January 2009

Giles Wemmbley Hogg Goes Off ... a bit much

Imagine a milk carton that is distributed exclusively in travel-based circles. If missing kids or warning notices take pride of place on ordinary cartons, then an unflattering mug shot of Giles Wemmbley-Hogg will grace the other milk container. To what purpose, you ask? It might be a sad “Last seen in Munich” sort of notice or it could just be a fervent “Keep away from him at all costs” kind of warning; that sort of question could take months of debate.

Anime Friday: Powerpuff Girls v. PPGZ

Way back in 1992, an art student named Craig McCracken created a short film called The Whoopass Stew in which he introduced The Whoopass Girls. Two years later, the film got picked up for Spike and Mike's Sick and Twisted Animation Show. This got McCracken's foot in the door at Cartoon Network, which in the mid-90's sought out original work from independent animators to help establish the cable station's unique brand. By the end of the decade, McCracken had a kid-friendly version of his creation in The Powerpuff Girls. To this day, no animated program has had a higher rated premiere. The Powerpuff Girls is a campy mix of anime and classic Hannah-Barbera cartoons. This is why it's so strange that the show got a full-blown anime makeover in 2001 with the help of a slew of big names in Japanese cartoon production. The result was Demashita!

Israeli Pop

The most the average American ever hears about Israel is when a new military conflict or suicide bombing takes place. This results in a terribly inaccurate image of the country as a war-torn backwater in the middle of the desert. The truth is that much of Israel is a very beautiful, very modern country. It was an early adopter of the Internet and its medical facilities are frequently rated the best in the world. Israel also has a vibrant music scene. For example, in the 1960's and 70's, the Israeli folk movement was every bit as pervasive as its American and British counterparts. Today, pop music from Israel is starting to get wider recognition in the West. Here are a few artists to look out for. Sarit Hadad Israel's answer to the pop diva, Sarit Hadad has been a constant chart-topper in her home country for more than a decade. She represented Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2002 with her song "Light a Candle".

Anime Friday: Serial Experiments Lain

For the last two installments of Anime Friday, I covered a neat little series called Paranoia Agent. Watching it made me realize that the real narrative power in anime is that, quite simply, cartoons aren't bound by physical limitations, so suspension of disbelief is easy. As I found out with this week's subject, Serial Experiments Lain, this is also anime's primary weakness. Serial Experiments Lain follows a young girl, the titular Lain, as she comes to uncover the mystery of dead people speaking through an Internet surrogate called The Wired, and indeed the mystery of her own true identity. The show does this through a back-and-forth of minimalism and frenetic intensity. At first, I adored SEL's slow, deliberate pacing. It had a David Lynch quality to it, oppression and dread barely held back by a thin fence of clean sets and spare dialog. The problem comes when director Ryutaro Nakamura has to contend with Chiaki Konaka's clunky script.

Bollywood Over Hollywood?

If you hadn't heard of the film Slumdog Millionaire before this week, you probably have since Sunday night when it won 4 Golden Globes. Slumdog Millionaire swept all four categories for which it was nominated at the 2009 Golden Globe Awards. This underdog film about a Mumbai orphan who rises to glory after winning TV show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," won best drama, best director, best screenplay and musical score. The movie is based on a 2005 novel by Indian novelist and diplomat Vikas Swarup.

Classic British Comedy: 'Allo 'Allo

'Allo 'Allo is one of those legendary British shows. It was meant to be a spoof of serious British drama, specifically war-time drama Secret Army but soon enough this creative show gained a huge following in its own right. Viewers do not have to be familiar with Secret Army to appreciate the genius behind 'Allo 'Allo; boasting distinct characters, witty dialogue and an absolutely mad story line, it is no wonder that this show became a classic. Brief Introduction of 'Allo 'Allo

'Allo 'Allo was a popular comedy sitcom that ran for 10 years (1982 - 1992) on BBC1.

Anime Friday: Paranoia Agent Part 2

Last week I began my analysis of Satoshi Kon's Paranoia Agent, a short anime series that caught me off-balance with how good it is. So, how did the second half hold up? All in all, I think Kon pulled it off. That's not to say the series doesn't stumble as it hits the halfway mark. The cynic in me wants to believe that Kon was contracted to make thirteen episodes for a series that really only had material for eight or nine. Still, the stuff that's there is so good and the conclusion is so satisfying that I'm willing to give Kon the benefit of the doubt and say that his pacing was deliberate. Hell, for what we get at the end, his decision is downright literary. As episode 7 closed, we witnessed Shounen Bat's first actual murder when he/it assaults a teenaged boy copying the evil spirit's MO. Before that, Shounen Bat merely conked people on the head with enough force to hospitalize them. It's a not-so-subtle sign that his power is growing. In fact, that's basically what the second half of the series is about.

Tokyo Gore Police

I am not unfamiliar with the oddity that can be Japanese cinema. On the contrary, I consider myself to be quite versed in its idiosyncrasies and its unparalleled creativity. But that does not in any way mean that I am not routinely shocked and taken aback by the insanity that it can bring. Of all the film making nations in the world, I find the Japanese, for the most part, to be the most radical and the most innovative, seemingly aiming higher than anyone would dare, regardless of it's practicality. It is because of such things that we inevitably get pieces of work that walk a delicate line between utter absurdity and striking poignancy, full of movement and color, layered with metaphor and philosophy. True, some films tend to favor one side of the artistic fence than the other but it is hard to deny the sociological undercurrents that can be hidden in even the most preposterous of outings.

Director Profile: Dario Argento

It has been said that Dario Argento puts the 'gore' in gorgeous, that in watching his movies, you will see horrible things happen, yet you cannot look away because it is done in the most beautiful way possible. Those who have witnessed the imagery in films like Suspiria and Deep Red know that this is true beyond any doubt. Not content to point a camera and shoot moving objects, his films greatly utilized anamorphic lenses that would pan and zoom with jagged suddenness as if in the grip of fits as bodies and blood falls all around.

Let The Right One In

Adolescence is savage. Adolescence is brutal. It is confusing and heartbreaking. It is hopeful and wondrous. You are altogether alone but surrounded by those who are going through much of the same things. Some lash out, some withdraw inwards and everyone is suspicious. There is nothing quite as frightening as entering adolescence, except maybe adolescent love. I will tell you right now that Tomas Alfredson's film Let The Right One In examines these issues with an unflinching brilliance that is rarely dared to be executed. As to my knowledge, not since the great Japanese film Battle Royale has this been done so effectively. I have often said that Science-Fiction and Horror are in a rare position to take metaphor to new levels and that it is a crime that such things are rarely taken advantage of, even more so that they fail to get their deserved credit when they do. Let us hope that this film does not suffer the same fate. Coming of age films are rarely this fierce.

Director Profile: Takashi Miike

It must have been around 2000 or 2001 when I first saw Takashi Miike's disturbing drama, Audition. As the film reached it's now infamous climax and the credits began to roll soon afterward, I was sitting in cinematic shock. I was not new to gore and oddity in film, not by a long shot, but I had never seen anything quite like this. It has been said that Audition is essentially a build up for the last fifteen minutes and while with your average movie this may be nothing more than hyperbole, it is not so much of a stretch here. Information comes slowly and tidbits of the absolute horror that we will be subjected to are few and quick; the film actually functions much like nothing more than a slightly off-kilter romantic drama until . . . Well, I will not spoil it for you if you have not been lucky enough to see it. Such is the paradox of Takashi Miike: Born in Osaka, Miike turned to film after abandoning his dream to become a motor mechanic.

Classic British Satire: Not the Nine O'Clock News

To be perfectly honest, Not the Nine O'Clock News is not for everyone. Why? It's not politically correct; rather, the creators of the show enthrall in being topical. Innuendos and play on words, often in the form of dirty jokes, are rampant. Some of your favorite songs from the time period will be ripped to pieces. Do heed the warning; if Mock of the Week is bit on the harsh side, this might not be the one for you.

Anime Friday: Paranoia Agent (part 1)

Up until this week, all the anime I've watched for this project has been in the form of feature-length films. Today's entry, Satoshi Kon's Paranoia Agent, is a short series. At thirteen episodes, it seems tailor made for this kind of analysis. It occurs to me that anime works best when it's serialized, at least usually. Arguably, a series like Dragonball Z would work a lot better as a dense, two hour action piece than the stretched-thin punchline that it is. But when it comes to the serious stuff, the format benefits from a slow burn. Paranoia Agent wouldn't really be able to convey the slow buildup of tension and all-around strangeness that it does if the whole thing were packed into a two hour exercise. Odd as it is for me to say it, this anime rides on subtlety and nuance. The first seven episodes of Paranoia Agent introduce us to a cast of loosely related characters. Each one becomes involved, either as a victim of or an adversary to a mysterious assailant called Shounen Bat (baseball bat boy for you anglophones).


As a rabid collector of music, it is not so odd for me so occasionally purchase albums that simply catch my eye, regardless of if I have previously heard the artist. I would say my success rate in such affairs is at about 50/50 which is not so bad considering what a rewarding experience it can be to take so blind a chance and discover something that I will listen to for many years to come. In the summer of 2006, I took such a chance at a Tower Records in Tokyo, Japan. I had been in country for only a couple of days and had engrossed myself in music magazines and entertainment trades. This was, after all, a perfect place to take chances in that realm as I had almost no deep knowledge of music from the area. The few bands that I did know of had at least some success in the States, however small it may be, but to come across something truly Japanese, with no prior Western success, was my ultimate goal. I soon came across a picture of three young women standing in a field, dressed rather hip and for one reason or another, it reminded me squarely of Sleater-Kinney.

Storm Riders

Some people argue that watching a foreign film is not unlike catching the public transport to the park. After all, those few hours seem to drag on forever, you wonder if this trip worth all that effort just get a glimpse of nature's finest and you know someone is bound to retell a depressing life story at some point during the ride/movie. Well, suffice it to say that not all foreign films are like that. Take for instance Storm Riders. An immensely popular fantasy flick made in Hong Kong, it boasted three vital elements that had all self-respecting gamers queuing up for tickets - well choreographed battle scenes, characters with magical abilities and epic story telling. Made in 1998 and inspired by a famous Chinese comic book (Fung Wan), the story was typical of the wuxia genre - powerful, larger-then-life warriors standing up to an evil regime. This particular movie, while bemoaned by comic book fans as an annoying deviation of the original plot line, was critically acclaimed by many.

France Gall and April March

In 1964 at the tender age of 16, a Parisienne named Isabelle donned the moniker "France Gall" and used her family's music industry background to chart a hit single, "Ne sois pas si bête". The next year, she teamed up with the legendary Serge Gainsbourg and became a European sensation, especially after winning the 1965 Eurovision song contest with "Poupée de cire, poupée de son". Her partnership with Gainsbourg produced a number of hits, not the least of which was the double-entendre laden "Les Sucettes", a song with more than just a few references to oral sex. In fact, much of Gall's early career is filled with unintentionally controversial tracks. By the late 60's, she departed for a much more stable career in Germany with the likes of composer Werner Muller and performer Horst Buchholz. After the fertile German period, France Gall had a shaky set of years back in her home country.

Anime Friday: Kite

In last week's edition of Anime Friday, I mentioned that I needed a break from the cute, family-friendly stuff. I asked that my pool of Japanophiles recommend me a film from the opposite end of the spectrum. The result was an ill-informed decision to eat dinner while watching Yasuomi Umetsu's 1998 experiment in extremes, Kite. Few animes have been cut or outright banned as frequently as Kite. In China and Norway it's just plain illegal, and Germany is the only country outside Japan where you can get a legitimate uncensored copy. All the same, Kite isn't just a series of intense, unrelated scenes of sex and violence. It's close to that, but there still is a plot. The story (thin as it is) revolves around Sawa, a young girl who has been turned into a relentless assassin by a vigilante police detective named Akai and his sick friend Kanye who works as a coroner. To say that Akai and Kanye are corrupt is putting it lightly. It's revealed fairly early on that Akai killed Sawa's family, though for unknown reasons.