Cinema Psycho

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Archive for December, 2004

Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on December 7, 2004

Directed and written by Takeshi Kitano/starring Kitano, Tadanobu Asano/Miramax Home Video

A blind master samurai wanders feudal Japan, working as a masseur. Much ass is kicked.

Zatoichi is based on a hugely popular series of Japanese films made between 1962 and 1989. I’ve seen several of these movies, because they show them often on IFC as part of their “Samurai Saturdays”. They’re generally good, old-fashioned samurai movies that don’t seem to vary much in content, but are fascinating to watch if you’re interested in Japanese film and/or culture. And if you just happen to like old samurai movies, they’re pretty cool. (They also inspired the Rutger Hauer vehicle Blind Fury, about which the less said the better.)

Zatoichi is kind of like Japan’s James Bond, if Bond were a humble old Asian man who gives a lot of backrubs. He’s that beloved a character in his native country. Kitano’s new Zatoichi film is the equivalent of someone like, say, Quentin Tarantino making a Bond movie.

Which means, of course, that it’s pretty fucking incredible.

Kitano is kind of like the Clint Eastwood of Japan – a genuine badass with the soul of an auteur. He’s known for long takes, slow pacing and generally leisurely storytelling. If you’re expecting those qualities in his take on Zatoichi, you’re in for a shock.

Kitano’s Zatoichi is an awe-inspiring reinvention, both of the character and Kitano himself as a filmmaker. In an interview on the DVD, he says that his primary objective here was “to make an entertaining film”. For him, that meant quick cuts, eye-popping cinematography, brutal action and a ton of bloodshed. Rest assured, Zatoichi is anything but boring, and he pulls off this shift in style incredibly well.

Yet the film is respectful to its source material as well. As amped-up and stylized as it is, it still feels like a Zatoichi movie. Despite the superficial changes in appearance, the essence of the character still remains. He’s still a humble, unassuming, likable codger who wanders the countryside looking to make some gambling money. He finds himself in a small town, where he meets nice people who take him in. Through them, he almost accidentally gets into a position where he must defend himself and the town against the ruling classes and their violent thugs. His main opponent is another master swordsman who is pressured to fight for the feudal lords because he needs the money or is in debt to his master. The standard plot contrivances of the original films are all there.

There’s also a real sense of heart to the movie, which makes it very much a Kitano film. You really come to care about these characters, as simply drawn as they are. I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of Kitano for the role, but he obviously feels a real kinship with this character. Like Eastwood’s Man With No Name, there’s a kind of existential magic to him, but he’s the last guy you’d expect to take you down in a fight. He’s old, he’s blind, he walks with a cane, and he’s the baddest motherfucker on the planet. That’s just so freakin’ cool. I love the idea of a seemingly harmless, handicapped, poor old dude that people can’t help but mess with, turning around and kicking their asses before they can blink. And it’s not because he has the biggest gun, but because he has the greatest skill. That’s just too awesome.

It’s a testament to Kitano’s talent and instincts that his Zatoichi is so earth-shakingly cool. He even has the audacity to end the movie with a dance number, and somehow it seems absolutely perfect. Considering how much choreography went into those spectacular swordfights, it’s oddly appropriate. But it takes a very smart director to know that, and a talented one to pull it off.

I could go on and on describing this movie for you, but I don’t think mere words can fully sum up the experience. You really have to see it for yourself, and whether or not you’re familiar with the original films, it’s well worth the effort to do so. This isn’t just a samurai movie; it’s a great movie about a samurai, from a director/star working at the top of his game. Plus it’s awesome fun. You can’t go wrong here. (And if you don’t like subtitles for whatever reason, you can watch it in English. Now you literally have no excuse not to rent this movie.)

In an odd move, Miramax has packaged the movie as a 2-disc set along with Sonatine, Kitano’s 1993 gangster drama that was the first of his films to hit the U.S. In all honesty, I wasn’t too impressed with Sonatine the first time I saw it on VHS. I found it to be a slow-moving, poky little movie in which not much really happens. Upon my second viewing on this disc, I felt a little more kindly towards it. I still find it a bit slowly paced for my taste, and I don’t think it’s his best film by any means, but I felt like I understood it much better in the context of his other work that I’ve seen. I just don’t quite grasp the reasons for this packaging. Since each movie is given its own disc, wouldn’t it have made more sense to release them separately? I can only imagine that Miramax (who I have to give credit to for not keeping Zatoichi on the shelf for years as they have many of their recent genre films) thought they would sell better this way for some reason. But frankly, a movie as good as Zatoichi really should be allowed to stand on its own.

Zatoichi: ****   Sonatine; **1/2 12/7/04

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Ju-On (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on December 7, 2004

Directed and written by Takashi Shimizu/Lions Gate Home Video

A nurse comes to work for a family whose house is haunted by the spirits of its former owners.

This is the original Japanese film that inspired the recent Sam Raimi-produced remake, The Grudge. Actually, before this there were two straight-to-video movies under the same title, but they haven’t been released in America so I haven’t seen them. I saw the remake first and thought it was pretty good. It had some logic flaws, but I thought it was a decent piece of work overall. I now wish I could’ve seen the original first, so I could see the same movie that Sam Raimi saw when he watched it.

Overall, Ju-On is pretty much the same movie as The Grudge. Of course there are notable differences, which I’ll get into later. But for the first hour or so, you feel like you’re watching the same movie for the most part. Many of the shots and even the sets look the same. The plot is the same for much of the first half. It’s interesting to compare the two at first, but after awhile it gets a little dull because, if you saw The Grudge, you feel like you’ve just seen all of this.

But hang on, because the second half gets interesting as it contains a subplot not used in the remake. Given that this plot concerns Japanese schoolgirls, it’s a little mystifying that this is the one subplot they chose not to duplicate. Japanese schoolgirls are never a bad thing to have in your movie, especially if it’s set in Japan.

Of course it’s unfair to compare the two films in this way, because the original obviously came before the remake, which wouldn’t exist without it. But I can only talk about the experience I had watching the movie. If you didn’t see The Grudge, I would urge you to rent this before seeing it. You’ll probably like it a lot more than I did. But Ju-On is still worth checking out if you’re a fan of the remake as well.

Basically, the story in both films is fragmented so that each victim of the ghost gets their own subplot. In each story we learn how the victim came in contact with the house and what happened to them afterwards. Shimizu (who also directed the remake) goes backwards and forwards in time throughout in a non-linear way, so that we learn new and interesting things with each story. This isn’t the first time this kind of storytelling has been done (Pulp Fiction being the most famous example), but this is the first horror film I can think of that used this method.

A lot of Americans, even critics, didn’t understand this when The Grudge came out. There were many reviews that read like this: “The Grudge is a stupid horror movie with no suspense”. Apparently they were expecting something more straightforward and linear. But most critics give that review to just about every horror movie that comes out, so they probably would’ve said the same thing anyway. I read several reviews where I honestly wondered whether or not the reviewer had even seen the movie.
I think those people would like Ju-On much better, because it’s foreign and all. If they had seen this first, maybe they would “get” The Grudge. I actually admire both movies for doing something different than your average American horror movie, where in most cases you can pretty much predict what’s going to happen at every point. By mixing up the storyline this way, it’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen next. Unless of course you’ve seen the other version of the movie.

There are some superficial differences between the two movies, the most obvious one being that in Ju-On, all the actors are Japanese. The Grudge gave us American characters played by well-known actors such as Buffy, Stokely and Tom Cruise’s cousin. Ordinarily that would be a lame move that would serve no purpose other than to Hollywoodize the material. But the remake remained set in Japan, and I actually thought the combination of elements worked very well. The Americans’ unfamiliarity with the country and its customs made everything seem all the more eerie, like a horror version of Lost In Translation. It’s disconcerting enough to be in a completely different country and not knowing what the hell’s going on most of the time – now imagine dealing with the supernatural on top on that. That would really mess you up.

Ju-On obviously doesn’t have that element. But what I like about it, as opposed to the remake, is that there’s more of a sense of widespread insanity going on here, which is more typical of Asian horror. Especially in the second half, it really feels like what’s going on is happening all over the place. It feels like chaos is about to reign and the end is nigh. Parallel universes are meeting, the time-space continuum is warping and the world is imploding in on itself. It’s more like a science-fiction movie in which an experiment has gone horribly wrong than your usual “body count” horror flick. The remake really didn’t explore this, which is kind of a shame, as I think it would’ve freaked people out much more than a simple haunted-house movie.

So which version is better? It’s kind of a toss-up. I actually think they’re about even, strangely enough. I found Ju-On a little hard to follow at times, primarily because many of the actresses in it look so much alike that it was difficult to keep track of who was who at some points (this would not be a problem for the Japanese audience, of course). Yet I didn’t have the same problems with the logic of the film the way I did with the remake. For example, in this version the cop that the heroine goes to doesn’t know about the house beforehand, whereas in the remake he seemed to know all about it. So why didn’t he just go burn it down before it was sold to the new owners? You know there’s a haunted house that someone’s eventually going to move into, and you don’t do anything about it? Come on.

In the end, I think which version you prefer will probably come down to which one you see first. Just like The Ring, I still preferred the remake once I finally got to see the original. But I also liked the original for what it was, and I recognize the fact that it came first and there wouldn’t be a remake without it. Ultimately, I think both versions are worth checking out. This isn’t a case where they took a great foreign film and made an awful Hollywood remake of it. They took a pretty good foreign film…and made a pretty good Hollywood remake. That’s not a bad deal.
The Ju-On DVD also has a commentary track by Raimi and buddy Scott Spiegel (co-writer of Evil Dead 2) in which they basically talk about how great the movie is and how much they admire it. I listened to about half an hour of this. It’s not particularly informative, but it’s actually quite funny listening to them react to the film’s scares like giddy schoolgirls. It’s even funnier when the scares aren’t that incredibly scary, and they still jump and let out the occasional “aaaah!!!” If you’ve ever wanted to hear the director of the Evil Dead movies act like your scaredy-cat little sister, this track is for you.

*** 12/7/04

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I’ve been wondering lately if it might be time to retire the PG-13 rating.

Posted by CinemaPsycho on December 3, 2004

This thought occurred to me last week, when Wes Craven told Fangoria that the brilliant folks at Dimension Films were considering editing his new R-rated horror film, Cursed, to get a PG-13 rating. They have done this several times already, including the upcoming horror film Darkness. It’s not an unprecedented move.

There are some arguments for this practice. The recent influx of PG-13 horror and suspense films like The Sixth Sense, The Ring and The Others becoming huge hits has motivated the studios to make more films in this vein. However, the difference is that those are a specific type of horror film that don’t really need to be graphic to be effective. They were always intended to be what they are, and were never altered to fit a certain demographic.

The idea of taking a film that was primarily intended for adults and essentially watering it down so that 13-16-year-olds can buy tickets to it pretty much offends me, whether it’s a horror film or any other genre of film. Usually the result of such alteration is a very lame movie that disappoints the audience anyway and leads to bad word-of-mouth and fewer ticket sales. Nobody’s happy. (And in the case of Darkness, after leaving it on the shelf for about two years, they’re releasing it on Christmas Day, against about a dozen more high-profile films, so it’s probably going to bomb regardless of its rating. Anything can happen, but I’d be very surprised if it did well up against the onslaught of blockbusters and Oscar-bait movies. Yet another bad move by Miramax/Dimension, just the latest of many. But that’s a whole other column.)

I’m old enough to remember exactly when the PG-13 rating was established. It was after the summer of 1984, when PG-rated movies like Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came out. They were considered too dark and intense for kids, and parents freaked out about it. So the MPAA came up with the PG-13 rating, to signify that while a movie might not be “offensive” enough to be R-rated, it wasn’t necessarily suitable for younger children. They also kept the PG rating as it was, though it’s rarely used anymore. Currently, The Incredibles is one of the rare exceptions.

The problem with this is that the system was working just fine as it was. It was the parents who misinterpreted the PG rating as meaning “OK for kids”. PG stands for “Parental Guidance Suggested”, which means you might want to think twice before taking your younger children to see that film. Unfortunately, for most parents it came to mean the same as the G rating, which stands for “General Audiences” or “All Ages Admitted”. They believed that because children COULD go see any PG movie without their supervision, that meant they SHOULD. Analyzing the actual content of the movie and deciding whether or not the material was appropriate for younger-aged children was apparently just too difficult.

(This confusion led to some notorious mix-ups, even in my own family. I vividly remember being taken by my parents to see Airplane at the age of 10. If you’ve seen that movie uncut lately, you know why that was a mistake. My mother was shocked – shocked, I tell you! – and she loudly proclaimed as we walked out, “I didn’t know it was going to be like THAT.” Airplane was rated PG, and as relatively tame as it seems today, many people in my neighborhood thought the sky was falling.)

So they created the PG-13 rating, for films that fall between the supposedly “family-friendly” PG and the more “mature” R. Now, keep in mind, children of all ages are still allowed to see PG-13 films, just as they could with PG. It’s not like the rating actually prevents them from seeing anything. It just serves as a warning to parents more than anything. But more and more, parents seem to be ignoring the ratings and letting their kids see anything with that rating as well, under the incorrect assumption that “it’s not R, it must be OK.”

At the same time, the dividing line between what constitutes a PG-13 movie and an R movie is becoming ever so thin. So thin, in fact, that the studios can take an R-rated movie, cut out a few frames and/or words here and there, and come out with a PG-13 film that kids of any age can see. Yet the basic content of the film is pretty much the same. So people who wouldn’t let their kids see an R-rated “scary movie” are perfectly fine with letting them see virtually the same movie with a PG-13 rating.

Is this a bad thing? Depends on your point of view. It’s definitely bad for adults, because we have to sit through many of the movies we want to see with a bunch of screaming teenagers. But that’s not the only reason to reconsider the PG-13.

Keep in mind, I’m against censorship in all its forms. But I also believe in practicing common sense and age-appropriateness. I have a 7-year-old nephew, and just as I wouldn’t take him to a strip club or a rowdy bar, I wouldn’t take him to a movie that’s not appropriate for kids his age. I’m not dumb enough to pop in Pulp Fiction or Texas Chainsaw Massacre when he’s over at my place. Some people seem to think that kids of any age should be allowed to see anything, but I think that’s naïve at best. At the same time, I don’t preach to him that R-rated movies are “evil” or “bad”. He’s just too young to see them, and he understands that. Not everything is suitable for children, and not everything is supposed to be.

On the other hand, there’s a huge difference between a 7-year-old child, and, say, a 14-year-old teenager. Older kids can handle much stronger material. That’s why I propose that the PG-13 rating be dropped completely, and the R rating be lowered to 13 and over. I’m dead serious about this. As crazy as it might sound at first, hear me out and think about it.

Given that so many R-rated films are already aimed at and marketed towards teenagers anyway, doesn’t it kinda make sense? Kids between 13 and 16 are much more mature about these issues than previous generations were at that age. Generally, they’re much more media-savvy and more aware of the technical and business elements of filmmaking. These are, after all, the same kids who are overwhelmed by MTV, fashion magazines, gangsta rap, Goth culture and their own hormones. They hear more profanity during an average day at high school than they would at an all-day Tarantino-Mamet film festival. Is anyone still naïve enough to think that the morals of today’s teens are going to be corrupted by something like Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle? Seriously?

And most likely, they’re going to see the movies they want to see anyway. After all, the R rating only prohibits them from seeing these movies without “a parent or guardian”. So they can easily follow the time-honored traditions of sneaking in, or giving an adult money to buy their tickets for them. It’s practically an American rite of passage. Or if that doesn’t work, they can always wait for the movie to come out on DVD, often in an “unrated” form. If they’re not allowed to see R movies at home, they’ll see them at a friend’s house. It’s unavoidable. If they want to see American Pie 6 or Friday the 13th Part 13, one way or another they’re going to. It all depends on how bad they want it. (And let’s get real, if the worst thing your kid ever does is watch an R-rated movie now and then, you’re incredibly lucky and should thank whatever deity you believe in.)

So why not just let ‘em in? They’re going to see this stuff anyway. If anyone out there still thinks that seeing Shannon Elizabeth’s boobs or hearing the “f-word” a few times is going to scar your teenagers for life, you’re out of your minds. If you think these movies are going to give them “ideas” about sex, I’m sorry to inform you that ship has sailed. They’re teenagers. They’re already thinking about sex. (If you have a teenage boy, he’s thinking about it A LOT. Trust me.) But if you’re doing your job as a parent, they won’t turn into a chainsaw-wielding maniac or get pregnant before they can drive. If you’re not, then your kids are probably screwed (literally or figuratively) either way.

Now, I’m not advocating that teens be allowed to see EVERYTHING that comes along. That would be just as foolish as not letting them see anything. But I think lowering the R rating would make parents more aware of their responsibility to make informed choices. They will still have the option of saying, “no, I don’t want you to see that movie.” But they might actually use it if they think there’s a chance their kids might see something truly objectionable. Put a little fear into them and maybe they’ll start doing their jobs again.

This way, the system would shift just enough to make a difference. Films that are relatively tame and harmless would go back to getting a PG – stuff like Mean Girls and National Treasure would fall into that category. But here’s the catch; the truly “adult” films, that teens really shouldn’t see, could be given an NC-17 (or whatever arbitrary number they choose to enforce). That way, the teens can have their movies and the adults can have ours. And the NC-17 rating would finally mean something to people besides being wrongly confused with pornography. It would actually be used and enforced, because the studios and theater chains wouldn’t have any choice.

Best of all, the studios wouldn’t feel the need to cut R-rated movies down to a PG-13 to appeal to the 13-16-year-old ticket buyers. They wouldn’t have to.

Of course I realize that the conservative watchdogs would never allow this to happen, at least not without a fight. I get a headache just thinking about the uproar this would cause.

So here’s another solution: we all collectively agree to let the teens see “their” movies, the ones that are aimed specifically at them. If a movie looks like it was made for 13-year-olds, it probably was. It’s not hard to differentiate them. And we keep “our” adult-themed films for ourselves.

Think about this; how many teenagers were really dying to see Bertolucci’s The Dreamers? As chock-full of sex and nudity as it was…not many. That’s not just because it was rated NC-17 – it’s because nobody told them about it. Teenagers generally aren’t aware of anything outside their own myopic demographic stratosphere. How many teens are clamoring to get in to see Closer or Kinsey? My guess is, not many. Because, just like with my 7-year-old nephew, these films aren’t for them. They don’t run tons of ads for these films on MTV or The O.C. They’re too “serious” and “adult”, which equals “boring” in teen minds. If they knew what was actually going on in these movies, they might take a different view. But they don’t know. They haven’t got a clue.

We can use this to our advantage, people. It may seem like a lot of work, but it’s the best choice we have. You’re a parent and you want to keep your teens away from an R-rated movie? Tell them you think it looks good, and you want to go with them. They won’t go near that movie with a ten-foot pole.

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I’m starting to think that HD must really stand for “Highly Depressing”.

Posted by CinemaPsycho on December 3, 2004

It was announced this week that 3 of the major studios – Warner, Paramount and Universal – are backing Toshiba on their new HD-DVD technology. This means that their future releases will be in Toshiba’s version of the format. This will directly compete with Sony and their previously announced Blu-Ray technology. (Remember how well Sony did with Betamax?)

In layman’s terms, this means that conventional DVDs are as good as dead. Just like “regular” cable TV, this much-loved format is already on its way out, to be replaced with something more advanced. Sometime in 2008, the big conversion is supposed to take place. The cable companies and networks will switch over to HD permanently, as will the studios and their DVD labels. HD-DVD will take over everything, just as DVD has pretty much destroyed VHS.

So what’s so depressing about all this? Surely HDTV and HD-DVD are much better than the current versions, right? Progress is good, isn’t it?

Well, yeah, I’m sure that HD-DVD will be amazing. I’m certainly no Luddite or anything. I like new technology as much as anybody. I think I would feel better about it if we actually had the option of saying no, thanks anyway.

But we don’t.

Around four years from now, we’re all going to have to shell out hundreds of dollars just to enjoy the same luxuries we have now. You want to watch TV, well, guess what, you have to buy a new HDTV. All the networks and cable channels will be in HDTV. Your current TV will not accommodate that (unless of course you already own a Hi-Def set). You want to buy or rent a new DVD, you’re shit out of luck unless you have an HD-DVD player. Your “regular” DVD player will be considered outdated and useless.

I’m sorry, am I the only one who thinks this deal really sucks?

I don’t know about you guys, but my name doesn’t end with Trump or Hilton. I don’t have tons of cash to throw around, especially to replace something that shouldn’t really be obsolete in the first place. Unless I happen to win the lottery sometime before the next Presidential election, I probably won’t have that kind of money anytime soon. (Considering I don’t play the lottery, that makes it even more unlikely.)

Yes, I realize that the prices for HD sets and DVD players will come down substantially by then. But it’s estimated that an average HD set will be around $500, and an average HD-DVD player around $300. If that estimate is accurate, we’re talking close to a grand (counting taxes, etc.) for things we really shouldn’t need. Most of us already have TV sets and DVD players; we shouldn’t have to buy them all over again.
Not to mention the fact that many people will want to replace much of their DVD collections in the new format. That’s a ton of cash right there, depending on the size of one’s collection. It may seem extravagant now, but just as people replaced their old LPs with cassettes, their cassettes with CDs and their VHS copies with DVDs, this is just inevitable.

(As for me, I’ll probably keep my old player and discs and just buy the new stuff in the new format. I’m not foolish enough to throw away all the cash I’ve spent over the last 4 years of buying DVDs. I still listen to my old cassettes rather than buy the same music on CD. But a lot of people aren’t like that, and you better believe the studios are banking on it.)

Sure, I recognize that a lot of people are going to WANT the new HD technology. Many people already own HDTVs. My problem is that we’re going to HAVE to buy it. There won’t be any choice in the matter. The entertainment industry will expect us to just cough up the dough all of a sudden. Meanwhile, they’ll keep selling conventional TV sets and DVD copies for the next 4 years as if nothing’s going to happen.

We’re not going to have the luxury of adopting a “wait and see if it lasts” attitude. There have been a lot of new formats that have come and gone without making much of an impression on consumers. Most of us can’t afford to just buy into them and cross our fingers. We want to know that this format is going to be around for a long time.

HD will obviously last, because they’re forcing it on us. But how many people waited to buy a DVD player until they were sure the format was going to last? We all saw what happened to laserdiscs. We were assured that DVDs were going to be the ultimate format, that nothing would ever top it for picture quality, sound quality, and convenience. That’s why we all bought our players, and spent heavily on our DVD collections.

Geez, I guess they lied to us, didn’t they?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m not looking forward to dropping a wad of cash on this. I already have a TV and a DVD player that I spent money for, as well as a relatively large collection of discs. The idea that it’s all going to be obsolete by the end of the decade kinda pisses me off.

Who knows, maybe the new formats will impress me so much that I won’t mind. Anything’s possible. But until then, maybe I should just stop buying DVDs that I won’t be able to play on the HD player they’re going to force me to shell out for.

Nahhhh…. who am I kidding?

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