Takeshi Miike is best known for uber violent and controversial fare such as Visitor Q (2001) and Ichi the Killer (2001) amongst others. Ace Attorney (2012), based on a series of Nintendo DS games is somewhat less controversial, though it is seemingly rather a random choice of property for Miike to turn his attention to.
The film sees a young, not very good, attorney Phoenix Wright taking on a couple of cases against extremely high profile and undefeated prosecutors. This is a (presumably near future) world where overcrowded courts mean that every case must be settled within three days, usually much quicker. Wright’s inability to be anything but a really terrible lawyer was one of the ongoing frustrations for me throughout the film. When the holes in his opponent’s cases are so glaring that I pick up on them straight away, but someone else needs to point them out to Wright, it is a gap in logic that is annoying when repeated. That quibble aside though, this addition to a strong tradition of very absurd Japanese cinema, is still a lot of fun. Also, despite Wright’s professional failings, the court scenes function surprisingly well, being successful as courtroom drama. A lot of this is down to the fact that the performances are all really good, especially from Hiroki Narimiya as Phoenix Wright who is able connect with the audience emotionally, even when silliness rages around him. Narimiya also conveys a kind of comedic innocence that is reflected in the film more generally, because when the film is at its best, it too has this comedic innocence going on.
One issue with many absurdist films such as this one is that they are a little too uncontrolled. An over the top scattershot approach is engaging for a short time, but becomes tiresome over the course of 90 to 120 minutes. And whilst Ace Attorney is a little too long, it avoids getting old by cultivating and maintaining a really strong emotional core to the narrative. The actions of every character are easily understandable due to the background that we have been given to each of them. By having an emotional underpinning to everything, the film is able to get away with much more absurdity than it otherwise might have been able to. The sheer absurdity of it all is still definitely there though. Much of it in this vision of the near future comes out of the really great design especially the wardrobe and brilliantly over the top hair stylings. Whilst different to the majority of his cinematic output, Ace Attorney still shows off Miike’s quality as a director. Stylistically he is able to throw a lot at the screen – slow motion, CGI and bullet time all show up in the first two minutes – and have a vast majority of it stick. Overall the style somehow manages to invoke anime and video games whilst still also managing to work as a cinematic piece.
Come for the silliness you would expect to arise from Takeshi Miike directing an adaptation of a courtroom video game, stay for the emotional heart. Ace Attorney doesn’t always work, but it is good fun when it does
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
This week thanks to Madman Entertainment, you have the chance to win a copy of Ace Attorney plus two other Japanese films on DVD. Head here for all the details on how to enter.
This killer examination of the J-Horror genre and attempts to remake these films in America is courtesy of an old mate of mine Jon Fisher. Read on for the goodness.
I recall hiking to the cinema to see The Ring (2002), Gore Verbinski’s psychological thriller/horror starring Naomi Watts as a young journalist investigating a series of mysterious deaths that appear to have a correlation with (or be caused by) a strange home-made video. The film was a smashing success financially – the kind of sleeper hit that production studios dream about. I thought Verbinski’s film was a well-made, rather elegant example of a genre that usually elicits boredom. There was something different about it, right down to the way much of the apprehensive matter was presented (the jagged motions of the ‘freaky girl’ antagonist, the slow seeping water scenes). Horror movies are usually, as Wes Craven stated so elegantly in Scream (1996) via his proxy Sidney Nolan, about “some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door.”
The Ring, of course, was based on a Japanese horror film, Ringu (1998). Ringu is a vintage J-Horror film in that it ticks a number of the boxes for that genre. The plot focuses on a victim – usually a dark-haired young girl – who has been subjected to an atrocious miscarriage of justice. The perpetrator has usually either died without suffering for their crime, or is living a normal life within the community. If the perpetrator is still alive, the victim focuses their vengeance on them. If not, innocent bystanders are usually subjected to torturous, creepy and eventually fatal stalking by the victim. Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) is another example of this prototypical Japanese horror story format. (Interestingly, Shutter (2004), is a Thai horror movie that covers much of the same ground – perhaps revealing something about horror mythology and folk tales from Asia generally)
It almost goes without saying that the J-Horror titles are fundamentally different to American horror. J-Horror, like American horror, sits firmly in the realm of ‘film as entertainment’. It would be an error to claim that the genre as a whole is flawless and more sturdy than its American counterpart. But in much of the J-Horror canon, particularly the really good titles, there is an underlying mythology and obsession with leitmotifs that is fundamentally different to American sensibilities. That’s not to say the mythology is necessarily better or worse – they simply differ. J-Horrors usually involve a festering desire for revenge, justice delivered long after wrongdoing, and of course fear of the unknown. It gets more complex than that, of course, but to put it simply – people get scared by different things in different cultures.
Take Audition (1999), a psychological thriller about a male widower searching for a new wife. The widower devises a mock casting audition for his new flame. The film eventually meanders down a dark path, in the end revealing itself as a parable about the dangers of brazenly confecting love and romance – a theme that is particularly compelling considering Japanese perspectives on sex and sexuality, which are considerably different to the American emotional response.
It’s a sad observation that American horror films are generally vapid, predictable, overly reliant on gore and critically lacking in complexity. It must be noted, though, that the genre has had something of a mild renaissance with strong titles like Insidious (2011), Paranormal Activity (2007), The Cabin in the Woods (2012) and others. Those titles, though, are successful primarily because they are imbued with American sensibilities. It doesn’t quite work to take a set of parameters that clearly apply to another country’s culture and just plonk them into New York City, replacing the Japanese lead with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Doing so comes across as creatively lazy and vapid.
Successful American J-Horror remakes – of which there are surprisingly few – like The Ring take influence from the presentation of horror rather than the seeds of horror itself. Mirror the slow-burning presentation of pursuit and supernatural ‘toying’ with the victim, sure – but don’t make the mistake of transplanting cultural milieus that have credibility within another culture that aren’t appropriate for your audience. Audition works because of the cultural stigma of being a sexually domineering person. Could that motif really horrify people in the land of Keeping up with the Kardashians?
To see a little of what I am saying, here is Audition for your viewing pleasure.
Jon formerly wrote The Film Brief website and hosted a podcast of the same name (with me as his co-host). You can now find Jon’s latest work at Wide Angle Iris, a site he runs with the talented Rollie Schott. Be sure to check out their stuff over at that site.
When you think about world cinema and more specifically Asian cinema, Japan was the first country to really burst onto the scene internationally. A major part of this was down to Akira Kurosawa and his adoration in Europe, but a number of other directors such as Yasujiro Ozu also helped cement the reputation of the nation as one of the great filmmaking countries on earth. More contemporary names such as Takeshi Kitano and Takashi Miike as well as the phenomenal popularity of anime have both continued and evolved this heritage.
This week the blog will be focused on the cinema of Japan and will take a look at some of the great names and films, as well as some more obscure entries into the cinematic canon. Helping me out will be a couple of awesome guest bloggers who have written great articles (fire me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to be involved in future weeks such as this one).
Of course with this kind of week I like to have a prize to give away and this week is no different. I asked the kind folk at Madman Entertainment for a copy of one of the films I was going to review to give away as a prize. Instead of sending one, they sent three. So this week you have the chance to win a prize pack of three Madman films. I will reveal what they are as I review the films in question.
Entry is open to readers worldwide and in order to enter, all you need to do is the following:
- Like the post on Facebook for one entry
- Comment on the post on Facebook for two entries
- Share the post on Facebook for two entries
- Retweet the post on Twitter for two entries
- Like the post on this site for one entry
- Comment on the post on this site for two entries
If you want to earn yourself some more entries, check out old reviews of mine for Akira (1988) which was actually the first film to ever receive a Longneck of Melbourne Bitter rating on the site, Princess Mononoke (1997), Dead Sushi (2012) and Dersu Uzala (1974). Any likes or comments on those posts over this time will score you some additional entries.
On the face of things, Need for Speed, an adaptation of the computer game of the same name seems like a pretty daft idea for a movie. I think this trailer supports that suspicion rather well by being pretty daft. No doubt the film will have a decent sized ready made audience in fans of the computer game series and people that would go and see that dude from Breaking Bad in just about anything. But I am not so sure that I will make the effort to catch this one.
For so many reasons, King Kong (1933) is one of the great films in cinema history. For a vast majority of film fans, including myself, I think the film captures the innocence and wonderment that made a lot of us addicted to this art long ago.
There is I guess a sense of innocence about the film itself too. During the opening credits, as the cast is being listed, King Kong himself gets a mention. I’m not sure why, but I found that just utterly endearing when it popped up watching it through this time. Also suggesting some form of innocence is that this is a straightup adventure flick. An old fashioned genre in some ways and I think one that taps into some sort of base innocent longing in all of us, to both journey and to belong. And I guess for some of us, to conquer. The final aspect of King Kong that influences my view of this film as some sort of blast from the past that can never be repeated is the first time I saw any of it. I remember as a child walking out of my room because I couldn’t sleep. It felt like the latest time in the world but more accurately it was probably like 10:30pm. And I recall my parents were up watching King Kong on telly. I was just blown away. I was not into old movies at the time, but I just remember being so blown away by what I was seeing, so enraptured in the wondrous images that were in front of me. I don’t remember what part of the film they were up to, but it was on the island and I distinctly remember Kong being on screen.
But in addition to all this supposed innocence arising from my relationship to the film and that is in its actual makeup, this is also a stunningly good film. A great adventure flick is bloody hard to make, hence there are so few of them. The film focuses on Carl Denham, a John Huston-esque (although of course Huston wouldn’t appear on the scene for quite some time) director who films his movies in exotic far off locales. Bowing to pressure from the studio and the public, he casts Ann Darrow played iconically by Fay Wray as a love interest in his latest flick. Humourously, none of the agents in town trust him with their female clientele, so Ann is a woman on the street that he finds the night before they set sail, selling her on the promise of “money, adventure and fame”. It is just such a purely great tale of adventure. The cast and crew sail to an unchartered distant island, where they run into Kong, a humungous ape. I never realised just how many decidedly awesome monsters there were in this film. A stretch through the middle plays like an (awesome) video game, as our fearless heroes are pitched into boss battle after boss battle – a freaking plesiosaur, a stegosaurus, a pterodactyl, a t-rex, that huge scaryarse snake thing (that I think technically may have legs) and so on. That battle with the t-rex is one of the greatest set piece battles of all time, and is so well choreographed as well. It manages to seamlessly blend boxing and wrestling moves into the action and does so without looking completely silly.
Of course it is impossible to talk about this film without talking of the design of the creatures and the effects work that brings them to life. The character of Kong is clearly the star of the show here and the effort that has gone into his design reflects that. So much skill and detail has gone into the character, even the close-ups of his face look great today and they look different each time the shot is shown. He is just such a menacing presence that has been brought to life. There is no doubting aspects of the effects are dated. But most importantly they work. So many contemporary films spend too much time making effects look all glossy and perfect whilst totally forgetting to have them make me actually feel something. These effects, the best part of 80 years old, really made me feel emotion. I felt a whole heap of emotion when that stegosaurus is shot in the head early on. Did I mention it has dinosaurs yet? Dinosaurs! Dinosaurs make everything better… hell even The Tree of Life (2011) was made vastly better because of the presence of dinosaurs. Outside of the effects, the film just looks great overall. The ocean set sequences, even to this day on the DVD I bought at Salvos years ago, these parts of the film still really pop.
Like so many films of this vintage, there are some aspects that are not exactly in tune with a contemporary sensibility. Attitudes toward women and the depiction of the ‘natives’ are the two that immediately spring to mind. Most everything else still works exceedingly well though. The early on part where it appears Anne will be sacrificed is still genuinely effective at creating great tension. Wray gives a really wonderful performance in this film, she grabs your attention as the viewer early on and never really lets it go. The scene where she lets out her first scream is a bloody great moment. The sound of the scream and the reaction of the rest of the characters is just great and sets the tone for the numerous other screams that are to follow. I guess there is a counter argument or another side to the film to the innocence that I associate it with. Aspects of the film are rather brutal. The rampage that Kong goes on just before his capture, in which he quite mercilessly grinds a couple of locals to death slowly and methodically for example. Then obviously there is the fate of Kong which is a cold moment I feel. Although I think that his capture and eventual death do also say a lot about the suppression of Kong, who was once a king or even a god in his own land but is now enslaved. I think there is a definite subtext there. Also a more obvious allusion is the effect of attempts to tame or domesticate what is wild.
Sorry for the long review, I just kind of got on a bit of a roll there. In any case, when I try and think of a greater adventure film in history than King Kong, nothing particularly springs to mind. For good ol fashioned filmmaking that still works 100% today, this is your film.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Thanks to everyone who voted for The Tower of London (1962) to be the focus of my Vincent Price live tweet review. Unfortunately the film really lost me pretty early on. And whilst I stuck it out to the end, twas not the most enjoyable Price experience I have had. If you have seen this film, let me know your thoughts in the comments.
The Italian Film Festival is a travelling festival that this year will visit seven cities throughout Australia. Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to the media preview of the festival at Palace Electric Cinemas here in Canberra. Please note that awesome limoncello cocktails were served as part of the event and all statements that follow were influenced by that tastiness.
Travelling film festivals are a growing feature of the Australian cinema industry and this particular one has been doing its thing for 14 years now. The high profile of the Italian Film Festival is proven by the fact that basically all of the films on the extensive 27 film program are Australian Premieres. This is even more impressive considering the festival arrives on the calendar soon after the two heavyweight international film festivals in this country – Sydney and Melbourne.
As part of the preview, we were shown Honey dir by Valeria Golino. The film follows Irene an ‘angel of mercy’ who assists terminally ill people end their life. Jasmine Trinca is excellent in the main role, bringing to life the journey of a young woman who increasingly struggles with what it is she does. Along the way, she meets Carlo who accompanies her through much of the change she undergoes. Indeed it is the fact that Carlo is not terminally ill even though he is attempting to end his life that triggers much of the action and revelation of the film. I though Honey was a really interesting film, managing to avoid cliché where many a film would have succumbed. A fantastic soundtrack and central performance from Trinca did not hurt. The film also has an interesting attitude toward death, and therefore life, that informs everything that takes place.
In addition to Honey here are five more films to whet your appetite of what the festival has to offer. I will definitely be trying to get along to as many of these as I can during the Canberra leg of the festival.
- Roma dir by Federico Fellini – I’ve heard a lot about Fellini’s ode to Rome, but have never been lucky enough to see it. Now, as the closing night film of the festival, I will have the chance to see it on the big screen. Made in 1972, the film is episodic, covering a period of 40 years. Anything Fellini is worth seeing, especially on the big screen.
- A Five Star Life dir by Maria Sole Tognazzi – The film follows Irene, a hotel critic who travels the world living it up in luxury. This blissful, globe-trotting life begins to become a little more complicated though when personal troubles begin to impinge on her happy ignorance.
- A Perfect Family dir by Paolo Genovese – Christmas can definitely be the loneliest time of year. Leone knows this, which is why in an attempt to alleviate this he hires professional actors to play his family over the festive season. So basically, hopefully this will be like We’re the Millers… only not terrible in every single way.
- The Human Cargo dir by Daniele Vicari – This is one of those documentaries that makes you wonder how in the world you have never heard this story before (well at least I hadn’t). The film focuses on the 1991 events where 20,000 people stowed away on board a sugar cargo ship that docked in Italy. A truly incredible tale. Especially when in this country a boat rocking up to our shore with 50 people on board is front page news.
- There Will Come a Day dir by Giorgio Diritti – This is another film that stars Jasmine Trinca, along with Honey. In this film she plays August who leaves home and ventures to Brazil. Here she goes on a journey that is both physical and spiritual. Ending up perhaps not exactly where her mother would have liked.
Thanks to the Italian Film Festival I have a two double passes to give away. The passes are able to be used for a vast majority of the sessions, the only exceptions being a couple of special events. They are valid for any of the cities that the festival visits as it tours around Palace Cinemas all over the country. Check out the website www.italianfilmfestival.com.au to see where the festival is travelling and when. If you live in Australia and what to be put in the draw, then comment below and let me know. Entries will remain open til 5pm on Monday 30 September. I will chuck them in the post the next day and should reach you by the time the festival kicks off.
Upside Down (2012) made next to no splash upon its release, not even managing a cinematic run here in Australia. With its arresting visuals, great concept and a schmaltzy love story featuring Kirsten Dunst, I find it pretty hard to see why.
For me personally, a fantastic bloody concept and awesome visuals get a film a long way. Upside Down features both of these things and whilst perhaps it could have done something a little ‘bigger’ with all of this, the film is still really satisfying. Actually perhaps that is part of the charm. All of the big ideas that could have been examined are actually a little secondary here, with the focus being on just a good old fashioned love story. The film takes place in a world that looks a fair bit like ours. However there are actually two planets sitting right next to each other, sometimes mere metres apart. The upper classes, including a manipulative energy giant, live on one planet with the lower classes on the other. It is refreshing that the focus is simply on lovers from these two worlds trying to be together (which is forbidden), rather than on ramming home some grand societal statement.
The two lovers are played by Kirsten Dunst and Jim Sturgess. Whilst the former has the bigger profile, it is Sturgess who has the most prominent role in the film. Interestingly for much of the film the periods that Dunst and Sturgess share the screen (which is not all that often) are probably the least enjoyable. It is a little average and schmaltzy. Credit to writer director Juan Solanas though, because this is overcome as the film progresses and the end to their love story, whilst entirely predictable, is also entirely satisfying. I think part of this is because the material gets more interesting as the story spends more time with them apart, focusing in on the life of the Sturgess character to build to its conclusion. Both Dunst and Sturgess are really good in the film. Their performances are likeable and Sturgess shows he can really carry himself on screen. He doesn’t come across as some cookie cutter presence on screen either, has a distinct persona which it would be great to see more of.
I only saw the film at home on DVD but I would have loved to have been able to see it on the big screen. The film looks both whimsical and fantastical, going to great effort to explore the visual opportunities that the concept presents. The whole film, presumably basically all shot on green-screen, looks great and there are some particularly arresting pieces of imagery. The office where work cubicles are on both the roof and the floor, nearly touching each other is one such example. Clearly with the competing gravity of the two planets there are plenty of laws that govern the action. Whilst these are explained a number of times, you are better off just ignoring them really and going with the flow. Like many a time travel film, if you get bogged down trying to work out all of the ramifications of various actions, you will end up doing your head in and missing out on much of the enjoyment that the film brings.
Driven by two fine performances and fantastic visual design, Upside Down delivers on all fronts. Both a really nice love story and a ‘soft’ sci-fi tale, it is a really enjoyable film that also features one or two things that have probably not seen elsewhere.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
Well with Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy involved, plenty of people are pretty psyched for this one. I couldn’t dine the exact trailer I have seen in cinemas out here a bunvh of times recently. But I love this. Gives very little away which is such a refreshing change. But what a bloody cast to go with the firector and the writer. I will most certainly be checking this one out.
Hong Kong cinema has a long and illustrious history of searing cop and action based cinema, a history Cold War (2012) is looking to add to. Overall, despite its failings, the film is generally a well thought out and brought to life addition to this heritage.
An issue that plagues many a police procedural is the mistaking of labyrinthine plot convolutions for intrigue. The film opens by whipping through an organisation structure of the Hong Kong police force so quickly that it is hard not to suspect Cold War is going to fall headlong into this trap. Thankfully though the film settles into a rhythm of balancing an examination of the internal wheelings and dealings and politics at the top echelon of a police force, with a race against the clock police procedural. At the heart of the action are Sean Lau and M.B. Lee, the Deputy Commissioners of the force who are played off against each other as they jockey for control of the situation. The combination of this street level operation and the political machinations that are driving it make the first half of the film rocket along. It is a cause and effect situation that is rarely played out on the big screen.
Unfortunately, there is no doubting that the film’s second half is not quite as successful as the first. It is always interesting when the entire plot of the film appears to wrap up halfway through. But in this case, it seems to take a lot of wind out of the sails of the film and the tension and intrigue largely falls out of the film. The final big reveal of the big baddie also feels as though it falls strangely flat, not the whack upside the head I suspect that the filmmakers were hoping for. That is definitely not to say that the second half of the film is all bad though. Far from it, tis just not as engaging as the first half. There is still a lot of interesting stuff going on. I am a big reader of the American crime writer Michael Connelly and it is interesting to see such a similar attitude taken towards internal affairs in this film that Connelly’s, very American, crime fiction output takes. Cold War delivers on the action front too. The scenes of the police in the field are really well shot, building tension and managing to actually be easy to follow. A simple courtesy that seems to be missed by so many contemporary action directors. Most of the really fantastic stuff that Cold War brings (and there is a lot) can be attributed to the characters of Lau and Lee played by the totally badarse Aaron Kwok and Tony Leung Ka-fai respectively. Both of these actors bring real intensity to their performances and manage to encapsulate different aspects of management whilst doing so. It is a slight shame then that the acting from some of the more minor players is of a distinctly lower standard.
The first half of Cold War is utterly brilliant stuff. The second half fits more comfortably into the good but not great mould. In any case, the film is well worth the look if you are in the market for an original enough Hong Kong crime flick driven by two very good central performances.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs