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In general, it is a good policy not to generalize. To talk about what is typical or normal or usual; it is best to avoid harping on the average, predictable, foreseeable or calculable. Life being so full of ferries whose engines stall then, in the face of unexpected typhoons, capsize, killing 600, or earthquakes that unleash a cascade of boulders down hillsides that crush the lone fisherman who happened to have risen at 4:43 a.m. in order to seek out that precise spot after a year and a half of Sundays angling to claim it ahead of any other angler.

Life being unpredictable; un-reasonable; never twice quite like that; always and forever and infinitely distinct.

So, when I say that I sat in a typical sushi-ya when I visited Tokyo the other night, we share understanding, right?: there probably was nothing typical about it, nothing from which we would be able to generalize about human experience. It was what it was – nothing more or less – all things being equal (although they rarely are). It just happened to be a place serving sushi, around that particular corner, near Meguro station, in Tokyo, that particular moment that I happened to be hungry, with that random group of friends and acquaintances, that certain Saturday night.


 

How many people who would care to quibble that John Belushi’s endlessly quotable turn as “Bluto” Blutarsky does not represent his finest work? Not me. And yet, he had to be Blutarski; he needed to be Blutarski. He was Blutarski. Just like he was the Samurai, The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave, and the cheeseburger-dispensing counter jockey at the Olympia Café, among many other unforgettable characters he embodied. Belushi was not a black man. And, in truth, he didn’t even play one on TV. He played a white man emulating a black man, first as a Bee, eventually as a brother—a Blues Brother. Enter “Joliet” Jake Blues who, along with Elwood, had the chutzpah, or brilliance—or both—to step behind the mic for real and record music.

Best known for the movie they made, a kitchen-sink comedy that, despite it’s shoehorned, yet incredible, cameos by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and John Lee Hooker, remains hilarious and retains a strong quote-quotient. Less known is the fact that, in addition to the movie soundtrack, they made two other albums. Impossible as it seems, the first one (1978’s Briefcase Full of Blues) went to the top of the charts, fueled by their cover of Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man”. So, 30 years later, how do we assess this brief body of work? First and foremost, the only thing that prevents it from being the most ill-fated, vainglorious and embarrassingly ego-driven debacle of all time is the simple fact that Belushi really meant it. He cared, and however he did it—ability or acting, or most likely, both—he pulled it off.

It only takes a cursory glance at the tracks the band covered to see where they were coming from: not a ton of obvious “hits” there, aside from the aforementioned “Soul Man” (which still was—and remains—a shockingly unpredictable success for mainstream radio during the height of the disco era!), and the rather pedestrian “Gimme Some Lovin’” (which, incidentally, is a rather pedestrian and pallid song in the first place). Of course, it also didn’t hurt that Belushi had the best working blues band in the world behind him, featuring Steve “The Colonel” Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn (of Booker T. & The MGs—the Stax band that played on some of the original tunes being covered). It was, in short, a dream band, and it would be a travesty of the highest order for Belushi—or anyone—to make a mockery (intentionally or not) of the proceedings. Fortunately, this possibility was avoided for one single, simple reason: it works.

(Sidenote: even if it hadn’t worked, it speaks volumes about Belushi’s character and his 33 1/3 street cred that he knew very well the caliber of men he was lucky enough to be associated with. Likewise, they were lucky too, since Joliet Jake bent over backward to give them ample time in the spotlight: this was a win/win in the sense that the paychecks couldn’t have hurt, and it was exposing the great music these men had made—and continued to make—to an entirely new audience. In the end, if the worst crime he committed was getting some generally unsung heroes some well-earned time in the sun, and turning some of the world on to some essential music, then Belushi acquitted himself quite nicely here.)

The first one was the best. While the movie soundtrack and Made in America are okay, Briefcase Full of Blues remains an album that can be returned to often and with considerable satisfaction. Forget the movie, and SNL, and the outfits: on an album it’s just the voices and the music, with no shtick to save you. And to oblige the predictable protests of those most cynical purists, even if it is acknowledged that Belushi was, in effect, acting as a blues singer, it remains his most challenging, and convincing role. Or put in more realistic perspective, he is, obviously, acting, but it’s a role—and a world—he is more than casually acquainted with. After all: even white boys get the blues. Think Belushi didn’t know a thing or two about the blues? Think about the other super-sized SNL alum, the wealthy and much-loved Chris Farley. Think either of these men had those voracious appetites for destruction because they were unreservedly happy?

Consider the last song on side one, “Shotgun Blues”: even though this song is a showcase for Matt “Guitar” Murphy, it is a tour de force all around, from Steve Jordan’s explosive drums to Aykroyd—I mean Elwood’s surprisingly effective harmonica and especially the vocals (singing lyrics that are especially painful to hear considering Belushi’s not-too-distant death). In fact, if you pulled Belushi’s vocals and had the exact same track with Junior Wells (circa 1978, or 1958 for that matter) singing, it might come close to miraculous. And speaking of Junior, the band’s take on “Messin’ with the Kid” presumably inspired some folks to seek out the real deal. Again, that too would justify the entire endeavor. In the end, you can see it with your ears: Joliet Jake was, in more ways than one, the role of John Belushi’s life.

Hollywood is notorious for repeating ideas. When something is successful, you can guarantee studio suits are desperate to find a way of copying it. With this Friday’s release of Wanted, something even more unusual takes place. While it’s clear that this movie borrows liberally from the Wachowski’s action packed bullet time virtual reality revisionism, it also incorporates much of Fight Club‘s insignificant rebel in a crass corporate pond philosophizing. Together, the combination adds up to a strangely unique experience. On the one hand, you easily recognize the various references. On the other, Russian director Timur Bekmambetov uses the homage as a means of manufacturing his own incredible vision.

As with many post-millennial movies, Wanted is based on a series of graphic novels. Like the best of those adaptations, screenwriters Mark Millar and J. G. Jones use the foundation of the series as a jumping off point, a place to explore elements within our society that the comic couldn’t (or wouldn’t) address. In the main character of Wesley Gibson, the film finds a disgruntled everyman, an empty Google search drone who has done literally nothing with his life. As the perfect contemporary protagonist, the movie proposes the latest nerd as closet gladiator, an archetype that seems to never lose cinematic weight. It then pits him against the classic cabal, a secret society that’s been doing the world’s dirty work for so long that we can’t imagine life without it.

Toss in terrific performances by James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, and Thomas Kretschmann, a twisty plot that never gets too tangled in its own contrivances, and more insane, inventive action than a John Woo-ping Yuen fever dream, and you’ve got one of the most amazing movies of the Summer. Even better, it’s poised to dominate the more adult oriented end of the 27 June box office. While the kiddies are clamoring for more of Wall*E‘s robot allegory, teens and those prone to masterful machismo will be lining up to see gunshots curve, wound curing paraffin baths, and a certain actress’s tattooed backside. And if they’re not careful, those Marvel superheroes better watch out. Wanted could usurp their position as 2008’s best popcorn escape.

Most of the success for this film rests rightfully on the shoulders of Bekmambetov. Among genre film fans, he’s best known for the vampire deconstruction of Night Watch and Day Watch. Named his country’s best young director in 1997, he clearly shares the sensibility of his Hong Kong based Asian brothers. Wanted is like The Killer with more car stunts, a baffling battle royale between forces that defy physics while simultaneously stoking audience appreciation. Bekmambetov clearly understands character and he takes time throughout the arc to stop and let layers of personality slowly expand and contract. By the end of the narrative, when weapons have replaced wisdom, we develop a real rooting interest in who lives and who dies.

In fact, what makes Wanted better than either Iron Man or The Incredible Hulk is the abject joy that filmmaker Bekmambetov brings to the project. Jon Favreau used a no-nonsense approach to realizing Tony Stark and company, and Louis Leterrier applies a MTV style of calculated quick cuts to infer action and tension. But the fast-slow sensibility of the 47 year old Russian auteur serves his spectacle flawlessly. It’s the most exquisite match between visionary and vision since the Chicago born comic book geeks gave us Neo, Agent Smith, and a war for survival across virtual reality.

What seals the deal, of course, is the Chuck Palahniuk-esque sentiments running through the story. Wesley narrates some of the action, his acid tongue takedowns of those he works for and with enough to recall Edward Norton and his razor sharp social commentary. The main theme of Wanted explores the victor inside the seemingly anemic, the superstar stuck inside the cubicle klatch of a nameless corporate ogre. The notion of a nobody able to wield god-like powers over life and death more or less defines our current cultural climate, a place where the standard rules of success no longer seem to apply. Even better, the film throws such sad sack sentiments back at the viewer, confronting them at every level into answering that most probing of Generation Hexed questions - what have you done with your life.

Such a crowd-pleasing confrontation is destined to get film fetishists and messageboard mavericks in a lush, liquid lather, and of course, they’ll be chiming for more, more, more. Unfortunately, while there’s been talk of a sequel, anyone who has seen the film will argue that a follow-up will be kind of tough. Not impossible, but one guesses somewhat incapable, of filtering the same material into the current cocksure slam dunk - at least from a practical standpoint. And who knows, maybe the audiences won’t turn up. After all, there is blood and guts o’plenty, and the kind of violence glorification that gets nosy mothers and grass roots campaigners up and active. If Grand Theft Auto meets with a mountain of negative press the day of its release, this bullet through the brain bravado is guaranteed to get under someone’s skin.

Yet even if it fails to meet its box office goals (ala Fight Club) and has to find a clear cult fanbase on DVD/Blu-ray (as with The Matrix), Wanted will remain a bright spot in a season soured by limp comedies, clammy kid fare, and a regressive reliance on things that were popular five years ago. Granted, 1999 is a mere decade past, but at least this film mines some of that year’s more meaningful entries. Whenever anyone successfully imitates efforts from the past - John Carpenter channeling Alfred Hitchcock for his brilliant B-movie Halloween, Woody Allen working through the entire Bergman/Fellini oeuvre - the results are telling…and usually terrific. Wanted is poised to be the next big thing, and it has a couple of previous honorees to that crown to thank for it.

When faced with death, few would argue against the prospect of more life. Sure, there are ethical considerations over ‘quality vs. quantity’, and no one really understands what it means to live forever, but immortality (and the implications it offers) has long captured the human imagination. As an alternative to non-existence, it seems like a foregone conclusion. Natural curiosity keeps us wondering what lies ahead, and the prospect of discovering - or actually living through - it drives many. After all, isn’t everlasting life the main tenet of all religion? Yet no one ever really considers what being immortal would really mean. It’s a concept explored by Asian filmmaker Higuchinsky in his fascinating featurette, Long Dream.

In an ominous Tokyo hospital, Dr. Kuroda Shuusuke treats patients with all manner of ailments. He appears to specialize in brain tumors, both benign and terminal. He also handles strange sleep disorders. When his associate, Dr. Yamauchi, comes across a young woman accosted by another patient, Kuroda reveals the strange case of Mukoda Tetsurou. Months before, the young man came in, complaining of something called “long dreams”. Instead of the normal night visions, his horrific REM-induced hallucinations lasting days, sometimes months. Soon, Mukoda is dreaming for YEARS. While trying to discover the secret of why this is happening, Dr. Kuroda must live with the guilt of another patient he couldn’t cure - a young woman named Kana continues to haunt his own waking fears.

Like an old school Outer Limits episode given a surreal Japanese twist, Long Dream (new to DVD from Facets Video) never excuses its made for TV frontiers. In fact, director Higuchinsky, best known for his surreal horror film Uzumaiki, embraces the medium in such a way that he makes even the story’s singular hospital setting work expertly. Everything about Long Dream is controlled and compact. There’s nary a wasted shot or underdeveloped moment. Taking the Junji Ito manga and translating it into a series of amazing movie images, the single named filmmaker finds the proper balance between dread and the deranged. There are moments here that resonate with real visual power. At other times, Higuchinsky is clearly playing with the audiences preconceptions.

Stories centering on dreams typically deal with the clash between fantasy and reality, how we view our world on a day to day basis bedeviled by our nightly visits into subconscious situations. In Long Dream, Higuchinsky highlights one of Ito’s more compelling ideas - that such scenarios could be a doorway to immortality. As the typical eight hours passes, as the subjected person rests, centuries could be playing out in their brain. Such intriguing concepts as evolution, progress, and the basic biological effect on the human enduring such shifts become Long Dream‘s central conceit. But there is also an element of sadness involved, a depressive notion that such an otherworldly opportunity may not be the boon our mind’s eye makes it out to be. Indeed, Mukoda’s deadened manner suggests that, even as he lives for eons in his mind, his true existence is being cut painfully short.

Of course, Higuchinsky does most of his deep thinking via images. Some are obvious (hundreds of CG clocks indicating Mukoda’s complaint) while others push the boundaries of believability (the “monsters” resulting from the title ailment). If you look too close, you may question the zipper-backed believability of some of the material. Similarly, the Kana subplot gets little true explanation. The last act denouement sells the purpose, and the acting by Horiuchi Masami helps fill in some of the blanks. But in order to have us believe in the reason for Dr. Kuroda’s seemingly unethical behavior, we need something stronger than a set of meaningless montages. Of course, this could also be part of Higuchinsky’s strategy. Without a feature length running time (Long Dream is only 54 minutes long), he has to infer some of his more substantive narrative.

Oddly enough, even with the complaints, it works. One of the reasons we stick with this material is that, thanks to Ito’s idea, Long Dream can’t help but fascinate. Dreams are our private realm, a world we visit that no one else can connect to. Sure, we share similar themes and pictures, but the actual experience is totally individual and unique. It’s a subject that many involved in the production address during the DVD bonus features. Both Ito and Higuchinsky comment on the spirit world, our connection to it, and the uneasy truce between the two planes. They also stress the horror elements in such an idea, proposing that people, faced with a certain style of “immortality” would be more frightened than if confronted by ghosts.

When viewed as both an exercise in style and an illustration of substance, Long Dream definitely delivers. It meticulously manages its material without going too far over into indecipherability, and even when things turn odd, Higuchinsky attempts to tie it all together. That he succeeds more times than he fails explains why, even at less than an hour, this film feels fully realized. Sure, some will not forgive the cartoonish appearance of the “evolved” versions of Kuroda’s creatures, and the “twist” at the end may not fully satisfy, but then again, this is more than just a surrealistic shocker. The individuals behind this movie want to challenge the preconception that death is the end and life at any expense is worth living. Long Dream seems to suggest that, in some cases, the exact opposite is true.

I know I’m a few weeks behind with some of my postings but that’s what happens when you have so many items you want to discuss in a blog and so li’l time…Anyway, I want newspapers to save themselves too but this Slate piece is just insane fiction.  The idea of Wal-Mart trying to help newspapers from going under is ridiculous because 1) Wal-Mart only cares about Wal-Mart, 2) they make rules that benefit only themselves, to the detriment of other industries (not to mention their employees who lack medical insurance), 3) they relish being a monopoly, 4) they have no compulsion about driving other stores out of business, 5) they’re probably happy that they can save on their advertising budget with less papers around.

A much saner alternative appears in this Seattle Times interview with Craigslist founder Craig Newmark where he proposes that he would OK to have links to newspapers from CL.  And there’s more reasonable hope to be found here where Google, a growing megalith, is actually proposing to help papers.

Addenda: now Monster.com is looking to get into the act by partnering with several newspapers.

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