Friday, August 24, 2012

Double Review - "Elena" and "Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai"

Disappointed by this summer’s slate of box office stinkers? Here are two limited-release flicks you really ought to check out

I don’t know about you, but I was VERY, VERY disappointed by this year’s crop of summer blockbusters. Over-hyped, overrated comic book super-hero movies, high-concept comedies that were about as funny as a “Bumfights” bootleg, piss-poor animated-family dreck, ironic-hipster action movies; going to the movies this summer was like taking a swan dive into a barrel of piranhas and rusted screws, really. The sad thing is, the local art house selections really weren’t all that much better, as for every truly great flick like “Beasts of the Southern Wild” or “God Bless America,” we ended up with about half a dozen high-brow duds like “Trishna,” “The Intouchables” and “Compliance.” And now that we’re heading into the waning days of summer, our cinematic selections are getter REALLY craptastic; if I were you, I’d steer clear of the local mega-plex until at least after the elections are over.

Even so, there are still a FEW decent flicks to be found, pending you live in a metropolitan area with at least one indie theater worth a shit. In fact, there are two that I watched recently that I thought were absolutely astounding - and reason enough for you to fill up your P.O.S. sedan and make that treacherous trek to the closest art house cinema near you.

“The Amazing Spider-Man” leave you dejected and twenty dollars poorer? “Dark Shadows” make you want to burn the nearest Hot Topic to the ground out of consumer vengeance? “The Dark Knight Rises” stir your soul with the same amount of fervor as a backrub from Def Leppard’s uni-armed drummer?

If that’s the case, I’ve got two limited-release flicks on tap that you REALLY ought to check out, amigo…

“Elena” (2011)
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev

I’ve read a couple of reviews for “Elena,” and every last one of them used the exact same term: “film noir.”

I suppose I can see why so many film critics would trudge up the term - primarily, because the movie lifts a tried-and-true plot mechanic from “Double Indemnity” - but calling the film a “contemporary noir” is a really unfitting description, if you ask me. If you’re looking for chain-smoking femme fatales and gin-slamming private detectives, you’re going to be SORELY disappointed by what you find in “Elena.”

The thing that struck me most about the film is its’ emphasis on family. The very first shot of the movie is of an empty tree overlooking a massive Russian apartment; by the time the movie returns to the image - in the very last shot of the flick - you know PRECISELY what kind of statement the movie is tying to make.

So many films nowadays are hell bent on delivering some sort of slick political or social message; a refreshing change of pace, “Elena” is a movie about nothing more than family, and how far we as individuals would go to take care of our own.

The film revolves around the titular character, a 60-something retired nurse that lives with her second husband in his huge-assed flat. He’s the kind of old dude that’s really hardcore into exercising and stuff, and he chugs Viagra tablets like Tic-Tacs. Well, one day, he has a heart attack in a swimming pool, and he gets hospitalized. We’re introduced to his estranged daughter - this street-urchin looking dame that likes to smoke indoors, and it’s clear that they don’t have the best of father-daughter relations. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to Elena’s son - an almost-middle-aged slob that lives with his doughy wife and a dumb-ass son that needs some money to bribe a few college officials to stay out of the Russian military. So, Elena’s husband recovers, but he feels a little scared that he might have another coronary, so he decides to ink up a new will that would transfer all of his assets to his daughter as opposed to his wife. With a day before he delivers the will to an attorney - which would make the document all legal and binding and stuff - Elena finds herself in a most precarious position: does she allow her husband to sign the document, or to help out her son’s ailing financial woes (and possibly, her grandson’s life), does she do the unthinkable?

Well, I don’t think I’m telling you anything you WOULDN’T suspect when I say that she elects for the latter as opposed to the former here (and boy oh boy, does this movie give the folks at Viagra, Inc. some of the most dubious product placement in recent film history in the process.) The thing I really liked about the flick was how completely amoral the entire tone of the movie was. If this were an American-made movie, it would’ve have turned into a melodramatic mystery-thriller, with Elena being all psychologically traumatized by her actions and at some point, Laurence Fishbourne would probably show up as a detective that just KNOWS that her husband’s death wasn’t an accident. Well, you don’t get any of that shit in this movie, as the detectives totally write off the husband’s death as a medical mix-up, and Elena feels nary a shred of guilt about kinda’-sorta’ killing her spouse. Yeah, we kinda’ feel bad for the estranged daughter, but she ain’t family, you know. So instead of justice being served and things crashing down all Orson Welles-style, the family ends up reuniting and living in harmony - off what is, essentially, money looted from a homicide.

This is the kind of movie that is just utterly guiltless and sincere. If push came to shove - and our mamas or our sons or our brothers were just about to end up on the skids, for good - who is to say that each and everyone of us WOULDN’T do some things we like to think we’re incapable of doing to save our own flesh and blood? I’m not sure if there’s supposed to be some sort of deeper, sociological driver behind the movie (and since all I know about contemporary Russian culture is that they’re the only country in the world where “Riotgrrrl” music is still popular), if there WAS a deeper cultural subtext here, it’d be lost on me anyway. “Elena” is just a blunt, honest and unrepentant motion picture (helped tremendously, I might add, by a really great Philip Glass score) that reminds us how powerful the bond of blood is…so much so, sometimes, that a bit of someone else’s blood has to get spilled to honor it.

A tremendous, morally-challenging film, “Elena” is precisely the kind of cerebral lozenge we need as a movie going world after getting bonked on the head by uncomplicated, juvenile bullstuff like “The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Avengers” all summer long. Pending you have an attention span that can drag on for more than five minutes, I’d highly recommend catching a screening of this one, if you can.


A glossy full-sized poster on a white wall, or a lobby card resting inside the plastic sleeve of a three ring binder? I'll let you decide...

“Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai” (2011)
Director: Takashi Miike 

To me, there is absolutely NO denying that Takashi Miike is the single greatest director on the planet right now. And even if you don’t think he’s the absolute best, then you at least have to concede that he’s probably the most versatile; lest we forget, this is the same man that gave us “Visitor Q,” “Ichi the Killer” and “The Happiness of the Katakuris” in the SAME CALENDAR YEAR.

Of course, any director can be productive, but what Miike has done over the last decade is probably the single most impressive quantitative run in the history of film. Although not every movie the guy has put out there has been an all-time classic, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a “bad” film churned out by the guy - an impressive feat made a gajillion times more awe-inspiring considering that the guy also has his hands in all sorts of TV and stage productions, too.

In 2010, Miike released “13 Assassins,” a super-awesome remake of a classic samurai film directed by Eiichi Kudo in the early 1960s. It was perhaps Miike’s most critically-acclaimed flick yet, and to many cinema-nerds, signified the cult director’s “big break” into mainstream filmmaking. In many respects, “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai” is a natural transition piece from “13 Assassins,” as it covers very similar ground. A samurai epic? Check. Based on a legendary Japanese film from the Cold War era? Check. Violent as all hell? You betcha.

Even so, Miike’s latest film is something altogether different than”13 Assassins.” Despite having some thematic similarities, it’s a completely divergent experience from Miike’s previous film, and in many regards, it’s a far superior film, too. And although it’s still a bit too early to make any grand proclamations, I think it’s a safe bet to declare this one of Miike’s absolute best works - in fact, when Mr. Miike’s career is over, we may very well look back on this one as his finest overall effort as an auteur.

To begin, the film is a remake of the legendary 1962 Masaki Kobayashi film “Harikiri” - oft considered one of the greatest samurai movies of all-time. For Miike to take on such a vaunted film is quite daring, but his approach is both reverential and distinct. The story may be, for all intents and purpose, the same, but the execution - and I mean that literally - is something altogether Miike’s.

I’m always grasping for contemporary context in period pieces, and clearly, Miike is saying something about the state of Japanese politics and industry with this film. You can say that it’s just coincidental that one of the “noble houses” in the film is called “Fukushima,” but come on…this is the same guy that made “Sukiyaki Western Django,” so subtlety really isn’t this fellow’s forte.

You hear the term “righteous rage” tossed around quite a lot, and I’ve heard it attached to a lot of big-budget, mainstream movies this summer - most notably, the latest Batman flick. Well, if you’re looking for an action movie with a little bit of humanity alongside the havoc, “Hara-Kiri” is a rare edge-of-your-seat thrill ride that provides you with ample doses of adult sensibilities. If you want to watch a bunch of cartoon characters run around in Chrissy Nolan’s make-believe-socialist utopia, go right ahead; when you’re able to understand less juvenile things like family, honor, loyalty and “the social contract,” however, this is just the movie to segue yourself from “Transformers” to “The Human Condition” trilogy.

I really can’t talk about the film’s plot without giving away the whole shebang, so I’ll remain mostly muted on what the movie is about. I will say, however, that the movie kicks off with one of the most stomach-churning death scenes I have ever seen in a motion picture - a long, drawn-out scene that’s about as painful to sit through as anything I’ve experienced as a filmgoer (and this coming from a guy that paid money to see “Red Riding Hood!”)  From there, the film turns into a wild variation on the old “revenge” drama - albeit, one with far, far more human sentiments than you’d expect. As before, “Hara-Kiri” is a film that touches upon a lot of things, including what one would do for his family, what “nobility” really is and perhaps most interestingly, the idea of what “social stature” ultimately entails. It’s a complex, lively movie, with some of the most fleshed-out characters I’ve seen all year-round. It’s captivating, it’s intellectually stimulating, it’s emotionally moving, and when it comes time to see some asses get kicked, good lord, is it ever the sight to behold. Simply put, this is a movie you NEED to see - especially if you have a bad case of the post-summer ennui going on right now.



So, there’s this theater in Atlanta called “The Plaza” on Ponce de Leon. It’s a really nice theater (it’s where I caught “Hara-Kiri,” by the way), and as an added bonus, they have one of the dopest arcades I’ve seen in ANY cinema house in the ATL. Here’s a couple of send-off videos of me playing their in-house classics, including a first-run “Ms. Pac-Man” and some gameplay on a rare TABLETOP version of “Arkanoid.” And man…I sure hope they have that “Defender” cabinet plugged in the next time I’m around!

Tabletop "Arkanoid" (Video #001)!

Tabletop "Arkanoid" (Video #002)!

An  ORIGINAL "Ms. Pac-Man" Cabinet in Action!


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