Yakuza Apocalypse

 In an older review I posted this year for Takashi Miike’s “Fudoh: The New Generation” I stated that if there is one unifying theme in Miike’s work it is that violence begets violence. Nearly twenty years after Fudoh came out the man is still grappling with those same ideas in his most recent picture Yakuza Apocalypse. Miike has been making yakuza pictures his entire career, and they make up the greater amount of his early v-cinema contributions when he was a director for hire in his earliest days as a director. He’s still a director for hire, but in a bigger Japanese blockbuster system. He’s still making yakuza pictures in his own brand, and even with more restrictions on what he can and can’t do with more money involved he’s still raking the coals of puncturing violent cinema with both comedy and a mournful approach that tackles the subject head-on.

Deadly Outlaw: Rekka

In a recent interview with the A.V. Club Miike stated that he does not like violence. When Miike begins to assess the truth of his characters they become violent. Miike is not a cynical filmmaker for these preoccupations with violence, but an empathetic one. In Miike’s first golden period he made a handful of films that would be known as the Dead or Alive Series as well as another masterpiece in Deadly Outlaw: Rekka. These are violent pictures, but Miike handles the theory of violence in an interesting way. For Miike violence is a tangled web his characters get lost in. They’re products of their environment rather than essentially violent people. Yakuza Apocalypse follows in those footsteps, even if it’s a much lesser achievement than that series of movies Miike put out in the early 2000s.

Yazuka Apocalypse begins as an analysis of masculinity and how that is intertwined with the nature of the Yakuza. There are specific examples of the absurdity of masculinity as gatekeeping: Drinking blood in front of your overlord, punching each other squarely in the face until another man falls, having your foot stomped and offering the other foot for the same punishment. It’s all to prove oneself to some masculine superior in the yakuza- in this case, vampire lord Genyo Kamiura. For our lead character Kageyama the yakuza offers him a role he can fit into, and a fantasy of what he could become. It might even be like the movies, but that all unravels when he finds out his superior is a vampire, and turns him into one as well, making him the new central figure of masculine power. In a later scene Kagayama uses his powers on an otherwise emasculated child who weeps and sobs at not being strong enough, but then after Kageyama turns him into a vampire the child finds himself with his newfound strength. All of these ideas on what it means to be a man are taken to their logical extreme in the black comedy Ichi the Killer, but they are brought back here to round out some of Miike’s ideas on the absurdity of the Yakuza.

The vampire mythos is also important to Miike’s ideas on masculinity. Yakuza pictures have been done to death, but yakuza vampire pictures are a new layer on the genre. On paper it sounds absurd, but that’s Miike. He takes the absurd and levels it in his ideas and his cinema. Vampirism sweeps through Japan when Kageyama begins to turn other people. It sweeps across this setting like wildfire, until finally our vampire lord can walk with an army behind him. When you place this scene beside an earlier scene where an elder discusses the dangers of spreading vampirism too much you get a clearer picture of what Miike is getting at by utilizing genre instead of playing his Yakuza picture straight. The spreading of vampirism is the spreading of the yakuza is the spreading of violence is the end of life, and a great criticism of violence in and of itself.

As dour as Miike can be sometimes he always has a sense of humour, and this is where many people have the wrongheaded idea that the man is simply “crazy”. Miike simply doesn’t play by rules. This places him closer to cinematic kin of Joe Dante than it does other filmmakers he is often compared to like Sion Sono. At the close of Deadly Outlaw: Rekka a man with long white hair says “Rock n’ Roll” and that general idea comes back here when they unravel the mystery of defeating the Japanese folklore Kappa god with a piece of paper that says “Stay Foolish”. Miike lets loose in the final third finally delving completely into the Vampire and Japanese Folklore of this genre cinema picture. There are Frogs performing wire-fu, grenades going off, mockery of Sergio Leone and a subtle homage to John Carpenter’s They Live. He ignores all pretenses of ending his picture in the classical way he set up the first two acts. Yakuza Apocalypse isn’t as interesting when it abandons a majority of it’s ideas for something a little more altogether crowd pleasing and what North American audiences expect from Takashi Miike, but it is fun, jovial and loose in a way that recalls that Rock N’ Roll man at the close of Rekka. Miike has put out better work this year (As the God’s Will), but Yakuza Apocalypse is a wonderful addition to the dense filmography of an often misunderstood master.

Yakuza Apocalypse was recently added to Video on Demand.

I Want It That Way: Magic Mike XXL

*Analysis of a scene will be a feature on Curtsies and Hand Grenades where I take a look at specific scenes in movies and discuss them. Today I am going to look at 4 moments from Magic Mike XXL and how they tie into the film’s central ideas on satisfaction* 

Magic Mike XXL is a film overflowing with life and positive energy. At it’s core it is a road trip of friends getting together for one last hurrah, and those pockets of love that spread throughout a group of friends in doing a job. That work is specifically the business of male stripping or as the characters in this movie refer to themselves “male entertainment”. Unlike the previous the film there isn’t much cynicism to be found here and the camera shifts from the performers to the audience. When I saw Magic Mike with my girlfriends back in 2012 it was a bit of a letdown to everyone in my core group of friends except me, and it was because they were given a movie that didn’t satisfy their needs as viewers. They came to watch a stripper movie, but what was delivered was a story about economy. Magic Mike XXL still features some of those same ideas, but they are appropriately slight and only mentioned offhand. The satisfaction of the viewer- specifically the heterosexual women in attendance- is paramount and a few scenes in the movie act as a fulcrum for the type of audience reaction Magic Mike XXL is trying to elicit.

Scene 1: Backstreet at the Gas Station: 

“I bet you can go in there and make her day…That’s your goal. Just go in there and make her smile” 

Mike is persistent that the boys change up their routines as they head to Myrtle Beach to the World Summit of Male Stripping Contests, and Big Dick Ritchie is unsure if he should stop doing the fireman routine. He hates fire, the music he dances to, and everything else about the dance, but it works. So, Mike asks Ritchie if he’s a fireman to which he replies “I’m a male entertainer” so Mike asks him to go into a gas station and make a girl smile. It’s a test, but it also works as a barometer for where the movies heart is at. Magic Mike XXL consistently toes the line between the bro road trip movie and the filmic equivalent of an idea of female satisfaction. Women are first and foremost the #1 priority of the men, and I’ll get into that more later, but this is a simple scene where one man dances for a one woman’s approval. Approval, being a running theme in XXL.

There isn’t a whole lot of room to play around with camera movement or an elaborate dance routine due to the confined nature of the aisles in the gas station, but graceful camerawork, editing, and image selection make the scene pop exactly the way it should. The scene begins with Ritchie being unsure of himself as The Backstreet Boys “I Want it that Way” begins to play over the radio station. Ritchie begins to sway his hips and ass in tune with the song to get her attention, but she’s still preoccupied with her phone. The camera sweeps back down the aisle and when the songs first drums kick in Ritchie does a turn and pops open a bag of cheetoes all over the floor. There is a cut to his face and hers. The mess finally got her attention. She seems unamused, but Ritchie’s going for it. At the very least he’s livening up her mundane day. The scene follows Ritchie to a pepsi machine, and there’s a subtle zoom on Mike and the boys cheering him on. This is his moment to really take a chance. He takes a water bottle out of the machine and simulates ejaculation with the bottle right when the song is hitting the biggest part of the chorus. Perfect. Ridiculous. His boys think this is BRILLIANT in all caps and Mike is screaming “yes! yes! yes!” outside as Ritchie dumps water all over himself. The camera follows Ritchie right back up the aisle as he takes his shirt off for the girl (who still appears unimpressed) and now he’s as vulnerable as he can be, until he starts humping the floor. She stares down at him, he looks up into her eyes. Ritchie thinks he has things in the bag. This is what girls want right? He finally asks her how much for the cheetoes and water, and then she smiles. Mission Accomplished.

I love a handful of things about this scene, but especially the absurdity of the male idea of female sexuality. The biggest moment in this sequence is the simulated ejaculation. These guys can’t stop thinking with their dicks. Mike and the rest of the crew lose their shit when he faux ejaculates in the gas station. She never smiles at this moment. She only smiles at his comment asking about the cheetoes and water, because it’s so absurd and played straight. The sheer audacity of this guy to do all of this in her store is eventually what makes her crack, not the dancing. It also just barely opens the door for the sort of lengths they’ll go to satisfy women in this movie, which remain pretty ridiculous.

Scene 2: Serenading a Queen 

“Queens, ain’t she beautiful?” 

Magic Mike XXL is inspired in part by fourth wave feminism. Women are often referred to as “Queens” and each man in this movie seems like he reads the Critique My Dick Pick blog set up by @moscaddie. There is a softening of masculinity in each of the male characters here that shows masculinity not as something toxic, but vulnerable, nurturing and sensitive while still being hard enough to not make men lose what makes them so appealing. Andre (Childish Gambino-Donald Glover) raps about this.  The very first thing Andre does is ask Caroline her name and after hearing that she is named after her grandmother he asks “what she do”. He remarks that Caroline’s grandmother was a strong woman. He respects women.

And then he freestyles. He sets Caroline down and stares right into her eyes and delivers a message about how she’s worthy of being loved, and then the chorus happens. Caroline, this could be something special, this love of mine it will never let go, ooh if I could make you mine I would treat you so special, be mine Caroline. She smiles. Once again, the endgame of the men in Magic Mike is to bring a smile on a woman’s face. Caroline was just out with her friends trying to have a good time and she did. Andre put her feelings out there in the open for everyone to see, but instead of being the ridiculous almost laughing response from the woman in the gas station this one is of genuine affection.

Much has been said of how Soderbergh’s digital cinematography equalizes skin tone in Magic Mike XXL and makes everyone stunning, and that isn’t just something happening in the colour. What’s so radical about this is that the images are also backing up how everyone is lit to look. There is one scene earlier on in this section of the movie where former pro football star Michael Strahan dances around a woman who is black, and fat, but that woman’s enjoyment isn’t treated any differently than any of her white or skinny counterparts. Her arousal, her happiness is put on equal footing with everyone else. That’s beautiful. That’s not just lip service for calling women in the film “queens”, because when you’re calling women who usually aren’t represented in movies and treated as beautiful “queens” that’s something remarkably feminist, and rare.

Scene 3: Heaven

We’re healers.”

Andre and Ken (Matt Bomer) talk about the joys of making women happy in a scene preceding the one in the above screencap. Andre says “We can be healers. We can give these women what they want just by listening to them. Their boyfriends and husbands don’t but we do.”. All of that is put into effect directly in the next scene. Mike and the Boys meet back up with a group of girls they befriended at the beginning of the movie, because they needed a place to crash. What they find upon arriving at the lavish mansion is that the Zoe’s (Amber Heard) mom (Andie MacDowell) and her girlfriends are having a girls night out. They’re all drunk. They’re all impressed with the men that have just walked in their door, but what could have been an awkward situation quickly turns into communion.

 Everyone in room begins to have a conversation about sex- more accurately, the women talk and the men listen. When Ken finds out that Mae (Jane McNeil) is upset that her husband never wants to have sex with the lights on he begins to ask her why and about her fantasies. Ken, being the “healer” that he is does his best to re-enact what this woman said she wanted. Like Andre, Ken has a budding music career so he sings her a song. He looks into her eyes and holds her. The distance that she had been feeling with her husband is still there, but this encounter gives her the confidence to know what she wants. It’s some facsimile of pure joy.

A fascinating thing about Magic Mike XXL is that the episodic nature of the road trip is given weight by a cyclical narrative. Everything eventually comes back around to mean something greater later on. The healer conversation is one example, but the final act is even more resonant. Mike invites Zoe to Myrtle Beach, because she’s depressed. He tells her he’s going to win back her smile after they have a long conversation about cake versus cookies and her personal life. The line about cookies comes back around in his song selection for that final dance, and even Ritchie’s fireman routine is dropped in favour of an earlier mentioned marriage proposal dance. Every little thing in Magic Mike XXL gets a payoff, but the greatest of all these moments are when happiness is given back to women, and by effect to the audience.

Scene 4: All I Do is Win

“I’m a cookie monster”

The most lavish sequence in the entire movie is the final set piece where 2 dancers mirror each others moves in a sequence that’s like if Cocteau and Minnelli decided to craft a scene around stripping together. It is gorgeous, perfectly choreographed and resonant. Despite all of the attention paid to dancing one thing becomes clear, Zoe’s face is the true focal point of the action. She’s always lit just a little bit brighter than everything around her and the framing and choreography work around her reaction. There is one moment where Mike picks her up and places her head between his legs and there’s a zoom in on his face, but then goes right back to her own reaction. The camera pulls out from the action to showcase the symmetry and dancing, but always comes back looking for her approval by focusing on her face. She goes from embarrassed to flattered to enraptured by the time things close up and Mike asks her if she got her smile back. She did.

The stark difference between the first movie and XXL is the intended audience of the dance. In Magic Mike XXL the women are always key instead of the act of stripping itself. Soderbergh’s movie was never about getting a warm reaction out of the audience members, but Gregory Jacobs picture is obsessed with earning a smile. DJ Khaled’s “All I Do is Win” plays over the films closing moments, and winning in this instance was about approval from the woman in the gas station to Zoe and in the audience. This was about making women happy. It made me happy.

January 2015 in Cinema

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

In 2015 I shifted my cinematic focus to women. I wanted to make this year a conscious goal to watch movies that were either directed by or about women. I kept to this goal all throughout the month, and while I rewatched a lot of films with men at the center and behind the camera my newest viewings were aligned with women in one way or another. Most notably I began the Female Filmmaker Project on this blog, and reviewed Sally Potter’s The Gold Diggers, Catherine Breillat’s Romance, Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher, and Karen Gehres’ Begging Naked. All of these films were worthwhile in different ways, and I was especially drawn towards Breillat’s deconstructive picture of sex and love. Outside of those films I officially reviewed for this blog I fell in love with Whisper of the Heart and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. In lieu of Blackhat I rewatched my favourite Michael Mann pictures (Collateral and Miami Vice), and my hype for Blackhat was completely warranted as it proved to be a total realization of Michael Mann’s aesthetic qualities he had been building towards ever since he started working with digital. Adam Cook summarizes it as a picture whose innovations are equal to or more expansive than Godard’s Goodbye to Language 3D, and I’d have to agree with him. The lukewarm at best reception by critics at large is baffling to me. I would close the month with rewatches of Blade Runner & Darkman at the digital cinema festival being held in St. John’s. I appreciate Darkman more than I did years ago, as I now understand both comic books and cinema much better than on that initial viewing. My happiest cinematic moment happened in the middle of the month though as I introduced my boyfriend to Broadcast News. I would fall asleep with his arms wrapped around me with about 20 minutes left in the picture, and I have a feeling it’s a movie that just became even more special to me.

Best of January
1. Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (Robert Altman, 1982)
2. Whisper of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondo, 1995)
3. Blackhat (Michael Mann, 2015)
4. Hookers on Davie (Holly Dale, Janis Cole, 1984)
5. Barton Fink (Coens, 1991)
6. Romance (Catherine Breillat, 1999)
7. The Gold Diggers (Sally Potter, 1983)
8. Mommy (Xavier Dolan, 2014)
9. The Floorwalker (Charlie Chaplin, 1916)
10. Begging Naked (Karen Gehres, 2007)

Favourite rewatches
Broadcast News (James L. Brooks, 1987)
Fat Girl (Catherine Breillat, 2001)
Miami Vice (Michael Mann, 2006)
Collateral (Michael Mann, 2004)
Darkman (Sam Raimi, 1990)
Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931)

Tally: (Before I started this year I wanted to keep all my new to me viewings balanced on a gender spectrum. I do realize it’s ridiculous to note gender as a binary, but I currently do not know any non-binary filmmakers. Drop a line in the comments to alert me of some if you know of any. Thank you. I’ll be keeping this tally as I watch movies this year. Rewatches do not count towards this number.)

Women: 9
Men: 12

So you can see I’m already failing. However, Women already have the lead 1-0 this month. Let’s hope they can pull back to the front in February.