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by Bill Gibron

28 May 2008


Revisiting Annie Hall the other evening, this critic was struck at how mature and well meaning the movie was. At the time of its release, it was heralded as a breakout work for its writer/director Woody Allen, and ushered in a change in the comedian’s cinematic style. Where once he favored outlandish farce, narratives loaded with sight gags, one liners, and silent era physical shtick, this new approach combined sly social commentary with a growing urban angst. He would soon be criticized for his overreliance on the psychological foibles of his characters, but Hall made it all seem so fresh, so inviting, so clearly contemporary and of the moment.
 
Allen’s Oscar winner was a critical constant banging at the back the brain while sitting through the otherwise appalling Sex and the City film the other evening. Surrounded by contest winners who were decked out in their Tampa interpretation of New York couture, and harangued by radio personnel making sure that every man in the screening felt uncomfortable, it was clear that this particular night at the cinema was reserved for the ladies. Now, there is nothing wrong with gearing a movie - or a film oriented event - around a single fanbase. Star Wars has been guilty of milking the ever-gullible geek long before mannequin Skywalker was in short pants.  But there is something unsettling about the whole Sex sect - and the proof parades itself proudly during this movie’s mindboggling two hour and thirty five minute running time.

Let’s not address the TV series here. A long running sitcom/comedy/cable show contains years worth of plot points and character development. Arguing that Carrie Bradshaw used to be ‘this’, or that Samantha Jones would never do ‘that’ is like pointing out that the Simpsons used to be more realistic back in the mid ‘80s. Nothing stays the same forever, and if it did, viewers would be decrying the lack of change. For the sake of this piece, let’s look at how the four main characters are portrayed in the film. As an additional part of this dissection, we will also look at the supporting players within their sphere of influence. By analyzing both sides of the interpersonal paradigm, by seeing the ‘who’ along with the ‘who cares’, we can see how bereft of entertainment this dynamic really is.

Let’s start with Sex heroine Carrie Bradshaw, author, columnist, fashion plate, hopeless romantic, and absolute rotter. It’s not that she does things that are blatantly amoral - and she does - it’s that she bathes them in a sugary sweet coating of complete and utter shamelessness. At the beginning of the film, she makes cow eyes at ‘man’friend Mr. Big so that he’ll buy her a luxury Manhattan penthouse. Then, after getting her dream home, she pushes the brazen babe meter a single step further by demanding a new walk -in closet. Her man has just shelled out several mill to get her a pad she doesn’t need or deserve, and she requests remodeling. A little later on, during a particularly sour time in her life, she settles a problem by shopping. If materialism were a salve, Carrie would be Neo-friggin-sporin.

But this is only her outer evil. Inside, she’s a 40 year old emotional virgin. You’d think that someone who writes about the bedroom foibles of a complex urban demographic would understand a little something about the affairs of the heart. Instead, she’s the whiny Goth gal in Gucci heels, complaining that the world has gypped her once again. When her big narrative twist occurs, her reaction is so brattish that it requires a Super Nanny to bring her back to modern maturity. Such a savior comes in the guise of Jennifer Hudson’s “saint” Louise. As a personal assistant, she’s all webpages and day planners. As the typical person of color who teaches the Caucasian how to sync up with their soul, she’s pure Hollywood hokum.

So is Big. Limited to a small percentage of screen time - after all, your average Sex and the City fan isn’t interested in the problems of GUYS - we get companionship as a combination of carnal satisfaction and cash machine. Nothing is out of his price range, unless it’s understanding what women really want. His first hour faux pas which drives the next 85 minutes (yeesh) is not derived as much from fear as from fantasy. Like the Grimms roadmap this flawed fairytale takes, Big has to bungle something if only to make the resolution that’s much more mushy. Apparently, devotees of this half-assed Harlequin shite aren’t satisfied until they’re squirting out a few dozen Croc tears. So Big is the clichéd catalyst, the necessary Fabio to the film’s rom com cover artlessness.

As the broken record with an equal amount of irredeemablity, Miranda Hobbes is hopeless. All throughout this supposed grrl power struggle, her educated lawyer whines like a mofo. Every few minutes, she is pointing out her professional status to a seemingly uncaring clique. Carrie and the gals want to go out and drink. Miranda reminds them that she’s an attorney with a real job (guess that puts you in your place Miss Lady of Letters). Samantha suggests something a tad kinkier, and Ms. Hobbes is yanking out the business card. Even as her marriage is falling apart (in pure “it’s his fault” formulaics), she restates her career gal goals. It’s almost as if she is trying to convince herself that there’s an actual excuse for her pathetic party pooper status. Usually, there isn’t.

Of course, the Brooklyn-ese bartender she’s married to doesn’t make her any more sympathetic. He’s a weak little cuss, deciding that the best way to handle a little bedroom rejection is to find another sack to settle in. Naturally, he just adds fuel to Miranda’s misery. Leave it to a movie like Sex and the City to take two of its most formidable, linked to the real world women and turn them into characters out of something by a batty Barbara Carlton. The whole last hour of this overlong film focuses on how both Carrie and Miranda learn to forgive. Both need a whole lot of convincing, and it’s here where writer/director Michael Patrick King shows his true colors. Men love to think that females are the crueler, more spiteful members of the human race. It verifies their frequent self-imposed (and necessitated) feelings of inadequacy. Sex and the City gives these thoughts horrible haute complicity.

If there is a weak link in this loathsomeness, it’s Charlotte York. She’s more than happy to throw her erectile dysfunctional past behind her for the sake of a million bucks and a paid-for flat. Now, life is all about the adopted Asian baby and the happily emasculated husband. Whenever she’s onscreen, she’s like a harpy who finally found a guy who enjoyed her controlling harangues. Harry Goldenblatt is so non-macho his shaved head looks like a baby’s bottom, the spouse shorn of anything remotely resembling gender or power. It’s safe to say that Charlotte’s only contribution to this noxious narrative is a high pitched scream every time something supposedly shocking/sensational happens. The rest of the time, she’s Suzy Homemaker with a bigger bank account. 

Which leaves us, lastly, with saggy Samantha Jones. Here’s Sex‘s strangest dichotomy, an older gal who believes the best way to safeguard her self-esteem and self-import is to sleep around, a proud panther who preys on anything with a crotch and a credit card. In a post-feminist world where women argue for their inner goddess, she’s Medusa. Instead of treating her body like a temple, Samantha prefers a more tract house approach. Every time she spits out her pro-whore stance, you can literally see her friends doing an inner eye roll. It’s like listening to your grandmother defend her love of gansta rap. Not only is Miranda out of touch, she’s out of excuses. By the time an inevitable sequel rolls around, she’ll be working at one of the many Nevada ‘ranches’, defending her choice as “hers” to make.

The best way to understand this otherwise incomprehensible slag is to examine her five year relationship with hunky soap star Jerry “Smith” Jerrod. In the film, Samantha acts as his manager. She dotes on him while shuttling back and forth between the coasts. He is hopelessly devoted, and never even hints at straying or being unfaithful. He even coughs up $50K for a gaudy ring that Samantha wanted for herself. Yet every time our horndog heroine sees her lothario next door neighbor drilling the local talent, she’s awash in nookie nostalgia. Pining away for penis is one thing - everyone has urges. But Samantha is willing to throw away Mr. Right for Mr. Right Now. And her justification - she loves herself too much to compromise her feelings. Not too selfish, huh?

One of the main arguments made against Woody Allen’s New York stories, and something like Annie Hall specifically, is that his characters are all too self-absorbed and neurotic, masking their problems in clever quips and prosaic picture book patina. If that’s the case, Sex and the City is Narcissus with a standing reservation at the Blue Water Grill. Where the ‘70s classic combined its stereotypes with satire to break new ground in both areas, this post-millennial mess is just fake wish fulfillment funny business. When these gals undermine each other, it’s usually at a ‘yo momma’ level, and when they try to express themselves seriously, they’re like high school sophomores giving an oral book report. The hemming and hawing is horrific.

Clearly, a movie like this is going to do its job. It is merely required to preach to a congregation that already knows the sermon and can recite the responsorial by heart. The characters aren’t supposed to be realistic because, like, it’s all make-believe and pretend, right? Carrie Bradshaw and her pals are just idealized representations of what women think about when they get that elusive free moment to themselves, the visualization of their literal one chance to dream. So what if the end result is something reprehensible morally, romantically, socially, and aesthetically? A guy-based fantasy would barely make it past the looser than normal standards of the Internet’s porn community. This is just tit for tat, for tit.

Yet in Annie Hall, and later Manhattan, a true artist like Woody Allen found a way to make similar material sing. His heroine was also after her own sense of self, sleeping around toward part of it, selfishly rationalizing her way toward the rest. The men she met were also superfluous and subjective, props in a play that would eventually leave her alone, unsettled, but satisfied. There was no need for pie in the sky hyperbole - the real world offered its own delights - and the mindless purchasing of “things” never satiated a single broken heart or dream. Some might argue that this is nothing but personal progress, sisters doing it for themselves some thirty years later. If Sex and the City: The Movie represents the revolutionary, the hostilities are already over - and nobody won.

by Bill Gibron

26 May 2008


He got his start like most pre post-modern moviemakers, via the still struggle medium of ‘50s/‘60s television. There, his approach was allowed to take root and flourish. He had actually begun his career as an actor, appearing in productions for such stalwart shows as Playhouse 90, The Twilight Zone, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Before that, he had studied his craft with the famous teacher Sanford Meisner. Not bad for an Indiana boy born of troubled first generation Russian immigrant parents. His father was a boxer turned druggist, his mother was an alcoholic who died when Sydney was 16. Now, with his own passing from stomach cancer at age 73, Hollywood has lost one of its solid cinematic artists.

Pollack first came to prominence after a stint onstage, when he co-stared with future lifelong friend Robert Redford in the film War Hunt. The two formed an instant bond and would go on to work together for nearly 45 years, Pollack directing his pal in the films This Property is Condemned, Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were, Three Days of the Condor, The Electric Horseman, Out of Africa, and Havana. In fact, over the course of his career, Pollack featured Redford in nearly a third of the 20 movies he made. He also worked regularly with such old school stars as Burt Lancaster (The Scalphunters, Castle Keep) and Robert Mitchum (The Yakuza), and later made two films with contemporary macho man Harrison Ford (Random Hearts and the Sabrina redux).

Like Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer, Pollack brought the dramatic intensity of his days in the theater and TV to the fledgling revolution occurring in film. His style could best be summed up by the brilliant social commentary They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Set within a Depression era dance-a-thon, and featuring fiery performances by Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, and Oscar Winner Gig Young, Pollack uncovered the simmering unease of the era, perfectly reflecting the film’s contemporary 1969 mirror message. His movies were like that - quiet and subtle, selling their conceits in perfectly modulated performances and expertly helmed scenes. And like his fellow filmmakers of the era, Pollack wasn’t afraid to try.

He did so with the old fashioned romance The Way We Were, though that movie also tackled subjects like racism and political unrest. Jeremiah Johnson was a pure post-modern Western, an anti-establishment look at one man defying nature to live at personal peace. Three Days of the Condor took the Watergate hangover and cast it as part of an international intelligence Cold War malaise, while The Electric Horseman argued against fame and for those who would sidestep the spotlight to live freely, and happily. Many of the heroes in Pollack’s films defy the odds to be their own person, be it the US ex-pat caught up in Castro’s Cuban revolution, or a young associate taking on a crew of crooked lawyers.

As an actor, Pollack frequently blurred the line between good and evil. In what is perhaps his most memorable turn, he was the confused agent in Tootsie who can’t understand Dustin Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey, and frankly, doesn’t want to. Conned into playing the part by the superstar himself, the director gives an amazingly unhinged turn. In Woody Allen’s searing Husbands and Wives, Pollack is the midlife crisis middle ager who tears his bimbette girlfriend down every chance he gets. He’s horrific and abusive. When Harvey Keitel couldn’t continue on with Stanley Kubrick’s arduous shooting schedule, Pollack stepped in and essayed the role of Victor Ziegler in Eyes Wide Shut, and most recently, he was George Clooney’s image conscious boss in the thriller Michael Clayton.

Oddly enough, his peak probably came in the early ‘80s when Out of Africa took home seven Academy Awards, including one for Pollack as Best Director. He had been nominated before - and definitely deserved the statues - for Tootsie and They Shoot Horses, but the epic Meryl Streep/Robert Redford weeper was the kind of effort that Oscar is naturally drawn to. After that success, his follow-up Havana flopped, and while The Firm was a hit (thanks to Tom Cruise and the John Grisham pedigree), Sabrina and Random Hearts also tanked.

The Interpreter, a 2005 suspense piece starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, was the director’s last fiction film, and first foray behind the lens in nearly six years. During his absence, which was more or less self imposed, Pollack had played producer, adding titles like The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Quiet American, and Cold Mountain to his resume. The recent death of collaborator and friend Anthony Minghella hit Pollack hard. It wasn’t the first time tragedy had hit so close to home. In the early ‘90s, Steven, Pollack’s only son with wife Claire Griswold (they met at the Neighborhood Theater in New York, and were married for nearly 50 years) died in a light plane crash.

Today, the director is survived by his spouse, two daughters, and six grandchildren. Oddly enough, Pollack himself was an avid pilot, flying his own private aircraft. It was a trait he shared with co-star John Travolta when the two appeared in A Civil Action together. In 2006, the director offered up what would be his last film - the unlikely documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry. When asked to describe the allure of the subject matter, the filmmaker was deceptively honest. Apparently, Pollack was so intrigued by his first glimpse of the famed Guggenheim Museum that he became psychologically obsessed with the architect and his body of work.

It’s safe to say that, like this love letter to an unsung builder and dreamer, most of Sydney Pollack’s films were missives to men and women marginalized and unsung - and usually undeservingly so. He championed the underdog and understood the human foibles inside the heroic. As a filmmaker, he was approachable and affable, eager to teach and pass on what he knew. While no one is suggesting his films changed the course of cinema, they did establish a kind of abject professionalism that many of his compatriots from the ‘60s and ‘70s couldn’t command. He didn’t set out to deconstruct the medium or revise it into his own aesthetic likeness. Instead, Sydney Pollack made solid, substantive films. His is an onscreen voice and a behind the scenes presence that the artform will sorely miss. 

by Bill Gibron

25 May 2008


In the world of weak analogies, Steven Spielberg is the Beatles of blockbuster movies. He literally invented the genre, reconstructed it when it went wonky, and continues to leave a legacy of legitimate popcorn art with every passing decade. This is the man responsible for some of the greatest cinematic entertainments of all time. The list simply boggles the mind: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET, Jurassic Park, Minority Report. Even his so-called failures - 1941, Hook, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence - contain moments of celluloid splendor.

Yet the Fab meta-phor is appropriate since the 62 year old director went through a similar critical reconsideration in the ‘90s, and the consensus was not pretty. As John, Paul, George, and Ringo were marginalized as nothing more than a “boy band” or “pop phenomenon”, reducing their relevance to a Britney Spears video, Spielberg was called overrated, low brow, and mired in the mainstream. His success was his albatross, his talent his very reason for an over-generalized dismissal. Naturally, all of his serious work was left out of the conversation, substantive masterworks like The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, or Schindler’s List limited to the flukes formulated by an Oscar desperate hack.

Of course, just like everything else on the Internet, Spielberg’s reputation has started to rebound, and with good reason. Frankly, there was nothing wrong with it in the first place. As his latest offering, yet another installment in the formerly finished Indiana Jones Trilogy, rakes in another box office bundle, it’s time to look back at what this amazing director does best - creating indelible images that transcend time to celebrate cinema in its purest, most potent form. While these ten examples are just the tip of the iconic iceberg, they prove why Spielberg is the best. Few can match his manipulation of the language of film. Let’s begin with:

Jaws (1975) - The Underwater “Discovery”
So much of this movie is engrained in our entertainment subconscious that almost any scene could be picked for inclusion here. But there is one moment in particular, not part of the original Peter Benchley novel, that marks the moment Spielberg announced his intention of being a serious filmmaker. He wasn’t playing around anymore. The combination of techniques - set-up, shot selection, shock value - brings the total terror of what Chief Brody and Matt Hooper are facing directly to the fore. Learning that it was all created in a crewmember’s swimming pool is the sweetest part of its moviemaking mythology.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) - The Home Invasion
Some would point to the arrival of the alien mothership as this film’s iconic moment, a sequence where spectacle merged with significance to etch an indelible image into our collective cultural scrapbook. But the better, more powerful scene comes halfway through, when unknown forces attack the country home of Gillian Guiler. Even more frightening, they appear to be after only one thing - her tiny son Barry. Using inference and suggestion to brilliant effect, we arrive at the moment when watching the sky was not just a suggestion - it was a warning worth taking seriously.

1941 (1979) - The Ferris Wheel Fiasco
It was the movie that argued for Spielberg’s retreat from wunderkind status, a big brawling mess of a comedy that was more unfocused funny business than It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World War II. Still, there are a couple of striking sequences, with the last act attack on the tiny California suburb one of the best. Of particular note is a scene in which a seaside Ferris Wheel, perched dangerously close to the pier, is suddenly switched on. Without warning, a mortar shell loosens the attraction from its bearings. In pure blockbuster style, it careens down the dock and into the water. Classic.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) - The Bar Fight
In a film made up of amazing sequences, many overlook this opening takedown between Indiana Jones, a recently introduced Marion Ravenwood, and a bunch of Nazi-led nasties. Proving once and for all that Spielberg is the king of carefully choreographed chaos, the pieces of this barroom brawl fall naturally into place, each swing of a fist or plonk with a whisky bottle adding another accent to the action. Toss in the natural chemistry between stars Harrison Ford and Karen Allen, and it’s clear that a legendary bond would be formed, one that would finally be explored three decades later. 

ET: The Extraterrestrial (1982) - The Suburban Bike Race
The late night arrival. The meeting in the backyard. The agents’ flashlights chasing our title creature through the underbrush. The flight past the moon. “I’ll Be Right Here”. There’s a reason this fragile fairytale remained the number one box office draw for years. Spielberg poured all his imagination and vision into this quiet story of a boy and his visiting alien, successfully marrying emotion with event to craft a timeless wonder. Yet for anyone looking for a how-to on intricate chase dynamics, ET‘s escape to the forest via a band of two wheelers is the pulse pounding primer.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) - The Mining Car Chase
In a much maligned movie that many site as the series’ worst, Spielberg steps up and does what he does best - combine amazing F/X with brilliant mise-en-scene to forge a heartstopping, breathtaking literal rollercoaster ride. There are so many jawdropping gags here, references to everything from modern amusement parks to the films of Buster Keaton (and his Civil War classic The General, in particular), that it’s hard to keep track of everything that’s going on. By the time Spielberg introduces the stunt work element, a whole new realm of action is achieved…and this is coming from the man who redefined it just three years before.

Hook (1991) - The Pan Discovers How to Fly…Again
In what many think is the director’s weakest film (it gets more vitriol than 1941, but then again, it does star Robin Williams), the story of the little boy who supposedly never grew up gets a surreal, slightly Yuppified sheen. From a fantasyland that looks like a skate park gone gruff to a lead who appears 40 pounds to heavy to play an impish sprite, Hook has its problems…many, many problems. But it also contains one classic moment where Pan, attempting to recapture his happy thought, remembers being a Dad for the first time. Suddenly, he takes flight, and for one magical moment, the movie works effortlessly.

Jurassic Park (1993) - The T-Rex Attack
Anyone who questions the overreliance on CGI needs look no further than this remarkable sequence from the director’s return to blockbuster glory. Thanks to Stan Winston’s miraculous practical creatures, and the seamless integration of the computer generated material, we totally believe in the primitive smackdown occurring before our eyes. Of course, Spielberg’s creative craftsmanship and shot selection add to the scene’s overall power. While the raptor attack would end the film on a suspense-filled high note, the first time we see this massive prehistoric beast lumbering across the landscape still sends the gooseflesh across your arms and the shivers up your spine.

AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001) - The Robots Discover A Submerged New York
Near the end of the Spielberg interpretation of Stanley Kubrick’s last project, a pair of humanoid automatons travel to the mythical island of Manhattan to seek out the Blue Fairy. Upon arriving, however, they come across a metropolis semi-submerged in water. As skyscrapers spew overflow and other buildings decay and collapse, the duo tries to locate the last important clue in their quest. Where the movie goes from here has caused lots of online debate, but there’s no denying the impact of seeing the Big Apple literally drowning from nature’s wrath. It’s a stellar moment in a criminally underrated film.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) - The Nuclear Age is Born
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Spielberg and crew when asked to revisit this franchise some 16 years after it officially ended was to bring the character and his age-based situation up to date. Sure, Harrison Ford looks and acts older, and he’s surrounded by characters who constantly remind him of his senior citizen status. But leave it to a genius filmmaker to find a single image that instantly captures the essence of this dynamic. Having survived the initial blast, Indy lands outside Ground Zero, and as he climbs a nearby hill, a massive mushroom cloud provides a perfect backdrop. Welcome to the ‘50s, ‘30s serial hero!

by Bill Gibron

25 May 2008


It’s hard for any film to bring something new to the standard dysfunctional family dynamic. Cinema has seen it all - disgruntled adolescents, adults in full midlife crisis mode, infidelity, divorce, the struggles of step-relations, and any number of psychological and emotional traumas. Thanks to the independent film, a category that feeds on the notion that anyone’s personal kinfolk catastrophe makes for riveting (and cheap) drama, along with the changing social status of the irradiated nuclear brood, the subject no longer resonates. Instead, most relative-oriented efforts come off as whiny, self-indulgent statements of the filmmaker’s failing maturity, nothing more.

Not so with writer/director Sion Sono. After an infamous life of booze and baffling behavior, the celebrated Japanese artist has used the international success of 2002’s bravura Suicide Club to jumpstart his lagging reputation. That prior effort, a surreal horror statement that focused on the self-destruction of 54 schoolgirls, all of whom jump in front of a rush hour train, was a schizophrenic free-for-all, an attempted cultural commentary lashed to the normal splatter spookshow. Now, Sono revisits the events of that fateful day with Noriko’s Dinner Table (new to DVD from Facets Video), enclosing the story with a unique look at parent/child problems and the typical teen angst. In the process, he manages to create a stunning post-modern masterpiece.

Poor Noriko feels lost in her house. Her father is distant, her mother loving but cold. Sister Yuka simply laughs at her disquiet, not yet old enough to feel a similar sense of interpersonal disconnect. One day, Noriko discovers a website and a messageboard where like minded girls come and discuss their problems. One screen name in particular - Ueno Station 54 - offers sympathy and support, and soon our unsettled girl runs away to Tokyo. There, she meets the person behind the postings. She’s Kumiko, in her mid ‘20s, and running an odd talent agency. Seems she hires on individuals she meets online, and then trains them to be family members ‘for hire’. Noriko signs up, and eventually, Yuka joins her, leaving their reporter father to wonder what’s happened to his children.

Like a novel written by David Lynch in celluloid sentences instead of scribbles, a meditation on what makes us care about those we call our nearest and dearest, Noriko’s Dinner Table is spellbinding. It takes a deliberate, detailed approach to some very unusual and in-depth material, and manages to make even the most mundane sequences reverberate with subtle suggestion. Narrated from several different vantage points, and illustrated in a straightforward, unaffected manner, director Sono delivers the kind of devastating personal insight that movies like Ordinary People and The Squid and the Whale can only hint at. By applying the typical coming of age anxiety, and meshing it with the totally distinctive “relatives for rent” idea, we get something substantive and symbolic, capable of the most universal truths and scene-specific revelations.

First and foremost, Sono wants to understand what makes a family. Is it simply biology, or can it be bought? We see several instances of Kumiko’s company in action, elderly folks ecstatic for a visit from their ‘loved ones’, desperate fathers hoping to reconnect with the daughters that fate has unfairly taken from them. During these scenes, which really aren’t explained at first, we hear Noriko’s insightful justifications. Because she comes from an unhappy home, because she finds her father a selfish and hateful man, the happiness evoked inside these faked scenarios fills her heart with hope. Eventually, she will lose herself in the job, forgetting all together about the domestic situation she left in the Japanese countryside.

Kumiko’s story is equally intriguing. Found in a locker at a train station, she has grown up hating the mother who abandoned her. Years later, when a reconciliation is attempted, the bitter child merely hires on the parent as part of her business. Kumiko is seen as an integral part of the Suicide Club, present when the girls take their lives, and often delivering other sacrificial victims to murderous clients. If Noriko’s Dinner Table has a villain, it would be this impish little witch. But we see something similar in her, something that makes Noriko’s rash decisions and whiny weakness seem understandable. Kumiko is just as lost as the people she patronizes, eagerly falling into the role of wife, child, parent, or partner. Sometimes, however, it’s hard to keep the ever-blurring line between fantasy and reality clear.

It’s a theme that Sono restates over and over. Noriko tells one version of her life at home. Yuka both supports and subverts her interpretation. Father, who indeed plays the most ambiguous role in the triangle, is an unclear combination of faults and fears - some true, some as fictional as the characters his daughters are hired to essay. He’s simultaneously the most and least sympathetic individual in the film, clearly detached from the needs of his wife and children, and yet devastated when they disappear one by one. Sono seems to be suggesting that all of Japan is trapped in a work ethic that ignores the needs of the person for the benefit of production. It’s part of the rationale behind the series of suicides acting as a subtext, as well as the reason Kumiko’s company is thriving.

All of this plays out in deliberate steps (or “chapters”, as Sono calls them), meant to reflect both the differing perspectives of the main characters as well as the actual novel the director wrote after Suicide Club‘s success. The movie frequently feels like a book, loaded with little details that build up over time to create a complex, mesmerizing narrative. There will be those who see the two hour and thirty-five minute running time and balk at such storytelling excess. Others, like this critic, will drink in every moment and wish for more. As he did with Suicide Club, Sono leaves more questions unanswered than addressed, and the ending is so ambiguous that anything could literally happen next.

Though rumor has it that the director will revisit this material for another sequel, the interview included as part of the bonus features on the DVD seems to suggest otherwise. Indeed, Sono says he may address the mysteries of the Club itself, but Noriko’s story is more or less complete - which again is odd, considering that we really don’t know much more than what’s implied by a final firm statement offered by our hapless heroine. Yet even inside such an inference, Sono discovers volumes of meaning. Noriko’s Dinner Table may represent a family finally finding itself, or the inevitable disintegration brought on by adulthood and aging. Whatever the case, this amazing movie delivers its deconstruction in ways that are both shocking and stellar. It singlehandedly reinvigorates a dying cinematic genre of relative dysfunction. It’s personal pain as art, pure and simple.



FILM:


DVD:

by Bill Gibron

24 May 2008


When you think of motion picture taboo busting, the glorious efforts of the exploitation era instantly come to mind. No other film genre took the time, and the risk, of bringing the most forbidden of film subjects to the silver screen. Oddly enough, the results of these cinematic impresarios did not go unnoticed around the world. Take 1972’s Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan. The idea of kung fu lesbian prostitutes within an old world wuxia setting set tongues wagging when it was released in Hong Kong. The Shaw Brothers, infamous for pushing the envelopes within the martial arts movie, outdid themselves this time with a scandalous slice of sex, swordplay, and classic blood splattered slaughter.

When Ainu is kidnapped and brought to the brothel run by Madame Chun, she immediately becomes a problem. Belligerent and angry, she fights her captors and refuses to eat. Eventually, a mute jailer befriends her, and Ainu learns that she can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Soon, she wins Chun’s favor, and begins a systematic process of revenge on those who deflowered her when she first arrived. Killing the men one by one, she is pursued by police chief Ji, new to the area and unsure of how things work. Ainu knows she is protected by the local authorities, and brazenly admits to her crimes. Of course, once she’s finished with the former customers, it’s on to the individual who enslaved her in the first place.

It goes without saying that Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (a mouthful of a title - the original was simply the main character’s name, Ai Nu) is one of the most surreal kung fu epics ever, a literal bodice ripper that’s a potent butt kicker as well. Though the fight scenes are limited to a couple of spectacular set pieces, they really add an aura of mystery to what is, in general, a standard revenge flick. Our heroine is out to right the wrongs committed against her, and we couldn’t be happier. Star Lily Ho, perhaps best known for her early work with the Shaws, delivers a knockout performance. She’s both seductress and slayer, capable of working her way into your heart with a stare or a saber, whatever the case may be. Her action moves are flawless, arms swinging with an authority unmatched by even the most skilled male stars.

She is complemented effortlessly by Betty Pei Ti. Madame Chun is a complex character, a woman whose life in service of sex is marred by a hatred of men and a desire for power. Her lesbianism is more of a leaning than a lifestyle, a way of keeping the constant barrage of testosterone away from herself and her girls. She is more than capable of killing when she has to (she carries the classic body piercing ‘yin yang hands’), yet reserves such fatal flourishes for the very last moments of a conflict. As beautiful as Ho, perhaps even more so, Pei Ti is indeed a perfect counterpart to her costar. She’s just as rebellious as her potential lover, just not as outwardly or awkwardly so.

It’s no surprise then that the male leads of Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan are rather thin. It’s bad enough that the Shaws were dealing with the unheard of subject of homosexuality, so the standard cads and cavaliers are present and accounted for. Even Yueh Hua’s police chief Ji is constantly emasculated by Chun and Ainu. He is seen as ineffectual and unable to handle the women’s cunning and conniving. Elsewhere, brutish scoundrels bid on bodies and flaunt their failing libidos. There is a lot of dangerous gender politics in this film, something that surely gave journeyman director Yuen Chor pause for concern.

Yet Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan is one of the filmmaker’s best, a clever combination of faked Hollywood backdrops and sumptuous character costuming. Chor was new to the wuxia genre, having made his first such effort in 1970 (Cold Blade). It was said film that brought him to the attention of the Shaws. He fits perfectly within the Brothers’ brazen dynamic. He has a wonderful way with action, capturing the aerial elements with authenticity and flare. But he’s just as good with the intimate scenes, especially in a post-flogging embrace when Chun literally kisses Aiun’s wounds to make them ‘all better.’

Image’s DVD release of this long requested title captures the color saturated charms of the Shaw’s product in pristine picture reproduction. As they did with Killer Snakes, they retain the original aspect ratio and Mandarin soundtrack, providing excellent English subtitles for those of us from the West. The only bonus feature of value is a short documentary entitled “Intimate Confessions of Three Shaw Girls”. While Lily Ho (who retired from film in 1974) and Betty Pei Ti (now a singer) are not present, a trio of recognizable names from the studio take time to discuss the impact Ainu’s lesbianism had on the Chinese community, as well as the reaction in the actresses’ native Taiwan. It’s an interesting addition to the oral history of the prominent production company.

It has been said that Clarence Fok Yiu-leung based his brilliant 1992 thriller Naked Killer on Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, and it’s not hard to see the resemblance. Both movies use sexual desire and splatterific gore to tell a basic tale of pride and payback. Chor even remade the movie himself in 1984 with Lust for Love of a Chinese Courtesan. With its combination of erotica and violence, glamour and gall, nothing can beat the original. Had it not borne the Shaws recognizable label, grindhouse fans might swear this was a Harry Novak or Bob Cresse import. Indeed, exploitation loved to challenge convention while it served the salacious needs of its horndog audiences. Everything about this Hong Kong classic screams prurient and perverted - and devotees wouldn’t want it any other way.


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