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by Bill Gibron

26 Oct 2007

LUST, CAUTION (dir. Ang Lee)

Ang Lee has had an amazing career behind the camera. Seemingly unphased by sudden shifts in subject matter, he’s tackled everything from Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility), ‘70s relationships (The Ice Storm), Civil War strife (Ride with the Devil), mystical Chinese wire-fu mythos (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and full blown Hollywood popcorn fare (Hulk). He even owns an Oscar for bringing a solemn, sensitive touch to the gay cowboy drama Brokeback Mountain. Yet aside from Tiger, and his first few films, Lee has seldom focused on his Asian heritage. Indeed, some have suggested that he purposely avoids it in order to not be stereotyped by the Hollywood studios. It really shouldn’t be a concern. Even when he decides to work in his native land, as with this year’s exceptional Se, jie (translation: Lust, Caution), his vision and attention to detail set him far above any limits wrongfully inferred from his nationality.

Dealing with the Japanese occupation of Shanghai during World War II, and a band of student resistance fighters hoping to assassinate a high profile collaborator, much has been made of the film’s current NC-17 MPAA rating. Yet reducing this epic drama to a series of purposefully graphic sexual moments undermines nearly two hours of pristine narrative. It takes everything Lee establishes between his leads, all the political and personal intrigue involved, the endless sequences of mindless Mahjong, and one incorrigible girl’s coming of age, and labels it lewd and lascivious, two words far removed from Lust, Caution’s motives. Dealing with the Eros up front, Lee is clearly using it as connection and escape, a means of having his ideologically opposite characters sync up and learn the power of sacrifice and the suffering inside the human heart.

It seems strange that a story which starts off within standard espionage paradigms would end up playing out this way. When first we meet the young and naïve Wang Jiazhi (Tang Wei, absolutely amazing), she’s a wide eyed youth exploring the world for the first time. Taken in by a group of university radicals, she initially thinks making a stand means giving a good performance in a propaganda play. But when the gang targets Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chi Wai), a Chinese national working with the enemy as part of their police/prison system, she bites off more than she is capable of eschewing. The plan is simple—Jiazhi will pass herself off as a merchant’s wife, befriend Mrs. Yee (a radiant Joan Chen) and allow herself to be seduced by the notoriously adulterous adversary.

Naturally, this initial plan has its flaws, and years later, Jiazhi is recruited again, this time by better organized underground forces. With money behind her mission, and a strange inner desire to complete the cause this time around, our heroine falls into a highly erotic and physically brutal relationship with Yee. In the meanwhile, former student leader and current covert operative Kuang Yu Min waits for the proper moment to strike. His silent longing for Jiazhi is becoming a problem, though. In between, we learn about the day to day life of people under enemy rule, the complex class structures and idleness of ladies who lunch, and the blinding power of ideology, its egotistical draw, and friendless final consequence.

So clearly there is more to Lust, Caution than nudity and philosophical pillow talk. What Lee really wants to explore here is the notion of commitment, of how the fortunes (and fantasies) of many can land squarely on the shoulders of a single, easily swayed young woman. Wang Jiazhi will be our guide through all the subterfuge and strategizing, taking her role in stride while missing most of the big picture—at least, at first. The film is actually set up in two totally insular acts. Part one can best be described as misguided youthfulness exposed. Part two is maturity marred by personal/political obstacles. At the start, it is clear that Jiazhi is seduced by the implied power she carries—sexually as well as covertly. Her entire presence is the precept upon which the assassination’s success rests. Yet when plotted by individuals incapable of such calculated brutality, things turn sloppy and strained. The last scene of the film’s first hour is like a literal rite of passage. Everyone, including our heroine, must survive this surprise trial by fire—or find themselves at the business end of a bullet.

When we catch up with the characters later, life has taken some interesting twists. Jiazhi’s situation is so dire that we initially believe she’s returning to the Resistance to improve her impoverished lot. But then Lee tricks us, making the situation less about money and more about emotion. When they knew each other before, Yee and the pert object of his desire danced around their feelings in an ill-advised game of interpersonal defensiveness. By the time they meet again, desperation has become part of the ruse. Yee needs this young woman to feel alive again, and she is eager for his shelter, his power, and his control. Together, they become psychologically and physically bound, and the necessity of the relationship controls everything that happens. Clearly Lust, Caution will not end happily. Stories like these never do. But Lee leaves enough room in his narrative for lots of interpretation. We can see what happens to these characters as tragic, or we can view it as a necessary part of destiny—especially in the fragile existence of wartime.

There are some minor qualms here and there. Lee is a little too leisurely in getting to his points on several occasions. He is obviously pacing this film to magnify the scope. WWII is in the air constantly, but rarely shown. Period detail is prevalent, but aside from a random comment or two, we recognize that this story could be set in any era. It’s not merely indicative of Japan’s dominance of the Pacific in the 1940s. It could be a tale told within coming Communist rule, modern openness, or ancient feudal law. The key is the concept of oppression and treason tacked onto standard human needs like love and acceptance. Even the supporting characters do their duty as part of some perceived nationalistic need. It is only when they miscalculate and come up short that their efforts are recognized by those truly facing the enemy.

With acting that argues for the pure art of performance (both leads are exceptional) and a luxuriant visual drive, Lee has concocted a masterwork out of catty gossip, naked fury, and misplaced patriotism. While some will feel his previous works better illustrate his gift of cinema, Lust, Caution creates an unmatched statement of cinematic wisdom all its own. Clearly calculated to be both scandalous and soft, aggressive and astute, the director confirms his continued award-winning status. Recognition from his peers has done little to dull Lee’s need to explore and provoke. This slow, simmering drama may be the antithesis of a typical spy thriller, but it’s definitely this director’s aesthetic all the way.

by Jason Gross

25 Oct 2007

Must be some kind of zeitgeist thing but I’m noticing articles that complain about how works are art are over-explained in program guides. I really liked a piece by Alice O’Keefe (Information overload) which inspired me to wonder if we crits sometimes overdo it when we try to explain “difficult” art.  The answer is of course that we do sometimes instead of, as O’Keefe suggests, letting the work explain itself and connect with the audience.  Which isn’t to say that ANY kind of context should be tossed out the window but let’s not get carried away.  Another piece about classical music in the Philly Inquirer (Like exegesis with that?) echoes this idea as well as a hilarious piece at the Huffington Post (A gentle plea).

 

by Rob Horning

25 Oct 2007

In BusinessWeek (which you may not recognize since its strange retro redesign) is an article about auto dealerships moving toward a “one-price” system, meaning the price the salesperson quotes you is actually what they intend to sell the car for, rather than being merely the opening act in a negotiation melodrama that will be followed by hard-sell histrionics, faked meetings with managers, some good cop/bad cop, and finally a deus ex machina deal. According to the auto dealerships, which create the bulk of their margins by mystifying the base price and burying its customers in bullshit, some people actually preferred the old system: “Dealers experimented with this before during the 1990s, only to be deluged with complaints from traditionalists who felt they weren’t getting a good deal unless they had the satisfaction of seeing a salesman cut the price right before their eyes.” I’d hazard that these “traditionalists” were so accustomed to distrusting car salesmen that they wouldn’t accept that a given price from a salesman was anything but a ripoff. No one can possible prefer a system where pricing is more opaque—car sales is the classic example of asymmetrical information distorting the market. If the salesman can assure that he always knows more than the customer, he can always work to maximize the rip-off. Or to translate into economic terminology, the salesman can make sure price discrimination works with maximum efficiency and buyers pay as much as they are willing to, not as little as the salesperson will accept. The haggling scheme is great for customers who can bargain on a fair playing field, as perhaps they might have been back when the deals were for horses and not theoretically identical machines. You could look in the animal’s eyes and into its mouth (unless of course it was a gift horse), get a sense of its spirit, get a feel for how it would hunt. For men in Trollope novels at least, this is an essential skill, a way to demonstrate one’s savvy, one’s practical worldliness. (This in no way justifies Trollope’s interminable fox-hunting sequences.) Some of this may have survived into car negotiations, as the article’s author suggests, but that was long ago, before it became apparent that the situations weren’t analogous.

Americans may have become too passive of shoppers to tolerate much haggling, which ceased to be a meaningful part of our culture early in the 20th century, when department stores lured customers with promises of haggle-free purchasing. This expectations has made prices much more sticky—they can’t adapt to inflation and to fluctuations in the values of currencies. Canadians are being punished by sticky prices right now— to cross the bridge to Niagara Falls costs you $2.00 American and $2.50 Canadian, even though the dollars have recently achieved parity. When you are talking about a few cents per unit here or there, sticky prices don’t seem too big a deal, but car dealers are faced with losing more like hundreds of dollars per sale at least, most of which probably hits the commission-earning salesman’s paycheck. But there is considerable psychological comfort in fixed prices, because you don’t have to feel like someone else got a better deal than you and your rights as a consumer-citizen were somehow grossly violated.

by Bill Gibron

24 Oct 2007

Okay – so you’ve read the rules to making successful independent horror. You’ve learned the revisionist ropes and no budget parameters. Still, as a legitimate ‘learn by example’ individual, you’d like a few more examples of the digitally driven genre before stepping behind the camcorder lens and exercising your aesthetic. Well, you’re in luck. There is a wealth of worthy motion picture models out there, each one capable of proving that originality, innovation, and cinema art can indeed be forged out of blood, sweat, and poor credit rating tears. While each suggestion does suffer from the inherent limits of absent cash and amateur apprenticeships, they still remain a significant step in that ongoing clash between mainstream moviemaking and a new, more adventurous breed. On the other hand, it will take a great deal for future projection to match these movies’ trendsetting facets. They truly represent the best in handmade cinema. 

Before the bellyaching starts, certain titles already championed by SE&L are being purposefully left off in order to make room for some fresh faces. These otherwise notable novelties include anything by Eric Stanze, Chris Seaver’s sensational Mulva: Zombie Ass Kicker and Destruction Kings, Scott Phillips living dead deconstruction The Stink of Flesh, several crackerjack Campbell Brothers films including Demon Summer and The Red Skulls, and Justin Channell’s comic classics Raising the Stakes and Die and Let Live. A quick overview of the 15 months of content available here will reveal that, for the most part, we’ve sung the praises of these films before. No, it’s time to shed some light on those outsider gems that struggle to get recognized among the slew of Sci-Fi Channel level product tossed onto the market in the most haphazard of ways. Therefore, in no particular order, here are 10 titles you’re truly going to love, beginning with a recent jewel:

The Blood Shed

Imagine if David Lynch and Rob Zombie had a baby, gave said malformed infant to John Waters to wet nurse, and allowed Kenneth Anger and the Kuchar Brothers to come over and babysit. With Tobe Hooper and Jack Hill as godparents and Edith Massey as life coach, the results would begin to resemble something similar to the wonderfully weird brain damaged b-movie The Blood Shed. The conceptual offspring of couture auteur Alan Rowe Kelly, this tasty take on the entire Texas Chainmail Family Massacre strikes an intriguing balance between scares, surrealism, and satire. It’s an eager exploitation experiment that’s a joy to behold.

Midnight Skater

Midnight Skater is a classic example of a “look beyond” film. If you can “look beyond” the amateur antics, unprofessional production values, and overall neophyte nonsense, you’ll really enjoy yourself. Getting there may require Ritalin, a gross of sugary juice boxes, and about a hundred trips to the video store - or at least a couple readings of The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. This is horror hilarity as channeled through a TV eye mentality, issues of Fangoria, and untold reams of fan fiction. Brothers Andy and Luke Campbell pepper their film with unforgettable characters, and great gore set pieces, creating a brilliant bargain basement slasher epic.

Bleak Future

Bleak Future is simultaneously smart and stupid, realistic and retarded, wholly original and a complete and utter rip off. It borrows liberally from such future shock spectacles as the Mad Max movies, A Boy and His Dog, and A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, starting out as a solid spoof before becoming a frighteningly inventive take on humanity, horror, and the universal lack of Armageddon coping skills. Offering up a believable premise and a directing style that cribs from the likes of Kubrick and Lucas, Raimi and Tarantino, Brian O’Malley and his mates have made a true kitsch classic, a nerd’s nutzoid splatter fest.

Gory Gory Hallelujah

Sometimes, something so original comes along that it takes you aback for a moment, throwing off your usually sound and set criteria and aesthetic. Though it’s smartly realized narrative kind of falls apart toward the end, and its breakneck pacing means that much of the subtleties get lost in the chaos, Gory Gory Hallelujah is still one exciting, engaging film. Part religious rant (pro and con), part faith-based freak-out, this thoughtful provoking farce casts the keen, clear satirical eye of writer Angie Louise and director Sue Corcoran, to function as both Bible bashing and spiritual re-awakening. It’s a bloody, ballsy good time.


Jerkbeast

For a movie formulated out of a cable access program that’s premise basically consisted of brain dead pre-teens calling up the hosts to try their hand at swearing, Jerkbeast is brilliant. As an example of homemade cinema, with cast and crew working from little more than a dream and an extended credit line, it’s excellent. As a standard motion picture comedy, it’s a little wanting. Not everything works here. Some of the attempts at humor are obvious and lame. Still, as a genre joke starring a guy in an ogre suit and two tame slackers who want to start a band, it’s very endearing and engaging.

Buzz Saw

Serial slaughter…alien invasion…hopelessly inept handymen…you name it, Buzz Saw has found a way to add it into its mixed-up menagerie of the macabre. Imagine the Coen Brothers as the kings of carnage, or Wes Anderson exposing the true secrets behind Area 51 - that’s the visual vibe and narrative tone achieved by directors Robin Garrels and Dave Burnett. Beyond its bizarro world tendencies is a film that fully understands the requirements of a fictional realm. The filmmakers give their movie about murder and extraterrestrial menace untold dimensional details, making it as authentic and inviting as it is arcane and insane.

The Manson Family

Audacious, inspired and overdosing on the scurrilous and the sleazy, Jim VanBebber’s The Manson Family is one of the most remarkable films ever made about Charlie and his criminal clan. Its flaws are as obvious as the gore that flows from the victims’ bodies, and the moments of genuine revulsion are equally effusive. In his attempt to recreate the defining moment of the 1960s, VanBebber has struck upon a uniquely individualistic ideal. Instead of making that mad monk messiah the center of his story, the filmmaker strives to capture the essence of the Manson movement as filtered through a ‘70s exploitation recreationist’s approach. He manages magnificently.


Inbred Redneck Alien Abduction

The plotline couldn’t be more promising - invaders from outer space target a group of hopelessly hick hillbillies for their icky “experiments” and the government comes calling. Thankfully, writer/director Patrick Vos and his co-writer Adam Hackbarth do more than just flesh out this funny business. They create a comedy so novel and unusual that recent Hollywood horse-hockey just pales in comparison. Aside from the fact that bumpkins are basically humor gold, these devilishly deranged filmmakers find ways to give FBI agents and egregious E.T.s their own sense of silliness and savvy. The result is a misguided masterwork, an outsider opus you’ll revisit again and again.

Scarlet Moon

Dripping with ambition, dense with ideas and attempting the epic while maintaining the idiosyncratic, this attempt at a new modern mythology works, most of the time. Warren F. Disbrow is like a directorial encyclopedia of horror. We see sci-fi and fantasy elements merging with macabre to become a definitive statement of one man’s love for the scary and speculative. There are obvious nods to ‘60s drive in classics, ‘70s shockers, ‘80s teen slasher romps, the ‘90s kind of ironic eeriness – even a couple of non-horror classics get passed through the dissecting device. The final product is a mishmash of comedy and corpses, devil worship and dumbness.

Killer Nerd/Bride of the Killer Nerd

This is a certifiable classic, a perfectly executed premise of such outrageous originality that it’s amazing no one had thought of doing it before. After all, geeks are the original pecking-order punching bags, the bottom-of-the-esteem-food-chain freaks. What better way to celebrate an AV club member’s memories of how hellish high school really was than to turn a card-carrying corporal in the slide rule sect into a blood-and-guts slasher of the popular people? Bride does its predecessor one better. It takes the terror back to the hallways of senior year where it belongs, and makes the bullies of youth pay for all their verbal abuse.

by Nikki Tranter

24 Oct 2007

Loved the cat-slapping going on this week between lovers and haters of the new Gossip Girl TV series. The guys at The Intelligencer think the show is the greatest thing ever invented and that anyone who disagrees is, like, way uncool, while Lesley M.M. Blume thinks the show is not only complete crap, but a terrible influence on its young audience.

Blume, for The Huffington Post, writes:

Along these lines, Gossip Girl seems to tell us that there’s nothing to look forward to, and there will be nothing to look back upon ... except more of the same. We’re not just destined to become brittle materialistic adults; we already are brittle materialistic adults by the time we hit puberty. We have no choice. We’re wired for misery. If we have money, we’re destined to be miserable with it. If we don’t have it, we’re destined to be miserable without it, and spend our lives with our noses pressed up against the glass.

Intel his back:

We know (from photo evidence) that [Blume] hasn’t been in her thirties long enough to actually forget that the whole point of high school (and anything else leading up to the age of 21, at which point everything irrevocably and nightmarishly reverses) is, was, and will always be about getting older as fast as possible.

Hmm, Blume, I think, makes the better argument. The purpose of the Intel piece is to criticise Blume’s “reading” of Gossip Girl. However, it counters but a few of Blume’s key points—just the easy ones. Blume feels sorry for the kids today who have The OC and this new show to reflect their youth, while Blume had Heathers and Clueless and smart movies with smart teens. Ooh, Intel retorts—she’s just a jaded child of the ‘80s who also watched Alf. TV, Intel says, is supposed to be silly and far-fetched—hello?, they practially squeal. What was the argument again—something about reality? Alf fits in ... where?

Blume’s point is, on the whole, that in her day teens acted like teens—as they did in Alf and Growing Pains and Who’s the Boss?, and every show Intel mentions. Kids today, writes Blume, if you listen to shows like Gossip Girl, have lost what it was that made teens teens—innocence, naivete, and all that other good stuff. Intel tries again:

Lesley’s point here is that they try to make Blair’s character on the show act way older than her age, which, duh, is totally correct.

And then you realise they’re just not trying. You win, not through intellienget debate, but by metaphorically poking people in the boob and running off. Take that Lesley Blume! And, by the way, you look like Paris Hilton! It’s the anti-ouch, really, when your rival proves your point for you.

On Gossip Girl—check out EW‘s interview with show producer Stephanie Savage.

 

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