The Boy and the Beast

boyandthebeastWith The Boy and the Beast, Mamoru Hosoda has fused the pathos of Wolf Children with the vibrant chaos of Summer Wars. Hosoda has been anointed Miyazaki’s heir by all and sundry, but his comfort and skill both with endearing comedy and deep emotion truly justify the comparison. The Boy and the Beast may be the most Ghibli-esque yet of his films, but it retains his distinctive stamp of contemplative melancholy.

For the first time Hosoda presents us with a fantasy world, although one that exists alongside modern Japan. Young Ren has run away from his guardians after the death of his mother, and while wandering the streets of Tokyo he meets Kumatetsu, a humanoid beast from the neighbouring bakemono realm. The irascible and lonesome Kumatetsu is competing to take over as the new lord of his realm, and needs a pupil to help him. Seeking escape, Ren follows and starts a new life learning kendo with Kumatetstu, even though his new master has no idea how to teach his skills or raise a child.

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Discovering Kurosawa: High and Low

highandlowKurosawa was better known for his period pieces, so I’ve unconsciously gravitated to those first as I delve into his work. But he made plenty of contemporary films, and High and Low is considered one of the finest. It’s both a domestic drama and a crime thriller, and almost literally a splicing of the two: the first hour is confined to a family home before the case moves outside to the sweltering streets of Yokohama in summer.

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Ash vs Evil Dead Prep: Army of Darkness

army-of-darknessWe began with disappointment, continued with excitement, but sadly end with more disappointment.

I expected to have a ball with Army of Darkness, that it would build on the dazzling formalism of Evil Dead 2 with the added spark of fantasy and a medieval setting. But just as the first film has too much gore, this one has too much slapstick. The seedy, sexist overtones aren’t pleasant to watch either, whether or not they’re mocking action movie machismo. The trilogy functions as its own tonal spectrum: the first film is too gory and dark and the third too silly and overblown, with the second striking just the right balance between the two.

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Ash vs Evil Dead Prep: The Evil Dead

evildeadAsh vs Evil Dead, the TV series sequel to the original Evil Dead films starts on October 31. As is becoming increasingly common thanks to the rise of streaming services in Australia, I’ll be able to watch it fast-tracked without subscribing to Foxtel or forking out for an iTunes season pass, and in HD and without ads to boot. Stan is streaming it a few hours before its US broadcast.

Given the cult status of the original films and this unusual TV series continuation with the original star (Bruce Campbell) and director (Sam Raimi), I’m going to check it out. But I’d also like to be able to appreciate how the story is finally resuming and how the passage of time has changed how the material is handled, so I’m going to watch the original trilogy in the lead-up to the premiere. Raimi and Campbell have wanted to make an Evil Dead 4 for years, and for some reason it’s finally been greenlit despite the recent remake. Not as a film, however, but as a 30-minute TV series on Starz.

Coming soon after Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, which reunited the creators and all the original cast on the small screen despite their huge careers, Ash vs Evil Dead continues a trend where moving to TV is no longer a comedown for a film series. Both shows are on prestige venues rather than some basic cable backwater.

I saw bits and pieces of Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness over a decade ago, and recall enjoying their exuberant, demented sense of humour. Raimi’s trademark manic camerawork and Campbell’s frenzied mugging were exhilarating to watch, and I was impressed by how intensely energetic they were for horror comedies. For some reason I never got around to watching the entire trilogy, although because the original was reportedly more of a straight horror film – and a very gory one at that – I probably procrastinated.

But no, there’s a TV continuation to prepare for, dammit, so I bit the bullet. And the first trailer for the series was so entertaining that I expected the films would be worth it.

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Early(ish) Cronenberg: Scanners

scannersBoy, this was disappointing. Released only two years before the tight and assured Videodrome, Scanners is nonetheless limp and flabby, a far more embyronic film than might be expected at this point in David Cronenberg’s career. He’d previously made six small features and Scanners was his breakout success, but its frequent monotony would suggest a filmmaker still learning his craft if we didn’t know otherwise.

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Discovering Kurosawa: Yojimbo and Sanjuro

yojimboA smaller film than Seven Samurai, Yojimbo still managed to be a huge influence on not only samurai movies but action-adventure cinema around the world. It’s not hard to see why. Yojimbo’s plot and characterisation feel archetypal and yet haven’t withered from being so emulated. Kurosawa also harmonises so many discordant tones that, despite being ‘simpler’ than Seven Samurai, the film remains a true accomplishment in its seeming effortlessness.

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Early(ish) Cronenberg: Videodrome (1983)

videodromeThe last Cronenberg I looked at was his 1986 remake of The Fly which, being a studio film, embedded his body horror motifs and subversive critiques in a more conventional narrative with a clear trajectory. His 1983 film Videodrome, however, was not a studio picture and demands far more of the viewer hoping to grasp Cronenberg’s vision. Reality and hallucination bleed together, the sexual grotesque is more pronounced, and meaning is more elusive.

But despite needing to decode some of the film’s less explicable ideas, I still found Videodrome to be – like the best obfuscatory or surrealist films – an intuitively powerful and satisfying experience. Its exploration of the transformative effect of the media and technology on the self still feels relevant today, even if the mediums have changed. It’s hard not to see the domineering effect of the internet on our thinking and lifestyles in how television and video inexorably consume James Woods in this film.
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Early(ish) Cronenberg: The Fly (1986)

the-flyI’ve seen a number of David Cronenberg’s recent and less bizarre films, including A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, and liked them a lot. But I’ve been curious about the earlier work that brought him fame: the phase from the start of his career through to the early 1990s characterised by body horror and transgression, although he continued to make strange films like Crash and eXistenZ. Cronenberg has been lauded for his sophisticated and sociologically conscious use of the grotesque, which I can believe judging by the sensitivity of his later work.

So I intend to take a look at a number of his films from this period, in no particular order due to availability. And my first experience – his 1986 remake of The Fly – did not disappoint.

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Discovering Kurosawa: Seven Samurai

seven-samuraiThis is the start of a new series where I document my first experience of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography. I saw Rashomon and Ran several years ago and admired them, but in Ran’s case in particular I suspected its achievements would be best understood in the context of Kurosawa’s earlier work. My growing love of Japanese cinema also demands a proper engagement with Kurosawa and I’m excited by the prospect. This won’t be in strict chronological order due to film availability, but where better to start anyway than the towering Seven Samurai.

Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is considered foundational to both the action-adventure movie and the wider appreciation of foreign cinema in the West. Such films don’t necessarily have the same impact on the viewer decades later due to the imitators and beneficiaries that came in their wake, so I was prepared for the possibility that Seven Samurai is a film to admire rather than adore.

I did not need to be. Not only is it a tremendously engaging and thoroughly skilled film in its own right, Seven Samurai has deepened my appreciation for Kurosawa and mid-20th century Japanese cinema in general. I’m now hungry to devour more of his work, more samurai films, and as many Japanese films as I can muster.

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Review: Ant-Man

antman With so many superhero movies now in our collective memory, there’s scope for studios to mess around a little with the tone and formula. Iron Man proved you could have an arch, slightly gonzo protagonist who seemed vaguely skeptical of the movie he was starring in. Chris Pratt is the lead in Guardians of the Galaxy, which technically isn’t a superhero movie anyway. And the Captain America films went the other way, reclaiming the sincere, hand-on-heart hero by giving him some humility and not drowning him in treacle.

So after skewed takes on even the typically strong alpha-male heroes, a studio like Marvel can spotlight a minor, silly sounding character like Ant-Man and not in a spoof. But then what should the tone be? Given the problems behind the scenes of Ant-Man and the film that resulted, Marvel didn’t seem able to achieve what the character needed.

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Why Disney will release the original versions of the Star Wars trilogy

hangreedoSince Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, a key question has been whether they’ll release the theatrical editions of the original Star Wars trilogy. George Lucas has largely suppressed them since releasing the first special editions in 1997, embarrassed by their less-than-perfect special effects and insisting he would always have made the incongruous additions if technology and circumstance allowed.

So essential are these upgrades for him that he’s decreed older fans should never be allowed to see the versions they grew up with and younger ones shouldn’t be able to see a seminal part of cinema history. This is in stark contrast with his infamous 1988 speech to Congress declaring that permanently altering films was barbaric.

The issue has been personal for him, but fortunately Disney’s a soulless multinational corporation. If there’s money to be made, what do they care about a director’s pet grievances? Plus, Lucasfilm under Kathleen Kennedy seems to think quite differently about the imperfect, lived-in aesthetic of the original trilogy.

We don’t know whether Disney is contractually able to release them, but some still believe they wouldn’t bother spending much on a niche concern even if they could. I think that view is wrong and fails to see the big picture.

But first, let’s look at the potential hurdles. Continue reading

Trying to absorb Guardians of the Galaxy

guardiansInstead of deploying new characters to tell the same old superhero stories, Marvel Studios have taken a chance with Guardians of the Galaxy: they’ve resurrected the outer space adventure movie. Over the last decade, even the Star Trek films have struggled or refused to tell a story outside of Earth orbit. The few other space movies tended to be low-key drama (Moon) or horror (Pandorum), or were simply dour and cretinous (Prometheus).

Whether or not the caution was justified, it no longer matters. Guardians has been a massive hit, proving that if a movie prioritises exuberant entertainment and endearing characters, mainstream audiences will even embrace the supposedly nerdy milieu of spaceships and aliens. For those who already enjoy it, Guardians is a reasonably engaging return voyage.

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