Sunday, November 27, 2005

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (4/5)

Once you realize this movie isn't a porno, it's actually pretty damn good. Yeah, I was disappointed at first, but instead of hunting down the red light district I actually decided to stay. Hell, porn is accessible 24/7, but a movie this funny only comes around once in a while.

The plot revolves around Harry Lockhart played by Robert Downey Jr., a petty thief turned aspiring actor who soon finds himself in the midst of an old fashioned film noir plot. Val Kilmer plays Gay Perry, a private detective who is hired to show Harry the ropes for his potential new role. When someone from Harry's past shows...actually, the plot is really just a MacGuffin for the two actors to spout off clever lines at one another, and the movie itself seems keenly aware of this. In fact, Robert Downey's character narrates the film complete with fourth wall shattering comments (such as referencing the audiences in Times Square). His narration could have come off as annoying, but thanks to the strong script and funny delivery it works perfectly.

The entire film is really just an excuse for these two actors to play off of each other, and they do a fantastic job. Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. can be two of the most frustrating actors. Sometimes they can seem so self-conscious that it's painful, and other times they can turn in a role that singlehandedly makes the movie (Val Kilmer in Tombstone for example). Here they're at the top of their game. They play off of each other perfectly. For example, when Harry asks Gay Perry if he's still gay, Perry respond, "No, knee-deep in pussy. I just love the name so much I just can't get rid of it." This is the kind of sardonic, smart-ass humor you'll find in the film.

It's so difficult these days to find a good comedy that this movie felt refreshing. It feels like it has been over a decade since I've actually laughed out loud in a movie theatre. Most comedies are ruled by the Will Ferrell rule of comedy: if you yell it's automatically funnier. It's nice to know that someone out there thinks that a clever script can be funny too.

The qualities of this film don't stop at the humor. There's also some great send-up of film noir. For a noir fan like myself, this was merely icing on the cake. Not only does the film pay tribute to old fashion noir, but takes an opportunity to subvert it whenever it gets the chance. Film noir cliches are raised so they can be turned on their head.

If this movie hasn't already been driven out of the theatres because it doesn't have a bankable star, then go see this film on the big screen. It's worth seeing a comedy with actual laughs with an audience.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Blood on the Wall - Awsomer

Blood on the Wall - Awsomer (4.5/5)

Blood on the Wall is a trio that plays like The Pixies, Sonic Youth, The Minutemen, and a touch of My Bloody Valentine. Basically, they're all of your favorite alternative bands from the eighties and early nineties all mixed up into one complete, but surprisingly unique, package. Awsomer, which is their second album (get it?), tears through fourteen songs in little over a half-hour. There's not an ounce of fat on this set. It's kind of like that guy that shows up to your party with a purpose. He makes a b-line straight to the refrigerator, downs your best beer, takes a few shots, trashes some furniture, and is gone. You'll never see him again.

I'm a sucker for bands with two singers, and maybe that's why I've fallen so hard for this album. Courtney Shanks has a rhaspy voice in the vein of Kim Gordon that'll make you think of black lights and musty smelling smoke. Ben Shanks, on the other hand, has a perfect mania in his voice, and makes the songs sound as if they could disintegrate into cacophony any second. I imagine some wild eyed berserker with veins popping out of his face.

There's at least one song under a minute, and at least five others that are under two. It's enough to give you wiplash. These terse little snippets are addictive, and like your favorite crack dealer you'll be coming back again and again. I think the real secret to writing a short album is make it so addictive you can't help but listen to it twice in a row.

There are also a few "pretty" songs. "I'd Like to Take You Out Tonight" is the longest song at three minutes and thirty-seven seconds. It recalls Jesus and Mary Chain, and is a perfect little eye in the storm. The closer naturally slows things down as well, and even features a -gasp- piano.

Blood on the Wall are smart enough not to beat you until you're numb, and even some of the harder songs have a more deliberate marching tempo. My current favorite song of the album is "Mary Susan." It features a perfect sing-along chorus backed by a great turning bass line. I've already decided this will be the perfect drinking song for when I become an alcoholic.

I'd write some more, but I've already held you up too long when you should really be buying this album.

Saturday, November 19, 2005


Oldboy (3.5/5)

Oldboy is a film of revenge, secrets, and twists that amount to a textbook perfection of modern day Greek Tragedy. I've never really liked Greek Tragedy. I've read both Antigone by Sophocles and Agamemnon by Aeschylus and I came up with the exact same feeling towards those works as I did towards this one: I just didn't care about any of the characters. I recognize that there are some wonderful things about those plays (and, plenty of wonderful things in Oldboy), but there was no point of entry for me - no character to latch onto.

As the film opens up Dae-Su has been picked up by the police in a drunken stupor. His friend bails him out, but before he is taken home to his wife and daughter Dae-Su is abducted. He spends the next fifteen years trapped in some kind of hotel room where he is fed fried dumplings through a slit in the door, and every now and then they pump sleeping gas into the room so they can cut his hair. His only connection to the world is through television. From the television he finds out that his wife has been killed and he has been framed. He begins training to take revenge and even forms a plan of escape.

Mysteriously, before he can execute his plans he is let go. Eventually he meets up with a younger female sushi chef and the two of them try and solve the riddle of his incarceration. I won't spoil the film with more detail for those who want to see it. I guarantee there's a lot more to the story.

One of the great things about reading something as old as Greek Tragedy is the window it gives you to a whole other civilization. This is the same kind of excitement one gets from watching a foreign film. I will admit that the ending of this film would never be included in an American movie, and there are some odd scenes involving sex or sexual tension that I didn't know whether to laugh or cringe. It kind of makes you wonder what the hell is going on in the mind of the average Korean male. However, there are also some great surreal moments that probably wouldn't be found in an American revenge film. They're not a major part of the movie, but for me they were the best parts. One word: ants.

I heard somewhere that the director is actually a philosophy major. You can definitely tell from the film. There are certain profundities Oldboy forced me to face. Do Koreans really not know what the Count of Monte Cristo is? Does every rich business man have a short body guard that can kick ass? When a Korea says I'll be your dog, do they really mean it literally? Why do people go to internet cafes anyways? Questions like this will challenge the audience and make them think about their own life. (And yes, "profundities" is a word).

As an audience we learn very little about Dae-Su, and personally I don't think the film itself was terribly interested. There were plot points that were contrived in order to fulfill the direction of the story, but I didn't feel like they were overly forced. The film has style to spare, and that's probably its biggest strength.

As you can tell, I had a real mixed reaction to this film. I didn't know whether to give it a 3 (bad review) or a 3.5 (good review). I opted for the latter. Even though this film wasn't my cup of chai, it wasn't worthless and I wouldn't want to prevent anyone from seeing it. If you're really into Korean cinema I'm sure you'll enjoy it, and anyone who's into Greek Tragedy, or even Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, will probably like it. For me it came down to this: if you're more interested in the philosophy than the story and characters, why the hell didn't you just write an essay?

Saturday, November 12, 2005

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (4.5/5)

"All my songs are protest songs."
-Bob Dylan

"I've never written a political song. Songs can't save the world."
-Bob Dylan

Throughout Martin Scorsese's two-hundred minute documentary we get to see Bob Dylan squirm under a barage of journalist questions. Several times he just asks the questions right back at them, and at one point starts snapping pictures of the photographers themselves. Dylan is portrayed as a chameleon, refusing to be a spokesman for the left or put on a pedestal by the folk movement. The closer Scorsese gets to his subject the blurrier he becomes.

The story of Dylan is framed nicely within the turbulent times his music came about. When pictures of Dylan's sleepy Midwest town is flashed across the screen it's apparent that the straight laced conformity was indicative of the nation as a whole.

No sooner are we are introduced to the restless kid who enrolled in college but never went to any classes, then we see him skirt to New York where he is rumoured to have followed in the footsteps of the old bluesmen, and sells his soul to the devil. Shortly after, his mediocre playing is transformed into a confident musician.

During the times Dylan is in New York you can almost feel the pressure that was building in America. This is also the time where he probably gained a political consciousness that he would later accept or deny depending on how he felt, or maybe on who was asking.

The majority of the concert footage contains booing and heckling from the crowd. I had always heard about the controversy concerning Dylan "plugging in," but it is something else to actually witness it.

This documentary has a long running time, but it never dragged. I was constanty intrigued, and always engaged. No Direction Home is richly layered and deals with a lot more than just Bob Dylan -- I'm sure I don't understand half of it. Scorsese show us a scene of Andy Warhol and Dylan right before he cuts to some British fans deriding the new Dylan music as "pop." As is the case with any Scorsese movie, it is about a lot more than what's up on the screen. In some way No Direction Home is about the changing art of the sixties. It was this decade that modernism really started giving way to the post-modern movement.

The relation between Dylan and his music also intrigued me. The Beats and many of these folk musicians viewed art as a truthful unveiling. Much of this film will have you wondering if Dylan's music concealed as much as it revealed. The idea of an artistic Truth is chipped away at, and instead Dylan lets little truths slip out of his art. There is an act that's going on whenever Dylan writes a song, and especially when he performs a song. At times it is almost as if he is creating a personality out of bits of images and sounds he finds in the world, and then puts them together to create something fresh.

The film manages to deal with multiple themes without losing sight of its subject. In fact, it is precisely because the film deals with so much that it didn't lose my interest despite its length. Scorsese has shown us one of America's great artist, and in the process proves that he also belongs in that category.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Hidden Fortress

The Hidden Fortress (5/5)

Of all the directing masters Akira Kurosawa is arguably the greatest. No matter how much praise and hyperbole is shoveled onto his films they always surprise me by how good they are. Not good in a, "this was phenomenal for the 1950's," but good as in, "this is better than just about anything we're seeing today." While watching this movie I was trying to think of an American director who even comes close, but no one quite matches Kurosawa. If Akira Kurosawa and Stanley Kubrick had a street fight in Heaven I gurantee you Kurosawa would kick Kubrick in the nuts and decapitate him inside of a minute.

This film is often described as the impetus for Star Wars. After seeing the prequel trilogy I half expected The Hidden Fortress to be an exact blueprint for Episode IV, but they're really not that similar. It turns out that George Lucas was talented back in the day. If you're looking for simularities you'll find them, but if Lucas himself hadn't mentioned how much this film influenced him I doubt anyone would be drawing parallels. For example, the two peasant characters, Tahei and Matakishi, are supposed to be the inpirations for R2-D2 and C-3PO, but they're not similar in the least. Tahei and Matakishi are slow, bumbling, greedy, and selfish. They're a far cry from Lucas' creations. R2-D2 is the butch in the relationship while C-3PO is his more feminine partner. (I have to give Lucas credit for having the guts to put a gay robot couple in a film way back in the 70's, and it's even more amazing because no one has had the guts to do it a second time. Perhaps one day gay robots will get the screen time they deserve.)

The story involves a princess and her general who are trapped behind enemy lines and must make it back to their own land. Of all the Kurosawa films I've seen this is the most commercial, and should satisfy fans of old action and adventure. Of particular interest is Toshiro Mifune who is a Kurosawa regular. He plays General Rokurota - an all around badass. When his party gets stopped by soldiers trying to hunt them down he quickly kills a couple of them, and then grabs a horse to go hunt down two trying to escape, all the while letting out a warrior's cry. This action sequence ends in a duel between Rokurota and an opposing general he has a competitive but friendly relationship with. The duel is one of the greatest fight scenes in cinema, and not just because of the fine choreography (although that too), but because of how interesting these two characters are. They respect each other, but if they met on a battlefield then duty would prevail.

This is much more of an action adventure film than something like Roshomon, but Kurosawa still manages to throw in a lot of themes. The princess has a slight epiphony while walking amont the peasants, and decides to save a girl before she becomes a sex slave; Tahei and Matakishi are both morally bankrupt but they still seem to serve a purpose in society; and General Rokurota and his rival both seem to say something about the merits and limits of honor. These themes are great and add some depth, but are subservient to sheer adventure of the film, which is how it should be.

The last film I saw that really understood how much fun a swashbuckling action film can be was Serenity, and before that was probably Pirates of the Carribean. Both are great films but can't quite live up to The Hidden Fortress. But if either of them want to challenge Kurosawa I'm sure he's got some fight left in him after he put Kubrick in his place.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Nirvana - Sliver: The Best of the Box

Nirvana - Sliver: The Best of the Box (3/5)

Well it's finally here, and there's not a single song on it that hasn't been released in one way or another somewhere else. Sure, there are three song versions that have never been available before, or at least to non bootleggers, but is that enough to make someone drop fifteen bucks? Here's what you hardcore fans are getting:

Come As You Are (boom box version). This is perhaps the single most unnecessary item on the entire CD. I didn't even like the boom box version of Smells Like Teen Spirit, why the hell would I want a shitty version of Come As You Are? Yes, yes, I get it, "Nirvana was once just another garage rock band just like yours." That's all fine and good, but give me songs that show why they kick the shit out of my band.

Spank Thru (1985 fecal matter demo). Cobain's stoner delivery is hilarious. Sure, it's just a novelty song compared to the other versions out on the internet, and the one on Wishkah, but it's still fun to hear an eighteen-year-old Cobain mess around. This is rumoured to be the first song Noveselic heard Cobain perform before he decided to start a band with him.

Sappy. This is the real gem on the album. This is even better than the No Alternative version. It sounds more stripped down, and the guitars have that jangly sound instead of pushing a wall of sound at the listener. I loved the original version, and even "borrowed" the No Alternative CD from a friend just because of that song (don't worry I gave it back). This version just has more atmoshperics, and you can really get into Cobain's vocals.

Every problem I have with the rest of the album I had with the box set, but this time it seems more prevalent because I already have the box set. Nirvana fans want new and hard to get songs, not different versions of old classics. We already have the classics, and do we really need two versions of Rape Me? The disc tries too hard to equally represent every Nirvana era by album. They should just fess up to the fact that the most interesting stuff comes from their Bleach days. After Bleach almost all of the great songs went onto their CDs. I won't go over what I would have put on the disc because it's not nearly as atrocious as the self titled disaster (but just in case you're interested I would have included: White Lace and Strange, Token Eastern Song, Even in His Youth, D-7, Verse Chorus Verse, and I Hate Myself and I Want to Die).

Just in case anyone's still reading after that shameless turn of events, I also have some good things to say about the album. They do manage to pick the best of the best (Ain't it a Shame, Clean Up Before She Comes, Do Re Mi, Opinion, Old Age, Floyd the Barber (live)). The alternate versions of classics are more interesting without an intimidating three hours of music to wade through. Of course, you could always solve that problem by putting these songs on a mixed tape of your own. You know, kind of like a...oh, I don't know, "best of the box." Francis Bean did a good job with the cover art. You can take this thing into the car without worrying about the CDs falling everywhere. They should probably have called it With the Lights Out: Travel Edition.

Unless you're like me (a completist sucker), then I don't know why you would buy this album. There are a few problems with the box set, and people like to knock it, but it's really a decent buy. Just go out and drop the sixty buck instead of picking up this scam.