Sunday, August 14, 2011

Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque)

GAINSBOURG: A Heroic Life (2010).
Directed by Joann Sfar.

I admit to a small bias going into this film -- I like the music of Monsieur Gainsbourg and I'm a huge fan of artist-turned-filmmaker Joann Sfar. I did my best to put both of these predispositions away, but no doubt they color my opinion.

As one would expect from a film made by a first-time director best known for striking comic book storytelling, GAINSBOURG is carefully composed, lighted and photographed and has an emphasis on the visual. The first part of the film is set in World War II occupied Paris, where the child who will someday call himself Serge Gainsbourg is still just smart-alecky Lucien, who claims to hate playing piano when forced by his father to practice, but excels at it when it benefits him. Lucien's father is, himself, a professional pianist -- or at least makes his living playing in bars. The family is Jewish, and already feeling the pressure of an unwelcoming society that is about to turn toxic. Lucien, however, used this to his advantage, and takes pleasure in defying authority and charming adults in turns. That he has left school for the art academy at Montamorte allows Sfar to make grand use of his own art besides the surreal three-dimensional grotesqueries drummed up by Lucien's imagination. Sfar dwells on Lucien's obsession with the specter of his Jewishness as well as his obsession with his own physical inadequacy -- a girl tells him he's ugly in the first scene, and he carries it for the rest of the film. Even as a child, Lucien wears black, smokes constantly and treats women as objects of sex to idolize, obsess over and reject, which flows seamlessly into his adulthood and an endless stream of wives and lovers. Sfar haunts his subject with literal demons, forcing Lucian/Serge -- played by Eric Elmosnino with quiet nuance -- to interact with a literal manifestation of his id, a puppet dubbed La Gueule, performed by Doug Jones (HELLBOY). After his first success, Gainsbourg visits home and his father gives him faint praise for his career while encouraging him to indulge in infidelities. Instead of showing surprise that his strict father would be so bohemian, he takes it in stride, and also takes the advice. He makes a conscious decision to write songs loaded with double entendre, “poison apples” for corruption of youth, or possibly just to entertain his inflated, fragile ego. The later part of the film features fewer Sfar-isms (talking cats, puppets) as Serge and his ego become one -- punctuated by the arrival of Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta). From here on out, it's more specifically the Gainsbourg people either love or hate; a French stereotype of a weathered genius who spends more time seducing women half his age than he does writing songs for them to sing, though more than a few seem less wilting violets than venus flytraps. The heart of the storyline is his ill-fated romance with Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon, who committed suicide two months after the film's completion), which starts with him insulting her and passing out drunk in her lap and ends with her leaving him. There are tender moments -- he plays with her daughter from a previous marriage, she gives him a dog, all tainted by the irony of her having a hit with the love song he wrote for Bardot...

But the real story here is less of a biography than an homage to the life of an artist, whether a painter, a jazz musician or a songwriter of pop hits... or a cartoonist. And I suspect there is more than a little of Sfar's own biography mixed in. The closest thing I can compare it to is SEX DRUGS AND ROCK & ROLL, the Ian Dury bio-drama, which much like this one, works best the less you know about the subject.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

We're Back! With Reviews!

DETROIT METAL CITY [Detoroito Metaru Shiti] (2008).
Directed by Toshio Lee.

You thought western Death Metal was absurd? Nothing beats the Japanese, and to illustrate just how weird it can get, cult favorite manga DMC is embraced by headbangers and non alike. While it is certainly a comic view of the hard rock world, it's also clearly a love letter to the world of popular music, good and bad (mainly bad), overall.

Toshio Lee's film adaptation of the manga is true to the source material, and because of that it is hammy, overblown and colorful -- in a good way. Kennichi Matsuyama (BRIGHT FUTURE, DEATH NOTE) stars as Negishi, a shy young man who longs to be a “trendy,” fashionable, Shibuya pop singer, but instead has found fame as his alter ego Johannes Krauser II, a KISS-style, clown-makeup heavy metal frontman of the band Detroit Metal City (DMC for short). Most of the story is caught up in his identity crisis. The girl he loves (but is too shy to ask out) detests Hard Rock and DMC in particular. As Negishi attempts to juggle both lives, he inadvertently humiliates love interest Yuri and nearly looses her to a jerky fashion designer. In the meantime, Negishi contemplates the incompatibility of his bandmates' personalities and is generally abused by the band's manager, a blond haired woman who puts cigarettes out on her own tongue and terrorizes everyone.

Broken by the realization that he will never achieve his dreams, Negishi gives up the Tokyo music scene and DMC to return to his family farm, only to find that Krauser has followed him. His mother more or less puts him on the right track and he returns for a satisfying wrap up.

Monday, February 21, 2011


Dir: Luc Besson

I love French comics (bande dessinée), and I'm something of a Luc Besson fan, even if I've found his more recent offerings a bit... lackluster. ANGEL-A was watchable, but not great. ARTHUR AND THE INVISIBLES was a mess (but still spawned two sequels, go figure). THE MESSENGER was nearly unwatchable, and I feel I'm giving it more credit than it deserves just by saying that. That makes LES AVENTURES EXTRAORDINAIRES D'ADÈLE BLANC-SEC his best effort since 1997's THE FIFTH ELEMENT. Certainly, ADÈLE has a lot in common with THE FIFTH ELEMENT. Both are snappily filmed, effects-heavy action fare with comedy overtones. Both feature a former model as the leading lady and have a loving approach to the vast culture of comics in France. Based on the Jacques Tardi series of the same name and set in 1911, Louise Bourgoin (LE PETIT NICOLAS) plays the title character of Adèle, a reporter of some fame who has gone AWOL from her most recent assignment and skipped Peru for tomb raiding in Egypt. Meanwhile in Paris, doctor of anthropology Esperandieu (Jacky Nercessian) has developed a mystical power and used it to resurrect a Pterodactyl from an egg in the Musée du Louvre. The Pterodactyl menaces Paris, killing officials and even scaring the president in his parlor. A bumbling detective is put on the case and Giles Lellouche (MESRINE: KILLER INSTINCT) plays Caponi with great zeal, whether eating or sleeping or looking proud while missing the facts. Jean-Paul Rouve plays Saint-Hubert, a big game hunter brought in to track down the beast, while quiet museum curator Andrej Zborowski (Nicolas Giraud) sways between pining for Adèle and trying to hide the Jurassic-era creature. Adèle returns from Egypt with the mummy of Rameses II's doctor, in the hopes Esperandieu can resurrect it and help save Adèle's brain-dead twin sister. What more can I say? Antics ensue, Adèle smart-talks everyone from camels to police into doing as she says, mummies drink tea and it wraps up neatly while leaving the door open for more adventures.

Besson plays fast and loose with Tardi's original material, ditching much of the cynicism and upping the humor. While Adèle of the books is more of an anti-hero (a criminal even), here she is a celebrity, easily able to get audience with the president of France -- only the moronic police lack respect for her. As expected from Besson and his crew, the camerawork is impeccable (cinematographer Thierry Arbogast has shot every Besson picture since LE FEMME NIKITA), and the recreation of pre-WWI France is stunning. The majority of the actors are delightfully made-up to mimic Tardi's grotesque cast of characters and the Egyptian scenes are lovingly detailed. The performances are impressive, and Bourgoin is a charming and compelling lead. Feel free to play 'Is that an in-joke?' as the film is packed with references to, among other things, Besson's other films. Also, I would guess that Mathieu Amalric's brief (and thoroughly unrecognizable) appearance as a deranged supervillain can only mean a non-Besson directed sequel in the works.

By the way, the lovely ad slick I used for the graphic is from the Shock Cinema Chirashi archive. Chirashi are small film posters distributed in Japan to promote new releases.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Saturday Morning Film Review: Yamakasi

Directed by Ariel Zeitoun and Julien Seri
Available through Just For the Hell of It

I'll admit it, I think Parkour is cool. No really. And yes, I watch the X-GAMES on TV sometimes and not just to laugh when some bleach-blond skate-rat wipes out on a mega-ramp. 2001 was early enough that Parkour hadn't yet become pedestrian enough to be a joke on the US version of the OFFICE, and YAMAKASI was made with that level of innocence. The film opens with a group of young men planning a campaign, shot in a manner that suggest bank robbery. It turns out to be a freerunning stunt. Of course. Directed by Ariel Zeitoun and Julien Seri and based on a scenario by Luc Besson, the plot is lightweight and the action fast-and-furious. Just what you'd expect. The stunts are certainly a precursor to later fare like BANLIEUE 13, which was better shot and better written. Zeitoun has gone on to be a full-fledged Besson prodigy, and YAMAKASI fits the template of Besson-produced action yarns. There's some nice cinematography thanks to Phillippe Piffeteau, who also shot the Oscar-winning short LE MOZART DES PICKPOCKETS back in 2006.

Be forewarned, despite loads of manly stunts, there is a kid-heavy subplot so treacly it'll make your teeth hurt. The urban but erstwhile heros are in it for the joy of the sport, not just to antagonize the police (the goof-ball villains of the story) and abuse public property. Even elderly neighbors feel moved to sympathy for these young punks who sport street names like "Mr. Music" and "Tango." They also do good deeds: "Baseball" stops a purse snatcher by throwing a can at the thief's head, major-league pitcher style, and they all come to the rescue of the local rugrats, one of whom ends up hospitalized.

But it's a Luc Besson Parkour film, you aren't watching it for the story, are you?

Social Networking (and by that I mean the T-word)

I'm going to assume that anyone who is friends with Steve/Shock Cinema on Facebook knows I have a Facebook (non-movie-related for the most part) but I also have Twitter (#uselesstimekiller). I do, at times, talk about film there, especially if it is something that doesn't warrant an actual review (or, I intend to anyway).

Ok, I didn't Twitter about Salt, because I can't come up with 140 characters to say about it that someone else already hasn't. It was a very silly film with lots of action. You knew that after seeing a trailer for it, didn't you? (#youcanreallytellthiswaswrittenfortomcruise) And I didn't write about the first episode of An Idiot Abroad because I was so blotto on painkillers I don't remember a thing about it (#dentalwork).

In my grande attempt to make up for an entire year of NOT writing for Shock Cinema, I am now making a real effort to post here and at Twitter. So, come follow. I guess. If that's your thing. #doyoureallywanttoreadmyrandomthoughts?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

SHOCK CINEMA Magazine goes YouTube!

I've spent the last several weeks fiddling around with my brand new computer and, now that I have 15x the storage capacity of my old Mac, decided to set up a Shock Cinema Magazine YouTube channel for some of my favorite old TV and movie clips... I'll be uploading add'l videos as time permits, as well as clips from films that I've reviewed in the pages of SHOCK CINEMA Magazine.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Documentary Derby brings you Best Worst Movie!

Best Worst Movie (2009)

I haven’t seen TROLL 2. Have you? I’ve seen enough of it, though, to know I can live the entire rest of my life without having to sit through it. On the other hand, BEST WORST MOVIE, the documentary made about TROLL 2, its cast and its fans is worth the watch. Directed by the now-grown child star of TROLL 2, Michael Stephenson, it focuses mainly on Dentist George Hardy, who once wanted to be an actor, went to an audition, and ended up in a truly poor film. He then went on and had a career in said dentistry without anyone knowing his past. Well, until Stephenson showed up with a camera. Hardy is a likable ham. He embraces the fandom of this regrettable film with gusto and always seems to be in on the joke. Well, until he starts doing the autograph circuit and discovers what an ugly, humiliating scene it is. Actually, I think the thing I enjoyed most was his arc from oh-my-god-I’m-a-cult-celebrity to oh-my-god-these-people-don’t-know-who-I-am-and-they-creep-me-out at a horror convention. Besides Hardy, we also get TROLL 2 fans who hold viewing parties (including one at the UPRIGHT CITIZEN’S BRIGADE in my own, dear, home town of NYC), the narcissistic director who STILL thinks he’s made a great piece of art, and a home visit with actress Margo Prey that is haunting to say the least. Stephenson really holds the whole thing together with the right strokes of humor, honest affection, and disgust, going as far as reenacting scenes with cast members and interspersing them with moments from TROLL 2. Far better than I expected going in, this is my Netflix recommendation of the moment.