Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Sushi Girl (2013)

I'm not going to lie, I went into this one with not a small amount of trepidation. While watching the ads in front of "John Dies At The End" I happened to see a trailer for "Sushi Girl," and I was taken in by its grindhouse, retro vibe. This looked like a hip movie that had a great sense of style. The sleazy, almost dank color palate, the looming sense of building dread, the slimy evil dripping off the tongues of the characters about to hurt this poor guy, and the fantastic churning rock at the end - this was a fantastic trailer, and I was very interested in seeing it.

But on the other hand, I hate torture films. They're just not my thing, Although I can handle violence in movies just fine, when it comes to torture that's kind of a deal breaker for me in many cases. It all depends on whether or not the focus is on the torture and violence or on the story. Movies like the first "Saw" are fine, because it's more about the story rather than how disgusting they could make the carnage. Then you've got "Hostel" and the "Saw" sequels which are the exact opposite, with no subtlety to be found. I don't dig on that. And based on the trailer for "Sushi Girl," I wasn't sure which kind of movie it was going to be, and I was kind of nervous.

But on the other hand again, Mark Hamill. I didn't even realize it was him in the trailer until they did a roll call of the actors at the end. I did a double take, and then watched the trailer again. My god, that was Mark Hamill, wasn't it? He's nearly unrecognizable, but there he is. You can even hear the Joker voice in there a little bit. And at that point I knew I was watching it. I don't care what the level of violence is, if it means seeing Mark Hamill in front of a camera again, I'm so there. I just had to hope that the movie was decent.

I'm not going to make a Luke Skywalker reference. That's too easy. I'm going to instead make a "Time Runner" reference. Um...who's that on the table, Rae Dawn Chong?
(Nailed it!)

I guess I should take more chances, because "Sushi Girl" ended up being good. Really good. Shockingly good, actually. In fact it's one of my favorite movies I've seen this year so far. "Sushi Girl" is one of those films that, after seeing it, I find myself scrounging the video store and Amazon.com for more movies like it. It's got me on a bit of an exploitation movie kick. I've got a fever, and the only prescription is more sleaze. Of course I'm unlikely to stumble across another movie this good, but you can't know until you try.

"Sushi Girl" follows a very unfortunate night in the life of Fish (Noah Hathaway), a man who has just been released from prison after doing 6 years for a robbery gone bad. However, the other men who were involved have pressing issues to discuss with Fish. Most pressing of all is the whereabouts of the diamonds that went missing during the heist. Fish always claimed to have no idea what happened to them, but I'll leave it up to you to decide how much they believe that story. So, the leader of the group, Duke (Tony Todd) sets up a little Welcome Back dinner for Fish, complete with all his old robbery buddies, a bunch of instruments that could be used for torture, one very simple question, and one naked girl laying on the table covered in sushi.

A "Sushi Girl," if you will.

It doesn't take long for Fish to understand what's about to go down, and it only takes slightly longer for the guys to start going to work on him. Leading the torture are Max (Andy Mackenzie) and Crow (Mark Hamill), two guys that hate each others guts, but are willing to work together, at least for a little bit, to get their cut of the diamonds. They're unsurprisingly the most psycho of the bunch, as they're making $5,000 bets with each other to see who will be the first one to torture Fish into talking, which means they're upping the ante with each round as Fish refuses to crack.

All of the cast was fantastic, and all of them got their moments to shine. Noah Hathaway has this great fatalistic, defeated presence that suggests that maybe on some level, Fish thinks he deserves what he's getting. Or at least, he's so broken and beaten down that he just doesn't care anymore. Tony Todd is as always creepy as hell, and James Duval as Francis, the reluctant member of the crew who isn't down on the torture, gives an ironically tortured performance as the one guy with something close to a soul. You can imagine how well that works out for him.

But the guys stealing the show were of course Mackenzie and Hamill. The two of them are like fire and ice - with Mackenzie being barely contained napalm ready to rip out Fish's eyeballs straight away if it means getting the loot, and Hamill taking his time with it, savoring it, and having fun as he stares laser beams over the rims of his dorky glasses into Fish's soul like he's ready to pluck the wings off of it to watch it squirm after he gouges it out of his body with a pair of pliers. Mark Hamill is absolutely phenomenal in "Sushi Girl." And by himself, he makes this worth watching.

Don't take my word for it, though. Check out this little clip. (It cuts off before "ouch" happens)

And despite the fact that she spends 95% of the movie laying naked on table doing nothing and doesn't have any dialogue until the last 10 minutes, the beautiful Cortney Palm as the eponymous Sushi Girl certainly makes you take notice of her. And when she gets something to do, it's clear that this still obscure actress is someone to be on the lookout for, because she could have quite the career in genre films if she lucks out and keeps getting roles in movies like this.

One final word on the cast that I had to geek the hell out over was a flashback scene featuring not only Jeff Fahey, and not only Danny Trejo, but also one of my all-time favorites, Michael Biehn. They don't get to do much, true, but it was still amazing to see them just show right the hell up like it was a "Grindhouse" mini-reunion. And Danny Trejo has a machete (of course he does). It's pretty legit.

But what of the torture? That's what I was worried about, after all. It's true that "Sushi Girl" gets pretty intense. But fortunately it didn't get as hardcore as I had feared it would get. This is by no means a movie for the squeamish or for those with weak constitutions, though, as any film featuring a man getting mercilessly smacked in the face over and over again with a sock full of broken glass would probably require the viewer to have something of a strong stomach. But at the same time, these are relatively brief bursts of violence which have a big amount of buildup, but once initiated don't last overly long or get overly graphic in their depiction. At the end of the day, this is "a movie with torture in it" as opposed to "a movie about torture." There's a big difference.

Comparisons to Quentin Tarantino films are inevitable, specifically "Reservoir Dogs." After all, it's about a bunch of criminals of varying degrees of psycho, a diamond heist is the central conflict, most of the movie is in a single location with the exception of flashbacks, there's a dude tied to a chair getting tortured, a lot of gun pointing starts happening at the end, all while having a very distinct sheen of drive-in movie grit. Even the ending revelations have "Kill Bill" vibes. This is obviously made by someone who is a big Tarantino fan. The insane part is that there are those out there who would call that a bad thing.

Please. It's nothing like "Reservoir Dogs." Fish didn't get his ear cut off.

It's true that some might lazily condemn "Sushi Girl" as a "Reservoir Dogs" knockoff, but that's really not giving it the credit it deserves. There are really big differences in structure, pacing, cinematography, visual style, and acting between the two films. That's not even bringing up the most distinct Tarantino trademark - the dialogue, which "Sushi Girl" wisely doesn't even try to emulate. Apart from the fact that they both feel retro and might make a decent double feature with each other, the only thing connecting them are the superfluous plot similarities. To me they feel like two extraordinarily different films. Even if "Sushi Girl" does feature kung-fu legend Sonny Chiba as a sushi chef, just like in "Kill Bill." I'm willing to call that an awesome coincidence.

I love movies like "Sushi Girl." Those little movies nobody has ever heard of that come right the hell out of nowhere and take you by surprise. These movies remind us that good movies are still being made by the bucket-full. We just need to look outside the movie theaters for them sometimes.

If you see this trailer and are intrigued in any way, seriously see this movie. It's just as stylish and awesome as it seems here (Red Band trailer so technically NSFW)

THE BOTTOM LINE - I loved this movie. It's got loads of style, great intrigue, tension, effective and hard-hitting violence, and fantastic, memorable performances all around. This is probably making my Top 10 list for 2013. It's a serious contender, at any rate.

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