Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Ghost Dog: The Ways of the Samurai (1999, Jim Jarmusch)
Jim Jarmusch is in love of tales that pit odd characters in odd settings facing odd situations. Dead Man was a fine example of that. The director continued the trend with Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which stars Forest Whitaker as a solitary vigilante who worships the code of the samurai as described in Yamamoto Tsunemoto’s Hagakure. He serves a member of an Italian mob gang, Louie (John Tormey) who came to his aid 8 years ago, when Ghost Dog (before he adopted said name) was getting pulverized by a thug. Since then, Whitaker’s character has owed his life to Louie and serves as a hitman of sorts. To put all of this into perspective, Ghost Dog is like the African American version of The Man With No Name, only that he pretends to be a samurai and perhaps doesn’t always dish out perfect justice (although I’m hesitant to say The Man With No Name with a saint either). When a job goes sour for the first time ever, the Italian gang, to Louie’s dismay, decides to eradicate Ghost Dog, fearing he has compromised them. Well, Ghost Dog may have ties to Louie, but he’s still his own man, so he won’t go down quietly if you know what I mean. It’s time to show these fat ass mobsters how things were taken care of in ancient Japan. Sayonara suckas!
If I may, I’d like to begin by stating that I’ve taken a great liking to Jim Jarmusch’s style of cinema. He tells stories that are layered, focussed and quiet. Despite the overall quietness of his films, when violence erupts, it is brutal and unforgiving. I found those qualities in Ghost Dog. There was something very intriguing about the character of Ghost Dog. It wasn’t just the fact that he is an African American who lives on the rooftop of a building who has taken the decision to become a vigilante. It was more the manner in which he chose to do so. The idea to pit an Italian mob gang, with all their typical cinematic brash and crudeness against this man who has taken the oath of abiding by the methods of ancient Japanese warriors is quite unique. While I thought Ghost Dog was too well equipped at times (he has plenty of little tools and gizmos to help him out, including some sort of computer box that can unlock car doors and start engines), overall I ways really impressed by how well the whole thing turns out. He follows a method that this gang simply doesn’t understand and fails to appreciate. They truly don’t know what it is they are up against because the code of the samurai is so beyond what they know as gangsters. Despite that the gang is dead set on taking Ghost Dog down, he refuses to destroy his bond with Louie. Even though they are now part of opposing forces, he cannot do so for the code forbids it. It simply wouldn't be the honourable thing to do. I thought that mish mash of styles was amusing in its perplexity, fascinating in its oddness. Ghost Dog also has a best friend, a Haitian man who runs an ice cream parlour on wheels but who only speaks French, which Ghost Dog doesn’t understand. They have some pretty hilarious conversations.
Forest Whitaker takes this role very seriously, which makes his character all the more intriguing. An African American samurai living in an urban environment sounds like the premise for a comedy, but it isn’t played for laughs, far from it in fact. This is a movie of honour and the determination of one man to defend his methods and preserve his way of life while be hunted by these sluggish gangsters. He doesn’t even play the role to ‘be cool’, he’s really playing like someone trying with all their might to be the best samurai they can.
The music is provided by RZA and has, unsurprisingly a hip hop feel to it. This may be the weakest element of the film. The music in of itself wasn’t bad, but there were moments when I wished a different score had been used. It gets a tad redundant after a while. Perhaps a mixture of RZA beats with more a traditional orchestral score would have better suited the film. There is also the question of the final confrontation between Ghost Dog and another character, whose identity I shan’t reveal here. I understood why it took place, but I’d hesitate before saying it was the best choice for a climax. It a sense it worked, but a few things about it bothered me. It feeling a bit forced would be my number one complaint. For a film that took such an original twist on the action genre, the climax was somewhat of a letdown.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is a great little piece of entertainment. Quirky, unique and quite unforgiving in its depiction of violence, it was refreshing to watch.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
El Norte (1983, Gregory Nava)
El Norte is an interesting piece of cinema. It's story focuses on the trials and tribulations of illegal immigration into the United States, but rather than having it told from the point of view of the immigration officers or the border patrol, the viewer spends 2 hours with the people trying to get in and start a new life in California.
Enrique and his sister Rosita (David Villalpando and Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez respectively) make the decision to leave their home village in Guatemala when the government's army takes great lengths to crack down on a peasant revolt that is in the works. Their father and some of his fellow field workers are caught conspiring one night by government forces. Enrique arrives only minutes too late on the scene and finds, to his disbelief, his father's head hanging from a tree. Shortly afterwards their mother is taken away. It becomes clear to both brother and sister that, although the trek to the United States will be perilous, remaining in their village would be even more so.
All this is settled within the opening 15 minutes, so there's no doubt that the movie gets under way in a hurry, an adrenaline rush almost. While I wasn't too disappointed that the movie spends little time in the village and with their late father (who seemed like an interesting character to me), I became fearful that the film would only skim over their journey across Mexico and into the U.S. and provide only a brief glimpse into their new lives. Luckily this isn't quite the case. Not that much time is spent with Enrique and Rosita on their travels, but enough to let the audience know that the plight of those choosing to migrate illegally is nothing to be envious of. Attempted roberies for what little money they own, treachery, and paths that look slightly less than comforting, El Norte makes a decent effort at demonstrating the difficulties the two siblings face.
It is when Enrique and Rosita finally set foot in the U.S. that the movie really settles down and studies their situation. They are illegals, and although they require money to pay for rent and make some kind of a living (whether that is a living or not I won't debate, but I agree that it is debatable), they must do so with the greatest of care. No green card means no easy life, make no mistake about that. They do indeed find employment, but there is constantly an uneasy feeling permeating throughout, a feeling that any slip up, any false move could lend them into the hands of the authorities, and therefore back to Guatemala where their lives are still at risk. It was very rewarding to watch a movie that dealt with this pressing issue. This film was released back in 1983, and yet, from what I understand about the situation of illegal immigration in the United States, it is still a pressing issue today. They take the jobs that nobody wants, but they also live the kind of lives that nobody would want eiher. And yet, they are an integral part in how certain businesses function. Construction, restaurants, cheap labour for the fabrication of clothing (essentially sweatshops), all these and more are part of the country's economy. I don't know the exact figures, so I won't ponder on this matter too much, but the reality is that illegal immigration makes businesses run. They are a bit of the oil that keeps the machine running. Therefore, a movie that dealt with this issue but from the perspective of the illegal immigrants themselves was refreshing and captivating. It should be added that the performances of the two leads are a major part of the success of El Norte. Both inhabit their characters convincingly, sharing the emotions of joy, sadness and fear that such a journey must surely bring upon those who bravely decide to risk it.
The cinematography is also impressive. The latter scenes which occur in the U.S. may not be terribly stunning to watch, with the exception of some scenes featuring interesting lighting choices, but the earler ones, those in Guatemala and Mexico, capture the look and feel of the culture and geographical surroundings superbly. I wouldn't argue that the movie, from a purely visual standpoint, is inspiring from start to finish, but there are some cinematographic gems sprinkled througout.
Not everything about Nava's project is perfect mind you. Certain scenes feel a bit forced, such as one in which Enrique and Rosita are riding a bus in Mexico and are taunted by a paler skinned man about being indians (they are indigenous Guatemalans). Did we need to see this kind of scene to understand that they may be in over their heads? No. Another complaint would be regarding the event that propels the story into its final act. Enrique eventually loses his job, but it is purely the result of a rival's actions, a villain of sorts, not that we see this person very much throughout the film. I failed to see why Enrique losing his job couldn't be due to any kind of misjudgement on his part. The story didn't need any kind of villain since the risks they were taking were great enough to create a certain tension. This bit of screenwriting felt a bit lazy. The climax, which I won't give away, was also fairly predictable. Not a bad climax per say, but one that most movie buffs will be able to see coming quite a while before it transpires.
All in all, Gregory Nava's El Norte is a captivating look into the lives of two siblings who make it from their tiny village in Guatemala to California. It is a real issue that thousands of people go through every year. Nava takes the subject matter seriously, and while his efforts aren't perfect, they should be commended.
In what will probably be the final poll on this blog (due to pathetically low particiation), the most anticipated movie of 2009, according to you, is The Watchmen. Coming in second was Inglorious Bastards. In third place come the ever frustrating 'other.' Hmm, no one wants to see Monsters Versus Aliens?
Sunday, January 25, 2009
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006, Mamoru Hosoda)
I wasn't familiar with director Hosoda until the past few weeks when everybody seemed to be talking about this movie on a message board I visit often. His filmography doesn't inspire confidence, so I wasn't sure about this at all.
Imagine my surprise when I realized that not only was this movie better than expected, it was actually one of the better movies I had seen in some time. From the story, to the characters and message, TGWLTT is a top quality film, let alone a top quality animation movie. In it, Makoto, a young high school student, is blessed and cursed with the temporary ability to travel through time (by leaping of course). She uses this fantastic power for her own benefit at first of course, but she learns more and more about her two best friends, Kousuke and Chiaki, as well as other students at her school, that she eventually must use her time traveling abilities to rewrite their stories the right way.
Every character here is well developed, three dimensional, and fun. Makoto has all the flaws that most teenagers have, in fact that most people have. She can be kind, helpful, but also jealous and inconsiderate towards others. She is a great central character who must learn how to use her powers for the right reasons. Best of all, she is absolutely hysterical. I was laughed long and hard at her reactions to events around her and how she 'landed' in the past whenever she time traveled (I won't give it away, but it was funny every single freaking time). The story certainly contains some dramatic beats that push propel it forward, but the filmmakers didn't shy away from injecting a healthy dose of funny moments and lines. The character interactions were surprisingly well written and truthful (Hosoda directed, but did not write the script). It was all believable to a certain extent, once you set the fantastical elements aside of course. It's a movie with real characters, people the viewer can actually care about and who aren't present merely for comical or exposition purposes. One has to remember that we're dealing with teenagers, not full fledged adults, but it all works perfectly. Some of the dialogue is quite witty and rich, enhancing the quiter dialogue scenes. While I shan't delve into spoilers, there was one story driven element that I didn't quite buy. However in the grander scheme of things, I easily overlooked it because everything else worked so well.
Visually the film is eye pleasing. Characters are detailed and overall have a great look and feel to them. It's a perfect marriage of realism of cartoons. Certain facial expressions had me laughing as well (I particularly thought the X's for eyes on a girl who is at the bottom of a pileup to be quite funny) The environments also caught my eye. Several scenes take Makoto to a bicycle path along a river at dusk. Every time Makoto was there the film looked gorgeous. It's nice to know that there are certain filmmakers who still embrace more traditional animation. I would never argue that computer generated films don't have their merit. One need only watch a film like Wall-E to be convinced of the glorious heights that format can reach. However, the North American market of animation films is simply bubbling with CG films, meaning that hand drawn 2-D films have been left to the wayside it seems. There are hints that CG was used in a few sequences in the film, but overall this feels like classic animation.
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is touching, comical, and generally well written. There are moments when the musical score dictates what the viewer should be feeling, something I'm never a big admirer of, but I easily overlooked it. Everything fits neatly into place throughout the film, making it one of the best animation films to receive a release in the North American market in recent years. And yes, I have seen Wall-E and still stand by that statement.
Sunday, January 18, 2009
Up The Yangtze (2007, Yung Chang)
In Young Chang's documentary (yay for provincial and federal funding!), we follow the paths of two very different young people who find their circumstances greatly altered with the construction of the now famous Three Gorges Dam. The communities who once called the region along the Yangtze home have now been forced to relocate due to the rapidly rising water levels, a direct side effect of the dam's presence. Bo Yu Chen and Chui Yu are sent by their respective parents to work on a cruise ship that travels along the river and caters to the traveling desires of mostly Western customers. Once hired, they are provided Western names. Bo becomes Jerry and Chui Yu becomes Cindy.
Several storylines are explored throughout the film's running length, the most obvious ones being Jerry's and Cindy's experiences as employees of the cruise agency. But time is also spent with Cindy's family, who were farmers, and thus did not need to purchase their vegetables since they could grow them themselves. But with the advent of the dam, relocation into a more urban dwelling has meant a dramatic shift in spending and lifestyle. As you can probably expect, Up The Yangtze isn't the kind of movie that applauds the potential (I use this word carefully) long term ecological benefits of the dam's creation (hydroelectric power as opposed to coal, although I know perfectly well there are debates regarding that as well). The film ponders on what these people feel about being forced to move out of their homes. This movie is one that demonstrates how change can mean pain for some.
There are also some fascinating scenes on the cruise ship. We have gotten to know Cindy, Jerry, and the family members to a certain extent. Jerry is from a decently wealthy family but Cindy's parents are definitely down in the rut, but to see both of them cater to travelers who, at least I presumed (perhaps incorrectly), weren't going to really appreciate the culture of the region, was a bit difficult to swallow. Cindy is having trouble adapting to this new life, not only because she has little experience in the workforce, but also because she had previously planned to continue her education until not long ago. With the changing times and the family's budget on a tight string, her aspirations are put on hold indefinitely. It's a cruel blow to her, but one of only several cruel blows that are dealt a host of people director Chang during his stay in the region. It's a biased film, no doubt about it. Maybe not Michael Moore biased, but biased nonetheless. However, once one has read a bit on the subject matter and sees how the change in the region is indeed affecting these people through this film, their stories becomes quite powerful. The film and those interviewed make no attempt at hiding the fact that those who were promised compensation from the central government for losing their homes have yet to receive what is owed to them. It's a perfect example of how a big national project, which aspires to do accomplish great things and probably will, can have devastating effects on those who aren't really 'in' on the deal. It may be biased, but on the other hand absolutely nothing is fabricated. What is happening is real, is genuine. With change can come some good and some bad. Up The Yangtze ponders on the bad, but I'd be damned if it isn't convincing.
The movie also has some excellent shots of the dam, the river and the towns nearby. This documentary is not your typical talking heads affair. Director Chang evidently put considerable effort into not only telling relevant stories, but also in sharing the natural beauty of the region, the man made awe inspiring construction that is the dam, as well as the ecological and demographic consequences of such a project. Many shots linger, with the camera focusing on particular locations or objects, but in each occasion the shot is beautiful and more often than not poignant for the subject matter. Extra points for giving the film a visual boost.
Chang's effort at sharing the stories of the 'little guys' shouldn't be overlooked. It's a great looking film, a testament to Chang's fine visual eye, but also an insightful look into a hectic chapter in the lives of people who, for all intents and purposes, have absolutely no say or control in massive, life changing events that dictate what happens to them, even though those more powerful do.
Man on Wire (2008, James Marsh)
Man on Wire, in case you have been living under a rock for the past 6 months or so. is the documentary about Phillipe Petit's tight rope walk from one World Trade Center tower to the other early after its construction in 1974. From the birth of the idea, to the planning and finally the execution, we learn about how the entire story played out from the mouth of the lively man himself, as well as his associates.
There is no question that Phillipe is an entertaining person to listen to. He has wit, charm and a highly energetic mannerism. What could have felt a bit dry as a documentary had he not possessed those qualities is instead a gripping and sometimes funny storytelling session. He knows how to tell a good story, when to sound excited, when to sound pensive, disappointed, amused, etc. I enjoyed almost every moment with him. His friends also share some of their recollections, but they seem so plain compared to him that they become unfortunately rather forgettable. This is Phillipe's show and he takes it. The archival photos of him on the wire in New York, walking from one tower to the next, as well as archival videos of him and his friends planning and practicing the coup are all well used and valuable for the film's story to get through to the viewer.
But talking heads and archival footage is not the only medium used to share this tale. There are also re-enactments of various scenes that Petit and his friends are explaining. I can perfectly understand how some documentary fans can become bored with the old 'talking heads' medium. It can become redundant and perhaps a little uninspired at times. However, I can't say that I was enamored with these re-enactments. The purpose of a documentary is to document (I am not getting into that 'subjective/objective warfare), and I felt the re-enactments underwhelmed the story. I failed to see how they added anything to the story. The score that accompanied them was very nice, but the scenes themselves did nothing for me. The mere fact that they were re-enactments and not archival footage actually, if I may be blunt for one short moment, annoyed me. I couldn't tell what the value of having them was.
There was another element that struck me once the film was over. I sat back for a moment, taking everything in and digesting it. And I suddenly asked myself: Why? Why was a 90 minute documentary about this made, especially since much of it was filled with re-enactments? Couldn't this have made an excellent 30 minute segment on Charlie Rose? Despite my fairly young age, I believe that, for one reason or another, I'm kind of old fashioned when it comes to documentaries. It want to have learned something, or to have gained something. Some kind of world I didn't know about, some kind of information that that I can grasp (or attempt to) and find inspiration. Man on Wire came off as a nice story, nothing more. It was a strange reaction because I very much enjoyed spending time with Phillipe, but in the end I think I just didn't need to spend that much time with him if he was only going to tell me how he walked across the two towers in Manhattan.
Unlike with Benjamin Button or Slumdog Millionaire, both of which I didn't love (still liked though) but understood why others loved them, I genuinely don't understand why people have fallen head over heels in love with this film. It's alright, but...
Saturday, January 17, 2009
The Witnesses (2007, André Téchiné)
Starting in 1984 in Paris, we meet the young, easy going and charming Adrien, played by Michel Blanc, who lives in a whore house with his sister (Julie Dépadrieu) who is in fact is a singer, not a whore. He is a gay young adult living life in with a very 'devil may care' attitude. Sexual encounters in the park and a care-free attitude make him a highly desirable body in the gay community. He makes friends with a middle aged doctor, and while their bonding is a sweet affair at first, it eventually leads to a chain of painful emotions. You see, the doctor knows a young married couple, Sarah and Mehdi. Sarah is a writer and Mehdi a police officer. They are currently experiencing their own marital issues. Infidelity is a reality, but Sarah claims in all honesty that she cares little as to whether or not Mehdi meets other people. He finds this baffling at first, but through their doctor friend, he meets Adrien, and the two begin a rather passionate affair after some initial flirtation. The doctor eventually learns of this from Adrien, and his friendship with Mehdi is never the same again. When Adrien discovers that he has contracted a formerly unknown disease called AIDS, things go from bad to worse.
This is of course a tragedy, but one filled with great humanity. The acting is strong across the board. Michel Blanc injects Adrien with a hyouthful energy and playfulness the role demands. Sami Bouajla as Mehdi is arguably the actor who is given the most to do emotionally. When playing the cop, he is tough and can't show weaknesses, but as a husband and Adrien's lover, he is terribly fallible and falls prey to his emotional instincts. He is performing an impossible balancing act between his genuine passion he feels for Adrien, whom he cannot marry, and the slowly crumbling partnership with his wife Sarah. Emmanuelle Béart plays the flip-flopping wife. She loves Mehdi to a certain extent but can't deal with the investment a marriage and motherhood demands. She claims it has to do with the baby being too much of a distraction while she attempts to write her novel, but it becomes evident that she quite simply isn't cut out for married life, or at least utmost devotion to one person. Quirky, fun, but also frustrating all at once, Sarah is the mirror image of Adrien's character in the film, which makes it all the more ironic that Mehdi is caught between these very two people. Julie Dépardieu, although a fine actress, is unfortunately relegated to a minimal supporting role. Her screen time is well under those of the other actors involved and her screen presence doesn't measure up either.
The time period is fascinating since we get to see these close friends witness the early outbreak of the AIDS epidemic. Up until then the illness was a complete unknown. When it began to make headlines, people's notions of carefree sexual encounters changed to a certain degree. The outbreak of AIDS also didn't do any favors to the gay communities around the globe. Homosexuality was chastised before, but it really took a beating in the mid 1980s. Les Témoins is a well told story, preferring a intimate view into the AIDS crisis rather than a more epic, overview. The tragedy of the situation is seen through the eyes of a select few who witness the fall of one of their own. There are some poignant scenes in which characters ask their doctor friend, who has taken Adrien into his home to rest, how the young man will survive and what can be medically done to save him. The doctor replies that, despite their best efforts, the medical community is at a loss to explain why this virus has arrived or what can be done to fight it. It is powerful in that it captures what it must have been like when notion of this unheard of disease broke. Panic, uncertainty, distress, etc. Aside from a few scenes that perhaps feel a tad forced and unnatural, everything unfolds in realistic fashion.
The characters relations are well written and well developed. This is the driving element of the story. The movie cannot be pigeonholed into some kind of 'gay relationship' movie. There is far more at stake. Fidelity as well as infidelity and where it can take you, the dawn of a new era in notions about safe sex, and of course romantic love. Director Téchiné has sowed a complex character piece that I would encourage anyone who appreciates good drama to check out.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
The Reader (2008, Stephen Daldry)
In Stephen Daldry's The Reader, based on a best selling novel published in 1995, love and all the emotional warfare attached to it is explored. Young love is bliss, associated at times with infatuation, but can of course lead to almost unbearable heartache. Through it all however, love can and does propel people to do the right thing. In the case of Michael Berg, played by Ralph Fiennes and his younger self portrayed by David Kross, it means finding the compassion and emotional will power to come to the aid of Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), with whom he had a love affair in his youth but, through some extraordinary circumstances, discovered atrocious truths regarding her past.
As a young lad in his teens, Michael felt terribly ill on his way home from school one day. Crouched against the wall in the entrance to an apartment building on a rainy afternoon in Berlin, he is noticed by a Hanna who invites him to her place to gather his strength. Months later, Michael returns to her place once his illness has passed to thank her, and so begins a lustful affair between this teenage boy and a fully grown woman. It begins fleetingly, with Michael only seeing brief glimpses of her desirable body (this is Kate Winslet we're talking about after all) through curtains. She is tempted by his youthfulness and seduces him. Their affair is one filled with great passion, although Michael is often the one to express it more clearly. He leaves class in the afternoon, making his way to Hanna's bedroom giddy like a school boy since he is but a giddy school boy after all. He is especially happy and proud with what he has found in this woman. It's almost a privilege for him. David Kross as the young Michael is a revelation here, at least to this viewer who had never heard of him prior to seeing The Reader. In what must have been a very complex role to fill, Kross delivers in spades. There is a certain childlike quality about him that hints the immaturity that still lies within, yet he has to show at least reasonable signs of early adulthood, otherwise the audience may be completely turned off. Thankfully, the scenes of the two lying in bed with Michael reading poetry or classic stories to Hanna (she is illiterate) or cycling off in the countryside are are well executed and not only bring their relationship to life on the screen, but make it believable and deserving of the audience's attention. It is awkward and sweet all at once, making for an emotionally complex story. Needless to say, Kate Winslet is exquisite as Hanna, playing a woman who not only has an infatuation with a teenage boy (problem number one) but also has an aloofness to her. She's is capable is putting the passion on hold whenever she deems it necessary. While she does show kindness to Michael, we soon discover that there is something suspiciously cold about her. A great performance overall.
I would go so far as to say that Winslet and Kross are so good in the film, Ralph Fiennes, one of my personal favorite actors, is almost an afterthought. There is no question that he plays a thoughtful, remorseful adult version of Michael well, but he is clearly upstaged by his two co-stars. Fiennes comes into the story mostly in the final act, when he arrives at the decision to send Hanna, who is in prison for war crimes, tape recorded readings of her favorite stories. It is with these recordings and with the books from the prison library that she teaches herself to read and write. While somewhat touching, the latter part of the film doesn't quite reach the same heights that the first third reached. It's good, but that awkward passion that made the early stages better is long good.
Which leaves the middle third of the story, during which director Daldry decides to show us the trial of Hanna and other former Nazi guards, who are accused of letting a building full of Jewish prisoners burn down during WWII. Several years removed from his relationship with Hanna, Michael is now a law student and, as misfortune would have it, it just so happens that his professor has taken the class to witness that very trial. It is here where the film bogs down a bit. Philosophical and intellectual questions are tossed around regarding the morality of the trial itself and the actions of the former guards currently standing on trial. There is nothing wrong with having a film ponder on these matters. This particular viewer would normally applaud a film that attempts to wrestle with such matters. However, in this film it all feels a bit misplaced. Suddenly the tone of the story has changed. Instead of a challenging love story, what we have for perhaps 30 minutes or so is a court drama. As a sequence itself I didn't have much of a problem with it, but I felt it deserved its own film. It didn't need to eat up 30-40 minutes of this one. This portion of the film also features Bruno Ganz (from Downfall fame, at least from my perspective) criminally reduced to the role of the professor who keeps answering his students questions with questions of his own. In fact, I can't remember a single line of his that wasn't a question!
Despite the film's weaknesses, The Reader is more than just serviceable. It features two commendable performances that rise to the occasion and challenges the viewer with a love story that should feel terribly odd and does to a certain extent, but that one can't help but want to see unfold and possibly even continue, or reignite at least. I would still recommend it, although with a small caution regarding the film's inability to sustain the magic that lifts the first third.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
Blues Harp (1998, Takashi Miike)
Here is a fun little movie in Blues Harp, a story about the newly found friendship between three very different people in urban Japan. The first of these three is Chujii (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), a half Black half Japanese (that’s right) bartender in a pub that puts on music shows every night. A little known fact is that he very much enjoys playing the harp (or harmonica), but only in his private quiet time, not in front of any significant audience. He also deals drugs for a gang member in order to earn some extra money on the side. The second is Kenji, a young, resourceful but perhaps too brash Yakuza gang member. The third is Tokiko, a perky ‘glass is half full’ type of girl who visits the same pub Chujii works at to see the music shows. One night, their fates become intertwined when Chujii not only helps out Tokiko from some customers but hides Kenji, who is on the run from some rival gang members who he has irked. Pretty soon, Tokiko and Chujii start dating and move in with each other. The former becomes inadvertently involved in a plan Kenji has concocted to overthrow a Yakuza leader. A great setup so far.
First and foremost, Blues Harp has a great sense of style, a style that serves the storytelling very well. This isn’t a three hour epic drama, but a 100 (give or take) minute film that tells a compact and interesting story. There are few scenes here that do not serve any purpose in the narrative, with perhaps a couple of exceptions that I will assess a bit later. The character development on display is also well up to par with what one would at least hope for in a Yakuza film. Chujii is of the laid back type. From his demeanor it appears as if very little can rile him up. Tokiko on the other hand is very expressive. To reference to a recent film, she is very much in the same vein as Poppy, from Happy Go Lucky. What the film does well is not make her perkiness unbearable. Her reactions and comments to the people and events around her tickled my funny bone more than once.
Perhaps the most ambiguous character is Kenji, the Yajuza gang member. At times, there is an appearance about him that denotes confidence and a know-how that should make him a formidable foe. And yet, from the very get go, there are hints that indicate he may be getting in over his head. He is highly loyal to those he believes he can trust, as is demonstrated in the scene during which he repays (literally) Chujii for helping him out when he was in need early in the film. Interestingly enough, the movie makes a semi-subtle reference to something that may be cooking under the surface with regards to how Kenji views Chujii. I won’t give it away here, and the movie never explicitly provides an answer, but it is an interesting theme that the story toys with a bit. Put some easy points on the board with these fun characters.
The films greatest strength, its leader on the field, is in these relations that unfold. It is possible to argue that there is a slight sense of ‘been there, done that’ but we spend enough time with these people that by the time the third act begins, the viewer is fully invested in them, which is more than I can say for many other films I’ve seen. Chujii and Tokiko, as different as they are, do form a good looking couple. Her inherent goodness inspires him as does his work ethic (minus the drug dealing) and laid back attitude make her feel good. The determination that fuels Kenji to honour this new friend and ally he has found in Chujii is a nice element. Rather than have Kenji drag Chujii into his plot to shake up the Yakuza, he wants to protect him. One thing leads to another, and when it is Kenji’s driver, who out of jealousy, brings Chujii into the plan and subsequently into great danger, Kenji feels compelled to do all he can to save him. The final scene has a strong dramatic effect because of everything that came before it. The viewer has come to like these people so much that seeing them in any danger raises the stakes to a remarkably intense level. Instead of an overtly gritty, glum gangster movie, what we have is a surprisingly effective character driven story. The Yakuza element merely serves as the starting off point for the character moments that follow. A wise decision which is nicely put into effect by director Miike.
One last point I’d like to make. Eventually Chujii is invited to the stage one night at his pub to play the harmonica with the band. We have already seen the band play some grand blues/rock at the beginning of the film. The singer takes a backseat and Chujii starts blowing the heck out that little harp of his. It’s great stuff to watch and listen to. There are maybe 3 or 4 scenes like this in the movie that show off great blues musical numbers for 2-3 minutes. Every one of them is a treat to listen, doubly so if you like that kind of music. A great, great soundtrack for the movie, which can practically serve as a mini concert.
Blues Harp had a game plan and stuck to it. There is no cop out at the end, it isn’t trying to be ‘important’ in any particular way. It simply wants to tell a story with compelling, memorable characters. It does just that but with a confident sense of style as well. A well directed story with actors ready to give it their all. Certainly not exquisite filmmaking, but a very competent character driven movie nonetheless.