Monday 28 February 2011

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (2009)

Director: Jessica Oreck

The best things about Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo have nothing to do with the film itself. For one thing it served as our introduction to a new venue, the Film Bar in Phoenix, which is exactly what the name suggests. We're far more interested in the film than the bar, with programming courtesy of Steve Weiss of No Festival Required, a valued asset of long standing in the Phoenix metropolitan area. It's early days and a tough time to be opening, but we hope this venture goes a long way indeed. For another, reading up on the film led me to photos of the office of director Jessica Oreck, which is a true gem compact enough to have been situated in Japan rather than New York. She's an animal keeper at the American Museum of Natural History there and some of the curiosities in her cabinets were sourced from Obscura, the shop featured in a documentary series on Discovery called Oddities, the only such show I record religiously.

But what about the film itself, Oreck's debut feature? What does it have beyond a magnetic title? The good news is that it has quite a lot. The bad news is that what it has really isn't what it says it has. Watch it from the perspective of a beetle fetishist and you're going to find about half of it really interesting and the other half a complete waste of time. From what I'd read about the film beforehand, it seemed to aim at being a documentary exploration of the timeless love affair that the Japanese have with bugs. It does pose a lot of questions but it never finds an answer, at least not that I could determine. It isn't even about bugs at all, though we do see many of them over about half the film. What it really tries to do is to understand Japanese culture on a much wider scale, from two real starting points and working backwards into history at least a millennia and a half. How far exactly I can't say, because of the narrator's hypnotic voice.

One has to do with the kokugakushu, founders of a cultural movement in the nineteenth century that tried to delineate between genuine Japanese culture and foreign, primarily Chinese, culture that had pervaded it for a thousand years. The other ties to the eighteenth century concept of mono no aware, coined by cultural scholar Motoori Norinaga as a way to describe beauty as the transience of things. Combining the two leaves the Japanese culture inextricably tied to nature and the subsequent shifts back through the centuries highlight that those two movements were merely definitions that were entirely compatible with what went before. This is fascinating stuff, to my Japanophile eyes and ears, and I learned a good deal, but while all the chosen quotations and references tied to bugs, they were obviously carefully selected and there was nothing that seemed to speak specifically to beetles over any other facet of nature.

The closest was a comment about scale, suggesting that insects fit alongside zen gardens and bonsai trees, which is fair enough, but there are reasons that so much in Japan is small and that was never addressed. There's so much that's big too, not least sumo wrestlers and giant robots, but there's no mention of anything that doesn't gel with the ideas proclaimed in the narration. That's one downside, but the biggest for me was the inclusion of a vast quantity of material that seemed to have very little reason to be there. I'd call it filler but that's unfair given how beautiful much of it is. Shots of water in rain, blossoms in a wood or churning water under a waterfall may reflect the transience that the narrator references but they seem out of place. Shots of Tokyo from above may make the people look like insects but that doesn't add any value. Much of this would have fit wonderfully into a Japanese version of Koyaanisqatsi but not here.
Much of the time I found myself listening to the narrator to glean nuggets of wisdom until the next bug related sequence arrived, almost like waiting for the commercials to be over so a show could start up again. There are plenty of bug related sequences but I could only wish there had been more. There was time enough for double what we got. I was fascinated watching the folk who run bug shops, harvesting the critters from wood in larva form, culturing them into grown grubs then selling them on. Other stores cater to 'insect catching and rearing supplies,' just like pet stores for bugs, or to display cases and mounting pins. The example we see of the latter is truly gorgeous, thoroughly organised, like an OCD sufferer's dream. There are even bug stands on the roadsides, next to more expected fruit stands, and bug fairs with insane variety, where you can buy outlandish 'fantastic heroes'.

On a human level, we see many people who are involved with bugs in some way or another, from young men with butterfly nets who prowl the forest, kicking trees and scrabbling through undergrowth to find bugs, to kids who set up their new kuwagata beetle tanks while composing anthropomorphic stories or watching huge stag beetles lock horns. At one end it's big business, as exemplified by the entrepreneur whose bug sales added up to a Ferrari, at the other it's fun for kids who seem to see the creatures as dolls as much as pets. There's time given to the 180 species of singing crickets, or 'crying insects' as one 68 year old fan calls them. He hears their sound as music and shows as much joy as the young kid trying to buy a $57 rainbow beetle with a mere $13. Their happiness is contagious. Perhaps all that seemingly extraneous footage was an attempt to provide a harmonious balance between screen time given to man and to nature.

As is hardly surprising for a fan of glorious ephemera, Oreck finds some fascinating moments to capture and these became my favourite parts of the film. Two species of firefly are named for the two warring clans of the Heian era, the Genji and the Heike. Given that fireflies often hang out on willow trees, traditionally the tree of the dead, the reincarnation concept sparks the idea that they could be ancestors. One man sells sake containing hornets. Another explains the occupational hazards of bug hunting in the woods: kicking trees to knock down kabuto beetles that hold on tightly often results in sore feet, like a sort of Japanese RSI. There are even arcade games built around insects, fighting games like Mortal Kombat with stag beetles or games where you wield a butterfly net and presumably try to catch 'em all, just like Pokémon. I loved these scenes but perhaps they turn the film into a grab bag that slips away from the underlying point.

If this review sounds schizophrenic, it's because that's how the film played to me. Half of it is fascinating stuff, material full of quirky joy and discovery, that opens a new door onto an exotic culture that we aren't likely to have walked through before. It provides us with detail but leaves many scenes open to interpretation, like the firefly viewings that remind me of meteor shower parties in more ways than one. The other half is confusing, seemingly extraneous footage that may or may not have anything to do with the ideas that Oreck is trying to get across. It's often gorgeous footage though I was underwhelmed by the light play of Tokyo at night and shots of people driving around the city. The camerawork is sometimes shaky but there's often an astute composition of frame. Often it feels somewhat like two 45 minute films stapled together, each worthy in their own right but only as separate entities. I'd prefer to see them that way.

Divergence (2005)

Director: Benny Chan
Stars: Aaron Kwok, Ekin Cheng and Daniel Wu

Divergence is a strange puppy. A Hong Kong thriller, it seems to shine almost effortlessly but the more attention you pay to it, the more it seems to be going through the motions. Produced and directed by Benny Chan, who's helmed a few recent Jackie Chan flicks, it stars Aaron Kwok and Ekin Cheng, reunited for the first time since The Storm Riders in 1998, adding Daniel Wu, who I may only have seen in Naked Weapon. Kwok, on the other hand, starred with Maggie Cheung in one of my favourite Hong Kong movies, The Barefoot Kid, among others, while Cheng starred in Twins Effect and Re-Cycle, again among others. It's a notable cast and it's hard to fault them on their performances. The script is by Ivy Ho, who won both a Golden Bauhinia and a Hong Kong Film Award for Comrades: Almost a Love Story and both a Golden Horse and a Hong Kong Film Award for July Rhapsody. This is surprising subject matter for her, but it seems to unfold well.

The three have separate stories that intertwine as the film progresses. Aaron Kwok is Suen Siu Yan, a cop who used to host a TV show, presumably something like America's Most Wanted or Crimewatch, but now works for the Commercial Crime Bureau. He's apparently a good cop, but he has a private torment: his fiancée, Su Fong, disappeared ten years ago without trace, yet he sees her everywhere he goes. Cheng is To Hou Sun, the lawyer of the money launderer Suen is trying to bring down. He's very slick, though unfortunately so slick that there's very little real character to watch. We mostly see him when he's working and yet his real depth only emerges when he isn't. Daniel Wu is Koo, a top notch assassin who shoots dead Hung Chi Man, the money launderer's accountant who Suen is bringing back from Canada to testify, in the back of a moving unmarked cop car. He's very good indeed at what he does but he also has a history.

Of course, being a high profile Hong Kong cop thriller, trying to reach an audience who had seen Infernal Affairs and its sequels very recently, there has to be complexity and much of that ties to how the three subplots come together. Koo is the initial link between the three, but then Suen discovers that To's wife Amy looks so remarkably like his fiancée that Malaysian actress Angelica Lee plays both of them. She's underused throughout for someone who was so good in The Eye only three years earlier, but her parts are mostly important simply for being there. Her character isn't the only reason that we have question marks about To and wonder whether there are things we haven't discovered about him yet. For Koo's part, he has a quirky relationship with his agent Ting, played by the delightful Ning Jing, and we can't help but wonder what she has to do with the story and how she affects his character. Lots of questions are usually a good thing.
The problem here, or at least the first one of many, is that not all these questions go anywhere. It isn't that some just fizzle out, it's that they don't fizzle out but still don't go anywhere, which is more than a little frustrating. I'm all for dead ends and cinematic sleight of hand and complexity, but either I wasn't paying attention at the right moments or this one confused itself a few times and there wasn't much validation as to why certain characters proved to be massively important and others were pointless, not red herrings but just pointless. Beyond the characters mentioned thus far, there's Yiu Tin Chung, the money launderer under pressure. There's his boss, who gets more and more frustrated and throws subtle threats his way about his son, Yiu Ha, a cantopop singer big enough to have billboards around town but apparently not big enough to be labelled as anything but 'son of a millionaire' on the front pages when he's kidnapped.

Another subplot is introduced at the onset as a woman is chased down a dark alley. However the pursuer is pursued in turn and taken down with a garotte. Predators also being prey is a common refrain in Divergence but I'm not sure it really plays out to a neat coda. So many plot strands here ends up meaning that so much is almost but not quite done right, though it often takes a moment of reflection to realise that because the effortless feel draws us in like hypnotism. With reflection we wonder about the point. Who kidnapped Yiu Ha and why is one question, but it's overridden by the others that tie to Su Fong and Amy. What happened to Su Fong a decade ago? Is she Amy? If she is, why is she there and what part did To play in everything? She seems to be the key to the story, as she ties the three main characters together, but we don't see enough of her to really justify being the link. And so we start wondering if there's something else.
There is much to appreciate here, though the film as a whole ends up lacking. It's well shot, with some scenes being notably tense. The first chase between Suen and Koo has a gloriously subtle use of stunt driving, and there's much more of that as the film runs on. The end of that chase to the fish market is just as subtle and very neatly handled. The acting is solid, though with caveats as mentioned above. Aaron Kwok takes a while to really grow for me but the scene following Koo telling him about his girlfriend is a peach, however much some reviewers feel that it lurches into unintentional comedy. They may be right by the end of it, but the beginning is superb acting on Kwok's part. Wu is impressive, perhaps the best of the three leads, keeping a sly grin on his face throughout, whatever the circumstances. Cheng has to wait to the end to get some opportunities to really show what he can do because of the professional wall his character keeps up.

A number of supporting actors shine, but none have much to do. Angelica Lee is restricted for the most part to looking gorgeous, which is hardly a stretch for her, until the end of the film, and she has more to do than many of the supporting characters. The hugely experienced Eric Tsang stood out for me as Uncle Choi, who runs the police morgue, managing to flesh out his part to a surprising degree, given that he has nowhere near the screen time he could have easily been given. The film itself has much of the same problem. It does so much but never enough, as so much of what could have been there wasn't, while so much else was. It's slick, it's complex and it's fun to watch, but the more you think about what you're seeing, the more you see past the style to discover that it's masking that the substance really isn't there. It seems to be but it isn't and when the credits roll you wonder why you feel underwhelmed.

A World Without Thieves (2004)

Director: Pang Ho-Cheung
Stars: Josie Ho and Eason Chen

A young couple played by Andy Lau and Rene Liu have a bright future as this film opens, looking very much in love as they drive their BMW through some truly astounding scenery. This is the sort of situation where romantic comedies tend to end, but as we soon discover in this case it's where they begin. Nothing is what it seems: they're partners both in marriage and in profession, but the BMW isn't theirs and she wants out of their life as thieves as soon as it's fenced in Tibet and she gets her share. She wants a normal life. She's Wang Li, devout enough to want to stop and pray at a Buddhist temple they pass. He's Wang Bo, who takes the opportunity to pick a few pockets, with the aid of a razor blade and some neatly applied CGI. The stop doesn't help. 'What is there between us except money?' she asks him, then gets out of the car to walk back to the temple. So much for romance, right? Well, the rest of the film tries to get it back, amongst much more.

This one came as a surprise to me. It's sat on my DVR for a couple of years and I was expecting a routine Hong Kong action thriller. Instead, it's a beguiling combination of Hong Kong action with Chinese spirituality, set mostly on a train oozing with ethnic flavour and acted with panache by an ensemble cast. The spirituality comes from the character of Sha Gen, or Dumbo in the English translation, a truly naïve boy who both the Wangs adopt, though for different reasons. An orphan who has spent the last five years doing repair work at the temple, racking up ¥60,000 he hasn't spent, which he withdraws so he can go home, build a house and find a wife, taking the money with him on the train. The action comes from that money being an attractive proposition for the many thieves on the train, not just Wang Bo but a group led by the deceptively ancient Uncle Li. This sets up a whole slew of character dynamics which are well explored.

I've seen a number of these actors before, in a variety of films, but never Wang Baoqiang, who plays Dumbo. He was a relatively inexperienced actor at this point, unable to find the sort of martial arts roles he had trained as a child to play, inspired by Jet Li and Jackie Chan. Instead he ended up in dramatic character roles for which, if this is anything to go by, he shows unusual talent. Dumbo is so utterly disconnected from reality that he appears to be mentally retarded in some manner, not just a good man, but one so good that he cannot comprehend evil. He not only rejects advice to wire his money home, but he rejects outright the very concept of thieves too. Outside the station he loudly announces how much money he has with him and asks any thieves there to identify themselves, which of course they do, albeit not in so many words. Yet even as thieves work their trade all around him, he never notices. His innocence is catching.
The film works on two levels. On one it's an action film, where thief fights thief with the sort of rapid fire but insanely precise movements Hong Kong cinema is known for. The tricks Wang Bo and Uncle Li use to peel eggs reminded me of the dice shaker tricks in God of Gamblers, also starring Andy Lau, albeit a full fifteen years earlier. If you can imagine those sort of moves with razor blades and cigar cutters, you have an idea of what this film conjures up. CGI is used very sparingly and always to great effect, something I very rarely see. All Uncle Li's band of thieves are well versed in this sort of action, not just Ge You, who plays Uncle Li himself, but You Yong, Gordon Lam and Li Bingbing as his number two, Four Eyes and Little Leaf respectively. While Wang Bo and Uncle Li's thieves battle each other over the money, Wang Li decides instead to become Dumbo's protector, leaving her husband in dubious moral territory.

She's the epitome of the second level the film works on, as a tale of redemption. Dumbo is such an incessant force for innocence that he can't help but influence those around him, especially Wang Li, for whom he's already done a couple of good deeds, who wants to quit her profession anyway and who seeks to improve her karma through helping him out. When Wang Bo fleeces him of some of his money, not by sleight of hand but by social engineering, she gives it back and decides to adopt him as her little brother. There's much more here about goodness, kindness and belief, not to mention karma, but it would be unfair to spoil the unfolding of such gems. It isn't all about not taking, it's about giving too, and the lessons are learned through interaction with Dumbo, who Uncle Li's band describe as a 'brainless lamb snuggled between two thieving wolves.' I'd just call him as unaware of the world as a young man could be.
I'm not sure if there's a downside to this movie. Some reviewers seem to have mild problems with the ending but I didn't. I did want much more exploration of the various dynamics in play within Uncle Li's organisation, but perhaps that approach would have detracted from the balance between action and spirituality by keeping Dumbo off screen for longer than necessary. However much the thieves dance their professional dance amongst themselves, he's the grounding for the entire film and his money is the McGuffin of the picture. If anything, the downside of the film was the unfortunate choice to release it in the same month as Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle, which became the highest grossing film in Hong Kong history and swept the awards that year, all of which may have hurt the chances of this film at the box office there. In China, it was a huge success, grossing ¥100m in its year of release alone.

There are certainly many upsides, not least the flavour of the picture, as the sets, costumes and scenery are magnificent. Li Zhang's cinematography is accomplished, especially as much of the film takes place on a very cramped train. He would go on to be the director of photography on John Woo's Red Cliff. The cat and mouse tension is maintained throughout, even while Dumbo's spirituality spreads, because of the tight script by director Feng Xiaogang, which won a Golden Horse for adapted screenplay, and the acting, not just by Andy Lau and Rene Liu, but also Ge You and Wang Baoqiang. Lau is showing his age but he's still dynamic and versatile. Rene Liu reminded me of a young Michelle Yeoh. Ge You is a joy to behold as Uncle Li, suitably devious for a character whose real name, Hu Li, means 'fox' in Mandarin. I wonder if Li Bingbing's look here was pinched for Fauxlivia in Fringe. They look very similar.

There are other things I'd love to tell you about, but they would count as spoilers and would be inappropriate for a film as clever as this, with tight plotting that keeps us guessing throughout. I have a feeling that this one will stay with me much longer than other Asian films that rely on hooks in the plot, because they don't play as well on future viewings and I think A World Without Thieves may just get better. While it's always good to see Andy Lau and demonstrations of Li Bingbing's flexibility can never be a bad thing, I'm keen to see much more of each of their co-stars here, especially Wang Baoqiang. His breakthrough was a year earlier in a film called Blind Shaft, but this consolidated his stature and he went on to star in a number of Chinese TV series, including An Suan, in which he played a blind intelligence agent with enhanced hearing. It would be especially interesting to see his other work and then come back to A World Without Thieves.

Dream Home (2010)

Director: Pang Ho-Cheung
Stars: Josie Ho and Eason Chen

Josie Ho is a pretty important person in Hong Kong, one who managed to escape the shadow of being one of the seventeen children of Macau billionaire Stanley Ho, who made his substantial fortune through a forty year government backed monopoly over the Macau casino industry. Such a background could hardly have hurt her in attempts to found her own career in entertainment, but she proved to be a talented actress, singer and model, winning a Hong Kong Film Award for her role in Naked Ambition. It's hardly surprising that she would eventually found a production company, 852 Films, but it's surprising that its first feature would take obvious satirical swipes at a number of institutions, from the Hong Kong government to the real estate industry, even the very idea of following your dream, whatever the cost. Dream Home purports to be inspired by a true story, which I can't validate, but it's as much a social satire as a gruesome horror movie.

Cheng Lai-sheung, Josie Ho's character, simply wants an apartment at 1, Victoria Place, one with a view of the harbour. The catch is that real estate is insanely expensive in Hong Kong, as the opening statistics detail. It costs $30,000 per square foot for a harbour view, because times are tough in Hong Kong and prices are going up faster than income. Cheng sticks to her guns though and pursues that apartment with gusto, working three jobs, if you can count the third as a job. By day she works the phones at Jetway Bank, by night she sells imported bags at a fashion store. In what little free time this leaves her, she's the mistress of a married man with money, booking hotels by the hour in hopes that prostituting her body will translate into a substantial payday down the road. Yet even with such dedication, it just isn't enough and she realises that the only way to get her apartment is to turn this movie into a slasher flick.

There are really two sides to this story: the biting satire on materialism and real estate in Hong Kong and the gruesome slasher movie. While the film has received predominantly good reviews, those that speak to the negative wonder whether these two sides coexist successfully, and I find that a difficult question to answer. For the most part I think they do, because the background the film provides about government corruption and collusion with organised crime is the only real way we can find sympathy for Cheng as she does her bloody deeds. Without sympathy this film would be nothing but a slasher movie, its selling points merely based around imagination and gore effects. The history we're given to Cheng's character, why she has this particular dream and the depth given to the characters she disposes of inevitably lead us to ask the question of whether what she does is any worse than what they do. She succeeds in becoming an anti-hero.
The biggest flaw I found with the film is in how much it leaps around in time. The present day is 2007 but we visit as far back as 1991 and many years in between, not in any particular order but only as needed to flesh out another bit of background. It's too much and the bizarre concept of providing us with times as well as years just confuses things. What does it matter what time it is in 1999 when we're only going to leap to 2004 two minutes later before jumping back to 1997? What survives through these temporal shenanigans is a successful building of character and a neatly imaginative sense for gory death scenes. Fortunately the two work pretty well together, though this would have been more realistic if director and co-writer Pang Ho-Cheung would have had his way and kept the imagination down and the realism up. Josie Ho freely admits that she wanted more over the top gore and while that increases the fun, it drops the realism.

To be honest, I don't know which way I'd have preferred. Given the methods taken to dispose of some of these victims, more realism would have been truly brutal and may well have completely overwhelmed the satire. One death scene in particular has our anti-hero tying and manhandling a pregnant woman before slipping a space saver bag over her head and vacuuming out the air. I cringed more at what looked like a painful bump to the back of her head as she was dragged up some steps, but if the whole scene hadn't been so utterly outrageous it would have been difficult to stomach. By the time Cheng turns a flat where a small party is going on into a gory massacre, we're in pure fantasyland and laughing aloud at each gruesomely inventive death scene. On this level, the film outdoes anything I've seen lately from Hollywood, though if it does well, there will surely be the inevitable American remake to see if they can up the stakes in this department.
I doubt they'll manage it. The death scenes are superbly executed, pun well and truly intended, with excellent work from make up effects man Andrew Lin, far better known as a supporting actor and member of the Cantopop boy band Alive with Josie Ho's husband, Conroy Chan. IMDb only lists one previous effects credit, for creature design in a 1996 TV series called Cyberkidz, so his achievements here are truly astounding. He may well have found himself a new career, one a bit higher up the respect ladder than boy band member. It isn't merely the quality of the effects, though, it's how they're used. The first death is relatively quick and easy, a security guard asleep on the job being neatly strangled to death with a garotte. It only gets bloody when he tries to cut off the noose. However they build as the film runs on, getting more elaborate, more gruesome and more memorable. By the finalé, the choreography plays a key part too.

I loved the ending, which is delightfully ironic and utterly appropriate. It really flips the question we've juggled all along right round. For most of the film, we know Cheng is the killer and that she kills for a cause that doesn't rank high up any list of justifiable homicides we could compile, yet we do feel some sympathy for her, given her past history and her dedication. The fantasy horror tone of the story helps us root for her regardless. Yet once we reach the finalé we can't help but reevaluate everything, including how much we were behind her. It's a peach of an ending, a neat cap to a joyous riot of blood. It also reminds us of the film's social comment, which gradually got lost amidst the gore. We notice that it got lost too, which decreases its value somewhat, but that last scene brings it back and raises it in a whole new way. There are plot inconsistencies galore, so don't look for a tight script, but for satirical political comment and gleeful grue this is a riot.

Tetsuo: The Bullet Man (2009)

Director: Shinya Tsukamoto
Stars: Eric Bossick, Akiko Mono, Yuko Nakamura, Stephen Sarrazin and Tiger Charlie Gerhardt

I left Tetsuo: The Bullet Man to linger in my mind for over a week before I wrote a review and all that came out of that was that I have no idea what writer/director Shinya Tsukamoto was aiming to achieve with it. This is the third instalment in his Tetsuo series, though no less than seventeen years have passed since the last one, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, but that time doesn't seem to have added anything to what Tsukamoto wants to say. This feels like an American remake of the previous two Tetsuo movies, admittedly as filtered through my memory of them given that it's at least a decade and a half since I've seen either and I'm not entirely sure I ever finished them. It feels like someone who didn't understand took the ideas and made an English language version. Yes, English language. That's just one of a number of filming decisions Tsukamoto took that I don't fully understand. It's become a puzzle to me but one I don't really care to finish.

You'd have thought I'd set it up right. Tetsuo movies are a trip to begin with, where you need to bring an imagination to figure out what Tsukamoto is really trying to say. We arrived late, during the opening credits, so presumably lost the initial setup. Unlike most pictures, that should have helped. Not remembering much of its predecessors ought to have helped too, but in the end it just isolated questions that may be better without answers. What unfolds behind the credits may be the key, reminding of nothing less than a David Bowie industrial video, with a man in a suit dancing in front of showers of sparks, all shot in sterile high definition digital video. Why shoot in digital, about something analogue? Why shoot in colour, but make almost everything black and white anyway? Why shoot in English? Why cast a western actor in the lead? I can only assume that Tsukamoto wanted his film to look as artificial as the characters, which is a mixed blessing.
The story won't be anything new to those who have seen the predecessors, but compared to my memories of them it felt watered down. We come in on the grief of Anthony and Yuriko, a couple living in Tokyo who have lost their young son in a car accident. Anthony is an American, who sits calmly at the breakfast table while his Japanese wife shouts at him. Shouldn't he find the man who did it and kill him? As it turns out, that's all that sits in his brain. He can't forget, he can't move on, but he sings Hush Little Baby to himself every time he gets angry, to calm himself back down. As the film runs on, it succeeds less and less, and he has visions of metal. He contorts and spasms and turns into a metal man. This is all done well but when someone arrives to shoot him in the head, we're only happy that the camera stops jerking about. What follows is a background, a story fabricated to make at least some sense of the ideas Tsukamoto wants to see on screen.

This is failure one to me. I remember Tetsuo, the Iron Man being a bizarre metaphor about man's rape of nature, shot not as a hippie environmental message but as crazy Japanese cyberpunk, a triumph of imagination inspired by the otherwordly sterility of David Lynch's Eraserhead and the deviant sexuality of David Cronenberg's films. Here it has mild elements of conspiracy theory as it struggles to turn a metaphor into a conventional plot based movie. The very fact that I used a word like 'conventional' in a review about a Shinya Tsukamoto film should highlight just how far wrong he went with this one, because that's the last adjective he would ever want to describe a picture he made. Yet sixteen years after The X-Files, the back story comes across only as tired, Project Tetsuo dealing with secret experiments on human beings, artificial body creation, powers to transform. In its way the story is very nineteenth century gothic, hardly cutting edge.
What works best are the things I like least. Everything is clinical and sterile: the sets, the people, the lack of grain in the high def format. It's so primarily black and white that it's strange to keep being reminded that the film was actually shot in colour. Yet the look works, nature reimagined in brushed stainless steel. The industrial textures are cool. The smoke is shot well. The shots of Anthony in pursuit, transformed by anger into a metal monster, the only part of his body visible being a single eye, are glorious. The fight scenes are delirious transformation demonstrations as only the Japanese can make. The original Nine Inch Nails theme fits perfectly and in fact, had the plot been removed, twenty minutes of this could have made a truly awesome industrial rock video. Visually it's interesting but it doesn't feel accomplished. It feels unwieldy, kludged rather than wild and out of control. The masks and body suits are cool but there's little behind them.

Tsukamoto made a very surprising choice to shoot the film in English. I'm still trying to work out whether he did this to open up the film to a larger potential audience outside Japan or whether it was done for the domestic audience in an attempt to make it more outlandish. The dialogue is almost entirely in English but a second language English spoken by primarily Japanese speakers. While Eric Bossick, who plays Anthony, looks a little like a Japanese Bruce Campbell, he's a gaijin and so is Stephen Sarrazin, who has a brief role as his father. Surprisingly, their English is flawed too, possibly because this is the only feature film for either of them. Instead of adding surreality, the use of English as a second language just makes the dialogue sound cheesy for the most part. It's good to see Tsukamoto still experimenting with film at the age of fifty, but it's sad to see that the best ideas here are the ones that seem least satisfying, even if they work as he intended.

At one point, Tsukamoto, who plays a nameless protagonist credited only as The Guy, as he was in the second Tetsuo film, pronounces, 'Wake us up from our peaceful stupor!' This isn't really what The Guy wants Anthony to do, it's what Shinya Tsukamoto wants his films to do. For the most part he succeeds, given that he has been one of the most edgy Japanese filmmakers since the first Tetsuo, but this third instalment mostly sent us deeper into stupor. Perhaps futility is a theme, but if it is it can unfortunately be extrapolated to the film as a whole. Sure, we can throw out Eraserhead meets Beauty and the Beast tags, with maybe some Johnny Got His Gun, but that would be misleading. At the end of the day, this is an emotionally dry film with no nuance. It may be suitably artificial but it's tame and that just isn't right for a Tsukamoto picture. It's not as wild, not as original, not as gloriously out of control as his films tend to be. It's too conventional.

RED (2010)

Director: Robert Schwentke
Stars: Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker and Helen Mirren

It really says something when a movie can be worth watching while carrying a one-word, scarily generic title and has nothing more interesting for ten minutes than Bruce Willis getting out of bed. Well, that's not strictly true: there's plenty happening for those who value the lost art of character building, but we don't expect that sort of thing in a big budget Hollywood action flick. Willis is Frank Moses, who is simply bored watching neighbours plug in Christmas decorations. He's so bored that he rings the girl at the helpdesk for his pension to tell her his avocado has grown two leaves. She's Sarah and he rings her a lot. He rings her so much that he knows what novels she reads. He reads them too, though they're unrealistic exotica about romantic spies who work in fashion parades, apparently because it's a connection to another human being. They've never met but apparently he's going to be in Kansas City soon and wants to meet her.

Now, if you've seen the trailer for RED, you'll know two things. One, it stars a lot of very talented actors who are getting along a little in years. Two, it's an action movie. Yet, thus far, we've had Bruce Willis and no action. I could almost imagine the most ADHD of the audience standing up and leaving, but if they did, they'll have missed the fun to come. Moses is bored because he has no idea what to do in a civilian world. He's a retired CIA operative, you see, trained to deal with any situation except nothing. So, as if the entire film turns into a wet dream for a retired man of action, all hell breaks loose. A group of gunmen attempt to take him down in his own house, which I'm sure you can imagine is not too bright an idea, especially given that the title of the film isn't a colour, it's an acronym and RED stands for Retired: Extremely Dangerous. Moses comes to life, takes them all down instead and even takes a finger from each so he can ID them later.

Once this initial burst of action is over, we know three things. The first two are that it's Christmas and Bruce Willis has no shoes on. The third is that this has the potential to be more fun than Live Free or Die Hard. What it turns into is a strange cross between True Lies and Space Cowboys, with a dose of Sneakers thrown in. Willis is more realistic than Schwarzenegger, naturally, as down to earth as he ever was as John McClane, but the action gets progressively more unrealistic as time goes by. What saves it is the fact that to discover who sent this South African hit squad he has to put his old black ops team back together. Frankly, that they are played by the actors they are is more than enough reason for you to watch this movie. If Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren aren't a dream team for an action movie, factor in Brian Cox as a Russian former opponent who helps out through gallantry. There's no way I could resist.
There is a plot, loosely sourced from the graphic novel by Warren Ellis, but its twists and turns are played as much for fun as for any attempt at consistency. This story is painted in very vivid colours indeed. Put simply, Moses runs from outlandish action scene to even more outlandish action scene, gradually inviting his old similarly bored colleagues back into the picture, so he can find out who's trying to kill them. There are three complications to this. The first are the bad guys: unknown, elusive and apparently very important. The second is William Cooper, a current CIA agent, who has been tasked with tracking down and killing Moses. Finally, there's Sarah Ross, the pension girl Moses was planning to meet. Realising that his phone would have been bugged, he promptly kidnaps Ross for her own protection, gradually turning her into the Jamie Lee Curtis role from True Lies.

Mary-Louise Parker is not as sexy as Curtis but she's decent as Sarah, taking the opportunity of being thrown into insane danger to live life like a heroine from one of her exotic romances, at least once she's got over her leading man drugging her, kidnapping her and absconding with her to a succession of different cities in rapid succession, not to mention putting her in more danger than can comfortably be imagined. That isn't her best date, she says, but it isn't her worst either. She also says that, 'People are basically kind of decent,' but she soon learns. She does play an active part in proceedings and Parker does well, but to be honest, her greatest achievement is not being lost in the mix given the co-stars she has to deal with. It speaks volumes for how good Willis is getting as an actor that he doesn't become background himself. Perhaps he's just old enough to be a viable character actor, even if he's in the lead.

And it's the character actors that really make this movie. As an action film, it's a wild nonsense ride of epic proportions. Just to highlight one particularly outrageous scene, Moses breaks into the frickin' CIA headquarters in Langley, finds his way to the office of his nemesis, kicks his ass, steals his pass, obtains files from a vault that's so secret that regular CIA agents don't know it even exists and still makes it out alive. Oh, and the plans he worked from were provided by a former KGB enemy. It reads almost like the fridge scene from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but fortunately this one is fun. If it had been played serious it would have been painful, but playing it with a sense of humour, albeit not as an out and out comedy, was a master touch. That and those actors. Frankly, the story doesn't matter. This is an excuse to watch Morgan Freeman in an insanely colourful African military uniform, watch John Malkovich spin tales of conspiracy and watch Helen Mirren handle a rocket launcher. That's all this really is.

Fortunately for this viewer, that's enough. I've always had a healthy respect for aging actors in an industry that puts most stock in the youngest and prettiest, whether they have any actual talent or not. I relish films that buck the studio trend and give real opportunities for the great names to do what the young 'uns do. Give me Space Cowboys over Armageddon any day. Even in genres you wouldn't expect, if the old guard are given the opportunity, they prove that they can still shine brighter than the starlets. For example, the most touching romance I've seen in years was 2008's Lovely, Still, starring 80 year old Martin Landau and 76 year old Ellen Burstyn. This one does that more than any recent film I can remember and the old folks steal the show with panache, even those in small roles like Richard Dreyfuss or 93 year old Ernest Borgnine, still going strong today and here working as the secret records keeper at the CIA.
80 year old Joe Matheson is stuck in the Green Springs Rest Home, talking orderlies into bending over in front of the TV to give him a thrill. He's played by 73 year old Morgan Freeman, who is a must if you want to make a film about old folks playing tough. Marvin Boggs is half insane and that may be an understatement, but he isn't paranoid because they really were out to get him. Given that he's a construct of what daily doses of LSD for 11 years does to you, fortunately he's played by John Malkovich, found in full camouflage at his underground house in a Florida swamp that you enter through a rusted car bonnet. In the form of Helen Mirren, Victoria is a picture of elegance, living peacefully in a gorgeous house, baking and flower arranging. Yet when the crew arrive, she has a firearm ready under the facade and she's more than happy to join the fight. 'Wow, this is going to be fun!' she cries, with a large gun in her hand.

Perhaps having more fun than even Malkovich in the gift of the role he's given is Brian Cox, one of the greatest actors you may never have never heard of. He puts on a Russian accent to play Ivan Simanov, an old time foe and a gallant man. 'As we get older, things seem less important,' he says and makes, 'I haven't killed anyone in years,' a plaintive line. The younger actors don't have much of a chance in such company, though they're hardly nobodies. William Cooper is a dynamo in the hands of Karl Urban. Julian McMahon is the US vice president, looking ironically like Cary Grant here, given that it's Mary-Louise Parker who gets to channel his role in North By Northwest, proving unfeasibly unflappable when caught up in a whirlwind of action that she is utterly not equipped to deal with. All are decent but for the most part can only offer background shading in a vivid impressionist painting of a movie.

There's a lot of admirable realism in some of the nuances. I like the concept that when these people meet, regardless of whose side they have traditionally been on, they ask each other if they're there to kill them. They're always prepared. None of them have ever really left the life; as Vicky points out, 'You can't just flip the switch and become someone else.' Yet however many neat subtleties can be found, the film as a whole is so over the top that the genre really should be fantasy rather than action. It may be painted in broad impressionistic brush strokes but really it's a grand cartoon, the changes to the source material not making much of a difference to the tone. That does mean that the sentimental moments lose their power, so this becomes glorious not for the emotion but for the simple fact that it's so much fun to watch the old guys kick the young guys' asses and do it with so much style. Old people are the ultimate underdogs.