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Friday, Feb 15, 2008


It’s been nearly two decades since Japanese maverick Shinya Tsukamoto set international tongues wagging with his amazing cyberpunk splatterfest Tetsuo: The Iron Man. A dark parable of man’s inability to control his taste for technology, the visionary work announced the first time feature filmmaker as an Asian force to be reckoned with. In the 19 years that have followed, he has consistently responded to his own unique muse, mounting films centering on demons (Hiruko), revenge (Bullet Ballet), and claustrophobic terror (Haze). Now comes Nightmare Detective, a left field flick for the noted auteur. Seemingly centered on a police investigation into a series of unexplained deaths, what we wind up with is a dread-inducing exploration into the correlation between nightmares and reality.


When female police officer Keiko Kirishima asks to be transferred from her cushy desk job with the Federal Bureau, she ends up on one of Japan’s most notorious current cases. It seems people are dying by their own hand, stabbing themselves in the throat, and yet all the deaths can be linked to a final cellphone call to someone named “O”. At first, the stogy males in the precinct don’t appreciate Keiko’s feminine ways. But they soon respect her, even as one of their own falls in the process. Desperate for help, the cops turn to the Nightmare Detective, a troubled young man with the ability to read minds and enter people’s dreams. At first he is reluctant to assist. But when Keiko falls under O’s spell, he decides to get to the metaphysical bottom of the killings, and the killer.


Like a crazy quilt combination of Se7en, Silence of the Lambs, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and a little Altered States thrown in for good measure, Nightmare Detective is suspense seasoned with a ripe amount of the unreal. New to Region 1 DVD from Genius Products and Dimension Extreme, this is a movie molten with mood and unswerving in its desire to unnerve. Using a very bizarre approach to both his storytelling and his acting, Tsukamoto (who also plays the important role of “O” here) tears the bottom out of the standard CSI procedural, and instead transformers reality into a realm of lies, stasis, and sin. It is only in the dream state, the bridge between what’s true and what’s telling, that any honest revelations can be considered. From the suicidal to the accidentally dead, the end of life is a blessing, not a calculated curse.


Into this diabolical domain walks Keiko, a fresh face following her own inner angst. Played by the noted J-Pop star Hitomi as a series of static, statuesque poses, our heroine is neither champion nor chump, equally unavoidable as fodder for the frighteners and catalyst for the divisive denouement. She is so much more important than the title character, a whiny little man who seems haunted by powers he is perfectly capable of controlling - at least somewhat. Thematically, Tsukamoto clearly wants to delve into the realm of human psychology, how issues from the past manifest themselves in the everyday patterns of the present. He uses visual cues to keep us connected - underwater sequences, splashes of blood, the physical acts of stabbing and choking - and as the film progresses, such hints settle in to cement the story.


But mood is just as important as clues in Nightmare Detective, and it’s clear from what we see here that our director is a master of ambiance. For a modern society, the Japan of this film looks dirty, ancient, soiled, and tainted. The supposedly pristine buildings become bland fixtures in the graying skies, and the typical neon nightlife is muted to the point of creepiness. As with Tetsuo before, Tsukamoto uses sound as an important part of his horror. During the opening murders, when victims are trying to run from an unseen force, the jagged camerawork and sonic cacophony create a genuinely disturbing chaos. But this is a filmmaker who also knows how to play quiet. When O takes on Keiko and the dream weaver in the last act confront, the absence of sound works wonderfully.


Watching the way the actors are framed, how this director references Japan’s past (O in full fright mode, blood dripping from his eyes and nose, is like a corrupt kabuki) while keeping things firmly in the post-Freudian future, allows even those unfamiliar with the mouth of madness to be intrigued. Nightmare Detective is a movie that plays with time, juxtaposing certain special elements with memories, flashbacks, and foreshadowing. It doesn’t quite all link up in the end, though Tsukamoto does a damn fine job in the effort. We get a great many “a-ha” moments as the story strides to its conclusion, connections barely visible before. They help make what many would see as a gore-soaked statement of standard serial killer cruelty into something more closely resembling art.


On the new DVD version of the film, unrated (meaning much more blood, for those who care), we get a clear indication that nothing in Nightmare Detective is by chance. Tsukamoto delivers a near hour long documentary on the making of the movie, explaining the premise and the various symbolic and subtextual aspects at play. We even get to see some amazing behind the scenes footage of the director working with his cast and setting up shots. Known for his unusual perspective both in front of and guiding the camera (Tsukamoto is a very accomplished actor, as his turn as O proves), these insights are special. They highlight the detail-oriented effort he puts into every project.


And the results really show in Nightmare Detective. While many may mistake this for just another juicy J-Horror romp (and envision the eventual Hollywood PG-13 bastardization of same), there is much more depth here than one initially expects. The psychological overtakes the standard superstition vs. the supernatural dynamic, and Tsukamoto transforms the celluloid canvas into a perverse pallet of his own unique design. It’s good to see that, after years of marching to his own individualist drummer, this Japanese legend has lost none of his stride. Nightmare Detective may not match its cover description or compliments, but in this case, that’s a very good thing indeed. We’d expect nothing less from Tsukamoto.



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Friday, Feb 15, 2008

No, seriously.  It does.  I was looking at it and thinking “who the hell designed this?  A preschool kid?”  That’s not fair though as many kids that age know how to use the Net pretty well so that makes you and your website look even crappier than it does.  And it is crappy, believe me.  It’s time you faced facts and did something about it, so suck it up and listen here.


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Thursday, Feb 14, 2008


For the weekend beginning 14 February, here are the films in focus:


Jumper [rating: 4]


Jumper is junk, a halfway decent premise destroyed by some of the worst hiring choices in the history of motion picture personnel.


Casting is crucial to the success of a film. Just ask anyone who suffered through 2006’s god-awful (no pun intended) remake of The Omen. While audiences could live with Liev Schreiber as the Gregory Peck replacement - barely - in the modern day Antichrist thriller, Julia Stiles sunk every scene she was in. Like a teen mother trying to play grown up in a world where the rules of engagement are beyond her brief years, she diluted the danger in all facets of the copycat creep out. The same thing happens in the new sci-fi stinker Jumper. Between a bafflingly bad Hayden Christensen and a Stiles-like Rachel Bilson as his romantic interest, we wind up with fiction more specious than speculative.  read full review…


Persepolis [rating: 9]


Persepolis is astonishing, a revelation realized in masterful monochrome strokes.


They say the best way to know any culture is through its art. It’s also possible to gain a similar perspective via its artists. Born before the revolution in Iran unseated the reigning Shah, Marjane Satrapi saw her parents idealism embraced, and then eradicated, by a movement meant to free the nation’s tyrannized people. The resulting Islamic fundamentalism, with its deference to Muslim law and chauvinistic ritual, drove Satrapi from her home. Years later, she would reflect on these massive cultural and personal changes in a series of graphic novels. Named Persepolis after the ancient capital of the Persian empire, the brave, original books have now been turned into an equally inventive film. Via stark, stylized animation, and a vignette oriented approach to narrative, we learn the shocking truth that not all rebellion serves the needs of the people. Sometimes, it’s merely change for the sake of same. read full review…


Other Releases - In Brief


The Spiderwick Chronicles [rating: 5]


The story of a supernatural world surrounding ours, a domain where fairies battle goblins for control over their magical reality should be stunning. Its scope should sweep us up in conflicts between good and evil, benefice and the baneful, culminating in the ultimate epic showdown. We should want to revisit this realm over and over again, constantly enraptured of the vision and viability it provides. Sadly, none of this occurs during the dysfunctional family film The Spiderwick Chronicles. Even with indie scribe John Sayles involved in the script, this uneven adaptation of all five books by Tony Diterlizzi and Holly Black is nothing more than CGI smoke and mirrors. The characters are flat, their motivations mired in mid-‘80s angst over divorce and parental abandonment, and the action starts up before the proper mythological foundation is formed. Perhaps for a demographic raised on Ritalin, an audience who needs something more than instant gratification out of the typical compliant cinema, this film will fly. Others will be hemmed in by the slipshod sketchiness of Mark Water’s direction and wonder where the awe went.


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Thursday, Feb 14, 2008


They say the best way to know any culture is through its art. It’s also possible to gain a similar perspective via its artists. Born before the revolution in Iran unseated the reigning Shah, Marjane Satrapi saw her parents idealism embraced, and then eradicated, by a movement meant to free the nation’s tyrannized people. The resulting Islamic fundamentalism, with its deference to Muslim law and chauvinistic ritual, drove Satrapi from her home. Years later, she would reflect on these massive cultural and personal changes in a series of graphic novels. Named Persepolis after the ancient capital of the Persian empire, the brave, original books have now been turned into an equally inventive film. Via stark, stylized animation, and a vignette oriented approach to narrative, we learn the shocking truth that not all rebellion serves the needs of the people. Sometimes, it’s merely change for the sake of same.


As a young girl, Marjane enjoys the intellectual freedom and liberal beliefs of her parents. When threats against the Shah’s power take hold, her entire family falls along the philosophical front lines. They are careful in their convictions - grandfather was jailed and killed by the ruling government, and one uncle’s radical views have consistently kept him imprisoned. With the despot’s eventual fall and the beginning of the revolt, Marjane senses real change in the wind. Sadly, the theocracy which takes over turns the country into a dark, dour wasteland. Desperate to save their child, Marjane is sent to Europe. There, she learns that attitudes toward her people and her homeland are just as destructive as the death squads and Islamic militants manning the streets of Tehran. And things get even worse when she returns.


Persepolis is astonishing, a revelation realized in masterful monochrome strokes. Written and directed by Satrapi in collaboration with fellow French comic artist Vincent Paronnaud the simplistic approach to the visuals, in combination with the intense complexity of the story, turns history into a horror film, a bleak and undeniably dark look at life inside a post-revolutionary Iran. It’s a film of contrasts - adult situations filtered through the eyes of impressionable children, gorgeous imagery suggesting unspeakable evils. The juxtaposition of Satrapi’s straightforward observations illustrated in a style reminiscent of Peanuts and other 2D dreamscapes turn said insights razor sharp. By the end, we are sad for both a nation, and the people who tested the limits of their rights…and discovered the painful, punishable truth.


This is clearly a condemnation of Islamic rule gone wrong, the usurping of personal goals in favor of a more one sided struggle. The Shah is definitely demonized, and rightfully so. Persepolis makes a point of explaining the internal issues that brought Iran to the brink. Once we get beyond the Ayatollahs and the Mullahs, the roving gangs of ex-army adolescents suppressing the citizenry because someone said they can, we recognize the almost even-handed tone. Certainly, there are sentiments that we in the West just can’t support - even as a literal Hell, the people of Iran are determined - and even die - to continue living in their country. Yet Persepolis explains away such sticking points with a clear focus on characters and their concerns.


Aside from Marjane, the most memorable individual we meet is her Grandmother, voiced by Danielle Darrieux. The comforting coo of reason in a realm devoid of rationality, she’s the source of our heroine’s chutzpah, as well as her greatest cause for concern. Marjane is not an easy person to figure out. When she gets to Europe, she pines for the Middle East. Once back in her home, the fanaticism she finds has her longing for her days on the Continent. It’s this inconsistency of terms and intentions that can make Persepolis disquieting and uneasy. But with the wisdom and guidance of Grandma, plus the striking manner in which she’s described, we easily maneuver around the rough edges.


The stunning optical beauty helps as well. Using references to Eastern art, as well as a few slightly surrealistic steps, Satrapi and Paronnaud give this film a wholly original feel. We catch glimpses of other cultural signposts (heavy metal, the cinema) but for the most part, the duo dissects the art of telling a story into its most nascent precepts. There are definite beats here, like the guitar lines in Marjane’s favorite punk rock song and the directing duo make sure to add emphasis to sequences where such punch is important. Yet there is a lyricism here as well, a sense of seeing the real world through the skewed perspective of a particular - and passionate - viewpoint. It makes the black and white look that much more thematically important.


Of course, all of this is only as engaging as the information proffered, and Persepolis provides a wealth of international insight. The daily life inside a post-revolutionary Iran is reminiscent of the late ‘80s news reports from Moscow where journalists would gape at empty store shelves and housewives battling over stale bread. The goon squads come across as leopard like predators with their ability to be everywhere at once, using force and faith as their main weapons of control, a less than veiled threat. There are off the cuff comments (a woman complains about a window washer turned hospital administrator) and progressive illustrations (note how the lessons change in school) of the way in which radicalism reverses the cause it supposedly supports.


And this is the key point of Persepolis. We are supposed to see the Shah as the lesser of several unavoidable evils, and the fight to remove him from power a pure fool’s paradise. While not quite a pristine example of the old adage regarding knowing now what you knew then, fear can undermine even the most well meaning motives. Through the childlike medium of cartoons, and the very adult world of politics, Persepolis weaves a spell that’s impossible to avoid. Like an anime built out of anarchy or a kid vid corrupted by poisoned policies, it’s a movie that does what these kind of efforts do best - inform as they enrage and engage. It’s a work that stands as one of this - or any - year’s best. 



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Thursday, Feb 14, 2008


Casting is crucial to the success of a film. Just ask anyone who suffered through 2006’s god-awful (no pun intended) remake of The Omen. While audiences could live with Liev Schreiber as the Gregory Peck replacement - barely - in the modern day Antichrist thriller, Julia Stiles sunk every scene she was in. Like a teen mother trying to play grown up in a world where the rules of engagement are beyond her brief years, she diluted the danger in all facets of the copycat creep out. The same thing happens in the new sci-fi stinker Jumper. Between a bafflingly bad Hayden Christensen and a Stiles-like Rachel Bilson as his romantic interest, we wind up with fiction more specious than speculative. 


One day, a teenage David Rice learns two very hard life lessons. One is that, no matter how hard he tries, hot chick Millie is a difficult amorous pursuit. The other is that he can actually teleport. Leaving his abusive father and the no man’s land of Ann Arbor, Michigan behind, our hero heads to the big city, robs a bank, and begins his life as a jet setting jerkwad. Fast forward eight years and an elite group of investigators, led by the white haired hitman Roland, are trying to track David. They don’t really care about the robberies or high living. They want to destroy his special gift - and him along with it. With the help of fellow ‘jumper’ Griffin, and a reconnection with his adolescent crush, David hopes to escape the squad’s evil clutches - even if it means taking the battle across time and space.


Jumper is junk, a halfway decent premise destroyed by some of the worst hiring choices in the history of motion picture personnel. In a realm which sees Michael Rooker, Diane Lane, Samuel L. Jackson, and an unrecognizable Tom Hulce as an afterthought, we get a trio of talent that’s one-third winning. Only Billy Elliot‘s Jamie Bell inspires any interest. His character crackles the way the others stumble and fall. The rest of the triptych is indeed downright poisonous. Christensen proves he’s the worst actor working today by turning David into a one note non-entity. He’s so uninvolving that even terminal insomniacs find his efforts snooze-inducing.


But it’s nothing compared to OC cupie dolt Bilson. Looking like a bad computer photo reconstruction of what Maxim thinks is attractive, and using her open eyed performance style for everything from happiness to hurt, she’s wish fulfillment as the walking dead, a plot point that can’t payoff because we could care less what happens to her. She shares no chemistry with her costar (not that Christensen could combine scientifically or sensually with any breathing human) and constantly reminds us of how hackneyed the overall approach to this project is. Something with this large a scope needs actors of equal size. Bilson and Christensen are incredibly small community college thespians at best.


Yet there are other issues here besides the hired help. Liman never lets the movie’s mythos work for him. We get one of the most convoluted ‘us vs. them’ set ups ever, a situation that hasn’t been relevant since the Knights Templar took on The Priore of Zion to protect Da Vinci’s load. Of course, Jumper treats it all like a very special installment of Highlander. Granted, a rivalry between ethically unsound teleporters and the paladins’ religious zealotry (they destroy these gifted individuals because only “God” should wield such power - like the decision on who lives or who dies, right?) reeks of a bad period piece, but Liman has been known to rise above routine material before. Here, he just skips the ideology all together.


This makes Jumper a very superficial ride, one that doesn’t do much more than expand on the whole bi-location concept - and then it telegraphs every idea before it arrives. When Griffin “jumps” a car along the streets of Tokyo, we know that’s going to come back and play a part in the conclusion. Similarly, a statement about an individual’s attempt to move an entire building is nothing but more forced foreshadowing. Liman apparently doesn’t care that everything plays passive. As a director, he never gets the weight behind the events, instead relying on flash and occasional handheld camera chaos to sell the spectacle. A moment when a British double decker bus threatens Jackson should be an iconic eye popper. Instead, it comes across as a sloppy CGI experiment.


It’s the kind of thing that happens time and time again here. Griffin and David battle over a detonator, bounding off the side of a skyscraper and fighting in freefall. Yet the minute they leap, the effect seems fake. And since Liman is using a quick cut editing style to suggest tension, the visuals are rendered pedestrian at best. Jumper should look like an epic, sequences highlighting the cosmic consequence of people randomly relocating around the planet. Besides, the novel by Steven Gould gave David a more heroic bent. Sure, he participated in criminal activities. But he also thwarted hijackers and other agents of evil along the way. Here, he’s just a materialistic moron, more concerned with sexual conquest and buckets of krugerrands than world events.


And why just Earth? Why would an individual with the ability to teleport anywhere reserve their abilities to this particular planet? Instead of gathering more greenbacks, David should be stealing suits from NASA and running around the galaxy looking for extraterrestrials, or at the very least, a broader set of individual horizons. The self-centered egotism exhibited by our lead (and in some small ways, by the paladin killing Griffin) suggests that Jumper knows its equally selfish fan base all too well. Instead of helping the human race, it’s clear your typical geek squad would simply streak over to the Skywalker Ranch and hobnob with their buddy George - or better yet, rob the filmmaker blind.


The lack of clarity combined with the horrendous onscreen talent turns Jumper from a film with potential to a Sci-Fi Channel direct-to-DVD special. Its imagination and drive is buried in a bumbling sense of narrative which never knows how to handle its thrills, and when combined with the unclear elements in the fantastical, the whole scenario sinks. There is clearly a kernel of intrigue at the center of this story. Too bad Liman, and the lamentable choices he made for his cast, completely derail Jumper’s prospects.


 


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