Review: The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom (dir. by Lucy Walker)

March 11, 2011, off the coast of the Tōhoku region of the Japanese main island, an undersea earthquake measuring 9.1 on the Richter scale hit the region. The damage incurred by the Tōhoku region was cataclysmic but it would take the arrival of the mega-tsunami that followed the earthquake which would show the rest of the world the horror the people of Japan were experiencing first-hand that fateful day on March 11, 2011.

Documentary filmmaker Lucy Walker was already set to film a documentary short about the cultural importance of the cherry blossom to the Japanese people, but the disaster which struck on March 11 changed the overall theme of her documentary short. The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossomwould still look at the importance of the cherry blossom to the Japanese nation, but now it also would signify how this simple, but beautiful flower now begins the healing process for those affected by the earthquake and the tsunami and how it helped solidified the nation.

The film doesn’t try to make the scenes of disaster as it happened and the aftermath become exploitative. Walker does a great job of just letting the landscape of devastation speak for itself the reality and existential horror of the event and how it has affected the nation of Japan. Even the typical interviews of the survivors during the film comes off as something cathartic and healing even as the first-hand accounts from the subjects being interviewed and film brings about emotions of heartbreak and extreme sorrow.

Yet, the film does show the resiliency of the Japanese people in the face of cataclysm and its aftermath through their shared love and admiration for that simple cherry blossom that’s become so intertwined with the Japanese culture. A flower of such simple beauty yet one that doesn’t live for long that helps inform outsiders how the fatalistic attitude that Westerners see as inherent in Japanese culture is really a misunderstanding. Just like the cherry blossom the Japanese people see the impermanence of life as something beautiful, to be cherished and lived to its fullest. The film shows just how even in the aftermath of this disaster the nation of Japan still looks at the resiliency of the cherry blossom to survive and grow in a land of waste and debris as a sign that the survivors must now give up.

“The plants are hanging in there, so us humans better do it too.”

This simple observation from a survivor looking to do his part in rebuilding the affected region best exemplifies the ideas in this film. As someone who has admired the culture and people of Japan this film by Lucy Walker helps in showing that even in the face of tragedy that boggles the mind the capacity of the human spirit to persevere exists.

The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossomis a film that should be more readily available for everyone to watch, but unfortunately has only made the film festival circuits and the too little airings on HBO. So, if this film ever airs on HBO and/or makes its rounds to where one lives I highly recommend they watch it.

‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ Review (dir. Behn Zeitlin)

“Everybody loses the thing that made them. The brave men stay and watch it happen. They don’t run” young little Hushpuppy tells us. It is this defiance against disaster, in its many forms, that is the core of the joyous’Beasts of the Southern Wilds’. It is director Behn Zeitlin’s first feature film, and with it he has created a mesmerizing and beautifully poetic surrealist fable of love, strength, childhood and innocence; a fable whose fantastical atmosphere, universal themes and a stunning performance by then six year old Quvenzhane Wallis make it one of the year’s best films.

The story follows a young girl named Hushpuppy (Wallis), who lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in a small commune called the Bathtub located in a New Orleans bayou on the Mississippi delta. The Bathtub is inhabited by a group of individuals cut off from the world, south of the levees, dependent on nature and each other. Hushpuppy calls it “the prettiest place on Earth”, though in reality they live in squalor. This simple living doesn’t phase the residents of the Bathtub who are survivors, living amongst the beauty and harshness of nature for generations. They celebrate their existence with wild parties, fireworks and drinks; not caring about the world north of the levee’s, or the potential dangers of nature’s fury. They consider themselves adaptable, able to find a way to go on no matter what the world throws at them. This is something Hushpuppy is just learning as the films begins. She is still naive and curious about everything, and spends much of her time listening to the heartbeats of baby chicks, while imagining they speak to her in code.

Like the other children of the Bathtub, Hushpuppy learns about the world from her father and a makeshift schoolhouse run by an eccentric ‘medicine woman’. Here she it taught that the universe is held together by very intricate and delicate pieces, and one disruption could tear it all apart, cause the ice caps to melt, the waters to rise and an ancient boar- like beast known as the Auroch’s to be reborn. It is meant to be more metaphorical than anything and scare the children right, but for Hushpuppy it causes her imagination to run wild. She is still at an age where the world around her, though often confusing, is a place of wonder still open for exploration.

Her father Wink has outgrown such thinking and the Bathtub has made him a rough and often disgruntled man, who isn’t against striking his daughter. But his tough ways stem from his desire to make sure Hushpuppy is hardened and able to survive when he is gone. It hasn’t been easy for him raising her alone ever since her mother “swam away”, as we are told, though it is unknown if she is dead or just gone. However, Hushpuppy believes her mother is somewhere across the water, near a light that flickers across the bay, reminiscent of the green light in ‘The Great Gatsby’.

One day Wink goes missing, leaving Hushpuppy to care for herself. When he returns he is dressed in a hospital gown and we slowly come to understand that he is sick but doesn’t want to tell her. Angry at him for disappearing Hushpuppy hits him in the chest causing him to fall over in a great deal of pain; an effect of his secret illness, but she thinks it is all her doing. Suddenly thunder erupts, a storm is coming. Soon after a hurriance bares down on the Bathtub, flooding the place they call home, leaving its resident’s displaced, hungry and struggling in way that only their ancestors would have ever experienced. Being the naive little girl she is Hushpuppy believes that she has disrupted the natural order of things, broken one of the pieces holding the universe together and everything is now falling apart. She envisions the ice caps cracking, and the Auroch’s springing back to life, coming to get her.  She holds a lot of this emotional weight on her shoulders but it doesn’t stop her. No, instead as she puts it “the entire universe depends on everything fitting together just right…if you can fix the broken piece, everything can go right back.” So she sets out to reverse whatever mistake she has made, help her father and in doing so possibly find her mother.

What made me fall in love with ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ is how in the first few minutes, before the title screen, Zeitlin creates the world of the Bathtub with such great detail. It is liking jumping head first into this whole new world we have never seen, a slice of Americana with an aura of mysticism; and from their he builds upon the characters, their relationships and the emotions that flow through every scene. Zeitlin handles everything with such great delicacy, like he truly believes the Bathtub and its residents are intricate pieces of a larger cosmos and by showing that they are just small pieces of a much bigger puzzle the emotions they express, the love and the struggles they share, are all the more profound. It helps to reaffirm that even in the great expanse of space and time it is love, imagination and determination through whatever adversary that ends up meaning the most.

This is something Hushpuppy ends up learning first hand. “Somtimes you can break things so bad, they can’t be put back together” she says, which is all too true. People get sick, people leave us, people die; storms come, water rises, towns are destroyed, homes are lost forever and nothing can be done to stop it. But this isn’t a film about lost, no it is one of hope. Even after all the hardship the people of the Bathtub and young little Hushpuppy go through, it is love and family that ultimately persevere. In this sense Hushpuppy realizes that the pieces that hold the universe together aren’t all physical, that there is more to the world than just what we see or could ever imagine; and even in death the ones we love stay with us. In this way it was very reminiscent of ‘The Tree of Life’ from last year. Which isn’t the only thing it has in common with Malick’s films. Both also share similar sense of wonder in its observations of man and nature, intoxicating visuals, and even voice over narrations to let us listen to the most inner thoughts of the main characters.

With that said, the most fantastic aspect of the film is definitely the performance by the young Quvenzhane Wallis, who is deserving of an Oscar nomination. This is her first role, and she really makes the character her own. Not only is she able to carry the burden of the heavy emotions that run through the story, but on the physical side she is in every way as rough and capable as Hushpuppy, who with her dazzling smile, courage and fierceness would give Katniss a run for her money.

Dwight Henry, a New Orleans resident, baker, father and first time actor, also really adds a lot to the character of Wink that another actor couldn’t. He lived in New Orleans through Katrina. He knows first hand the struggles and life style of residents of Louisiana and he brings that experience to the character. As with Wallis, he also handles the emotions of the story so well, and together the two have a chemistry that makes watching their struggles all the more heartbreaking.

The last thing I need to mention is the score, which is in every way a part of the soul of the film. It is moving and whimsical, propelling the tone and emotions of the story with every beat. It adds to what is already a very sensory film whose emotions, through visuals, performances and sound just flow off the screen. So much so that by its end you’re standing it puddles wondering if the ice caps are really melting; until you realize the water is just your own tears. Honestly, when the credits began to roll no one in the theater got up. It was a rather remarkable sight to behold, and the first time I have experience such a thing. It was like everyone was letting it all sink in, wiping the tears from their faces, and not wanting to leave the Bathtub.

It is this ability to so fully engross the viewer that makes ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ perhaps the best film I’ve seen so far this year. From its beautiful beginning, where it sets up the world of the film with delicacy and great detail, to the profound, often heart-wrenching, but ultimately joyous ending, you won’t want to walk away from the story and characters of this modern fable. In this way it is an absolutely magical, ambitious and unique movie going experience. One that can not be missed.

Trailer: Zero Dark Thirty

After the success Kathryn Bigelow had with her award-winning film The Hurt Locker it was just part of the norm that people began to wonder what she would do to follow-up the film which gave her the Oscar for Best Director. There was talk of her making an action thriller about the Tri-Border Region in South America that many intelligence agencies consider a major haven for global organized crime and terrorist groups of all kinds. This particular idea bounced around for months then nothing came of it. Then news came about around late-Spring to early Summer 2011 that Bigelow and The Hurt Locker writer and collaborator Mark Boal came upon the idea that would be Bigelow’s follow-up.

The film that the two decided upon would be an action thriller detailing the global manhunt for Osama Bin Laden. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but this decision became even more important once news broke out on May 2, 2011 that the hunt for America’s Most Wanted criminal was finally over and that Operation Neptune Spear was a success with the death of Bin Laden.

Zero Dark Thirtyis the title of Bigelow’s film about the details and backstory which led up to this special operations mission on May 2, 2011. The first trailer for the film has been released by Sony and it’s short on details other than some voice overs over satellite imagery. I’m sure there’ll be more trailers that will open up what this film will truly be about leading up to it’s December release date (just in time for awards season).

It’s going to be interesting how Bigelow will do with this follow-up to The Hurt Locker. If her history is anything to go by then it shouldn’t disappoint even if some of her detractors will be chomping at the bit to see it fail and further see her Best Director Oscar win as a fluke done to keep the award from her ex-husband James Cameron.

Zero Dark Thirty is scheduled for a December 19, 2012 release date…just two days from the end of the world.

VGM Entry 08: Ports complicate the picture

VGM Entry 08: Ports complicate the picture
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

While I have noted that composers remained within regional spheres, games certainly did not. Ports reigned supreme, and it was not uncommon for a game to appear around the world in a half dozen different formats. Each of these required a group of programmers familiar with the given system, and it was certainly not always the case that the original arcade version remained the best at the end of the day.

Take Commando (Capcom, 1985) for instance. The original main theme was composed by Tamayo Kawamoto, an obscure name which will persistently resurface throughout this series of articles. It’s certainly a commanding little march (utilizing the YM2203, if my previous article has peaked anyone’s interest in this regard), and I’d have fed in my quarter in the hopes of hearing more. But quite a number of Kawamoto’s soundtracks are better known for what other artists made of them in the port process than in their original form, and Commando is no exception.

Put it in the hands of Rob Hubbard and, well, did you expect anything less? This wild ride might be his most famous 1985 work after Monty on the Run, and it’s all the more enhanced when you realize how distinct it was from the original. Again Hubbard shines best when he is expanding and improvising upon the music of others. The potentially performable original work is completely lost here, transformed into a uniquely SID sound and style, and with all due respect to Tamayo Kawamoto, its certainly not worse off in consequence. The problem, which would go on to haunt countless composers down the line, is that most fans of Commando have no idea Kawamoto had any part in writing it.

The composition was actually a single day project, and the entire port was pushed through by Elite Systems in a mere two months. Hubbard briefly discussed it in an interview by Jason ‘Kenz’ Mackenzie’s Commodore Zone magazine. (Issue 10 as best I can tell, probably released in 1997): “There is an interesting story behind Commando. I went down to their office and started working on it late at night, and worked on it through the night. I took one listen to the original arcade version and started working on the c64 version. I think they wanted some resemblance to the arcade version, but I just did what I wanted to do. By the time everyone arrived at 8.00am in the morning, I had loaded the main tune on every C64 in the building! I got my cheque and was on a train home by 10.00 am…

Yie Ar Kung-Fu (Konami, 1985) is an especially odd game to consider, because its ports varied so drastically. I couldn’t find a stand-alone sound sample of the original arcade version, but you can hear it well enough beneath the sound effects of this gameplay video. The upbeat, distinctly Asian sound is a refreshing change of pace from the usual video game song styles, and in consideration of what Rob Hubbard did with Commando, you can imagine the potential for new arrangements this presents. Arguably the most famous version of the game’s music, however, is a completely bizarre departure.

The only rational explanation I can think of for Martin Galway having replaced the traditional Asian music theme with a completely irrelevant cover of “Magnetic Fields” by Jean Michel Jarre is that the title screen music is, in fact, completely irrelevant. I think perhaps Galway, either by request or on his own initiative, submitted the song as an all-purpose Commodore 64 option for Imagine Software, who produced the European computer ports of the game, and that it found its way into Yie Ar Kung-Fu simply because it happened to be available at the time. It is not one of Galway’s finer works, but I suppose you can do what you want to the loader screen. It was the combat music that really defined the game.

Even so, the actual gameplay music to the Commodore 64 port of Yie Ar Kung-Fu is as unexpectedly similar to the arcade as the title screen is unexpectedly divergent. The arrangement makes no effort whatsoever to expand upon or even properly convert the original arcade gameplay music to suit the SID sound. Instead we’re met by an unimaginative attempt to emulate the original as closely as possible, marred by SID distortion which could have so easily emphasized the music’s finest features but instead just drowned them out. I mean, this is far more appropriate than Galway’s load screen, but so much for a middle ground between total disregard for the original and a carbon copy.

And then you have the Famicom/NES version, released in April 1985. (That’s five months before Super Mario Bros., to put things in context.) Without altering the style of the arcade version in the slightest, it offers an almost entirely original song. It’s really the best version of Yie Ar Kung-Fu out there–you’d be hard-pressed to argue otherwise–and its existence is a bit puzzling. Who composed it?

The notes I’ve found on Yie Ar Kung-Fu credit Miki Higashino, but they fail to distinguish between the arcade and NES versions, as if these weren’t completely different songs. Now, I am inclined to think Higashino wrote both, which is quite remarkable considering she was only 17 years old at the time. (The only other really famous game musician I can think of to get this early of a career start is Tim Follin.) The other titles credited to Higashino in the mid-80s don’t exhibit this kind of quality, but in consideration of the fact that ten years later she would compose one of the greatest game soundtracks of all time (Suikoden), I know she had it in her. The Suikoden soundtrack is predominantly folk and traditional music (like Yie Ar), and the consistency of style between the arcade and Famicom songs favors a single composer.

The other thing Higashino-authorship has going for it is that she worked for Konami, who made both the arcade and Famicom versions. She would have been involved in the sound team of both, so it’s reasonable to believe she would have had the liberty to create an entirely new song when it came time to program the port. Her hands would have been tied for the European versions, which were produced by Imagine Software. On a final interesting note, the MSX version ports the Famicom soundtrack, not the original arcade music.

It’s all just speculation though. Anyone at Konami could have potentially been responsible for the changes. I’ll leave you with one final version that was most certainly not arranged by Miki Higashino. … Ok, I’m really going to try to avoid video game covers where they aren’t historically relevant, but you have to admit this Markdoom Shehand cover is one of the most awesome things ever.