Friday, January 29, 2010

Film Review: HAUSU (1977, Nobuhiko Obayashi)

Stars: 6 of 5.
Running Time: 88 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Kimiko Ikegami, Kumiko Ohba, Yoko Minamida, Ai Matsubara, Miki Jinbo, Masayo Miyako, Mieko Satoh, Eriko Tanaka. Music by GODIEGO.
Best exchange: "Do you like watermelons?" –"No! I like bananas!" "Bananas!"

HOUSE cannot and should not be described. Many have groped wildly in the blackness to explain it using films and tropes with which we’re already familiar (i.e., Douglas Sirk, THE SHINING, acid trips, Dario Argento, Scooby Doo), but it’s something that simply needs to be experienced, as if a new color were added to the spectrum: “Oh, it’s kinda like gold, kinda like pink...but really, it’s neither of those all.

As such, words cannot possibly do it justice. And if someone tried to give you a mechanical rundown of events that occur in the film (as many reviewers have) the only purpose it would serve would be to water down (or worse, contaminate) your pure, unadulterated dosage of HOUSE. Thus, as I attempt the weighty task of ‘reviewing’ HOUSE, I shall speak in generalities, non-sequiturs, and filmmaking techniques- I wouldn’t dream of spoiling any of the film’s (many) mind-blowing setpieces. To avoid comparing it to other films, I would simply describe the HOUSE experience as akin to being trapped inside a kaleidoscope as a cackling madman rams and twirls and flips and submerges it with reckless abandon as upbeat music and ludicrous sound effects ricochet here and there and everywhere, dueling one other for dominance.


The director, Nobuhiko Obayashi, was well-known in Japan for being a virtuosic director of commercials- the most famous being a series of Mandom cologne ads starring none other than Charles Bronson (reviews forthcoming!). The man had learned the art of spinning sometimes three or four absurd narrative threads across a collage of candy-colored visuals and clashing music cues- for the thirty seconds it takes a commercial to run its course. So can you imagine what the fuck it’s like when he’s got the duration of an entire feature-length film to transform into his own personal maniac's playground? Boxes inside boxes, screens within screens, silent film irising techniques, stock footage, war film flashbacks (a mushroom cloud is whimsically compared to cotton candy), mind-boggling superimpositions, animation composites, stop-motion lizards, painted sets, odd frame rates, and CATS CATS CATS CATS CATS! (named Blanche). Characters don't catch fire- they BECOME FLAMES.

A painting vomits, a severed head bites an ass, a cat mews the main theme. No, this is not your mere garden variety lunacy.

As a side note, in my opinion, OB (Bronson's nickname for Obayashi) peppers the film with Bronson references. Characters frequently speak of how men used to be more manly, and why aren't you manly enough, etc.– seemingly in direct corrolation to the image of Bronson portrayed in Obayashi's Mandom commercials.

Furthermore, Gorgeous' composer father returns from a gig in Italy, bragging: "Leone said my music was better than Morricone's!" I wonder... I wonder if he could have been working on a Bronson movie? In the end, the only negative thing I can say about HOUSE is that Bronson does not grace us with a cameo.

For the drinking game inclined, feel free to give it a shot every time the cat's eyes glow green, or every time someone touches someone else's ass. Of course, if you do that, you may end up drowning in a sea of (imagined?) sanguinary cat vomit.

The HOUSE experience is astonishing, fantastical, and nearly overwhelming.


It truly and wholeheartedly transports you into an alternate dimension where a different set of cinematic rules apply, keeps you in a definite state of shock for the duration, and I can genuinely say that there's nothing quite like it. Thus, I highly recommend... HOUUUUUUUUSSSSE. Pass the bananas, mind the killer chandeliers, and give this thing six stars.

-Sean Gill

Availability note: HAUSU/HOUSE will supposedly be available to own on Region 1 DVD from the Criterion Collection by the end of 2010. For the region-free types among you, it's already available through Eureka's Masters of Cinema series.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Film Review: SUMMER HOURS (2009, Olivier Assayas)

Stars: 3.7 of 5.
Running Time: 103 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Juliette Binoche, Jérémie Renier, Charles Berling, Kyle Eastwood, Edith Scob.
Tag-line: "Every family has its time in the sun."
Best one-liner: "Well, it's another era."
Awards: Appeared on most critics' top ten lists of 2009, Best Foreign Film of '09 according to Boston Film Critics, Los Angeles Film Critics, National Society of Film Critics, Southeastern Film Critics; recently inducted into the Criterion Collection.

SUMMER HOURS is an engrossing rumination on the nature of worldly possessions and the increasing globalization of the family unit. Assayas leaves the blockheaded storytelling of BOARDING GATE (which I still enjoyed) behind, and creates his most mature work to date- the work of a filmmaker moving from one phase of his life into the next.

In some regards, it's a procedural- doing for "upper-class French postmortem estate planning" what THE NAKED CITY did for "NYPD murder investigations." But, like the best police procedurals, it's never really about the case at hand, it's about the case’s impact on the characters. Commissioned by Paris's Musée d'Orsay, we're entreated to museums of different sorts: private, domestic shrines to childhood memories are juxtaposed with public, bureaucratic Ivory Towers.

(Being a child of the 80's, the ideas at play here call to mind Indiana Jones' thickheaded "it belongs in a museum!" logic that the Smithsonian is somehow a better place for the Golden Idol than the Hovitos' Temple!)

"That Marjorelle display case belongs in a Marjorelle display case at a museum!"

The style is simple and languid; the performances are unostentatious but truthful (Juliette Binoche, Jérémie Renier, Assayas alter-ego Charles Berling, and even a bit part by Kyle Eastwood!); and the payoffs are wistful and largely affecting.

Binoche: always solid.

But allow me to play devil's advocate for a moment, because I'm not sure Olivier and I are seeing eye to eye. I can understand how an object is robbed of meaning in the transplantation from a family home to a sterile display case (to be gawked at by impassive masses who shuffle through the halls of Orsay). But does it REALLY have more meaning to a pack of bluebloods who take things like Majorelle cases or Josef Hoffmann armoires for granted, even as they lay guilt trips on the help for occasionally breaking a dish or an objet d'art? I've cater-waitered for these people before, and I hated them. So pardon me if I don't shed a tear your dearly departed summer home.

This sweet old vulture rings especially true.

Every family has its time in the sun, just as every family has a summer home. I mean, at least the families one ought to consort with.

Still, it’s an artful, pensive film which captures a certain, fleeting quality of memory. Four stars.

-Sean Gill

Side note: And the teens at the end! The French teen party at the summer home! I was held in rapt attention- the way one might react to a train wreck. They're even worse than American teens- moneyed, self-absorbed, and totally bummed out that the summer home will no longer be available for their nauseating leisure activities.

A whole new generation of well-heeled D-bags. It's like the Hydra- you cut off one head, and two grow up in its place. Next thing you know, you've got an infestation.

And yet the point of the scene, I believe, was to show that "the next generation has a sincere appreciation of extravagant things, too, it just takes a different form." And I really don't want to get going on a rant about wealth distribution, so let's just end this here before the rhetoric gets too vitriolic.

COMING SOON: My best of '09 lists.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Film Review: SIMPLE MEN (1992, Hal Hartley)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 105 minutes.
Tag-line: "There's no such thing as adventure and romance, only trouble and desire. "
Best one-liner: "Not only is she pretty, but she's got a nice personality, and she's the mother of God."

"All money is dirty money, Mom, now will you shut up and take it before I dont wanna give it to you anymore?" SIMPLE MEN is one of those perfectly realized Hal Hartley films where aesthetic detail (compare the bold reds and deep blues here with the pastel purples and baby blues of TRUST), stilted comedy, and Long Island profundity are exquisitely blended in one crisp, cool, indie package. Tough guy Robert John Burke and horn-rimmed Bill Sage play brothers in search of their (possibly) anarchist father.

Along for the ride are waifish underground legend Elina Löwensohn:

a scraggly, brutish, ballcap-wearin Martin Donovan:

Donovan freaks out.

and the reassuringly salt-of-the-earth Karen Sillas.

Its your typical on the lam crime flick, except the hero's preferred mode of transportation is a beat-up Chevy Corsica, it's of vast importance how far $15 can get you, the 'nemesis' lawman is paralyzed by ruminations on the nature of love,

and the most action involves a fracas between nun and a cop. But this isn't the manufactured quirk with which 2010 audiences are all too familiar- this is art that (to paraphrase TRUST) is dangerously sincere and sincerely dangerous. It's simple men living in the shadow of a mysterious, venerated father. Hartley calls it a world of 'trouble and desire,' a quote he culls from Fritz Lang's 1922 DR. MABUSE, THE GAMBLER. When we finally meet said anarchistic papa (John MacKay) he appears grizzled and wild-eyed, like Rudolph Klein-Rogge (who played Mabuse in the original film).

The anarchist shortstop.


So how does the filmmaker come to grips with the artistic influences of their heroes (who sometimes seem like absent, worshipped parents)? How do you escape the hold of Lang, Godard, Ozu, et al.? Maybe you can take those flickering-shadow progenitors and simply mold them into your own likeness (deadpan, heartfelt, Long Island sincerity)- and Hal does: the most memorable scene mirrors the famous Anna Karina groove-session from BAND OF OUTSIDERS (now restaged with Hartleyian stiffness, Sonic Youth, and entirely different stakes).

Five stars.

-Sean Gill

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Film Review: MEN AT WORK (1990, Emilio Estevez)

Stars: 3 of 5.
Running Time: 98 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen, Keith David (THEY LIVE, THE THING), Sy Richardson (STRAIGHT TO HELL, REPO MAN), Dean Cameron (SUMMER SCHOOL, HIGHBALL, ROCKULA), John Getz (THE FLY), Leslie Hope (TALK RADIO, BRUISER, 24). Score by Stewart Copeland (DEAD LIKE ME, WALL STREET, former drummer of The Police).
Tag-line: "Two garbagemen who know when something smells funny!"
Best one-liner: "There are several sacred things in this world that you don't ever mess with. One of them happens to be another man's fries. Now, you remember that, and you will live a long and healthy life." or "Looks like somebody threw away a perfectly good white boy!"

Written and directed by American auteur Emilio Estevez (WISDOM, RATED X), we're afforded a glimpse of his inner workings, his deepest fears, his secret longings. What lies behind those furtive eyes and Brat Pack-y façade?

What does the soul of Emilio Estevez look like? Well, after seeing MEN AT WORK, I have to say that Estevez's soul looks a whole lot like WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S with a healthy sprinkling of the Looney Tunes. The fourth of seven collaborations between Estevez and his brother Charlie Sheen, this film is about as unoriginal as they come.

It even steals its best one-liner from BETTER OFF DEAD. Let me break down the vital statistics: Number of men shot in the buttocks with a BB gun: 2. Number of trash can lid high-fives: 3.

Number of pranks involving exploding feces: 2. I lost track of the number of stylin' stud earrings, mini-ponytails, and Richard Nixon references.

Note stylin' stud earring.

Estevez and Sheen have raided elements from their previous films [a score by Police drummer Stewart Copeland (WALL STREET), performances by Sy Richardson (REPO MAN) and Keith David (PLATOON), a loving presentation of trucks (MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE), etc.], so it’s enjoyable enough. In fact, I’d say that 99% of MEN AT WORK’s success belongs to Keith David. While Estevez and Sheen are preening for the camera, making sure that they’re the prettiest garbagemen in filmdom, Keith David strolls in- natural, intense, and committed:

A lot of people erroneously believe that Keith David only plays 'pissed-off' roles. Well, in reality, Keith David only plays REALLY pissed-off roles.

He takes the one-dimensional ‘Nam vet who hates cops,’ and gives it depth, clarity, and character. At one point, Keith turns to the camera, breaks the fourth wall, and announces:


While Emilio’s film was not exactly a box-office smash, one fan liked it so much, she MARRIED him. A little lady by the name of…Paula Abdul.

But that’s another story, for another time.

Three stars- and a hearty, insincere golf clap- for the apparent inventors of the golf clap. I wonder how they'd react today, knowing that their own acrimonious comedy-weapon has been turned against them?

-Sean Gill

Monday, January 25, 2010

Film Review: HOMICIDE (1991, David Mamet)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 102 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Joe Mantegna, Bill Macy, Ving Rhames, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ricky Jay.
Tag-line: "Powerful. Provacative. Controversial."
Best one-liner: "Don't die with a lie on your lips, homie."

As I watched HOMICIDE, I couldn't help but keep thinking of an exchange from Sergio Leone's FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE: "It's a small world," remarks our steely hero, upon encountering an old nemesis. His enemy retorts, hissing- "Yesss... and very, very bad." HOMICIDE's world is nasty, brutish, short, and enveloped by grimy, 1950's-style municipal architecture. The station house is full of the same working class griping that characterized GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS: the job, the job, always about the job. Life is the job. Has the job changed or have the times changed? Fuck the job. Don't tell me how to do my job. It's Mamet doing what Mamet does best: Repetition. Con games. Insults. Sexualized insults. Racialized insults. Joe Mantegna is the eye of this storm. The film whirls around him, and as he spreads his sincerity too thin, he begins to whirl as well. (He also makes disquietingly frequent use of the exclamation, "Yo!," but I guess it was 1991, so it's okay.)

Bill Macy is total hardass with a mean 'stache and a meaner shotgun. The man is no milquetoast, and everyone besides Mamet needs to relearn that fact. He makes observations like "Hey, you're better than an aquarium, you know that? There's somethin' happenin' with you every minute!" and dispenses aphorisms like "Let me tell ya somethin' the old whore said- when ya start comin' with the customers, it's time to quit."

God bless you, Bill Macy. I'm still waiting for you to be enshrined as a national treasure.

Now HOMICIDE is about returning to one's roots- or at least what you THINK your roots should be. Or maybe what someone else thinks your roots should be. Clearly there is no masturbatory feelgoodery at the end of this line- the embracing of the mother culture leads only to manipulation and chaos.

Or maybe chaos just would have happened anyway. You're looking for easy answers? The answers are easy- just assume that everyone's a piece of shit, and then go from there. Five stars.

-Sean Gill

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Film Review: PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2009, Oren Peli)

Stars: 3.8 of 5.
Running Time: 86 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat.
Best one-liner: [Micah's efforts to rile up the spirit in true Dubya, "Bring it on" fashion:] "What is your quest? What is your favorite color?"

This is no horror masterpiece, but it's an effective, minimalist chiller helmed by (Oren Peli) a clear aficionado of the "BOO!" genre. It doesn't really bring anything new to the table, and the acting may not always be first-rate, but you know you've used your $15,000 budget well when you have an audience anticipating the slightest change in a static image with baited breath. It’s almost as if you enter into a contract with this film to 'be more attentive,' and this even goes beyond the lengthy sleeping scenes. For example, at one point the characters leave the room, but a Ouija board ominously remains on the table. Surely something supernatural is about to happen. You wait. You're afraid you're going to blink and miss it, so you're scrutinizing the screen with wide-eyed, "Where's Waldo" intensity. And that's exactly it- PARANORMAL ACTIVITY is to films what "Where's Waldo" is to books! You're happy to spend a little time on it (86 minutes), you're certainly engaged for the duration, and the payoffs beget a sort of trifling satisfaction, but, at the end of the line, you're not taking anything away from it (nor should you!).

Regardless, the theatrical ending (changed apparently at the behest of Steven Spielberg, and involving a soggy J-Horror climax... and a CGI ghoul-morph!) is considerably weaker than the alternate ending on the DVD (which evidently made the rounds at a festival screening), so I wholeheartedly recommend the latter.

In terms of 'characters with a video camera' horror, I still prefer [•REC] and DIARY OF THE DEAD, but I must admit that every time I think this shakycam horse is dead, there’s another twitch, another few muscle spasms, and somebody like Oren Peli gets in a few more good licks. So- nearly four stars.

[However, unfortunately for us, now that Paramount has got their hooks into the 'PARANORMAL ACTIVITY franchise" (not to mention a CLOVERFIELD sequel), that horse may have a few postmortem beatdowns in store.]

-Sean Gill

Musical side note: And I think excellent closing credits music would've been a rousing rendition of Heart's "These Dreams."

Friday, January 22, 2010

FIlm Review: WILD AT HEART (1990, David Lynch)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 124 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: One of the greatest ensembles ever assembled: Nic Cage, Laura Dern, Diane Ladd, Willem Dafoe, Grace Zabriskie, Sheryl Lee, Sherilyn Fenn, Harry Dean Stanton, J.E. Freeman, David Patrick Kelly, Isabella Rossellini, Crispin Glover, Jack Nance, John Lurie, Calvin Lockhart, William Morgan Sheppard, Freddie Jones. Music by Angelo Badalamenti. Based on the novel by Barry Gifford.
Best one-liner: "This is a snakeskin jacket! And for me it's a symbol of my individuality, and my belief... in personal freedom."

Magnificent, beautiful, and disturbing, Lynch's Palm d'or-winning adaptation of Barry Gifford's novel, filtered through the emerald lens of THE WIZARD OF OZ, is certainly as fiery and unpredictable as the slow-motion flames that are wont to erupt intermittently from the screen.

A masterpiece of style, a frequent complaint is that the whole is less than the sum of the parts. I can concede that this film is not for everyone. It's not. But how can you say 'no' to a Nic Cage that's so intense, he karate chops the air when he dances and wears thong underwear;

a Laura Dern so sultry, she's posing with her hand sweeping through her coiffure for most of the film; a Willem Dafoe so creepy his gums cover half of his teeth (and whose first appearance, a slow stroll amid Christmas lights and obese porno actresses- is one of the most comically terrifying entrances in film history);

a Harry Dean Stanton so endearing he tugs at your heartstrings even as he yips and yaps at hyenas on TV:

a crippled, lipstick-smeared Grace Zabriskie who is so goddamned freaky that she'll make your hair curl:

or a Diane Ladd whose tremendous performance is punctuated by the real-life mother-daughter relationship? There's the regular host of Lynchian terrors, laughs, and genuinely bizarre characters that make Hollywood's attempts at quirkiness seem like the pathetic fumblings of a child. There's a cameo by Crispin Glover that packs more material and layers of performance and meaning in a mere two minutes than most actors can aspire to in a feature. There's John Lurie in a Confederate flag hat. There's Jack Nance with an invisible dog.

There's Angelo Badalamenti making the most blood-curdling use of a brass section, ever. There's homage to Jacques Tati (involving a giant red pipe in Big Tuna) and Akira Kurosawa (the feed store dog with the severed hand like in YOJIMBO). It's 124 minutes of exhiliration, dread, and magical Americana. And there's as much oddness, terror, love, and joy as there really is in this world that's so "wild at heart and weird on top," and to give any more away would do the film a disservice. One of the greats.

-Sean Gill

Side Note: The current R1 MGM DVD is an edited version of the film, but not severely. About 2 seconds have been obscured by smoke and a few frames removed from a scene where a certain character loses their head.

Additional Side Note: Read my LOVELESS review for my opinion on Monty Montgomery's contributions to the film.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Film Review: THE LOVELESS (1982, Kathryn Bigelow & Monty Montgomery)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 85 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Starring WILLEM DAFOE. Marin Kanter (LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE FABULOUS STAINS), J. Don Ferguson (FREEJACK, MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE), Robert Gordon (who also did the soundtrack, as well as contributing songs to BEETLEJUICE and NATURAL BORN KILLERS). Additional music by John Lurie.
Tag-line: "Sworn to Fun...Loyal to None!!!"
Best one-liner: "You never can tell on a day like this- things could be goin' jake one minute, then, presto- before you know it, you're history."

Two of my favorite actors made their leading man debuts in 1982 biker flicks: Ed Harris in KNIGHTRIDERS and Willem Dafoe in THE LOVELESS. Both films depict a counterculture distorted by the 80's- wistful nostalgia tempered by a heavy dose of “cusp of Reagan” fatalism. A loose retelling of the star-making WILD ONE, Brando has been succeeded by a lean, mean, and leather-clad Dafoe.

At this age (26) he's even more angular, skull-like, and serpentine than usual, but he's no villain- he's simply a jaded instrument: a country-drawlin' extension of his bike, casually "goin' to hell in a breadbasket."

There's not much of a plot in the conventional sense: drifters congregate and they go their own ways. A ratchet torques a bolt as oil dribbles from an engine. A switchblade's spring pops and the blade snaps to attention. A truck stop woman hoofs it on a zebra-print carpet.

The rustic, fog-enshrouded American countryside is split by that asphalt ribbon of adventure, and here, it looks like something out of a storybook. It's co-directed by Monty Montgomery (who brought the dangerous Rockabilly vibe) and Kathryn Bigelow (who brought the immersive, visual flair).

Montgomery's contributions to cinema (particularly to David Lynch) have often gone unnoticed: a producer on WILD AT HEART and TWIN PEAKS and co-creator of HOTEL ROOM, Montgomery seems to have infused Lynch with a desire to leave ERASERHEAD's tenement and BLUE VELVET's suburbia behind- and hit the open road.

Dafoe driving his lady nowhere fast in THE LOVELESS.

Nic Cage driving his lady nowhere fast in WILD AT HEART.

The maudlin/macabre depiction of Route 66 culture, the dynamics of Sailor and Lula's relationship, the twangily ominous music, the presence of 'dark angel' Dafoe, and road-racin' Lynch heroes like James Hurley (TWIN PEAKS) and Pete Dayton (LOST HIGHWAY), in my opinion, simply would not exist without Montgomery’s influence.

Regardless, we get one of the best soundtracks in memory (from John Lurie to Little Richard to Eddy Dixon to The Diamonds to Brenda Lee), the requisite Dafoe asscheekage factor, eye-poking bullet bras, and it ends with a doleful crescendo of violence which provides the proper resonance. A vivid, haunting journey to nowhere…fast. Four stars.

-Sean Gill