Saturday, June 24, 2006

Linda Linda Linda-ah-ah

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I'm happy to report that the Japanese film Linda Linda Linda, which screened tonight at NYAFF (and was the first film of the festival that I was able to go see at the ImaginAsian theater) is hands-down the best movie I've seen at the festival so far. An upbeat and joyous film about a high school girls' rock and roll band, it's practically garunteed to go straight to the heart of anyone who believes in music, and its power to save one's soul.

The plot is as straightforward as they come. Shiba High School is holding their annual Holly Festival complete with a musical talent show, and three friends - drummer Kyoko (Aki Madea, Battle Royale), keyboardist-turned-guitarist Kei (Yu Kasii, Lorelei) and bassist Nozomi (Shiori Sekine, of the real band Base Ball Bear) are struggling to get a band together. After their previous guitarist injurs her finger and has to bow out, they recuit shy Korean exchange student Song (Bae Doo-Na, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) as their vocalist, and decide to cover three songs by the Clash-esque 80's J-punk group The Blue Hearts. After weeks of staying up all night practicing, jamming until the wee hours (not to mention the fact that Song has to learn her lyrics phonetically), they are finally ready to play their music before their teachers and friends.

Admittedly, the description above probably makes this movie sound like every other movie about a band, or a sports team, or some kind of sentimental, rah-rah "Eye of the Tiger" pap. Trust me - nothing could be farther from the truth. What this movie is about is the people - the four schoolgirls that are its main characters are as quirky, and as button-cute, but also as three dimensional, as anyone you'd meet in life, and the movie's long, uninterrupted takes and improv-style acting give us a fly-on-the-wall feeling of being there. Opening with a MiniDV shot of one girl giving an on-camera interview about the Holly Festival, the movie starts out depicting its characters with shy restraint, gradually revealing more and more about their personalities, foibles, their joys and sorrows, until eventually, they literally start to feel like our friends. By the end, when the group performs their songs, we've honestly forgotten that they are characters in a film. We want to stand up and applaud.

I would honestly say that Linda Linda Linda is one of the greatest rock and roll films I've ever seen. Being a recent film, it doesn't have the legendary status of This Is Spinal Tap or A Hard Day's Night, but honestly, it's up there. This is rock and roll stripped down to its very core. No pretension, no decedance, no sex, drugs, limos, and all of that bullshit - just the three-chord structure of a song and its power to save lives. It's a truly beautiful thing to see and hear.

Linda Linda Linda is showing again at the ImaginAsian on July 1st (check out the schedule here), and I strongly encourage everyone who can to go and see it. And if you've already seen it, and can't get those infectuously catchy Blue Hearts tunes out of your head, I found a website where you can download the song from which the movie takes its namesake. Enjoy!

Friday, June 23, 2006

You are who you choose to be.

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The year is 1957, the place - Rockwell, Maine, where strange things are occurring. Cars, telegraph poles, and pieces of machinery are being found with what appear to be giant bites out of them, as if partly devoured by some sort of enormous beast. With his imagination reeling from hearing snippets of stories about the unknown mechanical visitor, lonely 10-year-old Hogarth Hughes sets out into the woods one night to investigate. What he finds is an 100-foot tall robot with a child-like brain, who at first he is terrified of, but after saving the giant from being electrocuted when it tries to chew on part of the town's powerplant, the two form a friendship. Soon, however, a government agent named Kent Mansley arrives in town to investigate the occurrances, intent on destroying the giant, and the town with him, if necessary. To be able to stop him is going to take courage, sacrifice, and will push the pair's friendship to the limit.

The Iron Giant is all about contradictions that work beautifully. It's about outcasts - a fatherless young boy and his relationship with a 100-foot-tall robot - a film that feels fresh, with seamlessly blended, top-of-the-line 2D and 3D animation, and yet the story arc is nearly as old as cinema itself. It's both a nostalgic and a critical look at the paranoid sci-fi of the fifties (Invaders from Mars and whatnot), where aliens served as a metaphor for the Communist threat and yet, it's core is infused with the soul of E.T. It is also, like Brad Bird's The Incredibles, a film that kids will enjoy, but adults will likely get just as much if not more out of - not only because of the refrences and in-jokes (such as an animated re-working of The Brain from Planet Auros that Hogarth watches on TV), but also because of the emotional impact which grabs ahold of your heart and pulls you in, regardless of age. The Anthology Film Arcives screening of this movie had a packed audience entirely made up of people older than me, without a single kid in the room! It's a testimony to the film's power that so many adults would part with their eight bucks to watch a cartoon... and hopefully a step toward animation being recognized more as the artform it is.

The Onion film series, which this screening was a part of, is dedicated to showing contemporary movies that never really "had a chance" when they were released, due to poor marketing, lukewarm critical reception, and all kinds of other things that cause great movies to flop but then go on to become classics. The Iron Giant, of course, fits the bill perfectly. Last month they showed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and next month, they're doing The Hudsucker Proxy. Should be fun!

Aussie cowboys, Maylasian gangsters

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I strongly encourage everyone who might happen to read this to go out and see the wonderously sun-drenched, blood-soaked, fly-covered Australian western The Propositon,
otherwise known as the best film I've seen so far this year. It's another strange case of critics and audiences being disappointingly unenthusiastic about a movie that, in a perfect world, would be playing in every multiplex, gobbled up by the young and old alike. Spread the love by going out to see it. If you've already seen it, and its images and power are still on your mind, have a read of Andrew's terrifc review of the movie, and check out this page for some wallpaper-sized press kit stills.

Another cool little film I saw this week, which, after its second and final screening at the New York Asian Film Festival, will probably never be playing again at a theater near you, was the Maylasian action film Gangster. Hyped up as a kind of Go meets The Fast and the Furious (only better), it tells the story of a hotshot street racer, a ruthless drug dealer, and an honest family man who gets mixed up with the mob. Thing is, all three characters are played by the same actor - Rosyam Nor, Maylasia's most popular actor. With different makeup, wigs and facial hair, as well as completely different mannerisms, his performance is quite remarkable. The rest of the movie is a pretty much just a brightly-colored, race car shoot-'em-up, but it certainly kept me amused and entertained, which is more than can be said for a bunch of recent American actioniers.

Oh... expect a review of The Iron Giant soon, as well. I finally got a chance to see that in the theater, courtesy of The Onion's monthly film series at Anthology. What a beautiful film.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

NYAFF: Bollywood WIP's, space monkeys and superhero ninjas

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I went down to the Anthology Film Archives today to check out the New York Asian Film Festival, which proved to be an extremely pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Today's showing was a triple feature, one from India and two from Japan. Before the lights went down, there was a raffle drawing from which I won a DVD copy of a Bollywood actionier called The Hero: Love Story of a Spy. Lucky me.

Et Hasina Thi is part of "No Singing, No Dancing, No Mercy", Subway Cinema's retrospective on Bollywood action/crime/thriller director and producer Ram Gopal Varma, who, according to the blurb on their website, is well-known for his subtle and gritty films which stand out against the majority of Bollywood brightly-colored, musical fiascos. It deals with a shy, buttoned-down travel agent clerk named Sarika (Urmila Mantondkar) who is wooed by hunky, well-to-do Karan (Saif Ali Khan), unaware of the fact that he's actually a gangster. When one of Karan's accomplices stashes his suitcase in her apartment and it's searched by the police, Sarika, terrified to mention her sweetheart's name, takes the rap for it, and gets sentenced to seven years in a rat-infested women's prison. Gradually coming to terms with the fact that she's been screwed over by her fella, she breaks out with a team of other women and proceeds to hunt him down to extract her revenge.

Et Hasina Thi is by no means an uninteresting film. It presents the way a shy woman would take revenge on a former lover as being similar to the way she would ask someone out who she secretly had feelings for; it's not an easy thing to do. Nevertheless, it still felt like it had worn out its welcome by the end of its two-and-a-half-hour running time. After she busts out jail, she spends an awulf lot of time following Karan around in her car, watching him from a distance, giving him angry stares, eventually making contact and pretending to help him, which temporarily puts her in even more danger, and I started to wonder when the heck she was actually going to do him in. As it happens, she's been waiting all along for just the right time, but even so, there's still a lot of this film I would've cut, and at the end, I was pretty glad to stretch my legs. It's an engaging, if sprawly and straightforward thriller that doesn't give you much to chew and meditate on, but that's okay, because the next film they showed was one that really warranted a clear mind and an expectance that anything could happen.

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The next film, Cromartie High School: The Movie, is apparently based off of a popular comedic anime series in Japan. The main character is Kamiyama (Takamasa Suga), the lone straight-laced student at the titular juvenile delinquent school, which is attended not only by punks, slackers, yakuza-wannabes and layabouts but also a gorilla, a robot, and a guy who dresses up like Freddie Mercury. To try and motivate his friends, he forms a Global Defense Team to defend the planet from... something. Their first plan is to rid the streets of drugs by buying them all up, and then curing hunger by donating them all to needy children. When this plan backfires, they then turn their sights on a pair of simian space aliens, Gori and Lla, who scheme to turn everybody in school into a mind-controlled Shaolin fighter.

Directed by Yudai Yamaguchi (Battlefield Baseball, and the screenwriter of Versus), Cromartie High School plays a lot like a series "Kids in the Hall" sketches about the Japanese delinquent school system. There are numerous episodic sub-plots, such as one involving a tough kid Takenouchi (pro wrestler Yoshihiro Takayama) who is so senstive to motion sickness that he helps a couple of incompetant Mexican masked wrestlers to hijack a plane, simply because he doesn't want to fly. There's also a terrific Exorcist parody where a kitten inside the robots head causes him to convulse and projectile-vomit like Linda Blair. Both the episodic, skit-like nature of the film, as well as the acting style is reminiscent of a live-action anime. It's a pretty low-budget film too, which works to its advantage... the dopey costumes and location settings only make the shenanigans onscreen even more funny. This one really had the crowd in stitches, and was easily the best film of the night. After an hour's break during which I went out for some pizza and poodled up and down 2nd Ave. for a spell, it was time for the next movie.

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Shinobi: Heart Under Blade was given the following blurb in the NYAFF's leaflet: “What If the X-Men teamed up with Batman and took on the Justice League who were led by Spider-Man, and the whole thing was directed by Michael Bay who had just gotten a total blood transfusion from Tim Burton and the script was written by Stan Lee?” It's a pretty fitting description of this tale of warring ninja clans with supernatural abilities, which plays like a Feudal Japan period film shot in the style of the best of the recent comic book movies.

Infused with a Romeo and Juliet-like core, Kouga (Jo Odagiri) and Oboro (Nakama Yukie) are lovers from opposing clans who are reluctantly selected to lead teams of of their clans' best warriors against one another, by order of the Shogun, who wants to wipe out both Shinobi tribes for good. Kouga leads his team into the woods, hoping to reach the Shogun and convince him to end the fighting. Both he and Oboro want peace for their people, but their teammates and everyone else in their village have trained and prepared and harbored their grudges so long that they can't possibly imagine a world where they're not at war. And so, the Shinobi teams battle each other in the woods, and we see get to see their "special abilities" on display.

The interesting thing about this movie is that it's played completely straight, with a high level of melodrama a la Hero and House of Flying Daggers, but the Shinobis' special abilities are copyright-infringingly similar to the powers of famous DC and Marvel Comics superheroes. We have a guy who can run at super-speed like The Flash, a woman with Jean Grey-inspired "Eyes of Destruction", a skinny, gothic-looking fellow with long, fringed sleeves that he can grab stuff with like Spider-Man, and a woman with a lethal kiss, not entirely dissimilar to Poison Ivy. There are TWO Wolverine-inspired characters, a swordfighter who can repair his wounds at astonishing speeds, and a feral wild-man with claws that come out of his knuckles. Of course, they also all possess the incredble jumping, fighting, blocking, and throwing skills typical of wu xia characters. Derivative, sure, but still beautifully shot and wonderful to watch, and worlds better than quite a lot of American comic book movies (X-Men 3, for instance) It's certainly about as different from Cromartie High School as you can get (and Et Hasina Thi, for that matter), but oddly enough, these three films played really well with each other. They're all playing again too, next week at the ImaginAsian, so if you're interested be sure and check out Subway Cinema's schedule.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Back in the saddle again

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After a sore throat and a nasty cough following Putney graduation, as of yesterday I'm back down in the City again looking for a job and a place to call home. Just in time for the New York Asian Film Festival, which looks like a joyously wacky alternative to New York's more academically-minded film revival scene, not to mention the usual summer blockbuster happenings. You can check their schedule out here - they've got a plethora of new Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Indian films by directors of contemporary cult hits, and lots of stuff your Asian film-obessed buddies will have told you about, like A Bittersweet Life, Linda Linda Linda, and Takashi Miike's bizarre kiddie fantasy film The Great Yokai War (pictured above).

In addition to that, Film Forum is running a Billy Wilder Retrospective, which begins on July 30th with his masterpiece, Double Indemnity. Plus, the Anthology Film Archives is showing Brad Bird's The Iron Giant on June 22nd. No one should miss the chance to see this movie in the theater - it's easily cinema's last great 2-D animated film, not to mention one of the saddest movies ever made. Bring tissues.

COOL LINK OF THE MOMENT: a recent post from the MP3 blog "Post-Punk Junk" contains not one, but two full mix CDs of obscure film soundtrack tracks. If you've ever wanted a copy of the songs from Ishtar or the extended disco theme from Friday the 13th Part III, your wishes have just come true.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Bubba's gotta girlfriend!

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Hi folks. I realize I haven't written here in a while, and I apologize. I have no legitimate excuse for why not, or why I suddenly feel compelled to write in it now after seeing one of the worst films I've seen in a good long while. But I do. I can do anything I want to; I'm the chief of police.

The description of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2sounds like a recipe for an unarguably perfect horror sequel. The cannibalistic family are still up to their usual hijinks, and Dennis Hopper stars as an ex-Federal Marshal who has sworn revenge for the deaths of his brother's kids in the first film. There's a bigger movie budget this time, allowing for the family to relocate from their farmhouse to an labyrinthian underground lair beneath a cheesy tourist attraction which looks like something out of a Mario Bava film. A screenplay by L.M. Kit Carson (Paris, Texas) and makeup effects by Tom Savini. The first death in the film is a 90-mile-an-hour car chase/chainsaw-induced head wound set to Oingo Boingo's song "No One Lives Forever"... now look me in the eye, and tell me that that doesn't sound better than Citizen Kane?

As fate would have it, though, this film is actually completely terrible. It's about as far removed from its predecessor as Killer Klowns from Outer Space is from Psycho. I don't know how, or why, but some idiot somewhere decided to play this film for yucks. Presumably, their reasoning was that it would be too hard to try and outdo the original in terms of gruelling ferocity, so they opted instead to mix the gore with slapstick. It might have looked good on paper, but the filmmakers amped the goofiness up to eleven and it really all falls to pieces.

Replacing Edwin Neal in the role of The Hitchhiker is Bill Moseley, who is 1,000,000 times more irritating here than he is in the overrated The Devil's Rejects. Prancing about, picking his metal-domed head with a rusty coathanger (don't ask) and giggling manically like an evil Jimmy Fallon, he embodies about everything that is wrong with this movie. Well, just about everything, because then there's also Leatherface. Gone is the unstoppable, ruthless killing machine we all know and love, and in his place, we have a puppy-eyed, Quasimodoesque lunkhead with a strange preference towards dry-humping young women with the aid of his chainsaw instead of chopping them to bits without hesitation. I can only assume Hooper was going for some kind of Blue Velvet parody here... which brings us to Mr. Hopper. Even when he's tearing around the family's lair, slicing everyone and everything up with his chainsaw and shouting "I am the Lord of the Harvest!!!" at the top of his lungs, he still looks bored and confused. "One for them" indeed.

Amazingly, this film actually does have a substantial fanbase. Many of them insist that anyone who doesn't like this film could only be an unpleasable complaint-artist who wouldn't be satisfied with anything that wasn't exactly like the original. And that's just not true. I mean, I wouldn't have minded a funny Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel if it had actually been, well, funny. just wasn't.