Monday, November 24, 2014

The Boxtrolls

Directed by Graham Annabel, Anthony Stacchi. Written by Irena Brignull, Adam Pava, Alan Snow. Starring Ben Kingsley (Archibald Snatcher), Jared Harris (Lord Portly-Rind), Nick Frost (Mr. Trout), Isaac Hemstead (Eggs), Elle Fanning (Winnie).

Bottom line: The Boxtrolls is a complete disappointment, as a family movie, as a clay-mated movie, and even just as a plain old movie.

In the city of Cheesebridge, there exist two groups: humans and Boxtrolls. The humans are governed by group of four old white men called White Hates (because they, ya know, have white hats). Meanwhile, underneath the city, lives a group of creatures called Boxtrolls. Each night the Boxtrolls leave their subterranean dwelling to scavenge for junk which they re-appropriate into fantastic inventions. “See they aren’t stealing, they’re taking the discarded junk to make anew.” That’s what the movie wants you to say, anyway.

The Boxtrolls opens with the creepy, ugly, Archibald Snatcher (Kingsley) proposing a deal to the chief White Hat, Lord Portly-Rind (Harris); if/when Snatcher kills every last Boxtroll, he will receive a White Hat. Reluctantly, Portly-Rind agrees.

Snatcher goes on the hunt with three henchmen, capturing every Boxtroll they find. It isn't too difficult to catch a Boxtroll; when startled or afraid the little creatures hide in the boxes they wear for clothes (hence the name Boxtrolls). There is a baby who lives with the Boxtrolls too. His name is Eggs (Hemstead) because the box he wears held eggs. Cue montage of him growing into a teenager. Yadda yadda yadda Eggs must save his family.

This movie provides several layers of disappointment with a varied amount of spoilers. I'll leave the spoiler ones until the end, of course. My first mistake was hoping and expecting the Claymation to be worthwhile: it wasn't. The thing that makes Claymation unique is that it's so physical but, for the life of me, I couldn't really tell how much was CGI and how much of it was Claymation. Is that a testament to how well done it was? No, it's just that the CGI detracts from the Claymation experience. They might as well have made 3D models look like clay and no one would be the wiser.

My second mistake was seeing this in 3D, which has two side effects: it's darker and the animation becomes choppy if it moves too quickly. This choppiness cripples Claymation. The best parts are the colorful characters and smooth animation! Correction, the only thing this movie has going for it is the color and animation.

Leading up to its premier, the avalanche of marketing reminded me The Boxtrolls is "from the makers of Coraline & ParaNorman." Coraline was really good and ParaNorman was lame so they had one out two. What I failed to realize is that "makers of" was not "directors of." So these guys worked in the Art Department of those films or were assistant directors. If you read my review John Wick, you'd know that the first time directing a feature length film, doesn't have to be bad. If you haven't read that review, do, but in the mean time, let me paraphrase. If Annabel and Stacchi had Claymation experience, they could've just put nearly all of their eggs into that basket. What I was hoping to see was really good Claymation. I didn't care about some convoluted, problematic (for reasons I'll discuss later) story. Consider this:
There is so much life in this little fifteen-second clip. I’d be game to watch a basic story if they supported it with incredible animation. Now, I don’t mean a bad story, but a basic one.

Even if you love Claymation, heck, even if you mildly enjoy Claymation don't see The Boxtrolls. It isn't like a fun type of bad it's just a waste of time type of bad. This isn't something from which you learn or grow it’s a waste of time and money.

Instead of watching this, check out Grendel, Grendel, Grendel (1981). It’s an animated movie directed by Alexander Stitt. In the same way that the play Wicked takes the Wizard of Oz from the Wicked Witch's perspective, Grendel, Grendel, Grendel is the retelling of the epic poem Beowulf from the perspective of the monster Grendel. It’s such simple late 70's, early 80's style of animation. It reminded me of The Beatles Yellow Submarine. It is a fascinating movie that warrants its own post, but, in the mean time, skip The Boxtrolls and see Grendel, Grendel, Grendel. It’s even on YouTube. I’ll include a link at the bottom of the page.

I didn't get too too much into the story or thematic problems with the movie yet, so in the coming paragraphs mind yourself of spoilers. But wait, if you won't see the movie if you know what happens...

As is sometimes the case with "family movies," bad = ugly = evil = death. Recall my summary of introduction, when Snatcher makes a deal with Lord Portly-Rind. Snatcher wants to be part of the Aristocracy. It isn't like Snatcher was doing anything particularly villainous or at least anything more villainous than Portly-Rind. It's not like he is holding Portly-Rind hostage. Portly-Rind is acting out of fear of public outcry - not for the public’s sake but because he may lose his status. What ultimately happens to Portly-Rind? Nothing. He loses his white hat but at least he doesn't (literally) explode.

Thus Portly-Rind's character is established as one obsessed with cheese and power, and treats his daughter, Winnie (Fanning), as a far third. Even at climatic fight, he acts this way. Snatcher (because of a cheese allergy) has turned into a hulking mutant (another reason he should die). He holds Winnie by the throat saying, "Give me your hat or she gets it!' Portly-Rind hesitates, not once but twice! Winnie yells at him and he reluctantly provides the hat. It was a situation built up to be the standard redemptive situation. To save his daughter, the father gives us what he thought he held most dear. But because he’s so reluctant to give it up, it really feels unsatisfying. Maybe it's a failed attempt at humor, but with ten minutes of movie left, it isn't the time for lame jokes! We've got loose ends to tie up. And, of course, he goes unpunished for this.

Now that we're speaking of fathers, let’s look at Eggs. Eggs’ backstory is that he was the son of an inventor. One day, Snatcher comes to the inventor and says, "Build me something evil." Egg Sr. refuses; Snatcher supposedly kills him but not before Eggs is given to the Boxtrolls for safekeeping. I was kinda pumped because a father was killed.

The doesn't sound right. I mean that it was remarkable that the film would do something that bold. It's much darker than I expected. But, wouldn't ya know it, the father wasn't killed, he was held captive by Snatcher, in solitary confinement, held upside down and fed jelly for a decade. When he is re-introduced, he is a lunatic.

I wasn't sure how the movie would handle that emotional dilemma. The Boxtrolls raised Eggs, after all, but now his biological father is back albeit without sanity. Don't worry about that though! As soon as Snatcher is killed, Eggs Sr. gets a shave and a haircut and is back to normal. The movie ends with Eggs and his father in the front seat of a carriage, with the lead Boxtroll behind them. You see, Eggs Sr. is the biological father and, more importantly, a human so naturally he supersedes the Boxtrolls.

I could go on but nah. The Boxtrolls now exists in my memory alongside a terrible meal. In any case, thank you for reading! I would normally say, “leave a comment and let me know if you agree or disagree with my assessment” but I hope you might have persuaded you not to see it. That said let me know if you've seen any good movies recently. Have you seen the new Hunger Games or Interstellar?

Oh, I almost forgot to provide a link to Grendel, Grendel, Grendel

Friday, November 21, 2014

John Wick

Directed by Chad Stahelski, and David Leitch (uncredited). Written by Derek Kolstad. Starring Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Michael Nyqvist (Vigo Tarasov), and Alfie Allen (Iosef Tarasov).

Bottom line: If you like action movies, I’d highly recommend John Wick because it’s really fun, refreshingly simple and does so many little things correctly; it’s the little things with movies like this.

First things first, a coworker of mine said that the trailer describes the movie perfectly. I hadn’t seen the trailer before going to the theater so I thought it might behoove this review if I could respond to my coworker’s comment.

Don’t watch the trailer.

Don’t watch the full 3:02 Official Trailer, at least. I beseech you not to see it mostly because it spoils (in my opinion) an important part of the movie. Just stay with me and I’ll give you enough of a summary for you to get a good feel of the movie.

John Wick (Reeves) was a hit man of mythic status but after falling in love with someone, he retired, or he tried to anyway. Retiring from this type of position never seems to work out. So, the movie opens with John attending the funeral of his wife and, shortly afterwards, he’s attacked by some punks with Russian Mafia connections (small world - it’s the same Mafia which employed him). Cue John Wick going after the punks and as a result, taking on the mob as a whole.

This is one of the first times these directors have had a feature length film. They both were assistant directors or stunt coordinators on movies like 300, V for Vendetta, and The Matrix. How are they able to take their stunt experience and translate it to a full movie? By getting rid of nearly everything else, that’s how.

We meet a cast of colorful characters who all know each other. There is a hotel that acts as a universal safe house for hit men. How did that come to be? How did John Wick become to be the best hit man ever? We don’t know and we don’t care. We are here for the action and these other characters are just there for some flavor. I can’t emphasize how relieved I was when the movie didn’t feel the need to give me backstory.

Now, on paper, John Wick is a simple movie. Well, actually, it’s not just on paper. It is simple. But, tell me, what do you need for an action movie? 1) Justification for violence (so maybe a sympathetic enough protagonist) and 2) Violence (of course). That sounds so minimal, right? And yet, most action movies mess that up and it’s usually because they overcomplicate things.

“Alright, we have a father and he has a son. Let’s show a birthday party for the kid, and then we’ll have them on a merry-go-round. An assassin will shoot at the father and the bullet with go through him and kill the son. That’s gotta persuade everyone to root for the father!” They shoulda called it Convoluted, not Collateral Damage Kindergarten Cop. Am I right? (The joke worked better in my mind but you get the idea.)

The justification is one of my favorite parts about John Wick. He’s a guy who is just trying to mourn the death of his wife in peace. He has had a very bad day, understandably, and then these punks destroy what little he has left. It isn’t about what they did it’s the principal of the thing.

It’s like if you are driving home after a long, miserable day of work. You just want to go home and this guy cuts you off. It’s so frustrating. You just want everyone else to get out of your way so you can confront the villain directly. You’ve got some choice words to say to him but as soon as you try, people deliberately get it your way. John Wick captures that frustration beautifully. I’ll talk a little more about it with spoilers later but I’ll leave it at this for now.

Now that we have justification, we need some violence. And violence we get: John Wick is relentless and takes its violence very seriously. In every action movie that I can think of, when the hero shoots a guy, he shoots the guy once and then move on. As Leon explains in Leon: The Professional, you shoot a guy twice,” the first shot takes him out of order, and the second finishes him off.” It’s an interesting detail to which John Wick actually adheres; no matter who the guy is, whether he is a major villain or a nameless thug, he shoots everyone at least twice. It makes a great starting point for a discussion about the aesthetization of violence.

We don’t really care who he is killing and, moreover, we want him to kill more. It just looks cool. It’s like a dance almost. It’s like a not stupid version of Gun-Kata (from that Christian Bale movie, Equilibrium). But is this ok? I mean, sure he had a bad day, but these are people with friends and presumably families. One might say that this is just a movie, that it isn’t real, but the sentiment is real and our interactions with the violence are real. It’s desensitizing. At the same time, I was so surprised by the movie as a whole; I could overlook the issue of violence.

Here I’ve been talking about the movie in general terms, I haven’t talked about the specifics. The music is fun, it reminded me of the club scenes from The Matrix, or maybe that was Keanu Reeves that was doing that. The cinematography is solid. The camera is slowly, steady, and positioned to watch the action - none of this shaky camera nonsense. The art style is gray and dark which fits the hit man world. The dialog is as complex as it needs to be which, again, is a pleasant surprise. The acting is great too. How can you go wrong with Keanu and William Dafoe? Keanu Reeves is always so stiff and it works here really well.

Alright, as if you couldn’t have guessed (and aside from the fact I said it in the bottom line), I highly recommend John Wick. It’s really refreshing in terms of action movies. There are so many pitfalls to action movies (too shaky camera, trying to take itself too serious, too much fluff, etc.) and John Wick navigates them almost flawlessly. Don’t get me wrong this is an action movie; it’s not going to blow you mind or anything so if you aren’t a fan of action movies fo sho pass on this. I’d also hesitate to recommend this if I wasn’t a fan of Keanu Reeves but, really, who isn’t?
Now, on to the spoilers...

There isn’t too much that I want to talk about that I haven’t already mentioned but one thing I found funny is the Russian. I’ve been learning Russian the past couple months so I know some phrases and I took some Russian history courses in college so I know some cultural information. The Mafia boss calls John Wick “Baba Yaga,” which supposedly means the Russian equivalent to the Boogeyman. That’s kinda true if by "Boogeyman," you mean a potentially malevolent Old Woman who lives in the woods.

The other thing I wanted to talk about is the adorable beagle puppy that Wick’s wife got him. As soon as the dog was introduced, I thought,” Whoa, man. If they kill this puppy, Imma be so ticked.” My wife said the same thing. We almost decided that if they killed the dog, we’d leave. It feels like such a cheap move to kill off a cute little puppy. But here is where is gets interesting. They keep the dog alive long enough for us to say, “Ok, John Wick, have at ‘em,” but short enough where we don't build an emotional attachment to it. When it dies, we are drawn to John Wick rather than out of the movie. It’s something I had never really thought about.

If they gave John Wick a child, and the punks killed the kid, the movie would have a completely different tone. Wick’s quest would be about revenge - because you can’t be killing kids without punishment. Because they have a cute puppy, the guys aren’t to be punished because they killed the puppy, because the puppy is just a symbol. Wick explains this at one point. The dog was his last glimmer of hope to mourn alone in peace.

Sheesh, what a fun movie. That’s a sign of a good movie too, even after drafting out thoughts, procrastinating, drafting, redrafting, writing, then editing a review, it’s still fun. In fact, I think I’d like to turn this into a video review to get back into that.

Thanks for reading, let me know in the comments what you thought about this review or the movie. Did you like it? Where would it rank with respect to other recent action movies?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Directed by James Gunn. Written by James Gunn, Nicole Perlman, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. Starring Chris Pratt (Peter Quill), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Dave Bautista (Drax), Groot (Vin Diesel), Bradley Cooper (Rocket)

Bottom line: If you want pretty graphics and comic book, sci-fi action, and tickets are cheap than maybe give it a try, otherwise, I would suggest you pass.


You might wonder why I have the range of 2-3/4 for the star rating for this film. I hesitate to assign a star value to Guardians of the Galaxy. My feelings when leaving the movie theatre were pretty positive; good 3D effects, good action, funny at times, good graphics. These are the things that might lead a movie to have a 3/4 but I distinctly remember feeling this way when leaving the theatre the first (and second) time I saw The Avengers. The thing is, The Avengers does not hold up -at all.

I think the reason I rated it so highly on the initial pass was because I was starved of movies. I hadn’t seen anything in a while, let alone a blockbuster CGI-fest in 3D. Even though my bar was set low, I wanted to be amazed and so I was. I’d like to wait a couple weeks or months before assigning an official star value to Guardians of the Galaxy because I’m curious to see how it holds up. Now, that said, I’d still like to talk about my initial thoughts.

Guardians of the Galaxy’s big selling points are the graphics and action. The graphics are really good and the 3D effects (I saw this in 3D) are well done. Even though I saw this in 3D, I don’t think the experience would be all that different in 2D. The action sequences in 3D movies can sometimes be hard to parse. They can be too choppy. That was a major qualm of mine with The Hobbit. What is the point in shoveling money into the steam engine of CGI if you can’t see anything? Fortunately, the action in Guardians of the Galaxy is, for the most part, easy to watch. A great example of this comes with the opening credits.

Peter Quill (Pratt) is listening to a cassette tape while dancing around ruins on an alien planet. The credits share the screen with him and the tempo matches the music. I’m usually not one to enjoy dancing sequences but it set the stage for the rest of the movie; I just had to relax and have fun.

Now, this credit sequence isn’t quite the introduction to the film. We first see a young Peter Quill in a hospital listening to his cassette tape entitled “Awesome Mix Vol1.” His grandfather tells him to come and see his mother. His mother, dying of cancer, gives him a letter and a plot device birthday gift. She tells him to open it when she is gone. She holds out her hand to him but he can’t look at her let alone hold her hand and she dies. He runs out of the hospital to a misty field where an alien spacecraft appears and abducts him. We jump forward in time to see the dancing-credit-sequence.

The characters, much like the alien worlds, are pretty good overall. First, we have Peter Quill, who reminds me of Chris Pines’ Capt. Kirk. He’s cool, smooth, funny, male, and white. We have Gamora (Saldana), a highly trained/bioengineered assassin/love interest. She’s fine. Rocket (Cooper) is fine too. He’s the spunky, tiny, bombastic, intelligent, Han Solo to the Chewy that is Groot (Diesel). His feistiness is the general source of humor. Was he funny? Sure, at times. The humor overall is sophomoric but, it’s a comic book movie – whadaya expect?

I think the casting of Bautista as the large warrior Brax and Diesel as Groot were marvelous (no pun intended).  Groot is a large, strong, tree character whose only vocabulary is “I am Groot.” Brax is more oratorically capable though only to the extent of being another comic relief. Brax’s people, Rocket explains, have no such things as metaphors; they go right over his head. Brax retorts, “Nothing gets over my head…my reflexes are too fast…I’d reach up and catch it.” It’s a simply joke but the timing is right on and they take it one step longer than I expected. Knowing this was a comic goldmine they dig this well until it’s dry.

If you are in the mood for sci-fi graphics and comic book action, The Guardians of the Galaxy, might be worth watching but only for a matinee. I would not recommend paying full price for this.

Thursday, August 7, 2014


Written and Directed by Joon-ho Bong. Written by Keey Masterson. Starring Chris Evans (Curtis), Kang-ho Song (Namgoong), John Hurt (Gilliam), Ed Harris (Wilford), Tilda Swinton (Mason).
Bottomline: Snowpiercer walks a fine line between humor and horror (the horror of war-type, not the monster-movie-type)

In the future, an effort to quell global warming accidentally resulted in freezing the Earth. The last survivors of mankind have survived for 17 years aboard a train that continuously travels around the planet.

From that introduction, you might suspect that there is an environmental subplot… There is also an equally subtle class struggle theme. As Tild-og’s (Tilda Swinton’s) character Mason explains, ‘there is a hierarchy and everyone should know their place.’

That statement goes over well with the impoverished passengers at the back of the train…so they hatch a plan to release, from the prison car, the security engineer/drug addict Namgoon (Song) who can open doors all the way to the head of the train. Led by the brooding but attractive Curtis (Evans), they fight to overthrow the totalitarian Wilford (Harris).

The cinematography is really great. Speaking about this with my wife, she convinced me that the action-sequence shaky camera is appropriate and well done.  The camera and characters are on a moving (therefore bumpy) train. The camera is moving with the characters that are running along fighting, which is also a bumpy activity. It’s not like in Batman Begins, where the action is hard to parse; the shaky camera is an artificial way to heighten the excitement.

The music is good enough, I think. To be honest, I saw this movie last weekend and I can’t really quite remember the music, so take that for what you will. What I do remember distinctly are the sound effects. Snowpiercer is a perfect example of how to make a chilling effect without having to actually show anything. As a friend described, the sound effects are “disturbingly visceral.” The sound of bone crunching under the weight of a hammer or the strike of an axe leaves a lasting impression. This is a really violent movie so you’ll get a lot of these of sound effects.

This is a mildly, stylized film. It’s not Sin City (Miller, 2005) stylized but more Hannah (Wright, 2011) stylized. That is, the movie has characters who could be in a comic book but the movie overall retains a general sense of realism. Its touch of theatrics is strange at times (and kinda creepy) particularly with Mason (Swinton). In her first monologue, she explains that the people in the back are like a shoe, during which, she places a shoe on the head of a man whose arm is sticking out of the train (so it freezes solid – it’s a punishment). It’s bizarre and funny but, at the same time, really dark.

I am a huge proponent of films showing instead of telling. It is a movie, after all. Snowpiercer tends to be on the telling side of the spectrum, unfortunately. It talks about interesting things, sure, but I would’ve still liked to see more instead of sitting through monologue after monologue.

At first I thought I really enjoyed this movie but after thinking about it and talking about it, I began to see some issues. First: plot holes. Massive plot holes and unanswered questions. I usually don’t knit-pick when it comes to movies, especially when the movie is science fiction. But you get to a certainly point… I hesitate to get into many of the issues because of spoilers. But I will mention one. How does the train run? We learn that the train drives through ice and purifies it to make the water but what fuels the engine? If there exists some super engine, why didn’t the world use it to combat global freezing?

A second major issue that I have is the take away feeling. When I rate a movie, I really great movie reminds why I love film and it gives me a new perspective or a new lens through which I can view the world. When all is said and done, Snowpiercer doesn’t tell me anything that I didn’t already know. It sets all this stuff up but it doesn’t give me something to chew on. We get a lame ending that doesn’t provide any sense of closure.

Would I recommend Snowpiercer? Maybe. If you are in the mood for something dark and gritty and violent and have already seen Oldboy, then sure but don’t go out of your way to see it though. Now, if you haven’t seen Snowpiercer, then mind yourself of spoilers in this next section. I’d like to discuss some details about the movie, particularly the ending.

After a long painful journey, Curtis finally meets Wilford. Harris explains the whole plot. The rebellions (there were several in the history of the train) were a conspiracy to lower the population on the train to preserve the ecosystem in the train. Willy Wonka Wilford now wants Curtis to run the train. It seems like Curtis is almost on board until he sees the use of child labor. Meanwhile, Namgoon and his daughter have placed an explosive on the door of the train. The bomb goes off, the train crashes and Namgoon’s daughter and a child laborer are the only survivors. They leave the wreckage and look up on a snowy mountaintop to see a polar bear. They make eye contact with the bear and the movie ends.

First off, bears. Why bears? Why bears? Clearly it’s possible for a child laborer and a seventeen-year-old drug addict to survive if a polar can. Alone. In a still frozen planet, with no food or supplies. Great! How am I supposed to react to this? Am I supposed to feel relieved that humanity has survived…for maybe a day or two longer? I would’ve much preferred if everyone died in the train explosion. The camera could’ve floated away to do a close-up on a plant that blooms.

Even before this ending, the big reveal of the child laborers rubs me the wrong way. Thematically, I get it. Yeah, child labor is the pinnacle of evil. Wilford explains that the parts of the train break after a while and they use children as cheap replacements. How do they expect this train to last any amount of time if they are duct-taping it together with children? Maybe I’m being knit-picky. Perhaps the children and bears exist as nothing more than symbols so the logistics should be ignored.

In a similar way, one might ask what is the purpose of the people at the back of the train? From what I saw, they provided absolutely nothing. They weren’t forced to work they just sat in the back and waited for their food. One of the big plot twists (a predictable one at that) was that the rebellions were planned events of population control. Why were the poor people allowed on the train in the first place if they were going to be used for no purpose? Unless their purpose was to be future allegorical figures…

To a certain extent, I can just go with the flow and accept these quirks in a symbolic way but just like with my suspension of disbelief, it has its limits. I think I would be more sympathetic if the end result drew me to some deeper question but it didn’t. After the arduous journey, I am left with an image surrounded by a disappointing haze of ambiguity.

What do you think about Snowpiercer? Did you find it satisfying? Did you want it to end differently? I mentioned that I wanted the train to just crash but part of me wanted Curtis to take control of the train. Leave a comment with your thoughts and, as always, thanks for reading!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Ichi The Killer

Directed by Takashi Miike Written by Hideo Yamamoto (comic), Sakichi Satô(screenplay). Starring Tadanobu Asano (Kakihara), Nao Ômori (Ichi), Shin'ya Tsukamoto (Jijii).

Bottom line: Ultra-violent but it's gimmicky because it doesn't offer anything insightful other than a depressing outlook on life.

Ichi the Killer (2001) is a film about a masochistic yakuza named Kakihara (Asano) as he looks for his boss who disappeared. He comes across Ichi (Ômori), a psychopath who, in the words of IMDB's description, “may be able to inflict levels of pain that Kakihara has only dreamed of.” If you Google for the poster for this movie, it is a little misleading (though I suspect it's intentional). The man with the Joker-like scars on the poster is Kakihara, not Ichi.

I should note that although I am writing this review today, I have seen this movie twice. I saw it once around when it came out, before I started thinking critically about movies. I didn't particularly like it then and, after watching it again last week, my feelings haven't changed. As a quick side note, I don't know what got into me that day. I woke up and watched Steven Seagal's ludicrous On Deadly Ground only to follow it up with Ichi the Killer. That's like waking up early to have a Taco Bell breakfast (they do that now) and have White Castle burgers for dinner - not good life choices.

Ichi the Killer is a movie that always seems to find a spot on lists of “most disturbing movies.” Its usual compatriots include August Underground (2001), Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom (1975), Irreversible (2002) and (if the list maker knows what's up) Serbian Film (2010). Naturally, when someone says, “This is a disturbing movie. Don't see it.” I hear, “Check it out!”

“What's so disturbing,” I wonder. Violence? Sister, I've played too many video games and watched too many movies to be nauseated by violence. I once read a review by someone like Roger Ebert, though I seem to have trouble finding it now, who called this the “worst movie ever made.” In that review, the critic also said that “all the characters are pure evil.” Pure evil. What does that even mean?

After watching twice, I must say that yes indeed this movie is a violent one: blood sprays from slit throats, boiling oil is poured on people, and people are cut in half. Ichi the Killer based on a graphic novel and that stylized feel carries over. For this reason, I am a little confused as to what is supposed to be disturbing. I feel like watching the guy gets split in half is supposed to be extreme but the graphics are so low quality that it takes me out of the moment. Now, watching a man beat up a prostitute then rape her made me uncomfortable; it had just enough practical special effects (make up instead of computer graphics, that is) to make it realistic.

This movie has it's moments. I like the music and the costumes. There are some shots that drag on for a while but, for the most part, the cinematography is really energetic. I didn't really like any of the characters. I didn't see really much depth or growth. They are just coldly violent. The one character, for example, sighed with disappointment upon seeing his brother killed because “I looked forward to killing him one day.” Kakihara is the one exception. I really liked his style and, throughout the course of the movie, you come to understand his motivations.

After watching Ichi the Killer, I was sad not disgusted. This movie didn't particularly prompt for introspection it just made me reflect on the miserable lives of the characters in the movie. All I saw was death, pain, and heartache. I don't recommend Ichi the Killer. Not because it's disturbing but because it simply isn't worth your time or emotional investment.

If you want to see something disturbing but worth it watch Michael Haneke's 1997 film Funny Games. He once said that something is wrong with you if you sit through the entire thing. It's a commentary about violence in society and pop-culture today.

In the near future, I will write a post about Ichi the Killer and the positioning of the audience. That is, how are we supposed to react to all this violence? I will add a link to this post once it's finished.
Thanks for reading!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Wild Strawberries and the Philosophical Issues With Self-Examination

Wild Strawberries is Isac Borg's recollection of a particular day. The reality that is presented, however, is as concrete as the dreams he experiences. Consider the sequence when Isak and his daughter in law, Marianna, set out on the highway. Marianna asks Isak if he remembers his response to her request to stay with him. He says, “I said I would be delighted.” She smirks with a mixture of bitterness and astonishment. She says,“ Perhaps you've forgotten but you said,'...I have no respect for mental suffering...if you need therapy, you'd better see a shrink. Or why not see a minister? It's in fashion now.' ” Whether or not he actually forgot what he said is not important. What is important is his inclination to color his memory with a rose tint, particularly if we consider Bergman's relationship to the Isak Borg. Bergman says, “I had created a character who, on the outside, looked like my father, but was me, through and through.”1 In this way, Isak's interactions with his dreams may serve as a metaphor to describe how Bergman interacts with his films. In his film, Wild Strawberries, Bergman uses dreams to reflect on his identify and family's issues while exploring the philosophical implications of self-reflection

Bergman creates cinematic fantasies to address his own psychology issues, chiefly, his relationship with his father. He also addresses the possibility that Isak's dreams are simply wishful thoughts rather than actual examinations, and by doing so, illustrates how his films (particularly Wild Strawberries) are themselves self-examinations.

As Paisley Livingston discusses, Eino Kaila's treatise on philosophical psychology plays a major role in the Bergman's films (Livingston, 161)2. Kaila's existential perspective is present throughout the film but most importantly in the use of dreams. Livingston notes that, “Kaila at times makes sweeping pronouncements about the pervasiveness and faulty self-awareness...” (Livingston,167). By this, Isak Borg's dreams may come under question and, therefore, require examination.

The film is split between three dreams. Although, it is more two dreams and a “vision of past events” though it is easier to just label them dream 1, dream 2, and dream 3. There is a distinct progression in thought between these dreams. Dream 1 is a vision. Dream 2 is a romanticized remembrance of the past. Dream 3 is a free-association directly influenced by Borg's doubts and sources of stress.

Isak's first dream becomes something of a vision by hinting at future events. The watch with no hands, as it is revealed once belonged to his father, for example. Similarly, the noise reminiscent of a child whimpering as the coffin falls out of the carriage hints at the turmoil in his son's marriage. His daughter-in-law is pregnant and his son doesn't want a child. The cinematography is very basic. The tracking shot with follows Borg up and down the street gives the scene an artificial feel which follows because the situation is a creation of Borg's subconscious. It is interesting to note that real blood was used in the bloated man though it appears lighter and more watery than blood. Normally, something like chocolate is used as a substitute which contrasts in the picture and has a blood-like texture. The mixture of reality and fantasy is the first indication of the complexity of Borg's (and Bergman's) exploration.

The cinematography in the second dream plays heavily with light/dark contrasts. The room where the family eats is very white, from the clothing to the table settings to the porridge they eat. Isak, wearing a dark jacket, watches this scene from the shadow filled adjoining room. When Sara runs away from the family and confesses that she cares for Isak's brother, she kneels down by the stairs in that room. The dark wooden stairs bar her like a prison cell. She is the only source of light. She confesses by saying that she is wretched and undeserving of Isak, who, upon hearing this, smirks slightly with pride. This dream is wish fulfillment. Isak wasn't present for these events so even though he prefaced the dream as a memory, it is fantasy based on a supposed reality. Although he witnesses his first love leaving him, he is able to maintain a level of moral superiority. Additionally, the detail that he was fishing with his father, presents their otherwise abusive relationship in a positive fashion.

The final dream is a free-association of Isak's doubts. The lighting is harsh and the mis-en-scene is relatively bare though it is froth with symbolic significance. The closing shot of the film is of Isak falling peacefully asleep. He smiles and drifts off. His journey has given him a much needed new perspective on which we assume he will act.

Given that Bergman alludes to the philosopher throughout the film, Borg's journey must be considered with respect to Kaila. Borg's narration might suggest that he has fallen into a state of false self-awareness. As Mariana pointed out in the beginning, that Borg listens to no one but himself and, indeed, this journey is Borg talking to himself. In his words, his recent dreams have been “as if I must tell myself something I won't listen to when I'm awake.” With this line, either he is finally able to self-reflect or it might illustrate that Borg has not changed. After all, Marianna and his family have already said what he is trying to tell himself. He is only able to hear them, indirectly, through himself.

Kaila continues to explain the possibility of self-awareness by saying, “Objective, rational thought is possible, but such moments of lucidity only emerge in the relatively few cases...” (Livingston, 167-168). An example of one of those few cases would be “...falling so short of social norms and ideals that they are forced to engage in painful reflection” (Livingston, 168). With this in mind, we can more clearly document Borg's existential journey. The initial dream is merely playing off his fears of the inevitability of death. His second dream, triggered by his learning of his son's hatred, is an escapist fantasy which shields him from the pain of self-reflection. Ultimately, his realization of his shortcomings as a father and as a person result in actual self-reflection in the form of the final dream where he looks at himself in a mirror and smiles (be it a smile contorted in pain).

As Amir Cohen-Shalev notes, Bergman's family and religious themes develop over the course of his career (86). Through the final dream sequence in Wild Strawberries, it becomes clear that Bergman acknowledges the difficulty of self-reflection. It is unclear, however, whether or not Bergman is able to replicate the self-awareness of Isak Borg.

1 "Ingmar Bergman Foundation." Ingmar Bergman. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Feb. 2014.

2 Livingston, Paisley. Cinema, Philosophy, Bergman: On Film as Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Socio-Political Issues in Throne of Blood

In the years following WWII, the American military sought to eradicate all trace of Japanese military tradition and, around the same time, tested atomic bombs in the Pacific Ocean. This testing resulted in the deaths of several Japanese fishermen. The Japanese grew in their resentment. A fundamental quality of the Japanese military tradition was the use of bushido, or the samurai code of ethics. Furthermore, this code was and still is an important factor in Japanese culture so by attempting to remove this from Japan, the American military was, in effect, attempting to eradicate a core element of Japanese culture. Kurosawa's Throne of Blood mirrors this socio-political conflict thematically and technically; in doing so it examines the destructive nature of mankind as a whole.

The proximity of Japanese culture and military within Bushido warrants a thorough examination. Bushido is a philosophy composed of several other philosophies including Taoism, Buddhism, and Shintoism. One side effect of having multiple source philosophies is the presence of paradoxes. One such example is that Bushido stresses loyalty and duty to one's family or overlord while also demanding one's responsibility to make morally “right” decisions (Parker, 510). What is the cultural significance of these paradoxes? In the years leading up to WWII, the emphasis on loyalty and duty was exploited for militaristic ends. Kurosawa's attitude towards Bushido seemed to be ambivalent though he disagreed with certain aspects such as its regimentation and brutality (Parker, 509). In Throne of Blood, Kurosawa examines the significance of the breakdown of this code in addition to examining the code's paradoxes.
Kurosawa is often called the 'most Western' of Japanese directors but considers himself “the most Japanese” of directors (Parker, 508). In the case of Throne of Blood, Western influences appear on several levels; strong wind is reminiscent of American Westerns while the story is based on Shakespeare's MacBeth. However, in his adaptation, Kurosawa utilizes Western influences within a Japanese framework (Noh theater) to focus on the collapse of the samurai code, a phenomenon that is distinctly Japanese.

There is a stylistic contrast within the film. Kurosawa draws heavily from the traditional Noh theater, saying that it, “is the real heart, the core of all Japanese drama” (Richie and Mellen, 117). The actors' make-up is reminiscent of the masks worn by Noh actors. The cinematography is largely static which transforms locations (rooms in the Cobweb castle, or the evil spirit's forest hut) into stages. The characters are in primarily wide shots making them appear as if they are actors on a stage. A common thread in these scenes is the emphasis on the individual or socio-political issues. When Washizu (Mifune) and his wife (Yamada) enact the plan to kill his daimyo, for example, the style is very Noh: the murder occurs off screen, we watch Lady Washizu whose make-up resembles the shakumi mask, and hear the nohkan (the Noh flute). Their murderous plot is a rejection of the Bushido's call for both loyalty and for moral decisions. However, the decision to commit murder wasn't reached by Mifune strictly out of a desire for power. His wife pointed out his natural, and understandable, fears. She says that if Miki (Kubo) goes to the daimyo and explains the foretelling of the evil witch, the daimyo would probably kill Washizu. It is a realistic possibility which motivates Washizu to kill just as much out of self-preservation as it is a hunger for power.

One important quality of Noh theater is the emphasis on the universality of its subject matter. That is, the audience isn't supposed to relate to the characters lest we “...lose spiritual transcendence” (Parker, 512). As Parker also notes, such a style has received harsh criticism from some Shakespearean critics who find the result distancing “emotionally unsatisfactory” (512). This indicates the level to which Kurosawa has adapted the play by making it distinctly Japanese. By presenting a classically Japanese social issue, the breakdown of Bushido, within the context of Noh theatre, Throne of Blood resonates with the issues of identity felt by post-WWII Japan. The film ponders the physical and metaphysical implications of rejecting the supposed social order.

Sequences which involve nature or the supernatural mark a departure from Noh to something more dynamic. Tracking shots are the most characteristic detail. As Washizu and Miki ride through the cobweb forest, for example, the camera smoothly follows their movements. This movement coupled with the spider-web like branches between the actors and the camera causes the audience to relate to the forest (Parker, 515). By forcing us to relate to the forest, we lose the impartiality of Noh to be entangled in the cinematography and action on screen. This suggests another level of conflict between film and Noh theater.

This film is noted as being a completely cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare's play and yet it draws heavily on Japanese theater. The line “all our yesterday's have lighted fools / The way to dusty death,” is altered to Washizu shouting “Fool,” while looking at his predecessor's regalia. It is an image which contains the same message but in a visual way. At the same time, Throne of Blood utilizes the telephoto lens which flattens and shortens a shot. It alters “the perspective to the two-dimensional, surface orientation traditional in Japanese art” (Parker, 513).

The stylistic difference develops the conflict between nature and society which Parker discusses (513). Nature, he explains, is presented in completely negative fashion. The prologue and epilogue, which frame the story as a flashback, establish a tone of desolation. Nature will undermine and outlast society and that any attempts of mankind to prove otherwise will only result in destruction. The army of trees shot in the film's finale is a key moment of nature's characterization. The army is surrounded in fog revealing only the tops of the trees. It is shot in slow motion with a telephoto lens which fills the frame with a cascade of branches. The music is menacing. It is a short image but it projects the sense of dread felt by Washizu. To emphasize the eventual erosion of society, Washizu's death comes at the hands of his own men, within his own castle.

If we consider the fact that, although Throne of Blood is considered completely cinematic, it is influenced heavily by other styles, this alters the initial conflict-based notion about the film as a whole. It isn't “nature vs society,” but “society functioning with respect to nature” or “societies building and crumbling through the passage of time.” In terms of cinematography, Kurosawa presents Noh theater using the language of film to capitalize on qualities of each style. We are forced to address the film from a disconnected perspective but still have the visual complexity provided by film. If we consider the larger cultural issues of post-WWII Japan, we will see a similar situation. Western military versus Japanese military fails to address the complexity of the situation. The Japanese were recovering from WWII while being influenced to adjust their culture by way of the removal of Bushido, a code which only years previously been utilized to cause untold destruction.