Jiro Asada is an example of a Japanese author who’s achieved great success in his own country but remains anonymous abroad. Stationmaster compiles a slew of short stories, including the title story which was the inspiration for the live-action film Poppoya Railroad Man. He may write about modern events — e.g., the paper marriage in “Love Letter” — but they are suffused with an unabashed sentimentality which to a reader new to current Japanese literature in translation may seem like a product of decades past. I’m not sure if that’s a deliberate affectation on his part or just a reflection of popular literature in Japan favoring the maudlin; I’m tilting more towards the latter. Many of his stories, like the titular one, deal with the old giving way to the new, but occasionally he makes forays into stranger, almost Nisioisin-like territory (“Devil”, “Kyara”), although his underlying sentiments comes through even there. On a scale of Banana Yoshimoto to Ryū Murakami, he’s somewhere around the former — more like slightly below it. A readable author, but from what I see, not one whose work stands up to re-reading.Read more
Before Ringo Lam ended up in Hollywood grinding out sleepwalker, Van Damme’d action titles like Maximum Risk and Replicant, he was one of Hong Kong’s better action directors; his City on Fire was one of the many sources Quentin Tarantino freely lifted from for Reservoir Dogs. Burning Paradise, from 1994, had cult status amongst bootleggers due to its near-total lack of availability. Legendary Shaolin hero Fong Sai-yuk (Willie Chi) escapes from the destruction of his temple only to be captured by the insane Manchu general Crimson, who presides over a massive underground complex known as Red Lotus Temple. Imagine a Hong Kong take on the craziness of the second Indiana Jones movie and you're close: there's deathtraps, wire-fu fights, and an antagonist whose hobbies include human mummification and action painting. It’s the kind of cheerfully bonkers moviemaking that Hong Kong more or less gave up on when the clock ticked 1997.Read more
Yet another treatment of the Sada Abe story, released almost back-to-back with In the Realm of the Senses, and which covers much of the same territory if not with the same level of explicitness. Not bad as far as these things go, just redundant; it entertains, but it’s not anyone’s idea of essential or vital. Directed by Noboru Tanaka, who also gave us the equally grim Edogawa Rampo adaptation Walker in the Attic, but let’s face it — he's no Nagisa Oshima. Read more
The first feature by Susan Seidelman (Desperately Seeking Susan, et al.) plays like a time capsule of downtown NYC in the moment after punk broke and people were still picking up the pieces. Feisty but talentless Wren (Susan Berman) uses what few social graces she has to ingratiate herself with various downtown types — an artist who lives in his van (Brad Rinn), a snotty “underground” musician (Richard Hell), and their various hangers-on. As abrasive as Wren is, we’re fascinated by her; to paraphrase a record review of old, she’s ambition wasted in trying to make it rather than trying to make something. The movie is frequently funny, but just as often wistful: it sees its characters with sympathy and not derision, and it’s not too hip for its own good. It’s a product of a time and a locale where being “indie” actually meant something, and the graffiti-splattered cityscape seems all the more alien in these increasingly sterilized times.Read more
An all-but-forgotten flawed gem from a short-lived period in England’s film-production history where some real risk-taking was going on. Adapted from Colin MacInnes's novel, it's a panorama of late 1950s London's music scene, featuring young lovers Colin (Eddie O'Connell) and Suzette (Patsy Kensit) a-swim in an ocean of pop culture, ambition, greed, and tons of great music courtesy of both Gil Evans and EMI's catalog of stars. Look for David Bowie as an unctuous music producer (he also sings the title song, predictably enough), Sade as a cabaret crooner, and an eye-popping opening extended shot that is reason enough by itself to track this down. The latter third of the film gets too unfocused for its own good — there’s some earnest attempts to deal with race, class, and corporate greed, but maybe too earnest (read: strident) for their own good. Still, it's a great period piece; watch this as a two-fer with Quadrophenia.Read more
Vintage '80s J-cheese. The follow-up to the original Sukeban Deka live-action film gives us a new girl as the titular "delinquent detective", Yui Kazama (Yui Asaka), pressed into the service of a elite government agency determined to fight juvenile crime. She joins forces with a crew of outcasts to fight back, and discovers her former employers are actually anti-government insurrectionists. At least as much goofy fun as the first film, with a great finale involving Yui taking down a plane with nothing more than her trademark razor-metal yo-yo. Now available with the original film in a 2-for-1 set.Read more
As a birthday / New Years' gift, my mother gave me and the missus tickets to La Bête on Broadway. It's a great staging of what I feel is a mediocre piece of work.
The original performance of La Bête on Broadway closed after 25 performances, allegedly killed by a scathing review by Frank Rich of the Times. It went on to run successfully in London, and now it's been resurrected for another Broadway run. The show sports a wonderful cast (especially Mark Rylance and David Hyde Pierce) making good on an inspired presentation.
But it's clear why it tanked the first time: it's just not a very good play. It sets up one basic dramatic note and then pounds on it for two hours under the audience is tone-deaf, although they're typically laughing too hard to notice. That is, until they're waiting for the car to be brought around, at which point a kind of wit of the staircase (or maybe, in this case, wit of the parking garage) beings to assert itself, and they realize they've been had. The fact that the whole thing is delivered in rhyming couplets a la Moliere is clever, but it's a first-time cleverness: once you've gotten that giftwrapping out of the way, there's not much else in the package.
Most everyone who's seen the play has nothing but great things to say about the first part, wherein the self-congratulatory blowhard Valere (Rylance) delivers a near half-hour monologue, a love letter to his own genius, in between trips to the bathroom, bouts of gas and globs of spittle. When it's actually happening in front of you, as opposed to just being read on the page, it's uproarious. But then comes the second act, where we realize there's no actual drama — just Elomire (Pierce) standing his ground against Valere, grinding his teeth and exhibiting the intellectual's version of the same pigheaded blowhardyness as his alleged nemesis. Elomire, by the way, gets short shrift throughout, which suggests more than a little stacking of the deck; we never even get to see any of his work performed, only distantly alluded to. The whole play ends in a gloom that's so sudden and dismaying that I kept expecting the curtain to fly back up again. No dice.
My biggest problem with the play is simple: neither Valere nor Elomire get a chance to do much of anything other than stake out their positions, assert an attitude, and refuse to budge an inch. There's no dynamism, no transformation. It's like watching two cars smash into each other, then burn and leak oil at the side of the road for hours on end. The play-within-the play in Act II ought to have afforded them opportunities to, say, discover they have more in common than they think (they both take themselves too seriously; they both want to reach people; they're both in love with language, etc.), but nothing comes of it. You'd think that with all the time they took to put together those rhyming couplets, they could also have given us a story worth sticking with for two hours.
A final note. I loved the cast and their performances, but I felt rather bad for Greta Lee — she who was stuck in the thankless role of a maidservant who's "going through an adolescent phase" where she only speaks in words that rhyme with "blue" and furiously pantomimes to get her meanings across. Lee herself is wildly funny in that role, but it only made me lament all the more the play itself. She, and we, deserve better. Will someone please give her a worthy role when this show closes in Feburary? (And everyone else in the cast, too.)