Saturday, December 27, 2008

Forget Everything You Know About Ponies

There's a certain measure of beauty striven for by artists in this world, a dream of absolute aesthetic perfection heretofore thought unreachable by the flawed hand of humanity. This dream has just become reality. My Little Pony: The Princess Promenade has opened a doorway to a realm of staggering beauty, one that can't be explained away with simple words. To watch this film is an experience like no other. To quaff the heady brew of its majesty is to wrap yourself in a blanket of enlightenment. You don't just see its purity, you taste it. It fills you. I am not a religious man, but this film is as close to God as one can come in this wretched world of ours.

Any attempt at analysis of how the film achieves what it does is meaningless. One can certainly break it down into its component parts, though this yields more questions than answers. (1) A narrative of staggering force and clarity. (2) Simple yet elegant camerawork, comparable to the masterworks of Ozu, yet leagues beyond even his understated beauty. (3) A swirling palette of colors, always moving yet never extravagant. (4) A troupe of actors who will accept nothing less than to become these noble beasts, to cast off the shackles of their own human identities and, through their words, conjure a kind of concentrated beauty from the very aether around them. Yet this is nothing more than a simplification--a reduction of what is by definition vast and unknowable to a straightforward list of observable attributes. MLP:TPP is so much more than the sum of its parts, and must be felt to be believed.

That this film hasn't received more critical attention is a monumental tragedy. Though perhaps... perhaps the real tragedy is within ourselves. It may be that we are simply not ready to open our hearts, let the scales fall from our eyes, and embrace the only true beauty that really exists in this world: My Little Pony.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

From Out of Space... A Warning and an Ultimatum

For your own good... don't go see the new Day the Earth Stood Still. Not even out of curiosity. I'm not joking. It's a huge step back for cinema. It's a huge step back for humanity. You have no excuse. I've made the mistake, and now you don't have to. It will give you eye cancer. It will make you sterile, and not in the good way.

I know what you're thinking: "This Keith fellow... he's prone to exaggerate to get his point across. I better go see for myself!"

No. Fuck you. I forbid it. If you really need to get your fix, watch the original again. Or just watch something else. Want some Keanu? Pop in Bill & Ted. Shit, you can even pop in Johnny Mnemonic. It's leagues beyond this travesty of a "remake." Need some Jennifer Connelly? How about Labyrinth? Labyrinth is great! Or when was the last time you watched The Rocketeer? Isn't that movie awesome?

Yes, let's all stay home this weekend and watch The Rocketeer.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I Am a Gross Straight Man

It's true. I am a gross straight man, and that's a major influence on my cinematic input. For instance... do you know what I love? Unapologetic, unadulterated, exploitation schlock. I love to go see a movie that doesn't waste time on things like plot and character development, but instead focuses on (crazy!) sex and (brutal!) violence. And as with most film experiences, this is best accomplished with a large audience of like-minded folk. Before coming to San Francisco this was a much more difficult task to orchestrate, but now that I'm here I can't seem to walk two blocks without tripping over a schlocky genre festival. Another Hole in the Head, Dead Channels, Shock It to Me... and so on. It's goddam overwhelming.

Onechanbara is a perfect example of the kind of glorious film experience this city has to offer, assuming you know know where to look. (Hint: try the Roxie.) This is exploitation pure and simple. You might imagine the film's conception as something like the following: "Let's see... what's popular these days? Oh, I know! Zombies! And babes! And killing! Let's make a movie of that." This is surprisingly close to reality. The only difference is that Onechanbara is actually based on a Japanese video game (series) of the same name. But video games can be exploitation too! And exploitation movies based on exploitation games are like extra-bonus exploitation. You can't really get much better than that without making the transition to hardcore porn (which I'm not necessarily against).

There is nothing you can dislike about this game (assuming you're a lusty heterosexual male).

To be honest, I wish we had more of this kind of thing in American cinema today. It just doesn't seem like there's much of a market for low budget wonders like these, nor is there really a system in place to answer the pitiful demand that does arise. It's easier in Japan for the simple reason that they already have various frameworks in place to pump out waves of cheapo films. If we had something like Japan's V-cinema or pink film industries... well, life would be sweet. In the US, shitty cinematographers like Yohei Fukuda would never get the chance to direct shitty (awesome) movies about girls with swords. And that's sad. Think of what could be!

(Anyone interested in learning more about pink films--or who doesn't believe that worthwhile art can rise from the depths of the low-budget sex-film industry--should probably check out Jasper Sharp's new book, Behind the Pink Curtain. And by the way, I'm not suggesting that Onechanbara is a pink film. It's clearly not. It just got me thinking along those lines.)

So the rest of us have to rely on the likes of Quentin Tarantino, it seems. And while any true exploitation fan probably has somewhat ambivalent feelings toward Tarantino, I'll be the first to admit: I think the guy's got his heart in the right place. He loves schlock, and tries his damnedest to spread that love as far as it will go. For me, that simple fact outshines any shortcomings he may have, artistic or otherwise. I may let my frustration slip out a bit occasionally, but who doesn't?

Notice a pattern? Neither do I...

Luckily we (which is to say the US) also have a pretty decent independent schlock scene, so we're not totally deprived of low budget exploitative crap. But distribution is few and far between, naturally. Unless you're catching these movies at festivals (like Another Hole in the Head), you're probably watching them on DVD at home. If there's ever an exception, I try my best to be on top of it. Zombie Strippers, for instance, played a short run at the Lumiere Theater here in the city, and I made sure to be there at midnight on day one for the special opening "event." Unfortunately I was one of fewer than 10 people, 1 or 2 of whom were asleep moments into the show. Fuck! (The movie was hilarious, by the way. Not great by any means, but wonderfully disgusting. And the amount of dead nudity was... well, a lot. It will make you uncomfortable.)

Jenna Jameson is a talented actress.

Actually, talking about dead nudity just reminded me of the Masters of Horror series on Showtime. This is probably the closest thing we have (had, rather... or is it still on?) to V-Cinema schlock. A bunch of filmmakers get a bit of a budget to make an hour long horror film, which then goes straight to TV and DVD. There's not too much risk, so the directors can fuck around and make some really weird stuff without too many (financial) repercussions. A lot of these are terrible, but a few of them are totally worthwhile. (I think Argento's Pelts is the best of them, personally.) And they're all fun to watch!

Incidentally, if you missed Onechanbara and are looking to make up for it you can catch Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police this weekend (at midnight on Friday and Saturday, respectively) at the Roxie. I've seen both of these a few times now, and you're missing out if you can't say the same. And having seen them both on DVD and in the theater, I can tell you without hesitation that it's better in the theater (obviously). Not to mention the fact that it's being presented by Another Hole in the Head, which means there'll likely be mountains of free Red Hook to quench your thirst. No one has an excuse to miss this. (And for anyone participating in the Month of Terror, these totally count as horror films. Another bonus!)

What would Freud say?

Um... shit. I just realized that I sat down to write about Onechanbara specifically, but ended up getting completely sidetracked. Oh well, no big deal. The important thing is for everybody to go see it if/when they get the chance. And support your local purveyors of filmic filth! Honestly, where would you be without them?

Monday, October 6, 2008

You Make Good Coffee

So have you guys seen the newest Budd Boetticher western? It's a hoot 'n a half!

EDIT: It just occurred to me that some people out there might not be familiar with Boetticher, so allow me to elaborate: he was a man who became famous for making the most straightforward westerns in the history of time. The typical (read: every) Boetticher plot goes like this: A man (Randolph Scott) rides a horse in a direction. Along the way he will probably find another man, whom he will shoot with his gun. There may be a woman, but probably not. Later, Scott will ride his horse some more, and possibly drink some coffee. The end!

Sound familiar?

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

October is drawing near, and with it comes an inevitable rush of horror films. In terms of what comes out in theaters, I usually dread this time of year. Most releases will likely be bullshit remakes, and the ones that aren't will probably be bullshit ripoffs. (Excuse my cynicism here, but I feel I've earned it.) Yet I can't deny that I do get a certain itch to indulge in the lower depths of my cinematic pleasure around Halloween. While I may be reluctant to drop upwards of ten bucks on a shitty horror movie, I am more than willing to let them trickle in all month via Netflix. In fact, in years past I've been proud to take part in a certain noble tradition, started originally (I think) by my friend Good Ben, known simply as "The Month of Terror."

The idea is this: during October, the Month of Terror participants will watch at least one horror film per day.

This sounds easy enough, and it sometimes is. But there are no exceptions. Have a paper due the next day? Fuck you. Have to wake up at 6AM to go to work? Fuck you. Friends and relatives in town? Fuck you. Girlfriend/boyfriend doesn't like horror films? Fuck you. No horror movies on hand? Fuck you.

In fact, to accomplish a totally successful Month of Terror takes a certain amount of planning and forethought. It usually requires a Netflix queue, an account at a handful of video stores, one or more friends with a large horror collection (if you don't have one yourself), and possibly a subscription to some movie channels. The logistics of having a new horror film on hand at any given time can be tricky, especially when the mail is involved. It may even be wise to upgrade to the 5-at-a-time Netflix plan for the month. (I think this actually saves money in the long run.) Then of course one must decide on the movies themselves. Usually it's a good idea to think at least a week in advance, and to have a selection of standby titles ready in case of unforeseen disaster. (It occurs to me that Netflix's "watch now" feature will be endlessly useful in this regard.)

Of course there are various strategies for success. Sequels help fill out the month, for instance. If you watch all the Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Hellraiser movies, you're basically home free. This kind of thing is discouraged, though. While there's no official Month of Terror "rule" against this, it does go against the spirit of inspiration the month of October is supposed to instill in a self-respecting horror buff. Sequels are okay, sure, but it's generally best to branch out further if at all possible. Use your imagination.

It should be noted that there's no rule against watching movies you've seen in the past, although counting a movie more than once for that particular month is understandably frowned upon. And besides, the Month of Terror is a perfect opportunity to catch up on all those horror flicks you don't otherwise get a chance to see. When else are you going to sit down specifically to watch Phantasm III, or April Fool's Day? And what about the horror movies that you don't really want to go out of your way for, but are mildly curious about? I'm talking about things like Cabin Fever here. Or the newest Saw or Hostel or whatever else is lying around in the horror section of your local video hole. Sure you wouldn't normally be interested, but October is a month of equality for horror films. If it sucks, you've got another one to watch tomorrow.

Watching more than one movie per day is allowed, and is actually encouraged. Watch as many as you can stand! Just know that this doesn't count for multiple days. Remember, at least one every day. So you can't, for instance, have a double feature and skip the next day. That's cheating. And now that I think of it, I should also mention something about the definition of a "day." Generally for the Month of Terror, a day is defined as the span of time between when you wake up and when you go to sleep. Time isn't necessarily relevant. So if you watch one movie at 10PM, then another at 1AM, they're both still technically in the same "day." The converse is also true: if you watch a movie at 1AM, go to bed, then watch another movie the following afternoon, it counts as separate days. The date on the calendar was the same, yes, but that doesn't matter.

So I'm sure you get the picture by now. And really, the most important thing is to get out there and watch some goddam scary movies. A properly executed Month of Terror can even help you enjoy the worthless piles that will be released in the theater during the coming weeks. It's win-win! Just make sure to keep from blowing your horrific wad too early, because ideally the whole thing should culminate on Halloween itself, with a glorious (drunken?) hurrah. Typically this calls for marathons, parties, violence, orgies, &c. Make it count. It only happens once a year.

There's one danger I should definitely mention: after an entire month of horror flick glory, it can be tricky to stop. In all seriousness, the horror binge is a habit-forming substance. You may find your days feeling empty without perpetual assaults of tits, blood, and torture. The best advice I can give for the newfound horror addict is to bring yourself down slowly. Maybe cut down to one movie every other day, or just a couple a week. My own Months of Terror have been known to stretch well past Christmas and into the new year, though I have yet to hear of one lasting until the following season. Should this be the next challenge?


Make it happen.

Also, if anybody out there feels like it, I don't think a Month of Terror has been properly documented yet. You've got a blog? Keep us updated! What movies are you planning to watch? When? What kind of marathons do you have planned? Any Month of Terror related events? What's your Halloween movie going to be? Reviews of little-known films that the rest of us should know about? Maybe even use your blog to track down other horror addicts in your area for citywide murderfests. The possibilities are endless. I'll try to document my run as much as possible, but between work and school I'll have to do my best just to watch the movies, much less write about them. But we'll see...

Happy October!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Circle of Shit

Last night was a full-on sensory assault. Having just returned from the loudest show I've ever been to (Mogwai/The Fuck Buttons @ The Regency), I decided I should finally sit down with Pasolini's Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, which had arrived in the mail via Netflix last week. Like any cinephile, I had heard a lot about this movie before watching it. Most offensive film ever made... most disturbing film ever made... et cetera. I was half-drunk on overpriced beer, had a high-pitched ringing in my ears, and was up for a challenge. And it must be said... Salò was a challenge, if nothing else. All exaggeration aside, it was the closest I've come to vomiting during (because of) a movie. Even closer than Window Water Baby Moving. Apparently the only thing I find more disturbing than birth is coprophagia. Who knew? (Two Girls One Cup certainly never elicited a response like that... I guess that says something about the nature/power of fictional engagement. Also about how shit isn't gross as long as it looks like delicious chocolate ice cream.) Sade has never been handled this way on film before, and when married to Pasolini's particular pedantic (political) playfulness, something exciting is born. Too bad he got run the fuck down by his own car before we got a chance to see what might have come next.

Long story short: I think I'm going to have to disagree with Julia Kristeva's notion that what happens in Sade isn't abject. Salò is abject as hell.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Anton Chigurh Got a Haircut

I haven't really kept up with Woody Allen's recent output. Out of the last ten (twelve? fifteen?) years or so, I've seen maybe three of his movies. Match Point: check (loved it). Scoop: check (hated it). Cassandra's Dream: still haven't gotten around to it. And now? Vicky Cristina Barcelona: check. I don't think I can really place this movie in the context of any "recent Woody Allen" trend without feeling like a hypocrite, so I won't. But judging from my meager personal experience, along with everything I've heard about the last decade of his work, Vicky Cristina Barcelona was a bit surprising. I went to see it with no reviews under my belt (I've made it clear elsewhere how I feel about reading reviews before seeing a movie), and to be honest I was almost going in with a chip on my shoulder, ready to hate it. Woody Allen is certainly past his prime, over the hill and so on, right? Shows what I know. While I wouldn't go so far as to add it to the Woody Allen "masterpiece" canon (along with Annie Hall, &c.), this isn't one to be dismissed as a minor work either, despite how it may initially appear.

The setup is pretty standard: two friends go to Barcelona for the summer. One's an uptight grad student (Rebecca Hall), the other's a free spirited not-quite-artist type (Scarlett Johansson). They meet dashing local painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). These are the ingredients for a good ol' fashioned love triangle, and things unfold just the way you'd expect. The lustful Cristina gets sick on the trio's first night together, and Vicky is "forced" to spend a glorious weekend alone with Juan Antonio. Despite her engagement to a safe, boring, businessman back home, she loses her shit due to wine and acoustic guitar (who wouldn't?), and ends up having sex with him. She regrets it and goes back to her research, cutting herself off from further hijinks. Cristina and Juan Antonio end up together as planned. All of this happens in an enjoyable, if predictable, manner. It's nothing you wouldn't expect from any European-inspired piece of sexual dramedy, in other words. Then, just about when you start to wonder if maybe you didn't imagine seeing her name in the credits, Penelope Cruz makes her entrance. And she is crazy.

Also: crazy awesome. More than a few reviews have already bandied about Oscar talk, and it isn't hard to see why. She goes all out as Juan Antonio's fucked up ex-wife Maria Elena, and basically steals the show. It's also amazing that, in a movie that had so far featured three of the most beautiful people on Earth, she blows them all right out of the goddam water, apparently without a shred of effort. She has this strange, alluring, manic-depressive, something that just fits perfectly. She goes from bouncing off the walls, spitting Spanish curses, and threatening physical harm, to being a perfect specimen of tender, understanding affection. And back again! There are points where it's obvious that the other actors are just as surprised as the audience at the fury of her outbursts, which is always entertaining. I actually started to feel sorry for Javier Bardem--I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that he was covered with real-life bruises after some of those on-screen assaults. Does she steal the show too much? Possibly. Perhaps after a second viewing I can judge more objectively, since I'll be a little more prepared for the onslaught.

In any case, Cruz's character fucks up the comfortable stability of Cristina and Juan Antonio's relationship in the way you'd expect. At first. Then things go in strange, wonderful new directions. And then Vicky comes back in the picture! It's a bit of a clusterfuck, and over the course of the film the love triangle transforms into multiple triangles, then a rectangle, back into a triangle, and finally into some sort of incomprehensible love dodecahedron. It's funny, it's emotional... in short, it works. I'm always pleased when a film presents a love triangle that doesn't neatly solve itself somehow (e.g. killing and/or vilifying one of the members). Allen doesn't give us any cop-outs, and I respect that.

A couple of things stood out for me after this first viewing. For one, Woody Allen himself isn't in it (this is a good thing). Yet through most of the movie, you can undoubtedly feel him speaking through the mouths of his characters. I don't know if it's just a matter of his "voice" being so strong in his writing or what... but the end result for me was that I couldn't help but imagine a bonus audio track on the DVD where Woody Allen dubs himself over every actor. I honestly don't know if I'd be able to tell the difference. At certain points it seemed like each character was little more than a physical manifestation of a different part of Allen's psyche, and I was just sitting in the theater watching him argue with himself. This isn't a deal-breaker or anything... one certainly expects plenty of Woody Allen dialogue in a Woody Allen movie. But it was a little distracting.

Another thing: it takes a little while for the characters to break away from their little stereotypes and become anything close to "real" people. Lusty artist, uptight grad student, European sexpot... these are all obvious character molds to inhabit this kind of story. Allen clearly realizes this, and he spends plenty of time delivering exactly the foibles we expect (want?) to see in these types of characters. Whether it's Cristina's bad poetry or Vicky's constant overthinking, we're not exactly surprised by any of these people until the film starts to wind down. But in the end they do end up becoming something more, despite our expectations. Shit, even Vicky's polo-wearing, golf-playing, clueless husband-to-be ends up as a sympathetic three-dimensional human being. So why the wait? Was this kind of delayed characterization intentional? Again, I think maybe a second viewing will help shed some light.

One last thing stood out: the voice over narration. It's interesting... the voice doesn't belong to anyone in the film, nor even to Allen himself (except in spirit, of course). Honestly, I can't decide how I feel about it one way or another (yet). The knee-jerk critical reaction to voice over is negative, of course. Bad writing! Unnecessary! And so on. But Woody Allen knows what he's doing, right? I can't help but think that he was using the narration to some end other than simple narrative clarity. And it didn't even seem that vital. I imagine it would be fairly easy to edit it out entirely and not lose much. So what's the deal? Just another item to pay closer attention to during round two, I suppose...

Oh and finally: if any of the above didn't interest you in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, perhaps this will: Penelope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson make out in it. Assuming the clip hasn't already made it to youtube, it certainly will soon. So we can all look forward to millions of teenage boys thanking Woody Allen as they nervously lock their bedroom doors. Hooray!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Neither Fast Nor Furious

I feel as if I should apologize for my lack of posts lately, especially considering I've just been welcomed into the LAMB. But here's the thing: Netflix has been sending me disc after disc of Mr. Show and The Office, which has caused my cinematic intake to dip pretty drastically. You may remember I mentioned something earlier about summer being a time of media binges? Well summer rages on. Mr. Show is of course an old favorite I haven't watched in a while, and The Office is something I've only recently begun to enjoy. (It fucking rules, by the way. Can't wait to check out the British version.) Anyway, I finally pried my eyeballs away from television long enough to watch Satoshi Miki's newest film, Adrift in Tokyo. It's been doing its thing at festivals for a little while now (NYAFF, for one), and it came out on DVD in Japan sort of recently. I've been hearing nothing but good things, so I checked it out. Not for everyone, I'd say, but I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Actually, I liked it so much that I'm planning on writing something real about it in the near future, though for now I think I'll just throw up (which is to say vomit) the (stilted/semi-shitty) review I wrote for Midnight Eye. Prepare yourself for a disturbing lack of expletives.

And I quote (myself):

Satoshi Miki’s Adrift in Tokyo is a difficult film to categorize. Is it a road movie? A city film? A buddy movie? A comedy? A drama? The short answer is: yes. It’s each of these things, and when put together, it becomes something substantially greater than the sum of its parts. Miki has managed to craft something touching, hilarious, informative, and brimming with a subdued sense of adventure that one can only get from exploring a seemingly familiar city with a fresh perspective.

Joe Odagiri: best hair in the history of time.

The film (more or less) follows the perpetually blank-faced Fumiya (Joe Odagiri), an eighth year law student who has managed to rack up over 800,000 yen in debt, and naturally has no way to pay it back. While sitting in his apartment contemplating the finer points of three-color toothpaste, Fumiya is assaulted by ruthless-looking debt collector Fukuhara (a mullet-wielding Tomokazu Miura), who gives him three days to pay back the cash. The days pass and Fumiya makes a series of characteristically half-assed attempts to raise the money, but gets nowhere. Ready to give up, he’s approached once more by Fukuhara, who surprisingly says he will pay a total of one million yen if Fumiya accompanies him on a walk around Tokyo. It might take days, weeks, or months, he says, but after they’re finished his debt will disappear. Having no choice, Fumiya accepts the offer and the film kicks into gear.

As we follow the two through the streets of the city, their lives unfold by way of conversations, squabbles, confessions, and the occasional shouting match. We discover that Fumiya was abandoned by his parents as a young child, leaving him without a soul to depend on. With this revelation Miki subtly transforms Fumiya’s attitude of blank detachment from a comic device into something deeper, while still keeping the atmosphere light. And we learn that Fukuhara, the strangely sensitive thug, has killed his wife. He plans to wander the streets of his city, rediscovering old memories and creating new ones, before turning himself in to the police and resigning himself to prison. This kind of multi-layered emotional content is typical for the film, and it’s not unusual for any given scene to first lift, then break your spirits as each of the characters unfurls into an actual multidimensional human being. It takes a delicate hand to strike such a perfect balance of humor and (I hesitate to even call it this) drama, but Miki has succeeded brilliantly. It’s completely possible to see Adrift in Tokyo as nothing more than a breezy comedy, full of first-rate performances and hilarious gags, but the viewer who digs past the surface will be rewarded with something surprisingly touching, and undeniably beautiful.

Speaking of gags, Miki’s particular brand of out-of-left-field humor runs steadily throughout the film, and there are plenty of moments that might confuse a viewer searching for clear-cut linearity beneath the lingering narrative. But if it starts to seem like he’s losing track of his characters, try to remember that the city itself is being developed just as much as Fumiya or Fukuhara. For example, consider the seemingly unnecessary B story involving Fukuhara’s wife’s coworkers, and their trek across the city. Whenever these characters take center stage, every ounce of a typical viewer’s narrative training suggests that Miki is building toward some concrete connection--a bridge with the central characters that is just never going to form. It’s normal for loose ends such as these to cause frustration, but perhaps things aren’t quite as open ended as they initially appear. As these characters run around the city, gossiping and laughing and finding excuses to go from one place to the next, it’s simply one more slice of Tokyo that Miki is baring before his spectators. Any connection these people might have to the two "main" characters is incidental. The only truly important link they share is one that should be obvious from the story’s opening moments: they are, along with those watching the film, adrift in Tokyo.

End quote!
(Expletives motherfucking resumed.)

This is another flick that might be a bit tough to get ahold of (surprise surprise), but if it sounds at all up your alley then it probably is. Have you ever seen somebody smell their own head? You will. And it's just as great as it sounds. Possibly even greater.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad Detective

Everyone loves Johnnie To. Everyone. You may not even know who the hell he is, but trust me--you love him. You just don't know it yet. He's Hong Kong's baby right now, and everything he touches seems to turn to gold. In short, Johnnie To has it. Fairly prolific by today's standards, he turns out around two films a year. And unlike certain other prolific Asian directors, his work is mostly highly regarded, even in "regular" critical circles (i.e. not Asian film fanatics).

(One major exception I can think of: Roger Ebert. He isn't really picking up what To's putting down. But--and I mean no offense to Ebert when I say this--Roger Ebert is a worthless old cunt who needs to pass the ubiquitous film critic torch to somebody who doesn't remember when a bowl of soup cost a nickel. He is a confused, bedraggled, unattractive old man who is given to pawing at the screen and trying to grab the images he likes. But like I said, no offense. All due respect and all that.)

As a self-proclaimed Asian film fan, I have to bow my head in shame and reveal that I've only seen four Johnnie To films. I've seen Election and Election 2, of course. Everybody's seen those, and for a good reason. Then there's Exiled, which was the best western I've watched in quite some time. (This is especially impressive when you consider that technically it's not even a western. If Exiled sounds familiar and you don't know why, you may be remembering it from an earlier post of mine. If you like Sergio Leone, please please please watch this movie. I can't emphasize that enough.) The fourth film was one that I just watched a few nights ago, and one that may even be coming to DVD in the US sometime in the near future: Mad Detective. Was it as great as the rest of 'em? Read on to find out! (Hint: it was.)

The titular mad detective is Bun, a strange, seemingly clairvoyant Hong Kong cop who just happens to be a little psychotic. He claims to be able to see people's "inner personalities," and this naturally gets him into no end of shenanigans. The film opens with a few scenes from his heyday, solving crimes no one else could even get a lead on using his "unconventional" methods of re-enactment and divination. Then, at his boss's retirement party, Bun cuts off his own ear and offers it to the old man as a present. The department takes this as a sign that Bun should probably retire himself, and they kick him off the force.

Present day. Up and coming detective Ho is trying to solve a case of a missing cop. Ho, who is mildly obsessed with Bun, ends up enlisting his help on the case. Lacking any real evidence, all they've got to go on are Bun's visions, which seem to point to the missing cop's partner. Against all logic, they pursue their suspect throughout the film. Bun continues to unravel psychologically, and it isn't long before Ho is falling apart right alongside him. Long story short: some serious shit goes down, and it all comes together in a climax that rivals... well, most climaxes.

What's really surprising about Mad Detective is how well all of this "divination" and "inner personality" stuff plays out onscreen. When I first read what the movie was about, I naturally assumed it was going to be cheesy. How could it not be? Multiple actors crowding around playing different aspects of one character's personality? Come on! Even Johnnie To couldn't pull that off without losing dramatic tension, right? But it works. And it works really well. Imagine one character pointing a gun, with seven different sets of hands pulling and pushing, seven different voices telling him whether or not he should shoot. Seven different variations of his thought process, all fighting to get their way. With Johnnie To at the helm, what could very well be a ridiculous scene turns out brilliant. If you're new to To's films, this is probably something you should just go ahead and get used to.

A few reviews I've read mention that Mad Detective often leaves the viewer confused as to what's real and what's only taking place in Bun's mind. This is totally accurate. The strange thing is, these reviews pass this off as a negative aspect of the film. As with just about any film (or novel, or whatever) with an insane protagonist, Bun's unreliability plays a huge part in Mad Detective's tension and development. I guess these critics haven't read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? I don't know. I can't really explain it. If anything other than perfectly obvious linearity bothers you, maybe this movie ain't your bag. I'm not really going to force the issue.

I was pleased that someone else picked up on the obvious reference to Orson Welles's Lady from Shanghai in the amazing climactic shootout. This actually wasn't the only point in the film that I felt Welles's influence, but it was certainly the most clear. Actually, in every To film I've seen so far I get the sense that it's the work of somebody who has watched Touch of Evil about a million times. (I mean that as a compliment, by the way...) And there are plenty of other influences, obviously. Kurosawa, for one. Elements of both Rashomon and Stray Dog were peppered throughout, and arguably some of his noir work as well. During any stylized shootout one can't help but feel the pull of John Woo, naturally. And the final Mexican standoff could very well be a nod to Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, though I'd be more likely to draw the connection to Ringo Lam's City on Fire (which was of course the "inspiration" for Tarantino's film). Actually, now that I think of it... that particular brand of gunfight goes back even more obviously to Sergio Leone, whose work To is clearly quite familiar with (once again: see Exiled). Shit, it's practically straight out of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

All in all, I really enjoyed this supposedly "minor" work from Hong Kong badass Johnnie To. I don't think it quite upended Election 2 as my favorite (of what I've seen, anyway), but it's definitely worth checking out. Hopefully it'll get a little more recognition once it's released in the US.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

No, I Won't Shut Up About Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Here's a rarity for you: a short post. Well I've struck some blog gold and wanted to share. Michael Guillen of The Evening Class is hosting a Kiyoshi Kurosawa blogathon. There's more great reading about a great filmmaker there than I can even begin to talk about. (You may even find a reference to my own humble Kurosawa post from months past.) If you don't know shit about Kurosawa, here's your chance to learn. If you do know shit about Kurosawa, then write a damn blog post!

So go to Le Video (or your local equivalent), get a stack of Kurosawa flicks, put on your Face Eyes, and sit in your Body Chair dammit.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

12 Reasons Not to End Your Life (Just Yet)

It would seem I've been chosen by Scott of He Shot Cyrus to blow your fucking minds. I hope that's cool. Specifically, Lazy Eye Theatre is hosting the 12 Movies Meme, in which some of us internet jerks pretend we have some place to show great movies besides our stupid apartments. The idea is that if Diablo Cody can do it, then actual, real human beings who know things about movies can probably do it even better.

So the rules are basically:
1) Pick 12 movies
2) Explain yo' damn self
3) Pick 5 more people to carry on your wretched torch

By now pretty much every non-famous person's blog that I read has already been nominated, so I'm just going to skip that last part. Or how about this: if you're reading this, have a blog, and haven't been nominated, I nominate YOU. Get to work!

On to my selections. You'll notice that only 7 of the 12 are Asian (and one set in Asia, I guess). I feel that I've shown considerable restraint here. You, collectively, should be proud of me.

Night 1: Consumerism Is Kind of Rad?

Dawn of the Dead / Chopping Mall
Do you like consumerism? Well you probably shouldn't! But don't take my word for it. Just watch these two horrifying cautionary tales.

Night 2: Lock and Loll!

Linda Linda Linda / Wild Zero
In Japan, Rock and Roll still means something.

Night 3: Eastern Westerns

Exiled / Sukiyaki Western Django
What happens when people from Asia make westerns? Let's find out together! Hugs!

Night 4: Everyone Loves... Homoeroticism!

Dead Ringers / Gozu
Do you think that it is bad for a man to give another man kisses, or do you agree that it is okay?

Night 5: Remember When Exploitation Didn't Have Anything to Do With Tarantino? Neither Do I!

Lady Snowblood / Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS
Ironically (not really), Tarantino is actually mentioned on that Lady Snowblood poster. Fuck that! What this world needs is a real grindhouse double feature.

Night 6: Girls I Am Pretend-Married To

Chungking Express / Lost in Translation
In case you're confused, the girls I'm referring to are Faye Wong and Scarlett Johansson. I'm actually pretend-married to Tony Leung as well, although he did recently get married for real (not to me).

So... what do you guys think? Would this be a successful near-week of movie watching glory? I'm inclined to think so. If anyone has a spare theater lying around, let me know and we'll find out for sure.