Sunday, December 29, 2013

Listomania! My Favourite Films of 2013

I really wasn't intending to write another blog post this year. And I certainly wasn't planning on doing a "Best of the Year" list. But in my idle moments, my mind shuffled a list together without my explicit permission. Damn brains. They never do what they're told.

To exorcise this list from my unruly grey matter, I'm putting it here. For a more sprawling / detailed / shambolic look at My Movie Year in 2013, I refer you to this earlier blogpost.

In some sort of vague order, here's my Films of the Year list, and in at Number One with a silver bullet is:

The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski)

Comfortably sitting in second place is:
Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine)

The rest of the top five are rounded out by, in no particular order:

Du zhan (Drug War) (Johnnie To)
No (Pablo Larraín)
La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty) (Paolo Sorrentino)

Bubbling under, pop pickers, the final five are:

La vie d'Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Colour) (Abdellatif Kechiche)
Wreck-It Ralph (Rich Moore)
Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)
The Kings of Summer (Jordan Vogt-Roberts)
The Paperboy (Lee Daniels)

And now I really am going to get lost for the last few dying days of 2013. See you next year.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Punching Out

That's it! I am now officially off-the-clock for the rest of 2013, so I'm winding things up here on the blog for the year.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all my friends and readers. See you on the other side.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

My Movie Year 2013

I promise you, right now, that every single thing in this blogpost will appear on this one single, solitary page. You won’t have to click “Next” to go to another page for an infinitesimally small portion of more “content”. Only bastards with contempt for their readers would do that.

(“Integrity with a growl”. I should put that on some business cards.)

(There will be occasional, optional referrals to other pages of Cool Older Shit and I make no apologies for those.)

(Also: Nothing that appears on this blog is “content”. Ever.)

Not doing a list this year. I did think about it. But, honestly, shuffling films into some sort of “this is better than that” hierarchy is a massive, meaningless, time-consuming and ultimately fruitless endeavour / ballache. So, I’m just going to rap a while about the things that I dug in 2013 in no particular order. Although there were five films that towered above all others for me this year. So I’ll start here, with:

Pablo Larraín’s No - A two-pronged celebration of both the outcome of Pinochet's 1988 plebiscite in Chile and the grungy lo-fi joys of U-matic videotape. Just glorious.

Spring Breakers - I've rhapsodised about Harmony Korine's day-glo feverdream at great length already here.

Drug War - I love everything that Johnnie To does, so you won’t find me wheeling out hackneyed phrases like “return to form” here. An exhilarating police procedural that is as hugely entertaining as it is, ultimately, bleak. Imagine To's PTU shot through with the sensibility of David Simon's The Wire.

The Lone Ranger - Another film that I've already written about at passionate length here.

Paulo Sorrentino trained his camera on The Great Beauty of Rome and the expressive crevasses of Toni Servillo’s swaggering, insouciant, hangdog face in this magnificent film that plays like Antonioni’s La Notte spiked with a hypodermic of Lynchian dissonance.

Those were the five standouts, but there were some other moments that have continued to percolate insistently in the last year:

Both Warm Bodies and Oblivion reassured me that, regardless of your apocalyptic flavour of choice, when the end of the world comes, we’ll all go back to listening to vinyl.

The most sensual moment of Blue is the Warmest Colour is fully-clothed - bolognese sauce smeared clumsily across Adèle’s lips as she devours a family meal. A manipulative, exhausting, intimate, intense and enthralling film where nothing feels like a performance - it feels more like eavesdropping or voyeurism. Adèle Exarchopoulos's open, raw vulnerability in particular is extraordinary.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Nicolas Winding Refn is essentially a gifted trickster plagiarist. With Only God Forgives, Refn raids his DVD collection and appropriates his favourite cinematic surfaces (Chris Doyle & Wong Kar Wai; Noé; Cronenberg; Park Chan-wook; Lynch; Argento; Carpenter) but forgoes substance. It isn't a bad film - it's just very irritating and ultimately it isn't about anything. It's all just a pose. Refn is having a WongKarWank. However, the moment where Kristin Scott Thomas casually tosses off the insult “How many cocks can you entertain with that cute little cum-dumpster of yours?” will stay with me for some time...

I was one of the few people happy to see Walter Hill back on the big screen with Bullet to the Head, even if it is just a minor footnote to an amazing body of work. Turns out they do make 'em like they used to. Racial tension, bar brawls and gun fights, all shot through with Hill’s preoccupation with tenacious, brutally-efficient men. “Kinda fun, isn't it? Just you and me, two professionals, only one gets away.” Bullet to the Head makes for a solid triptych with 48 Hrs. and Red Heat. Welcome back, Walter. Don't stay away so long next time, OK?

Quentin Tarantino returned for another rip-roaring rampage of revenge with Django Unchained, a film peppered with memorable moments in the tradition of Howard Hawks ("A good movie is three good scenes and no bad scenes."). From the sight of Dr. King Schultz’s wobbly tooth wagon riding into town, to the immensely satisfying moment when Django utters the endlessly quotable “I like the way you die, boy”, to the scene where Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie slams his hand down on the table against a crystal glass, gashing it open. Unplanned, unscripted and entirely unintentional, no-one breaks character as the blood begins to pour.

Other notables that gave me great pleasure this year include the realisation of all my 8-bit dreams writ large in Wreck-it-Ralph and the woefully-underseen and entirely magnificent The Kings of Summer. And the only real fault I can find with Pacific Rim is that terrible, unrepresentative title, which only evokes watery anilingus.

Two films that I seem unable to separate in my memory are Stoker and The Paperboy, straddling both sides of American Gothic a little bit like Nicole Kidman straddling Zac Efron to see if that hoary old chestnut about pissing on a jellyfish sting is true. Stoker comes at things from the chilly, clinical razor-sharp outsider’s perspective of Park Chan-wook, whereas The Paperboy roots around in the dirt in all its sweaty, lustful, grimy squalor. (And I heartily recommend taking a look at Park’s process in staging the spider scene in Stoker via his storyboards here).

A look back at the year would be lacking somewhat without two squat yellow dildo-shaped things giggling uncontrollably over the word "bottom". Over to you, Despicable Me 2:

My highpoints in the head-cracking, explodo stakes included Nick Frost busting out the bar-stools at The World’s End, the President of the United States accidentally dropping a rocket-launcher in the middle of a car chase on the White House lawn in White House Down, and the sight of Mjölnir navigating the curves and corners of London searching for its master in Thor The Dark World.

Ron Howard’s Rush was a blast and is a fine companion piece to Asif Kapadia’s Senna. The real star of Rush is the sound design. Second billing goes to Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography. In third place, Daniel Brühl. And whoever decided not to have Russell Crowe cameo as Richard Burton (as rumoured) deserves an Executive Producer credit.

It was a fine year for the London Film Festival too. Keep a look out in 2014 for the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, in which Jodo recruits a crew of spiritual warriors (including Moebius, HR Giger and Chris Foss) to dream a film that reverberated through the future of science-fiction cinema for almost forty years and counting. And it never even got made. Heartening, beautiful, funny and even occasionally awe-inspiring.

Another LFF treat was Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, a gorgeous, gloriously opaque giallo (or should that be "jaune"?) that was enhanced by the fact that the house curtains accidentally closed five minutes before the end, resulting in the projection of the denouement directly onto the curtains, adding an additional layer of woozy unreality. My initial impression (and this is a film that requires far more than just one viewing): Berberian Studio Apartment.

Loath as I am to talk trash about stuff I didn't like, sometimes I've just got to be that guy. The Most Heinous Piece of Shit award goes to V/H/S, which I've already griped about enough for one lifetime. To revisit that particular tirade, click here.

Runner-Up: Frances Ha. I know a lot of people like this sort of thing, but I’ll never, ever get it. Because I just don’t see the appeal of wallowing in the grumbles and gripes of self-entitled middle-class white people. (You know, every time I hear the theme tune from Friends, I want to stick my fist through a TV screen.) Frances Ha is a Greta Gerwig film where, for a change, Greta Gerwig plays the least irritating character. This isn't an endorsement. I just don't get the whole Greta Gerwig thing at all. She just seems to be Zooey Deschanel 2.0.

I didn’t like Man of Steel much at all. A Superman film can be a lot of things, but I don't think "joyless" and "humourless" should be two of them. Smeared with a grim, bleached-out colour palette, and spectacle that indicates that the visual effects of 1978 are superior to those of 2013, it's jarring to watch a film that clearly cost a lot of money, yet makes an effort to look so grubby and cheap. That effect that looks like a camera pulling focus on CG objects that aren't there? I don't like it. The saddest thing about Man of Steel for me is that it seems embarrassed and apologetic about being a superhero movie. Embrace the hyper-reality & absurdity! Yet, having said all of that, there is one moment that I just can’t shake: Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) taking one last proud, wistful look back at his son Clark before disappearing into the eye of the storm. But I think that probably says more about me than about the film. Have at thee, Jungians!

And that’s a wrap.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Birthday of the Doctor

A foggy night in London, fifty years ago today. A policeman on his evening patrol passes by a building with a sign outside that reads: "I.M. Foreman, Scrap Merchant, 76 Totter's Lane". Inside, all manner of rubbish is strewn across the floor. And in the corner, there's a blue police telephone box. At least, it's something that looks like a police telephone box.

Let the Adventures in Space and Time commence! Today, the single most important piece of serial fiction in my life is fifty year's old. Happy Birthday, Doctor. You don't look a day over 906.

Splendid chaps. All of them.

"I Tolerate This Century, But I Don't Enjoy It"

"There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things which act against everything we believe in. They must be fought."

"Courage isn't just a matter of not being frightened, you know. It's being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway."

"Well, of course I'm being childish! There's no point being grown-up if you can't be childish sometimes."

"There's always something to look at if you open your eyes!"

"Rest is for the weary, sleep is for the dead. I feel like a hungry man eager for the feast!"

"There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, and the sea's asleep, and the rivers dream; people made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there's danger, somewhere there's injustice, and somewhere else the tea's getting cold. Come on, Ace. We've got work to do."

"I love humans. Always seeing patterns in things that aren't there."

"Nine hundred years of time and space, and I've never been slapped by someone's mother."

"I'm the Doctor. I'm a Time Lord. I'm from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. I'm 903 years old, and I'm the man who's gonna save your lives and all six billion people on the planet below. You got a problem with that?"

"Amy Pond, there's something you better understand about me 'cause it's important and one day your life may depend on it...I am definitely a mad man with a box."

"I've seen whole armies turn and run away. And he'd just swagger off, back to his TARDIS. And open the doors with a snap of his fingers. The Doctor. In the TARDIS. Next stop: Everywhere."

UPDATED: Because I really wanted to capture all thirteen:

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Autumn Wind

Another month passes, and October has seen me thrashing about deep in the word-weeds elsewhere, so the blog has lain fallow. To keep things ticking over, this is a "Proof of Life" post, replete with an image dump of the stuff I've yanked from the Internet in my rare idle moments for multifarious reasons, under the catch-all header "Research". Yes, this is a visual manifestation of the slurry inside my head:

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The September of My Year

In lieu of actual content, here is a pictorial representation of The Many Moods of AKA in September:

To tide you over until next time, here's a bit of Johnnie Taylor performing It's September on Soul Train:

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Dutch and Me

Elmore Leonard died on Tuesday. Stories and memorials have been appearing everywhere since. This one is mine.

It would’ve been 1988. Which would’ve made me sixteen years old at the time. I was on a family holiday in Florida and, as usual, no matter how many books I’d packed to cover the duration, I’d managed to get through them all long before the end of the holiday.

I found myself in the hotel lobby, prodding at a spinner rack of largely uninspiring paperbacks. But there was one book that stood out from the slabs of Tom Clancy and Jackie Collins. This was the cover:

So I bought it. I found a quiet corner, cracked open the cover, and this is what I found on the first page:

Chris Mankowski’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.

What happened, a guy by the name of Booker, a twenty-five-year-old super-dude twice-convicted felon, was in his Jacuzzi when the phone rang. He yelled for his bodyguard Juicy Mouth to take it. “Hey, Juicy?” His bodyguard, his driver and his houseman were around somewhere. “Will somebody get the phone?” The phone kept ringing. The phone must have rung fifteen times before Booker got out of the Jacuzzi, put on his green satin robe that matched the emerald pinned to his left earlobe and picked up the phone. Booker said, “Who’s this?” A woman’s voice said, “You sitting down?” The phone was on a table next to a green leather wingback chair. Booker loved green. He said, “Baby, is that you?” It sounded like his woman, Moselle. Her voice said, “Are you sitting down? You have to be sitting down for when I tell you something.” Booker said, “Baby, you sound different. What’s wrong?” He sat down in the green leather chair, frowning, working his butt around to get comfortable. The woman’s voice said, “Are you sitting down?” Booker said, “I am. I have sat the fuck down. Now you gonna talk to me, what?” Moselle’s voice said, “I’m suppose to tell you that when you get up, honey, what’s left of your ass is gonna go clear through the ceiling."

And that was it. I was in love. I tore through that sucker in a day.

Sometimes, you find a book or an author who re-wires the way you think about stories and language. Elmore Leonard was the one that did it for me. It read like the work of a man who enjoyed writing, and wanted you to enjoy reading it just as much.

Once I got back to London, I went on the hunt for his previous books. Fortunately for me, 1988 was also the year that Murder One opened on Charing Cross Road. I’d buy as many as I could afford whenever I went in there and began to scarf them down on the Tube journey home.

And when I’d exhausted his backlog of crime stories, I started in on the westerns. Then the short stories. I was a little bereft when I’d finally got through them all. But I knew that a new one was never very far away.

I continued picking up new volumes whenever they came out. Then, life got in the way and I’ve realised that the last Elmore Leonard book I read is Up in Honey’s Room, and that was back in 2009. The upside to that is I’ve still got some books to read. (Top of my To-Do List: get hold of copies of Road Dogs, Djibouti and Raylan). The downside...well, you know the downside.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Justice Is What I Seek - Avenging The Lone Ranger

The narrative trajectory of Gore Verbinski’s embattled The Lone Ranger goes a little something like this: Years of news about production shutdowns and budgetary concerns. Fast forward to a slew of largely terrible reviews in the US. “Underperforming” or “a bomb” at the box office, depending on the argot of your media outlet of choice. Hell, even Disney couldn't wait to throw clods of dirt on the still-warm corpse, burying it in the same grave as the wormy remains of it’s similarly-neglected sibling John Carter.

Well, I’m here to say: Forget all of that. None of it matters. The only thing that matters is the 149 minutes of film on the screen. And what I saw was exhilarating, smart, funny, strange, ambitious, beautiful, joyous, poetic and hugely satisfying. Don't believe the bad hype for a second. Instead, here are just some of the reasons why The Lone Ranger is much, much better than you've been (mis)led to believe:

The Lone Ranger is a timely, savage indictment of the lengths America will go to in the name of “progress” (without being portentous or heavy-handed about it). Laws are trifling inconveniences that can be neatly side-stepped with the right pay-off, the right threat or the right bullet. Genocide is an acceptable cost for the acquisition of more power, more money, more more more. The film is populated with lawmen, politicians, power-brokers and soldiers who fall into two camps: the tiny subset of honest ones that need to be eliminated and the larger group that can be bought and corrupted with the promise of riches. At last! A big bold blockbuster that’s actually about something! The Lone Ranger, which has understandably been described in some quarters as un-American, is one of the finest American films of the year. And yet I assure you, it isn't preachy or tub-thumping in the slightest. It’s a helluva lot of fun.

There’s a glorious seam of the strange and surreal threaded in and out of The Lone Ranger. Verbinski has hurled healthy servings of the inexplicable and the unusual in to his work before to varying degrees of success, from the hallucinations of Captain Jack Sparrow in Davy Jones’ Locker in the otherwise tedious and lumpen Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, to the skewed aura of discomfiting bleakness that hangs over the underrated The Weather Man and the sublime weirdness that permeates Rango. (I've struggled and failed to find a place for a Lone Rango pun in this blogpost. So I’ll just leave it here for safekeeping). 

The Lone Ranger is a film that contains a time-travelling sack of peanuts. Vampiric, carnivorous bunnies. Schrödinger's crow. If that isn't enough to pique your interest, then I’m at a loss to understand what the hell people want from a summer blockbuster these days. This isn't yet another bloated iteration of the same generic stories that you've already seen so many times before. On top of that, Verbinski has a puckish approach to chronology and narrative convention. Things sometimes happen without explanation. Well, not totally without explanation - Verbinski has enough of a mischievous sense of fun to hang a lantern on the intentional narrative inconsistencies and ellipses. 

And what of the man in the white hat himself? This year, even the red, white and blue Superman has blood on his hands, but here we get an American hero who agonises over and avoids brutality and death as much as humanly possible, spurning the wafer-thin compromises of the law and embracing his unshakeable sense of justice in order to meet his destiny. “If these men represent the law, I'd rather be an outlaw”. 

Right. Let’s tackle a common criticism of The Lone Ranger that even some of the film’s supporters level at it: that it’s too long. I hew to Roger Ebert’s maxim that “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” The Lone Ranger doesn't seem too long to me at all - it seems just as long as it needs to be. I can’t think of anything in there that I would consider padding. If anything, there are elements that could have used a little bit more room to breathe, like Helena Bonham Carter’s slightly underwritten role. I’d imagine this criticism largely stems from the fact that Verbinski shuns the quick-cutting, restless edits that renders so many contemporary action sequences incomprehensible. Thankfully, Verbinski is a director unafraid of a long take or a lingering camera. (I've come to the conclusion that, increasingly, the Michael Bay “fucking the frame” mode of How To Cut Action has become de rigeur to hide shonky digital effects work. But that’s a discussion for another time).

For a bit of context and comparison, these are the running times of my three favourite westerns:
Rio Bravo - 141 minutes
The Wild Bunch - 145 minutes
Once Upon a Time in the West - 175 minutes

Those comparisons are useful, actually, for The Lone Ranger aims to achieve a level of verisimilitude (and when I say “verisimilitude”, I don’t mean that the film strives to accurately recreate the Old West. I mean that it strives to evoke old Westerns.) Every beautifully composed shot of Monument Valley recalls John Ford. Every close-up of a leering, ravaged, sweaty face references Sergio Leone. The Lone Ranger deftly strikes just the right balance between the sun-dappled vistas and dusty prairies of Ford with the murkier moral landscape of Leone. And Leone is probably Verbinski’s most overt, deliberate touchstone here. Once Upon a Time in the West exerts the strongest influence on The Lone Ranger and, for me at least, this is A Very Good Thing Indeed. 

Think about other relatively recent attempts at a crowd-pleasing western. Shanghai Noon is fun, but lightweight. Wild Wild West is lightweight and really not very much fun at all. The Lone Ranger is not in the tradition of those films, which are essentially westerns for people who don’t like westerns. Crucially, the CGI in The Lone Ranger is at a minimum and, when there is a bit, it’s seamless and invisible, which is what all good CGI should be. It should be a minor enhancement, not a substitute. Real horses. Real trains. Stunts and chases and shoot-outs with weight and heft and consequences and honest, well-earned thrills. The Lone Ranger takes us through Death Valley without plunging us into the uncanny valley. Slap the William Tell Overture over the top of that and, goddamn, that’s a good time at the movies.

One last thing: If I've managed to persuade you to take a chance on The Lone Ranger, then make sure you stay in your seat for a truly lovely parting shot that unfolds slowly over the end credits.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

It Came From The Archives! - Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale

Almost exactly a decade ago, I submitted a 4,000 word treatise on Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale for publication in the Wallflower Press book 24 Frames - The Cinema of Japan and Korea. That book has now been out-of-print for some time. I occasionally stumble upon a stray copy in a bookshop, and a trawl around the internet indicates that copies of the book are now swapping hands for around double the cover price. As I've mentioned on the blog before, most of the book is available online thanks to Google Books (including another chapter written by me - an essay on Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill). But my piece on Battle Royale hasn't been readily available for a while. Until now... 
When Battle Royale was first unleashed theatrically outside it’s native Japan, film journalists in the west reached for the same handful of pop cultural touchstones as a kind of comparative critical shorthand to describe it: the reality TV show Survivor; two novellas written by Stephen King (under his pseudonym Richard Bachman), The Long Walk and The Running Man, the
latter adapted as a 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle directed by Paul Michael Glaser; and, cited as the most obvious antecedent and frequent comparison, William Golding’s novel The Lord of the Flies.

The fact that comparisons are so easy to reel off says something about the “high concept” of Battle Royale, based on Takami Koushun’s successful 1999 novel of the same name. The Hollywood “high concept” approach of pitching a story in less than thirty seconds, in a way that an audience can grasp without having to even think about it, was popularised by the powerhouse partnership of producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer in the 1980s. But “high concept” was an approach so simple (and, arguably, simplistic) that it was never destined to be restricted to the North American continent. The plot of Battle Royale can be pitched in a sentence: “A class of junior-high school students are taken to a deserted island to take part in a game where they must kill one another until only one survivor remains.”

Although this is a hook that can irresistibly reel in potential cinemagoers with ease, it doesn't even begin to encompass the myriad levels the film encapsulates and Fukasaku Kinji’s 2000 film is a far richer, deeper and more rewarding piece of work than its cultural predecessors listed above. In addition to being an exhilarating piece of action cinema in its own right, it takes in satire, allegory, social comment, love story and paranoid thriller, whilst acting as a cautionary tale, with small personal tales of tragedy and friendship buried amidst the gore and entrails.

The opening scenes of Battle Royale immediately introduce both the tone and the themes of the film. Following the brief image of raging waters slamming against rocks off the coast of an island, with a bombastic classical score thundering in the foreground, Fukasaku swiftly cuts to some expository text that informs the viewer that this story takes place in an alternate present. The text, music and imagery give the film the grand texture of much-loved epic series, like the Star Wars saga. The devoted and fanatical cult following that Battle Royale has gained over time since its release is not dissimilar to the adoration and devotion that has been dedicated to the worlds of George Lucas and J. R. R. Tolkien.

At the dawn of the millennium, Japanese society has suffered a severe economic collapse, leading to widespread youth apathy and 800,000 students boycotting school. Adult society sought to reassert their authority by passing the Millennium Education Reform Act, otherwise known as the BR Act. The brief introduction gives way to manic shots of news crews and army troops converging at the end of the previous year’s Battle Royale, before we see flash cuts of the game’s winner: the demonic smile on the cherubic face of a sweaty and blood-spattered little girl hugging an equally bedraggled toy doll. The image is both comic and horrific in equal measure, in much the same way as the action yet to come. 

Next up is a school photograph of Class B of Zentsuji Middle School. The first face the camera focuses upon, significantly, is that of the class teacher Kitano, played by writer, director, painter, actor, comedian and Japanese cinema icon, Kitano Takeshi. The Kitano character is the only major digression from Takami’s source material. In the novel, the character is a stranger to the students of Class B, a government employee called Sakamochi. He is a hateful authority figure with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. In Fukasaku’s adaptation, however, Kitano is their embittered and cynical former class teacher, with a fully realised back story: his relationship with his own daughter is rapidly deteriorating; he has suffered at the hands of the students, particularly Kuninobu Yoshitoki who once stabbed him in the buttocks; and he has a soft spot for Nakagawa Noriko, as evidenced by the way he sits chomping away on her home-made cookies, and later shields her with an umbrella in the midst of the game to protect her from the rain. By casting such a recognisable star in the crucial role of Kitano, the audience hangs on his every word at a time when the information is critical for the viewer, as he deftly handles the always tricky task of delivering exposition in a way that doesn’t feel stilted or artificial. It was also a smart move to give the character the name Kitano, bringing us closer to the iconic figure we recognise from numerous other roles.

By fleshing out the personality of the Kitano character, Fukasaku improves on Takami’s one-dimensional comic-book villain, and also extends the idea of father figures and the way they shape their children, either consciously or by omission. The next character introduced in Battle Royale is Nanahara Shuya (Fujiwara Tatsuya), who discovers the corpse of his father after he has committed suicide. Scrawled on toilet paper, he reads the words: “Go Shuya! You can make it Shuya!” These words will carry greater significance once the game is underway. The words of Shuya’s voiceover embody the underlying tension and fear between adults and children that runs throughout the film: “I didn’t have a clue what to do and no-one to show me either.” The students of Class B will have to deal with their own insecurities, egos and inexperience in the world of Battle Royale, because no-one, least of all an adult, is going to help them. The adults need the weakness and helplessness of children to give them the feeling (or the illusion) of control and superiority, whilst the disillusioned children crave the guidance and protection of adults.

At other moments in the film, we hear hacker whiz kid Mimura Shinji talk about his activist uncle who taught him how to make bombs and other explosives, tragic hero Kawada Shogo frequently attributes skills he has learned to his father’s experience, and there is Kitano, whose obsession with revenge on the children of Class B merely serves to perpetuate the idea of the failure of adults in their responsibilities, by neglecting his own daughter.

One of the many reasons that Battle Royale has become a film that can be revisited time and time again lies in the fact that it resonates in a variety of ways. At times, the film feels strikingly original and modern; whilst at other times it seems like a refinement, updating and natural progression of the themes and situations familiar throughout the history of Japanese (and international) film and popular culture, whilst simultaneously reflecting genuine concerns about issues afflicting modern society. With this in mind, it is easy to see the way in which Battle Royale acknowledges the past, crystallises the present and warns of the impending future. Consequently, it is no surprise that the original novel was the work of first-time author Takami Koushun, and the film was the sixtieth feature film of 70-year old veteran Fukasaku Kinji, bridging the gap between the preoccupations of Japanese history, and the genuine fears (and hopes) for the nation’s unwritten future.

Bearing in mind that Takami was a student who dropped out of Nihon University’s liberal arts correspondence course programme, before spending five years between 1991 and 1996 working as a writer for the prefectural news company Shikoku Shinbun, it is interesting that his novel had such a significant impact on Fukasaku, particularly the fact that it brought back memories from his early years.

Fukasaku was fifteen years old as the Second World War was drawing to a close. His class was drafted into the war effort, and they found themselves working in a munitions factory. The carnage of the war was still something abstract, something that the teenagers were only aware of from a distance, due to the fact that they were only exposed to Allied air raids that could be avoided. But that was about to change. In July 1945, the classmates were caught in a barrage of artillery fire. Just like the fictitious world Fukasaku would chronicle fifty-five years later, there was barely any chance of escape from violent and messy death. The survivors of the attack used the corpses of their friends as cover, and, after the violence had passed, Fukasaku and his surviving friends were given the task of disposing of the body parts of their former classmates. The revelations Fukasaku’s impressionable mind was subjected to heavily influenced both his worldview and the films he would make during the course of his career. Virtually overnight, Fukasaku developed a deep-rooted hostility and distrust towards adults and authority figures, and the lies they tell their children to control and mould them, as well as a tender sentimentality towards his friends.

This sentimentality comes through frequently throughout Battle Royale. If the film was little more than a series of gruesome and inventive set pieces, it would function as acceptable entertainment and mindless spectacle, but the clearly exhibited feelings of the characters gives the film another dimension. With the exception of the ruthlessly psychotic Kiriyama Kazuo, the pain, confusion and disappointment the students feel is evident throughout. Even the scythe-wielding Souma Mitsuko, who attacks the game with relish, has moments when she comes across as more than just a heartless killer. As we hear in voiceover more than once “I didn’t want to be a loser anymore.”

Battle Royale is a savage indictment of a failed competitive education system, a nation’s disaffected youth, and a proud martial civilisation coughing up blood, punishing the next generation for its own failings. The children of Class B are initially presented as unreachable rebels. They write the words “Taking the day off ‘cause we want to” on the blackboard, and early casualty Nobu spitefully attacks Kitano for no apparent reason. However, we soon see the classmates on the coach that is transporting them to their destiny, laughing, playing and flirting, just like any other group of teenagers the world over. As the game progresses, we see normal teenage behaviour, albeit magnified by the abnormal circumstances. Students harbour secret crushes or petty grudges on classmates, and, in the case of Sugimura Hiroki, he constantly puts himself in peril to fulfill a naïve romantic whim, to find the girl he has a crush on, just so he can tell her how he feels. It costs him his life, as she riddles his body with bullets in a moment of blind panic.

As the coach journey continues, the brightly lit Japanese landscape quickly disappears as the coach enters a dark tunnel, lit only by grimy strip lighting. Playtime is over, and the game is underway.

The game becomes a heightened microcosm of the behavioural traits of children in inhuman circumstances. Their humanity and emotions are raw and exposed. By turns, we feel their anger, fear, paranoia, regret, denial, panic, terror, helplessness and, occasionally, their malice. Tellingly, by removing the normal restrictions of civilised society, these emotions bubble to the surface rapidly. Battle Royale exposes not only the depths of genuine friendship (the unlikely alliance between Shuya, Noriko, and former winner of BR, Shogo), but also the limits of friendship when tested. Class representative Utsumi Yukie attempts to impose structure on the situation by hiding out in a lighthouse with a handful of girls. It starts like a perverse pyjama party, with guard shifts and cooking rosters, giggling and playfulness, but the smallest signs of jealousy and paranoia easily shatter the fragile tranquillity. Add lethal weapons to the cocktail of high emotions, and that’s all it takes to ensure that they all die horribly.

Battle Royale is far less stylised than a great deal of the rest of Fukasaku’s oeuvre. Arguably, the story is strong enough to stand on its own considerable merits, without the need for viewer distraction as a result of directorial grandstanding. Fukasaku, however, attributed the detailed, controlled and largely static style of Battle Royale as a necessity borne out of his young cast’s inexperience, and his frustration with their manzai (interaction). Nevertheless, it is the naturalism and slight awkwardness of the children that lends the film much of its authenticity, and the performances are uniformly strong and generally convincing.

In particular, Fujiwara Tatsuya in the role of Nanahara Shuya has to carry most of the film’s emotional weight, and he acquits himself well. There is a striking difference between Shuya’s innocence and Kawada Shogo’s experience. The man Shogo has become was forged in the crucible of his previous participation in Battle Royale. Shuya, however, is shaped by his feelings of responsibility for Noriko, and the lesson’s about life’s unfairness and its harsh realities as espoused by Shogo.

It is far too easy to fall into the trap of analysing the very real and important issues at the heart of Battle Royale, at the expense of acknowledging that Fukasaku’s film is also an exceptionally entertaining and often hilarious action movie, with moments like the severed head with a hand grenade stuffed into its shocked mouth flying through the air; Kitano’s dry announcements to the children (“It’s tough when friends die on you, but hang in there!”); and the sight of a student with an axe buried deep in the centre of his forehead assuring Shuya that he’s absolutely fine. Without the bursts of odd humour, Battle Royale could potentially be an unpleasant trudge to the finishing line. Battle Royale has a dynamic energy in it, borne from the fact that Fukasaku clearly believes deeply in the subject matter, and the importance of communicating truthfully with Japan’s youth.

The rules of the game (and the film) are simple, and seductively compelling. After a school class are picked randomly and taken to a secret and secluded location (in this particular instance, an island where all the inhabitants have been forcibly evacuated), the rules are explained in two complementary ways. There is the genuinely amusing training video, all dayglo colours, hyperactive MTV-generation host and flashy graphics, and, by contrast, Kitano’s actual demonstration of the reality of the game, resulting in the gruesome deaths of two students. The rules are: each student is fitted with a collar that will track their location, and can be automatically detonated if the wearer tries to remove it or escape from the island. The game will last for three days. If there is more than one person still alive at the end of three days, all the collars will detonate. Portions of the island will become “forbidden zones” at announced intervals. Any contestant remaining in one of the zones after the allotted time will have their collar detonated. Each contestant is provided with food, water, a map, a compass, a flashlight and a weapon, which as Fukasaku illustrates in one of the film’s many moments of gallows humour, can turn out to be anything from Shuya’s virtually useless kitchen pot lid, to the psychopathic Kiriyama’s lethal automatic rifle. As the game commences, a title card flashes up. “The Game Begins. Day One. 1.40am.”

There is a stark contrast between the training video, with the sterile and seemingly innocuous title ‘The right way to fight a Battle Royale, by the BR Act Committee’, and Kitano’s brutal proclamation that ‘Life is a game. So fight for your survival and find out if you’re worth it.’

In the tradition of countless stalk-and-slash horror movies, such as Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), Battle Royale works on the most basic level as a film where the viewer remains genuinely curious to see the creative ways the students will viciously dispose of their classmates, and to find out who will be the last man standing. And as a satire of the public’s terrifying blood lust and appetite for the humiliation and suffering of complete strangers, as well as the way both the media and the government blur the lines between entertainment and propaganda, in order to keep the masses docile and distracted, the film is reminiscent of Norman Jewison’s Rollerball (1975). Battle Royale shows the way in which the public are complicit in the suffering of these children. Violence as entertainment is condemned, as we watch entertaining violence. As viewers of Fukasaku’s film, we are complicit too. Just like in the novel, Fukasaku regularly puts the current score on the screen, so we can keep track of who is dead, and who is still out there fighting for survival. Battle Royale gives new meaning to the phrase “extreme sports”.

There are other ways that Battle Royale signifies the way the past, present and future dovetail. Towards the turn of the century, a handful of notable filmmakers from the 1950s and 1960s caught their second wind in their twilight years, and returned to prominence after decades of relative anonymity: Suzuki Seijun with Pistol Opera in 2001, Imamura Shohei with 1997’s Palme D’Or winner Unagi (The Eel) and 2001’s Akai hashi no shitano nurui mizu (Warm Water under a Red Bridge), and Oshima Nagisa’s Gohatto in 1998.

Fukasaku’s career was interesting, erratic, wildly successful and spanned five decades, from the ground-breaking auteur of the Jingi naki tatakai (Battles Without Honour and Humanity) series in the early 1970s, to the big-budget sci-fi helmer of 1978’s Uchu kara no messeji (Message from
Space) and 1980’s Fukkatsu no hi (Virus), to jobbing director-for-hire during the 1980s and 1990s. In hindsight, Fukasaku’s career almost looks like a rehearsal for Battle Royale, a distillation of his commercial savvy, his love of youthful and violent storytelling, and a virtually autobiographical representation of his experiences living in post-war Japan.

The political furore that erupted in Japan before the film had even been released ironically echoed many of the ideas bouncing around in Fukasaku’s film. For a country that has a reputation for tolerance with regards to explicit violence and sexual content in the media, and a government that didn’t usually interfere in such matters, the vehement “Ban this Sick Film” lunacy was striking because it was so atypical. Education Minister Machimura Nobutaka tried to convince cinemas not to screen the film. Opposition politician Ishii Koki railed against Battle Royale in a House of Representatives committee meeting the day after its theatrical release, despite the fact that he hadn’t seen the film. He even went so far as to strongly advocate the introduction of new legislation to increase regional and national censorship laws.

The politicians paraded the stock excuses for censorship. There were claims that the film could incite copycat incidents. In 2000, there had been a number of stories in the Japanese press about youth violence: an adolescent had hijacked a bus and killed a passenger; one boy beat his mother to death; another detonated a home-made bomb in a video store; and a 17-year old stabbed and killed three neighbours. There were a lot of terrified adults, both inside and outside of the government, whose feelings were uncomfortably close to the paranoia of the adults trying to control their rebellious youngsters in the film unspooling across cinema screens all over the nation.

Of course, all publicity is good publicity. Despite a few moments where the government looked uncomfortably close to preventing the release of Battle Royale, Fukasaku’s impressive fable was released in Japan on 16 December 2000, and was hugely successful. Youngsters camped outside cinemas overnight to get tickets. Fukasaku’s target audience were turning up in droves, at least the ones who were permitted admission. Unfortunately, Japan’s self-regulating censorship board and ethics committee, Eirin, chose to rate the film R-15, meaning that no one under the age of fifteen could be admitted. 

Other countries weren’t so fortunate. The American public were still reeling from the massacre at Columbine High School that took place in Littleton, Colorado on 20 April 1999, which left 13 dead and 25 injured. In the real world, children were dying at the hands of other children, and the film was never widely available in the US. The advent of multi-region DVD players, however, ensured that the curious cineaste could effortlessly secure a copy of the film.

In the UK, Battle Royale was released theatrically just three days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. In a week where carnage and bloodshed on such a huge scale was streaming 24 hours a day on news networks globally, here was a film that in many ways approved of retaliatory violence. The ways in which audiences responded to Battle Royale seemed to have a direct bearing on the prevailing mood of the general populace in any given corner of the world, in particular as the film raises questions about problems and solutions. The solutions in Battle Royale are massively disproportionate to the problems caused by juvenile delinquency.

The legacy and power of Battle Royale continued to attract new fans. In 2003, English translations of Takami’s novel and the manga adaptation by Takami and Taguchi Masayuki were successfully published in the US for the first time. Quentin Tarantino’s valentine to Japanese cinema Kill Bill paid homage to both Fukasaku and Battle Royale. Tarantino cast the striking Kuriyama Chiaki (the actress who played Chigusa Takako in Battle Royale) as Go Go Yubari, going so far as to clothe her in a school uniform.

Battle Royale II Requiem, the film Fukasaku was working on at the time of his death, illustrates the never-ending cycle of the relationship between parents and children. Although he was aware he was dying of cancer, he defiantly threw himself into pre-production with energy and passion. When Fukasaku died on 13 January 2003, the completion of the film, and the continuing development and evolution of the Battle Royale saga, became the responsibility of his son Kenta, who also scripted the first Battle Royale.

At the end of Battle Royale, Fukasaku appears to directly address his young audience, with words that form the true core of the story: “No matter how far, run for all you are worth…RUN!” The words are neither a warning nor a call-to-arms, but rather a positive rallying cry to help guide his nation’s youth. Although the film is filled with a plaintive yearning and sadness, the ending shows that, faced with seemingly unbeatable obstacles, faith in the future can survive. Even at the grand old age of 70, after a lifetime witnessing anguish and despair, and a movie full of death and destruction, Fukasaku ends on a genuinely hopeful note, with a remarkably powerful, important and strangely optimistic film.
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This article on Battle Royale by Anthony Antoniou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Schmucks with Underwoods

“The freelance writer is a man who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps.” 
Robert Benchley

Robert Benchley was wrong, or course. Because a freelance writer is a man or woman who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps. But you get the gist...

It would be fair to say that, in 2013, it is easier than ever to get the fruits of your creative endeavours out into the world. (And I won’t complicate things too much by pointing out that the corollary to this is that it is now easier than ever to be plagiarised. J'accuse, Leanne Spiderbaby! But I digress...)

The flipside to this is that it is harder than ever to get paid for it.

Anyone who ever does anything in a creative capacity can cite examples of this. Here’s a particularly thorough article on this topic by Andrew Collins that’s worth a read, especially for the comments at the bottom which proves that this problem stretches to pretty much any field that involves specialist knowledge or ability.
One of the rotting carrots that often gets dangled in front of the face of the humble freelancer is the familiar refrain that “We can’t pay you, but you’ll get exposure”. Let me shovel that silver-lining-horseshit out of the way for you, then. You want to see some reasonably scary stats about how long it takes the average reader to abandon the article you spent ages slaving over? Then read this piece at Slate called You Won’t Finish This Article by Farhad Manjoo. Sobering stuff.

This is a problem that hits even respected, award-winning veterans. Listen to this righteous rant from the great Harlan Ellison, if only to hear him shout "I don't take a piss without getting paid for it!". Preach on, Harlan!

If you got this far, then you probably did better than most people who landed on this blog post. The reward for your attentiveness is a picture of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Enjoy - you've earned it.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

James Gandolfini 1961 - 2013

“I had a dream last night. My belly-button was a Phillips-head screw, and I’m workin’ unscrewin’ it, and when I get it unscrewed, my penis falls off. 

You know, I pick it up. And I’m holdin’ it and I’m runnin’ around lookin’ for the guy who used to work on my Lincoln, when I drove Lincolns, so he can put it back on. And, I’m holdin’ it up, and this bird swoops down and grabs it in its beak and flies off with it." Tony Soprano
"Now the first time you kill somebody, that's the hardest. I don't give a shit if you're fuckin' Wyatt Earp or Jack the Ripper. Remember that guy in Texas? The guy up in that fuckin' tower that killed all them people? I'll bet you green money that first little black dot he took a bead on, that was the bitch of the bunch. First one is tough, no fuckin' foolin'. The second one... the second one ain't no fuckin' Mardis Gras either, but it's better than the first one 'cause you still feel the same thing, y'know... except it's more diluted, y'know it's... it's better. I threw up on the first one, you believe that? Then the third one... the third one is easy, you level right off. It's no problem. Now... shit... now I do it just to watch their fuckin' expression change." - Virgil (True Romance)
Those goddamned ducks...