Whenever people tell me they cannot watch a particular movie because it is “depressing,” I wonder if what they really mean is that it is profoundly emotional in a way that they don’t know how to deal with because most movies do not traffic in such emotions. For me, the only depressing movies are bad ones — they’re depressing because they’re not interested in really showing us what movies can be capable of at their best. Tony Takitani is a great and sad movie, but not a depressing one, because it knows exactly what it wants to do and how to do it.
The film is an adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami, one of Japan’s few contemporary authors to achieve great success outside of his home country. Most of his novels have been translated into English and received with acclaim, and they are worth the praise: not long ago I finished reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and when I have a few less DVDs clamoring for my attention I plan to write about it. Like all the best writers, it’s difficult to distill into only a few words what makes him special — he writes about ordinary people doing ordinary things, and then drops all of them into strangely magical circumstances that change everything.
Takitani begins not with the Tony of the title, but his father. In stills and a few motion shots, we see that Tony’s father was a jazz musician, a sometime criminal who fled to China during WWII to avoid responsibility for his actions and returned to find Tokyo firebombed into rubble. He named his son Tony on the suggestion of an American serviceman, without thinking of how giving the boy such a name would affect him. This was decades before such things were cool, of course, and so the young Tony finds himself at arm’s length from everyone — but the movie finds a peculiar way to suggest, visually and in other ways that a synopsis will not do justice to, that he is most comfortable with that.Read more
The opening scene of Breaking News, a single unbroken take that lasts eight minutes and includes a gunfight of startling ferocity, is so good I half-expected the rest of the movie to fail miserably. This opening shot involves most of a city block, with the camera gliding effortlessly around and even going from floor to floor in a neighboring building, and turns to violence so suddenly and unexpectedly that it doesn’t even feel choreographed. It’s quite a feat, and in a way I expected about as much from director Johnnie To, one of the best of Hong Kong’s current crop of directors. He’s turning that country’s pop action cinema away from sheer firepower and more towards the kind of ragged realism that’s come into vogue elsewhere as well (such as Korea).
So how’s the rest of the movie? Pretty good, actually. As the title implies, Breaking News is as much about the media image of the police as it is about actual cops-and-robbers action. It starts as a fairly straightforward cop / action story — the aforementioned first scene involves a detective (Nick Cheung) on a streetside stakeout to watch a gang of suspected bank robbers, headed up by a charismatic leader (Siu-Fai Cheung). The stakeout turns into a horrible firefight, one of the police is killed, and one of the robbers is wounded. Each side limps off to regroup. Read more
Giant Robo couldn’t have unlikelier origins: it was derived from a 1960s-era schlock TV show about a kid and his giant flying robot, faced long and extremely difficult production problems that held up its completion, and was among the last of the major direct-to-video animated projects released in Japan. And yet this is one of the very best anime ever made, of an ambition and a scope that dwarfs many longer-running releases. Years after seeing it for the first time, it still feels fresh and new — it’s terrifically entertaining on the surface, and then you dig a little deeper and see that there is a real heart beating inside.
Giant Robo was the very first animated series I ever remember seeing, as opposed to standalone productions like Akira. It was an OAV (Original Animated Video), a direct-to-video product with a higher per-episode budget than TV shows. Such products could only recoup their production costs through direct sales on VHS or LaserDisc. Given that OAVs cost anywhere from ¥5,000 to ¥12,000 ($42 to $100 or more), the continued devotion of the hardcore anime lovers was what kept them going. Then the OAV market collapsed along with Japan’s bubble economy in general, and until very recently anime only survived through broadcast TV productions or theatrical releases. The direct-to-video market became the province of ultra-cheap gangster / crime / sex thrillers (much like the endless Basic Instinct knockoffs that filled video shelves over here through the Nineties), but many of the OAVs found a second life here in the USA as the market for professionally-released anime editions exploded. Read more
The movies are one of many places where we hang our cultural dirty laundry out to dry, and for a country with as troubled and difficult a recent past as Korea, Memories of Murder is unquestionably part of that process. This isn’t so much a “thriller” or a “police procedural” as it is an act of spiritual atonement: These things happened — maybe not exactly in this form, but in this manner — and the mere act of making them public and explicit is a relief. That said, Murder is also a great entertainment. It has the ingredients of a thriller, but the format and pacing of a black comedy veering over into tragedy.
Murder takes place over a stretch of six years, 1986 to 1991, when South Korea was essentially a police state and the cops spent more time persecuting people on general principles than actually solving crimes. It stars Kang-ho Song, one of Korea’s finest actors (he had pivotal roles in both Shiri and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) as Park, a policeman in a rural town, the sort of place where tractors are about as common as pickup trucks and driven around about as freely. One day a farmer discovers a dead girl in a covered drainage ditch, her hands tied together and her clothes stripped off and abandoned nearby. She is the first victim of a serial killer who will rape and kill nine more women over the next six years. Read more
There are so few genuinely original movies out there that I tend to coddle the ones I see that have a shred of originality in them. For that reason I wanted to go easy on Yamakasi, which takes one wonderful idea and absolutely kills it dead with a story that’s a shameless retread of bits and pieces of dozens of other movies. This, for me, is a depressing movie: We’re promised something exciting and new, and then we wind up suffering through yet another dumb concoction about Heroes Racing Against Time To Save A Little Kid In The Hospital. Even more disappointing is learning it was written and produced by Luc Besson, who has made a career out of movies that straddle the line between challenging and commercial. Yamakasi falls down on the commercial side of the line, hard.
The film deals with a crew of seven urban daredevils — the Yamakasi of the title — who do things like scale buildings barehanded, leap from rooftop to rooftop like Morpheus in The Matrix, and pull all sorts of other, similar stunts just for the sheer thrill and exhilaration of doing it. This is great stuff, not just because it’s clear that they’re all doing these things unaided and without CGI or doubles, but because they make it look like such effortless fun. Then we get to the actual story — which opens with a snotty police captain who hates the Yamakasi for stealing their thunder, or creating a nuisance, or whatever — and my heart collapsed. Great way to ruin a wonderful premise. (The character, by the way, is brought back for exactly one more scene and then abandoned, which told me that even the filmmakers did not have much faith in him either.)
We don’t just get the Pig-Headed Pigs, either. We also get the Kid In Danger subplot, and when this element came in — barely fifteen minutes into the movie, mind you — I groaned out loud. One of the boys who idolizes the Yamakasi tries to imitate them, falls out of a tree, and in the “24 hours before we have to do a heart transplant” the Yamakasi hatch a plan: Rob the men who run the organ-transplant intermediary company, and use their own money to pay for the kid’s transplant. Oh, and before that, they even save the boy’s distraught mother from jumping off a building — but we know she’s not doomed because the music doesn’t cut off abruptly when she falls.Read more
Maybe it’s just the way it seems in the media, but does Japan has more subcultures per square inch than it does actual populace? Kamikaze Girls looks at two of the least-similar subcultures you could imagine and finds they have more in common than you might think — that most of the people who swear allegiance to such things are simply looking to belong to something that’s a little brighter, a little noisier, a little more fun than everyday life. And like the very things it looks at, Kamikaze Girls is itself bright, noisy, and a lot of fun; it had me laughing more often than nearly anything else I’ve seen recently that billed itself as a comedy.
The two cultures in Kamikaze Girls are a) the “Lolita Girls”, female teenagers who dress like Little Bo Peep, and b) the bousozoku, or biker gangs. These are far from being the only two in Japan worth mentioning, though. Between the otaku — the near-antisocial fans of anime and manga and all the cultural products thereof — and those genuinely weird girls who dress up in bandages and fake bruises, you could lose count. Momoko (Kyoko Fukada, the pop star in Kitano’s Dolls and Himiko in Onmyoji II), the Lolita Girl, daydreams about rococo-ea France and uses her cutesy style to escape from the wretchedness of her surroundings.Read more
The Brother from Another Planet had me just from its pedigree alone: it’s a modest independent film that does more with what little it has than projects with a thousand times the budget. It was the fourth film by indie-movie maven John Sayles, and it remains among his very best simply because it takes one basic idea and sees it through without stumbling. It also works because it spans many different tones quite effortlessly — it’s broadly funny, touching, and thoughtful, sometimes all of those things at the same time. Lastly, it’s a New York movie — or, specifically, a Harlem movie — and it understands New York from the sidewalk on up.
Brother stars Joe Morton, an actor you have almost certainly seen many times before (he was the hot-shot computer scientist in Terminator 2, for instance), but he never played a role remotely like this before or since. He plays an alien from outer space, an escaped slave, who crash-lands on Earth just off of Ellis Island. He doesn’t seem all that different from a human being, except for the three toes on his feet, but he can heal with a touch and fix (or sabotage) machinery the same way. Morton plays the whole role with his eyes, face and body, since the being never speaks once. It is a great performance, because it forces us to actually look at the man, to take in his whole performance, instead of simply listen to him. Read more