The world of Onmyōji is one where mysticism, magic spells, bizarre omens and good and evil spirits fairly ooze out of the walls. In fact, they literally do ooze out of the walls at more than one point in the film, only to be driven back by invocations and enchantments of various kinds. The spiritualists in this movie are never short of work. Given what they have to contend with, they should be asking for hazard pay.
This is, in a way, one of the shortcomings of Onmyōji — it's so top-heavy with spiritualism and occult oddities that it threatens to become flat-out silly. But it is a lot of fun, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy it quite a bit. It's gorgeously photographed, and contains an amazingly credible recreation of Heian-era Japan, down to the stitching in the costumes. The one thing it lacks is a story that's more than featherweight, despite its sometimes overreaching complexity. There are some marvelous ideas at work here, and the movie was successful enough that it's inspired a sequel, but at the same time I couldn't help but wish they had been a bit more ambitious with their story. Read more
No mistake about it: Irreversible contains two of the most ghastly, stomach-souring moments I have ever seen in a serious theatrical film. The first is near the beginning (beginning?) where a clubgoer has his face smashed in with a fire extinguisher. The second is in the middle, where Alex (Monica Bellucci) is attacked in a subway tunnel by a sinister homosexual pimp, tormented, anally raped, and has her head pounded against the concrete until she slips into a coma. Both scenes are shot in graphic, unflinching detail.
If that scares you off from seeing the film, let me also add that this is a genuinely intelligent and provocative movie. The depravity is not for show, but is an integral part of what the movie is about and why. Still, you might think, who would want to subject themselves to such viciousness?
I asked much the same question about Salò, another film of excruciating brutality that I defended for being intelligent and well-made. Irreversible is not multiplex fodder (this was reportedly the most walked-out film of 2002), but it's not pornographic slop either. Unlike most movies, which use characterization to justify violence, this does exactly the opposite: its violence justifies its characterizations. Read more
All About Lily Chou-Chou is one of those movies where the idea behind the movie is more interesting than anything in it. Director Shunji Iwai created a web site devoted to a fictitious Bjork-like pop star and asked people to freely contribute material about her. He also included ingredients about the murder of a (also fictitious) Lily fan, from which he derived enough material through other people's feedback to create not only a novel but to update an old screenplay he'd written about the coming of age of two boys in modern Japan.
This is a fascinating concept. The real shame of All About Lily Chou-Chou is that all of this energy and creative work has not produced a better film. Lily is an ungainly, fractured, bewildering movie that despite its massive collection of characters and incidents and concepts winds up being about nothing much at all. Like Blue Velvet, another psychically wounding movie that has been widely praised, Lily contains moments of such emotional rawness that it's not hard to see how it has garnered many staunch defenders. But the film is so abstruse and fragmented on every level it's nearly impossible to ascribe motives or experience any payoff. We're just looking at ugly behavior, like someone's morbid home movies. If some films are dismissed as being cinematic masturbation, Lily probably qualifies as cinematic coitus interruptus. Read more
Satomi Hakkenden has been called the Star Wars of samurai movies, and it's not hard to see why — it's terrific fun. It's also one of the most roundly criticized films in its genre, for being an unabashedly pop-culture take on one of the pre-eminent samurai legends in Japanese folklore. Well, says I, there's no crime in that. As someone else once wrote about another movie with no pretensions to do anything other than have a good time, "It may not be Bach, but it is certainly Offenbach."
The story of the Hakkenden, or "Dog Warriors," comes out of Japanese mythology by way of China (there are many examples of Chinese folklore being imported and rewritten, this being one of the most enduring). In it, a young princess, the last of her clan, was endowed with eight spiritually-linked warriors to protect her from various supernatural menaces. The catch, of course, was that none of the warriors knew they had been so selected; each of them recognized the other over time via the presence of special magic beads. Each bead, and thus each warrior, was also linked with a specific Confucian spiritual virtue (a notion this movie doesn't bring out that clearly). The impact of the legend and its subsequently-derived entertainments is hard to over-estimate; almost every Final Fantasy game or anime with a loose-knit group of heroes probably has Hakkenden's mitochondria floating around in its cells.Read more
There's a scene early in Owls' Castle that says almost everything about what's wrong with the movie in one stroke. In it, a pair of ninja — one hellbent on assassinating the then-ruler of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the other intent on getting rid of him — meet on a rooftop in Hideyoshi's palace grounds. They speak imperiously at each other, eyes flashing, their words elegantly crafted in the way only a screenplay can be. And at no time did the movie ever seem to wonder why a couple of guys up on a rooftop talking wouldn't have their voices carry. It got to the point where I wondered why someone didn't come out below, rubbing his eyes and shouting, "Pipe down up there! Some of us are trying to sleep!"
It would have sure livened things up. Owl's Castle is an amazingly lazy movie based on a semi-historical work of fiction by Ryotaro Shiba. In it, he theorized that an attempt had been made on Hideyoshi's life by the survivor of a ninja clan he had eradicated (ostensibly for his own protection); that one of the survivors would want to take revenge.
The movie touches on a number of interesting historical precedents for all of this, like Hideoyshi's failed attempt at conquering Korea. Gorgeous sets and costumes fill the screen to its edges, and the filmmakers did a fantastic job of recreating period Osaka and Kyoto locations realistically. This all sounds like it should make for a great movie. It does not. Read more