The Next Thing

Thoughts On Visual Culture

2014: My Year in Music

The best songs of 2014. I listened to all of them.

13. Ga In ft. Bumkey – “Fxxk U”

 12. SISTAR – “I Swear”

11. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy – “Kill Dil” (sung by Sonu Nigam + Shankar Mahadevan, from Kill Dil OST)

10. ARASHI – “Bittersweet”

09. The-Dream – “Outkast”

08. Girls’ Generation – “Mr.Mr.”

07. Akdong Musician – “200%”

06. The Weeknd – “Earned It”

05. A.R. Rahman – “Maahi Ve” (from Highway OST)

04. 4minute – “Only Gained Weight”

03. FKA twigs – “Two Weeks”

02. Javiera Mena – “Otra Era”

01. Especia – “Abyss”

My 2014 in Film

These are the best older movies I saw all year.

Discoveries

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One Way Passage (Tay Garnett, 1932)

Heartbreaking in every sense, formally inventive, and just damn great.

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Me and My Gal (Raoul Walsh, 1932)

If this film was nothing but Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett trading barbs, it would be a masterpiece. And, yet, they exist and there’s a plot and there are characters and dialogue and a million other pleasures (characters address the camera directly, the play with VO, etc.) that both distract, enhance and make the whole thing feel like a bit of play. I could watch movies like this forever.

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The Bells of St. Mary’s (Leo McCarey, 1945)

It all comes down to those final 5 minutes. Bing Crosby suppressing everything inside of himself, McCarey giving us that incredible profile of his face, tempestuous emotions barely hinted at, and finally that final act of confession. Those last 5 minutes are nothing short of miraculous in their mastery of filmmaking. The rest ain’t bad either.

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Fort Apache (John Ford, 1948)

“These are our heroes, our fathers who made us what we are today; in a way, they are ourselves. A Kubrick applies placeboes to our consciences, showing us that evil, warped men cause evil; but Ford makes us uncomfortable, showing us that fine, noble people cause
evil — and reminding us that, however much we decry what they did, we are not about to undo their work.” – Tag Gallagher

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Way of a Gaucho (Jacques Tourneur, 1952)

Play it with Jauja and let it rip.

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Floating Clouds (Mikio Naruse, 1955)

A series of confrontations without resolution; a film that begs for some kind of release but never quite gives you any. It’s basically a series of encounters that explore the main relationship between the main couple, hitting at it from new angles, showing new developments and wrinkles, but basically remaining at a sort of stasis. Naruse’s brilliance is exploiting that lack of forward movement, restaging it as a sort of sad dance between the two main characters that only has one ending.

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Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)

Nothing less than a comic tour de force by Marylin Monroe in surely one of the great performances of all time

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Wild River (Elia Kazan, 1960)

Although its insights and exploration of the American South are part of the reason why Wild River is great, what I end coming up back to is Lee Remick. The film juxtaposes the stillness, the severity and passivity of Montgomery Clift beautifully against the rawness of Remick. There’s a keys scene late in the film where Remick implores Clift to take her with him where she allows herself to be as vulnerable as any actor I’ve ever seen. She cycles through a series of complex emotions, all expressed in a series of hesitant facial expressions and stop-start line readings that’s as masterful a bit of acting that I’ve ever seen. But it’s the scene that finds both of them covered in mud, their entire dynamic expressed in a couple of line exchanges, that renders me speechless in its resigned beauty; its masterful staging and execution just a nice bonus. Whole movie’s sorta like that.

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Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Blake Edwards, 1961)

Two drifters off to see the world
There’s such a lot of world to see
We’re after the same rainbow’s end
Waiting ’round the bend, my huckleberry friend
Moon river and me

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Donovan’s Reef (John Ford, 1963)

It takes a master to be this casually simple, to almost seem dramatically slack, as if nothing important is happening on the screen. It’s the personality that shapes the film, the spirit behind it, that gives grace to Lee Marvin’s silly antics (his fascination with the model train set!), and that dramatizes, without ever descending into preachiness, a community built upon shared history and pain (the war and its aftermath links everyone). The film’s treatment of miscegenation and racial tolerance is simply the logical outgrowth of its handling of community – everyone understands each other, and where they come from – and it’s beautiful.

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Lifeguard (Daniel Petrie, 1976)

Sensitively acted and directed, Lifeguard is almost completely unlike what its poster would suggest. Instead of “every girl’s summer dream,” the film sets out to show the various moral choices available to Sam Elliott’s titular lifeguard. The film’s humor and more 70’s shit elements (little miniature stories like the flasher or the teen gropers) serve to balance the detours into moodier territory. That “territory” is ostensibly the film’s actual subject, and here is where it excels. The film’s ambivalent attitude towards its main character is there at every turn; instead of judging Elliott, it seems to be interested in what sort of decisions he’ll make about the life he wants to lead. That’s rare.

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Parvarish (Manmohan Desai, 1977)

The three Manmohan Desai films I’ve seen all featured pre-credit prologues that posed moral questions that the film would then go on to, at length, answer. Parvarish revolves around the question of nurture vs. nature, but it weaves its explorations of that idea into a series of hugely entertaining set pieces and riffs and, of course, musical numbers.  My favorite number might be the duet between Shabana and Neetu, where they go around stealing a bunch of watches and wallets and proclaim that all property belongs to the public. I mean, of course.

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They All Laughed (Peter Bogdanovich, 1981)

Classic screwball conventions filtered thru New Hollywood eyes. A film in love with movies and life, puzzles puzzles, just unbelievably perfect. And also corny. Staging its goofy caper moments in real city streets, scoring its celebratory (and more dazzling) stylistic and narrative coups to country music, tossing off its frequently brilliant dialogue like it doesn’t even matter, and, best of all, making every moment profoundly warm and funny while still embodying a hint of melancholy because things never work out this way, only in the movies – all of this embodied at every point by Ben Gazzara’s face, which seems to have internalized the film’s philosophy. So: you could say it’s a little sad and a little funny.

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Victor Victoria (Blake Edwards, 1982)

Trying to think of what to say about this film, but nothing I came up with came anywhere near the brilliant summation in Dave Kehr’s capsule review: “Blake Edwards’s 1982 sex comedy has the most beautiful range of tones of any American film of its period: it is a work of dry wit, high slapstick, black despair, romantic warmth, and penetrating intelligence.” So there you have it.

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Shanghai Blues (Tsui Hark, 1984)

A romantic comedy deeply rooted in particular historical place, where the fates of its characters are not determined solely by the particular of the plot, but also the currents of history. Tsui treats this moment not as background, but rather the instigator – what makes the events possible – and gives it proper weight. This is a miracle of a film. All of the setpieces, whether comic or romantic, are inventive and fun. But it’s in the beautiful realization of the character arcs (how the ending mirrors the beginning) and how its final goodbye is shaped by the weight of history that the film becomes truly great. Plus that final song, come on!

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Sound and Fury (Jean-Claude Brisseau, 1988)

Brisseau, for some reason tagged as a social realist thanks to this film and some earlier work, here expertly mines his milieu of social housing, schools and youth for his own purposes. Instead of underplaying his on-the-nose metaphor of innocence for his main lead, he actually does something interesting with it. Brisseau takes the metaphor and moves it past the figurative level, where the viewer is simply asked to make a connection, to something more primal, more mystical, something that aims for the unconscious, where it must be accepted as simple fact. The effect is immense simply because Brisseau risks failure at every turn.

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Distant Voices, Still Lives (Terence Davies, 1988)

As usual with Davies, this is immaculate, perfect filmmaking. Building off the achievements of his earlier trilogy, and specially the aesthetic advances he made on Death and Transfiguration, his first feature is a amalgamation of memory, song and family. Flashes of brutality are peppered throughout, and it’s only in the beautiful songs of Davies’ characters that they find any solace. Davies’ beautiful tableaux, dissolving into each other, linked by song, are some of my favorite movie memories of 2014.

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Les Sieges de l’Alcazar (Luc Moullet, 1989)

Delightful romantic comedy set in the midst of the 50’s Cahiers/Positif rivalry. It’s basically cinephile catnip. Hilarious start to finish – because of how specific about cinephilia it is – but also a snapshot of communal moviegoing that doesn’t quite exist anymore. Moullet allows for a certain romantic nostalgia for this era, while still lovingly skewering it. My favorite part is that one young critic who names Sam Newfield as “the only filmmaker who excites me.” Same critic later calls a fellow colleague who’s making their first film a traitor. It’s the little things.

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Carlito’s Way (Brian De Palma, 1993)

Carlito’s Way is—no kidding—a story of spiritual rebirth: a mythic western in Seventies crime thriller drag about a man who realizes, deep into his forties, that the thug life he’d killed to create is in fact an imitation of life—not just immoral and shallow, but silly and boring.” – MSZ

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New Rose Hotel (Abel Ferrara, 1998)

A Ferrara remix of Notorious that is less interested in its cyberpunk international intrigue plotting than the freeform dissolve heavy collapsing of time and space, bending over backwards to depict the relationship between its three main characters, and how easily it becomes convoluted due to the exploitation at the heart of it. Stylistically, this is rapturously beautiful; a mixture of reds and blues bathing several scenes of intimacy, interiors that never quite spatially cohere, and an ending that goes on forever, as Dafoe’s character wallows in despair. Truly mesmerizing work that simply refuses to settle down and have you make sense of it, forever out of reach.

Contemporary

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Love and Basketball (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2000)

An intelligent adult romance that treats both sides of the couple with equal complexity and gives each character their own narrative and aspirations. It also grounds its characters within a specific milieu that’s explored with sensitivity, and allows for nuance and depth in character relations. My favorite moment in the film is probably the final Dennis Haybert / Omar Epps heart to heart. It shows the care that Prince-Bythewood has for her characters that she also takes the time to develop the character’s parents, because along with basketball, they also act as the moral foundation for who they eventually become. And, of course, parts of this are just beautiful and romantic like few movies I know of. The entire basketball strip game is pitch perfect, along with its callback at film’s end. Just extremely well-done mainstream filmmaking.

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Maqbool (Vishal Bhardwaj, 2003)

Bhardwaj’s 2nd feature, and first of his Shakespeare trilogy, recasts Macbeth into a tale of the Indian underworld. Maqbool moves with an intensity and intelligence that’s largely thanks to the consummate skill of its cast. Featuring of a who’s who of Indian’s most respected actors, the acting in this film is subtle and soulful, embodied here by Irrfan Khan’s and Pankaj Kapur’s twin MPV performances. Each man quiet and demure, their faces often still, masking the deep undercurrents of thought roiling about in there, delivers all-time great performance. Kapur’s performance in particular, his shuffling gait, unhurried and soft-spoken delivery, hearkens to something like Brando in The Godfather. Tabu’s very existence, tempting men, with her moles, her gaze, everything about her, just impossible. Bhardwaj’s crime drama also works as as interesting reworking of Macbeth, adding some wrinkles here and there (the sections emphasizing the questions of lust and paternity are probably the most interesting) to the text, while also having some stuff with it (the references to the Bollywood/mafia connection are pretty hilarious).

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Spanglish (James L. Brooks, 2004)

What I value about this film (and about the Brooks films I’ve seen, I suppose) is his tendency to populate his film with relentlessly odd characterizations. How Do You Know works because its characters are constantly engaging in self-analysis, the film rubbing them up against characters don’t really require that level of introspection. It makes for an interesting frisson, if you will. Spanglish is similarly interesting for the peculiarity of the reactions. Sandler is something of a small miracle here; every action and facial tic is constantly unpredictable. The way he handles things or doesn’t handle them constantly surprising. Paz Vega’s character is more conventional in how she’s portrayed, but is also given her own eccentricities (the way she admits that she was being hypocritical is maybe my favorite scene, or her final scene with her daughter…) Tea Leoni’s housewife character draws the most interesting and ambiguous responses; she’s proof of Brooks’ self-conscious attempts at complex characterization and neurosis, but her performance almost reaches kabuki-levels of stylization and weirdness (I’ve never seen someone with such a pained/strained look on their face) that constantly push the film into territory that’s uncomfortable and strange.

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The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005)

I realize it works as pitch black comedy, but this works the best as dogged procedural. Each character Lazarescu meets has a checklist that they work through as they inspect his body, ask the same exact questions, and run this situation through their own training, judgment and indifference. The unvarnished style and pallid color scheme only serve to highlight how awful everything that’s happening is. But, as the process, fastidious and necessary, grows more and more absurd as the night wears on, which is where the comedy comes in, specially as the doctors start basically acting like assholes.

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Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa, 2006)

Structured around a series of repeating motifs: Ventura in a room with another, listening, his letter, his silence, shadows. Costa has come through the other side after In Vanda’s Room, where his subjects completely determined the form and structure of the film, to here where he feels more comfortable shaping them to his own needs. The most interesting development is the inclusion of some surreal elements, which lend parts of the film a mythic quality, like the film’s environment is an expression of Ventura’s mind.

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Night and Day (Hong Sangsoo, 2008)

The Hong male writ large.

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Bright Star (Jane Campion, 2009)

Part of the reason why this film packs such a wallop is how closely it sticks to Cornish’s perspective. This isn’t dainty costume drama, but an often passionate tale of first love that (like Scorsese’s Age of Innocence) is enacted through and sticks to the social codes of the its setting. It’s undeniably intimate and it often feels undeniably beautiful precisely because of what doesn’t happen. Its explication of how a poem works invariably describes the mode this film operates in, preferring sensations, textures and emotional logic to a clean and tidy progression of plot details. That final quick fadeout is as enigmatic as anything else in cinema.

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Mausam (Pankar Kapur, 2011)

Unlike Jab Tak Hai Jaan, this is actually a successful attempt at an old-fashioned romantic melodrama. Not that it comes from another era, but rather that it tries to take seriously its character’s emotions and actions and doesn’t shy away from exploring them with true heft and consideration.

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Gangs of Wasseypur (Anurag Kashyap, 2012)

First half tells of origins: grudges, fathers, sons, marriages, history. Second half then systematically obliterates all those things. The time we spend in that first half is crucial – the mini narratives (detours into lust, pot smoke, aviator glasses, and more) are told with verve, color and energy – because of how sharply they contrast with the overwhelming violence of the second half. The Bollywood myths of its characters are brought into relief in the second half as its characters struggle to act out the roles they envision for themselves. Kashyap’s pop historical vision is one forged with blood, incredible songs, and a lot of guys trying to be the hero.

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It’s Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt, 2012)

I was only vaguely familiar with Hertzfeldt’s work before this so I was completely unprepared for how emotionally far-reaching and how inventive its techniques are. It’s honestly damn overwhelming what a perfect object it is. Hard to know what to say about it.

Miscellaneous

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Hercules and the Captive Women (Vittorio Cottafavi, 1961)

Immaculate staging anchors this film. Cottafavi’s directions of brawls is as good as Ford’s! A film of simple pleasures and mysterious strengths. Hard to say why I liked it so much, but Hercules being a giant asshole is surely part of it!

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Enter the Fat Dragon (Sammo Hung, 1978)

*writes compare/contrast essay on Robert Clouse’s stodgy, personality vacuum direction in Enter the Dragon versus Sammo Hung’s always fleet and agile HK-rooted mise en scene*

Nah.

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Angel Guts: Red Classroom (Chusei Sone, 1979)

What I said you to then… remains true today. Get out of this place. You shouldn’t be here.

There’s something about pink film that can just spook the very core of your soul. It’s probably because the form allows for, and encourages, subject matter that can often be depressing and horrifying. The film begins with depravity then struggles to head toward innocence. But inevitably it all ends in disappointment and disillusionment. The film’s boldest stylistic coup is the distortion the film applies to a key rendezvous in the film when the depths of Nami’s issues becomes clear (her sadness, her fury). But it’s the film’s ending that serves as the true gut punch. The film truly descends into hell, and the promises made earlier in the film, seen in an incredible long shot, are rebuked and forgotten. The film’s final two shots are stunning (the shock of that closeup, and then the abstract reflected body) are rich in ambiguity and power, evoking nothing less than The Third Man. As the film’s evocative theme song plays in the background, these lost souls stumble into the night.

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Hardly Working (Jerry Lewis, 1980)

Begins with a curious greatest hits montage of Lewis’ past bits scored to Who’s Minding the Store‘s great typewriter scene, serving as both commentary on Lewis the actor/director’s past triumphs and also as back story to the clown figure of this new movie. Moves on to scene after scene of Lewis trying and failing to assimilate to normal society – Lewis acting as instigator of a thousand small disasters at whatever job he chooses to try next. Even after watching most of his films, HARDLY WORKING still registered as completely bizarre. Lewis is so oddly mannerist; he stretches the fabric of the world at will just to accommodate his gags, discarding things like emotional tenor, logic or causality. If it gets in the way of the scene, the timing of it, then it must go. What this leaves us with is Lewis bending the world and its people to his own peculiar point of view, shredding its plot progression into a series of stop-start sequences that hang around ill-fitting, and turning his characters into Bressonian after school special wannabes. The whole thing is bizarre and weird and desperate. As it should be.

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Blue Rain Osaka (Masaru Konuma, 1983)

My quippy take on this is that it’s basically like a pink version of Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. Past lovers, secret meetings, and a giant brawl that almost caps off the action of the film – it’s pretty good.

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Darr (Yash Chopra, 1993)

The first musical number tells us everything: starting with a creepy scene of voyeurism where Juhi Chawla’s character, Kiran, almost disrobes to the song’s lyrics coyly suggesting that regardless of her consent, Kiran will be his. Darr doesn’t start in the realm of pure romantic love; instead it begins with a love that has morphed into a dangerous obsession. The imagery of this number is all subterfuge: Kiran believes she’s being serenaded by her lover and rushes toward him carelessly, her trek through a tree-lined path and empty hallways perhaps leading toward her doom.

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Pom Poko (Isao Takahata, 1994)

So eccentric and rambunctious. Instead of the ostentatious crescendos and moral algebra at play in something like Princess Mononoke (which I love), Pom Poko flows freely from vignette to vignette, only allowing its implications to surface in outbursts. At points, it felt like some political insurgent movie that just happened that star tanuki. At others, it felt like some kinda lost family melodrama (those final transformations one last hurrah for now gone way of life). It’s bizarre and troubling and beautiful.

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Hollow Man (Paul Verhoeven, 2000)

It’s probably a credit to Verhoeven’s vision and the general hatefulness here that I thought for a long time how a pink film version of this would turn out. The film begins with Bacon but when he disappears cedes control of the narrative to other characters. Verhoeven’s camera, however, often assumes his POV, usually to horrific effect. His complexity is laid bare in those moments, not only stylistically, but also thematically – he will always align himself with that he critiques, take on its characteristics and exploit their effectiveness, even as he eviscerates them ideologically.

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The Brothers Solomon (Bob Odenkirk, 2007)

The real trick here is how unabashedly sweet and good-natured Forte and Arnett play the brothers. And when they do break a mean-spirited crack, they only do so for the best reasons (the “look at the tits on that one” joke probably made me laugh more than anything else I saw all year). The reason why the film works is because it embraces the insanity of its characters and their logic all the while building off the emotional core that is the brothers’ bond with each other. It’s uneven, but goddamn funny.

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Dredd (Pete Travis, 2012)

Though similar in plot and structure, this couldn’t be further away from the cold, brutally efficient world of Gareth Evans’ The Raid. This film’s sensibility is far more fluid and ambiguous; ranging from ridiculous splatterfest to druggy atmospherics and other weirdo pockets. Truly disreputable and dangerous because its characters are at one with their world and because the film plunges head first into it as well.

On PING PONG

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Ping Pong is an adaptation of a Taiyo Matsumoto manga that ran in Big Comic Spirits during the mid 90’s. Essentially, it’s the story about Peco and Smile, two close friends with different attitudes toward life who are both very good at ping pong. Peco (Kubozuka Yosuke) is our loud, boisterous hero who, although good, doesn’t go to practice anymore, and generally coasts on his talent. Smile (Arata), nicknamed that because he never does, is the very silent type. He views ping pong as a way to kill time, and although he’s extremely talented, he doesn’t like to take the game very seriously.

That Ping Pong is one of the best sports movie I’ve ever seen can be credited pretty much entirely to the source manga. The story is so strong and the characters are so well-defined that any director simply has to try and be generally faithful to that. Although Fumihiko is no auteur, he generally understands that the story and the characters are what are important here, and he basically tries to get out of the way. But, Ping Pong is better than the manga, and it all has to do with the execution. There’s very little in this film that doesn’t originate from the source material, but Fumihiko transcends it at points solely because I believe we’re able to understand the rhythm of the matches better in live-action.

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As a key piece of evidence, I’d like to analyze the beauty of the climactic match at the end of the film. At the beginning of the match, Fumihiko skillfully uses slow motion so we can understand the thought processes of the two players. We see the physical exertion that taking those big swings requires. Like any other sports film, Fumihiko also cuts back to the audience for some commentary so we can understand the importance of each rally. And, because this was adapted from a sports manga, the characters converse with each other between points (claiming that they’ll win, etc.). As the game progresses, we get some cross-cutting between the game, and the stairs where Smile and his coach sit conversing. This links both things together, as part of the importance of the game is whether Peco will be finally be able to become the “hero” that Smile has wanted him to be. We also get quick glimpses into his “hero” persona from the past, as he takes off his mask and gets ready to finally win.

Most of the action is rendered in singles – that is, each character is showed reacting to the shot and swinging back. I’m assuming partly because Fumihiko doesn’t want to rely too much on the special effects ping pong bouncing around, but also partly because he’s saving it up for when it matters. Part of the ongoing narrative that’s been woven throughout the final tournament is that Peco’s knee is acting up, and as he retreats to his mind in between rallies, he conjures up images of himself as a hero. It’s in the following passages where the film shines the most. Through editing, Smile and Peco are able to have an emotional dialogue about what’s going on. Fumihiko then cuts back to show Smile waiting on the steps where he and Peco used to wait when they were kids. By placing him on those steps, Fumihiko explicitly links the match happening right now to the motivations and feelings of their early childhood. Smile’s voice-over and dialogue with Peco, skillfully conveyed by Fumihiko, are the motivation that’s required to finally win the match. Smile says to Peco: “you can have fun here.” That’s just what’s going to happen. Supercar’s “FREE YOUR SOUL” starts playing in the background as Peco shakes off his injury and begins to play, and what follows is pure pop transcendence as Fumihiko’s fast-cutting, judiciously used slow-mo, and one bravura reverse tracking shot (that becomes a crane shot) allows the fast back and forth between the players to finally manifest itself, as Peco and his rival have the match of a lifetime.

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All of this is right on the page of Taiyo Matsumoto’s manga, but it truly comes alive in the film. I believe that my analysis of the scene described above acts as a microcosm for the strenghts of the film as a whole. This is a really fun and exciting movie. I hope that all of you can make some time for it. It’s really quite special.

As I previously mentioned, most of the strengths of the film can be found in the source manga. Taiyo Matsumoto is most famous in the west thanks to a film adaptation of his 1994 work, Tekkonkinkreet (also known as Black & White, but he’s created numerous wonderful works).  My favorite of his is probably Hana Otoko, an incredibly moving series about a baseball-obsessed father and his relationship with his son.

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Matsumoto’s art is a mixture of wobbly, imperfect lines, that’s both incredibly impressive and seemingly off the cuff. His style isn’t particularly realistic or detail-oriented, but he’s always interested in expressiveness above all else. It may seem crude at first, but Matsumoto’s nuances become more pronounced the more you read him. Which, of course, I recommend you do.
Ping Pong is one of the more conventional things he’s ever done – it’s more or less a simple shounen sports story. But what a rich one it is! I’ve never minded formulas or clichés (as a fan of anime, how could I?) if they’re done correctly. In Ping Pong, Matsumoto takes the usual archetypes and wrings truth and emotion out of them.

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My favorite character of both the manga and the film is Kazama. He’s the high school champion and leader of an elite ping pong team. But, before every game, he locks himself up in a restroom to be alone. Why does he do this? Part of the beauty of Ping Pong is how it humanizes all its characters, even supporting ones. Think about how Kong, the Chinese player, ends up really caring for the teammates at his high school, or the changes in Sakuma, Peco’s old rival. But none of them move me as much as Kazama does. He’s relentless, only focused on winning, and stronger and more intimidating than any other player. He’s also aware of his limitations. As soon as he spots Smile, he gets a quick and accurate reading of his talent (and even says that it’s above his own), and immediately starts training to defeat him. As Kong watches Kazama play, he remarks that maybe for Kazama ping pong is pain. Suddenly, the way he locks himself up in the restroom begins to make more sense.
Thanks to his character, and his eventual match against Peco, Matsumoto hits on a really interesting theme. I described in detail the mechanics of the scene as depicted in the film, but I didn’t really get into why it’s so important and so thrilling. During this match, something strange and beautiful starts to happen – Kazama begins to smile. Playing against such a strong opponent as Peco, allows for Kazama to finally feel some joy in the game. It’s one of the most beautiful realizations that no matter the outcome, sports can often be beautiful. Matsumoto literalizes this emotion by suddenly whisking away his two players away from the gymnasium. A recurrent motif in <b>Ping Pong</b> is flying/soaring (Peco throws himself off a bridge to show that he can fly), and Matsumoto reintroduces this motif in this match, as seagulls fly over their heads. Peco and Kazama are pushing each other to greater and greater heights and as the game is finishing up, one of them tells the eventual winner to bring him back to this place again. These two players will chase this feeling forever. I’ve still never seen another work quite get what can be so transcendent about playing sports.

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On RUROUNI KENSHIN

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Rurouni Kenshin is an adaptation of the beloved manga/anime series. As such, it’s not a work that allows itself many liberties with the source material. Sure, it conflates a few things, adds in characters who shouldn’t be there and all that, but it pretty much sticks to the work. It’s a respectful adaptation, one that tries to honor the original work and its message. It’s also a really boring film. For the uninitiated, Rurouni Kenshin tells the story of a former legendary assassin who, after participating in the Bakumatsu war, has taken an oath to never kill again. He now wanders the countryside, wearing his reverse blade sword, and minding his own business. Of course, oaths are meant to be broken, and pretty much everything that happens in the film is direct challenge to that oath.

The director, Keishi Ohtono, mostly known for his work on TV, does not quite bring enough visual flair to the table. His main decision seems to color code certain scenes. Any big outside battle scene is done using dark, gray colors (or takes place at night). Ohtono emphasizes the bloody, grimy nature of the battle scenes. That’s fine as far as directorial decisions go. It suggests the chaotic, often morally fraught, nature of battle. But the fight scenes themselves aren’t really choreographed all that well. There’s no purpose in the camera’s movement; it’s simply a recording of slashes and blood. Ohtono captures all that stuff, but he simply edits in between different camera setups. He never really captures Kenshin’s movement as his camera is often too close to the action. He films his actions, but not their meaning and their logic. Ohtono shoots his daytime scenes with an almost golden hue that, at its worst, turns into an ugly, brownish beige. What all of this boils down to is that the film simply isn’t aesthetically interesting or worthwhile. No matter how faithful he is to the material, Ohtono fails to make it come alive.

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The film is mostly an adaptation of the first dozen or so episodes of the anime series. However, there are a few differences. Kanryu Takeda is the main villain of the film, and everything that happens is basically under him. The Oniwabanshu are not in the film (although we do get Henya, since he looks cool). Instead, Udo Jin-e is the person in charge of protecting Kanryu. Remember him? He’s the one with the freaky eyes who could freeze people in fear. Jin-e is also the person who pretends to be “Hitokiri Battosai” in the film, whereas in the series that fell to the former student of Kaoru’s dojo, Gohei Kimura. Saito Hajime even shows up, since he’s a fan favorite and who wants to wait until the sequel to see him. The film even puts material from the OVA as a quick flashback (it explains how he got one part of his scar).

This shuffling of characters and stories is fine, but I think they could’ve gone even further in that regard. As it stands, there are too many characters that the film has to include, and the film does justice to barely any of them. The film includes Sanosuke and even has him battle it out with Kenshin, but it doesn’t really give a reason as to why he should be someone we care about. Yahiko ends up being a complete background character. Hell, even Kaoru, ostensibly the female lead of the series, gets short-changed; which makes the final dialogue exchange (moving though it is in concept) ring false. I would say only Megumi’s story gets any sort of depth, and that’s only because it’s connected to defeating Kanryu. I would’ve preferred a more lean narrative that focused on the major characters and actually developed them more, even if it meant being a little more libertine with the source material. By trying to stuff so many of the expected character/narrative beats in the film, there’s just no room for any personality or life to come out. It’s disappointing.

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Although the film adaptation tries to be respectful and honor the original work, it fails to capture some of the more interesting thematic strands of the original. A lot of the characters in the series have been affected by the events of the Bakumatsu. It seems like every other character that Kenshin meets is someone who never quite got over what happened during the revolution. Some feel betrayed by the outcome; some just want to fight like they used to back then. The Bakumatsu is a deep, psychic wound for the characters. Their actions in the present are largely motivated by what happened then.

In the series, samurai are largely seen as an outdated concept; in fact, people aren’t even allowed to have swords out in public anymore. But samurai were incredibly important during the revolution, and they had a hand in building this new Meiji era.   There’s an uneasy tension between the violent men it took to build this new era and modernity itself. Men who haven’t been absorbed into the peaceful rhythms of the Meiji era keep popping up, violent aberrations from the way things are now. And then there’s Yahiko and Kaoru and Kenshin’s delightful “oro” and all the little cute things which might seem goofy or annoying if you’re solely into the action elements of the show, but actually serve a purpose – this is what Kenshin will fight for and die trying to protect. The beauty of Kenshin is that it allows both of these realities to exist alongside each other, stressing the ambiguity inherent in society’s progress. Plus they’re just both badass movies.

Kenshin is lucky that he’s able to find a new community, a new home to belong to.  Rurouni Kenshin is an optimistic work, but it never lets us forget the violent depths of our main character; it’s an optimism that’s truly earned, as it’s framed as a constant internal struggle. That struggle makes the eventual happy ending all the more greater.

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On Sion Sono’s HIMIZU

Since the website I used to post a bunch of stuff for went under, it’s about time I put up some of it here. Some of it will appear in slightly re-edited form.

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Sion Sono, over the last 5 or so years, has become a pretty big name in the contemporary Japanese film scene. The release of his epic 4-hour film, Love Exposure, brought him lots of fans, as it should’ve. Since then, he’s become extremely prolific, releasing one or two films every single year.

Himizu is an adaptation of a manga written by Minoru Furuya in 2001. It tells the story of a 14-year-old boy, Yuichi Sumida (Shota Sometani), who ends up being abandoned by both his father and his mother. Left to his own devices, he continues to run their boat rental shop. The story is set in the aftermath of the 3/11 disaster. Sono apparently was going to make a straight adaptation of the manga, but then later chose to adapt the story to reflect this new reality. It’s the best decision he could’ve made.

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The film is a raw, festering wound. It isn’t interested in subtlety, or nuance. It’s a film that bludgeons. It could exist no other way. Often, Himizu registers as a litany of punishments. First, Sumida’s dad shows up and beats the crap out of him. Then his mom leaves him and takes off with her boyfriend. Before long, the yakuza are looking for some owed money. The film does not allow, at any moment, for Sumida to feel any sort of internal peace. His world is in a constant state of chaos. Sono mirrors that chaos with his often ragged, hand-held camera, which plunges head first into the muck of every situation.

Part of the internal struggle of the Sumida character is that he deeply wishes to live a normal, ordinary life. But nothing that happens during the course of the film seems to allow for that possibility. Everyone around him seems on the edge of existence. Victims of the 3/11 disaster have set up small sheds on his family’s property, and although they seem to have become a sort of make-shift family, it isn’t one that will step in when Sumida is being beat up by his father. Only an older man, Yoruno (Tetsu Watanabe), seems to go the extra mile in trying to protect this boy (his little side story with a pickpocket is hilariously over the top, terrifying, and hopeful). But Sumida has no use for kindness and, for the most of the film, he goes about rejecting it and sinking further and further into complete despair.

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The beauty of Himizu lies in its complete awkwardness, its earnestness. It’s a shambolic, slapstick take on total suffering. The characters spend the entirety of the movie screaming and slapping each other, rolling about in the muck, trying to murder random people; it’s crazy. It’s a world where there is not just one, but two psycho-with-a-knife incidents. It’s a world where a mother makes a gallows so her daughter can kill herself. It’s a world that is conceived in complete emotional extremes. Whether the film works or not for you relies on the ability to buy into this exaggerated vision of existence. It’s a messy, imperfect work; but, as it’s young characters envision a happier future for themselves a in candle-lit dump, away from the world, it arrives at an emotional purity that is only able to happen because of the extremity of the approach. Sumida’s tears and eventual smile signal a message of hope that seemed impossible at the start.

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Released in 2001, Minoru Furuya’s Himizu marked a turning point for the author. In the 90’s, he had released works such as Ping Pong Club and was known for his comedic flare. Starting with Himizu and continuing with Ciguatera he began to explore darker themes in a more serious way.

Minoru Furuya’s Himizu differs from its adaptation in one significant manner. It lacks a social context. Sono situates his characters in post-3/11 Japan, and allows his observations and characters to stem from that environment. But Furuya’s Sumida – what forms him? Just like his film counterpart, he has a ton of bad things happen to him, but his rants and opinions, divorced from his socioeconomic situation, come off as adolescent posturing. Sumida’s point of view and character register more like seinen cliches, and less like a legitimate character. Furuya’s art and character design doesn’t help much, either. His designs are grotesque and exaggerated, and that lends the work an uneasy tension. Furuya’s self-seriousness is sabotaged, almost, by his unwillingness to play it straight. There’s always an awkward joke nudged in there, an unwelcome protrusion, that distracts. Ciguatera, his follow-up work, would find a better balance.

Love is the Moment: Some Notes on Heirs

heirs_episode_8_img_5 Read the rest of this entry »

You’re Mine: On Yash Chopra’s Darr

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When watching Yash Chopra’s Darr, a quote from film critic Daniel Kasman regarding Frank Borzage’s History is Made at Night constantly came to mind:

“we see two great kinds of love, both obsessive: the transcendental which will sacrifice itself for the love, and the destructive, which will sacrifice anything else for that love.”

The first musical number tells us everything: starting with a creepy scene of voyeurism where Juhi Chawla’s character, Kiran, almost disrobes to the song’s lyrics coyly suggesting that regardless of her consent, Kiran will be his. Darr doesn’t start in the realm of pure romantic love; instead it begins with a love that has morphed into a dangerous obsession. The imagery of this number is all subterfuge: Kiran believes she’s being serenaded by her lover and rushes toward him carelessly, her trek through a tree-lined path and empty hallways perhaps leading toward her doom.

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Known primarily for being the film that launched Shahrukh Khan to stardom, Darr is a fascinating film that anticipates but also complicates his screen persona of the next two decades. The film tells the story of Kiran and Sunil (Sunny Deol), a young couple who are engaged to be married. He’s a badass navy guy who, in the film’s most incongruous scene, wipes out a boatful of baddies in a hostage rescue mission (by himself!). Kiran is home from school and just happy to stay at her brother’s house and just wait for life to be wonderful. And then there’s Rahul (Khan). Ostensibly a supporting performance, there’s not a moment in the film where his presence isn’t felt; the characters may not be thinking about him, but the audience is always aware of the danger lurking near. The film then turns toward a stalker narrative where Rahul harasses and tries to sabotage Kiran and Sunil’s relationship, while trying to tell her how much he loves her.

But, although there’s definitely moments of interest regarding that setup, I remained more invested in how the film takes the elements that would fuel SRK’s later Yash Raj films, and shows the flip side. The Swiss alps that Chopra loves so much and that show up continuously in the 90’s Yash Raj vehicles are perverted here. Although they act as fantasy in those films, too, here they are converted into Rahul’s demented vision of happiness. When he finally is able to hold Kiran in his arms in a platonic and friendly dance, he denies the reality of it, and imposes another narrative on top of it (which looks exactly the same as other films). In those other Yash Raj films, the fantasy aspect of it is shared between the characters, as their love for each other eliminated their physical reality and placed them into a higher plane (Kiran and Sunil have their own rendezvous in the alps in the film as well). Darr allows Rahul not only to hijack its narrative, but to reshape it in the way he would like it to be.

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By committing so fully to showing Rahul’s mania and obsession to wreak havoc upon its narrative, Darr truly becomes disturbing at points. Moments that should be celebratory and beautiful become rife with tension. The Holi celebration, a staple of the Hindi language cinema, takes on an element of danger, as Rahul inserts himself into it, participating in its rituals. As he witnesses the flirtation between Kiran and Sunil, his beating of the drum become more and more desperate. The scene takes on two different meanings: we’re watching the movie this could be if Rahul weren’t present, and also waiting for the shoe to drop as it were – we wait for Rahul to make the scene about himself. His action in the scene, mirroring the song’s lyrics (“douse the colors on me my love”), are another perversion of the traditions of the Bollywood narrative (the Holi powder could be standing in for his blood).

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The ultimate tension at the heart of the film, and the reason why it’s so powerful, is because you can feel its characters trying desperately to live another happier story, but Rahul resists all their attempts and drags them into his personal hell, turning this into a completely different and terrifying film.

Darr (1993)

Directed by Yash Chopra

Yash Raj Films

On So I Can’t Play H!

When I requested this title to review, my interest lay in how it acted as an anime that was representative of a greater trend of censored TV shows that appeared in their full uncensored glory on DVD (something like Queen’s Blade is probably the one plus ultra of this development, I imagine). Regardless, So I Can’t Play H! does offer some valuable insights into this type of show. Too bad it’s a terrible show.

When I was a kid, I used to watch Ranma ½ every day after school. It ran on a block with Slam Dunk, Dragon Ball, Saint Seiya and Simpsons episodes. That’s the stuff I grew up on. As everyone who’s ever seen Ranma can attest, there are tons of boobs in that show. In fact, way more than in So I Can’t Play H!. No one ever said anything about a little kid watching a show with all this nudity. I wonder what the grownups would’ve said if I were instead watching this show. Obviously, these shows have completely different aims, and serve completely different audience demands, but what brought the connection to my mind was the question of intent (and what would happen if certain elements were removed).

Read the rest of the article at ani.me.

so i can't play h

Images: Alone in Love

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Alone in Love (2006)

Episode 4 (dir. Han Ji-seung)

SBS

Movie Night with Jhon: Kimi ni Todoke

I’ve started writing a weekly column for the website ani.me. In this column, I’ll be taking a look at some live-action adaptations of manga and/or anime. This can range from some pretty big blockbuster titles to more obscure arthouse works. It’s all fair game. While I’ll be focusing on how these titles work as films, I’ll also have a section at the bottom of the article that discusses the source work by itself.

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In this week’s installment, I take a look at the 2010 adaptation of Kimi ni Todoke.

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