Quick Takes: The Happiness of the Katakuris, The Babadook, Terror Train

katakurisThe Happiness of the Katakuris [カタクリ家の幸福] (2001)
threehalfstar

Starring Kenji Sawada, Keiko Matsuzaka, Shinji Takeda, Naomi Nishida, Kiyoshiro Imawano, Tetsuro Tamba, Naoto Takenaka, Tamaki Miyazaki, Takashi Matsuzaki
Directed by Takashi Miike

It’s a stretch to call Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris a horror movie, but it does require being something of a horror fan to truly enjoy its multi-genre insanity. The premise is pretty standard horror movie fare, but don’t be fooled; this is anything but a standard film. The Katakuri family has opened a Bed & Breakfast in a remote part of Japan and are very happy when they receive their first guest. They are not so overjoyed when they discover he’s killed himself, which plays out on-screen in one of the finest moments of movie musical I think I’ve ever seen. Yes, The Happiness of the Katakuris is a warped, horror-ish musical comedy… and it’s a blast. According to the booklet included in Arrow’s wonderful Blu-Ray edition, there’s apparently a whole genre of films similar to this in Japan, but until I see definitive proof I’ll regard The Happiness of the Katakuris as a unique product. Besides, even if wacky Japanese musicals are a thing, I can’t imagine the whole genre is quite this inspired. It’s also worthwhile to note that Miike’s film is a remake of Kim Jee-Woon’s The Quiet Family, but I haven’t seen that one so I can’t offer any comparisons. If you’re into weird cinema that strays far, far off the beaten path, or you’re looking to completely baffle your conservative, mainstream friends and relatives, The Happiness of the Katakuris is a fantastic selection. Plus: Tetsuro Tamba (who I’m familiar with from his roles in Hong Kong films such as The Water Margin)!

babadookThe Babadook (2014)
fourstar

Starring Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinney, Daniel Henshall, Barbara West, Benjamin Winspear, Chloe Hurn, Jacquy Phillips, Bridget Walters
Directed by Jennifer Kent

In general, I’m one of those people saying that modern horror just isn’t up to snuff. But then something like The Babadook comes along and proves me completely wrong. Artfully well-crafted and featuring an exceptional pair of performances from its leads (Essie Davis & Noah Wiseman), The Babadook is gripping from start to finish. I don’t want to spoil anything so I’ll remain vague, but what set the movie apart is that it engages as both a visceral horror movie and as an intellectual piece. I spent the whole film in rapt attention, creeped out to the hilt and always questioning and deconstructing what the film was feeding me. It’s even more impressive to learn that this is the feature debut of director Jennifer Kent! Cross your fingers, say the name of your favorite horror film three times into the mirror, and wish upon a star that The Babadook is the beginning of a stellar career and not a lone spark in the darkness. Either way, The Babadook is fan-fucking-tastic, and you need to check it out.

terror-train-movie-poster-1980-1020541661Terror Train (1980)
threestar

Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Johnson, Hart Bochner, David Copperfield, Derek McKinnon, Sandee Currie, Timothy Webber, Anthony Sherwood, Howard Busgang, Steve Michaels, Greg Swanson, Vanity
Directed by Roger Spottiswoode

You can quickly describe Terror Train as “a slasher set aboard a train,” but to do so is to overlook the fun of the movie. It’s a slasher on a train! With crazy Halloween masks, Jamie Lee Curtis and magic courtesy of the one and only David Copperfield! But maybe that doesn’t do it for you; you’re more of a discerning cinephile type. Well, Terror Train marks the directorial debut of Roger Spottiswoode, director of such cinematic classics as Turner & Hooch, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, and Tomorrow Never Dies! If that’s still not enough cred for you, Terror Train features cinematography by Oscar-winner John Alcott, who got his big break/promotion while working on something called 2001: A Space Odyssey and went on to shoot such classics as A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend! As you might have figured out by now, I don’t have much to say about Terror Train! Nonetheless, it was a fun ride, and fans of late ’70s / early ’80s horror will most likely have a good time with it, too.

Quick Takes: Ichi the Killer, The Legend Is Born: Ip Man, John Wick

ichiIchi the Killer [殺し屋1] (1994)
threehalfstar

Starring Tadanobu Asano, Nao Omori, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Paulyn Sun, Susumu Terajima, Shun Sugata, Toru Tezuka, Yoshiki Arizono, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Satoshi Niizuma, Suzuki Matsuo, Jun Kunimura
Directed by Takashi Miike

Ichi the Killer is the third feature I’ve seen from Takashi Miike, and damn he’s good. A film like this that’s so incredibly bloody and violent, but yet the main takeaway is the need for a deep intellectual discussion… that’s hard to pull off. It ultimately felt like Miike had crafted a film that wonders about the people who watch these kinds of films (or violent, “negative” media in general) with an armchair bloodlust. This all seemed to hinge on one small moment during the finale when a character in extreme peril looks directly into the camera with intense fear, while that same camera is presenting a first-person view from the character instilling this fear in the other. In any case, this is definitely not a film for the squeamish, as it’s one hell of an extreme, sadistic bloodbath. Audition may have gotten the “this movie is so crazy and shocking” press, but Ichi the Killer is a million times worse than Audition. The nipple scene is sheer torture! I literally pushed my chair back as far as it would go, cringed and repeated “Goddamn!” in a whisper for the next 30 seconds or so. Good stuff.

TheLegendIsBornIpMan+2010-3-bThe Legend Is Born: Ip Man [葉問前傳] (2010)
AKA Ip Man Zero
threestar

Starring Dennis To, Crystal Huang Yi, Xu Jiao, Hins Cheung King-Hin, Fan Siu-Wong, Yuen Biao, Lam Suet, Yip Chun, Bernice Liu Bik-Yi, Sire Ma Choi, Rose Chan Ka-Wun, Sammo Hung
Directed by Herman Yau

I initially avoided The Legend Is Born: Ip Man out of respect for the original Ip Man films. I didn’t want to see any watered-down knock-offs. But then it occurred to me that it was no different than all the Brucesploitation films that are a lot of fun, so I plunged in head-first, hoping it wouldn’t be as trashy as a you might expect a knock-off to be. And, you know, it actually felt more respectful of Ip Man’s legacy than Ip Man 2 was! The Legend Is Born even features Ip Man’s son, Ip Chun, in a wonderful role as an elder student of Wing Chun that has developed a more refined and varied approach to the fighting style that revolutionizes Ip Man’s way of thinking. This reminded me greatly of Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do style, and if this section of the film was truthful to Ip Man’s life, then I imagine it was this spirit of openness to other styles and ways of thinking that he would later pass on to Bruce. I loved the focus on Wing Chun in The Legend Is Born, and it’s definitely one for Hong Kong fans to watch. In some ways it actually felt like an older-style kung fu film that is generally no longer made, and you know that kind of thing is a quick way to my heart. And it has Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung in supporting roles!

johnwickJohn Wick (2014)
AKA Sin Control, John Wick: Sin Control

twostar

Starring Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters, Adrianne Palicki, Omer Barnea, Toby Leonard Moore, Daniel Bernhardt, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, Clarke Peters
Directed by Chad Stahelski & David Leitch

I just didn’t connect with John Wick at all. I blame the fan hype that sold it as some kind of John Woo-style gun movie. I didn’t see that in it AT ALL. The way the violence was handled felt really gross. It’s the same problem I have with a lot of modern horror films: everything looks too damn real or graphic for me to just have fun with it. I am forced to reckon with the reality of the situation, which in this case is John Wick revenge-killing a whole shitload of dudes. All the violence is really flippant and backed by “cool” music, too, so everything about the violence felt glorified and dirty to me. I can’t have fun with that. Does this even make sense to anyone but me? It’s hard to explain. Whatever. I didn’t like it. ’nuff said.

Three… Extremes (2004)

Three… Extremes [三更2] (2004)

Starring Miriam Yeung, Bai Ling, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Lee Byung-Heon, Lim Won-Hee, Gang Hye-Jung, Kyoko Hasegawa, Atsuro Watabe, Mai Suzuki, Yuu Suzuki

Directed by Fruit Chan (Dumplings), Park Chan-Wook (Cut), Takashi Miike (Box)

Expectations: High. Good talent involved.


I’m a fan of extremes. It’s in my nature to like pushed boundaries and things outside the prescribed normal edges of taste. So when, just a minute or so into the first short, there is a shot so extreme and insane in its ability to shock and repulse that I’m ripped out of my haze and thrown headlong into wild fits of uncontrollable gasping and cringing, I am impressed. This is exactly what happened at the beginning of Three… Extremes, the sequel to the overall underwhelming Three.

Three… Extremes once again brings together three Asian directors from different countries and lets them loose to deliver whatever their hearts desire. First up is Dumplings from Hong Kong’s Fruit Chan, the director of one of my favorite Hong Kong films, Made in Hong Kong. But as much as I like that movie, I’ve never seen anything else from him, so I started Dumplings with a palpable excitement. Chan didn’t let me down either, as he quickly grabbed hold of the reins and never let go. This is easily the most extreme tale, which is somewhat disappointing because it’s first, but Chan is also the least well-known of the three directors here, so just like a nightclub line-up, it makes sense to place his film first. But it’s really a shame when your opener blows you away, and that’s exactly what Fruit Chan does to both Park Chan-Wook and Takashi Miike.

Continue reading Three… Extremes (2004) →

Audition (1999)

Audition [オーディション] (1999)

Starring Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Tetsu Sawaki, Jun Kunimura, Renji Ishibashi, Miyuki Matsuda, Toshie Negishi, Ren Ohsugi

Directed by Takashi Miike

Expectations: High.


Wow. Y’know for a movie with this much hype built up around it, and the fact that I kinda knew the ending in a vague way, I did not expect to be as blown away as I was by Audition. Truly one of the greatest modern horror films, Audition slowly unfolds its tale and pulls you into its story with likable, compelling characters. You could say that the first half is too slow, but that would be missing the point. The slowness is part of the film’s character and absolutely why the third act hits as hard as it does.

The film opens with Aoyama at the bedside of his dying wife. His son arrives with a get well present for his mother, but he’s too late. Seven years later and Aoyama is lonely and still overcome with grief, so his son suggests that he get out and date again. He does, kinda, but to tell anymore would betray the greatness of the film. Seriously, just watch it. It’s definitely the type of movie where knowing much at all will detract from the experience, but know that if you like non-standard horror, you’ll probably enjoy this. So come back after you’ve seen the movie, as I’m not actively trying to spoil anything, but even my vague descriptions of things will be too much.

Continue reading Audition (1999) →

13 Assassins (2010)

13 Assassins [十三人の刺客, Jūsannin no Shikaku] (2010)
Official US release in 2011

Starring Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yusuke Iseya, Goro Inagaki, Masachika Ichimura, Mikijiro Hira, Hiroki Matsukata, Ikki Sawamura, Arata Furuta, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Masataka Kubota, Sosuke Takaoka, Seiji Rokkaku, Yuma Ishigaki, Koen Kondo, Ikki Namioka

Directed by Takashi Miike

Expectations: High. Samurais = Awesome, right?


I loved everything about 13 Assassins. Start to finish, it’s flawless. Opening as a slow-paced and very traditional samurai picture, and ending as an all-out action blowout, 13 Assassins is the samurai film of the modern era. This is the first Takashi Miike film I’ve seen, despite being very aware of his name for many years. I remember hearing hot shit about Audition after it came out in 1999, but my mind was elsewhere and I chose to put it off until later. The years went on, and still I chose to push it aside, perhaps because the passing years led me to inadvertently picking up a good portion of the plot through varied conversations. In any case, as soon as I saw some footage from 13 Assassins I knew that I’d make it my first Miike film. I’m just a sucker for a samurai film. I never could have imagined that I’d love it as much as I did, and if his other films (of which there are many) are even half as awesome as this, then they are very well worth watching.

I knew virtually nothing about 13 Assassins going into it and that’s probably the best way to experience it. The film is a remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 film, The Thirteen Assassins, which, coincidentally, is finally getting an American DVD release this June. I haven’t seen the original, but judging from some plot summaries the two films follow the same framework. While I don’t want to go into any plot specifics, 13 Assassins spends a little more than half its runtime slowly building up the tension and the characters, and then the remaining minutes are completely devoted to exploding that tension and delivering nothing but action.

Continue reading 13 Assassins (2010) →

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