MPW8 another week in wrestling: NXT & CWC, September 7, 2016

Damn there is a lot to catch up on in el Mondo de pro wrestling, so I’m going to try to keep the focus narrow and get right down to business, which was always kinda the idea to begin with.

NXT, September 7, 2016

The GOOD

TM61 VS Davari and Neese

This was a great match, indeed great use of some of the wrestlers involved in the Cruiser Weight Classic, no longer in the running to win the tournament, to add some variety and exciting matches to the program. TM61’s finisher looked strong as well as their clothesline game. Neese was impressive with quick kick combinations. The show would benefit a lot from continued use of CWC related talent in the mix

 

Asuka’s promo

Asuka speaking in English here felt more natural than when Hideo Itami took a turn the week before. This promo benefitted from ocassional lapses into Japanese to add intensity. The idea of her being a completely dominant champion was forwarded. A trick about the English skills improving, that I think would benefit both Asuka and Itami – it is said that for Japanese in particular who learn English, there is a lot of word by word translation in the mind. That could be the cause of the slower deliberate delivery. Some coach or coaches on hand (my services are available…) should instill the notion of ‘thinking in English’ to get them on their way.

 

Ember Moon VS Leah Von

I loved Leah Von’s music. Simple, a bit on a post punk or surf rock tip, stood out for its simplicity. I hope they keep it and don’t try to razzle dazzle on every track because that will get old fast. Ember Moon continues to have a very impressive look and her finisher holds a lot of anticipation.

 

Austin Aries VS Cien Almas

Aries also has some excellently suited and underrated entrance music. It goes perfectly with the notion of a big ego coming through. Cien did not connect with me here as well as at Takeover. I think the only way to go with him is take out and REBUILD. If they go for something heroic, flashy, not cool and loose like the hat and baggy ring wear they will be on the right track. That or make him a smug heel.

 

Nakamura VS Steve Cutler

 This was simply a great exhibition of Nakamura’s amazing move set. Meanwhile Joe sitting in on commentary, speaking very quietly and looking on with quiet intensity promises something more down the line with him and Nakamura.

 

Nothing all that BAD or WEIRD

 

The TAKEAWAYS

This was a perfectly good episode of NXT. A nice balance of technical matches (the opening tag) and I don’t think you ever want to have an episode without at least one of these, new talent looking strong by going over up in dominant fashion, and promo work done to develop feuds. Hopefully with more intensity as it gets closer to big show date.

It did occur to me there is something in the way of cleverness and humor missing lately compared to NXT circa 2 years ago or even last year. Perhaps some effort could be made to get back to that.

In Asuka, Ember Moon, and what Sanity could very well be like, there is a strong notion of fantastical character in the women’s division. The type that might draw in a different audience than wrestling programs often get, one that might draw the interest of young women seeking powerful role models or perhaps into comic book, anime, or cosplay scenes. This has unique potential.

 

CWC, September 7, 2016

As it gets closer to the finals there is not much to it but for the matches to speak for themselves. Here were too great ones, the first extremely sound technically, the second with a bit more flair. They were a bit less exciting than the previous week’s pair of quarter final bouts because the styles of each opponent were similar rather than different.

The GOOD

Zack Sabre Jr VS Noam Dar

This was again very unique territory for WWE programming with its focus on submissions. The story became Noam Dar working Sabre’s weakened leg while Zack Sabre jr. attacked Dar’s compromised arm. Noam sold brilliantly, showing a lot of pain and emotion, and really waking me up to his potential in this round of the tournament. He had some extremely impressive looking offense at times. There was a slight bit of feeling awkwardness regarding timing, only because they were taking their time and building what really felt close to being an athletic competition. Sabre Jr. hits these incredible moves where he jumps or lunges at Dar and in the process ties him up and works in very domineering submissions.

 

TJ Perkins VS Rich Swann

This was also a very good match, highlighting more showmanship. They actually managed to work in a sequence where Rich Swann dabbed, taking a page from Perkins’ style, and as a result Perkins got incredibly pissed off. Serious heat over a dab! Perkins’ incredible moves included sling shotting himself over the ropes into a swinging kick to his opponent on the outside with a huge arch. He also landed a great suplex combination. Swann landed an amazing variety of mid-air kicks throughout the match. A solid injury story made this a compelling match, with Perkins taking the win but showing his concern for his friend immediately afterwards. It is a great thing that both these guys are signed to RAW.

 

The NOT COOL

It is very cool that the crowd is very much into the matches, and that they had a favorite in Rich Swann, also cool. But for them to yell ‘bullshit’ after the match was a bad note to end on. The match was over, so the chant came off like that off a bunch of spoiled brats. Get into it but don’t be jerks.

—–

The stage is set for a very impressive final show this Wednesday. It will take a page from impressive NJPW tournaments where other matches are incorporated into the show – here being Gargabno and Ciampa in tagteam action. These guys make a great team and a rematch with The Revival is much anticipated, but with this being a very eventful time period for Gargano already, one wonders if intrigue will be pushed further with the more experienced Ciampa turning on Gargano in the midst of his meteoric rise?

MPW7 Another Week in Wrestling: Smackdown September 6, 2016

This week’s Smackdown Live again brought a program that missed a couple steps but was, overall, a good time thanks to a steady dedication to building solid builds and having a bit of fun. It could only get better as the roster quality improves on the whole. This week’s edition also boasts what I would consider the best…the BEST….segment of the Raw/Smackdown Live continuum for this week. As far as WWE programming, it will surely have some stiff competition in the Cruiser Weight Classic the following day.

Let’s break it down.

 

(New Category) THE BEST

 American Alpha VS The Usos

 For all the star power and big time drama abound on RAW, this simple, old school injury-based angle with a couple of twists accomplished so much and set up so much. It was a joy to watch. We were taken a bit by surprise with the Usos storming in to attack American Alpha before the bell rang, expecting heel-ish tactics to perhaps come after a loss tonight. And the loss came but also, BAM, right away. It effectively set up a scene where the Usos could have been embarrassed, and it also got the desired job done without wasting time. Then we had a situation where the Usos could have again led us on and showed their change in persona at the special, but we got it immediately instead and it paid off. The manner of taking out Gable’s leg looked and felt severe. A sufficiently big deal was made of this by several ensuing replays and references on commentary. Now we have a whole match between two accomplished tag teams, which really didn’t happen yet, and has a LOT of heat around it, to look forward to at some point down the line.

The Usos also had a very real, unscripted feeling promo afterwards. It wasn’t the most smooth or coherent delivery, but it didn’t need to be, and played nicely off of genuine negative reactions the Usos have gotten from audiences in recent months. Hmm, I wonder what other wrestlers would benefit from a change up in persona due similar circumstances? Renee was also fantastic here, displaying quiet disgust with what she just saw these guys who she had been chummy with just a few weeks ago had done. The Usos would also let loose a tweet referring to the change in character, nicely paralleling the story on the show.

 

The GOOD

Miz VS Crews

This did not appear to be the most exciting booking – a rematch from Summerslam. But it was an OK match that ended cleverly, managing to accomplish a lot. Miz looked competent in his winning way via devious tactics as he took advantage of Dolph Ziggler’s presence, misdirecting Crews and Ziggler toward each other and then Crews into the ring post shoulder post, allowing for him to hit his finisher and pin in the ring. Ziggler was perhaps a bit perturbed by Crews colliding into him for his troubles. And it could tease dissension between Ziggler and Crews, but this was not at all played up – a bit of a ball drop in my opinion. Then again Ziggler was very vocal about Crews’ potential later on Talking Smack – it could be some foreshadowing if Ziggler were to turn heel?

Crews also continues to look great in the ring. He hit the same moonsault spot in the narrow space between the ring and fans out on the floor. He worked the impressiveness of it afterwards, high fiving fans sitting nearby. What is missing for Crews is a win. I fear his character does not look good with loss after loss, and should definitely get some matches against jobbers to bolster him up.

 

Becky Lynch, Nikki Bella, and Naomi VS Natalya, Alexa Bliss, and Carmella

This had a slight air of rehash to it at first, being another Summerslam rematch, but the match really picked up toward the in the end, was solid. There was a lot of fast paced action. Carmella looked like a stronger contender than ever as she tapped Nikki out with her neck lock finisher, The Code of Silence. Alexa Bliss also looked impressive with the punishment she doled out on Nikki. Naomi’s new raver entrance and upbeat style of fighting also suits her well.

I think in the future, mixing things up a bit would be go a long way in keeping the show from getting stale. Instead of all of the women in one big match, how about pairing 2 and 2 for a tag match, and pairing the other 2 women in the division into a singles match. I also understand Becky’s character has a bit more charm than her straight shooting serious persona in NXT, but I would really like the exaggerated expressions outside of matches to be toned down. It is sometimes distracting, and she should be taken seriously for all of her talent.

 

Rhyno and Heath Slater VS The Hype Bros

This was a good match. The balance of comedy to serious action was in the right proportion with all of the wrestlers putting on a match with some suspenseful spots. Rhyno and Heath definitely have momentum going into Backlash where many are pulling for Heath to get a contract.

 

AJ Styles and Dean Ambrose talk some smack

Both guys looked and sounded alright here. Delivery was not wooden, not overly goofy. Styles is the real revelation here, though, continuing to command the mic, slow down the pace or turn up the volume when needed. He exuded confidence. I also like that the brand is not giving away the show by having these guys lock up in some kind of match right before they face each other on a special. This builds far more anticipation.

 

The BAD

 That Wild and Crazy Dean

 There was just a bit of Dean being silly and mock crazy at the beginning of the show; just enough to remind that this is not a good direction for him. The trophy he presented to AJ was a bit silly but had a purpose, and the fire of his verbal attack on AJ Styles was stirring. Please just do away with all unnecessary goofy scenes with Ambrose.

 

The cast of the Smackdown Women’s Division in DRAMA

These promos where one wrestler talks. Then is interrupted by another wrestler, who talks. Then is interrupted by another wrestler, who talks and so on and so forth are terrible. They feel totally disingenuous and are often peppered with the most corny lines of any given show. These segments seem to be reserved for the women on the show more often than not. Let’s do away with this stale form of storytelling.

  

Bray a rockin’ and a ‘ramblin’

I have liked Bray Wyatt’s presence and style of delivery lately, which makes this return to murkier and less compelling presentations a shame. As a rule of thumb too, if a segment is being shown live, with audience reaction included it should be live, with the performer working the crowd. If it is on a screen, then it might as well be prerecorded, and might as well be given some cool edits and effects. Bray sitting back in his rocking chair, talking archaically with (gasp) FOG entering the picture is not rousing any excitement. Bray should be getting more aggressive and energetic in his manner of presentation.

 

The WEIRD

 Randy Orton

 Randy Orton seems to be a hot character, still evoking his uphill battle at Summerslam, where was savaged but came right back to work following the bloody match. Instead of hitting RKO’s out of nowhere he has been trying to keep up with Bray’s odd storytelling mode. And this time he spun a real yarn. It was more confusing than Heyman and Stephanie’s segment on RAW the week before. It would be bad, just plain bad, but it was so….strange, it ended up keeping my attention. Orton’s lashing out on twitter to a critical fan afterwards was priceless.

 

 ——

After the dust settled, Talking Smack turned out to be a solid addition to the show. Daniel Bryan is the real star, really feeling like he is talking genuinely about the things he liked about the talent on the show – I love how he put over Ambrose and AJ Styles as performers, dissing the competition, and making slip ups that show his human side and turn into humorous banter with Renee (‘isn’t it the Hype Brothers??). They advanced the angle of Gable’s injury with Shane updating us on his condition and they discussed how it would play out on the special, giving Talking Smack some exclusives for Network viewers. Shane’s aura felt very awkward, making me cringe as though I was in the room with the three of them, but a little uptightness doesn’t hurt in fact it also lent an air of realness to the way their interactions came off.

 

MPW6 Another Week in Wrestling: RAW September 5, 2016

This week’s RAW had an extremely high level of anticipation attached to it, after the surprising finish involving Triple H’s run in, attacking Reigns and, more shockingly, Rollins, before giving the nod to Kevin Owens to grab the victory and Universal championship. The finish was so left field that it surpassed the level of intrigue of even new roster addition Finn Balor contending for the championship before his untimely injury.

The show was a strange assemblage of strong and weak performances, moments that capitalized brilliantly on the buzz coming off the previous RAW while others never quite fit in with anything else going on, and a feeling that a very exciting potential direction was started upon, but with one step out the door, was left in disappointingly familiar territory.

Let’s get into it.

RAW September 5, 2016

The GOOD

Opening montage of most excellent moments and mentions on social media.

 The opening segment was perhaps a bit of overhype, making the closing moments of the last RAW’s fatal four way the wrestling media event of the century, throwing in quotes from all corners of twitter. But, a bit of hyperbole is what you want to get you psyched up about what you are about to see.

 

Mick and Stephanie and Kevin and Seth

The first two segments were all a good blend of drama and story advancement outside the ring. It was especially good to see Mick Foley out of his usual flannel and something along the lines of more serious attire. He was also given reason for a more fiery delivery, and it gave so much more purpose to his character. Seth’s entrance feels a bit more dynamic with the digitized bursts of static, black, and white and it lending a look of someone fans would want to get behind. Stephanie’s exchange with Foley made sense and created some questions to mull on and Kevin Owens did what he’s been doing great at for some time: play an obnoxious self promoting grumbling heel, who very quickly gave the fans grief even as he acknowledged their cheers of approval for his victory.

 

Mick and Stephanie and Kevin and…Chris

After a commercial break, Mick and Stephanie were still talking. This time about the decision Mick had just made to book Rollins and Owens in a match at the Clash of the Champions special, and not kotow to Stephanie who wanted to suspend Rollins. Some seeds of dissent sown among these two managers makes for fertile storytelling ground down the line, even though the fact that there was more talking after talking sowed the seeds of potential boredom as the show wore on.

It was good to see the alliance between Jericho and Owens continue, as they make a great team. This also veers from the tired formula of heel champ backed by a corrupt authority collective. Jericho delivered some classic instances of humor, such as referring to Owens as the ‘longest reigning Universal Champion.’ Great because it’s true!

 

 Charlotte VS Bayley

 This was a fine match, with Bayley looking great in action. Her win was a nice way to shake things up and since it had Dana arguably botching things to lead to the finish, Charlotte escapes with some credibility as champion still. Bayley started selling an ankle injury that started to feel genuine. I’m beginning to wonder if this will be an increasingly used strategy on WWE’s part to keep us guessing about the reality of what is happening in the ring. It’s not a bad idea, but they had better watch out lest they overplay this hand. It was also a bit sudden for such a big match and result, something that would occur later on too – big moments would not have fully sunk in when suddenly, another big moment, leaving an inability to fully absorb.

 

Don’t Stop Bo-Lieve-ing

It’s good to see Bo Dallas back with a weirdly intense new persona. I think it has more potential than the overly comedic version of the character. And this match also proved that yes, smaller wrestlers can gain a lot from squash matches too. NOTE TO SMACKDOWN LIVE: Let’s try a run of these with Apollo Crews too.

 

Rollins VS Jericho

This was a good match that accomplished a lot. Rollins had some heroic attributes restored by him powering through The Walls of Jericho submission. His acrobatic maneuvers proved to work very well, much better even, as delivered by a fan favorite babyface, such as propelling off the ropes and landing a kick in midair to counter his opponent’s offense.

One note I’d disagree on is that doing the Pedigree is an effective message sent to Triple H, something the commentators, at least Cole, tried to assert. Byron Saxton seemed out of the loop with this. I think a better message would be him using a new finisher, as if to say ‘screw you Hunter, I don’t need this move or anything to do with you anymore.’ I am sure he has plenty of interesting maneuvers in his repertoire to choose from.

 

 Two Gee’s and a Baby

It is good to see a renewed focus on Enzo and Cass as a tag team. Their opening antics were as funny as ever. On paper, the idea of what they did would surely sound corny. A lot of the lines they uttered were also ridiculous but their singular and confident delivery makes their material work so well. I did not mind The Shining Stars winning (by somewhat devious tactics) because it allows for the rematch and Enzo and Cass really do not lose much popularity by taking the occasional loss.

 

Kevin and Sami promo

Despite it being a contradiction of their feud getting a dramatic finish just a few Network specials ago, it is very cool that these two have this built in story involving their previous history wrestling together in Ring Of Honor and on the indie scene in general. It makes for great reality based promos like this one. Still for this to be returned to so soon after making a point of them being finished feuding for a while is strange. There was also something a bit wooden about the delivery on Zayn’s part, like he was given a bunch of lines to remember. These two should be left to improvise.

 

The BAD

Sheamus VS Cesaro: Best of 37

 This was actually fine as far as ideas go. Instead of the expected back and forth, Cesaro is way down in wins and needs three victories in a row to be back in the running. And sure he will get them. Unfortunately, this idea was lost on a dead crowd and it’s hard to blame them because very little was done to get them enthused. In cases where wrestlers like Cesaro and Sheamus are failing to get a reaction, I am beginning to think it should call for INSTANT TWEAKS. Not major changes, of course not, but just an attempt at a little something in their presentation to wake the audience up a bit.

 

Guns and Gallows and Gramps and Groans

Anderson and Gallows have a reputation for being funny, bantering with each other on their homespun podcast that once was featured on the MLW network and injecting some sneaky humor into their work in NJPW. But the ratio of mean ass kickers to humor should be 70 percent of the former and 30 percent of the latter. Or thereabouts. This one liner based humor revolving around an old version of The New Day is not it. Maybe it would have worked if they came out and then Gallows and Anderson simply beat them up, but no enter The New Day. The New Day has become known for creative humorous segments that they lead, not reacting to the material of others. It feels like Enzo and Cass are at where The New Day was, and now The New Day is languishing. We need a refresher on their in-ring work, and I think it would really help for them to be split off into a tag team and singles scenario. Then, coming back together for promos maybe,

 

Nia Jax and Alicia Fox in the WWE Production MEAN GIRLS

This was a chance to do some simple heating up of Nia Jax’s character, which is much needed, that came off terrible and was upsetting for how badly it was blown. Some very awkward wording set things moving in the right direction from the start, with Nia claiming ‘reality shows’ don’t involve real repercussions…OK…and Fox replying that she knows this isn’t reality. Hmm.

Fox knocking a box into Nia made the monster’s reaction seem timid in comparison, and then Fox started screaming melodramatically. This did not make Jax look intimidating. Instead it came off as one of those terrible fake real segments, the sort they claimed this wasn’t. Unprofessional was the word that came to mind.

 

The WEIRD

Sasha Banks (not a) retirement speech

Perfect for the weird category because this caused something of a ‘wha…?’ reaction, but overall it was good. Good because it had me, and I presume many others going, and even if there is something a little bit cheap about playing on audiences’ concern, it was compelling. Sasha Banks did an excellent job commanding the audience. Dana coming out to take advantage of the injury – while it did quickly restore the fourth wall of the story for savvy fans – was nicely played dastardly heel stuff. And Sasha looked cool as can be and full of finesse turning the situation with the ‘I’m fine’ reveal.

It was a cool moment, but the more you think about it, the harder it is to stand by it. How did it fit in with the rest of the show? It was a bit awkward after Bayley had just beaten Charlotte earlier and asserted her claim to a title shot. And WHY would Sasha swerve her fans and pretend to be injured, thus pulling one over on… us? At best you could make the case she was hoping to draw Charlotte and/or Dana in so she could hit them with that surprise announcement and Bank Statement. But that is a stretch. I guess you could also just say she knows the power of a ‘moment’ and worked it for that reason alone. She definitely established presence. She came off as a power player. And, since she mentioned the name of the designer on Instagram, I will mention that her wardrobe fit her figure very nicely.

 

Zayn and Owens and Reigns

Not that weird, just…a bit of a waste and some very familiar wasted potential? Owens VS Zayn was fine, and did the job of making Kevin the dominant one, which I guess he needs to be for now. Having just come off their amazing match at Payback a few months ago AND off the emotional Sasha Banks segment, it was hard to concentrate on this. I think on the positive front, we can look forward to a break between these two happening now, with Sami having reason to turn away, dejected, in need of doing some soul searching, to come back and challenge Owens later down the line in a well promoted match.

Then there is the appearance of Roman Reigns. I don’t want to talk about this because it is getting ridiculous, the number of times an opportunity to turn Reigns to heel mode, which would both a) make for a great moment and b) make so much more sense for the way he presents himself and the way the audience reacts to him. He could’ve shocked many by coming down to the ring, attacking the all around good guy Sami Zayn and setting up an interesting match for Clash of Champions between them.

 

That’s all.

 

The WHAT IF…

I liked a lot about this RAW if not all, and I love the fact that Kevin Owens is champion, and looking strong in the role. I can’t help but wonder about things going differently…Triple H on this show – the lack of him being there to explain his actions did feel a bit strange – championing Owens, setting up a rift between Owens, representing a rebel figure along the lines of Daniel Bryan, CM Punk taking on the figure backed by management in Seth Rollins. Could have been a bit more exciting? Things could be moving in interesting directions though. Will stay the course.

 

MPW 5 Another Week in Wrestling: TNA IMPACTSeptember 1, 2016

Ok I have sipped the Kool Aid, eaves dropped on the gospel and decided to watch TNA. Be forewarned I generally do not like TNA nor see do I deem anyone’s claim of its superiority or even comparability to WWE programming to be sane or rationale EXCEPT when WWE is at its worst. Which does happen plenty these days.

Here are some notes from this week’s episode, which I will note was much better than episodes I have seen in the past, most notably the week RIGHT BEFORE, which I thought was an atrocious train wreck. Here are some things that stood out with references to the previous week where relevant.

 

TNA

The GOOD

X Division match

Here I should note the marked difference in the presentation of the entire division from 1 week to the next. LAST WEEK: Everyone in the division is in the ring in a pseudo talk show segment run by Eli Drake, in which he channels his best Ken Anderson loud mouthed persona and the catch phrase ‘Yeah, Dummy’ (you can imagine who felt like the dummy allowing this continue to play on the television he was staring at…) He makes all of them look like a chump and then they take turns getting in one-liners and still looking like chumps and then someone does a Hilo to everyone on the outside of the ring. The guy who looked the least like a dummy, and not by a big margin, was Eli Drake, who I only this week realized is NOT IN the X-Division.

This week was an actual match and it was fun and exciting. There were plenty of inventive spots and they didn’t seem all that extraneous. The guys wrestling under the somewhat baffling label of the Helms Dynasty – one of them is Trevor Lee – did some excellent moves. Early in the match Trevor Lee hit an amazing looking bicycle kick from the ring apron to a guy on the floor, which had him spinning a near 360 degrees. Victory was literally snatched from the Dynasty when Zima Ion leapt impressively through the air to grab the belt. Intrigue over possible match ups in the division was left intact.

 

Glaring Galloway

Again I should back up to last week where a pre-taped segment EC3 and Drew Galloway was thrown to throughout the show, at the top of a luxury building, everyone wearing white suits , throwing back drinks, like high rollers or a gangster and cop with a history, having one last civil talk for old times sake before ripping each other to shreds in a conflict over irreparable differences. It ended with…Galloway tossing EC3 into a pool. Hah a lighthearted rib. But then…swerve! Galloway went psycho but not on EC3….we’ll get there later. Anyway this sucked, all the more so for it trying to come off as cool.

Now we have simply, Galloway cutting a taped promo with some appropriately ominous lighting and some psychotic heel talk. He is MUCH better as a heel. I approve this direction and the less hokey way of delivering it.

 

Delete, Repeat, Delete

 This week’s segment with Broken Matt Hardy and Brother Nero and their rivals in Decay was excellent, off kilter humor. I did not take to the Final Deletion fervor right away but it’s growing on me. To some extent. Certainly not last week.

To review, in last week’s mostly IN RING scene, Jeff was wearing a vomit inducing concoction of oily make up and freakish contact lenses, and working a confusing character that is a) subservient to Broken Matt, but B) still trying to get his crowd pleasing showiness over. He also wrestled a LONG clunky match against Abyss who, I’m sorry I know has been a reliable hitter for TNA and has some creativity but could best be described here as wrestling oafishly. Everyone was YELLING. Matt bit Crazy Steve’s ear in a segment filled with fake blood, which in a week following a lot of the real stuff, was insulting to the intelligence in its goofiness. Not good.

This week, there was a lot of humor. We are on the Hardy estate. The line ‘now it’s Rosemary;s Baby’ was uttered by Crazy Steve and there was awareness of how on the nose a reference it was and it WAS funny. Hardy using Face Time was funny. Hardy treating the drone, Vangaurd 1, as his sentient right hand man was funny. Senor Benjamin was funny. Hardy’s psycho wife going after Rosemary on the Hardy estate with a katana blade was funny. Yes, this was weird and funny, and was carried by the stronger performers of this whole off kilter angle.

 

Michael Bennet’s ring entrance

with Maria, was appropriately vivid. His ring attire and entrance music stands out, unlike what is used for most of the wrestlers.

 

The BAD

Aaron Rex is here…SILENCE! Wait, ok how could we get a little less silence…

I have not been too thrilled about the way Aaron Rex has been presented since making a somewhat surprising return to the ring, by way of signing with TNA, after the final deletion(?) of beloved WWE character Damien Sandow. And after this week I am out and out critical.

Last week, Aaron played the role of special guest referee and played it right down the middle and was beaten down by Galloway for his troubles. This whole deal did not sit well with me because a) the beat down did look all that devastating, especially in the light of other beat downs in other organizations in recent angles and b) throughout the match, Rex could’ve been ANYONE in a drab pair of pants and shirt – not even a classy black and white striped shirt to my memory. It all begged the question, WHY would an exciting get from a big competing company decide the way to make an impact would be relegate himself to a refereeing role??

In this next week, after Galloway did all the heavy lifting in a verbal confrontation with the also problematic Billy Corgan as GM, Rex ran out to get a little payback, wearing slacks, a plain blue shirt, and looking rather shabby and characterless. This is NOT how you present someone or allow someone to present himself when trying to take an audience by storm. Perhaps big things await but this certainly isn’t setting the table for them.

 

It’s Bayley! Oh wait, it’s just Allie.

OK that may be an unfair comparison, the characters aren’t THAT similar. But I do find it a bit suspect that a bright bubbly and more than a little naïve female character is getting a spotlight on TNA programming. And in case you didn’t watch NXT back when Bayley first started, YES she did begin as a character who was not all that good at wrestling.

Nevertheless, taking this angle as it is, let’s go back to the previous week where there is a gauntlet, every woman for herself, tornado whatever match where the woman’s championship is on the line. Whip cracker Billy Corgan has decided to punish all involved in a previous altercation by putting them in the match, thus giving them a shot at becoming new women’s champion. You mean general manager you, Billy. People trip over each other, slip, spin around confusedly, and we end up with an ACCIDENTAL new champion in Maria’s personal assitent, ALLIE.

OK, here I admit a bias which may make me unfit to assess this because I do not like angles where competent wrestlers play characters who cannot wrestle, but stumble into victories and, eventually, they are probably going to ‘learn’ how to wrestle. For those that like this kind of programming, this might’ve been the greatest angle of the year. In this day and age, I find it impossible to suspend your disbelief, making it another time TNA television is insulting to the intelligence. The match in which it happened, just like the X Division segment from the previous week, made all the other women wrestlers involve look like hapless idiots.

Move on to the next show at least the direction is solid, with Maria commanding her subservient personal assistant to hand over the title. Here, a talented performer in Maria, who has in other promotions as well been playing a somewhat competent wrestler but mainly an outside the ring scheme, grabbed power by trickery, not the idiocy of others. She will now probably have a program against Allie who will miraculously learn to wrestle! Or they will much about like idiots, a far cry from the athleticism women are display in NXT and WWE proper, because – BREATH OF FRESH AIR – they are being taken more seriously.

Now even if the non wrestling wrestler act is your bag, there are other problems with the concept of Allie. Her act is she has a very annoying voice. And she uses it. A lot. Very loudly. This is not thought provoking or clever stuff, it is just a loud buzzing that is impossible to tune out. Wrestling audiences deserve and should demand better.

 

Walk softly, carry a big…lead pipe.

 Moose’s turning was fine. His character does not fit that of someone wielding a pipe. That looked wildly out of place.

 

Billy Corgan is not cool.

At best he carries himself with an out of touch Millionaire’s aloofness. Think Willy Wonka. Or the warden on Super Jail. It might wrap around to somehow make him cool in a detached ironic sort of way. Otherwise, much like Stephanie McMahon on RAW, he drew so much natural heel heat while trying to cut a baby face promo, it was painful.

 

Most of the music… 

Is very dull and unremarkable and uh, doesn’t Billy have some connections? The use of Marilyn Manson for The Decay is appropriate. But if you look at how much music figures into NXT’s success and how limp music is on most of TNA, particularly for X-Division guys who are not Zima Ion, and even his music wasn’t that great. Get on it Billy. And the same goes for the look of most of the wrestlers. Drab and colorless.

 

The WEIRD

Ultimate X 

Yes this match went in the good category but it is really pretty convoluted and awkward. I know X-Division is the name most, or all TNA fans and sympathizers put out there as their high point, but matches with bizarrely gimmicked ring accessories really are not cutting it quality-wise compared to NJPW, ROH, NXT… Look at the Cruiser Weight Classic. Put wrestlers in a ring. They wrestle. Amazing results. Let’s get back to that. Keep the title, lose the weird half wrestling match, half zip line challenge.

 

One more thing to consider…

The Broken Matt Hardy program soared when it was mostly pretaped segments, matches even. In the middle of a wrestling ring in front of an audience it was rough stuff at best. Can it thrive or help TNA’s business if it doesn’t work in a live setting?

Mondo Pro Wrestling 2 RAW 8/29/16

 

RAW went from a whole lot of nothing to say to a whole lot of something to say in a matter of minutes with its shocking, satisfying and question-filled conclusion.

Before we get to there, a couple of points along the way.

It was fun watching Bayley and The New Day team up against Anderson and Gallows and Dana Brook. It was mainly nice to see a fresh combination of wrestlers interacting with each other. Bayley was clearly having fun and that was carrying right over to the audience. Her final transition from an armbar into her Bayley To Belly suplex finisher looked great. Dana also continues to display entertaining heel chops with her constant verbal battering of opponents. I am afraid that in the current pattern she will be diminished as just a jobber to whoever is gunning for Charlotte. RAW should make an effort to utilize more wrestlers in the women’s division and play up some of Dana’s strengths.

It is usually a delight to see Paul Heyman do just about anything but the segment with Stephanie McMahon was just utter confusion. They crisscrossed so many points, leaving none of them clear. On one hand we think Steph issued a 500 dollar fan as lip service to the idea Lesnar should be punished, yet isn’t taking it seriously and doesn’t care about what happened to Shane. This would make sense and lead to intrigue down the line. But instead of being appreciative, Heyman comes out and mocks her. Why? Shouldn’t they be on the same page? Then Stephanie tries to verbally castrate Paul and demand a genuine apology. Why? It seemed she didn’t care about Brock’s recklnessness. Then Heyman does apologize. Then he explains why Stephanie is in a tough spot with the company. Then he smirks and Stephanie storms off. Yeah. I couldn’t make it more confusing if I tried.

While some ambiguity is good, the creative direction and nature of characters like Stephanie need to be decided on and more clearly defined. It is like they don’t know what she is; how could we? It is also very difficult for her to come off as a bay face. She has a naturally abrasive way of speaking, gathering lots of push back from fans. Which is a good thing. If that’s what is intended. But to hear her talk of women’s revolution and say it in such a way that you want to boo her every word, it’s not gelling together.

In a far simpler bit of business to assess, Braun Strowman continues to look strong by knocking out unknown jobbers. This is not something to start whining about because it is repetitive. It is like a train slowly picking up momentum and set to hit a peak in due time. For now, its best to enjoy watching Strowman’s confidence grow and moves get more polished.

There is nothing more to speak of than the extremely topical main event, mainly so for its final minutes and result: Kevin Owen our new Universal Champion with a significant assist from Triple H who delivered a Pedigree both Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins. This was great in many ways.

First it shows a continued commitment to moving in the direction of pushing new and different talent on the roster by not going with one of the expected and already tested candidates of Reigns or Rollins. It also can’t help but trigger connections to real aspects of the landscape – again the blurring is usually a good thing – you have Triple H coming out and giving the nod to someone who very much represents an NXT success story in Kevin Owens, and we all know how proud Triple H is of his project.

This potentially sets a new diagram of conflicts. Perhaps we will see Triple H continue to back talent from NXT regardless of heel or face alignment while Rollins and Reigns try to counteract. Perhaps Reigns and Rollins form a begrudging alliance with Stephanie, or maybe they will stand united against management. A concern I’ve seen expressed is that of Owens becoming a relatively powerless pawn of an established Authority. It could happen but I don’t get this in my read. If anything, lines seem drawn to put Hunter and Stephanie/Foley at odds with each other. This would be far more interesting, as the Authority as an active presence has long seemed diminished. Triple H had tremendous difficulty getting heat when he went against Reigns at Wrestlemania and would appear as a far more credible advocate of the newer generation of wrestlers coming up the ranks.

Another gripe, which echoes years and years of the same sentiment, was that Owens did not look strong by getting the pin after Triple H did all the work, essentially making Triple H the star. It’s a point I understand but was not bothered by in this instance. Some counters. First in this instance, Triple H is the star compared to Owens. I will be glad to see that reversed and there is plenty of time starting next week for Owens to shine. Second WWE is still very much about STORY, and Triple H interfering and screwing over Rollins and upsetting Stephanie and Foley makes for very good story points. OK, Owens could have hit his powerbomb finisher before pinning Rollins but that could have also been overkill to end a very long and busy match.

The future is buzzing with possibilities now that KO is on top. Lets give them a chance to develop.

 

 

 

Mondo Pro Wrestling 1

It has been a crazy week of wrestling, arguably the most eventful newsworthy of the year? It has prompted me to make sense of it. Some of it. The it that I have seen. And only a little of that. There is way too much to actually get into every detail. Not sure what to think? Don’t worry, I’ll tell you in this ‘not be the latest, but simply the greatest’ analysis and projectionsis from an outsider who does not know enough nor is not interested in being considered an expert. Maybe from here we will do this on a regular weekly basis but those are some famous last words in these parts. And one more thing, GIFs are stupid.

Summer Slam

I have been thinking about why the match between Finn Balor and Seth Rollins was not so memorable and far from match of the year or match of the weekend. Leaving everything injury related completely aside. I rewatched it and found the match started in what seemed like a race to get things done. There was no build in tension, no circling one another, sizing one another up, trying to intimidate each other – the things you would expect from a real sports combat competition and what a simulated one should absolutely contain. There is something to be said for a sudden flair up – two combatants running at each other and clubbing away or someone rushing in and getting a sudden advantage. But it wasn’t like that; from the moment Finn landed the first drop kick it simply seemed like a rush. Some speculation that perhaps this was a case of main stage jitters on the part of Finn, and Rollins not being quite seasoned enough to help matters? Setting the stage for a heated, rage-fueled competition is of the utmost importance.

The outpouring of reactions brought on by Brock Lesnar vs Randy Orton showed something was done right. Glimpsing online reactions one gets a sense of extreme opinions, people thinking they knew what was what (except you take 5 any people and you get any of 5 different interpretations) and you get reactions to Brock that suggest a lot of unease, a lot of anger, or HEAT, beyond that of storyline, which is in fact good heat to get. Let’s not forget that wrestling is at its best when it blurs the line between the staged and the real. Putting my feelings about the use of actual brute force and level of risk involved, it was an intense confrontation. What probably left many people feeling underwhelmed was the sudden finish after a show that became increasingly exhausting as time wore on. The card definitely needed editing. It is also a bit problematic that this was the main event and we are not left with any direction from here when it comes to Brock Lesnar. We are not left seeing him as a title contender as he has been in the direction of left field since he started feuding again with Undertaker. It just left people with as much confusion as it did any temporary rush of adrenaline.

Raw? Medium, well…

Not much to say about RAW, which was in scramble mode after plans suddenly shifted due to the new and first ever Universal Champion to be crowned, Finn Balor, was declared injured. They did what they had to do, stripping him of the title. But I will suggest a perfectly good opportunity to generate some of that stuff they call HEAT was squandered by not having a face off between Finn and Rollins. They could have blurred that line between reality and show, and made this into a feud with some stakes beyond the belt, something it was lacking from the beginning.

 

The introduction of Bayley was something many were looking forward to after her apparent send off at NXT Takeover Brooklyn last weekend. What took place was OK, but it seemed a few tweeks could have made it so much more exciting. General Manager Mick Foley came out to have an exchange with Charlotte and then announce Bayley. The only reasons for this I could see is 1) kill time (which RAW seems to have way too much of and 2) have a familiar face introduce a potential newcomer to the wider RAW audience.

I think the impact could have been far greater if Bayley just took to the ring suddenly, with her music ringing out as Charlotte seemed all but completely triumphant in her standing. And again it would have been the perfect time for some reality tinged trash talk between WRESTLERS, no need for the go between of a mild mannered. Charlotte could have asked Bayley how she could dare think she has a shot at the title after just LOSING to Asuka. Bayley could have retorted that she knows someone she HAS beaten and that is Charlotte herself. All would have been valid points, would have given those unfamiliar with their NXT activity the background they needed, and built up a solid confrontation – WRESTLER to WRESTLER.

The Dudleys send off seemed ok though it hit from out of nowhere, with many expecting more to it. Perhaps negotiations between the tag team and the company were truly up in the air til this point. Being laid out by Anderson and Gallows, though, actually highlighted what a great program that could be. In these two teams you have some forces of destruction with plenty of credibility: on the one hand this new and exciting team with the allure of having a cult following in their previous incarnation, plus the legitmacy of working the rigorous style associated with Japan and NJPW. In the other, a team with a long history including the craziness of tables and ladders from their ECW days. While the Dudleys have been on the back burner, a sudden changeup could shake off some of the dust that seems to have fallen on them. Hopefully the value of such a feud will wake some folks up and business can be done to keep them around a bit longer, at the least, to have a run against Guns and Gallows.

SMACKDOWN

Smackdown had a solid show that seems to be upstaging RAW. It is shorter, more manageable, and seems to be having quite a lot more fun.

American Alpha had a great match with Breezango. I think they should tone down the silliness with the latter. And it is worth noting that American Alpha’s music was tweaked just enough to be terrible. When it ain’t broke don’t fix it! And considering the string of smash hits NCT’s music team has had there is no reason to think there catchy intro music from NXT needed a change.

There was a lighthearted and knowingly naïve charm to the segment between Heath Slater and Rhyno, when Rhyno offered to team up with the guy he had knocked out of a contract, and help him get on the roster (and pay for an aboveground pool!)

I think they should find a way to win. Slater is obviously winning the crowd over and the premise of the contract slipping away from him at every turn is getting long in the tooth.

As nicely poetic as these two teaming up is, did it occur to anyone that a perfect partner for Slater would be KANE? I don’t know what his exact status is but I believe he is officially signed to SMACKDOWN. You would have the redhead and the big red machine. But let’s not discount this just yet. Perhaps this could be the blueprints for a fun 3 man act. In Rhyno and Kane you have two wrestlers with genuine political experience. Slater could be…Slater. The Constituency perhaps?

Bray had an excellent presence when he confronted Randy Orton. I am a bit disappointed he is still being positioned as a heel at this point. I noticed Bray started tagging his twitter activity with a phrase DOWNWITHTHEMACHINES. It sounds like the making of rebellious crowd favorite fare. Hopefully he looks strong against Orton and changes lie in wait for Wyatt.

 

MC 2.2 Shades of Sion Sono at Japan Cuts 10th Anniversary

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Love & Peace © 2015 “Love & Peace” Film Partners

Part of this year’s 10th Anniversary Japan Cuts festival of Japanese film is a mini focus on outspoken rabble-rouser Sion Sono. It’s a fitting addition to a landmark edition of the festival, which has shown numerous films by the prolific director whose works have jarred, delighted, and flabbergasted their audiences for the past several years. It also jels perfectly with the festival’s unstated theme of radicals and rascally revolutionaries, running through both its narrative and nonfiction selections. Sono’s uncompromising attitude and artistic work puts him right at home in this group.

Three films may not seem sufficient to give him his due. But considering this isn’t a full on retrospective (the last to occur in New York was at the Museum of Design in 2011), the trio of works being shown on July 16 – 2 of his recent films plus a documentary made about him, along with an appearance by Sono himself, do form an elegant statement.

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© 2016「園子温という生きもの」製作委員会ࠖ © 2016 “The Sion Sono” Film Partners

THE SION SONO (directed by Arata Oshima) takes an insightful look at the philosophies and working process of the man, mainly by spending time with him and letting him speak – something he does not mind doing at all. Perspective can also be gleaned by talks with those who have worked closely with him. While Sono’s contemptuous attitude toward widely accepted commercial films and critics are well known but amusing to see unfold – we all like someone who names names – real illumination comes in the opening sequence of the film wherein Sono prowls through his studio filled with paintings and sets to work on some of them while deconstructing notions of good and bad. It’s a multilayered act, as the artist appears to reacquaint himself with his work in this medium, engage in the process while discussing it.

The intensity of feelings burning in and around his brought to the surface, not only in hearing from the director himself, but emotional conversations held with Megumi Kagurazaka his wife and an actress that has figured prominently into many key roles in his films, including WHISPERING STARS. She will also appear in person for its screening on the 16th.

Amusing testimonials on Sono’s singular quirks and compulsions come from Fumi Nikaido and Shota Sometani, who speak of their work on Sono’s critically acclaimed HIMIZU. And lest one has been taken primarily with Sono’s ‘bad boy’ image, there is a decided charm to be found in a glimpse of Sono’s earliest activity, which holds uncanny earnest. A very early journal of movie going with collage elements and reviews show signs of a connoisseur and voice of remarkable wit in the making.

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The Whispering Star © SION PRODUCTION

THE WHISPERING STAR is made all the more interesting for the insight we may gain from the documentary, which features footage from the planning stages of this stark exploration of the science fiction genre. There is not much to speak of plot, which finds an android with extremely human qualities (Kagurazaka) as an intergalactic courier in the wake of civilizational collapse. The film is shot in a mesmerizing monochrome.   Here Kaguraka’s subtly expressive voyager, taking in this new world around her with understated wonderment and consternation, is also entrancing against the overall static unfolding of events.

These are accompanied by LOVE AND PEACE. Released in 2015, it is too early to call it one of his classics, but by all rights this will be one. It is essential viewing, not only for Sono fans but anyone with an interest in Japanese cinema. But in terms of the director, it prominently features so many hallmarks of that have distinguished his work, with a notable absence of lurid violence or sex. There is what I’ve come to refer to as a ‘psychodramatic’ style that Sono employs, wherein personal trauma is magnified by key characters to the point of feeling like a large scale devastation. Music turned way up in the mix pulses and pounds, extreme closeups turn bystanders and casual tormentors alike into grotesque monsters and capture every detail of the actor, who has apparently been told to exaggerate mannerisms to cartoonish proportions, and regular scenery is augmented by vibrant colors. All the while scenes are sped through quickly, highlighting only those that emphasize the character’s plight.

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Love & Peace © 2015 “Love & Peace” Film Partners

This only describes the first 10 minutes or so of LOVE AND PEACE, during which a fumbling menial worker at the offices of a recording studio dreams of rock stardom and pines after a subdued colleague (Kumiko Aso) while serving as the punchline of the office jokes. But with a bit fantasy and Sono’s panache for plot progressions both imaginatively far fetched and compelling, his fate takes a turn for the better. It is a rise and rise story that ends up a unique twist on the usual convention of exploding egos leading to an inevitable fall.

The incorporation of diverse musical pieces that are pitch perfect fits is another attribute of Sono’s films in peak form and here it occurs both within and without the story. Aside from wonderfully catchy rock anthems that our down on his luck protagonist begins to magically produce, background music provides numerous callbacks to previous films. Viewers of the director’s numerous works are rewarded in spades, with a rousing callback to the infectious jingle that rang throughout WHY DON’T YOU GO PLAY IN HELL.

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Love & Peace © 2015 “Love & Peace” Film Partners

While the story has feel good elements, it is far from slight. Throughout the movie, scenes that may seem like background noise show Japanese youth with a general lack of awareness about the atom bomb’s treacherous role in the country’s history. Names are also used to show misunderstandings or perhaps a repurposing of history’s scars. Then there is Sono’s unprecedented incorporation of elements straight out of Western imports like Toy Story, a representation of Disney and Pixar both. When this comes to clash with mass destruction ala quintessentially Japanese kaiju movies, it is as though the collective Japanese self identity and its subjection to Western influences is being exploded onto a moving canvas. Who wins may come as a surprise. It is heady thought provoking stuff works on the mind while the personal story of sad sack turned star stirs the emotions.

For tickets and information on these and other films in the JAPAN CUTS lineup, visit the Japan Society website.

MC 2 JAPAN CUTS Deeper Into Movies

Love and peace

This is a banner year for the annual JAPAN CUTS film festival, which looks to celebrate its tenth anniversary this summer, and marks its second edition as a fully independent entity. We can see it here continuing to redefine itself with the continued push into new directions – documentary films are even more prominent, and workshops on experimental film continue to happen, yet are joined by a collection of 30 minute movies by new artists that will run continuously in a room that all can visit. Not only is its programming more expansive, but there is a marked focus on serious films. Most of the slate is grounded in reality, its best films often grounded dramas, with fantastical elements far less prominent than in previous years and light, airy entertainment little to be seen. The landscape is notably characterized by voices decrying injustice and seeking to illuminate, even come to grips with terms with challenging circumstances. The world-weariness of the fest may very well be a reflection of the frustrations and concerns of a current generation of filmmakers, as well as the elder representatives of Japan’s film scene returning, perhaps reminded by current political climates of situations they rallied against once before.

The cast of characters in this year’s onscreen world looks like a rogue’s gallery of freedom fighters, revolutionaries, teachers going against the grain, as well as those trapped in the margins of a society turning its back on those who are different or lack the economic resources to get by. Those characters reel in psychic pain or strike out in the form of drug dealers or those who have turned to petty crime to support their artistic endeavors. The stories of those who have been spurned by the world and lash out in turn are as compelling as those who are striving to save it.

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A CAPELLA looks at students in the throes of the anti war movement of the 70s who meet at a smoky café to discuss their activity and favorite art. Its female lead played by Riko Narumi is striking as both a fiery and ruminative girl on the verge of adulthood. While there is a palpable backdrop of activism, the story zooms in on the relationships she and her peers forge, filled with betrayal and sexual frankness. The characters here often feel like they are just playing at being revolutionaries and this is very much the point, as we see these far too young individuals struggling to be leaders in a fight against apparent oppression yet find love, belonging as their ids rage during the tumultuous time. The tone of the film and Narumi’s performance will linger on the brain days after viewing.

Kako

KAKO: MY SULLEN past is a more contemporary tale that sees radicalism as the background of a tale of growing up and facing a mysterious figure from the past. The narrative brims with mystery as Kako (Fumi Nikaido), a scornful sardonic student’s world is disrupted by the return of a woman in her family named Mikiko (Kyoko Koizumi). There is a tension as strange disappearances are spoken of and reported on in the news and the behavior of those around them become strange. The sparring of accomplished leads from different generations in Kikaido and Koizumi is exhilarating.

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THE ARTIST OF FASTING comes from Masao Adachi, a director with years of experience, and feels very much like an artifact harkening back several generations yet comes to us from 2015. It shows a man who dedicates himself to fasting for 40 days in hopes of finding enlightenment, who does so in the unglamorous street of a shopping arcade. A circus of media frenzy, religious and political groups, and radical organizations erupts around him in a decidedly dark and unhinging viewing experience.

A male elementary school teacher (played by Kenga Kora) is one of the protagonists in BEING GOOD, which lays bare the disconnect among adults over raising children. Abuse at home and the trail it brings into the classroom is shown with a matter of fact cataloguing of gripping real life horror. Steadily and almost unnoticeably at first, characters build the resolve to follow their convictions to bring about the change that they can.

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Not so new to the realm of Japanese film are examinations of interpersonal relationships, a source of endless wonder in a society still marked by gender inequality and strict rules of conduct. BITTER HONEY navigates a relationship between male and female, artist and muse in a tale that incorporates playful magical elements. While it is mostly flirty and perplexing, the shifting tones land on an explosive exchange between writer and muse (Fumi Nikaido in another mesmerizing performance) that gets to the core of struggles over desires for commitment and freedom.

The best moments of THE ACTOR are also its bookends, in which an actor who is respected, seasoned yet far removed from the spotlight has an encounter tinged with romance with a bartender he meets in a small town he stops at for work. In these brief but patiently paced exchanges, The possibility of the two falling in love is thrown up against real life problems of family situation and the pursuit of one’s individual goals, and it quickens the pulse to see.

MOHICAN COMES HOME and THE PROJECTS are noisy dramas with plenty of comedic relief that aim at families veering off from the traditional notion of conventional. The returning MOHICAN sees his dreams of rock stardom dashed early on but his visit to his family finds him facing more universal plights such as a family illness. The film shows how devastating it can be while also finding unique ways to point out the little everyday moments of heroism among us. THE PROJECTS shows paranoia run rampant in a housing development populated by the elderly and those in less secure financial situations. The squabbling among tenants as they gossip over what the mysterious activity of an older couple who has recently moved in, and is dealing with their own tragic loss, is filled with unrestrained hilarity. The verbal exchanges both within and around the couple take from and center stage, even more compelling than the off kilter fantastical element that makes it ways into the story.

Maneuvering around this year’s festival may present a challenge. The schedule is not set at so much of a leisurely pace as past years, but comprises 10 days densely packed with films and talks. Within is a great variety of focuses. A new focus looking back to films of the past looks at less widely known yet important works that dealt in dark matter. Here there is Sogo Ishii’s BURST CITY with similar industrial shades as TETSUO: THE IRON MAN and a punk intensity running throughout. A section of documentaries offers an early look at FAKE, whose controversial subject Mamoru Samuragochi was both acknowledged as a musical genius and discredited in turn.

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Here and in other cases across the diverse lineup, the participation of guests working on both sides of the camera will create immediate dialogue between creator and audience. The troubling narrative LOWLIFE LOVE, whose central figure is a driven independent filmmaker prone to pushing around students and blurring lines between professional and sexual relationships with his crew, will no doubt generate questions about whether parallels exist between character and real life director Eiji Uchida. It is a dizzying array of guests, both young upstars and established figures the likes of which include director Mipo O who masterfully helmed last year’s CUTS highlight THE LIGHT SHINES ONLY THERE and this year’s BEING GOOD, actor/artist Lily Franky and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Sono Sion, director of many a festival favorite whose works have been celebrated in previous editions of JAPAN CUTS and other festivals, will also be on hand as he is given a brief multidimensional focus. Documentary THE SION SONO gives vital insight into the filmmaker’s guiding principles, formative years, and creative process going into a few recent films, one of which, WHISPERING STARS will also be shown. It is destined to be one of the director’s more esoteric experiments with a decidedly entrancing black and white aesthetic but little narrative substance to carry the stark vision of science fiction. The day long focus is balanced out by the director’s recent hit LOVE AND PEACE, which arguably puts the best of Sono on display including an intricate plot, frenetic music both within and outside of the story, and themes that find a collective Japan wrestling with its own identity. The only signature element missing is gore, making the film more accessible yet leaving just as much of a mark.

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While the action on screen is mostly somber, a burst of fantasy and perhaps a bit of optimism comes through in a collection of short experimental animated films culled from the works of new artists. Yet there is still a look to the past. Think of trippy psychedelic works such as PLANET SUAVAGE and even the recently unearthed BELLA DONNA as stylistic influences. TENSAI BANPAKU is a fast moving swirl of bright color patterns that playfully manipulates shapes and lines while MASTER BLASTER is a slinky roughly drawn cycle of female figures moving into and out of each other with uninhibited abandon, set to a jazzy score recalling the ‘70s. Another work, LAND walks a deft line between that surreal aesthetic and more precise renderings brought about by digital technology.

While grim portents run throughout this year’s movies, JAPAN CUTS has intensified its vision and secured itself a promising future as an essential survey of Japanese film. For more information and tickets about screenings and events, visit JAPAN SOCIETY website.

 

MC 1.5: HEART ATTACK aka FREELANCE @ NYAFF ’16

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One of this year’s two Thai imports on the New York Asian Film Festival slate has a very special something with potential to be a runaway audience favorite. The modern-feeling HEART ATTACK is clever, with razor sharp witty dialogue (if any nuance was lost in translation then the original Thai script must be a sheer brilliant act of word play), yet emotionally moving to such a degree that hearts will ache for its young crestfallen characters.

At its center is Yoon, a hopelessly withdrawn workaholic firmly set in a realm of freelance graphic designers. He represents a figure of legendary status among his peers. He narrates his journey, at first extolling the virtues of going days without sleep, and along the way decrying unnecessary obstacles to his career path such as a diet varied beyond his favorite 7-11 shrimp dumplings or shopping for clothes (his wardrobe is a consistent rotation of 90s grunge band t-shirts.   If played straight such a lifestyle could cause awe and consternation, but Yoon emits a playful, wide-eyed charm as he stubbornly holds fast to his folly.

With nothing impeding Yoon’s single-minded commitment to completing jobs, his body finally revolts by producing pock marks at an increasingly alarming rate. Doctor visits would appear to be futile in bringing about any positive change save for a fortuitous public clinic pairing with a little-experienced doctor who Yoon finds attractive.

The unexpected promise of human interaction, perhaps even romance, with a compatible peer gives Yoon reason to change but this self-preserving drive is still at odds with his hardwired habits. Which force will prevail becomes a major question of the narrative. Humanity surfaces in all kinds of disarming and amusing ways as the clever protagonist struggles to break away from what he has always done, even as he realizes it is what is best.

The telling of Yoon’s tale is one of the things that makes this film stand out. It moves quickly, hits an even balance of the main character’s lighthearted reproachful behavior and more serious heartbreaking failures to connect. Different energetic background music clues you to the mode of each scene, but also playfully stops midway to show an awareness that a subtle manipulation is taking place. One cannot help but notice the striking similarity between the free jazz percussion that scores Yoon’s trip into isolated work obsession and a certain anti-superhero film that won all kinds of awards in 2015, but otherwise the score feels refreshingly progressive.

That HEART ATTACK isn’t just a film that compels us to see if the guy and girl get together, but shows the potential of positive change to occur in even the most hardened cases, making it a universal winner. Though not all that concerned with the superficiality of an increasingly touch-up image conscious society, it is an incisive look at obsession with productivity. It is a sly turning the tables on the usual notion of slackers being flawed in the face of earnest hard workers.

Looking at the history of NYAFF Audience Award Winners, filled with countries of origins that have considerably widely established film scenes – Japan, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan – wouldn’t it be a remarkable for this year’s champion to be from Thailand? It would seem the perfect finishing touch for this 15th anniversary edition of the festival, never resting its laurels on what has worked before, and giving a significant focus to films South East Asia.

HEART ATTACK (FREE LANCE) is being screened at the Walter Reade Theater Sunday, July 3, at 6:30 PM. Visit the Subway Cinema website for details and tickets.

 

MC 1.4: JAGAT/Brutal @ NYAFF ’16

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#mellowcrimewave

The screening of Malaysian drama JAGAT at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival is yet another feather in the annual cinematic summer happening’s plumage of rare and unusual imports to New York City. Past standouts have been the propaganda-laden feel good story COMRADE KIM GOES FLYING from North Korea and SELL-OUT, a musical comedy with audience participation sing-along, (hailing from a far more metropolitan Malaysia.

What JAGAT brings to the screen is a by now classic story of youth learning hard life lessons, the kind that lead to dark futures difficult to acknowledge. However, at times the story’s telling is so far removed from narrative sensibilities familiar in areas with prominent movie industries (as well as those influenced by them), it promises to leave some viewers feeling something askew. No doubt lending to the singularity of the film is its being helmed by a first-time director in Shanjhey Kumar Perumal.

The film first sets its focus on Appoy, a likable and thoroughly relatable middle school aged child who sways to a very different rhythm than his traditional teachers and working class father (a truly imposing figure) who espouse strict old school values. It is the stuff of stories from the good old days, with the resourceful child angling a mirror so he can watch his favorite crime dramas on the family television, and dad coming home in a poster-ripping rage when the absent minded son cannot remember what he did with a work ID card.

At the same time, another narrative unfolds involving some of Appoy’s uncles who are connected to gang that runs increasingly afoul of criminal activity. Pointed conversations suggest a running internal conflict within the Tamil immigrant characters between living modestly and seizing power by more ruthless means.

A combination of experiences that find his creativity unwelcome by those in position of authority, and the influence of those he looks up to reveling in roguish activities sets off a change in Appoy, one the viewers are left to ponder as the movie comes to a close.

A barebones production is made up for by impassioned performances and a clever script; one in which Appoy’s antics often induce laughter and the subtle threat of violence among the older characters occasionally unsettles. The movie’s unique allure includes a remote small town setting presented without any polishing up and music baring the influences traditional influences that together with scenes of local rituals creates a stormy psychedelic effect.

Where JAGAT proves a bit bewildering is an uneven narrative path, including a rather abrupt montage that advances parts of the story a bit too inscrutably. One can also infer cultural and/or government restrictions coming into play, as there is virtually no onscreen violence save a few afterschool scuffles between Appoy and neighborhood bullies. The realism in these scenes do prove to add a surprisingly unnerving element, though.

Despite, and sometimes because of its rough patches, JAGAT is an absorbing blend of classic tale and unconventional storytelling. Seeking it out not only supports a new, compelling voice in cinema, but is also a nod of approval to the New York Asian Film Festival’s continued commitment to bringing unique and far flung programming.

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Tamil tough

The New York Asian Film Festival continues its run through July 9 at the Walter Reade Theater and SVA theater. Visit the Subway Cinema website for more information and tickets.