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December 12, 2006

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Review: It's All Gone Pete Tong

Maybe It's All Gone Pete Tong is funnier if you're a DJ, but I doubt it. This isn't a Spinal Tap, where many of the jokes become funnier if you've experienced the soap opera of rock band membership. And Pete Tong isn't without humor, but it seemed to me to be unsure of itself: is it a mockumentary, a cautionary tale, or a satire of club culture?

The center of the movie, Frankie Wilde, is a hotshot DJ spinning in clubs on Ibiza when years of drug abuse and loud music take their toll. The increasingly-deaf Wilde tries to hide his inability to hear as long as possible, but since he's producing an album (horribly) and still trying to match beats (badly), it's not much of a defense. "Generally, the field of music, other than the obvious example, has been dominated by people who can hear" says one interviewee. Eventually, Frankie loses his little remaining hearing in a monitoring accident, his wife leaves him, and he locks himself up in a soundproof room to try to recover. When he emerges a year later, it's with a new sense of purpose. He finds a lip-reading teacher, learns to DJ by feeling the bass through subwoofers, and ditches his addictions.

Part of the problem is that this plotline is really very trite--a standard recovery story--and the filmmakers aren't capable of finding a solid approach for it. Sometimes they shoot interviews (including plenty of cameos from real DJs like Paul van Dyk) and hand-held shots, documentary-style. But that approach is intercut with elements from a more traditional screwball comedy: one running gag has Wilde's cocaine habit represented by a man in a giant, filthy rat costume, who forces his face into huge piles of the drug. The inconsistent shift between those extremes means that the wilder jokes are too dry, and the dry humor too overcooked.

Which is not to say that this isn't a funny movie. There are moments, like the interview line above, or a scene where Wilde's agent tries to get his attention by yelling and hammering on a glass door, only to be thwarted by Frankie's deafness. And the last half-hour handles the issue of hearing loss with surprising sweetness and sensitivity--for a film that also includes an obviously illegitimate biracial son as an unspoken joke.

The art of old-school DJing is all about matching the rhythms, tempos, and sounds of records in order to fade from one to another. With digital music came a number of new techniques, like beat-slicing, time-stretching, and sampling, but even tools like Ableton Live still prominently feature an A-B crossfade function. But for It's All Gone Pete Tong, there's no smooth transition between its disparate sides. It's got a nice beat in there somewhere, but you can't dance to it.

February 24, 2006

Filed under: movies»reviews»cult

The Happiness of the Katakuris

A day later, I'm still not entirely sure what to make of The Happiness of the Katakuris, a musical parody directed by Takashi Miike. I'm not an expert on Miike, who is uncommonly prolific (IMDB credits him with 50 films just in the last ten years). I've seen his Gozu, which seems to aim at being a less coherent David Lynch film, and Audition, easily one of the most surreal and horrifying stalker films ever made. The temptation is to try and generalize in order to sound sophisticated and cultured ("Well, Miike's use of static angles is both a tribute to Kurosawa and a symptom of Japan's post-war film culture"). I'm going to resist that as best I can, and instead just treat Happiness as a relatively straightforward text.

To its credit, the movie lends itself well to this analysis, because it doesn't really seem terribly deep. The plot concerns the fractured Katakuri family, which has moved to a remote boarding house in order to repair their bonds. Unfortunately, it's very remote and a promised highway has yet to materialize, so business is slow. When boarders do begin to trickle in, the family is horrified to discover that they keep dying overnight. While struggling to cover up the evidence, the Katakuris are confronted with escalating absurdities, leading up to a massive (but oddly localized) volcanic eruption.

Ostensibly, this all takes place as a parody of the musical genre, with random performance numbers interrupting at regular intervals. But in my mind, a successful parody usually includes a hint of whatever made its subject worth the effort, and Happiness seems too tongue in cheek to capture that spirit. Part of this is undermined by the constantly changing aesthetic of the film: it opens with (and sometimes reverts to) elaborate claymation sequences, and the song interludes vary wildly from music-video schlock to seemingly sincere efforts of ridiculous subjects to Broadway-esque excess. It's unfocused.

You could probably try to claim that Happiness of the Katakuris is weird because Americans lack the cultural context for the jokes, but frankly I doubt that's the case--in fact, I think it's usually a copout argument. The impression I get is of a director trying for simultaneous homage and mockery of classics like The Sound of Music, but losing interest halfway through, thus requiring injections of non-sequitor weirdness to rescue the project. Too often, that weirdness feels forced and flat. Maybe Miike just doesn't love musicals as much as he thought he did. Maybe he needed to spend more time with this one. It isn't a bad movie, and at 90-odd minutes, it's not a lot of time wasted if you don't like it. With that said, I simply don't think that the few inspired moments scattered throughout are enough to elevate a quirky but ultimately unenthusiastic film.

September 20, 2005

Filed under: movies»reviews»cult

Movie Review: Six String Samurai

Six String Samurai isn't a hard movie to describe, technically. The idea is that America got nuked at the beginning of the cold war. Forty years later, the resulting wasteland is populated by strange gangs like the bowling-themed Pin Pals and cannibalistic nuclear families (pardon the pun). Out of this setting walks the nameless samurai of the title, wearing Buddy Holly glasses and a tuxedo, carrying a katana and a beautiful hollowbody '57 Gibson. Death follows him (literally, Death is portrayed as three Cowboys from Hell led by a Slash lookalike), as does a fearsome reputation.

The samurai is trying to get to Lost Vegas, which was previously ruled by the King--but Elvis has now terminally left the building, and the samurai wants to take his place. In an homage to Lone Wolf and Cub, he's joined early on by a young orphan boy (also nameless), with whom he has a contentious relationship. Together, they travel across the satirical landscape, forming a father-son bond despite themselves.

It's not a hard movie to describe, but that doesn't mean it necessarily makes any sense. By the time that the pair finishes their trip, they've defied Death, wandered the desert, stolen cars, and singlehandedly defeated a sword-wielding Soviet army. If you stop to think about any of the plot twists for too long, you'll miss the point. From its overdubbed voices, to its blatant abuse of slow motion, to its stoic protagonist, this is a loving--if twisted--sendup of the samurai genre, with Rock replacing the Bushido code as its center.

The cinematography is gorgeous, and the sound direction, once you get used to it, is perfectly fitting. Particularly noteworthy is the score, much of which was written and performed by the Red Elvises, a Russian rock band with a cameo during the first ten minutes. If I had to say it resembles anything, I'd compare it to Robert Rodriguez's work with Desparado and Once Upon A Time in Mexico: it's a glorious mess of spaghetti western and surf rock.

Not everything in Six String Samurai flows smoothly. Some of the fight scenes are overly long, and the ending is a little bit of a cheat (although it's a pretty cute cheat--let's just say it twists the movie's references on their head). You'll need to be the kind of person who enjoys this kind of bizarre, anything-goes filmmaking, and it helps to have a background in the classics of the genre. With those caveats, this is the most fun I've had from a Netflix rental in a while.

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