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Posts Tagged ‘Rinko Kikuchi’

Someone has rescheduled the apocalypse! Although, of course, in this as everything else, getting the timing right is crucial. Take sequels, for instance: just what is the optimum time to release a follow-up to a movie? Conventional wisdom seems to be that a gap of two to three years is best. Much less than that, and you start to risk possible audience fatigue – it seems to me that the imminently forthcoming singleton stellar conflict movie is the subject of rather less febrile anticipation than one might expect, which may be because it’s been less than six months since the last one (although the mixed response to last year’s offering may also be an issue). Leave it too long, on the other hand, and you run the risk of audiences (or even the film-makers) forgetting the original movie entirely, which seems to me to be a very real issue that the four – yes, you read that right – planned Avatar sequels will have to deal with (we’re still well over two years away from the first of these coming out).

It’s nearly five years since the release of Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, a film which was reasonably well-reviewed – partly, I suspect, because del Toro is the kind of well-liked director whom critics occasionally indulge – but which didn’t exactly make a humungous pile of dough at the time. Nevertheless, possibly because the first film was particularly successful in the important Asian market (hardly surprising, given the whole thing was a love-letter to certain aspects of Japanese pop culture), a sequel has finally clanked into view: Pacific Rim: Uprising, directed by Steven S. DeKnight.

The film is set ten years after the original, and focuses mainly on Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), son of one of the characters from first time round. As things get underway, Jake is a bit of a rascal, making a living as a wheeler-dealer in giant robot parts in the lawless areas left devastated by giant monster attacks (the giant robots are also known as jaegers, as I’m sure you recall). However, he and his young friend Amara (Cailee Spaeny) are eventually nabbed by the cops and his foster sister Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) offers him a stark choice: come back to the giant robot defence programme to help train new pilots, or go to prison. Back to the giant robot defence programme it is, then.

There is inevitably some sparring between Jake and his co-pilot Lambert (Scott Eastwood), and tension between Amara and the other trainees, but then it looks like the current generation of machines will all be decommissioned soon anyway – a Chinese megacorporation is set to unveil a new series of remote-controlled jaegers, although there are still some doubts about this new idea. Soon everyone has bigger worries, however, as a defence council meeting is disrupted by a devastating attack from an unidentified rogue jaeger. But who is behind this new threat, and what is their ultimate objective?

Now, it has to be said that Pacific Rim: Uprising is a movie which an uncharitable person might suggest comes with a couple of strikes against it before we even get to the story. Quite apart from the fact it’s taken its time arriving, there is that title, which is perhaps more redolent of a gastric complaint than an all-action sci-fi adventure (‘Darling, I hate to say this but I seem to be having a bit of an uprising in my pacific rim’ – ‘Oh dear, I knew there was something funny about that quinoa that came with our avocado toast’), and also the fact that this is one of those sequels where nearly all the key personnel from the first movie have moved on: Charlie Hunnam couldn’t participate, due to his being busy with that bonkers King Arthur movie, Rinko Kikuchi’s appearance is very brief, Idris Elba does not show up at all (although, to be fair, he was vaporised at the end of the first film), and del Toro limits himself to producing and being a ‘visual consultant’, presumably because he was busy with his fishy romance while this film was in production. Pretty much the only folk carrying on as before are Burn Gorman and Charlie Day as the comedy boffins.

In the place of the departed people, we get DeKnight, whose first movie this is as director, and Boyega and Eastwood, two actors really best known for playing sidekicks in other, more successful franchises. There are also a bunch of young actors playing jaeger-pilot cadets, whose presence really makes it clear that this film is aimed much more at a YA audience than the first one. So you could be excused for expecting the worst.

However, and I am rather surprised to find myself typing these words, Pacific Rim: Uprising is actually a huge heap of fun, and manages to be one of those rare movies which actually gets better as it goes on. Initially there is a lot of stuff with people talking about drones, and John Boyega cracking wise (I would venture to suggest that I do not think John Boyega is as cool or funny as John Boyega thinks he is, but then I’m not producing the movie), and some slightly sub-Ender’s Game stuff with the young cadets, but then the giant robots start bashing lumps out of each other in downtown Sydney and you suddenly remember what this movie is about.

You don’t come to Pacific Rim: Uprising for finely-observed characterisation, intense method acting, innovative plotting, or even a story which even makes total sense. You come to this movie for lengthy sequences of enormous robots, monsters, and robot-monster cyborgs repeatedly dinging each other about the head with huge chunks of the nearest skyscraper, and the new movie delivers this in spades. The various battle sequences are at least as good as the ones in the first film, and – rather gloriously – DeKnight breaks with prevailing western film-making dogma and stages most of them in daylight. As a result the whole film looks and feels much more like a traditional Japanese tokusatsu movie, which is surely the point. (The makers of the next couple of American Godzilla movies could learn a lot from this film.)

Set against this, the possible deficiencies in the acting and story department seem to matter a lot less than would otherwise be the case. Most of the acting in this movie consists of running on a treadmill in a plastic Buck Rogers suit while shouting things like ‘Activate plasma wrecking ball!’, anyway. Honourable exceptions go to Day and Gorman, who chew upon the scenery with gusto, and Eastwood, who has enough of his old man’s presence to make an impression in an underwritten part.

On the other hand, there were good things in the first film which just aren’t present here: the sense of a wider world, which has adapted in all kinds of odd ways to the reality of kaiju attacks, is largely missing, and that essential vein of weirdness running through everything del Toro creates is mostly gone as well – although there’s one scene concerned with a character’s personal life that makes The Shape of Water look like a relatively conventional romance, the only moment that really feels like one del Toro had a hand in.

Nevertheless, as pure popcorn blockbusters go, this does what it says on the tin, without feeling crassly formulaic or insulting the intelligence of the audience too much. It manages a decent plot twist at one point, and also manages to do that thing where there’s a major Chinese character (thus allowing them to sell the movie over there) without it seeming especially obvious. Does the plot completely hang together? Well, no, but I’m inclined to cut the film some slack, mainly because it is such pure, inoffensive fun. Many American films have dabbled with ideas and themes from Japanese fantasy films before, with varying degrees of success: Pacific Rim: Uprising is the most successful attempt yet at recreating the energy, colour and simple joy of tokusatsu movies and TV in a western movie, and I hope it meets with the success it deserves.

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Once more unto the Phoenix on a Tuesday night (allocated seating not in effect), for the kind of film that isn’t just difficult to find but is also quite difficult to describe. On this occasion the film in question is David Zellner’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, an impressive vehicle for Rinko Kikuchi (possibly best known for Pacific Rim). And that’s the easy bit pretty much done with…

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Is this a drama or a docudrama or something else? It certainly isn’t a documentary, for that it opens with a disclaimer indicating that it is based on true events. However, that disclaimer is not, shall we say, native to this film; it is footage from elsewhere, and clearly obvious as such. Confused yet? We haven’t even got started.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is loosely based on an urban legend, about… no, that’s just going to get horribly confusing very quickly. All right (I hope you appreciate the metacinematic minefield I’m wandering around in here) – in 1996 the Coen brothers released their celebrated film Fargo, which claimed to be based on a true story but wasn’t. The story of the film includes a scene where a big bag of money is lost in the Minnesotan countryside and never recovered. In 2001 a Japanese tourist was found dead in the area depicted in the film and, as a result of some misreported conversations, the story quickly got about that she had died while engaged in a hunt for the mythical loot. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter takes this idea as the basis of its story.

So, just to recap, this is a fictional adaptation of an urban legend with no basis in fact, derived from a film which claims to be truthfully-inspired but is in fact entirely fictitious. (What was I worrying about? It’s all so thoroughly straightforward.)

The film itself is much less of a hall of mirrors. Kikuchi plays Kumiko, an unhappy Office Lady in Tokyo: at 29, she is too old for her job, unmarried, and under siege from her domineering mother. Her only escape, other than her pet rabbit Bunzo, is to endlessly rewatch and annotate an old VHS copy of Fargo which she acquired (in somewhat strange circumstances) at the beginning of the film. Her dedication to her plan is boundless and complete, even if it’s rather mystifying to those around her.

The opening, Tokyo-set part of the film is very much a character study focusing solely on Kumiko’s character. One could argue that it actually illuminates one of the great shibboleths of modern Japanese life, namely the extreme social pressures on young single women and the high incidence of psychological problems amongst them as a result (something I’ve had personal experience of, but I digress), but it seems to me that this is just something that happens en passant: the film’s interest in much more personal, even oppressively so.

In any case, once Kumiko departs for the United States the film takes a slightly different form, more resembling a particular kind of American indie comedy-drama where an eccentric protagonist travels around the Midwest meeting equally eccentric locals: if you’ve seen This Must Be The Place or perhaps Nebraska, then you’ll know the kind of thing I’m talking about. So a rather baffled Kumiko encounters some missionaries, a lonely widow who tries to take her to a mall, and a well-meaning lawman (played by the director himself), and utterly disregards all of their attempts to help her, opting instead to continue with her obsessive quest to reach Fargo.

Parts of the film are gently funny, and parts of it are surprisingly moving (particularly the scene in which Kumiko takes a typically idiosyncratic approach to releasing Bunzo back into the wild), but on the whole the film has none of the lightness of touch or surreal humour than one might expect: then again, given the subject matter, this is perhaps not surprising. Rinko Kikuchi’s performance is certainly very impressive, especially to anyone who only knows her from dodgy American genre movies: here she brings an introverted, deeply troubled, socially awkward character to the screen without being at all ostentatious or mannered about it. It’s a very restrained, controlled piece of work; quite how it will help Kikuchi’s US profile I don’t know, but fingers crossed.

I don’t usually talk about how films conclude, but you may be thinking that in this case how things turn out is a matter of public record. Well, maybe so, but… the ending of the film is distinctly strange and unsettling, nevertheless. Perhaps this is the director’s intention, but if so I’m not sure it works. It’s not enigmatic or thought-provoking, it’s just a bit weird. Nevertheless, it’s as well-executed as the rest of the film.

I didn’t think that Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter quite lived up to the glowing reviews it has received from some quarters, nor is it strictly speaking a comedy-drama or even a particularly entertaining film as that is traditionally understood. It is ultimately a film about isolation, obsession, madness and death: an understated, occasionally witty, well-made film about isolation, obsession, madness and death to be true, but that doesn’t change the fundamental nature of the piece.

 

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Well, the end of the year is very nearly upon us, and of course one of the signs of this is the fact that the cinemas are getting ready to fill up with prestigious, big-budget, star-laden quality movies, all with an eye to collecting as many gongs as possible in a few months time: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Twelve Years a Slave, the Mandela movie, and doubtless many others will soon be with us. None of them really look like a barrel of laughs, but on the other hand it’s arguably the equivalent of the January detox after the usual festive excesses.

Sneaking out ahead of the pack is Carl Rinsch’s 47 Ronin, a costume-drama based on the venerable and much-loved Chushingura literature dating from early 18th century Japan. Clearly, no expense has been spared in bringing this slice of Shogunate life to the screen in a deeply authentic and respectful way, as all the subtleties and strangenesses of feudal Japan survive intact, with a very nuanced and emotionally expressive central performance as a  samurai warrior from Keanu Reeves.

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It all sounds just about plausible until you reach those last couple of words, doesn’t it? (And I say that as someone who always enjoys it when Keanu turns up on screen.) Hey ho: this is very much not a prestige production, nor even a remotely successful one. In a rational world it might even be challenging the likes of After Earth for the title of Dog of the Year, but we shall see.

As the film opens we are transported to a Mystic Japan of Expository Voice-overs, where demons and spirits still lurk in the forests (despite the fact that it’s technically set only about three hundred years ago). The movie may be based on a real-life historical event, but the actual plot structure we are presented with consists almost entirely of bits from bog-standard fantasy movies with their desktop theme reset to late-period Kurosawa. So we meet the mysterious orphan adopted by a wise old nobleman, witness his loyalty and nobility as his patron’s blood family mistreat him, are party to various wicked shenanigans from an ambitious rival noble, and so on. There is a tragedy, exile, a regrouping of the protagonists, a trip to the mystic forest for supernatural aid and so on. In the end there is a damn big fight in a castle.

Now, sick as I am of bog-standard fantasy movies, I would still concede that it might be possible to do one of these movies that wasn’t actively dreadful – but for this to happen, you would need a witty and intelligent script with a firm handle on the characters, brought to life by engaged and charismatic performers and a director of vision and energy. 47 Ronin has none of these things, with the remarkable result that a big-budget fusion of the fantasy and samurai genres with lashings of CGI and a considerable amount of bloody mayhem actually turns out to be really, really dull.

I can forgive a film being bad as long as it’s bad in an interesting way. Tedium is much bigger crime in my book, and this film reeks of it – and it’s really all down to the script, which is mechanical and obvious, not bothering to bring any of the characters to life, and the direction, which is flat, uninspired, and too reliant on empty spectacle to really involve the viewer.

Keanu is at his most robotic throughout – though his cause isn’t helped by the fact that the film can’t seem to decide whether his character is the main hero, or if it’s in fact Hiroyuki Sanada. I should point out that Keanu is the only significant non-Japanese character in the film (there’s a very Pirates of the Caribbean-informed visit to some Portuguese traders, but it’s over with quickly) and most of the cast is made up of Japanese thesps whose faces may be vaguely familiar to you even if their names aren’t. Most of them have a decent stab at the material, such as it is – though the totemo kawaii Rinko Kikuchi really struggles with the part of a vampy witch (or possibly a witchy vamp) who spends some of the time looking like a fox, some of it looking like a dragon, but nearly all of it looking a bit like David Bowie.

Despite this, for most of its duration the film feels about as authentically Japanese as Usain Bolt playing the bagpipes while dressed in lederhosen. There’s something very odd about the conception of this film – it’s a bit like Japanese producers deciding to make a Robin Hood movie, then casting a lot of British and American stars in it but requiring them to speak Japanese (with Watanabe Ken prominently cast as a Merry Man).

The only element of the film which felt to me as if it genuinely came from Japanese culture was a slightly distasteful obsession with ritual suicide. This is practically fetishised by the film, and – without giving too much away – it happens in bulk quantities. Something very weird is going on when something that appears to have been an attempt at an exciting fantasy adventure for a mainstream audience feels the need to include dozens of characters committing seppuku, and virtually celebrates this.

I saw the trailer for 47 Ronin, clocked the dodgy historicity, prominent CGI, and Keanu Reeves, and thought I had the film pegged as 300 Goes East. I would never seriously argue that 300 is a great movie, but it’s highly entertaining – virtually the definition of a guilty pleasure. 47 Ronin didn’t make me feel guilty, but I got hardly any pleasure from it. I respect Keanu Reeves’ decision only to take selected acting roles these days – but on this evidence, he really needs to do his selecting with a lot more care and attention, because 47 Ronin is a rotten film.

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One of the less-commented-upon topics arising after the release of Prometheus last year was the fact that it finally killed off Guillermo del Toro’s projected, long-gestating adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, simply because the two were apparently so similar in terms of narrative and tone. The Lovecraft movie had been in development hell for a while simply because the director and studio couldn’t agree on a budget and certification, but prior to this del Toro had been attached to direct the Hobbit movies, an undertaking he left following another lengthy production delay.

Really shockingly bad luck for a man who, when on his game, can be one of the best directors in the world. Am the only one who would rather have seen At the Mountains of Madness than Prometheus, and del Toro’s Hobbit than Peter Jackson’s? Hey ho. Now, however, he has finally got a movie made: his take on an effects-driven summer blockbuster, in the form of Pacific Rim.

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Now, Pacific Rim is a bit of an oddity on a number of levels. First of all, it’s a big summer movie that isn’t a sequel, a remake, or an adaptation of a comic, computer game, or TV series. This is not to say that this isn’t a colossally derivative film, however, which brings us to our second point. Hollywood studios are currently going to great lengths to make their movies attractive to foreign viewers – hence World War Z being rewritten and reshot to avoid offending Russian and Chinese audiences, and Iron Man 3 having extra scenes added to its Chinese release. China is, as they say, where it’s at, and all the studios are trying to crack this new market. Except the makers of Pacific Rim, of course, who have opted to make a film more heavily steeped in the pop culture of Japan than any other release I can recall.

The bulk of the movie is set in the year 2025. For more than a decade the nations around the Pacific have been under attack by giant monsters emerging from a crack between dimensions at the bottom of the ocean. Conventional weapons have proven ineffective against these kaiju (as they have rather cutely been christened), with giant robotic fighting machines piloted by cybernetically-linked crews having been developed instead.

But an inexorable upsurge in the frequency and savagery of kaiju attacks means that even the giant robots are failing to stem the tide. The nations of the world have cut funding to the scheme and are instead placing their faith in the construction of a giant wall around the Pacific Ocean which should hopefully keep the monsters contained (I wouldn’t think too hard about this bit of the plot).

Anyway, the chief of the giant robot defence force (Idris Elba) is refusing to let his project be shut down without having one last go at solving the kaiju problem permanently. To this end he is assembling all the surviving robots and crews in Hong Kong, with a view to launching a counterattack against the monsters at their point of origin. Amongst his pilots is Charlie Hunnam (whose career started, as I recall, with a different sort of rim-related activity in Queer As Folk), a veteran maverick dragged out of retirement for this one last mission. The problem is that his last co-pilot is dead, and he needs a partner to help him drive his robot. Perhaps Elba’s youthful ward, played by the totemo kawaii Rinko Kikuchi, has a few suggestions…

There is, perhaps, a whiff of H.P. Lovecraft about Pacific Rim‘s other-dimensional intruders (for giant monster read Great Old One), but it is very obvious what the inspiration for this movie was: Japanese comics, TV shows, and movies from the 1950s onwards, primarily the Godzilla and Gamera series and their legions of imitators (although the shade of Gerry Anderson may be looking benevolently down upon some aspects of the production). To say that the giant monster genre is somewhat lacking in critical respectability is probably a bit of an understatement, and even the involvement of a director like del Toro is unlikely to provoke much of a reappraisal. Nevertheless, there is surely a primal, innocent joy to be derived from prolonged battle sequences in which gargantuan monsters and robots repeatedly punch each other in the mouth, and the best moments of Pacific Rim deliver this in spades.

That said, it’s a bit disappointing that the first half of the movie is largely a monster-free zone, being much more concerned with the robots and their pilots and the back-stories of the various characters. There is nothing very cutting-edge going on here – as far as the plot and characterisations are concerned, Pacific Rim is painted in broad, crowd-pleasing strokes, featuring a bunch of people who are easy to understand and empathise with, and some straightforward problems and conflicts (solid performances from virtually the entire cast help). One might even say it’s straightforward to the point of being cartoony, particularly where the comic relief boffins are concerned – and there certainly seems to be a degree of national stereotyping going on with some of the characters (the Chinese are aloof and inscrutable, the Russians cold and imperious, and the Australians loud and brash).

That said, I detect something of an influence from Gareth Edwards’ Monsters in the presentation of the casual little details of a world in which attacks by giant monsters have become a fact of life. As you’d expect from del Toro, this is a story taking place in a fully-developed world, and one which I could happily have spent a little more time exploring the fringes of (Ron Perlman inevitably pops up in a juicy cameo as a black marketeer in monster remains).

But this is an adventure story, not a mood piece like Monsters (I’m dying to see what Edwards does with Godzilla himself this time next year), and soon enough there is robot-on-monster action aplenty filling the screen. Personally I found the various kaiju a little bit samey and lacking in personality compared to the likes of Anguillas, Gigan, Gyaos, and their other famous inspirations, but there are sound plot reasons for this and the action itself is spectacular.

Now, the issue of how to film giant monster battles for a modern audience is one with which various directors have grappled over the last couple of decades. The early-90s Godzilla movies stuck to the traditional style and just filmed the monsters full-length – this was, of course, back in the days of suitamation when properly integrating a monster into a scene with ‘real’ (i.e., non-miniature) elements was impossibly expensive. Even the 90s Gamera movies were slow to depart from this, their main innovation (other than the use of CGI) being to experiment with shooting the monsters from much closer and from a lower angle.

The 1998 American Godzilla is not a well-loved movie, with even Godzilla’s Japanese paymasters at Toho making some rather cruel swipes at it in their own films – but it does seem to have been rather influential in number of ways – firstly, of course, it has a fully-CGId monster, but it’s also largely shot from a human’s perspective rather than a monster’s (more low-angle filming) and it isn’t afraid to clutter and obscure the screen during an action sequence. All the classic Japanese monster movies seemed to happen on nice sunny days in relatively wide-open spaces where you could see what was going on – Roland Emmerich’s film largely occurs on dark and stormy nights, and frequently all you see is a giant foot or eye appearing from out of frame.

Del Toro appears to have been influenced by this, as all his major monster sequences take place at night, in the middle of storms, under water, and so on, and it is sometimes a little bit difficult to make out who is doing what to whom and how. There are tantalising glimpses of monster attacks on San Francisco and Sydney taking place in broad daylight, which look stunning, but they’re very brief. For the rest of the time the action occurs in a neon-lit semi-darkness, giving it something of the look of a video game.

I’ve spent quite a lot of time talking in detail about the history of staging monster battles and how Pacific Rim‘s set pieces compare – and this is, quite simply, because they are the sine qua non of the movie, just as they are that of the genre which inspired it. Does del Toro get them quite right? Well – sometimes yes, sometimes no. Sometimes the action is just a little bit too murky and frenetic to really be as coherent and exciting as it could be. But set against that, the Hong Kong battle that concludes the second act of the film is stunning, and stands up against anything from Shusuke Kaneko’s Gamera trilogy or the very best of the Godzilla films.

That said, this is still a film about enormous robots and giant monsters repeatedly punching each other in the mouth – a fun, vivid, smart and witty one, with the outstanding battle sequence mentioned above, but still not necessarily a film which will appeal to you if you’re not a monster movie fan to begin with. It is a homage as much as an original film, but it’s an intelligent one that’s taken some pains to have a coherent story and reasonable characterisations underpinning the non-stop special effects. It’s not deep, but neither is it completely vapid. I can’t quite shake the feeling that Pacific Rim is a decent stab at realising a brilliant concept for a movie, rather than a brilliant movie full stop, but I still liked it very much indeed; I hope it does well.

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