Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Short Take: Tetsuo: The Iron Man

(1989) Written and directed by Shin'ya Tsukamoto; Starring: Tomorô Taguchi, Kei Fujiwara, Nobu Kanaoka and Shin'ya Tsukamoto; Available on Blu-ray (Region B), DVD and Amazon Prime

Rating: ***

“In my films, technology is terrifying but still convenient. The theme is the conflict between these concepts. We love technology but it will conquer our lives if we don’t pay attention to it.” – Shin'ya Tsukamoto (excerpt from interview with Raffi Asdourian)

When I attempt to process my third viewing of Tetsuo: The Iron Man, I’m reminded of the ubiquitous meme with two of the stars from the American Chopper reality show (For the record, I’ve never watched an episode, so I’m probably missing some context) with two burly guys engaged in a heated argument, and appearing to come close to blows (Inserting any dialectic argument into screenshots of said argument = instant comedy). At any rate, it’s a fair approximation of the dialogue in my brain as I came to terms with Shin'ya Tsukamoto’s landmark film.

Review #1:

What the hell did I just watch?  From start to finish, Tetsuo is a parade of grotesqueries, peppered with spare dialogue. It’s a tedious exercise, full of repetitive music and interminable scenes. I’m not sure how anything that was only 67 minutes could seem so slow, but there you go. If Tsukamoto was looking to disgust, alienate and bore the viewer, then mission accomplished.

Review #2:

Wait a minute, you’re missing the point. Tetsuo is a salient commentary on modern society’s love affair with technology, and the consequences thereof. It’s not the point whether the characters are relatable – they’re meant to represent the human condition, not individuals (The players not given proper names, but labeled as archetypes: The Salaryman, Woman in Glasses, Metal Fetishist, etc…). The Salaryman’s (Tomorô Taguchi) transformation is beyond his control, as he begins to take on the attributes of the individual (Shin'ya Tsukamoto) he accidentally killed with his car, and gradually loses his humanity in the process. With its stark 16 mm black-and-white cinematography and themes of alienation amidst a bleak urban landscape, Tetsuo begs comparison to David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977). The Salaryman’s weird evolution recalls David Cronenberg’s so-called “body horror” films, especially Videodrome (1983). One comparison, closer to home for Tsukamoto, is Nobuo Nakagawa’s Jigoku (1960), in which the main character suffers the torments of Buddhist hell after running over a pedestrian. Another film which Tetsuo parallels is Akira (1988), in which the primary character, Tetsuo, has a similarly disturbing transformation after his motorcycle collides with a genetically altered child.

With Tetsuo: The Iron Man, there’s a perverse joy of low-budget filmmaking and a DIY ethic that’s easy to get behind. It doesn’t ask to be understood or enjoyed. Tsukamoto takes no quarter with his uncompromising, oddly erotic, hellish vision. While I’m not sure I like it, I respect it. Sometimes, when re-watching something I’m on the fence about, the third time is a charm, but I haven’t quite warmed up to it. I probably never will (not entirely at least), and I’m okay with that. I’m glad it exists, and perhaps that’s sufficient. For some, one viewing will be more than adequate to last a lifetime. Others might not be able to get enough. As for me, I think I’ll wait another decade or two.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Castle of Cagliostro

(1979) Directed by Hayao Miyazaki; Written by Hayao Miyazaki and Haruya Yamazaki; Based on the manga series by Monkey Punch; Based on characters by Maurice Leblanc; Starring: Yasuo Yamada, Eiko Masuyama, Kiyoshi Kobayashi, Makio Inoue, Gorô Naya, Sumi Shimamoto and Tarô Ishida; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

The Castle of Cagliostro was like a clearance sale of all I had done on Lupin and during my Toei days. I don’t think I added anything new. I can understand why people who had followed my work were extremely disillusioned. You can’t use a sullied middle-aged guy to create fresh work that will wow viewers.” – Hayao Miyazaki (excerpt from “Miyazaki on His Own Works,” Starting Point: 1979-1996)

The Lupin the Third manga by Monkey Punch (aka: Kazuhiko Katou), about the grandson of elusive gentleman thief Arsène Lupin (based on the classic Maurice Leblanc character), has spawned a venerable anime series (there have been six series to date) and a 1974 live action movie (Lupin the 3rd: Strange Psychokinetic Strategy). After Lupin III’s first animated feature film outing, Lupin the 3rd: The Mystery of Mamo (1978) was a big success, a follow-up film, depicting the further exploits of the perennially elusive thief (Monkey Punch’s version had more roguish qualities, compared to his more genteel counterpart) was given the green light. After the previous film’s director, Yasuo Ôtsuka, passed on the sequel, Hayao Miyazaki (who had worked on the television series with his longtime collaborator and Studio Ghibli co-founder, Isao Takahata) was hired to direct and co-write* The Castle of Cagliostro,** his feature film debut. Miyazaki’s version intentionally chose to appeal to a wider audience that was not necessarily familiar with Lupin III, featuring less emphasis on his unquenchable libido, and greater focus on the action sequences and elaborate settings.

** Fun Fact #1: Although Haruya Yamazaki shares co-writing credit, Miyazaki allegedly dispensed with his ideas for the film.

** Fun Fact #2: According to Reed Nelson’s commentary, the film was completed in seven months, an astonishing feat, considering the level of artistry involved.

In the opening, set in the late ‘60s, Lupin III (voiced by Yasuo Yamada), following in his grandfather’s footsteps, makes a killing at a Monte Carlo casino. Once again, he’s on the run from the indefatigable Inspector Zenigata (Gorô Naya), but the ill-gained cash turns out to be the top-quality product of a counterfeiter. Lupin III and Zenigata trace the fake currency to the sovereign nation of Cagliostro, and by proxy, its shadowy leader, Count Cagliostro (Tarô Ishida).* Lupin III finds Cagliostro’s operation an irresistible target, but in the process finds something he didn’t anticipate – falling for innocent Lady Clarisse (Sumi Shimamoto). Clarisse is destined to be wed to the unscrupulous count in order to preserve the purity of the bloodline (It’s best not dwell on this – suffice it to say they’re distant relatives). With relentless inspector Zenigata one step behind, he’s forced to make a brief, uneasy alliance if they wish to defeat the Count.

* Fun Fact #3: Yes, there really was a Count Cagliostro, Alessandro Cagliostro, an infamous 18th century occultist, con-artist and counterfeiter. You can learn more about him here.

Compared to his previous cinematic outing, the character of Lupin III might seem a bit tame, but Miyazaki didn’t eliminate the more unsavory aspects of the title character or his partners in crime, Fujiko, Jigen and Goemon. Instead he chose to emphasize other properties, including their teamwork. The film was criticized by Monkey Punch, who expected a more “mature” version of Lupin III, feeling the end results didn’t quite reflect his creation. I opine that the spirit of the characters is still there to see. The fact that Miyazaki toned down the sex and wanton violence for his story doesn’t detract from other versions; it only makes Lupin III a more three-dimensional character. It’s clear Lupin III hasn’t changed his old ways, but has become more self-aware, with an enhanced sense of honor. What we see is a more thoughtful version of the character, not exactly mellowed with age, but no longer a slave to his baser instincts and the rashness of youth. Looking at the character from a long view, The Castle of Cagliostro could be viewed as a chapter in Lupin III’s moral development. We know who he is, as do his cohorts, who treat his intentions toward Clarisse with skepticism. Based on his past indiscretions, especially regarding his former lover and sometimes ally Fujiko (Eiko Masuyama), their attitude is probably warranted.

The Castle of Cagliostro represents an early work from an artist who continued to stretch boundaries, working within the parameters of established characters. The character designs owe a debt to Monkey Punch, however, there are many signature touches that only Miyazaki could bring to the film. The movie features several key dialogue-free moments, which enable to viewer to catch his or her virtual breath, pause, and reflect before the next action piece (such as an extended shot of a character with wind blowing through his hair). Miyazaki referred to these moments as “ma,” an intentional emptiness (Source: On paper, it may seem extraneous but it’s all about pacing – a moment of calm before the storm. There are other Miyazaki moments peppered throughout the film, including Lupin III hiding in a lion’s head fountain. Through the stone lion’s mouth, we see his distorted face and squiggly eyes, which would be mirrored many years later in in Ponyo. Similarly, we see his love for depictions of flying and machinery. The Count’s gyrocopter and the castle’s clock tower are not simply props, but integral parts in the story. His action scenes have a wonderful, kinetic quality. In one spectacular scene, Lupin III scales the rooftop of Cagliostro’s castle, to infiltrate the inaccessible (to most sane individuals) tower where Clarisse is being held captive. Miyazaki and his team of animators masterfully convey the vertiginous heights, creating a genuinely frightening, exhilarating experience. I could feel my palms sweating, as Lupin III bounded among the rooftops, and hung precipitously by his fingertips, narrowly avoiding his doom.

Miyazaki was reportedly dissatisfied with the results, as he bowed to pressure from the studio, dashing his hopes for an extra month to finish The Castle of Cagliostro. If one were to pass judgment on the movie based on Miyazaki’s self-deprecating quote above, The Castle of Cagliostro would seem a failure for the filmmaker and the Lupin III franchise. With all due respect to Mr. Miyazaki, his self-assessment couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead, he set a new high for feature film animation and a dress rehearsal for his ambitious 1984 follow-up, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Working within the confines of the Lupin III universe, he added depth and likability for the Lupin character, allowing us to see the character in a new light. For many, including myself, this was an introduction to the world of Lupin III. Even if The Castle of Cagliostro wasn’t the final word on the character, it provided a gateway to his other incarnations, including Leblanc’s source material. Any way you slice it, it’s a unique chapter for the character, and a damn fine stand-alone film.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Dystopian December Quick Picks and Pans

The 10th Victim (1965) In the near future (which looks conspicuously like the ‘60s), a deadly international competition known as “The Hunt,” consisting of ten matches, alternating between hunter and victim, has taken the place of wars. Caroline Meredith (Ursula Andress), in her tenth match, pursues Marcello (Marcello Mastroiani), but is she the hunter or the hunted? Marcello plays it cool as an iceberg, seemingly impervious to her considerable (ahem) charms. Elio Petri’s film, based on Robert Sheckley’s story “Seventh Victim,” is big on style, featuring outrageous fashions (including a famous gun brassiere) bold color compositions and a sardonic sense of humor. Unlike many other dystopian films, it never takes itself too seriously, maintaining a consistently anarchic tone.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Lobster (2015) Colin Farrell stars as David, a recently divorced man, forced to interact with other singles in a strictly monitored resort. Per government mandate, he has 45 days to form a new relationship or he will be transformed into an animal of his choice. Everyone plays games, suppressing his or her emotions, setting up walls, and faking compatibility in a desperate attempt to find a mate.

Director/co-writer Yorgos Lanthimos’ metaphorical fantasy illustrates how those who are single (either by choice or design) are frequently shunned by society, regarded as second-class citizens. Deception and inauthenticity are the rule, rather than the exception, as the characters sacrifice happiness for self-preservation. The Lobster seems a trifle overlong by at least a half hour, establishing the parameters early and reinforcing the aforementioned themes, ad nauseum. I found it difficult to be emotionally connected to any of the characters, but it’s worth a look, due to its intriguing absurdist concept.  Warning: Animal lovers might find one scene difficult to take, which depicts cruelty against a dog (reinforcing the heartless nature of one of the singles).  

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix

Zardoz (1974) Mention writer/director John Boorman’s Zardoz to anyone who’s seen it, and most people tend to fall into the “love it” or “hate it” camps. Well, I don’t love it, nor do I hate it, but after watching it a few times (I’ve seen it roughly once each decade), I’ve alternately come to three schools of thought: 1) It’s a misunderstood work of genius, 2) It’s a misguided exercise with some good ideas, or 3) it’s a pretentious piece of crap. Lately, I tend to gravitate toward the second opinion. Sean Connery (wearing a fetching red bikini sort of thing) stars as Zed, a representative of the Brutals, a primal man tasked with exterminating non-Brutals in the wasteland. He infiltrates the sheltered world of the Eternals, where he’s examined like a specimen, feared and jeered. We learn that Zed may hold the key to their salvation or destruction. Charlotte Rampling co-stars as Consuella, one of the Eternal leaders, who deems Zed too dangerous to live. Zardoz explores themes of gender inequality, societal stagnation, mortality and creativity, but it’s a jumble of ideas that seems caught up in its own cleverness. Is the world of Zardoz reality or nothing more than a pageant? Who knows?

Rating: **½ . Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Equilibrium (2002) Writer/director Kurt Wimmer’s vision of an imperfect future starts out promising enough. After World War III, society has been rebuilt from the rubble. The totalitarian government enforces mandatory daily doses of Prozium, a drug designed to suppress all emotions (considered the cause of wars and societal ills). Christian Bale plays John Preston, a high-ranking officer, tasked with detecting emotions and wiping out anyone who opposes the oppressive regime. It’s too bad the film gives up in the last act, eschewing any pretense of thoughtful reflection. 1984 gives way to The Matrix, with John artfully kicking butt against the bad guys. This is conjecture on my part, but the conflicting tone appears to be the result of studio pressure to provide more spectacle to an otherwise somber mood piece. It’s a shame the filmmakers took the easy route with empty-headed action, because Equilibrium features some good performances, especially Emily Watson as Mary O’Brien, a condemned prisoner who helps John see the value of emotions.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD