The Ballad of Buster Scruggs


Git along, lil’ doggies.

(2018) Western (NetflixTim Blake Nelson, Clancy Brown, David Krumholtz, James Franco, Stephen Root, Ralph Ineson, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Jefferson Mays, Prudence Wright Holmes, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Brendan Gleeson, Saul Rubinek, Tyne Daly, Chelcie Ross, Jonjo O’Neill, Jordy Laucomer, Brett Hughson, Thea Lux, Danny McCarthy, Harry Meling, Jiji Hise. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

The Coen Brothers have been one of my favorite directors going back to Raising Arizona. Their mix of cynicism and quirky humor have made even the lesser efforts highly watchable. When they’re on their game, there are none better.

They have always had a soft spot for the American West – many of their films are set there, if not out and out westerns – and this, their newest film is an anthology of six tales set in the old West. The opening tale which gives the movie its name features Nelson as a singing cowboy who turns out to be a cross between Gene Autry and Clint Eastwood. There are moments of horrific violence and wicked humor which ends in an unexpected way. This is my favorite segment of the six (and the shortest) and ranks right up there with some of their best work ever.

“Near Algodones” stars Franco as a bank robber and keeps up the momentum. Franco plays the luckiest – and most luckless – thief ever. While less unexpected than the first segment, it nonetheless is entertaining. “Meal Ticket” starts the film overall towards a darker turn. It stars Neeson as an impresario who employs an armless and legless thespian (Meling) who does soliloquys in a wagon that converts into an impromptu stage until…well, you need to see for yourself.

“All Gold Canyon” features Tom Waits as a prospector who strikes it rich but then must do battle with a claim jumper. It’s loosely based on a Jack London short story. “The Girl Who Got Rattled” is about a young woman (Kazan) traveling with a wagon train who is looking for love – and finds it. I also liked this segment, nearly as much as the first one. Finally, there’s “Mortal Remains” in which a group traveling in a stagecoach are treated to a tale told by a foppish bounty hunter (O’Neill). In many ways this is the deepest segment from a philosophical standpoint but it does make for an odd way to end the film.

This isn’t as cohesive as the best Cohen brothers movies are – it couldn’t be, given that it’s an anthology – but when it is at its best (the first and fifth segments) it is a riveting piece of filmmaking, from the beautiful cinematography in “All Gold Canyon” to the ironic wit in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” There is a definitely cynical tone here; it feels like over the past decade the films of the Coen boys have taken the point of view that there is nothing to recommend most people and the best thing we can do with our lives is die. I think I hold out a little more hope than all that, but they at least make their cynicism entertaining. Although I wish I could have seen this on the big screen, Netflix subscribers should make a point of adding this to their queue if they haven’t already seen it.

REASONS TO SEE: Has all the quirkiness you come to expect from the Coen brothers. The opening chapter is one of the best things they’ve ever done.
REASONS TO AVOID: Waffles between hysterically funny and bleaker than bleak.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the longest film the Coen brothers have ever directed, and the first to be shot on digital media.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews: Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rustler’s Rhapsody
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Sonata

Xenophobia


Why is it that aliens always get the pretty girls?

(2019) Science Fiction (VisionKristen Renton, Manu Intraymi, Rachel Sterling, Brinke Stevens, Angie Stevenson, Kelly Lynn Reiter, Alexander Kane, Alan Maxson, Nick Principe, Dilynn Fawn Harvey, Mark Hoadley, Karlee Perez, Keavy Bradley, Jed Rowen, Baker Chase Powell, Shaun Blayer, Scott King, John Karyus, Jack McCord, Douglas Epps, Sheila Brandon Allen. Directed by Thomas J. Churchill, Steven J. Escobar and Joe Castro

 

Sometimes, a filmmaker’s reach exceeds their grasp. That’s just the way things go sometimes; someone comes up with a good idea but doesn’t have the expertise or the budget (or both) to pull it off. As a critic, those are the most disappointing movies of all. You might think that we critics get off on ripping a bad movie a new one but speaking for myself, that’s simply not the case. Truthfully, I want every movie to be a home run. Sometimes they strike out swinging, though.

A support group for alien abduction victims meet to tell their tales of woe. The members are at turns terrified and hostile, paranoid and sympathetic. They’ve all been through hell and are trying to help one another make it through to the other side, but what could be waiting there might well be worse than what they’ve already been through.

This is told anthology-style with each abduction tale getting a different director, so there are tonal shifts from segment to segment. The segments include a photographer who gets abducted and probed while taking pictures in the desert, a group of young women who have a captive audience, a camping trip that turns deadly when an alien artifact is discovered, and a house in which a dog-sized alien stalks a babysitter.

Despite the presence of one of my all-time favorite Scream Queens in Brinke Stevens (who plays the mother of an abduction victim here), the acting is almost uniformly bad. The digital effects look like something you might see on an early PlayStation games, but much of the effects are practical and even though the aliens look a little bit on the rubbery side, the aliens are still nifty enough (some of them Gigeresque) to be enjoyable.

The trio of directors also wrote the film and they could use some work on their dialogue; much of it is written like nobody bothered to actually speak any of it out loud before giving it to the actors to read. It sounds thoroughly unconvincing and not at all the way people actually speak to each other.

I wanted to like Xenophobia a lot more than I did and I will have to confess that my score is probably a bit generous but I hate to thoroughly eviscerate a movie like this one. Clearly there  was some pride and passion put into the finished film but this was certainly a case where ambition overrode realism.

REASONS TO SEE: The aliens are fairly nifty in a B-Movie kind of way.
REASONS TO AVOID: The acting is subpar. The story is disjointed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as violence and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Veteran Scream Queen Brinke Stevens originally got a Masters in Marine Biology and briefly worked as an environmental consultant for a nuclear power plant before venturing into modeling and acting.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Communion
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Perception

Six LA Love Stories


Love can be exhausting.

(2016) Romantic Comedy (Random Media) Beth Grant, Matthew Lillard, Stephen Tobolowsky, Carrie Preston, Alicia Witt, Peter Bogdanovich, Ashley Williams, Michael Dunaway, Ross Partridge, Marshall Allman, David Claassen, Jennifer Lafleur, Michael Milford, Davie-Blue, Hayley Polak, Mitch Swan, Don Most, Savannah Remington, Kayla Swift, Ogy Dunham, Summer Rose Ly, Jamie Anne Allman. Directed by Michael Dunaway

 

The rest of the country has a kind of love-hate relationship with Los Angeles. Some admire the beautiful beaches and the energy that has made it one of the world’s great cities. Others decry the shallowness that comes from essentially being a Hollywood company town. Still, like every town, city, megalopolis and village around the globe, love occurs on a daily basis.

This film takes place on a single day in sunny Southern California and follows six different couples, all at varying stages in their relationship. None of the stories are interconnected and all have just one thing in common; a couple either falling in love, deeply in love, or falling out of love.

At a pool party at a Hollywood producer’s mansion, Robin (Williams) bitches on her phone about her air-headed sister while Wes (Partridge) overhears. The two strike up a conversation and although Robin initially reacts with distaste, she soon finds that she and Wes have a lot more in common than she thought.

Alan (Lillard) arrives home early from work to discover his wife Diane (Preston) having sex with another man. Infuriated, then deeply wounded, Alan struggles to find out why she betrayed him like that; Diane’s answers aren’t what he expects nor are they necessarily what he really wants to hear.

Amanda (Lafleur) is the stage manager at a self-help convention event where multiple speakers are given a limited amount of time to address the audience. As Duane (Bogdanovich) goes up, Amanda is confronted with her ex-lover Camille (Dunham) who is getting ready to speak. As Amanda seems to be okay with things the way they are, Camille has something she specifically wants to say to her.

Mara (J.A. Allman) meets up for a drink with her ex-boyfriend Pete (M. Allman) whose acting career has stalled and has decided to take a stab at screenwriting instead. As Pete describes a recent meeting with a studio exec, Mara is reminded of all the things that led to their break-up but can’t quite deny that there isn’t a spark there.

Terry (Witt) visits her ex-husband Nick (Dunaway) to discuss the schooling options for their daughter. Nick appears to have moved on from their amicable divorce but Terry clearly hasn’t. Her feelings of anger towards her ex hide something much deeper and much less unpleasant inside her.

Finally, John (Tobolowsky) is the only tourist on the tour of the Will Rogers estate with Meg (Grant), a guide there. While they are initially at odds with each other – John is a college professor who also writes books for a think tank on Rogers and is a bit of an insufferable know-it-all – Meg senses that she can supply something that John may need even more.

The moods on the various vignettes vary from overtly humorous (Meg-John) to bittersweet and dark (Alan-Diane) to surprising (Terry-Nick). Like most ensemble pieces, the quality varies between the stories, ranging from authentic (Alan-Diane) to goofy (Meg-John) to downright unrealistic (Meg-John). The cast is pretty solid though and the performances are generally reflective of that, although Lillard and Preston essentially steal the show in their vignette which is very much the best of the six. While I liked both the Meg and John characters and the performances by Grant and Tobolowsky, I just didn’t connect with their story which seemed tonally at odds with the other five. The one that the director appears in as an actor oddly enough was for me ironically the weakest vignette of the six.

This was originally released on home video back in 2016 but was re-released last month by Random Media who apparently cleaned up some sound issues (reviews from the original release complained about the sound but I didn’t notice any problems with it). While it is reminiscent of Love Actually in terms of subject matter, this movie first of all doesn’t have the interconnection between the stories that film has which while totally not a bad thing, I found myself wondering why they needed a full length movie (albeit one only an hour and 20 minutes long) for this movie when six individual short films might have worked better. Besides, London at Christmastime trumps L.A. in the summer anytime.

The Alan and Diane story is the one worth seeing but because the six stories are intercut together, you have to watch the other five as well and while none of them are painful to watch, none of them approach the quality of the Alan-Diane saga so keep that in mind. Otherwise a solid effort by a first time narrative feature writer-director.

REASONS TO GO: The dialogue is generally pretty well-written.
REASONS TO STAY: The quality between vignettes varies.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bogdanovich appears at the behest of his daughter Antonia who is a producer on the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Love Actually
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Hearts Beat Loud

Trick ‘r Treat


Four princesses discuss the Halloween tradition of slutty costumes.

Four princesses discuss the Halloween tradition of slutty costumes.

(2007) Horror (Warner Brothers) Dylan Baker, Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Leslie Bibb, Quinn Lord, Rochelle Aytes, Lauren Lee Smith, Monica Delain, Tahmoh Penikett, Samm Todd, Jean-Luc Bilodeau, Gerald Paetz, Connor Levins, Patrick Gilmore, T-Roy Kozuki, Britt McKillipp, Brett Kelly, Isabelle Deluce, Alberto Ghisi, Barbara Kottmeier, Laura Mennell, Amy Esterle. Directed by Michael Dougherty

6 Days of Darkness 2015

Halloween has become a revered American holiday with many traditions and tales. Some are more or less universal (at least here in America) and some are regional but all are important as part of the holiday that signals the approaching end of the year and the beginning of the holiday season.

This anthology sat on the shelf at Warners for two years before getting an excuse me release and heading straight to the purgatory of home video. Usually that’s what happens to movies that are just plain lousy. Was that the case here?

Trick ‘r Treat is an anthology horror movie in the tradition of Tales of the Crypt with interconnected stories all connected by a diminutive linking device. The movie opens with a young couple, Henry (Penikett) who loves Halloween and Emma (Bibb) who clearly doesn’t returning home after a Halloween party. Emma’s distaste for the Halloween ends up having some fairly nasty consequences for her.

Their neighbor Steven Wilkins (Baker) the high school principal, catches a young teen stealing candy from his yard which leads to a lecture – and the revelation of the principal’s dark secret which doesn’t turn out so well for the teen. It does however lead to an interesting jack-o-lantern carving session with his boy Billy (Levins). Then we move on to four teens – who had visited the Wilkins home earlier – who head out to the local quarry where according to local legend a school bus full of mentally and emotionally challenged kids were driven into the lake by the school bus driver while chained to their seats and drowned – supposedly at the behest of their ashamed parents. As one of the teens – bullied Rhonda (Todd) – discovers, some urban legends should remain just that.

Another quartet of teens including virtuous Laurie (Paquin) go to the town’s annual Halloween party on the square, hoping to find Laurie’s “first.” However, it’s not the “first” you’re probably thinking of. Finally, the town curmudgeon (Cox) who hates Halloween with an absolute passion finds that one little trick or treater named Sam (Lord) in a filthy pair of orange pajama footies with a burlap sack wrapped around his head will give him a Halloween he will never forget.

All of the stories are connected together mainly by Sam who appears in one way or another in each one. Some of the connections are a bit of a stretch but by the end of the movie it all makes sense. A tip of the hat for the writing which is rock solid.

There is a pretty decent cast here with several veterans like Cox, Paquin, Bibb and Baker who have turned in a number of solid performances over the years and all are just as solid here. Most of the supporting cast is more or less unknown but there aren’t any false notes in the acting which is impressive. Todd as a matter of fact distinguishes herself as the put-upon teen who ends up in an urban legend of her own.

The stories themselves aren’t particularly gory or innovative but they get the job done. While modern horror movies tend to rely on gore and/or special effects, these are more story-driven and in some ways are throwbacks. For old school horror fans, this should be welcome news as this really is the kind of horror that isn’t done very often these days – although in the last 18 months or so I’ve noticed that there has been more of a movement in that direction with certain individual tales in anthologies and a movie or two.

Throughout the movie we do see children and teens put in jeopardy – while the latter is no biggie as far as Hollywood is concerned, the former is a major no-no and was likely the reason the movie stayed shelved so long. The major studios are a bit squeamish about children in jeopardy, Jurassic Park notwithstanding, especially when said children are not only in peril but don’t always survive. For horror fans, that’s a big deal as we usually see kids saved in unrealistic ways or have movies watered down so the kids can survive. It’s refreshing to see that taboo bridged somewhat.

So this is one of those movies that didn’t get the release it was expected to receive nor the attention it deserved (although critics generally praised it). The horror film fan community however is well aware of the movie and has generally embraced it – so much so that a sequel has been planned (although not yet come to fruition). In any case, if you’re looking for a hidden gem to watch this Halloween, here is one for your consideration.

WHY RENT THIS: Really good scares coupled with genuinely funny moments. Pretty solid cast.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kids in peril may be too uncomfortable for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and some gore, some sexuality and nudity and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sam takes his name from Samhain, the Celtic festival of the dead.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An animated short prequel detailing the story of the demonic Sam is included on all editions, while the Blu-Ray also has a short history of the holiday and a look at the special effects used in the school bus scene.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not applicable.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only). Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Creepshow
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness continues!

Mother and Child


Mother and Child

Nobody beats Samuel L. Jackson in a staredown. Nobody.

(2009) Drama (Sony Classics) Naomi Watts, Annette Benning, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Jimmy Smits, David Morse, Marc Blucas, Shareeka Epps, Lisa Gay Hamilton, S. Epetha Merkerson, David Ramsey, Eileen Ryan, Cherry Jones, Amy Brenneman, Tatyana Ali, Elizabeth Pena. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia

 

Motherhood has a unique place in the female psyche. It may well be the driving force; the urge to procreate and then care and nurture for that child. Sometimes it’s not always possible for those instincts to be indulged the way you want to.

Karen (Benning) is an emotionally brittle caregiver in every sense of the word – by day she works as a physical therapist, by night she returns home to care for her elderly mother (Ryan). Karen is not the easiest person to get along with; she tends to keep people at arm’s length. She’d had a baby when she was 14 and was forced to give her up for adoption. That has haunted Karen’s entire life; she won’t let anyone in, not even sweet-natured co-worker Paco (Smits), although his patience seems to be limitless.

Elizabeth (Watts) is a driven attorney who never seems satisfied with anything in life. She is hard, occasionally crude and tends to keep people at arm’s length. She has started work in a new firm, and in order to cement her position – and possibly even improve it – she has initiated an affair with her boss, Paul (Jackson). It is a relationship all about sex, power and ambition. Elizabeth was adopted and seems to have no desire at all to find out who her birth mother is (although I’m sure you can guess). However, her world turns upside down when she discovers she’s pregnant.

Lucy (Washington) is unable to have children. She and her husband Joseph (Ramsey) have elected to adopt and are looking for a baby to call their own. The agency that Lucy is going through, whose representative is Sister Joanne (Jones), sends along several expectant mothers who are giving up their babies for adoption. Ray (Epps) seems to be a suitable candidate, but she is understandably picky about what kind of home her baby will be placed in and has enough attitude to choke an elephant.

All three of these women’s lives are entwined in ways that are both visible and invisible. Their stories may be told separately, but they are all a part of the same story, one that will not end as expected for all of them.

This is a bit different than most ensemble anthology dramas in that the story really is a single story although told from the viewpoints of three different characters. Much of the story is telegraphed – anyone who doesn’t figure out that Elizabeth is Karen’s biological daughter is probably not smarter than a fifth grader. However, it is saved by some pretty good performances.

Benning, who would get Oscar consideration for her performance in The Kids are All Right that year showed why she is as underrated an actress as there is in America. It is difficult at best to play an emotionally closed-off character and still make them sympathetic, but Benning does it. In some ways this was a tougher role than the one that got her all the acclaim that year but because the movie wasn’t nearly as good as the other one she probably didn’t get the scrutiny here.

Watts also has a similarly difficult job and while she doesn’t pull it off quite as successfully as Benning does nevertheless acquits herself well and shows why she is also a formidable actress given the right material. Sometimes she flies under the radar, mainly because her films aren’t always as buzz-worthy but time after time she delivers film-carrying performances and while she isn’t the household name she deserves to be, she is still well-respected in Hollywood as one of the top actresses working today and this movie illustrates why.

The ending smacks a little bit of movie of the week schmaltz and the story relies way too much on coincidence. However one has to give the filmmakers credit for putting together a movie that is female-centric and tackles the effects of adoption on the birth mother, the child given up for adoption and the person doing the adoption in a somewhat creative manner. While other critics liked the movie a little more than I did (and I can understand why, truly), the contrived nature of the plot held the film back from a better rating. Had the three stories been a little bit more independent of each other I think it would have made for a better overall film. Not all stories have to be wrapped up with a neat little bow.

WHY RENT THIS: A surprisingly potent examination of women and their maternal instincts. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending strives for grace and lyricism but falls short.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sex and nudity, along with a decent dose of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Naomi Watts was pregnant with her son Samuel during filming; when you see her baby moving in utero during one scene, that’s actually Samuel.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.0M on a $7M production budget; the movie wasn’t a financial success from a box office perspective.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Motherhood

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls

The Dead Girl


The Dead Girl

The late Brittany Murphy is about to become The Dead Girl.

(2006) Mystery (First Look) Josh Brolin, Rose Byrne, Toni Collette, Bruce Davison, James Franco, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Beth Hurt, Piper Laurie, Brittany Murphy, Giovanni Ribisi, Nick Searcy, Mary Steenburgen, Kerry Washington. Directed by Karen Moncrieff

Every so often we experience something profound; it changes our point of view and might well change our lives completely. Not all of these experiences are pleasant. Some, in fact can be grisly and ugly. That is simply the nature of life; not all of it is pretty.

Arden (Collette) discovers a badly beaten and mutilated body of a young woman while out jogging. She calls the police and becomes a bit of a local celebrity which gets the notice of Rudy (Ribisi), a bagboy at her local grocery who asks her out. Arden lives with her mom (Laurie) who is a bit of a sadistic monster, forcing her daughter to wait on her hand and foot and generally degrading and belittling her.

Leah (Byrne), a graduate forensics student, finds out about the body on the news and thinks it might be her long-missing sister. Her mother (Steenburgen) urges Leah to let go and move on but Leah is convinced it’s the missing girl. However, after a close medical examination it turns out that Leah is mistaken.

In the meantime Ruth (Hurt), a devout Christian, suspects that her husband Carl (Searcy) is sleeping with another woman. She sets about finding proof of his infidelity and discovers instead evidence that her husband might be a serial rapist and murderer. She is torn between her loyalty to her husband and telling the police what she’s found.

The dead girl is identified as Krista Kutcher (Murphy) and her devastated mom (Harden), from whom Krista had run away from years back, tries to pick up the pieces, visiting her roommate (Washington) to find out more about the daughter she never knew – and to meet the granddaughter she never knew she had.

Finally, we see the last day of Krista, her relationship with her pimp boyfriend (Brolin) and the love she has for her daughter and the determination that she doesn’t repeat her past mistakes. We also discover what led her to the fateful encounter with the man who would leave her in that field for Arden to discover.

The story is told in a series of five vignettes, each concerned with a specific woman and how she is affected by the discovery of the dead body, even indirectly (as with Ruth). Moncrieff who attracted some critic love with her feature debut Blue Car resists the temptation to interweave the vignettes and instead tells them consecutively, back to back to back to back to back, letting each story play out to its conclusion and leaving us to wonder about the dead girl until the final tale.

She cast some very strong actresses here starting with the late Murphy, who would die tragically young only three years after making this. She makes Krista a strong woman but one who has allowed her emotions to override her sense time after time. She’s a little unstable and that has led to her girl being raised by others. Although we know in advance what fate is to befall her, she is not portrayed so much as a victim here as much as someone who refuses to be one any longer.

Harden also gets kudos as the mom who alienated her daughter to the point where she ran away, now realizing too late she can never make things right between them. It’s a powerful portrayal and while there is much pathos to it, Harden is never manipulative in the role, preferring to make her character try to understand her daughter rather than grieve nonstop over her.

Some of the vignettes work better than others (the first two are less effective than the last three) but all of them work as a whole. There is a certain squalor here – this isn’t a pretty picture as mentioned earlier – and a dark undertone that is relentless throughout. This isn’t a happy tale, although there are moments where characters experience some kind of enlightenment.

This isn’t always an easy movie to watch. It hits hard on an emotional level, aided and abetted by strong performances throughout (including the ones highlighted). It is definitely a woman’s movie, about how women are affected by the death of a sister, a daughter, a stranger. It also illustrates how vulnerable women are in a world where men will absolutely take what they want regardless of consequence, both to themselves and to the woman involved.

WHY RENT THIS: Very well-acted and the stories resolve together nicely. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Like all of these sorts of anthology films, not every vignette works.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of bad language, some nudity and sexuality and some images that are a bit grisly and disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film, the Dead Girl’s last name is Kutcher. Actress Brittany Murphy dated Ashton Kutcher for a time after both starred in the movie Just Married.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $905,291 on an unreported production budget; it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that the movie lost money during its brief theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Hatchet II

Tokyo!


Tokyo!

Something emerges from the sewers of Tokyo.

(2008) Drama-Comedy (Liberation) Ayako Fujitani, Ryo Kase, Ayumi Ito, Denis Lavant, Jean-Francois Balmer, Renji Ishibashi, Julie Dreyfus, Yu Aoi, Teruyuki Kagawa, Naoto Takenaka. Directed by Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Joon-ho Bong

From time to time, a producer will corral highly-regarded directors to make short films about a specific subject. Like any anthology, there will be both high points and low, but the question becomes will there be enough high points to make it worth enduring the low.

The subject of this anthology is…well, Tokyo. The sole link between the three tales here is that they are set in this, the most cosmopolitan of cities. Do we get some kind of insight into the glittering enigma that is Tokyo? Yes indeed, we do which is where the segments seem to hit their stride. There are also portions of each movie that could easily be set anywhere and that’s where the movie is at its weakest.

The first segment is “Interior Design” and is directed by French auteur Gondry (who lately resides in New York), and it is in a kind of a Kafka-esque vein. A would-be director Hiroko (Fujitani) and his mousy girlfriend Akira (Kase) move into the cramped apartment of Akira’s friend Akemi (Ito). The claustrophobic conditions only serve to exacerbate certain truths about their relationship; Hiroko is an overbearing untalented self-centered douchebag.

They look for affordable housing in the city, but like most mega-cities around the world, property values are sky high and affordable housing is at a premium. In overcrowded Tokyo, space is a luxury and some of the “properties” they visit are little more than closets with portholes. The stress and alienation begin to take their toll on Akira who undergoes a remarkable transformation to escape her reality, one that surprisingly brings her the serenity she craves.

The second segment is from avant garde French director Carax, who hasn’t made a film in ten years. In it, a strange, twisted creature (Lavant) emerges from the sewers of Tokyo to wreak havoc. Looking like a deranged leprechaun on a bender, he steals money, flowers and sandwiches from the hands of shocked onlookers and stuffs them all into his mouth with equal enthusiasm (Carax playfully sets much of this scene to the iconic musical score of Godzilla). He is loathsome, disgusting and vile and Tokyo recoils but the news media have a field day.

However, the story goes from curiosity to catastrophe as the creature finds a box of old grenades in his subterranean world and decides to lob them indiscriminately. Dozens are killed, maimed or wounded and the authorities tend to take a dim view of that. The creature is arrested and a dignified Japanese magistrate (Ishibashi) intends to prosecute, but the creature speaks a language that none can understand. How can a proper trial be held if someone speaks a completely unknown language. Fortunately, an ambitious French lawyer (Balmer) claims he can speak the language of the creature and a trial goes on in which everything is translated from gibberish to French to Japanese, which brings the segment to a crashing halt. However, there is a bit of a twist ending that will either leave you giggling or scratching your head.

The final segment is from Korean director Bong (who previously helmed The Host) and is in my opinion the best of the three. In “Shaking Tokyo” a man (Kagawa) lives as a hikikomori, which is the rough equivalent of a shut-in or a hermit, someone who chooses to remain in their apartment/home. With an inheritance from his parents enough to keep his bills paid, he orders pizza and stacks the boxes neatly against a wall. Agoraphobic to a nearly paralyzing degree, his house is meticulously well-ordered to the point it is debatable whether an actual human being lives there.

When a comely pizza delivery girl (Aoi) is there during an earthquake and faints, the man is unsure what to do. He eventually revives her by tapping a tattooed “button” on her arm. Her experience with him causes her to quit her job and live the same way. When another earthquake hits, a more serious one, the man, concerned about her welfare, takes to the streets of Tokyo for the first time in ten years. What he finds there is not what he left behind precisely.

All three segments have something going for them from the twisted metamorphosis in “Interior Design” to the senseless rampage in “Merde” (yes the segment title is a naughty French word) to the sweet underlying emotion in “Shaking Tokyo.” They all have an outsider’s insight into the megalopolis that is Tokyo, from the alienation that big city dwellers often feel in Gondry’s tale, to the sins of a people erupting from beneath the surface when they’ve been repressed to long in “Merde” to the isolationism that drives people to self-exile in “Shaking Tokyo.”

All three of the directors are world class, and they exhibit why they are so highly regarded here. I was particularly impressed with Bong’s piece, which seems to have much more of the soul of Tokyo than either of the first two segments. Gondry is an impressive visual director with a wild imagination; his realistic magic is on display here but as he sometimes is prone to doing, he gets a little too out-there for my own personal taste.

Carax’s segment is a little harder to peg. While the initial scene of the man-creature emerging from the sewers is fun and compelling, when he turns the piece into a courtroom drama it all falls apart. Having two sets of interpreters for the same dialogue may be all right for short periods, but it’s nearly 20 minutes of it; sorry gang, a bit too much.

I’m not sure that this will reveal enough about the soul of Tokyo to really make it worth your while, but there are some insights as I said. I’m just not sure that they aren’t general to any city rather than specific to Tokyo, and if not, why not set this anywhere?

WHY RENT THIS: There are some really compelling moments in each of the three episodes.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: As with any anthology, you take the not so good with the good.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief male nudity as well as some subtitled foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Gondry sequence is based on a graphic novel, “Cecil and Jordan in New York” by Gabrielle Bell.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Each of the segments gets their own making-of featurette, in some cases longer than the actual segment itself.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.2M on an unreported production budget; the film in all likelihood was a box office failure.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Faster