Rave reviews: ZATOICHI
Riding the crimson wave of reappraisal of Japanese genre or so-called “trash” cinema comes the wildly idiosynchratic Zatoichi: part post-modern parody of “chumbara” films or sword operas, part affectionate homage to a folk hero and veritable institution in over 20 films from the early 60s to 70s, and all “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, TV quiz master, cinema renaissance man and a Japanese institution in himself.
Kitano assumes his Japanese audience already knows the character and Western pundits don’t really care for the cultural nuances, so we’re plunged straight into the story of Masseur Ichi, a completely blind masterless samurai (or Ronin) wandering the countryside posing as an inoffensive, daffy gent giving out free massages for shelter and the odd game of dice, which he consistently wins thanks to his hyper-sensitive, almost supernatural abilities. Ichi, as reinvented by Kitano with a shock of bleached hair and almost blazing sightless orbs behind his perpetual squint, soon recognizes the smell of a new Ronin in town, a reluctantly amoral killing machine who hitches his wagon to the highest bidder, who just happens to be an extortionist and first-rate shitheel. Hot on the Ronin’s heels is a brother and sister tagteam out to honour their parents’ murder - and just when you think you’ve seen the standard revenge “Yew keeled mah daddy” scenario a million times before, out of left field comes a musical number. Bizarre, to say the least.
As usual, ‘Beat’ Takeshi wears the many wicker hats of director, writer, editor and star, and it’s a curious affair. Without the brutal frenzy of his earlier yakuza fables (Violent Cop, Brother) or the “lyrical” beauty of Sonatine and Hana Bi, it’s Kitano’s trademark kookiness that carries the movie - almost Carry On Follow That Samurai - over its many flat patches, which for a samurai film should be the kiss of death. Thankfully, Zatoichi’s delirious mix of deadpan, absurd and whimsical humour provide the welcome breathing spaces and cheap yuks between bloodbaths.
As for the violence - Kitano wisely avoids the “geysers of blood” approach from Lone Wolf & Cub that Tarantino took to ludicrous lengths in Kill Bill Vol 1, and the tight editing during the swordplay (as with the musical numbers) is when the movie really comes alive. Maybe “alive” isn’t the right word - call me a purist or a jaded sadist, but the flurries of CGI blood and digital severed limbs have a cold, reptilian feel that don’t match the steaming shower effect of 70s samurai films. I like my blood warm, wet and REAL.
The bloodless parts of Zatoichi are from the same beast. Like its bleach blonde protagonist, the film shuffles its wooden clogs amiably along to the (admittedly mindblowing) finale; there are few dramatic peaks and troughs along the way, and it’s almost like Kitano, assured of a home audience and healthy international sales, got a little fat and lazy on this one. But this isn’t art, people, it’s meant to be fun, and if you buy into Kitano’s goofy, cheeseball rehash of what some consider sacred, you’ll enjoy the ride.
Rave reviews: THE GRUDGE
Ten minutes into The Grudge I started to think about another recent movie, which is always cause for alarm bells. Though hardly a memorable movie, The Butterfly Effect ends with Ashton Kutcher beaming himself into his mother’s womb and strangling himself with his umbilical cord, in the belief he should never have existed. Oh boy. There’s a piss-easy metaphor for this pointless remake that should never have seen the light of day.
Sitting in the cinema on my left is The Grudge’s target audience: the Wide-Eyed Western Pig. A slack-jawed footsoldier for Hollywood’s war of cultural imperialism, he trades the arthouse for the megaplex as he prefers their fake butter flavour on his popcorn, views "Blockbuster" as a seal of quality, and wants a cute, familiar, WHITE face to focus on. Elsewhere the Horror Fetishist, a sad Pavlovian creature conditioned to lick its own dick whenever the name "Sam Raimi" appears onscreen, is busy doing a lap of honour during the opening credits. These people have money. These people vote. These bottom-feeders are the mindless consumers the Dream Factory keeps chained to cigarette machines and Gold Lotto slips. Buds: this Grudge is for YOU.
The original Ju-on: The Grudge, the story of a self-perpetuating curse centering on a family’s tragic murder-suicide, was an effective if empty and ultimately silly variant on the seemingly endless Ring cycle and was itself spawned from two TV movies. At this point producer Sam Raimi, no virgin to the concept of franchise, waved a huge sack o’cash under director Takashi Shimizu’s inscrutable gaze, not for him to reinterpret the movie, but to do a carbon copy of it. In Japan, with a Japanese crew. Virtually scene for scene, and in some cases shot for shot, on an almost-identical set, but with wide-eyed western stars Sarah Michelle Gellar and Bill Pullman. The message here? Money will make it better. Dance, monkey. Do a jig to the tune of two thousand megaplex cash registers all chiming at once. Jump through the hoops just a little faster, ‘cos Buffy wants a new series.
If the original Grudge had anything unique, it was its innate "Japanese-ness". Not so here. There’s no sense of mounting horror in Shimizu’s tired retread which gives the game away in the first 10 minutes, leaving its shocks all the more absurd. To add insult, its episodic structure has been tampered with by a Hollywood scriptwriter who explains away the inexplicable. Surely producer Raimi, while counting down the paychecks till Evil Dead 4, must have realized the Japanese horror film is like a bonsai tree, in its own culture a thing of symmetry, beauty and perfection. Stick it in a tiled pot in the Mall outside Hoyts Regent and it becomes a fucking stupid looking tree.
This isn’t just a case of a remake, an updating or yet another pointless sequel. This is unmitigated arrogance - Hollywood saying "do it OUR way, and we can all make a chunk of change". Shimizu should have learnt the lessons of history. The original directors of two effective European chillers The Vanishing and Nightwatch were both sent packing to the States to "Americanize" their movies. Does anyone remember George Sluizer or Ole Bornedal? Did anyone give a rat’s ass about the remakes? It’s even more proof the Dream Factory has gone bankrupt for ideas, and Scrooge McDuck is at the helm, throwing cloth bags with dollar signs on them even further afield.
This is a war, make no mistake, and for the moment the Wide-Eyed Western Pig is winning. What next? Ang Lee’s remake of Crouching Tiger... with Casper Van Dien? Have mercy, and let this curse die right here.
Rave reviews: BAD SANTA
Bad Santa hits the big screen in time for the festy season, almost a year after its US release and its resulting furor that had American parents - admittedly not the shiniest baubles on the Christmas tree - moaning “What about the children?” Somehow the act of accidentally taking a child to see Bad Santa is akin to staking them on the lawn in front of NAMBLA headquarters with a “Help Yourself” sign pinned to the seat of their pants.
Kids have a blacker sense of humour than most parents I know. Hell, if I was nine years old again I’d piss sarsaparilla over this. And despite the non-stop barrage of profanity aimed squarely at children, I would recommend Bad Santa to families as the ultimate Christmas Revenge flick - divinely nasty retribution for each year’s Polar Express. Sure it’s a one-joke film but it’s a glorious, gleefully puerile and endlessly quotable one for us miscreants and sociopaths, a joyous trampling over sacred turf in steel-capped Santa boots.
A haggard and deadpan Billy Bob Thornton complete with concrete eyelids and sodden Texas drawl makes the most unlikely celluloid hero of the year as Willie, a drifter, thief and self-loathing pissant well and truly at the end of his rope. The film opens with Willie in a shabby Santa suit hurling his never-ending stream of whiskeys into an alleyway before pissing himself in his department store Santa chair. His Elf assistant Marcus (Tony Cox), a “vertically challenged African-American” who snaps around Billy Bob’s ankles like a lapdog who‘s been kicked once too often, boots Willie into gear and even before his pants are dry, Willie and Marcus are looting the store like a pair of wrong-headed saps from a Coen Brothers farce (who, incidentally, are Executive Producers). Cut to Florida and after six months of endless hangovers pissing away the proceeds, Willie’s destitute and desperate to don the soiled red suit one more time.
This Christmas, Willie and Marcus are under the constant gaze of the uptight passive monster mall manager (perfectly downplayed by the late John Ritter) and an unnerving store dick (Bernie Mac) with unmoving ping pong balls for eyes. Far from keeping a low profile, Willie’s increasing arc of self-destruction sends him hammered like a blind Tasman into a crowded line of kiddiewinks before punching the head off a plaster donkey.
Willie then hides out at the house of a nine-year old Santa groupie (Brett Kelly), a round, almost retarded cherub who looks like he was force-fed KFC till he fell of the top of a very large Christmas tree. Along with his demented grandmother (an uncredited Cloris Leachman) he remains blissfully unaware that Willie isn’t really Santa Claus, and that he’s stealing every scene from Billy Bob, who screams “Are you FUCKING with me, kid?” every chance he gets. Joining the happy home is Willie’s new girlfriend Sue (Gilmore Girl Lauren Graham), a Jewish Christmas fetishist who delivers the best line (“Fuck me, Santa!”) from Grandma’s hottub.
Like Zwigoff’s previous effort Ghost World, Bad Santa is a razor-sharp character study that’s akin to a heartwarming kick in the balls: bleak and sentimental, both smart AND stoopid, a subtle combination not everyone appreciates. And then, when you least expect it, BAM! A happy, almost redemptive ending that still smells of mushrooms and week-old cooking sherry, and amazingly you don’t feel cheap and violated. It’s that kind of genius that polarizes its audience into two camps - “this is shit” and “this is some seriously funny shit” - foaming at the mouth for each other’s blood. Usually I’d say comedy’s a matter of personal taste and everyone’s entitled to their own opinion. But this time the critics are WRONG. Anyone who can’t see the genuine wit in Bad Santa’s script obviously have their heads where the turkey stuffing goes.
Rave reviews: SAW
SAW: and Living, breathing, shitting proof that the only interesting horror films are emerging from the indie field (and by “interesting” I don’t necessarily mean “good”). Low-budget features like Cabin Fever, May, House Of 1000 Corpses all make mega-buck Alien vs Predator look like the chump’s picnic it is. SAW, an almost no-budget thriller propped up by the Hoyts marketing machine, racks up as this year’s Blair Witch Project, an effective exercise in hooplah and audience manipulation, and a by-the-book exercise in getting your ratty $1.2 million exploitation flick into megaplexville.
Lesson 1: The Gimmick. A hook to pin the film’s marketing on. In SAW’s case, two Young Turks from Melbourne with a horror script and a dream. It’s the same gore-soaked Cinderella story that made Undead’s Spierig brothers the darlings of the Australian press. Now it’s writer/director Leigh Whannell and James Wan’s turn, and they’ve tarted themselves up to the hilt. It’s an important lesson, this one: whore your film to the media. Hell, even flirt openly with Megan Spencer. You can feel cheap later.
Lesson 2: Make the most of your piecemeal budget. Keep it small and claustrophobic, with a bare minimum of sets and actors. Start off in a room with two guys chained to the wall and a dead body on the floor. Add a serial killer with a twisted sense of humour, quite literally a puppet master toying with his human marionettes, and pepper the script with enough bells and whistles and endless red herrings before pulling out the where-the-fuck-did-that-come-from finale. Does it hang together? Yes, if logic is a dead squirrel that can be dropkicked for a field goal.
Lesson 3: Get a name, any name. Danny Glover may not be a top shelf Hollywood celebrity, but he still carries enough brownie points from the Lethal Weapon films to make your low-budget schlock look A-grade. But for God’s sake give him something to do other than wave his arms about and wheeze like a pensioner. Don’t, however, let your unchecked ego tempt you to cast yourself as one of the main protagonists, as you fumble through an atrocious American accent while spouting the most inane would-be tough guy lines. Lee Whannell: get back behind the camera, you show pony.
Lesson 4: It’s a post-Matrix world, kids. Opt for a wildly inconsistent style. So what if your film looks and feels like a student short with Danny Glover grafted on the top? You’ve got ritilin-charged X-Box flunkies to dazzle with your camera gymnastics. Now spin the camera around the room at breakneck speed and turn up the goth metal on the soundtrack to 11. Assume you have a constant First Film hardon which hopefully will disappear on your second feature.
Lesson 5: You’re making exploitation film? Then for Christ’s sake deliver the goods! SAW certainly doesn’t skimp on the sadism - relentless and humourless carnage more at home in Japanese horror which I’m surprised Western audiences are prepared to stomach. Still, the violence is more offscreen than on, which accounts for the MA rating. Easier to market than R-rated pseudo-snuff, and just slightly more palatable too.
Lesson 6: Hitch your wagon to a proven winner. Hire the same PR idiots who claimed Cabin Fever was the next Evil Dead, since they both featured a hovel in the woods. There’s a serial killer preying on the weaknesses of its victims? Compare it to Seven; assume Joe Sixpack doesn’t remember more than a handful of films a year and needs a limited frame of reference. Repeat it enough and it becomes a mantra.
But really, SAW is the new Seven? Do your homework, kids, watch more movies and keep your bullshit detectors on high. SAW may be “interesting”, but it sure as squirrel shit doesn’t make it “good”.
Rave reviews: ALFIE
If Western culture is a serpent eating its own tail, it follows that it will eventually choke on its own feces.
Put simply: the original version of Alfie was a Snake Feast. The watery, transparent 2004 Alfie, another redundant remake from the Selected Works of Sir Michael Bleedin’ Caine, is Snake Shit.
One of the British box office hits of 1965, Alfie is a snapshot from a moment in history, a perfectly framed view of the Sexual Revolution from a working class perspective. It was both a highbrow sex farce and a populist kitchen sink drama with some wry observations about social class and convention thrown in, all held together by the magnetic presence of its star on the rise. Alfie’s like a timeless character from Thackary who spends more than half his screen time justifying his appallingly rakish behaviour to the audience; a vain, cocky yet insecure and neurotic lothario attempting to escape responsibility and pain through a series of doomed sexual misadventures. He emerges at the end of the film unrepentant and only a little wiser, turning to the camera with the immortal tagline “Wossit all abaht?”
It’s that timelessness the makers of Alfie ‘04 attempt to capitalize on in their grotesque carbon copy, updating its East End setting to lower Manhattan but with the female archetypes - or “birds” - left intact. There’s the doormat girlfriend, the frustrated wife, and Susan Sarandon updates Shelly Winters’ loud, vulgar 50-something man-eater as a slightly more classy 2004 model. A pointed comment on the eternal sexual condition? More like an industry that’s fat, indolent, and believes the general public have a long-term memory no longer than six months. One can only imagine its audience are cocktail-guzzling Manhattan matrons with a yen for all things British, like Bridget Jones or Sarah Ferguson, and Jude Law’s arse. True, there are more shots of Law as Alfie “on the job” as it were, but those are mighty big shoes he’s walking in. Jude Law comes across affable and worldly and tosses in the odd Caine-ism, but on final judgment is a pale streak of snake shit not worthy to fill Sir Michael’s Italian loafers.
Maybe that’s the problem. Caine’s Alfie is cold, calculating, and at times utterly repellent. One dubious conquest he refers to as “it” is set to work as his personal slave, and then cast off for showing too much affection. Alfie ‘04 attempts to sanitize him, sand off some of the uncomfortable un-PC angles. Alfie 65’s moment of truth arrives when the dumpy middle-aged wife of his hospital chum asks Alfie for a backyard abortion (Alfie only slept with her, mind you, to help his lunch go down). As he stares down at his miniature reflection, Caine’s face is a contorted mask of pure sorrow. Law’s moment of truth in Alfie ‘04 - no plot spoilers here - is so wide of the mark it’s an insult. Strip the character of his tics and grimaces and cutesey cockney patter, and ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Invisible Man.
Even more offensive is the use of 60s pop art icons to evoke the original’s aura of cool. A Chet Baker poster, Alfie’s scooter - in fact the entire coke-smeared, boots and fur coated, Nico-meets-Julie Christie coquetry of the Nikki character, played by Sienna Miller. The Clash once sang “No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones in 1977” and the same can be said about Alfie. That Golden Age of popular cinema in the Sixties could actually be about experimenting with style and breaking cultural taboos; not so in 2005, where surface passes for style, smarminess is a stand-in for genuine wit, where shit is champagne and sacred ground is something for film industry Burkes and Hares to plunder at will.
Rave reviews: ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13
THIS WEEK'S HOLLYWOOD REMAKE #1: Los Angeles, 1976. Indie film brat John Carpenter, fresh out of film school and with one film - his class project’s no-budget spoof of 2001 called Dark Star - under his belt, finishes a gritty actioner called Assault On Precinct 13. The story of an almost deserted police station under siege by an unseen LA gang, it was a minor hit on the drive-in circuit and garnered small praise from the few critics who cared, but it hardly set the film world on fire, unlike Carpenter’s follow-up smash Halloween (1978). On Precinct..., Carpenter was still learning how to exploit his almost non-existent budget by using lower-shelf actors, keeping the action to the one hellishly small location, and moving the film along at a tight pace with a combination of editing, intelligent camera work and switched-on genre savvy
No-one wants or needs to be hungry in Hollywood anymore, particularly if the week’s catering bill on the 2005 version of Assault On Precinct 13 is more than the entire cost of the original. It does translate into a certain kind of laziness on a filmmaker’s part - you have a stupidly large union crew, a studio and a marketing firm all doing your thinking for you. Which is why twenty years after watching Carpenter’s film I can still see every glorious moment, from the small girl gunned down in cold blood while buying an ice cream, to the relentless pounding synth score. A week after Assault 2005, I remember Larry Fishburne’s unmoving ping pong ball eyes and little else.
“Forgettable popcorn actioner” fits the top of the poster perfectly. It’s New Years Eve at Precinct 13, a station closing down with a skeleton staff to see in its final hours. On call is Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke), an ex-narc now deeply troubled and hopped up on Jack Daniels and Seconol after his partners were iced in the opening scene; Iris (The Sopranos’ Drea de Matteo), a nympho with a thing for criminal types, and Jasper (Brian Dennehy), a crusty old timer one scotch away from retirement. As in Carpenter’s Assault..., a bus with four heavy-duty criminals is rerouted to the Precinct. All boozy eyes are on gangster kingpin Bishop (Fishburne, still beefed-up from his time in the Matrix) who has narrowly survived an assassination attempt from an undercover cop and plans to blow the lid on the endemic corruption in the organized crime unit led by Marcus Duvall (a tired-looking Gabriel Byrne). Soon the phones are out, the power lines are down, and both crims and police find themselves heavily armed with a serious police arsenal and consumed with paranoia while waging war against a task force of Duvall’s corrupt cops sporting white balaclavas, bullet vests, infra-red bazookas and more high-tech gear than the Skywalker Ranch. This, we’re expected to believe as the helicopters buzz around the top of the police station shooting rockets into windows, is a clandestine operation to cover Duvall’s tracks. He may as well have taken out billboards on Hollywood Boulevard.
As with the recent Seventies genre reworking Dawn Of The Dead, Assault 2005 takes the barest plot essentials of John Carpenter’s original and, to quote the Seventies, “does it’s own thing, man”. The main question is - why bother? John Carpenter’s 1976 is a cult favourite among genre buffs, but is hardly branded in the public’s collective consciousness. Carpenter himself was busy reworking Howard Hawks’ classic western Rio Bravo into a tight, claustrophobic urban thriller for only $20,000. French wunderkind director and rap producer Jean-Francois Richet, a self-professed fan of John Carpenter’s work, seems less concerned with making an homage to either Hawks or JC - although the script is peppered with references to cowboys and injuns - and seems intent on squeezing in as much flash and firepower as the multi-million dollar budget can withstand. The result: some tense moments with handheld POV cameras, an unexpectedly high (and bloody) body count, a few neat plot twists, but essentially a B-grade urban actioner with a much inflated price tag. As for namechecking Carpenter, it’s pure conceit on the part of the filmmakers that doesn’t pay off.
To Monsieur Richet, I say bon voyage, and I wish you luck on your music career.
Rave reviews: RING 2
THIS WEEK'S HOLLYWOOD REMAKE #2: It’s impossible these days to talk about horror films without mentioning other horror films, particularly the recent rash of the obnoxiously-labeled “J-horror” films. Remake fever and sequelitis have condemned beautifully-crafted Japanese films The Grudge, the original Ring and the upcoming Dark Water, all of which have a serious pedigree that go back several decades, to the dreaded Hollywood revamp. Fifty years of films like masterpieces like Onibaba and Kwaidan - it’s not something you can tart up with a fresh coat of paint and the actors from Scooby-Doo.
Then again, even Japanese horror has its stinkers. Ring 2 (Japanese version), the second and weakest of a three-film franchise, was like a Nightmare On Elm St sequel - silly, noisy and ultimately pointless. Hollywood Ring screenwriter Ehren Kruger thankfully jettisoned Ringu 2’s rehash and mishmash and came up with some original ideas for the follow-up. Well, original for Hollywood. Hopefully attempts to turn The Ring’s ghost-child Samara into a Freddy Krueger for the SMS Generation will fall flat, and Tinseltown can move on from its J-centric obsession.
Naomi Watts returns as Rachel Keller, as does David Dorfman as her creepy son Aidan. Now in secluded Astoria, Oregon, the curse of the video tape has followed them - in Ring 2’s Scream-like opener a teen thrillseeker is found with the familiar open-jawed look of abject terror. Rachel destroys the tape, but it appears Samara wants Aidan (“I see dead fishes”) to be her host, and she’s looking for a new Mommy. Aidan’s soon freezing to the touch and has hand-shaped bruises on his back; even reindeer hate him. A sanitarium visit to Samara’s biological mother Evelyn (a show-stopping performance from Carrie herself, Sissy Spacek, still in her Loretta Lynn frightwig) convinces Rachel that Samara wants back into the dating game, and David is her return ticket.
Even with the original Japanese director Hideo Nakata at the helm - a ploy used by The Grudge with depressingly similar results - these American remakes simply don’t work. The Japanese versions are simultaneously silly and creepy; American ones are just plain silly. Japanese films have a tendency to downplay the drama to amplify their shocks, which American productions crudely attempt to ape. American actors thus appear to sleepwalk through their roles. The Grudge’s casting trump card was a soporific Sarah Michelle Gellar; in Ring 2 it’s The Guardian’s heavy-lidded Simon Baker. An interesting casting choice, pitting two former Aussie soap stars against each other; Watts is certainly a long way from Summer Bay. I for one look forward to Harold Bishop’s successful relocation to Hollywood.
Ring 2 has an interesting dynamic that Nakata has explored before in his film Dark Water, the child’s disconnection from its parent (Aidan calls his mother Rachel, and authorities believe Rachel is beating her child). A much creepier film would have been Naomi Watts trying to destroy her son in order to save him - without the supernatural element. Call me a sadistic fuck, but I think it would work. Dark Water also features an orphaned ghost looking for a living mother, and Samara’s staccato spider-walk up the well recalls The Grudge (itself an attempt to out-do Ringu, on which Nakata was technical advisor), as well as Linda Blair’s restored upside-down stroll in The Exorcist: Director’s Cut. All familiar elements which resonate with Nakata’s Japanese work, but with less than spectacular results. The film emerges from its slumber when Nakata goes to work hammer and tongs on two quite preposterous set-pieces. First, an entire herd of CGI reindeer hammer Rachel’s car into scrap metal. Its meaning? Reindeer are sacred in Japan, says Nakata. Maybe they don’t like working with child actors. Second is a bathtub sequence (the old J-horror standby) where the water forms a vortex around Aidan and floods the ceiling. It’s both a triumph for special effects, and a vain attempt to breathe life into a drowned beast.
The film emerges from its slumber when Nakata goes to work hammer and tongs on two quite preposterous set-pieces. First, an entire herd of CGI reindeer hammer Rachel’s car into scrap metal. Its meaning? Reindeer are sacred in Japan, says Nakata. Maybe they don’t like working with child actors. Second is a bathtub sequence (the old J-horror standby) where the water forms a vortex around Aidan and floods the ceiling. It’s both a triumph for special effects, and a vain attempt to breathe life into a drowned beast.
A final word to the Hollywood producers of the Oldboy remake: Judd Nelson in the title role. Think about it and give me a call.