Category: 2002


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Absurdist humor is not easy to pull off. For every Wet Hot American Summer or The Big Lebowski that birth surrealist brilliance, you have a million half-baked comedies that think they can replace jokes with randomness and still derive real humor. What makes those two classic films (well Lebowski is a classic, WHAS is just a really funny cult film) work despite their seeming utter absurdity is that every absurd or “random” moment is actually a brilliantly executed gag. And less absurdist comedies lose sight of the power of gags. They don’t understand that everything in a film has to have some purpose (even if that purpose is to draw attention to its own meaninglessness, read: the entire plot of The Big Lebowski). And, sadly, for its first half, Martin & Orloff doesn’t understand the power of gags and actual humor which is ultimately a disappointment because it climaxes in a manic, nearly brilliant final act.

Although, similarly to Wet Hot American Summer, 2002’s Martin & Orloff features some hilarious minor turns from comedic actors before they became stars in their own right. And, much like Wet Hot American Summer (which was a project of sketch comedy group, The State), Martin & Orloff is the product of another prestigious comedy group, the Upright Citizens’ Brigade which was home at one or time or another to many of today’s most promising comedic writers/performers. But while Wet Hot American Summer suffered from its share of hit-or-miss jokes, it seems like an astonishingly even film in comparison to the much, much, much spottier Martin & Orloff. A lot of comedy is predicated on throwing out as many jokes as possible and hoping that enough stick to score ample laughs, but for nearly the first hour of this indie comedy, the laughs simply never arrive.

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After a failed suicide attempt, Martin Flam (Ian Roberts) seeks solace and advice from his new psychotherapist, Dr. Eric Orloff (Old School‘s Matt Walsh). Martin Flam designs mascot costumes for a marketing company and after a vague incident involving an evil Chinese food company, Martin is struggling both at work and in his personal life and he hopes Dr. Orloff will help him sort things out. Unfortunately for Martin, Dr. Orloff is even crazier than he is, and all of Orloff’s friends and patients are an order of magnitude higher on the crazy train. During Martin’s first session alone, Orloff ends it minutes into the meeting to play in a softball game that he forgot about, and he drags Martin with him where Martin proceeds to get his ass kicked when he’s forced to play umpire. And over the next day or two, Martin’s life spirals even further out of control as Orloff’s unconventional therapy methods seem to cause more harm than good.

I get what they were attempting in this film. Upright Citizens’ Brigade and the State and all of these other sketch comedy groups are born-and-bred on improv theater. And, Martin & Orloff is no exception to this. The whole film feels as if it was the product of improvisation. Even if there actually was a real script (I don’t know for sure), there were many moments where it seemed like Ian Roberts was trying to figure out what his line should be (that may be because he’s not a very good actor of either the dramatic or comedic variety). And that sense of improvisation explains why so much of the film feels tacked-on and without meaning or context. Most of the first half feels like little thought was put into what should happen and the jokes fail on that score. It isn’t until the final 30-40 minutes or so where any of the jokes finally begin to have any bite or actual humor, and some of the bits by the end become almost brilliant.

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When Martin & Orloff works, it nearly reaches a sense of madcap genius. A (astonishingly early) sequence has a strip club where some of the dancers themes are Goya or the Chuck Yeager biopic The Right Stuff. A recurring gag about a minor character’s comically large penis returns as a near deus ex machina in the film’s climax. The evil leader of the Chinese food conglomerate momentarily becomes a villain straight out of a John Woo film at the end. When the jokes are focused and aimed squarely at something, they work. And sadly that isn’t always the case. I can’t heartily recommend Martin & Orloff because the film is a chore and tedious for so long. But, if you’re patient and a fan of Wet Hot American Summer, the end doesn’t necessarily make things worthwhile but it becomes a laugh riot in its own right.

Final Score: C

 

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If there’s ever been a movie made that comes as close to absolute perfection as one can get but errs ever so slightly along the way, it’s Gangs of New York. In many ways, I have always found this film to be Martin Scorsese’s most ambitious and artful enterprise, but it’s Scorsese’s very ambition that leads the film to stray from its path. Along with Woody Allen, Marty Scorsese is arguably one of Hollywood’s most versatile directors. From the modern day cops & robbers thriller The Departed to the bustling children’s fantasy of Hugo to the lush, romantic period drama The Age of Innocence, his skills know no bounds (obvious, we include his now iconic crime epics like Goodfellas). Gangs of New York is Scorsese’s swing at bat for the historical epic, and it’s a home run like the rest of his career. In one of his darkest, most pessimistic works, Scorsese casts a prophetic eye to America’s political splits by looking back at our ethnic schisms, while wrapping it in a Shakespearean tale of revenge and American history.

If Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life became the summation of every theme and trick Malick had used in his films before hand, Gangs of New York fits into the Scorsese canon in the same way, and to be honest, none of his films have reached these heights since. As a man obsessed with the conflict between religious identity and our most base instincts and desires, Scorsese has become the definitive American director to explore religious guilt and the psychic conflict it breeds. He has also crafted tales centered around men and women defined heavily by ethnicity in worlds where that is all many others see. He loves men of great stature but even greater fallibility, and perhaps no American director besides David Simon is so acutely aware of the role that environment and birth play in our fate. And through Gangs of New York, Scorsese makes his grand, cynical statement once and for all on all the themes that have propelled his career.

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Before New York City became the commercial center of the world and Times Square was the most trafficked and wealthy spot on this planet, it was a poor city in the 1800s with rampant crime and plagued by ethnic strife. Though Tammany Hall, led by Boss Tweed (played in the film by Jim Broadbent), seduced the flood of immigrants entering the city as soon as they got off the boat, nativist xenophobic sentiment was not far behind from the strong-arm tactics of members of the Know-Nothing Party who wanted the nation’s docks closed to all foreigners. And, just as the United States is instituting its first draft to man the Civil War, foreign resentment and massive wealth disparities feed the fuel of public discontent, and the slightest disturbance would mean blood on the streets (when the gangs aren’t causing it already). It’s clear that one doesn’t have to make much of a stretch to find parallels from the film to not only the early 2000s that birthed the movie but also the increasingly polemic America we live in now.

The film begins in 1849 with a battle to the death between the Dead Rabbits, an Irish immigrant gang led by Priest Vallon (Michael Collins‘s Liam Neeson), and the Natives, a brutal American-born gang led by Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (The Age of Innocence‘s Daniel Day-Lewis). When Bill defeats the Priest in hand-to-hand combat, the Dead Rabbits are no more, and the Priest’s son, Amsterdam (played as a grown-up by Inception‘s Leonardo DiCaprio), is left an orphan. Amsterdam is sent-off to the Hellgate reform school, and sixteen long years he waits and lets his anger and desire for revenge grow. When he’s finally released from the asylum sixteen years later, Amsterdam returns to the city of his birth seeking nothing less than the death of the man who killed his father. But when Amsterdam returns to New york, Bill “The Butcher” is stronger than ever, and though he is initially trying to simply infiltrate Bill’s organization, Amsterdam quickly finds himself becoming a son figure to Bill who doesn’t realize Amsterdam’s true identity.

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(side note. every part of this review before this sentence was written yesterday. I passed out writing it and I’ve only just now had time to return to it. So, my apologies if my thoughts now seem disconnected)

Much like The Age of Innocence before it, Gangs of New York is everything you could possibly want in a historical epic and it mostly avoids the trappings of the era. While the costumes and period detail are astounding (though it turns out that Scorsese used a hodgepodge of different times and looks to create the feel of the film), the “period” of the film isn’t the point. It’s not a film meant to dryly capture historical facts. History books and documentaries exist to do that. Instead, Scorsese uses the class discontent, racial animosity, and seething anger of the era to turn a mirror back onto the current age. And, in the process, he asks very uncomfortable questions about one of the few wars that everyone (at least in the North) in this country can agree on today, the Civil War. By peering into darker pages of American history and wrapping it in a tragic story of revenge, Scorsese finds universal truths of the American experience. With  a script partially written by Margaret and You Can Count on Me‘s Kenneth Lonergan, the power of the story and characters should be no surprise.

In classic Scorsese fashion though, Gangs of New York is an enthralling film to look at, not just because of the striking period detail but also because of the striking cinematography from Michael Ballhaus. When the film centers around the Five Points (the area of New York City that would later on become Times Square), there is a darkness and messiness to the film’s visual style and production design (though any history buff could tell you there wasn’t nearly enough shit on the streets). And when the film briefly takes a visit to the richer parts of the city, you could be forgiven for believing you’d stepped onto the set of The Age of Innocence, and the movie’s visual style matches the new feel. And lest we forget, the movie has one of the most famous closing montages of all time as the old New York is quickly swept away and we see the ever evolving New York City skyline til it reaches the present.

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Daniel Day-Lewis is probably the greatest film actor that’s ever lived. If you can watch his body of work and not come to that conclusion, we evaluate acting differently. His dedication to his craft is simply peerless. To prepare for the role of Bill “The Butcher,” Lewis listened to old recordings of 19th century NY politician William Jennings Bryan in order to master a New York accent that has ceased to exist. He refused to take modern medicine when he caught pneumonia during principal photography for this film because it hadn’t been invented yet (he eventually caved when it nearly killed him). Yeah, that’s sort of crazy, but it’s that type of commitment to his parts that makes Daniel Day-Lewis such an extraordinary talent and why he’s won three Best Actor Oscars (more than anyone else). I haven’t seen The Pianist yet so I can’t say if Adrien Brody was better, but man, he must have been really good to beat Daniel Day-Lewis for this film.

This was one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s first really mature roles in a post-Titanic world and the beginning of his partnership with Martin Scorsese (which I hope just lasts forever cause the two work magic together), DiCaprio still brought his A-game even if he wasn’t able to meet the heights he would later set in The Departed. But, with Amsterdam, we got to see much of the boiling anger mixed with naked vulnerability that would help to define some of DiCaprio’s best roles. Although, hilariously like The Departed, he does have trouble maintaining his accent over the course of this film (though just like in The Departed, the script does try to hand-wave this away). Cameron Diaz also gives easily her best performance other than Being John Malkovich as the pick-pocket that catches Amsterdam’s eyes but also threatens to be his downfall.

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If the film can be faulted then, it’s that it has so much to say and not nearly enough time to say it all. I think that the film’s climax is one of the best things Scorsese’s ever done in terms of sheer Hellish, apocalyptic destruction, but it becomes so unfocused that on your first viewing (or three), it may not be terribly apparent why everything that is happening is happening and why it’s necessary for Scorsese to show it all. And the only time where the film really feels like it’s starting to lag over it’s nearly three hour running time is immediately following… well, a moment in the film that I don’t want to spoil, but the movie begins to feel a little bit more like  history lesson than the Shakespearean tale it had before. Although those moments do dovetail to give the film it’s messy, tragic finale.

I’ll draw this to a close. I’m re-making the list for this blog (I think I’ve accidentally been deleting movies from my list rather than just the one’s I’ve watched), and as someone who’s done that twice before (I straight up lost my first list. Yes, that was as terrible as it sounds), I can already tell you how long it’s going to take me to remake the list for this blog. But, now, I’ll be keeping it in the Cloud so I don’t really need to worry about losing it. Cause if I lose it again, I’ll probably just say f*** it and quit doing this blog. Anywyas, that’s a time consuming activity, and I want to finish at least one decade every day in terms of repopulating that list. I did the 2010s and 2000s yesterday. Today’s the 90s. My last words on this film then are, if you’ve managed to not see Gangs of New York yet, do so immediately. It just misses perfection, but it many ways it’s the most impactful film Scorsese’s ever made .

Final Score: A

 

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Everybody should go ahead and get used to the fact that I’m going to be talking about Bonnaroo a lot until June (and then I’ll probably be talking about it a lot for the next couple months after it too). Bonnaroo isn’t just a music festival. It’s almost a life-style and once you go, pretty much all you can do is think about how much you can’t wait to be back on the farm (even if you miss things like internet and showers while you’re there). Like I said Tuesday when I lost my shit about Paul McCartney being one of the headliners, there are a ton of really great acts playing this year. One of the bands playing that I’ve never seen before is Wilco. They’re pretty legendary among indie music fans, especially thanks to their seminal alt-country record Yankee Hotel Foxtrot which is about as perfect an album as you can make. I can’t wait to see them live, and I hope they play the lead track off the album, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” Enjoy.

 

So, apparently today’s the ten year anniversary of Turn on the Bright Lights, the breakthrough album of indie rock darlings, Interpol. What the fuck!? When have I started to get this old? Arcade Fire’s classic album Funeral will have its decade anniversary in two years. Before you know it, I’m going to blink and I’ll be an old talking about how great music was in my day. I don’t want to be that man. Anywho, since it’s Turn on the Bright Lights‘ birthday, I figured why not make the premiere track off the album my Song of the Day. So, we’re going with “PDA,” one of the first indie rock songs that I truly fell in love with. Much like LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends,” this is just one of those tunes that seems to capture modern youth in a truer way than any one else. It also doesn’t hurt that Interpol sounds like the 2000s answer to Joy Division either. Joy Division rocked. So, enjoy.

I’m almost a little bit embarrassed by how much I enjoy Canadian rock veterans Our Lady Peace. They’re pretty standard 90s alt rock and some people even classify them as post-grunge (which is the dirtiest word to indie music fans that I can think of next to “bro-step.” Yet, I interviewed the band and saw them in concert in New York City, and I really fucking dig them. Raine Maida’s got a stellar voice and his lyricism is a notch above most major label alt-rock acts. I’ve actually already used one of their songs as my song of the day. I used one of their earlier tunes, “Superman’s Dead,” back at the beginning of the summer. So, I feel even more guilty because today’s song, “Innocent,” is without question their most mainstream sounding and broad appeal track (along with “Somewhere Out There” which got a brief resurgence of fame when an American Idol contestant covered it a couple years ago). But, even the hipster in me can’t give a shit that this is a straight up pop-rock song because “Innocent” is so damn catchy. Raine Maida’s got a great ear for lyrical hooks and this was one of the last songs from their mid-period in their 20 year career where he was still using his very distinct falsetto in a major manner. Anyways, I hope you enjoy. It’s easily one of the best crossover pop-rock tunes from the early 2000s.

 

Yesterday’s Bon Iver post was the end of the Bonnaroo-related Song of the Day posts so I’m back to picking bands just by what I’m feeling at the moment. Obviously, that makes things difficult for me again because for literally the last month (almost to the day), I didn’t have to make any real decisions. I had to pick the song but I didn’t have to pick a band. Hopefully, I can get back into my pre-Bonnaroo flow. Anyways, if you want to check out the still-growing July Song of the Day playlist on Spotify, you can find it here.

I’ve got a serious case of writer’s block today.  I watched Being John Malkovich last night but I went to bed before I finished my review. I haven’t been able to work up the energy all day to try and get back to write on it because there just aren’t any words coming to me right now. They aren’t coming for that or for a bit of copy I’m providing for a friend for a website for his independent film (Follow the Leader). Sometimes, I just write so much in a week that I fry my brain a little bit, and I think I need a good 24 hours to recharge. Still, I have to do my Song of the Day post. Red Hot Chili Peppers were the last band I saw on Saturday at this year’s Bonnaroo. I was going to see GZA play Liquid Swords but he was on at 2:30 in the morning, and my feet were bleeding by the time I made it back to my tent after the Chili Peppers finished at midnight. Subsequently, I also ended up missing D’Angelo make his first U.S. concert appearance in over a decade when he played the Superjam. Anyways, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were fucking awesome. For dudes that are all 50 now (except for new young guitarist Josh Klinghofer), they can still rock like its 1992. Flea is just a god on the bass guitar. The conversation begins and ends there. I named them the fifth best band I saw that weekend for work and they actually managed to put on a more entertaining live show than even Radiohead (though obviously Radiohead is a better band than the Chili Peppers could ever hope to be). I picked “By the Way” because I didn’t really (somehow cause I’m stupid) know the song before Bonnaroo but I’ve definitely fallen in love with it since.

 

Make sure you take the chance to subscribe to the still-growing July Song of the Day playlist on Spotify. You can find it here and subscribers will be able to see my Song of the Day selection several hours before everyone else.

I’m thinking about writing a screenplay. I’ve been wanting to take a break from simply writing about movies and try my hand at actually writing a film. Rather than simply critiquing the form like the armchair critic I am, I should try to create and be productive. However, this isn’t the first time I’ve had an itch to write a screenplay and I actually wrote like 60 pages of a script (about five years ago) for a crime thriller (like I’m fucking Donald Kauffman in Adaptation but more on the movie I’m reviewing later) about a religious cult in a small town that was supposed to be allegorical for the dangerous political and cultural situation we’ve entered with all of the extreme right-wing rhetoric in our nation. To this day, I still think my opening scene for it was pretty awesome but that’s a story for another day. I’d have to take a break from this blog (or at least slow down the rate at which I consume and review movies), but that wouldn’t be the end of the world since I still write professionally these days. What brought this sudden desire out was my viewing last night of the cerebral, brain-bending modern classic, Adaptation., by the wunderkind screenwriter of the 2000s, Charlie Kaufman. I’d love to craft a sort of post-modernist, head trip account of modern millennial disconnect and relationships, so perhaps tonight after True Blood, I’ll take a stab at starting something like that. Until then, let’s look at Charlie Kaufman’s second film (it’s gotta be hard to come up with a follow-up to the universally lauded Being John Malkovich) and how it stood up to the imagined movie I had in my head (I haven’t seen it since around when it came out and for some reason I thought it was much more explicit about its meta-structure. Thankfully it was more subtle [although not especially subtle]).

Adaptation. is heavy on the metatext so some backstory is in order (though by giving the backstory, I’m actually also explaining the plot of the film so yeah, it’s that kind of movie). After the mega-success of Being John Malkovich among film critics and cult movie fans, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nic Cage) was given the unenviable task of adapting the acclaimed novel The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (The Iron Lady‘s Meryl Streep), a novel that is pretty much primarily a historical and biological treatise on orchids as well as an enigmatic and roguish orchid poacher named John Laroche (Lonesome Dove‘s Chris Cooper). Obviously, there’s not a lot of plot there, and Charlie Kaufman struggled intensely to adapt a fairly formless novel to the more structured medium of cinema. It didn’t go well, and so Charlie Kaufman decided to write a movie about his inability to write a movie about The Orchid Thief while simultaneously making it a post-modernist commentary on the creative process and then deliver a final act that tries to jam as much hackneyed and cliched storytelling in to thirty minutes as humanly possible in a completely intentional and awesome manner. He also creates a completely fictional twin brother, Donald Kaufman (also played by Nic Cage), who is a hack screenwriter whose trite film gains more traction than Charlie’s so-called “art” film. Throughout we get a fairly intimate look at Charlie’s own self-loathing, neurosis, and doubt as he weaves himself into his own film.

The script is one of the most insightful satires on Hollywood and the way that movies are made since Sunset Boulevard. Charlie Kaufman is pretty much without question the best scriptwriter of the late 90s/2000s, and Adaptation. could be called Kaufman’s own 8 1/2 (though about writing instead of directing and with self-loathing and neuroses instead of Fellini’s mercurial charm and womanizing). The film takes at least two viewings (the number of times I’ve seen it now though I’d likely notice even more things after more viewings) to catch just how cleverly Kaufman sets all of the pieces in play in the film’s first two acts to create his massive deconstruction of the Hollywood feature in the film’s final act. Throughout the film, Charlie (and occasionally Robert McKee [Brian Cox]) makes a list of things he doesn’t want to do to bastardize his own film and to cheapen the art of Susan Orlean’s original novel. By the film’s end, he does all of them in hilarious, post-modern fashion. Even if Charlie just ultimately realized that Susan’s novel was completely unfilmable (though the sections about are truly engaging and educating) and decided to cop out with his over-the-top cliche-ridden ending, the frame he put all of those cliches in and the never-ending commentary about how stale those literary devices are, more than made up for him giving up on his actual mission to adapt The Orchid Thief.

Nic Cage has a bad rap lately among serious movie types. He’s earned this bad rap by taking one shitty film after another and playing the same type of frenetic, hyperactive rogue again and again like he has for the last decade. However, there was a time when he was one of the most intriguing actors of his generation. His performance in Leaving Las Vegas is one of my top five male performances of all time and his part in Adaptation. was probably his last great role. Instead of pure charm and swagger like he normally exudes, Charlie is Nic Cage as a neurotic and depressed mess. He’s a total loser and there’s so much subtlety and nuance to the role that you’d be shocked it was Nic Cage. Just to contrast how different this is from his usual persona (and possibly an entirely new layer of metatextual subtext to the film), we have Donald Kaufman who is the more traditional Nic Cage role. Say what you will about his career for the last ten years, this was an actor at the heights of his career. Chris Cooper won an Oscar for the film. I’m not sure if I have any comments about whether he should have won. I don’t remember who he was up against that year, but it’s an endlessly intriguing performance. Laroche is a multifaceted character with a bubbling intellect but obvious delusions of grandeur as well as a general misanthropy. Cooper really nails him to the board so it was a well-earned honor (I just checked out the other nominees. I’ve only seen Chicago out of the other performances he beat so I really can’t comment). Meryl Streep was fine but she’s great in everything and this wasn’t an especially astounding Meryl Streep role.

I’m still in the depths of a miserable sinus infection. Every morning when I wake up I feel like tiny creatures have burrowed into my throat and started scratching away at the linings of my esophagus (or whatever part of my throat contains the nerve endings that react to a sore throat. I never took anatomy.). I took a lengthy nap today but I still feel completely wrecked. Therefore, I’ll draw my musings on Adaptation. to a close. If you’ve yet to see this marvelous film, I highly recommend it and I’ve already armed you with the backstory needed to really appreciate just how clever this film truly is in the sort of kaleidoscopic way only Charlie Kaufman can be. However, I would also tell you to watch Being John Malkovich first just so you can get a feel for his style before you dive into this even more “meta” film. Readers should prepare themselves for a Charlie Kaufman heavy week here at my blog. Being John Malkovich is the next film in my instant queue and then the next movie that should be physically coming to my house is Kaufman’s directorial debut (he also wrote the script), Synechdoche, N.Y. which Roger Ebert hailed as the greatest film of the 2000s. I’ve never actually watched the latter so I’m very excited.

Final Score: A

Elfen Lied: Vol. 2

Sweet bloody Jesus on a crucifix. Sorry if that seems like a heretical epithet to begin a post with, but Elfen Lied is one fucked up manga. I just wrapped up the second volume which (if it’s possible) managed to up the gratuitous violence of the first volume in ways I would not have imagined to be doable. I really don’t want to imagine what is going on in Lynn Okamato’s head (the series’ writer and aritst), but this dude obviously had some really dark things going on in his life that he felt the need to work out via manga. Not since Neon Genesis Evangelion have I found an anime/manga series that is just this brutal. While Elfen Lied still isn’t quite as psychological or philosphical as Neon Genesis Evangelion, I can definitely see where the series planted the seeds for future growth. I’ve been reading this volume over the course of the last couple days (I nearly read it all in one sitting again but I forced myself to stop), and it’s a Festivus miracle that it hasn’t caused me nightmares because of the always shocking depictions of violence and disturbing examples of serious cruelty. Elfen Lied is the master of the macabre.

After Lucy temporarily returned and decimated the government Special Assault Team sent to kill her (and horrifically maimed its psychotic leader Bando), she quickly reverted back to her childlike persona of Nyu and returned to the Kaede residence to be cared for by Kohta and his cousin Yuka. After Yuka walks in on Kohta trying to clothe Nyu (because she’s too mentally underdeveloped to do it herself), Yuka moves in with Kohta because she’s A) jealous of the attention he gives Nyu (despite the fact that he has no real interest in her) and B ) because she wants to make sure Kohta doesn’t take advantage of Nyu. Despite being Kohta’s cousin, Yuka feels a romantic attraction to Kohta and becomes jealous whenever she sees anything remotely inappropriate happening between Kohta and Nyu. A 12 year old homeless girl (named Mayu) shows up at the Kaede home. Though she was at the beach when Lucy destroyed the SAT team, she doesn’t recognize Lucy as Nyu. Matters spiral out of control when Nyu slips and hits her head and becomes Lucy again. She slips out of the house but she is quickly located by another Diclonius, another young female named Nana. Nana desperately seeks the affection and approval of apparent Big Bad Kurama who she sees as her father despite him using her for torturous scientific experiments. Lucy rips every single limb off of Nana’s body though. Just when she’s surrounded by SAT forces though, she begins to revert to her Nyu mindset. She manages to escape before the transformation is complete and shows up back at the Kaede residence a mindless simpleton again. (Mayu witnessed this whole ordeal and wound up in the hospital. She called Kohta to help her out because she has no one else. Should be interesting to see if she recognizes Lucy/Nyu now).

The whole incestual subtext between Kohta and Yuka is making me really uncomfortable but I’m pretty sure that was the point. Yuka certainly has feelings for Kohta, but I don’t think he quite seems to feel the same way about her. Also, apparently he is blocking some traumatic memory from his childhood which is causing even more friction between him and Yuka. I’m interested to find out what really happened there. There’s just a lot of teenage sexuality in this manga, and that in general is making me pretty uncomfortable just because Kohta regularly finds himself in these very awkward situations with Nyu who is for all mental purposes a child. There is zero fanservice in this comic so far. It’s just all intended to be as disturbing as humanly possible, and it succeeds. It can be difficult to sit through reading some of these moments just because they are so awkward and painful, and that’s as a reader. They’re meant to be even more disquieting for the characters on screen. Similarly, all of the moments between Nana and Kurama were brutal and heartbreaking. Nana is meant to be a sympathetic figure who is slaughtered (though still alive I think…) by Lucy and who wants nothing more than the love of her distant and uncaring father figure (though he does seem to want revenge for Nana’s assault). It plays at your heartstrings.

It’s weird. I’m just realizing that while I certainly think this is a better and more interesting comic than Bleach, both of my Bleach reviews have been a little bit longer than my Elfen Lied reviews. I think that has something to do with A) the fact that Bleach issues are about five or six pages longer than Elfen Lied and that B ) also, Bleach‘s stories tend to have a little bit more happening plot wise (just because Tite Kubo tries to jam as much action and exposition into his stories as he can). Anyways, I’ll keep this Elfen Lied post short and sweet (if for no other reason than it’s really hard to find manga pictures via Google Search). This comic is seriously messed up, and unless you can handle things that make Quentin Tarantino films look like a Disney picture, you should really stay away from this series. I feel sort of dirty and disturbed just for reading it, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay to find a fiction that is this genuinely unsettling. I can only imagine where it goes from here.

Final Score: B+

Elfen Lied: Vol. 1

Because I don’t want to burn myself out while reading Bleach (and because I left all of my real books/comic books in WV), I’ve decided to switch back and forth between volumes of Bleach and volumes of the notoriously graphically violent and psychologically disturbing Elfen Lied. There are something like 52 volumes of Bleach (it’s been running for over a decade and is still going) and only 12 volumes of Elfen Lied so when I finish the latter, I’ll just have to find something else to distract me as I continue to read Bleach although there’s a halfway decent chance that just by that point, I’ll have given up on Bleach if it ends up being as bad as I’ve heard towards the end (or even towards the part where they end up in the Soul Society). Anyways, last night I began Elfen Lied which I read very, very quickly (if for no other reason than the plot propels itself forward very rapidly), and it without a doubt deserves its reputation as being one of the most (for lack of a better word) fucked up manga on the planet that doesn’t somehow delve into being hentai or ecchi.

At a remote island research base, a scientist named Kurama is explaining to government agent the nature of a new mutant offshoot of humanity known as the Diclonius. Born with two horns extending from their head and telekinetic powers beyond imagination (i.e. they can dismember humans with utter ease), the Diclonius are the greatest threat to humanity in our existence. There is only one (so far) named Lucy, who the government keeps completely locked and chained in a secure holding facility. All the guards know not to come within two meters of her (or to allow any of their belongings to get that close to her) because it will result in their immediate and ghastly death. Guess what happens? After killing the two guards watching her (in gruesome, gruesome fashion), a naked Lucy waltzes out of her holding cell and continues to mow down even more of the armed soldiers in the complex, including a brutal dessication of a young secretary. Just as she’s about to leave the island, one of Kurama’s sniper’s hits her in the face with a .50 sniper round which she somehow manages to survive. However, Lucy is now suffering from amnesia and she washed up on the shore of a beach, still completely naked only to be found by two young cousins, the male Kouta and the female Yuka, who attempt to care for the amnesiac Lucy who can only say “Nyu” (which is what they name her) and has the mental faculties of a very small child. After government operatives (including a true psycho named Bando that Lucy maims when she momentarily regains her memories) try to recapture Lucy, it is quickly apparent to Kouta and Yuka that something is strange about this girl they’ve just found.

I’m not quite sure how to approach this manga critically yet since I’m still so early in the process of reading it. Here are some initial thoughts. There is a ton, ton, ton of violence in this show. Like, just an unbelievable amount of blood and gore. It takes a lot of blood and guts to faze me but there is so much violence here that it can make me slightly sick to my stomach to read it. Yet, somehow that disturbing voyeuristic quality is also one of the reasons I can’t quite put it down. I read the entire volume in one sitting which is certainly high praise (though it felt like the chapters in this manga were short but maybe I was just reading it very quickly. The other big thing to warn potential readers of the series (or viewers of the anime) is that there is also a considerable amount of nudity in this show. Once again, it’s not being done for a hentai like porn effect or to titillate readers. It’s meant to be disturbing/dramatic, and it pretty much always is. If this comic doesn’t get under your skin somehow or if you’re enjoying it without a healthy helping of disgust at the actions you’re seeing, there’s probably something deeply wrong with you.

Here are the basic questions you have to ask yourself before you read this manga. Do you have a weak stomach? If so, go find something else. Are you offended by nudity? lots and lots of nudity. Once again, if so, go somewhere else. Other than that, this has a reputation for being one of the most psychologically daring and morally complex manga ever written so I’m all aboard. I haven’t actually gotten to any parts where the series is deeply philosophical but I’m sure they’re coming because this franchise has developed a considerable cult following over the years. I’m actually looking forward to reading more Bleach though instead of coming right back to these books just because I feel like my brain is definitely going to need regular breaks from the shocking and disturbing violence that appears in Elfen Lied‘s pages regularly.

Final Score: B+

About Schmidt

While it’s too early to say who the next Woody Allen will be when he’s still making movies as fantastic as Midnight in Paris or Vicky Cristina Barcelona, if there’s one American film-maker who has the potential to be the next great dramedy writer-director, then it is the powerhouse Alexander Payne. His 2004 film Sideways remains one of the truly great dark comedies of the aughts if not of all time, and it was easily the best film of that year. I loved Million Dollar Baby, but Sideways was for more original and sincere and the fact that Paul Giamatti didn’t receive an Oscar nomination (he should have won) is a crime. Election was Payne’s breakthrough film and though he hadn’t made a film since Sideways until last year with The Descendents, it is another film of his to be nominated for Best Picture as well as another Best Director nod.  2002’s About Schmidt is another essential film in the Alexander Payne library, and while it may lack the vitality and wit of Sideways, it is a wrenchingly true character study of a man in despair.

Not long after being forced to retire from his dull and unfulfilling career as an insurance actuary, Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) suffers the loss of his wife who had long stopped appreciating or caring for. After a short visit from his daughter Jeanie (Hope Davis) and her slacker fiancee Randal (Dermot Murloney), Warren realizes that he has no one in his life and no one to care for him, and that in his 67 years on this office, he hasn’t accomplished anything worth while. So Warren packs up his belongings in to his massive RV and goes on a journey across the mid-West writing letters to a young African child he’s adopted through the TV and trying to recapture the memories and events of his youth that have long since disappeared into the hazy recesses of memory. As Warren hoofs it across the country, he reminisces on a wife and daughter he didn’t spend enough time with (and his desire to convince his daughter not to marry her fiancee) and comes across a crazy assortment of characters as he bides his time waiting to visit his daughter and her fiancee’s family in Dever for Jeanie’s wedding.

This film lands very hard on the drama side of the dramedy equation but it still has enough uncomfortable and awkward humor to recognizably be an Alexander Payne picture. Still, this film is far more about a deep and complex look at one man who’s grappling with the realities of old age and the point in our lives where maybe it’s become too late to make a difference. It’s not a very happy movie. In fact, it’s even more depressing than Sideways, but when the script (adapted from a book by Louis Begley) is full of this much truth and insight into loss and grief and old age, you can forgive it for offering you almost nothing in the way of hope or light. Much like Happiness (though far, far easier for me to recommend to the average movie-goer), this film doesn’t offer you happy endings or cheap answers. Instead, you get life, real unvarnished life. Warren is a deeply unhappy man (even before the death of his wife) and over the course of this movie, we see why he’s unhappy, how he alienates those around him, and how even realizing his flaws hasn’t made things much better. It’s heavy material but over the course of the film’s two hours, it never once fails to impress.

I’m a huge Jack Nicholson fan, and when I say this was the finest performance of his career, I truly mean it. Rather than the manic, magnetic wild man that is Jack’s niche, Warren is this reserved, depressed and low-key man wandering aimlessly through life. No one is drawn to Warren. Rather, he scares everyone away. Jack Nicholson is playing a character so far outside his comfort zone that I am truly shocked he was offered the part in the first place. Yet the gamble assuredly paid off because Jack showed that there’s more to him than “Here’s Johnny!” or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest craziness. It was a truly transformative role. Alexander Payne’s writing and direction were fantastic as usual, but Jack Nicholson’s five star performance will be what I remember when details of the plot begin to slip away. To take such a sad and pathetic creature and turn him into something worthy of being the centerpiece of a finely scripted movie is as high a testament to Jack Nicholson’s acting as has ever been made. Kathy Bates was a scene stealer as well as Randall’s mother with a feisty wit and hilarious commentary with Warren and her ex-husband/Randall’s father. My only complaint is that I truly wish we hadn’t had to see her naked because that will scar me emotionally for weeks to come.

For fans of Sideways (or any other Alexander Payne film or even Noah Baumbauch perhaps), this is an easy recommendation. Just don’t expect it to actually be a comedy because there are funny moments, but they don’t happen very often. Also, if you need warmth and uplifting messages in  your movies, you should turn away. Particularly, I’m looking at people that enjoyed the overly schmaltzy and cheesy Bucket List because About Schmidt is like the anti-Bucket List. So, this movie won’t be for you if you enjoy kitsch like that. For everyone who likes movies with a little authenticity that aren’t afraid to make you unendingly sad, then About Schmidt is the character study you’ve been looking for and another bit of proof that Alexander Payne is among the elite American filmmakers working today.

Final Score: A-