Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Boston Underground Film Festival Day 02: Blue Dream, A Band Called Death, and Guilty of Romance

I worked from home this Thursday, since Blue Dream was only playing at 5:30pm and as those who have read a few dozen comments about my commute to the suburban hellscape of Burlington, Massachusetts will guess, that sort of start time doesn't work. Of course, by about halfway through the movie, it was pretty clear why this picture with a number of recognizable names was playing an hour that a lot of people couldn't make: It's worth skipping.

It wasn't a complete waste of time, though, if only because it led me to think a bit about sex and nudity in movies, especially when paired with Guilty of Romance. Not to complain about it - I'm not necessarily going to do that anyway, but grumping about adults-only content at the Underground Film Festival is a good indication that you might be in the wrong place - just to observe how differently Gregory Hatanaka and Sion Sono use it, especially since variants of "nice breasts!" made it into both reviews.

It's much closer to mere exploitation in Blue Dream - in that movie, girls get naked to show how high the male character is riding - he's surrounded by girls offering up the goods and getting into the kind of kinky situations that only the privileged have access to. At one point, I thought that this might have been a way to show how Harmon is climbing the ladder without the movie ever showing that he's particularly good at either writing or playing office politics- the offhanded admission that he's someone's nephew comes late in the movie and doesn't seem to explain how he's kept going after that guy's gone, and since there are a lot of female editor characters in the movie, maybe he's screwing his way to the top - but he doesn't stand out in those scenes and his partners don't seem unusually impressed. Mostly, it seems like a way to show off the body of the porn star(s) they hired - and to be fair, I liked what I saw of Kayden Kross in both uses of the term - rather than something which helps tell the story.

Which is cool and fine; after all, when Megumi Kagurazaka gets naked for the first time in Guilty of Romance, the first reaction is "hey, where have those been hiding?" The thing is, Sion Sono then takes that reaction and runs with it beyond the obvious; as she poses and touches herself in front of the mirror, the idea that she's been hiding the sexual part of herself away comes through pretty clearly. The scene is helping to tell the story while being enjoyable in its own right. It made for a better movie, I think, and that scene stuck in my mind more than any similar scene from Blue Dream.

In some ways, it's not a fair comparison - Guilty of Romance is about sexuality, so you'd kind of expect its skin to have more meaning than that of Blue Dream, which didn't seem to be about much of anything to my eyes. Still, Sono's movie was twenty minutes longer and never left me bored, something I can't really say about Hatakana's, and a large part of that was a director using what appeared on screen and how to further his story and ideas rather than just putting them in to spice things up.

Well, that wound up giving A Band Called Death short shrift. It shouldn't, because it's a pretty darn fun rock-doc, even if it doesn't break down the music that much.

Blue Dream

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 March 2013 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

I spent a lot of my time watching Blue Dream feeling like I didn't know what was going on. That wasn't strictly the case - I could certainly recognize what was happening in a given scene and could see the bigger story that Gregory Hatanaka and his co-writer Tony Young were trying to tell, but the maze between these levels is just a pain to navigate and mostly not worth the effort.

The film opens in 1999, with Robert Harmon (James Duval) starting at a Los Angeles weekly newspaper edited by Ted Sellers (Richard Riehle), while at the same time George Weber (Sal Landi) is starting a blog. Harmon begins an affair with his editor Amanda (Pollyanna McIntosh), and while he's interested in crime - fascinated by a map kept by intern Gena (Dominique Swain) - he's eventually made film critic. When the paper is purchased by a wealthy family whose patriarch Lassie (Walter Koenig) and the sons he puts in charge know nothing about the business, he begins a relationship with daughter Tara (Kayden Kross). Between all of that, he's swept up in booze, drugs, sex, the usual.

At least, that's what seems to be going on. The movie feels like Hatanaka had a sort of vague idea about the decline of print, alter egos, serial killers, and corporate America but rather than build a story out of them, he decided to instead haphazardly connect them with a chemically-induced daze on the part of the protagonist and enough sex and violence to at least preserve the appearance of some sort of momentum. It's a frantic mess that is presented with just enough skill that the excuse that the seeming randomness is a reflection of Harmon's head can't be immediately discounted - it's the sort of chaos that tries to play as a deliberate rejection of order as opposed to sloppiness.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

A Band Called Death

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 March 2013 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

You can say what you want about Detroit - that its main industry needs propping up, that its population is collapsing, that arson seems to be the most popular local activity - but you have to admit, hope does spring eternal: According to the movies, if you pick up a guitar and pour your very soul into making music, you might just be recognized thirty years or so down the line. Last year a documentary re-introduced Rodriguez; this time around, it's African-American proto-punk band Death.

The band formed in the early 1970s, the second group to include brothers Dannis (drums), Bobby (bass), and David (guitar) Hackney. Encouraged by their parents to have broad tastes in music, the boys were influenced just as much by groups like The Who and Alice Cooper as Motown. David, the oldest of the trio (eldest brother Earl didn't play in the band), was the driving force, and came up with the band's name as a spiritual signifier - and when he refused to change that name, a record deal became impossible. They got their master tapes back, put out a single with a mere 500-disc pressing. The brothers kept playing, even after a move to Burlington, Vermont, but went in very different directions from Death's punk-before-punk. And then...

It's the "and then..." part that makes this sort of documentary so much fun. Not that every development is positive - there's no getting around the fact that the interview footage is missing David, who died from lung cancer in 2000 and had moved back to Detroit well before then. But as long as there's something out there, and for all that earlier parts of the movie feature frustration and disappointment, the latter suggests that greatness will eventually make itself known. In the case of Death, it's not the international detective work of Searching for Sugar Man, but a network of record collectors and rock scholars still come into play, and the mechanics of the surviving Hackneys finding out are kind of delightful.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

Koi no tsumi (Guilty of Romance)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 March 2013 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital, international cut)

I'm not quite sure what the rationale is for cutting a half hour out of Guilty of Romance for non-Japanese audiences; Sion Sono's fans have proven quite willing to sit through a long movie over the past few years (Love Exposure was four hours long with no good place to put an intermission) and his movies are singular enough that they're not going to break through to the mainstream. The audience that comes for an erotic thriller or a gruesome murder mystery will get something impressive but also something stranger.

Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka) is the dutiful wife to best-selling author Yukio Kikuchi (Kanji Tsuda), who barely seems to regard her beyond noting that his slippers are turned around when he returns home. Bored, she takes a job at a supermarket, where Eri Doi (Chika Uchida) spots her and says she's model material. That escalates from lingerie shoots quickly, and a dalliance with Karou (Ryuju Kobayashi), a man she meets in the love-hotel distriict, leads her to Mitsuko Ozawa (Makoto Togashi), a university lecturer who moonlights as a prostitute. The question then becomes whose murder Detective Kazuko Yoshida (Miki Mizuno) is investigating, as the body parts the police found are of a woman in her late twenties or thirties, but don't include hands or a head.

Actually, it's not just those parts missing; a nasty autopsy scene confirms that this case has a heck of a sexual component even before we've met the initially-innocent Izumi. As much as those early scenes will certainly make an impression on the audience, the cop-show stuff isn't really that important in terms of having Yoshida solve a mystery or saying anything about crime and how likely it is that one can get away with it. It's a way for Sono to prepare the audience for when things get grotesque later on - he gets a sizable portion of the shock value out of the way early, so that the end of the film doesn't feel like an empty twist but the logical result of the themes he's playing with.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

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