Movie Review – Top Knot Detective

mv5bnmy4yjjkmtmtndy3mi00ndkwlwi5otutzwzimjrmmtiymjywxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtawmzu2mq-_v1_sy1000_cr007081000_al_

EXPECTATIONS: Some amusing one-joke premise that would run out of steam by the film’s end.

REVIEW: For those who live in Australia, the 90’s were a great time to watch the weird and wonderful culture of Australian programming. Consisting of surreal shows and films like Eat Carpet from SBS to the Journey to the West series Monkey on ABC, I’ll always be thankful to them for providing the huge amount of enjoyment that make us nostalgic for similar programs.

And now we have Top Knot Detective, a mockumentary about an incredibly bad TV show of the same name and its creator/mastermind Takashi Takamoto (Toshi Okuzaki) who is director, lead actor, writer and editor…well, self-proclaimed anyway. Will it succeed in evoking the same feels that people have had back in the past?

b6pxnjxcmaaas3c

The TV show Top Knot Detective (also known as Ronin Suirai Tantei) revolved around a samurai seeking vengeance on the shadowy conspiracy that murdered his master. With his swords, and the power of deductive reasoning (one of the many great catchphrases), he wanders through feudal Japan, killing ninjas, robots, aliens, penis monsters, you know, the typical creatures one can find in feudal Japan.

While behind the scenes, the show is actually a tension-filled back and forth between its ego-maniacal and unruly star, Takashi Takimoto, his co-stars (most of them having negative feedback) and their corporate masters at Sutaffu.

b7hyx69cmaavxrz

The story takes us through the development of the show and the story is so surrealistic and random, that it comes off more endearing rather than grating. The filmmakers’ enthusiasm and knowledge is seething throughout and it is very infectious. The over-the-top violence, the crazy characters, the catchphrases, the random occurrences, the shoddy film-making provide lots of laughs.

The research in Japanese culture is also well-done, as directors Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce explore other TV shows, the tokusatsu genre, J-Pop, cosplay and other themes that it adds a lot of verisimilitude to the story. There is a cameo from a particular Japanese musician that people will certainly appreciate. The actors all plays their roles (behind the scenes) so straight that not only does it make the film funnier, but it also adds a surprisingly emotional core that few would expect. Pathos is the last thing that you would expect from Top Knot Detective, but it is there and it works.

top-knot-detective-4

The directors genuinely want to tell a story as well as create an homage/deconstruction of Japanese media genres and thankfully, it succeeds in both parts. It certainly helps that the filmmakers try to make it as realistic as possible, that it could’ve been an actual show. The VHS-look, the notable people like Des Mangan and Lee Chin-chin (associated to SBS [Special Broadcasting Service]) as well as Danger 5 Director Dario Russo making contributions, the trademark yellow subtitles, it’s all here and it adds an air of nostalgia as well as authenticity.

I really enjoyed Top Knot Detective not only as a comedy, but as an homage and surprisingly, even as a drama. It made me feel exactly how I felt back in the early 90’s of watching the surreal late-night programming that it, quite honestly, almost made me shed a tear. Definitely one of the biggest surprises I have seen so far this year and it surely deserves a wider audience. Highly recommended.

P.S – There is an after-credits sequence that had me so pumped that I wanted to see a mockumentary of it immediately.

Quickie Review

PROS

Deadpan approach to the insane premise of a TV show works wonders

The amazingly committed actors engender sympathy more than the script allows

The world-building (in this case, TV show building) is so well-realized that you would wish the show actually existed

Incredibly well-researched and articulated in its details of Japanese culture

CONS

Does drag a little bit in the second act

SCORE: 9/10

Cast: Toshi Okuzaki, Denis Mangan, Mayu Iwasaki
Director: Aaron McCann, Dominic Pearce
Screenwriters: Aaron McCann, Dominic Pearce

Movie Review – My Scientology Movie

My_Scientology_Movie_web_3-1280x702

EXPECTATIONS: Something very funny, slightly scary and a little bit profound.

REVIEW: Now I admit I do not really watch a lot of documentaries, but in recent years, I have gotten myself into a good groove when I discovered the work of documentary filmmaker, Louis Theroux. The first documentary I saw of his was The Most Hated Family in America, which was about people in the Westboro Baptist Church. Amiably low-key, polite to the point of hilarity and compellingly insightful, Theroux got me interested to watch his other works which researched many subjects like drugs, sports, religion and even porn.

And all of them were highly entertaining, thought-provoking and amusing pieces of work. So when I heard that Theroux’s next subject for a new documentary was Scientology, a controversial self-appointed religion made famous by celebrities like John Travolta and Tom Cruise, you better believe that I was excited. So does the documentary live up to its pedigree?

my-scientology-film-01-xlarge

After the Church of Scientology refuses to cooperate in making the titular documentary, Theroux teams up with former senior church official Mark Rathbun (who has featured in another Scientology documentary, Going Clear) to create dramatic reconstructions of incidents within the church witnessed by Rathbun and other ex-Scientologists. They focus in particular on alleged violent behaviour by the church’s leader David Miscavige at its secretive Gold Base facility in California, which Theroux tries to visit.

The church retaliates by putting Theroux and his film crew under surveillance, leading to camera-wielding confrontations with a Scientology “squirrel buster” team and with church officials outside Gold Base. Theroux raises questions about Rathbun’s own former complicity in the church’s extreme activities, leading to tensions between the two men.

scientology-xlarge

In interviews, Theroux had said that he was fascinated by the approach of another documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer called The Act of Killing. The approach was to recreate situations based on true accounts with actors and My Scientology Movie does that as well. While some scenes are absolutely hilarious i.e. the induction of Scientology; some scenes can be downright shocking i.e. a specific situation where Miscavige loses his temper and takes it out on the recruits.

The laughs and the tension still continue throughout the film with the constant surveillance from Scientology following the crew. The confrontations skewer towards the comedic, especially when the squirrel buster team denies that they are from Scientology, but how it plays out on the film, the situations also skewer towards the disturbingly surreal.

My-Scientology-Movie-Tribeca-2016

There is one scene in particular where Theroux and others are outside the Gold Base at night, and they are confronted by security, led by Catherine Fraser. The scene had a scene that was very reminiscent of David Lynch’s work that it scared me quite a bit. Another scene reminiscent of David Lynch that disturbed me a bit was the surprise appearance of actress Paz de la Huerta (famous for Boardwalk Empire and Nurse 3D) early in the film that just came out of nowhere and is never referenced again.

The laughs and surrealism is peppered throughout the film that guarantees top-notch entertainment. But when you compare My Scientology Movie to other documentaries like Going Clear, it comes up a bit short. As much effort as it puts in to provide precious information about Scientology, there’s very little here that is actually new or scintillating here that we haven’t already heard from other sources.

But for those who are interested yet know very little about the subject at hand, My Scientology Movie provides a laugh-filled surrealistic experience that suitably provides a complementary alternative to the more methodical documentary Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.

On a final note, there’s a scene where during the staged induction of Scientology, where it hilariously reminded me of a scene in The Simpsons where Homer was in the Circle of Judgment, being verbally humiliated and objectified to the point of vulnerability. You really can’t make this stuff up.

fill_642x386_66122732

Quickie Review

PROS

Plenty of laughs and gleeful surrealism pump up the entertainment value

CONS

Nothing new or surprising apart from what we already know

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Louis Theroux, Mark “Marty” Rathbun, Andrew Perez, Rob Alter, Jeff Hawkins, Tom De Vocht, Marc Headley, Steve Mango, Catherine Fraser.
Director: John Dower
Screenwriters: Louis Theroux, John Dower

Movie Review – Hooligan Sparrow

56bb5b78e047d-image

EXPECTATIONS:  Considering that the subject is from Communist China, something controversial, no doubt.

REVIEW: There are a LOT of crazy, yet infuriating stories that happen in Communist China. Some of the stories include an annual dog-eating festival to its catastrophic levels of pollution to hundreds of dead pigs in rivers and many others. But none of them had prepared me for this hard-hitting and shocking documentary. When I first heard about this film and its subject matter, the factor that intrigued me about it was not the exploration of the subject, but how the filmmaker got away with the footage she had from a place that is very strict with its censorship rules and communist rule. That alone made it a must-see for me. So imagine my surprise to see the footage director Wang Nanfu compiled in Hooligan Sparrow.

The film starts off with Wang holding her digital SLR phone camera. The camera captures a bunch of young men who are whispering and glancing until a scuffle happens between Wang and the group of men, trying to retrieve the camera. With such a gripping and suspenseful moment as the intro of the film, it hooks the audience and it keeps up the tension throughout.

hooligan_sparrow

The documentary follows Ye Haiyan aka Hooligan Sparrow, and her group of activists, who are protesting a case where six public-school girls were sexually abused by their principal. But in the case, the corrupt bureaucracy of education and government favoured the accused and are now targeting Ye for her actions in exposing the injustice. Ye Haiyan was famous for her unorthodox methods of activism like offering sex at one of China’s brothels for free, even targeting the principal. The media swarmed over that story and it gained her impossibly high levels of notoriety, conveying the conditions of China’s sex-service industry.

The story follows director Wang as much as it follows Ye, since she follows Ye around for her documentary, she is also being targeted by the government to the point where she is threatened to be beaten up and she is forced to hide, fearing for her safety as well as questioning whether her footage would ever make it out of China.

hooligansparrow_03-718x400

After the protests, Ye is assaulted in her home and is then arrested for attempting to defend herself. Wang accompanies Ye’s lawyer, Wang Yu, to the prison in an attempt to visit her, but they are denied entry. On this occasion, the public outcry and media attention results in Sparrow’s quick release. However, she continues to be followed and is intimidated by a bunch of thugs presumably in the pay of the government and is eventually hounded out of her home. At one point, she says “You can kill me, but you can’t kill the truth.”

The camerawork, while unpolished and inescapably sloppy, adds urgency and a kind of down-to-earth feel that makes the documentary immersive and, at times, makes it feel like a found-footage thriller. The revelations that come from the footage are shocking to behold, like an incredibly stupefying law that rape is life in prison BUT if you were involved in underage prostitution, the sentence is much lower. Even when Ye was attacked by a bunch of thugs and the police became involved, the police stated that “Don’t make such a fuss, it could’ve been murder.” Statements like that are littered throughout and are delivered in such a mannered tone, that it would send chills. A sense of paranoia is also present throughout the film, as ANYONE could be considered a government spy. As director Wang states at one point in the film, a man with five children on the motorbike could potentially be a spy.

kp_1500699_crop_1200x720

As much as flaws go, the film is not professionally produced as other documentaries and Wang does over-rely on narration to get her point across, especially when she tries to manipulate the audience on who to suspect, but when you get footage as palpable and revealing as this that SOMEHOW got away from the Chinese government, Hooligan Sparrow must been seen by the widest audience possible.

Oh, by the way, on a comforting note, children can be offered as “gifts” to government officials. Oh, did I say “comforting”? I meant “infuriating”.

Quickie Review

PROS

Incredibly powerful footage captured with all its nitty-gritty feel

Shocking revelations about its subject matter

CONS

Not professionally produced

Over-reliance on narration

SCORE: 9/10

lhs

This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Wang Nanfu, Ye Haiyan, Wang Yu
Director: Wang Nanfu
Screenwriter: Wang Nanfu, Mark Monroe