Saturday, 28 March 2009

50 Albums

I just got back from some time off, so I don't have much film-related content to post at the moment. That means I've missed the Underrated Blog-a-thon over at Chicago Ex-Patriate (sorry Jamie, I really wanted to contribute), but here's Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4 and the conclusion.

I feel I need to put something up after 2 weeks though, so here's something I posted on Facebook awhile ago just as a fun exercise. I figured I could dump it here as well...B-) It isn't necessarily a list of my favourite albums or even those that influenced me the most, but simply a random assortment of albums that grabbed me and haven't let go. It's not quite as varied as I'd hoped, but it was my first stab at making a list, so that's what I'm sticking with. It's missing so much though - no James Brown, no early Genesis, no Beatles, no 60s soul, Coltrane, Baroque-period - I think most of those came at me in gradual song-by-song chunks and not as complete albums, so that's why they aren't on the list.

This also gives me the opportunity to toss out a whole mess of YouTube-y goodness. Not all the videos relate directly with the albums in question, but I felt I needed things to be as complete as possible. I even cringed a bit watching some of the older ones, but no matter how bad the lip synching or painted faces or goofy stage patter the music is still there...

AC/DC - Let There Be Rock --> As great a hard rock album as "Back In Black" was, this is the one that captured that three chord riffage for the first time for me. The zombified green limbs of the audience members on the cover sealed the deal that this could've been the house band for the Devil - welcoming new arrivals and almost convincing them that Hell wasn't that bad a place to be.

Cannonball Adderly - Mercy Mercy Mercy, Live At The It Club --> The title track is the hit off the album (it actually made Top 40 I believe), but it's the other 5 tracks that just burn up the place and never let up.

Black Sabbath - We Sold Our Soul For Rock 'N Roll --> A Best Of compilation? Yeah, well this was my first Sabbath album and it led me to everything else they did. I remember cradling it in my hands several times before finally buying it - it took awhile to decide since it was a double album you see. Huge slabs of riffs fell out of this record ("N.I.B." alone was chock full).

Blondie - Parallel Lines --> Best power pop album possibly ever.

Circle - Prospekt --> Though beloved in several progressive rock circles, this Finnish instrumental band (particularly on this release) is closer to a heavy metal Steve Reich. Experimental, minimalist, weird and filled with grooves, I find the band fascinating.

Miles Davis - Agharta --> How can you not like an album when part 1 of the prelude to the first song is over 20 minutes long? It also helps when you have some of the deepest grooves ever and the waka-chuka waka-chuka wah-wah guitar of Pete Cosey.

Discipline - Unfolded Like Staircase --> One of the whack of 90s U.S. independent progressive rock bands that popped up on the scene, their second album melded some terrific aspects of King Crimson, Genesis and Van Der Graaf Generator into 4 sprawling epic songs. Overly serious for sure, but they had a great knack for weaving different melodies together.

Djam Karet - Burning The Hard City --> Instrumental prog from the West Coast, these guys fuse Floyd, Crimson and really superior guitar work with ambient sounds and improvisational composition. I bought this on my honeymoon in the SW U.S., so I guess I may attach a bit of personal significance to it, but since I've bought just about every other album they've ever done since then, I guess I liked it too...

Duke Ellington - At Newport --> Not to get all sensitive, but I welled up big time the first time I heard "Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue". Somewhere in the middle of Paul Gonzalves' long sax solo you can pretty much pinpoint the moment when the crowd rises from their seats, egg him further on and help to create one of my favourite pieces of music. It's just exhilarating.

Fleetwood Mac - Rumours --> Mammoth 70s blockbuster cornerstone of classic rock. There's a reason.

Galactic - Coolin' Off --> Hammond B-3 New Orleans swampy goodness. They've morphed in recent years and pulled in electronics, hip hop sounds and rappers, but the foundation still lies in Century City.

Rory Gallagher - Irish Tour '74 --> I regret not figuring out Rory's amazing blues guitar talent until after he passed away. Not only did he have the chops, but he had that deep down soulful voice.

Benny Goodman - Live At Carnegie Hall --> "Sing, Sing, Sing" done by Benny Goodman is one of the all-time-no-doubt-about-it-best-feel-good tunes ever. And the 12 minute version on this album reaches joyous heights and some beautiful subtle moments (during the clarinet and piano solos). The rest of the concert ain't so bad either.

Emmylou Harris - Wrecking Ball --> Daniel Lanois' production is glorious here and the songs are beautiful, but Emmylou's voice...Sigh...Again, a personal reference point is that I used to rock my son to sleep when he was a baby to "Where Will I Be".

Hawkwind - Hall Of The Mountain Grill --> From the sublime to the ridiculous? Well maybe...But from those first bubbling notes and the chugging guitar, this album had me hooked. And this was when Lemmy was still in the band. Lemmy! Before he formed Motorhead! Come on!

Hoven Droven - Groove --> If you've had the chance to talk about music with me for more than 5 seconds in the last decade or so, you've probably heard me oh-so-casually mention this band. And when I say casually, I mean in the overly obsessive preaching kind of way. They have become my favourite band...Ever. Who knew that electrified modern takes on Swedish folk music would top my list? I can't help it though - the melodies are gorgeous and everything is played with such enthusiasm and a sense of joy. I've seen them live 3 times and even had all 5 band members sign a CD.

Iron Maiden - Killers --> Pretty much wore the grooves out on this sucker in high school.

The Jam - Setting Sons --> Speaking of high school...My friend Jean-Paul gave me a tape back then that contained this album on one side and Stiff Little Fingers' "Go For It" on the other. To this day they both remain favourites and I can never listen to either one of them without hearing the clicking of my old tape deck.

King Crimson - Larks Tongues In Aspic --> I came to the Crims after I had already developed the taste for progressive rock, but they just kicked it into high gear.

Korai Orum - 1997 --> If Ozric Tentacles were Hungarian and had a didgeridoo, they might sound a bit like this. You're curious now, aren't ya?

Sonny Landreth - Outward Bound --> One of the premiere slide guitar players around was only a name recommended to me when we caught a free outdoor show of his at the Montreal Jazz Fest a number of years ago (promoting this album). His Cajun blues hooked both my wife and I and we made sure we played a couple of songs from this album at our wedding - even though no one else in the entire room knew who he was.

Thomas Mapfumo - Spirits To Bite Our Ears The Singles Collection 1977-1986 --> Compulsively listenable. It bounces and percolates all the way through each track until you hit the end and press Play again.

Marillion - Misplaced Childhood --> Lead singer Fish sure could cram the pretentious lyrics into a song, but I loved him for it. This entire album flows like a single piece of music - well OK, two pieces of music since side 1 had a distinct end before you flipped over for side 2 (it's called vinyl ya damn kids!). I just loved the sound of everything on this album - the plucking guitars and the boombastic drums - and it remains one of my most played records.

Material - Hallucination Engine --> This may have been one of my first forays into the magical land of Bill Laswell. Rarely has an album been more perfectly titled.

Jimmy McGriff & Groove Holmes - Giants Of The Organ In Concert --> Duelling Hammond B-3 organs and a red hot band create some truly funky soul-jazz.

Midnight Oil - Red Sails In The Sunset --> Bought on the same day as Marillion's "Misplaced Childhood". Possibly my best ever one-two punch. Angry, raging and, yes dammit, incendiary (yes I know I sound like that kid in "Almost Famous") this was the Oils at the top of their game. It was followed by one of the most blistering concerts I've had the pleasure of seeing - the band plowing through an hour long set at the old Montreal Spectrum while lead singer Peter Garrett shot ping pong balls from his mouth into the air (only to catch them again) and flailed like a man on fire. I've often wished I could relive that concert over again. Here's a bit of that actual show:

Charles Mingus - Mingus Ah Um --> My reaction upon hearing "Better Get It In Yo' Soul" for the first time was "Jazz music can sound like THIS?!"

Mocean Worker - Mixed Emotional Features --> One of the albums that pulled me into "electronica". I could suddenly see how one guy with a lot of time and access to a studio could create new music from old.

Mogwai - Mr. Beast --> Music that I cannot help but create my own montages to inside my head.

NOMO - NOMO --> One of the numerous bands around currently that embrace Fela Kuti. However, they aren't slavish to his style as they incorporate electronics, thumb piano and some really catchy melodies.

Mike Oldfield - Five Miles Out --> The 25 minute long "Taurus II" contains enough riffs, melodies and ideas to keep other artists busy for entire careers. I used to have it on my answering machine...

The Orb - Live 93 --> Am I allowed to say throbbing? If so, it would apply quite well to these long mash-ups (see, these guys were ahead of their time) of rhythm, pretty melodies and various bits of dialog and found sounds. Perfect for headphones or for driving at night.

Duke Pearson - Wahoo! --> The title track lopes along with its 5/4 time signature and makes it swing like a sunavabitch. I need more music from this guy...

The Posies - Amazing Disgrace --> When you name a song after the drummer from Husker Du, you're OK in my book. Supreme power pop.

Rainbow - Rising --> One of the best heavy metal albums of all time.

Steve Reich - Four Organs/Phase Patterns --> I fully understand why people hate minimalism. I can see why they find it boring. But I find it fascinating as the pulse and textures of simple patterns subtly shift over the course of a composition. Too clinical for some people, but right up my alley.

Rush - A Farewell To Kings --> You didn't think I was going to leave out Geddy and the boys did you? I could easily put 4 or 5 Rush albums on this list. Yes, I'm one of those stupid male air guitar/drummer dudes at their shows. This was the album that did it for me - critically despised then (and likely still now), the 2 long tracks ("Cygnus X-1" and "Xanadu") are touchstones in my musical growth. I also used a quote from "Cinderella Man" from this album in my high school yearbook. OK, so that last one maybe wasn't my best idea ever...

Screaming Trees - Sweet Oblivion --> My favourite album from the Grunge era. Not the most influential, but easily the catchiest.

Shakti - Shakti with John McLaughlin --> If only for the 18 minute long song "Joy". Again with the aptly named pieces of music...

Simple Minds - Sons And Fascination --> Back in the day when you could actually distinguish each individual instrument on a Simple Minds album and before Jim Kerr started, well, doing whatever the hell he started doing sometime after this. Trance-like at times.

Nicky Skopelitis - Ekstasis --> Bill Laswell strikes again by producing Greek guitarist Skopelitis' album of swirling tunes.

Jimmy Smith - Live! Root Down --> Damn!

Stiff Little Fingers - Go For It! --> The title of the opening track kinda sums up the album: "Roots Radicals Rockers and Reggae".

The Stooges - Fun House --> Almost 40 years have gone by and bands are still trying to recreate the carnage of this album. No one's done it yet.

Styx - The Grand Illusion --> One of the very first albums I ever bought, it coincided with my exposure to FM radio and my introduction to a wealth of other music. I hated what they became (I used to try and rationalize "Cornerstone" until finally giving up on it), but I still love this album. Yes, even "Come Sail Away".

Tabla Beat Science - Live In San Francisco At Stern Grove --> Dub bass, tabla, drum kit, turntables, synths and sarangi all mix together and come out (in various guises) sounding like they were intended to be together in the first place.

Teenage Fanclub - Songs From Northern Britain --> I wish more pop music was like this.

Tool - Lateralus --> Now this is what prog-metal should sound like. Inventive, rhythmically complex and diverse, pummeling, ebbing and flowing, etc. I swear the drums at the end of "The Grudge" were recorded while the drummer and his kit were both falling down the stairs. I can't otherwise explain how you can get that sound...

Various - 25 Funny Funky Hits --> I started out with a whack of those old K-Tel albums from the mid-70s. "Fantastic". "Music Power". "Canadian Mint". "Dynamite". But this is the one that I played the most - it had "Dirty Water" by The Standells, "Surfin' Bird" by The Trashmen, "Gitarzan" by Ray Stevens, "Snoopy vs The Red Baron" by The Royal Guardsmen, "Alley Oop" by The Hollywood Argyles, "Bumble Boogie" by B. Bumble And The Stingers and 19 other songs that a 10 year old boy could play over and over.

Frank Zappa - Hot Rats --> Frank shuts up and plays his guitar.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Hot Docs 2009 - Initial Announcements

Though it's still cold here in Toronto and many of us are still struggling to rid ourselves of pesky viruses, most of our snow has melted and the ground is dry enough to wear running shoes again. With the occasional hint of warmth sneaking into the air, a young blogger's fancies turn festivals!

Spring is chock full of film festivals here in T.O. Here's a quick sampling (Movie Moxie has a more in depth calendar):

The big one for me though is Hot Docs (Canadian International Documentary Festival). The last two years have provided a phenomenal lineup of screenings with filmmakers, panels, industry events and youth programs. It's taking place a little later this year (April 30 - May 10), but we have the first wave of announcements:

Opening Night - Jennifer Baichwal's "Act Of God"

The subject of last year's retrospective series, Baichwal's new film promises to "explore the metaphysical effects of being struck by lightning". In the hands of pretty much any other filmmaker I might be concerned about the whole "metaphysical" aspects - I just don't have time these days for that kind of psychobabble - but having seen both "Manufactured Landscapes" and "The True Meaning Of Pictures", I put my trust in Baichwal to put together a compelling film that will ask just as many questions as it answers.

This is apparently the first time that Hot Docs has opened their festival with a Canadian documentary and that's an exciting development for filmmakers in this country.

Special Presentation Titles

The entire festival lineup will be announced on March 24th, but the folks at Hot Docs have let slip a few high profile titles. Festival director Sean Farnel says "With these first announcements of some already heavily laurelled titles, we hint at what's to come: a Festival brimming with the year's finest nonfiction films". Here's the 7 titles announced so far (some of which already sound exciting):

AFGHAN STAR (Directed by Havana Marking)

World Cinema Audience and Directing awards, Sundance 2009

Afghanistan Idol? Yep, a TV singing competition (actually called "Pop Idol" I believe) in the land of the Taliban. This could be fascinating.

EL OLIVIDO (OBLIVION) (Directed by Heddy Honigmann)

Prize of the Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique, Dokfestival Leipzig 2008
Silver Dove, Dokfestival Leipzig 2008

The corruption, violence and poverty that the people of Lima Peru must withstand is documented by Honigmann (a previous winner of a Hot Docs Outstanding Achievement Award) who returns to her homeland.

WE LIVE IN PUBLIC (Directed by Ondi Timoner)

Grand Jury Prize (Documentary), Sundance 2009

Timoner (director of the amazing "Dig!") brings us the story and the various schemes of Internet pioneer Josh Harris over the last decade. He was an early proponent of Internet television, set up an experiement in 1999 that had 100 people live on camera for a month and also put himself through 24 hour a day live surveillance for 6 months.

BURMA VJ – REPORTING FROM A CLOSED COUNTRY (Directed by Anders Høgsbro Østergaard)

Joris Ivens and Movies That Matter awards, IDFA 2008
World Cinema Documentary Editing Award, Sundance 2009

Not simply footage from the 2007 uprising in Burma, but stories of the journalists who took it and got it out to the world.

ROUGH AUNTIES (Directed by Kim Longinotto)

World Cinema Jury Prize (Documentary), Sundance 2009

A group of women in Durban South Africa are determined to take care of the many children who are simply forgotten. This could be an interesting look into the progress (or lack thereof?) in post-apartheid South Africa.

RENÉ (Directed by Helena Třetíková)

Best Documentary Award, European Film Awards 2008
Golden Dove, Dokfestival Leipzig 2008

The film covers the twenty year span in the life of Rene - starting with him as a 17 year old Czech delinquent, through prison stints and out the other side as a published author.

THE YES MEN FIX THE WORLD (Directed by Andy Bichlbaum, Mike Bonanno and Kurt Engfehr)

Panorama Audience Award, Berlin International Film Festival 2009

I expect this will be similar to "The Yes Men" - the first document of the team that specializes in corporate and political pranks. Likely entertaining, but I hope they don't overstay their welcome (I had mixed feelings about their previous film).

Retrospective Presentations

  • Jennifer Baichwal was honoured with a retrospective of her films last year and this time it's another Canadian filmmaker: Alanis Obomsawin. Obomsawin is a Native American born in New Hampshire, but moved to Quebec at a young age and grew up there. Many of her films (both drama and documentary) are in regards to the Aboriginal people of Canada and several focus on some of the stand-offs Aboriginals have had with Quebec police (Restigouche and Oka being two prime examples).

  • Hot Docs is also paying tribute to Toronto's own Ron Mann with this year's Focus On series. Known for films like "Grass", "Go Further" and "Comic Book Confidential", he also directed a fascinating film about avant-garde jazz called "Imagine The Sound". His latest is "Know Your Mushrooms".

  • Spotlight on the NFB at 70 will be a retrospective of some of the finest National Film Board (of Canada) produced films. If you're Canadian, you hold a special place in your heart for the NFB - whether it's for those vignette commercials on TV showing off our history, the many films nominated for Academy Awards or the simple animated films that captured our imaginations (my two favourites: "The Cat Came Back" and "The Sweater"). Of course, you could simply plan your own NFB film festival by visiting their web site - many of their films are available to view online (including Alanis Obomsawin's most famous film "Kanehsatake: 270 Years Of Resistance")

  • The "Made In" program this year focuses on the nation of South Korea. I'm excited by this, not only because of the rich history of the region, but also because of the various films that have seeped to North America over the last decade. There's a strong love of film in South Korea and I'm looking forward to seeing how they turn their cameras on themselves.

I love this festival...

Monday, 9 March 2009

The New Paragone: The Cinema and Vanguard Art Movements

Ryerson University is hosting "The New Paragone: The Cinema and Vanguard Art Movements, A Symposium on the Avant-Garde and the Early Reception of the Cinema" - a 4 day long event being held this week (starting March 11th) inspired by the release of R. Bruce Elder's latest book entitled "Harmony and Dissent: Film and Avant-garde Art Movements in the Early Twentieth Century". It has a very interesting lineup of panels and screenings including an appearance by noted experimental filmmaker Michael Snow ("Wavelength").

One of my favourite panel items (you can see the whole program here) is this listing:

  • The Man With The Movie Camera, The Participatory Global Remake

At the very least, I'm intrigued...

All events are free, so if you are in the Toronto area and have any interest in avant-garde film or simply the history of filmmaking, consider checking out some of the sessions.

The Yakuza Papers

Kinji Fukasaku's sprawling epic "The Yakuza Papers" (sometimes also known by the title of the first of its five films, "Battles Without Honour And Humanity") is often compared to "The Godfather" saga. Other than the fact that both series cover gangsters over multiple films spanning several decades with multiple characters, the comparison just doesn't work very well and is unfair to Fukasaku's films. This is a terrific energetic set of movies with great character arcs, but the style and intent of them is very different and may not be what first time viewers may expect going in with a benchmark based on Coppola's classics.

The series is a prime example of "Jitsuroku" (films based on documented true life stories) and is adapted from a number of newspaper articles by the former yakuza Koichi Iiboshi. The story begins shortly after the end of WW II and its characters follow along with the societal changes taking place in Japan during the post-war years and the rise of the yakuza. The films are violent, confusing, occasionally goofy (the thugs sometimes fire their guns as if they were trying to throw bullets from them) and move at a quick pace steered by Fukasaku's inventive use of techniques like freeze frames and hand held cameras. Looking at the style of the films, you can't help but feel that there must have been a great deal of cross-pollination between the Japanese filmmakers from the 60-70s and the band of American ones during the same period.

I recently reviewed all 5 films separately for the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow, but I'll try to pull them all together here. All 5 films are available in a lovely box set (including a sixth bonus features disc containing interviews with folks like William Friedkin) from HVE and should be available from standard online e-tailers.

Battles Without Honour And Humanity - Volume 1

The lead off film starts with a bang. A really big one. The film's opening titles are shown across pictures of an atomic explosion (likely Hiroshima since that is where the story begins) and its aftermath. The story begins in 1946 and the new society we see is filled with black markets, soldiers without many prospects and an "every man for himself" mentality which begins to breed a new style of violence.

These opening scenes introduce us to many of the characters through individual freeze frames with titles indicating their future positions within the yakuza (this all ties in nicely with the freeze frames on many of these characters when they are later killed - all violently of course). The frustration and anger of these ex-soldiers is evident in some of the reckless actions they take - against American GIs, Japanese cops ("don't make trouble with American GIs!") and the black marketers. The frenetic hand held camera work helps to set up this environment and lay the groundwork for the desperate times these men are being forced to face. One can understand how they might view the yakuza as being one of the only ways to save their skin.

The plot is insanely complicated - it's laying the foundation for the 4 films to follow (all made in 1973-74) which pull in new families, different characters, new locations and span across 20 odd years - so if you lose track of some of the characters or reasons for some of the events, that's understandable. It's also a very fast moving film, so if you're trying to fit things into a "who is who" matrix, you'll likely miss the individual connections between characters and incidents of double crossing. Characters switch yakuza families almost as quick as they get introduced and bloodshed occurs suddenly and swiftly.

That's part of the fun of the film though - it's building up a serious story arc touching on many wider issues, but it's still a yakuza film! The thugs get into fights, claim territory, yell like crazy people, attack each other and spill lots of blood all in very stylish ways. The plot will end up sucking you in too and you'll glean enough details to continue with the story, but suffice it to say that by the end of the film we've seen betrayal, greed, drugs, murder, personal ambition over brotherhood, cowardice, severed limbs, vengeance and lots of bright red blood. And, without giving away any spoilers, one great closing line by the main character of the film Shozo Hirono (played by Bunta Sugawara for the length of the series) - "I've still got some bullets left".

Not bad for only 20% of the story.

Deadly Fight In Hiroshima - Volume 2

In part two, Fukasaku follows a very similar structure and path as the initial film: loads of characters, sudden violence, a fast moving plot and energetic camera work. "Deadly Fight In Hiroshima" also emphasizes a specific theme - mindless sacrifice without worthy cause.

The story opens in 1950 in Hiroshima. It's 5 years after the end of WW II, the Korean War has just begun and many parts of the city still lie in ruins. We reconnect with Shozo Hirono (our "hero" from the first film who is doing time in prison for murder) while we also meet a new character named Shoji Yamanaka. Shoji has just arrived in prison after assaulting numerous people in a gambling hall with a knife. He's quick to anger, makes rash decisions without thought of consequences and has nothing to lose. In short, he's like just about every other male character we've met in the series so far. He gains our sympathies (and Hirono's too) with his wide-eyed lost expression and two years down the road he is released on parole. He immediately gets into more trouble after meeting the niece of yakuza family head Muraoka and getting beaten to a pulp by Katsutoshi Otomo (a crazed Sonny Chiba) and his goons. The niece Yasuko (played by Meiko Kaji - less intense than in her more famous roles as Female Prisoner Scorpion or Lady Snowblood, but no less beautiful and strong) is sympathetic to Shoji's plight, saves his life and manages to help get him into the Muraoka family.

The film is just over 10 minutes old at this point and there's no slowing down as the plot continues to unfold at the same rapid pace. Shoji and Yasuko fall for each other of course, but it's complicated by the fact that her husband was a Kamikaze pilot and it would dishonour his memory if she were to remarry. After being disciplined for failing to know his place, Shoji gets back into the good graces of Muraoka after he kills a construction boss who was a problem. This allows him to become a true member of the family. By the time we hit one of the main conflicts of the film, we've reached 1955 and the yakuza's power has grown along with a "new breed of violence". Revenge killings, power plays and sacrifices for family honour all contribute to the carnage that follows throughout the rest of the film. When the violence occurs, it's quick and typically not well thought out.

Most of the killings are said to be done in order to preserve family honour, but they really happen to preserve the men in charge. Fukasaku does a great job in tying the pointless yakuza violence to the memories of the Kamikazes from the war - soldiers sent out to do the bidding of their leaders at the expense of their own lives. Even Hirono (as head of his own new family) delegates one of his men to take the blame and jail time for one of his own killings. By the end of the film, after countless more deaths, it appears that Hirono may actually be wrestling with the point of it all.

Fukasaku isn't wrestling with it though - he has a pretty clear idea of the pointlessness of all the violence. And he leaves the viewer with a final reminder of the sacrifice that Hiroshima itself gave...

Proxy War - Volume 3

"When a battle begins, young men are always the first to lose their lives, yet their deaths have never once been honoured".

If at any point during "Proxy War" you think that the above quote is only directed towards the young yakuzas who get sucked into doing other people's dirty work, then you haven't been paying attention throughout the first two parts of "The Yakuza Papers". Fukasaku continues to make no bones about extending the stupidity of yakuza grudge matches and the waste of young lives to the larger playing field of our nations' militaries. Though these first three films in the series have all been fun and energetic, there's a palpable sense of anger coming from them too...

In the previous chapter, the uselessness of sacrifices for uncaring leaders and pointless causes is the central theme. "Proxy War" essentially picks up where we left off (the story opens in 1960 after parts 1 and 2 covered off the previous 15 years) and this time takes further aim at the scheming decisions of the leaders of the yakuza families. These weak-willed men take advantage of other weak-willed men to prop themselves up and play power games while always looking out only for themselves. There's little subtlety in the performances here - family leaders like Yamamori and Uchimoto blame others for all their faults and bad decisions, cry at the drop of a hat, become outraged if accused of anything, etc. Fukasaku makes his points clear that blind allegiance won't reward you or anyone else except the leaders themselves.

For the third film in a row, Fukasaku opens his story with newspaper clippings and still photos of war - explosions, soldiers, attack vehicles, planes, etc. A narrator tells us that these wars were all in the name of U.S. and Soviet interests and, since they were taking place in other regions, came to be known as Proxy Wars. With this as backdrop, as well as a new Japan slowly coming out of its post-war chaos, a key event happens that will lead to big struggles for power over the next few years - the head of the Muraoka family is killed in broad daylight and the next in line, the previously mentioned Uchimoto, does nothing to avenge the killing. This causes a domino effect of reprisals and hurt feelings. Yamamori gets appointed as the new leader of the family, Uchimoto feels insulted and numerous mini yakuza wars kick off - their own little proxy wars in the name of the two childish leaders.

At the center of all this is Hirono who was with the Muraoka head when he was killed. Over the years, he's built up a nice corner for himself and his own small yakuza team - he is one of the few men we meet who is actually satisfied with his position and who tries to live honourably. But when most of your fellow peers are frightened and desperate and they force you to take sides in personal power struggles ("I don't allow neutral around here" says one of the sub-bosses at one point), it can be a frustrating and dangerous existence. Through the same techniques used in the series so far (freeze frames, black and white photos, grainy shaky footage, etc.), "Proxy War" continues to deliver the entertainment value of the previous films. Its characters are sometimes broad and of little variety (particularly with female ones), but the twists, turns and sheer energy of the story keep the viewer coming back for more. And there's still two other films remaining in the series...

Police Tactics - Volume 4

"The world may be changing".

So says gang rival Akira Takeda to Shozo Hirono. Takeda's certainly right...In the years leading up to the Tokyo Olympics, when Japan has come so far after the war and is looking to make a name for itself on the world stage, the public has finally had enough of the gang violence that has plagued them for the last twenty odd years and previous three films. Anti-violence coalitions help put pressure on the police and the courts to finally do something about the gangsters who have run wild in the streets. The police have rarely been glimpsed in the previous chapters of the saga and have been at most a small annoyance. Now that the police and the courts are feeling public pressure and that their own jobs may be at stake, all those years of agreeable coexistence come to an end.

It's been one of many running themes through these films - people in power want to remain in power. As well, those who aren't in power are made to follow "rules" and "codes" that in turn allow the people in power to remain there. You can see this in the way that family heads Uchimoto and Yamamori behave in order to retain their comfy positions (these guys do not behave honourably - the code no longer applies to them) as well as when middle level bosses send out their own underlings to do their dirty work. Hirono is one of the few that insists on taking care of his own business, but his own men won't even let him - they strand him purposely at one point so that they can protect him and attempt to take care of a problem themselves. The rules are pretty ingrained for those in the trenches and that suits the powerful just fine. Fukasaku does tend to hammer this point home by making the yakuza leaders (in particular Uchimoto and Yamamori) the most pathetic and whiny characters you could imagine - constantly flinching, avoiding hard decisions, taking credit from others and being the worst kind of opportunists. It's highly entertaining though...In particular is one scene where Yamamori starts throwing a tantrum when he's being arrested and surrounded by press - I half expected him to start sucking his thumb. But in the end who gets off with the lightest sentences of all the yakuza rounded up? The leaders.

As with all previous chapters, the film moves briskly through a variety of situations, street fights, political maneuvering and characters. You need to keep up with Fukasaku - he introduces characters along the way that come back later with important roles. And while you are trying to connect all the characters and plot lines, the style and technique of the film will not only entertain you, but help drive the story forward while illuminating certain aspects of the greater themes. Freeze frames are once again used to highlight individual deaths, most of which are typically quite bloody and sloppy (there's still little planning put into the violence as it usually stems from a need to retaliate or gain respect and is therefore usually reactive in nature). This is probably the bloodiest of the films so far as there are point blank gun shots, knives stabbed into hands, a rifle used as a bayonet and a back alley removal of someone's nose. All complete with bright red blood and copious amounts of screaming and anguish.

The weak leadership of the gangs leads to more and more bloody street battles and betrayals. "It's brother killing brother now" Hirono is warned during one of his stretches in prison. With the world changing, the yakuza have lost much of their foothold and many have either left their home turf or have turned their businesses legit. It seems no worse in prison for Hirono then it does for Takeda on the outside. But even with this change, Fukasaku never lets you forget the past - a short visit to the "A-Bomb slums" is enough to remind us. Once again, the parallels between countries at war and the backstabbing, snitching and chest thumping of the yakuza battling in the streets are pretty clear: both are indeed Battles Without Honor Or Humanity.

Final Episode - Volume 5

"When foolish men stand at the top, the men under them suffer and shed blood needlessly".

About a third of the way through "Final Episode", Hirono comes to the above realization while in prison. It's probably the clearest statement of the major theme that has run through the entirety of the roughly 8 hour long epic. Though you can be forgiven if throughout the series you may have missed a few connections between the hundreds of characters (e.g. with 12 minutes left in this final film of the series, a brand new character is introduced complete with freeze frame and screen title), it's hard to miss the wider statement director Kinji Fukasaku has aimed at governments the world over.

When we left our battling yakuza families at the end of episode 4, the public had finally had enough of the violence that had poured into their streets. Along with the desire to look good to the rest of the world during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the police and justice system finally respond to that public pressure and start to clamp down. Those yakuza who managed to avoid jail, begin to re-invent themselves for a new society in the form of political entities. In this talkiest entry of the series, we focus on the Tensei Coalition - the new political group headed by Akira Takeda, former yakuza and rival of Hirono. But as we see the group marching respectably in an anniversary march in remembrance of the atomic bomb, the audience is told up front that despite their new status, the coalition will be responsible for more bloodshed. From a small tussle in a bar between Tensei men and young supporters of the still jailed Hirono, we see grudges and promises of vengeance build. These problems stem mostly from the old guard - Tensei's Otomo (played to over-the-top perfection by Jo Shishido) and Hirono's sworn brother Ichioka both have a tendency to bluster on about the yakuza code and demand vengeance. They have no thoughts about how a violent payback now might affect others down the road as well as continue the cycle of brutal killings.

Takeda rules Tensei with an even temper though and turns control over to the younger strategic Matsumura. Even when the financial advisor for Tensei is murdered (as part of Ichioka's retaliation), the young leader manages to calm the group and withstand Otomo's attempts to go back to the old ways. Matsumura actually plans his next moves and anticipates what the reactive Otomo and his people will do. He is smart, cautious and tries to do right for the coalition. So of course he gets slandered and rumours begin behind his back. The old guard are being replaced slowly, but will it really make a difference? Will change truly come or is it just a changing of the guard?

As always with Fukasaku's style, he brings great energy to the street fights and action scenes. It's chaotic and messy, but it gives you a great feel for the completely unplanned and pointless nature of most of the violence. Fukasaku also attempts to bring some fun to the proceedings - whether it's through the re-appearance of the incredibly slimy Yamamori (complete with his effeminate pursed lips and dirty old man persona), the low guttural responses of Shishido's Otomo or the continued ineptitude of the young assassins (says one of the survivors of an attack - "it's really hard to hit things with bullets").

After the 5 films from this series, there were 3 further films made under the title "New Battles Without Honour And Humanity" and a final wrap up called "Aftermath of Battles Without Honour And Humanity". Apparently Koichi Iiboshi had a LOT of anecdotes...

The entire "Yakuza Papers" series uses these stories of gang violence to not only lead us through 25 years of change within Japan, but also to highlight the insanity of war in general and the power plays of governments all over the world. As the film concludes with narration asking "Will the bitter battles that arise from the strong preying upon the weak ever be banished from this earth?", the camera pulls out to once again show the same image that 4 of the 5 films of the series ended on - the bombed out carcass of one of the buildings left standing in Hiroshima.

Fukasaku may not be overly hopeful regarding the answer to this question, but he sure doesn't mind asking it.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Goin' In Blind #6 - Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders

"Goin' In Blind is a series of reviews of movies that I had never heard of in any context before I picked them up off the (physical or virtual) DVD rental shelf. Take a look also at He Shot Cyrus' Never Heard Of It series of posts. We both independently started doing them around the same time, but his are far more interesting...

Though I have some vague memory of hearing about this film before my friend James recommended it to me, I really had no knowledge of it when I popped it up to my top slot in my list.

It turns out that the film (directed by Jaromil Jires and released in 1970) was part of the Czech New Wave of cinema. Though a bit later than its more famous predecessors ("Closely Watched Trains", "The Firemen's Ball", etc.), it still somewhat fit the mold of how Wikipedia describes the movement:

Trademarks of the movement contain long unscripted dialogues, dark and absurd humour, and the casting of nonactors. The films touched on themes which earlier directors of communist countries could rarely push through the censors...

The film is really a series of surreal events that occur to young on-the-cusp-of-adulthood Valerie. After having her first period, Valerie seems to be faced with numerous decisions and temptations.

From her virginal white room, Valerie thinks she spies a monstrous looking character in a crowd and then begins to see him everywhere. She also has magical earrings, a boyfriend who may be her brother, a vampiric cousin and all those temptations and distractions. It's that last part that feels like a representation of what it must be like to be a young girl - pulled from many different directions and by different influences. It reminds me somewhat of The Tracey Fragments from that perspective - using visuals to attempt to convey the treacherous waters of becoming mature.

Yes, this is one of the creepier images and moments of the film...He's a priest and he's coming on to young Valerie. Ick. It's just another of the many ups and downs of Valerie's transitional mindset. You think that's bad? Wait till you get to the witch burning...

The film is very clever in using doubling to represent the different aspects of Valerie's psyche - whether it's via mirrors, frames or simply similar poses or actions seen previously. Most of my interest in the film came from these visual signifiers. Not to mention some lovely looking shots...

I'd love to see a restored version of the film to DVD to clean up the transfer and provide some more detail in the images. Though the colours seem washed out, it doesn't hurt the film that much as it adds a dream like quality to the entire length. That just helps reinforce the feeling that you've been privy to this young girl's random inner thoughts for a little over an hour. Your enjoyment of the film may hinge on whether you want to experience that - the mind of a thirteen year old girl sure seems like a messy place to be.