Monday, April 11, 2016

Japanese Film Festival 2016: Three Stories of Love

Director Ryosuke Hashiguchi (All Around Us, Hush!) initially workshopped the idea for this movie using three non-professional or experienced actors. This took around eight months, and they were so personable, two of the three actors have similar names to their characters. Thus a triptych was formed, following the lives of three characters and how love has affected them. Atsushi (Atsushi Shinohara) is going through a breakdown after the senseless murder of his wife three years prior, Toko (Toko Narushima) finds joy in her life away from her disinterested husband, and Shinomiya (Ryo Ikeda) is a successful gay lawyer whose life falls apart after he breaks his leg.

Using a multi-storied narrative to explore a specific theme is nothing new to cinema. It’s a very commonly used trope, and even an interconnected one isn’t exactly standout. What does make Three Stories of Love special however is the amount of intimacy and intensity we get from these stories. We really get to know these people, and it makes the struggles and tragedies in their lives all the more powerful.

Atsushi’s story is probably my favourite, as it’s easily the most layered and heartbreaking. It really shows the struggles of moving on after a tragedy: the guilt, the emptiness, the loss in social stature, the need for a closure that will never come, the financial instability and the longing. A lot of his scenes will break you, and he truly captures the soul of this film.

Toko’s storyline probably gets the most focus. While it has some odd moments here or there, she does have good chemistry with her would-be paramour, and her story ends on a subtly ambiguous note which I like. Shinomiya’s story is the least focused on, which is a pity because it goes in some strange directions that I’m not that on board with. While the actor is great and I do like how they made him incredibly flawed but still sympathetic, some of the story turns don’t sit well with me. Granted it could be a cultural thing, and I don’t feel they were being offensive or anything.

So there are some story issues, there’s a camera movement in a key moment that really killed it, and it goes on just a little too long. I like the final scene, but the climax overall could have been trimmed. What makes up for all of that, however, is how thematically pungent this movie is. The way love can negatively impact you is something not often explored in cinema, and this film does have the stones not to give you any comfortable solutions. It really works, and manages to give moments of levity and dark humour not to sink it into total misery.

Three Stories of Love is well celebrated for good reason. It’s emotional, dramatic, funny, extremely well-acted and manages to be equally as profound as it is poignant. Considering it stars relatively not well known actors, it’s a wonderful starting platform for some excellent talents.


Sunday, April 10, 2016

Japanese Film Festival 2016: Love and Peace

Ryoichi Suzuki (Hiroki Hasegawa) dreamed big but never achieved anything, becoming a paranoid and socially inept salaryman. His only supporter is his crush Yuko (Kumiko Aso) and his only confidant is his pet turtle Pikadon. But when Yuko accidentally reveals his turtle to his co-workers and they begin to deride him, Ryoichi impulsively flushes him into the sewers. That’s when things get bizarre. Pikadon meets an old man (Toshiyuki Nishida) who has the power to bring inanimate objects to life and animals the ability to talk. An accident allows Pikadon to grant wishes, and he proceeds to make all of Ryoichi’s rockstar dreams come true.

Love and Peace is kind of delightfully insane. It truly walks to the beat of its own drum and has a tone and energy that’s completely distinct. Your liking of the film will entirely depend on how much you are willing to follow it on its own terms. It’s entirely over the top and nonsensical, but it’s mostly from the perspective of a paranoid, slightly off young man who gets us into this tonality at the beginning

Director Sion Sono has incorporated puppetry to make the toys and animals come to life, and it really adds the desired effect. As in its completely unreal, you can see the strings in places! But this sense of unreality just runs through every orifice of this story, and the kind of fakeness actually benefits the world we are landed in. it has a kitschy, low budget charm that grows more and more surreal as time goes on. Most of the cast are almost puppets in their own right; Hiroki Hasegawa is particularly hilarious in how over the top he is.

And yet, it breaks away to a kind of emotional truism in the end. You genuinely care for the magic homeless man and the creatures he gave sentience. At its heart, it’s a morality tale about how we tend to take things for granted and willingly take advantage of those around us, particularly the people and even things we love. It permeates throughout the movie, like the empty platitudes towards the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japanese films have a great ability to give weight to sad sack characters, so we’re connected enough to Ryoichi’s story and the toys in order to have an impact later.

Love and Peace may not be the movie for you. It’s silly, it crosses genres and tones at random intervals, it’s got some really poor editing and puppetry and it’s really uncompromising in its own daft world without caring if you’re on board. But if you are, it’s a riot. It’s a fantasy film, a drama, a rock musical, a comedy, a love story and a fantasy all rolled into one. Hopefully you’ll be won over by its manic energy, sense of humour and heart.


Saturday, April 9, 2016

Japanese Film Festival 2016: 100 Yen Love

Ichiko Saito (Sakura Ando) is a directionless 32-year old who lives at home and has made no significant mark with her life. After her sister moves back in after her divorce and their volatile relationship resurfaces, Ichiko suddenly moves out and gets a job at a 100 yen store (think of it like a pound shop here). Becoming enamoured with a nearby boxer named Yuji (Hirofumi Arai), she eventually trains to be a boxer at his gym.

What really makes 100 Yen Love stand out is its performances. While every single actor does a great job, no matter what role they have, it’s Sakura Ando that truly steals the show.  Her every mannerism and social tick is relatable to any introvert, and her slow progress to gaining more self-confidence is excellently captured. Her closed off body language and the certain ways she reacts in certain situations are expertly thought out and she is the highlight.

Ando is not the only thing to take away from this movie, however. It’s also incredibly funny without sacrificing serious drama. The main motif seems to be around, well, losers. Nearly every character is a ‘loser’ in their own right, and Saito wants to break away from her own spiraling mediocrity. This is a person who constantly gets shit on, but she’s so determined to be a winner she doesn’t even recognise her own personal growth.

It’s cynical as fuck and probably will rub people the wrong way, but it’s an interesting commentary on how we view and use people and how much insecurities and complacency can just trap us in this festering, meandering hole. As bleak as that is, the film has a great sense of humour and a quirky charm that thankfully escapes it from being too bleak. As I said above, it’s endlessly funny and, despite some pretty horrific moments where they don’t pull any punches (heh), I laughed out loud several times, and this really helped me connect to the lead and her struggles.

The direction is top notch. It’s detailed and well-staged with some excellent blocking. This attention to detail in every shot can be great, particularly in the store where several things can happen at once and they never lose focus on any of it. They tend to overuse the slow motion near the end, but beyond that it’s an expertly shot piece.

As you probably guessed, I really loved this movie. It’s a sharply directed, incredibly well acted character study of a woman trying to make something out of her life far passed the point where society says she can. It’s clever, biting, incredibly funny and has a kick ass soundtrack. As an ode to the loser, this is one that wins.


Friday, April 8, 2016

Japanese Film Festival 2016: Miss Hokusai

Miss Hokusai follows a year in the life of O-Ei, the daughter of a brilliant painter. We follow her life as she struggles to become a great painter in her own esteem, learn from her belligerent and unconventional father, tend to her younger sister and attempt to balance the everyday trivialities of life with her chosen passion.

Outside of a few more spiritual elements, Miss Hokusai is a very straightforward and episodic piece on the life of a real life historical figure. Like in real life, Katsushika Oi lives in the shadow of her father, Katsushika Hokusai, who’s most famous for the 1830 painting The Great Wave off Kanagawa. With this study of a budding talented artist, we explore more spiritual and complex ideas on what it means to be a creator and what you have to sacrifice in order to achieve greatness.

While it can embellish it a little (no, I don’t think artists can see spirits escaping sleeping geishas or make dragons appear to them at night), and while it can be a tad exaggerated on how far an artist will go to cut off their everyday life (the older Hokusai is not sacrificing his life for his work, he’s just a terrible father), it does give food for thought as to how far people will push their passions above all else, and what it means to truly enter this ‘world’. Hokusai reaches a point at the end of the movie where she is ready to embrace a path away from her father’s style and make her own mark on life, and even accept this rather bleak path may she may live on.

The animation is stunning, the detail and design truly transports you back to the Edo-era of Japan. I love the consistent messiness of O-Ei and her father’s place, it really adds to the idea that these people live and breathe art. There’s also a noticeable shift when the more ‘out there’ elements of the story come into play, and some clever incorporation of the Hokusais’ art. Some of the CG can be a little distracting, but it’s very minimally used. Also the animation on the dog is great, very fluid and natural and makes what could be an annoyingly ‘cutesy’ character very endearing.

Most of the score is great save for the random rock intervals in the beginning and end. They were so jarring, I expected Blur to pop up at any moment. Plus some plot details felt a bit telegraphed too early and they lacked a certain impact. I’m also not that crazy about the final shot-I get its intention, I just don’t know if it really worked.

Besides that, Miss Hokusai is a wonderful artwork worthy of the great artists it pays tribute to. It’s a naturalistic and calming piece of animation giving us an interesting and engaging insight into the world of these creators. An examination and a tribute to those who live to create works of beauty.


Podcast #2: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

SPOILER WARNING!!!!!! We spoil pretty much the entire movie. Proceed at your own risk (or...none if you've seen the movie)

My review of Man of Steel.

Max Landis' Jimmy Olsen bit

Recorded April 1st, hence the April Fool's crack. It took me... a bit of a while to edit this.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Japanese Film Festival 2016: Assassination Classroom

A powerful creature, with the appearance of a smiley face and an octopus-esque body, has destroyed 70% of the Moon leaving it in a crescent shape. Now landing on Earth, he gives them a strange ultimatum to annihilation: he will train students to try to kill him and they must do so within a year. Choosing an underprivileged and disrespected class, Class 3-E, he teaches them normal subjects as well as assassination techniques (the day starts with the students opening fire on him) while the government offers 10 billion yen to whoever murders the creature.

Your liking of Assassination Classroom depends on how you took that synopsis. Did you roll your eyes at its ridiculousness? Then avoid this movie like the plague. Were you charmed or even intrigued by it? Then go watch it yesterday.

And I don’t even think this is a *good* movie, per se. The direction ranges from ‘competent’ to ‘has this fucker ever been behind a camera’. Most of the acting outside of the VA for the alien (they call him UT, or ‘Unkillable Teacher’, cute huh?) is subpar or terrible (or, in the case of their gym teacher, hilariously hammy). It suffers the problems of adaptation decay: the story was clearly better fleshed out in the manga it’s based on. Everything’s just crammed in too tightly and none of the plot points have any room to breathe. 

Looking past all this, however, it’s easy to get absorbed in its charm and incredibly zany sense of humour. There’s so much strange and wonderful shit being thrown at you that you’re never bored and UT is such a loveable and endearing pro/antagonist that he really does carry the movie. Throughout the story, I was more invested in him than in anything else that’s going on. You even get used to the naff special effects because it really does fit the insane and goofy tone.

So yeah, not much else to say about this. It’s probably a lot smarter, better laid out and written in the manga/anime, but there’s enough here to be entertained and its heart is still present, even if the emotional moments are rushed. It’s crazy as hell and it’s exactly the movie it wants to be. Check it out if it sounds like your thing.


Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Japanese Film Festival 2016: Chigasaki Story

Chigasaki is a seaside resort, with an inn routinely populated with an archaeology class going on an annual field trip. This particular year, the trip is coinciding with a wedding party organised by and for the owner Risa (Natsuko Hori), and her former colleagues Karin (Ena Koshino) and Maki (Kiki Sugino) arrive a couple of days early. While the two women’s personalities clash, the weekend promises to be one of surprise run-ins and unlikely romantic perils.

Fans of Japanese auteur Yasujiro Ozu will be interested to know that the inn this film is set in is where he wrote many of his popular screenplays. It’s a film seeped in Ozu’s influence, with also a dash of the relationship strife of Woody Allen and Eric Rohmer. Yet, with all this influence, Chigasaki Story manages to stand out on its own, which is impressive for a first-timer. Takuya Misawa gives us a sense of intimacy and professionalism for his first film, with incredibly layered and fleshed out characters as well as characterising it with static and calm cinematography.

What’s interesting that the calm scenery offsets our two very high-strung protagonists, but in very different ways. Maki is meticulous and work savvy, but also very lonely and put out with abusive behaviours it’s implied she faced when she was in school. Karin is the opposite: free-spirited and fun loving, but doesn’t have a lot of tact and can be quite mean-spirited. While it’s a cliché to put these ‘opposites attract’ people together, they do bounce off each other well and both actresses are perfect in their roles. There’s a lot of subtleties and careful planning in their body language and actions that gives us an impression that they’re both lonely in their own way.

The romances are also quiet and underplayed, which makes a change from usual romantic dramas. Probably the most stated is the unrequited crush Ayako (Juri Kukushima) has on fellow classmate and inn worker Tomoharu (Haya Nakazaki), who does not notice is because he has an unrequited crush on Karin, who openly admits to people that she uses him. The other pairings are either expressed through body language or how characters play off each other. It plays on audiences’ being able to not need to be stated the obvious, and I particularly love how the women get most of the focus here.

If there are any complaints, there’s a twist near the end and, while well handled, does derail the movie slightly. The pacing of the final 10 minutes is also rather jarring as, while it ends on a good note, it seems meandering and directionless for a time. It feels like they desperately needed to get to 88 minutes and had nowhere else to go with the story.

Despite that, Chigisaki Story is an understated treat I’d recommend to anyone, especially if you prefer stories that don’t force plot points unnaturally in your face. Come for the Ozu connection, stay for the talented filmmaking in its own rights.


Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Quick Critique: Anomalisa (2016)

“Our time is limited, we forget that.”

Anomalisa is an anomaly. A film that tells a very human and honest story, yet is composed entirely in stop-motion. Everything about the story is normal and relaxed, and yet has elements of the bizarre within it. It gives you a portrait of a seemingly ordinary man, until we discover more. Lisa is an anomaly in of herself, hence the title. You are expecting something ordinary and drab. Instead you get something incredibly touching, unique and profound.

Charlie Kaufman is not a stranger to this type of story. His movies tend to follow put out, morose heroes who take drastic measures to change the circumstances that are frustrating them. Be they erasing their memories of a loved one, creating an entire warehouse to make an elaborate, avant-garde play, or controlling John Malkovich. Ultimately, their lives are usually satisfying in their own rights, but it’s the human strive for the unattainable that tends to be their downfall. What’s brilliant about Kaufman is that he finds different ways to explore this very theme, and Anomalisa is arguably his most grounded work yet. 

That isn’t to say there aren’t…strange elements, but to go into them would ruin the way this story is told. All you need to know is that it follows Michael Stone (David Thewlis), frustrated with his mundane life who gets a change in perspective when he runs into Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Based on a ‘sound play’ written by Kaufman under a pseudonym, sound and voice play a key component in this story. How people connect yet deceive through inflections and tone, and how this one person can stick out in this distinct way is fascinating.

That isn’t to say the stop-motion should be ignored. There are some clever camera movements to make this world feel real, and yet its unreality cements (heh) the mundanity of Michael’s life. Co-directed by Duke Johnson, it’s professionally done and has some amazingly well realised shots, from the reflection of somebody’s face to a corridor that seemingly goes on forever. It’s surprising how connected we get to complex ideas when they are portrayed in ‘simpler’ formats. The animation is professional, expertly handled and manages to be muted while vastly expressive. 

Sorry for the vagueness of this review, but trust me when I say you need to watch this to really appreciate what an experience it is. Anomalisa is funny, touching, subtly heartbreaking and real. Its leads are very human and relatable, and it touches on the crippling fears of everyday life and the never-ending nagging feeling we are not living a truly fulfilling existence. Perfectly human in an inhumane way.


Japanese Film Festival 2016: The Case of Hana and Alice

Hana and Alice was a 2004 movie shot on digital video and directed by prominent Japanese filmmaker Shunji Iwai. Originally starting as a series of shorts made for, of all things, Kit Kat, the film focuses on…well Hana and Alice, played by Anne Suzuki and Yu Aoi respectively. While it didn’t have the strongest plot, its episodic nature, grounded cinematography and chemistry between the two leads carried it and it became a cult classic. 11 years later, Iwai, Suzuki and Aoi return to explore the beloved duo once again.

The Case of Hana and Alice works as a prequel, set a year before the events of the first movie and showing us how the two became friends. In order to accommodate the actors’ aging, the film has been animated and they have been rotoscoped in order to capture their performances. Some of the shots look stunning, particularly the exteriors, but the rotoscoped models never quite fit naturally into the world, and it’s clear that Iwai has no prior animation experience, as none of the shots really pop and can be jarring. There’s a really awkward pause at one scene that a more competent animated director could have made work. 

One of the main strengths of Hana and Alice are the titular characters and their friendship, and it’s just as prominent here. Both actresses fit their roles like gloves, and it’s great to see how they first got to know each other. It’s also interesting to see subtle differences in their personalities-Alice was a tad moodier and more isolated, Hana was even more of an outcast and made no efforts to change her circumstances. While it doesn’t affect your viewing having seen the 2004 movie, knowing these characters and how they progress certainly helps.

A major theme for Hana and Alice was the trials of growing up and moving past your formative years, so the theme for this seems to be youth and embracing it. This is shown in the charming scene with the old man, one of the film’s highlights. Alice gets the most focus in the story, while Hana goes through the bigger arc. She learns to let go of her past and just embrace being in the now, which does fit thematically. 

If there’s one fault, it’s the plot. It’s a little more interesting than the prior film’s, but it’s also pretty lacking and kind of silly in places (the séance scene comes to mind). There are several moments of weak character logic, and there’s so many conveniences that just pop out of nowhere to help the girls, which is just lazy writing.

The Case of Hana and Alice retains all the charm and humour of the original while also bringing something to newcomers. It’s got a rebellious teenage spirit and its heart can make you look over its flaws. A worthy follow-up to a beloved classic.