Thursday, March 26, 2009

THAS: Tobe Hooper's EGGSHELLS screened at the SXSW '09 Film Festival!

It turns out Tobe Hooper's very first film, his 1969 experimental film Eggshells, was specially screened last Tuesday, March 17th, at the SXSW (South-By-Southwest) Film Festival in the town of its very making - Austin, Texas - where, as a film student at the University of Texas, Hooper made this very first venture into feature-length filmmaking! Screened at the Alamo Drafthouse, Hooper himself was in attendance...  Hot damn, to have been there!

Allegedly the Texas counter-culture flick to end all Texas counter-culture flicks, the film is undergoing restoration now by Watchmaker Films and is apparently looking forward to a home video release by next year!  Color me psyched.  Color me psychedelic, in fact!

"Time and Spaced Film Fantasy"?  "An American Freak Illumination"?  We shall see someday, hopefully, if the film can live up to its absolutely golden [baked] taglines.

Some links:

Monday, March 16, 2009

Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2009)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa's latest film Tokyo Sonata is an unabashed message film, clearly making concerted effort to get across on-the-nose observations about the modern world and contemporary society to the viewer. This includes issues such as the family unit, militarism, the financial bedrock of common living, and, in classic Kiyoshi Kurosawa fashion, generation gaps and the plight of the underestimated female. Yes, the K-man has never been coy with his hyper-vivid worldviews, but never has he been particularly plain-spoken, or tied to the literal. Here he is not setting his sights on the art-house audience. Instead of his usual MO, which is to work so heavily in allegory and microcosm, here he is willfully working towards heightening social perception by taking on simplicity and straight-forwardness.

This is Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Milk. As Gus Van Sant does in his new film, Kurosawa seems to have also resolved not to stew any longer in the dark, mysterious recesses hid deep within inaccessible, repressed society -- a log line which very much describes both Kurosawa and Van Sant's output prior to 2008. There's nothing mysterious about an ordinary family, nor about their being brought to a breaking point by ordinary pressures of common life, nor about its all being result of the ordinariness of nations and their ideals of social order.

Cast off is the cryptic, for the most part, for both Van Sant and Kurosawa. Both resolve to engage with the prosaic, hectic, and rather dreary public world (be that politics or white-collar bubbles) by taking on society and hegemony, by loudly calling out the failings of the masses that think they do not have anything to hide, and by being so clearly proactive against common regimes of thought and "Elephant-in-the-Room" mores, that their bright, shining, near embarrassingly boisterous films will reach, inspire, and alight even a cinema philistine.

 Both filmmakers pull back on the art-house reins considerably, but manage to mix their art-house habits quite successfully with stories that often seem intentionally barbed and armor-fitted with story material and emotional hooks that verge on after-school special territory.

This time around, there is no need to brace yourself against numbing existential conclusions convinced of life's ephemera. This is a socially minded picture, and what is social-mindedness if not an effort to instill hope for continuance, progress, and change? It is this explicit campaign for change, through a plot engaged to the literal world, that rails this latest picture on a different track from Kurosawa's previous films. Even the film's nearest conduit to existential stupor - the mother character's escapade of longing - takes on the larger (or is it smaller?) significance by representing forwardly the Japanese Housewife, plagued by her social insignificance, as opposed to just a woman, plagued by her very existential being, as is depicted in Kurosawa's harrowing Seance (about a depressive female psychic who goes to terrible extremes to alleviate deadening, deeply-rooted feelings of existential worthlessness).

Tokyo Sonata is said to be Kiyoshi Kurosawa absorbing and filtering Ozu, but then again, it is also the turn-of-phrase in conversation about this film that Tokyo Sonata is still an odd and offbeat Kiyoshi Kurosawa concoction. Some are loving Kurosawa's fusing of his tried-and-true hyper-allegorical renderings with his more novel stab at social realism. Others think his penchant for the odd and off-kilter undermines the worldly wisdom.

In the end, the film is an uneven mix of moments of inspiration and moments of banality; moments of true power and moments of incredulity; scenes of incredible beauty and scenes of social laffs so telegraphed and run-of-the-mill you wonder when's the Kurosawa ghost gonna finally pop out. The cons listed are ultimately attributable to both the overstated social drama originally aimed for as well as the mild Kurosawa mindfuck that eventually has emerged, as the fusion is a bit awkward. When the film is working as a social drama, it spins its wheels for the most part with the broadest social observations and situations. I don't really warm to Kurosawa's sense of humor (Kurosawa's License to Live is a great dark allegory marred by his unfortunate inclination for quirk), and here it's used to drag out unfunny caricatures, most dealing with making the father as pampered as possible (e.g. his worshiping his friend's mock cell phone conversations and his prissiness as a janitor). When turned around as a super-expressionistic Kurosawa film, his oddball flourishes come off a bit hoary and reveal his writing is often dependent on the use of proliferate metaphors, not reality-based observation. When the story is as literal-minded as it is here, his love for open metaphors ("Someone please help me up," or "I've come this far" - both quotes from the mother, unsurprisingly) just seems overly vague, thrown in there without the meat of reality to support it -- which is a problem when your film has such an agenda to be more meat and less philosophy. When the surreal, expressionistic plot developments, character interactions, and abstract flourishes rear their head in the latter half of the picture, their abruptness made them a cliche of the Kurosawa kind. Of course, the "Kiyoshi Kurosawa cliche" is a very special type of cliche, but, even if it were not for the contrast between hyper-realism and hyper-allegory found here, the absurdist gestures of Tokyo Sonata are a bit hackneyed.

The film is best when, of course, it finds the happy medium between accessible and weird. As it turns out, apparently the film's development was not entirely a harmonic one: Aussie co-writer Max Mannix had originally written the film to be a very Ozu-like, "neo-realist" look at a contemporary Japanese family, without whimsical interruptions (indeed Kurosawa had significantly re-worked it to his own vision, with such interruptions). But despite my misgivings, I am glad Kurosawa ran off with it: the feverish and dreamy climactic act is a fine reminder just how good Kurosawa is at the abstract and the ethereal.

A few more nagging flaws: a subplot with a fellow down-and-out businessman is a distraction, laying at the center of the film's "prosaic" middle-section, and its awfully premature discarding deems it ultimately useless. I had an issue with the casting as well, this character being casted in a way that I thought him much younger than our protagonist, when they were supposed to have gone to school together. This would not be so much of a problem if it didn't just serve to highlight that this depicted 2nd family (the family of the friend) functions solely as a redundant mirror of the main family, when something possibly more interesting could have been done if they mixed it up a bit, for instance if the friend actually was of a younger generation.

Second, you know that scene when the mother goes all Bonnie Parker and returns to the thief all rawr and "You know you're glad to see me, let's drive!"? Then she retracts the convertible roof and says "I've come this far"? Well, we all saw that bit coming, as crowd-pleasing as it is.  In general, the mother's third act development is perhaps too incredulous and the thief seems inessential and incongruous to the rest of the film.  His being a portrait of failure is an effective point, potently filmed, but he is a sole cartoon character in midst of steady husbands and fathers that fill the rest of the picture.

Lastly, there is another subplot involving the US military and Japan that seems more suited for the more farcical satire of something like The Host than this film. It is a bit thuddingly presented, but I appreciated the plain-spoken hypothetical nature of it. It also leads to a very clear-headed and moving final word for a pivotal character. The excellence of this particular plot thread's closure is an evaluation that probably applies to the film as a whole: despite the rough and uneven ride we are given throughout the film, the resolutions and finishing touches the film finally offers us are all of stunning clarity -- for instance, the climax being the literal dissemination of the family, and the resolution being their ironic, simultaneous coalescence to a stunned breakfast table (with a repeating angle that is reprised for each character's entrance). And then there's the final scene, which is truly resplendent in its simplicity.

Tokyo Sonata - 7/10