It snowed in Atlanta so everything shut down for an entire week. As is now traditional, I celebrated by watching a pile of shorts I’d long been planning to see (some as part of the Auteur Completist Initiative).

The Dreamers (1982, Orson Welles)
Welles as an old man narrates the story of opera singer Pellegrina Leone (Oja Kodar), who lost her singing voice in a fire. It’s all Welles and Kodar doing monologues. Maybe all of Welles’ films come down to monologues. Constructed from fragments, with black screens where footage was missing, narration recorded with the sound of rustling script pages. Ooh look, a Don Quixote reference. Not the most exciting of the many late-career Welles fragment films… personally I’d like to see more of The Deep.

Orson in his magician hat:

Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969, Kenneth Anger)
Good camerawork, but ridiculous movie. I think with his images Anger is trying to say that the military is a death-obsessed homosexual cult. I think with his audio Mick Jagger is trying to declare the death of interesting music. I think with his performance, Anton LaVey is trying to expose himself as a silly clown.

That is a nazi flag, but what is he burning?

Le Lion Volatil (2003, Agnes Varda)
Julie Depardieu (Guillaume’s younger sister) works for a psychic, while an aspiring magician named Lazarus Combes (Anton LaVey would be pleased) works at a tourist-trap dungeon around the corner. Every day on their lunch breaks they meet in front of the Lion of Belfort memorial – the same one featured in Rivette’s Pont du Nord and Paris s’en va. Their brief almost-romance doesn’t pan out, but more interestingly, Julie starts hallucinating variations on the lion – first it has a giant bone in its mouth (as supposedly suggested by Andre Breton), then it vanishes and is replaced by a giant housecat. Special effects + Vardaian whimsy = happiness.

Les Dites Cariatides (1984, Agnes Varda)
A tour of caryatids – human statues used as building columns or ornamental facades – throughout Paris, with poems by Baudelaire. “The Peloponesian city of Karyate aided Persia in a war against other Greeks, but Persia lost. The Greeks took revenge on Karyatian collaborators, slaying all the men and enslaving the women. They were paraded as spoils of war. The noble women were triumphantly shown in their lovely gowns and finery. To illustrate their punishment, architects used these statues on public buildings instead of columns.”

The Calligrapher (1991, Bros. Quay)
Three short (15-sec?) segments rejected as BBC2 ident bumps. My favorite kind of Quay film – awesome stop-motion with no human actors, repetition or long-winded confusing mythological story.

Storytime (1968, Terry Gilliam)
This came out while the show Do Not Adjust Your Set (a precursor to Flying Circus) was in production. Opens as a poorly-animated (in Gilliam’s magazine-cutout style) story of a cockroach named Don, who is then stomped on by a man called Jeremy Trousercrease… and so on, each minute-long concept leading into another. Even features a “we apologize for the previous cartoon – the animator responsible has been sacked” disclaimer, which would be reused in Monty Python. Not exactly a lost masterpiece, but a fun little series of cartoon gags.

Pandoora (2002, Takashi Miike)
Just a cheesy samurai music video – does not count as a Miike movie. It ends with our hero about to face off against a giant mantis. What, were they expecting a sequel?

Male (1962, Osamu Tezuka)
Lots of play with frame sizes and positions as a male cat narrates, talking to the man of the house, about how sex should be simple and private and should not end in stabbing your partner to death.

The London Story (1986, Sally Potter)
A woman conspires with a door opener and a retired photocopy machine operator, takes a government minister out to the theater and while he sleeps, replaces his speech about the future of Britain with a new one, causing panic in the media the next day as the conspirators enjoy a choreographed dance on a bridge. Delightful.

Reasons To Be Glad (1980, Jeff Scher)
More of Scher’s fanciful drawing and incredible editing based on rotoscoped (?) images and set to a Dinah Shore song.

The Bum Bandit (1931, Dave Fleischer)
Oh my. A Popeye-muttering train robber gets out-toughed by a passenger in the form of Proto-Betty Boop (still with the dog ears), the robber’s abandoned wife, who steals the locomotive and the bandit, closes the shades and makes with the sweet pre-code lovin’.

Betty and the Bum:

Negro passenger with stolen chickens:

Russian Rhapsody (1944, Robert Clampett)
Watched this recently on the big screen but it never gets old. Hitler’s plane is taken out by gremlins from the kremlin. Why don’t we have wartime cartoons anymore? I want to see the Penguins of Madagascar take on Osama Bin Laden.

Vinyl (1965, Andy Warhol)
In the 60’s it was revolutionary to make slow, cheap movies with bad gay actors, but not anymore. There are probably three filming as I type this. This isn’t technically a short film, but I gave up after thirty minutes, having dozed for the previous ten. A dude recites Burgess and dances to pop music – and it’s all one shot. Wikipedia says it was filmed unrehearsed, which I don’t doubt, and says it’s one of the “1000 films to see before you die,” which I do.

Thought I’d kick off SHOCKtober this year with Miike’s epic vampire TV- movie which I bought on DVD years ago but never actually watched. Bad move: either it was too stupid or I was not drunk enough to enjoy it properly. I think the problem is simply that it’s a giggling teenage sparkly-vampire flick and I am in my thirties.

Dig the shadow:

Opens with some guy who doesn’t matter getting his whole gang’s ass kicked by a teen girl in motorcycle gear – Riona, I think, who is friends with Mahn (Ayana Sakai of Battle Royale II and Devilman), I think. I didn’t take very good notes here, so I’ll omit the words “I think” (also “teen”) from now on, or else you’ll see them everywhere. Together they’re some kind of Teen Girl Squad who practice sweet fight moves, and maybe kill vampires. Not sure if vampires were a big deal before the scope of this movie, but presumably they fought something in Tennen Shojo Mahn, the previous chapter of this series. Both movies came out the same year as Audition and Dead or Alive and Silver and a couple others, so these didn’t exactly receive Miike’s full attention.

Mahn and Riona, I think:

Vampires have sparkly blood, of course, but they can walk in the daylight and go places they’re not invited and other stuff. Local hunk Yuya runs the city’s dreamiest fashion modeling agency (despite being nineteen) and is the public face of the vampire organization, while his buddy Kamio lurks moodily atop a skyscraper wishing for more power. Then there’s a winged “Saint Vampire” who controls them all from behind an Argentoesque red curtain.

Vamp boys:

Saint V:

Cheap cheap cheap looking movie. Reviews say it has amazing FX for television, but these reviewers have low expectations. The girls aren’t great actors either, but the fight scenes are surprisingly okay.

More intrigue: the girls’ friend Maki (who is big into donating blood – don’t ask) wants to be beautiful like top model Maria (played by porn star Shiori Fujitani), so gets bitten and joins the vamp club, immediately becoming a bitch to her former friends. Head vamp Yuya is a misogynist who is “taking revenge on all women”, though despite his big talk he kinda seems nice And Mahn meets a bullied young boy who happens to be Yuya’s little friend. She gives him a time-killing training montage set to some bland mid-tempo pop songs, teaching him not to be such a little wuss, while Yuya (who could’ve taught the kid himself) looks on disapprovingly. Everyone gets facile back-stories, including characters I won’t bother to mention. And this beardy preacher (Shingo Tsurumi of Freeze Me and Dead or Alive) shows up, embarrassing everyone whenever he’s on screen:

“Mahn, I wish I’d met you earlier… I might not have hated all women.”

Things Of Slight Interest: The word “vampire” isn’t spoken for the first hour. Kamio has a Dr. Claw-via-Minority Report virtual TV (below) that shows him what’s happening anywhere in the city. Only virgins can become vampires, so one girl’s dad tries (unsuccessfully and pathetically) to rape her in order to save her. And vampires are immune to garlic, crosses and sunlight but grow weak when they hear piano music. That one was never explained.

Turns out only the saints have eternal life. Girls become super beautiful and powerful when bitten, but only live 500 days after that, so Maria has an electric death scene on the beach. The girls decide to act, so their former friend won’t suffer the same fate. Then the grand vampire turns out to be the long-lost dad of one of the girls, or maybe of Taichi, I wasn’t paying attention. Some shit goes down and he dies easily, then Yuya stabs Kamio and himself and has a dull, protracted death scene

Maria on the beach:

Based on a comic, obviously, from the writer of Stop The Bitch Campaign, and adapted by the writer of Andromedia and (surprisingly) Visitor Q. So, not a killer Miike adaptation, but we do get a couple cool moments reminiscent of Big Bang Love:

First time I watched this, I thought of Miike as a provocative ultraviolent action and horror director, based on Dead or Alive and Ichi the Killer and Audition. Most people still do, of course, since his quieter films (Bird People In China), his children’s films (Yatterman, The Great Yokai War) and his oddball art films (Gozu, Big Bang Love) don’t get as much attention. It turns out Izo is one of the art films masquerading as an action flick, and with that in mind, I enjoyed it much more the second time around. There are accepted ways of shooting action scenes or dialogue scenes, and these are not they. Miike uses strange and varied techniques to suit his strange, upsetting movie.

Tom Mes:

Taking the final scene of Hideo Gosha’s Hitokiri – the execution of homicidal 19th-century samurai Izo Okada – as its starting point, this was never meant to be any old chambara, but a meditation on mankind’s eternal propensity for violence and destruction.

From the oft-repeated plot description:

We learn that among Izo’s various guises was a doomed soldier who had to leave his lover (Kaori Momoi) to fight in World War II. He spares neither Buddhist monks nor schoolchildren, and eventually, Izo confronts Mother Earth (Haruna Takase) herself.

“Acid-folk” singer Kazuki Tomokawa is incredible, even if I’ve no idea what he’s singing – I have the old Cannibal King version of the DVD with no subs during the songs. Izo is crucified at the start of the movie, and born at the end, so I’m afraid a simple plot description won’t cut it, even if the songs were some sort of commentary. Lots of fun along the way, as he destroys hypocritical institutions, slaying religion and government (Beat Takeshi Kitano plays the prime minister and Ryuhei “Nightmare Detective” Matsuda plays the emperor), and a big fight with muscular black samurai Bob Sapp (a former Minnesota Viking) is an oft-cited high point. But he also spends lots of time killing innocents, moving down the weary ghosts of WWII soldiers, getting badly hurt and slow-morphing into a red-eyed demon as the frequency and repetition of the fight scenes start to wear on the audience.

That repetition is why many people seem to hate this movie. It’s accused of being slow and overlong, which I would partly agree with, but it’s more varied and interesting than the also-slow Sukiyaki Western Django – and even that one I expect will improve on a second viewing. Tons of cameos significant to people more familiar with Japanese cinema than I am. Learned from Midnight Eye that the soldiers stabbing Izo to death in the opening scenes are Kenichi Endo (father in Visitor Q) and Susumu Terajima (Takeshis’).

Ben Sachs:

To begin with the obvious: Izo is one of the most difficult works of art to be made in recent times. . . . The film is pure theme and variation, deliberately lacking consistent rhythm or sense of progression that would allow you to enjoy it casually. Still, nearly every sequence boasts some fascinating juxtaposition—between character and decor, between dialogue and action, in the way images are ordered—that makes it consistently striking to watch, if something of a slog to keep up with.

A “live-action” children’s hyperactive candy cartoon full of dick and boob jokes. When you consider the American alternative (poop jokes) you stop minding so much. Ultra-energetic bright super-CG-assisted silliness, and mostly quite watchable (altogether better than Zombieland, or Miike’s own Sukiyaki Western Django).

Good guys standing in front of their underpants-looking symbol:

Baddies in disguise:

Based on a 70’s TV show, and flaunting it (a short TV-style credit open, dialogue referencing weekly occurrences). The titular team is #1 (pop star Sho Sakurai), his girlfriend #2 (Saki Fukuda) and their crew of robots, including a giant dog that gets beaten up more than it helps out. The baddies (more interesting than the bland heroes, as usual) are dazzling dominatrix leader Mistress Doronjo (Kyoko Fukuda of Kamikaze Girls, Dolls, Ring 2), pudgy pig-nosed Tonzra (Kendo Kobayashi), and carrot-nosed Boyacky (Katsuhisa Namase of the Japanese remake of Sideways) who is in love with his boss. It seems there’s a magic skull, and the two teams are scrambling to collect its pieces – team Yatterman by request of a sad girl, and team Doronjo by orders from “the god of thieves,” a skull-totem spirit which has possessed the girl’s father.

Spirit-possessed father: Sadao Abe, a Great Yokai War veteran:

Saki Fukuda busts up a split-screen:

Seems like a cross between Miike’s Great Yokai War, Pokemon, the Gundam/Robotech giant-robot series and all the other Japanese cartoons I don’t watch (plus rip-offs of Indiana Jones and who knows what else)… nothing too original, but it’s all so winningly performed, keeping a light tone despite the overpacked story, that originality hardly matters. There are musical numbers, dream sequences and increasingly absurd robots. Defeat comes accompanied by giant mushroom clouds. Not knowing the show, I have no idea how much of this pre-existed and how much is Miike’s contribution. The whole thing was well-shot and edited to make sense, which is not a given when it comes to hyper kids shows – would be interesting to see how it stacks up to the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer.

Pigman dream sequence:

Kitty sphinx head a’splode:

Opens with reclusive white bearded artist Yuki Aoyama making Hellraiser-inspired artworks which will pop up throughout the movie. Then we’ve gotta introduce our mismatched couple: two next-door neighbors named Raita. R. Kazama (Kazuya Nakayama, Izo himself) is a detective who, despite some slapstick scenes and his retro wardrobe, is no Maiku Hama. R. Takashima (Kuroudo Maki of Kitano’s Brother) is an upright office worker who doesn’t really want to know his imposing neighbor. Tak is the straight man who gets pulled into an investigation, contributing his mad hacker skills and acting as a center for the film (I don’t know why the more fun detective Kaz couldn’t have been our center). Tak never unpacks after moving in – I can’t figure if he’s joking when he tells Kaz that he won’t stay long since moving is his hobby.

Detective Raita:
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Salaryman Raita:
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Our detective’s employees are young dude Masakuni (who turns out to be the bad guy; spoiler alert) and Girl Whose Name I Didn’t Catch (played by Harumi Inoue of Miike’s Graveyard of Honor and star of Freeze Me). The mystery involves girls showing up horribly killed with some new agey earth-wind-fire metaphor business, each missing a different internal organ. The one thing they’ve all got in common: they insulted famous artist Aoyama in front of detective Masakuni, who is not only the artist’s secret son but has killed the artist and taken his place using blood and organs mixed with his paint.

Art:
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Artist:
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Before all that comes to light, we have to sidetrack into a giant Silence of the Lambs ripoff, with detective Kaz visiting a horribly burned isolation-cell prisoner whom he once locked up, asking the prisoner for psychological advice.

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Miike tries to keep it fun – jump-cuts all over, two (two!) peeing jokes and a hilarious final line (“My fingers grew back!”) and Koji Endo contributes nice saxy music. Supposedly everyone knew this would be a bad, throwaway Miike movie because it was produced by the guy behind the reputably poor Silver and Family… but he also wrote Big Bang Love so how bad could the guy be? This seemed about on par with One Missed Call – throwaway, yes, but not outright bad… a fun genre flick with no higher calling.

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Almost seven years passed between when I rented this and when I finally watched it (not counting the time I fell asleep a few years back)

Banker-type Wada (Masahiro Motoki, starred in Tsukamoto’s Gemini and the recent Departures) is sent to a rural town in China called yun nan to look at a vein of jade for his employer. An uber-tattooed gangster (Renji Ishibashi of Gozu, Graveyard of Honor, Dead or Alive) tags along since Wada’s boss owes him money. Things get weird, but in a casual, slow, satisfying manner – not all The Great Yokai War weird.

There’s style a-plenty (narrated back story shown in fast motion), some poor late-90’s digital effects, mystic business about the origins of Japanese culture, and trained swimming turtle chauffeurs. The gangster freaks out at the end, not because he’s sick of the place and wants to go home but because he’s afraid the mineral exploitation will corrupt this perfect place, so he shoots the homing turtles. Our hero spends his time talking with the girl who teaches ancient traditions of human flight (as translated by her grandfather, a british pilot who crashed in the area to local children. It’s all quite lovely.

Ah, I was right when I watched Scars of the Sun and assumed that it wasn’t Miike’s primary focus of 2006. This movie (AKA 4.6 Billion Years of Love) is where all the innovation went. After all, the man himself called this his masterpiece.

Opens with a clapboard, a guy reading poetry about light and the past and the five senses, an older fellow telling a kid about homoerotic rites of manhood, then suddenly Masanobu Ando is doing a frenetic dance against a white background. Later there are intertitles, crazy sets, unusual CGI, and an animated segment of someone frying on the electric fence.

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Masanobu Ando also starred in Kids Return, played a villain in Battle Royale:
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Once you unlock the story from all the craziness, it’s about two guys sent to prison together – tattooed tough-guy Kazuki (Ando) and weak, sensitive, gay Ariyoshi. K likes A and looks after him, but doesn’t quite warm to his sexual affections. Both are frustrated, yearning for escape (symbolized by their long conversation in an imaginary outdoor field in front of a pyramid and a space shuttle).

Ryuhei Matsuda (Ariyoshi) is the guy on the poster of Oshima’s Gohatto and the star of Nightmare Detective:
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At the end it turns into a whodunit, as Ariyoshi is suspected of strangling Kazuki to death. He’s caught in the act, and tells everyone he did it but nobody believes him capable so the investigation continues.

Warden Takatsu is Ryo Ishibashi, star of Audition, recently seen in Suicide Circle:
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But it’s not the kind of whodunit where the audience participates and could possibly guess the culprit. We’re just left to wonder “Did Ariyoshi kill him, and how?” because the other inmates don’t get much to say until after the investigation is underway. I figured Kazuki could’ve let A. kill him, a la In the Realm of the Senses, but no – it was giant Tsuchiya who works in the infirmary and regularly summons A.’s co-worker from laundry duty for sexual liasons. Even Tsuchiya didn’t think he could take Kazuki – he attacked him as a way to commit suicide, and when K. let himself die, T. took his own life a couple days (hours?) later.

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Sounds like kind of a sad story, but the filmmaking is so invigorating there’s no time to be bummed out.

D. Kalat from TCM (?):

For a film whose premise is a homoerotic romance set in a prison, Miike has studiously avoided the obvious, the cheap, and the cliché. The prison itself is not so much a set as an abstraction—the architect appears to have run out of ink and paper before he got around to designing the usual attributes of a prison: cells, bars, walls.

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Tom Mes:

There is a lot of meditation in Big Bang Love, Juvenile A too. It’s perhaps one of Miike’s most meditative films ever. Oddly, on the one hand, because it was produced by Hisao Maki, responsible for Silver, Family and several other of the most thick-headed turkeys in Miike’s career. Not so oddly, on the other, because it was scripted by the great Masa Nakamura, writer of Dead or Alive 2, The Bird People in China, Young Thugs: Nostalgia and several other of the very finest films in that same career. The big bang of the title is also the clash between the two furthest extremes in Miike’s filmography and the spectacle of its scattering stardust is one to behold.

Yes, but is it any good? This is a Takashi Miike film. It will make you wonder, curse, marvel, tremble, scratch your head, grow bored, and awaken rudely. Celebrate it.

Sho Aikawa starred in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Eyes of the Spider and Serpent’s Path, which felt like revenge-drama genre-killers, then he starred in Miike’s Dead or Alive series, which felt like an action genre-killer, now here he is starring in a by-the-books actioney revenge-drama for Miike. How quickly we forget. Or how quickly undistinguished screenwriter Toshimichi Ohkawa forgets, anyway. I get the feeling that Miike’s heart was in Big Bang Love this year, and Scars of the Sun was a standard studio flick a la One Missed Call.

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Not that it’s bad – just standard, well-made but with no particular flair or invention. Sho Aikawa’s hardworking architect hero is perhaps too blank of a character, though his acting is thoroughly excellent. Sho stumbles across some kids beating a homeless man senseless, moves to intervene and gets attacked himself, so he beats hell out of the youngsters then is surprised when the cops let them all go and tell him he’s in trouble for pummeling underage kids. The screenwriter wants us to know that youth crime is a problem in the city and that the laws aren’t equipped to deal with it. This is best expressed by having an unrepentant 15-year-old, shamed from having been beaten by Sho, kidnap and murder his young daughter. Better still would be if the ensuing media circus finds out about the earlier incident and portrays Sho as a bully who drove the kid to crime. And best of all, since we don’t want to accidentally end up with long scenes exploring the relationship of parents dealing with loss a la In The Bedroom, have the wife (Miho Ninagawa of Dream Cruise) kill herself straight away (we see her on a rooftop, then we see Sho walking past a car. Camera stops moving and I know the body will hit that car two seconds before it does).

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Three years later the murderous kid (Kamiki) is out of prison. Sho tracks down Kamiki’s parole officer Mayumi (above left), his slimeball lawyer, and his ex partner-in-crime, trying to find Kamiki and meet him face-to-face. The movie hammers its theme of criminal youth being coddled by the justice system as Kamiki is left free to create a new gun-toting youth-crime syndicate while Sho is treated as a dangerous criminal and watched closely. Finally Sho goes on the run, takes out the kids with guns, is jumped by Kamiki, shoots the parole officer by accident, then kills the hell out of Kamiki. Sho is either dying or going to jail, but the movie doesn’t tell us which, as he calls his sister’s cop boyfriend and tells him to take care of her, then roll credits.

I thought Kamiki was a girl for a while:
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The one cool stylish part: since Sho seems incapable of expressing emotion facially (not in general, just in this movie), Miike connotes his inner trauma cinematically, fading to black and white as he watches his wife die, and suddenly snapping back to color three years later after he’s returned to his old neighborhood to find Kamiki, a dripping faucet bringing back the memory of his wife’s bloody death.

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The “gunman” (Hideaki Ito, star of Cross Fire from the Gamera director), a stranger who blows into town, plays one of the two ruling gangs against the other and emerges as the sole adult survivor.
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Ruka Uchida, love child of the red and white clans, the other survivor and only non-participant of the bloodshed. According to closing titles he will grow up to be sequel-happy Italian hero Django.
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Shun Oguri (Azumi, Miike’s Crows Episode 0) is Akira, the boy’s father, killed before the movie even starts but shown in flashback.
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Yoshino Kimura (Glory to the Filmmaker, Dream Cruise), mother of the young boy turned Red Clan prostitute and killed off at the end.
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Koichi Sato (Ring Spiral, Kinji Fukasaku’s Gate of Youth), cruel leader of the red clan, rips it up with a chain gun.
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Yusuke Iseya (Memories of Matsuko, Distance, After Life, upcoming Blindness), stylin’ leader of the white clan, kinda the less evil of the two evil lords.
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Kaori Momoi (Izo, Kagemusha), Akira’s mother and a legendary badass in hiding who comes out and helps our hero for the final fight. Falls somewhat in love with a white-headbanded guy whose name I couldn’t figure out.
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Teruyuki Kagawa (of Memories of Matsuko, Serpent’s Path and the next K. Kurosawa film), the town sheriff torn between loyalties to both sides, becomes schizophrenic. Probably Miike’s most interesting new character in the story.
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Quentin Tarantino (Destiny Turns On The Radio, Little Nicky) plays the funny-talking white guy in the framing scenes.
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Watched late at night with Jimmy. Full of eager anticipation, turned quickly to apprehension when we’re unable to understand half the dialogue (plays at festivals with English subtitles, which we lacked). Then movie seemed to get longer and louder and more tedious, and I got sleepier and less interested…
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I mean, don’t get me wrong, it has visual appeal, and a few stand-up-and-clap moments of bravura. Didn’t leave me cold exactly, just… wasn’t thrilling and I started to regret suggesting it.
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But ya know what? Looking through the screen shots I started to like it a lot more. It’s a really awesome movie when… you know…
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…when I’m not watching it.
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