REVIEW – Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

FilmJuice have my review of Hayao Miyazaki’s adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle. Re-watching the film for the first time since it first appeared in a UK cinema, I was struck by the extent to which it is a microcosm for all the strengths and weaknesses of Miyazaki’s direction:  On the plus side, the animation is spectacular, the mood is uplifting without ever seeming false and the design is a profound expression of nostalgia for a sophisticated, metropolitan Europe that may never have existed in the first place. On the down side, the plotting is frequently nonsensical and the characters have so little depth that they struggle to command our interest, let alone our sympathies. As I put it in the review:

If you are one of those upper middle-class parents that have latched onto Miyazaki as a reliable source of non-violent and morally uplifting children’s entertainment then Howl’s Moving Castle is definitely the film for you. The animation, artwork and pacing are more than enough to keep the little ones amused while their parents sit in open-plan kitchens drawing up plans to take over a Tuscan bean farm or a gite in the Dordogne. However, if you are a grown-up looking for grown-up ideas and characters then Howl’s Moving Castle is a touch more problematic.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece about Miyazaki’s Ponyo (2008) in which I suggested that Miyazaki’s attitudes towards humanity moved back and forth between flesh-rending misanthropy and warm-hearted sentimentality. In that piece, I concluded that Miyazaki tended to ‘do’ warm-hearted sentimentality a lot better than he did complex adult morality. Having recently re-watched both Ponyo and Howl’s Moving Castle, I now realise that my earlier diagnosis was entirely off base. The problem is not that Miyazaki struggles with adult morality, it is that he struggles with human psychology but that these struggles are less evident when they are presented as part of a film aimed directly at children. Indeed, both Ponyo and Howl’s Moving Castle suffer from the fact that they are films that revolve around entirely unconvincing love stories but because Ponyo presents itself as child-friendly, we are more inclined to forgive its lack of psychological foundation while Howl’s Moving Castle seems much more grown-up and so the lack of real characterisation is both obvious and grating.

REVIEW – Crows Zero (2007)

In a recent review over at FilmJuice, I moaned about the tendency of Western distributors to only pick up the films that chimed with Takashi Miike’s reputation for producing horrifically violent cinema. However, Miike’s recent acquisition of mainstream respectability thanks to Thirteen Assassins (2010) and Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011) means that more and more of his lesser films are finding their way to US distribution. Yatterman (2009) is one example of this, Crows Zero (2007) is another.  THE ZONE has my review of the latter.

What I liked about the film is that it takes quite a traditional hero’s journey plot structure and neatly dovetails it with quite a melodramatic approach to characterisation meaning that despite being nothing more than a series of confrontations leading to a final battle, the film never feels overly episodic:

While the foreground of Crows Zero is dominated by the need to conquer the school, the subplots all revolve around the tensions between what the individual wants and what people expect of them. Thus, Ginji struggles with both the expectations of his father and the expectations of his followers while Serizawa tries to cope with the fact that his gang expects him to deal with Ginji despite the fact that he thinks the pair could probably be quite good friends. In true yakuza picture style, these tensions are explored in a highly stylised and melodramatic manner that owes more to opera than it does to gritty crime fiction. In fact, one subplot resolves itself by having someone bellowing their devotion into a rain-soaked sky while another subplot resolves itself through an epic all-day battle sequence. As the film progresses, this movement between genres proves itself to be remarkably effective as the melodrama distracts from the episodic structure of the plot while the humour and violence prevent the film from getting bogged down in self-indulgent teenaged angst. However, while Crows Zero neatly sidesteps the problems associated with both of its parent genres, the film does possess its own set of problems.

These problems are derived from the fact that, rather than constructing the series as one would a traditional cinematic trilogy, Miike directly imports the narrative conventions of shounen manga. Shounen manga narratives frequently span dozens and dozens of books and in order to support these astoundingly lengthy narratives, manga writers have developed their own set of techniques that are very different to those of cinematic series. While the techniques required to sustain lengthy cinematic series are evolving in light of franchises such as The Avengers, Miike’s use of narrative techniques derived from manga feels like too much change far too quickly resulting in some astonishingly awkward plotting. As I say in the review, I can imagine how these techniques might work in the context of an entire series, they are really quite distracting in the context of an individual film (indeed, given that the sequel exists and is now three years old, I think it was a major mistake not to release both films as a box set).

REVIEW – Yakuza Weapon (2011)

THE ZONE has my review of Tak Sakaguchi and Yudai Yamaguchi’s muddled and disappointing Yakuza Weapon.

The film presents itself partly as a genre spoof and partly as an earnest exercise in splatterpunk excess.  Unfortunately, like many recent American attempts at producing a high-budget exploitation film, the film winds up feeling forced and spread too thinly.  In my review I explain why this should be:

Back in the late 1950s, filmmakers like Roger Corman realised that there was good money to be made in pandering to youthful audiences. This insight spawned a business model whereby young directors were given small pots of money and instructed to go off and produce something sensational and titillating that might appeal to people from their age group. This business model proved remarkably effective and fueled not just the craze for drive-in movies but also the kinds of exploitation film that played in grind-house cinemas all over America. Given that these filmmakers frequently operated with very little guidance beyond the need to ramp up the sex and violence whilst remaining under budget, exploitation filmmaking rapidly became a sort of Darwinian swamp in which ambitious directors experimented with new techniques in the hope that their films would out-compete those of their contemporaries. However, as with all evolutionary processes, exploitation film produced far more failures than it did successes meaning that for every John Carpenter and Dario Argento there were dozens of Uwe Bolls.

Fast-forward 30 years and the kids who grew up watching exploitation films became the cigar-chomping producers who handed out pots of money. Mindful of the market for nostalgia, these producers green-lit a series of high profile projects designed to tap into the market for exploitation-style filmmaking. Cue the emergence of films such as Quentin Tarantino’s Deathproof (2007), Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror (2007), Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell (2009), Patrick Lussier’s Drive Angry (2011), and the entire back catalogue of Neveldine/ Taylor. Though not without its artistic and commercial successes, this grind-house revival suffers for the fact that most of its excesses come not a desperate need to do something radically different in order to stretch a budget and capture an audience but from a deliberate attempt to parody or recapture the insane experiments of the past.

 

Part of the joy of watching exploitation films lies in their sheer unpredictability. Exploitation filmmakers are so desperate to find an audience that they will do anything to capture our attention and this can produce some really memorable cinematic moments. However, when the director is provided with a lavish budget in order to intentionally recapture that feeling of desperate experimentation, the results invariably feel forced and stage-managed like some grim party where everyone is so desperate to have a good and crazy time that the excess of good will completely smothers all spontaneity and freedom. Technically flawed and way, way, way too long for what is essentially a two joke film, Yakuza Weapon is disappointingly dull.

REVIEW – Yatterman (2009)

My review of Takashi Miike’s Yatterman has just gone live over at FilmJuice.

Wheeled out as part of an attempted relaunch of a children’s anime franchise from the 70s, Yatterman is absolutely fantastic to look at: The design is sensational, the special effects superb and the action sequences flawless. Most interesting of all is the fact that Miike did not feel in anyway compelled to ‘darken’ the source material as Western directors have insisted on doing when adapting video games and comics. Of course, this ‘darkening’ betrays a deep-seated distrust of the source material; comics and video games are not a fitting subject matter for film and so any attempt to adapt them for the screen must go out of its way to appear ‘mature’ and ‘series’ even when it is nothing of the sort. As a result of this refusal to betray the source material, Yatterman is delightfully bright and poignantly childish… I mean, the opening scene sees a giant robotic chef fighting a giant robotic dog. Grimdark this ain’t. However, while this is all very interesting from a design point of view, it does not make for a particularly interesting film as the characters and plots are taken directly from the source material and 70s children shows are not known for their robust characterisation. Even in Japan.

The only thing preventing Yatterman from being completely unwatchable is Miike’s decision to present the characters as brightly-coloured cartoons that secretly yearn for a normal adult life:

Furthermore, the film suggests a similar tension between adult sexuality and bawdy anime-style humour. Indeed, when perverted baddy Boyacky (Namase) reveals his innermost desire to possess all the schoolgirls of Japan we assume his desire to be sexual in nature. However, when we cut to the inside of Boyacky’s fantasy we learn that he desires nothing more than to paint their toes. Thus, the man who spends the entire film leering down cleavages, peeking up skirts and drooling at unexpected nudity is revealed as being so sexually stunted and emotionally immature that he literally cannot imagine himself having actual sex with another human being.

In other words, either you spend your time leering at moe figurines or you get to have proper sex with people. You can’t have it both ways. Given that the anime attached to this film is filled with fanservice and that the film itself was presumably financed on the assumption that it would pander to otaku, you have to salute Miike’s bravery. Even Michael Haneke never went so far as to call his audience a pack of emotionally stunted virgins.

REVIEW: Empire of Passion (1978)

THE ZONE have my review of Nagisa Oshima’s old-fashioned ghost story Empire of Passion.

There is something decidedly odd about the fact that Empire of Passion netted Oshima an award for best director at Cannes. Indeed, while the film is wonderfully atmospheric and elegantly composed, it is ultimately nothing more than a genre piece in which an adulterous couple are hounded into madness by what they perceive to be an avenging spirit.  In my review, I suggest that the award may well have been given out not for Empire of Passion but for In The Realm of The Senses, the hugely controversial and sexually graphic film that Oshima made prior to this one.

Such trifles aside, Empire of Passion remains a hugely compelling exploration of the mechanics of desire, self-censure and social oppression. Indeed, one of the most striking things about this ghost story is that the ghost never actually cries out for vengeance. In fact, all the ghost wants to do is continue to work as a rickshaw driver. Rather than coming from the ghost, the couple’s slide into madness is caused by their refusal to accept what it is that they have done and why it is that they did it:

Empire Of Passion lends itself beautifully to a Freudian interpretation because it articulates not only the individual’s reticence to accept their hidden desires but also the problem of living as a person who does accept that they have certain needs and desires. Indeed, while Seki and Toyoji seem genuinely horrified by the intensity of the desire that their tryst unlocks, the real meat of the film lies in the characters’ refusal to own up to those desires and incorporate them into their personalities.

A thoroughly excellent film

REVIEW – Pigs & Battleships (1961)

Videovista have my review of Shohei Imamura’s fifth film Pigs & Battleships.

Released as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series, Pigs & Battleships comes with Imamura’s first film Stolden Desire as an added extra.  As I said in my review of the earlier film, despite the fact that Pigs & Battleships is the ‘main feature’ on the disc, Stolen Desire is probably a better film to start with at it serves as a lovely introduction to some of Imamura’s concerns and techniques.  In particular, both films share a similarly frantic and grubby atmosphere of desperate people who are trapped between idealism and realism and are forever making the wrong decisions:

Pigs & Battleships is a film of moments and atmospheres rather than plots and characters. Its characters, although complex and beautifully acted, are seldom allowed much room to breathe in a film that is positively teeming with plot. In fact, this film has so much plot that it can, at times, be difficult to follow. Better then to take a step back from faces and events and focus instead on Imamura’s depiction of Japanese society as a vast ocean that teems with life but whose ceaseless churn can kill in a second. Aside from its beautifully frenzied atmosphere, Pigs & Battleships is littered with lovely cinematic moments and camera movements so beautiful that they’ll melt your face.

On a side note: it has come to my attention that Eureka have got into something of a barney with the book publisher Phaidon over Phaidon’s series of books about directors entitled ‘The Masters of Cinema’. As Eureka point out on their website, their DVD and Blu-ray label pre-dates Phaidon’s book series by a number of years and given how well-known and well-respected Eureka’s MOC label is among European cinephiles, Phaidon’s decision to use the same name for their series of books can only cause confusion.  Eureka have said that they’d be willing to license the name but Phaidon are insisting that the names do not cause confusion. Which is bollocks obviously. If I walked into a bookshop and saw a series of books about famous directors entitled ‘The Criterion Collection’ I would naturally think that it was affiliated with the American DVD label.

What makes this sordid story even more bizarre is the fact that Phaidon are currently the owners of the venerable French film magazine Les Cahiers du Cinema and their Masters of Cinema books come with Cahiers branding on them.  While Cahiers has not been a decent magazine for a number of years now, the name Cahiers du Cinema still means something.  In fact, it means quite a bit more to European cinephilia than Masters of Cinema so why are Phaidon trading on someone else’s brand when they have an even more valuable brand of their own that they could trade on? A series of books released under the Cahiers du Cinema brand would be a great idea but instead, Phaidon have decided to borrow someone else’s name.  Unfortunate.

REVIEW – Stolen Desire (1958)

Videovista have my review of Shohei Imamura’s first film Stolen Desire.

Given that Imamura is perhaps best known for his later films including the Cannes-winning The Ballad of Narayama (1983) and The Eel (1997) it is perhaps unsurprising that this seldom-seen remake of Ozu’s A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) should have been overlooked. However, released by Eureka alongside his fifth film Pigs & Battleships (1961) as part of their Masters of Cinema series, Stolen Desire actually constitutes a fascinating introduction to some of Imamura’s methods and concerns, it also gives us some insight into Imamura’s attitude towards his former master Yasujiro Ozu:

Stolen Desire is a film that is full of rage not only at the old guard who refuse to let go of the past but also at the young turks who doff their caps and pay their dues like good little citizens. Stolen Desire is the film of a young man who is angry with not just his generation and his society, but also with himself. The question is: if Kunida is Imamura, does that mean that Yamamura is Ozu?

When I say that this film was re-released alongside Pigs & Battleships I mean it quite literally as it comes as a DVD extra when you buy the film! Bargain!

REVIEW – Arrietty (2010)

FilmJuice have my review of Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s Arrietty. A Studio Ghibli adaptatation of Mary Norton’s Borrowers books.

As one might expect of a film directed by one of Ghibli’s finest animators, Arrietty is visually very impressive indeed. The characters are well-designed, the sets are elegant and the re-use of mundane items — de rigueur in all wainscot fantasies — is both imaginatively conceived and brilliantly executed.  However, beyond such shallow set-dressing, Yonebayashi displays a skill for visual storytelling that shows an astonishing amount of promise:

However, while the film repeatedly shows us how alien a world can be when it is not built with you in mind, it also whispers of conciliation and companionship and of what beauties might be achieved if only humans and borrowers could learn to live together. This yearning is symbolised by a dollhouse built by Sho’s family as a place for borrowers to live. A place of glittering chandeliers and tiny silver kettles, the dollhouse is nothing short of a holy land for a group of small people that are very afraid and very alone in a world full of humans.

Unfortunately, while Yonebayashi’s direction is flawless, many of his visual motifs work against Miyazaki’s characteristically slap-dash plot.  Indeed, while Yonebayashi is hinting at what might be if humans and borrowers could live together, the film ends with the borrowers leaving the world of humans completely.  The disconnect between the story told by the film’s visuals and the story told by the film’s script gives the impression that Arrietty is filled with unresolved plot lines resulting in a film that feels more like the opening of a trilogy than a self-contained world.

REVIEW – Battle Royale (2001)

THE ZONE has my review of  Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale: Director’s Cut, which has recently been re-released on DVD.

My review attempts to localise Battle Royale within a dystopian tradition which, it seems to me, is peculiarly Japanese. What distinguishes Battle Royale from many dystopian fictions starring plucky teenagers is that the film uses every possible opportunity to mock and ridicule the suffering of its teenaged scapegoats. Indeed, while writers in this tradition are quick to point the finger at governments that blame the young for social problems, works in this tradition also pour scorn on the youth that allow themselves to be victimised:

Again and again, Japanese genre writers depict modern Japan as a hellish place where the old lash out against the youth in ignorance, fear and hatred but the youth refuse to organise and refuse to do anything about their treatment thereby suggesting that no matter how immoral these old people might be, they are not entirely wrong about Japan’s passive, consumerist youth.

The ways in which Fukasaku mocks and trivialises his teenaged characters feeds directly into my one serious complaint about this re-edition: Was a Director’s Cut really necessary?

REVIEW – Confessions (2010)

  Videovista have my review of Tetsuya Nakashima’s Confessions.

Based on a novel by Kanae Minato Confessions (a.k.a. Kokuhaku) is a brilliantly conceived psychological thriller involving an elaborate scheme to take revenge for the murder of a child. Powerful and astonishingly mean, the film is sadly let down by some over-cooked but nonetheless well executed music video-style visual flourishes:

As the ghastly constellation of neuroses that lead to the murder is carefully illuminated, Confessions flirts with forgiveness, bats its eyelashes at reconciliation but ultimately ends in an act of vengeance so beautifully composed and ambiguous in its meaning that it rivals anything found in the work of such divinities of the form as Claude Chabrol, Alfred Hitchcock, Ruth Rendell or Patricia Highsmith.

My review also contains an extended complaint about the difference between material shot in order to encourage people to buy a film and material shot in order to help people make the most of a film they have already bought.  The second category makes for excellent DVD extras.  The first… not so much.