Fighting Elegy    2008-02-18 19:44:34 ET
Seijun Suzuki is known in Japanese film circles for taking bad scripts and redeeming them through creative cinematography. He had almost no control over what his jobs were, so he made the best of what he was given, turning aggressively ordinary yakuza films into crazy-go-nuts works of art. As such, this movie is a little bit of an oddity. It's almost an inverse of everything that makes a Suzuki film.

Kiroku (Hideki Takahashi) is a Catholic high school student in 1930's Japan. He has a fierce crush on Michiko (Junko Asano), his landlord's daughter. However, he hasn't the nerve to talk to her, and he's too Catholic and guilt-ridden to do anything else, so his only means of dealing with sexual frustration is fighting. Eventually this leads to joining a paramilitary gang, some trouble, and an attempt to whip a country school full of wannabe thugs into shape.

What makes this unusual for a Suzuki picture is, first of all, it's not a yakuza movie. While there is still violence and (at least implied) criminality, it's all schoolyard fights rather than organized crime. Also, and more apparent, is the rather subdued camera work here. There are a few crazy edits and unusual angles, but for the most part it takes a back seat to the plot, which is the direct opposite of what Suzuki usually does. It is perhaps significant that, unlike most Suzuki films, the storyline is actually pretty good.

For what would seem to be reasonably serious themes, this movie has a lot of humor. So much so that I would almost classify it as a comedy. The fight scenes, brutal as they may seem, quickly turn into setpieces of bizarre, yet entertaining, slapstick. Kiroku's shyness and discomfort around Michiko and the topic of sex in general is so uncomfortable as to be, if such a thing exists, a good sort of cringe-worthy. Perhaps most telling of all, despite all the posturing and violence, the gangs really come across as nothing more than eight-year-old boys' "no girls" clubs. Here is another place where Suzuki's directorial talent shines through. He is able to take a situation that, in most other directors' hands, might come across as homoerotic and make sure it stays firmly juvenile and silly.

For those up on Japanese history, there is a good amount of satire here. Suzuki seems to be saying that Japan's militarism from the turn of the century through World War II is the result of repressed sexuality. It seems reminiscent of "Fight Club" with its theme of release through violence, but with a different conclusion. Instead of saying that violence is the only outlet for masculinity in an increasingly feminized world, Suzuki posits that war, or at least the military mindset, is the result of sexual frustration. This is a surprising statement from a Japanese director, since World War II is still a touchy subject.

Sadly, Suzuki's tendency to make the best of crappy scripts got him in trouble with his bosses and eventually fired, and he was never able to make a proposed sequel (covering the second half of the novel this film was based on) of the one good story he was handed.

 Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?    2008-02-13 13:25:22 ET
The problem with reviewing classics (or one of the problems, anyway) is that there is precious little to be said that hasn't been said before. So I'll just get my one insight out of the way and turn in a standard review. It's supposed to be bad luck to put question marks in a movie title, yet this one has the offending punctuation and swept the Oscars, changed the industry, and is an acknowledged classic. How does that work out?

This movie concerns George and Martha, a bitter middle-aged couple. He's an underachieving history professor; she's his wife and daughter of the university president. They invite staff newcomer Nick and his wife Honey over to their place after a party, and all hell breaks loose. The movie almost literally begins with the start of a marathon length argument that lasts the entire movie and pulls in some much darker stuff along the way.

There's a lot going on here. I can't say too much without giving away major plot points (and I'm not going to ruin a movie you've had over forty years to see), except that it would certainly reward multiple viewings. There's much symbolism and ambiguity, and I would bet money I missed a lot. That said, the unfolding of events is fascinating, almost terrifying, and certainly pays off on the forboding felt in the first few scenes.

The performances are excellent, which isn't surprising since all the credited actors received at least an Oscar nomination (I'll put aside my contempt for the Oscars for the moment). Liz Taylor, an easy target of ridicule in her later years, is amazing in her sheer drunken sleazy awfulness. This is why (or part of why) she held so much respect back in the day. The fact that she was married to her screen husband that she attacks so viciously only adds another interesting dimension. Grossly underappreciated Sandy Dennis, the younger wife, is quite possibly the best ever screen drunk. Once she hits the bottle, keep your eye on her no matter what else happens. Trust me.

There is a certain amount of schadenfreude in this film (arguably, it's even the main draw). We've all seen those vicious marital battles that are so nasty they hold us in rapt attention. That's the glue that holds this movie together. There's some great stuff that comes out later on, but it's the sheer long-years-of-married-resentment-Stella-D'oro-Breakfast-Treat vindictiveness that wins the awards.

As an interesting side note, this is more or less the movie that led to film ratings replacing the Production Code. There's something a little jarring about a black and white movie where the characters openly talk about sex and swear at each other. If you've ever wanted to see Richard Burton call a girl "monkey nipples," here's your movie.

So yeah, you should have already seen this, but if not, it's easily available. Watch and be repulsed (and enthralled).

 Trash    2008-02-06 23:45:38 ET
I mostly know Andy Warhol movies by reputation, having only seen "Blood for Dracula" (which involved the wimpiest vampire ever anywhere). I've heard things, though, and seeing his name in the credits puts me on guard. So here is a movie he produced, and Paul Morrissey directed, called "Trash." It's an odd film for many, many reasons.

In what basically amounts to a series of vignettes, heroin addict Joe suffers from drug-induced impotence, meets a lot of people (more on this later), and attempts welfare fraud. If it sounds uneventful, it sort of is. Joe wanders through the movie in a daze and mostly just reacts (or fails to do so) to what goes on arround him. His girlfriend, who sells things she finds in the garbage, is played by Holly Woodlawn, the drag queen that Lou Reed sang about in "Take a Walk on the Wild Side."

First of all, this is a pre-Altamont, pre-Thompson counter-culture anti-drug movie. As such it carries an almost heretical feel to it, like somebody is seriously breaking ranks here. Despite, or because of, several graphic shooting up scenes (he was clearly injecting something during filming), the movie is pretty unglamorous. It doesn't even have that gritty anti-romance that recent issue movies have. Nobody dies, nobody OD's or turns to prostitution or anything like that. It just kind of comes across as a sort of dumb way to live your life.

Despite the fact that Joe is impotent, nearly catatonic, and smells bad (mentioned by at least one character), every woman on earth wants to get in his pants. Seriously, the first few scenes play out like a porno movie, except for the rather important failure previously mentioned. Also, all the women in this movie are rock stupid. A few of them are so vapid as to make me phsycially uncomfortable. Despite what the t-shirts say, stupidity does hurt.

The final scene is a corker. Even if the rest of the movie is too much for you, skip ahead to that last scene. It's like the best ever episode of "Cops."

I can't actually recomment this movie, except as a cinematic oddity. It's long, sometimes boring, sometimes frustrating, but definitely a different take on the subject, especially for its time. And that last scene is a riot, so at least it ends on a (relatively) positive note.

1 comment

 Zoltan, the Hound of Dracula    2008-02-05 13:28:52 ET
Zoltan, the Hound of Dracula

Did you ever see that horrible "Krypto, the Super Dog" cartoon? It was about a Kryptonian dog who befriended or fought all the superheroes' pets. It was bad, but at least it was handled with some sense of its own inherent silliness. Now imagine the same premise applied to Dracula movies and done in dead earnest. Now imagine it about fifteen times dumber. This, friends, is Zoltan.

According to this movie, the Draculas were a dynasty. We see the tombs of Igor Dracula, Frederick Dracula, and a few others (but curiously no Vlad Dracula). It's up to one of their thralls and his vampire dog to find the last surviving descendent of the Draculas and make him a vampire. That this man, named Mike, has a wife and two children in no way affects his status as "last descendent."

There is so much wrong with this movie that I don't know where to begin. One of the first scenes involves a police detective discussing Dracula tombs like he was Hank Venture. Later we see the title character punching holes in a door with his paw. And I'm convinced that Dracula's slave must have been sucking lemons into the double digits every day in preparation for his role. It just keeps getting worse.

Honestly, this is a difficult review to write, because no description can do this movie justice. Whatever you're thinking, it's worse. That in no way implies I didn't enjoy it. It's so terrible that it becomes transcendent. I found myself eagerly awaiting every next scene to see how they could possibly top their own stupidity, and they always did.

"Ren and Stimpy" fans, note also that our hero is played by Michael Pataki, the voice of George Liquor. This only adds to the awesome.

This might well be the stupidest movie you ever see, but it's worth it to see how stupid it gets. It's worse/better than a train wreck. It's like a train wreck that runs over a snake eating a pig.

(Apparently this movie is alternately titled "Dracula's Dog", which only reenforces my point.)

 As Tears Go By    2008-02-04 19:00:58 ET
"As Tears Go By" (or "Wong gok ka moon", in Cantonese) was apparently the directorial debut of Kar Wai Wong, a director of Hong Kong action movies that I haven't seen. It's the story of a small time gangster who is trying to woo his cousin while simultaneously keep his suicidally stupid gangster friend from getting himself killed.

I'm probably going to step on the toes of some Asian film aficionados by saying that I found this movie formulaic and, really, kind of dull. Seriously, does every movie made in Hong Kong focus on cops and gangsters? Also, besides being overly sentimental, the title is sort of a non sequitur. I can't say with certainty that no one actually cried in the movie, but it was really more about getting one's ass kicked than anything else.

I'm 95% person sure that Jacky Cheung, the stupid friend, is not, in fact, Jackie Chan, but he looks a lot like him, and transliteration is a tricky art at best. I think the best evidence that they aren't the same person is that Cheung loses a fight against six guys. I can't imagine that ever happening in a Jackie Chan movie.

I'm also a little confused by the romantic subplot. Is trying to seduce your cousin acceptable in Hong Kong? There doesn't seem to be any implication that this sort of thing is frowned upon. The fact that she's related is only mentioned to give her a means to be introduced into the story. Then again, a surprising number of famous people married their cousins. I guess Andy Lau's character is trying to join the ranks of Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Darwin, Werner von Braun, and various figures of Victorian England.

There's an interesting bit in the soundtrack about midway through where they play a Cantonese version of Berlin's "Take My Breath Away." Jacky Cheung turns in a pretty good performance, and the ending was at least interesting (though it helps not to think about it too much). It's not a bad movie, but it just seems like every other Hong Kong action movie I've ever seen.

You're probably better off watching "Hard Boiled" again.

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