Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Witch (2015) Film Thoughts


Unwilling to atone for a mysterious act was in defiance of a newfound colony, extreme puritanical father, William gathers his family, and delves deep into the uncharted lands of New Hampshire in the name of religious conviction. With his wife, Katherine, daughter, Thomasin, son, Caleb, and two smaller siblings, they find promise in a plain at the foot of a foreboding and dark forest. It isn't long before a fifth child is born to the family. During another day of farm chores and settlement, Thomasin is left in charge of watching over little Samuel, when he is suddenly snatched away in broad daylight. Painful tragedy, while seemingly enough gives way to fear, deception, and ultimately encroaching despair, as the lone family seem to be driven closer toward madness by a malevolent outside forest..deep in the wood.

True to many stories of wrenching hardship that befell many new American settlers throughout the latter 1600s, Robert Eggers's The Witch, not only fashions a stark, bone-rattling tale of ancient fear, the film also presents one of the most compelling existential horror visions this side of the original ALIEN. Endless isolation and dread invert the aforementioned film's legendary claustrophobia, and presents open space as every grain as terrifying, and packed with poetic wonders. While we never know the circumstances that led to the family's defiant exodus from their home community, we instantly gather just how much faith binds and defines them via father William, who soon imparts to his son that the land has been unforgiving, and that deception is necessary in light of the news of a lost child. "We will tame this forest, Caleb. It will not consume us." Early into matters, the masculine dominator philosophy of William's faith is laid bare, with the God fearing staving off the assault of nature, which is always creeping in.

While a more ordinary narrative might have given us no real hint of something supernatural in the woods, leading to a more psychological horror, Eggers chooses to confirm matters immediately, prompting questions as to the whys of the shape-shifting crone. The film is not asking, is there? It is asking, why is there? And soon after, the film starts turning tight these screws of folklore, fictions, and fear, to the point that even such a seemingly well-kept family unit finds themselves at odds with each other. And with sparse dialogue interspersed between often desolate and beautiful imagery, we are immersed in a world that owes as much to Malick, as it does to William Harris Weatherhead. Unforgiving cold and careful use of Mark Koven's brilliant score, complete with diabolical use of natural quiet sends home a grand fear that only life on earth can deliver. 

But the truest testament to The Witch's success lies in Eggers's terrific use of casting and unerring attention to period detail. From the clothing to the tools, to the home, and even the tactile remnants of an England left behind. The entire work is impeccable in how it captures a bone dry life of austerity in the name of belief. That without this guiding force, no sane being could survive in these woods. That perhaps these same beliefs fashion a perverse opposite with enough isolation, and questions. Something that befalls the entire family when the chores seem to bear little fruit, and prayer no longer seems to be enough. Ralph Ineson, is quake inducing as William, a staunch father of the faith, struggling to maintain his choices, all while the world seems to conspire against him. Kate Dickie's Katherine, is overpowered, proud, yet increasingly brittle as her family seems primed to an increasingly evident doom. She longs for sense to all the madness surrounding them, and is a tremendous counterpoint to William. But the film's true secret weapons are with Anya Taylor-Joy's Thomasin and Harvey Scrimshaw's Caleb, who see and wish to assert agency into the fray, but find themselves at the behest of forces beyond simple comprehension. Thomasin's observational abilities find themselves at odds with the family's longing for something simple as an answer, while Caleb only wishes to do what is right for everyone. It's painful to witness their respective tragedies, and yet by the finale, one might just have been another symptom of a father's pride. All family members, turning belief in each other into modes of save and harm.

The film considers the new world, and the implications of the white encroachment into often inhospitable territory, coupled with religion's often ambivalent feelings about nature. The constant separation between powers of the cross versus the often contradictory laws of earth beyond civilization. While the story here is set in New Hampshire, not too far away in Massachusetts, people like Anne Hutchinson had been questioned for her strident beliefs, which ultimately led in large part toward the founding of Rhode Island. There is also the story of the minister, Roger Williams which fits well here. But what of many others? Those who found their faiths at odds with community, only to find themselves at the mercy of a less forgiving landscape. Not everyone found salvation in the wilderness. The Witch, also serves as a dramatic exploration of what happens when pride comes face to face with the natural world. A land without pluralism, a forum for distinct voices is often one doomed to repeat the same mistakes time and again. And often left to cycle the same fears and prejudices throughout history.

So yes, there is indeed a witch in that deep, dark hollow, and it takes many forms. But is it truly nature? Or rather our own vanity, spewing repressed dark viscera back into our own faces? 

The Witch, is a remarkable horror achievement. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

Tokyo Tribe (2014) Movie Thoughts

You'll never believe what all the squabbling is about..

Could it be that I'm far beyond done with Takashi Miike? After a year plus of hearing frenetic buzz about Shion Sono's hypercharged adaptation of Santa Inoue's mad urban fantasy manga(1993, 1997-2005), I guess a part of me never suspected that it would wallow so much in familiar depths that it would forget the potential inherent in its more experimental qualities. Just pull focus back from all the holiday and gold laced lens flare, urban garishness, fly honeys, pimps, chinpira, bruisers, DJ grannies, chrome-dudded shogun on tanks, and dialogue in rhyme, and one has seen pretty much all of what happens here through any number of Miike's V-Cinema output in the 1990s.  Sion Sono, may be one of the most furiously active filmmakers in the world, and as such one cannot blame him for not knocking this delirious piece out of the park, but the end result feels deprived of a life it is certainly aching for.

Set in a fantastical urban myth of Tokyo, the city has become fragmented after quakes and rioting have severed the land into several unique district gangs. (Each with their own distinct rapping and DJ style) Told through the eyes of rhyming narrator, Sho (Shota Sometani) , we learn about these gangs, and the nightmarish kingpin that pines for dominion over the entire city. Led by the perverse crime lord of Bukuro, Buppa(Riki Takeuchi, in full coked-out mode), he and his cadre of sex and violence crazed beasts plot to crush peace-loving Musashino Saru. Stemming from an unexplained grudge belonging to Buppa's Adonis-esque enforcement , Mera(Ryohei Suzuki), a trap is set that begins a turf war that threatens not only Musashino's gang of country kids, but of every other group in Tokyo. Amidst this bubbling conflict, is the missing daughter (Nana Seino) of a foreign high priest on the run, and the street kid charged with protecting her. Plot takes a grand backseat, as Sono, cast and crew pull out all possible stops in creating an immersive hip-hop opera that largely drowns in its concept instead of marinating in it.

While the beats and visuals of Tokyo Tribe aim to create something truly singular in the world of the japanese gangster pic, so much happening within it plays like a greatest hits of a half century of Nikkatsu productions. This really should function dazzlingly on paper, but what ends up bogging a lot of the film down, is that pesky inability to allow us an emotional connection to anything that's happening. While Sono offers the viewer an immense playpen of swirling cameras, and impressive single takes, our identification with central characters end up surface at best, and label at worst. With a film so reliant on music and spectacle, it becomes hard to focus on any single character, leaving something of a void while matters grow increasingly mad, and the blood begins to fly. This also speaks to the female quotient of the piece, which renders them either as window-dressing, or accessory action. And even then, the debasement seems perfunctory, like a post-it note on everyone's trailer door. While Sono has never shied away from matters of the unveiled id, Tribe seems less interested in the psychology of such extremes, and just wallows. At least with this film, the human circus is presented as whirlwind sideshow, and we're given no real sense of absorbtion. It's a theme park ride logic that threatens to alienate many sections. As good seems so overpowered by evil throughout, it's hard to care when the cost is so casually explored.

Matters are not helped that we are never granted any greater reason to care whether the gangs unite or not, or a means to feel the villains beyond them being villains. Sure, there are implications of toxic masculinity, but to cop a reasoning ala The Warriors, one should be willing to offer up a bit more punch.

Sure, we've been here before. The one film that comes to mind with all of this is Sogo Ishii's Bakuretsu Toshii(Burst City), which also dealt with a colorful apocalyptic cityscape populated by musically driven communities, fighting for their share of a broken world. But what allowed that film to endure was a patience to hit pause long enough for us to grasp the world that was being lost in the rabble. Here, we are allowed in only so far as to where everything is a farce, bodies are disposable, and J-shock cinema has rendered viewers into inert quantities. In the two decades since super-violent post-anime action has declared an expectation of blood, blades, and exposed breasts as the law of the land, one would think that one of the premiere voices of Japanese film would offer up something beyond a louder version of what we've been overstuffed with. It's like we've been on pause since at least 1999, and that's the film's most glaring shame.

There is exuberance and energy to be found among the bass and fire of Tokyo Tribe. Just don't ask it to deliver past the packaging.