Gareth Evans’ Merantau

Today I watched Gareth Evans’ Merantau (2009)

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In the Minangkabau culture, travel is considered a vital way of reaching maturity and acquiring wealth and knowledge.  Yuda is on such a trip, having left his small town life, heading to one of Indonesia’s large urban centers.  When he arrives, he finds the place he was supposed to stay has been torn down, making him homeless.  Furthermore he gets pick-pocketed and when he runs the kid down, he gets involved with a man hitting some young woman.  Being an action flick, one thing quickly leads to another and soon Yuda is waging a one man war against a whole ring of international sex traffickers.

Frankly, this movie is pretty generic as far as action films go, it is much more interesting to look at in retrospect after Evans’ Raid films.  Really there are many films in this vein and many directors working in the field, what set Evans apart was his unwillingness to rest on his laurels.  Certainly this film is a very well shot and choreographed film, but surprisingly few directors try to evolve from that in the direction of greater narrative cohesion.

For Merantau as a standalone film, it mostly works on it’s excellence of execution.  The production values here are very high and there is plenty of creativity in the blocking and choreography.  It is also a particularly colourful film, which may not be in keeping with it’s subject matter, but it’s certainly visually pleasing.  So if you do enjoy your action movies with a dose of aesthetics, I would certainly recommend this film, but if your a fan of The Raid, this is a very interesting piece for history.  4/5

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Art Linson’s Where the Buffalo Roam

Art Linson’s Where the Buffalo Roam (1980)

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Based loosely on Hunter S. Thompson’s obituary to his good friend and iconic partner in crime, Oscar Zeta Acosta, this film attempts to capture their epic friendship while also being something of a chronicle of Thompson’s own rise to prominence.  Acosta is often given a fake name, here his name is Carl Lazlo, he’s an attorney known for his civil rights work who helps keep Hunter out of prison.  The film then presents a number of episodes in Hunter’s life where Acosta/Lazlo plays significantly important roles.

While Bill Murray’s performance as Thompson is quite excellent, this film really is just a cliche Hollywood comedy, stripped of any of the personality which defined Hunter’s writing and life.  The script absolutely fails to grasp what made Thompson such a counter-culture icon, what made him a defining voice in American culture.  While it touches on the numerous social movements and moments of his life, they are basically cheap jokes or background elements which the film doesn’t seem very interested in.

In fairness I do actually enjoy a good amount of the humour here, but that’s mostly due to delivery.  Bill Murray delivers a particularly transformative performance, one of the most unique he has ever done.  Furthermore the music, assembles and performed by Neil Young, seems to understand the social subtext of the subject matter here better than any of the film makers.  But aside from that, this film is just cheap and lazy Hollywood nonsense that avoids any kind of difficult or interesting subject matter like the plague.  2/5

Kenji Misumi’s Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades

Today I watched Kenji Misumi’s Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (1972)

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This film, moreso than it’s predecessors, feels very episodic at the beginning.  itto Ogami and his son Daigoro are continuing their wanderings and run into numerous colourful characters who confront them, giving Itto opportunities to show off his impressive sword skills and morality.  Eventually a main plot does reveal itself as Itto is hired by an old, disgraced Noble to avenge his clan and his daughter, both of whom were taken from him by Sawatari Genba.  A twist comes when Genba wants to hire Itto himself, but Itto refuses and uses it as an opportunity to scout his opposition before brutally murdering them, and at least a hundred of their retainers.

The body count here gets pretty ridiculous, especially in the finale.  This movie pushes the mass slaughter to new heights, that afformentioned finale involves Itto literally killing an entire small army single handedly.  Because of actor Tomisaburo Wakayama’s intense sword skills, it is actually believable.  The film also takes a slightly more realistic apprach to it’s style, coming off less pulpy and comical for the most part.  This only enhances the impact of the ludicrous action, while also allowing this film to have something of a theme.

All the different events presented here have one unifying element, women, more specifically the roles of women in the intensely oppressive culture of feudal Japan.  While this film does romanticize the samurai code, it has no good will to show for those in authority.  The Samurai servants are noble in their loyalty, but it’s a running theme in almost all Samurai films that power corrupts and the same noble dignity that defines the Samurai as a celebrated symbol of Japanese culture and history also makes them victims.  Itto Ogami walks the ‘path of hell’ because of this betrayal, illustrating a certain anarchistic sensibility.  So definitly check this film out, it offers a number of unique twists on the samurai formula and some damn fine action.  5/5

Tetsuro Takeuchi’s Wild Zero

Today I watched Tetsuro Takeuchi’s Wild Zero (1999)

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Wild Zero stars Masashi Endo as Ace, a huge rock and roll fan on his way to see the legendary Guitar Wolf in concert.  While at the show he accidentally saves the band from the evil club owner and they thank him by making him one of their rock and roll blood brothers.  Ace continues on his journey and meets a nice lady during a gas station robbery, which he, again accidentally, breaks up.  The bizarre conglomeration of characters assembled thus far is then thrown into an irreverent zombie movie.

If you have never heard the band Guitar Wolf, this movie is a great introduction, they are like all the forms of traditional rock music rolled into one band.  The irreverence they display in their rocking sound is brought to life here with some serious gusto as the film explodes with rock and roll energy.   The film is frankly bursting apart at the seams with this energy, it has no time for logic!

They actuall do a great job of taking this unruly energy and channeling it into some great humour and wonderfully kinetic sequences.  It’s mot just rock and roll madness for madness’ sake, there is a calculating mind that has made this film a near perfect expression of rock rebellion.  Through it all there is a powerful theme of free, unbound love without any borders or gender.  So for a film from ’99 it has a remarkably progressive stance on sexuality in general.  So definitly check this one out, it will enlighten you to the glory of trash and chaos.  5/5

David Cronenberg’s Crash

Today I watched David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996)

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James Spader plays James Ballard, a film producer whose marriage has become little more than shared infidelity between him and his wife.  Their only arrousal seems to come from recalling their extramarital daliances to one another, that is until James gets into a rather horrific car accident.  This accident kicks of a chain of events that sees James falling in with a whole group of car crash fetishists, turned on by the violent warping of flesh and metal.

There is little to the plot beyond this really, it’s more a meditation piece than one driven by narrative.  The film, I think, aims to unsettle more than anything else as it presents a murky vision of extreme sex and violence.  There are certainly themes mentioned here, ideas of human bodies being changed by technology, ideas of sexual energy, and a general parody of pornography.  But I wonder if these ideas are really being discussed here or if they are just being featured for their ability to disturb.

With all that said, the film is certainly quite effective at being unsettling.  I just found it difficult to really get invested in this unsettling behavior though and as such I felt the film really dragged nearing the halfway mark.  I readily admit that the more movies I review, the less patience I have though, I also find myself much less unsettled by disturbing behavior, and that needs to be taken into consideration.  While this film’s hooks may not have been strong enough to drag me along the whole way, it may be enough for less over stimulated audiences.  4/5

Robert Day’s She

Today I watched Robert Day’s She (1965)

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It’s 1918, the end of The Great War and three British ex-soldiers find themselves in a bar in Palestine.  These three gents, Holly, Job, and Leo, have grown attached to the middle east having fought in it for so long, so now it looks as though they will stay, having little to go back to in England.  While Holly and Job get up to some antics, Leo is lead into the streets by some beautiful woman who lures him into a trap where he is knocked out, only to be introduced to a different beautiful woman.  She introduces herself as “She who waits” and instructs Leo to find the ancient city of Kuma, which she gives him a map too.  Of course Leo’s friends, being traditional British adventurers, go along with it as there is plenty of fame awaiting any who discover the lost city.

Now, this being a traditional British adventure story, it should be noted that it is more than a little racist and imperialist.  This is a genre that comes from and glorifies a time when England was conquering the globe and a pride for that expansionism is strong here.  At the same time this is a genre crafted from wonder at a world unexplored and unknown, full of strange people, places, and things.  Thus this is the kid of film that really needs to be viewed from an historians perspective, one must understand the good and the bad and understand the troubling nature of many of this film’s elements.

Now if you are looking for historical British fantasy films, this one is pretty decent.  This is largely due to a pretty solid cast that includes such British luminaries as Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Bernard Cribbins.  Ursula Andress is also here, but considering how she is re-dubbed, she is mostly there for looks, but hey, no one can argue the beauty of Ursula Andress, or her ability to use it as a force of intimidation.  So check it out it you are a fan of any of those performers or, again like I said, if your interested in British film history.  3/5