If eroticism resides most in the mind or spirit rather than the body, then A Snake of June may well be the most erotic film ever made. Like all the best movies of its kind, it is not about sex per se, but about its power and influence. Sometimes that power is destructive (In the Realm of the Senses), and there are who knows how many bad erotic thrillers about people destroyed because their libidos overpower their common sense. Snake works the other way around, showing how someone’s libido can return to them a sense of personal identity long suppressed. That not only makes it all the more erotic, but all the more interesting and compelling.
Snake’s director is Shinya Tsukamoto, one of Japan’s best and most idiosyncratic directors (and actors). He first came to attention worldwide with Tetsuo: the Iron Man, a bizarre and jolting 65-minute stop-motion odyssey about an ordinary salaryman mutating into a walking junkheap. After several low-budget but arresting-looking ventures into the same SF territory, he began to branch out and discover what he was really capable of, and made films that were about the transformation of the spirit as well as the body (Tokyo Fist, Gemini). A Snake of June has the look and feel of his first independent 16mm productions, but in its theme and approach it’s clearly the product of someone at the absolute top of his form.Read more
The more I watched Azumi, the less I wanted from it. Yes, this is the sort of movie where excess and overkill are the name of the game, but if they had pared it down, they might have found a better movie inside this one. At more than one point I wanted to play amateur editor with the fast-forward button on my DVD player, so I can only imagine how interminable it must have been in theaters. “Interminable” isn’t an adjective you want to use about a movie which is non-stop girlie ninja action.
Azumi is an adaptation of a long-running manga (25 volumes) about a young female ninja or kunoichi (teen idol Aya Ueto), operating in secret during the first years of Japan’s unification. Her skill with her weapons is unparalleled, but being a ruthless assassin doesn’t come as naturally as she’d like to believe, and before long her heart and her mission will collide. This setup provides us with many opportunities to have Azumi and her fellow ninja strut their stuff: beheadings, throat-slittings, and leaping across tree- and roof-tops in various wire-fu formations.
The first half hour or so of Party 7 is so funny I had a hard time seeing how the laughs could hold up for the entire movie’s 107-minute running time — and, big surprise, they don’t. This is like a Japanese version of the Tarantino anthology misfire Four Rooms, crossbred with a Jack Davis cartoon. Sounds like a can’t-miss combination, right?
Well, no. Party 7 starts off funny and spontaneous, all right, but after about forty minutes it turns into a shrill, turgid mess. It’s hard to be funny for even ten minutes at a time. Ask any standup comic. To be funny for two straight hours is Herculean, and this movie isn’t remotely up to the task. What’s most disappointing is how promising the setup is, and how they manage to go from the farcical lunacy of the movie’s opening minutes to total inertia in less than an hour. Read more
There’s two ways to look at Shogun’s Samurai: it’s either a clever reinvention of history for the sake of drama, or a shameless excursion into total fantasy. The fact that most Western audiences won’t know the way history’s being so drastically mixed around (shilling for mutilated) is a boon, not a hindrance: they’ll see it through relatively unclouded eyes.
I knew enough about the history behind the events in Shogun’s Samurai to be amused by the changes, but I’m not close enough to them to be outraged. Perhaps that makes me the ideal audience for it: I liked it fine for what it was — stylish but also intelligent pulp fantasy — without grousing about what it should have been.
Samurai is based on a popular novel that drew on the intrigues behind the throne around the time of the third Tokugawa Shogun (the mid-1600s). Japan was finally unified, and the Shogun, the military ruler of the country, had to be someone willing to do anything to keep the peace. Iemitsu (Hiroki Matsukata), the underdog for the throne, is nobody’s idea of a ruler: he stammers and has an ugly wine-colored birthmark covering most of his face (shades of I, Claudius). Small wonder he’s out of favor with even his own father. The royal fencing instructor, Yagyū Tajima (Kinnosuke Nakamura, a samurai-movie regular), decides to take matters into his own hands: he has Iemitsu’s father poisoned, then moves to have the misfit installed on the throne. Read more
The third of Miike’s “Black Society” trilogy of films about the foreign criminal underworld in Japan is called Ley Lines, and it’s one of those titles that doesn’t make sense until you’re well into the film. Ley lines are divisions across the face of the earth with mystical significance, bringing previously unconnected things into connection. In the same way, the characters in Ley Lines intersect in unexpected ways, revealing connections between them they weren’t aware of.
Ley Lines features three young men, a loose affiliation of criminal youth with no particular direction in life. Their ringleader-of-sorts, Ryuichi, is of Chinese parentage and has no legitimate way to leave the country. He’s fed up with his studious brother for not supporting his folks, but he hasn’t done much of a job himself: his favorite hobbies are petty theft and dope-smoking. He and his two comrades are prime targets for being recruited into the criminal life.Read more
The boy has suffered a stroke, leaving one entire side of his body paralyzed. Dr. Malmros (Jens Albinus) is one of the best men in the whole of neurosurgery, and his exceptionally steady hands make him a prime candidate to operate on children. Working quickly and efficiently, he injects the boy with a chemical called a contrast medium to help photograph the blood vessels in his brain, locates the injured blood vessel, and ties it off. Yet another life saved. Except that decades later, the same boy will die of liver cancer — caused, ironically enough, by the same radio-emitter chemical used to save his life.
This is the dilemma that is set up in the first few minutes of Facing the Truth, a powerful and moving story taken from the real life of a doctor who garnered great fame in Denmark, but fell out of favor for intensely personal reasons. It is not exclusively about the medical controversy, although that forms a big part of the story’s arena, but is really about the weather of a man’s spirit, and how he deals with hardships that come in spite of him being a good man and a skilled doctor. The film was directed by Nils Malmros, the real-life son of the real-life Dr. Malmros, and there isn’t a moment in it that feels inauthentic or forced.Read more
Witch Hunter Robin is the kind of show I always feel the most ambivalent about: one which has the seeds of greatness in it, but seems arbitrarily hidebound by its style and approach. For a good deal of its running time, Robin is so low-key and so flat-affect that it’s a miracle anything happens at all. Then in the last few episodes, the tension that’s been humming beneath the surface of the show rears up all at once, and I found myself unexpectedly moved and involved. I just wish it had come sooner. This is not a bad show, but it is a frustrating one, and many people are likely to get turned off real fast if they don’t know how it works ahead of time.
Here we have a show with a great premise, a great-looking gallery of characters, and a great animation style — but which is dialed down so far that most audiences are going to breeze right past it. Once I accepted the fact that the show wasn’t going to try and punch things up artificially, it worked well, albeit on its own quiet terms. For whatever reason, the creators chose this approach, and while it would be easy for me to lambast them for doing so, I’m betting it would be more worth my while to try and interpret what they did and why.Read more
The Seventies stunk.
There, I’ve said it. I hated the Seventies. Anglo afros, ugly interior design, gas rationing and herpes — you couldn’t pay me to feel nostalgia for the decade of my birth. Feel free to call it a case of sour grapes for being so young at the time and not being able to really partake of the fun, but all I can remember about those years was wanting to get the heck out as fast as possible. The only thing worse than living through that era is suffering through the nostalgia (faux or genuine) for it.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons The Apple had me laughing hysterically all the way through. It’s a love letter to the stylistic excess of that time, only it’s been penned by illiterates with terrible handwriting. It’s an awful movie, to be sure, but it’s never boring, if only because they find something absolutely stupefying to point the camera at in every second of film. And as bad as the movie is, it actually manages to point its satire in the right direction and even feels weirdly timely — that is, when it’s not burning your eyes out with some of the most horrific production design since the Star Wars Holiday Special. Shock Cinema described it as “Can’t Stop the Music meets Logan’s Run,” two other Seventies artifacts guaranteed to clear the room in seconds. Read more
The problem with stereotypes is that a “good” stereotype is just as dangerous and misleading as a “bad” one. Back in my high school, it was a hoary cliché that the Asian-American kids were the studious, quiet and polite ones who also knew kung fu and could kick your ass into the boiler room if you got fresh with them. I got to know a couple of them personally, and not only were some of them not particularly good students, most of them didn’t even know kung fu. What a concept.
Better Luck Tomorrow deals with a bunch of Asian-American kids in Orange County, California, who are outwardly the over-achievers of their class but inwardly have their fingers in every dirty pie imaginable. It sounds like the sort of thing that could only come out of a screenwriter’s imagination, but it isn’t: the film is inspired by, but not based on, a true incident. Back in 1992, a bright young Asian-American named Stuart Tay was beaten and strangled to death by five of his own classmates, also honor-roll students, after a criminal deal went sour. If things were bad then, one can only imagine they are far worse now, and Tomorrow feels scarily up-to-the-second. Read more