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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. 

by Bill Gibron

28 Aug 2008

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.

Returning to America via Moscow, train nut Roy and his photography loving wife Jessie have decided to take the Transsiberian express from Beijing, where they have just completed a successful church mission. Uncomfortable at first, they soon meet up with Spanish ‘teacher’ Carlos and his 20-something Seattle gal pal Abby. At first, our marrieds enjoy their fun loving friends’ company. But soon Carlos is making a play for Jessie, and while adverse to his advances, he does remind her of a more freewheeling time in her life. Soon separated, Jessie is left to her own devices. When a visit to a local church turns deadly, secrets are suddenly revealed. Turns out Carlos and Abby may be running drugs, and the Russian detective who now shares the compartment with Roy and Jessie may not be the straight shooter he pretends to be. Either way, it’s going to be a rough ride across some frozen, and rather frightening, tundra.

Transsiberian is the kind of movie you have to indulge in. To be sure, it needs more than half of its 111 minute running time to get all its little narrative dominoes in place. As you sit and watch director Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Session 9) meticulously putting each one out, the mind free associates on their significance. Initial conclusions are hard to come by, but once piled together they create the kind of solid set up that only needs a single plot point twist to take us down a rollercoaster ride filled with suspense. Oddly enough, Anderson succeeds, if only slightly. While we can’t really care about his characters (more on this in a moment), we do empathize with their fate. And when the guns come out and the torture begins, our tendency toward identifying with these people is heightened anew. This is not to say that Transsiberian is wall-to-wall dread. Once it gets going, however, it delivers enough electricity to keep us right near, if not completely on, the edge of our seats.

Our leads don’t help matters much. Woody Harrelson, who can usually be counted on for something special, is stuck playing the unwilling, unknowing accessory. He’s the kind of husband so trusting of his wife that when the police are waving a firearm in her face, he still thinks its all some kind of cross-culture confusion (“We’re American!” he shouts). The same can be said for Eduardo Noriega’s Carlos. He’s all crotch shots and amoral animal magnetism. From the moment he lays eyes on Jessie, we can sense the mental undressing - and humping. It’s not hard then to see him as evil. Rounding out the male leads is Sir Ben Kingsley. On the plus side, he’s not putting on the shtick as some fart blowing guru or oversexed New York shrink. But as Detective Grinko, a supposedly honest man in the unethical morass known as Russia, he’s about as obvious with his loyalties as an ‘80s Miami beat cop.

That just leaves our two female focal points to hold down the filmic fort, and luckily, they both do. Again, we aren’t on Jessie or Abby’s side, but we don’t mind the way Emily Mortimer and Kate Mara (respectively) bring them to life. Of the two, our married mark is more troublesome. Jessie makes some very stupid mistakes and choices here, trusting individuals who never give her a real reason for such a belief while approaching all problems like something she will consider…eventually. When Roy turns up missing toward the movie’s midpoint, we instantly suspect foul play. But even in the midst of such a personal dilemma, our heroine finds time to drift out into the countryside with Carlos. If motivations were currency, Mortimer would be paying us in Confederate dollars…or wooden nickels.

Mara is better in that Anderson doesn’t give her too much to do. In a clear case of a little going a long way, Abby makes an impact for what she isn’t as much as for what she turns out to be. When Jessie argues that she’s a good girl, we really don’t see it. But over time, Mara makes us consider the possibility - which is much more than can be said for anyone else in the cast. Thanks to the way Anderson prepares us for the payoff, and the clever little clips that he and co-writer Will Conroy toss in, we don’t mind that the finale feels lifted from dozens of other thrillers. Like Brian DePalma or John Carpenter, Anderson is aping Hitchcock in the best possible way - that is, acknowledging the master while making his noted conceits all his own.

This is what helps Transsiberian thrive. As we watch each carefully planned portion announce itself and then fall back into place, as the twists and turns take us in directions we never once considered, as the characters connive and try to betray their way out of peril, we’re prepared to be held in the tight grip of clockwork caper. That Anderson almost delivers on such a promise is unusual enough. That he can do it in a cinematic era when excess drives most thrills and chills is the film’s most amazing feat. While an appreciation for old school shivers is not required to enjoy what Transsiberian is offering, such an appreciative attitude won’t hurt. This movie’s mechanics are as creaky and conventional as the steam-driven locomotives that Roy loves so dearly. That they still function is a tribute to the power of the motion picture - and a story structured on that most human of habits…the lie.

by John G. Nettles

28 Aug 2008

This column is dedicated to my long-suffering wife, a brilliant person, well-read and well-rounded, who took up with me no doubt expecting meetings of the minds, intelligent discussions of literature and art and philosophy. Instead she came to realize, alas, too late, that her man was hopelessly mired in cheesy crime novels, monster movies, three-chord garage bands, and a mountain of cheap and juvenile pursuits reeking with the stench of pop-culture effluvia.

It’s been the stated purpose of this column to seek out recent works of esoteric knowledge and literary merit to share with the discerning reader. To that end I won’t generally dwell on bestselling authors (everyone knows James Patterson doesn’t write most of his books but they still sell like crack) or books on politics (Republicans want to eat your babies; Democrats want to turn them into gay atheists—now you’ve read all of them), but rather I try to present books that have either blown me away with their beauty or shown me things I’ve never seen before.

Try as I might, however, I just can’t stay out of the junk pile. It’s just too damn entertaining in there. Here then are some of the other books I’ve read so far this year.

Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks, writing as Ian Fleming (Doubleday, 2008): Everybody knows Ian Fleming’s creation James Bond, so there’s no need to explain who he is. On the centenary of Fleming’s birth, his estate commissioned British novelist Sebastian Faulks to emulate Fleming’s style in this newest Bond adventure, which must have been interesting for Faulks because Fleming’s style was crap. Ian Fleming was a terrible writer, from his weird flavor-neutral prose to his fetishism for brand names and clothing labels, from his rampant racism and sexism to his obsession with games (whenever Bond enters a casino, pack a lunch; you’ll be there a while). But much like Mickey Spillane, Fleming was terrible in a way that was uniquely his own and nigh-impossible to duplicate—try reading John Gardner’s or Raymond Benson’s Bond novels and you’ll see what I mean. From the first page, however, Faulks pulls off the trick. Set during the Cold War, where Bond belongs, the novel puts 007 through all of Fleming’s favorite paces as Bond squares off against a deformed mad scientist with a megaweapon and an axe to grind, and one would swear one was reading something Fleming himself just ripped out between martinis. Bond fans will get this book. Everyone else should go back and watch Daniel Craig in Casino Royale again. It still rocks.

Money Shot by Christa Faust (Dorchester Publishing, 2008): One of the best things to happen to popular fiction in the last couple of years is the Hard Case Crime series of paperback potboilers from Dorchester Publishing, a mix of new and reprinted noir classics that hearkens back to the glory days of junk fiction when lurid covers hawked the beautifully brutal work of masters like Jim Thompson, Donald E. Westlake, and Richard S. Prather. And much like in those days, the Hard Case imprint has been a boys’ club until this year, with the release of Christa Faust’s sexy sledgehammer of a book. How noir is it? The book opens with Faust’s heroine, former porn star Angel Dare, stuffed in the trunk of a car and bleeding to death from multiple gunshot wounds. Unfortunately, all that does is make Angel mad, and we follow her as she cuts a swath through a seamy L.A. underworld of stroke flicks, white slavers, and more trigger-happy goons than you can shake a 9 mil at. This is the kind of stuff Tarantino wishes he had the stones to write—pure turgid goodness.

No Regrets: The Best, Worst, & Most #$%*ing Ridiculous Tattoos Ever by Aviva Yael and P. M. Chen (Grand Central Publishing, 2008): Yael and Chen are two of the minds behind the legendary “Dos and Don’ts” fashion column in Vice magazine, tasteless and viciously funny critiques of street fashion, done as captions under reader-submitted photos. Here they work the same dark magic in a book filled with pictures of some of the worst ideas people have ever had for permanent display on their bodies. Personally I’ve never understood those books filled with suggested tattoo designs—if you don’t already know what you want in a tattoo, then you obviously don’t need to get one—but here is a perfect guide to what not to get. If you’ve been pondering having Rodney Dangerfield or Pee-Wee Herman or a giant phallic rooster or an alien-invasion hellscape permanently etched into your hide, now you can see what it’d actually look like. And stop yourself. For the love of God, stop yourself.

Touch Me, I’m Sick: The 52 Creepiest Love Songs You’ve Ever Heard by Tom Reynolds (Chicago Review Press, 2008): There are only three lines in R.E.M.’s song “The One I Love”—two suggest that the singer is in love, then the third refutes it by calling the other person “a simple prop to occupy my time”. That’s it. Three lines, very simple and pretty clear, and yet couples still sing it to each other without a smidge of irony. “The One I Love” isn’t in Tom Reynolds’s book, but there are plenty of other examples of pop songs that should be creeping us out rather than inspiring us to karaoke. The natural first choice for über-creepy balladry, “Every Breath You Take” by the Police, is here (it’s about Sting stalking his ex—stop playing it at weddings!), as well as Radiohead’s “Creep”, the Beatles’ “Run for Your Life”, Eminem’s “Stan”, and a host of others, some well-known (I always thought 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love” was disturbing) and others not so much. Reynolds is a dead-on music critic, well-versed in music history and the nuts and bolts of musicianship, and his insights are frequently profound, but he’s at his best when his critiques go gonzo absurd. Certain chapters have him spelunking inside Alanis Morissette’s head, reproducing Eddie Vedder lyrics phonetically, and type-synching his way through Ashlee Simpson’s “Pieces of Me”. And he hates James Blunt as much as I do. All in all, Reynolds’ creepy love song to creepy love songs is just plain fun. And creepy.

Bigfoot: I Not Dead by Graham Roumieu (Penguin USA, 2008): The long-awaited (well, maybe not) sequel to Bigfoot’s earlier memoirs, In Me Own Words (2003) and Me Write Book (2005), is as heart-wrenching and moving as the first two volumes in Bigfoot’s ongoing saga of cannibalism, the pitfalls of media saturation, and the tragic price of fame. In his frank, confessional style, Bigfoot displays the kind of eloquent pathos Maya Angelou only wishes she could muster. One only wishes the Loch Ness Monster had been this forthcoming in her autobiography. (It’s actually a very funny book, and I’m just kidding about everything but the Maya Angelou part.)

There. Five perfectly good examples of enjoyable, fun, and decidedly uncerebral books with which to kill brain cells and while away the summer hours, and note that not a single one of them is a Jane Austen pastiche or vampire porn. Even when I let my id write the column, I can still perform a public service. I only hope that someday my wife will understand.

Originally published at Flagpole.

by tjmHolden

28 Aug 2008

Source: Motion Picture and Television Photo Archive

Sometimes travel is a metaphor and sometimes it isn’t, and often separating which is what, when, can be a perplexing exercise in peripatacity.

Today I am traveling across the United States – from the West to the East coast – on a diagonal, due north, as one half of a tandem. My traveling companion is a beautiful woman in waxing flower: my daughter – fresh off a high school graduation and a summer as restaurant hostess. Neither of which have sufficiently prepared her for this particular journey. Why? Because this is the first leg of the next journey of her life. A trek that is not only physical, but intellectual, as well . . . for she is embarking on her collegiate career. This, a new stage in her life, represents both an ending and a beginning: the culmination of one thing, the debut of another. Cast that way, it is hard to avoid reckoning this moment – these paces she is now undertaking—as a representation. As a something standing for another thing.

See what I mean? Where does travel stop and metaphor start? The physical and the mystical getting twinned so facilely. Which is what I like about peripatacity. It has a knack for keeping one guessing.

 

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Double Take: The African Queen (1951)

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