Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Wilderness Survival for Girls (2004)

Directed by:  Eli B. Despares and Kim Roberts
Starring:  Jeanette Brox, Megan Henning, Ali Humiston, and James Morrison
Release date:  2004

This movie can best be described as Deliverance for teen girls.  Secrets, friendship, survival, and morality are the main themes in both films, while fighting the fears brought on by the natural environment. Two lifelong friends, upper middle classers Ruth and Debbie, take their new, wilder friend Kate to Ruth's parents' cabin along the continental divide for the weekend.  It's been 8 years since anyone's been to the cabin.  Eight years ago, two girls in the "neighborhood" of wealthy cabin-owners were murdered by a man who was never caught, leaving the families afraid the murderer was lurking in the forest all that time.

With no cell phone reception and no occupied cabins close by, the girls prepare for a night of pot smoking, story telling, and beer drinking to celebrate their upcoming graduation from high school.  Early tensions begin to bubble as the girls hint to each other about hidden feelings, petty jealousies, and back-stabbing confidences.  Their last hurrah is shattered when a man enters the cabin, claiming to have been squatting there for 8 years.
The performances are all solid.  The actresses fit their parts very well.  One pet peeve of mine is when a movie maker attempts to fit girls into roles they have no business playing.  That isn't the case here.  Although the device of having friends of different backgrounds and different personalities thrown together for survival is a bit tiresome, especially the way it is usually done with girls, this one handles the situation a bit more delicately.  Kate, the wild child, goes a bit overboard on the costuming props (pink streaked hair, tramp stamp tattoo, etc.), for the most part the personas of the girls are well crafted.

The directors/writers, married team Eli Despares and Kim Roberts, are not very experienced with feature films.  Kim has editing and writing credits on many documentaries, including Food, Inc. and Waiting for Superman. 

Jeanette Brox (Ruth) does a wonderful job as the more mousey of the three.  However, she speaks always in a whisper and I had to turn the sound up to hear her, and she looks like someone squished Renee Zelweiger down and taught her to act.  Brox has mostly TV credits to her name with just a few feature films, but is easily the best in this group and the pivot around which the other characters revolve.  Incidentally, Brox won the Los Angeles IFP/West Film Festival award for Outstanding Performance in this film.

Megan Henning (Debbie) also has mostly TV credits, including Mad Men more recently.  At the time of this movie she was 26 years old but played a very convincing 17 year old with sexual orientation issues.

Ali Humiston (Kate), is the least experienced and I thought the strongest performance.  She has such roles to her name as Baton Twirler in an Olson Twins movie and Teddy Bear Fan (uncredited) in Colin Fitz Lives.

James Morrison (the stranger) is very realistic as the mountain man.  Bill Buchanan from 24 is one of the many notable TV roles for the former circus tight rope walker.  Interestingly, he is also a stage actor, yoga instructor, and film maker.

There are some interesting touches to this film.  One is the cinamatography.  Camera angles give this basic film a rather unsettling sensation, adding what I felt was a touch of sophistication. Close-ups, views from the ceiling looking downward on the entire room, and corner shots keep the viewer a bit unsettled, almost creating a feeling of unfamiliarity and nervousness that the characters were likely feeling themselves.

Another touch that leapt out at me was the stranger's hand.  In one scene he ghosts his hand down Ruth's arm, under her clasped hands, while the camera focuses up close on her hands.  When his fingers become visible from beneath hers, they are not just regular hands, or smeared with some dirt or make-up.  They have ground in blackness around the nails.  Not loose, as if they were a movie prop, but as if he had actually been in the forest for 8 years.  Many impressive little details like this add to the reality of the story.

Terrified that the man is the killer of the girls 8 years ago, the three friends decide to take matters into their own hands, despite their brewing differences and unsteady alliances.  Stranded and with no telephone, their fears and personal hauntings begin to take hold.

Other than a conversation about masturbation, a lesbian kissing scene, and a brief topless sunbathing scene, the movie is appropriate for teens, while still having enough tension to keep older audiences interested.  My only criticism with the film is that I would have added a bit more struggle with nature, because of the name of the film and it being a major theme that is not fully exploited.
Definitely give this one a watch.  It's worth the time. Most ratings I've seen for this movie are fairly low, but I did not agree with them.  It's a very well put-together little film and at 78 minutes it doesn't drag on too long.  Some of the remarks I've read about it include the ridiculous decisions made by the characters.  However, having been one of the irrational creatures known as teenaged girls, I found their actions and decisions quite age- and experience-appropriate.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Who Killed Nancy? (2009)

Director Alan G. Parker
Executive producer Steve Milne (Moon- co-producer)
Producer Christine Alderson (Valhalla Rising)

Nancy Spungen, found stabbed to death under the bathroom sink in room 100 of the Chelsea Hotel in New York on October 12, 1978, had many of what one could call enemies. After graduating from an alternative school for troubled youth in Pennsylvania where Sylvester Stallone also attended school, Nancy began to pursue her dreams, which included death, according to her mother. Called Nauseating Nancy by people who knew her in New York, it took the girl no time at all to build up the same reputation in London when she arrived with Johnny Thunders (1952-1991) and the Heartbreakers.  Nancy, however, is not as much the subject of this documentary as Sid Vicious.  Nancy's mother had written her story and then written her daughter off.  I reviewed Deborah Spungeon's book And I Don't Want to Live This Life on my book blog.

The documentary Who Killed Nancy is a very well made, hip-looking film spiced up with lots of interviews with 70s punk artists and figures who were big on the punk scene in New York and London in the late 70s.  There are also plenty of clips from newspapers and interview shows of important personalities in Sid and Nancy's story.  While her own mother believed that Nancy handed Sid the knife and told him to kill her if he loved her, many in the punk scene for the past 30+ years have continued to care and to ponder what really happened in the wee hours of the morning on October 12, 1978.

 Through candid talks with people who knew Sid and his mother Anne Beverley, filmmakers reveal a boy raised with a bohemian mother who once used her toddler son to smuggle drugs into England.  Sid, however, was shown to be highly intelligent and attuned to the whole press and media machine, knowing how to shock people, "fool them" in his words, into underestimating him.  While many people only know what the movie Sid and Nancy tells of Sid's life, the documentary paints a clearer picture of who he was before fame and what he became after meeting Nancy.

General consensus between friends, enemies, and people who were on the scene is that there is no way Sid would ever have killed Nancy even if he had been physically able to wield a knife the night of her death.  Through interviews with a detective who worked on the case, people who were in and out of Sid and Nancy's apartment that night, and people who were at the party at Sid's mother's apartment the night Sid died under mysterious circumstances, we get a fresh list of suspects.  Six people were wanted for questioning by the NYPD but after Sid's death, no one cared to hunt them down.  Now, the six names are blacked out of paperwork.  Chilling coincidences followed, including the presence of Rockets Redglare, a drug addicted man born hooked on heroine to parents from an  Italian-American mob family who gave Nancy 40 delauded pills that night, handfuls of people who saw Sid passed out and utterly unresponsive, and the bizarre condition and placement of the murder weapon when police arrived.  Friends and admirers of Sid give their theories on Nancy's murder, Sid's overdose, and his mother's suicide.

Who Killed Nancy is made from the perspective of people who believed in Sid's innocence and have a nostalgia and touching memory of the 70s punk scene.  Set with an engaging soundtrack of songs performed by the Buzzcocks, Terrorvision, and Steve Dior, the film adds a touch of more modern feeling punk. The documentary is broken up between segments by flashy, sometimes ridiculous animation produced by Nick Rutter who worked on animation for Monty Python.  The director, Alan G. Parker, is well versed in the story of Sid and Nancy. He wrote a book with Sid's Mother, Anne Beverley, entitled Sid's Way; the book Vicious: Too Fast To Live; the book Sid Vicious: No One is Innocent from which this documentary was made; and the book Expose:  Sex Pistols Wessex 1977.  He also worked on the films Love Kills: The Making of Sid and Nancy and God Save the Sex Pistols, among quite a number of books and films of other subject matter.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Detective Hoffman's Opus

It’s popular to be a hater.  But as the trailers say, “If it’s Halloween, it has to be Saw!” I went with my daughter last night to see Saw 7:3D for Halloween and I was so pleasantly surprised that I dare say I loved it.  Yep.  Loved it!

Of course, we are well-known Jigsaw fans.  This movie did not squelch in the Tobin Bell eye/ear candy, either.  Jigsaw’s (pre-recorded) voice and flashback physique appeared in this one, as well.  Nevertheless, the first 2/3 of the movie are utter crap.  Hoffman, as incompetent as he has always been (on the police force as well as Jigsaw sidekick), continues to bungle his way through John Kramer’s elaborate plots.  Once again, John, in his omnipotent glory, had the time on his death bed to craft yet another funny game for what turns out to be the most contemptible Jigsaw victim to date.

The last 3rd of the movie, however, is a thing of horrific beauty! It is a fast-paced half hour of sheer cliff-hanging slasher genius! Hoffman in his farewell tour gets his comeuppance, old friends return, and the groundwork for 7 more films is laid! Sit through the first to devour the last!

Behold, Bobby, the uber-adjusted fake survivor of a Jigsaw trap.  Yes, fake, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure it out, either.  Dear Bobby, with his PR whore and sexy female lawyer, lifelong best bud, and trophy wife craft an elaborate scheme to benefit from the fear and sympathy of a public terrorized by the Jigsaw killer.  Bobby creates a story of his kidnapping and ordeal in the clutches of the heinous serial killer, writes a book, produces a video, goes on talk show tours, and runs support groups.  Support groups where he tells his story and attempts to help other Jigsaw survivors handle their psychological baggage.

Of course, the all-knowing Jigsaw witnesses the blasphemy from his stellar throne and calls down upon the head of Bobby and his pals the justice of the traps.

Bobby, as I stated, is the most villainous of Jigsaw’s victims.  I would yank out a tooth and insert a hot poker for any of the drug addict prostitutes in Saw 3 before I would spit on Bobby’s shoe.  What’s he done that makes him so hideous to the eyes of proper society? He’s a liar.  Yep. A liar.  Nothing he says, does, or feels is real.  He creates his reality as he goes along.  I’ve known this person and he is not amusing. 

Jigsaw attempts to teach Bobby a lesson by running him through the typical grindstone that all chosen players have run before.  Will slimy Bobby pass or fail? The choice, as they say, is his.

The 3D is neat and as I’ve nothing to compare it to, really, all I can say is that it is a lot better than the Polar Express in 3D, which is the only other 3D I’ve seen.

Now, we must get into spoilers in order to analyze this movie to its fullest.  I would advise reading the following only after you’ve seen the movie or if you have no desire to see it.

First, Detective Hoffman, that sweet little firebug.  Let’s examine what he’s even doing here.  We all loved Amanda and it hurt us just as  much as it hurt John to have to get rid of her.  We can accept her as his protégé. What about Detective Hoffman? Detective Hoffman is not someone Jigsaw would have respected.  He did not have the intelligence of John Kramer nor the ruthless instincts of Amanda.  And he did not follow the rules at any point since his appearance.  He fumbles his way through the traps and it’s a miracle that he even survived this long. I believe, after seeing this movie, that this was all planned.  It stands to reason that Jigsaw planned for someone to muddle things up and so he used the only cop stupid enough to throw his life and future away on something as elusive as infamous glory.  Hoffman is like a little five year old boy whose mother swatted his hand and sent him to bed without dinner.  All of his traps and all of his interactions with victims are amateurish and lack the style of John Kramer and the finesse of Amanda.  He is but a tool, in several ways, and that is why John had Jill as his eyes and arms and legs throughout the entire Hoffman legacy.

Jill Tucker.  She’s annoying.  She did not try to keep her home together after the loss of her unborn child.  She did have one redeeming quality:  she continued to support John and give him any help she could in his plight to rid the world of jackassery. Heavy spoilers abound, so tread lightly.  Jill has honed a ruthless edge over the years standing in the shadows behind Jigsaw and helping John through his cancer.  She is busy doing his footwork while Hoffman is messing things up and preparing a trap with a person who seems to be basically innocent locked by the neck to a moving platform in the floor.  John Kramer never broke his established rules and he punished Amanda, the child of his heart, and he would not have appreciated Hoffman going about doing just as poor a job of following a few simple rules as Amanda did.

Nevertheless, Hoffman is having little sadistic playtime, and what does Jill, the former chalice of Jigsaw’s seed, do? Gets in his way by predestined order of her dearly departed.  She is paving the way for what could arguably be called Jigsaw’s ultimate plan:  the destruction of the hapless dimwit Detective Hoffman.  Only Hoffman catches her and does the unforgivable.  He murders John’s lady love.  So much less was done by poor Amanda and she received death.  Hoffman deserves hell on earth.  Jigsaw would not have wanted the innocent woman in the trap nor his own beloved to fall victim to a bonnet of his own design.  He deserves to die.

And he probably will. I predict in Saw 8 he will be the best and opening trap! Yes, Detective Hoffman, this was your opus, and you mucked it up!

But there is one thing I want to look into:  Remember our dear Bobby the Liar? Remember those support groups for Jigsaw survivors? Hmmmm….let’s see.

We had in number 1 the following escapees:  Amanda Young later killed by Denlon, Gordon (confirmed escapee by Saw 7), Jeff rumored to have committed suicide later.
In 2 we had:  Daniel Matthews escapee unaccounted for, Eric Matthews later pulled apart in trap.
In 3 we had:  Corbett Denlon who is perceived as being rescued by Hoffman but warned by Amanda not to trust him (hmmmm), Mark Hoffman confirmed survivor.
In 4 we had:  Morgan who escaped with the help of Rigg.
In 5 we had:  unconfirmed escapee Brit, Mallick who did appear in Saw 3D in Bobby’s support group!
And finally in Saw 6 we had:  Addy who was in the support group in Saw 3D, Brent and Tara confirmed escapees, Emily who is in the support group in Saw 3D, Simone the bitter escapee in Saw 3D.

So, with this nice list of escapees, who were the two unknown pigheads at the end alongside our long lost doctor friend??? With Dr. Gordon tossing out the saw, how will Hoffman get out of the shitter? And if he doesn't what will happen to him? These questions and more will be answered on the next exciting episode of As the Blade Turns.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dance, Drama, and Death: Ballet in Film

From my oldest memory I have loved ballet.  I remember being three years old and making my dad put my hair in sponge rollers so that when I took them out I could dance like Shirley Temple. I especially loved the ballet part in The Little Princess.  I had posters of ballerinas, scores from ballets, and then there were the movies.

These movies make me think of the ballet studio that is one of my comfort places in memories from my childhood.  The smell of the sweaty satin on the toe shoes, the resin box in the corner, freshly washed pink tights, all the pretty girls standing at the barre, arms in arabesque, the record player hissing as the needle bumped and skipped over the grooves.  It would be daylight when I went into the lobby with the other girls, their hair in soft buns, giggling softly waiting for the little ones to come out of the studio.  We would talk about school, getting our driver's licenses, what we were dressing up for on Halloween.  But our hearts were always on pause, and they remained that way until the studio door opened and it was our turn.  Freedom, dreams, hopes, grace, and beauty.  We would emerge from the bright flourescent lights of the studio to the darkness of the world outside that had kept turning, unnoticed, while we danced.

I will always have a soft spot for ballet in movies and below are my top 5, in honor of Black Swan, which I am very anxious to see.

1.  The Turning Point (1977)-  Directed by Herbert Ross, this movie stars Shirley MacLaine as a former ballerina who gave up dancing to marry and have a family.  When her daughter, played by ballerina Leslie Browne, decides to persue a ballet career, her mother must face the life she left behind and the jealousy she feels when her daughter is taken into the studio of a former friend who gave up the option of a family to stay in ballet.  The part of the daughter was auditioned for by Gelsey Kirkland, who was in the same company with Leslie at the time, and in a short-term relationship with Mikhail Baryishnikov, who portrays the Russian defecting danseur who woos Leslie Browne's character (and also did in real life, according to Gelsey Kirkland's autobiography).  The music is beautiful, Shirley MacLaine who was a dancer in her own right was magnificent, and the ballet (the focal point of the movie) is entrancing.

I saw this when I was a young teen and dreamed of being a ballerina myself.  Several of the dancers from my studio got together and drooled over it on many occassions.  This will remain in my heart as my number one ballet movie because of the mirror of real events in Baryshnikov's life at the time, and the whirlwind of Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine together.

2.  Red Shoes (1948)-Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger, The Red Shoes is loosely based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale of the same name.  In the movie, which uses beautiful sets and camera effects to stunning results, Moira Shearer plays a ballerina who gets her break when the studio owner is forced to put her in the limelight as replacement dancer.  He creates the ballet The Red Shoes just for her and begins to force her to choose between ballet and her lover, who is trying to force her to make the same decision.  A true tragic romance.

The classical ballet in this movie is lovely.  There are some very ethereal effects for the time.  Costumes are breathtaking.  I feel that some of the issues that plague the dancers in this movie are less timely than the ones in The Turning Point, which is one reason that this movie is 2nd on the list. 

3.  Suspiria (1977)- Directed by Dario Argento, Suspiria is a true ballet horror.  Dario Argento.  Joan Bennett, Udo Kier, blood, knives, nooses, witches and ballet.  What more do you need? I was about six or seven years old when I saw this movie and even this could not keep me from longing to dance!

4.  Ballet Shoes (2007)-Directed for TV by Sandra Goldbacher, Ballet Shoes stars Emma Watson, better known as Hermoine Granger.  Three orphans are adopted by an eccentric explorer.  Their only worldly possessions were ballet shoes.  With these shaping their destinies, the girls enroll in dance in London in the 1930s.  This movie has a beautiful, holiday feel to it, as lives are shaped for the good, families are created, and dreams are realized.  Made from the young adult novel by Noel Streatfeild, Ballet Shoes is one that I think will become a new Christmas tradition for my family.

5. The Company (2003)-Directed by Robert Altmas, The Company is a rather light-material film centered around a ballet company.  There are some scenes that will look familiar to dancers, like the ones showing the dancers all crashing together in one person's apartment, the injuries, and the jealousies.  Overall, it is not a great film, but my favorite Altman.  Part of the reason I don't rate it higher is Neve Campbell.  At any rate, the dancing is nice, it is just more modern than I usually prefer in a ballet.  I do love the dancing in the rain sequence that is just marvelous.  That scene keeps this one on my top 5 list of ballet films.  There are also great performances by an ensamble cast including Malcolm McDowell, James Franco, and William Dick.

These last two are honorable mentions simply because number 6 is a short film that isn't entirely about ballet, and number 7 is...something indescribable and not recommended but included because they should be applauded for whatever it was they attempted to do there.

6.  Box  -Directed by Takashi Miike, this short film is one of 3 in the Three Extremes.  The surreal story of twin ballerina/acrobats who are raised by their step-father, choreographer, boss, and lover (?), Box is one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen.  With magnificent use of color, metaphore, horror, and suspense, the tale goes from something quite simple (sibling rivalry) to ghost story to WHAT THE HECK?? in the span of only 40 minutes.

7.  Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary (2002)-Directed by Guy Madden, this is a....movie....ballet?...long, painful, comically serious rendition of Dracula made to look like a 1920s silent film.  Mostly in black and white, and with horrendous effects, the movie takes itself entirely too seriously, attempting to be a high art film, or a cult film like the Call of Cthulhu that made much better use of this style of film-making.  I did not get through the entire thing, regrettably, and the movie was not mine, thank goodness, so I will not subject myself to it again, but a glimpse is all one really needs of it.  But if you can watch the first 20 or 30 minutes, it is good for a big laugh.  The dancers are good, to their credit, and the lovely Asian Dracula dances his little heart out!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Couple of hidden gems in my to-watch pile

These movies do not have historical settings, but they are part of my to-watch pile, or were, for the to-watch pile project.  I did not expect to enjoy either of them as much as I did and decided to pass along the info in case anyone else might be putting off watching them in their piles.

1. Isolation (2005)- The back of this DVD case had a write-up that made the movie sound like a Saw rip-off in which people were used for medical experiments on an isolated farm. I bought it very cheap at a closing video store sale and had it for a couple months before I finally put it in. I was pleasantly surprised. The movie was not a Saw rip-off at all; on the contrary, the experiments were not on people, but on farm animals, namely cows. The acting was more than passable, with Sean Harris playing a farmer who is being paid by a scientist to use his farm and animals for an experiment to improve the production of beef. Sean has a lot of TV credits and a few movies but most notably will be playing in the upcoming Borgias series. The special effects were good and minimal for what they were and the supporting cast was excellent. The story and direction were solid and expressed a good deal of tension and a few startling moments.

I very much enjoyed it and will definitely watch it again. I’d never heard of it when I picked it up, and the subject matter of cows seemed silly at first, but it was well done and fairly realistic in plot and approach. I’d say this one is most definitely worth checking out.

2. Zzyzx (2006)

 This is a straight to DVD thriller that I suspected less than nothing from. The basic premise is that two men who are barely acquaintances make a cross-desert drive to Vegas. Despite warnings that Zzyzx Road in California is a highway that should be avoided due to the lack of anything but barren desert, they decide to take it. Along the way, the relationship between the two becomes strained when they hit and kill a man staggering down the desert road. Afraid of being caught, they wrap him in a blanket and put him in the back seat, during which time the man’s wife, out looking for him, arrives on the scene. The two offer to drive her back to her RV with the body of her husband hidden in the backseat.

What follows is a twist and turn of alliances, deceit, and confusion as the three tourists craft and exact their own plots upon each other. What made this thriller remarkable was that the twists went a different direction than the average thriller, the acting was superb, and the direction was pretty tight. Some of the camera techniques were irritating, but those were few and far enough between. Robyn Cohen, the female lead, was excellent, sleazy, and crafty. She did a more than adequate job, as did everyone on the cast despite having very little on their IMDB pages. Kenny Johnson, with a lot of TV work behind him, and Ryan Fox both played their parts with perfection. The story was very satisfying and there were some unique little scenes that I had not encountered before in thrillers that I was extraordinarily pleased with. I will watch this one again as well.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no Corrida), 1977

Writer/Director: Nagisa Oshima
Starring: Tatsuya Fuji and Eiko Matsuda

A breathtaking visual journey along the road to self-destruction, In the Realm of the Senses drags the viewer through a horrifying love story based on true events.

In 1936, a young woman from a wealthy family who had spent her life making poor choices and living fast and hard, went to work in a restaurant. She was trying to make something better of her life and get out of the life of prostitution she had been in from a fairly young age. What she did was meet the married owner of the restaurant and fall into obsession.

According to the book Geisha, Harlot, Strangler, Star by William Johnston, Sada Abe's crime was discovered a day after the death of her lover and three days later, she was found in a hotel room where she was preparing to commit suicide. She was arrested in 1936 and convicted of second degree murder and mutiliation of a corpse. She was not afraid of being arrested and in the infamous newspaper clipping she was smiling serenely and even asked for the death penalty (see the newspaper photo below). She was only given six years in prison, however and eventually slipped under the radar.

The movie In the Realm of the Senses is just one of the accounts of what might have occurred between Sada and Kitchi in the days before Kitchi’s death.  Unable to resist the alure of Sada, despite his previously loving moments depicted with his wife, Kitchi leaves his business and his family and retreats with the former prostitute to an inn.  The two fall victim to a great obsession.  As Sada's mental illness begins to materialize, Kitchi finds himself victim of her manic desires and plots.  Her eccentricities at first are endearing to him, but grow in such a morbid fashion that even though he seems to notice her decline, he cannot force himself to leave her.  No one around the couple is safe from Sada's paranoias and violent emotions.  Even her beloved falls victim more than once.

 The morality of Japan was in a flux when the movie takes place. The ideals between the classes of what was acceptable and what was not was still separated by a great divide. With more Western influence, there was a mixture of the waning Victorian values with the more relaxed ideals already existing in Japan. While women were able to work and live their own lives, fathers were still able to sell daughters to geisha houses and brothels, which is what happened to both Sada and her sister, who was also sexually promiscuous. This is also reminescent of the times not long before when women who were promiscuous in European countries could be confined to mental hospitals.

The world in which Sada existed was also full of a sense of nationalism and unity, pride in the country. Sada and Kitchi lived outside that realm, going from an acceptable place of mistresses and geisha and illicit liaisons to one of perversions and obsession and mental illness. While no one really knows what went on in the room where Sada and Kitchi spent their last days, the movie does a very realistic delve into a scenario that might have led to the emotional decline of the self-centered prostitute and the married business owner.

 The Criterion edition contains three very touching and entertaining interviews, the most notable one done in 2008 with the man who played Kitchi, Tatsuya Fuji (Bright Future). In the interview, he describes the sets as like cocoons, small and impeccable and beautiful, and they were very beautiful. One story from the Criterion interview that I wanted to relate here was the scene that made Fuji decide to take the part when he first read the script. I found it interesting because it was the scene that set the movie in the proper headspace for me and wordlessly described the dissociation of the lovers.

In this scene, Kitchi is leaving the room where he and Sada have been staying, which is a very rare occurance. He steps out into the bright daytime world after endless days and nights in the dimness of their filthy room. He seems a well-off man in an expensive kimono with no troubles in the world. And from the opposite side of the street, as he strolls along, passes a marching group of soldiers. Kitchi sees them and turns away. While the soldiers and the heart of Japan are heading in one direction, Kitchi, and with him Sada, are going their own way, the opposite direction, leaving the world behind. The director wanted to remove this very simple scene from the movie, but Tatsuya asked him to leave it in. This scene, for me, was the turning point of the film, the line drawn between the titillating sexual adventure of the first half and the decline of the second half.

 When you first meet Kitchi, he is a very handsome, vibrant man. By the end of the movie he seems a shadow of what he was. This is due not only to the intense passion Tatsuya brought to the role but to the preparations he made offscreen. In the Criterion interview, Tatsuya tells of how he spent most of his time in his room while other members of the cast and crew went drinking and eating. He lost 20 pounds during filming in order to show the demise of his character.

 The movie is very graphic sexually and violently. It isn’t for everyone. There are some disturbing images and some emotionally painful issues. I found it more disturbing, heartwrenching, and emotional than almost any other film I have ever seen.  I definitely list it in my top ten favorite films.

Comparison with Antichrist (possible spoilers next paragraph)

I normally do not feel very compelled to draw comparisons between movies, but I found that a lot of films came to mind as I watched this one. The themes of loneliness, loss, isolation, and fear are prevalent, and reminded me of the same sort of desperation that was present in Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009). The desperation of the females in both movies results in extreme measures to keep their place in the uncertain landscape of their relationships, not only with their lovers, but with the world around them and their tenuous grip on it. The desires of the men in both movies to help the ones they love ultimately lead them down a road from which it is impossible to turn.

The similar endings seem to say something elusive and essential about humanity and the nature of love. There are many other films I’ve seen that seem to take a lot of cues from In the Realm of the Senses, but I focused on Antichrist because it seemed such a modernization of the same story. There is a very deep delve into mental illness in both films, and the co-dependency that results when the partner of a mentally ill person cannot break the cycle of self-destruction.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Be a Man! Samurai School (2008)

Not even a month into the New Year’s Resolution and something’s made me break format! Why? Because it’s Be a Man! Samurai School’s live action adaptation written and directed by Tak Sakaguchi, the star of Versus. And because Samurai School has everything! Swords, blood that stains like Kool-Aid, manga style over-the-top fight scenes, and 45 year old men playing first year high schoolers. What does a co-ed school have that the Be a Man! Samurai School doesn’t? Nothing! Not even cheerleaders! Plus it has the super-secret Samurai School Cheer-Until-Your-Throat-Bleeds mystical power!

The movie was adapted from the manga of the same name by Akira Miyashita. Tak Sakaguchi of Death Trance, Versus, and Shinobi did this adaptation all on his own. Well not entirely. He had the help of the camera man from Death Trance, Shinji Fujita, whose love of close-ups is infuriating when flush-faced fan girls want full body shots. Tak Sakaguchi came out of nowhere after being discovered beating someone up on the sidewalk by the beloved Riyuhei Kitamura of Versus, Midnight Meat Train, and…the upcoming American version of Versus. The movie also stars Tak’s Versus co-star Hideo Sakaki.

All this is taking up too much time from the story synopsis so I will close it by saying that Tak’s adaptation of the manga that ran from 1985-1991 is brilliant. I forgot it was live-action at times! (Usually I do that the other way around, forget I’m watching animation when watching an anime, but that’s another story) I cannot wait to see what he does next, and am crossing my fingers that it’s a live-action version of Naruto with himself playing Sasuke.

The bespectacled computer geek, the pony-tailed sexy guy, the ugly brute, the pompadoured and pampered weakling, and the mysterious leader of the first year students, all essential manga cast, are right here in Samurai School. The first year students are led by none other than Tak Sakaguchi’s character Momo. He is a man-to-be of few words, but they are words of wisdom. First year students at Samurai School exist to clean up the broken glass from the all-powerful voice of the school principal, defend themselves from second years and rampaging drill instructors, save the school from renegade ex-students from a rival school, and fight to the death in a 300 year old battle at Mt. Fuji. Life isn’t easy at Samurai School.

But it is full of punishment, loincloths, and battles with lithe villains who can kill with the power of their sheer bishounen wickedness.

Momo gathers the outcasts of Samurai School under his strong wing by protecting them from bullies, helping with rudimentary math problems, and giving them something to day dream about while raising the school’s flag which bears the dramatic kanji character for MAN. When a rival school attacks, flattening all the second year students, it’s up to Momo and his little band of misfits to fight in the dreaded Three Strikes of Doom manliness test.

Well, it’s not a historical piece so I w asn’t going to mention costumes, but I will say this…school uniform fantasies are not just for boys anymore!

There is a very funny commentary track on the DVD that can be added to the subtitles on the screen, although it’s a bit confusing. Seems to be three, sometimes more, people talking on it, including Tak himself.

Shoei, the actor who plays the ugly brute, Togashi, hasn’t done a lot of movies that I could find, but he is very talented. He practically steals the entire show. He appears to be about 45 years old, but plays a first year student of about 15 who has never been on a date, cannot figure out 2 X 2 in math class, and cries openly when girls make fun of him. Thing is, while watching him I would forget that he was not a 15 year old kid. This all sounds outrageous, since there are about a dozen first year students over the age of 30, but it really works. They take themselves seriously, even the tubby cheerleader who cheers on a podium at night outside the school in his loincloth. The acting and film quality are excellent. The directing is wonderful. My only complaint aside from too many face close-ups is that the fight scenes a couple times were filmed so that it was quite obvious the fists weren’t connecting.

This movie comes highly recommended to those with a sense of humor and a bit of familiarity with anime or manga style. Don’t take it seriously. It isn’t a movie, it’s a manga adaptation and it does what it was meant to do perfectly.  And if you like Versus, the very long fight scene at the end between the stars of Versus will feel like a continuation of their last fight, and it's where the blood spray comes in.