Sunday, December 28, 2008

Happiness of the Katakuris (2001, Takashi Miike)

The year 2001 defined wacko Japanese director Takashi Miike. His work ethic is nonstop, grinding out two or three movies a year on average. 1999's Audition was making its way through horror circles as a star title of the J-Horror/Asian horror scene and is the only such title that could never be remade like The Ring and The Grudge. On the other hand, they did it to , but this is a guy whose Masters of Horror episode wasn't even allowed to air on pay cable niche programming for disgruntled 80s gorehounds.

2001 defined TM through two incredibly violent and perverted movies, Ichi the Killer and Visitor Q, and this one: a family musical. There's no shortage of weird, but as my genre-adverse mother was able to watch this before I did I can safely say this is a Takashi Miike movie your mother could watch. In making such a life affirming film he gave himself the enigmatic aura of a director who can direct anything, from trendy children's fantasy epics to post modern westerns. An enviable position!

As the Katakuri clan's first customers arrive at their mountaintop bed & breakfast, they die, through no fault of the family's or their own. The family hides the bodies. The perspectives change - the divorcee daughter is looking for love with a royal naval officer, dad and mom are worried about the hotel and junior has just gotten out of jail so he's prime suspect when the first guest kicks off. The songs express feelings rather than move the story along and familial perspectives are given their due.

The weirdness what makes it all worthwhile comes unexpectedly and takes context only from the intent of the songs. When mom and dad sing about their years together and the future of their seemingly cursed hotel, the scene changes from their living room lobby to a 70s style karaoke stage with glittery lights and poofy hair, the way a karaoke stage would have been during their courtship. The lyrics are supered onscreen and highlight in yellow from left to right.

Every scene takes risks with stylization. There are songs in single rooms with flashing strobe lights, there are songs with actors flying on wires. There is a great big Sound of Music familial sing-along holding hands in the green hillside at the climax.

Asian cinema is so comfortable juggling genres within a single film, often over the span of mere minutes in one mood before another, as to put American films to shame when Quentin Tarantino, who has a part in Miike's recent postmodern western Sukiyaki Western Django, loudly proclaims the rare attempt at a psychotic hybrid of sickness and action like Kill Bill. Ichi and a legion of Asian trash effortlessly runs circles around the brain with their irreverence towards old world yakuza violence and outlandish perversion of the family in Visitor Q.

Happiness of the Katakuris taps the lighter, cuter side of Japan's dadaist pop culture into a fable and mediation on family ties and does so in a way that is pleasing to Asian trash junkies and moms alike.

Normality, cuteness, zombie dance. Detractors can call it random for random's sake, but it's not like those zombies weren't part of the story, they were the former hotel guests! If anyone can tell me what those random claymation alien angels were about, please drop me a line.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Graveyard Shift (1990, Ralph S. Singleton)

The most unique thing about Graveyard Shift is its qualifying the short list of movies with end credits that remix sound bites into a closing credits musical montage. Truly a custom of its time. Were producers of the late 80s seriously hoping to get Planes, Trains & Automobiles 12" Del Griffith Ultramix into the clubs?

Ralph S. Singleton has one of the most random resumes I've ever read, from Second Assistant Directing such 70s classics as Taxi Driver and Network to producing a couple of Eddie Murphy's most forgettable 80s movies Harlem Nights and Another 48 Hours. Then in the 90s he produced cheesy big studio thrillers like Murder At 1600 and Tom Clancy's Clear and Present Danger before making cash off lowbrow junk like Juwanna Mann and middlebrow junk like Because of Winn-Dixie.

No wonder he's still working; in between those Eddie Murphy bombs he also managed to produce one of the best late-period 80s Stephen King horror flicks, 1989's Pet Sematary, and its universally derided 1992 sequel. Even the lousiest King adaptation could turn a profit in those days. In 1990 alone there was also the IT miniseries and Misery, in which Rob Reiner created the not-really-a-horror-more-like-a-suspense-thriller genre of horror movies that Silence of the Lambs crystallized a year later.

Singleton must have been a legitimate horror fan to want to make his debut with what was erroneously marketed as a killer rat flick. Unlike the original short story there really aren't any, only a gigantic rat/bat monster who can sometimes sneak up behind people without them even noticing. Must have been easier than training a bunch of rats, which are only prominently featured in the pre-credits death scene and don't come off as remotely threatening. King's story also features a bunch of grossly evolved rats who'd never seen the light of day, like hairless versions without legs. Seeing all the different mutations could've made a great monster movie, but that's beyond this movie's means. With only one monster, all the deaths in the first two acts happen by suggestion until it's time to reveal ratbat.

The pitch:

"Hey, I've got the rights to this short story about some mill workers who go to clean out the basement and get eaten by one or more mutant rats!"

"Fuck off."

"Did I mention it was written by Stephen King?"

"(writing check) How did you say you spelled your name?"

The only movie which better proves how easily anything Stephen King breathed on could be bought up and made into a movie is The Mangler. At least killer rats and/or a rat/bat monster have more potential to be frightening than a possessed industrial laundry folder. More amazing is the fact The Mangler could still get a brief theatrical release in 1995 and two direct to video sequels after that.

Like Robert Englund's starring role in that film, lots of things indicate Graveyard Shift is Direct-To-Video fodder at heart which got theatrically budgeted by grace of King's good name. All the action is set in the single location of a dusty old textile mill and its labyrinthine caverns, which look convincingly dusty and gigantic. We never see the ratbat in full, but as a creature connoisseur I wasn't let down with what they had to show.

Graveyard Shift's proto-DTV requisite ham is Brad Douriff, hot off Child's Play (yes, hot - he played the bad guy in Exorcist III after all,) and giving his best as a 'Nam vet turned exterminator with a personal vendetta against rats for their collaboration with the V.C. in those 1984 style face-eating cages. Sadly he was not made the main character, barely disqualifying Ralph Singleton's sole directorial effort from being worthwhile.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Dangerous Men (2005, John S. Rad)

--Thanks to YouTube user "jdubbs530" for capturing this rare glimpse--

Dangerous Men may or may not be the bad movie event of the decade. Its historical anomaly is unprecedented: an Erotic Action-Thriller filmed in pieces spanning the late 80s to mid 90s by an Iranian emigre named John Yeghanehrad (John Rad to you and me) with a great love for American mainstream trash, a paltry understanding of the English language, and the raw cinematic instincts of Ed Wood.

After years of production, post-production, shifting casts and apparently endless script revisions, this time capsule of glorious ineptitude found its way to a mere six Los Angeles theaters in 2005, of which Rad personally financed along with local television and radio spots.

Then, having fulfilled his life's destiny, he died.

Had he lived another 25 years he might have pulled a Robert Hiltzik, but given the speed of his first production he would've had to start now.

By the grace of LA's Silent Movie Theater, a print was acquired for exhibition as part of both their "HolyFuckingShit" and "Festival of Indulgence" programming series. The latter included Cracking Up / Smorgasboard, making The Silent a strong competitor to The New Bev for finest revival theater in LA.

Now. The way this film was revealed to me was with more or less the information I've stated, and a saucy preview scene different to but roughly the same length as the above clip. As the Silent's curators explained, the greatest enjoyment of this film comes from total ignorance of its proceedings. Describing its heights of earnest stupor would be rather like describing the weaknesses-as-strengths of Plan 9 From Outer Space; an explanation of a joke which entirely unravels any potential unseen enjoyment.

When is the movie coming out? Maybe never, until the next screening. As Rad remains deceased, the rights are in limbo and the cult audience does not yet exist. There are literally perhaps several hundred people who've now seen this film at most. I apologize for this review; it is a necessary failure to plant the seed of curiosity in anyone who happens across this.

Here is the only known interview with the man.

An action suspense, mystery drama

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Revolutionary Road (2008, Sam Mendes)

I'm a trash man and figured the last Leo DiCaprio flick I'd seen was Critters 3: You Are What They Eat. It was actually The Departed, which shows how much an impact he made there.

He's good in this film. I never saw Titanic either, because I've got WILLPOWER, damn it. Winslet is good too, and the whole time I was wondering how they managed to get two leading Hollywood actors together with actual chemistry...

Their chemistry is what saves Revolutionary Road. Everything else is the usual Hollywood suburbia-is-bullshit bullshit they keep witlessly shoving down our throats. Everyone's trapped in their little box of desperation, a trip to Europe is the only way to escape, and if you enjoy your cul-de-sac hell you're probably some annoying fat woman who cries "yoo-hoooooo!" and enjoys gardening.

At least when Richard Yates wrote the novel in the mid-50s, the satire was timely. Now this film merely exists 50 years later so that critics and academics can rub their chins, purse their lips and remark how little things have changed. Like, women still can't get their abortions at the local 7-11! How arcane!

DiCaprio and Winslet's children are mere obstacles to their happiness, and almost total non-entities. Was Yates advocating the cause that adults should pursue their egos selfishly and at the dismissal of their children? Winslet gradually reveals she never wanted to have them or get married or move to the 'burbs in the first place.

DiCaprio comes to realize he doesn't want to give up everything on a wild whim of midlife crisis self-discovery, and is treated as the villain - a weaker human being than his wife, whom he drives to ruin by backing out of her plan. When he ends up by himself raising the children, the implication is that he got the worse deal, the sucker!

Sam Mendes was an obvious choice for the material and he pulls out the same lame bag of tricks he had with American Beauty, namely decorating the suburban houses in Red, White and Blue. There's also a character deemed crazy by society, man, who delivers snippy outbursts of rage at all the conformity around him and is therefore the voice of reason. The second time he does this is in the scene directly after the emotional climax of the movie, to explain how the audience is supposed to feel.

Some executive at Paramount must have been a big fan of Mad Men to greenlight this project, since the period office is the only other location we spend time in outside of the couple's home. Also like Mad Men, one of DiCaprio's period office pals is an obvious closet case and there are busty naive secretaries just waiting to be plucked. Oh, and everyone can smoke indoors again! Can we strike some kind of deal with Hollywood where all actors can smoke indoors in the movies, regardless of the story's period, just because smoking makes actors look so good?

The studio lot audience I saw this film with laughed their butts off at all the right moments, snickering their superiority at bourgeois normalcy. Doesn't matter if the plebes in flyover country go to see it or not, it's awards season Oscar bait and if they gotta make a movie without Batman, it may as well reinforce their sense of superiority over non-artistic-types, the commoners. Then it's back to projects that actually make money - special effects flicks for international audiences.

If nothing else, Yates was prophetic of the coming eternal adolescence in our society and contempt for procreation as an inconvenience to the self-indulgence of eternal adolescents. Revolutionary Road is a well made drama full of sad scoldings our society already took to heart long ago.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Cracking Up / Smorgasboard (1983, Jerry Lewis)

Jerry Lewis is the only comedian to come after the silent era masters Chaplin and Keaton who was also able to direct himself.

His early to mid 60s output oscillated between the full yin and yang of his psychology. His yin was the sad clown, seen in Cinderfella and The Family Jewels whose maudlin sentimentality sabotaged his humor. God bless his raging Yang - the spastic retard who makes The Ladies' Man, The Disorderly Orderly (directed by Looney Tunes alum Frank Tashlin) and The Patsy indispensable viewing for screwball and slapstick fans.

In those films a mere dollop of sentimentality is reserved for when it is appropriate, and Lewis' private sadness is truly felt. He steps forward from the stage after the pratfall, leans in close and whispers into your ear that he has never felt truly loved or understood. Then he climbs back up and makes you laugh again. The break in the comedy is not studio-dictated pathos, it is his own.

He gently reminds us the spastic retard shtick is an escape from the harsh realities of life, which are so very rarely funny. In today's era of comedy which smugly restate life's indignities ultimately with resignation - Seinfeld, The Office, - or glibly embrace pop culture nihilism - Robot Chicken, The Soup, VH1 - Lewis' films have become funnier than ever in their happy idiot purity while the real Lewis crumbled into depression at the knowledge that airline food jokes, and ironic jokes ABOUT airline food jokes were the future. His legacy is so much more meat for pop culture cannibals who duplicate his persona as "Professor Frink" on The Simpsons and then HIRE THE REAL JERRY to play his father many seasons later.

Cracking Up, aka Smorgasboard, is Jerry's big fuck-you to all of that. To everyone who'd written him off in his heyday, to every young comedian who was draining comedy to dusty dryness, and even to his fans, by giving them too much of a good thing for their final meal. Eat your fill, go throw up at the vomitorium in the lobby, and c'mon back inside because this is it, this is the last time, all you nice people!

The opening scene is classical. As the opening credits roll, Jerry walks into his psychiatrist's office and cannot stop slipping on the shiny plastic which coats the floor, the furniture, everything. The titles inform us the title theme is sung by Marcel Marceau, and when the "Music By" credit comes up, the soundtrack cuts out. Funny stuff, but Jerry is going to dig a lot deeper into our heads than that.

The psychiatrists' questions lead to some sketches which signal the depths of indulgence to come: Jerry as a 10 year old boy, Jerry as a French prisoner on Devil's Island. Their relation to Jerry's character is completely arbitrary because Jerry's character has no story except to go to the psychiatrist's office, except that only seems to happen during the first third of the film. Then he goes to bank, and when he leaves we stay in the bank to watch a silent skit about some robbers, led by Jerry in false teeth.

Then something else happens and the suspicion sets in that 80 percent of the film was written before the framing device of the psychiatrist and his patient were created. And even that was reduced to a bookend rather than a continuous context. This is plotlessness elevated to some kind of throwdown; he's going to make you laugh, story or not.

One moment that encapsulates the utter disorientation of Cracking Up is a gag which lasts 10 seconds. Between one gag scene and another, neither of which have any connection, Jerry's psychiatry patient is seen at a dance with many other couples. The camera pulls back to reveal they are dancing on their knees. A mere trick of perspective.

Aaaaand scene!! Next!!! C'mon people, we're squeezing in as many gags as we can!!!

The disjointed pacing either lasts just long enough for you to get the joke and then move on, or it lingers like passerbys gawk at a car wreck. When Jerry's psychiatrist brings him to the top of a tall building to get over his fear of heights. He repeats to himself over and over that there's nothing to be afraid of. Gradually, ever so gradually, a big King Kong gorilla hand enters the frame to grab his psychiatrist. By my count, it takes a year for the hand to enter the frame, another year for it to drag the psychiatrist away, and eight weeks to linger on Jerry finally opening his eyes and not knowing where his psychiatrist went.

No sad clowns here. No pathos, no plot, just one gag after another at the pace only a dying man can deliver. Lucid, but occasionally taking an hour to remember his old army buddy's name. The DVD could be a long way away, but don't worry - nothing can possibly prepare you.


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Prowler (1981, Joseph Zito)

Joseph Zito reveled in filth before and after the film, directing Chuck Norris in Invasion USA and Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. The latter is considered by many fans to be the best Friday, something I've never understood. If it's a better slasher than Prowler that's only because Zito had the advantage of a slasher icon.

Tom Savini does the gore effects for Prowler as he also did for The Final Chapter, and even those are comparatively lackluster. Zito has some instincts for creating a sense of place - there's one genuinely great sequence involving four people going in and out of the same small room and getting offed - but no knack for making the deaths themselves effective. The camera lingers stupidly on the aftermath just long enough to take the wind out of Savini's efforts.

The most memorable death is memorable mainly for being physically impossible. This isn't necessarily a bad thing when it comes to Savini deaths. Everyone in Day of the Dead is made of Play-Dough, but the tearings-apart happen with such operatic flair that it doesn't matter. The Prowler has less macabre imagination than the average...well, Friday the 13th sequel. Given Savini's comparative work of the time, the similarly micro-budgeted The Burning and Maniac, the results suggest he was out of good ideas on this one.

The other memorable impossibility is the revelation of the killer's identity, unexpected and seemingly clever for a moment by the way it ties into a subtle detail before, but then hey waittaminnit, it doesn't make any god damned logistical sense and you're left scratching your head.

The filler between the killing time counts in a flick like this and the worst offense possible is to let your victims be boring. This is what makes most of the Fridays unwatchable, compared to even the most unwatchable Nightmare On Elm Street. Without the future star victim power of Corey Feldman or Crispin Glover, Zito again fails to make this film less boring than the most overrated Friday he would direct two years later.

Slash trash lives and dies by excellence within a rigid formula stolen from Halloween, and sadly The Prowler made me realize that Tom Savini's magic touch isn't enough to make a moderately competent execution of that formula worthwhile.