Friday, August 28, 2009

Parasite Eve

With a few exceptions, games and film don't mesh particularly well. Games are an interactive medium, so you have to create stories and situations where interacting is a vital part. By contrast, movies are non-interactive, so you are free to tell any story you might choose. For the most part, this means that movie-based games and game-based movies never quite work out, since the fundamental part of one is lost when attempting to mesh it with the other. The good movie-based games find a way to take what is good about a movie, and then use it as a foundation for a completely different experience. One of these games was, in fact, Parasite Eve.

Now, I'm not sure if PE was based on this movie or on the original book, but it did use the situation in such a way that it expanded on the original idea and managed to make a significantly more interesting story and world. Plus, it had the perk of being interactive, and fairly fun to play. In fact, I would go so far to say that the game is better in pretty much every way, and the best way to experience the story is the few lines of dialog in game that explain it away.

The story goes that Toshiaki (Hiroshi Mikami) is a prominent scientist studying mitochondria, natures power plant, little cells in ours that we have a lovely symbiotic relationship with. He also has a wife Kiyomi (Riona Hazuki), who he met one Christmas Eve and is very attractive. Well, one day she drives into the back of a truck and dies, as part of a dastardly plan hatched by her mitochondria, which set about trying to take over the world.

For the first hour of the movie, not much happens. Just a car crash, some light mourning, and debate about whether organ donation is a good idea. Unfortunately, well aware that he has been trying to sell a horror movie that doesn't actually have much horror (or much of anything, for that matter) happening, director Masayuki Ochiai told well known (and normally reliable) composer Joe Hisaishi to get his creepy on. Thus, we get the funniest clash between music cues and on-screen action I have ever seen. Montages of driving down the road and labeling bottles are underscored with the most intense, slasher-movie esque score you have ever heard. "OH MY GOD HE'S ACTUALLY WRITING A LABEL ON THAT BOTTLE IS HE A MADMAN?" you might breathlessly exclaim, as the music tries really hard to make extremely benign actions seem intense.

The funny thing is, when stuff actually happens, the score settles down, as if admitting that the on screen action is actually interesting and it has to try a bit less hard.

That also gets to the biggest problem with the movie, the pacing. It is, in a word, terrible. It takes an hour before the plot even gets started, and it loads all of its action into the final confrontation. That doesn't mean it's an action movie, just that there is no action until very late in the game.

The story itself was handled better in the game as well. It doesn't tie the whole biology-driven sublot in particularly well, front loading the picture with a ton of exposition and obvious foreshadowing (more than one exchange about how our bodies would never betray us, and a bird eating a snail using bad CG, bad puppetry, and ridiculous music cues, for example), and then settling in for a lengthy organ-donation based diversion. It doesn't seem to know what to do with its running time, so it just plays around with plot threads until the climax shows up.

The only good scene, in fact, is the final one, which does have an admittedly cheesy message - love conquers all - but is well done, visually fairly neat and actually has the tension that the film was lacking yet trying so hard to drum up artificially. It doesn't necessarily make the entire film worthwhile, but it does make you feel better after sitting through the rest of it.

It doesn't seem like a particularly obvious candidate for a video game sequel. There's no real action, the story takes too long to get interesting, and there really isn't much else to distinguish it from other films. In fact, I was reminded most of Another Heaven as I watched it, and that was better in basically every way. Yet, I'm glad it did, because no matter how unremarkable the film might be, the game is pretty good. Maybe I should play it again?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


I have a massive cinematic blind spot, and it's in the precise shape of Oliver Stone. I had never seen an Stone movie until now, and considering he's a fairly major name in film, that's a fairly glaring omission. Truth be told, I've never had any real desire to see a Stone movie, perhaps because everything I've heard about him indicates someone who can't do subtlety. Now that I've seen Platoon - one of the three Vietnam movies, along with Apocalypse Now (which was my worst MaR writeup) and Full Metal Jacket, that everyone likes - I can judge him at least a little more accurately.

Platoon is about fresh faced young recruit Charlie Sheen, who looks enough like his father that you wonder if Stone was deliberately trying to recall Apocalypse Now. He's under the command of Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger and his many scars. Trying to figure out who killed their dudes, Berenger and friends assault a village, kills people for no reason, and generally makes a complete hash of the whole winning hearts and minds thing. Meanwhile, Dafoe, Sheen and their friends start to feel very uncomfortable about what they're witnessing. Then, as in real life, the war starts to go quite badly for everyone involved.

The movie is only tangentially about the conflict in Vietnam, using it as a backdrop to make a more elaborate point about human nature. The characters are neatly divided into two camps, the people who have willfully given up on their humanity, and those who desperately cling to it. The aforementioned village scene is a prime example, with some people willfully killing and abusing the villagers, and others objecting and trying to stop. Dafoe is pitched as the good, and Berenger evil, and the clash between the two - and eventually Sheen and Berenger - is well handled in the battle scenes and important moments.

One problem though, Stone doesn't trust his audience. He can do a brilliant battle scene, or a series of scenes which get his point across magnificently, but then he seems to worry that nobody gets it. So, we get bogged down with scenes where characters fret about moral decisions and explain with words everything that images managed to get across just fine in the preceding moments. I wanted to give stone a call and say "I get it, I was paying attention. You don't have to spell it out for me." There's a narration right at the end when Sheen says something about how they were fighting themselves, not the enemy. If you were even paying a modicum of attention, you would have already realized this, why put it in words? This lack of trust can explain why I've never gotten the impression that Stone movies can handle subtlety at all.

I also feel the need to point out that this has possibly the gayest scene in film history, and I've seen gay sex scenes. When Sheen is introduced to marijuana it plays it as a sex scene, including have Willem Dafoe tell Sheen to put his lips on his gun. I like the idea of the whole drugs as seduction bit, but by making it quite so obvious it becomes comical rather than clever.

But don't misunderstand, I think this is about 80% a great movie. When Stone feels like telling the story and not trying to explain it, it's well made, good looking, often smart and delivers a great commentary about what war does to people. That lack of trust, unfortunately, makes it worse than it should be. I understand the movie, Stone, I've been paying attention. You don't need to tell me what I already know, okay?

Friday, August 21, 2009


The DVD for Oasis shows a picture of two lovers embracing in a verdant field. Now, based on that image, one might predict a pretty romance starring attractive people. Like, for example, the Lake House, to use the most recent film on this little project to fit the mold. So, when the film opens with the most annoying man in the world wandering around, one is surprised at the very least.

Perhaps I should feel bad about saying that, since said most annoying man - played by Kyung-gu Sol - is supposed to be mentally challenged. Of course, that's not immediately apparent, as he's initially wandering around the city and trying to bum cigarettes and meals off of people. He also makes the most annoying sound in the world, the sound of someone with the sniffles. That awful "sucking crap up your nose" noise, which drives me absolutely insane.

It's an interesting tactic, making your main character so initially off putting. I suppose you're supposed to feel bad about disliking him, but since the performance isn't that good he comes off as more annoying than having genuine mental problems. It's also somewhat used to excuse his actions, which are frequently quite ridiculous, like introducing himself to the love interest - disabled with cerebral palsy and played by So-ri Moon - with attempted rape. Not a great way to make a character likable.

So we have the immortal story of two disabled characters who fall in love in slightly uncomfortable ways, given their introduction. And I can see why Sol falls in love with Moon, she's the only remotely likable character in the movie. While the other characters can be rightly annoyed by Sol, they shouldn't outright tell him their lives would be better off without them. His family is relatively decent, since it makes sense that they would be annoyed by someone that doesn't learn and is often in jail. I understand their frustration - I know a guy who has mental disabilities, and is frustrating in the same way, though that's at least partially because he's smart enough to know that it allows him to get away with stuff normal people wouldn't (though not smart enough to keep that fact to himself). Moon's neighbours set about doin' the nasty right in front of her, her brother uses disability cheques to live the high life while she lives in squalor, and Sol is the only one who is nice to her - apart from that whole messy rape business.

It seems to be about how disabled people are screwed over by society, but instead it just chronicles the lives of a bunch of thoroughly unlikable people and a girl with cerebral palsy. It's difficult to watch at times, not because of the disabilities on display (though Moon's attempts at being convincingly disabled can be) but because people are just cruel to each other for no reason other than to help the director make a point.

I get what he was trying to do, but he lacks one important thing, subtlety. Everyone's at the extreme, to the point where he deliberately tries to make characters hard to identify with. Living with people with these disabilities would be a challenge, but instead of trying to humanize these characters, they're just portrayed as pure evil, and hating the burdens thrust among them. Actual families with disabled kids are often frustrated by their antics, especially if their antics include criminal activity, but more often than not still care about the people. These people are all pitched as having no empathy, it's annoying.

There's something good here though, and that's So-ri Moon. She's got a difficult role to play, being both afflicted with cerebral palsy and also - in dream sequences - completely normal. If there's one character in the movie you can care about, it's her, and you really empathize with her wanting to live a normal life, and being completely unable. The way she dreams of being able to do simple things - like hitting Sol over the head with a bottle - and is completely unable to is heartbreaking.

If you could care about the characters, this might be a good movie, but with one exception, you just can't. They're too simplistic, they're too unlikable, and they're too difficult to care about. Make the families likable, and the male lead not attempt rape you've got a potential story. But by pitching the families as pure evil, using every opportunity to use and abuse their disabled relatives, it does not work. Subtlety can be the difference between a good movie, and one that borders on ridiculous. This one is on the ridiculous side.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Lower City

One of the most nauseating trends in modern discourse is the term "bro", as it applies to male friendship. Giving the concept of male friendship it's own special term was completely unnecessary - men have been friends since the beginning of time, why does it need a cutesy term now? - and more importantly, the term used was chosen for pun potential more than anything. If someone says "bromance", they should be drawn and quartered, that's just how it is. Annoyingly, there's a phrase which actually describes the overall message of this movie quite well, but I will not employ it here, as if I did, I'd have to kill myself from the shame.

Lower City is about an attractive young prostitute named Karinna, played by Alice Braga. One day, she needs a ride to a nearby town, so she enlists the services of best friends forever Deco (Lazaro Ramos) and Naldino (Wagner Moura). Being an attractive prostitute, she pays for her ride the only way she knows how, by treating the boys to a lovely evening full of indifferently shot sex scenes. Eventually, this leads to much better shot sex scenes, which are cleverly used to indicate the growing lust between Karinna and the two men. While at the beginning, the friends would be willing to take a knife to the lower abdomen for each other, eventually the lady of easy virtue comes between them.

This is from Brazil, which has become the most reliable movie producing nation in the world. I have no idea how they do it, but I have yet to see a bad movie from the country. This, naturally, is no exception, the exploration of sexual politics is absolutely fantastic, in pretty much the same way that every other Brazilian film I've seen is fantastic. It's beautifully shot, using the camera in unexpectedly clever ways, as already mentioned with the progressively better sex scenes, and also an amazing dance sequence which pretty much sums up the entire film. It captures a place, a time, and the heat of the area.

Two things stand out above all else. One, I love how unpredictable it is. This isn't to say all actions don't flow naturally from others, but it doesn't follow any sort of formula, and it is almost impossible to predict what is going to happen next. Yet, the overall story is subtly foreshadowed throughout. You know essentially what is going to happen, but how it's going to happen is a complete mystery.

Another high point is the acting. Between the three leads, they have managed to tell entire films worth of stories with their eyes, conveying more emotion in one close up than some actors will do in their entire careers. Braga manages to make her character seem ultimately sympathetic in spite of turning two best friends on each other. Moura and Ramos seem to have given their characters lengthy and fully formed internal lives far beyond what any script could convey, just through the strength of their performances. The last scene, which consists almost entirely silent of closeups, is jaw dropping emotion and power.

It's got sex, violence, violent sex and sexy violence, and it all comes together in one of the most complete looks at the tricky politics of a love triangle I have ever seen. It doesn't try to make any of the characters remotely sympathetic - there are a series of dick moves on all sides - but you can understand the actions everyone takes, from the first scene right up until the credits roll.

After a run of movies with questionable approaches to interesting subjects, it's nice to see one where everything is bang on. It's a rare picture that I can't imagine how it could be improved, and as this little project continues into the future, I can honestly say that after this, I hope to see every single person involved in this production somewhere else (though the female lead was in City of God as Anjelica, and the two men both showed up in Carandiru). Everyone here was firing on all cylinders, and as a result it's an absolute winner.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Nobody Knows

There's a strange fascination with, and to be honest, near fetishization of, poverty in fiction. The poor, with their love of alcohol and each other, are so much more happy than anyone else, and even with hardships with their plucky resolve they can overcome most difficulties. Some might suggest that this is to help make poor people more satisfied with their lot in life - I have thought that about Alan Jackson more than once - but it might just be something more innocent, like fond memories and nostalgia. I was best friends with a guy who came from a fairly poor family, and I can recognize some of the happy memories combined with a hint of something being amiss that all these stories about poor people share. Plus, let's be honest, the best movie ever made deals with children growing up in poverty, so I can't really complain too loudly.

In fact, while I've noticed it, it's never actually been bothered before. The aforementioned memories of growing up might contribute to that. The situations often feel familiar, and I can see many writers and directors just drawing from their own childhood. In fact, one day I might even do it myself, if I decide to make some fiction involving children. For the first time ever, I've been slightly off put by the glorification of being poor. If you haven't guessed already, given the title of this particular piece, the movie that has caused this discomfort is a Japanese film from 2004 called Nobody Knows.

This film is a fictionalized account of the long-windedly titled "Affair of the four abandoned children of Sugamo." As one might expect, Japan doesn't have news media prone to turning everything into a catchy soundbite and graphic, and the film itself is about four abandoned children. In Sugamo. Together, in spite of a lack of money and proper schooling, they manage to not completely die, and have happy adventures mixed in with the poverty and stress. According to this movie, they also spent much of their time staring off into the distance and having nicely composed shots of their various poor, working class surroundings pop up.

It should be noted that in making the transition to tragic real life story to movie about poor children, some fairly important details were fudged. A fifth child who died and was stuffed in a closet was omitted, and a character death was changed from a murder to an accident. This fits neatly in to what bothers me about the entire movie. There's a slightly odd feeling that the director/writer/etc. Hirokazu Kore-eda really loves the idea of poverty, and didn't want to let messy facts get in his way. He seems to genuinely love the life these kids are leading, and makes it seem somewhat better than it could ever possibly be.

It bugs me not because I can't believe joy can be found in poverty, but because the fascination with the poor and the abandoned is almost creepy. In real life, the kids were malnourished, but here they just have crappier clothes. In real life, the oldest kids' friends killed his siblings, but here they're not an entirely bad influence. In real life, child abandonment sucks, here is not actually that bad.

Don't get me wrong, in the script and the performances do suggest the misery that comes with the situation, but it's the way it's filmed that makes it seem a bit like Kore-eda likes the idea too much. Shots linger on quiet family moments and little bits of domestic chores. A scene where a body is buried has a scene where two characters bond uncomfortably stitched on. The moments of levity get more attention than any negative scenes. As a result, for two hours being abandoned by a superficial, immature mother doesn't seem that bad. I mean, early in the film kids are shipped in suitcases, yet it's filmed and edited like a happy family reunion. You see the fairly terrible lives these kids lead, but the camera is too in love with it.

I hate to suggest it needs to be more cruel, but it does need to be less in love with the idea of poverty. Truth be told, it also needs to be a bit shorter - to be honest, not very much of note happens in the 2 and a half hour running time - and it doesn't have much narrative. Still, for me, the way it was filmed is the biggest detraction. Everyone on screen knows that these kids have it rough, it's just that the camera can't admit it.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


One can argue that Shakespeare is the most important English writer. He lived and wrote 400 years ago, but his plays are still performed, his name is still known by pretty much everyone, people quote his lines constantly and he is the first cited source of millions of common words and phrases. Not bad for a funny looking bald guy from England.

However, the problem is that he wrote plays, and plays need to be performed. I realized this recently at a community performance of the Merry Wives of Windsor, which I had never actually liked until then. It worked because a good actor can make words live, and seeing the actions can make a sometimes obscure language come alive and make sense. So, naturally, a film of Shakespeare is a good idea, but somehow the transition gets shaky.

Take Macbeth. Specifically this Macbeth. Someone named Geoffrey Wright in Australia decided that the play needed to be turned into an ultra slick action thriller. Now, initially I was filled with doubt. In fact, opening the DVD envelope and seeing ultra-emo Sam Worthington holding a gun in a gothic setting made me think "Oh lord how bad is this going to be?"

It works better than you might think. No matter what he does, Wright can't ruin Shakespeare. The story is solid, the dialog is incongruous, but it remains fantastic, and the action scenes do fit in to the whole, as surprising as that may be.

If you don't know, Macbeth is about a man who witches convince will be king, and whose ambitious wife convinces to go around killing dudes in order to cement his power. It's better than that short, simplistic synopsis, but I'm not going to dwell on a summary of one of the worlds most famous plays. In short, it's a great story, and surprisingly difficult to ruin.

And believe me, Wright tries to ruin it.

The new slick, modern setting isn't a problem. Macbeth being about ultra cool drug dealers actually makes a great deal of sense, in a modern context, as royalty is irrelevant but drug dealing remains surprisingly feudal. The ultra slick shootout at the beginning works for the story, and is fairly well done as a whole. If Macbeth was supposed to be in the modern world, this is the setting it would make sense in.

The problems start with the camera, it's filmed in spookyvision. What's spookyvision, you ask? Well, the camera is unsteady, and will often be at a strange, inexplicable angle. It might suggest that the cameraman is drunk, but it's coupled with a soundtrack that does a horror movie dissonance thing. You expect ghosts and the voice of the Unsolved Mysteries guy to come at any moment. This is especially apparent when Lady Macbeth mourns a dead child, and sees his swingset on a foggy, backlit hill, which seems to be a questionable place for a play area.

There's also the matter of Wright deciding that Macbeth needed more gratuitous nudity. Of course, the original didn't have too much nudity, everyone was played by men, no boobs to be seen. Shocked at this outrage, Lady Macbeth - who is now a coke fiend - has her big final moment topless, breasts sashaying about. This does not compare to the Weird Sisters, originally ugly witches made into sexy ladies. Who Macbeth has sex with, in a scene so bizarre I had to laugh. Plus, for the ladies, Sam Worthington misplaces his shirt at least once, and has a gratuitous shower scene.

It takes a profoundly stupid director to make you realize the overall quality of the story. His detours are inconsistent, his added scenes don't usually work, apart from the opening gun battle, and as a whole it's amazing how many bad directorial decisions are made during the course of the film. Yet, it's good, because the story is good, and it's built on a quality foundation.

There's a reason Shakespeare has lived long after his contemporaries have faded from the popular consciousness. Ben Johnson, to most people, is just a steroid enthusiast and sprinter, but at the time he was a big gun in the world of theatre too. Shakespeare lives because no matter how incompetent the director, how mediocre the actors, and how much people try to ruin it, it still works. With any other base, this movie would have been awful. It could even be argued that it is awful. But it's got a good story, and no matter how many bad decisions are made, nothing can change that. I should hope other filmed versions are better though.

Also, the credits go in the opposite direction. Oh those silly Australians.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Kanto Warrior

Let me introduce you to Seijun Suzuki.

Once upon a time, in Japan, there was a film studio called Nikkatsu. It treated film like a production line, taking well worn stories, giving them to a lineup of directors with a short time frame to film and a small budget. One of these directors was Seijun Suzuki, who was making B-movies. Suzuki soon realized that, since he wasn't the main draw, he could do whatever he wanted and nobody would notice. His films got steadily weirder, as he generally mucked about on company time, ignoring scripts and getting all silly with the camera and editing. He figured that by staying under budget and on time, he could do whatever he wanted. Eventually, the bosses at Nikkatsu caught on, and fired him after he made Branded to Kill, for making "movies that didn't make any sense and didn't make any money."

To be fair, they had a point.

Let's be honest, as someone who loves inventive visuals and can get behind movies that don't make any sense, I like Suzuki. Whatever one thinks of the stories of his movies, they look cool, and they do a lot with a very obviously limited budget. He's one of those directors who sees the screen as a toy, something he can use to make whatever he wants. As such, he'll often do tricks with light, unconventional framing, or in his best party trick, use the limitations of his set to make some sort of strange artistic point, such as having the walls collapse and having the outside be solid red.

Truth be told, it's important that he gets clever with his filming, and often ignores his scripts, because he's not really given great material. Take Kanto Wanderer, today's random movie. The story doesn't really have an overarching plot, just an assortment of subplots colliding in a fiery car crash. The star is Akira Kobayashi, and he's a Yakuza, or Japanese gangster. He also wears absurd eyebrows for some reason, though this isn't as bad as the bizarre chipmunk cheeks of the star of Branded to Kill. He's really the only link between the assortment of storylines, which all haphazardly combine in the end. There's really no overarching plot here, just a bunch of things that happen.

If any other director approached this film, it would just be a forgettable b-movie from the 60s. In a way, it still is, but there are glimmers of clever film making. Suzuki plays merrily with light and shadow, and some scenes are more notable for the clever lighting used than what is happening. There are also some scenes which serve to make some sort of thematic point, purely by the way they're shot. There are school girls that are shot in an idyllic, dream-like manner, but only when they're alone. Otherwise, it's a gritty world, to suggest some sort of point about innocence.

As Suzuki goes, while this has elements of his style, it's really not quite special enough to be considered one of his best works. However, you've got to appreciate just how much he plays with the format, and how much better it makes this movie as a result. It's not great, but without the adventures in lighting, it would have been terrible. You can see on many frames there's real creativity there. It's a film by a director slowly finding his voice and his eyes, and there are snippets of clever in the middle of a fairly standard film. It's not as amazing as what killed his career, but it is a glimpse into a developing style.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Lake House

Today, let's take a break from the negativity of last week and refresh ourselves with a movie I mostly liked. This is not a surprise, since it's a remake of a different movie I mostly liked, except with Keanu Reeves. It's The Lake House, believe it or not.

The Lake House started life in the far off land of Korea, as an extremely gimmicky romance called Il Mare. It comes to America as an extremely gimmicky romance starring everyone's favorite perpetually confused actor Keanu Reeves and the generally charming Sandra Bullock. Reeves is an architect living in a house, on a lake. Sandra Bullock is a doctor from the future who lived in the same house. With the help of a magical dog and a deus ex mailbox, they send each other letters and fall in love.

What I liked about the Korean original was the unique, almost dreamlike atmosphere that was created. A combination of the music, the swirly camerawork, and the voice over created a lovely, comforting dream of a universe you couldn't help but feel comfortable in.

So, as I mostly liked this version, at its best moments it does what the Korean original did best. While it's cool to mock Reeves and his one facial expression, he's got some undeniable chemistry with Bullock, who remains one of the most likable leading ladies there is, no matter how many movies use that as an unfortunate crutch. When they're sharing a scene or a moment, the movie becomes a nice place to be.

Unfortunately, there are scenes where Bullock and Reeves are not in the same scenes, and these are usually the weakest. I might only be remembering the best parts, but I don't recall some awkward family drama in the original, or the "being a doctor's hard!" scenes Bullock is cursed with. There's an unfortunate intersection with the real world that seems to be inserted to be more acceptable to American audiences, who might be less receptive to Korean gimmick movies.

The sensible can say that this movie isn't that great. The plot holes are large enough to drive a truck through, and there are times when the emotion is a bit too forced. But it's not a logic piece, it's a mood piece, and the mood created is wonderful, full of ambiance, light and emotion. Don't think too hard, and let yourself get lost in the picture.