3 Stars Movies

Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, and Bong Joon-ho’s Tokyo!

Tokyo! is a portmanteau film comprised of three shorts set in the eponymous city, all by directors not themselves from Japan: Michel Gondry and Leos Carax from France, and Bong Joon-ho from South Korea.

Gondry’s “Interior Design” is based on the comic book “Cecil and Bell in New York” by Gabrielle Bell, with the action transposed to Tokyo. At first, her low-key love story doesn’t seem to bear Gondry’s characteristic whimsical surreality, but by the end her collaboration with Gondry makes perfect sense. Young couple Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani, daughter of Steven Seagal) and Akira (Ryo Kase) move to Tokyo, with the hope of finding audiences for Akira’s pretentious films. Without prospects, they crash on the floor of a childhood friend’s miniscule flat and quickly outstay their welcome. Their optimism to find jobs and an apartment is quickly dashed – only Akira is suited to menial work, and they can’t even afford the city’s dingiest rat traps. Like April (Kate Winslet) in Revolutionary Road) Hiroko doesn’t have much ambition of her own beyond supporting her artist partner. After going to extraordinary lengths on Akira’s behalf without feeling appreciated, Hiroko undergoes a fantastical transformation and winds up literally supporting a different artist. The significance of title comes clear as she literally becomes part of the scenery.

Ayako Fujitani and Ryo Kase in Tokyo
Hiroko and Akira in Tokyo

In Carax’s scatological “Merde,” Tokyo is terrorized by a mad caucasian with a twisty ginger beard and a rigorous diet of flowers, yen, and cigarettes. The “sewer creature” (so named by the media) is relatively harmless until he discovers a cache of grenades in a forgotten World War II-era bunker buried beneath the city. Only after he uses Imperial Japan’s own weapons against them in a terrible massacre is he tracked down in his sewer lair and apprehended. At this point, Carax’s short film becomes a courtroom drama, in which eccentric French magistrate Maître Voland (Jean-François Balmer) claims to be able to interpret the terrorist’s ravings, not least including his name: Merde (“shit”). His scandalous speeches incite Japanese self-loathing and racism, but the populace curiously fails to question whether Voland is some kind of mad ventriloquist voicing his own prejudices through the mouth of an idiot. Merde becomes a pop icon; dueling gangs of picketers chant “FREE MERDE” versus “HANG MERDE.” Merde is sentenced to a Christ-like execution (which also very much resembles a similar sequence in Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark), followed by a caption that threatens a sequel set in New York.

Free Merde! Tokyo!
“Free Merde!”

Bong Joon-ho’s “Shaking Tokyo” is the tale of a unnamed hikikomori (shut-in) living alone in a totally ivy-covered house, financially supported by a father he hasn’t seen in years. The agoraphobe (Teruyuki Kagawa) has become accustomed to a life of loneliness and rigorous routine. One day he meets a cute pizza delivery girl (Yu Aoi), out of his league in terms of looks, but apparently with her own share of crippling emotional issues. She passes out in his foyer during an earthquake (not uncommon in the volcanic islands of Japan), and the hikikomori reboots her using her self-tattooed buttons on her body that appear to literally control her mood and health. The smitten loner escapes his self-created prison to seek her out again. He finds a city full of shut-ins, for whom even another earthquake isn’t enough to keep them out of their own homes for long.

2 Stars Movies

Michael Douglas vs. the yakuza in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain

Ridley Scott’s police thriller Black Rain (1989) opens in New York City at a time when The Meatpacking District actually was a meatpacking district. Tough cop Nick (Michael Douglas) is a ridiculously aggressive, foul-mouthed tough guy who tools around the city astride his crotch rocket. The despised Internal Affairs department suspects him of being a bent copper (spoiler alert: rightly, it turns out!), and pressures him to name names. By sheer accident, he and rookie partner Charlie (Andy Garcia) witness a Yakuza assassination in a Meatpacking District bar. After a thrilling chase through some vintage Manhattan locations since replaced by nightclubs, luxury condos, and The Apple Store, they manage to apprehend the perpetrator. The Yakuza assassin Sato (Yasaku Matsuda), being Asian in a Hollywood movie, is of course a martial arts expert. Contrived plot machinations result in Nick and Charlie escorting Sato back to Japan, whereupon they immediately and embarrassingly lose him. By this point, the plot has been constructed in such a way as to raise Nick’s stakes to the highest level possible: the only two things that matter to him, his honor and job security, depend on one task: catching or killing the bad guy. If he returns to the States empty-handed, he’s almost certainly to be disgraced.

Andy Garcia and Michael Douglas in Black Rain
Andy Garcia refuses to pass the edamame

In his Tokyo downtime, Nick entertains an unconsummated romance with gaijin Joyce (Kate Capshaw). The subplot is a boring distraction. Joyce is a mere love interest in the worst storytelling sense: her character is not integrated into the main thriller plot as is the female lead in Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me. It strikes this blogger as something of a copout on the part of Scott and screenwriters Craig Bolotin and Warren Lewis that their protagonist Nick goes all the way to Japan but doesn’t do as the Japanese men do (which is to say, Japanese women).

Nick and Charlie partner with upright Japanese cop Masahiro (Ken Takakura). Cultures clash, and the suave Charlie teaches the uptight Masahiro to party hearty, beating the Japanese at their own game (that being karaoke). When Nick’s moral ambiguity becomes known, the righteous Masahiro seems to convince Nick that theft of any sort is shameful. But in the end, it is Nick that teaches Masahiro that it’s OK to steal from criminals (in the moral universe of this film, at least). I’d never say that any work of fiction has an obligation to present morally-correct behavior (the kind of censorship that Hollywood theoretically left behind with the demise of the Production Code). But Black Rain seems to present Nick’s amoral behavior as The Right Thing, instead of the complicated actions of an interesting complex character.

Michael Douglas in Black Rain
A moodily backlit Michael Douglas contemplates a new hairdo

Scott stages a huge shootout sequence at a refinery, seemingly chosen for maximum visual appeal (picture the clouds of steam, showers of sparks, bursts of flame, etc.). In a kind of self-referencial closed circuit, Scott’s aerial shots of Japan look just like Blade Runner‘s futuristic dystopian Los Angeles, which was itself inspired by Tokyo. Another direct lift from Blade Runner: Nick discovers sequins from Joyce’s dress at a crime scene, recalling the sequence in Blade Runner in which Deckard tracks down the origin of synthetic snake scales — belonging, of course, to one of cinema’s most famous femmes fatale.

The opening credits state “In association with Michael Douglas.” Douglas is of course a successful producer (for instance, One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest), but Black Rain has the feel of an ego trip. More trivia: the director of photography Jan de Bont was later to direct Speed.

One final cheap shot before I go. I don’t know what has dated more: the cheesy music or Michael Douglas’ big hair.

5 Stars Movies

Seven Samurai protect others to save themselves in Akira Kurosawa’s Shichinin no samurai

Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is awesome and perfect, and this most recent viewing has affirmed its place among this blogger’s all-time favorites. It’s a big movie, by which I mean it makes the best use of its generous running time with just the right amount of everything: romance, comedy, drama, suspense, and action. Nearly half the film is taken up by a massive, expertly choreographed battle rivaling anything put to film by famous Western directors of violent spectacle like Michael Mann or Steven Spielberg. Long as it is, it’s about 15 minutes shorter than Gone With the Wind but twice as epic, twice as substantial, twice as… well, twice as good.

It is, in some ways, a simple tale broadly told. A rice farming village in 16th century Japan is under constant siege by a band of parasitic bandits that abduct its young women and regularly steal most of its annual yield. With no government or military to protect them, the villagers pool their meager resources to hire seven ronin (masterless samurai reduced to surviving hand-to-mouth as mercenaries) to fight on their behalf. The archetypal characters seem simplistic on the surface: villains to boo and heroes to cheer. In case the viewer have any doubt as to who the bad guy is, the chief bandit wears a black eyepatch, for crying out loud! Kambei (Takashi Shimura), the supremely capable and wise leader of the samurai, essentially lays down a universal definition of “hero” with his recruitment call: “There’s a tough battle ahead, leading to neither money nor rank. Will you join us?”

Seven Samurai
You messed with the wrong ronin

And yet, many subtleties gradually unfold. Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) is one of the great pleasures of the movie, but also one of its greatest mysteries. He’s clownish and childishly impulsive, yet passionately moral. He’s a commoner masquerading as a samurai, his only certification being his ridiculously long sword (presumably the liberated former possession of a very tall samurai). Kambei, whom in another life could have been a good shrink, correctly deduces Kikuchiyo’s motivations for having attached himself to the venture; he himself is a peasant farmer with pretensions for more. He directly identifies with the farmers’ plight, yet his deep-seated class insecurities fuel his a love-hate relationship with them. As an essay by Kenneth Turan in the Criterion Collection edition booklet points out, medieval Japan was a fiercely delineated caste society, and the fact that a former farmer might presume to call himself a samurai is a huge transgression. For a very different, more subdued dramatic performance by Mifune, see Kurosawa’s Stray Dog.

As we learn more about Kikuchiyo, we likewise slowly get a more and more complex portrait of the villagers. They are no doubt the victims of a serious crime. Yet they whine all the way and mythologize themselves as helpless, saintly, victimized salt of the earth that must resort to hiring disgraced samurai to protect them. But they harbor a dark secret; they have robbed many fallen samurai of their armor and weapons over the years Their veritable armory of pilfered gear of war is useless to them, and yet they shamefully hide it from the samurai protecting them (even though it would bolster their coming war). The seven samurai are deeply offended, and yet nevertheless do the right thing and defend the village. But the gulf between the two classes, samurai and farmer, is reaffirmed.

Seven Samurai
He’s a wild and crazy samurai

Seven Samurai is in the company of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Citizen Kane, and Vertigo, a special class of film so famously influential that even first-time viewers may very well feel they’ve seen it before. Just to name a few of Seven Samurai’s first-generation offspring: The Magnificent Seven is an unapologetic transposition of the original from feudal Japan to the American West. The Dirty Dozen and Ocean’s Eleven both borrow the trope of recruiting a gang of misfits one-by-one, whom in concert become capable of strengths impossible as individuals. Another American-produced remake is scheduled for release in 2009, this time set in modern-day Thailand.

The 2006 Criterion Collection edition is a required library item, not one to merely rent. A magnificent restoration of the film itself is accompanied by a beautifully designed sleeve and booklet. A surprising amount of damage remains in the long battle sequence in the second half of the film, but Criterion’s reputation for quality ensures that these are almost certainly the best available materials. Perhaps these reels were more frequently subjected to torture over the years by scholars?

Why you need to read the booklet:

  • Kenneth Turan on the full year of production it took to make the film, mirroring the time that passes in the movie. On a practical level, the extended production allows for greater realism like Kambei’s hair realistically growing back after shaving his head in the beginning (the topknot is a prized symbol of the samurai; not just a fashion but a requirement of their caste). But also on a thematic level, one year = the farming cycle of life: planting through harvest.
  • Peter Cowie on the mutual admiration society between Kurosawa (a fan of the Hollywood Western) and John Ford.
  • Philip Kemp on 16th Century Japan. The feudal society had little distinction between ronin and bandits.
  • Peggy Chiao on Kurosawa’s influences. Kurosawa was a Marxist in his 20s, but later mellowed. His older brother turned him on to Dostoyevsky, but committed suicide.
  • Alain Silver on Kurosawa’s staging and composition.
  • Stuart Galbraith IV on the historical context of the contemporary Japanese cinema, which was flourishing at the time.
  • Appreciations by directors Sidney Lumet and Arthur Penn.
  • Toshiro Mifune’s quite funny and entertaining reminiscences. Mifune claims he devised his character, as nothing had been written yet when he was cast.

Supplemental features on the bonus discs:

  • “Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create” – an almost excessively hagiographic biography, but with several amusing anecdotes. Shooting all year meant continuing through February’s freezing mud, while Mifune was almost naked. Kurosawa dutifully stood in the mud with his cast and crew, and was literally frostbitten.
  • “Seven Samurai: Origins & Influences” – “The Story of the 47 Ronin” was a popular puppet theater tale for hundreds of years, and was adapted into films several times a year in early Japanese cinema. One of those observations that sounds obvious in retrospect, but needs to be pointed out by somebody: Ronin (pronounced by some as “roh-ee-nin”) stories are more popular than samurai stories because they are inherently more dramatically interesting.
  • “My Life in Cinema: Akira Kurosawa” – a long interview by fellow director Nagisa Oshima.

Must read: the Criterion Contraption review by Matthew Dessem

2 Stars Movies

All the world’s a stage in Kenneth Branagh’s As You Like It

I’ve been a Kenneth Branagh fan ever since seeing the joyous trifle Much Ado About Nothing on a date with my first girlfriend in high school. Probably to my date’s dismay, it was also the moment I fell passionately in love with Emma Thompson. Later, I enjoyed his down and dirty Henry V, the Hitchcockian noir Dead Again, the over-the-top-and-beyond bombast of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and even met another future girlfriend at Hamlet. But As You Like It is decidedly lacking in Branagh’s proven flair for translating theatre to the medium of cinema. In the US at least, it was originally intended for theatrical release through Picturehouse, but went straight to HBO.

Having never read the play nor seen it performed, I’ll cop to having done a little cramming on Wikipedia, the 21st Century answer to Cliff’s Notes. Branagh has relocated the action from a duchy in France to an enclave of expatriate Europeans in 19th century Japan, but to what advantage? There is little sense of a European community abroad in an alien land; in fact very few Asian actors appear at all, even in the background. A silently-staged ninja attack is a promising opening, but ultimately disappointing to arthouse audiences with highbrow wire-fu expectations raised after Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Bryce Dallas Howard in As You Like It
Rosalind & Celia’s pretty frocks

Obviously a low-budget film, As You Like It suffers in ways that similarly-priced movies made virtue. Stanley Tucci’s The Impostors, for example, made the cheap sets part of the fun, and beat Branagh by a few years to the device of an epilogue featuring an ensemble cast breaking the fourth wall by literally walking off-set and behind the camera.

Other miscellaneous disappointments:

• There’s an over-reliance on long, clumsy steadycam takes, especially one fumbled shot in which Kevin Kline’s face is obscured throughout most of his delivery of the play’s most famous monologue: “All the world’s a stage…”

• With a private English garden standing in for the forests of Japan, the overcast weather mutes the color palette. The most vibrant colors are the occasional blossoming tree and the pretty frocks worn by Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Celia (Romola Garai).

• Brian Blessed (a regular in Branagh’s company) doesn’t do nearly enough of his trademark shouting. Perhaps he was afraid to rupture the delicate Howard’s eardrums.

• The omnipresent score is really, really bad.

• And finally, As You Like It sports what must be the cheapest fake lion in cinema history; it was probably possible to stage something more convincing on the stage in Shakespeare’s day.

3 Stars Movies

Dreams and memory in Satoshi Kon’s Paprika

There’s a huge interest in Japanese manga and anime in the US, but it’s rare for an anime feature film to get a theatrical release. From the name and poster alone (indeed, what caught my own interest), one might not even guess Paprika is foreign-language, let alone anime. Anime is a medium, not a genre, but it does have a certain popular perception in the US: either the apocalyptic sci-fi of Akira or the fairy tale fantasia of Spirited Away. And that’s not even taking into account the expectations of a generation of kids that grew up watching the dubbed Robotech and Star Blazers serials (which would be exemplified by… me).

The popular perception is not wrong; I’m not an anime expert, but Paprika has several of the superficial trappings: cybernetic technology (like Ghost in the Shell), a ghostlike female creature (like director Satoshi Kon’s earlier Millennium Actress), and an exponentially growing world-eating beast (like Akira and America’s own The Blob). But what sets Paprika apart is its psychedelic imagery, adult themes, and sheer weirdness.

Valley of the Dolls

Like Blade Runner, it’s equal parts detective story and science fiction, with a splash of horror. The mystery genre provides a structure for the nominal plot: Paprika is the dream alter ego of Dr. Atsuko Chiba, a dream researcher building a machine for use in psychoanalytic dream analysis. The device they’re building is called the “DC Mini”, a name which, every single time, made me think of DC Comics’ miniseries. Chiba’s Blade Runner-esque mission is to track down three missing DC Mini devices, and their co-creator.

I hate it when that happens

Paprika even shares a theme with Blade Runner: the moral repercussions of new technologies. If dreams are a kind of “place”, and can be a shared reality (like the world of The Dreaming in Neil Gamain’s Sandman comic book series), what is the difference between it and real life? The potential of one world bleeding into another is very literally dangerous. One of the film’s villains uses the dream reality to commit a very disturbing form of rape, and another goes so far as to label the technology a potential form of terrorism: “Implanting dreams into other people’s heads is terrorism.” This is not hyperbole in the film’s universe: the city is almost destroyed by dreams.

Two final little things:

  • What’s the deal with the name? Is it a translation issue, or something about Japanese culture (or cuisine) I’m not aware of? A metaphor of spices and recipes is used at one point, but it still seems oddly random.
  • A key character is movie-obsessed cop, an amateur filmmaker in his youth. His noirish dreams only further expand the Blade Runner parallels. Paprika explicitly equates movie watching with dreams and memory.
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