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by Bill Gibron

29 Aug 2008

It’s the final week of Summer 2008, and believe it or not, not a single tentpole release (Babylon A.D.) or fringe title (College, Disaster Movie) was screened for the press. Still, there are a few films we can focus on for 29 August, including:

Sukiyaki Western Django [rating: 8]

Sukiyaki Western Django is Sergio Leone on LSD. It’s every ‘60s/‘70s revisionist western riff supersaturated in stylized bombast and a purposed perversion of the motion picture mannerism.

Some forty years later, the spaghetti western remains one of the most unique subgenres in all of film. As a reflection of America as seen through the eyes of the world (and the US media), it stands in startling contrast to the conservative oaters that inspired it. But even more intriguing, the multicultural facets of the format provide insight into the shared heritage and history of each creating nation. A perfect example of how this all comes together can be found in Takashi Miike’s astonishing Sukiyaki Western Django. While it may sound like nothing more than a love letter to a certain Mediterranean country and its inventive horse operatics, the infamous filmmaker’s broadened approach brings in everything from Shakespeare to standard samurai tradition. The results are ridiculously fun.  read full review…

Hamlet 2 [rating: 4]

Let’s just call Hamlet 2 Waiting for Guffaws, and be done with it. Sadly, said laughter rarely comes, if at all

There is nothing wrong with earnestness. Trying too hard usually validates the effort. But when it comes to comedy, being obvious can often lead to being unbearable. Sometimes, it’s better to use subtlety to sell your satire than big, broad strokes. Such is the case with Andrew Fleming’s Hamlet 2. Treading ground familiar to any failed artist in the audience, the director behind Dick and the horrendous In-Laws remake hopes we’ll root for ridiculously eccentric loser Dana Marschz. While it’s true that the farcical pheromones streaming off this failed actor should be enough to keep us interested and engaged, the tone is so wildly uneven and the results so unspectacular that we never develop a vested entertainment interest. read full review…

Transsiberian [rating: 7]

This is not to say that Transsiberian is wall-to-wall dread. Once it gets going…it delivers enough electricity to keep us right near, if not completely on, the edge of our seats.

The little lie begins the deceit. Soon, the lack of truth clouds everything - from love to legality. Within days, loyalties which once seemed firm are tested, while newfound friendships provide the catalyst for even more distrust. All the while, the deception cuts as deeply as the Siberian cold, the temperature unable to freeze out the feeling of isolation or the need to be insincere. Soon, there is nothing left but a mountain of fabrication, its uneasy equilibrium waiting for one loose element to cause it all to come crashing down. That uncertain fragment is Jessie, the wife of rightly religious hardware store owner Roy. While her troubled past is now a faint memory, what she will do presently along the couple’s Transsiberian train trip will call into question everything she ever was - or wanted to be. read full review…

Mirrors [rating: 5]

Mirrors is a minor success, meaning it’s a pretty big failure as well.


If we weren’t already aware of Hollywood’s brain dead inability to fashion such a conspiracy, one would swear that Tinsel Town was out to destroy horror once and for all. Their weapon of choice? The J-Horror remake. Their intended targets? Foreign filmmakers who’ve proven they can master macabre with a diligent, dread-induced professionalism. In the last year alone we’ve seen the talented combo of David Moreau and Xavier Palud, responsible for the terrific thriller Ils, helm the horrible Jessica Alba vehicle The Eye. Now, Alexandre Aja, fresh from proving he could take on even the most tired material (in his case, the Wes Craven quasi-classic The Hills Have Eyes), is given the god awful task of updating the Korean creeper Into the Mirror. That he almost succeeds suggests that an untapped talent that no studio suit can truly stop. read full review…

Rain of Madness [rating: 6]

Combining the best of the mock doc format while finding a way to incorporate some obvious outtakes, Rain of Madness pushes the absolute limits of Tropic Thunder‘s original premise.


Say what you will about Tropic Thunder - hilarious Hollywood satire or sorry excuse for politically incorrect potshots - but it’s hard to deny its insularity. Of all the contained within Tinsel Town takes such as The Player and The Stunt Man, this madcap movie really delivers on the feeding hand mastication. As with any in-joke, the humor increases as the source becomes more selective, the novelty lost on those left outside looking in. The same could be said for the latest offshoot from the Thunder-dome: a mock documentary fashioned after the fabled Apocalypse Now memoir Hearts of Darkness. Entitled Rain of Madness, this spoof of a making-of of a lampoon is wonderfully wicked - and sadly, too short. read full review…

by Bill Gibron

29 Aug 2008

Say what you will about Tropic Thunder - hilarious Hollywood satire or sorry excuse for politically incorrect potshots - but it’s hard to deny its insularity. Of all the contained within Tinsel Town takes such as The Player and The Stunt Man, this madcap movie really delivers on the feeding hand mastication. As with any in-joke, the humor increases as the source becomes more selective, the novelty lost on those left outside looking in. The same could be said for the latest offshoot from the Thunder-dome: a mock documentary fashioned after the fabled Apocalypse Now memoir Hearts of Darkness. Entitled Rain of Madness, this spoof of a making-of of a lampoon is wonderfully wicked - and sadly, too short.

For German born director Jan Jürgen, the notion of war and its various horrors is not as interesting as the realities of making a movie about said combat. So he decides to follow filmmaker Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) as he prepares to shoot the cinematic adaptation of “Four Leaf” Tayback’s (Nick Nolte) Vietnam chronicle, Tropic Thunder. From the casting of all the leads - Australian Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), crude comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) - to the troubled situations onset, Jürgen deconstructs the overblown Hollywood hatchet job. Placing the blame squarely on prima donna performers and an inexperienced director, previously unknown facets of the film are disclosed, including the shocking final footage shot by Cockburn…before he and his cast vanished!

Combining the best of the mock doc format while finding a way to incorporate some obvious outtakes, Rain of Madness pushes the absolute limits of Tropic Thunder‘s original premise. Making a fake film about another phony production practically screams cheek, and for that reason alone this movie is worth the free ITunes download. But don’t expect to be bowled over by new material. Some of the stuff here is clearly linked to improvised scenes, cut comedy bits, and purposely bogus EPK interviews with the cast and crew in character. Almost everyone involved here is goofing it up before the camera - some more than others. Downey Jr. has an amazing sequence when he meets up with his character’s “real life” Texas family. His meltdown is memorable indeed. Similarly, the endless mugging for “MTV” by Jackson’s Chino is priceless. Black is less involved, as is Stiller, but Baruchel continues to be Thunder‘s undervalued VIP. His scenes as the sole participant in Cockburn’s pre-filming boot camp are classic. 

Equally entertaining are Coogan’s newer moments in front of the lens. Rather marginalized in the movie itself (he’s literally gone in a flash), Cockburn is seen as much more of a screw up during Rain, his limited knowledge of movie making logistics really adding up when it comes to controlling his hack-tors. While it would have been nice to see more of Tom Cruise or Matthew McConaughey, there absence is clearly the result of location, not personal limits. Since much of the material was filmed on Thunder‘s Hawaiian sets, it seems illogical to expect two extended cameos to take part in this public-private lark. Still, there is a lot of fun to be had here, especially when Jürgen does his best Werner Herzog for a last act look at Cockburn’s death scene (ala Grizzly Man, we don’t see it, just Jürgen’s reaction - over and over again).

At only 30 minutes, Rain of Madness does feel awfully short. Maybe it’s the amount of material Coogan and co-writer Justin Theroux had to work with. Perhaps the running time is connected to the willingness of the A-list cast to participate. Certainly, the format itself limits the amount of opportunities, along with obvious fears of overstaying one’s welcome. Still, as part of the big picture putdown of the business called show, Rain makes a wonderful companion piece to Thunder. While you may want to wait for the inevitable DVD release (ITunes is a tad proprietary), this short is still a lot of fun. It’s always a joy to peer into the specious soul of Hollywood’s own horror show to see the Satan underneath.

by Bill Gibron

29 Aug 2008

If we weren’t already aware of Hollywood’s brain dead inability to fashion such a conspiracy, one would swear that Tinsel Town was out to destroy horror once and for all. Their weapon of choice? The J-Horror remake. Their intended targets? Foreign filmmakers who’ve proven they can master macabre with a diligent, dread-induced professionalism. In the last year alone we’ve seen the talented combo of David Moreau and Xavier Palud, responsible for the terrific thriller Ils, helm the horrible Jessica Alba vehicle The Eye. Now, Alexandre Aja, fresh from proving he could take on even the most tired material (in his case, the Wes Craven quasi-classic The Hills Have Eyes), is given the god awful task of updating the Korean creeper Into the Mirror. That he almost succeeds suggests an untapped talent that no studio suit can truly stop.

For suspended police officer Ben Carson, life couldn’t get more complicated. Six months sober, and desperate to keep connected to his family, he’s sleeping on his sister’s sofa, hoping for some kind of redemption. Taking a job as a security guard in a burned out department store, he starts making amends. Unfortunately, the former New York landmark known as The Mayflower has other ideas. While the rest of the building is a disaster, the mirrors are all polished and pristine. Seems the previous rent-a-cop had an obsession with keeping them clean - that is, before he died by his own hand. The location also has a sinister history, one connected to an old mental hospital, a crazed doctor, and a great many deaths. Soon Ben believes he is being haunted by the reflections - and once they’re done with him, his wife and children appear to be next. His must unravel the mystery to save his, and his family’s, lives.

Mirrors is a minor success, meaning it’s a pretty big failure as well. Any premise that can zap Alexandra Aja of most of his visceral viability should have been left in the secretary’s “Out” box with the rest of the rejected scripts. While the director does find a way to breathe new life into an old design (haunted object bringing grief to those interacting with it), he still can’t shake the staleness of wandering back into someone else’s ideas. What semi-sinks Mirrors is this derivative déjà-vu. If you’ve seen one Asian horror film (and its eventual American adaptation) you’ve pretty much experienced the entire genre, and no matter how hard he tries, Aja can’t shake the sameness. But thanks to some inventive locations, and the director’s attention to detail, we wind up with an effort that’s intriguing - at least until the puzzling finale.

Aja clearly adores the burnt out Mayflower building that stands as the film’s main set. He lovingly frames the introductory shots, and takes his time roaming the melted mannequin interior. During these initial sequences, Mirrors maintains a nice level of trepidation. Since we are getting an opportunity to see something new and unusual (urban ruins, so to speak), we drink in every moment. As Carson, Kiefer Sutherland offers good flashlight acting. His quiet scenes inside the structure, discovering the various frightening facades that surround him, more than make up for his occasional hyperactive outbursts and shouting matches. This is one actor who believes all dialogue is only deliverable in a whisper or a scream, and the hamfisted qualities can be overwhelming at times. Sutherland is not alone however. Most of the cast respond to problems with an overdone amount of angst.

On the other hand, Aja really does understand the basics of movie morbidity. He gives us nice and nasty gore, the red stuff flowing freely out of massively gaping wounds. This is especially true of Amy Smart’s death. As Ben’s sister, she literally pulls her jaw off in one of the most unsettling sequences ever. Elsewhere, when we finally learn what’s “possessing” the place, the showdown between ‘It’ and Ben is handled in expert fright fashion. It’s instances like this when you wonder what Mirrors could have been. You think beyond the standard mystery paradigm to envision something that expands beyond the scope of your typical scary movie.

And yet Aja can’t salvage everything. There is a palpable feeling of studio meddling here, a desire to tone down the atmosphere and increase the idiocy. The film suggests - at least, towards the beginning - that Carson may be suffering from some manner of drug based side effect. It would explain his hallucinations inside the Mayflower. The concept is explored for a second before being shuttled aside for more clues. Similarly, British actor Jason Flemyng appears as a friendly cop willing to help Ben uncover the truth. But he is so poorly introduced, and lacks any real connection to the cases, that we wonder why he’s so gracious. As with the unexplained issues within his family (Sutherland and onscreen wife Paula Patton seem to absolutely hate each other), much of the subtext seen in Mirrors is mitigated for…frankly, it’s rather unclear.

Indeed, when one goes back and tries to recall what takes the place of necessary cinematic facets like backstory and clear characterization, the substitutions become fuzzy indeed. We know there are times when Carson must visit a monastery, and he does take a trip through a collapsing wall into the old haunted hospital, but unlike other sequences of suspense, we seem to be dragging our feet here. Nowhere do the answers add up to something solid. By the end, we are shocked to learn of the real reason for the haunted glass. While successful and satisfying in a bugf*ck Exorcist kind of way, the lack of logistics really brings everything down. In the end, we sense a situation stifled by mandates from the moneymen, along with a sorry attachment to the source.

Still, fans can rejoice at what Mirrors actually ‘reflects’. For all the hate leveled at his grisly Haute Tension, or the last act bravura of Hills, Alexandre Aja may just be the next generation of fear authority. When one’s aptitude shines through even the most lax commercial creepshow, there’s an anxiousness for a return to foreign (or perhaps, independent) soil. Of course, his next project is an odd choice indeed. Supposedly, Aja will be working on a 3D version of the cheeseball Piranha movies from the ‘80s (that noise you just heard was the collective “huh” from the genre fanbase). As long as it helps him achieve a level of artistic leverage, he can make all the dumb and/or derivative movies he wants. Mirrors may not be the best example of his work, but it does show what an artist can do with even the most improbable motion picture parameters…up to a point. 

by PopMatters Staff

29 Aug 2008

You Say Party! We Say Die!
Opportunity (Montag’s I Love Her Remix) [MP3]
     

You’re Almost There (DJ Rexford Remix) [MP3]
     

Buy at Rhapsody

Her Space Holiday
Sleepy Tigers [MP3]
     

Delta Spirit
Trashcan [MP3]
     

Awesome Color
Already Down [MP3]
     

Tilly and the Wall
Alligator Skin [MP3]
     

The Silent Years
Black Hole [MP3]
     

by Bill Gibron

28 Aug 2008

Some forty years later, the spaghetti western remains one of the most unique subgenres in all of film. As a reflection of America as seen through the eyes of the world (and the US media), it stands in startling contrast to the conservative oaters that inspired it. But even more intriguing, the multicultural facets of the format provide insight into the shared heritage and history of each creating nation. A perfect example of how this all comes together can be found in Takashi Miike’s astonishing Sukiyaki Western Django. While it may sound like nothing more than a love letter to a certain Mediterranean country and its inventive horse operatics, the infamous filmmaker’s broadened approach brings in everything from Shakespeare to standard samurai tradition. The results are ridiculously fun. 

It’s the 1880’s, and in the small Japanese/Nevada town of Yuta, the red clad Heike and the white dressed Genji are at war. Believing there was gold in this dirty one horse outpost, they arrived to stake their claim. Finding no such treasure, they have since stayed, fighting among themselves in a feud that fails to settle the issues long standing between the gangs. Both leaders fancy themselves as much better than their men. Kiyomori sees himself as rarified royalty in red. Yoshitsune carries an elegant blade and believes in the warrior ways of feudal Japan. Into their bickering bullet ballet comes an unknown gunslinger in black. His purpose and persona are unclear. Taken in by an old lady, he learns of the woman’s dead son, her mute grandchild, and the daughter who is now a concubine for the Genji chief. All vow vengeance, and with the help of this stranger, they may finally get it - or die trying. 

Sure, Sukiyaki Western Django is Sergio Leone on LSD. It’s every ‘60s/‘70s revisionist western riff supersaturated in stylized bombast and a purpose perversion of the motion picture mannerism. For someone known mostly for his crime and horror efforts, it’s refreshing to see Miike working outside his craven comfort zone. Yet as a student of cinema, he has clearly learned his unused lessons well. This is one of the best updates of the spaghetti style since a retro rock act took their Morricone-inspired music and made The Legend of God’s Gun. While that independent masterpiece was all glorified greatest hits however, Sukiyaki Western Django digs deeper. It’s complete and utter context merged with vivacious visual pizzazz. Some may think that Miike is merely celebrating a category he’s come to respect, but this movie is more than admiration. It’s passion pumped up by a powder keg of crazy invention and ideas.

Miike makes every moment of his two hour running time count. Flashbacks are handled with absolute control and confidence, while symbolism is shunned for more obvious and outright metaphors. When Kiyomori decides to “become” Henry 6th (keeping in line with the film’s already obvious nod to the War of the Roses), we fully embrace the nutty bow to the Bard. Similarly, Yoshitsune’s love of samurai code and culture gets turned backward, then broadsided, becoming more of a burden in modern confrontations than a skill set benefit. All the way through, the homage remains heavy, Leone and Corbucci (whose own celebrated series gives the film its name) ever-present in the pastiche.  But this is not to accuse Miike of artistic laziness. Instead like all great impressionists, he takes the best bits and bathes them in his own unique combination of substance and sizzle. 

Perhaps the most unusual element applied here is the use of English by the decidedly Asian cast. With many of the actors speaking their lines almost phonetically, the dialogue takes on an unusual cadence - reminiscent of singing. It’s like Greek tragedy with kabuki masks. The performers provide wonderful emotional and psychological heft, but there are still times when you can’t help but laugh at the poorly pigeoned vocabulary. Miike also tosses in a few recognizable repeaters all his own. The sheriff character is a practically immortal sycophant who changes sides as often as he avoids the Grim Reaper. His weasel whine is one of the film’s most memorable bits. So is the appearance of Miike student and supporter Quentin Tarantino. Doing his best Lee Van Cleef, his narrator character/catalyst provides a perfect contrast to the rest of Sukiyaki‘s frequent pretense.

But it’s the man behind the lens that really stands out here. From his borrowing of post-modern obviousness (the cartoon interlude, the title card labeling of a main character) to his far more subtle - and stunning - landscape shots, Miike is making art here, and it’s hard to deny his intent. This is a beautiful film, from the way it’s composed to the way the characters fill the frame. Again, nothing is wasted. Miike collects the memories from his mental movietone scrapbook and paints them effortlessly across the screen. When we get to the last act showdown, guns blazing and blood flowing, there’s a poetry in the presentation. We aren’t watching yet another take on Once Upon a Time in the West. We are witnessing the aesthetic process that could contemplate such a film in the first place.

Indeed, everything about Sukiyaki Western Django is about purpose - even if it’s not clear to the viewer initially. And when you consider that Miike borrows heavily from A Fistful of Dollars, which itself was fashioned after Kurosawa’s classic Yojimbo, the karmic connections start to make sense. Soon, one sees beyond the spaghetti stresses to witness the director’s own take on the type. Even his title gives his own insular conceit away. By the time Tarantino returns as a wheelchair bound blob of his former self, Miike has managed to do the unthinkable - he bests Leone and the like at their own game. While the Italians loved their ancillary oddness, his Japanese counterpart can’t help but go just a bit crazier. While it will make Sukiyaki Western Django unwieldy for some, most film fans will fall instantly in love.

Perhaps the most satisfying thing about this film is its visionary look and feel. Though it taken its cues from the past, the present is all but fully accounted for in Miike’s frame. This is the kind of movie that burns inside a director like the proverbial (and stereotypical) fever dream, eventually arriving in the same sporadic fits of unfathomable joy that came during its frantic inception. We can sense the fun Miike was having while he made this movie. Bliss bubbles up from almost every piece of celluloid. Some may view this as self-indulgent silliness, a skilled auteur going out on a limb for his own maverick pleasures. But if you take the time to fall under the spell of Sukiyaki Western Django, you’ll hope he never returns to his gore-drenched Yakuza roots. 

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