Saturday, 25 January 2020

Shudder Saturday: Noroi: The Curse (2005)

Another hand-held horror means another divisive movie that fans should still seek out and make up their own minds about. This is a film I first watched over a decade ago, after having it recommended to me by many other horror movie fans, and it's one I was long overdue to revisit.

Imagine a cross between The Blair Witch Project and The Grudge and you're close to the overall content of this movie. It's another videotaped horror but this time most of it is edited together in readiness for a video doc that was never completed by a supernatural investigator (Masafumi Kobayashi, played by Jin Muraki) who disappeared.

I certainly had a feeling of dread while watching this movie (does anyone do dread better than our Asian friends?) but it's worth noting that the creepy moments, the genuinely creepy moments, are interspersed sparingly throughout the third act. That's not to say that you can't be scared by the rest of the film, it's just that the other details are deliberately layered in a way to build up to one hell of a finale.

The direction by Kôji Shiraishi, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Naoyuki Yokota, is spot on. Shiraishi has a filmography well worth exploring, and his name will be familiar to fans of "J-horror", but this is most possibly his finest hour. Everything feels genuine throughout, helped by the performances. Muraki is convincing in his way with everyone he meets, adapting to how they are in his direct interactions, Satoru Jitsunashi is believably jittery and unnerved as an apparent psychic, Mitsuo Hori, and Marika Matsumoto does well in a role that has her playing a version of herself.

The only main downfall to the film is that I felt I was two or three steps ahead of the investigator when apparent "revelations" appeared throughout, therefore I can't recommend this as highly as something that uses the format in a similar way, but keeps things moving a bit quicker in a way that stops you having the time to think ahead ([*Rec] being the main example that springs to mind).

Having said that, it would be remiss of me not to highly recommend any film that goes on at length about ectoplasmic worms, contains at least two subtly spooky ghost moments, and managed to get me to put the lights back on for a while when the sun went down. It's not quite the flawless classic that some of the praise for it might lead you to believe, although it certainly comes closer than most films done in this style,

Noroi: The Curse is definitely one to make time for. It's a crime that we've never had a decent disc release for it here in the UK, because so many people have instead ended up watching it on . . . various other sites.


Friday, 24 January 2020

Japanuary: Dead Sushi (2012)

Directed by Noboru Iguchi, who also wrote the script with collaborative help from Makiko Iguchi and Jun Tsugita, I knew that Dead Sushi would be a bit of a risky viewing choice, coming from the man who gave us the "F Is For Fart" segment in The ABCs Of Death, as well as the somehow-more-awful Zombie Ass: The Toilet Of The Dead. But it sounded like fun, and I sometimes just want something fun. Iguchi has also delivered the likes of Tomie: Unlimited and The Machine Girl, so I had to remind myself that not every film he does is focused on backsides and flatulence.

Rina Takeda plays Keiko, the daughter of a famous sushi chef. Keiko doesn't seem to be able to reach his impeccably high standards, so she runs away and ends up working in a rural inn. While stumbling and panicking through her job, Keiko ends up in the middle of a crazy situation when the recent batch of guests are targeted by a vengeful man (Yamada, played by Kentarô Shimazu) who can transform their sushi into something sharp and deadly.

Although this is a fun film, first and foremost, just how much fun you will get from it will really depend on your tolerance for bad CGI and plot developments that get sillier. The first third is mildly amusing (there's even a fun Evil Dead II reference tucked in there), and the lead up to the first fishy kill is perfectly fine. But things just get worse from then on, and there is nothing else to help distract you from the negatives.

The script isn't that good, although there's always a chance that some things are lost in translation when watching something with English subtitles. It's at its best when juxtaposing the silliness with the very serious way sushi chefs take their craft. Unfortunately, the rest is fairly useless. Aside from Keiko, none of the main characters are given enough characterisation or worthwhile lines of dialogue to make them worth spending any time with.

Takeda is a good lead, and the saving grace of the movie. She does well to act seriously within situations that just keep getting more and more ridiculous, culminating in scenes that have zombies around her, flying fanged foodstuffs to be evaded, and nunchucks made from sushi. Nobody else works as well as she does, although nobody does a terrible job either. It's just a shame that Shimazu is the only other memorable character, and that's only due to him being the villain of the piece.

If you can handle crazy, if you can accept that some films revel in special effects that aren't that special or effective, and if you appreciate the fine art of making perfect sushi, you can maybe get some enjoyment out of this. Although I was left unimpressed, overall, there were moments here and there that helped to keep this relatively painless as I waited for it to get to the end (and it still feels a bit overlong, even with a runtime of just 92 minutes). It may be more fun with the right company, or the right amount of alcohol.


You can buy something fishy here (that's also the cheapest option for many other people, although it's a Region B disc).

Thursday, 23 January 2020

Japanuary: Ichi The Killer (2001)

A film title that appears from a pool of ejaculate. Geysers of blood erupting from a variety of major wounds. An enemy who has great admiration, and almost envy, for the individual that may cause his downfall. Psychosexual madness. Special effects that vary from the sublime to the ridiculous. Yes, it's another Takashi Miike movie, and another one from what could be considered his peak period (which, for me, runs from abut 1998 to 2003, when his prolific output was matched by his inventiveness, and his reputation grew exponentially as film fans around the world discovered his filmography).

Nao Ohmori plays the titular character, a skilled and deadly assassin who has a tendency to get aroused when witnessing certain acts of violence. He is a deadly weapon, primed and pointed in specific directions by his "handler", Jijii (Shin'ya Tsukamoto). After killing a major crime boss, Ichi finds his fate intertwining with that of a sadomasochistic psychopath named Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano). Kakihara responds to the skill and viciousness of Ichi's actions, and seems to look forward to the day they will inevitably face off against one another. There's a lot more going on here, most of it to do with how Ichi is manipulated, and the consequences of that, but this basic summary covers what you need to know.

Despite the wild and over the top nature of the central characters, Ichi The Killer actually holds up as a surprisingly straightforward film from Miike, especially considering what else he was churning out during this period. The violence is extreme, and as fittingly sadistic as the main characters want to make it, and the central characters may be as ridiculous as they are murderous, but there are no sudden lurches into the completely supernatural or inexplicable.

The script by Sakichi Sato, based on the manga by Hideo Yamamoto, is dense and practically overflowing with memorable character moments. It may take a little while to get on board with what's going on, due to the way one scene is shown out of context just to start the film off, making very little sense until you get back to it again later, but that ends up being a good way to ensure that everyone knows exactly what ride they're on before it starts hurtling along the track at breakneck speed.

Although Ohmori is very good as Ichi, the film actually spends more time with Asano's character, which isn't a problem when he's delivering what I would say is one of the best performances in any Miike film. Strong words indeed, I know, but the mix of excess and restraint is perfect, and certainly a world away from many other performances that Miike has elicited from his stars (not that those performances are necessarily less enjoyable, or even less fitting, but he certainly used to prefer emotional extremes). Tsukamoto does well with his strong supporting role, acting innocent and deferential enough to people while ensuring his scheming continues to be successful, and there are also decent moments for Paulyn Sun, Susumu Terajima, Shun Sugata, and others.

But, aside from anything else, the main thing making this such a memorable viewing experience is Miike being wonderfully and unrelentingly Miike. He doesn't care if you're turned off by what he's about to show you, he's going to show it anyway, and not think twice about it. That's his strength, and sometimes his weakness, and it's what makes him the best choice for this material. He's an inconsistent, but brilliant, director. Ichi The Killer is up there with his very best work.


I will link to this set again. But feel free to click on the link and look for an uncut version.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Prime Time: Tokyo Videos Of Horror AKA Hitokowa (2012)

An anthology horror movie, clocking in with a runtime of just under an hour, Hitokowa is a film full of potential. It's also a film with very little information available about it online, so I'm going to apologise in advance for being so vague. It seems that too few people have discovered it, or perhaps they have and just decided it wasn't worth their time to add any details about it online.

The framing device is simple, there are a number of spooky videos put together. That's it. Some segments in between the main footage show us an interviewer talking to some of the people responsible for filming the footage. I assumed that, like so many others, this was a feature made up on a number of unconnected shorts just spliced together, but I can neither confirm nor deny this, I'm afraid. It certainly feels like that kind of thing, and I'll detail the various segments shortly, but there's only one main director and one other writer credited on IMDb so perhaps this was a main concept that allowed those involved to experiment and have some fun making the scares.

Things starts strong with the tape of a couple who are setting off some fireworks. An apparition is seen, noises are heard, and they make a grisly discovery. The second tale, much shorter, is my favourite. It's a group of people on a trip who find themselves driving by a spooky phantom. Third, a man is given some strangely specific instructions that he follows while everything is caught on film. The fourth tale is mercifully short, but not short enough, as a family play a game and remain oblivious to the appearance of an onlooker. Last, but not least, is a nasty segment about a pregnant woman being severely punished for some apparent transgression.

Directed by Kazuto Kodama, who co-wrote the thing with Kent Ihara, there's a strange disconnect here that stops the experience from being a truly enjoyable one. Although there's a crudity to every story, the opening two "tapes" seem to offer up the promise of a very spooky experience, one that will utilise more basic practical effects to build up some unflashy, subtle scares. That goes out of the window with the third tale, which has moments that wouldn't look out of place in the cheapest, home-made, uploaded-onto-YouTube ghost films. And it just gets worse and worse on the way to the abrupt end. Then you have that last segment, something that feels as if it has accidentally ended up here when it should have been edited in to one of the Guinea Pig movies. It's not an attempt to truly scare viewers, it's just a bit of gross nastiness, standing out as something all the more unpleasant compared to everything that just came beforehand.

The cast members, who I cannot name (sorry), generally do well enough at going about with their business while not realising that they are getting closer and closer to an encounter of the spooky kind. They're helped by the brief runtime, which helps to avoid the repetitive inanity that can often make up so much of the dialogue in "found footage" horror movies, and viewers will be too busy scanning each scene to see where ghosties may be lurking to focus on the more lively central characters.

Easy enough to watch if you have an hour to spare, and want an extra horror title to mark off (e.g. when trying to cram in at least 31 features in October), but this has such a steep drop-off after the first two segments that I can't really recommend it.


Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Japanuary: Brutal Tales Of Chivalry (1965)

The first in a series of nine films (although I don't know how strong the connections are between each instalment), Brutal Tales Of Chivalry is a familiar tale given some extra power from the time and setting.

Set after WWII in a small seaside town, Seiji Terajima (played by Ken Takakura) is the soldier who returns home to find that things have taken a turn for the worse in his absence. Seiji is also an ex-yakuza, a highly-regarded individual who has to take up position as head of the gang when the previous boss is fatally wounded in an attack by rivals. There's also the fortuitous arrival in town of a man named Kazama (Ryô Ikebe), a stranger who becomes a bit of a friend to Seiji, and perhaps when he most needs one.

Directed by the fairly prolific Kiyoshi Saeki, Brutal Tales Of Chivalry is a solid, if unspectacular, tale of responsibility and honour. Those hoping for some action-packed violent spectacle will be sorely disappointed, despite a finale that rewards viewers for their patience, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a lot to enjoy, particularly in the ways in which various characters interconnect and behave with one another.

The script, by Isao Matsumoto, Akira Murao, and Hideaki Yamamoto (each one of them with an extensive filmography worthy of exploration), strikes a nice balance between the yakuza politics, the dealings of the various businesses on the island, and the ways in which Seiji has to readjust to normality after his time in military service. It also feels as if there's certainly more going on just underneath the surface, with commentary on the war and the work done to rebuild Japan after it. I don't know enough about the context to add anything more definite, but I certainly suspect that there's more to appreciate here for those who have more than my passing familiarity with Japanese history.

What is more obvious, however, is the magnetic star turn from Takakura. It is obvious from his first moments onscreen that he is a great choice to play the central character, as believably tough and stoic throughout as he is. Ikebe is a nice foil, very much cut from the same cloth but able to look around and observe the proceedings as an outsider, and there are also good supporting turns from Yoshiko Mita (as Aya, a woman who was once in a relationship with Seiji) and one or two others, although nobody comes close to stealing the film away from Takakura and Ikebe.

Although not as dense and complex as some other Japanese yakuza/crime movies I could mention, Brutal Tales Of Chivalry makes some effective points by spacing them throughout a plot that shows the profits of crime stemming from the misfortune and misery of ordinary people trying to do their best to work together and return to a status quo that was upended by war.


Monday, 20 January 2020

Mubi Monday: Suzaki Paradise Red Light (1956)

Made about halfway through his career, director Yûzô Kawashima's tale of love, sacrifice, and selfishness is one of those delicate and impressive dramas that Japan seems to do so well, particularly in the 1950s when it could look back at the changes and development within itself after the end of WWII. Looking over the filmography of Kawashima reveals a selection of titles I would definitely be interested in checking out, but I have to confess that I had not seen any of his other movies prior to this one.

The story focuses on Tsutae (Michiyo Aratama) and her husband, Yoshiji (Tatsuya Mihashi), as they attempt to make a life for themselves in Suzaki. Suzaki Paradise is the red-light district, and an area in which Tsutae used to work some time ago, and the couple end up there when Tsutae sees a waitress role advertised. The madam/business owner, Otoku (Yukiko Todoroki), wants to help them as much as possible, keeping Tsutae employed while also helping Yoshiji find work as a noodle deliveryman, but she can see things turning sour as Tsutae starts to spend more and more time with Mr. Ochiai (Seizaburô Kawazu), a customer who is happy to spend a fair amount of money on his preferred type of attractive female company.

Based on a story by acclaimed Japanese novelist Yoshiko Shibaki, Suzuki Paradise Red Light manages to show characters transforming, slowly but surely, into something far removed from whatever they originally envisioned themselves to be. There's optimism, desperation, a changing of priorities, and, of course, misplaced affections while the situation keeps changing. Writers Toshirô Ide and Nobuyoshi Terada do well to illustrate all of this without ever letting the film feel like a miserable wallow in the realms of despair.

Helped by the central performances of his cast, Kawashima presents the dialogue and characters in clear and telling compositions. You can clearly see how relationships are changing throughout the film, and you can see how affected certain individuals are by just one or two key sentences. Nobody is hiding their emotions, largely because viewers are seeing them while other characters are not.

Despite Aratama and Mihashi being the leads, and both doing very well with their roles, the film feels, in some ways, as if it belongs to both Todoroki and Kawazu, the two main people who have seen others come and go through this particular area, and both of them have developed a fairly healthy attitude to the transient nature of the relationships that develop there. You could argue that Kawazu's character acts rather foolish in his eagerness to spend his money on women who are probably making it their main objective to get him to spend his money, but he is self-aware, and happy enough in his foolishness.

There's something about this film that I can't quite put my finger on, something wonderful about it that made me want to watch it again immediately after it ended. I don't think any part of this review really gets to the heart of what that is, and that's okay. Sometimes you can weigh up every element of a movie and explain every reason for your love or hatred of it. Sometimes you can't, but that doesn't stop you from wanting to try. Which can be just as telling.


Sunday, 19 January 2020

Netflix And Chill: Bleach (2018)

First off, yes, this is based on a manga (by Tite Kubo). I know that won't surprise anyone, but I figured I should mention it now in case I forget while heaping praise upon the film. Because I really liked this.

Ichigo Kurosaki is a teenager with a special gift. He can see ghosts. But one of those ghosts is a bit more than just a ghost. Rukia Kuchiki is a Soul Reaper, a spirit who helps others to move on while dealing with the ones who stay behind and turn into things called Hollows. During a sudden attack that leaves her wounded, Rukia transfers her power to Ichigo, which means they have to wait a while until it can be transferred back. This means Ichigo has to train, in order to get good enough to defeat more enemies, and also leads to him seeing more of the unseen world around him, including the skills of his classmate, Uryû Ishida, a member of a group who view Soul Reapers as enemies. There are some creative Hollow designs, some cool action, and a fun blend of fantasy and typical teen content.

Directed by Shinsuke Sato, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Daisuke Habara, Bleach is a slick and well-paced bit of entertainment. It may have a runtime of 108 minutes, but it hits the ground running, introduces all of the main characters with style and wit, and showcases some interesting fights in between the smaller moments. It also has a great cast of characters throughout, from Ishigo and his family (we see him lose his mother in the opening moments, he lives with his father and two sisters) to Rukia, her stern "colleagues" (mainly Byakuya Kuchiki, her older brother, and Renji Abarai), and the blissfully-unaware schoolkids who end up seeing a lot of destruction occurring around them without being able to see the cause.

The cast all do a great job in their roles. Sôta Fukushi is a likeable lead, playing Ichigo with a mix of standard teen insecurity and strength developed from his experiences. Hana Sugisaki is a lot of fun as Rukia, not at all pleased by the way things have developed, but also not wanting Ichigo to suffer because of it. Ryô Yoshizawa does well enough as Uryû, and both Miyavi and Taichi Saotome are good in the roles of Byakuya and Renji, respectively.

The CGI is also surprisingly well-done, with the film walking a fine line between showing everything it wants to show and doing so in a way that is within its resources. The Hollows are the most obvious use of computer effects, and they feel nice and other-worldly while also feeling pretty solid, but all of the enhanced fight moves, and the bigger impact on the surrounding environment, look about as good as you could want them to look.

I guess when reviewing films based on manga material I should sometimes add a cautionary note to people already familiar with the source material, be it the printed page or the many anime adventures that have usually already been put out there (as is also the case here). I don't though, because I just rate the films as films. That's often enough, most of the time, and I certainly feel that way when I've enjoyed something as much as I enjoyed this.


Saturday, 18 January 2020

Shudder Saturday: Wolf Guy (1975)

AKA Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope.

I wasn't sure exactly what I was letting myself in for when I started Wolf Guy, but I felt I was in fairly safe hands. It starred Sonny Chiba, and the title was Wolf Guy. You can surely connect the dots there, right? Wrong. This is a strange film, a lot stranger than the title would lead you to believe, but that doesn't necessarily make it a bad one.

Based on a manga series (yeah, yeah, I KNOW), Wolf Guy stars Chiba as a tough sonofabitch named Akira Inugami who investigates crimes. He doesn't seem to be an established detective, nor is he with the police force, but you just have to accept that Inugami is the man you want investigating any particularly tricky crimes. The latest tricky crime involves a number of men being killed who are connected by their time spent in a rock band. The band were responsible for the gang-rape of a young woman named Miki, giving her syphilis and absolutely ruining her life, but that is just the tip of this dark and sleazy iceberg.

If you want a film in which Sonny Chiba gets all hairy and goes full werewolf then this film will disappoint you. He DOES have more than a bit of lycanthropy about him, in terms of his strength and powers, but this isn't a standard werewolf movie, so that's worth bearing in mind.

Fumio Kônami does a decent job with the screenplay, kicking things off with a moment of madness before stepping back slightly, and then gradually introducing the stranger and wilder plot elements as everything unfolds. Director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi (unknowingly at about the halfway point in his career) does well enough, knowing that the sillier stuff will be overlooked by those drawn to the star power of Chiba, and also knowing just how much of the proper unpleasantness to show when more of the criminal plans are uncovered.

But most viewers are here for Chiba, and Chiba delivers his usual blast of charisma. He's a confident and skilled man, the kind who can take out a number of enemies in one big fight before heading off with a woman who is overwhelmed by the urge to bed him. Etsuko Nami has to endure the worst of the onscreen nastiness, playing the syphilis-infected victim Miki, but she makes a strong impression in a role that could have easily seen her displayed and then discarded in a much tighter timeframe. The other people worth mentioning are Kumi Taguchi, playing Kate, a woman who falls for our lead, and Yayoi Watanabe, as Taka, a woman who . . . well, you have to really see the film to believe it. The rest of the cast is made up of authority figures who complain about our hero, henchmen and crime bosses who want him out of the picture (while also wanting to make their own version of him), and one or two loose ends to either be beaten up or killed, depending on what they can reveal about the main plot.

At times, including the very opening sequence, this seemed like it was going to be very bad. I'm still not sure it makes much sense when you give it more than a passing thought. I did end up enjoying it though, mainly thanks to Chiba and just how far it spun away from my own expectations. Worth a watch, at the very least.


You can buy the movie here.

Friday, 17 January 2020

Ichi: The Killer AKA Ichi The Killer: Episode Zero (2002)

An animated prequel to the 2001 Takashi Miike movie, this origin story is a strange little tale that may please fans of the live-action film, and fans of the manga ("a Japanese onscreen creation developed from a manga? That hardly ever happens," he said, sarcastically).

What you get here is a look at the childhood years of Ichi, AKA Hajime. Despite his seeming vulnerability, he doesn't like confrontation and would quickly burst into tears when overcome with emotion, he trains in martial arts and is primed to become the sadistic killer we would know (and love) in his adult incarnation. He also starts to explore his tendencies for sadism with a young girl who shares his particular kinks.

Once again based on the material by Hideo Yamamoto, the script for this is written by Sakichi Sato (who also wrote the live-action movies, the celebrated Miike movie and the less-celebrated 2003 prequel, which may or may not cover the same territory as this) and is at least as twisted and crass as anything else created to showcase the main character. Ichi has confusing psychosexual thoughts placed in his mind as he discovers how his parents seem to enjoy some S & M play in their sex life, he is encouraged to explore some sex and violence with Midori, and it soon becomes commonplace for Ichi to struggle to contain physical displays of his horniness whenever things are getting violent.

Director Shinji Ishihira does pretty well, making his directorial debut. Unusually for someone directing an animated film, even a short, it doesn't look as if Ishihira made his way up from other art departments to the big seat. That's not to say that he wasn't working his way up for some time before this, but I couldn't find any previous main credits for him online (although that's no guarantee when checking over the career of those who have worked in various animation roles).

The voice cast do what is required of them, with Chihiro Suzuki perfectly fine in the lead role and Sayaka Ôhara having some twisted fun in the role of Midori. Takashi Miike even lends a few grunts and noises in a tiny cameo, as Kakihara, the principal antagonist from the 2001 movie.

Despite my positive review of this, however, there's no denying that it's completely unnecessary and superfluous to requirements for those who know the world of the main character. The fact that it doesn't completely mess it up is a bonus, but not quite enough to outweigh the fact that it's nothing more than a light distraction, best viewed as a side-plate to the main dish, rather than a complete meal. I wouldn't advise anyone to rush out and watch this. I'd simply say that it's easy enough to give just under an hour of your time to if you have access to it one day, and if you enjoyed the Miike film.


It's a shame that this has the cut version of the live-action movie, but I still like the set.

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Japanuary: Vengeance Is Mine (1979)

I really enjoyed Vengeance Is Mine, I am going out of my way to say that now, before I get myself too distracted with talk about things that aren't shown, or made immediately obvious, onscreen.

The film itself, you see, is relatively simple. Based on the novel by Ryûzô Saki, which was based on true events, it's the tale of a man, Iwao Enokizu, who became a wanted serial killer in Japan. Although not used in any way to justify what Iwao has become, we also see his background, in terms of the strained relationship he has with his father (Rentarô Mikuni), the long period of illness for his mother (Chôchô Miyako), and the turbulent time he has with his wife, Kazuko (Mitsuko Baishô). Closer to the present day, Iwao assumes a new identity while living at an inn run by the wily Hisano (Nijiko Kiyokawa), a woman not above essentially pimping out her daughter, Haru (Mayumi Ogawa).

Things begin with the capture of Iwao, there's no big surprise in where things are heading for the rest of the movie, and you then get a sequence that leads to a couple of grisly deaths. But that's it, for some time. Director Shôhei Imamura seems to know that a shock is required near the beginning, a depiction of the harsh crimes that Iwao is capable of, allowing him to then take us on the rest of the journey with a constant inability to predict just how Iwao will deal with people around him.

The performances are all very good. Ken Ogata plays Iwao, and he seems to fluctuate between keeping everything bottled inside in an unreadable way and unleashing his rage in an uncontrolled desire to just kill off whoever has caused his latest episode of feeling unsettled. Mikuni and Miyako both do well, and the former has much more to do onscreen, but the best moments come from the younger female characters, with both Baishô and Ogawa excelling as two young women who have their lives irrevocably altered by their relationship with Iwao. Kiyokawa is also very good, playing her character with a mix of shrewd cunning and the sort of short-sightedness that comes from expecting other humans to act like normal humans.

Coming back to make a narrative feature after about a decade of documentary film-making, Vengeance Is Mine may not just be the title of the film, it may be a defiant statement from Imamura, who seems intent on reminding audiences just what potential great movies they may have missed out on during the preceding years. It's also, and this is a highly arguable point, a title that I have taken to refer to someone else in the film. Iwao is not getting vengeance, his killing is so random and "unsatisfying", and nobody else in the film comes out of things with the feeling of any clear victory. But there's one person who keeps being the victim, despite never being killed, and it feels like there's something working to wreak vengeance upon them, specifically. This becomes clear in a number of scenes throughout the film, and notably in the odd final few shots.

I've yet to dig much more into the filmography of Imamura, having only seen this and one other film (The Ballad Of Narayama, enjoyable but underwhelming for me), but I have a lovely boxset that I will keep working through, even if it takes me years to do so, and hope more of his films are as interesting and thought-provoking as this one, which takes a standard serial killer thriller template and uses it to explore so much more.


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can pick it up here.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Prime Time: Big Tits Zombie (2010)

AKA The Big Tits Dragon AKA BTZ.

A film that epitomises the very worst of the kind of content that can sometimes be churned out by the Japanese, BTZ (I'm going to refer to it as that, any other full title is just ridiculous) is full of puerile humour and silliness from start to finish. There are one or two highlights, and they're not necessarily what you might be thinking, but it's generally a poor viewing experience, and a surprisingly dull one, that at least has the decency to be over and done with in about 80 minutes, before the end credits roll.

The simple plot sees a bunch of strippers accidentally unleashing a horde of zombies when one of them (Maria, played by Mari Sakurai) reads from a Book Of The Dead that has been carelessly left in some tunnels under a strip club. The undead start to cause problems for the women, there's a bit of gratuitous nudity, and one scene I can never unsee features a bitten woman displaying a mutated and spiky vulva that shoots fire. There's a sentence I never thought I would type out.

Directed by Takao Nakano, who also wrote the screenplay (adapted from a manga series, because of course it is), this is one of a number of movies to come up with the seemingly brilliant premise of pitting zombies against strippers. I can see why that's an appealing idea, certainly for anyone marketing a film to the casual male film fan who wants something he can throw on at the weekend while he has some snacks and drinks. Like a bit of gore and bloodshed? Yes. Like attractive women getting gratuitously naked? Yes. Here you go.

And yet, as hard as this may be for some people to accept, a film often needs more than just those things. A bit of wit is often the key to improving the whole thing, and that's something generally lacking here. Although BTZ is not lacking in humour, and one or two gags land, it's usually aimed too low, satisfying none but the most immature of viewers. Considering the fact that only one or two of the main characters make any kind of impression, the special effects aren't very special (you get disappointing CGI and the crudest practical appliances on display here), and the gore quotient is disappointing, and you can already see why this proves ultimately disappointing.

Sakurai is one of the few to be able to make her character stand out, mainly thanks to her way of dealing with the discovery, and subsequent zombies. Sora Aio, Risa Kasumi, and Tamayo also do decent work, respectively portraying the characters of Lena, Ginko, and Nene. Could I tell you right now exactly how things panned out for every one of them? No, I've forgotten most of this film already, doing my damnedest to write this review before more details escape like tiny leaves from an ever-so-slightly split teabag. But I remember generally liking those four leads.

If you're making a film that is essentially a joke then the joke needs to be funny. BTZ isn't funny, or at least it's certainly not funny enough to warrant the feature length. Which leaves you with a film that isn't good enough to provide a few chuckles, isn't gory or violent enough to please horror fans, and doesn't even throw in the level of nudity that the title promises. I'd be curious to know if anyone actually saw and enjoyed it.


Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Japanuary: Grave Of The Fireflies (1988)

Arguably one of the most emotionally devastating animated movies of all time, Grave Of The Fireflies is the tale of a young boy (Seita) and his little sister (Setsuko) trying to survive during wartime in Japan. Their mother has been killed in a bombing raid, leaving them seeking shelter with a selfish and opportunistic aunt, and then moving on from there as they try to fend for themselves in an environment where everyone is too busy doing the exact same thing to spend more time trying to help vulnerable children.

Based on the short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, and adapted for the screen by director Isao Takahata, there's nothing in this movie that isn't grounded in the harsh realities of life during wartime when your home is the target of major attacks. Watching it is a stark reminder that few films really explore this side of war, with many preferring to throw us into the horrors of being on the field of battle (a double-edged sword that can both damn and inadvertently glorify the visceral experience of being a soldier in the thick of the action). It's understandable, those thrown into the fighting on the frontline are making one hell of a sacrifice, but looking at those left behind, especially those trying to survive as they live in the shadow of bombers, is an equally relevant way to show the repercussions of war, and how it impacts upon so many innocent lives.

Takahata doesn't make one wrong decision here, unless you want to criticise him for making everyone weep copiously as things play out. The animation is gorgeous, the script is grounded in a reality that could have been avoided by allowing the children to indulge in a few flights of fancy, and it's only the fact that it's not a live-action depiction of the events that makes it a bit more bearable (although there have been two different live-action interpretations, one in 2005 and one in 2008 - I haven't brought myself to give them a watch yet). What could have been a sweet and poignant film with all of the sharp edges rounded off is, thankfully, a sweet and poignant film with the conviction to simply show you the real horrors that two young children end up enduring and have faith that you will keep watching because you care about the characters enough.

Tsutomo Tatsumi and Ayano Shiraishi are both excellent as the two main characters, with the latter particularly moving as the weaker and younger child. Akemi Yamaguchi doesn't have many lines of dialogue, but she delivers them well enough, and they effectively illustrate her to be a bad person, either someone who has always been sharp and selfish or someone warped into that form by the war.

If there's one slight mis-step here, it's the decision to effectively start things off at the end. Mind you, that allows viewers to steel themselves against what is about to play out. This is no fairytale, war doesn't often have a happy ending for those directly in the line of fire, and Takahata ensures that you are ready to accept that, even if you don't really want to.

Beautiful, sweet, devastating, it's not one you'll want to revisit, but it's one that demands you eventually DO, whether you're reminding yourself of the power of it or introducing the film to those who have yet to cry their way through it.


Make yourself weep by buying the movie here.
Americans can be sad with this purchase here.

Monday, 13 January 2020

Mubi Monday: The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

SPOILER WARNING - I have chosen to end this review with the final bit of dialogue from the movie. This isn't an effort to deliberately spoil it for those who have yet to see the film. It's for those who have seen the film to join me in basking in perhaps the most wonderful soliloquy to end any sci-fi movie, a movie speech that heartens me almost as much as the direct and beautiful plea to humanity made by Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator.

In essence, this fantastical sci-fi movie from the 1950s is a very simple tale, summed up in the title. Grant Williams plays the lead, Robert Scott Carey AKA Scott, a man we first see enjoying some leisure time on a boat with his wife, Louise (Randy Stuart). One encounter with a strange cloud later and Scott starts off on a road that will see him getting smaller and smaller. It's hard to be sure at first, months later he feels that his clothes are getting a bit bigger, but becomes easier to notice as he continues to shrink. There are physical threats to Scott, mainly from animals that quickly start to view him as a small pest, but it's the mental struggles that continue to bring things into focus, whether it's Scott struggling to feel like anything less than a burden to his wife or the dashing of his hopes when he becomes friends with a small woman named Clarice (April Kent) and then starts to become smaller than her.

Directed by Jack Arnold, The Incredible Shrinking Man shows the benefits of sticking to your guns when you have source material from the mind/pen of Richard Matheson. Richard Alan Simmons may have changed the structure slightly, the novel has the tale told in flashbacks, and there were scenes that just wouldn't fly on 1950s cinema screens, but the thoughtfulness and intelligence of Matheson shines through, his screenplay adapted with great care and respect by Arnold.

The cast are the least of the important elements here, although to dismiss them is to do them a disservice. Williams may seem a bit too disposable in the lead role, but when you consider how well he acts alongside a variety of special effects, and how well he moves from everyday figure to unnerved man, to emasculated husband, all the way to the man who will deliver that superb final speech, it's important to give him his due. Stuart does equally well in her portrayal of someone on the other side of the coin, as it were, and Kent makes a very good impression in her small role (no pun intended).

But it's the blend of ideas and special effects that make this one of the all-time great sci-fi movies. They may not hold up to the standards of the modern age, but there's still a lot here to admire as you watch Scott discover more and more dangers, and also more resources, around him as he continues his downward spiral towards . . . well, not knowing where it will all end is a large part of his ongoing fear.

I'm amazed that this concept hasn't been put to better use over the years. It seems to work best when people are shrunk and injected into other bodies (e.g. Fantastic Voyage and Innerspace), and I recommend The Incredible Shrinking Woman, a comedic riff on the concept with Lily Tomlin having fun in the lead role, but I can't think of anything that has really tapped into the potential of this idea since Honey, I Shrunk The Kids (1989, jeesh, that long ago). The Ant-Man movies don't count, they're Marvel movies, albeit fun ones. And Downsizing doesn't count, for no reason other than it's a ham-fisted message movie that forgets what it wants to say while ensuring that the main idea is drained of any ounce of fun.

See The Incredible Shrinking Man. It's well worth your time, an outstanding classic that you won't want to give short shrift (that pun WAS intended). Now only read the quoted dialogue below if you have already seen the movie. Otherwise, the review ends here.
I was continuing to shrink, to become... what? The infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being? Or was I the man of the future? If there were other bursts of radiation, other clouds drifting across seas and continents, would other beings follow me into this vast new world? So close - the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet - like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe, worlds beyond number, God's silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man's own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends is man's conception, not nature's. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!

You can buy the movie here.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Netflix And Chill: Gantz: O (2016)

I'd watched a few too many animated Japanese movies in a row so decided to pick something live-action as I continued to explore the world of Japanese cinema this month. Seeing the thumbnail and clips of Gantz: O, it looked like a great option. It's a testament to the quality of the animation that it took me a good few minutes to realise I wasn't watching a live-action film. I knew there was something a bit off, but initially thought there may just be a bit too much CGI layered on for the action sequence that was kicking off the whole enterprise.

Based on a manga (isn't that the way for 90% of the major sci-fi and action movies from Japan), Gantz: O tells the story of a group of people who are given a second chance at life after an untimely death. The main character at the centre of things is Masaru Kato, a young man who is killed by a knife attack in a subway. He wakes up in a room with a few other individuals beside him, and a large black orb computer named Gantz. They're given suits, given a time limit, and sent to Osaka to kill some big monsters. Kill all the monsters within the time limit and all is well. Don't manage it and, well, it's game over, in more ways than one.

The first thing that struck me about Gantz: O was just how visually gorgeous it was. Considering I thought the opening moments were live-action, I was impressed by the polished and realistic nature of the CGI on display. Realism may start to fade away as the monsters get wilder and wilder, but the attention to detail remains throughout. You also get some imagery in the third act that wouldn't look out of place in an animated movie from the late, great Satoshi Kon, and I don't say that lightly. I am not sure if this is directly lifted from the source material or a decision made to create something vivid and memorable in the animated versions, but the monsters here are wonderfully ridiculous in ways that make them seem a bit silly until they start killing people.

Daisuke Ono does well in the voice of Kato, and Mao Ichimichi is equally good as Anzu Yamasaki, a member of a different monster-killing squad who connects with Kato. Saori Hayami voices Reika Shimohira and Shûichi Ikeda is Yoshikazu Suzuki, two team members fighting alongside Kato, and Kendô Kobayashi is Hachiro Oka, the stern and cold killer who often has a point with what he's saying, despite the fact that it goes against the helpful and more humane nature of our hero.

Directors Keiichi Saitô and Yasushi Kawamura have done a great job with material that is obviously designed to provide as many different adventures as you could wish for (as is the way with many manga premises). The initial exposition is done in a scene that gets the main character up to speed while the viewers learn everything alongside him, and more information is effectively drip-fed in between some eye-popping set-pieces, including a bittersweet revelation in the very last main sequence.

Having gone into this with no expectations (having no previous knowledge of the series, I was just hoping that I would be able to appreciate this as a standalone outing), I'm now looking forward to eventually watching other tales set in the Gantz world. It's a fun place to visit.


Saturday, 11 January 2020

Shudder Saturday: Re: Born (2016)

I started thinking about the plot when writing this review of Re: Born and then quickly gave up on that idea. There IS a plot, it's there and it sort of makes sense (I think), but it's just there to service the many frenetic fight sequences. This is an action film with the emphasise on momentum and violence, so let's not pretend otherwise here.

Here's all the plot I am going to give you. Toshiro (Tak Sakaguchi) is a former special ops soldier, AKA Ghost, and a number of bad people want to upset his new, peaceful life. That covers it.

Directed by Yûji Shimomura, Re: Born is a star vehicle for Sakaguchi, who helped to write the story with Benio Saeki (I say story because there isn't much dialogue here, unless you count the swish of blades, the grunts of pain, and the spurts of blood). Which means this all stands or falls on the strength of Sakaguchi's performance. Never fear, he's more than up to the task. The man is a talented physical performer, believable as someone who can stare at a shooter and walk towards them intently, ducking just as the trigger is squeezed to avoid any bullets. And just when you think he can't pull off any more incredible moves, he goes and pulls off some more incredible moves.

The action here is impressive, speedy, and unforgiving to anyone involved. Although there are a few guns, the aforementioned skillsets of Ghost renders them quite useless. That means you get people forced to approach an enemy who is just as quick and savage in close quarters as he is when given time to plan his attack. With his precision and ruthlessness, and his blades flashing and whirring around, Sakaguchi could win any major round of Robot Wars, never mind slicing and killing his way through the crowds of ill-equipped soldiers who try to take him down. But it's worth mentioning that, for all of the speed and viciousness on display here, the action is always pretty easy to flow, it's shot well, moving in and out of the fighting smoothly enough. There are times when things are inevitably a little too busy, but they are few and far between, and action movie fans will be delighted by most of the main set-pieces here. And they are plentiful.

It's hard to rate the performances of anyone onscreen here, unless we do it in terms of their killing efficiency. If we do it that way then Sakaguchi is right at the very top, of course, but then that would put young Yura Kondo (who plays his niece, Sachi) at the very bottom, which isn't fair. Mind you, it would also put Mariko Shinoda, playing a deadly character named Newt, close to the top, and that IS fair. So let's just bundle these three together for some praise, rating them in terms that either relate to their deadly skills or, in the case of Kondo, relate to them just being sweet and vulnerable.

While not quite as good as some other modern action movies that have been namechecked by people who rate this one in the very top tier, Re: Born is a hugely entertaining exercise in graceful brutality, and anyone with even a passing interest in fight scenes that pack a bit more wallop should rush to check it out.


You can buy the movie here.

Actual "trivia" from the IMDb page for Re-Born

Friday, 10 January 2020

Japanuary: Your Name (2016)

Written and directed by Makoto Shinkai, Your Name is another animated film that works best when really nailing down the feelings that can overwhelm you during your teenage years. Unfortunately, there are one or two plot elements that stop it from coming together as well as it should, but that doesn't stop it from being another excellent slice of animation for fans of Japanese cinema.

Mitsuha Miyamizu lives in the small town of Itomori in Japan. Taki Tachibana lives in Tokyo. For reasons that are never really explained, and no concrete explanation is necessary, the two start switching bodies. This causes some confusion, of course, but it soon becomes clear that both of these individuals can bring out the best in one another, with Taki helping Mitsuha to become more popular with schoolfriends and Mitsuha helping Taki get a date with Miki Okudera, a young woman who works with him at his part-time job. Putting a system in place, involving notes written on paper and in their phones, the two start to work well together, but it becomes increasingly frustrating to live in such harmony with someone else you haven't met. As the two try to make a real meeting happen, some more details come to light that make things even more frustrating.

There's a good voice cast here. Ryûnosuke Kamiki and Mone Kamishiraishi do well in the roles of Taki and Mitsuha, respectively, Masami Nagasawa is very good as Ms. Okudera, and there are solid supporting turns from Etsuko Ichihara, Ryô Narita, Aoi Yûki, Nobunaga Shimazakim, Kaito Ishikawa, and Kanon Tani, all portraying friends or family members. Everyone is suited to their character.

Aside from those vocal performances, which are straightforward enough, Your Name is an interesting film for a number of reasons. It's not the best Japanese animation you could choose, in any regard. The script has one or two big plot holes in there, as is often the way with any tale that moves the pieces around in the way that this one does, there are some horrible song lyrics popping up all too frequently to underscore a number of big scenes, and even the look and movement of the animation isn't up there with the best. It's still nice to look at, you just have to bear in mind that there's a very high standard when measuring any Japanese animation against the best of their output.

The other main reason for this being so interesting is the way in which it takes such a fantastical premise, adds even more to it, and uses the whole thing to ground the main ideas of navigating some turbulent teenage times and perhaps finding someone who brings out the best in you. Mitsuha and Taki seem to be two parts of a whole person, both literally and metaphorically, and their strange bond leads to them eventually considering that they might work just as well together while inhabiting their own bodies.

Shinkai does a good enough job with everything to almost distract you from the minor failings, but the third act goes on for just a little bit too long, giving you enough thinking time to go over everything that just happened and wonder how it all worked out. Still, good on him for tying together a number of different threads and making something that manages to slide so smoothly through a number of different subgenres.


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.

Thursday, 9 January 2020

Japanuary: Teketeke (2009)

Japan seems to have a wealth of both urban legends and traditional myths that can reach from past centuries to still affect, and unsettle, those living in the modern age. You have the modern creations, such as Sadako and Kayako, you have the enduring and creepy imagery of the slit-mouthed woman, and you have ghosts and ghouls around every corner. Which means that you can usually take a gamble on one of their horror movies and find something to like, whether that is a creepy atmosphere, an interesting legend, or some unsettling death scenes.

Usually. Teketeke has none of those things though, sadly, and is perhaps the biggest disappointment I have seen within the realms of Japanese horror in the last two decades.

The main story concerns the spirit of a woman who appears, moving along on her front hands as she is missing her legs, and then cuts people in half. If she doesn't get her victim there and then, the clock starts. She will get them three days later. She is also drawn to the colour red, looking to get rid of anything of that colour because she associates it with, well, that's part of the backstory that isn't for me to reveal here. The two main potential victims are a young woman named Kana (Yûko Ôshima) and her cousin, Rie (Mami Yamasaki), racing against time to figure out what they can do to save their lives, and being helped by a young man named Takeda (Shin'nosuke Abe).

Unbeknownst to me, this was the second movie I watched in just over a week that was directed by Kôji Shiraishi. The last one was A Slit-Mouthed Woman, which I was also disappointed by. That looks a lot better now, however, when compared to this one. There's absolutely nothing here that's done as effectively as it could be. Even the main figure, someone who could put you on edge as she creeps into view, is shot in such a way as to make it seem silly. Oh, it's a woman running into view on her hands. That's it. To make up for the low budget, things are never in focus, the editing is choppy, and you don't get one proper look at what should have been the star of the show.

These problems plague almost every scene. Deaths are unspectacular, although you get a decent splash of blood on most occasions, tension is non-existent, and the camerawork is just downright annoying. And there's nothing else to distract you from the negatives. The backstory isn't interesting enough, the investigation to discover it means we get many scenes that we're already familiar with, having seen them done better in more enjoyable movies.

Ôshima and Yamasaki do well in their roles, as well as can be expected anyway, and they manage to make an impression simply due to the fact that they're in peril for the second half of the runtime. And the runtime is brief, which is another bonus.

I really can't think of one reason why people would watch this. Which, despite my complaints, doesn't mean it is one of the worst horror movies out there. It's just no good when compared to the many other Japanese horrors that you could check out.


Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Prime Time: Vampire Clay (2017)

Although I rarely do this, I decided to seek out some other reviews of Vampire Clay once the movie had finished. There were two reasons for that. First, I was looking at a variety of sources to double-check some of the information about the cast. Second, I wanted to know what others thought of it, knowing already that I would be recommending it to others. I ended up dissatisfied with what I found. There's very little specific information out there, perhaps due to the nature of the film itself, and opinions vary wildly between those who appreciated the humour of the film and those who don't think of it as a horror comedy.

As far as I'm concerned, it's definitely a horror comedy. The central idea makes that a given, and the more inventive moments brilliantly mix gore gags with surreal humour. So trying to claim that it isn't one is either showing that you missed the intent completely, or that it really didn't work for your comedic taste.

Let me get to a brief description of the plot anyway, and it IS brief. A bunch of people at a tiny art school start to be attacked, consumed even, by some sentient clay that has the power to zombiefy people, warp their body, and use them to attack others. Is there any way to destroy it? Maybe. Or maybe that will have to wait until the inevitable sequel which I am prematurely going to name A Time To Kiln. There IS actually a Vampire Clay 2 already, I was unaware of that, but I have no idea how connected it is to this tale, or when we may get a chance to see it here in the UK.

Written and directed by Sôichi Umezawa, making his feature directorial debut, this is a film that turns the small budget and limited resources into a positive, thanks to the wonderful stop-motion work that often shows the living clay on the attack. Gorehounds may be a bit disappointed, but there's just enough bloodshed and nastiness to ensure that this isn't a complete cop out when it comes to the clay-based carnage.

The script is simple, the characters are paper-thin (I won't even namecheck the cast, all do decent work though), but none of that matters when the visuals start to become energised, staying that way right through to the very end. You get a backstory to the main creature(s), but it hardly matters. What matters is knowing that you're always just one minute away from something inventive and impressive, considering the obvious limitations on Umezawa's vision.

I can absolutely see why some people would dislike this. It's probably a bit too light and ridiculous for anyone after some entertaining bloodshed. If you know what you're letting yourself in for, however, then I hope at least some others enjoy this as much as I did. It may even inspire someone to get their own modelling clay set and start working on their own short films.


Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Japanuary: Visitor Q (2001)

We've seen this kind of thing before. The stranger who comes into the lives of various family members, shakes things up, and helps them to embrace the things that will make them happy. Of course, as this is a Takashi Miike movie, things are a bit different here.

Kazushi Watanabe is the titular visitor, who comes smashing into the life of Ken'ichi Endô (literally, by way of a rock to the head). Endô is Kiyoshi Yamakazi, a TV reporter who is having a bit of a crisis after being bullied and abused in an incident that was also recorded. He also pays to have sex with a prostitute who is also his daughter. Yeah, it's that bad. And things get worse from there. His wife, Keiko Yamakazi (played by Shungiku Uchida), spends her time miserable, being beaten by their son (Takuya, played by Jun Mutô) and turning to heroin for some solace. The visitor is going to help them all love life a little bit more, freeing them further from inhibitions in a way that will bring the maladjusted individuals together into one maladjusted unit.

Written by Itaru Era, Visitor Q was one of a number of movies from different directors planned to specifically take advantage of new digital cameras, and the freedoms they allow. As you might expect, Miike used this exercise less as a way to push the technology, but more to push right up to the barriers of standard taste, and then go that one step further. Less a movie experience and more of an assortment of grotesque, and blackly comedic, acts, Visitor Q is one of those movies you can only ever recommend to someone if you know that they have previously been a bit daring while exploring the many dark recesses of cinema.

I used to love this film. Well, using the word in a loose sense. The content makes it hard, but not impossible, to love. Catching up with it again recently, after a gap of over a decade, I realised that it has two major flaws. The first big flaw is the whole look of the thing. I know that it's in line with the content, and I know that digital cameras were new at the time (and not half as good as they are nowadays), but this is a film that is ugly from start to finish, often in a way that just feels like laziness. Shot composition, the image quality, nudity being pixellated rather than characters being positioned differently, it all adds up to a bit of an eyesore. The second big flaw is the fact that it all feels rather pointless. There's no big statement being made here, no conclusion that makes all of the shocks and depravity worth your time. Well, okay, maybe it's not exactly pointless, but the point is buried so far under all of the nastiness that it's a hard one to give due consideration once the film has finished.

Despite those flaws, I still cannot help but admire and appreciate Visitor Q as a statement of intent from Miike, coming along just a couple of years after the likes of Dead Or Alive and Audition had made him a name familiar to cinema fans, and being followed up by the likes of Ichi The Killer and The Happiness Of The Katakuris. No matter where you stand on his films, and his prolific work ethic guarantees that some are a lot better than others, Miike has left us one hell of a cinematic legacy, and there's no denying that Visitor Q is up there with some of his most memorable outings.


You can get the DVD here.
And there seems to be a much more expensive disc option here.

Monday, 6 January 2020

Mubi Monday: Little Women (2019)

Considering the range of movies from around the world that Mubi provides, I did not expect it to get in the way of this Japanuary train I am on. And yet . . . here we are. So, with time of the essence, and nothing Japanese available from their selection just now, I have decided to take the opportunity to review a very recent movie that was the Mubi Go ticket for last week. Little Women.

Adapted from the source novel by Louisa May Alcott, of course, this is a near-perfect working of the tale from writer-director Greta Gerwig, providing a film that is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking, and showing that Ladybird was no fluke. In fact, although some may think I was a bit too flippant in my criticism of Ladybird, Little Women shows a huge improvement in almost every regard, and we should all appreciate that Gerwig gave herself the fairly daunting task of working on something far from guaranteed to give her more success. But more success she has gained, and rightly so.

I'm NOT going to cover the overall storyline of Little Women. Suffice to say, it is basically about four sisters (played here by Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, and Eliza Scanlen), their mother (Laura Dern), a charming young man (played by Timothée Chalamet), and ANOTHER charming young man (Louis Garrel). There is a framing device used here that takes the literary talent of Jo (Ronan, the lead character) and allows for some more playfulness than usual, in terms of both addressing attitudes of the time and also working with the audience expectations.

I'm going to mention the very small negative here first. It is an issue I have with the source material, therefore it's not something to blame on Gerwig and co. Beth March (Scanlen's character) is just one of those inherently irritating characters. Her only role is to be the vulnerable one who always seems to be weak or ill. I don't care how good she is at playing the piano, she's the most annoying member of the March clan, which is really saying something when you consider the actions of selfish Amy (Pugh).

Otherwise, there's nothing here I want to criticise. And, trust me, I have been giving it lots of thought since I left the cinema, wondering if my initial delight would settle down and allow me to reconsider anything. There's no need. Nothing to reconsider.

Not only has Gerwig given herself a great gift with her own screenplay, she has ensured it was all delivered exceptionally well by a near-flawless cast. Ronan is about as perfect a Jo March as you could hope for, Pugh is good enough to make Amy bearable during even her worst moments, Scanlen looks suitably fragile, and/or ill, and Watson does just fine as Meg, although she's perhaps stuck with the weakest moments in the film, mostly reduced to being overly earnest and only making one mistake on the road to finding her place in womanhood. Dern has to be 100% goodness and light, which she does admirably, and her sweetness is countered by the sharp tongue and mind of Aunt March (Meryl Streep on top form). Considering the focus of the tale, it's pleasantly surprising to find that all of the men are equally well-cast, and all of them get at least one or two great moments apiece. Chalamet is the charming and safe young star of the moment, and he's perfect here, while Garrel makes a strong impression with his small amount of screentime. Chris Cooper also makes the most of his role, Mr Laurence (the neighbour, and grandfather of Chalamet's character), James Norton plays a character who is perhaps the most grounded of everyone onscreen, Tracy Letts is a lot of fun as the editor who accepts Jo's writings, and Bob Odenkirk is always a welcome presence onscreen, albeit a bit surplus to requirements here as the mainly-absent patriarch of the March clan.

I can't think of a better way Gerwig could have handled this material. It has every main element from the book, of course, and yet it also feels fresh, full of energy, and completely relevant to today. Think of other adaptations of classic novels from the 1800s and they tend to have one main aim for the women, to find true love and marry into a happier life. Little Women has that notion in there, which was probably unavoidable, but it offsets that by showing the many and varied ways that everyone can follow their instincts to make themselves happy, make others happy, and make their own path through life, no matter where others may try to push them. It's a full, rich, experience that embodies the best of cinema, something that you can happily take as pure entertainment, and also something that gives you a lot of moments to think over and discuss with others.

I may have only caught up with it on the 1st January 2020, but this is easily my pick for the best film of 2019.


You'll be able to buy it here.
Americans will be able to buy it here.

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Netflix And Chill: A Silent Voice (2016)

I hated most of my school years. Absolutely hated them. Schools are still pretty bad at being able to deal with bullying. Bullies are sly, their victims prefer to stay quiet. Telling teachers doesn't work, standing up to them can even lead to a fight which gets both of you in equal amounts of trouble, and you can't ignore a bully when they're in so many of your classes. Thankfully, you can mock them, you can get smarter than them, and you can eventually move from the area, build up your movie collection to an enviable amount, sit in your paid-up home, and mentally deliver a big fat "FUCK YOU" to all of those who helped to make your life an absolute nightmare for at least five years. Okay, that may be just me, but I am here to tell others that there is always hope. The weirdest thing about remembering those years, however, is remembering the times that I did the bullying. It happens. I still feel awful about it to this day. Trying to single out the kid who was a bit more different from the rest, trying to go along with a joke that was clearly making someone else miserable. Oh, they had dandruff (big deal), they weren't used to using deodorant yet (some people never learn, THAT'S when you need to address the issue), they were even poorer than I was, or they were just being far too annoying while also being physically weak, and therefore possibly beatable in a fight.

If you read that and I was ever involved in anything that made your life wretched and worse at an age when it should have been a lot easier just for us all to band together and battle through our education . . . please know that I am very sorry. I don't think I was ever a big threat to anyone, but I know (as much as I want to rewrite my own history) that I had some moments of being really shitty, for no other reason than to pass along the shittiness that I had been delivered by bullies.

I know, I know, you've once again stumbled on to a review here and wondered just what the hell I am wittering on about. Why this big tangent at the very start? Well, A Silent Voice is an imperfect film. The animation is nice, but not gorgeous. The characters, outwith the leads, aren't too memorable. The main story isn't really all that engrossing, in terms of how things ultimately develop en route to a third act. Yet it remains one of the best animated movies I have watched in some time, for one big reason. This film, more than any other, gives you an idea of the slippery slope of bullying, how easy it is to remain in that mindset, AND the ways in which bullying victims can continue to apologise and blame themselves for the actions of others.

The main strand of the narrative shows the relationship between Shoya and Shoko. Shoya is first shown planning a suicide attempt, and flashbacks show the life decisions that led him to that point, with the worst being his bullying of Shoko, a deaf girl first seen introduced as a new pupil at his school. As a youngster, Shoya really wasn't all that nice to some people, especially Shoka. But he improves as he gets older, although he moves through high school in an isolated and antisocial way, either deliberately keeping people away from him or assuming his past behaviour was already enough to cause them to want to avoid him. It's possible for people to change, especially moving from their younger years through their teens, and towards adulthood, but it can be a lot tougher when you consider the damage already caused to be irreparable.

Director Naoko Yamada has a decent selection of work in his filmography, from the look of things, but I am unfamiliar with anything else he has done (which is a lot of TV work, some OVAs, and less than a dozen movies). I may check out some of his other stuff one day, although I try to stick to individual movies rather than the wealth of episodic anime tales available out there, but the person who I need to remember from the list of credits here is writer Reiko Yoshida. He has a more extensive, and even more eclectic, filmography, and I am very interested in enjoying other tales from him, on the strength of his incisive work here, although perhaps I should also check out the source material by Yoshitoki Ōima.

The voice cast do well enough. Miyu Irino is the main voice for Shoya, Saori Hayami is the main voice for Shoko (although she says very few words, understandably), and the few other main voices are perfectly suitable, but the power of the film comes from the way it so beautifully illustrates different relationships and attitudes, rendering the vocal performances a distant second to the skillful visuals and artistic decisions.

Not everyone will get as much out of this. I am well aware that it resonated more strongly with me for a couple of different reasons (the spiral of self-loathing that motivates Shoya is also familiar to anyone who battles against depressive episodes). But I encourage everyone to give it a watch. Especially if, like me, you hadn't heard of it before.


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy the movie here.

Saturday, 4 January 2020

Shudder Saturday: Ring 2 (1999)

It's no surprise that a hit as big as Ring got at least one sequel, as well as the remake, and the remake sequels, and I am not going to list all of the other connected movies. And it's no surprise that many people enjoyed Ring 2, considering how many of the cast and crew returned to work on it. What IS a bit of a surprise, certainly to me anyway, is just how much this sequel doesn't hold up nowadays, removed from that joyous time when so many of us were soaking up all of the J-horror that we could find.

Following on from the events of the first film, this time we are introduced to Mai Takano (Miki Nakatani), a young woman who is investigating the death of her boyfriend. His name was Ryûji, and viewers saw his last moments as well-dweller Sadako famously clambered out of a screen to ensure his death. Mai teams up with Okazaki (Yūrei Yanagi), a newsroom colleague of Reiko, the lead character in Ring, and the two embark on a journey that takes in more history of Sadako, a number of misjudged scientific experiments, and Reiko's son, Yôichi (Rikiya Ôtaka).

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Ring 2 nowadays is just how much it is guilty of sins that we are often quick to point out in mainstream American horror movies. You get much more backstory to the central evil, you get one or two set-pieces that pale in comparison to everything that was done in the first movie, and you even get (slight SPOILER WARNING) an ending that could be viewed as a much happier one than that of the original.

Director Hideo Nakata can do better than this. He has shown us, repeatedly, yet he seems to coast along here, perhaps too comfortable working with what essentially became a very successful brand that would find an audience due to name recognition alone, another common flaw with horror movie sequels. Although Hiroshi Takahashi still manages to throw a couple of decent moments into his screenplay (once again working with material established in the source novel, Ring, by Kôji Suzuki), neither he nor Nakata seem to be able to nail down everything they got right in Ring. That doesn't make this anywhere near an awful movie, it just renders it a big disappointment.

Nakatani and Yanagi are acceptable leads, working hard against a script that doesn't give them enough texture or warmth, and all of the supporting cast members do good enough work, but this is a film that would still satisfy in the simplest of ways if it delivered enough killer moments with the evil figure at the heart of it all. It doesn't.

Perhaps best viewed as one weak part of a relatively strong series (a notion I will confirm or deny for myself when I prioritise a revisit of Ring 0 in the next little while), Ring 2 is only worth prioritising if you're a completist, like myself. Otherwise, I can't think of any one part of it that makes it unmissable.


Get this lovely set here.

Friday, 3 January 2020

Japanuary: A Slit-Mouthed Woman (2007)

If you have any experience of Japanese horror, or knowledge of some of their lore, then you'll be aware of the slit-mouthed woman. Legend has it that she would appear in front of you, wearing a mask and carrying a sharp object, and ask you if she was pretty. Answer no and you get the business end of the sharp object. Answer yes and she moves the mask away to show that her mouth has been slit open at the corners (hence . . . slit-mouthed woman). She will once again ask if she is pretty. Answer no and you are killed. Answer yes and she uses the sharp object to make you look just like her. She doesn't sound like someone you'd really want to meet, but nor does any boogeyman, which is what she is. It's an enduring urban legend, and there have been, unsurprisingly, a number of movies made about her. This is just one of them, not to be confused with Slit Mouth Woman from 2008.

Children start to be kidnapped in a small Japanese town and reports from witnesses seem to point to the infamous slit-mouthed woman as the main suspect. Is she real? Or is it just someone wearing a mask and using the fear of the legend to make their crime spree more frightening? Kyôko Yamashita (Eriko Satô) has to dive fully into investigation mode when her daughter (Mika Sasaki, played by Rie Kuwana) disappears one day. Noboru Matsuzaki (Haruhiko Katô) helps her, having already spent some time trying to confirm his own suspicions about the killer.

It's strange to see this directed by Kôji Shiraishi, who also co-wrote the script with Naoyuki Yokota. The two had previously worked together on the excellent Noroi: The Curse (now there's a horror film crying out for a super duper release if ever I saw one), which managed to feel very grounded in reality while making use of various plot details that felt like genuine Japanese lore (I cannot recall now how much, if any, of the background to the events were sourced from reality). So a film about the slit-mouthed woman should allow them to once again scare the crap out of viewers, and allow them to once again ground the horror in a reality that makes the sense of dread all the more palpable. But they don't bother. Instead, they serve up a film that is almost a standard crime thriller, with a memorable villain at the heart of everything.

I realise that what I'm saying could actually be applied to a lot of modern horror movies from Japan - they're most often about people investigating the circumstances around one or more deaths - but A Slit-Mouthed Woman doesn't have any of the scares that the others do. I suspect Shiraishi and Yokota figured that the woman herself would be the main scare, and her physical appearance is certainly enough to cause a shiver to run down your spine, but they should really have worked on a number of decent set-pieces to keep everyone on their toes.

Satô and Katô are fine in their roles, yet they're often trying to make something out of nothing, discovering revelations delivered by the script that will be obvious to most people from the earliest scenes. Kuwana has to be a child in peril, and acts accordingly, and Miki Mizuno does a good job as the woman with the "Glasgow smile".

There's nothing here that's badly done, and the figure using the mask allows for some extra paranoia that feels as specific to Japan as the rest of the lore being utilised, but far too much of the runtime is relatively free of tension and actual scares. Which is always a tough hurdle for a horror movie to overcome.


Americans can buy the movie here.

Thursday, 2 January 2020

Japanuary: P.O.V. - A Cursed Film (2012)

Haruna (played by Haruna Kawaguchi) and Mirai (played by Mirai Shida) are hosts of some little show that one of the producers wants to give a boost. That leads to them playing video footage that they have been sent, except it is different footage when played compared to what had been visible earlier. The footage was shot at Haruna's school, leading the show team to head there and try to get to the bottom of things. There are soon creepy things happening, a tragic backstory being revealed, and some wonderfully atmospheric moments showing people in peril while spirits start to become more and more numerous around them.

Taking the familiar found footage style and mixing in the idea of a whole film being cursed (and we're well aware of cursed filmed footage having a key place in last couple of decades of Japanese horror), P.O.V. - A Cursed Film spends a bit too much time in the first half trying to subtly build up the chills without any context for them. There's nothing especially wrong with the first 20-30 minutes, it just isn't half as good as the last two thirds of the film.

Writer-director Norio Tsuruta has thrown together a number of fun ideas here, and it's impressive that he's done it in a way that nicely balances a sense of knowing playfulness with a handful of properly creepy moments. As well as the more obvious touchstones, this feels very much indebted to Don't Look Up, certainly by the time the last few scenes play out before the END end credits (there are a few end credits here, so don't turn the film off prematurely or you'll miss out on quite a bit).

Kawaguchi and Shida don't have to do anything too strenuous, considering they are playing characters with their own names and are positioned in scenes that have spooky things going on around them, but they do well enough. There are a few other key supporting players, but the focus stays on the two girls, when it isn't on whatever has been captured on film. Their interactions with one another, and reactions to things, are all very believable. If anything, they consistently prove that most young Japanese girls are still a lot braver than I am, even when they're petrified.

Although I mentioned the fact that the last two thirds of this film are better than the opening act, that won't necessarily be the case for some, who I suspect may lose interest during the last 5-10 minutes. Things take a further turn that you have to get on board with, twisting the onscreen events into something arguably more interesting and sophisticated than the opening scenes would suggest. Subtlety has long gone, and the layers between viewer and footage start to blur and bleed into one another. In some ways, it's very silly. In other ways, it works. It's a tale within a tale within a tale (within a tale?), and that approach is certainly more interesting than what could have easily been an enjoyable, but altogether familiar, found footage to sit alongside the hundreds of others from the past couple of decades.

It doesn't quite get either end of the fear spectrum exactly right, the subtle moments are too subtle and the outright madness of the finale would have been better if there had been an attempt made to slide things into place a bit more smoothly, but this is still worth your time. Even if it's not one you'll ever want to revisit.


This is a region 3 disc (you have been warned).