Giants and Toys

Dir: Yasuo Masamura
Absolute complete insanity from Masamura
and all sorts of props go out to Fantoma DVD for bringing this out of obscurity. Imagine a mix of Willy Wonka, Network, and a 1940s screwball comedy, driven by a soundtrack like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and you have a little sense of this film.
The setting is modern Japan in the late ’50s. Three caramel candy makers declare an all-out consumerist assault on society with a series of campaigns that begin to look a bit like war. We focus on one company, World Caramel, that hires a very common looking girl (Hitomi Nozoe) to be their spokesmodel, all the while trying to second-guess the other two companies on its way to complete market domination. At what point does decency and humanity go out the window and when does the race for a bottom line turn into a nosedive?
Furious in pace and devilishly funny (I particularly liked the earthy, sleazebag photographer) the film has to be experienced not described. In fact, though modern filmmaking looks fast, it often drags drags drags. Masamura just keeps blasting along, scene after scene, breathless, throwing people together, watching the sparks. He also employs a weird montage strategy involving the mid-level boss’s cigarette lighter. Some sort of family heirloom or gift, it takes about 50 strikes to get it to work. The incessant strikes are the gateway into several montages, one showing the candy being made, the other the marketing of the spokesmodel. Once the montage finishes (and it is usually double exposed with a close up of the lighter), Masamura returns to the scene and carries on. This is so strange (are we supposed to see the montage as happening concurrently or in the past?) that I can’t think of a single film before or since that has does such a thing.
On top of that, the film stops near the finale for a 4-minute dance sequence, featuring the now-successful spokesmodel and a chorus of men dressed up like savages.
After this film, and with memories of his similarly wacky “The Key” and “Blind Beast,” more Masamura films need to be released.

Black Robe

Dir: Bruce Beresford
Bruce Beresford’s gloomy film of a French Jesuit priest (Lothaire Bluteau) traveling into the wilds of 1600s Quebec
to find that God ain’t gonna save him from the weather, the Iroquoi, or his own righteous hubris. Scott and myself gave this a look on the weekend as its setting ties into the script we’re writing, and though the plot was a bit tepid, the historical details, costumes, and set design were all intriguing to us. The film is often cited as a refreshing antidote to the “noble white man” of Dances With Wolves, but the main character is so stuffy and unbending, we just watch him get buffeted about by fate and by the tribe who live more realistically within their surroundings. Trouble is, we follow him to the end, a disease-overrun tribal outpost in the snowy north, where he finally convinces the tribe there to be baptised. Some reward.
A shaman, played by a little person with yellow-green fright mask make-up, and who follows whitey around shouting “Demon! Demon!” provided (unintentional?) comic relief, and the young Algonquin woman, Annuka (Sandrine Holt) was cute as the dickens. Unlike the uptight Jesuit, traveling companion Daniel (Aiden Young) was down for a bit of doggie-style cross-pollination with Annuka inside the teepee.

Evil Dead

Dir: Sam Raimi
Wow, was it really 16 years ago that I watched this for the first time, and is this really the second time I’ve seen it?
I’ve always said I preferred this Evil Dead to the sequel, as this one have much more bad vibes to it, and less slapstick. I still think the “forest-rape” scene is rather silly, but the demonic possession is still chilling and the scares still made me jump, and all done in the simplest way (sleight of hand, making us look at one part of the screen and popping something up elsewhere.) And I had plum forgotten about all the wonderful stop-motion animation at the end.
This special release from Anchor Bay comes in a “Book of the Dead” rubber mask-covered case and contains bonus outtakes, an interview with the British distributors that made Evil Dead a roaring success and a fine, short documentary by Bruce Campbell on fans and fanatics, which contained enough shots of overweight Jedi Knights and furries to keep me away from conventions for life.

The Hustler

Dir: Robert Rosssen
Most excellent and gritty drama that made a well-deserved star out of Paul Newman,
but also has fine performances by George C. Scott and Piper Laurie, as well as a “guest star” appearance by Jackie Gleason, saying few words and dominating the screen. Who could do that now?
The film has a surprising structure, with an opening 10 minute “tease” that sets up Fast Eddie (Newman) and his manager Charlie (Myron McCormick) as pool hustlers. Then for the next 30 or so minutes Fast Eddie goes up against reigning champion Minnesota Fats (Gleason), winning, then losing all his earnings in a show of hubris (and booze). It’s such a long scene it surprising they thought they could lead off with it, but it’s engrossing nonetheless. Fast Eddie rehabilitates with the help of Piper Laurie’s Sarah, an alcoholic trust-fund baby with a habit for picking up men to share a bottle with. Bert (George C. Scott) becomes his new manager and the second half of the film follows the three as Bert uses Fast Eddie and destroys Sarah in the process. Nobody in this film is a dunce, but they all have their weaknesses. And its in recognizing the weaknesses that make the characters strong–ignore weakness at your own cost…
This a film about father figures and father issues, a psychological drama as only they could make ’em back then. (Psychological dramas now have somebody say “I love you, Dad” in the third act.) Fast Eddie spends the film looking to topple the father (Minnesota Fats), leaves his manager, finds another one even worse (“When did you adopt me?” Fast Eddie asks Bert after one spectacularly written scene in a bar), and in doing so, kills off the feminine. His maturity is revealed at the end when both Fats and Fast (anagrams of each other, notice) size each other up as equals, not a high/low equation. Great performances all ’round–no wonder Newman became such a star.

Tamio Okuda – E

Sony SRCL-5415

Glad I caught up with what Mr. Okuda’s been doing.
I wasn’t hot on “Car Songs of the Years”–half of that being older songs, and an excuse to get a few new songs out. When Okuda is in top form, he’s one of the best rock musicians out there, writing pop-rock in the Beatles/Stones tradition. When he’s off, he’s a noisy rock band in search of a hook.
“E” came out a little while ago, but the thing’s a corker. With little of his trademark Harrison-like slide guitar solos, but with a solid band behind him, he manages to put out an album of 19 songs that never feel like it’s in need of an editor. (Admittedly, some of these songs are one-minute reprises of previous tracks).
Okuda manages to coax something new out of the standard rock palette, with sneaky inclusions of marimba, female backing vocals (a first!), and some grungy Hammond (or some sort) organ playing.
Highlights are the title track, a meaty, beaty, big and bouncy number with a one-note melody and twang-bar heavy fills. “The Standard” brings out the Beatles Mellotron and a one of Okuda’s soaring, heartfelt choruses that immediately make me nostalgic for times I didn’t even know I lived through. “Gomen Rider” is also fantastic with a wicked fuzzbox arpeggio solo.
Okuda remains Japan’s best-kept secret.
A selection of songs and promo clips are here. Check out the one called “” as Tamio sings a medley of his songs in under two minutes with a selection of props. Very funny.

The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown

Doubleday, 2003
Okay, you’re kidding, right?
This is the most popular fiction book for months and months? Once again I find my enduring faith in the American public severely tested by this fact. Dan Brown’s thriller about a search for the Holy Grail succeeds in being a page-turner, but little else. His two lead characters, Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor of religious symbolism; and Sophie Neveu, a French detective specializing in cryptologist, exist to lead the reader through the web of Grail facts, but appear to have little else. I can’t tell you anything about Langdon except his field of study. Neveu’s character is sketched in more, because it’s the murder of her grandfather that sets the story on its way.
Halfway through, I realised why this book is so popular. Brown treats his audience not exactly as idiots, but as blank slates who know nothing of art, of Europe, of history, of even the most rudimentary conspiracy theories (quite amazing post X-Files). The non-divinity of Jesus, the resuscitation of Mary Magdalene from whore to feminine equal, and the question of a J+M bloodline, may curl the hair of the fundies and intrigue the pop-Christians in the general public (who freely mix their Bible, “angel cards”, and astrology charts), but for any half-serious biblical scholar or, really, anyone whose been around the block a few times, it’s nothing that new. And to then have to read it all in Brown’s pedantic style is a bit much.
Here’s a typical Brown passage:

The agent signaled to an insulated wire that ran out of the back of the computer, up the wall, through a hole in the barn roof. “Simple radio wave. Small antenna on the roof.”
Collet knew these recording systems were generally placed in offices, were voice-activated to save hard disk space, and recorded snippets of conversation during the day, transmitting compressed audio files at night to avoid detection. After transmitting, the hard drive erased itself and prepared to do it all over again the next day.

All he really has to tell us is that some offices are bugged and that this is where the info is collected. Brown backs up to fill us in on details such as these all the time, with awkward dalliances into art history, architecture, theology, and more. They aren’t exactly woven into the narrative as much as they’re pasted in. Brown’s authorial voice is like a trivia buff at a cocktail party, telling you the history of the martini you’re drinking, or when pimento olives became popular.
On top of that, there’s the inner thoughts of the characters that sum up the action and major plot points for those who haven’t read many books before and/or who suffer from short-term memory loss. “I’m about to dash out of the Louvre…a fugitive.” (after about 50 pages that demonstrates this.) And my favorite: “Accompanying the gravity of being a hunted man, Langdon was starting to feel the ponderous weight of responsibility, the prospect that he and Sophie might actually be holding an encrypted set of directions to one of the most enduing mysteries of all time.” Yes, yes, yes. We know!
I am interested in seeing how this is all going to play out when the film adaptation comes out. With mainer-than-mainstream director Ron Howard handling it, will they water down the crux of the plot, that Jesus was mortal and fathered a child? Will the fundies go and picket? Will they issue a jihad against Brown? Should anyone who lives in a secular nation and has an ounce of common sense care?
Meanwhile, I wrote about TDVC for my book column (I was shorter and nicer than above), and included a parody. Enjoy.

Robert Langdon entered the delicatessen on the corner of Rose and Crucian Streets. Langdon knew the deli had been at the downtown location for over three years. Before that it had been Willie’s, a mid-level bistro for eight years. Before that it had been Ella’s Haberdashery and Lightbulb Emporium.
“What kind of sandwich would you like, sir?” asked the girl at the register.
Robert Langdon knew about sandwiches. It was known by scholars that the food item was named after John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich. In 1762, the earl had asked for some meat to be served between two slices of bread in order to avoid interrupting his gambling game.
Yet the question still remained of the meat and the type of bread that Langdon, over 200 years later, would be asking the deli to assemble.
“What do you recommend?” Langdon asked, tactically.
“Pastrami on rye is popular,” said the girl, as her dark brown eyes sized him up.
Pastrami had long been a staple meat of the Italians. Before the advent of refrigeration in the 20th century, large amounts of beef were soaked in brine, then smoked, in a process known as “curing.”
Bread, on the other hand, had been around since the time of the Egyptians, and was commonly made from a dough of ground or milled cereal grain, usually wheat flour, and leavened by chemical or microbiological action. Rye bread was a combination of wheat and rye flours, giving a loaf a lighter texture than the pure rye bread known as pumpernickel.
“That sounds fine,” said Langdon.
“One pastrami on rye!” the girl suddenly shouted to an unseen person in the back.
I’m about to eat a pastrami on rye sandwich, thought Robert Langdon.
[That’s quite enough. – Ed.]

Oh dear me…

Most of you readers don’t know that I write a book club column for the Santa Barbara News-Press. I’m not personally in, or have ever been in, a book club, and so it’s all pretty new to me. I am very aware, though, of how similar most clubs are. They have all read The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown, and, after hearing good and bad things about it, I picked it up at the library on “Express Loan”. I’ve dropped all my other reading to blast through this in a couple of days, at the end of which I will have some sort of opinion.
I’ll let you know soon…