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by Bill Gibron

24 Jan 2009


Quick - what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name Sonny Chiba? Martial arts? Japanese bad-assness? The Street Fighter? A nominal name check in True Romance? An actual role in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill? Or maybe images of a feudal East come to mind, a territory on the verge of technological breakthroughs and industrial progress, and a small village terrorized by a thriving metal concern and a 900 lb killer bear? What, you say? The other ideas are definitely Chiba-like in perspective, but what does a period piece about a murderous animal and a group of mercenaries trying to destroy it have to do with the international superstar?

Actually, everything, since in 1990 Chiba directed his first (and to date only) film, Remains: Beautiful Heroes. Later retitled Yellow Fangs, the unusual effort became one of the most important movies in Chiba’s lengthy resume - for all the wrong reasons. After making more than 120 movies, the well known man of action decided to step behind the lens. A true labor of love, he hoped Remains would open up another avenue of expression for his mythic career. But it didn’t. As a result of the film’s failure, the legend had to sell almost all his assets, including his famed training school, the Japanese Action Club. Once you see the film, however, it’s easy to understand why fans failed to support Chiba’s idiosyncratic project

Instead of dealing with mobsters, street toughs, and the inevitable high flying fisticuffs that breaks out between them both, Chiba channeled the tale (based on an actual incident) of Red Spots, a massive bruin that terrorized a rural Hokkaido around the turn of the century. Concentrating its wrath on the local female population, the village hunters found their concerted efforts to trap it almost futile. Tossing in a love story between a young warrior and a girl out to avenge her parent’s death, Chiba’s choice flaunted convention.

The connection to the JAC was also obvious, right from the beginning. In fact, Yellow Fangs opens with a credit sequence recognition “in commemoration of the 20th anniversary” of the famed actor’s school. Many of the leads - Henry Sanada, Hiroyuki Nagato - were associated with or students of Chiba. Sadly, when the film eventually flopped at the box office, Chiba was forced to liquidate the club (he financed most of the movie himself) and head off to Hollywood to earn an easy (and much needed) paycheck. Today, he has even changed his professional name to “Rindō Wachinaga” to avoid further association with his action past. 

It’s a shame that Yellow Fangs failed, for it truly shows what Chiba could do with a camera. It’s a movie that’s large in scope, but very human in its dramatics. While some might see the synopsis and think of an Asian exploitation effort ala William Girdler’s Jaws rip-off Grizzly (1976), this is a much more serious, much more somber experience. There are no major stunt sequences, no real reliance on fighting skills or kung fu styles to sell the story. Instead, we get a sly social commentary which pits the traditional ways of Ancient Japan vs. the encroaching threat of modern society (ie, a copper mining concern). There’s also an underhanded take on the paternalistic nature of the country both then and now.

Chiba takes a big cinematic risk right off the bat, offering up an initial bear attack that is quite gruesome, followed by the introduction of the hunters, and then an extended, almost hour long flashback. During this time, we learn of the longstanding relationship between friends Eiji and Yuki, the government’s desire to keep the locals in line, and the gender-based rift which causes all sides to clash. There is a lot of exposition here, as well as some of the most beautiful shots of the winter/spring Japanese countryside ever captured on film. Chiba may be a wonder with his actors, but his framing and composition are extraordinary.

There are several themes at work here - old world values up vs. the encroaching progress, the battle of the sexes between powerless women and their too controlling men, the violent need of nature to put man in its place, etc. All throughout the narrative, Chiba stops the adventure to give characters a chance to reflect. There is a lot of regret in this film - regret for relying on the hunters to stop the slaughter, regret from Eiji that he hasn’t made his feelings known to Yuki, regret from her regarding the fate of her family. But at its core, Yellow Fangs is really just a mystical monster movie, a film where evil is given a sinister spiritual façade, before turning into folklore.

Even with its strange combination of thrills and thought-provoking, Chiba illustrates his real feel for the art of cinema. He understands the subtleties of the medium, and uses his lens as both an insular and reflective device. When the bear attacks, he uses every trick in the book to hide the less than impressive “man in suit” effects. Elsewhere, he was not afraid to hold on close-ups, the actors allowed time to dig deep and deliver powerful, and quite personal, performances. There is an indebtedness to the Shaw Brothers, with many of the locations having a slick, soundstage quality, and by working with friends and well wishers, you can see the amount of drive and determination the cast and crew felt for this project. It’s as if they knew a lot of their idol’s reputation - professional and financial - was riding on it.

Perhaps that’s why, indirectly, Yellow Fangs feels so sad. You can sense a kind of finality in the project, a real indication that Chiba believed he was creating some manner of art with this elevated campfire tale. It’s no surprise then that, up until recently, the actor has stayed away from the director’s chair. But this past year, Chiba changes his mind. His latest creation is the upcoming drama Za Toichi, supposedly centering on illegal loans where 10% interest is charged ever ten days (the title is short for ‘tooka de ichiwari’). While still “in production”, it will be interesting to see what he brings to this far more modern tale. What’s clear from Yellow Fangs is that, when he wants to be, Sonny Chiba is a sensational filmmaker. Too bad it took 28 years to discover that fact.

by Bill Gibron

23 Jan 2009


World War I. World War II. The Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cold War. The Rapture. The Harmonic Convergence. Y2K. And now, 2012. It seems like every other decade, the planet is threatened with outright extinction, either the direct result of something manmade or as part of a plan cosmically preordained. So far, it’s been Third Rock from the Sun several, the Apocalypse zero. Some think that may all change with the latest ancient prophecy turned multimedia profit. Famed schlock meister Roland Emmerich has even named his latest dithering disaster epic after the proposed Mayan meltdown. Talk about timely.

Of course, not every discussion of the possible end of the world is so cheesy. The Disinformation Company, noted contrarians and certified skeptics, are sponsoring Nimrod Erez’s latest documentary on the subject - 2012: Science or Superstition. And while many of the talking heads presented sound less than secure in determining the final sell by date for mankind, there are some interesting ideas being floated within their occasionally confusing pseudo-scientific analysis. At times, you feel like you’re watching a group of very well educated and considered individuals discussing the existence of pixies.

There are two main sides to the 2012 debate. According to the Maya Calendar, a specific time “cycle” will be ending on 21 December of that year. Successions or phases of existence was the preferred way for the ancient culture to map out their civilization - everything from planting and harvesting to greater concerns about gods and monsters. When 21 December 2012 arrives, it supposedly signifies some manner of completion for the Mayas. On one side are scholars who interpret this as the last tick of the Doomsday clock. When we hit that moment, everything we know about the world will simply cease to exist. Boom.

On the other side of the argument, however, are those who take a more inspired or spiritual position regarding the countdown. To them, 21 December 2012 is not the end of times. Instead, it’s a moment of consciousness raising, a chance for the people of the planet to come together and alter the cosmic perception. There will be no death or destruction, only rebirth and renewal. For most of 2012: Science or Superstition, we hear both sides structure their arguments, struggle for supporting evidence and theories, and eventually agree that most of what they are discussing is purely speculative. We even get a few descents of the Maya race who dismiss all the apocalyptic talk as sensational and misapplied.

The key to all of this is where, exactly, the Earth will be in conjunction with the Sun and where said star will be located come 21 December 2012. Within the Milky Way, there’s a ‘great rift’, a massive cloud of dense space dust which will supposedly wreck havoc with the planet’s sole source of heat and light. The sun will be sitting smack dab in the middle of it on 12/21/2012. Solar flares are the biggest concern, their magnetic fields and indeterminate destructive power capable of almost anything. For those who believe in the end of everything, this rare positioning if the indicator. When the Sun finally wanders into the rift, and then aligns with our world, we’re in for something quite cataclysmic.

While 2012: Science of Superstition eschews digital recreations of major catastrophes, there some to be a kind of consensus on what might happen - melting of the ice caps, a complete reversal of the poles (a very intriguing notion which gets little more than a cursory mention) and an increase in natural phenomenon like flooding, earthquakes, volcanoes, and hurricanes. There’s also talk about the rotation of the Earth’s core, a fudging of orbits, and other sci-fi sounding disasters. In fact, one of the flaws in this otherwise entertaining film is the rampant hyperbole. Without much proof, these well educated minds free associate on the Apocalypse like it’s a personal hobby.

Of course, there are skeptics, the minds that measure out logic and reason and then dismiss everything except the bare bones scientific truths. They cannot deny the astronomical data, there’s no way to circumvent what decades of research has more or less confirmed. But there are aspects of the science that still sound sketchy. Some is based on the work of a Russian thinker whose theories appear unproven (something to do with the entire galaxy passing through a huge unsettled interstellar mass). Others use an erudite form of guessing to give us insight into what might happen a little over three years from now.

So why indulge this exercise in extrapolation? Why give Disinformation and its otherwise cracking sense of contrarianism a whiff of respect with regard to this conjecture? The answer is easy - 2012: Science or Superstition is actually very engaging, in a kind of mental jumpstarting way. There’s a certain level of indirect audience participation here, an inherent aspect that allows viewers to draw their own conclusions and shout (silently) back at the screen. Since Enez is not out to confirm the comments of his participants, he allows them to say their peace, and then provides just enough contradiction to allow the home video witnesses to make up their own minds. Many will come away thinking that Independence Day‘s Emmerich has just as much right to destroy the Andes with a tidal wave as these intellectuals have in stirring up their own brand of fear.

In the end, 2012: Science or Superstition does little except put the idea of a possible apocalypse out there like so many others have before. And one imagines that, just like the Christians who are still back peddling about their prediction that The Rapture was coming in 1988 (among many divergent years before…and after), these thinkers will be revising their theories when, as one interviewee puts it, “your bills are still due come 1, January, 2013.” However, there is some amusement to be had in contemplating what ancient cultures thought about the way the world ended, and when you add in the well spoken if frequently freaky explanations for what may occur, the whole experience becomes surreal. Maybe the cosmos will indeed have the last laugh come 21 December 2012. Here’s betting we’re around to hear the anticipated chuckle.

by Bill Gibron

22 Jan 2009


Wow…

Just…wow.

We critics LOVE to lambast the Oscars, arguing that they get it wrong so frequently that their annual misguided message to moviemakers and goers threatens to turn the 80 year old institution into a true cultural afterthought. Sure, there are always signs of life, or at the very least, a shift. Last year, the Academy gave the Coen Brother’s No Country for Old Men all the legitimizing love they could, while tossing some Paul Thomas Anderson affection toward There Will Be Blood as well. Heck, even Juno and Michael Clayton beat out several “prestige” pictures to walk away with a Best Picture nod. So when a film like The Dark Knight becomes one of the highest grossing commercial successes of all, there is always talk of some kind of industry recognition. Sure, popularity doesn’t always equal aesthetic importance, but with the vast majority of film reviewers agreeing on the unequalled mastery of Christopher Nolan’s post-modern masterwork, it seemed like an Oscar lock.

So what happens? Somehow, one of the slew of Holocaust oriented pics (albeit one that uses the senseless slaughter of millions of Jews as a sloppy psychological subplot) beats one of the best films of all time for Academy recognition. No other major awards entity has The Reader on its short list. Not the Producers Guild. Not the Directors Guild. Not the Screen Actors Guild. Only international entities like BAFTA (the British Oscars) and the Golden Globes (who cares) pegged the production for major year end consideration. Now, it’s not like The Dark Knight will go away unrecognized come 22 February. It has eight nominations to The Reader‘s five, and has a much better chance of winning its technical awards than the latter has of earning a single trophy for Best Picture/Director/Actress or Cinematography. Indeed, at the end of the evening’s festivities, Heath Ledger will more than likely earn only the second posthumous Oscar ever given, while areas like effects, art direction, and sound mixing could go the blockbusters way.

And let’s not forget the other surprises and snubs, both warranted and uncalled for, that manifested themselves this morning. Below are a few of the highlights from the annual festival of cinematic second guessing. As we move closer and closer to handing out those coveted little gold men, SE&L will go into a lot more detail about this year’s Academy Awards. It promises to be a very spirited and lively five weeks.


The Surprises
The Reader Gets Best Picture/Director Nods

This critic has made no bones about his hatred of this film. It’s not a personal anger, or something born out of the creative team involved. No, when dealing with the organized genocide of an entire race of people by an evil governmental entity Hell bent on taking over the entire world, there shouldn’t be a double standard, borderline pedophilic love story taking center stage. Daldry did nothing to warrant Best Director consideration (his work is just as pedestrian as it was in The Hours, and he got a nomination for that too. Must have compromising pictures of several AMPAS members), and the end result is confused and incomplete. This is destined to go down in Academy history as one of the worst Best Picture choices ever.

 

Winslet in Best Actress Category Only

Okay, this screws EVERYTHING up. Winslet was supposed to get her nod in the Best SUPPORTING Actress category as a less than subtle means of making sure she walked home with Oscar gold this year (she has five previous nominations, but no wins). Putting her here knocked out several strong candidates - including one major missing name listed below - while turning the entire race into a literal crap shoot. Depending on who you think did the better job - and all five turns were excellent - this may be the first year where the final decision is not so readily predetermined. Sadly, it looks like Winslet may be on the short end of the tally once again.


Doubt Stronger than Some Expected

By the time the pundits were through marking up their Year End excuses for self importance, John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize winning stage play was getting just minor, peripheral consideration. Many had Viola Davis recognized for her single, sensational scene with Meryl Streep, but few had Amy Adams, or Shanley himself, getting a nod. With the additional attention given to the leads (including a sensational turn by Philip Seymour Hoffman), Doubt went from “no way” to nicely represented. And unlike The Reader, it deserves it.

The Snubs
The Dark Knight Out of Picture/Director Race

This is just a crime. It’s a scandal and a shame, pure and simple. Of the five films given Best Picture cred by the AMPAS, The Dark Knight surpasses at least three - the fractured Frost/Nixon, the epic but uneven Benjamin Button, and the cinematic travesty known as The Reader. The DGA knew this (no love for Daldry’s dreary romance). The Producers Guild got this right (taking Shanley’s Doubt over the Holocaust drama). And let’s drop the arguments about commercial success spelling doom for Nolan’s amazing movie right now. Titanic got its record breaking number of nominations. Jaws, ET, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, and The Lord of the Rings (both The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King) got Oscar acceptance. There is just no excuse for The Dark Knight not being among said roll call.


Happy-Go-Lucky? Not If You’re Sally Hawkins

She’s been the presumptive favorite since topping several year end lists. She walked away with a Golden Globe this past January, and has been heavily touted as one of this year’s nomination locks, what with other acknowledgements from such prestigious places as The Berlin Film Festival. So what happened? How did Hawkins go from predestined front runner to wounded wallflower? Blame the politics of studio shilling. Apparently, The Reader and Angelina Jolie have stronger PR people than Mike Leigh and his usually brilliant British aesthetic.

 

Bruce Springsteen’s Wrestler Tune Gets Nothing

After the fiasco two years ago, which saw Dreamgirls earn three unnecessary nod, and last time around, when
Enchanted also scooped up a trio of nominations (and no awards), the Academy claimed they were going to reconfigure the rules regarding how Best Song choices were made. Apparently, screwing up the system entirely was the solution. As a result, The Boss, this year’s Golden Globe winner (and current Oscar owner for Philadelphia) can keep his tuxedo in moth balls for the rest of the awards season. Sure, the actual nominations available for consideration are nothing to sneeze at, but were there really only three good songs this year? With two being in Hindi?


WTF?
Australia‘s Nomination/ The Duchess’ Pair of Nods

Guess there’s lots of back slapping neo-nepotism amongst the costuming and art direction cliques. Betcha Baz Lurhmann is happy!




Wanted Gets Some Tech Rec

Look, we loved this hyper fun and slickly stylized bullet ballet more than most, but it definitely didn’t deserve to walk away with two technical nods. Was it’s sound design and editing really that good? Or was the pool to choose from really that poor?




What’s With All This Love for Penelope Cruz?

Apparently, Oscar, like most men, thinks with his little Oscar. There is no other reason why this vacant waste of Hispanic space deserves an Academy Award - especially not for this subpar excuse for late in lifeless Woody Allen. She’s done better.


SE&L Satisfaction
Michael Shannon Gets Revolutionary Road‘s Sole Acting Acknowledgment

While this amazing movie deserved much more than three Oscar noms (the other two are for those old ‘anyone can earn them’ standbys, art direction and costuming), Shannon’s work definitely deserves the film’s only acting acknowledgment. Say what you will about the rest of Road‘s revisionist trip back to the sodden suburbs of the ‘50s, but this actor’s laser sharp Greek Chorus really put the whining Wheelers in their place.

 

WALL-E‘s Screenplay Shown Some Love

For most of the Summer, there was a push to see this fascinating CGI classic go the way of Beauty and the Beast as only the second animated film ever to be nominated for Best Picture. There was even talk of getting director Andrew Stanton a Best Director nod. Well, none of that came to pass, especially in light of what happened to a certain Bat-man. But WALL-E did walk away with six total nominations, including the lock in its own cartoon category. But the most surprising statement has to be the Original Screenplay acknowledgement. Apparently, someone in the AMPAS is paying attention.


The Documentary Category is Not a Complete Embarrassment - For Once

After years of screwing up something so easy as picking the best documentary from the previous 12 months, the Academy inched ever closer to quasi-redemption this year. There is not a bad pick among the five finalists, with three - Wire, Water, and Encounters - actually maintaining masterpiece status. In fact, who ever walks away with Oscar gold come 22 February, will be the cream of a really impressive crop.


by Bill Gibron

22 Jan 2009


As announced this morning here are the nominations for the 2009 Academy Awards (review links appear after a specific film’s first mention):

Best Picture:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (review)
Frost/Nixon (review)
Milk (review)
The Reader (review)
Slumdog Millionaire (review)

Best Actor in a Lead Role:
Richard Jenkins - The Visitor
Frank Langella - Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn - Milk
Brad Pitt - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke - The Wrestler (review)

Best Actress in a Lead Role:
Anne Hathaway - Rachel Getting Married (review)
Angelina Jolie - Changeling (review)
Melissa Leo - Frozen River
Meryl Streep - Doubt (review)
Kate Winslet - The Reader

Best Actor in a Supporting Role:
Josh Brolin - Milk
Robert Downey Jr. - Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman - Doubt
Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight (review)
Michael Shannon - Revolutionary Road (review)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role:
Amy Adams - Doubt
Penelope Cruz - Vicky Cristina Barcelona (review)
Viola Davis - Doubt
Taraji P. Henson - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Marisa Tomei - The Wrestler

Best Director:
David Fincher - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard - Frost/Nixon
Gus Van Sant - Milk
Stephen Daldry - The Reader
Danny Boyle - Slumdog Millionaire

Best Foreign Film:
The Baader Meinhof Complex - Germany
The Class - France
Departures - Japan
Revanche - Austria
Waltz With Bashir - Israel

Best Screenplay from Adapted Material:
Eric Roth and Robin Swicord - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
John Patrick Shanley - Doubt
Peter Morgan - Frost/Nixon
David Hare - The Reader
Simon Beaufoy - Slumdog Millionaire

Best Original Screenplay:
Courtney Hunt - Frozen River
Mike Leigh - Happy-Go-Lucky
Martin McDonagh - In Bruges
Dustin Lance Black - Milk
Andrew Stanton Jim Reardon and Pete Docter - WALL-E (review)

Best Animated Feature Film:
Bolt (review)
Kung Fu Panda (review)
WALL-E

Best Achievement in Art Direction:
Changeling
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
The Duchess (review)
Revolutionary Road

Best Achievement in Cinematography:
Changeling
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Slumdog Millionaire
WALL-E
Wanted (review)

Best Achievement in Sound Editing:
The Dark Knight
Iron Man  (review)
Slumdog Millionaire
WALL-E
Wanted

Best Original Score:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Alexandre Desplat
Defiance - James Newton Howard
Milk - Danny Elfman
Slumdog Millionaire - A.R. Rahman
WALL-E - Thomas Newman

Best Original Song:
“Down to Earth”  from WALL-E - Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman
“Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire - A.R. Rahman and Gulzar
“O Saya” from Slumdog Millionaire - A.R. Rahman and Maya Arulpragasam

Best Achievement in Costume:
Australia (review)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Duchess
Milk
Revolutionary Road

Best Documentary Feature:
The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)
Encounters at the End of the World   (review)
The Garden
Man on Wire (review)
Trouble the Water (review)

Best Documentary (Short Subject):
The Conscience of Nhem En
The Final Inch
Smile Pinki
The Witness — From the Balcony of Room 306

Best Achievement in Film Editing:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Frost/Nixon
Milk
Slumdog Millionaire

Best Achievement in Makeup:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Hellboy II: The Golden Army (review)

Best Animated Short Film:
La Maison en Petits Cubes
Lavatory — Lovestory
Oktapodi
Presto
This Way Up

Best Live Action Short Film:
Auf der Strecke (On the Line)
Manon on the Asphalt
New Boy
The Pig
Spielzeugland (Toyland)

Best Achievement in Visual Effects:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Iron Man

by Bill Gibron

22 Jan 2009


Today’s the day. By the time you read this, Forrest Whitaker and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Sid Ganis will have announced the nominees for the 81st Annual Academy Award. Set to be presented on 22 February 2009, the coveted gold statue is considered the film industry’s highest aesthetic achievement. In celebration of this momentous day for film, we here at SE&L will offer up a special selection of material.

First, in honor of presumptive favorite Slumdog Millionaire, Farisa Khalid will present her take on this clever cross-culture fable. By noon EST, an actual list of all the names and categorical recognitions will be made available on the site (with links to reviews, where available). Finally, by mid-afternoon, we will offer commentary on the yearly debate over what Oscar got right (the surprises) and those films and creative individuals that definitely deserved better (the snubs). We’ll even look at the unnecessary nods and glad-handing hack acknowledgements that seem to spring up every year.

So stick with SE&L over the next 30 days as we offer regular looks at the obvious omissions (especially in the always dreaded documentary and foreign film sections), the inarguable no-brainers (the late Heath Ledger, we’re looking at you), and what this year’s picks mean to the always intriguing artform in general. While they don’t always celebrate the best in film, the Academy Awards are a lot like the much debated College Bowl Series. The final result may not reflect the absolute number one, but its existence sure does make for some lively discussion. 

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