exciting place to be as a spectator. To drink in the complex, and to have something new to share with another, even if it's a freshly formed idea, is one of the great virtues of art. Problems persist only when everything points to a simple answer. Sure, it can be great to hear something that aligns perfectly with your views, but to experience another's purview is equally as important, if not moreso. As we are consistently evolving creatures, it remains more crucial than ever to allow the exchange to create rivulets, and multicolored fibers. It's what helps us enrich ourselves and each other. But it's especially interesting when we think we are aware of what we are looking at, only to find ourselves stealthily implanted with a vital, impactful new discussion.

R100 (2013) Movie Review

Picture if you will, a reality-based game where you can experience the fantasy of being dominated by powerful women at odd hours of the day for a year. Who can appear anywhere, at any time, and can brighten your troubled soul with a hit or a lash. But what if this contract's rules only exacerbate over time, as those you love are destined to stumble upon this secret life of yours? Quietly suffering salesman, Takafumi Katayama(the ever guileless Nao Omori) is such a customer, and there isn't a safe word to be found. Upon first being reminded of Hitoshi Matsumoto's first film since his goofy, but admirable Big Man Japan, the ad campaign seemed hellbent on selling us something primed to shock & illuminate. What we get is R100, which sees the director as declarateur, extolling the virtues of perverse art and performance as a means of quelling the restless Japanese man's heart. And while it does offer up shades of the former, the latter finds itself more than a little parched.

Raising a young son, often with care from his kindhearted father, Katayama's entry into a world of unpredictable beatings and humiliations starts off with a tremendously amusing opening from the perspective of a statuesque beauty seemingly ending a date with a kick to the face. This scene alone establishes a potent mixture of black comedy in ways that is both familiar to those who are fans of Takashi Miike (of which Omori, is a seasoned veteran), and even to the films of David Fincher. It's an audacious start to a piece that doesn't want to play by any real rules, but never figures itself out. And despite the potential inherent in this opening moment, we are also introduced to one of the film's great weaknesses. We find that Katayama is in dire need, being a largely absent dad with a wife in a coma, lying to his little one about when she will be back home. But even so, what we do discover seems to be scant, and as the film skeeters toward the dramatic, gags come back to the fore, robbing us of any real tension. Sure, we get flashes of his normal life before black clad beauties burst onto the scene to terrorize him ad-infinitum, but the balance simply isn't there. There is a real need to get into the discomfort of the mundane before the outrageous will have its way with him, and it never really happens. There is an implication of the coming collision course, but being too caught up in visualizing Katayama's euphoric states (which is done in creepy CG-enhanced smiles) ends up creating a numbing effect of sorts.

And the license doesn't stop there. The film ultimately breaks into intendedly humorous non-sequitirs, portraying Omori as himself, trying to explain the film to censors about the story they are watching. A move that could easily have added dimension ends up floundering like a laundry list of justifications for the film's very existence. With Omori, head bowed down in embarrassment, hoping the company men would overlook these acts as the musings of a centenarian filmmaker. It's hard to imagine this sequence of scenes being in the script stage. There is a certain lack of confidence that laces the affair, as if it knows matters aren't working, and they do little to undo what's already a strange dance of tones. So perhaps only a one hundred year old Japanese man would understand, but what of everyone else? The rest of the film winds up feeling like a private joke, unwilling to let anyone else in who is not so nonplussed by so-called "extreme Japan" art.

And a large reason for this feeling of discontent, is the array of promise that Matsumoto and company dish out. From Omori's melancholic performance as a hapless salaryman, only wishing to do right, to great appearances by Gin Maeda, and a surprising Atsuro Watabe(of Love Exposure fame). The refreshingly old school feel of the film's color palette of decaying grays, greens, and ambers bring out a sad grain that evokes the most forbidden thoughts of a generation gone by the wayside. Even Matsumoto's appearance as a powerless, ignorant cop offers up brightness in a work so eager for even levity. And despite the film's inevitable descent into pure anarchistic weird, it's something that none of these shining lights can do to take it over the top. It perhaps doesn't help matters that so much Japanese media flirts with the inherently perverse, that a film like this needs a special touch to make it connect. So when a piece like this takes us through a rabbit hole of kink and circumstance, the discomfort levels need to be amped up significantly. There is something potentially profound to be examined within Matsumoto's thesis, but when the public beatings and encroaching doom gathers steam, there is an immense lack of milking the merge for all its worth that hinders everything. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Talking Videodiscs (aka-Thank You Rose Bowl Flea Market)

Always happy to run across older video formats when out in town. Especially when it happens amongst the colorful crowds at the hallowed Rose Bowl Flea Market, of which today's marked the first of 2015. Bargain hunters, master hagglers, and curiosity seekers galore come from occasionally incredible distances to buy, sell, trade everything from used furniture to antiques to pop culture ephemera. And today, despite often difficult rain, we ran across this longtime holdover from the pre-video rental store boom of the 1980s.

Enter the almighty,  and often forgotten RCA videodisc. Introduced in the very late 1970s,  the video disc was an essential dream own for young cinephiles like myself when the only way one could rewatch a favorite film, was to head out to the local movie house for a re-release. Outside of this, and early cable outfits like the Star Channel, there was little to no other way to check out a Disney favorite,  let alone Star Wars. While I at the time had heard about grown ups owning a rudimentary VTR, or even 16mms, there was no one around to allow this to feel like reality.

That was until a parent's friends introduced me to the wonders of VHS around 1982(and another,  to the RCA videodisc). Being only able to play whatever they had for a few hours was exciting I must confess. But the video disc, was another curious animal altogether. Comprised of a slim plastic shell that encased a thing,  vinyl-record sized reel of tape designed to be loaded fully into the player. Upon insertion with the power on, an indicator would notify the user that the tape has been loaded, , allowing the shell to be removed for the duration of play. If the film ran a certain length, there would be a notification to change discs. This was especially fun when viewing epics such as Gandhi. If the curious see this primitive method carrying echoes of the long gone 8-track, one couldn't be blamed at all. The mindset behind the player has traces of that classic music format all over the discs themselves.

The videodisc format was also important to my youth in that they were among the very first home movie formats I had ever seen being marketed to the masses. Even years later, the only way one would see home video go sell-thru, was via specific titles. Up until this point, most home video releases were for rental purposes only, and the major studios saw no reason for the average person to collect VHS. It wasn't even until the latter part of the decade with MCA/UNIVERSAL's long delayed release of the repeatedly re-released E.T. The Extraterrestrial,  that major department and grocery stores would be caught dead selling movies. So most tapes in video rental stores were sold to vendors at bulk only prices akin to 89.95 each. So the videodisc,  was a bit of an olive branch to what would become our current landscapes of five dollar blu-ray, and stocking stuffer DVDs. I still retain vivid memories of videodiscs selling with a handsome furnished wood color television displays at the local GEMCO.  The Capacitance Electronic Disc method was initially developed in the early 1960s, and took nearly twenty years to hit store shelves under the SelectaVision moniker. So considering just how wild the home video world would become in a mere thirty-plus years post 1981, makes for a sweet slice of future shock in and of itself.