Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Summer Of Samurai: Kurosawa and Westerness



Kurosawa is often accused of being the most Western of the Japanese directors. At first sight this conventional wisdom seems correct, after all Kurosawa is often credited for rehumanizing the Japanese to the west post World War II. Kurosawa himself often re-enforced the view, causing a minor scandal when he named only a scant handful of Japanese films when asked to choose the best films of the last hundred years. However, the judgment of his style is based more on sins of omission then commission, best highlighted when compared to his contemparies. Goodwin underlines this when he states “Director’s Ozu and Mizoguchi are offered by Burch and other proponents of this argument as models of an ideal cultural autonomy.” Unlike Mizoguchi who consciously evoked Japanese scroll art in his compositions Kurosawa’s camera was free, gravitating more towards movement and montage then the more mise en scene oriented style of traditional Japanese cinema. Unlike Ozu whose stories and characters reflected and often hinged on the archetypically repressed emotions and desires that have come to define the Japanese mindset for many cineastes, Kurosawa’s character’s where all incredibly proactive, whether their desires where in the service of the state or themselves. In other words, if traditional Japanese cinema was about repression in both style and emotion, Kurosawa’s films where about expression.

On the other end of the spectrum Kurosawa’s films show a very Western reserve, when compared to the wild flagrant very Japanese style of the Japan’s post modern filmmakers. No matter how free his characters, or stylistic his compositions no one is ever going to confuse his films with the anarchic madness of Seijun Sezuki, Takeshi Kitano, Takeshi Miike or Kinji Fukusaku. In that sense it’s often difficult to define Kurosawa’s work in the context of Japanese film, his oeurve is neither fish nor fowl, as exemplifies neither the cinema of implication and reserve of the traditional Japanese cinema, nor the wild absurdist abandon of the future. It’s easier in the situation to label the work as Western, rather then have to define it using the strict rigors of its native country.

I believe that while Kurosawa’s style does have a distinctly Western flavor it is a mistake to assume, as many do that this means that he has an American flavor. Kurosawa’s popularity in America, and it’s influence on it’s filmmakers often causes this misconception, as did the mutual admiration between Kurosawa and John Ford (On a side note I’ve always thought the comparison spoke more to an Eastern influence in Ford. The signature shot of Ford that of small impermanent characters set before an immortal frame dominating landscape is also the signature image of Japanese Scroll Art. Ford’s other hallmark his exquisite use of ritual as expression has also long been a hallmark of the Japanese tradition).





However, when looking at the films shown in class, it’s strikes me just how European much of Kurosawa’s sensibility seemed.
After all, it was in Europe not America that Kurosawa made his first impact on the Western world. Rashamon won the Golden Lion in Venice a year before it received the Oscar in America. And while America did rework the concept of The Seven Samurai in The Maginificant Seven first, it was Sergio Leone who has able to transfer the whole of Yojimbo in the seminal Fistful Of Dollars.



This goes both ways Kurosawa’s technique is often extremely European. In No Regrets For Our Youth, during his heroines passion like suffering, Kurosawa fills the screen with her anguished face, in a way that is reminiscent of Dreyer. The iconography itself for the scene is decidedly Western, as the scenes of the young woman traveling to the rice fields burdened by her heavy bags, as it seems to be designed in a Christ like fashion (A lone tormented figure stumbling down a road bearing a heavy burden). Richie touches on the religious connotations of this in his study of the film, “…he makes it very clear that the girl’s going to the peasants is not motivated by political considerations, (she has no political considerations) but, rather, is something like personal salvation for her”

There are other European references in the movie, the characters discuss European authors, the heroine plays European chamber music, as well as having the characters enthralled by the Western ideals of feminism and democracy.

If anything No Regrets For Our Youth feels like a search for identity; for it’s heroine, the country it is set in, and for the filmmaker himself. As Dave Kehr notes in New York Times “Like at least two of his famous contemporaries, Ingmar Bergman in Sweden and Roberto Rossellini in Italy, Kurosawa was emerging from a youthful and perhaps forced enthusiasm for authoritarian rule”. While Kurosawa was a radical in his youth, it is true that most of the films that where made up until No Regrets For Our Youth, such as The Most Beautiful where militaristic and even the ones which where the might of the Japanese military was not textual display a strong sense of ethnocentrism, such as The Man Who Tread On The Tigers Tail, and perhaps most notably in Sanshiro Sugata II which centers around the Eponymous character defeating a Western “boxer”. The unrooted feeling of No Regrets works perfectly in the context, when the school of thought that one has devoted themselves to fails so spectacularly it is only natural to gravitate towards another, and more then natural for the artist to perhaps feel a bit off base when expressing it. It is worth noting that the heroine of the film does discover the new identity she seeks, as Goodwin notes “By the conclusion, beauty has become redefined for Yukie as a matter of ethics rather then aesthetics, Her discovery of a personal code of action, independent of society’s dictates,” (Goodwin 48)



Stray Dog also caries a distinctly European flavor. While it has roots in the American traditions of Film Noir and The Western, the most direct Antecedent for it that I can find is that of Italian Neo Realism, particularly Rossellini’s brand as seen in Rome Open City and Germany Year Zero. Richie compares the film to De Sica (Richie 58) noting the similar structure to Bicycle Thieves (A pause for a small irony, Kurosawa adds more “Catholic Guilt” to the proceedings then the Italian DeSica by making the missing object cause active damage).

While not painted with the viciousness that Fukusaku would later use, or the Boschian squalor of Sezuki, the postwar streets are painted in a deadpan realistic style, taking in the poverty and desperation without comment. More so then any of the character’s the milieu itself is the focus of the film. Particularly in the justly acclaimed ten minute montage of the Tokyo Streets. As Chris Fujiwara states in his essay on the film for Criterion “Stray Dog is above all a film about atmosphere…Through the constant unfurling of interposed surfaces (multiple superimposed images, the strips of mesh and garlands down which the camera cranes at the Wellesian Blue Bird club), Kurosawa evokes a world in perpetual motion. But by dwelling so fixedly and at such length on their labyrinthine interplay, Kurosawa implies that for all its dazzling contrasts, this world, like Murakami, is stuck…Look again at the long undercover sequence: the sheer number of anonymous subjects who cross the camera’s vision is bewildering.”

The idea of the criminal in Stray Dog and it’s sister film High And Low is also unique, and brings to mind the recent films of David Cronenberg, one not usually thought to have much in common with Kurosawa. The criminals in these two pairs of films, feature filmmakers who seem to be wholly disinterested in the actual mechanics of crime, the conspicuous consumption, and step by step law breaking that filmmakers as diverse as Raoul Walsh, Martin Scorsese, and Brian DePalma have used to express the life of crime. Instead Kurosawa and Cronenberg are interested in what happens to the individual who is forced to spend his time in a constant state of transgression. Both come to the conclusion that crime causes a break within the self leading to irreprible harm. The ability of the criminal to find redemption in the spiritual if not the physical seen from Dostoyevsky to High Sierra is rejected. Instead the identity of the criminal is lost even to himself, externally in Cronenberg, and internally for Kurosawa, who as Goodwin notes finds himself reduced an defined at the end of his journey only by “worhthlessness and slaughterous rage”



To move from issues of style to Philosophy, Ikiru also demonstrates a European influence this time through western brand existentialism. The films conception of existentialism is somewhat more sunny then the usual European brand focusing on how an individual can create meaning in a meaningless world by focusing on what they wish to achieve. Or as Richie Puts it “Existence is enough. But the art of simple existence is one of the most difficult to master.” (Richie 86) Taken in relation with Japanese society the idea takes on a subversive tone. The Japanese mindset, from feudal times to World War II stressed the idea of individual sacrifice to the greater good. Even today the stereotype persists as the familiar image of the Japanese office drone. However, in Ikiru the only way Wantanabe is able to serve the greater good is through the subversion of the system that is supposed to serve it. The film posits that Wantanabe has been sacrificing himself to the greater good, and has accomplished nothing. Paradoxically he must serve himself to serve others. Ikiru is arguably Kurosawa’s strongest argument for individualism.



Seven Samurai on the other hand pulls the neat trick of being both traditional and non traditional. On the surface, given it’s massive crossover appeal this seems to be exhibit A for those who argue Kurosawa’s westerness, but it’s Geneology is in truth much more mixed, Richie for example compares it to a 1930’s Soviet Epic.

It’s story, though well constructed and it’s style, though dynamic, could fit in with any traditional piece of jidekiri. It’s the tone that radicalizes it and it’s focus once again on the individuals in the group. By dropping the number of characters we are allowed to get to know each of the Samurai intimately, and thus are not allowed to revel in their glorious deaths the way we might in a less sympathetic bit of jidekiri such as the 47 Ronin. Ebert sums up the difference well

“Two of the movie's significant subplots deal with rebellion against social tradition. Kikuchiyo, the high-spirited samurai played by Toshiro Mifune as a rambunctious showoff, was not born a samurai but has jumped caste to become one. And there is a forbidden romance between the samurai Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) and a village girl (ironically, the very daughter whose father was so worried). They love each other, but a farmer's daughter cannot dream of marrying a ronin; when they are found together on the eve of the final battle, however, there are arguments in the village to "understand the young people,'' and an appeal to romance--an appeal designed for modern audiences and unlikely to have carried much weight in the 1600s when the movie is set. Kurosawa was considered the most Western of great Japanese directors (too Western, some of his Japanese critics sniffed). "The Seven Samurai" represents a great divide in his work; most of his earlier films, Jeck observes, subscribe to the Japanese virtues of teamwork, fitting in, going along, conforming. All his later films are about misfits, noncomformists and rebels.”


And Again

“The samurai who fell in love with the local girl is used significantly in the composition of the final shots. First he is seen with his colleagues. Then with the girl. Then in an uncommitted place not with the samurai, but somehow of them. Here you can see two genres at war: The samurai movie and the Western with which Kurosawa was quite familiar. Should the hero get the girl? Japanese audiences in 1954 would have said no. Kurosawa spent the next 40 years arguing against the theory that the individual should be the instrument of society.”




However, it is my belief that the synthesis of East and West in Kurosawa’s style is best seen in Throne Of Blood. On the surface it would appear to be most Western of his films. It is after all based the work the Shakespeare the epitome of Western literature. Yet from the very beginning Kurosawa let’s his Eastern style be known, rooting the adaption of the play in the tradition of Noh theater through the opening chant (Goodwin also notes on page 176 that the opening sequence also intentionally incorporates the Japanese concept of Ku, or empty space, and the Buddist teaching of mujokan, or the fleetingness of life) The Spirit delivers his prophecy in Haiku, Mifune and his Wife’s performance echo Kabuki in both make up and style. Kurosawa takes the West and makes it his own. As Kurosawa cited by Richie this was not merely stylistic flourish but an attempt to use the language of Noh, with it’s spirits and symbolism, to make a very Western drama comprehensible to a Japanese audience. A True synthesis, the story of the West told in the language of the East.

In the end I believe this is truly how Kurosawa is Western. He is not so much a Western director as a director who knows how to use Western concepts as an alternate angle with which to shine light on his own countries’ soul.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Summer Of Samurai: Kurosawa and Post Modernism

And now for something completely different. I've decided to "close off" Summer Of Samurai (I say close off in quotes as there is definitely going to be a September Of Samurai as I haven't covered half of the films I hoped to) with a three essays on Kurosawa I wrote in my last year as a student. The Essays are obviously the work of a student, and are about as earnest as they get. And a bit pretentious as well (Partially me partially the academic setting).

But I feel like sharing them anyway, both because I think that there's some genuine insight here, and also because I'm curious the response my writing that's a bit less conversational will get. Writing in other words where I am not dropping the F Bomb every other word, and the grammar is actually correct.

Crazy I know.

But lets give it a shot.





I’m afraid I can’t quite accept Kurosawa as a post modernist. The core theme running through his films is that of responsibility, to ourselves and others. Something I find lacking in post modernist thought. To quote Paul Schrader in his illustration of the difference between Post Modern film and Modern film (Or as he phrases it between Existential film and Ironic film.) “The existential dilemma is, 'should I live?' And the ironic answer is, 'does it matter?' Everything in the ironic world has quotation marks around it You don't actually kill somebody; you 'kill' them. It doesn't really matter if you put the baby in front of the runaway car because it's only a 'baby' and it's only a 'car'." (

In Kurosawa it is never just a “baby” or just a “car”. Things matter in Kurosawa film, it is more then simple play. That said, I concede that looking at Kurosawa, through a postmodernist lens, particularly that of Baudrillard’s, can add some very interesting shading’s to Kurosawa’s work. Following this logic, let us begin with Kagemusha, the film of Kurosawa’s I find most open to the Post Modernist eye.

It is tempting to look at Kagemusha as pastiche, after all it had been fifteen years since he had made a jidai-jeki with Red Beard, and at least seventeen years since he had made a Samurai film with Sanjuro. This partnered along with it’s making, could give rise to the idea that the American’s where simply buying themselves a “real” Samurai film, a Simulacrum Samurai if you will. However, I cannot read Kagemusha as such. It is too mournful, too contemplative, too impressionistic, and too mindful of the violence it creates to equate with Kurosawa’s earlier films. If anything it is a piece of Intertextual cinema examining itself. In other words rather then the pastiche of the Post Modernist, I feel that Kurosawa has created the Revisionist film of the Modernist. (It is interesting to note that Richie appears to disagree, but almost subconsciously he notes, “that it proved to be such a richly engrossing experience, such a Kurosawa-like entertainment,”

Still the central drama of Kagemusha does fit nicely with Baudrillard’s concept of the Simulacrum. The men in the field, and the warlord’s enemies do not know that their enemy is truly dead, because his signifier remains. As Baudrillard puts it in The Precession Of The Real “The Disneyland imagery is neither true nor false, it is a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate the fiction of the real in the opposite camp.” The fact that the signifier is a false one doesn’t matter, it has the same affect as a true one as Baudrillard says in Precession of the Simulacrum “We require a visible past, a visible continuum, a visible myth of origin, which reassures us about our end.” , even though the signified is no longer present, it simply makes no difference.

However, Kagemusha goes even farther, as Baudrillard and his predecessor Saussure argue it is only through a “web of meaning” that the signifier is defined. The Thief cannot merely proclaim himself to be the king, and have any affect it is only when the lords and generals decide to play along that the deception is successful. And it is only when one crucial strand of the web decides not to play along that the carefully crafted “reality” of the signifier falls apart. By the end of the film, both the signifier and the signified have been destroyed; reality has ended because of the general consensus to end it.

At the end of Kagemusha “The Thief” is gone. He has played so much time playing the signifier of another thing, that he cannot go back to being the signifier for himself. He has forgotten how, which brings to mind Baudrillard’s statement in The Perfect Crime, “The image can no longer imagine the real since it is the real. It can no longer dream reality since it is virtual reality. From screen to screen, the image has no other destiny but the image.” The Thief has no other recourse, but to fulfill the “destiny” that does not truly belong to him. Even though he is no longer seen by other’s as the emperor, and indeed never has been, he has come to believe his own Simulcra, and thus must end fulfill it to its last fatalistic step. Or as Bauldrillard puts it in Precession Of The Simulacrum, “Illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible.”

High and Low, seems to fit deceptively well in into the Post Modern interpretation. Kurosawa makes a very schematic film, one half art film focusing on one man the rest a sprawling “policier” which covers great swatches of Tokyo, along with a title that practically dares you to make a clever observation. However, structural issues aside High and Low has always been Kurosawa’s most Marxist film. With it’s villain rising up as an avenger of the underclass, and it’s hero subtly indicted as part of the problem as a “good” and ignorant bourgeois.

In short it is in a way the flipside of Kagemusha, which I see as a Modernist examination of Post Modern issues, High And Low is in turn a post modern view on a modernist issues, for which we must call in Jameson.

It is perhaps odd just how many of High and Low’s Concepts correspond to Jameson, in a textual way, when Jameson speaks of Lynch’s Mapless city, “space in which people are unable to map (in their minds) either their own positions or the urban totality in which they find themselves” (Jameson 89) It is easy to remember that Kurosawa’s character’s spend about 1/3 of the film traversing urban sprawl begging a child to give them their bearings. Or the central image of the house itself or as Jameson might say “the "semiautonomy of the cultural realm: “ts ghostly, yet Utopian, existence, for good or ill, above the practical world of the existent, whose mirror image it throws back in forms which vary from the legitimations of flattering resemblance to the contestatory indictments of critical satire or Utopian pain.”

Still it is in the end of High And Low that I find what is perhaps the central metaphor to this little argument. Many have argued that High And Low was Kurosawa’s response to the rise of the nouvelle vague like Seizuiki and Fukusaku, proof that he could play their game. If we do except that this is so, then it behooves us to examine what happens in the last scene.

There’s Mifune, the consummate modernist, the one who wishes to make good shoes for people, tied in other words to both the signified and signifiers and then there’s the doctor, who hunts without pity or remorse among the anonymous. The Post Modernist of the pair has taken everything from Mifune, his status, his safety, his wealth, but at the end of the picture there is Mifune stoic and unbowed, and there is the Doctor, his stylistic howlings, echoing in the empty space he has created.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Piranha 3D


Piranha 3D takes place in what I can only take as a literal Fratboy heaven. A douchebag Valhalla wherein every righteous bro is rewarded with mandals, a poker visor or backwards baseball cap, and bitchin tribal pec tat. And every rocking bitch is free to totally off dem boobs and bitching tribal tramp stamp. Every grill is smoking, the natty light and blunts flow freely, and auto tune pumps off of every available speaker, or at least every one not currently engaged by The Dave Matthew’s Band. It hits such a critical mass of douche baggery that it eventually just turns hypnotic.

Piranha 3D is either the most openly venal film ever made, or it’s a blistering Bunuelian commentary on the crassness of American lust and conspicuous consumption. I don’t know if I will ever be entirely sure of which.

Piranha 3D hums along on that same “I’m not sure whether or not he’s fucking with us.” Vibe. This is a movie with everything, a cute little girl with whom to play “Will they or won’t they feed her to the Piranha’s?” Boobs in 3D, Eli Roth’s exploding head and a Penis being eaten in 3D.

The film follows Sheriff Elizabeth Shue (“You know from Dreamer, the fucking horse movie!”) and Deputy Ving Rhames as they tries to clear Fratboy Valhalla before a pack of murderous prehistoric Piranhas can turn them into mulch. Meanwhile her children end up on the sinking boat of sociopath coked out pornographer, Jerry O’Connell (long story) and then Eli Roth gets decapitated doing what I think his detractors just assume he does every day.

I can’t quite recommend Piranha 3D with the same gusto that many of my blogger brethren have. For one thing its 3D has that cheap diorama look that I get with every 3D system that’s not Disney’s. The lack of light as a result of the 3D process also ends up being a big issue. This is not exactly surprising given that it take place underwater where its tough enough to coherently show action. A few of the attacks are downright incomprehensible. Most problematic those that are clear are powered by a real ugly sense of sadism and cruelty, a hallmark of Aja’s that clashes with the fun tone. For every OOT shot of O’Connell having his penis bit in half there’s a strangely lovingly depicted one of a woman getting her scalp and half her face torn off by a boat propeller.

Still I can understand why Piranha 3D is getting the response its getting. Its rare enough to see a horror film nowadays whose automatic setting is not “dour”. Its got blood, its got boobs, it has some truly trashy 3D, and Christopher Lloyd screaming about Fish Genitals (not a typo). In short it promises a lurid unseemly time at the movies and it more then delivers on that account.

The problem is. I can’t tell if Piranha 3D is the most dishonest film I’ve seen this year or the most honest one. Or indeed, which answer I would prefer.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Somebody Asked Me To Be An Expert In Something Part 6: Gone Baby Gone


(Previous Somebody Asked Me To Be An Expert In Something were part of a Film Noir and then Neo Noir series that I was asked to help program and host. Starting with this entry, I am now the sole programmer, and the films will no longer be just crime films. Once again this is written for speech so I apologize for any irregularities of cadence)

(I'm not going to lie its been pretty f-ing cool seeing these around town)

Dennis Lehane has gotten unusually lucky with his adaptations. Clint Eastwood did a fine job bringing his Mystic River to the screen, and just this year Scorsese delivered a fantastic adaptation of his Shutter Island. And yet I’d argue that out of those rather heavy hitting directors Ben Affleck has done the best job of bringing Lehane’s singular tone to the screen.

Unlike the other films made from his work, Gone Baby Gone is an adaptation of one of the Kenzie and Genarro books that make up the core of Lehane’s fiction. The five novels follow the two private eyes through the Boston underworld with a uniqueness of both setting and character that manages to set them apart from the glut of Private Eye novels.

Patrick Kenzie isn’t a bruised white knight like Phillip Marlowe. He’s not a smooth operator like Dashell Hammet’s continental op. Nor is he even a particular brilliant detective. He’s a smartass, whose managed to keep his good heart despite all the evidence the world has shown him. Casey Affleck gives nepotism a good name, bringing him to life with all of his conflict and wit intact. As does Michelle Monaghan as Genaro. Though if the film has a flaw its that its more of a Kenzie film. Mostly for narrative reason’s a slight change is made to series mythology and Genarro is made something of an outsider, so there’s someone there to have exposition delivered to. The problem is that it ends up making her feel a little less then a full on partner and sidelines her for far too much of the runtime.

On the whole though casting is one of the film’s strongest suits. Ed Harris gives one of his strongest performances in years, Morgan Freeman playing not so much against type but to it gives a great twist on his normal persona, Amy Ryan gives a career best performance. And perhaps most gratifyingly the under used Amy Madigan finally gets a role to sink her teeth into. Much of the rest of the cast is filled out by natives, which lends the film a realism that makes other gritty Boston crime films like The Departed, feel glamorized. No matter how intense Scorsese got, when you see an old man smoking through his tracheotomy is the type of image that you don’t get from central casting.

Most of these novels aren’t “who dunnits”. That’s not to say that Lehane doesn’t write some excellent mysteries into them. But the center of the books are always around a moral question. The question at the heart of each Dennis Lehane novel isn’t “Who kidnapped the heiress?” Or “Who has the money” but “How can I wake up and look at myself in the mirror?”

The fact that Ben Affleck has the talent, or even the inclination to address such a question may be surprising to those who know him best as the dopey would be matinee idol he was at the beginning of the decade, and not the talented character actor he has proven himself to be before and afterwards. It’d be easy enough to credit this to the fact that Affleck grew up in the neighborhoods and around the people that Lehane writes about. His familiarity and eye for people certainly adds a certain lived in feel to the film and his second film The Town coming out in a couple of weeks, returns him to this comfortable territory. But that’s certainly not the only thing Affleck brings to the table. Without giving away too much of the plot, there are scenes in here that could come out from a horror film, and scenes that could come out of a buddy comedy, and the way Affleck is able to juggle these tones both the grotesque and the light proves him to be a versatile skilled director. Though his next film The Town is based upon a much weaker novel, I’m looking forward to seeing what Affleck can do with it.

While this is the most recent film that we’ve shown so far in this series, Gone Baby Gone feels like a film from a different era. It’d be easy to imagine it as a lost film of the seventies from someone like Michael Ritchie or William Friedkin. It’s a dark film that asks hard questions and doesn’t bother with easy answers. In other words it treats it’s audience like adults. And a filmmaker whose willing to do that is a valuable one indeed.

This is a dark film, but its an honest one.


Friday, August 27, 2010

Summer Of Samurai: Lone Wolf And Cub Baby Cart At Hades


Lone Wolf And Cub Baby Cart To Hades is a showcase for the details that make The Lone Wolf And Cub saga different from the average samurai film, or for that matter just about any action saga ever made. It all comes down to one key scene. Itto decides to save a girl who has been sold into service at a brothel, surrounded by the brothel’s hired thugs, we fully expect him, and indeed just about anyone else in his situation to get to short work making brothel guard mincemeat. After all, we’ve seen him make ground beef out of much larger crowds before.

Instead Itto elects to take the girl’s “Penalty” which involves him being tied up side down and having the holy fuck beat out of him with sticks. Why did he do that when he could have easily destroyed the other guards? To prove a point. What point is that? I don’t know because I’m not as crazy and tough as Ogami Itto.

Meet Ogami Itto, the world’s first existential action hero.

In Baby Cart To Hades Itto takes on an assignment to assassinate a corrupt magistrate, in exchange for the life of a prostitute he liberated. Along the way we meet the first person that Itto elected to not kill, despite given ample opportunity and cause. This “true samurais” story runs parallel to Itto as he deals with slightly more pressing matters, like the army that is trying to kill him.

He keeps doing things like that throughout the film, things that are not to buy into the stereotype here, but inscrutable. Whether its meeting with a rival warlord, just so the poor bastard can realize that Itto has been hired to murder him, to allowing his infant son to be “saved” by an assassin so Itto can butcher him in one of his most brutal killings, Itto keeps doing things for seemingly no other reason then his own personal satisfaction.

Lone Wolf And Cub Baby Cart To Hades has some of the series best action beats as well as its best character moments. Including the infamous scene in which Itto takes on an entire Lord Of The Rings sized army wielding every type of martial arts weaponry you’ve seen used in a movie (Insert nostalgic wax about the marvels of pre CGI filmmaking here). As the trailer for Lightning Sword’s Of Death so righteously put it, “They threw an army at him and he threw it back. One piece at a time.”

The only thing that keeps me from calling Baby Cart To Hades the series best are two ugly protracted rape scenes, both of which pass beyond their mere narrative function and sail uncomfortably far into the land of exploitive. I can’t in good conscience give the movie an unqualified recommendation with those two scenes in place.


Which is a shame because otherwise the movie is a whole mess of fun. If you keep your hand on the fast forward button, its more then worth seeing.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

R.I.P. Satoshi Kon 1963-2010


This one just breaks my heart.

That we only got four peeks inside the mind of this brilliant singular filmmaker seems like a fucking crime (five if you count his haunting strange television series Paranoia Agent. And you totally should).

The death of some filmmakers particularly those who die young often leave me feeling sad. This one leaves me feeling angry.

Kon pushed the medium of anime, and animation itself, forward in a way few bother to do anymore. He refused to be limited by the supposed strictures of the genre, or the rules of the medium. Instead he insisted on striving forward and gave something new with ever film he made. He swung for the fences. Every. Single. Time. His films are unique from each other as they are from the rest of the medium. A psychological thriller worthy of Hitchcock? Sure. A Biopic as phantasmagoria? Why not. A film that planted its flag in Inception’s territory four years early? Makes sense to me. A remake of a John Ford film with an HIV positive transvestite as John Wayne? Somehow he made it work.

I was looking forward to enjoying his work for decades to come. His death leaves a gaping hole.

A tweet someone relayed to me read:

It's not that anime will never be the same with Satoshi Kon gone. It's now much more likely that anime will always be the same.

Amen.

To glance over at my shelf and realize that his entire filmography makes up only a few inches upsets me.











But God how potent those few inches are.

Summer Of Samurai: Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo


Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo promises an epic Kaiju battle between two of Japan’s greatest action heroes. Like many films that make such great promises it’s only partially kept. Zatoichi finds a town corrupted by gang warfare and as in most town’s corrupted by gang warfare Yojimbo is waiting in the wings. Though the two are originally pitted against each other they eventually find that their mutual love of kicking yards of ass can overcome whatever personal differences they might have.

While Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo is certainly a fun watch, it gets bogged down in the repetitive and overly convoluted nature of the plots that plague the Zatoichi films. A much bigger problem is that Mifune is not playing anywhere near the top of his game. I mentioned in my review of Red Sun that he seemed to be coasting. Well his turn in Zatoichi makes his turn in Red Sun look like his performance in High And Low. Now granted, what he is coasting on is one of the most charismatic, compelling persona’s in the history of cinema. Like Robert Mitchum there is no such thing as an unenjoyable Toshiro Mifune role, which is not to say it there is no such thing as a bad one.

Still its just disappointing that his return to the character is so meager, particularly given that his agreeing to reprise the character reportedly let to the final cracking of his strained relationship with Kurosawa.

His Yojimbo isn’t the uber proficient amoral sociopath from the original. Not even the gruff, crafty, paternalist from Sanjuro. Instead he plays him so he’s nearly buffoonish, a charismatic drunk whose good with a sword and has veins of badassery woven through. True in the end he does tap into the disdain that powers Yojimbo to greater effect and he’s as ruthless with a sword as ever. But then comes a plot twist at the end that can only be described as a heap of bullshit. On the whole, It’s hard to tell why the film is named Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, when it could have just as easily been called Zatoichi Meets Toshiro Mifune.

Like all Zatoichi films the climax is a hell of a show stopper (particularly grim after such a light in tone film), the productions values are excellent, as is the fight choreography and Shintaro Katsu remains that rare commodity, a man likable enough to conceivably build a 30 film series around. Unfortunately this time all that standard issue carries with it a whiff of missed opportunity. Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo is no better or worse then any of the other Zatoichi films, but given the materials and potential that can’t help but feel like something of a failure this time out.

Monday, August 23, 2010

This Makes Me Smile.


This makes me smile.


But not as much as this.



Sunday, August 22, 2010

Summer Of Samurai: Red Sun




There’s a category of film that I like to refer to as “Wallace Beery Wrestling Pictures”. These films do not belong to any one genre or era, but are simply films whose appeal is so self evident that writing about them is simply beside the point. Event the films themselves are somewhat beside the point. No matter how far they fall from meeting their potential, no matter how truly dreadful they are The Wallace Beery Wrestling Picture will never be able to escape that one bit of perfection inherent in their concept or casting.

Red Sun might be the king of The Wallace Beery Wrestling Pictures. Born of the brief “West meets East” craze that swept the seventies, a movement that resulted in films like the Lo Lieh/Van Cleef pairing The Stranger And The Gunfighter, and Eli Wallach’s Samurai (No Really. Look it up. Sergio Corbucci made it. I know right?) Red Son is a Buddy film starring Charles Bronson and Toshiro Mifune, two of the most charismatic action stars to ever appear in a film., that’s a tantalizing cast before one factors in Ursalla Andress (Nigh incomprehensible) and Alain Delon as the bad guy. It combines The Western and The Samurai film, two disreputable genres that blend surprisingly well together. No its not some beautiful dream.

Mifune plays the body guard of a Japanese diplomat traveling through the American West. The diplomat’s train is robbed by Bronson and crew, only to have Delon double cross Bronsan and leave him for dead. Mifune and Bronsan team up together to take their revenge on Delon and things start to get pretty great.

That the film plays broad almost goes without saying. Bronson was at that point in his career where he’s pretty obviously coasting comfortably. Mifune’s character on the other hand trips over the line of mystic orientalism a time too often, sleeping while he walks, and disappearing and reappearing at will in the frame like he’s Cain from Kung Fu. In all fairness though, the film does seem at least partially aware of this, usually playing it for laughs with Mifune having the upper hand. Like the bit where Mifune continually demonstrates his Judo to an increasingly haggard Bronson. And the chummy and seemingly genuine interplay between Bronson and Mifune, keeps the film from staggering over the line of offensive.

The action scenes are directed with economy and creativity, particularly a shoot out in a whore house that demonstrates such great efficiency that its over almost before it begins. I’m willing to attribute most of this to Terrence Young. The director behind some of the best Connery Bonds, Wait Until Dark, and the bizarre The Klansmen. Oh and also Inchon, but lets not hold that against him. On the whole a more competent director then you expect to find on this type of film.

The film’s not perfect. Its low budget to the point of being minimalistic, and there’s really no damn reason it should last just a hairsbreadth under two hours. Particularly when there’s so much filler so readily evident.

Still its hard to be too hard on Red Sun especially as its one of those movies that is exactly what it appears to be. There’s little in the film but people being impossibly charismatic, but sometimes that’s enough. It’s a solid little B movie that takes its concept and runs with it. I suppose it is possible that there is someone out there with a soul so dead that they are not intriugued by the idea of a Charles Bronson, Toshiro Mifune buddy picture, in which they take on Alan Delon. But it is not I.

(Unsurprisingly some awesome posters were put together for a film with this irrestiple of a concept. Thought I'd share a few I came across. )










Saturday, August 21, 2010

Summer Of Samurai: Lone Wolf And Cub Baby Cart At The River Styx



Any series that runs long enough, often ends up being judged not by the new things it does, but how well it does the same old things. While improvisation and innovation are always rewarded, I’d be lying if I said I watched The Lone Wolf And Cub films for their graceful plotting and keen eye for character.

This is all a very round about way of saying that though I consider the second Lone Wolf And Cub, Baby Cart At The River Styx to be the best of the series, I’m harder pressed then usual to tell you why.

To be sure Baby Cart At The River Styx features all the usual pleasures of The Lone Wolf And Cub series. Magnetic performances from its two principles, an audacious and at times frankly beautiful shooting style, creatively choreographed yet beautiful fights and shots and imagery with such a strange hallucinogenic feel to them that they break the genre mold and often seem closer to the likes of Jodorowsky (Witness the blood pooling from beneath the sand in the foiling of a desert ambush). So is it enough to say that Baby Cart At The River Styx is a “better” film than the rest for no other reason then it hits its marks abnormally well? Perhaps its cynical but yes. Baby Cart At The River Styx may just be going through the paces, but you’d never tell. And if you only make time in your life for one Lone Wolf And Cub Movie (Poor fool) make it this one.

Baby Cart At The River Styx begins with the attention grabbing image of Ogami Itto chopping a man’s head in half length wise. The poor bastard manages to tell Itto that an army of assassins are coming to kill him and his son, of which he is merely the first.



(Ogami Itto Don't Fuck Around. When You Absolutely Have To Kill Every Mother Fucker In The Room... Accept No Substitutes.)

The Uber Stoic Itto responds with his usual amount of alarm, which is to say, he promptly goes and gets himself hired by a dye maker.

It turns out said dye maker’s monopoly is threatened. So Itto does exactly what you or I would do when faced with a threat to a monopoly on dye. Namely he kills just about everything that ever walked or crawled. All while fending off assassins and melting the cold heart of the woman sent to kill him.

The Film features some of the series most colorful assassins. Which is saying something. Including, An army of monks three master killers who will look awfully familiar to any fans of Big Trouble In Little China and a team of female ninja’s who cut the limbs and latex face off of a poor bastard ronin, in order to show their chops (wah-wah-wwaaaaahhhh) in one of the film’s most unbelievably gaudy sequences.

Of course the film features many unbelievably gaudy sequences, parts that would be the highlights of lesser films, including a disorienting bit at a carnival in which a series of brightly colored acrobats come for Itto. An action scene aboard a burning ship that’s just freaking impressive. And the aforementioned desert climax that has a real and strange beauty to it.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Summer Of Samurai: Rurouni Kenshin Season 2


Out of the countless amount of Samurai anime that has been produced Rurouni Kenshin remains the most popular (Its title recently challenged by Samurai Champloo).

The first season of Kenshin was an unremarkable but fun action anime. The second season upped the stakes considerably, producing a run remarkable not for doing things differently, as much as doing them so awfully well. (It also produced a third series which was neither remarkable nor fun, but we won’t talk about that.)

The logline of the show wouldn’t be out of place in a Clint Eastwood Western (and indeed, hasn’t been) Kenshin once a ruthless killer has settled into an idealized domesticity as he does what he can to help with the modernization of Japan through its fragile Meji government. Interrupted on a weekly basis by ruthless young killers trying to make their name killing the last of the old guard, and old rivals from the days of the revolution intent on settling their final score. After some hesitancy Kenshin breaks out his reverse blade sword, reveals some heretofore unknown technique and then imparts a valuable lesson about honor, or mercy, or good dental hygiene. Its an effective formula and one can hardly blame the makers of Kenshin for sticking with it for nearly thirty episodes.

The second season hits the ground running with a mini arc so good I had to consider reviewing it independently. It works more like a film, then just a series of TV shows, and indeed much better then the show’s disappointing film itself.

An old rival from the days of the revolution returns to stir up trouble. Which lets face it, is nothing new. But the way he breaks down in a matter of minutes the hero to which we’ve grown accustomed to, revealing the hardened core of the killer within, is not.

I highly recommend that any who are curious from this review but reluctant to give a 90+ episode show their time, at least check out these five episodes. Like all good movies based on existing source material, it both sums up the appeal and narrative of what it adapt, and then builds on it. Both exemplifying and improvising.

From the opening scenes clever direction is used to cover cheap animation (new anime fans might be surprised by just how fluid even the most budget modern anime is, when compared to those of the pre CGI era). Take a look at the opening scene, which uses imagery shocking both in its content and expressionistic compostion to disguise the fact that not much is “moving” in it. We cut from the Blood Sprayed face of Saito to the kill of his young apprentice, silhouetted against a blood soaked moon. We pan from the move to the blade to the young boys face, and only then do we move from what is obvious a still to actual (minimal) animation as the boy coughs up blood.

Creativity will always trump limitations in any medium, and this particular arc is a virtual showcase for it.


The second season improved things via consolidation giving the show a master plot, as well as an improved rogue’s gallery, and a big bad who manages to feel like a genuine threat. Another assassin from the old days of the revolution has built a team of assassins and is formenting a revolution whose greatest motivator is spite. It’s a great inversion of the series, Kenshin’s a homebody? Send him on the road. Trying to aid modernization? Give him a villain locked in the past.



It’s a pretty damn good villain too. Charasmatic visually striking, cold and deadly, but with a wicked sense of humor, Shishio’s wallet says bad mother fucker on it. An assassin betrayed and burned and left for dead by the powers that be in the waining days of the revolution. Like in all the best pulp fiction the villains (and I don’t know if there has ever been a better rogues gallery assembled in anime before) he serve as dark reflections of the hero. Both physically and spiritually the worst case scenario for what Kenshin could become.

Even more perversely in terms of the form is Shishio’s cheerful apprentice who kills with an innocent smile on his face. A young killer formed by abuse.

If Shishio is a twisted reflection of what Kenshin was, Sojiro is a reflection of what Kenshin is. Someone who has found serenity not in a new form of morality, but by embracing immorality so thoroughly it has eradicated all that niggling human doubt.

Kenshin’s not perfect. Its melodramatic, paced in the strange (ie Budget effective) “Lets stare at eachother for ten minutes” style so commonly found in anime of the era, and to the modern eye the animation will look almost amateurish.

Still I can’t help but like this show a whole lot. Call it nostalgia but the second season of Kenshin is revisionist in the best way. Not merely tearing down legends that the creators fancy themselves above. But asking genuine questions about what it is that makes these legends work in the first place.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

TTDS Literary Revue: Early Looks At The New Work Of Guillmero Del Toro, Steve Martin, and MTV Books

(NOTE OF ETHICS: All Three Of The Titles Reviewed Were Sent To Me By Their Respective Publisher's For The Purpose Of Early Review. Read On To Find Out If I'm A Shill!!!)




Considering the pedigree involved and the advance buzz it engendered The Strain could not help but feel like something of a disappointment. Set to redefine the vampire novel, The Strain instead kind of limped along, hampered by too little of Guillermo Del Toro’s singular imagination. Too much of Chuck Hogan’s pedestrian prose and stock characters. A long winding build up and a payoff as tasteless as it was unexpected. Most damning, despite some intriguing ideas on the vampire, nothing in The Strain was really new. This wasn’t helped by the fact that Justin Cronin and The Passage came along to show the world what the modern post Twilight Vampire novel, that aims to actually horrify, should be. The Strain can’t help but just seem to be kind of there, a wallflower when it was supposed to be the guest of honor.

Still the second installment makes a marked improvement on the first. There is much more Del Toro signature pre occupations. And if it still doesn’t have the full vivid power of his inimitable imagination, the narrative is swarming with auction houses, ancient manuscripts, Nightmarish imagery like a breed of vampire assassins who happen to be children with burned out eyes, Immortal Nazis, baroque and perverse histories, luchadors, withered old men who do not eat, and straight up Grand Guignol all make it feel like something that came from Del Toro, rather then something he was merely tangentially involved in.

Hogan too, is much improved. Unlike his earlier work, which I found overrated, I quite liked his last novel The Devil’s In Exile, which was a pretty good crime novel that unexpected transformed into the greatest John Woo movie never made in its last hundred pages. Devil’s showcased a shaggier, looser, yet more intense Hogan. And he carries that same energy over to The Fall. He’s not perfect, he’s still a clumsy enough writer to use the phrase “Two Thousand and Late” unironically. But he no longer seems a drag on the ticket.

The Fall as the title suggests, documents the fall of New York to the vampire virus, as the world is plunged into chaos by a pact between a Rogue vampire and a decrepit Trillionaire, with the power structures on both sides of the Vampire/Human line too impotent or corrupted to make a real stand. Only our plucky band of Vampire Hunters, lead by a disgraced former Doctor and a holocaust survivor have a chance to stop the plot. As before, but this time to greater effect, the main narrative is intercut with EC style interludes as various citizens of the city fall to Vampire related demises. Del Toro and Hogan also increase the intercutting of Time Periods to greater effect. Which allows Del Toro to really cut loose a couple of times. Including the marvelously baroque history of a crucial manuscript and the horrendous yet fitting fate for a Joseph Mengele vampire proxy. Both set pieces being prime Del Toro.

The Fall isn’t perfect. It’s still hampered by a cast of central characters who are simply put, not very interesting. Save their old leader, who makes for a good Obi Wan Kenobi, and his star pupil, an Eastern European former exterminator who finds in Vampire Killing his true calling. Everyone else is as stock as it gets, Noble doctor with a drinking problem, fiery Latina love interest who instantly falls into the role of “The Woman” though she claims she will do no such thing, Gang Banger with a purpose, Evil Bazillionaire, moppet. ZZZzzzzzz…

Still The Fall is on just about every level a better read then The Strain. Fast paced where the first was a slog. Genuinely nightmarish where the first felt like it was just going through the motions. Personality driven where the first felt anonymous.

While I can’t quite give it an unqualified recommendation, I would urge anyone who felt burned by The Strain to at least consider giving The Fall a look.





I’m trying to fathom whom if anyone would want to buy Tales Of Woe. A virulently unpleasant little book. Perhaps a fifteen year old trying way to hard to be shocking, which in all fairness has long been MTV’s (who has published the book) purview. To anyone else it should be exceedingly useless.

But I get ahead of myself, what is Tales Of Woe? Well why should I tell you when the back cover will more then fulfill your daily dose of self satisfied twaddle;

“The fact: Sometimes people suffer for no reason. No sin, no redemption- just suffering, suffering, suffering. Tales Of Woe Compiles Today’s most awful Narratives of Human wretchedness. This is not Hollywood Catharsis, this is Greek Catharsis: You watch people suffer horribly and then feel better about your own life. Tales Of Woe tells stories of Murder, accident, depravity, cruelly, and senseless unhappiness, and all true.”

Like Whoa Man! My mind is blown. You hear that you yuppie bourgeois stuck in your Hollywood fairytales?!?!?! You might think life is a bowl of cherries! But John Reed is going to set you right! Because he’s too real!

Bitch Please.

Interestingly enough, I came across a passage detailing this exact phenomenon in Larry McMurtry’s Walter Benjamin At The Dairy Queen not a week ago.

One of his (Frank O’Connor’s) most powerful convictions, one I have cause to recall almost every day, was that you couldn’t make art out of unredeemed pain. Of course in our time that belief has a particular reference to literature of The Holocaust and I don’t know that Mr. O’ Connor was entirely right. Maybe you can make art out of unredeemed pain, but only if you’re a genius, Dosteoyevsky perhaps.”

It will surprise no one to learn, that Mr. Reed is not Dosteoyvesky. But moving on…

“The sin that television journalism signally must answer for is that of brining the unredeemed pain of the whole planet into our daily lives. A village is buried by a mud slide in Peru. We see the small hopeless people probing in the mud which has just buried their homes and killed their children. A man pulls up a pot, or perhaps a child, he weeps. Or in Bangladesh a flood sweeps away eight thousand people and leaves countless thousands destitute, in the rain possessed of nothing but their need. Or in New York a child is beaten to death by her mother’s boyfriend- even Saul Bellow had trouble making child battering work within a novel…”


I will interrupt to point out that Mr. Reed is no Saul Bellow either. But I digress...

“ The rain of tragic images is unending. They drip into our lives every day, bringing neither the relief of dramatically realized tragedy nor even the fright of the fairy tale. .Through constant repettiont the weight of the world’s gloom increases proportionately.”

Tales Of Woe is almost dumbfoundingly glib. Understand, I am not offended by Reed’s content, but his utter lack of seemingly any thought within his head while presenting said content. OK, I suppose I am a little offended by his completely spacious definition of Greek Tragedy, but that’s just a matter of him being stupid. Which is unfortunately not the subject of this review. Him being a remarkably bad writer and artist is.

Making art that is unappealing is often a great boon. Making art with no apparent audience is certainly no sin. But making art that both wallows in filth while tut tutting it is the worst kind of hypocrisy. In one of her finest moments Pauline Kael remarked, “That there is nothing worse then a clean minded pornographer.” Mr. Reed might consider himself the Larry Flynt of moralists.

That’s what really makes Tales Of Woe so extremely distasteful is the fact that it pretends to be a high minded treatise on these peoples suffering, when its really just a very ordinary exploitation of it. One need look no further then its faux gothic drawings and textual experimentations to see that its real concern is not its subjects, but in its callous disregard for them. Should you be at all tempted to believe that Reed has any sympathy for these unfortunate people, the first loving rendered sexualized illustration of the topless victim of a brutal murder should dissuade you of that. Reed is nothing more then a well paid Nelson Muntz, peddling by screaming “Ha ha! People are poorer and more desperate then I!” It makes The National Enquirer seem as like a beacon of taste and tact.

“But Bryce, this isn’t a normal book, this is an objet d'art. You can no more condemn him for his work then you can condemn David Hirst for killing animals in his pieces.”

Well I do happen to be one of those who condemns David Hirst. And I find Reed’s intellectual cruelty no less deplorable then Hirst’s physical cruelty. Call me provincial. I’ll cop to it. Yet I am convinced that there are much worse things to be. Things like John Reed for example.

So by all means, if you’re looking for an over priced, self satisfied piece of calculated miserabilism, buy Tales Of Woe. If you still have your higher brain functions intact though, I suggest you avoid it.



Though he is an accomplished essayist, memoirist, playwright, and banjoist Steve Martin has not proven himself, before now, to be a very good novelist. Shopgirl was finely written but hinged on sexual politics that were as kind of icky as your average Twilight installment. The Pleasure Of My Company was better, but seemed to redefine slight. As though it were a series of reoccurring essays, or a play that had been brutally forced into novel shape.

So it gives me pleasure to say that the third time is the charm for Martin. An Object Of Beauty stands as an excellent work. The first book that deserves to be put side by side with the best of Martin’s other writings, and indeed above a great deal of them.

An Object Of Beauty documents the rise and fall of a young art dealer, from the mid nineties to the modern day, and with her a certain kind of excitement for the frivolousness of the art world. And with that an appreciation for what lay behind the frivolousness. It’s an end of an era novel written in concordance with the era’s ending. On the back cover Joyce Carol Oates compares it to the work of Evelyn Waugh, and I don’t think she’s wrong.

The title (Which obviously refers to the female protagonist rather then any of the works of art on display) and her occasionally flighty, occasionally mercenary nature of the protaginist (she’s not above trading sex for a closer look at money, power, and privelege) might add fuel to the fire of those who consider Martin a misogynist after the… odd sexual politics of Shopgirl. But it breaks down when you see how clearly Martin likes her. Like everyone who crosses her path, he seems entranced. It’s in the way that no matter what deplorable things she does to get ahead, there is always a finer part of her that seems untouched. As a character study it’s sharply drawn but never ungenerous, and as a study of a world and lifestyle, its eye for detail and ear for dialogue border on perfection, kept aloft by Martin’s quick wit.

It is perhaps uncoincidental that in making the novel successful Martin is forced to rely on many of his skills from his stronger suits. He’s able to sidle in rewarding digressions like a lively and insightful essay on Andy Warhol into the narrative with great ease and reward.

Martin writes in elegant sentences and paragraphs, which I kept going back and rereading at least two or three times, out of a simple desire to see more closely how they work. Its not often that an author intrigues me enough to enjoy the brushstrokes in and of themselves, yet Martin somehow has enough grace that it never once distracts from the story.

That elegance could in the past ossify into bloodlessness, but not here.

Take this passage which holds extraordinary wisdom not just on the collection of painting, but collection in general.

“Paintings where collected not because they where pretty, but because of the winding path that lead the collector to his prey; provenance, subject matter, rarity, and perfection made a painting not just a painting, but a prize.

Lacey had seen the looks on their faces as they’d pondered various pictures. These objects, with cooperating input from the collector’s mind were transformed into things that healed. Collectors thought this one artwork will make everything right, will complete the jigsaw of their lives, will satisfy eternally. She understood that while a collector’s courtship of a picture was ostensibly romantic, at its root was raw lust.


The novel isn’t flawless. It gets bogged down midway with an art theft plot, which is best described as unnecessary. It ends up setting up a Chekovian Gun of sorts for the finale, but really none was needed. And the attempt to bring the passive narrator into the plot in the last act proves to be to little to late, and assumes an investment in him that the reader simply does not have.

Still these are when taken as a whole, minor quibble. On the whole An Object Of Beauty is a wry, funny, distinguishably adult novel. Well worth reading for fans of Martin, The Art world, or human nature in general.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

THE REVENGE OF THE UNSEEN!!!!



A Year ago I started the column The Unseen, in an effort to burn though the stack of unwatched DVD’s that sat on my shelf. The stack was beginning to look fairly obscene to me. And still does, as this column has been a failure, at least in regard to its housekeeping components.

That stack still looms over me, pointing, screaming “J’ACCUSE!”

And yet, The Unseen remains a favorite thing to write. Simply because it forces me to expand my cinematic vocabulary every time I do. It’s easy for a cinephile to grow complacent, and there’s nothing more dangerous to the art of loving film love then complacency. Especially after the demands of the real world loom their ugly head. After working nine hours for the eighth day in a row, feeling beat to shit, its easy, all too easy, to say “Fuck it” and just pop in Hot Fuzz for the 97th time. Something known, something easy, something that’ll make you feel good. It’s not so easy to say, “Well lets pop on the Wreckmeister Harmonies!” And yet, as soon as the love for the new, for the challenge, dies so does a vital part of the film lover.

The Unseen acts as an inoculation against this. The films watched aren’t necessarily “tough” but they are things I haven’t been engaged with before. And that simple thing can be invaluable.

So without further ado here’s 37 things I’ve learned from the Unseen. I keep promising to get this thing on a regular schedule, and I definitely want to be more consistent with it. But I almost feel as though that would defeat the purpose of the column. And besides I would miss the big pile in my writing room, a constant dare to dive into uncharted waters.

1. Without question the best and closest shave will be delivered by the man whose son you just murdered.

2. Nothing turns a woman on more then leaving her to enjoy the post coital bliss by herself in an abandoned house.

3. Christopher Lee wears a gimp mask for reasons other then sexual satisfaction. I don’t know if this is more or less disturbing.

4. Detroit is a shithole.

5. You can resurrect anyone with a flaming stream of dog piss.

6. Birthday Cake can fuck you up.

7. Finding out you’re gay is exactly like finding out you have a burnt child molester inside of you.

8. Never underestimate the power of dull.

9. Those Nazi guys were pretty fucked up.

10. Never allow the corpse of Lillian Gish to ruin your social engagements.

11. Ogami Itto will
straight up motherfucking end you.


12. For a man who made Nashville and Prairie Home Companion Altman chose a surprisingly shitty band to make a movie about.

13. Robert Mitchum is a fucking pimp.

14. Werner Herzog can make you feel sorry for Steven Zahn.

15. Frankenstein’s Monster has a heretofore unknown propensity for Pimp Coats.

16. David Cronenberg might have some issues with women/the human race as a whole.

17. Maybe I should just accept the fact that I don’t particularly like Monte Helleman. I’m sorry.

18. Boiled Rice can give a man one hell of a boner.

19. If you drive a huge bright yellow crane up to a prison in Britain, no one will notice.

20. The family that warshes each other in a bathtub while defending each other from accusations of gang rape stays together!

21. Dario Argento really can’t make good movies anymore.

22. The Philippines is the place where dignity goes to die.

23. Robert Duvall will straight up end you.

24. Mankind is destined to be replaced by Cats and Dogs. One of whom will evolve into a an exact replica of Lou Reed. This Replica will summon a space demon. That space demon will be Iggy Pop.

25. Happy people freak out Herzog.

26. When Anti God possess you, you will be compelled to put on pancake makeup and hit people with planks.

27. The way to
become the ultimate swordsman is to fall asleep during your duels.


28. Clint Eastwood can appear in a
boring unfocused movie that’s not City Heat.


29. Roger Corman can apparently block traffic in major European cities at his discretion.

30. Edgar Allen Poe and God are totally homeys.

31. Paul Newman can box the shit out of you,

32. When trying to intimidate someone its best not to attempt it at a place where your subject has several Ravenous Pitbulls at their disposal.

33. Its possible to have Paul Newman, Lee Marvin, and Terrence Malick collaborate on a movie that has no value at all.

34. You will indeed pay the cost to be the boss.

35. Man nobody did forbidden like the fifties.

36. Pimp Vs. Vampires. Vampires win.

37. Toshiro Mifune can have enlightenment beaten into him.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Scott Pilgrim VS. The World

( A Quick Note: I apologize for the lack luster posting schedule. A busier then usual personal life, a punishing work schedule, and an internet connection that has decided its only going to work when it damn well feels like it and even then not very well (thanks NETGEAR) have all conspired to keep me from getting anything up. Still all but the Connection are now under control, so the normal pace should now resume.)



Scott Pilgrim might not be a perfect film, or a perfect adaptation. What it is, is a perfect version of itself.

Whatever Pilgrim loses in the way of emotional depth or narrative ambition in the transition from thousands of pages and panels to two hours or so of celluloid, it more then makes up for with its sheer exuberance. It’s a film that hits the ground running, from the second its energetic to the point of avant garde credits explode on screen, it has the wonderful air of a film that can simply not contain itself.

But its one thing for a film to be satisfied with itself, and another to get the audience to be satisfied with it as well. And Scott Pilgrim is one of those wonderful exceptions that has the power to bring the audience along with it. The audience I saw it with erupted into spontaneous applause at no less then three parts in the film. And this wasn’t a midnight show of rapt fanboys either, but a 2/3rds full early evening show.

Because whatever else Scott Pilgrim is; generous, warm, witty, stylistically audacious, its most importantly FUN. In a summer that has been all but devoid of that precious commodity. Even the Summer’s one other unqualified success, Inception stands lower then Pilgrim in this regard. Not that Inception wasn’t an enormously entertaining film, but both the critical squabbles and the thud of Christopher Nolan’s dick hitting the table distracted from it. In other words, Inception was even at its popcorniest a very weighty film, while Scott Pilgrim remains, almost defiantly based on the tremendous amount of work evident in its making, a lark. But a lark that embraces all the freedom and fleetness that that designation allows.

Wright’s eye for casting is impeccable. I had serious doubts about Cera, but by dropping the prickly intelligence that always seems key to his persona, he taps into a wholly unexpected daffiness that makes the role work. Christopher Evan’s and Brandon Routh both turn in performances that I wouldn’t hesitate to call comedic genius. Routh in particular is revelatory (but not that revelatory, he proved in Zack And Miri he has some serious comic chops) and his wildly inappropriately non chalant “Its not a big deal” got the single biggest laugh in the film for me (Wright also gives Routh an action his character didn’t have in the book and boy does it pay off. Minor Spoilers, when you see a guy Brandon Routh’s size with biceps like Canned Hams hit a five foot tall 90 pound Asian girl as hard as he can, you wince no matter how cartoony it is). Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes an effective and affecting Object of desire, even if she doesn’t have the depth of her paper counterpart. Jason Schwartzman on the other hand makes his character ten times what he was on the page. As for Allison Pill I suppose all I can say is its going to be very hard not to stalk her (Note to various Law Enforcement agencies and Ms. Pill’s lawyers, joking). If there’s any justice in the world Ellen Wong should be getting the exact same kind of buzz Carey Mulligan got off of An Education, thanks to her role (If the film has a flaw its that Wright and Wong invest so much in Knives that we end up rooting for her over Ramona) And we haven’t even gotten to Anna Kendrick and Kieran Culkin yet.

But it’s still Edgar Wright upon whom this all rests. He’s aided here by Bill Pope’s quietly mind blowing work. And a soundtrack that swings from Earthy Proto Punk (Provided by Beck and Broken Social Scene) and Techno Decadence (Courtesy of Metric) and stopping everywhere in between from Bollywood to Frank Black. Believe what you’ve heard, this movie is a fucking musical.

But despite the invaluable aid by Cast, crew and music, its all Wright. I don’t know if it was when an army of demon fire throwing hipster chicks materialized out of thin air, or if it was one of the characters punched a hole in the moon, but there came a point where all I could do was lean back and marvel “Fuck he’s really going for it.” Wright swings for the fences. Wright is one of the few directors working in what is legitimately his own space. Even if you don’t like what he does, I don’t see how you could not concede that he does it very well. Personally, he creates films I want to curl up in. Moments like Simon Pegg’s first run through Stanford, set to “Village Green Preservation Society” or his and Edgar Wright’s post break up break down in Shaun Of The Dead, hell even Vulva’s art show in Spaced, aren’t just favorite scenes from films, but cinematic headspace that I can go when I feel wounded.

Despite the ravenous zombies, NWA’s, and Nega Verisons, Wright’s cinematic universe remains an appealingly friendly one. And despite the lackluster designation that may entail it is never a dull one.

So yes, perhaps this review has been little but raving superlatives, But damn it, if no film can move a film writer to blathering superlatives, he is in serious trouble. The movie Is Scott Pilgrim. He’s 22. His Rating is awesome. But you already knew that.

(Fun Fact: This Post took an hour and a half to get up. This is after it had been sitting on my computer for two days. So if you hear the sound of someone on the west coast screaming before they punch a hole in the internet, that's me. Seriously Netgear. Fuck you. Fuck you so hard.)