Shuji Terayama is one of many Japanese filmmakers who remains almost wholly unrepresented in the West, much to our detriment. He created both experimental and “mainstream” cinema, the former best known through movies like Throw Away Your Books, Let’s Go Out into the Streets and the scandalous Emperor Tomato Ketchup. Most of his work was done under the auspices of the avant-garde Art Theatre Guild, and in doing so he collaborated with many staple countercultural figures from Japan’s Sixties and Seventies. But he’s never had much of his work issued domestically. When his movies are seen at all, they’re usually in the form of blurry bootlegs or tattered prints screened at private showings. To that end, whenever any of his movies show up in English-language editions at all, it’s something to celebrate.
Grass Labyrinth might qualify as one of his most widely-seen films, since it was released both on its own and as part of the anthology production Private Collections. That film also contained shorts by Just Jaeckin (he of Gwendoline and Emmanuelle infamy) and Walerian (The Beast) Borowczyk, which is why it is linked to this review in lieu of a standalone edition. And since the U.S. DVD of that film is the only decent way to see Labyrinth I was initially inclined to review all three at once — but Terayama’s movie so far overshadowed the others, I decided a review of Labyrinth alone would be more than worth it. Read more
John Sayles’s Limbo begins in a place that for many people would be the middle of nowhere — Port Henry, Alaska — and ends as literally as possible in the middle of nowhere, the better to live up to its themes. If you have seen Sayles’s other movies, you’ll probably walk into this one thinking it’s another of his smart meditations on the politics of a local community, like Lone Star or Sunshine State. It does indeed give off that vibe at first, but after a while the movie’s real intentions step forward. The place is just a backdrop, and the real drama is initially invisible.
Limbo gives us three people — Joe (David Straithairn), a handyman and ex-fisherman; Donna (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a nowhere nightclub singer; and Donna’s daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez). The three of them cross paths at a locally-catered wedding, and almost without realizing it Joe gives Mary a ride home. She’s in the process of breaking up with yet another of the men she has had the bad taste to shack up with, something which her daughter has become disgusted enough with to take out on herself when no one’s looking. Joe and Donna like each other, and for a while the movie seems to be about the two of them moving closer together while the rest of the folks in the township (a good many of whom have just been laid off from the local canning factory) grouse about them into their beer. Read more
Moon over Tao is one of those movies where the idea should have yielded something really awesome, but what they ended up with was only okay. It’s one of a very small number of “hybrid fantasy” movies from Japan, where they take a typical samurai/ninja adventure story and fuse it with something else. A great example of this would probably be Zipang, which was just so unhinged and off-the-wall that I couldn’t resist it. Tao mixes and matches a samurai adventure with a sci-fi fantasy, but it plods for too much of its running time instead of really cutting loose. I hate to think that until Zipang is issued domestically we’ll have to settle for mediocre stuff like this.
Tao kicks off with two characters who are staples of samurai action films: a taciturn samurai, Hayate (Hiroshi Abe, also of Baian the Assassin) and a liquor-swilling, magic-spell-slinging monk, Suikyou (Toshiyuki Nagashima), himself formerly an army general. The two of the have teamed back up at the behest of a local lord to investigate a series of strange happenings. Apparently a meteorite has fallen from heaven and a priest with delusions of grandeur has forged swords from the alien ores contained within — swords that his goons are now using to wreak havoc up and down the countryside. Read more
The premise for The Edukators made me cringe, I admit it: Three young anti-globalist agitators make a name for themselves by breaking into rich people’s houses, rearranging the furniture, and leaving notes like “YOUR DAYS OF PLENTY ARE NUMBERED.” Exactly the kind of self-indulgent stunts masquerading as political theater that went out of fashion decades ago. Worse, the filmmakers probably thought these insufferable prats were the good guys.
I was happy to be proven wrong. The Edukators is a smart movie, far smarter than I ever expected it to be — and more importantly, a deeply compassionate one. It has great empathy not only for its young would-be revolutionaries, but also for one of the people they are allegedly rebelling against, and what looks at first like a case of scoring easy points against a wicked system turns into something a lot more nuanced and subtle. It’s not even a movie about the politics, but about the way politics — any political stance, really — is shaped by the dimensions of a person’s life. You always embody your beliefs, even if you’re not aware of how you do it. Read more