Sunday, 20 December 2015

Ninjas Ninjas Ninjas! A Review of the Year!

My academic research into the ninja has uncovered a wealth of information this year. From this we can learn all manner of vital information about this mysterious order of assassins. One of the key things I have learnt is that any ninja movie worth their salt had an official ninja advisor on set at all times. I have been lucky enough to sit down and talk to a number of these advisors and due to the success of these meetings I can announce I am now working as the official ninja press officer (believe me, they are great at many thinks but no fuck-all about social networking). As such, this annual review does not merely provide an irrefutable academic conclusion but also a fully endorsed and 100% official representation of the ninja way.

Top Rated Ninja Movies of 2015

Each movie is given an overall score based on much in conforms to my own entirely subjective opinion as to what a ninja movie should be. Since consulting with the relevant clans this score is also attributed to the films that best represent what it means to be a ninja. This list shows all the ninja movies watched this year ranked by their ninja score.

1. The Super Ninja - 10
2. The Hunted - 9
3. Ninja Assassin - 9
4. Ultimax Force - 6.5
5. The Octagon - 6
6. Beast and the Magic Sword - 1
7. Ninja Cheerleaders - 0.23

Both The Hunted and Ninja Assassin came close to perfectly fulfilling my own very specific expectations by The Super Ninja without a doubt destroyed all competitors. Not only did it perfectly mix the extreme violence and almost supernatural abilities I enjoy so much but was described by a master, known only as 'Phantom Jaguar Blade', as "like watching a reality TV show about my friends. It was fucking mint." Hard to argue that kind of testimonial.

Top Ninja Movies Based on Actual Quality of 2015

Of course not all movies are valued based on their ninja content (I know I know, but believe it or not that is true) and so these are the same films ranked by how much I enjoyed watching them.

1. Beast and the Magic Sword
2. The Hunted
3. The Super Ninja
4. The Octagon
5. Ninja Assassin
6. Ultimax Force
7. Ninja Cheerleaders

The Beast and the Magic Sword leaps to the top by virtue of featuring a werewolf fighting a tiger, supernatural samurai and Paul Naschy. It took some time deciding the order of The Octagon, Ninja Assassin and Ultimax Force as they were all very close in terms of the experience they gave me. What we can learn from this is that Ninja Cheerleaders is horseshit no matter which way you look at it.

Top Ninja Kills of 2015

In 2015 I have seen all manner of horrible acts committed in the natural course of ninjaring. Some had it coming, some deserved better but all went down the way they would have wanted. Along with 'God Shadow Hawk' I have extrapolated these basic ninja manoeuvres and identified the movie that demonstrates them in the most instructive ways. To qualify to be an official ninja you must be able to:

Slice a head in half from ear to ear (Ninja Assasin)

Decapitate two people at once (The Super Ninja)

Somersault yourself into the way of a barrage of bullets, sacrificing yourself so that your teammates may live. Odd one to have at basic training level, but then I'm only a press officer. (Ultimax Force)

Smash a heads into a urinal (Ninja Assasin)

Explode a man with a fireball (The Super Ninja)

Cut your own face off (The Hunted)

Top Ninja Mythology of 2015

Below are the fundamental lessons about ninja mythology I learned this year. Should you engage in any ninja training you will be gifted with a scroll on which will be written the ninja code of conduct. I have it on good authority that the 2015 revision of this scroll features the following basic rules to live by:

1. Ninja masters have a somewhat autocratic management style.

2. Ninja teams carry straws of different lengths to randomly determine who leaps absurdly into the path of bullets. They call them 'sacrifice pipes'.

3. Ninjas don't care about carpets, walls or upholstery. 

4. Ninjas are impatient and not easily embarrassed. It doesn't matter if you're in the bath, on the toilet or knocking one out they ain't gonna wait.

5. Ninjas consider themselves exempt from copyright laws.

6. Ninjas run after-school clubs in questionable locations.

7. Some ninjas are just fuckwits in balaclavas.

My journey into establishing the official ninja canon has only just begun. In 2016 I will continue to study the ways of the ninja both from the masters themselves and from the movies they help make.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Hausu AKA House (Nobuhiko Obayashi,1977)

When I first watched House about a decade ago all I knew about it was that it was a Japanese horror film about a house that kills its inhabitants. Applying what I knew about J-horror at the time I went in with a number of expectations almost all of which were immediately smashed. This is a horror movie unlike any you have seen before.

The plot is fairly conventional: a group of school girls break for Summer and decide to stay with one of their Aunts in an old country house. When they arrive they find the Aunt to be a somewhat sinister character and soon the house turns on them, dispatching them one by one in a series of grizzly and imaginative deaths. Beyond the plot nothing is conventional. It's as if Sid and Marty Krofft made their versions of Evil Dead 2 and if that sounds appealing to you, this might be your new favourite movie.

The film deviates from traditional horror almost immediately. Rather than building to a break in reality the school girl's every day lives are treated like a fantasy. Overt editing techniques such as deliberate jump cuts and iris frames are coupled with stylised design work and intentionally fake back grounds. When our lead, Angel, is introduced to her new Step-Mother it is done so on a soundstage constructed balcony against a fiery painted cloudscape backdrop. When she runs out upset, dropping a handkerchief as she does, the dropped item is pasted, picture-in-picture, into one of the window frames of a door. It is family drama shot like montage.

These unusual choices never let up and before we've even got to the house we've had an animated sequence and Svankmajer-esque live-action stop-motion. The movie also veers into comedy a number of times. There is a sequence where a buffoonish character falls down the stairs ending up with a tin bucket stuck to his arse and every time martial arts expert Kung-Fu (all of the school girl characters have nicknames) performs a karate kick she is accompanied by weirdly cheery action music. There is a clearly fake skeleton that comes to life and wanders in and out of frame from time to time, sometimes even stopping for the occasional dance.

All this absurdity leads to some truly startling imagery. The broken mirror bleeding, the girl in the clock, the flying severed head biting a woman's backside, the disembodied fingers playing piano - all images now branded on my psyche. At times the film almost ceases to be live action and becomes some kind of animated collage.

These techniques would clearly distance any casual movie goer looking for something to be "scary". Scares are normally measured by how far people jump out of their seat, or by how many times they are forced to hide their eyes. For me, horror can and should do so much more than scare or unsettle. House is a movie that rarely builds to a jump scare or features an image anything other than ridiculous because what it is actually trying to do is dissolve reality and place the viewer on a nightmare plain.

Nightmares on film generally take the form of a perfect flashback or the kind of strangeness only a logical mind can think of. But if you look back at some of your most unsettling nightmares you may find quite a few that don't actually appear that scary. In fact trying to explain a nightmare you had the
previous night can often end up with you realising how silly it all sounds. As a child I was tortured in my sleep by Kenny Everett, dressed as Dracula, fighting off stripey-shirted taxi drivers in my garden, or  the unyielding pressure of deciding which of the two painted images of soldiers I would send on a mission (a nightmare that lead to me vomiting for realsies).

Kenny Everett - Childhood Nightmare

House doesn't necessarily work in nightmare logic but the images it creates are quite possibly the most truly nightmarish I have ever seen. It wears facade as a badge of honour, juxtaposing all manner of images and textures to create dissonance and an unsettling feeling of the uncanny.

The production's history is as interesting as the aesthetic on display. With Japanese cinema in decline, partly due to the interest in imported hits, Studio execs were beginning to take risks. TV Ad Director Obayashi was approached and asked to make some thing like Jaws. So, technically, House is the Japanese Jaws. Clearly Obayahsi was less interested in taking cues from Spielberg and instead merged the techniques he'd developed making adverts with his Daughter's whimsical ideas about how scary it would be if their family home began to attack them.

His daughter's various ideas (her reflection bursting out and eating her, getting caught in the gears of a clock, her piano nibbling at her hands) all make it into the film but also go someway into explaining why this film feels like a childhood nightmare. And if you've ever seen Japanese TV ads you will start to recognise some of the techniques used here. It's not all surface though as Obayashi displays a satirical edge while also being aware of audience reaction (a floating head watches it's body being eaten by a piano and observes "this is obscene").

Despite the bizarre visuals and tonal shifts House is without a doubt a horror movie and one that perfectly captures the kind of nightmares it is almost impossible to explain. It's a macabre pantomime that is arresting, joyous and creepy as hell all at the same time.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The Intellectual vs The Emotional - How Do You Enjoy Movies?

I write these articles very cautiously, concerned about appearing wishy-washy and non-committal but also very aware that the Internet is fogged by people telling you what you should like and how you should think. Ultimately, when I write I try to capture my thoughts mid-process, a snapshot of my current journey towards a realisation rather than a fully formed absolute. My current train of thought has drifted into how I enjoy my movies and why, approaching 40 years of age, my taste has been calibrated in the way that is has. For some time I thought about how films worked in two ways: emotion and intellect.

Emotional enjoyment is generally how we enjoy things as kids. You like movies because your body reacts in a way that signals you are enjoying it, nothing more. You might recognise familiar elements or re-occurring motifs that spark these emotional reactions, it could determine what genre you gravitate towards, or whether you like a certain performer, but rarely do you consider how this is making you react in a certain way. Although you develop these responses as children they can stay with you well into adulthood and can explain why you might like a movie everyone else tells you is a horrible waste of time. More importantly, no matter how much they explain how horrible the movie is to you it will not change your opinion because the mechanisms that trigger any pleasurable reactions largely bypass the formal cognitive process that is digesting the argument made. You will also take these criticisms personally, because emotional reactions are largely personal and difficult to explain to others.

Intellectual enjoyment generally comes from having studied filmmaking or theory in some form (this can simply be from having watched a shit-ton of movies). This means you can watch a movie and appreciate the technical and creative choices made by all involved. You recognise the film is good and can clearly explain why it is, but that does not mean it will prompt any emotional response. It is entirely possible to recognise a film you don't like as being good.

I remember watching The Reader (which I fully recognised as an excellently made movie with strong performances) and Godzilla vs Megalon (a film where grown men dress in rubber suits and roll around on top of model buildings for forty-five minutes) in a single evening. Despite the clearly identifiable evidence of strong filmmaking in The Reader, I'd largely forgotten about it once it had finished. Godzilla, on the other hand, had me bouncing off the walls all week. The goal, of course, is to find movies that stimulate both the emotions and the brain.

It can be applied/seen in all areas of life. Some people are not a music lovers. That doesn't mean they don't like music, of course they do, but they've never read the NME. They've never really been to live performances and they don't like festivals. They don't know, or care, what bands are cool versus what bands are hacks. They don't hear the overall narratives or thematics at play in an album, but rather a CD with two or three songs on it they like. They enjoy music emotionally. They hear a piece of music or a song and their body tells them whether they like it or not. They don't generally think about how it fits into the wider context, or how it was made. They like it or they don't. Those same people might be great at their jobs. They may have a comprehensive understanding of their role and can appreciate a good management strategy or IT system. But they may not give a shit. They'll just go home, switch off their work brain and throw on some music that emotionally satisfies them.

It is possible, however, to emotionally respond to intellectual processes. The more involved you get with a medium, the more you start to see through the surface details and understand what it is you do and don't like. You then start to appreciate the mechanics and begin to respond to things that others don't see. You start to intellectualise the process, but at the same time gain enjoyment through it.

When I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey I was tuned to respond emotionally. My tastes had broadened by that stage but I was expecting something similar to Star Trek: The Motion Picture or Saturn 3. I assumed a group of Astronauts would discover an alien object and some weird shit would go down. What I saw was long, aimless and largely devoid of incident. I didn't know what I was watching and my body rejected it like a foreign organ. Over the years I ended up sitting through it another two or three times and with each viewing my opinion changed. I started to see what Kubrick was intending, started to notice the nuanced strokes and grand gestures, started to consider and discuss it. I wanted to know why I didn't like it.

I went from hating it, to feeling challenged by it, to becoming fascinated by it and as I write this I think of it as one of the greatest movies ever made - a master class in filmmaking. But I don't enjoy it, I study it. At least at the moment, as I fully expect that the next time I watch it the intellectual and emotional will become one and Kubrick's technique will stir emotions in me the way Captain America leaping off an exploding bus does. Being able to see the way I get pleasure from a piece of cinema change over time, to see intellectual and emotional processes get muddled, inseparable, has been exhilarating.

It also fills me with dread. As I have grown older I found my emotional responses fading. I can intellectually process and appreciate more movies but find myself moved by them less and less. This is not just a by-product of intellectualising nor am I movie snob (I DESPISE elitism), it's because my taste is refining. I have so clearly identified the triggers for my emotional responses that I go looking for them rather than waiting for them to be revealed. I know the experience I want and if the film doesn't deliver I don't enjoy it.

As a result of this I have watched so many films that I know I would have loved years ago, but that have left me cold. Films that because of some editing choices, or sound effects that don't quite trigger my desired emotions leave me feeling disappointed. Spectre left me indifferent, and I can explain at length why I think that was, but I look at the people who loved the shit out of it and wish I could turn back the clock and enjoy it for what it is, not what I wanted it to be.

When I do find something that thrills me, like the Marvel movies, I cling onto them, yet so tight do I hold that when it tries something new I resent the change. I loved Captain America: The First Avenger, but my first viewing of Winter Soldier left me feeling less than satisfied. Why? Because it didn't have Alan Silvestri's Captain America March (a theme I adored) playing over the final act. It's fucking ridiculous, but my precise awareness of my preferred emotional triggers has turned into resentment for them not being there. It has began to poison the things I love. This is melodramatic obviously, and on second viewing I got over it quickly, but I worry this might get worse as I get older.

This is the one point in my life where I actually look back at my teens with envy. I remember at that age still having a sense of discovery, still wanting to consume every film I could find. My taste was changing, I still loved Indy and Star Wars but was I was being exposed to Tarantino and Scorcese, discovering Hard Boiled and Akira too. I was transitioning into the intellectual and had, at that time, the best of both worlds. It was my apex of enjoyment.

I don't have a conclusion to this. I don't know whether I'll be able to pump the breaks a little and start going with the flow, or whether I'll accelerate towards the developing of such narrow tastes that only certain films will trigger my responses (the films they made in "my day", no doubt). Ultimately I feel that at this point in my life it's okay to just enjoy things. That if someone loves a movie just because it has explosions, well, that's okay, they just may not have reached a point where they can intellectualise that enjoyment. As much as The Transformers movies make me want to puke my lungs up I don't resent people for liking them. If anything, I slightly envy them.

I don't want to love every movie, that's absurd. But I want to get back to that point in my life where I looked forward to being told a story and the unique way it was told, rather than being disappointed that the storyteller didn't tell it the way I like. I'm not sure I can do that right now, but stepping back and looking at this process from afar might give me a fighting chance of reconnecting with that wide-eyed explorer I used to be.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Gogol's Triple-Bills: Edited For TV

Seeing films as a kid was not quite as convenient as it is now. If your local video shop didn't have it in its limited stock (and if someone hadn't booked it out already) you'd have to wait for it to eventually turn up one of U.K. TV's four channels. BBC 2 and Channel 4 were, at the time, a little edgier but pitched at an ever so slightly more niche audience. As a result they would have the cool, obscure indie/arty/cult movies while the bigger movies would end up on BBC1 and ITV. Because these channels were watched by a much wider audience they acted more cautiously with content. They'd have no problem screening Bond strangling topless women at 3pm on Boxing Day but when it came to blood, boobs and rude words the scissors came out. Ultimately, if you wanted to see a big, adult orientated movie on channels 1 or 3 you could expect it to be in ribbons.

Violence was easy to edit out, as was sex, but swearing was tricky especially when vital exposition, character moments or gags were marbled with swears. The solution, it appears, was to dub the actors voices with less sweary versions of the lines. As you might expect these were not well judged or subtle changes, but foghorns of awfulness parping their ineptitude over finely tuned performances. I'm not sure of the origin of these edits (they may have been airplane versions, cut for American TV or perhaps even studio sanctioned re-edits) but ITV in particular had a penchant for screening hilariously neutered versions. Here are three that have stuck in mind all these years.

1. Aliens

Bill Paxton's Hudson is a delight and a character only he could realise. His voice, all volume and no power, created a noise that communicated a level desperation and panic not there on the page. When Ripley and Hicks decide to nuke the planet Hudson tacks on a whopping great "Fucking A!".  On paper that's just a jarhead exclamation point, a "let's stick it to the bastards" bit of fist pumping. But delivered in Paxton's perfectly cracked whine it becomes a call of desperation, a guy so scared he leaps on any suggestion of positive action as if it is his only hope without actually thinking whether it's a good idea or not. Paxton turns it from a high-five to an open window to this character through which we can see his shattered will. So of course some random voice actor in a sound booth can nail it just as well right?

The "Frigging A!" that is smeared over Paxton's aural perfection not only botches the line but undoes the impact of the whole scene. Firstly, a guy that desperate is not going to be careful about his words. Choosing to swap the word out for something safe tells us that Hudson might be on the brink of collapse, but not enough that he might let out an expletive. It's made worse by the misfire delivery as the precision wailing has now turned into something that sounds like a bad Australian accent. Y'know when someone tries to do an Oz accent by hilariously saying they are going to place a prawn on a barbecue? Sounds just like that. Say "Friggin' A!" in your head in that voice now... done? That's what it sounded like.

Ultimately if you want rid of that word then cut the whole line. Don't worry about staying as true to the script as you can, but stay true to the tone of the scene. Leaving on "it's the only way to be sure" gives the scene weight, while topping it with what sounds like a boozed uncle doing an impression of Harold from Neighbours undercuts it somewhat.

2.  Die Hard

For all the explosive ordinance in Die Hard's armoury it's most well-stocked weapon is a barrage of F-Bombs. So while the scissor wielders can snip shots of knees exploding as happily as they like the swear count causes all kinds of issues. My favourite moment is Bill Clay finally revealing himself as a pistol wielding Hans Gruber only to be double-bluffed by McClane's foresight in handing him an unloaded gun.

"You think I'm fucking stupid Hans?"

It's a nice throwaway line delivered with superbly judged indifference, functioning as an brief explanation of McClane's awareness as to Gruber's real identity and an indirect jab at Gruber's ego. The dubbed version, however, doesn't work quite as well.

When faced with the replacement of a fuck the censor has a number of options to choose from. 'Freak' and 'Frig' tend to be the conventional choices (though let's not forget Lethal Weapon's out of left field 'funsters') but even those could be construed as too aggressive. And why would a TV channel want a movie about a guy covered in his own blood blasting his way through terrorists to come across as aggressive? Thus, the new line is:

"Do you think I'm really stupid Hans?"

Delivered by someone attempting a Bruce Willis impression but actually sounding like Carl Spackler it robs the line of intent and function completely. It also sounds stupid. Of course if you want to re-create the experience of watching a horribly edited swear-less version of a Die Hard movie just watch the original cut of Die Hard 4.0 (Oooh, Zing!).

3. Robocop

Depending on your perspective the TV edit of Robocop is either an offence against art or a masterpiece of unintentional laughs. There are so many choices of lines, almost too many.

"Fuck me!" becomes "Why me?"

"Pussy" becomes "Pansy"

...but my favourite has to be "Once I even called him... 'airhead'!"

Some kind soul has put this particular movie's best edits up on YouTube so have a look while it's still there.

At the time I was horrified that TV networks would butcher my most beloved movies this way but now, where TV is a landscape full of swearing, nudity and extreme violence, this all seems like a quaint practice not unlike a kind-hearted relative placing their warm hands over your ears to protect your innocence. As such I can't help but think back on these hack jobs with some degree of freaking fondness.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Ninjas Ninjas Ninjas! Ultimax Force (Willy Milan, 1986)

I approached my first ever viewing of Ultimax Force with great trepidation as its exciting cover was a childhood fascination of mine and I knew that it could not possibly live up to the epic gore-soaked ninja war that I'd imagined all those years ago. A far cry from the masterpiece I'd concocted it is by no means a chore to sit through and, above all else, the action that fills the bulk of its running time is efficient and, at times, exciting.
Ultimax Force, no doubt labelled so because they are ultimate to the max, are comprised of four army vets who have also studied the ways of the ninja. Like a lot of 80's war movies they have been re-activated to go back to the jungles of Asia to liberate abandoned POWs. An early ninja training session gives way to half hour of mucking about trying to get into the country but once all that stuff is out of the way it is non-stop action. To the max... the ulti-max.
Most of the action is military based and involves uzis and grenades being flung left right and centre. Swords and chains are used occasionally but it's mostly bullets that fill the screen. Thankfully the shoot-outs are nicely handled. The crowning moment is when one of the team leaps off of a hut and somersaults into a crowd of soldiers flinging grenades from both hands. It is perhaps the most ill-advised manoeuvre ever conceived and, unsurprisingly, results in the team member getting gunned down in slow motion, to the max.
The force get their own back, however, by leaping from their hastily made pits beneath the ground and uzi-ing the living shit out of their teammate's murderers. This is the closest we get to any real ninja abilities, although the silencers they attach to their weapons make them sound like laser guns. I'm not sure that odd foley is strictly a ninja power though. Speaking of sound effects it would be remiss of me not to mention the hilarious mortar launching sound effect that sounds less like artillery and more like someone firing a conker from their arsehole.
What earns this movie significant points (beyond the compromising nostalgia linked with the poster) is the costumes. Part military body armour, part traditional ninja outfit they look fantastic to the max in every frame (even if the leader looks a bit like Benny from Abba) and is a literal translation of the mental image I had of myself during every game of childhood war I ever played.
Ultimate costumes, maximum action, ultimate maximum force. Ultimax Force.

Ninja Abilities – Somersaults, leaping from under the ground.

Ninja Kit – Katana, sai, staff, uzi, grenade, chain, tonfa blades, shuriken.

Ninja Colours – Black/camo.

Notable Ninja Kills – Underwater uzi surprise, grenade in a hole, somersault sacrifice.

Ninja Activity? – Medium to high.

Ninja Mythology - Ninja teams carry straws of different lengths to randomly determine who leaps absurdly into the path of bullets. They call them 'sacrifice pipes'.

Overall rating: 6.5

Wondering what the hell you just read? Check out the introduction that explains everything you need to know about this column here!