Monday, August 11, 2008

ZhangTastic!

I’ve never been one to pay much attention to the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. In fact I can’t remember one. And the parade of nations—feh. I mean how long can you watch athletes parade around a track looking like 1960s airline stewardesses? When I found out that Zhang Yimou, one of my fave directors, was in charge of this year’s festivities, my curiosity was peaked. The end result was nothing short of totally spectacular. One of the great directors on the world’s largest stage with seemingly unlimited resources at his disposal managed to create a spectacle of immense proportions. Zhang and the Chinese delivered full marks to be certain. The NBC commentators seemed truly awed. I can say I’m not surprised given the epic nature of Zhang’s most recent work. Hero, House of Flying Daggers and the underrated Curse of The Golden Flower showcase his penchant for people flying through the air, extravagant costuming and his ability to choreograph armies of people. And let’s not forget his tendency to be schmaltzy and overdramatic—key elements in creating for the Olympic audience.

Last year, I wrote a review of Curse of The Golden Flower that appeared on the KQED arts blog. I’m going to reprint it here because little bits of the review dovetail nicely with what went on in this week’s opening ceremonies.

CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER
Let me start by saying I’m a sucker for Zhang Yimou. From martial arts epics like Hero to town and country comedies like Not One Less he delivers year after year, gracefully hopping from style to style and mastering them all. His latest, Curse of the Golden Flower, picks up where last year’s twin killings of Hero and House of Flying Daggers left off. Curse is a martial arts epic on the grandest of scales. In many respects Curse fulfills the promise of films from Hollywood’s Golden Era in ways that American films no longer approach. If you have a hankering for a bygone era where movies provided an element of escapism with stories bigger than life, international stars dressed to the nines, set in milieus beyond your wildest fantasies then Curse delivers in style. Set amidst the palaces of Tang Dynasty China, the sets are beyond belief—opulent and colorful bordering on the kaleidescopic. The wardrobe, costumes and hairdos should have devotees of Edith Head salivating. Both Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat look amazing and don jaw-dropping outfit after jaw-dropping outfit. But the fashion show doesn’t stop with the stars, the film has a cast of thousands dressed in color coordinated finery. As for the story, this is unabashed melodrama of Sirkian proportions involving infidelity, incest, poison, and for good measure, a military coup that leads to a staggering body count. And while the mounting death toll may be a turn off to those fond of a more genteel 50’s universe, the martial arts sequences are a thing of choreographed beauty. It might not be Astaire and Rogers, but one could make a case for a comparison. Technically the film is astounding. The cinematography, art direction, editing, and sound mix are all Academy-Award caliber. Like the Golden Age of Hollywood which featured the top technicians at the top of their game, Zhang has surrounded himself with technical masters. At the end of the day, if you’re looking to sink back into your seat and let a movie envelop you, Curse of The Golden Flower won’t disappoint.

Must See Zhang Yimou Movies:
Raise The Red Lantern
The Story of Qiu Ju
Not One Less
Hero
House of Flying Daggers
Curse of The Golden Flower
Ju Dou
(I’ve not actually seen this one, but this is the one that made him famous)

Really good Zhang Yimou Movies:
Shanghi Triad
To Live
Happy Times
The Road Home


For all things Zhang Yimou on imdb, go here.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Ever since reading Sherman Alexie’s Flight last month, I’ve been on a self-directed Native American studies bender. I realized that my knowledge of Native American history was scant at best. We screwed over the Indians, gave them rotten blankets and broke a lot of treaties. But the depth of my knowledge stopped there. Flight opened my eyes to the injustice of the history and I was ready to dive in. Since then I’ve read Alexie’s short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight In Heaven, attended an inter-tribal Pow Wow in Simi Valley, and devoured the classic tome, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Bury My Heart is essential reading, shining a thorough light on the American/Indian Wars and policy developments between 1860-1890. This history in this time period is absolutely sobering as the government continually steals land from the Indians, breaks up tribes, and tragically thins the ever-dwindling Indian population. The government breaks treaties, soldiers and settlers repeatedly provoke Indians, poach their reservation lands and when the Indians retaliate they are branded as aggressors, thus paving the way for more stringent government sanctions against the Indians. A vicious cycle to be sure. What was most eye-opening to me was the population disparity between the Americans and Indians. European immigration was so swift that ultimately the Indians never stood a chance. They were outnumbered on a grand scale and they knew it. The Old Chiefs knew they could never defeat the Americans. They were hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned. They might win some battles and skirmishes, but they knew a new flood of soldiers would simply replace the ones they killed. This realization would lead them to accept bad treaties, moving their tribes from their native lands to patches of the arid plains and deserts that the Americans had no interest in. Many of the older chiefs felt this was their only choice for survival. This would often cause tensions within the tribes as the Young Warriors would often chafe at these conditions and accuse their elders of giving up the fight. Also revelatory was the Indians' quest for peace and desire to find ways to live comfortably amongst the whites. The image of bloodthirsty, marauding Indians was a stereotype perhaps better suited to the soldiers and settlers trying to force the Indians from their lands than the tribes who were trying to find ways to stay out of the crossfire. Bury My Heart offers up tale after tale of the devastation to tribe after tribe, chief after chief. Heroes emerge, such as the great Sioux Warriors Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. And villains emerge as well, first and foremost, Custer, who gets his at Little Bighorn, and Sherman whose charge takes a deadly toll.

My brain is a tad saturated right now and I’ve got to take a break from this line of study, but Little Big Man is on the pile, Life Among the Modocs has been recommended and I have tix to see Alexie speak in December.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Boris-Live at the GAMH

My tolerance for metal, doom and sludge sure ain’t what it used to be, but that said, I have a big soft spot for Boris. Perhaps it’s their indelicate balance between total heaviosity and transcendentally beautiful moments. I didn’t dive full in until last year’s collaboration with Ghost guitarist Michio Kurihara. He’s one of my absolute faves and their album Rainbow was one of the standouts of 2007. It was a good place for me to start, figuring the atmospheric moments might outweigh the brain scraping moments. Since then, I’ve been digging a bit into the back catalogue and am head over heels into the new album Smile. The incendiary Statement is hands-down the best track of the year, wielding brutal Stooges riffage courtesy of ice queen guitarist Wata. It’s a total metallic k.o. Last night I sauntered down to the Great American Music Hall with my buddy Jimmy G. to check the band out in action. Fantastic show all around. As a bonus, Kurihara was touring with the band. Heavy smoke machine set the tone and to class things up, drummer Atsuo Mizuno donned a white satin shirt, plus white gloves, making all the giant gong playing that much more impressive. The set clocked in at 90 brain-rattling minutes. The first half of the show mined the heavy vein, with the second half getting more trippy and expansive, culminating in an epic slow and low rendition of Introduction from Akuma No Uta. Many great highlights, but I was really digging the more, dare I say, poppy version of My Neighbor Satan from the new record. Interestingly I often feel that Kurihara is an odd fit into the live Boris show. His guitar playing can be so delicate and atmospheric and has the ability to beautifully slice through a song. His subtleties are often lost when Boris heads into metallic overdrive. For the heavy stuff I kind of think Boris are better served by just one guitar instead of the sludge inducing two-guitar attack. Strangely, Kurihara has worn the exact same shirt every time I’ve seen him play (4 times in the last several years.) What’s up with that? Does he have only one shirt? A closet full of the exact same shirt? Do we need to take up a collection to get him a new one? In any event, my ears are still humming, and that’s a nice Sunday morning vibe.

Here's a clip of the live version of My Neighbor Satan. Kurihara is lost in the fog somewhere and you can't hear the vocals, but be sure to check out the white gloves.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Out of Towners (1970)


70s American Cinema is widely acknowledged as a new golden age of cinema. But when you think of that era, rarely do you think of comedies. The dark explorations of Friedkin, the complex character studies of Altman, and the desperate visions of Peckinpah come to mind. By the mid 60s most comedies seemed bloated and trivial. Nothing against It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, but the comedy well was running dry. Many of the stars of the 50s had trouble transitioning into the new youth culture zeitgeist and this was often painful to watch in comedies of the time. But throughout the 60s and into the 70s, Jack Lemmon was starring in some fantastic pictures. The Apartment, The Odd Couple, and though not a comedy, The Days of Wine and Roses showcased Lemmon’s amazing acting abilities. Perhaps, one of his finest films comes at the dawn of the decade. Directed by Arthur Hiller (The In-Laws, Silver Streak, Love Story) and penned by Neil Simon, The Out of Towners is an absolute comedy classic. The patter is fast, the acting superb and Lemmon’s manic energy is the piston that drives this picture. Lemmon plays a businessman from suburban Ohio. He’s been all but guaranteed a promotion and a move to the Big Apple. All he has to do to land the job is fly to NYC for a perfunctory interview and the job is his. But as luck would have it, everything goes wrong for him and his wife, expertly played by Sandy Dennis. At his core, Lemmon is a worried and nervous nebbish, but he masks his insecurity expertly with a fa├žade of brassy and brash bravado. Dennis is the perfect foil, playing it straight, forever supportive, yet becoming increasingly exasperated as each new nightmare plays outs. Humiliation after humiliation pile up for the pair. Delayed flights, crammed trains, transportation strikes, garbage strikes, filled hotels, multiple muggings, run-ins with the law, exploding sewer grates, broken teeth, and on and on.

What’s interesting from today’s perspective is how the film seems to be a major touchstone for the work of Larry David. Though nowhere near as acerbic as Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Out of Towners offers up an early dose of agitated comedy. Unlike Larry David, Lemmon is often a victim of circumstance, but much like Larry, Lemmon’s pigheadedness and intractability constantly make things worse for him and his wife. Just when things can’t get any worse, Lemmon makes sure they do. And like Larry, everybody irks Lemmon. One of the film’s great running gags is that Lemmon is keeping a list of everyone he’s going to sue when he gets back to Ohio. The list is kept on an envelope that is getting increasingly distressed and tattered as the film progresses. They’ve lost all their money, their shoes, a front tooth, but Lemmon is holding onto that list for dear life. No question, Jason Alexander studied this film big time in prepping for the George Costanza role on Seinfeld.

And finally, though it’s pure comedy the film does have a hint of the gritty, NYC 1970s vibe. New York is cold and inhospitable, the garbage is piling up, the muggers are out in force, and a new headache lurks around every corner. But it’s damn funny.

Check out this link to a great clip.