Japan

June 4, 2014

Godzilla (2014)

MYTHIC
Godzilla – Mythic

Sometimes the Devil is in the details and films need a high brow plot that grows right in front of an audience. Characters need to be fleshed out and there is a need to feel an attachment. Sometimes you need that in a film. Sometimes in a film, however, all you need are giant monsters punching, biting, and clawing each other until only one is left standing. Sometimes you need…….”Godzilla.” 2014 marks the return of everyone’s favorite “kaiju” who loves to climb out of the sea, destroy buildings, or a few monsters, and after he’s done, walk back into the sea. You don’t need Matthew Broderick, you don’t need baby Godzillas, because there’s a twist we didn’t see coming, and you don’t need a twist where there is always one more egg left. What you do need is a mythic monster that destroys things. You get all of that, and more, in “Godzilla.”

If you’ve seen any of the Japanese import “Godzilla” films, you might have a good idea of what you’re in for this time around. Basic premise; there are rumblings in the Pan Pacific area……and for sake of spoilers and other important plot points, I’ll leave it there. Yes, Godzilla is in this film, and there are a lot of moments of nostalgia that I got excited about, and overall I got to see the mythic rebirth of an icon.

Gareth Edwards honed his craft with the underrated, and little seen indie, “Monsters,” and just like “Monsters” there is a lot of build-up to the eventual return or sighting of a giant monster. This might be a turn-off to some members of the audience who might be expecting most of the film to be starring “The King of the Monsters.” Instead, we get a plot that involves a soldier (Aaron Johnson) and his father (Bryan Cranston) seeking the reason for the disturbances in the Pacific and the possible conspiracy between the Japanese government and the Monarch Corporation. You also have Elizabeth Olsen floating around as a nurse who is maybe trying to save people, and trust me, I like Olsen, I think she is an actress on the rise, but its plot and exposition for the sake of plot and exposition, and while the film might lag a little bit, it’s well worth the lead-up to the return of Godzilla.

The one comparison that you won’t be able to get away from will be the inevitable comparison to “Pacific Rim.” First of all, “Godzilla” is not “Pacific Rim.” The only comparison is that there are giant monsters that fight. It stops there. From a storytelling and world building perspective I would still give “Rim” a leg up. However, with “Godzilla” there is a sense of nostalgia and a lot of little odes to films of old. Being that this is the last collaboration between Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. it could be a while before we see another “Godzilla” flick grace the screen for a while.

At the end of the day, it’s great to see “Godzilla” back and in the capable hands of people who understand what “Godzilla” is at heart. Sure, some of the plot points are a little corny and ham handed, but when you finally get passed the mandatory exposition, the action is well worth it, and to be honest, quite convincing, for a giant monster film that is.

Fun Fact: Ironically enough, Guillermo del Toro, director of “Pacific Rim” was the first choice to direct the “Godzilla” reboot.

November 4, 2013

Phantom (2012)

*Special thanks to Ganko Films for providing Simplistic Reviews with a screener to watch the film “Phantom.”*

STRUGGLE

Phantom (2012) – Struggle 

What is a phantom really?  Is it from the opera?  Is it something that Ben Affleck has to fight?  Or is it a superhero in a purple suit that punches criminals with a ring shaped like a skull?  I mean, you could be right if you guessed any of these, however, there is a deeper meaning behind the word phantom.  In the appropriately titled film “Phantom” from director Jonathan Soler, the question is asked;  “Are we all phantoms of this world, and do we simply go by living without a trace to others around us?”

“Phantom” is the story of a Japanese couple having a late night conversation about life.  Neither character has a name, which reinforces the “phantom” concept in the film.  None of their conversation happens in dialogue, but rather in narration which deals with everything from not having enough money to pay rent, to moving back in with a parent to, yes, farting.  Scenes seem to be played back in forms of flashbacks, done in a very art-house style.

There are numerous themes in “Phantom” namely loneliness, self-doubt, and the concept of relying on another person for support.  Both characters are comfortable around each other and share doubts and fears, the female character more so than the male character.  As their conversation escalates, more philosophical elements come into play.  

The female character references the work of Fumiko Hayashi, namely her work “Horoki” a female coming-of-age story which was later adapted into the anime “Wandering Days.”  Would I call “Phantom” a feminist film, not really, but rather I think it deals with the theme that women have it harder in Japan, which is largely a society run by men with women acting in the subservient role.  The male character is a little more oblivious to this concept as he tries to tell her that she can do anything, which shows his nativity to a women’s plight in Japanese culture.  Granted, it’s much better for a women in Japan than it was 100 years ago, but it takes a while to break boundaries and taboos that women are equals in a male dominated society.  

Another reference is made to “Kanikosen,” a book about the hardship of Japanese crabbers and their struggle against exploitation.  With young people these days taking any job, which might be well  below their education level, you can see how this book would have an affect on any young person who thinks they are being taken advantage of in hard economic times.

The other important element of “Phantom” is the conversation of being a ghost versus a phantom.  When you think of ghosts, you think of people that have died, but continue to inhabit a material world. A ghost leaves it’s mark and continues to live, at times interacting with the living, depending on who you speak to.  A phantom, on the other hand, can be a spirit that still inhabits the living realm, but no one is aware of it’s presence.  This is the plight of our two central characters; they feel like they are being ignored from a societal perspective and are invisible to the world, and aren’t leaving a mark.  With a global economy still reeling, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle, and with more a more college graduates without jobs and burdened by debt, it’s becoming harder to leave a mark.  Sure, you can take out more loans to do what you really want to do (the female character mentions that she wants to open a bar), but it’s a scary proposition to someone who lacks the self-confidence, and more importantly, money, to make their hopes and dreams come true.

Overall, “Phantom” is an interesting exercise.  It’s shot in a dream-like way with plenty of sub-text about the living poor and a disenfranchised youth that isn’t limited to Japan.  The two actors, Yuki Fujita and Masato Tsojioka, give convincing performances as two people who trust each other and are each other’s support structure, but the acting looses something when all the dialogue is done as narration.  It’s interesting and reinforces the concept of being lost, but it becomes distracting throughout the entirety of the film.

Soler has a good eye for finding something out of nothing.  His vision of Japan is interesting as it focuses on things that I’m sure many Japanese take for granted during their daily routine.  The mundane if you will, that we often overlook.  I’m not a Japanophile by any means, so I’m sure that many of the shots have more meaning, but at times it seems like art, for art’s sake.  Will “Phantom” start a revolution?  Probably not, but looking at it from a Western perspective, I believe it captures universal angst for most young people who are trying to be heard in a world that has it’s ears plugged.

July 30, 2013

The Wolverine

REDEMPTION

The Wolverine – Redemption

It would be such a beautiful thing to one day have Sony, 20th Century Fox, and Disney to all sit down, enjoy a beer and say, “Hey, let’s all work together and share these wonderful, and lucrative, Marvel Comics characters will own, and get Oprah rich!”

That will probably never happen, but being the optimist and a person who believes in the mantra “Money Talks, Bullshit Walks,” one day it will happen and we will see Spider-Man joining up with Wolverine to fight Hulk while the Fantastic Four are fighting Thanos while Galactus and The Watcher look on.  Sure, it’s going to take millions, if not billions of dollars, but the bottom line for studios is seeing their bottom line in the black.

Fox has a sordid history with their Marvel properties,  Sure, “X-Men: First Class” was a surprise hit, but there are more “Fantastic Four II:  Rise of the Silver Surfer” and “X-Men: The Last Stand” and don’t even get me started started on “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” but that brings me to Fox’s latest X-Men offering, “The Wolverine” the redemption that Fox needed in order to gain momentum and hype for the much anticipated “X-Men: Days of Future Past” film in 2015.

Once again Hugh Jackman is back as Logan aka, Wolverine.  We pick up after the events of “The Last Stand” where Logan is living alone in the Yukon wilderness still haunted by visions of Jean Grey, whom he killed when she descended into the madness that was Dark Phoenix.  While in town to teach some hunters a lesson in proper bear disposal, he is confronted by Yukio, a young mutant with the power to tell the future, even though odd enough you never see her use her power, but she is a bad-ass with a samurai sword.  Yukio convinces Logan to come with her to Tokyo to pay respects to a man that he saved in the bombing in Nagasaki during World War II.  Sure enough, Logan is forced to embrace his savage nature once again fighting off Yakuza and members of The Black Clan (I wish they would have just used The Hand, but you take what you can get).  During the course of his Japanese vacation, Logan loses his healing powers, finds redemption, and fights Silver Samurai.  Not all fun in the sun for our hero, but for fan boys that follow the Chris Claremont/Frank Miller Wolverine Japanese adventures, you’ll probably geek out a few times.

This isn’t to say “The Wolverine” is without problems.  There are plot holes, characters that either go unused or underutilized, and in a few scenes some really bad shaky cam.  Being that this film was directed by James Mangold, who I have tremendous respect for, I expected some better camera work, but considering this is his first superhero movie, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.  Mangold is able to bring a good balance to this film by combining a lot of genre elements that work.  The allusions to ronins works really well in Logan’s case since for all intensive purposes he is a ronin; a man without a master who is forced to live forever and be on his own.

“The Wolverine” gives some extra depth to the character that “X-Men Origins” fumbled with.  We know that Logan is having a difficult time dealing with the death of Jean Grey while trying to create a new life in Japan with another woman.  We also see his struggle with trying to keep his feral side contained while also dealing with the lose of his biggest mutant asset; his healing factor.  But the loss of his healing factor makes him feel something he’s never felt before; humanity.  Logan has never had a fear of death due to his mutant ability and for the first time we see a vulnerable super hero who is trying to build a new life in a foreign land.  Hugh Jackman, who I give tons of credit to for returning time and time again to portray Wolverine, gives a nuanced yet complicated performance this time around.  Jackman was born to play Logan, just like Robert Downey Jr. was born to play Iron Man, and his love for the character really shines through this time around, and that’s not to say it didn’t in “X-Men” or X2: X-Men United” but “The Wolverine” lives up to it’s name and you get wall-to-wall Wolverine from the get-go.

With “The Wolverine,” Fox finally seems to be getting back on track with their super hero/X-Men properties.  Of course it takes more than just one movie to settle a fan-base down, and while “First Class” was a solid start and “Wolverine” continues the trend, “Days of Future Past” is a huge gamble and the “Fantastic Four” re-boot is still developing.  The problem with studios that own Marvel properties aside from Marvel Studios themselves, is lack of long term awareness.  For Sony and Fox it seems to be more of a cash grab than giving the source material a chance to shine, or simply bastardizing the source material to appeal to tweens, case in point “The Amazing Spider-man.”  With “Wolverine” Fox took a chance and told an X-Men story that not many people outside of the comic book reading community would know, and judging by the box office in the first week, both domestic and foreign, the film is being received well.

I’m not going to say the “Marvel Studios Method” was used for “The Wolverine” but the fact that source material was used in an effective way while adding to the X-Men mythos while prepping for the most ambitious X-Men film to date, it finally seems like Fox has a game-plan.  Of course it’s not as ambitious as what Marvel Studios is doing, but its a hell of a lot better than Warner/DC.

Fun Fact:  Wolverine’s first appearance was in The Incredible Hulk #180.

October 4, 2012

31 Nights of Halloween, Audition

Audition – Kiri

Asians, specifically Japanese folk, have given us plenty to be happy about.  Playstation, Nintendo, Karaoke, Anime, Godzilla, and of course giggling Japanese school girls.  But the hell with that!  I’m talking about hardcore, blood-soaked, WTF, mind imprinting moments of sheer horror, and one person has been giving Westerners nightmares for quite sometime; give a round of applause for Mr. Takashi Miike-san and his magnum opus, 1999’s “Audition.”

Apparently love stories in Japan are totally fu*cked, but on the surface “Audition” is a classic, where a lonely widower is looking for love in what ends up to be all the wrong places.  The lesson(s) to be learned from this film would be to never trust an overzealous friend who encourages you to meet women by way of a fake TV/film audition and choosing the one girl who A) was a former dancer B) waits by the phone for your call C) worked in a bar where people go missing and D) has an acupuncture/piano wire fetish and loves to whisper “kiri, kiri, kiri“.  These are the A,B,C (and D’s) of leading a happy, productive, and not-missing-your-feet life in Japan.

“Audition” is well paced, and has a solid narrative throughout, with good acting (I’m sure it would be better if I understood Japanese). The final, grueling, 30 minutes is an exercise in horror, suspense, and mind-fuckery at its very best.  Miike knows how to pull out all the stops and create an atmosphere of dread and hopelessness where the audience doesn’t know where, or when, he will stop and give a breather.  It’s an art that is lost upon the modern horror director and in my opinion hasn’t really been seen since Alfred Hitchcock.

So if you’ve just gotten out of a relationship, or maybe are about to go out on the town with your finest Affliction glitter-tee, destroyed denim, and are going to fist-pump your way into the heart of the girl at the bar drinking the cranberry juice who volunteered as the designated driver, think about this;  you might be the one in the burlap sack slurping up vomit from a dog bowl.  Do yourself a favor, check out “Audition.”

Fun Fact:  Takashi Miike made a cameo appearance in torture porn pioneer Eli Roth’s film “Hostel.”  He’s credited as “Miike Takashi.” 

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