Friday, January 28, 2011

Review: Gregg Araki's "Kaboom"

Kaboom. 2010. Written and directed by Gregg Araki. Produced by Gregg Araki and Andrea Sperling. Cinematography by Sandra Valde-Hansen. Music by Ulrich SchnaussMark Peters, Vivek Maddala, and Robin Guthrie. Production design by Todd Fjelsted. Costume design by Tracye Gigi Field.

Cast: Thomas Dekker (Smith), Haley Bennett (Stella), Chris Zylka (Thor), Roxane Mesquida (Lorelei), Juno Temple (London), Andy Fischer-Price (Rex), Nicole LaLiberte (Red-Haired Girl), Jason Olive (Hunter), James Duval (The Messiah), Brennan Mejia (Oliver), Kelly Lynch (Nicole).

Kaboom, the latest film by Gregg Araki, is billed as “The Gregg Araki Movie.”  This strongly indicates that Kaboom can be seen as a sort of career summing-up, marrying the anarchic, subversive, go-for-broke sensibility of early films such as The Living End and Totally F***ed Up with the more sophisticated filmmaking techniques of Mysterious Skin and Smiley Face.  Araki’s last film Smiley Face was a pot-fueled comedy, and Kaboom unfolds as a kind of stoner’s conspiracy-theory fantasy. 

Kaboom opens with a mysterious recurring dream of the protagonist, Smith (Thomas Dekker), a college student who, by his own description is “18 and perpetually horny.”  Although he is attracted to men, he refuses to identify himself as gay, being far more fluid in his sexual identity, having had sex with women as well, including his best friend and classmate Stella (Haley Bennett).  Smith is driven to distraction by his blonde, lunkheaded surfer roommate (Chris Zylka), named Thor (“like the comic”), whom Smith suspects may have homosexual tendencies.  “He’s too into his body,” Smith tells Stella; more suspiciously, Thor has a closet full of color-coordinated flip-flops.  Stella, meanwhile, pursues an ill-fated relationship with Lorelei (Roxane Mesquida), who turns out to be a witch with supernatural powers.  This is far from the only strange thing that happens.  Smith begins getting cryptic notes shoved under his door, such as “You Are The Chosen Son.”  But the craziness truly begins at a party during which Smith eats hallucinogen-laced cookies, hooks up with London (Juno Temple), a wild, free-spirited woman, and meets a red-haired woman (Nicole LaLiberte) he first encountered in his dream.  After the party, Smith is involved in a bizarre incident in which he and the red-haired woman are chased an attacked by men wearing animal masks.  Throughout most of the film, it is unclear whether these episodes are real, or a figment of Smith’s hyperactive, over-sexed imagination.  The story threads eventually come together to form a vast, global conspiracy that is hilariously explained breathlessly by one of the characters late in the film, in which everything we have seen before is revealed to be not what they appear.  This late-film explanation is reminiscent of the latter minutes of a typical Scooby-Doo episode, as villains become unmasked.

Kaboom rides at a brisk pace, continually topping itself with outrageous, hilarious, WTF moments.  Araki’s digital palette is full of lights and bright colors, appropriate to the phantasmagoric, psychedelic nature of the proceedings.  Kaboom is far more fun and far less tedious than Gaspar Noe’s wildly overpraised Enter the Void, another film that attempts to convey the experience of being under the influence of hallucinogenic substances.  Kaboom is also steeped in a polysexual eroticism that challenges the orthodoxies of identifying exclusively with heterosexuality or homosexuality.  This free-wheeling fluidity extends to Kaboom’s narrative, which expands outward from its college campus to implicate the entire world, the last shot illustrating the film’s title.

Kaboom opens today in New York at IFC Center.  Gregg Araki and Thomas Dekker will appear in person Friday and Saturday at the 8:10 and 10:10 shows.  Click here for ticket info. 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

"Run, Salaryman, Run!": A Sabu Retrospective at Japan Society

The director, writer and actor Hiroyuki Tanaka, under his nom de cinema Sabu, has created a unique cinematic universe consisting of such types as salarymen, yakuza, punk rockers, samurai ghosts, and other assorted characters who collide in incredibly kinetic and fatalistic plotlines and situations.  Sabu makes great use of these familiar types, often turning them on their heads (his yakuza are often bumbling and inept fools), injecting some freshness in these often stale archetypes.  While not without their flaws, especially in the latter acts where he can’t quite sustain the pace and invention of their earlier sections, Sabu’s films are stylistically riveting, with plenty of inspired and hilarious passages, and they’d never be mistaken for anyone else’s.  Five of Sabu’s ten features will be screened at a retrospective entitled “Run, Salaryman, Run!” screening at Japan Society from January 26 through February 5.  Sabu will appear in person for three of the screenings (Non-Stop, Postman Blues, and Monday), and this series is an ideal introduction to a filmmaker whose work is very rarely screened in the US.

Sabu’s 1996 debut feature Non-Stop aka Dangan Runner (January 29, 7:30pm, Sabu intro/Q&A), as the title of Japan Society’s retrospective indicates, anticipated Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run, which appeared two years later.  Its looping narrative structure, a Chinese box of nested flashbacks and fantasy sequences, also drew many comparisons to Quentin Tarantino’s films.  Perhaps this is the reason that Non-Stop, to the best of my knowledge, is the only one of Sabu’s features to be theatrically distributed in the US.  Non-Stop is essentially a feature-length chase scene, consisting of three runners pursuing one another, all losers in their own way.  Yasuda, a recently fired restaurant worker (Tomorowo Taguchi, best known for the Tetsuo films), attempts to follow through on his ex-girlfriend’s dismissive edict to “be a man” by robbing a bank, but is foiled by his failure to bring a mask to conceal his identity.  He is caught trying to shoplift a gauze mask at a minimart by Aizawa, a junkie wannabe rock star (Diamond Yukai) working there as a clerk, who chases Yasuda out of the store after taking away his gun.  Aizawa is chased in turn by Takeda (Shinichi Tsutsumi), who is owed money by Aizawa for the drugs he bought from him.  As they run, the frequent flashbacks detail their connections to one another, and their respective failures in life that has led to this absurd, nearly endless chase.  One of the most inspired passages consists of a sex fantasy among all three of them inspired by an attractive woman they pass by as they are running, which ends with a yakuza boss puffing on a cigar.  Sabu’s stylistics are already fully in place, his scenario challenging itself to top what comes before in outrageousness and audacity, and while it doesn’t always succeed in doing so, the breezy pace makes it always fun to watch.  The Tarantino comparison is also pertinent in the casualness with which it treats events which in other contexts would be tragic, for example a woman’s accidental shooting death during the chase.

Sabu’s next feature Postman Blues (1997) (January 28, 7:30pm, Sabu intro/Q&A) centers on Sawaki (Shinichi Tsutsumi), a postal carrier regarded by most as a faceless vessel for people’s mail, whose simple act of visiting his old school buddy Noguchi (Keisuke Horibe), now a yakuza drug runner, gets him unknowingly embroiled (in now established fatalistic Sabu fashion) in a pursuit by the police.  A comic riff on a Hitchcockian Wrong Man scenario, the police wildly misread what they see during their surveillance, and such clues as the drug package Noguchi smuggles in Sawaki’s mail bag and his severed pinky that mistakenly falls inside, to buildup this worker drone into a fearsome criminal.  Sawaki does indeed transgress the rules, though not in the violent ways the police imagine.  He steals money from one of the envelopes to buy beer, and opens and reads people’s mail.  This leads him to two fateful encounters: with Sayoko (Keiko Toyama), a beautiful and terminally ill woman, and another terminal patient, Hitman Joe (Ren Osugi).  Postman Blues is less breezy and spare than its predecessor, and he slows down the action somewhat to allow Sawaki and Sayoko’s romance to blossom, and to allow for such episodes as the hitman audition sequence.  Postman Blues is full of film references, ranging from a photographic nod to Japanese yakuza-film icon Ken Takakura to a woman who models herself on Brigitte Lin’s trench coat-clad blonde in Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express.  While Sabu does flesh out the characters much more than in his debut film, this does result in a somewhat overlong film and a less sound narrative structure.  Still, Postman Blues does show a remarkable progression in just two features.

Sabu’s fourth feature Monday (January 26, 7:30pm, Sabu intro/Q&A) is the Sabu style refined to near-perfection, detailing the outrageous and outlandish lost weekend of salaryman Takagi (Shinichi Tsutsumi), who wakes up in a hotel room and struggles to piece together how he ended up there.  As he finds such clues as funeral purification salt and a hostess club matchbox, he begins to recall a hilariously convoluted series of events that begins with an exploding body at a funeral, and includes a dead yakuza boss and more dead bodies.  Monday is Sabu’s most fully sustained work that increases in audacity and hilarity without sacrificing its sense of internal logic, and contains perhaps the best sequence of Sabu’s oeuvre, Takagi’s impromptu dance scene in a club with a yakuza’s girlfriend.  Sabu’s most frequent star, Shinichi Tsutsumi, turns in one of his best performances here, brilliantly conveying his confusion and gradual enlightenment in the increasingly perilous predicament he has gotten himself into.

Drive (2002) (February 2, 7:30pm) finds Sabu taking a step back artistically, reverting to his earlier chase antics, with the requisite bank robbers and other colorful characters.  Shinichi Tsutsumi, one again, plays a salaryman, this time named Asakura, who suffers from painful stress-induced migraines.  He is performing his normal afternoon ritual of watching a woman he admires (Kou Shibasaki), a bank teller who goes out for lunch each day at 1pm precisely.  As Asakura watches from the curb, three bank robbers leaving the bank commandeer his car in pursuit of a fourth who double-crossed them and took off with their hard-stolen cash.  Asakura foils their pursuit by stubbornly following all the traffic rules, driving them (literally) to distraction.  Meanwhile, the fourth bank robber unluckily gets stranded by getting his arm stuck in a hole going after his car keys.  Sabu, as usual, increases the outrageousness of the journey, including a punk-rock band, samurai ghosts and soldier ghosts.  The bank robbers are also given unusual character touches; one of them turns out to be a Buddhist philosopher and proselytizer.  There is much kinetic movement but not much resonance in Drive, resulting in a film which evaporates almost as soon as it is over.  There is a bit of strain and exhaustion evident, with its “Can I top this” scenario stretched nearly to breaking.

My personal favorite of Sabu’s films, The Blessing Bell (2002) (February 4, 7:30pm) is, on its surface, the most atypical: the pace is slowed way, way down, and the film follows the journey of Igarashi (Susumu Terajima), a factory worker who comes to work one day to find that his plant has been shut down.  In the single day of the film’s time frame, Igarashi wanders without speaking to anyone, and encounters a number of characters: a dying yakuza, a jailed murderer, a single mother, a suicidal salaryman, an elderly man (director Seijun Suzuki), who turns out to be a ghost.  There is as much humor and strange incident as in any of Sabu’s other films, but he eliminates the chases and outsized antics of the previous features.  What remains is mesmerizing, compelling, and rather beautiful.  Susumu Terajima, a frequent Sabu actor, who usually plays memorable supporting roles, emerges as a contemplative and riveting lead character, his wordless performance contributing to a newfound lyricism that was submerged in Sabu’s other features but comes fully to the fore here.

Along with these five features, Japan Society's Sabu retrospective will conclude with the international premiere of his latest work, the made-for-TV Troubleman, screening on February 5 at 5pm.  For more information on these films, and to purchase tickets, visit Japan Society’s website.