Monday, 29 July 2019
Xu Haofeng's The Final Master plays around with the assumption that onscreen martial arts experts are austere, unfeeling machinery. The writer-director (most famous in the west for co-writing Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster) presents his characters not as surging, unconquerable heroes but as sweaty human beings who have to fit in or around the bizarre sociopolitical etiquette of an untouchable, self-appointed ruling class. Liao Fan's Master Chen Shi is not presented as an avatar for justice or decency then, he's simply a man. The last member of a waning dynasty who wishes to settle in the combat school mecca Tianjin and make a living passing on his teachings.
Unfortunately this is not a simple process, in order to be allowed to open a school by the other, established educators Chen must jump through specific, florid hoops while simultaneously maintaining an outward appearance of spontaneity. A less complicated film might have the stern, lightning-quick Chen rock up and dole out lessons to his corrupt peers. The Final Masters though is happy to submerge its unbeatable hero in these machinations. Chen plots and corrects; using other people's lives and dreams as stepping-stones to further his own ends. This callousness is refreshing and, frankly, tallies with the kind of focused, ego-maniacal edge required to power through decades of punishing repetition and revision.
Chen has devoted his all to developing a self-defence style that transforms its practitioner into a flurry of attacking, angular arms. Of course his perspective is skewed. He's seeing his impact as a lineage that will live for centuries, not as the discourtesy of an indifferent day-to-day. Chen's route to his dream is circuitous and illogical, forcing him to slum it in a battered house, take on a wife he is happy to dispose of later, and train a student for, essentially, the slaughter. The strength of his style, in terms of an actionable, analytical result, is immaterial against the serpentine route he has taken to please his contemporaries - class and decorum are just additional weapons for the establishment dojos of Tianjin.
As plot devices they strengthen and complicate a structure of interaction that frustrates open conflict. That is why it's all the more satisfying that, eventually, The Final Master places Chen Shi at one end of an alleyway and a city's worth of heavily armed martial arts masters at the other. Chen, armed with two thick knives, battles through the crowd, asserting his dominance. The film's soundtrack collapses, until all we're left with are brief notes to confer intrigue (a welcome change from the farcical sitcom transition music heard elsewhere in the film) and the sounds of human exertion. Steel swishes and slashes, hammering the audience with the idea that all these weapons are lethally sharp, that just one mistake could be death. From Chen's perspective though this fight, or rather the violence he's directing towards it, is neither blood-thirsty nor desperate. His proficiency is such that he affects a relaxed, reactionary stance when meeting with the swings of his fellow experts. He adapts then overcomes, demonstrating both the flexibility and superiority of the movements he has drilled into his body.
Sunday, 28 July 2019
Thursday, 25 July 2019
Considering the totality of the film's post-apocalyptic framing, the stakes in writer-director David Webb Peoples' The Salute of the Jugger (released in the United States as The Blood of Heroes) are surprisingly small scale, even interpersonal. The plot centres around a group of wandering athletes who travel along dust bowl trade routes playing a sport called simply The Game. Since civilisation has been completely buried by bombs and an endless desert, these Juggers, as they are called, are the only distraction from a life spent sifting rubble or hacking away at irradiated crops.
The Game is played by two teams of armoured players, competing to take possession of a dressed-up dog skull. Rather than have the contenders spread out to meet in various configurations, each person must attack their opposite on the other team and defeat them before mixing in to help their cohorts. Although The Game is violent - one player's sole role is to walk around spinning an enormous chain flail above their head, hoping to catch someone's face or fingers - it is not sadistic. Ears may be bitten off during play but the athletes embrace and laugh when the competition ends. Personal preservation is not a driving force in this world, the future is not a concern, there is only now.
The Game has a religious aspect to it - Juggers seem genuinely honoured to bleed for the amusement of the shell-shocked masses. The audience is appreciative, offering up their meagre trinkets to catch a glimpse of play. These primitive societies reward these athletes too, feeding them up, getting them drunk then allowing the Juggers their pick from the village's fresh-faced groupies. Sex, as with all human interaction in this world, is not about love or shame. It's either purely transactional or a brief opportunity to experience unity with another person before feelings have to be filed away somewhere distant. In such a relentlessly bleak (not to mention mind-numbing) milieu, romance is much more abstract, born out of vaulting, personal action rather than tender interaction.
Rutger Hauer plays Sallow, an expert old hand forced to slum it in the wasteland. There is, we find out, a more centralised, professional strain of The Game but Sallow has been banished from it. His transgression as much about distinct, immutable class divides as it was specifically about having an affair with some bloated, self-appointed lord's wife. Joan Chen's Kidda is the young prospect, the acrobatic seeker who directly pursues the prize animal bones while her teammates knock lumps out of the competition. Peoples and cinematographer David Eggby use their actor's faces to chart their progress within a sport that seems only to take - Sallow loses an eye while Kidda begins the film chiselled and youthful, ending it covered in scar material accented with the swell of blunt trauma.
If the detailing hadn't already made it clear, The Salute of the Jugger is not an aspirational future-sport movie. Victory here is bittersweet rather than all-encompassing. Sallow and his team aren't putting their bodies on the line for an assured, affluent future for themselves, they're doing it on the off-chance that just one of their number might make it into a higher, more protected strata of their game. This idea is either subtext or explicit text depending on which version of the film you are viewing. The American release trails off after Sallow and Kidda grind out a winning play. We leave the team deep in the bowels of the subterranean city that plays host to the premier league of The Game. Chen is photographed within a throng of money men poring over their new star player. Hauer is kept at a distance. He makes eye-contact, smiling with his protege, but from a distinct, pointedly separate space. A baggier international release goes a little further, underlining this point. We see Sallow back in the desert, talking up a different young player, perhaps hoping to strike yet another blow against the shitheads who rejected him.
Sunday, 21 July 2019
Saturday, 20 July 2019
A pair of teases for Genndy Tartakovsky's latest wheeze - a television series for Adult Swim entitled Primal. The plot synopsis floating around makes the show sound like a Devil Dinosaur-ish tale, focusing on the friendship between a primitive brute and a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Friday, 19 July 2019
There's a shot in this featurette for Terminator: Dark Fate that appears to be Gabriel Luna's carbon fibre cyborg dressed as an ICE officer, pirouetting through his fellow, border patrolling goons. Behind them, dishevelled people hurry out and away from chain-link holding pens. In terms of thematic consistency, this is exactly the sort of the-future-is-now moment I expect from a series that, in its best episodes, talked about mankind's propensity for self-immolation.
Wednesday, 17 July 2019
Although it would be absurd to claim Gamera vs Barugon as some sort of unfairly maligned masterpiece, director Shigeo Tanaka's film does contain individual ideas and moments that range from conceptually sound all the way up to genuinely beautiful. Gamera's second big screen outing largely dispense with the rocket-powered turtle to mooch around with a gang of lawbreakers chasing a magnificent opal that is, in fact, a monster egg. Koji Fujiyama's Onodera is the most thrilling element in this human strata, a greedy, cowardly thug who is allowed a tremendous lack of repercussion for his murderous actions, enabling him to hurry the plot forward whenever the boring do-gooders hit a brick wall.
Onodera's most incredible moment arrives deep in the third-act, the burly wrongdoer staging a diamond heist in the middle of a calamitous, barely-holding-together military operation. With the Japanese Self-Defence Force distracted dangling glimmering trinkets in front of lead pest Barugon, Onodera blasts in out of the darkness, interrupting the attempt to lure the materialistic monster to his doom. Fujiyama's thief crashes his speedboat directly into the command vessel, jumps aboard then outguns the soldiers guarding the dazzling diamond being used as bait.
Onodera's unapologetic villainy is such that he feels precisely zero shame about inflicting Barugon on the world. He just wants to get paid, even if that means stealing the solution to the problem he has directly caused. Human greed and an indifference to ecological balance is a frequent driving force in Kaiju films but it's fun seeing these ideas expressed specifically in terms of street level criminality and passionate (but illogical) self-interest. The Gamera series is so committed to making human ingenuity a plausible solution to monster landings that it seems equally important, not to mention exciting, to pursue the ways in which the individual can scupper an otherwise unified defence.
Which brings us to the monsters themselves. While both Barugon and the barely featured Gamera conduct themselves with a stiffness normally associated with poorly pressed pocket money toys, Gamera vs Barugon does have an ace up its sleeve - special effects director Noriaki Yuasa. Daiei Film may not have the same kind of money, or international appeal, as Toho's output but Yuasa is able to iterate and innovate on the established language of monster confrontation. The special effects director's approach is distinct from that of Godzilla powerhouses Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya in that Yuasa is less interested in terrifying cataclysm, preferring to luxuriate in the company of these Kaiju and their surreal, seismic relationship with our world.
Perhaps lacking the confidence that Gamera and Barugon's Imperial stamped outfits will stand up to close scrutiny, Yuasa hides the creatures in nighttime sorties, lit by tracer rounds and blanketed by luminous but sooted smoke. The background and foreground are stacked with shattered detailing, stressing both the danger of proximity and the sheer scale of these beasts. This smouldering approach to monster mise en scene is absolutely rooted in Tsuburaya's work on the original Godzilla but Yuasa pushes the smoked-up technique further, accounting for clashing, blood-thirsty characteristics in these less otherworldly creatures. Tsuburaya's Kaiju tower over their surroundings, Yuasa's are caged by them, stuck thrashing against humanity's structures. This is wonderful, influential, work. Yuasa's gloriously gritty approach to special effects staging clearly discernible in Teruyoshi Nakano and Eiichi Asada's later, exemplary runs with the Godzilla franchise.
Thanks, in part, to the Brave Wave Productions music label, the Streets of Rage 4 development team have been able to assemble an absolute dream team of Japanese video game music composers. New bop tracks from Bare Knuckle stalwarts Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima would be more than enough, but those two masters are also joined by Yoko Shimomura (Final Fight and Street Fighter II), Keiji Yamagishi (Tecmo Bowl and NES Ninja Gaiden), and Hideki Naganuma (Dreamcast Sega Rally 2 and the incomparable Jet Set Radio).
Thursday, 11 July 2019
At the time of Spider-Man's cinema release there was a sense that this was a lesser Sam Raimi film, that the director of The Evil Dead was holding back on the camera tricks and stylistic flourishes he'd made his name with so as not to overload Sony's super-marketable super-story. While this franchise launcher may not be as bombastic as Raimi's earlier work, it's still breathlessly energetic and no less excited about pummelling its lead character. In Tobey Maguire, Raimi has found an actor capable of communicating an earnestness that, while it doesn't track into the all-conquering power fantasy at the centre of similar tales, is capable of providing their hero with a basic, indefatigable, working class decency.
Financial stability is something that Maguire's Peter Parker has to reach for - the teenager's elderly Aunt and Uncle are struggling to keep a roof over their family's head. Cliff Robertson's Uncle Ben is out of work and finding it hard to adjust, meaning Peter's difficulties are often expressed in economic terms. The Parkers are not dirt poor, but their future isn't certain. They have to be careful. This frugality has a knock-on effect for Peter, meaning he stands out at school - chided and despised for not fitting in with the frosted tip bullies who stamp around in their cavernous polo shirts. Parker hasn't got a car to impress the girls either. He's trapped in his bedroom, scheming ways to equalise his situation; dreaming of, essentially, growing up. Bitten by a genetically spliced spider on a school trip, Parker comes home and strips, revealing a pale, weedy body before blanking out.
The transformation in Raimi's Spider-Man is pointedly biological, a turbo-charged puberty. Overnight Parker's body becomes tanned and lean, his eyesight improves and he's more able to stand up straight. Parker is momentarily allowed to feel good about himself. This aspirational reconfiguration isn't perfect though, at first it's just an enormous pustule on his hand where the spider clamped down, eventually its spinnerets in his wrist that look like crisscrossing scar tissue. Later Spider-Man film adaptations honour Steve Ditko and Stan Lee's source material, making the character's web-slingers a mechanical device dreamt up by Parker between classes. Here they're orifices that have grown out his flesh, a note from an earlier, unrealised James Cameron project that not only explains away a teenager producing still-futuristic technology but underlines the secret metamorphosis Parker is experiencing.
The brilliant thing about this Spider-Man then is that this isn't a story that tends towards bitterness or dreary introspection, rather it's about a young man puzzling out what kind of person he wants to be and how that desire, rather than material wealth or influence, is what ends up winning over the woman he loves. The superpowers do help but, really, the biggest boon they offer is a stable physical and psychological framework for Parker's identity to grow into. Uncle Ben's great power speech isn't experienced as an abstract over decades of average Joe life, it's a mantra steering Spider-Man's sense of civic duty. This is the long-term price Parker pays, he cannot turn away from the responsibility his altered state has enabled him to embrace. Raimi undercuts this ceaseless altruism with an idea straight out of his Necronomicon work - the hero as an assiduous doll to be thrown at (or through) every available brick wall.
Parker's physical suffering is scaled up with his increased endurance. Grenades explode directly into his face and flying buzz saws score tracks up and down his arms. Raimi isn't interested in superpowers as a path to invulnerability though, the director is much more excited about pushing the limits of bodily harm within a Summer movie setting. Confrontations with Willem Dafoe's cackling, never-not-entertaining Green Goblin absolutely crackle, particularly the final dust-up. Editors Bob Murawski and Arthur Coburn portray Goblin as a series of incoming knees, the impacts to Parker's face drawn out with slow-motion photography and slobbering expulsions. Peter's face bleeds and swells; collapsing onto bricks provoking tiny, defeated yelps rather than the impatient grunts of a rabid action man. Raimi is relentless, never allowing the audience to think of Parker in conceptual, invincible terms. Again and again Parker is presented as a teenager, out of his depth, struggling to come to terms with his new form. Raimi using unrelenting punishment as an empathy prompt.
Wednesday, 10 July 2019
Far from feature length, Koichi Takemoto's big screened Spider-Man: The Movie is essentially a 24 minute episode of Toei's webslinger TV series shot in (or masked for) widescreen. The short length means this Spider-Man's story beats are aggressive and elliptical; frame work is thrown up with blasting expediency, their images designed to linger like radiation. The fun here is in how Toei translate Marvel's superhero and his powers. Instead of bookish nerd Peter Parker we have Takuya Yamashiro (played by Shinji Todo), a motorcycle tough with a girlfriend and two siblings. Spider-Man's powers, gymnastics aside, are technological, including a wrist computer and an enormous space-craft capable of expelling dragsters or transforming into a sword-wielding super robot.
Although the film eventually reverts to type, throwing up titanic (but barely interactive) battles between spider-machinery and a torpedo-spewing monster-of-the-week, there's a lot of action in this Spider-Man that's refreshingly assailed. On his way to the film's comparatively rote finale, Todo's webhead clambers and scutters around like a genuine house pest, avoiding kicks and stabs from a swarm of grey generics. Spider-Man even gets to embrace the unconventional warfare tactics of Ninjutsu, substituting himself for gunfire-drawing duplicates or that Kawarimi classic, a block of wood. The fun peaks with a sequence straight out of Shaft's Big Score! - Spider-Man and his gassed Interpol buddy are pursued along a flat, featureless vacant lot, buzzed by a hovering helicopter. A hunched Todo darts about, attracting attention while a cross-eyed grunt hangs out of the chopper, blazing away with a flash-paper machine gun.
Tuesday, 9 July 2019
Director Okihiro Yoneda is back to close the curtain on Mothra's Rebirth trilogy, bringing with him the fairy tale framing that distinguished his opening instalment. Despite the film's modest budget, Rebirth of Mothra III aims for the top, drafting The King of Terror himself, Ghidorah, to make trouble for everybody's favourite insect. Arriving from space via meteorite, the three-headed monster sweeps over Japan, gathering up the nation's children and atomising corporate landmarks. The kids are imprisoned in a massive, undulating egg filled with stalagmites that ooze liquids corrosive enough to reduce a school bag to soup. The Golden space dragon apparently prepping himself an enormous, and quite appalling, omelette.
Positioning King Ghidorah as The Enemy of All Children makes for a great match-up with the friendly, neighbourhood Mothra Leo. If nothing else, the gleaming monarch's raw star power helps to eclipse a previous film in which our dusty hero was stuck colliding with a villain that looked like a lacquered, swimming pool flotation device. No matter how many transformations this mutating Mothra has under his belt, King Ghidorah still registers as basically insurmountable. Yoneda's film is canny enough to follow through on this imbalance. The fights in Rebirth III then have a sense of hopelessness to them, especially since Leo doesn't look like he'll be laying any eggs if the worst happens. This Mothra doesn't just airily circle his foe either, blasting away with Koichi Kawakita's laser beams, he gets in close, clawing and biting at Ghidorah's many faces. Even that doesn't work.
Any success Leo enjoys is tied directly into third-party machinations. The Earth's human, insect and even dinosaur inhabitants willing him on in each different epoch. As well as a friendly family who all very obviously love and care for each other - the cuddly, emotionally accessible parents even refer to each other by the titles 'Momma' and 'Papa' - the three Infant Island priestesses are promoted from irritants (for the feature enemy) to full-on plot participants. Megumi Kobayashi's Moll drains her entire life force to power Mothra back through time for a dust up with an adolescent dragon; Aki Hano, consistently the most energetic performer in these films, steers evil pixie Belvera through a change of heart when confronted by the totality of Ghidorah. The black sheep of the family working with, rather than against, her sisters. Again and again Rebirth stresses unity and collaboration in the face of a terrible, singular threat. Mothra is portrayed as not simply the most powerful monster but an avatar for everyone who just wants to live in peace.
Thursday, 4 July 2019
Wednesday, 3 July 2019
A Summer holiday snoozer that barely gets going, Rebirth of Mothra II dispenses with any kind of adult framing to congeal in the company of children. Not that there's anything wrong with pushing kids upfront to do the dramatic lifting, umpteen Amblin efforts demonstrated that a younger perspective does not have to mean shallow or simple-minded. Rebirth II's problem is that none of its characters seem to have any interior drives or motivations. They don't strive for goals or reflect, they're not even particularly naughty. Instead they're simply a throng of brightly dressed visual markers tasked with carrying a piece of fluffy merchandise around the spacious, technologically advanced sand castle that has sprung up off the shores of Nagasaki.
Mothra's son, Mothra Leo, doesn't fare much better either. Rebirth II punts the character out of the usual cycle-of-life arc, making him a permanent, heroic fixture. This lack of tragic machination leaves the lepidopteran with little to do other than soak up death-ray punishment from Dagahra, an amphibious dragon choking Japan's waters with inflamed, caustic Starfish. Stepping behind the camera, Rebirth II is the last big screen work by the late special effects director Koichi Kawakita. Sadly it isn't his best, largely repeating the same kind of blasting inactivity that marred his contribution to Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla II and Godzilla vs SpaceGodzilla. It's a shame, especially since the first Rebirth film seemed to be a return to thrashing form. Perhaps the problem is Mothra himself, extended exposure reveals that there aren't a great deal of interesting ways to shoot the hovering insect. Like his mother, Mothra Leo is essentially just a massive, brilliantly coloured kite.
Monday, 1 July 2019
Unlike the prowling, combative Godzilla, Mothra's relationship with mankind skews benign. Rather than the apocalyptic, finger-wagging alternative she is explicitly a guardian, correcting mankind's mistakes, healing us and the Earth we share. In that sense the character is perfect material for a children's film, a graceful lepidopteran happy to muck in and offer security in times of great need. Rebirth of Mothra keys into this maternal aspect, positioning Mothra as an ancient, expectant mother, guarding her slowly gestating offspring. Her fairy pals, the Shobijin twins who sing dreamy power-up songs for their fluttering masters, are here revealed to be triplets. The third sister, Aki Hano's Belvera, is a Gothed-up trouble-maker angling to unseal prehistoric dragons from their magical prisons.
Our charmless human guides through this adventure are the Gotos, a bickering, alienated upper-middle class family who have made their fortune in logging. Naturally this environmental encroachment is partly to blame for the resurrection of Rebirth's feature villain, the four-legged dragon Death Ghidorah. Like his namesake, King Ghidorah, this three-headed honker revels in pointless, agitated cataclysm. Although there's never much of a sense that Death's tantrums are threatening any urban areas, special effects director Koichi Kawakita has a ball rigging overcranked, tightly framed images of churning, earthy destruction. Director Okihiro Yoneda and editor Nobuo Ogawa compliment this orgiastic thrashing by killing off the majority of diegetic sound then amping up Toshiyuki Watanabe's music, lending the film's many moth on dragon confrontations a spaced-out, magical quality.