Tag Archives: Indie

Mukoku (2017)

I recall one day seeing a trailer for the movie Mukoku (2017) without subtitles, and something about it just struck with me. I had no clue what was going on in the trailer, but it was filled with energy, and drama that I wanted to check it out by any means. When I did some digging into the movie, Mukoku is actually based on a novel written by author Shushei Fujisawa who wrote the novels The Twilight Samurai, Love and Honor, and The Hidden Blade all which got critically successful film adaptations. Discovering this information explains why the film was successfully crowdfunded  on Motion Gallery.  More interestingly though, apparently one of things that would be covered by the campaign was apparently English subtitles. I don’t know Japanese, and I’m using Google translate so that could be wrong. If not, I would say that is a shame, but I didn’t end up thinking much of the movie to my dismay. I’m hoping the people who gave money to this production got what they wanted because I sure certainly didn’t.

The setup to this sports drama is our protagonist Kengo (Go Ayano) is drowning in his misery tying his love of Kendo to his trouble relationship with his father. The opening terrifically showcases the harsh training Kengo underwent as a child, and implying through a simple transition the animosity it build in him through adulthood. Instead of continuing from this great opening we’re instead introduce to teenage rapper Tooru (Nijrio Murakami). A significantly less interesting character who became a detriment of the movie’s story. These two characters are in stark contrast showcasing what I love, and hate about independent filmmaking.

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“With this Bokuto, I shall unleashed my Black Ghost!”

Kengo is a complex character facing conflicting emotions within himself fighting his inner demons. Father abuse, guilt for making his father bedridden, his tainted view on a sport he loves, and being unable to forgive himself are enough to make an entire movie around. However, Tooru has to have just much screen allotted to him who just plods along feeling like a series of just because. Tooru is missing that history that makes Kengo worth following on his story. Creating a noticeable detachment between Kengo, and Tooru portions of the movie.

Tooru introduction of possibly being traumatized by a drowning incident inadvertently excites him. After that sequence, it’s a up to your interpretation method to characterizing him. Unlike Kengo who has plenty of traits to tie him to reality serving the abstract storytelling well in his part. Tooru has less going for him with the abstract storytelling leaving him shallow.

So for about thirty minutes it takes the art house approach of being deliberately slow. This minimalistic approach ends up backfiring whenever the focus is on Tooru. It’s established early on he loves to write rap music, but that ends up amounting to nothing. Not even the lack of acknowledgement that Tooru just abandoned it contribute to Tooru lack of personality. Another issue is some of its story gets lost in translation. Things like Kengo becoming what he hates in his father gets lost in the shuffle of subplots, and side characters that remain underdeveloped.

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Other than Kendo, Tooru doesn’t have much going for him

Kengo on the hand must go through the road to recovering. Seemingly more hopeless the more he looks into himself. Eventually asking himself if he truly hates his father enough to want to kill him. Not only this, but by showing glimpses of Kengo, and his father interacting it’s position in a way where it’s not cut, and dry on how viewers should feel about this conflict. Kengo father is gradually developed to be just as much of a tragic figure as Kengo. Providing a complex father, and son dynamic promised in the opening of the movie.

Alongside the uneven writing quality between Tooru, and Kengo portions of the movie is the pacing. Bad pacing is consistent as scenes always feel dragged out longer than they should be. With Kengo it makes sense since he’s regularly seen tormented by his past, while Tooru gets none of that. Tooru gets plenty of training sessions in substitute of depth. The importance of proving his worth to his Kendo master gets lost among the sloppy writing. Mixing up looking for excitement with proving himself.

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“You act like your hot stuff, but it doesn’t matter because it’s all a big bluff” (Note: Never improv rap)

As much as I praised Kengo side of the story one area it falter where Tooru exceeds at is the climax. An eventual match between Kengo, and Tooru gets set up around 40 something minutes into the movie. It’s not a confrontation that offers either character an extensive introspection of who they are. This confrontation works for Tooru storyline since it feels aimless, but eventually finds purpose. Kengo on the other storyline has purpose, but comes off as a cheap solution to everything setup. Kengo literally lashing out his frustration on a Tooru doesn’t like the right course his character should take, nor makes it work.

Water is used as a metaphor in this movie in a in your face form, but the intended meaning is very foggy. My own interpretation from the movie, Kengo was drowning in his misery, and Tooru wants a excitement similar to the time he almost drowned since it sexually excites him. It’s leaves little to the imagination when Tooru yells out “I’m coming! I’m coming! I’M COMING!” when fighting against Kengo in the rain. Once they both reached the conclusion of their arcs it’s clear how water as a metaphor was used for Kengo. On Tooru it’s baffling since it seems like it regresses his character. His whole love of writing lyrics for music up vanishes, and repeats his behavior again. Of course it be they both stop drowning themselves inadvertently helping each other overcome a dark aspect of their past. I’ll go with that last one since art house movies waver in having a clear message.

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“You have shame me son. Time to commit Sodoku!”

Easily the best of part Mukoku for me was Go Ayano. His acting was top notch in the film portraying a tragic soul in his character. Delivery his lines in a way where every verbal outburst leaves an impression of a self destructed man. Ayano sloppy movements is a nice touch when he picks up a wooden sword in any scene he holds one. Showing great form, and control of the bokuto (wooden swords) convincing the viewer he’s a true kendo expert.

Nijiro Murakami does a good job as Tooru in spite of the sloppy material. With the exception of the one line delivery “I’M COMING!” at the top of his lungs. Murakami comes off very naturally. Granted Murakami subtle performance does come at the cost of being able to show his full range as an actor like Go Ayano during his more dramatic intense scenes. Kaoru Kobayashi was great in his brief time. Instantly he’s able to create a stern, and tough father figure in a matter of seconds. I personally would have liked to see more of him making quite an impression. Akira Emoto who plays a dojo master I could have done without. He simply seems like he’s phoning it in. Not a single scene that he was a part of did I believe he was his character.

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I will admit, the Kendo fights are well done. Not enough of them

On the technical side it’s pretty modest. Other than a few shots at the beach the cinematography is bland. Only twice in the movie is there an attempt to make up it lack of visual flair with ingenious transitions. My favorite one was easily Nijiro Murakami performing a rap song on stage; he goes down to a crowd fence, vomits mud & fish next to the crowd fence, the lights behind him shines up creating a foggy like effect, Murakami sees paperlike cut out of the audience underwater, and the water rises up above him. This clever transition shows the viewer a crucial part of his past without making it obvious it takes place in the past. Sound design can be absorbing, and atmospheric as much as the direction can be overbearing in places, especially the thirty minutes that feel longer than they should be. The Kendo fights are few, but they are well done, especially one where Go Ayano goes into a dojo, and beats up like a dozen students in training with ease.

For around the last 6 to 8 minutes Mukoku has no dialogue much in the same way I ran out of things to say about this movie. I found it disappointing since my sometime jaded views on sport stories in any media is a large hurdle to overcome. So when I found one that tick the box of doing something I don’t expect, and with a sport I rarely see depicted of course that’ll grab my attention. Strange how a movie that also touches on finding peace in oneself does the opposite for me. Sadly, only Go Ayano performance is the only aspect I came out liking in a otherwise middling movie with too much highs, and too much lows to suggest anyone check out.

Rating: 5/10

Cinema-Maniac: Blue Ruin (2014) Review

“Spirit In the Woods” was a film that was funded through Kickstarter that showcased yes people are willingly to pay for terrible, terrible found footage horror movies. Ironically a week after seeing that film comes “Blue Ruin” which once again also gain some of it funding through Kickstarter that proves there is talent worth helping out. On a technical level there’s nothing about “Blue Ruin” that makes any investors question their contributions. However, it’s writing on the other hand does make you question if it worth sitting through a slow film that in any review that provides a synopsis is about as developed as the film plot and character ever gets.

Blue Ruin follows a mysterious outsider’s whose quiet life is turned upside down when he returns to his childhood home to carry out an act of vengeance. Minimal is the single word that best describe the story of “Blue Ruin”. There’s a lack of characterization, spoken dialogue, and no subplots to flesh out the simplistic material. It strips down the revenge story down to its very basic which both works in favor and against the film. For starter its protagonist, Dwight, is mostly a silent loner who lacks the appropriate skills to kill anyone silently, yet at the same time whenever he needs to enter a house or gain access to a car or specific items he does so with ease. It wants to portray revenge realistically, but not if it requires the writers to think. Made evident by no news coverage of the first person Dwight kills in a restaurant, the convenient location of the climax, no suspicion made by the hospital staff of Dwight arrow wound which earlier he attempted to heal himself, and characters willingly do whatever Dwight tells them too. Which is where the dialogue handicaps the film. Following Dwight who speaks very little there’s no connection made towards him. His motivation is simple, but not fleshed out enough to make it justifiable to sympathize. There’s a difference between a reliable blank page and a blank page that’s one dimensional. Falling into the latter because what little conversations it has is reverse for exposition to flesh out it simple plot. Other characters fall in the same pit trap with one solely invented to give expositions and plot points that otherwise would have made the climax less meaningful. With a conflict that on both side neither make a convincing argument nor flesh out it “antagonists” finding meaning it story is just as low valued as it characters. Partially realistic, absent characterization, and not building tension within the writing is not presented as an equal, but rather an add-on to the main technical prowess.

Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier has created outstanding atmosphere to go along with his motion picture. Often drenched in different tones of the color blue. Saulnier films with such a sense of urgency, that it aids in keeping its audience captivated. Easing from life and death scenarios to handling each of its gags in an appropriate way. None of it violence feels gratuitous, as it adds to this unforgiving atmosphere on the painful reality of violence. Macon Blair is written shallowly so he can’t be blamed for not connecting with the viewers. Faced with the unenviable task of making Dwight at once both childlike and savagely capable, a feat made all the more demanding by a restrictive narrative. Combining wide-eyed deadliness with the disarming lucidity of his conviction to create a antihero worthy of Saulnier’s exquisitely crisp cinematography. He doesn’t talk very much, delivering a lot of emotion through the use of body language and facial expressions. Blair makes it easier to sympathize with his situation rooting himself in reality not blowing his performance. The supporting cast are solid in their role given their small screen time. However, the whole film rest on Blair shoulder which if given to the wrong actor would have been disastrous.

Blue Ruin might be a subtle a revenge story, but lacking substance in character development. It wants to portray violence in a ugly and realistic picture which is difficult when the protagonist can easily get to his destination with presented consequences that hold no weight aside from the climax. Technical side of things is never an issue understanding the meaning of visual motifs, atmosphere, and pacing that builds tension on a lack of substance. Acting is also terrific especially Macon Blair who who in spite of being given a characters that conflicts with the aimed portrayal never loses the sense of reality in his portrayal. Director Jeremy Saulnier understands the visual side of film as an language, but writer Jeremy Saulneir speaks another language that wasn’t content with itself that leaves it damage on a flawed simple story.

6/10

Cinema-Maniac: Escape From Tomorrow (2013) Review

The selling point of “Escape From Tomorrow” is the fact it was filmed entirely in Disneyland (which according to the film characters is in California, Florida) without anyone noticing it. Reason for that being as a film it does not function, does not understand what a film is, and is entirely purposeless with no set goal to accomplish. If release as someone vacation videos it would been far superior product than the one right before us.

Escape From Tomorrow has nothing that would resemble a story. It has a concept for a final act, but missing is the middle elevating raising action, and a beginning that makes us care about what we are watching in the first place. Never at any point does the film “plot” is ever made noticeable. The plot, just like the filmmakers imaginations, is nowhere to be seen on sight. Fortunately it did know what a protagonist is. Unfortunately it does not know what makes a good protagonist. Our protagonist is Jim, an utterly unlikable father whose actions have no consequences thus creating no conflict. Jim cheats on his wife which is never brought up in the film, Jim lets his wife do the hard work in parenting the children, Jim disregards his children safety (his looses sight of his kids several time) to stalk two sixteen year old girls around Disneyland, Jim constantly thinking about women he could have sex with (even after he cheated), and worse of all Jim is not given a single earned redeemable trait. This is an example of what I like to call an “anti character”. A character specifically designed to destroy the foundation of storytelling, infuriate the audience with his/her existence, and represent the emptiness of its creation.

For the first two act all we see is Jim and his family going around Disneyland going on rides until the one hour mark where Jim is electroshock into unconsciousness by workers. Within the first two act it fails to make us comfortable in Disneyland. Without an atmosphere of any kind the eerie direction of isolation it was going for never creeps into the viewer. I would make a joke how the filmmakers behind this put an intermission in a 90 minute film, but that intermission is a testament to the filmmakers incompetency acknowledging the joyless void they have created. The final act hints at a bigger scope attempting to make Disneyland this twisted and extraterrestrial control environment, but gives the opposite the effect. It callbacks to earlier seemingly unimportant events that play a role in the plot which never receives buildup. When reusing certain plot points it never does anything extraordinary or twisted with them. Instead it plays out realistically going against the intention. Disneyland through this film never comes off as twisted because most of the time because extraordinary things are rarely presented in the film.

Technical aspect are nothing impressive with audio and cinematography always being problematic. Framing of a shot can be either to high, to low, to far in one direction to name creating awkward shots. Also, it’s unable to conceal the usage of a green screen making the environment appear flat with actors sticking out. Audio is problematic as the film scores will be drown out by the dialogue or the noise of people in the Disneyland. Acting is terrible on all account. Being mostly a one man showcase for Roy Abramsohn who comes of as a second rate Ray Romano minus the charm. His character is written in such a despicable way its further downgraded by Abramsohn awful performance. Abramsohn lack of motivation and phone in emotions makes him a hatable presence on screen. Regardless Abramsohn is not be blamed coming of so negatively, but more blame should be put on what this film calls writing.

Escape From Tomorrow was better left untouched yesterday, better left unseen today, and should forever disappear into obscurity tomorrow. It’s only has the novelty of being filmed in Disneyland to its name and nothing more. Devoid of magic, wonder, and joy despite taking place entirely in Disneyland “Escapes From Tomorrow” delivers one of the unmagical and unhappiest 90 minutes possible.

Rating: 0/10

Cinema-Maniac: My Stepbrother Is a Vampire!?! (2013) Review

After the film cheap opening credit accompanying by cheesy music we get into the film. My Stepbrother Is A Vampire begins with our narrator telling us we are in the middle of our story with our ordinary protagonist Nancy mildly fearing for her life. Our narrator when about to tell us what poor Nancy is fearing gets interrupted by Nancy’s revealing our narrator is a cat. Why do I bring this up? For starter the cat can’t be our narrator taking into account every single scene 9 out of 10 times the cat will not make an appearance. Only going on what we are given the cat could have simply made everything up since the cat plays no importance of any size in the film. Moving on, Nancy’s mom gets married to a dentist and both move into a house together. After that the plot mostly centers around Nancy trying to prove her stepbrother is a vampire. Unfortunately that plot point is spoiled since the film title gives it away. In terms of a narrative it has no conflict to drive the protagonist motivation. Sure there’s a mystery whether or not if her stepbrother is a vampire, but any who could read knows the outcome of the mystery before our protagonist finds the answer. How Nancy arrive to her conclusion is neither interesting.

At a basic level characters receive minimal development. It’s enough established the relationship between characters, give each a different personalty, subplots that come into play in the main story, and conflict of every character that plays some importance. Vampire culture is made fun of without a mean spirit in it body. A nice breath of fresh air to say the least. The plot no matter how innocent and non involving it is provides amusement; goofy dialogue, nonsensical set of characters, bizarre scenes (one involves the step brother telling a girl to rub her stomach and spin which the girl does), and a simple problem taken way out of proportion. Acting is wooden all around, but deliver with energy. Actors are having fun in their roles adding a layer of amusement when viewing the bad performances. They range from hardly changing a muscle in facial expressions to being completely over the top.

The plot is okay compare to director David DeCoteau (who brought us “A Talking Cat?”) tedious framing of every scene and pointless insertion of montages that last minutes. One of my favorite is when actress Shae Landers simply puts stakes, garlic, painting of crosses, and random drawings around her room. Sounds harmless until you hear “Dance, dance, dance, gotta dance, dance. Dance the feeling tonight”. Not in any scene (especially this one) is anyone ever dancing. It’s so pointless you’ll begin to notice the uninspired lyrics. “It doesn’t matter if you could go home tonight. It doesn’t matter if someone treats you wrong tonight. All you want to do tonight is go do the dance.”. Hearing this I was wondering what kind of dance the singer was referring too. So I pictured someone doing a combination of the robot and Carl Douglas “Dance the Kung Fu”. Montages repeat shots in particular one when three character walk with cheesy vampire capes takes minutes for the group to walk five feet in their makeover introduction.

My Stepbrother Is A Vampire is cheap and incompetent filmmaking on a mildly enjoyable level. It has likable cast that even with wooden performances are delivered with energy. Nothing from the plot is remotely memorable, but neither is it mean spirited to vampire culture or anyone specifically. Never does it downgrade entirely into the territory where it becomes infuriating with each passing mintue. Chances are My Stepmother Is A Vampire poor execution will not translate equally with audiences, but there are worse way to spend 95 minutes.

Rating: 6/10