Portlandia [Season Three]

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Created by and starring Fred Armisen (of Saturday Night Live fame) and Carrie Brownstein (the guitarist for alt-rock band Sleater-Kinney), the third season  of Portlandia continues to take us on a satirical trip through Portland, Oregon and the alternative subcultures which it is home to. With 10 episodes (plus the winter special) spread over two discs, Brownstein and Armisen use the sketch comedy narrative format to simultaneously poke fun at and homage the left-of-field characters which can be found in their hometown, in turn offering sharp-witted satire on the politics and trends which are so much a part of these cultures. This is all filtered through a whimsical off-beat, oddball humour which hones in on everything from vegan restaurants (fart patio included) to feminist bookshops.

Season 3 features such storylines as a vegetarian couple who have to swear off pasta creating carb withdrawls, the Feminist Bookstore holding a comedy night, the Gutterpunks finding a missing cat and the the entire city of Portland having his its power cut, among other things. The episodes also feature a bunch cameos with everyone from Kurt Loder to Jack White, the former of which is involved in a notable storyline where he and a few other characters storm the MTV headquarters in order to take MTV back to what it was in the ’90s, which is sure to pull a few laughs and create some nostalgia for the grown-up Generation X-ers who the show is no doubt aimed at.

All this continual poking-fun-at the absurdities and peculiarities of hipster/liberal culture means the humour can be somewhat limited in its scope, especially for viewers who are not aware of or involved in the cultural scenes which the show draws upon for so much of its humour. Some of these in-jokes may be lost upon a few viewers then, however I suspect the creators never really intended to have a mass-appeal with the show and if anything it’s quite refreshing to see a comedy which narrows down it’s focus to a particular type of society rather than a lot of pandering to the lowest common denominator which too much mainstream humour goes for these days.

This DVD package also comes with bonus features such as deleted scenes and a tour of Portland with Kumail Nanijani which may appeal to the more fervent fans of Portlandia. Now expecting its run for a fifth season, Portlandia: Season Three is a must for anyone who considers themselves a fan of the show but also works for those who aren’t familiar with it, checking it out for the first time.

Portlandia [Season Three] is available on R1 DVD and Blu-Ray from VSC / MVD Visual.

Headshot

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The past decade has seen a progressive rise in Thai cinema. From the martial arts films headlined by Tony Jaa to horror movies like Shutter and plot-driven thrillers like 13: Game of Death genre work has transcended often limited resources with sheer talent and enthusiasm. If there has been an Achilles’ Heel, it tends to be a lack of maturity in the scriptwriting department, perhaps indicative of a burgeoning industry yet to be fully established.

Action thriller Headshot demonstrates this perfectly. It has a script grappling with cliche and deeper meaning, caught between trying to offer layers but at the cost of set-pieces.

The basic concept is a hoary one. Tul (Nopporn Chaiyanam) is a reluctant hitman wanting to quit the business. It is a storyline that has played out dozens of times before, but Headshot, to its credit, does try to shake the formula up a little. Continue reading

Porn Shoot Massacre

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“Seven unlucky adult film stars are about to switch genres: from porn to gore. Will any of them make it out alive?”

Come on who can resist a tag like that? This movie is much better than it has any right to be, I mean really it is. Of course it has the usual problems associated with low budget film making, not the greatest actors nor the big dollar fx but this throwback to the masked psycho/low budget slashers of the 80s does have some style and utilizes the sets beautifully to create a claustrophobic, sleazy, creepy feel that carries the film past its faults.

The storyline is pretty simple – there’s a new porn director in town, Donald Malfini, and he’s offering outlandish amounts of money to the girls to make films with him. None of them question the cheap, nasty warehouse he’s using for the film though, nor do they say much about his fake beard and none of them notice the peeping tom or the discreet security cameras filming their every move.

The title gives it away so it is no surprise to find out that Malfini is making a “specialist film” shall we say, as we witness the girls being picked off one by one by a masked killer known simply as Brute. Continue reading

Suicide Club

SuicideClubDVDA subway station loaded with people await the arrival of the express train to Tokyo. As the announcement of its approach is made over the loudspeaker, 54 schoolgirls move to the edge of the platform in one long line. They hold hands, count to three, then all leap in front of the oncoming train, showering the entire station in a massive spray of blood. As opening scenes go, it is hard to top.

So begins Shion Sono’s Suicide Club.

More suicide follow, apparently completely unrelated to each other. The police, led by Detective Toshiharu Kuroda (Ryo Ishibashi from The Grudge and Audition) move to investigate and make a grisly discovery – two rolls of human skin, stitched together in ten centimetre strips from around 200 people. Combined with a mysterious web site that counts the suicides before they occur, it becomes quickly apparent there is some kind of force behind the suicides…

Suicide Club is a difficult film to categorise. Part mystery thriller, part horror movie, part social commentary, it shifts tone a number of times and even protagonists. Despite this somewhat disjointed feel, the core mystery – why are people killing themselves? – gives the narrative momentum. Add to this some often surreal imagery and ambition that far outstrips its modest production budget and it is clear why this is often regarded as something of a cult classic.

The facets of the mystery – including the possible involvement of pre-teen J-pop band “Dessert” (alternatively called “Desert” and “Dessart” in the subtitles) – are diverse enough to maintain interest as red herrings and bizarre occurrences litter the story. This is engaging, energetic stuff.

If there is a flaw in the film, it is that the final stages are somewhat confused, to the point that the central “live for yourself, not for the approval of others” message of the story risks being muddled. But the scathing view of the way modern culture jumps on trends, no matter how foolish or even destructive they are, remains acidic throughout.

With such rich subject matter, it is a bit of a shame that this DVD is a bare bones release. A commentary or even interviews to discuss some of the issues raised would have been extremely welcome. The transfer is also quite grainy, but certainly adequate enough.

An effective blend of entertainment and a blacker-than-pitch sense of humour with some worthy intellectual musings, Suicide Club is an excellent film and deserving of more than its avid cult following. Are you connected to yourself?

Available from Madman Entertainment.

Festen

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Some films are impossible to review without some discussion around their method of production. One such example of this is Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (AKA The Celebration). Critically acclaimed and hugely successful on release (including securing the Grand Jury Prize at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival), the major talking point around the film remains the fact that it was the flagship release under the DOGME 95 banner.

The brainchild of Vinterberg and fellow Dane Lars von Trier, the DOGME 95 manifesto was a set of rules known as the VOW OF CHASTITY (always in upper case!) that aim to reduce dependence on what the pair viewed as unnecesary filming techniques. The feeling was that modern filmmaking had placed emphasis on technical audiovisual aspects rather than on actors and drama. The prescriptive rules enforced everything from no special lighting to exclusive use of handheld cameras to allowing only sound recorded at the moment of filming. Continue reading

Mother

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Do-joon (Bin Won) has a widowed mother (Hye-ja Kim) who is utterly devoted to him. He may be simple, but he’s all she has and she works hard to support them both. Doting and protective, she only wants the best for him.

Then, one night, a local schoolgirl is found brutally murdered and the evidence found at the scene points to Do-joon, who has no memory of the night. Naive and easily confused, he is quickly taken into custody and ends up confessing to the killing.

But his mother is not so easily convinced and begins a one-woman campaign to find the truth about the murder and clear her son’s name…no matter what it takes. Continue reading

Once Upon a Time in Norway

Once_Upon_a_Time_in_NorwayOnce Upon a Time in Norway: The history of Mayhem and the rise of Norwegian Black Metal is a documentary about the early Black Metal movement in Norway. The film is a collaboration by the following directors: Martin Ledang, Pål Aasdal, Olav Martinius Ilje Lien & Oddbjørn Hofseth. After playing at the Bergen film festival the first edition of the DVD sold out within two weeks – which is encouraging as the film offers “Black Metal fans” something new considering the subject has been hammered to death and cashed in on by photographers, writers, filmmakers….

The documentary is broken up into segments titled: Mayhem, Satan & Politics,Underground, Dead, Euronymous, Helvete etc and features interviews with Manheim (ex-Mayhem), Nocturno Culto (Darkthrone), priest Rolf Rasmussen, Tchort (Carpathian Forest), Anders Odden (Cadaver) and more. They discuss subjects from the infamous murders, church burnings, and the underground scene and what became of it.

What separates this documentary from others is the fact that there is no ulterior motive to glamorize or demonize Black Metal. Once Upon a Time in Norway uncovers the true story as told by the people who were directly involved in the early scene and presents their uncensored and historical opinions, perspectives and anecdotes.

The most interesting and insightful interviewee is Kjetil Manheim (ex Mayhem drummer), he recalls stories in an objective and distanced manner. His interpretations of events are not hazed by image and stature – he simply tells things like they were. I really appreciated being able to hear a side of the story that we’ve never heard or really had access to before. Anyone who has read Lords of Chaos or understands the basic concepts of the roles of the media knows that the media and that book were/are extremely biased and sensationalized and twisted the whole Black Metal ethos into a sideshow of extremist acts and reduced Black Metal to a petty power struggle amongst boys. Through Kjetil’s account it is 100% clear that the actions of a handful of people imposed this whole ideology onto something that was originally about grimness and music. I believe that there is no universal message or standard in Black Metal, and so what Black Metal is to me is not what it means to the hundreds of wrist cutting, long haired, male Dimmu Borgir fans. If they think its about burning churches, killing fags, sacrificing animals and shitting on tombstones then more power to them.

Once Upon a Time in Norway pro-actively moves beyond the heinous exploitation of the music, a nation and the acts of a few self obsessed kids and provides a fair and balanced outlet for the history to be told by those who matter. With two more “Black Metal movies” on the horizon, I doubt either of them will be as informative and as interesting as Once Upon a Time in Norway.

Once Upon a Time in Norway provides a fresh angle on a tired subject. There really is no need to own any other film on the matter, but of course there will be many more exploitative fares, hell probably even a Broadway play at some point. I hope that Once Upon a Time in Norway will set a standard among film makers to stop exploiting the notorious aspects of Norwegian Black Metal. Next to Once Upon a Time in Norway and Nocturno Culto’s The Misanthrope you really don’t need much more. Keep your money and buy some albums for they are what really matters.

The extra features in this set include four extended interviews each with a runtime of about 20 minutes. A 12 page booklet with an article by Roy Kristensen also accompanies this set. Since the first batch sold out incredibly fast I would be making this release a priority purchase.

Extras:
  • Extended Interviews:
  • Ted “Nocturno Culto” Skjellum from Darkthrone
  • Priest Rolf Rasmussen
  • Producer Erik “Pytten” Hundvin
  • Terje Vik “Tchort”Schei ex Emperor
  • 12 page booklet

Once Upon a Time in Norway is available on Region 2 DVD from Another World.

Hellphone

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“Horror-comedy” is a genre that I have spent most of my adult life avoiding, in terms of entertainment value I put those combined terms in the same category as “cheese-grater” and “testicles”. But I must say that Euro director James Huth straddles both genres with aplomb and style.

The titular phone is just that, a phone spawned from the bowels of hell…and if you’ve ever had connectivity problems and an exorbitant phone bill you might be able to relate.

Sid comes into possession of the phone one day after visiting a mysterious Chinese bazaar; the phone is a sleek red number, complete with devil’s horns and a mind of its own. Continue reading

Himizu

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Based on the Manga by Minoru Furuya but altered slightly to include recent events, Himizu tells the tale of two disturbed 14-year-olds trying to find hope in a devastated post-quake Japan.

Opening with documentary-style handycam footage of the disaster sites, we are immediately given a taste of the bitter flavour that will permeate the rest of the film. Then enters Sumida, a coldly nihilistic teen whose goal in life is to be nothing more than ordinary; living in a ramshackle hut with some older homeless folks, he assumes he’ll one day take over his father’s business renting boats. Then his mother abandons him and his father racks up a rather large debt to the Yakuza then goes on the lam leaving Yuichi to deal with it. Though he does occasionally return to mock and belittle his son, urging him to commit suicide. To add to these hardships he has a very intense and obsessed girl named Keiko following him around.

Keiko’s home life is hardly any better. Her parents are in the process of building a gallows in their living room for her to end her life on. She attaches herself to Sumida and, despite being constantly physically and verbally abused by him, slowly earns his trust and friendship. Together they seem to find some kind of solace while violence rages around them.

There’s also a sub-plot concerning one of Sumida’s elderly friends befriending a pickpocket in an attempt to learn his skills and pay off the debt which involves the burglary and murder of a violent (Japanese) Neo-Nazi youth, complete with SS bolts shaved into his hair and Swastika flag prominently displayed.

Though very different than previous works such as Cold Fish or Love Exposure – in fact I’d say it has more in common with something like Wakamatsu’s Go, Go Second Time Virgin than these titles – Himizu still retains Sono’s unmistakable thumbprint. It’s an incredibly powerful film with a palpable undercurrent of emotional instability running throughout. And whether it’s Keiko’s uncomfortably hyper state or Sumida’s homicidal outbursts, the looping Mozart piece that serves as the score only works to heighten things.

With the constant references to the country’s state, nuclear power and mass stabbing epidemics, Himizu is perhaps Sono’s message of hope to Japan in the wake of disaster: in spite of all odds the teens manage to “never give up!”.

There’s a 72 minute Making Of and a selection of deleted scenes as extras. Clearly the Making Of is the stand-out extra here both in terms of quality and quantity and it’s not just focused on making the film, there’s interviews with actors and producers which helps it from becoming too stale.

DIRECTOR(S): Sion Sono | COUNTRY: Japan | YEAR 2011 | DISTRIBUTOR(S): Madman | RUNNING TIME: 129 minutes | ASPECT RATIO: 1.85:1 Widescreen | REGION: 4 / PAL | DISCS: 1