Howl’s Moving Castle

88/100

There’s a jarring, hallucinatory effect to the sudden appearance, midway through Hayao Miyazaki’s latest animated fantasy, of vivid images of war. Airborne battlecraft fly low over thickly populated villages, trailing streams of bombs behind them as they move deliberately through the air. Fiery red explosions dot the cityscape below. The imagery is fantastic and chilly, evoking simultaneously the firebombing of European cities during World War II and the surreal television footage of bombs exploding over Baghdad captured during the first Gulf War. But the most obvious referent is the current war in Iraq, where ancient cities have been decimated by heavy explosives and civilian casualties are staggering by nearly any count.

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Spirited Away

Spirited AwayIn spite of my own tendencies, I’ve come to regard films with a cult following with some suspicion. As personal and extraordinary as many of them are, others seem to have gathered fans up in a single-throated horde like the unthinking masses heading to a fundamentalist rally or a Bon Jovi concert. The European horror genre, for instance, which is regarded with great fervor by a significant population of cinephiles, is home to a number of wonderful films, but also some of the grandest, most misogynist and misanthropic howlers ever committed to celluloid. Japanese anime is another one, a niche market of films that are regarded very highly by some very smart people but has largely failed to excite my interest, despite good-faith efforts to see highly lauded examples of the form in the movie theaters where they belong.

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Ichi the Killer

920_ichi.jpgIn which Japan’s premier stylist of sex and blood hits audiences with what may be his most demented film to date. A Fudoh-like tale of a young yakuza with designs on taking over the whole damn family, Ichi the Killer plumbs depths that Takashi Miike’s punishing masterpiece Audition merely skirted.

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Battle Royale

Battle Royale

A sensation in its native Japan and nigh unreleasable in the U.S., Battle Royale is one of the year’s most amazing movies&#8212a vicious take-off on reality TV that turns a high-school milieu dominated by cliques and childish relationships into a war zone. Now, I have no actual way of knowing whether venerable Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku had Survivor or programs like it in mind when making the film, or whether those programs influenced the novel by Koshun Takami upon which it is based. But the film is permeated by a sadism that’s redolent of the voyeuristic pleasure American audiences have taken in Survivor and programs like it, entertainment that involves the humiliation of at least one participant per week on national television.

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Audition

88/100

Audition

The best way to see Takashi Miike’s Audition might be to have it handed to you on an unmarked videotape by a friend who knows exactly what freaks you out. So you tabula-rasa types should check out of this review right now. For those of you still here, I’ll aver that Audition is the real deal–a masterful exercise in the manipulation of moods that gradually takes on the tonal quality and ambiguities of a nightmare.

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Dead or Alive

Sho Aikawa in <em>Dead or Alive</em>

The first 10 minutes of Dead or Alive constitute the most exciting time I’ve had in a movie theater so far this year. Simultaneously indulging and mocking the audience’s willingness to engage with images of explosive violence and gratuitous titillation, the film kicks off with a rapid-fire montage sequence that plays like a take-no-prisoners, big-screen reimagining of Spike Jonze’s music video for the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” itself a hyped-up, self-aware riff on television cop shows of the 1970s.

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Hana-bi

95/100