Patron Request: ‘The Legend of Drunken Master’

Anyone who knows me knows that I love the John Wick movies a whole lot. That love is informed by a lot of things, not least among them the series’ knotty plotting and labyrinthine world-building. When an action scene happens to John Wick, it’s for a plethora of increasingly convoluted reasons. I think that’s fantastic. It’s a joy to watch unfold. Still, there’s joy to be found in exactly the opposite approach as well.

In The Legend of Drunken Master (as it was released in the States), there’s a plot, yes. But a good portion of the fight scenes have little to do with that. For the first half of the film, Jackie Chan’s Wong Fei-Hung fights mostly over petty slights. He fights because he’s good at it, and he likes it. The film understands that there’s really no need for a narrative excuse for action. You’re not here for the why of it all.

Still, it comes up with an intriguingly nationalistic reason to keep things moving. Sinister officials from the British consulate are conspiring to ship ancient Chinese artifacts out of the country to be sold. Wong and his family become embroiled in the plot when a switched package leaves them in possession of one of the most valuable objects the thieves desire. Wong ends up fighting for his country’s dignity in the face of feckless foreign invaders. It’s interesting commentary on the Western relationship with China, from the latter’s perspective. “Next they’ll tear down the Great Wall!” says one indignant character. The Brits have a parallel plan to con Wong’s father out of his land, if for no other reason than that the martial arts students practicing on it disturb their sleep. I wouldn’t call The Legend of Drunken Master an overtly patriotic film. Its ideas about Chinese identity and culture being stolen and sold feel rooted in honest concern rather than jingoistic fervor.

And we’ve talked so much without even getting to the action itself. Do I even need to say that it’s phenomenal? Jackie Chan is up there with Buster Keaton as one of the greatest physical performers in cinema history. The specificities of his physicality are so unique. Every joint in his body seems to have a life of its own. Each movement seems to have an exacting grace, and yet it comes across as so chaotic at the same time.

The choreography itself somehow manages to keep up with him. The improvised weaponry is consistently inventive. Each strike seems like a piece of a puzzle, one fitting neatly into the next, assembling a perfect picture when all is said and done. Perhaps that metaphor implies a didacticism that the fights do not display. Their flow is terrifically seamless. Director Lau Kar-Leung shoots them almost casually, with the canny understanding that the performances speak for themselves. Every setup is positioned with the sole goal of capturing the fullest, clearest image of the fight participants. Why that isn’t just the standard for action cinematography, I’ll never know. The Legend of Drunken Master is an all-time classic action movie. I wish there weren’t so many terrible ones these days that its historical significance only grows.

Patron Request: ‘Her Smell’

It’s hard to find the right word to describe what Elisabeth Moss is doing in Her Smell. The one that keeps coming to mind is “dangerous.” Not because it’s the role is a daring risk in terms of her career or image, far from it. It’s in the performance itself. It is so unhinged, so unrestrained, that every single moment teeters on the edge of a disastrous abyss. She has to give this character an insane amount of energy and never let up for a second. But she has to be smart enough not to let it tip into self-parody or camp, because that is decidedly not the movie Alex Ross Perry is making. Her Becky Something has to feel, in all her specific vocal tics and explosive emotional outbursts, like a fundamentally real person. Otherwise, the film’s sobering final third just feels like another act. That Moss pulls it off is nothing short of extraordinary. It’s one of the best performances I’ve seen all year.

What I’m unsure of in Her Smell has more to do with Perry’s fixations as a filmmaker. He’s made several movies about “difficult people,” almost always men, whose deep-seated insecurities are masked by a “charming” abrasion. They’re the sort of shitty men so many terrible writers imagine themselves to be, men who are supposed to deserve love and admiration (usually from the women in their lives) despite their total self-absorption. Queen of Earth is a notable break from the pattern, though I don’t remember that film well enough to say whether it distinguishes the Moss character from the eponymous lead of his most egregious example, Listen Up Philip.

Becky Something is just as off-putting a personality as any of his other leads, but this feels like the first time Perry is genuinely interested in interrogating his main character’s emotional defects without an ironist’s distance. The depiction of her flaws doesn’t come with a sardonic shrug and an eyeroll, as if to say “Yeah, I know, but so what?” Becky does horrific things to the people around her, and we see it through the eyes of the people she’s hurting. Her Smell doesn’t ask you to understand why she’s doing this; there’s little time spent on backstory or psychologizing. She’s just a tornado, and you have to endure her.

What makes me uneasy is that this is the first Perry film I’ve seen where the main character actually gets better. She’s forgiven by the people she hurt, one of whom actually says, “It never made me not love you.” We see her get sober, we see her mellow out, we see her reflect on her behavior. What we don’t see is what she did that instilled in others the will to keep loving her. She’s another Perry protagonist who receives love from people she’s done nothing but abuse, and by the film’s end we’re meant to understand that she’s earned it.

I’m not the writer who’s going to tell you that this is oh so problematic and therefore bad writing. I appreciate the aspects of Her Smell that trouble me. What I’m unsure of is if Perry has really learned anything as a filmmaker. This is certainly a far cry from the jauntier indies of his early career, with its droning panic attack of a score and noisy handheld camerawork. I just wish Perry had gone further in his examination of Becky. More than that, I wish he had further examined his own proclivities as an artist. Maybe it’s unfair to ask a director to be anything but what they are. He just gets so tantalizingly close here that I can’t help but see the better picture.

Patron Request: ‘Good Time’

Life is short. There are only so many movies you can fit into your schedule before your synapses stop firing. So I tend to have little patience for movies that make me feel as miserable as Good Time. Each successive scene presents a new object of distress, every development a new anxiety. Nothing good happens to anyone in Good Time.

The film is a harder watch the second time around, when you anticipate every forthcoming disaster. It’s a film you watch with eyes wide open the first time, and rewatch through your fingers. I’m not typically a squeamish viewer, but there are plenty of “oh god please don’t do that” moments here. Chief among them, of course, is Connie coming close to statutory rape in order to distract a teenage girl from his face appearing on the news. There’s a disconnect key to Good Time: Connie is plainly despicable, but you still cringe when he fails.

How do the Safdie brothers accomplish this? His motivations, of course, are ostensibly pure. He roped his (probably) autistic brother into a robbery scheme that got him arrested, and now he needs bail money to get him out. Your sympathy for Nicky is Connie’s sympathy. What Connie does to get that money, the people he hurts and takes advantage of, it all becomes if not forgivable, at least understandable. What makes Good Time a great movie is that it knows that that shouldn’t be the case. The casting of former teen dreamboat Robert Pattinson is key here. When he gets that teen girl arrested because, again, he roped her into his scheming, you see the look of pity and regret flash across his face. But of what good is that pity? He can feel bad all he likes, but it doesn’t mean he’s going to change. Good Time puts the lie to the idea that the ends justify the means. Connie’s cause is sympathetic, yes. But can that really excuse his actions?

The Safdies also put you in Connie’s headspace with their chaotic direction and sound design. Everything around him is always just too much for anyone to handle — the hell that is other people. Everyone is aggressive and loud, they all talk over each other; the cuts are awkward and lopsided and unnatural. The fact that he often keeps his cool is admirable, and when he doesn’t, it’s understandable. The fact that he’s so completely loathsome fades into the background. It’s hard to hate a guy who’s so put-upon.

But, again, the film is well aware of what it’s doing. It wants you to question why you allow yourself to feel for him. It doesn’t do this in an obvious, didactic way, either. This isn’t a film that shames you for having an emotional connection that it deliberately created. (This isn’t every video game from the last 15 years.) It is, to use a cruder term, just asking questions.

It also provides a pretty explicit answer. At the film’s end, Connie is arrested, and he takes the rap for Nicky off-screen. Nicky’s therapist remarks on what a “responsible” decision this was. He says Connie is “right where he belongs” in prison, and that so is Nicky, in a therapeutic support group with other autistic adults. I don’t think the film means us to take the therapist’s word as thematic gospel, but it does raise the idea that Connie accomplished nothing that wouldn’t have occurred if he hadn’t turned himself in immediately. The teenage girl and carnival security guard wouldn’t have been arrested. The man he stole from police custody at the hospital would still be alive. Connie’s rampage was disastrous for everyone he came into contact with. And at the end of the day, he was only attempting to help his brother in a way that would allow him to elide responsibility.

Good Time blows up the flattened notions of “good” and “likable” and “relatable” that film criticism likes to box characters into. Connie is none of the above, but he’s something far more important: Watchable. You don’t have to like him. But you can’t look away.

Patron Request: ‘Linda Linda Linda’

Have you ever seen a movie with a climactic moment so perfectly thrilling, so explosive in its joyous energy, so precisely timed for maximum emotional release, that the rest of the thing almost doesn’t even matter? If you haven’t, I’m sorry, because it’s just the best feeling in the world when a movie gets it exactly right. Might I recommend one?

Linda Linda Linda ends with a flawless final performance that just radiates happiness, but for most of its runtime, it’s remarkably sedate. Director Nobuhiro Yamashita is what I’ve called a “tableau director;” his camera rarely moves, and he’s adept at crafting images awash in lived-in detail and naturalistic blocking. There’s a stillness to much of Linda Linda Linda that belies its punk rock core. It has a more laid-back energy than I expected from a film about a high school rock band.

I appreciated the film for taking that swing, though. This is not a familiarly riotous, rollicking take on this material. It’s quiet, it’s relaxed, it’s placid. The film is singularly focused on the world of the four central characters. Every shot fills in the details of that world a little more. The film takes its time doing this, but it’s so frequently beautiful that the pacing rarely matters.

In any case, the draw here is the characters. The four band members — guitarist Kei, bassist Nozomi, drummer Kyoko, and new lead vocalist Son — are tremendously charismatic, and they have great chemistry. When Son, a foreign exchange student from Korea played by a young Doona Bae (!), blows off a boy who’s been crushing on her because she’d rather be with her friends, I was grinning ear to ear. Linda Linda Linda is a film about how great it feels to have friends who love you as much as you love them.

Yamashita frames the girls in such a way that you feel how close their bond is. He likes to bunch them together in the frame, all of them leaning on each other. When one of the girls is out on her own, Yamashita isolates her in negative space, or alternately crushes her with clutter. The girls are always depicted visually as a single unit. Even spaced out on stage at the end, there’s a symmetry to their positioning that only enhances their connection. It’s a clever bit of visual storytelling from a rather understated director.

And yeah, that final scene. I would put a Youtube link here, but I really think it works best in context with the rest of the film. It needs to be built up to for the impact of its release to have any punch. That said, I’ll definitely be revisiting it whenever I’m feeling down. Watching Son cheerfully scream into the mic as her classmates go wild is like staring into the sun. It just radiates happiness. Linda Linda Linda’s performance finale goes in the great movie endings pantheon. I’ve seen few things that match it for sheer intoxicating joy.

Patron Request: ‘Muscle’

Queer movies of the 80s and 90s always have a tinge of apocalyptic dread to them. The mainstreaming of the gay rights movement meant the rise of a far more vocal opposition in the form of religious conservatism, and the AIDS crisis threatened nothing less than our extinction. The films of this era tend to reflect a sense of encroaching doom, the inevitability of decay in an uncaring world. That’s the case in America, anyway. I’m not as well versed in the queer history of Japan, but Hisayasu Sato’s Muscle shares much of the same concerns of the American queer cinema of the late 80s. This is a film where queer desire is self-destruction.

We follow Ryuzaki, a gay man who edits a magazine called Muscle. The opening sequence is a Muscle photoshoot, all close-ups on glistening rock-hard bodies as they flex and twist alluringly. There’s an innocence to this opening that the film throws away almost instantly. It establishes queerness as irresistible and perfectly natural. It presents these bodies as if to say, “Why wouldn’t you be turned on?” It uses the bodybuilding magazine to conflate the ostensibly hetero desire for a muscular body with the sexualized desire for the same body.

When Ryuzaki’s lover, Kitami, begins to develop a sadistic streak, Ryuzaki cuts his arm off. The abstraction of this moment makes it unclear whether this was an act of self-defense or not. Muscle finds love within violence and violence within love, specifically queer love. A year after this incident, Ryuzaki has been released from prison, and the film follows him on his search both for Kitami and a copy of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo.

Sato’s vision of queerness as obsessive and sadomasochistic reflects the cultural anxieties of the community in the late 1980s. AIDS hit Japan just as it hit America, and it was in full destructive force around the time of Muscle’s release. I can’t imagine how it must have been to be a gay man at the time, knowing that your sexuality could get you horrifically killed, and that the wider world wouldn’t care. That anxiety is all over Muscle. Ryuzaki desperately seeks out Kitami, a man whose sexuality is inseparable from violence. Does he want to be destroyed? Does he distinguish between that destruction and love? He carries around Kitami’s arm in a jar, fondling it as he wakes from sex dreams (or are they memories?) and using it to masturbate. He is so attached to this remnant of the brutality that ended their relationship. To him, brutality is their relationship.

The film ends on the sort of tragicomic note that mainstream queer films can’t get away with today. Loud voices in the modern queer community are terrified of transgression, of not appearing to fit a cishet standard of “normal.” Something as provocative and, dare I say it, problematic as Muscle would be unacceptable in 2019. They would refuse to see it as the genuine expression of terror it is, terror at the seemingly unstoppable tragedy ravaging the community. I cherish queer art like Muscle, because it’s not sanitized for the sake of being relatable to a cishet audience. It’s honest, and with that honesty comes depravity and blood.

Patron Request: ‘Naked Lunch’

I like to think I have a pretty high tolerance for the sort of gonzo wackiness on display in Naked Lunch. I’ve seen plenty of films that are, however you quantify it, weirder than this one. Just in terms of breadth of imagination and bizarre imagery, Naked Lunch is nothing to write home about. I was surprised, then, at how overwhelming I found it, how tough to keep my eyes open in places. There aren’t many directors who have both a talent for base grossness along with a talent for filmmaking. David Cronenberg is unquestionably at that peak.

The real star of Naked Lunch is the effects work. I’m a proponent of CGI as a unique art form which can create imagery that practical effects can’t match; that being said, this is a film that only works because everything is practical. You need it to look real, like you could reach out and touch it. Or more accurately, like it could reach out and touch you. You need something the actors can actually interact with, and feel, and stick their fingers inside with an accompanying squelch. CGI at its best creates a deliberate disconnect between ostensibly “real” actors and the fabrications around them. It draws a line in the sand between the real and the fictional. Naked Lunch is a film wherein there is no such line.

That’s actually one of the things I found alternately fascinating and frustrating about it. In depicting the main character’s descent into hallucinatory paranoia, it doesn’t begin with any sort of grounded reality from which to descend. The film begins in a sort of Gilliam-esque world of metaphor, a writer’s construct more than a real place. By the time the first talking bug shows up, it’s less a shocking departure than another stop on the established road. What makes it partially work is Peter Weller as Bill Lee. His mumbled monotone undersells even the strangest developments. His utter lack of shock makes you wonder if he even cares that he’s hallucinating, whether or not it even matters. Naked Lunch is unconcerned with how much of what you’re seeing is “real,” perhaps because it acknowledges that none of it is, at least not in that sense.

What is real, what does matter, is the stellar final moment. Lee, asked to prove he is a writer by border guards of a country called Annexia, re-enacts the hazily-accidental murder of his wife. He shoots her in the head and tearfully cradles her body. The guards accept this as proof he is indeed a writer, and wave him through. This feels like deliberate provocation to William S. Burroughs, who shot and killed his own wife in the same way, and was thus inspired to begin a career as a writer. This plot does not appear in Burroughs’ book, and so in adding it the film becomes less direct adaptation than commentary on the author himself. It leaves Lee on a note of ambiguity, asking himself, “Was it worth it?” Did Burroughs ever wonder the same?

I liked Naked Lunch. But as a part of David Cronenberg’s canon of body horror classics, I found it a little wanting. His best films use terrible morphing flesh, the cracking of bones and the ripping of skin, to illustrate the terrible condition of having a body at all, of having to live inside this thing that you have less control over than you think. In Naked Lunch, it’s just an aesthetic.

Patron Request: ‘Hoop Dreams’

It’s hard to watch these kids keep losing. It’s hard to spend three hours watching these hopeful, nervous, talented kids keep trying and failing, hitting brick wall after brick wall. It’s hard to watch them toss and turn in the wind of adults’ expectations and desires. It’s hard to watch them subjected to obvious racism from people who are supposed to be on their side. It turns your stomach. And at three hours, there’s no respite. Hoop Dreams is a film whose pain must be endured, and whose small moments of triumph must be salvaged from the wreckage.

I’m far from an NBA expert, but I knew enough going into Hoop Dreams to know that neither of these kids achieved much at the professional level. Neither of them played there at all, in fact. No one could have known this at the time of the film’s release, but it gives the whole thing an extra air of tragedy today. All that these two children went through didn’t get them where they wanted to go. Their dreams stayed dreams.

In fact, the thing that changed their lives more than any of the hard work and anguish of their education was just the fact of their appearance in the film. They were both paid $200,000 in royalties, which helped them build more secure lives for themselves and their families. It forces us to ask the question that any documentary of this nature inspires, and a question I’m sure they’ve asked themselves: Why them? They were plucked at random from among thousands of kids in the same circumstances. They essentially won the lottery. Fifteen years after the film’s release, it was revealed that when the electricity was shut off in Arthur’s house, the filmmakers paid for it to be turned back on. Most documentarians can be precious about not interfering with the lives of their subjects. Steve James and his team took a much more humane approach. They cared more about the kids than their film. Still, we have to ask, would it have done more good to give money to a charity that helped their entire community? Would their effort have been better spent on broader causes?

The answer, I think, is to stop looking at Hoop Dreams as the story of two individual children. This is the story of all the hundreds of kids with the same stories, and the tens of thousands of kids who never even got the chances that William and Arthur did. Hoop Dreams forces us to think about them as we watch the two children who were chosen. We have to consider that they are not outliers, that their families’ suffering is not unusual, that their educational trials and tribulations are the norm for poor black families in America. William and Arthur become, perhaps unfortunately, representatives of their class and race.

But the film never plays them as merely that. It doesn’t lose sight of what makes them unique as individuals, of their personalities and character. Part of that humane documentary filmmaking style I mentioned is the depiction of the two as not just stand-ins for a broader point about social issues, but as actual people. James is a canny enough filmmaker to know when he’s getting too polemical. So Hoop Dreams never feels obnoxious in its explication of the racism and classism to which the kids are subjected. From a white filmmaker especially, this is quite the accomplishment. James never seems to be studying William and Arthur like zoo creatures, nor does he venerate them as martyrs. His documentation is simple, honest, unadorned. That is why Hoop Dreams endures so far past the point when those dreams seemed achievable. These issues still matter, and Williams and Arthurs still exist by the thousands. Hoop Dreams isn’t looking to solve the myriad problems afflicting them. It wants you to see how those problems affect real people, not statistics or research anecdotes. It makes social issues into human ones.

Patron Request: ‘Uski Roti’

Uski Roti is something of an odd duck: Slow cinema and yet not, narrative-driven and yet not, a matter-of-fact film of expressionistic images, alternately enthralling and a tough sit. I don’t tend to have a lot of patience for films like this, but there’s plenty of interest in Uski Roti.

I was taken, more than anything else, with the black and white cinematography. It reminded me a little of Begotten in its blown-out white landscapes. The lighting is so harsh that it makes the characters’ surroundings seem almost alien in their harshness. It makes a film that is on paper practically realist seem almost abstract. Where is the film set, besides a horizon line of metaphor? The people seem realer than the places they inhabit. I find that really interesting, the notion of down-to-earth characters in self-consciously constructed settings.

The film was the first directed by Mani Kaur, and one of the first shot by cinematographer K.K. Mahajan. You can feel their thrill for the possibilities of cinema throughout Uski Roti. This is, and I mean this as a compliment, very much a film made by people who are new to making them. There’s such excitement around the film’s disregard for traditional narrative or typical editing rhythms. (A bit of cutting taken straight from Breathless is a fun touch.) The shot excerpted above, which shoots out of the back window of a moving vehicle such that the window decal seems superimposed over the speeding image, was my personal favorite moment. It’s the sort of thing that can only come from a mind that’s been waiting to shoot their first feature since they were young, the kind of image that could only have been bouncing around in their brain for years.

The final shots, too, of the distraught Balo wandering a desolate, pitch-black landscape, seem like echoes from Kaur’s subconscious given form, the result less of decisive thought than of freeform train of consciousness. It’s a limber film, for all its potentially deadening pacing. Even the lengthy shot of flowing, muddy liquid has a painter’s grace. This is never a film bogged down by the literal.

I should also mention how it seems to prefigure Jeanne Dielman, to the point that I was mildly shocked to learn that Akerman’s better-known film came six years after this one. I think hers is the better work, but there are parallels to be drawn. Both are, shall we say, deliberately paced films about the tedium and misogynist dismissal endured by housewives. Uski Roti is more than a bit blunter than Jeanne Dielman, perhaps because it was directed by a man, who can only understand these issues as they are presented, rather than as they are lived. Still, Uski Roti is as close as a cishet man can get to truly compelling feminist cinema, in that it’s a little too tryhard for its own good.

Patron Request: ‘Zodiac’

This review was based on a request from one of my patrons on Patreon! For $3 a month, you can request a film for me to write about and support the work that I do. If you’d like to do that, visit my Patreon and become a patron!

I’ve talked in the past about how my least favorite runtime is two hours and forty minutes. It’s right at that point where you should either trim the fat or go all out, cutting thirty minutes or adding twenty. It’s an ungainly, ugly runtime. It signals a self-indulgent sloppiness. Remembering that Zodiac was this long made me a bit reticent to revisit it. But I think the film is one of the few of its brethren to actually get away with it, for one reason: Zodiac is about the passage of time.

For the first 100 minutes or so, nearly every new scene in Zodiac comes with a timestamp chyron. “Six hours later,” “7 1/2 months later,” and so on. The implied passage of time communicated by a cut is made literal by on-screen text. At one point, characters are shown leaving a place to go somewhere else, and as the film cuts to their arrival, we’re told exactly how long it’s been. We don’t strictly speaking need to know this. But it forces us to reckon with the passage of time directly, rather than in the abstract. It gives that offscreen time a heft, a weight; we are made to know it exactly.

It’s necessary, too, when cuts contain such wildly different timeframes. Editor Angus Wall rarely differentiates between a two-hour cut and an 18-month cut. It’s all the same matter-of-fact transition. The only way you understand how much time is actually passing is through those chyrons. The Zodiac investigation as depicted here is so harried that it seems everything was happening at once for those initial few years. A jump of several months may as well be a jump of several days. One day, the hunt is on and the leads are hot. The next, as Dave Toschi puts it, “they’re already making movies about it.” Time passes so quickly. That is, until it doesn’t.

After the four-year jump at the film’s midpoint (covered in the director’s cut by a neat audio montage of news bulletins and popular music), time seems to slow down considerably. The timestamp chyrons are gone. Everything in the final 40 minutes seems to happen over the course of a single night. As Graysmith gets more frantic and obsessed, the only way we know time is passing at all is by his increasingly unkempt facial hair. The arc of time in this final section loses its strictly organized structure and all starts to blend together. I find this sort of mushiness less compelling than the ordered manicness that preceded it, but I do admire making such a dramatic editorial shift so deep into such a long film.

I think I like Zodiac a bit less now. I hadn’t seen it since high school, when I was on a stereotypical Fincher kick. I was blown away by it then, but on rewatch I found it more whelming than overwhelming. It’s a perfectly good movie. I think Fincher uses his fastidious focus on process and obsession to more interesting ends in Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network, though it’s been ages since I’ve seen either of those as well. If nothing else, Zodiac is the closest we’ll ever get to seeing Mark Ruffalo in his predestined role as a rebooted Columbo. You’ve gotta give it up for that.

Patron Request: ‘Gozu’

This review was based on a request from one of my patrons on Patreon! For $3 a month, you can request a film for me to write about and support the work that I do. If you’d like to do that, visit my Patreon and become a patron!

Gozu is a very “Dead Dove Do Not Eat” kind of film. It’s Takashi Miike. I don’t know what I expected. If nothing else, I was surprised to find out afterwards that it was released in 2003. Everything from its look to its attitude feels very 90s. I had an alright time with it. But there are some capital-P Problems here.

The first is a tonal issue which arises from Miike getting too playful with the familiar elements of his filmography. The opening title promisingly bills Gozu as a “Yakuza Horror Theater” but the film’s beats are much closer to what you’d see in one of Miike’s broader comedies. It’s overloaded with an often juvenile silliness. This comes particularly at the expense of gender non-conforming people, which you always hate to see. It’s not as bad as it could be in that department, I suppose. It’s just disappointing to see trans people treated as wacky outre gags on the level of poop jokes.

But again, what do you expect from Miike? He’s never been a filmmaker with an overabundance of sensitivity. He works with all the subtlety of a cannon blast, and you just have to take him or leave him. Most of the time, I’ll take him. I loved his JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure adaptation last year. The problem with Gozu isn’t really a Miike problem, though. It comes from how Miike tries to experiment with his own style.

As I said, this is basically a broad comedy, but it doesn’t play like one. Miike shoots it like a tense horror-thriller, replete with ominous music cues and anxiety-inducing angles. Miike keeps undercutting the tension with jokes, but he maintains the creepy tone through the punchlines, so they never really land. Gozu is a hard film to laugh at because you’re never really sure if it wants you to laugh at it. It’s also impossible to be scared by because the ostensibly frightening aspects always feel like self-parody. I just don’t know what this movie wants to be.

Still, it’s a Miike movie, and that means some astonishing compositions. Miike can toss off a brilliant image like it’s nothing, cutting away from it before you even have time to process it. Everything else aside, he’s just fundamentally a good director. Without his visual acuity, Gozu would be basically unwatchable. It’s thanks to his innate skill that it ends up more or less entertaining, if ultimately disposable. It’s definitely the weakest Miike film I’ve watched, but the bar is set pretty high there.