Thursday, August 21, 2014

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai - Bitter Revenge, Remade

Movie: Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai
My Rating: 4 stars

What a great movie!  Or, movies, rather.  As soon as I learned that Takashi Miike was remaking this classic samurai film from 1962, I knew I had to watch them both.  Of course, it took me a few years to actually execute that plan (as it always does).  My list of movies and books to watch and read just seems to keep growing completely out of control.  But, I finally pulled the trigger on these films.  And, the first thing that I have to say about them is that they’re completely deceptive.  Both the original and the remake seem like they’re going to be like all those other, sleepy, old-timey, samurai flicks made in the 60s (like Twilight Samurai), that plod on and give you a feeling for living in a rural, Edo period village.  But, this story has a completely surprising, vicious underbelly.
Because, this is a story about revenge.  And, this is revenge over a very traditionally Japanese concept—a warrior’s honor.  And, we all know just how bloody and cruel that can be.  The story takes place during a very transitional time in Japan.  The country is now enjoying peace after a long period of warring states.  However, that means that there are many samurai who are out of a job.  Without any real way to make a living or provide for their families many former warriors have taken to presenting themselves at large estates, asking to be allowed to commit ritual suicide in their courtyards.  (But, really, they’re hoping to be sent away with a few coins in their pockets).  And, this film tells the story of the tragedy that surrounds one such poor, young samurai when the master of the estate decides to actually grant his request.  We all know this can’t end well.
I wasn’t quite as impressed by Miike’s remake as I was expecting to be, but I think that probably has something to do with my watching both films so close to one another.  This is a story that benefits from some element of surprise.  It gives the viewers pieces of information little by little, gradually revealing the whole, terrible truth.  So, I think my second viewing was ruined by knowing exactly what was coming—not by any fault of the director.  Of course, Miike does change a few very notable things in the story.  I’m not sure whether he did this to add a little variety, or to tailor the story to his own, warped sensibility.  (That guy can be pretty nuts!)  He alters some of the expository scenes, changing how characters learn key bits of information.  And, he changes the final body count.  But, most notably, Miike changes the ending.  Without spoiling anything for you, I can tell you that in the original, the transgressors learn from their mistakes, and express remorse for the injustice they’d wrought.  However, in this new film, they appear to learn nothing, turning this story into a real tragedy, rather than just a cautionary tale.  That’s the part that impacted me the most.

You should definitely see one of these films.  I don’t think it’s necessary to see them both—especially not back to back, like I did.  But, I’m not quite sure which one to point you toward.  The original does have its charms.  But, the new one is definitely more beautiful.  (I’m a sucker for snow falling into a Japanese courtyard).  And, vintage footage can have a tendency to put people off.  People imagine that they’ll be bored by such an old movie.  I’m here to assure you that that won’t be the case, but if you feel that watching the new film will make you more likely to watch it, then go with that one.  And, let me know what you think!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

I'm So Excited! - A Sexy, Airborne, Spanish Romp

Movie: I’m So Excited!
My Rating: 4 stars

Finally! A Pedro Almodóvar movie that won’t send you into a week-long depression spiral or give you an existential crisis.  I really enjoy Almodóvar’s films, but man, can they be bleak!  Of course, this story has its own elements of darkness too.  You really can’t avoid that kind of material when you’re dealing with this director.  But as a welcome surprise, this dark comedy really emphasizes the humor.  Absurdist humor, yes, but I really did think this movie was pretty funny.
This story is structured as a melodrama.  The whole thing unfolds in a highly contrived setting—a flying airplane that is forbidden from landing because of an air traffic control strike.  Tensions run high as time passes and the jet uses up fuel.  Especially since the flight attendants are a bunch of ditzy, overemotional, gay men!  It actually seems like they’re enjoying the excitement almost as much as they’re terrified by it.  They’ll finally get to use some of that emergency training they had always thought was useless.  And of course, fear can sometimes breed extraordinary passion, and they’re definitely on-board for taking advantage of that!  Then there are the passengers to take into account.  And they’re the wildcards—especially those crazy characters in first class.
Naturally, some very important and notorious members of Spanish social and political culture just so happen to be aboard.  It’s all very convenient, in keeping with the traditions of the genre.  But, melodrama can make some very pointed observations when used satirically, and that’s exactly what I think Almodóvar is doing with this film.  I’ve heard that he’s specifically skewering similar strikes that were taking place in the Spanish airline industry at the time.  But it seems like he’s also more broadly poking fun at just how ridiculous and self-absorbed people can be.  It’s all very silly and raunchy, but it points to some real truths (the way that most art should).

This is a good movie, and I enjoyed watching it very much.  I think you’ll probably like it too if you’re into black comedy, and enjoy a fair amount of sexy shenanigans.  (Things get pretty wild after the flight attendants spike the in-flight punch to “loosen up” everybody a little bit (wink wink)).  But, you should go ahead and check this one out.  Everyone can use a breezy, sexually irresponsible, story about jealousy and peril to brighten their day up a little bit.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Purple Rain - Enough Velvet to Choke a Horse

Movie: Purple Rain
My Rating: 3 stars

This movie is completely nuts.  I don’t think I’ve seen a film that’s so obviously a product of its era in a very long time.  Everything about this movie is so 80s—the feathered hair, the garish makeup, all the casual battery of women.  It’s really something.  Although, I guess Prince has always been a creature that transcends time and space.  He’d fit in just about anywhere.  That guy is such a foreign creature—very much like David Bowie in the way he’s genderless, genreless, and completely dismissive of rules and conventional wisdom.  But, Prince is still pretty confident in his sex appeal.  Pretty impressive for a wee gentleman of 5 foot 2.
This movie is supposed to be a semi-autobiographical story about Prince’s rise as a young musician.  And, to me, “semi-autobiographical” means that timelines are compressed, and all the key details are exaggerated.  This is Prince’s creative vehicle, so he has the freedom to make himself look as smooth and sexy as he wants.  And, it’s pretty clear that he took full advantage of this right.  Prince presents himself as the fresh, new face in the Minneapolis music scene, and he’s really making a name for himself.  But, he has to contend with the crooked club owners, who are looking to make a fast buck, and lure their female employees into bed.  Prince is definitely trying to cast himself as the sympathetic good guy.  But, he’s just as guilty of treating the women in this story very poorly.  He’s always trying to humiliate them, and discount their talents and contributions.  It’s a bit incongruous.
I always find it hilarious when old movies are trying to be sexy.  It always just highlights how much fashion and society’s sensibilities change—or how ephemeral style is in general.  Although, it’s not always the case that we’ve been moving steadily toward more libertinism and debauchery as time marches on.  These things ebb and flow.  The 80s are known as an era of hedonism and self-indulgence, and all the ruffles, lace, lingerie-as-outerwear, and plunging necklines reflect that.  And, that’s just Prince!!  He’s rocking a seriously exhilarating collection of little, velvet, pirate pants, and elfin, high-heeled boots.  It’s adorable.  Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the reaction the petit monsieur was hoping for.  Perhaps it’s that insecurity that inspired him to act like such an asshole to all the women in this film.  He’s really quite a jerk.  I certainly wouldn’t have put up with all the antics Apollonia does.  But, what do I know?  That could have been a character choice.  However, this movie is supposed to be about Prince’s life, so….

You should see this movie.  It’s a classic.  And, it’s pretty darn entertaining too.  It’s hilarious, for one thing—unintentionally, of course, but that’s the best kind.  And, it’s also great if you’re into Prince’s music, because it features tons of songs.  But, really you need to see this movie for your own cultural literacy.  I came to it way too late in life, and I don’t want you to make the same mistake.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

World War Z - Thrilling, But Disappointing

Movie: World War Z
My Rating: 2 stars

This movie was a big pile of garbage.  Of course, I am a little bit biased.  I’ve read all the books associated with this franchise, and loved them.  So, I was very disappointed with how fast and loose this film played with the source material.  This is the movie based on Max Brooks’ books about a fictional zombie apocalypse that threatens to take over the whole globe.  And, these aren’t the slow, ambling zombies from Walking Dead or any of George Romero’s films.  These are runners—the deadly, sprinting zombies we’ve met in 28 Days Later.  That’s terrifying stuff.  And, the story deals with the world’s unified efforts to solve the mystery of what created this pandemic, and containing it.
My disappointment aside, this movie has some inherently ridiculous elements in it as well.  The characters pretty much exclusively talk in long, clunky paragraphs of exposition.  It’s atrocious.  And, then there’s Brad Pitt’s character.  He’s the action star of this zombie flick.  He’s plays kind of a mercenary soldier type—skilled with a semi-automatic weapon, and quick to take out targets, no matter how morally ambiguous the decision.  But, get this.  He learned all these skills working for the UN.  That’s right—the United Nations.  Last time I checked, those BlueHats were only good for marching around already-devastated nations, filling out paperwork, and making public statements about “peace-keeping.”  They certainly aren’t the supremely competent, Black Ops style, surgical strike force that Mr. Pitt is representing.

“You’ve got zombies overrunning your city?  Don’t worry ma’am, I’m with the UN.”
“Oh, thank god!  We’re saved!”
Nope, I didn’t think so.
But, this movie also gets the whole point of the book wrong.  Pretty much the sole point that the book was making was that in times of huge, quick-moving crises like this—or any mass pandemic—decision by coalition is a killer.  It takes a long time to hear everyone’s arguments, and compromises are usually lose-lose situations.  It’s the decisive, unilateral actors, who will survive.  But, this movie flips the scenario completely.  I’ve already mentioned that the story casts the United Nations as the hero that will save humanity.  But, in the book, the one country to keep itself completely zombie-free was Israel.  That’s because it had completely closed borders, already had a huge wall around it, and had an almost inhumanely zero-tolerance policy for allowing in infected people.  If that meant splitting up families, or shooting infected children, so be it.  But, in this film, the nation gets just as overrun as the rest of the world.  Even worse, maybe, because the walls served as a useful holding pen to prevent people from fleeing.  It was such a shame that the film did this.  It took one of the most interesting points made in the book and completely subverted it.  Of course, I can understand how the filmmakers here might have wanted to avoid addressing Israel’s politics.  The kind of unthinking people that make up the general public tend to reflexively start yelling whenever they hear certain buzz words.

I did not enjoy this movie.  But, I have a hard time assessing it objectively.  My viewing companions said that they thought it was very entertaining.  And, I admit that it did have a few very suspenseful, nail-biter scenes in it.  But, I’m just so disgusted by the cynical Hollywood blockbuster system.  But, go ahead and watch this one if you want.  I won’t fault you for it.  Even I was curious.  But, don’t expect to like this one if you read and enjoyed the books at all.