Happy 100th, Kurosawa-san

Tonight’s quickie movie news notes have been called off in commemoration of the fact that this is Akira Kurosawa‘s 100th birthday.

What follows, then, is a fairly random assortment of trailers and scenes from key films, some personal favorites, and a couple of lesser known films by the Emperor. If you’re not familiar with the great Japanese director, one of the movies’ strongest storytellers and masters of imagery who was also the first Asian director to become widely known in the west, you might start with that Wikipedia entry I linked to above. Or, simply take a look at what follows. Pay just a little attention and I think you may be intrigued.

We’ll start with the worldwide art-house hit that made first made Mr. Kurosawa’s name outside of Japan way back in 1950.

Several more videos after the jump.

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With 4 days ’til Christmas, a publicist sent to me…

Stalking Santa.

What’s that strange taste in my mouth? By God, I think it’s the taste of a clean palate!

After two days of less than stellar Christmas flicks (and, boy, is that an understatement), I’ve stumbled upon a new film which – dare I say it? – has the potential to become a cult classic…and, for once, it’s not because it’s so awful that its sheer badness has earned it kitsch value, a la “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.”

Stalking Santa” is a mockumentary about Dr. Lloyd Darrow (Simon Taylor), a man who’s on an obsessive quest to confirm or deny the existence of Santa Claus, even if it involves risking a Christmas morning devoid of presents. In a twist which will amuse fans of the classic ’70s series, “In Search Of,” the narration is done by the inestimable William Shatner, who provides details about Darrow’s investigations, as well as other self-proclaimed “Santologists,” with absolutely no hint that it’s all completely fictional. Shatner’s deadly-serious delivery turns the most ridiculous claims into hilarity, such as his discussion of a wax cylinder that captured a voice during a seance which, when played backwards, reveals the words, “Ho, ho, ho, merry Christmas,” or the shot of an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic which bears a striking resemblance to Kris Kringle himself. (Politically correct or not, I laughed out loud when they showed artwork of a chubby Asian fellow sitting in a lotus position and gave it the identifier of “Buddah Craus.”)

Lloyd reportedly has many supporters in his quest, but the truth is, it’s really just him and his college intern, Clarence (Daryn Tufts), who, uh, probably isn’t getting actual college credit for his work. Lloyd’s the president and CEO of an organization known as Tangible Evidence, Real Discoveries…and don’t think he doesn’t get shit for that acronym. He’s a family man, and his kids are a little uncertain about his quest, which you’d expect, since it might mean they don’t get any presents. In particular, his son is sick of his schoolmates’ tauntings, but his lovely and pregnant wife Kylie (Sierra Squires) is behind him, even though there’s no humor in her laugh when she comments that “Santology” isn’t exactly something you get paid for. (The line is followed by a shot of her working in a fast food restaurant as the family breadwinner.)

Yes, it’s easy to dismiss the entire concept of the film with a wave of the hand and a quick uttering of “there IS no Santa Claus, the end,” but only a Scrooge would do that. (Right, David?) But, seriously, this is a really funny concept that’s taken to hilarious heights and looks professional enough that, at least in appearance, it could fit onto TLC or The Discovery Channel without a second thought, especially the faux archival footage which suggests a government conspiracy to keep the existence of Santa under wraps so as not to disturb the world economy. Yeah, it descends too far into total ridiculousness on occasion (the idea that the Sphinx originally had antlers like a reindeer fell completely flat), but what keeps it working is the fact that virtually everyone believes Lloyd’s a complete nutjob…because, of course, everyone knows there’s no Santa Claus…right?

Right?

RIGHT?!?!?

(P.S. Santa, I totally know you’re real, so I’m sure you’ve chalked this up to creative license and have in no way removed that copy of the 5-disc “Blade Runner” set from your sleigh.)

  

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Doc of the Day: “Fired!”

As a DVD, “Fired!” may be one of the funniest viewing experiences of the year. As an actual movie, however, it isn’t nearly as successful…but, wait, I’m getting ahead of myself a bit.

The story behind “Fired!” began when actress Annabelle Gurwitch was…you guessed it…fired. Fired by Woody Allen, to be precise, when he was in the process of prepping the cast for a play he was putting together and declared that Gurwitch looked “retarded” when she followed a particular stage direction. Having already told tons of her friends and family members that she was going to working with Allen, Gurwitch was decidedly wounded by this act, but instead of wallowing in her depression, she ended up in conversation with various folks who sympathetically shared their own stories of being fired. She soon realized that, as a performer, there was something that could be done with this material, and, voila, the “Fired!” stage show was born, where various performers would get up on stage and read the tales of various people’s experiences.

This documentary sprang forth from that show, but, unfortunately, it’s lost something in the translation. This is mostly because the flick trumpets appearances from Tim Allen, David Cross, Andy Dick, Jeff Garlin, Bob Odenkirk, Jeffrey Ross, Harry Shearer, Sarah Silverman, Ben Stein, Fred Willard, Illeana Douglas, and Anne Meara, then ends up feeling like it’s far more about Gurwitch herself. And, of course, it is about Gurwitch. Unfortunately, most of the other contributors just have funnier stories, which means we spent as much time waiting for them to come back as we do appreciating Gurwitch’s own humorous experiences as she struggles to find her way back from the abyss. Also, directors Chris Bradley and Kyle La Brache make the decision to chop up several of the stories being told at a performance of the stage show and come back to them periodically throughout the film for more of each story, which proves reeeeeeeally annoying.

So if I’ve got these complaints, why am I calling “Fired!” one of the funniest DVDs of 2007?

Well, like I said, the stories from the various contributors are pretty damned funny. Jeff Garlin talks about losing a stand-up gig because he couldn’t compete with the magician who opened for him, Fred Willard sits in a hot tub (with Harry Shearer loitering just outside the waterline) and recalls how he was dropped from a sitcom because he was honest and admitted that he wasn’t the guy who played Herb Tarlek on “WKRP in Cincinnati,” and Illeana Douglas concedes that she was once fired from a job as a coat check girl despite her years of experience in placing coats on hangers and then taking them off again. Andy Dick revisits the world of fast food and finds that he still can’t hack the pace, while Bob Odenkirk provides Gurwitch with a great it’s-not-you-it’s-us speech to show how you can be let down easy in situations like that.

Better still, however, are the outtakes from the film. David Cross talks about getting fired from a hardware store, numerous telemarketing jobs, and the Paul Simon Presidential campaign, but the best bit comes when he discusses how he was let go from a mail-room job in a law firm by a guy who was the perfect combination of Mr. Smithers and Mr. Burns. (“He said, ‘Just get out,’ and I said, ‘But I haven’t had a chance to take a dump in your desk yet!’ And, then, that was it; I knew I had no chance of coming back. ‘Oh, c’mon, guy, lighten up! That was a joke! Seriously, can I just work through the summer?'”) Paul Feig, co-creator of “Freaks and Geeks,” tells an awesome story about his experiences as a teenage Ronald McDonald, comedienne Hillary Carlip tells a dy-no-mite story about getting dumped from her gig as Jimmie “J.J.” Walker’s juggling instructor, Dana Gould talks about being let go from the Fred Savage sitcom, “Working,” Harry Shearer explains how he got fired from several radio stations, once for playing a Mel Torme record on an all-rock station (calling the experience “the sincerest form of ‘don’t do that again'”), and…oh, hell, pretty much every single story in the outtake section is hilarious.

Great concept, less than perfect execution, but given that your sides will hurt by the time you’re finished with the DVD, I guess the best description of “Fired!” is to call it an eventual success.

  

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Doc of the Day: “Brown is the New Green: George Lopez and the American Dream”

Y’know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an entire episode of “The George Lopez Show,” but after having watched this documentary, I think I’m gonna have to check it out; I don’t have any idea whether it’ll actually be funny or not, but just listening to the guy’s comments in “Brown is the New Green: George Lopez and the American Dream” makes me predisposed to liking him. (Mind you, I was already pretty much in that camp after I heard that he’d gotten into a physical altercation with Carlos Mencia over Mencia purportedly stealing some of his material, but, still, this really sealed the deal for me.)

“Brown is the New Green” focuses on Latinos as they’re perceived on the small screen, and while it probably won’t come as any surprise that they haven’t always had the best representatives on the American airwaves – for awhile, their big three were Jose Jiminez, Speedy Gonzales, and The Frito Bandito – it’s heartening to realize that they’re finally getting their due. Now, if you’re one of those folks who gets pissed off every time they reach a voicemail menu that says, “For English, press 1,” I’m sure you’re already seething mad at the mere thought of what this documentary discusses; in fact, some of you may have stopped reading altogether while you work out a diatribe for the comments section about how giving Latinos airtime to trumpet their culture is akin to setting Old Glory afire and watching her burn.

Well, hang onto your hat, muchacho, because you may be surprised to find that a lot of Latinos aren’t so remarkably different from John Smith, Average American.

For instance, when George Lopez was casting his TV show, many actors came in to audition and, when doing so, they’d put on a heavy Spanish accent. “George would say, ‘Brother, cool down, you don’t need to do that,'” said producer Bruce Helford, “and they’d say, ‘Oh, cool, thank you,’ and then they’d do it in perfect English, with no accent at all!” Lopez himself reveals that, while building the sets for his series, the network complained that the kitchen didn’t look like a Mexican kitchen. “They said, ‘There’s nothing here that indicates that a Mexican family lives here. There’s not a tortilla maker.’ I said, ‘My tortilla maker was my grandmother!'”

For the most part, the so-called “Latino audience” is something which, more often than not, the entertainment industry views as an advertising demographic rather than a group of individuals who are looking for their own brand of entertainment. There’s an ongoing battle between trying to portray real Latino life versus what producers think middle America can handle; one guy mentions how, from his experience, the average Latino family doesn’t always have a father present, but TV can’t hang with the idea of a fatherless family scenario, while Lopez speaks about how absolutely no-one in his family was supportive of his attempts to build an American TV career. The most interesting interview, at least for me, wasn’t with Lopez but, rather, with Bill Dana, the comedian who portrayed Jose Jimenez. He was hugely popular for many years, but he wasn’t actually Latino, and as the tide of public opinion turned, the popularity waned dramatically…like, to the point where, when he announced that he was retiring the character, he was stunned at the resulting cheers.

“Brown is the New Green” is another fine PBS production, providing an interesting, educational, and – ultimately – depressing look at how little love the Latino community gets on television. Sure, it’s nice that “Ugly Betty” is a success, but you can’t really call that a step forward when, in virtually the same breath, ABC canceled “The George Lopez Show” in favor of “Cavemen.” Still, when the doc ends with the revelation that Lopez earned $5 million from the show’s final season, $15 million from the series’ syndication deal, and $9 million from his stand-up shows that year, at least you can’t say that his chapter of the story hasn’t had a happy ending.

  

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Doc of the Day: “Married in America 2”

Upfront admission: I’ve never seen the first “Married in America” film. Good thing, then, that director Michael Apted has taken it into account that some of those who might happen upon this sequel to his 2002 documentary might need to play a bit of catch-up.

In 2001, Apted – the British director who made a name for himself as a documentarian with the series of “Up” films – ventured forth to America, selected ten couples who were on the cusp of marriage and filmed the days leading up to their nuptials as well as the ceremonies themselves, asking them questions about their relationships, their feelings about marriage, and what they anticipate the future will hold for them. In 2006, he returned to the couples to see how things had been going since the last time he’d come ’round…and, no surprise here, things are decidedly different in most cases.

When selecting couples, Apted pointedly tried to highlight as many different social, economic, and cultural angles as possible, so as to cover the gamut of marital stories, and he certainly succeeded on that front; there’s a lesbian couple, a multiracial couple (the husband is African-American, the wife is white), a multicultural couple (the wife is Filipino, the husband is Jewish), a pair who’d each already been married several times before, a couple of yuppies, a couple from Alabama where the husband’s a Marine and the wife’s a Southern belle, a duo from NYC who were married immediately prior to 9/11, and so forth and so on. As a result, each story is different from the one which precedes it…and, yet, ultimately, it’s all about marriage, so you can’t help but find similarities as well. It’s a bit sad to see that Betty and Reggie are still living with Betty’s mom, with the house they’d planned to renovate for themselves still sitting a shambles, but they seem happy, so, hey, more power to them. Less happy with each other, however, are Carol & Chuck and Nadine & Frank; the latter are trying to keep it together for the sake of family, but the former only barely keep any ties with each other these days.

There’s no question that, whether you’ve seen the first film or not, “Married in America 2” is often an interesting viewing experience. Personally, however, I found myself occasionally indifferent to the goings-on…and, ultimately, I think it’s for the same reason that I got so bored with “Tell Me You Love Me” even though it was full of realistic-looking sex: I’m married. I am one of these people; I don’t need to watch their stories on television when I’m already living their lives. Yes, it’s interesting to see where they are five years after their marriage, but I watch TV and movies for escapism, and seeing how five years of marriage has brought a couple a house, a child, and a fair amount of bills is, to say the least, not much of an escape at all.

  

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