The Last Samurai

Dir: Edward Zwick
2003
Well, me and “the missus” just came back from this film and boy are we disappointed (bordering on anger) on how they dropped the ball on this one.

Now, I have to discuss the ending of this film, so if you’re still achin’ to see it (because of that “Oscar®©™ Buzz” you heard about), then stop reading. Go click on a link, why dontcha.
Back to the issue at hand.
I understand that maybe there’s a lot of people out that who are only just learning about this crazy island called “Japan” and that maybe some people have never seen a samurai film. I’ll let it go, as I will all the long scenes of Algren (Tom Cruise) learning how to say “hashi” or “samui.” It’s wacky, it’s cute, it’s educational. I’ll also let the audiencese have the orientalism that romanticizes the entire culture as this pure and noble people.
But the fact that the filmmakers blew the ending by having Algren live instead of die in the field of battle was, in a word, bullshit. Yep, bullshit. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. Unko. Kuso. (There’s some Japanese to learn!).
America hates to have its heroes die, especially these days when the Prez avoids military funerals like pretzels, but even before that (the 80s was the sea change). But I could really sense in the theater that the filmmakers could have gotten away with it. The film wins you over to the samurai code of honor, just as Algren is won over, and it would have made sense to have him fall alongside his former enemy, now blood brother, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe, who does the role justice while Tom Cruise still seems concerned about his hair). In fact, the scene is filmed like he does. The entire samurai clan has been mowed down by American machine guns–the way of the sword is over, as are the old ways, and around the corner is WWI, then WWII, then Hiroshima. And Algren had faced his past and his mortality and learned something about honor.
Not only that, but earlier in the film, the story begins to parallel contemporary events in Iraq. When asked if the Western-backed forces will defeat the renegades, the commander says, all hubris, “Of course, we have superior firepower.” Add a few more lines about them being savages, and the script looks back to the genocide of the Native Americans, and forward to the invasion of Iraq and our other imperial adventures. Substitute rail lines for oil pipelines and you’re nearly there.
Of course, this is nothing new; “Dances With Wolves” also towed this squishy liberal line.
But like that film, the Western character can never totally assimilate.
No, he has to survive, understand that he has learned a great life lesson, conquered his alcoholism, and now is ready for a full and happy life.
After the battle, he retuns for an audience with the young Meiji emperor (apparently, it’s easy to bluff your way in to see the mortal deity) and returns the dead Katsumoto’s sword. Algren’s gone all samurai’n’stuff! Why he even offers to take his own life, just like Katsumoto offered earlier! And the young emperor, who hasn’t found his own voice–that is, he hasn’t been on the self-improvement course that Algren’s been on–suddenly realises that the old ways weren’t so bad after all! In fact, he casts out the American businessman (sorry, Halliburton!) and his Japanese representative (sorry, Chalabi!) and announces plans to distribute the wealth to the people (huh?)!
Then a further coda where we see Algren and horse companion returning to the village where Katsumoto had originally taken him when he was captured at the beginning of the film. “Some say he finally found his peace,” says the narrator (who I take to be Timothy Spall, who is quite good in a Charles Laughton way).
Okay, now wait.
First of all, you kill off your best, most charismatic supporting character (Katsumoto), but not the lead, and don’t have that as your closing scene (which would have devastated the crowd, but in a good way). Instead, you give the long closing speech to the teenage emperor, whose English is hesitant and bland, and who offers some crap-o platitudes about Western Influence. And maybe Honor.
Then you have Algren returning to the village–THE VILLAGE WHO JUST LOST THEIR ENTIRE MALE POPULATION TO A WESTERN MACHINE GUN! Do you think the women want to see this Western guy, even though he was on their side? They are going to either starve because there are no men to provide the hard labor, or some roving gang is going to either kill or capture them. Is Tom Cruise going to help?
But really, we’re not supposed to care, because IT ALL WORKS OUT FOR THE AMERICAN. Tom’s studied Zen, he’s dry and at peace with himself. Isn’t that enough? And now he can retire to the mountains and live out his days with the widow of the man he killed at the beginning of the film. Won’t that be romantic?
So, kids, honor can only take you so far. First you have to feel good about yourself.
Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.

Moonlight Whispers

Dir: Akihito Shiota
1999
A tender coming of age story masked as a psycho-sexual treatise on sado-masochism…or vice versa?
Akihito Shiota’s film is based on a manga by the same name, and came out in 1999. I got to watch it on a VHS copy taped off a Chinese VCD (with English subs).
The film starts off with a typical young high-school love relationship beginning during the spring semester. The nervous few months of Takuya and Satsuki’s relationship rang very true and for a brief moments I felt like I was watching a very good realist film (it certainly brought me back to memories of my first girlfriend in 1986). But soon after she gives up her virginity to him, she discovers his true fetish.
Remarkably, Aota doesn’t push the switch in our faces, and doesn’t try to make us feel bad in a true miserablist way (such as a Solondz would do). Satsuki is pissed, but Takuya is persistent and won’t give up after being dumped and humiliated. In fact, he likes being humiliated, and Satsuki begins to realize she loves to humiliate.
By the end, Shiota even brings us back to a world of innocence, only shifted to accomodate a relationship beyond the norm of society, and does so without reducing anybody down to something less than human. The movie is a good lesson for filmmakers in how to explore the most outre material without resorting to snarky nihilism. Fascinating.
Equally fascinating: lead actress Tsugumi, with her moony face and a bullet-bra that couldn’t help reminding me of the cold war.

Don’t Look Up (a k a “Ghost Actress”)

Dir: Hideo Nakata
1996
Got around to watching this after having friends tape it off the Sundance Channel last year,
during their “Japanese Horror” week, where I was able to tape “Cure” and “Spiral” as well. “Don’t Look Up,” given the absolute straight-to-landfill title of “Ghost Actress” for some reason, is Hideo Nakata’s first film and the one that presumably got him the gig to make the original “Ring” film.
At a very speedy 75 minutes, it’s more like an extended TV episode than a movie, but there are plenty of chilliing moments here, almost from the beginning, when the mysterious outtakes of an old movie turn up superimposed on recent footage shot at a studio. These initial scenes, when the crew watch the dailies in silence, are very effective. The look of terror in the actresses eyes when she glimpses something awful offscreen shocked even me. The movie deserved to have a script that fleshed out the characters a bit more, and music that matched its mood of creeping menace. Instead there’s some terrible cod-reggae that pops up in all the wrong parts.
The parallels between this film and Ring are certainly there in the mysterious footage and the slow unconvering of the truth as well as the subtle way that Nakata has history double over on itself. Much more could have been made with theme of acting and identity, and of the film that’s actually being shot, the story which seems to be about supressing the horror of the Second World War. The ghost is particularly frightening, especially because it doesn’t give you all the goods at once. At first it looks harmless, then the more we see it, the more we want to look away. That’s good–most filmmakers would give you the money shot immediately.
On a greater level, the reason why Japanese horror is so effective is that it really is about death. American horror isn’t about death in any tangible sense, just artifice and actors exiting the screen in spectacular ways. The recent Cabin Fever was awful because it couldn’t even begin to look at disease and death in any real way.
Anyway, the film so freaked out Jessica, who takes these ghost stories so seriously that she can’t even say the word (she says “G” instead), that she refused to speak to me about it afterwards.

demonlover

Dir: Olivier Assayas
2002
Certainly one of the strangest films I’ve seen this year,
I caught this in Pasadena at the Laemmle, sure that it will never come to Santa Barbara. What starts out as a chilly tale of big business quickly turns into something broader in scheme. This isn’t a film about pawns caught in capitalism’s game, this film is capitalism itself. It’s a relentless blurring of identity until characters get reduced to units to be fucked or killed. Connie Nielson plays Diane, who at the beginning of the film, drugs her coworker, an event that allows her to take her place in a multinational corporation that is shuttling back and forth between Tokyo and Paris to buy shares in an anime company specializing in porn cartoons and 3-D CG porn. There’s Hervé (Charles Berling), who Diane may be involved with, and a subordinate, Elise (Chloe Sevigny), who hates her guts. Then there’s the American representatives, one of whom is Gina Gershon. There’s a secret website called “The Hellfire Club” that offers live snuff feeds for a price.
About halfway through I kind of gave up on the plot and, like giving up on trying to pick out notes and melody in a wash of feedback, just let the movie roll over me. (Soundtrack is by Sonic Youth, and I’m glad I saw this in the theater, as the effective sound levels are something that would get me evicted.)
The film is intentionally hard to listen to, hard to watch, and hard to follow. Here and there you start to pick up on clues that Assayas has left. Why so many shots of credit card machines? Why a scene similar to the hotel scene in Assayas’ own “Irma Vep”–and why does Diane’s costume in that scene return as a PVC Emma Peel suit? (Emma Peel–Avengers…wasn’t one of the episodes in which she nearly got tortured to death called the Hellfire Club? And wasn’t the Hellfire Club a front for the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in the XMen comic book…and didn’t Storm get captured by them? And doesn’t a character at the end of the movie request a victim dress up like Storm? And by making all these connections, does that make me closer to an understanding, or does that make me a sad, sad man?)
Nobody has any background or connection to anybody or anything. Though the movie teems with lascivious sex, there’s barely any to be had, and nothing to come of it in terms of humanity.
“demonlover” alludes to the website, but also to the multi-phallused and tentacled demons of Japanese porn anime, able to send out their tendrils to fill every orifice of their young nubile victims. Tattoo “21st Century Capitalism” across the demon’s chest and you have a rough and ready metaphor of the film.
Following up, there’s a short essay over at The Film Journal on the film that brings up an interesting point regarding video games and the scene in which Nielson fights Gershon (a “level boss” in videogame terms). That the film is one big video game is suggested, and reminded me of my friend’s worry that in fact The Matrix Revolutions will end with this po-mo joke (they wouldn’t be so blatant or so bold, methinks, but the trailer for that film looks like the makers are cashing in their chips for a full-on Death Star like battle to the death).
In a later conversation with Jon, I added that those critics who think the whole thing is a videogame fall into the same apathetic trap as the teenager at the end–that nobody is worth caring about because they’re on the computer screen.

Manhunter

Dir: Michael Mann
1986
I picked up the two-disc DVD of this at the rental store,
and made the boneheaded mistake of watching the original, clumsily edited version, completely oblivious to the fact that the other disc contained the remastered director’s cut. And after two hours of “Manhunter” I wasn’t going to watch it again.
A lot of critics regard this film highly, and like to drag it out in reference when they want to go on about how much they didn’t like “Hannibal” or whatever. And I can’t really say too much not having seen the director’s cut, but here Mann plays the serial killer genre as a straight police procedural, with much focus on the job of the profiler, played here by William Petersen, who often pounds his fist and addresses windows or televisions, vowing that he’ll find the killer before he does it again. Showing a profiler coming to conclusions in his head, showing the thought process itself, is difficult, but Mann does it well in a scene with Petersen and two television monitors. The music here is all wrong, either naff Yamaha DX-7 wanking or blaring “hard rock” stupidity.
I didn’t feel particularly gripped by the film, and the ending really fell apart in the editing room. But who knows what the director’s cut was like?
Brian Cox was okay as Hannibal Lecter, but maybe a bit too “normal”. He felt more like an imprisoned mafioso than a cannibal serial killer.

24 Season 2 (Eps. 13-24)

Creators: Robert Cochran, Joel Surnow
2003
We rattled through the end of this series on a marathon Saturday evening,
where Jessica was so agitated by the end of episode 20 that she made me push on with the final four, ending somewhere around 4:30 in the a.m. It’s to 24’s credit that we remained awake up until the end, in a suspense-filled equivalent of a dinner-time espresso fix. Unable to go to sleep, too agitated.
Despite some of the more unbelievable twists and turns, I think the second season was better–it slowly built its tension along the way, whereas the first dipped in the middle, all the more remarkable with how it got away with some of the hoariest cliches of the thriller genre (how many people gave up (or didn’t) vital info just before snuffing it: “the man’s name is…is…urrrrgh!”)
What is most fascinating is how the writers and producers incorporated so much from post-9-11 America, then spun so much of it on its head. (Especially when Jack Bauer in essense becomes a suicide bomber to save the world, and while doing so engages in a cell phone convo that can’t help bring back the stories of the various victims on the four airliners). And President Palmer continues his role as the Bizarro President, acting shocked, shocked that an oil businessman would start a world war in order to increase his profits. (In the bonus materials, actor Dennis Haysbert interprets his role as a mix of Carter, Clinton and Colin Powell, and suggests his honorable and honest prez is a “suggestion of how it can be done.” Are you listening, Bush?
In this sense, 24 has caught up with the world and mirrors it, while Hollywood still appears to be lollygagging about, endlessly repeating the easy lies and simplistic morals of years past.
Season Three, which appears to be about biological warfare, may be equally unnerving. But I wonder, how long can they keep it up?

Notebook on Cities and Clothes

Dir: Wim Wenders
1989
This is Wenders’ little-seen documentary on designer Yohji Yamamoto,
and I watched it in two parts because it simply wasn’t that compelling. The documentary was very derivative of Chris Marker’s musings on video and film, but without Marker’s eye for story or depth or his knack for arresting images. Part of the reason is Yamamoto as a subject. His fashion isn’t that interesting (as most of that season’s line is black and filmed in muddy pre-DV video, there’s not much to see), and most of his interviews seem conducted at the end of a full day of work, where the subject is exhausted. Yamamoto mumbles a lot, and Wenders tries to make it more cinematic by playing with video and film (this was one of Wenders’ first times to use a portable video camera). Half the film is about Wenders questions about film/video vs. reality, but I didn’t feel he got to any major points on it. I feel more that Wenders started making a doc on Yamamoto and found that it wasn’t really enough, that the subject was too elusive. All the time the film reminded me of Marker’s A.K., his documentary on Akira Kurosawa and the making of “Ran”, which uses similar techniques, and also muses a lot on memory and truth, but still offers a lot of insight into Kurosawa’s talent and methods.

24 Season 2 (Eps 1-12)

Dir: Robert Cochran, Joel Surnow
2002
Well, I guess Jessica’s gone 24 mad, insisting that we get the new series on DVD as soon as it appeared in the shops.
This is a story “ripped from today’s headlines” as they like to say, with L.A. threatened by a nuke and terrorists of a certain Arabian shade (where last time they were Serbs). If Season One was about family and responsibility, Season Two is all about our Constitution and our laws and when or if to break them. Certainly, the show thinks about this more than the Bush administration, which feels no need to mull over this question–it knows no doubt when it comes to this. As usual the scenes with President Palmer have a strange sci-fi ring to them–nothing of what he or his advisors say feel anywhere near what must go on at Chimpy McCokespoon’s White House. Will Palmer finally get duped by his scheming wife? One hopes not.
Although Jack’s daughter Kim gets into trouble only 20 minutes into the first show, it is nice to see that she’s learned to trust nobody and lamp them properly with a tire iron instead of getting caught. Not as much stupidity this time around and very few hostage takings (because, you could say, all of Los Angeles is essentially a hostage this time around).
Season One’s initial jolt wore off by episode 9 or so, this season the suspense is ramping up, also nice to see. We’re also sad to see that George Mason is marked for death, as he became one of our favorite characters; his line delivery is quite sharp and cynical.
I suppose we’ll be finished with this soon enough. Then I can get on to something else (possibly sitting down to finally watch The Sopranos).

A backlog of film fun

As mentioned on the front page, I’ve been moving everything over to a new provider and server. I’ve still been writing, but not posting, wanting to wait until things are settled. The reviews above are from early September up to the date of this entry. That should explain watching 24 Season Two when it first came out (September 9).

24 (Season 1, Episodes 21-24)

Creator: Robert Cochran, Joel Surnow
2001
Aaargh, you got us! We didn’t see that coming, no way.
So the final episode of Season One is over and the clock ticked silently full circle. We’re going to take a break from non-stop suspense for a couple of weeks, or at least until Season Two is out on DVD.
What began to annoy us was woman-in-turmoil Teri, who should have considered herself lucky to be allowed access to what is surely a high-security location (the CTA offices), but instead spends the final episodes continually wandering around, getting up in people’s faces, asking them for continual updates on Jack and Kim. And would anybody really let her storm up into Mason’s office like she does and demand he do something? Couldn’t they have locked her in a room? And see?See? What happened to her when she continued to walk around, nosing about, near the end of the final episode? Exactly.
We were also glad to see Sherry Palmer kicked to the curb at the end, so tired were we of her Lady Macbethisms and Machiavellian trickery. Too bad Patty, the assistant, was let go as her sacrificial lamb. Senator Palmer, on the other hand is so honest a presidential candidate that he takes 24 into the realm of pure sci-fi.
And Dennis Hopper was a bit out of place with a quite unconvincing accent, but oh well.