Under the skin of Pom Poko, one of the funniest and most charming of Studio Ghibli’s productions, is a movie that asks such tough and troubling questions about modern life that it’s amazing the movie doesn’t tear itself apart. The messages are secondary to the tone and the delivery: Pom Poko makes its points through a comic parable about clans of shapeshifting raccoons, determined to protect their homelands at all costs. The movie is also obviously allegorical for any number of troubling real-world events: the Arab-Israeli conflict; the ethical problems of ecoterrorism; the growing concerns expressed about the consequences of globalism and mass consumer culture. And yet, again, all of this comes in the form of a sprightly, spirited animated story. It shouldn’t work, but it does, and that is a miracle.
Among the animals mentioned in Japanese mythology are the tanuki, shapeshifting raccoons with a playful sense of humor that take on human form. Pom Poko opens with a cadre of tanuki in today’s world, eking out a living in a wilderness that has already been encroached upon by human civilization. In a way, a little encroachment is not bad: the raccoons depend to a degree on the presence of humans to provide them (inadvertently) with food and occasionally a place to live — like the run-down temple that forms their home. As long as they can live and nibble on the margins, the tanuki are happy. Read more
How I hate trying to write about a movie that’s best seen cold. The less you know about Pretty Poison going in, the more fun it is to watch it unspool. And unspool it does, until it becomes more than just a wicked black comedy and turns into something like a statement about wickedness. Who’s worse, the one who’s bad by compulsion, because they don’t know any better — or the one who’s bad by design or choice? Does it matter?
Poison stars Anthony Perkins, the actor who probably single-handedly defined typecasting for at least a whole generation of moviegoers. After Psycho, he scarcely appeared as anything but a man harboring some great, twitchy derangement. Here he plays Dennis Pitt, a twentyish fellow freshly released from a mental institution where he did time for arson. He has a weird, elliptical way of talking, like he’s throwing his words at you to make you go away — the sort of thing Perkins could do perfectly, because he hardly seemed to be trying. There’s also his smile, which is too broad, comes at all the wrong moments, and only seems to involve his mouth muscles. Read more
Takashi Miike’s Izo is in some ways the movie he has been trying to make his whole career — one which sums up his ambitions, exceeds all his earlier works, and may end up alienating everyone involved. Izo springs from the one question that Miike’s been revisiting through every movie he’s ever made — why are we such violent monsters? — and asks that question in the form of a movie that has no linear plot, no roots in objective reality, no hero to empathize with, no speck of hope, no ultimate answer (not that there could be one), not even a beginning or an end.
Understand something: I’m not lambasting Miike for all this, I’m praising him. This sort of thing is far from easy. Look at Chuck Palahniuk, who for all of his initial promise as a writer has turned into the postmodern equivalent of Stephen King. His idiosyncrasies have turned into personal clichés. Miike sometimes veers close to that, but with Izo he’s turned such quirks to his advantage, or at least to serve the movie’s greater purpose. This movie will draw few admirers. It is pretentious, exasperating, repetitive, violent, gory and obscurantist — and I defend it for exactly those reasons. I’m sure even Miike would agree that no one’s obliged to like it.Read more
Hot on the heels of reviewing Memories, I looked at Neo-Tokyo, a close cousin to that three-part anthology film. Neo-Tokyo is much shorter — it’s only fifty minutes to the other movie’s 110 — but it packs about as much imagination and eye-filling imagery into its running time. The project was produced by Masao Maruyama and features three different directors each bringing to life one of Maruyama’s stories. Memories’s own Katsuhiro Ōtomo directed the third; Rintaro (Metropolis) the first; and Yoshiaki Kawajiri (“Program” and “World Record” from The Animatrix) the second. All are good to different degrees, but it’s Ōtomo’s segment that wins out overall.
Rintaro’s opener, “Labyrinth Labyrinthos” is essentially a bookending segment: it opens and closes the whole thing, and serves as a nice introduction to the twilight-zone territory we’ll be traversing. Essentially a fantasia about a young girl and her cat, it’s got the same trippy, reality-bending feel to it as Cat Soup: shadows turn into black slime that cover city walls; a circus tent becomes home to all manner of phantasmagoria; all is illusion. There’s no real story, but it’s worth it for the quality of the animation alone. The name value, as well: Rintaro has been one of the most consistently interesting animation directors in the world, not just Japan, and has broken ground with most everything he’s done. “Labyrinth” also owes its trippy look at least in part to Atsuki Fukushima, who also animated two segments in the underappreciated animation anthology Robot Carnival.Read more
At some point in our lives, we all look around and realize that despite whatever success we have, we’re surrounded by people who just seem to be more successful, more popular, more together, more with-it, and just plain happier about life — and if we’re lucky, we laugh. That’s the dilemma that Professor Grady Tripp faces — he’s a fiftyish literature teacher, slightly unkempt, freshly separated from his fourth wife, his successes years behind him and none more anywhere in sight. The affair he’s been carrying on with his supervisor’s wife has ended with her becoming pregnant. His biggest success as a novelist was seven years ago, and there’s been no follow-up. What little relief he gets comes in the form of the occasional joint smoked in the car. Tripp, unfortunately, can barely muster the energy to smile, let alone laugh.
Wonder Boys is about Tripp, and it makes us laugh even if he can’t. Like Sideways, it’s about people who feel like their chance at life has already blown past them, but it has affection for its characters instead of contempt and makes us want to know what happens to them. It features Michael Douglas as Tripp, and it’s a performance so removed from his usual high-voltage, A-type characters that I lamented him not being seen more in this mode when he was younger. See how time passes you by?Read more
I have a theory — perhaps a crazy one, but crazy theories are a favorite hobby of mine: that what science fiction did for the advancement of science, superhero comics may eventually do for sociology and public action. Yesterday’s SF dreams are today’s old news. In the same way, the philosophy that one extremely determined person can make a world of difference is no longer dismissed as naïve. Think about it: If someone with a goal and a mission had a nearly unlimited budget and access to the tools he needed to change things, what could happen?
The Batman comics didn’t start off as an exploration of that idea, but over time they turned into that. It was comic auteur Frank Miller’s take on the Batman mythos, Year One, that brought the genuinely serious undertones of the story into focus. Here was a man who was not superhuman — and for that reason more automatically interesting than his D.C. Comics stablemate Superman — but chose to throw himself into the thick of danger again and again, to make a difference where it mattered most. What he lacked in powers, he made up for in vision and spine and sheer brio.Read more
In anyone else’s hands, Kill! would have been demented nonsense, but Kihachi Okamoto and Tatsuya Nakadai make it into transcendent nonsense. Here is one of the most outlandish and Byzantine plots ever put into a samurai movie, but it’s played for black comedy and gleeful farce rather than the usual self-important seriousness. It freely raids a number of different chanbara film clichés — the disloyal but courageous retainer, the band of rebel samurai, the country bumpkin who makes good, the nobleman with a crush on a girl of a lower class, etc. All of them get lined up against the wall and machine-gunned with anarchic glee.
Kill! is also further testament to the skills of director Okamoto (Sword of Doom, Red Lion) and actor Nakadai (Doom, Ran). Okamoto makes the absurd material not only palatable but riotously funny. Nakadai does something even more impressive: he’s an actor with a haunted-looking, unmistakable face, but in Kill! he manages to look so unlike his previous roles (except, of course, for those frightened eyes) that for minutes on end I wasn’t even sure if I was looking at him. Read more
Initial D is a perfect example of how cultural cross-pollination is driving creativity in movies around the world: it’s a Hong Kong adaptation of a Japanese manga, popular in both countries and in the United States as well. It’s hard to get more multicultural than that, especially since the dominant theme of Initial D — a peculiar form of competitive driving called “drift racing” — ought to be instantly familiar to any nation that has roads and cars.
This is also far from the first time a manga has been adapted successfully into a movie outside of its home country. The most prominent example of that has to be Oldboy, of course, which Korean director Chan-wook Park reworked into one of the best films to come from that country. Initial D isn’t anywhere nearly as overwhelming as Oldboy (what could be?), but it’s a fun story that’s quick on its feet, and it puts American productions like The Fast and the Furious to shame. It’s actually interested in its characters as characters, not simply crash test dummies.Read more