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eye poppingly gorgeous color restoration
Great find at my public library: eye-poppingly gorgeous restored print of Kinogasa Teinosuke's 1953 "Gate of Hell (Jigoku Mon)" out in Criterion edition, UPC: 7-15515- 10451-7
Has everything visually that drew me to classic Japanese cinema when I was a kid. The color and pattern sense of 12th century clothing and home décor and the use of light and shadow one was more likely to see in a b&w film than in most Technicolor films of the early 1950's.
The story is based on a contemporary historical account of the Heiji Rebellion of 1160 and its aftermath, intertwining images from a picture scroll depicting the rebellion with the live action of the movie. The plot centers on the lives of three people caught up in what would have been a love triangle if the lady in question had agreed to it. Instead, she is the victim of Travis Bickel-like stalker who won't take "no" for an answer.
May not be for all tastes: not as much chambara (sword fighting) as some people like in their jidaigeki (historical dramas), and a little over the top on the melodrama, but still worth seeing, especially from the technical standpoint of benchmarking a great job of color film restoration. Not garish, but jaw-droppingly accurate.
Boogiepop wa Warawanai (2000)
weird homage to "Rashômon"
Getting used to the rhythm of the storytelling in the beginning of this movie may prove to be too much of an obstacle to enjoying it for non-Japanese audiences. The way characters are introduced, as if seemingly unrelated to each other, is something of a head scratcher. However, being left in the dark puts the viewer in the same position as several of the characters whose varying points of view about the same set of events are presented. As in the classic Kurosawa film, "Rashômon," the audience has no way of deciding which of several more or less plausible explanations of a gruesome crime is accurate, and, like "Rashômon," the least plausible turns out to be true. That said, this is no "Rashômon." However, it is stylish and entertaining as teen-oriented horror flicks go, and refreshingly not peopled with characters you want to yell at for being stupid. It's also a relief that most of the gore is off- camera and well enough represented by sound effects.
close to the bone after 3/11
I wish more people in the U.S. could see the diversity of Miike's work. He's unfortunately lumbered with the reputation of his shocking "Audition." It seems to me after seeing almost a dozen of his movies, that his signature style is his ability to work in any style, now confirmed by this stage play peopled by film actors who are just as good in live theater as they are in his and other directors' films.
This play updates a traditional Japanese folktale about the consequences of not complying with the gods' wishes. It's eerily predictive of the 3/11 string of disasters, not so much in exact detail, but in the way some elements of society can't be bothered to respect the power that nature can bring to bear on human-created structures and institutions. In this story, nature is chiefly represented by a tantrum-prone, love-struck demon princess, and her minions. That's pretty telling. For millennia, the Japanese cosmology has sought to ease humanity's relationship with the capriciousness of nature. This is deeply ingrained in Japanese daily life, but as seen with the aftermath of the 3/11 Tôhoku earthquake and tsunami, putting a bunch of nuclear reactors on earthquake-prone stretches of coastline is modernism and human hubris gone amok. Nature just is what it is. The way it's written in kanji, 自然 (shizen), is telling. The kanji mean "self" and "as it is". People disregard it at their own peril, and to the detriment of others around them.
The leads are played with heart and skill by Tomoko Tabata, Shinji Takeda and Ryûhei Matsuda. Miike makes good use of a supporting cast of other well-known movie actors in multiple roles: some human; some animal; some shape-shifting demons, gods and other supernaturals--without major adjustments in their appearance (unlike all the technological, costume and makeup resources he availed himself of in his other big supernatural story, "Yôkai Dai Sensô"). Likewise, the stage set is simple and uses lighting and sound (not so much naturalistic in either case, as evocative) to indicate locale. Where there might be bloodshed, he doesn't even make use of stage blood, trusting the audience and his actors to make the experience real.
Although this is a stage play, the camera work is closer to that of a TV production, well coordinated to make the best use of small moments in close-up. However, it never tries to be anything other than a stage play, and the audience's response and participation are critical to appreciating it as a real-time work. It's the next best thing to being there.
The Good Guys: Bait & Switch (2010)
not-good, dumb not-fun
The writers never met a gender, ethnic or racial stereotype or clichéd plot device they didn't want to embrace and exploit. I feel sorry for Bradley Whitford and Colin Hanks for being so at loose ends that they felt compelled to take on this assignment. It's undoubtedly one of the worst American cop shows I've ever seen, and rivals a couple of the lamer Italian cop shows ("L'ispettore Coliandro" and "Montalbano," to name names) for sheer dreadfulness. It doesn't have the wit to be truly funny, and the drama is ludicrous. The dialog reads like a very early rough draft of a high-schooler's idea of a teleplay. It's sad when the commercials are wittier and more entertaining than the program.
Beautiful, honest and not to watch if you're depressed.
This film carries the same spirit and almost the same story as "Nobody Knows" (Daremo Shiranai) by Hirokazu Kore-Eda. It is truthfully told without resorting to feel-good plot twists, and earns its laughs and tears honestly. If anything, it continually points the viewer to the underlying rottenness of anything or anybody superficially attractive. Children's laughter is stained either with cruelty, substance abuse or deep sorrow. The adults are either mean and domineering, self-absorbed, or kind but powerless to help. There's only an ineffectual hint of adult protectiveness of a throw-away child, and even the police respond with annoyance rather than genuine concern for the welfare of the 11-year-old boy who is at the center of this story.
Unlike other reviewers, I don't think this movie is too pretty. It's mostly dark and grimy. Even scenes at the water's edge and in the woods are dotted with refuse, which the kid harvests for useful items and things he can sell. I got the sense that any residual beauty that this child perceives is what keeps him from committing suicide or joining the other lost boys getting high on inhalants. His ambition is to be a poet. I took the visuals to be his poet's-eye view of his hard-scrabble life.
He's Pinocchio made flesh with no Geppetto or Jiminy Cricket in sight. As with the kids in "Nobody Knows," his ultimate fate remains un-foretold. Both movies left me in tears. I was surprised to see this aired on MHz Worldview's excellent film series, "For the Family." I wouldn't let children watch this without a trusted adult also watching. In that sense, it is a family movie, not boob-tube babysitting fare.
The two Seances and an earlier source
First, I'll explain the 8. It's a plot thing. I found myself yelling at the two leads to not do something stupid, but no initial stupidity, no subsequent movie.
Second, if you haven't seen "Séance on a Wet Afternoon" or "Macbeth," don't look at Kurosawa's interview on the DVD extras until after you see this movie. There are plot spoilers in the interview.
Third, am I the only one who sees a parallel between both "Séance"s and "Macbeth"? All three are about power hungry women who work their will on their all too devoted spouses. Kurosawa saw it, beginning with a quote from Macbeth's "Tomorrow and tomorrow..." soliloquy and then check out the music that's playing when Kôji Yakusho's character, Satô, confronts his doppelgänger.
Now for the differences among the three stories. Kurosawa states that he had not seen the original "Séance on a Wet Afternoon," but that he used the same novel as the source for his screenplay. He cited a difficulty in making a story originally taking place in 1960's England fit 21st Century Japan. One thing he cited was the difficulty of portraying a crime that might have been considered commonplace in '60's England and that would be such a rarity in present-day Japan as to be unthinkable for the average Japanese audience member. Another thing he did was to alter the way his female lead expressed her fundamental craziness. Kim Stanley's character was flamboyant, charismatic, coquettish and kittenish, disconcertingly so for a middle-aged hausfrau psychic superstar wannabe. Jun Fubki's rendering of Junko Satô is no less crazy, but she's introverted, uncharismatic, mousy, and playing older than she is. Lady Macbeth has been subjected to countless interpretations, all along the spectrum between the Stanley and Fubuki continuum. But all three have in common an implacable desire for power and husbands who will do their bidding. All three of them show more and more psychopathology as they are assailed by the ghosts they help create, but none of them consciously concedes any guilt. Their husbands, in contrast, assume more than their share of the blame. I leave it to the viewer to decide how much blame Satô should bear. To say more would be a spoiler.
Another thing I love about this movie is the carpet of sound that takes the ordinary and makes it frightening without resorting to excessive distortion or trickery. The sound picture is to this movie what the lighting and cinematography were to "Séance on a Wet Afternoon." They both put me inside the story. I too found myself having to pause it because it was dragging me along for the ride to such an extent that the characters' hurts felt like my hurts too.
Metro ni notte (2006)
I found this movie to be intriguing enough to hang on for the ride. The production design alone--rendering perfectly various historical periods in Tokyo--was worth my time.
If you like your stories tied up neatly at the end, it's probably not the movie for you. Likewise, if you can't handle non-linear time structures, give this one a miss. However, if you like riddles that can't be solved, you will probably enjoy it. In that regard, it is similar to "(The Mystery of) Rampo" (1994) and "Jacob's Ladder." However, I don't think it was as honest as those films, because forgiveness seems too easily given. As difficult as the relationships are in this movie, and given the unsolvable riddle, I don't think it was necessary for the protagonist to forgive his antagonist as unequivocally as he does in this movie. That said, given the character through-lines the actors had to work with, everyone did a terrific job... perhaps with the exception of the stiff who was hired to portray a crooked U.S. occupation forces officer. How hard could it be to find an American to play an American, or at least someone with a credible imitation of an American accent? Thankfully, he's the only clunker and only in one scene, and maybe I'm being too hard on him because of his bad rendering of an American accent. Nothing else in his performance was terrible.
Ôkami shôjo (2005)
Charming, not saccharine, moral tale
The only reason I'm not giving it a 10 is that it uses some kid actors whose skills were not a match for those of the principals. Japanese children's movies are a little edgier than G rated movies in the U.S., so if I were giving it an MPAA rating, I'd have to give it a PG. I saw it with English subtitles, so it wouldn't be accessible to younger non-Japanese speaking children, in any case. This movie does not have a Hollywood/Disney ending, but it is a moral tale about doing the right thing and true friendship.
The story takes place in the 1970's and centers on three 11 year olds who attend a rural elementary school, Akira Ohta, Hideko Komaru and a new girl in class, who makes an impressive entrance, interdicting a bullying episode on the playground, and then introduces herself to her new classmates as Rumiko Tezuka.
Akira is a bit of a misfit and a dreamer who doesn't quite gel with his male peers. Hideko is a shy outsider who is the butt of everybody's jokes at school. Her tormentors call her "Wolf Girl", inspired by her seemingly feral demeanor and also by the presence of a Wolf Girl act in a carnival freak show encamped next to the town's Shinto shrine. Rumiko is a city girl, beautifully dressed, speaking impeccable, Tokyo Japanese and with a take-no-prisoners style of standing up to bullies. She seems an unlikely candidate to befriend both Akira and Hideko, which sets off a wave of gossip among both male and female peers, leading to more physical attacks and counter attacks.
There is a side plot involving the strained relationship between Akira's parents that contributes further to Akira's sense of isolation and emboldens him to violate school rules and find out who the carnival wolf girl really is.
Kiss the Sky (1998)
walked out on it
Dreadful script sinks a good cast. I'm sure the story is serious enough, and I regret that I couldn't hang in there long enough to see Terrence Stamp. And they call women whiny! I can see how Gary Cole got the part he had in "Office Space." He whines exceptionally well, which is all this script gives him to do until he falls down the recapturing-his-youth rabbit hole.
Gary Cole plays a nearly suicidal attorney whose best friend, played by William Petersen, takes on as his rescue project, having been through his own nervous breakdown earlier. The first half hour does not reward with much but a headache. The script to that point apparently never met a class, age or ethnic stereotype it didn't want to exploit, employing only the choicest clichés available. It has no emotional depth, but if it was meant to be satirical, it also lacks the wit to pull that off.
This is "Save the Tiger" as a buddy road flick. That movie gave me a headache too, but I was able to sit through it, because it had the one thing going for it this one didn't, at least in the first half hour, i.e. decent writing.
There are so many other movies and plays that have handled this topic with better grace, even when showing middle-aged men behaving badly.
If I can skip the first half hour, I may be persuaded to sit through it to catch Terrence Stamp's performance, but I'm afraid of what lurks behind that curtain.
My one word review: Blecchh!
Hansamu sûtsu (2008)
Making comedy look easy to do is hard work
I've never seen the two male leads in anything else. I was most impressed with Shosuke Tanihara because he had the actorly and comedic chops to show the character's gradual seduction by, and eventual disillusionment with, the trappings of being one of the "beautiful people." The best comedy acting should look effortless, but it is also the most difficult to pull off--more so in live performance than in film, where a performance can be sliced and diced to sharpen timing. Tanihara is the real deal, OR, at least, this director was able to get this high-level of work out of him. I look forward to seeing him in other kinds of roles and hope that he doesn't fall into the trap of being too handsome to not look like a trademarked version of himself. I especially would like to see him in dramatic roles, because the best comic actors make the best dramatic actors, more often than the other way around.
Muga Tsukaji as Takuro is no slouch, either. This is a character who wears his heart on everything--most literally on his restaurant, which is called Kokoroya (Heart Shop). The actor does this in such an organic way that the exaggeration required to make him a heightened caricature in no way robs him of his believability as an ugly duckling everyman. Just as much, I hope to see him in dramatic roles, and not limited to playing a Jabba the Hut type villain.
I agree that the cheesiness of some of the plot devices was forgivable, but not necessarily because it's a Japanese picture. I think the cheesiness effectively serves the aims of caricature required to make this not just a sweet little romantic comedy, but also a sharp satire on consumerist superficiality. I especially liked the sly little dig at the Japanese preoccupation with incorporating English into conversations solely for the purpose of being fashionable. Americans do this with Japanese and other languages, though perhaps not to as great an extent. I don't think American filmmakers are any less capable of producing this type of pointed commentary, but the type of production that can do this has to be relatively free of commercial obstructionism, and there appears to be less of that, at least in the Japanese export market. Not having regular access to the standard Japanese cinematic fare that doesn't make it overseas, it's not for me to say that Japanese film, in toto, adheres to some higher standard of independence than U.S. film. I'm just happy that we're getting the good stuff.
I'd also like to comment on the use of color, since no one else has mentioned it yet. There was an intentional manipulation of color in the sequences where the transformed Annin encounters the barely real world of "Let's Handsome." The clothes' colors are saturated, and the skin tones are desaturated and tinted gold. Still photos of all the handsome men at the beginning of the movie are hand tinted with obvious makeup effects. This sets up a dramatic irony for the mind of our hero to miss and the audience to pick up, on a subliminal level. He's enamored of the "Let's Handsome" experience and doesn't recognize its artificiality for what it is until (as he says) it's too late, but the audience is clued in from the get-go and has to watch him helplessly as he gets sucked into that world. However, this isn't an alienating device, because anybody who's ever felt inferior because of his or her looks can also feel the power of that seduction and find it hard to resist, and therefore completely empathize with him.
The only serious downside I found with this movie is that it was obvious how it was going to end, so if they were going for a surprise, that didn't work. The details were mildly surprising, but the outcome wasn't. Apart from that, a couple of stereotypical gay character expositions were mildly annoying more than blatantly offensive, and the Japan-specific references to worn-out jokes from old TV shows were a little baffling, but more of a blip than a buzz kill.
I think this would be particularly good movie for adolescents and the parents of adolescents to see, not necessarily with each other. Kids who are on the cusp of doing something stupid to themselves because of poor self image could benefit from the underlying message, especially the ending.