Satoshi Kon Collection Review

Preface

I get asked a lot why I chose the name The Student Film Review. For me it was a simple choice; I was a student and I was reviewing films, it was a perfect fit. I wasn’t reviewing films from a student perspective, it was just the period of time in my life when I was reviewing movies. But this collection, I’m reviewing films which are very much tied in with my studies, these are the films that I’m researching for my dissertation.

Satoshi Kon was a visionary director. Over ten years he made four films, each unique and outstanding in their own rights. He pushed animation and anime in new directions, focussing on much more adult and mature stories than his contemporaries. If Hayao Miyazaki (the head of Studio Ghibli) is the Walt Disney of anime, Satoshi Kon would be the Alfred Hitchcock or Terry Gilliam. His films became some of my favourites, so I chose him to focus on for my final university work. And now onto reviews.

  • Perfect Blue
  • Millennium Actress
  • Tokyo Godfathers
  • Paprika

Review

Perfect Blue

The first of Kon’s four films, the story focuses on pop singer Mima who takes a drastic career turn to become a risqué actress. She starts to receive death threats from a fanatical fan/stalker and hallucinates monstrous visions and nightmares.

This was both my first Kon film and my introduction to anime, which was an odd experience to say the least. The animation is a bit low budget, with some definition on large sections of crowds missing, but it holds up enough for the film. And while the English dub was a bit jarring at the beginning, it actually added to the weirdness of the film. What got me hooked was the clever and mind-bending story. We go from dream sequences to rooftop chases, song and dance numbers to viscous and bloody murder with a screwdriver, before landing on not one but two rape sequences. It was definitely a jarring film to be introduced to, but a memorable one. Fans of Darren Aronofsky, this is a film to check out. The latter director bought the rights just to restage a number of scenes in his film Requiem For A Dream, and the whole film is the basis for Black Swan. For anyone thinking that anime or animation is for children, this is one to change your mind.

Score: 9/10 Dark, twisted and baffling, but entertaining.

Millennium Actress

This was Kon’s second film and it shows how versatile a director he was. While Perfect Blue focused on dark and warped versions of celebrity, Millennium Actress is much more light-hearted, with a love for Japanese history, both real and cinematic. The film follows a documentary filmmaker and his assistant, who are interviewing a famous actress from the Golden Age of Cinema. As she tells them the story of her life, the group are transported back through time and relive the important moments of her life.

The time-travel gimmick can sometimes make this film even harder to follow than Perfect Blue with its dream-within-visions sequences. We’ll be in a train in the 1930s, but the characters will get off and the film will be back in the 1500s, without even a mention that we are in a new time period. The story though isn’t as interesting as Kon’s first film. The film is about a woman trying to find her first love amid all the time travel, but it isn’t that compelling. We don’t get any time to know with the man that she is chasing, which is kind of the point, but it leaves the film with nothing to aspire to. He’s an empty vessel, purely there to move the story on. And after the first couple of time swaps, the story potters about for a while until the big reveals start happening near the end.

Score: 7/10 One of the history buffs and romance fans, but not one of the best.

Tokyo Godfathers

Probably Kon’s most accessible film, as it features none of the trippy mind-bending weirdness or the adult themes of his larger body of work. The story follows three homeless people in the middle of Tokyo, who find a baby dumped in the street on Christmas Eve. The three band together to go find the child’s parents just in time for Christmas.

While the film is the most “normal” of Kon’s, it’s still deals with big ideas. The main theme is family; our three leads have each been thrown out or left their families for different reasons, and over the course of the film they seek to resolve and contact their families. The most interesting of the three is Hana, a transgender nightclub singer, whose desire to be female leads her to running away with the baby so that she can feel “motherly”.

The film is the most comedic of Kon’s four, but the humour can sometimes come off as forced. Take in the meandering story and very contrived plot (people meeting over and over again in one of the largest cities in Japan), it requires you to leave plausibility at the door. Kon’s fantastic camerawork and editing though make it still enjoyable to watch from a technical aspect. And it’s a Christmas film, so why not watch it next year rather than Die Hard for your alternative Christmas movie night?

Score: 6/10 Probably the weakest of the bunch, but still a good watch.

Paprika

Kons’ last film before he died in 2010, Paprika is his most well-received film. The story is about a machine called the DC Mini, which allows people to enter other people’s dreams. Its purpose is for psychotherapy, but a group of criminals steal it for nefarious ends. A group of scientists have to band together to find the DC Mini and save the world from total destruction.

The set-up of Paprika might seem familiar. That’s because, just like how Perfect Blue was remade into Black Swan, Paprika was remade into Inception. It’s not just in the vague story beats either; the rotating hallway, the shattering glass wall, the dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams idea (Inception went three dreams deep, Paprika goes five deep), it’s been lifted from Kon’s magnum opus.

The film is ten years old, but the animation is superb. Crystal clear and meticulously detailed, Madhouse, the studio behind it, outdid many similar animation at the time and works being done today. The crazy dream sequences and editing quirks (such as jumping through paintings and billboards and into another scene) are feats to be admired. It’s a film that is also in love with filmmaking as an art, with sections detailing Filmmaking 101 such as the “180 Line” and recreating famous films within characters dreams. With the addition of the darker themes and intriguing story of Perfect Blue but the brighter colours and cheery aspect of Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers, this is the culmination of Kon’s work and is surely his best.

Score: 10/10 Will blow you away with its fantastical approach.

The YouTube channel Every Frame A Painting did a fascinating breakdown of Kon’s editing and visual style. It’s a great watch, even if you don’t know his work.

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David Lynch Collection Review

Preface

This review has been a while in the making. I first teased this collection on my Twitter feed nearly a full month ago, but I finally thought I should start now, after finishing the last film I wanted to feature on this list. This collection review will work much like my Bruce Lee one, yet this time focussing on the director David Lynch.

I love David Lynch. I believe he is one of the best directors alive today, with his creation of epic-spanning surrealist nightmares and non-linear narratives getting him both lauded and criticised in the film world. The seven films I chose for this review are:

  • Dune
  • Eraserhead
  • Blue Velvet
  • Lost Highway
  • Mulholland Drive
  • Inland Empire
  • Wild At Heart

A brief warning, nearly all of these films contain copious amounts of swearing, violence, nudity, and a few contain some of the most unsettling and foreboding moments in cinema. Watch them at your own discretion.

Dune

Lynch’s first big-budget studio film, Dune is an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic science fiction novel of the same name. Featuring Lynch regular Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides, a son of the Duke of Atreides, one of the several warring partners in the empire of space. The film focuses on the struggle over the planet Dune, which is rich in the spice required for interstellar travel. Featuring a vast array of talented actors, Dune also features some impressive miniature work, with Herbert’s giant Sandworm being a standout attraction. Also be on the lookout for Lynch’s cameo and the soundtrack composed by Toto.

Score: 8/10 It’s a bit like Game of Thrones in space.

Eraserhead

Lynch’s first feature film, and one that is made of nightmares. Eraserhead is about a man named Henry (played by another Lynch regular Jack Nance), who after his wife gives birth to a deformed mutant, leaves him and the new baby to fend for themselves in the post-apocalyptic dystopia. Shot in stark black and white, this is the start of Lynch’s surrealist imagery, with stop-motion chicken breasts, gruesome body horror, and a chilling song with the famous Lynch line, “In heaven, everything is fine.” The constant crying of Henry’s child is laced throughout the film, making the film one of the most disturbing of the bunch.

Score: 7/10 Not one to watch before you go to sleep

Blue Velvet

Probably the sanest and easily to follow of the film on this list. Kyle MacLachlan returns again, this time playing Jeffrey Beaumont, who returns home after his father is hospitalised. While on a walk, Jeffrey discovers a severed ear in a field, and starts his own investigation into the mystery, when the police go nowhere with the case. Dennis Hopper’s portrayal of sadistic criminal Frank Booth is one of the most memorable villains within cinema history, while Isabella Rossellini portrayal of his abused plaything Dorothy is unnerving. Video game fans will get a kick out of several scenes within the film that were recreated in Silent Hill 2.

Score 10/10 Lynch’s best film by far.

Lost Highway

A twisting narrative of parallel lives and invasions of privacy, Lost Highway features Bill Pullman as jazz musician Fred, who keeps receiving tapes of him sleeping in is bed. Again featuring an all star cast, with an unnerving performance by Robert Blake as the Mystery Man, Lost Highway has some of the more frightening flashes of Lynch’s filmography, (viscerally similar to the hells scenes from Event Horizon), yet stumbles around the halfway mark with some rather boring story points. In the end it all comes together, but this one you might need to read several internet theories to eventually get.

Score: 5/10 Visceral and unsettling in places, but it’s not one of Lynch’s greatest works.

Mulholland Drive

After an attempted assassination/car crash on the eponymous street, a woman called Rita (Played by Laura Harring) is left with amnesia. She stumbles across aspiring actress Diane (played by Naomi Watts) and together the two set off to find what actually happened to Rita on Mulholland Drive. With several Lynch cast alumni featuring, along with an odd bit of casting in the form of Billy Ray Cyrus, Mulholland Drive is a brainteaser that answers more and more questions with each repeat viewing, with everything drenched in symbolism. With several startling moments and foreboding imagery, it’s a feast for the senses.

Score 10/10 This is one you’ll keep coming back to.

Inland Empire

Lynch’s most recent work and also his longest, at just under three hours. Inland Empire could be considered a very loose adaptation of anime classic Perfect Blue, with Laura Dern playing actress Susan, who while filming her latest film starts to lose her grip on reality. The closest thing to a horror movie that Lynch has created, with several scenes making me jump out of my seat with fright, Inland Empire has many of Lynch’s scariest moments. The three hour run time might be a bit too long for some, along with the meandering story, which feels like it’s about to end before going on for an extra half an hour. Plow through it though and you’ll have some of the most frightening and surreal images ever committed to film burned into your psyche forever. Stick around for the credits and you’ll be treated to nearly all the cast singing and dancing to Nina Simone’s Sinnerman.

Score: 6/10 The run time kicks the legs out from Inland Empire, but it is still a clever and enjoyable (in a horror way) film.

Wild At Heart

A romantic/crime road trip based on the novel of the same name, featuring Nicolas Cage as Sailor and Laura Dern (again) as Lula. While some of the subject matter discussed and shown, including, childhood abuse, murder, shotgun injuries and a ridiculous amount of sex can be off-putting to several audience members, what is left is a darkly funny script about two people who are in love. Nicolas Cage is as crazy as usual, and extra praise should be given to the bad guy Bobby, played by Willem Dafoe, who exudes menace. Throw in a superb rock and roll soundtrack, and you got yourself a pretty good movie.

Score: 9/10 A fun neo-noir thrill ride.

Bruce Lee Collection Review

Preface

Being a film student and also a regular old cinephile, I have seen quite a few films that are part of the collective “Hong Kong Cinema”. Many people may well be familiar with popular “HKC” films, such as John Woo’s magum opus Hard Boiled, or the police/triad Infernal Affairs Trilogy (remade as The Departed in the United States). But for this review, I wanted to go through a few films that were collectively put together and published, a selection of Bruce Lee films;

  • Fist of Fury
  • Way of the Dragon
  • The Big Boss
  • Game of Death
  • Enter the Dragon

Since I won’t be able to do a full review of each film in one post, as well as the fact that they are all part of a collection, I thought I would just do a quick review of each for your entertainment. Get ready to hear Lee’s signature chicken squawks as you watch, and enjoy.

Fist of Fury

The best of the collection from a story aspect, with Lee being a kung fu student in China during the Japanese occupation. Some people may know it as the original version of the Jet Li film Fist Of Legend, the film boasts amazing choreography and fight sequences, with fights both with “Petrov”, a Russian gangster and also an entire dojo full of Karate students, with an appearance from a pair of deadly nunchuks.

Score: 8/10 A fun piece of pulp action

Way of the Dragon

Set in Italy, WOTD has Lee protecting his family by facing off against the Italian Mafia. This probably Lee’s most comedic film in this list, but the comedy is juxtaposed with some great fight sequences, including another appearance of the double nunchuks. This is the film best known for the final dramatic fight between Lee and US Karate champion Chuck Norris inside the Coliseum.

Score: 7/10 Light on story, but the fights carry the film along

The Big Boss

Lee’s first motion picture and set in Thailand, it has Lee trying to bring down an ice factory that is a front to a drug smuggling ring. The fight scenes are not as well choreographed as later films and do not come along at a frequent pace as the others. This leaves us with the story, which is quite thin, to the point where it is almost non-existent. The final fight with the Big Boss is quite interesting though, as we get to see Lee working at peak performance.

Score: 5/10 Only watch it if you’re interested to see how it all began

Game of Death

Lee’s last film before he died, it goes a bit meta in this film, as Lee plays a character called Billy Lo, who is an actor who plays Lee’s characters in Fist Of Fury and Way Of The Dragon. Be on the lookout for Bruce Lee’s body double playing Lee through most of the film, and for the yellow jumpsuit that Tarantino paid homage to in Kill Bill, along with footage from Lee’s actual funeral. Fights are littered throughout, all culminating in a pagoda containing martial arts legend Dan Inosanto and seven foot tall basketball player and Bruce Lee student Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Score: 7/10 Despite the odd story, the forty minute pagoda fight is a great part of cinema history.

Enter the Dragon

Arguably Lee’s most known and considered his best, ETD see’s Lee go into a martial arts competition to avenge both his dead sister and bring back the honour of his shaolin temple. With its basic set up of story, the film has more time to focus on the fights, which are brilliant. All choreographed by Lee himself, the fights range from the simple fists, to sticks, to the famous nunchuks and then to Wolverine-esque claws, with each fight escalating in brutality and body count. Be on the lookout for the James Bond-lite story and Ken Adam inspired sets. The final showdown in a hall of mirrors is breathtaking as well as fun.

Score 9/10 A fantastic escape into mortal combat