Here’s part 2 of my late 2015 round-up, which features short reviews of Ricki and the Flash, Yakuza Apocalypse, Tokyo Tribe, The Assassin, and A Walk in the Woods.
‘Ricki and the Flash’
The last couple of occasions when Meryl Streep took on a musical role we got the execrable likes of Into the Woods and Mamma Mia! Thankfully, Ricki and the Flash is a very different type of film that allows Streep to demonstrate her (perhaps unsurprising) vocal abilities in a far more natural manner. She plays an ageing rocker, currently the singer of a bar cover band who attempts to re-connect with the family she once abandoned following her daughter’s unhappy divorce. The screenplay by once-touted next big thing Diablo Cody lacks the self-aware snark of her earlier efforts and something of a return to form following 2013’s awful Paradise. She falls into a couple of too obvious choices at times (Ricki is conservative leaning so of course one of her children is gay) but in general it doesn’t take the easy redemptive path and avoids falling into potential feel-good clichés. Assisted by solid direction form Jonathan Demme and the irresistible prospect of Streep belting out Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen covers, it’s a very satisfying and mature drama.
‘The Assassin’ (2015)
Acclaimed Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien is one of many internationally renowned filmmakers who, despite being aware of for many years, I’ve never seen a single film by. The Assassin , his first film in a number of years sounded like a good starting point, not only was it earning rave reviews (Sight & Sound named it best film of the year) but it was a martial arts movie in the wuxia sub-genre. Having now seen it, I have to admit that calling this a martial arts movie is a bit of a stretch. Fight sequences take up maybe ten minutes total of the film, and I’d describe it as a ‘period drama’ rather than any sort of action movie. The cinematography on display here is undoubtedly beautiful but to be honest I just couldn’t connect to anything in this movie. Perhaps my ignorance of Tang Dynasty society is a contributing factor, as I’ve found with a few Asian Historical films previously, but I found the whole thing totally un-relatable, and it’s near constant lack of music (save the ending) a surprising choice that ultimately rendered it even more distant. I still hope to see some of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s earlier work in the future and who knows, may return to The Assassin at some point with a new appreciation after doing so, but for now it just did not work for me at all.
One could probably guess from the title alone that Yakuza Apocalypse was the latest movie from infamous Japanese director Takashi Miike (I use “latest” loosely as he’s so prolific he’s probably already got two more movies in the can). The film begins fantastically, blending qualities of Yakuza gangster movies with out-there fantasy/horror as a crime boss is revealed to be a vampire and subsequently hunted down while setting up his heir…or something. It’s unpredictable enough from the outset but soon morphs into full-blown Miike insanity, culminating in a sequence involving a high-kicking, size-changing dude in a furry frog costume that has to be seen to be believed. It’s the kind of movie that someone could probably edit a 5-minute trailer out of and make it look impossibly awesome, but when viewed as a whole it’s sheer un-relentlessness just become too much, leaving you feeling somewhat exhausted.
Another Japanese director who reached Miike levels of prolificacy this year is Sion Sono, and his 2014 film Tokyo Tribe (which saw an international release this year) is almost as insane as Yakuza Apocalypse. The film is – if you can imagine – an urban post-apocalyptic hip-hop musical about rival criminal gangs. There isn’t a great deal by way of plot to the film, and it possesses a couple of hard-to-stomach moments, but I have to admire the sheer audacity on display. The film takes us through a multi-coloured neon-glazed Tokyo landscape featuring some incredible visuals and camerawork. The music is of a Les Misérables–esque near-constant nature, and I guess this is where it gets a bit more subjective. I’ve never been a hip-hop fan and this certainly isn’t music I’d listen to outside of the movie, plus there is probably a fair amount lost in the translations (some of the lyrics still rhyme in the subtitles, some don’t) but for the most part it works in the moment. It wouldn’t be unfair to describe Tokyo Tribe as a feature-length music video, but it’s undoubtedly one of the most unusual and unforgettable films I’ve seen this year.
‘A Walk in the Woods’
I very fondly recall reading A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson’s frequently hilarious account of his and a friend’s attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail on a holiday may years ago. The humour of the book wasn’t really found in the events that occurred themselves, rather in Bryson’s brilliant way of describing them, and disappointingly his voice seems to have been lost somewhere in the transition of bringing the non-fiction book to the screen. This adaptation alters the central characters considerably by making them pensioners (something frequently mentioned) instead of the forty-something they were in the book, but Robert Redford and Nick Nolte (taking on the part that was years-ago intended for Paul Newman) make for an entertaining pair. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t feel that their dynamic is enough and adds in a number of sitcom scenarios on the course of their hike that can be a little embarrassing at times. It’s an acceptable enough, ‘Sunday-afternoon’-type movie on the whole, but not a good representation of its fantastic source material.