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Monday, Jan 26, 2009

It’s been interesting to read the reaction to the Academy Award nominations this past Thursday (22 January). Naturally, most of the discussion has centered on the unfathomable snub sustained by Christopher Nolan and his Summer spectacular, The Dark Knight. While industry organizations like the Director’s Guild of America and the Producers Guild acknowledged the revamped Batman sequel, the lords of self-importance, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences decided against giving the box office hit the critical credit it deserves. Some seemed genuinely shocked by this decision, believing the Oscars had turned a kind of corner in the last years. But looking back at its recent history and the under the radar issues involved with the movies actually nominated, one starts to recognize the same old boy bullspit.


Let’s face it - the Academy Awards will never be hip. They aren’t founded on a philosophy of what’s trendy or what’s cool. They tend to stay within very strict standards and must be dragged kicking and screaming - sometimes, unsuccessfully - into the 21st century. In the last decade alone, there has been controversy surrounding the documentary, foreign film, and Best Song categories. Various film writers have taken Oscar to task for ignoring qualified entries, employing arcane and limiting rule requirements, and generally ignoring consensus for their own oblique aims. Many point out that some of the most important films of the last century never received Academy Award consideration, while others love to look at the list of ignored or marginalized talents and shake their heads in shame. 


So it’s clear that the Academy plods along to its own often arrhythmic drummer. Type in “Worst Oscar Winners” into Google and you’re bound to stumble on a million messageboard debates, most centering on unworthy winners (Shakespeare in Love, Gladiator, and American Beauty being the most common ones called out). There’s also the reflective invocations of movie that should have been heralded (Pulp Fiction, Little Children), got close, but then no golden cigar. But the one question few can answer is “Why?” After all, if so many people enjoyed a film (The Dark Knight‘s tracking over a billion dollars worldwide), so many critics supported it (a high 90s percentile on most review collective sites), and so many other awards stables sought fit to at least nominate it (DGA, PGA, Golden Globes), how can the Academy ignore it?


Let’s try to answer it, shall we? First off, there’s the ‘age’ factor. Oscar skews older - much older. A perfect example is someone like Ernest Borgnine, winner for his work in 1956’s Marty. At 92 - yep, 92 - he is still a vocal member of the old school Hollywood brigade. He and his demo want significance, not splash. He’s the perfect example of someone who would not have seen The Dark Knight, let alone support its nomination. And sadly, there are a lot of Borgnines out there. Reports suggest surviving Academy voters tend to be in the mid to late ‘50s (or much, much older), unimpressed by commercial carte blanche, and wait until the end of the year (when screeners come pouring into their mail slot) to make their final determinations. They are passionate about the old school Hollywood ideal, and their votes reflect same.


Of course, the minute you look at something like Slumdog Millionaire, that argument appears to hold no weight. After all, Danny Boyle’s unusual mosaic of Mumbai life as seen through the eyes of a desperate game show contestant isn’t the antiquated Tinsel Town type. Something this fresh and vibrant shouldn’t turn an Oscar holders head, and yet clearly it stands as this year’s front runner. The Academy obviously can’t ignore the clamor and consensus of the various sub-groups that make up their membership. No other film this year has received more outside acknowledgement than Slumdog. Not even The Dark Knight (only WALL-E can almost stand toe to toe, and there’s a whole separate category thing to take into consideration).


Without a doubt, Oscar uses the Nov/Dec hype machine, along with the various critic’s lists and the so-called “important” awards to gauge where it goes. Had The Dark Knight racked up dozens of Best Picture recognitions from bellwethers like the Golden Globes (who went with Slumdog), the National Board of Review (Slumdog), the New York Film Critics (Milk) or the Broadcast Film Critics (Slumdog), the momentum might have been there for an Academy acknowledgement. As it stands, we can clearly see that many found the Christopher Nolan to be a fine, even masterful film. But when it came time to make a final determination about the year’s best, few placed it on top.


That doesn’t matter, you say. The Dark Knight still deserved placement above something like The Reader - and you know what, you’d be right. The Reader does not deserve to be in the Top Five films that the AMPAS considers worth congratulating. In 2008 alone, amazing movies like Frozen River, Doubt, The Wrestler, Happy-Go-Lucky, Synecdoche, New York, and Revolutionary Road deserved to take its slot. Even if you put both The Dark Knight and WALL-E in the mix, The Reader still trails down toward the bottom. The shock many felt on 22 January wasn’t the Nolan snub so much as the Stephen Daldry bow. His lax resume, including a similarly startling nod for the overrated The Hours (remember that movie? Exactly) indicated someone who should feel lucky to be mentioned in someone’s acceptance speech, not sitting in the auditorium with the rest of the year’s best.


The DGA thought so. They did not nominate his work as a director. Neither did the PGA, which passed on recognizing The Reader as one of year’s top efforts. So how did it sneak in over other deserving movies? The answer appears to be sympathy. This past year, both Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack passed away. Well loved, universally respected, and highly influential behind the scenes, these men were two of the four producers ‘acknowledged’ for their work on the Holocaust themed drama. Some have even speculated that the response to The Reader from inside the industry was so strong (mostly due to the community’s feelings for Minghella and Pollack) that the groundswell helped push the picture past other deserving entries.


Since the movie can’t stand next to the other Best Picture contenders and claim its celluloid legitimacy, the age factor and the sympathy vote seem like the real reasons The Dark Knight is missing from the final tally (or at the very least, why The Reader is there). It won’t change the fact that more people will know Nolan’s work and anticipate his next move than ever care if Daldry gets another job (he followed up his work on The Hours with…nothing - until now). One could argue over the importance of a film focusing on how human beings deal with something as evil as the Nazi extermination of the Jews, but since The Reader mostly skims over that material, the point becomes moot.


It’s safe to say that, once again, politics, good publicity machines, previous experience pushing subpar product, and the unusual fluke of a critically acclaimed picture being popular as well undermined The Dark Knight‘s chances at Oscar gold. Hollywood apparently likes to champion the underdog. Heroes need not apply.


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Monday, Jan 26, 2009

Human depravity, sexualized violence, macabre desires come to life in two dimensions; this is the world artist Raymond Pettibon renders in pen and ink.  It is a world mirrored sonically by the band he formerly played with, Black Flag, and the label where he acted as visual curator, SST, for much of the late ‘70s and ‘80s.


Most familiar with the hardcore punk scene of this time will remember Pettibon’s comic book influenced drawings.They adorned telephone poles, streetlights and album covers.


Flyers depicting police officers with guns lodged in the their mouths, nuns brandishing shiny steel hedge clippers, and other disturbing scenes accompanied by cryptic captions, advertised shows by Black Flag, Circle Jerks, DOA, and many other bands of that period.  In 1990 he did the artwork for Sonic Youth’s Goo.

The album cover has been both one of his most enduring and typifying images.


While his artwork has since become iconic and synonymous with this period in punk music, few know the artist responsible.  Fewer still know he was the original bassist for Black Flag; a band started by his older brother, guitarist/songwriter and SST label founder, Greg Ginn.Pettibon was responsible for suggesting the name Black Flag reasoning, “If a white flag means surrender, a black flag represents anarchy.”  He also created the four black bar logo that served as the band’s emblem.


His art conjures R. Crumb and Ralph Steadman, two other artists whose illustrative approach are often attached to a literary narrative.  Crumb and Steadman partnered with writers Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson respectively, while Pettibon borrows text and verse from a variety of sources, including those of his own creation.  He cities Henry James, Ruskin, and Mickey Spillane asliterary inspirations, whose prose, often inspire and accompany his drawings.  The noir themes and world the characters in his art inhabit dovetails perfectly with the grit and naked aggression associated with hardcore.  His art helped to inform the gutter poetry and paranoia inherent in the genre.


Pettibon has since gone on to earn the prestigious Bucksbaum award in 2004, given to artists every two years that have exhibited at the Whitney Biennial.  His work is part of the permanent collection at the MoMA in New York, Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, the MoMA in San Francisco, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, along with the Whitney Museum of American Art.  Despite achieving some renown in art circles he is still relatively unknown beyond the underground subculture.  Recently, he has begun recording and playing music again with his band the Niche Makers.  The music is described as, “New Orleans on cheap wine and canned martini’s” and a record is slated for an early 2009 release.


His art seems particularly timely today and worthy of exploring.  On a recent trip to New York City, a visit to the Chelsea art galleries revealed several artists working in Pettibon’s graphic cartoon style.


The violent themes, sexual content, and hard-boiled view of life on display were undeniably influenced by his uniquely American vision.  Given the resurgence in hardcore, with bands like the Gallows and Fucked Up looking back to bands like Black Flag for inspiration, some of Pettibon’s imagery is sure to seep into the popular consciousness.  God help us all.


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Sunday, Jan 25, 2009
New releases for the week of 2009-01-26...

Who needs new franchises when the old ones keep kicking?


A couple of old NES-initiated franchises are releasing the latest iterations of their respective series this week, and both deserve to be recognized as quality for their respective genres, despite the niche audience that both cater to.


Rygar, on the NES, was a flawed but still brilliant little stroke of adventure-platforming, a game that favored exploration over the constant jump-hack-jump games of its day.  It flawlessly followed the Metroid formula of guarded exploration, making areas viewable but unexplorable until certain items and power-ups were found, and its graphic style was distinct on a system where “distinct” was a difficult adjective to master.  If not for an archaic RPG-style grind ‘n level-up system that artificially and unnecessarily lengthened gameplay in a game that could not be saved in any way (there wasn’t even a password system), it might have been remembered as one of the great, long-remembered NES games.  Plus, it introduced the Diskarmor, something like a combination of a circular saw blade and a yo-yo, a weapon whose (eventual) versatility makes it an awfully desirable bit of gear.  Here’s Rygar in 1987…


And here he is today, getting his God of War on against the


Colossi

“Hekatonkeil”:


Look, Rygar may have been why my first NES died.  I left that thing on for a week just trying to make it through the game (which I never actually accomplished).  I still have a soft spot for the guy, and I know that one day…one day soon…I shall beat a Rygar game.  Maybe this week’s Wii release of Rygar: The Battle of Argus will be the one.


On the less action-oriented side is Nobunaga’s Ambition, a strategy game that’s been churning out release after release for 22 years while managing the unenviable feat of being utterly ignored by the mainstream gaming press for most of that time.  I remember that the first one got something of a push in Nintendo Power, and despite my own interest in deeper gameplay experiences (triggered by Dragon Warrior), the lack of anyting resembling monsters or flashy graphics steered me away from it.  While I’m not the only one it put off, as it’s certainly sold enough copies to be a viable franchise for over 20 years, I haven’t met anyone who’s played a single game in the series.  Have you?  Let me know it the comments!  I want to know you people exist.


Nobunaga’s Ambition has gone through a bit of an overhaul as well, but incredibly, it’s still recognizable as Nobunaga’s Ambition here in 2009, in its most recent incarnation.  Here’s the 1987 version of Nobunaga’s Ambition:


And this is Nobunaga’s Ambition: Iron Triangle, on the PS2:


I can’t imagine, if you’re into the whole historically-based strategy game thing, that you’ll be disappointed by this one.  Can we hand it a Lifetime Achievement Award yet?


What are you playing this week?  My copy of the Ultimate Shooting Collection shows up on Tuesday, so I know what I’m doing.  Check out the list of releases, and trailers for Rygar: The Battle of Argus and Nobunaga’s Ambition: Iron Triangle after the jump.


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Sunday, Jan 25, 2009

It’s hard to reinvent archetypes. By their very nature, they are so representative of a concept or idea that they tend to wholly define it. This is especially true in horror films. A vampire is a vampire, no matter how you dress it up, romanticize it, or otherwise reconfigure its thirst for blood. Same with werewolves, ghosts, serial killers, and most importantly, zombies. The undead have a certain set of inherent limitations that make them simultaneously the most and least creepy villains around. Their hunger for human flesh is definitely disturbing. Their relatively slow rate of attack can, on occasion, be almost laughable. Of course, when filmmakers try to overhaul the genre, they only work in style, or speed. They never consider substance. That, oddly enough is where the 1981 fright flick Dead & Buried finds its freshness.


In the small town of Potter’s Bluff, some unsavory things have been going on. Anyone new to the remote coastal locale is immediately struck by how run down, gloomy, and inhospitable it seems. Of course, they don’t get to savor that reality for long since the citizenry appears intent on killing anyone who happens to wander by. As the sheriff in this insignificant postage stamp of a burg, Dan Gillis is starting to worry. The dead bodies keep turning up, and he’s finding it harder and harder to explain their deaths. Even worse, it appears that some of these corpses are “arriving” back up in the town - the same people, but with new personalities. All signs point to oddball mortician William Dobbs, and his unusual obsession with the funereal process. But the problem may be bigger for the underhanded lawman - it may have its roots right in his own home.


Without giving most of the major plot points away, Dead & Buried is one exceedingly creepy experience. It’s a gruesome, slightly gory take on the whole Invasion of the Body Snatchers/Night of the Living Dead dynamic. Clearly, without spoiling the experience, Potter’s Bluff is unstuck in time. The overall look of the city is dirty, unkempt, and rotting. Everywhere, little hints at what actually could be happening are just visible in the corner of the frames (store shelves inundated with cobwebs, boarded up buildings in supposedly active areas). The population appears to be living in a combination of eras. Some - like the local diner staff and the gas station crew - are carved out of the late ‘40s/‘50s. Others appear like fantasy version of various decades, a queer combination of Victorian and contemporary, old world New England and new world modernity.


Jammed in the middle of this mystery our the two leads, James Farentino and Jack Albertson. The former plays Sheriff Gillis like it’s the last act of some hyperactive Hamlet. Every gesture is over the top, every line reading threatening to chew off what’s left of the scenery. The latter’s William Dobbs, however, is a faultless interpretation of unsuspecting evil. We’re not used to seeing Albertson like this - bizarre, obscure, intense. It’s one of those head spinning turns that changes your perspective on an actor. While Farentino can come across as incredibly hammy, his co-stars studied performance keeps things in check. Elsewhere, the cast is filled out with familiar ‘80s faces like Melody Anderson (as Gillis’ weird wife), Barry Corbin, and in a minor role, future Freddy Krueger Robert Englund. Thanks to the rest of the mostly no-name company, Dead & Buried keeps its sense of ambiguity.


Yet what stands out today - and even more so thanks to Blue Underground’s revamped Blu-ray version of the title - is how moody and atmospheric the film is, both internally and externally. As part of the three (!!!) commentary tracks available, cinematographer Steve Poster discusses the unusual look the he, the director Gary Sherman and their movie hoped to achieve. Supervising the remastering of the print onto the high definition format, he made sure that the low lighting, rampant grain, purposeful darkness, and overall gritty tone were meticulously maintained. While some may argue with this approach, it does give the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image a truly unearthly feel. Dead & Buried may not look like some brand spanking new Hollywood horror film - and that, apparently, was the intention all along.


It’s also interesting to hear director Sherman speak about the film. His track provides insights into how the movie changed from script to screen (he intended a black comedy), and why he shied away for standard fright film conventions. Of course, he also teases fans with a long lost “director’s cut” which, of course, cannot be located today. Along with added information from co-writer Ronald Shusett and various featurettes presenting the late Stan Winston, co-writer Dan O’Bannon, and the aforementioned Mr. Englund, we discover the truth behind Dead & Buried‘s avant-garde designs. Even with a brand new pair of 7.1 lossless soundtracks (DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD) which attempt to add immersive atmosphere and direction to the production design, it’s what’s in the frame that counts - and what’s there is wonderful.


In fact, calling Dead & Buried a “forgotten” film belies what Sherman, Shusett, and O’Bannon created. Who could ever shake the image of a long hypodermic needle piercing an eyeball? A man tied up and burned alive in a fishing net? A family terrorized by a gang of grim townsfolk while holed up in an abandoned ‘haunted’ house? Or what about the denouement which mixes terror, romance, sadness, and satisfaction all in one? Clearly, anyone who has overlooked this movie before has done so for one inexplicable reason - they haven’t seen it.


To watch Dead & Buried (on Blu-ray or standard DVD) today is to experience a true attempt at reinventing a cinematic variety. For the most part, zombies are decaying reflections of our current cultural crisis, a monster made relevant by an almost egotistical need to see ourselves in even the most dire of biological straights. When viewed more clearly, and with the clarity of hindsight, this is Dead & Buried‘s core concept. It’s also why it deserves its disregarded gemstone status. 


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Saturday, Jan 24, 2009

Quick - what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name Sonny Chiba? Martial arts? Japanese bad-assness? The Street Fighter? A nominal name check in True Romance? An actual role in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill? Or maybe images of a feudal East come to mind, a territory on the verge of technological breakthroughs and industrial progress, and a small village terrorized by a thriving metal concern and a 900 lb killer bear? What, you say? The other ideas are definitely Chiba-like in perspective, but what does a period piece about a murderous animal and a group of mercenaries trying to destroy it have to do with the international superstar?


Actually, everything, since in 1990 Chiba directed his first (and to date only) film, Remains: Beautiful Heroes. Later retitled Yellow Fangs, the unusual effort became one of the most important movies in Chiba’s lengthy resume - for all the wrong reasons. After making more than 120 movies, the well known man of action decided to step behind the lens. A true labor of love, he hoped Remains would open up another avenue of expression for his mythic career. But it didn’t. As a result of the film’s failure, the legend had to sell almost all his assets, including his famed training school, the Japanese Action Club. Once you see the film, however, it’s easy to understand why fans failed to support Chiba’s idiosyncratic project


Instead of dealing with mobsters, street toughs, and the inevitable high flying fisticuffs that breaks out between them both, Chiba channeled the tale (based on an actual incident) of Red Spots, a massive bruin that terrorized a rural Hokkaido around the turn of the century. Concentrating its wrath on the local female population, the village hunters found their concerted efforts to trap it almost futile. Tossing in a love story between a young warrior and a girl out to avenge her parent’s death, Chiba’s choice flaunted convention.


The connection to the JAC was also obvious, right from the beginning. In fact, Yellow Fangs opens with a credit sequence recognition “in commemoration of the 20th anniversary” of the famed actor’s school. Many of the leads - Henry Sanada, Hiroyuki Nagato - were associated with or students of Chiba. Sadly, when the film eventually flopped at the box office, Chiba was forced to liquidate the club (he financed most of the movie himself) and head off to Hollywood to earn an easy (and much needed) paycheck. Today, he has even changed his professional name to “Rindō Wachinaga” to avoid further association with his action past. 


It’s a shame that Yellow Fangs failed, for it truly shows what Chiba could do with a camera. It’s a movie that’s large in scope, but very human in its dramatics. While some might see the synopsis and think of an Asian exploitation effort ala William Girdler’s Jaws rip-off Grizzly (1976), this is a much more serious, much more somber experience. There are no major stunt sequences, no real reliance on fighting skills or kung fu styles to sell the story. Instead, we get a sly social commentary which pits the traditional ways of Ancient Japan vs. the encroaching threat of modern society (ie, a copper mining concern). There’s also an underhanded take on the paternalistic nature of the country both then and now.


Chiba takes a big cinematic risk right off the bat, offering up an initial bear attack that is quite gruesome, followed by the introduction of the hunters, and then an extended, almost hour long flashback. During this time, we learn of the longstanding relationship between friends Eiji and Yuki, the government’s desire to keep the locals in line, and the gender-based rift which causes all sides to clash. There is a lot of exposition here, as well as some of the most beautiful shots of the winter/spring Japanese countryside ever captured on film. Chiba may be a wonder with his actors, but his framing and composition are extraordinary.


There are several themes at work here - old world values up vs. the encroaching progress, the battle of the sexes between powerless women and their too controlling men, the violent need of nature to put man in its place, etc. All throughout the narrative, Chiba stops the adventure to give characters a chance to reflect. There is a lot of regret in this film - regret for relying on the hunters to stop the slaughter, regret from Eiji that he hasn’t made his feelings known to Yuki, regret from her regarding the fate of her family. But at its core, Yellow Fangs is really just a mystical monster movie, a film where evil is given a sinister spiritual façade, before turning into folklore.


Even with its strange combination of thrills and thought-provoking, Chiba illustrates his real feel for the art of cinema. He understands the subtleties of the medium, and uses his lens as both an insular and reflective device. When the bear attacks, he uses every trick in the book to hide the less than impressive “man in suit” effects. Elsewhere, he was not afraid to hold on close-ups, the actors allowed time to dig deep and deliver powerful, and quite personal, performances. There is an indebtedness to the Shaw Brothers, with many of the locations having a slick, soundstage quality, and by working with friends and well wishers, you can see the amount of drive and determination the cast and crew felt for this project. It’s as if they knew a lot of their idol’s reputation - professional and financial - was riding on it.


Perhaps that’s why, indirectly, Yellow Fangs feels so sad. You can sense a kind of finality in the project, a real indication that Chiba believed he was creating some manner of art with this elevated campfire tale. It’s no surprise then that, up until recently, the actor has stayed away from the director’s chair. But this past year, Chiba changes his mind. His latest creation is the upcoming drama Za Toichi, supposedly centering on illegal loans where 10% interest is charged ever ten days (the title is short for ‘tooka de ichiwari’). While still “in production”, it will be interesting to see what he brings to this far more modern tale. What’s clear from Yellow Fangs is that, when he wants to be, Sonny Chiba is a sensational filmmaker. Too bad it took 28 years to discover that fact.


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