Wednesday, 30 November 2016
Sunday, 27 November 2016
Innocence, Mamoru Oshii's follow-up to 1995's Ghost in the Shell, imagines a future full of cybernetically augmented people with various hard and wireless data ports woven into their bodies, allowing them instantaneous access to all-recorded information. Frustratingly, this cerebral elevation hasn't brought about a profound change in the behaviour of mankind. Old habits die hard. Criminals still have various, horrifying, skin trades cornered while stock job roles and interpersonal patterns hold sway in the lives of the lawful.
Basic conversation has evolved in step with this mind-expanding progress though, transformed from bland, interchangeable pleasantries into passive-aggressive jousts. Participants use knowingly obscure, philosophical musings to bully their quarry into compliant silence. There's a sense in Innocence, especially since we spend so little time in the company of civilians, that an entire class of people have sealed themselves inside plastic and metal fortresses that enable them to mainline statistics and broadcast ideology. Understanding only their reality, Innocence's denizens are lonely and isolated, forever puzzling out the exact connections that anchor them to their physical world.
Innocence's plot revolves around a politically sensitive investigation into a brand of sex doll who are malfunctioning then killing their affluent owners before tearing themselves apart. In deference to their status as coveted but ultimately shameful product, the toys themselves are diminutive and sad looking, their bodies designed with the same super-articulated care as expensive Japanese action figures. Interestingly, the automatons spark a sense of kinship rather than revulsion in lead detective Batou. After all, he is himself a piece of dense, dutiful machinery. For the finale Oshii cuts loose, trading static posturing for maximum movement. Kenji Kawai's wonderful The Ballade of Puppets: The Ghost Awaits in the World Beyond thunders along the soundtrack while a liquid lithe Batou dodges crumbling gantries and an army of high-kicking drones to breach and clear his way to a resolution.
Tuesday, 22 November 2016
The Baby Cart films consistently explore what it is to be an individual within a failing system. These films, like Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima's manga series, contextualise Ogami Itto's powerful, singular focus as a force that works in direct opposition to the lethal bureaucracy of the Shogunate regime and the cynical ambitions of this ruling class. Itto stands outside the norm, refusing to conform to any external behavioural code. He doesn't require the input of lesser minds. His identity is complete, his will unshakeable.
On the surface, Tomisaburo Wakayama's Itto is a mangy ronin who, by refusing to commit ritual suicide, has irreparably damaged his name and legacy. Further, Itto's decision to sell his lethal abilities to anyone who can afford them has placed him so far beyond the pale that he is widely considered a beast. These perspective presupposes that those that conform and thrive within Japan's rigid, feudal castes are on a higher moral plane than those that do not. Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades torpedoes this notion, exposing the officer class as a sham - broken clans turn to organised crime and sex trafficking to survive while low-class Samurai use their last remaining shred of status to rape with impunity.
Kenji Misumi's film imagines genuine merit as something valuable and perhaps even incomprehensible to those who do not possess it. It frightens them, threatening to expose their own shortcomings. People who truly understand the path Lone Wolf and Cub have chosen are also few and far between, so when someone appears who combines both these aspects the film bends over backwards to ensure we're clued in to their importance. At Baby Cart to Hades' conclusion Itto faces an entire army, making incredibly short work of them. They are conformers and therefore do not matter. Go Kato's Kanbei, another disgraced Samurai, is treated differently. Misumi pores over Kanbei's encounter with Itto because it is a cathartic experience for both men. Although they will never fight side-by-side they have each, finally, met another person who understands the burden of being exceptional.
Saturday, 19 November 2016
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx is not in the least bit interested in providing a conclusion, or really even any continuation, to the threats proposed by Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance. Archenemy Retsudo is nowhere to be seen, although his hand is felt in the endless waves of suicidal ninja pursuing the titular pair. Instead, the film is content to iterate on its predecessor, exploring emotional notes the previous entry ignored whilst also accentuating the bloodletting with fantastical characters who possess surreal skills.
This time Kenji Misumi begins by giving us a sense of what it's like to actually be Ogami Itto. We see that the immunity he projects masks a mind constantly scanning and analysing situations, searching for even a hint of danger. He has to. The father and son are constantly assailed and attacked, their endless, expert enemies bringing death by a thousand cuts rather than one, decisive blow. Misumi has fun with this idea of psychological siege, layering in creeping noise and foreboding music to make even mundane situations seem potentially threatening. Naturally, Itto sees right through the director's childish affectations, silencing the aural dread with a well-aimed glare.
A contract issued by a profoundly unsympathetic textiles clan takes Itto and his son Daigoro to a desolate, featureless desert to face the three bodyguards of a fleeing fabrics specialist. Of course, when Robert Houston and David Weisman chewed up this film and its predecessor to create Shogun Assassin they turbocharged the confrontation's pleasingly mundane stakes, promoting the absconding serf from a worried working man to the Shogun's brother. The finicky duo also saw fit to junk most of Baby Cart's deliberately spare sound design, subbing out skin-shearing winds for a Moog synthesiser score. Grunts and sound effects were also added to every little movement, just in case the audience could not discern that the people on-screen were moving. Houston and Weisman were terrified of silence and inactivity, Misumi revelled in them.
Thursday, 17 November 2016
Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance introduces us to Ogami Itto, a man with an unwavering conviction that he is correct. Wronged by a ninja clan looking to muscle in on his cushy position within a terrifying regime, Itto abandons the Samurai code to wander the land with his infant son as an assassin-for-hire. As with Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kajima's wonderful original manga, Sword of Vengeance takes a unique tact with its hero. Itto is portrayed in inhuman terms, demonstrating no flaws or failings. His sense of self is airtight, completely unpolluted by the thoughts and feelings of those around him. He doesn't have conversations with people, even those he loves, instead he makes statements and issues diktats.
This assuredness leaks out of Itto and into the film itself, most crucially in how director Kenji Misumi uses sound to signal shifts in temporal space. The film is structured as a series of instances that demonstrate a typical mission for the duo. Along the way, Itto's mind wanders and replays the events that set him down this path. When we share Itto's headspace, the character's certainty is expressed in how little diegetic sound registers on the film's audio mix. Although rain lashes down incessantly, Itto's memories are focused entirely on his words and those of his foes. Everything else is extraneous detail and is therefore deleted.
Celebrated magnificent stranger films like Yojimbo or A Fistful of Dollars at least flirt with the idea that their hero can be damaged. We get a taste of fatigue bleeding in around the edges before the wanderer vanquishes his enemies and wins the day. Sword of Vengeance is different in that there's never a second in which Itto seems truly vulnerable. Indeed, the mistake all of his adversaries keep making is their belief that this is even a possibility. Regardless of their station in life, Itto's opponents think using the patterns and models they've learnt from a society based on class and strict formal behaviour. These largely ceremonial traps fail because Itto has forsaken such petty limitations and decided to be a monster instead. As such, their words and deeds are completely useless against him.
Thursday, 10 November 2016
Tuesday, 8 November 2016
Tango & Cash has the germ of a great idea - it seeks to embrace the absurdities of 1980s action films and transform them into knowing, winking entertainment. Who better to captain that ship than Sylvester Stallone? The star was already synonymous with egotistical self-regard, spending the decade transforming his screen persona from that of credible actor into a rolling depiction of Christ's scouring. Couple that with the writer-actor-director's inability to find hits outside of his two proven franchises (not to mention Schwarzenegger's successful transition into comedy with Twins) and Tango & Cash's appeal becomes clear - Stallone wanted to lighten up.
Reading around the film's troubled production, the most singular creative perspective comes from hairdresser and noted arachnophile Jon Peters. The executive's unceasing quest to lampoon the decade's sweatiest genre saw the film burn through several directors, beginning with Andrei Konchalovsky (a frequent collaborator of Andrei Tarkovsky) and ending with Purple Rain's Albert Magnoli. Stallone himself is also alleged to have spent a significant amount of photography at the helm but, for a control freak like Stallone, that's about as remarkable as discovering night follows day. It is this interference and incessant compromise that ends up defining the finished film.
Tango & Cash pairs Stallone with Kurt Russell, the duo playing wrongfully imprisoned cops looking to clear their names. Stallone is the highly strung yuppie policing for kicks, while Russell takes a zen surf cop designed around Patrick Swayze and transforms him into something closer to a big, adorable dog racing around in stone washed jeans and a trick boot. Tango and Cash start off as bitter rivals, each trying to outdo the other. Success is measured by how many newspaper inches their crime-fighting exploits eat up. Both cops keep tabs on their rival's copy and chuckle / groan accordingly.
Following their arrest, the two don't so much become fast friends as a couple in the making. In Lethal Weapon and its sequels we watch as Mel Gibson's scruffy, suicidal stray is gradually folded into the order Danny Glover's household represents. The closeness of their relationship is organised in familial terms with Riggs ending up something between Murtaugh's wayward little brother and an adopted son. Fraternal bonds are key to these buddy cop films, indeed their stories tend to motor along in step with the character's blossoming relationship.
Alpha examples like 48 Hrs. start from a place of contempt, thriving on their lead's differences. The case and a mutual desire to pursue it being the only common denominator. Tango & Cash skews this formula by making its heroes so similar - they're both overachieving cops with only cosmetic differences. Stallone's wardrobe and Russell's unkempt hair aren't profound ideological differences, they're minor variations on the same basic mould. This underlining similarity, as well as the couple's mounting co-dependency, seems to suggest that the film might be heading somewhere truly different by having the pair develop a romantic relationship. Then the film recoils, course-correcting by crowbarring in Teri Hatcher as a stripper for the two to bicker over before they limp towards an unusually gadget heavy finale.
It's nearly Christmas! Which means there's a new Call of Duty out, getting everyone twitchy and infuriated in the run-up to the festive season. Not that anyone's actually playing Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. If you like sprinting around, looking for headshots you're spoilt for choice this year. Since sales have been trending way down ever since the Modern Warfare 2 / Black Ops heyday, EA have decided there's enough money being left on the table for them to muscle in and release their own first-person shooters.
Last year we had Star Wars Battlefront, this year EA have attempted to do some real damage by getting Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2 out before the new Call of Duty could even land. Both games are excellent, particularly Titanfall, but it's difficult for any new release to compete with the kind of mind share offered up by the special bonus game included with Infinity Warfare's special Legacy Edition. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered is a tonic, instantly snapping you back to a simpler, more rewarding time when Activision's military shooter series was actually trying to facilitate strategic combat rather than a meat grinder with embedded scratch card prompts.
Tuesday, 1 November 2016
The closer they are to their 1960s source material, the more the Marvel Studios films remind me of the works of Roy Lichtenstein - they both make untold millions out of blandly reconfiguring raw, imaginative, material. Like the pop artist, the films laser in on specific, arresting compositional ideas, then blows them up in a way designed to make them more obviously expensive and therefore easily digestible. The company's latest, Doctor Strange, as well as exploding Christopher Nolan's kneaded cities, builds its finale around the strange, alien landscapes seen in Steve Ditko's original artwork.
When Lichtenstein reconfigured Irv Novick's All-American Men of War artwork to create Whaam! he did so by separating the panel from the wider context of the comic. Lichtenstein normalised the spikey, exciting panel into a more conventional diptych clearly depicting an aggressor and its target. Where Novick chose to illustrate an expressive instance of action that had meaning within a sequence of events, Lichtenstein constructed an enclosed sequence featuring two isolated, instantly recognisable actors.
Scott Derrickson's film does something similar with Ditko's work, gouging the bizarre, psychedelic environments out of the artist's panels then blowing them up into a computer generated arena worthy of blockbusting conflict. You might have to suffer through some tick-box myth-making before you get there but Doctor Strange does eventually arrive at dark dimensions filled with pulsing, iridescent synapses hung in vast, gravity defying neurotransmitter webs. Perhaps aware that even that might not be enough to keep everyone engaged, Derrickson and C Robert Cargill's screenplay also dreams up a pleasingly simple solution to intergalactic warfare with a being that exists beyond time and space.