Latest Blog Posts

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.


FILM:


DVD:

by Bill Gibron

22 May 2008


The Summer onslaught continues, and for the weekend beginning 23 May, here are the films in focus:

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull [rating: 8]

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is clearly a movie geared toward anyone under the age of 30 who memorized every moment of their Raiders VHS.

Icons earn their status by never changing. What they represented the moment they gained said mythos remains steadfast and sturdy, with only occasional minor alterations along the way. This is why it’s never wise to revisit a symbol, cinematic or otherwise. The moment you do, the carefully constructed barriers you built around the legend start to shatter. Unless you’re out to really revise (or even implode) the idol, what was once beloved is never quite the same. For many, this is exactly what happened when George Lucas decided to go back to his Star Wars universe. Well established - and beloved - characters like Darth Vader and Yoda were systematically reconfigured to fit a new, and not necessarily complimentary, ideal.
read full review…

For another view on the latest Indiana Jones film, read Chris Barsanti’s Short Take:
read full review… 

Postal [rating: 4]

Indeed, Postal is THAT kind of movie, one that substitutes rancor for real wit, that utilizes splatter when a few script rewrites would have worked much better.

Uwe Boll is no longer just a filmmaker. He’s become a cultural icon of the whipping boy variety. Granted, he’s earned every inch of his horrid hack status. Anyone who has sat through Bloodrayne, Alone in the Dark, House of the Dead, or his recent In the Name of the King understands this. But to totally dismiss him as Ed Wood’s Teutonic twin does both men a massive disservice. After all, Mr. Glen or Glenda was working with a no budget handicap. Boll makes his cinematic affronts with the full faith and credit of his homeland’s moneysaving tax laws. Postal is his latest videogame based endeavor. As a motion picture, it’s garbage. But as a statement of the rest of the film loving world, it’s a gloriously tasteless middle finger. read full review…
 

War, Inc. [rating: 5]

The politics of War, Inc. are not problematic so much as pedestrian. There’s nothing new in embracing the anti-conservative screed to show how off kilter the country really is.

Quick - name the last really successful political satire? Was it Wag the Dog? Man of the Year? American Dreamz? Primary Colors? Perhaps you have to go back as far as the Watergate among nuns fun known as Nasty Habits. Whatever the case, the War in Iraq and the Bush Administration’s policies toward same should be rife for some rib-tickling ridicule. Of course, some of the decisions and resulting failures are sad/funny enough to be their own pragmatic parodies. Yet instead of taking on the Commander in Chief and his wayward conservatism, most films about the current situation in the Middle East have focused on the military, and how it turns dedicated voluntaries into outright, detestable villains.read full review…

 

by Bill Gibron

22 May 2008


Quick - name the last really successful political satire? Was it Wag the Dog? Man of the Year? American Dreamz? Primary Colors? Perhaps you have to go back as far as the Watergate among nuns fun known as Nasty Habits. Whatever the case, the War in Iraq and the Bush Administration’s policies toward same should be rife for some rib-tickling ridicule. Of course, some of the decisions and resulting failures are sad/funny enough to be their own pragmatic parodies. Yet instead of taking on the Commander in Chief and his wayward conservatism, most films about the current situation in the Middle East have focused on the military, and how it turns dedicated voluntaries into outright, detestable villains.

Now comes John Cusack (himself the star of last year’s homeland drama Grace is Gone) and his self-scribed effort War, Inc. His focus isn’t the military machine or the misguided application of same by the government. Nor is he really interested in taking on the whole WMD/selling of the conflict to an easily brainwashed American people. Instead, this obvious lampoon has Halliburton, and one of its former officers, Vice President Dick Cheney, in its sites. Sometimes, the targets are so ripe and readily set up that the laughs come often and organically. At other instances, Cusack and his fellow screenwriters Mark Leyner and Jeremy Pikser miss the mark completely.

After a particularly tough assignment, professional hitman Brand Houser is mandated by the President’s Second in Command to travel to the fictional foreign country of Turagistan. There, he will hook up with a fellow female operative and together they will try to assassinate the CEO of an international competitor. Seems the evil Tamerlane conglomerate wants all the juicy defense/rebuilding contracts for themselves, and needs Omar Shariff out of the way. Houser will accomplish this via a combination trade show and wedding. The convention will showcase Tamerlane’s “Brand America” wares. The nuptials find foreign pop sensation Yonica Babyyeah getting hitched. All the while, the hired killer must avoid the demons from this past, as well as the probing questions of investigative reporter Natalie Hegalhuzen.

It is often said that the key to a really good send-up is an innate knowledge of the subject matter being spoofed, followed by an even keener insight into how to formally deconstruct it. Somewhere between its ambition and its actuality, War, Inc. forgot this formula. Instead of offering a Dr. Strangelove-like look at how Iraq has become a morass of misguided and laughable decisions, Cusack and clan go for the easy joke - the constipated VP, the oversexed pop ingénue, the tough as nails journalist, the slightly ditzy yet very effective personal assistant. That War, Inc. casts competent actors like Dan Aykroyd, Hilary Duff, Marisa Tomei, and the star’s sister Joan argues for its would-be success.

But then documentarian Joshua Seftel steps behind the lens and shows absolutely no gift for comedy. His idea of wit is to overwork a gag until we can no longer stand the sentiment. Cusack’s hitman uses hot sauce as kind of a calming curative. It helps him focus, as well as shut out the constant voices thrashing in his head. We are supposed to view these scenes as comically insightful. While they hint at horrors, the interaction in these flashbacks suggests humor. They’re not funny. Similarly, every time the Cusacks interact, there’s a spark of screwball goofiness to what they accomplish. Yet Seftel isn’t secure enough to explore all avenues of this idea. Instead, he makes do with little flashes of brilliance here and there.

The rest of the time, War, Inc. wades through ideas that are more than self-evident. Is it really surprising that foreign men mimic hip-hop and rap in their goofy ‘gansta’ attitudes, or that Turgistan’s so-called Emerald City (standing in for Baghdad’s Green Zone) is the site of more bombings and violence than in the rest of the nation? One moment, we see a terrifically tasteless chorus line featuring recent amputees. The next, a pro-Peace, Love and Understanding platform is being forced down our throats. The politics of War, Inc. are not problematic so much as pedestrian. There’s nothing new in embracing the anti-conservative screed to show how off kilter the country really is. Yet this is the narrative’s main selling point - and very few will be buying.

Still, there is stuff in War, Inc. that one can enjoy. It’s fun to see Popeye’s Chicken as the foreign franchise du jour, complete with orders for ‘extra spicy all white meat’, and Ms. Duff, a long way away from her own Hannah Montana moment in the sun, is superb as the ethnically unclear (and ambiguously accented) Yonica. Granted, her song parodies are as lame as the actual tunes that brought her into the limelight in the first place, but it’s a hoot to hear Lizzie McGuire swearing like a sailor. In fact, it seems like a great deal of this movie is a mere one or two steps away from being masterful. That those strides are occasionally a million mirth miles away is a sad commentary on all involved.

It seems that, somewhere along the line, John Cusack has gone from accomplished actor with a high degree of industry cred to a descending, desperate star trying anything to realign his passing power. Even with the success of last year’s 1408, his career arc has definitely taken a downturn. War, Inc. won’t help. Sure, it will sell to a chosen few audience members who don’t mind their humor ladled out in oversized doses of blatancy. The rest, however, will wonder if the situation in Iraq is all but entertainment-proof, incapable of sustaining any movie, be it drama or comedy. Of course, War, Inc. doesn’t give the humor side of the dispute a fighting chance. It’s a pretty one sided argument - just like the film itself. 

by Bill Gibron

22 May 2008


Uwe Boll is no longer just a filmmaker. He’s become a cultural icon of the whipping boy variety. Granted, he’s earned every inch of his horrid hack status. Anyone who has sat through Bloodrayne, Alone in the Dark, House of the Dead, or his recent In the Name of the King understands this. But to totally dismiss him as Ed Wood’s Teutonic twin does both men a massive disservice. After all, Mr. Glen or Glenda was working with a no budget handicap. Boll makes his cinematic affronts with the full faith and credit of his homeland’s moneysaving tax laws. Postal is his latest videogame based endeavor. As a motion picture, it’s garbage. But as a statement of the rest of the film loving world, it’s a gloriously tasteless middle finger.

In the tacky town of Paradise, the Dude lives an awful life. His obese wife spends her days spouting epithets, her nights cheating on him. At his job, his boss is a dick and all around him the world if falling apart. Unable to take it anymore, he decides to join up with his cult leader relative, the drug addled sex fiend Uncle Dave. Together, they plan on robbing a local amusement park. Meanwhile, Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda cohorts are plotting the very same thing. Their eventual confrontation will result in massive bloodshed, lots of freshly killed corpses, and more than a few ethnic and intellectual slurs, just to keep things politically and personally tense.

Any movie that starts off with an extended riff on the terrorist attacks on 9/11 is either bucking the pro-PC trend, or as misguided as a Bush Administration missive. Yet Postal does indeed offer a pair of Islamic hijackers arguing over the number of virgins they’ll each receive when they meet their maker, followed unceremoniously with a World Trade Center view of the impending crash. If that kind of ‘irreverent’ shock value gag gives you giggling goosebumps, you’ll adore Postal. It plays directly into the most toilet bowl basics of the biggest arrested adolescence, making Mad Magazine (or perhaps, its lesser knockoffs like Crazy) look like the Harvard Lampoon by comparison. This is the kind of film that believes random farts are funny, that sees racial and social insensitivity as a proud papa selling point.

Leave it to the man who still thinks minor console titles from 10 years ago make viable source material to suddenly discover Farrelly like gross out humor. Postal positions itself as a raging political satire, supposedly arguing against the War on Terror, America’s fundamentalist religious views, the ticking time bomb status of white trash, and any other obvious target you can point to. But instead of eviscerating each and every one with the sharp knife of satire, Boll brings a blunt piece of movie metal and simply stabs blindly. One minute, a stateside Osama is having a big time policy pow-wow with buddy George Bush, the next, little kids are being picked off one by one, squibs sprouting bloody bullet holes in their Garanimals.

Indeed, Postal is THAT kind of movie, one that substitutes rancor for real wit, that utilizes splatter when a few script rewrites would have worked much better. To call the film ballsy would be a slam at testicular fortitude. To call it crass would give insensitivity a stain it could never recover from. Yet there is a level of pot-smoke induced ludicrousness here, a ‘late night when there’s nothing else watchable on cable’ conceit that gives this film a sheen of semi-likability that’s hard to ignore. In the right frame of mind, this might actually seem - dare it be said - funny? All of us have guilty pleasures piled up in our inner movie warehouse, marginalized efforts like Ultraviolet, Brain Donors, or Lucky Stiff. It appears Postal is ‘gunning’ for acceptance into that often uncertain arena.

Typical of his current casting ideal, Boll overloads the frame with a number of recognizable, if not necessarily famous faces. Zack Ward, otherwise known as Scut Farkus from A Christmas Story, is our unnamed hero, the trailer trash everyman who ends up going the title temperament. He makes for an interesting lead, but not much else. On the other hand, confirmed funnyman Dave Foley is forced to rely on full frontal male nudity to earn his taboo-busting paycheck. His cult leader character is never, EVER funny….EVER! Various supporting players like J. K. Simmons, Verne Troyer, and Seymour Cassel wander aimlessly, their dialogue delivered in ‘hurry up and pay me’ spurts. Boll himself even shows up as the owner/operator of a German-themed concentration camp themed amusement park built with Nazi gold. Ha.

And speaking of the much maligned director, the good doctor is clearly having a blast belittling everything he can. Since he’s more or less capable of doing anything he wants (no studio controls his actions), he takes a haphazard Hellsapoppin’ approach to spoofing. Pacing is also a problem here, especially since Boll overloads the top half of the movie with mindless scatology. After a while, all the poo and pee jokes begin to sound (and stink) alike. The scattered violence will make gorehounds unhappy, since Postal appears to be dialing back the offal in favor of more idea-based grotesqueries. By the end, we’re desperate for some massive arterial spray. All we get is a minor vein draining allotment.

Still, Postal is bound to get messageboard tongues wagging. It will be the dividing line between Boll apologists and those who remain appalled by his oeuvre. It’s not the cinematic stool sampling of his previous creative canon, but it definitely doesn’t deserve the praise it’s been getting inside the online critical community. Somewhere between a cult conversation piece and an assault on one’s intelligence, Postal proves that some filmmakers are destined to remain forever locked in their already established reputations. To call this the best film Dr. Uwe Boll has ever made is faint praise indeed. Sadly, it may also be the truth. 

//Mixed media
//Blogs

Country Fried Rock: Drivin' N' Cryin' to Be Inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame

// Sound Affects

""If Drivin' N' Cryin' sounded as good in the '80s as we do now, we could have been as big as Cinderella." -- Kevn Kinney

READ the article