I Saw the Devil (Jee-woon Kim, 2010)

•April 2, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I will be the first to admit that I watch some sick stuff. Director Takashi Miike, a maestro of the grotesque with works like Ichi the Killer and Visitor Q under his belt, is a director I thoroughly admire. I also have a soft spot for low-rent exploitation such as Versus and The Abomination, where an abundance of gore (and preferably nudity as well) is a principal criteria critical for full enjoyment. The grislier, the better. I certainly have no issue with violence itself, even the most outrageous variety, when it is used in an appropriate context and is in accordance with a coherent message the director is trying to get across.

I feel this information is important, because it brings more gravity when I say I Saw The Devil is one of the most repugnant and excessively violent films I have ever had the displeasure of viewing.

I’ll explain the plot before we go any further (don’t worry, this won’t take long). When his wife is murdered, federal agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee) takes it upon himself to exact revenge on her killer, a psychopath by the name of Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi).

If it sounds rudimentary, that’s because it is. This is a story that has been told innumerable times before, and director Jee-woon Kim’s remedy for this is to fill the screen with incalculable amounts of blood and viscera, with a liberal amount of misogyny added for good measure.

To detail all of the brutalities that take place in the film would be an exercise in tedium, so merely one example will have to suffice; the murder of Kim’s wife in the films beginning.

After she is abducted by Kyung-chul when her car breaks down on an isolated stretch of road, we are shown in loving detail how he drags her to his home, puts her in chains, and ruminates carefully upon which blade he should use. During all of this, she helplessly begs for her life. Naturally, he does not spare her. Kyung then begins his dissection with a butcher knife, and we see the body in varying stages of mutilation as he tears off an arm, and throws a leg and other parts into a bin. All is shown in full blood-soaked detail.

This is merely one example out of a compendium of superfluously gruesome sequences. There is a fetishistic focus on the pictures bloodletting and a complete lack of focus on the human characters, resulting in a torpid slog of a film, which is further exacerbated by it’s inexcusably prolonged running time (144 minutes).

Around the 20-minute mark, after the perfunctory mourning scenes have been taken care of, Kim transforms into an expressionless cypher for the rest of the stories duration as he meticulously goes about locating and tormenting Kyung-chul physically and mentally. We are given absolutely no background to his character whatsoever, no reason to believe that he would be capable of such inhumane barbarism, or to even believe in his cause. Kyung-chul is presented simply as a one-dimensional murderer and rapist with absolutely no redeeming qualities. We’re not interested in the entire cat-and-mouse chase between these two men (which composes the entirety of the film) because we are not interested in the men themselves. Director Jee-woon Kim is too busy detailing all the ways the human body can be disfigured to bother with character development.

Due to this lack of fleshed-out characters, one could possibly see I Saw the Devil working as guilty-pleasure exploitation. However, it fails even in that regard due to its pretentious duplicity.

Allow me to explain. There are several off-the-wall narrative detours that do nothing to move the plot forward, but are included simply as eccentric ‘flavoring’.  A particularly bizarre (and admittedly inspired) example is when Kyung-chul pays a visit to his friend, a fellow serial killer who happens to be a cannibal. Another refreshingly unique moment is when Kyung-chul hitches a ride, and it is slowly revealed that the two men inside are also killers, resulting in a spectacularly bloodstained confrontation. These scenes are all played with a wicked undertone of macabre humor, and had the entire film been done in this vein, it would have worked marvelously as lurid pulp entertainment.

Unfortunately, these two anomalous tangents are the only notable instances of this wonderfully sinister gallows humor. The rest of the film is excessively portentous and somber, with Kim going about his revenge with such dourness it’s nearly comedic. There are also ominous portents concerning Kim becoming just as amoral as the monster he is hunting and the like. The film pathetically attempts to make an intellectual, nihilistic statement on the futility of revenge, yet it also documents every single detail of the violence committed by the characters with an obsessive devotion. The pulsating soundtrack and extravagant cinematography and choreography make the confrontations between Kim and Kyung-chul action-packed and exhilarating instead of thought-provoking. The violence also approaches such a level of sadism as to become laughable and devoid of all meaningful drama. By the middle of the third act, faces have been smashed in with dumbbells, jaws partially ripped off, bodies cut up and stored in freezers for later consumption; the list goes on. While the cartoonish nature of this ultra-violence worked favorably in the two previously mentioned scenes, the rest of the picture insists on maintaining a stiflingly grim seriousness. I Saw the Devil desires to be an atrabilious meditation on the futility of revenge, but completely misses the mark due to an overreliance on salacious blood and gore. It becomes a menagerie of mutilation where, instead of being horrified at the ramifications of violence, we simply wait in eager anticipation for the film to keep topping itself in terms of ludicrous bloodletting.

The films misogyny is another matter entirely. Virtually every female character in the story exists merely to be mutilated or sexually violated in myriad ways. The director has a nasty tendency of allowing the female victims to be extensively humiliated and exploited in graphic detail before Kim comes bursting in to save the day. This happens not once, but on several occasions throughout the story. The fact that most reviewers have dismissed the films outright contempt for women (if they even acknowledge it at all) is a disgrace.

What makes this all the more baffling is the undeniable professionalism involved in the production. The direction is assured, the cinematography appropriately grimy yet sumptuous, and the performances powerfully intense (despite their one-dimensionality, which is a fault of the screenplay, not the actors themselves). Many members of the cast and crew are consummate professionals who have been in excellent films other than this. It is a mystery as to how all these talented men and woman came to be a part of such a truly distasteful piece of work.

A final note: It’s equally disheartening to see such widespread enthusiasm for such a hateful film, evidenced by a score of 79% on the website Rotten Tomatoes from a compilation of 77 separate reviews.

A World Without a Purpose: Violent Cop

•March 29, 2012 • Leave a Comment

While some directors amass their talents over time, steadily discovering and refining their own personal style, others seemingly burst forth from the ether unannounced; their filmic visions fully realized from their infancy.  Takeshi Kitano, with his 1989 debut Violent Cop, is undoubtedly an example of the latter.

The assurance shown here behind the camera is even more surprising considering the happenstance way in which Kitano came to be the director. The picture was originally to be a comedy helmed by veteran director Kinji Fukasaku with Kitano playing the lead role However, Kitano stated that he would only be able to work every other week due to his responsibilities as a television host. Unwilling to work around this troublesome schedule, Fukasaku left the production and when no suitable replacement could be found in time, Kitano was handed the reigns almost on a lark by executive producer Kazuyoshi Okuyama. Intent on eschewing the public’s perception of him as just a comedian and to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor, Kitano drastically rewrote the original script. Character personalities were changed, the story structure was altered, and all traces of comedy were removed. The end result is a film that displays many of the visual and thematic motifs that are exemplary of Kitano’s entire oeuvre. Violent Cop shows a master of the craft flexing his already considerable skills despite the fact that it is his first foray into filmmaking.

From the beginning frames, several Kitano trademarks are evident. After the opening credits, we fade into a close-up shot of a homeless man smiling in contentment. What is most immediately striking about the image is how perfectly still everything is. The man himself is seemingly frozen in a statuesque pose, and the background is just as static. Indeed, one could be forgiven for momentarily thinking it is a still photograph. The camera then cuts to a medium shot of the homeless man, and a tree gently swaying gently in the background shows us that the previous close-up was indeed not a still image. The man remains still for a few moments more and then begins to eat some soup he has prepared. Suddenly, a soccer ball flies in from off-screen and knocks over the man’s cooking pot. We are then shown, in an excruciatingly protracted scene, a group of several delinquents terrorizing the helpless old man as they kick and punch him repeatedly. The entire sequence consists of only three extended takes as the man tries in vain to crawl away, the camera refusing to look the other direction. Even though the audience wishes to turn their heads, the camera grants us no mercy and unflinchingly documents the events taking place. Finally, one of the kids hits the man with his bicycle tire, knocking him unconscious, and they disperse.

This scene not only serves a narrative function, but also introduces us to what is the dominating theme in many of Kitano’s films; the individual trying to find peace in isolation, but being unable to due so due to societies constant interference.  In other films such as Sonatine (1994) and Hana-Bi (1997), the protagonists are men who in the end simply wish to be left alone. In Takeshi Kitano’s universe, the path to happiness lies in being alone. This benign, Buddhist-tinged philosophy of decortication is always thwarted by outside forces, resulting in an inevitable collision. These conflicts can take shape as violence directed towards others, but just as often the hostility is turned inwards toward Kitano’s protagonists themselves. Violence is almost always a crucial element in a Kitano film, and death is prominent in virtually every picture he has directed, even in his “quiet” works such as A Scene at the Sea (1991) and Dolls (2002). Oftentimes it is Kitano’s character dispensing a healthy portion of the violence in these films, and Detective Azuma in Violent Cop is the most savage character he has played from his own films. From his introductory scene, Azuma is portrayed as not only a man with a propensity for cruelty, but as a metaphorical personification of savagery in its purest form.

Immediately after the initial scene involving the homeless man, we see one of the children ride his bike up to his house and go inside. In the same shot, merely seconds after the door closes, Azuma enters the frame and lumbers up to the residence. This shot is a case where realism is abandoned for greater thematic resonance. If we assume this scene takes place directly after the first and not on another night, (and there is no reason not to) then Azuma has truly responded to the crime with inhuman efficiency. The guilty teenager has not been home for more than ten seconds before the detective is knocking at his door. Not to mention that despite pursuing a boy who is riding a bicycle at a reasonably high speed, Azuma walks with an unhurried gait akin to slasher film icons such as Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees. These killers also mysteriously maintain a close proximity to their fleeing prey despite trudging along in a decidedly lethargic (but oh-so-menacing) manner. With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that Azuma is not dissuaded by a demon’s mask hanging on the boy’s bedroom door. Instead of acting as a deterrent, the mask functions as a kind of effigy, a mirror where he stares at his own demonic reflection. This unsavory interpretation extends not only to the titular character but also to society as a whole. Azuma is presented as a man who has been forced to become what he is due to the times that he lives in. After all, he has come to reprimand a teenager who savagely attacked an innocent man without provocation.

There are numerous scenes where characters young and old are portrayed as brutish and disrespectful.  Immediately following the episode where Azuma intimidates the young boy in his home, the film cuts to a tugboat driver calmly commandeering his vessel (much like the homeless man cheerfully consuming his soup). As he heads under a bridge, he is suddenly pelted from above with various bits of garbage by a group of young schoolchildren, who snicker mischievously and run off. This scene effectively dictates the films view of the world as a place where cruelty and callousness prevail. This is cemented in the bravura shot of the children running off. In an extended shot that lasts nearly a full minute, we see the children scamper into the background, followed by Azuma approaching from afar towards the audience. By putting them both in the frame together, Kitano visually links the children to his own character. What initially seems like fairly harmless mischief committed by a group of youngsters could, and most likely will, deteriorate into malevolent adult actions carried out by people like our protagonist. One has the sinking feeling that these boys and girls will grow up to be quite like the teenagers in the films introduction, and eventually Azuma himself.

Reinforcing this association between Azuma and the impudent children is the fact that he is (unsurprisingly) less than respectful towards his higher-ranking officials. Upon arriving at the station, he foregoes attending the new chiefs speech in favor of sitting at his desk, lighting a cigarette and reading the paper. Also, in true adherence to genre convention, Azuma’s unorthodox methods get him in hot water with the higher-ups, and the police chief reprimands him on several occasions for his recalcitrant attitude. Despite Kitano’s best efforts, he is unable to fully transcend the inherently hackneyed nature of these moments. If there is anything negative to say about the film, it is that it is slightly moribund by its genre elements (the maverick cop who dispenses his own form of justice, the henpecked chief continually admonishing said cop, the villain who embarks on a personal vendetta against the protagonist, et al). However, Kitano mitigates most of these problems by taking what could be rote material and transposing it all into his unique world-view. In doing so, potentially mundane plot elements are transmogrified into intellectually stimulating philosophical points.

One example is the character of Kikuchi (Makoto Ashikawa), who seemingly is an archetype lifted straight out of the genre playbook. He is the naïve greenhorn who is assigned to the cynical and streetwise partner officer (Azuma in this case) and is taught a thing or two about law enforcement by attending the school of hard knocks. Seemingly all that is left is for Azuma to be close to retirement. Thankfully, Kitano subverts this customary relationship by juxtaposing Kikuchi’s innocent nature with the ruthlessly violent milieu he is surrounding by. In the world of Violent Cop, any kind of morality or integrity is swiftly snuffed out, potently illustrated during an episode where what should a routine arrest goes awry.

In the scene, Azuma and Kikuchi meet up with a pair of other officers who are staking out a criminals apartment. As they approach the entrance of the complex, they encounter a group of small children playing baseball. One of the officers elects to stay at the entrance in case the criminal attempts to escape. As the other three continue onward, the man ruffles one child’s hair and laughs amiably. After a bungled arrest attempt, the criminal does in fact elude his would-be-captors and makes a run for the entrance. We see the officer chatting genially with the group of children; the association is clear. Hearing the fugitive approaching, he turns and attempts to intercept the man, and what follows is a virtuoso sequence where the two men struggle tooth and nail for control over the other. The fight, filmed in sumptuous slow motion and accompanied by an elegant piano driven score, achieves an uncanny beauty despite its obvious brutality. This formalistic treatment of the brawl also invites us to read into beyond what is simply being shown on the screen. As the cop was associated with the children earlier in what are possibly the films only cheerful moments, he represents morality and decency. In contrast, the criminal, who grapples like a cornered animal symbolizes criminality and indecency. Given the films downbeat interpretation of the universe so far, the outcome of the struggle does not come as a surprise. Not only is the officer defeated, but he is dispatched of in what is the most gruesome moment thus far in the picture, as the criminal grabs one of the children’s baseball bats and smashes it onto his head resulting in a shower of arterial spray. The officer collapses and the criminal runs free, until he is eventually caught by the equally amoral Azuma, who captures the man by running him over with his vehicle. The lesson is that unless one adapts to the merciless conditions of the world, one perishes. Azuma has adapted, so he is successful in his job, and does not perish in the line of duty unlike his more righteous cohorts. Kikuchi will eventually undergo this transformation as well, and this will be discussed in-depth later on.

Yet another instance of Kitano undermining genre norms is how Azuma’s sister Akari (Maiko Kawakami) is established and handled. We are introduced to her when Azuma arrives to pick her up from what seems to be a mental institution (The film offers scant information regarding her ailment. When Kikuchi asks what was wrong with her, Azuma concisely quips, “Her head.”). Normally, Akari would be an unsullied paragon of virtue employed as a literary device in order for a more compassionate side of Azuma’s personality to be divulged. Instead, Kitano utilizes her to convey Azuma’s inability to emotionally connect with others, even his own family members. Instead of having a relaxed and loving relationship that would be expected of siblings, their interactions demonstrate a distinct lack of rapport. Immediately after her release from the institution, Azuma and Akari stop by an outdoor festival. As they walk along the avenue, they are surrounded by a dizzying array of resplendent colors and effervescently bustling crowds. All of this is in stark contrast to Azuma’s dour stillness as he strolls alongside his slightly more enthusiastic sister. He comes of more as a dutiful and stoic escort than a caring brother.

In a later scene, Azuma enters the apartment that he and his sister share to find that she has slept with a man who is still lounging in the bedroom. Things play out as they usually do in these kinds of film scenarios, with Azuma browbeating and belittling the man as he forcefully ejects him from the apartment. However, the key difference here, the transmutation, is that Azuma’s intentions seem less than honorable given his previous correlation to the films harsh diegesis and his anemic relationship to his sister. Rather than his actions reading as those of a white knight defending the honor of the virtuous female, they come off as those of a man who simply sees this as another outlet to channel his rage. Instead of righteously punishing a man who has done wrong to his sister, he simply punishes because that is his nature.

This nihilistic portrayal of violence as an ungovernable force is evident throughout Violent Cop, and forms the core of the relationship between Azuma and the primary antagonist Kiyohiro, who are presented as doubles in both their actions and personalities. The films “villain” is introduced in a similarly pugnacious fashion as Azuma where he viciously stabs a man to death when he attempts to blackmail him during a drug deal. We learn that he works for the enigmatic Nito, a high profile drug pusher, and that he also somewhat ungovernable in his actions much like Azuma is with his superiors.

Kiyohiro is also associated with slasher villains. In a scene that takes place in an abandoned hospital, Kiyohiro stalks through the empty corridors trying to locate one of his henchmen who has confessed compromising information to Azuma earlier in the film. The way the scene is shot and its palpable sense of dread is almost identical to those innumerable horror films of the 80’s as Kiyohiro slowly stalks through the hospital silently pursuing his prey, his stony countenance betraying no emotion. If he were only wearing a hockey mask, the allusion would be complete.

The parallels do not end there. Both the men are both dismissed by their respective employers. Azuma is forced to resign when he plants evidence in order to bring Kiyohiro in for questioning regarding the death of a police officer named Iwaki. We are told that Iwaki was Azusa’s good (and only can assume only) friend, who unbeknownst to him acted as an informant for Nito and his drug ring. Azuma brutally beats Kiyohiro without even asking questions, even firing at him with his pistol and injuring a fellow officer when they storm in to stop him from killing him.

Nito similarly discharges Kiyohiro when he also commits an unsanctioned action. After being brutalized in the police station, he kidnaps Azuma’s sister and leaves her in an abandoned warehouse where (in a rather repulsive series of scenes) his lackeys forcibly inject her with heroin and sexually assault her repeatedly. He also attempts to kill Azuma but is unsuccessful. Nito is furious that Kiyohiro has attacked a (at this time) former police officer without his permission and demands he leave and never show his face again. Both of the men are released by their proprietors for being uncontrollable mad dogs who cannot keep their animalistic bloodlust in check. In Kiyohiro, the feral Azuma has finally found his match.

This internecine struggle between Kiyohiro and Azuma comprises a majority of the films last 20 minutes, as it follows the battle to its only logical conclusion; mutually assured destruction. After finding Nito and gunning him down, Azuma tracks Kiyohiro to the warehouse where he and his henchmen lie in wait. In the climax, both Azuma and Kiyohiro have fully transformed into agents of aimless (self)destruction. As Kiyohiro rummages through his stockpile of firearms he stolidly informs his men of the situation. Azuma is on his way and will dispose of them without hesitation. If they try to run, Kiyohiro will kill them himself. “Either way, you’re probably all going to die.” He states phlegmatically.

When the men begin to protest, Kiyohiro immediately opens fire, killing two and sending the third fleeing for his life. All notions of brotherhood, honor, and fealty are nonexistent in this amoral battle between two unstoppable forces. The third man sprints across the room and wrenches open the door, where he is instantly perforated by gunfire. He collapses, and we see Azuma’s backlit frame standing motionless outside the doorway. He is now the true embodiment of nihilistic barbarism without ideals or morals; anyone and everyone in his path will be exterminated. Kiyohiro leans against a pillar some twenty yards ahead, looking like a ferocious wild animal pushed into a corner. Azuma begins to advance towards Kiyohiro, who fires a barrage of gunshots. Several bullets find their mark, but Azuma continues unfazed and returns fire. Their faces are expressionless as they tear each other apart with a storm of bullets. Both of the men understand that they will not live, but that is beside the point; their only objective is to destroy the other.  As they are identical enemies, together they pursue a strange kind of mutual suicide.

The setting is appropriately baleful, with a narrow shaft of light stemming from the open doorway being the only source of illumination. The rest of the area is bathed in pitch-black darkness, suggesting a bottomless abyss that both shows and hides nothing. There is no war of ideology taking place here, no great honorable battle; only darkness that provides no answers to this unfathomable violence.

This unrelentingly bleak viewpoint is reinforced in the films conclusion. After delivering a fatal shot to Kiyohiro, Azuma stands unmoving. Slowly, Akari crawls out from behind the pillar and desperately searches the corpse for a shot of heroin, to which she has now become addicted. After only a moments pause, Azuma fires and kills his sister. Since he has fully transformed, it is the logical solution. As he turns and heads towards the entrance, he is suddenly shot and killed by an unseen assailant. The lights turn on and it is revealed to be Nito’s right hand man who Azuma spared earlier when he killed Nito. He stares at the grisly spectacle before him and sadly proclaims, “Everyone’s crazy.” The lights go out, and the abyss reclaims its victims.

The film then cuts from to a familiar sight; the bridge where Azuma was linked to the teasing schoolchildren. This time, however, a different figures looms in the background and strolls towards the frame. It is that of Kikuchi, the rookie who has been steadily corrupted by Azuma’s influence throughout the film. In a shot that is an exact duplicate of the previous one involving Azuma, Kikuchi is visually associated with his reprobate mentor. We see Kikuchi head into the former offices of the now deceased Nito, where his right hand man has assumed responsibility. Kikuchi walks over to the man, who puts an envelope full of money on the desk and is asks if he can take over for the former informant Iwaki. “I’m not a fool.” Kikuchi responds with a devilish grin as he grabs the envelope and takes his leave.

With this scene, Kitano fully realizes his nightmarish vision of the world. Not only have Azuma and Kiyohiro destroyed themselves, but their unchecked malevolence has spread unto others and corrupted them as well. The formerly ethical rookie will now take over as a double-crosser for the criminal organization, and the process will start anew, only with a different cast of characters.  The last shot of the film zooms in on the secretary dutifully plucking away at her typewriter, which seems to suggest that this is not some cataclysmic event, but merely business as usual. All of the events that have transpired have been for naught. Nothing has changed, and nothing ever will, and the cycle continues infinitely. In Violent Cop, the world is trapped in an endless cycle of samsara, with enlightenment nowhere in sight.

It is on this ominous and auspicious note that Kitano established himself in the field of cinema, and successfully created a filmic universe that he would go on to explore in the future with even greater success.

Eden Lake (James Watkins, 2008)

•January 25, 2009 • Leave a Comment

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Pretentious – making claim to or creating an appearance of (often undeserved) importance or distinction

Offensive –  causing displeasure or resentment

The two words defined above are often used unscrupulously in reviews and thoughts about film. However, if there was any film deserving of these negative monikers, it is the UK horror picture Eden Lake.

Young lovers Jenny and Steve are going to spend the weekend at a remote quarry known as Eden Lake. Steve intends to propose to Jenny while camping there, but things go sour when a band of teenagers show up, playing their music too loud and letting their dog run loose on the shore. While at first they’re merely disrespectful, the youths quickly become more sinister in their actions, and before long the couple is fighting not just for their privacy, but for their lives as well.

First time director James Watkins includes several allusions to juvenile crime and the lack of parental guidance the perpetrators of those crimes exhibit, and it is clear that he is trying to say something. However, as the increasingly contrived and manipulative plot moves forward, it becomes clear that his ends do not justify his means.

The sections with the most “commentary” are the first twenty minutes and the last five. The remaining hour long section in the middle is a standard and contrived horror chase flick, with the killers hunting down our hero and heroine through the woods where clichés abound. Climbing under or over buildings at the last minute to escape detection? Check. Getting hurt and screaming so the killers know your location? Check. Car won’t start and/or gets stuck? Check. Going into a strangers house when nobody is there? Check. The list goes on. This wouldn’t be so bad if the film didn’t have such misguided aspirations at being a shocking expose on youth violence, and if it didn’t crank up the sadism to unholy levels in the name of contributing to this supposed social criticism.

The crimes that the thugs commit increase more and more in brutality until they reach an almost surrealistic level. People are stabbed repeatedly in the body and face, their bodies burned at the stake, all shown in loving detail by the camera and accompanied by sickening sound effects. In the movies most distasteful scene, a small innocent boy no older than eight is doused with gasoline and set ablaze, and the audience is treated to his blood curdling screams as his body is slowly burnt to a crisp. Wonderful.

This movie wants to have it both ways. It wishes to be a serious commentary on contemporary issues such as juvenile crime and the role parents play in it, and also a brutal horror thriller with the terrified heroine narrowly fending off and avoiding her pursuers at every possible turn. It fails dismally in both. The simplistic social criticism paints in extensively broad strokes, and the violence is overly painful and serious-minded to be in a frivolous horror-excursion-in-the-woods picture. Watkins seems to think that bookending nearly an hour of intensely exploitative and sadistic violence with a few minutes of slight commentary makes it justified. He is sorely mistaken. What a profoundly unpleasant and empty picture Eden Lake is.

The Wrestler (Aronofsky, 2008)

•January 2, 2009 • 2 Comments

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before; a once great athlete, now down on his luck and ostracized by his family members, has the chance to get back in the spotlight, redeem himself, and reclaim his former glory.

While it seems contrived to a fault on the surface, The Wrestler is a deeply emotional film that effectively takes this (very) familiar formula and adds some much needed variety to the mix.

In what is a truly galvanizing performance, Mickey Rourke plays Randy the Ram, a professional wrestler who once was one of the top stars of the sport. Twenty years later, he is now relegated to performing at small, dingy community centers to infinitely smaller crowds than the ones that packed the arenas he played in during the 80’s. One day, his manager tells Randy that it is the twentieth anniversary of the match between him and his (scripted) arch-rival The Ayatollah. Naturally, Randy agrees to engage in a rematch.

Mickey Rourke is this character, and there are obvious real life parallels to Rourke’s career and Randy the Ram’s that lend an extra layer of emotional potency. An Oscar nomination is inevitable, and is entirely deserved. This is not to say that the other performances are no good, as they are indeed top notch. Marisa Tomei gives great warmth and heart to Pam, a stripper who performs at a bar Randy frequents under the name Cassidy, and whom he has feelings for. Evan Rachel Wood does a commendable job as Randy’s daughter Stephanie who detests him for leaving and choosing his career over her. Tomei and Rourke have especially great chemistry together. The slight mannerisms and inflections in their lines, and how they laugh and smile in certain ways is, to put it simply, fantastic.

Many will compare this film to others such as Rocky, Invincible, and other underdog sports entries. Such comparisons would be unfair to The Wrestler, which differentiates itself by choosing a more atypical sport for its subject. Wresting, like any other sport, has it’s own unique culture and lifestyle different from boxing and football. Screenwriter Robert Siegel and Director Darren Aronofsky explore much of the backstage aspects of wrestling in fascinating detail. We see Randy hitting the tanning beds, getting his hair colored, and purchasing anabolic steroids from a bodybuilder friend to keep up his appearance.  In a locker room before a match, other wrestlers formulate attack plans, deciding which moves to use and what areas of the body to focus on (“Don’t work his leg man, everybody does that. Work his neck.” one wrestler remarks to another as they debate). Aronofsky immerses us in this world of school gymnasiums and community centers, a land of faded tile floors, fluorescent lighting, and white-painted hallways and corridors built of cinderblocks. The fact that he has never before made a film remotely like this (his previous works include the ultra-stylized Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain), makes it all the more impresssive how he is able to so effortlessly capture the eccentricities and facets of the wrestling circuit.

Anchored by Rourkes pitch perfect portrayal of Randy the Ram, and assisted by great supporting performances and Aronofsky’s skillful direction, The Wrestler is a film that ranks among the years best. Forget the WWF, this is the real deal.

This Is The Way I See It: Subjective Filmmaking in Taxi Driver

•December 30, 2008 • Leave a Comment

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“All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.”

Such is the world according to Travis Bickle, and in Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976), it’s the de facto interpretation. Bickles malicious outlook of 1970’s New York is the only viewpoint given to the audience, and director Martin Scorsese portrays this twisted ideology through his masterful use of subjective filmmaking.

Beginning with the opening title sequence, the audience is immediately plunged into Travis’s nocturnal world of neon signs, rainy streets, traffic lights and street walkers. Close up shots depict the taxi cab in loving detail; it is Travis’s safe transport, a vessel that simultaneously keeps him safe from the filth of the city and isolates him from society. The shots of New York’s after hours inhabitants are from inside the cab and are interspersed with extreme close ups of Travis’s eyes, slowly sliding to and fro, carefully surveying and criticizing the immoral masses before him. While he has a negative attitude about the city as a whole, Travis is particularly contemptuous of African Americans. This is illustrated solely through images; we never once hear Travis single out blacks in his vehement rants, but the camera always maintains a distance between them and the camera, visually illustrating his bigotry. Much like Travis, the camera is nervous of getting too close to these especially vile inhabitants of the city.

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Slow motion is also implemented to further illuminate Travis’s internal emotions. When we first see Betsy, a campaign worker for whom Travis obsesses over, she is wearing a beautiful pristine white dress. She makes her way through the lowly masses and ascends the stairs into the campaign office, seemingly floating above the crowd. All that is needed are a halo and a pair of wings, and the angelic association would be complete. When Travis puts on his best suit to meet up with Betsy to see a movie, he walks down the street in a slow motion medium shot. Travis surely feels quite confident in himself due to both his extravagant attire and the fact that he is going on a date with this woman he adores.  The slowing down of the shot captures this emotion perfectly.

The films narration is also extensively employed to immerse the audience further into the recesses of Travis’s mind. All of his bitter rants, as we come to learn, are lifted verbatim from his own diary, so the narration could not possibly be more directly connected with Travis’s personal thoughts. Under the scrutiny of Travis’s narration, New York becomes a detestable necropolis, a dingy and seedy underworld where murder, drugs, and prostitution are the norm. All of this is presented as undeniable fact; no other dissenting viewpoints are brought to the table for the entire film. As the plot progresses and Travis increasingly loses his sanity, the narration becomes more erratic. Words are stuttered and slurred, and whole sentences are repeated after being flubbed the first time.

All of these techniques and stylistic choices are a monumental build-up towards the films explosive finale where Travis bursts into a building, shooting and stabbing his way through several criminals in order to save a twelve year old prostitute named Iris. When the bloody massacre is over several cops enter the building and see Travis collapsed on the couch, exhausted and delirious in equal measure. He puts his blood-stained finger to his temple and pretends to fire. The shots that follow are the culmination of all the films thematic building blocks. A slow overhead tracking shot, panning over the havoc that Travis has wrought. With the exception of Iris, everyone and everything is frozen in statuesque poses. This is followed by a montage showing the blood splattered walls and the other people that Travis has murdered.  We have now fully entered Travis’s mind. We are completely submerged in his madness as the camera moves ever so slowly through every detail of the destruction Travis has caused. As the writer Paul Schrader notes in the screenplay, “It is the psychopath’s Second Coming.”

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Taxi Driver is not a perfect film however, and one of my points of contention lies with the films ending. Travis is shown talking to his fellow cabbie buddies when one remarks that he has a fare. It turns out it is Betsy. She remarks how she read about how he saved the young prostitute from her captors, and asks how he is doing. Travis is calm and collected as he converses with Betsy, decidedly unlike his previous behavior in the film. After he drops Betsy off and drives away, he casually glances in the rear view mirror. Suddenly a strange sound rings out from the soundtrack and Travis frantically adjusts the mirror upon seeing his reflection, indicating that he is still very much insane, and as Scorsese himself explains, like a “ticking time bomb” that is waiting to go off again.

Many viewers and critics have debated over whether this coda to the film is real or if it is all conjured by Travis’s imagination. I think that the latter would be a much stronger and thematically relevant way to end the picture, and would adhere to the subjective style of filmmaking that has been used throughout. However, Scorsese seems to give the ending away as being real with a couple of shots. The entire time Travis rides and talks with Betsy, we only see her face in the rear view mirror, and it is unclear as to whether she is truly there or not. Once she gets out of the cab and speaks to Travis though, we clearly see Betsy in the flesh as it were, thus shattering the ambiguous circumstances of her appearance beforehand and seemingly cementing the fact that the ending is in fact real.

The other contention I have with the picture is a scene in which Iris’s pimp, Sport, comforts her so that she does not run away from him. It is well directed and acted, but is virtually the only scene that Travis is not directly involved in. It is the only purely objective scene in the entire film, with the events not directly being filtered through Travis’s mind. Scorsese attempts to solve this problem by showing a shot of Travis staring up at the building in which Sport and Iris reside before cutting to the scene itself, but it is a poor substitute for his absence. The scene, which was added during production, was not in the original script and Schrader was adamantly opposed to its inclusion. Inversely, Scorsese felt that Sport needed some more screen time, so he requested for this scene to be written and subsequently put it in the film.

Despite this, Taxi Driver is still a classic example of subjective filmmaking, immersing the audience completely into Travis’s deranged perception of the world that he lives in through its writing and direction. By using various stylistic techniques such as slow motion and unreliable narration, the audience is given unmitigated access to the mind of  mad man.

Resident Evil: Degeneration (Makoto Kamiya, 2008)

•December 15, 2008 • Leave a Comment

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As I queued up Resident Evil: Degeneration, I hardly expected a masterwork. Degeneration does after all belong to the substantially execrated group of films known “video game movies”. This genres lackluster roster speaks for itself: Tomb Raider, Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Super Mario Bros, the list goes on. So why would I voluntarily subject myself to a film belonging to this less than stellar genre?

For one, I am a big fan of the Resident Evil video games. Also, unlike the previous live action filmic adaptations of the game series, Degeneration, which is a computer-generated effort, is directly connected with the storyline from the games. The idea of seeing familiar characters from the games in a feature length animated film was admittedly quite enticing to the gaming fan that dwelled deep within me. Surely there was enough potential here to conjure a half way decent movie? How foolish and naïve I was.

The story is a convoluted and contrived affair that chronologically takes between the third and fourth Resident Evil gaming titles. Leon S. Kennedy and Claire Redfield, the two main protagonists from several of the games, take center stage here as well. To fully explain the needlessly intricate plot would be an exercise in tedium.  Suffice to say that there are a lot of big bad corporations messing with viruses that turn people into big bad monsters, and its up to our heroes to expose these corrupt conglomerates and save the day.

Degeneration also commits the cardinal cinematic sin of telling and not showing when dealing with its narrative. We are constantly treated to characters that spout out manufactured lines that serve no other purpose besides explaining what has happened, what is happening, and what is going to happen. It is the laziest form of plot exposition that exists, and Degeneration is filled to the brim with it. Characters also are controlled by the plot instead of vice-versa, commit entirely unmotivated actions for the convenience of the story, etc.

On the visual side, the film is surprisingly dated. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, made nearly 8 years before this film, was infinitely more visually astounding and aesthetically pleasing. Granted, the makers of Degeneration most likely did not have $135 million dollars to throw around in creating it like the staff of Final Fantasy did. Nevertheless, the film has an extremely unpolished look that at times looks no better than a cut scene from some of the original gaming titles. Characters move awkwardly like marionettes and their clothing clings stiffly to their bodies like cardboard. Peoples skin and clothes all have an inexplicably glossy appearance, and the lip-synching is quite off.

The action scenes, most likely the main reason for watching a picture such as this, are curiously uncompelling and are nothing that a person would not see if they played the games instead.

Resident Evil: Degeneration is one of those films where nothing is a surprise. You can finish lines before characters are done speaking them and predict actions before they occur. It is one of those movies where you spend the entire time thinking about all of the other films you could, and probably should, be watching.

Film as a Weapon: The Anti-Authoritarian Ideology of Harakiri

•December 11, 2008 • Leave a Comment

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Masaki Kobayashi was the definition of an iconoclastic filmmaker.  Kobayashi detested almost any form of organized authority, and a majority of his films focused on deconstructing and criticizing the governmental bodies that he saw as tyrannical and inhumane. His targets ranged from the Japanese military during World War II (The Human Condition trilogy) to feudalism and samurai warriors (Samurai Rebellion, Harakiri). No matter what the subject was, all were treated with the same apprehension and scorn. This entry will specifically focus on the ideology of Kobayashi’s jidai-geki film Seppuku (English title Harakiri) and its unsurprisingly anti-authoritarian viewpoints.

Made in 1962, Harakiri is an unforgiving condemnation of the samurai class and the feudalistic system that they represent. They are shown as morally repugnant men who place obedience, duty, and an image of strength and nobility above all else. By doing this, they lose their sense of moral decency and their own humanity.

A shocking example of this negative outlook on samurai is shown early on. First a little explanation is required regarding the historical circumstances of the film, which takes place in 1630. At that point, Edo was in a state of peace after much bloody warfare, and thousands of retainers from fallen Lords had been left stranded with no work to be found. In desperation, these ronin showed up at the gates of various Houses and declared their intent to commit seppuku. Instead of wasting away from starvation, they wished to die an honorable death. Several clans, impressed with these displays of discipline, would hire the men as retainers for their own House.

Near the beginning of Harakiri, a young samurai expresses his wish to commit seppuku at the House of Iyi. He is planning on bluffing the House into hiring him as a retainer, but the House sees through this facade. Sickened at the mans dishonorable behavior, they force him to commit seppuku against his will. Doing this serves two purposes. The first is that it is punishment for the mans unseemly behavior. The second is that this will make other Houses aware of the strength and unwavering dedication to the samurai code that the House of Iyi employs.

The scene in which the young samurai is forced to kill himself is arguably the films defining sequence, and Kobayashi is uncompromising in capturing the full brutality of the situation. It is discovered that the man, being so destitute, has sold off his steel swords and replaced them with bamboo blades. “He sells off his soul as a samurai, replacing his blades with bamboo!” one of the retainers exclaims in disgust. The members of the House, greatly offended by this affront, force the man to commit seppuku with his own bamboo blades instead of lending him one of their steel ones.  The camera does shy away in the slightest from this horrific process, and the man’s execution is shown in surprisingly graphic detail. We see him lean onto the wooden sword in order for it to penetrate his body, and the spurts of blood that follow. Medium shots, close ups, and various disorientating zooms along with canted camera angles create a claustrophobic feeling of nausea and sickness. There are multiple shots of the mans face in agonizing pain as he attempts in vain to eviscerate himself with the bamboo sword. We want to look away, but the camera denies us this comfort, staying close in on the action. It is a horrific sequence that casts a grim shadow over the rest of the entire story, and never once do the samurai show a semblance of remorse or guilt.

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The protagonist in the story is an older samurai named Hanshiro Tsugumo (played with brilliant silent intensity by Tatsuya Nakadai), and it is through him that Kobayashi channels his humanistic and antiauthoritarian views. Hanshiro comes to the House of Iyi seeking revenge for the murder of the samurai, who was his son-in-law. Hanshiro heavily criticizes the House of Iyi for the way they handled the situation, and explains how samurai honor is “ultimately nothing more than a façade.”  Through various flashbacks we see Hanshiro as a warm man capable of much human kindness. He plays joyfully with his infant grandson and even though he is financially destitute, he still rejects the financially lucrative aspect of selling his daughter off to a brothel. Hanshiro is the man whom Kobayashi idolizes the most in the picture. He is a loving man who possesses an infinite respect for human beings and for their well-being.

For samurai in Harakiri, the image of strength and rigidity takes precedence over such matters. They maintain an image of rigid adherence to their code, when in reality this is all a façade like Hanshiro claimed. In an extraordinary deconstruction and inversion of the Bushido code, Hanshiro cuts off the topknots of the three most skilled swordsmen of the house. These men were also the three most prominently involved in the death of Hanshiro’s son-in-law. For a samurai, having your topknot removed is a complete disgrace where death can scarcely make you save face. It is revealed that these three swordsmen, instead of following the samurai code and committing seppuku honorably, feign illness and do not report to the House of Iyi. They stay at home pretending to be sick while they frantically wait for their topknots to grow back. This action brilliantly reveals the hypocrisy of the samurai class.

Besides the samurai warriors themselves, Kobayashi also uses iconographic methods as a springboard for his criticisms. In the House of Iyi there resides a suit of armor that symbolizes all that the House believes in. The film begins and ends with a shot of this emblematic armor, propped up on its pedestal with a blank and ominous expression etched on its face. In the films spectacular finale, Hanshiro fights his way through the house, doing as much damage as he can before he is killed. Frantically fighting off hordes of men with a nearly animalistic energy, he crashes through a wall and encounters the suit of armor. He glares at it with a silent hatred that transcends words. He proceeds to tear the suit of armor off of its pedestal and slams it onto the ground, smashing it to pieces. For Kobayashi, the suit of armor could represent many different authoritative bodies, but the most likely is the Tokugawa government, which endorsed a strict class-based society with the samurai at the top of the hierarchy. The armor is all-powerful and intimidating, but is ultimately empty, devoid of humanity much like Kobayashi’s opinion of the Tokugawa shogunate.

Warning: The ending of the film will be discussed from this point onwards.

After demolishing the suit of armor, a firing squad lines up in front of Hanshiro. Faced with imminent death, he eviscerates himself with his own sword, once again inverting the Bushido code upon itself. He is a true samurai, a man worthy of dying this “honorable” death, unlike the inhumane tyrants that reside in the House of Iyi. While undeniably powerful, it is what happens directly after Hanshiros death that leaves an indelible mark in the mind of the viewer.

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We see a montage of the retainers removing all traces of the battle in the House, wiping blood off of the walls and sweeping the floors. The three swordsmen that had their topknots removed are to immediately commit seppuku. If they refuse, they will be taken down by force. The men that Hanshiro killed (four in total) are reported as having died of illness, and the eight men that are seriously injured are promptly treated. “The House of Iyi has no retainers that could be felled by some half starved ronin,” the leader blankly expresses. The image of strength and honor must be maintained at all costs. The suit of armor is pieced back together and situated back on its pedestal. The film ends with this image, the armor unchanged, all traces of Hanshiros plight gone.

At first glance, this may seem an unnecessarily bleak and nihilistic ending. Upon further reflection however, the ending is revealed to be oddly uplifting and inspirational.

The final lines in the film are words of praise the Lord of the Edo Kingdom lavishes upon the House of Iyi. He commends them for their rigorous handling of the matter with the man who was forced to commit seppuku. “At peace, yet ever vigilant. Let the House of Iyi continue to embrace this principle, and your fortunes are sure to prosper for years to come” This speech, as well as the entire ending of the picture, is steeped in irony as history shows that the Tokugawa shogunate was abolished in 1868. At the end of Harakiri, the shogunate leaders believe that they will forever remain in control and reign over the kingdom. With the power of history on his side however, Kobayashi knows this will not be the case.

Kobayashi also shows that, while Hanshiro technically “failed” in his pursuit of revenge, he succeeded in shaking the samurai class to its very foundation. He challenged their fundamental beliefs and single handedly exposed the hypocrisy that resided in the House of Iyi. Kobayashi makes Hanshiro a martyr, a man who died for his beliefs. According to Kobayashi, we should not just sit passively and accept what is given to us by our governments. We should fight for what we believe in, and the ending of Harakiri shows that change is within our grasp. If one man, a mere “half starved ronin”, can do so much, then what change could be brought about if other people joined in the fight? For his entire filmic career, Kobayashi was always fighting for change. He fought with his most useful weapon by his side, his camera, and Harakiri is one of the most triumphant  of his creations.