Wednesday, 28 July 2010

DVD Review: Battle Royale II

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Film: Battle Royale II: Requiem

Release date: 23 Aug 2004

Certificate: 18

Running time: 133 mins

Directors: Kinji and Kenta Fukasaku

Starring: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Ai Maeda, Shûgo Oshinari, Takeshi Kitano.

Genre: Action

Studio: Tartan Video

Format: DVD

Country: Japan

The original Battle Royale courted critical acclaim and controversy in equal measure. Kinji Fukasaku filmed only one scene for the sequel before succumbing to prostate cancer, leaving writer of both films Kenta Fukasaku to complete it. Kenta says that he doesn’t consider the film his directorial debut but rather as his father’s final work, but is this an epitaph Fukasaku senior would be proud of?

Much like its predecessor, Battle Royale II begins with an unsuspecting class of unruly Japanese youths finding themselves fitted with ominous metal collars and standing at the starting line of a sadistic government initiative. This time is different however, as where as the original combined public execution with a snuff reality TV show, the new game (aptly named ‘BR2’) has been formulated to send the classmates to dethrone the dangerous terrorist and champion of the previous film, Shuya Nanahara. If they accept they will have to assault a heavily-guarded island stronghold. If they refuse, they die.

The vicious beauty of Battle Royale was always in the tragicomic potential of its ultra high-concept, and in trading the free-for-all deathmatch for a more strategic co-op dynamic the film retains the appeal of having a conceit with a more clearly established playbook than your average videogame. Indeed, the Cluedo-like elements of individual character’s back stories, unique weapons and respective locations is largely traded for a homogenous, Normandy-landing of panicked teenagers but the deliciously vindictive new maxim that each combatant must also keep a particular classmate alive or face execution adds a fresh level of cruelty to the proceedings. A nice dark addition to the narrative is the voluntary participation of Shiori Kitano, the vengeful daughter of the teacher from previous film, allowing for a welcome cameo by ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano.

Battle Royale’s ‘games’ have always been as psychotically intricate as anything Saw’s eponymous anti-hero could devise, but whereas the latter film’s strength is in the way it neatly ties up the various hideous loose-ends, Battle Royale II shamefully falls apart in the third act. Resulting from a plot development that removes any impetus to follow the rules of the game that traditionally underpin Battle Royale the film flounders as it finds itself entering the territory of a misdirected war epic. Add to that a poor translation, an intrusive musical score, a teacher that unimaginatively apes Kitano’s original unhinged master-of-ceremonies, a playing time that stretches a solid 90 minute concept beyond the two hour line and the wide-eyed, melodramatic death-scenes of 42 participants, and what could have been a fiercely delivered addendum to Kinji Fukasaku’s original political message actually starts to make a student’s head exploding feel routine.

“We declare war against all grown-ups,” declares Shuya Nanahara, and therein lies where BR2 loses its way. At the age of 15, Kinji Fukasaku and his classmates were drafted to a Japanese munitions factory when artillery fire hit the building, forcing Kinji and his fellow survivors to use the bodies of their classmates for shelter and leaving him with what he described as “a poisonous hostility towards adults”. It’s fair to say then that the apparently naïve declaration of Kenta’s protagonist are very much inline with his father’s world-view but it leaves the motivation of the film’s latter half in very murky water.

The original’s UK release was three days after September 11th, and so it’s fitting that the sequel attempts to tackle this newest atrocity through the same challenging role-reversal, beginning the film with the collapse of a Japanese skyline and the previous film’s hero taking credit for the act of terror in manner not unlike Osama Bin Laden. Maturing from the subject of how the delinquency of youth leads to greater evils performed by authority in the name of justice, the sequel builds on this tackle how marginalization can only lead to more radicalization, but while Kenta is evidently not afraid to invoke the USA’s bombing of Afghanistan, Japan and – as it observes - 20 other countries in the last 60 years, he lacks the strength of his convictions, failing to explain what exactly Nanahara is trying to achieve, why we should empathise with him any more than the next fundamentalist and even at one point who exactly is attacking as they resort to calling both the USA and Afghanistan ‘that country’.

Too ambitious by half, Battle Royale II attempts to tackle 60 years of America’s foreign policy in what is ostensibly still just an old-school exploitation flick. Starting off strong, the first hour is classic Battle Royale but it would be easy to then skip 40 minutes and miss very little. Kinji deserved better.


TV Article: 'Staggering TV'

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‘Staggered release dates’; a phrase that will happily roll off the tongue of your average marketing man, yet stick in the throat of his target consumer. TV shows, videogames, cinema releases and the following DVDs are all unapologetically trotted out, sometimes whole torturous years between regions (a food-chain that Yahtzee Croshaw will attest Australia is regularly at the bottom of) in the name of sales strategy and often largely because there’s little commercial impetus not to.

Now, the comic book isn’t a medium synonymous with keeping with the times. In many ways an anachronism, it harks back to a silver age when the vicarious thrills of superpowers and war heroes were uniquely found in their static pages rather than in today’s Hollywood blockbusters and next-gen console releases. And so, ofcourse, it too has fallen foul of the archaic practise of staggered releases: in the US, ‘new comics day’ is an event celebrated on a Wednesday every week, in the UK this is on Thursday - a whole day later.

Why is it then that the comics industry – indeed one in far less rude health than its contemporaries – isn’t afraid to delay the product any longer than the time it takes to physically transport it? Sure, it doesn’t require translating or recoding for different regions like other mediums, but then these too are artificially implemented limitations. Regions exist so the same movie can be sold in Asia at a price affordable in that economy without the fear of importers undercutting the far more lucrative western market.

While that is admittedly disingenuous, far more nefarious tactics have been applied in the name of business. The problem isn’t the regions, it’s the decision to then organise a hierarchy that dictates who gets the film first. Originally a successful way to build hype and focus resources in one area of the world at a time, in today’s proliferation of bit-torrent clients it seems to actively encourage potential customers to illegally download their entertainment, both to enjoy it at the same time as the international acquaintances the internet allows them to make and perhaps also for a little taste of cultural democracy.

Lost has already proved this is not the way things have to be. The series finale was ‘simulcasted’ in 8 different countries to bypass the piracy that has always followed the series due to its unusually tech-savvy demographic, and while this was undoubtedly an effective means of avoiding undesired alternative distribution it also had its own positive influence by creating a truly worldwide watercooler talking-point. 5am on a Monday morning Sky 1 was a long way for such a hot property to have strayed from its traditional primetime slot, but the pay-off for those dedicated Brits who got up especially for it is that they did not then have to spend their day in fear of the internet being ridden with spoilers for what is definitely a series that rests on its timely revelations.

It’s not just that this universal approach to broadcasting saves us from labelling internet forums and live gaming arenas no fly zones until we’re suitably spoiler-proof, it also means that family, friends and co-workers in the same country can find themselves speaking the same language. A tangible download/broadcast division has arose when it comes to American TV series, to the point that the phrase ‘Have you seen the latest episode of X?’ not only requires you to have actually seen the latest episode of X (I hear it was quite Y), but also to quickly evaluate to which side of the division the person speaking’s allegiances lie. You can ask, or you can avoid the risk of having to then explain torrents to the uninitiated, but decide well because you may be talking about series 3 when a key element of the current US run is revealed.

Now this may seem like an overly anal approach to staying spoiler free (ofcourse staying on top of recent downloads would remove any danger if you’re that way inclined) but the key danger is that TV thrives on being a shared experience and anything that gets in the way of that undermines its potential pleasures. The watercooler cliché works because it is such an effective way of describing how everyone likes to be able to talk about their favourite show with a fellow follower, and so surely the only boundary that should exist is whether you do in fact follow that show. The time difference between the original US broadcast, it finding it’s way online through an industrious pirate, it being distributed through more authentic means such as iTunes (but then also is that US or UK iTunes?) and it finally being shown on these shores is completely unacceptable in a time when eager viewers can be discussing an episode on Twitter as it’s happening.

As anachronisms go, Peter Parker’s perpetual youth is systematic of a medium that is afraid to let go of it’s old properties, but at least it attempts to rejuvenate those properties in new titles and releases them in a way that remains relevant to their ever-changing audience. Lost may just represent TV execs trying to feed us the same Twilight Zone/The Prisoner mysteries it has for years, and that’s OK, but that doesn’t mean they can also broadcast them in the same tried and tested ways and hope through sheer ignorance those pesky emerging technologies won’t interfere. We’re hear, we’re peer-to-peer, get used to it.

DVD Review: Caramel

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Release date: 8th September 2008

Certificate: PG

Running time: 92 mins

Director: Nadine Labaki

Starring: Nadine Labaki, Yasmine Elmasri, Joanna Moukarzel, Gisèle Aouad

Genre: Romance

Studio: Momentum Pictures

Format: DVD

Country: France / Lebanon

When a foreign film manages to make that break across the border and garners international success there’s often the expectation that it should act as an ambassador for its country of origin, especially when that nation is not known for its prolific cinematic output. But where does that leave Nadine Labaki’s sweet Lebanese romance, Caramel? Can any film successfully walk that balance between the light-hearted and the weighty?

For a beauty salon, Si Bette isn’t much to look at. A ramshackle salon in the city of Beirut which requires the use of a second generator if anyone wants to use a blow-dryer while the fridge is on, it provides a living, a support-group and not to mention a hive of gossip for four hairdressers who are trying to deal with the expectations that come with being an unmarried woman in modern-day Beirut.

Layale (played by the film’s director, Nadine Labaki) is having an affair with a married man and is struggling not only with the prerequisite guilt of her situation but also with the practicalities of doing so in a city that requires proof of marriage to book a double-bedroom and whose police deems a man and woman sitting in a car ‘indecent behaviour’. Her friend, Nisrine has the opposite problem; engaged to the son of a traditional Muslim family she carries a secret that prevents her from being the pure daughter-in-law she is expected to be. Meanwhile, divorcée mother of two teenage children Jamale continues to pursue an acting career despite her increasing years betraying the contrast between her and her competition, and quiet tom-boy Rima finds herself catching the eye of an attractive, female client.

These four women are not the only ones in town with troubles, however, as a supporting cast of clients and acquaintances orbit around them, pulled in by the gravity of their little salon. The local parking attendant smitten with Layale, the lonely elderly seamstress with a rare chance for romance and her senile sister whose penchant for collecting parking tickets are equally as vital; all weaving into the rich mix that is Caramel.

And it’s this sense of community that really stand out in Labaki’s film. This is not a film about Beirut. As one might assume from the aforementioned plot points, many of the situations are arguably culturally exclusive to its location but it’s to the film’s credit that it reaches below the surface and pulls at the strings of far more universal themes of loneliness and the pressure of others. It matters not whether Nisrine is sitting at a table full of Lebanese Muslims or East Finchley Catholics, her discomfort is all too familiar and it’s not difficult to imagine changing a few cultural touch-stones to find an above-par western romcom with the same narrative still completely in tact.

Caramel is a film about people rather than place, and therefore it’s through the central performances that the world really comes to life. The vibrant, lived-in atmosphere can be largely credited to the four leads who balance often exaggerated comic turns with genuine notes of pathos in their respective situations. The balance is not always perfect as sometimes a trivial subplot clashes jarringly with a profound emotional moment, but this is only to be expected from a film that clearly never sets out to ‘tackle’ anything. This is the story of four (or more) romantics who have been unlucky in love and yet keep trying, and so the film’s tone fittingly takes on the feel of the eponymous burnt sugar the girls use in their waxing. Sweet without being saccharine, the film plays out through the gold-tinted glasses of those looking for love. It is not the main meal. It is not the balanced diet of historical context and cultural resonance that are the meat and potatoes of films that want to be ‘about’ something. You won’t fill up on it, but neither is it the sickly sweet imitation product of Hollywood’s own brand.

And it’s Labaki’s deliciously sepia cinematography that elevates what could be a trivial narrative. Her film is beautifully shot and allows the narrative to play out in a surprisingly subtle and nuanced manner given the extravagant performances. Every character is awarded the appropriate respect and time of day given that, for them, they are the star of their own classic tale of romance. Invoking other genre stand-bys such as Steel Magnolias and the other similarly-titled western-friendly offering Chocolat, Caramel is an ensemble piece that genuinely cares about each of its individual components. Its only possible failing being that Labaki sometimes awards herself more than her fair share of screen time – clearly even she feels she is the star of her story.

Caramel may flirt with the anachronistic studio-era concept of being a ‘woman’s picture’ but when the only current offering for strong female leads in cinemas sees entire platoons of the Boots ‘here come the girls’ set marching blindly into cinemas to watch four over-paid harridans bemoaning the lack of haute couture in Abu Dhabi there has never been a better time to discover the mature and believable view of romance purported by Caramel. Who says romcoms have to be dumb screen fodder?

Josh Butler


Writer Profile: Josh Butler (That's me!)

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All articles/submissions end with the initials JB.

"World cinema appeals to the comic-book geek in me. Like a Marvel 'what if' issue, entering a theatre showing a foreign-language film is like going through a portal to an alternative reality where, rather than cutting its teeth on westerns, Hollywood's development was based in samurai movies, kung-fu films or big musical numbers (actually, scratch that last one). Watching these films feels like checking up with a long-lost cousin and seeing where the road less travelled by has taken them, and what they've got to show from it."

Date Of Birth: 05/04/1989
Favourite Films: Life Is Beautiful, The Happiness Of The Katakuris, Etre Et Avoir, My Neighbour Totoro, [REC]
Favourite Genres: Anime, Musical, Horror, Drama, Fantasy

"I'm a recent Film and English graduate of the UEA looking to forward my journalism on from student newspapers, and maintaining a much overlooked blog. I like quality TV (HBO providing a convenient benchmark for that tricky concept of 'quality') and am a keen gamer, despite my humble Wii and DS being left behind by this generation's consoles. I'm also into comics, graphic novels and explaining the distinction between the two."

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Shamelessly written because I need a sample review for internships

[Rec] 2

[Rec] was the Spanish horror sleeper-hit that left its audience as zombified as its stars - doomed to forever walk the Earth in a dull state, dead to Horrorwood’s conventional output and similarly boring in conversation with their ceaseless onslaughts on their subtitle-phobe friends that it genuinely is the ‘scariest film ever’.

Two years later and only 15 minutes have passed in the infamous apartment building. [Rec] 2 drops its audience immediately back into those same corridors with their familiar blood-stains, and we are all too aware of what awaits its new, unknowing heroes. And it’s in this play on expectations that [Rec] 2 is at its most confident. Knowing winks to the privileged few who saw the original abound in the early minutes, providing some surprising chuckles given its horror thoroughbred. It is certainly a movie for the initiated, but while the obligatory ‘for fans of the original’ parenthesis certainly applies that’s not to say there isn’t plenty for newcomers to enjoy, it’s more a question of why they’d want to.

[Rec] 2 – as with all sequels - obviously starts off standing on the coattails of [Rec] 1. But whereas great sequel success stories like Godfather Part II, The Empire Strikes Back and Simba’s Pride step off of those coattails, taking what made the original great and daring to improve upon it, [Rec] 2 stands cowardly in the shadow of its big brother. The final 30 minutes of [Rec] terrify thanks to the suspense the preceding 50 minutes builds, and so by picking up 15 minutes later the film manages to feel like more of the same, only less so. Throw in the heavily-armed SWAT team protagonists (Want to make you film less scary? Give everybody guns.) whose actions we follow through super high-tech head-up-displays and the whole film takes on the air of an add-on pack to a first person shooter.

That’s not to say that [Rec] 2 brings nothing new to the undead table. The multiple cameras allows for a ‘cutting in’ technique where we switch between perspectives, which has never been seen in a film of this type, and the introduction of another camcorder lets the creators play with interesting concepts of rewinding and jumping back in the narrative. As each element is revealed the heart leaps at the possibilities of how they can be used to terrify, and so it’s all the more disappointing when the direction the film goes with them is the most contrived and unexciting. This goes too for the suggestion of a religious connection from the first film which fascinated originally but is only left to stagnate and confuse when followed up in the sequel. It was inevitable in a Spanish horror for the proceedings to take a very Catholic, Exorcist-y turn for the worst, but it’s just a shame that while the first film only hinted at a greater evil, its sequel seems to fumble the ball, accidentally pulling down the mixed-metaphorical curtain to reveal that the makers aren’t entirely clear on all the details of this world they’ve created.

All that said, [Rec] 2 remains one of the more original and truly frightening horrors we can expect this year. Its flaws stand out so uncomfortably because they upset up what clearly could be a genuinely startling new horror franchise. It is not a bad horror film - bad horror films fester and replicate ad nauseum, and rarely - if ever - inspire you with new possibilities. [Rec] 2 inspires its audience at regular intervals to imagine the possibilities of where it could have gone. Let’s only hope that there’s a [Rec] 3 in the making to live up to that promise.