BATTLE ROYALE

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The controversial classic of modern Japanese cinema from Kinji Fukasaku finally comes to our shores in an official fashion – and from the company least likely. To my mind, Anchor Bay lost a lot of luster chasing after the limited theatrical release strategery that saw them acquiring things that felt as though they were wildly outside the company’s established cult-film purview (but that’s what happened after the company got gobbled up by Starz). This is a film that seemed like it would eventually find its way here via Blue Underground or Synapse or Tokyo Shock…

At any rate, Anchor Bay reps have made no attempt to hide the fact that they acquired the legendary title in the hopes of capitalizing on the fever surrounding another kids-killing-kids franchise – The Hunger Games. Unfortunately, the films have not much in common aside from the fact that both feature kid-on-kid violence. Even the social commentary angles taken by each project are entirely different; Hunger Games is a commentary on fame – and the film might just be the first successful post-Occupy cinematic contemplation of socioeconomic inequality. Battle Royale, on the other hand, is about the erosion of fiscal/cultural norms in Japan. Fukasaku’s film is also a great deal more somber – nobody gets a makeover in Battle Royale (though I would totally paint Kou Shibasaki’s toenails, if she’d have me).

I’ve linked to the Complete Collection, as it turns out that the standalone release is the “Director’s Cut” – which adds a few scenes that actually hinder the precision pace of the film. This set includes the second film, which, while far from being as good as the first, is not the hyperbole-inciting aborrrrrrtion so many scream that it is. It’s unfocused and often sloppy – and maybe more than a little afraid of its own shadow – but it’s an interesting curio nevertheless.

CARNAGE

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Sounds like an interesting pic – a couple of couples (John C. Reilly & Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet & Christophe Waltz) enter into an exchange after an altercation in the park between their children…and their proper facades start to erode in this Roman Polanski adaptation of a play from Yasmina Reza.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO

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I saw the original, and it made me think of Tim Bisley. Specifically, this Tim Bisley quote:

It’s boil-in-the-bag perversion for sexually repressed accountants and first-year drama students with too many posters of Betty Blue, The Blues Brothers, Big Blue and Blue Velvet on their blue bloody walls.”

It felt like they tried for edgy and missed. It’s sort of a straight-up whodunit with some fuckins thrown in (the character of Lisbeth Salamander is held up as some sort of “badass” feminist icon even though she goes all moony for some old dude, which – can someone give me the recipe for skinnyhot cutie-punk hooking up with guy old enough to be her dad – ‘cause I’m up for it, and it never happens in reality).

It seemed that the American version hoped to double-down on the “edgy” immediately; they hired David Fincher – and they put the poor bony creature they picked for Salamander on the poster with her boobies out (‘cause that’s the way rape victims prefer to be depicted, right?)

To me, the edgiest thing about this release is the disc itself. It’s a great visual gag that seems to advocate piracy. You go, Sony!

LADY FOR A DAY

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Frank Capra’s melodramatic charmer about a little lie that gets very big. Unwilling to burden her daughter, an impoverished woman pretends to be wealthy. But when she discovers that her daughter is about to marry into high society, the white lie needs to become real in a hurry. Fun fact: Jackie Chan remade this film – one of his favorites – as Miracles, which might be his very best work (though I think the quality of the kung-fu in Capra’s original has a slight edge).

MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL

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You know whether you want to buy this or not. I don’t need to say a thing.

THE MUPPETS

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Jim Henson’s terrifying creations return to the screen thanks to Jason Segel.

THE SITTER

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David Gordon Green remakes Adventures in Babysitting with a lead I’ve spent slightly less time fantasizing about.

RUSSELL MULCAHY’S TALE OF THE MUMMY

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Russell Mulcahy is all you need to know – though the film is notable for being the first and only on-screen pairing of the father and son duo of Christopher Lee and Jason Scott Lee.

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY

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John LeCarre’s quintessential spy drama has a fantastic cast (CUMBERBAAAATCH) and a great Gary Oldman performance. From the director of the original Let the Right One In.

THE WAR ROOM (CRITERION)

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Voyager drops this amazing documentary about the first Clinton campaign to Blu Ray. James Carville is a total hero.

The B-52s: With the Wild Crowd Live in Athens
B.B. King: Live at Royal Albert Hall
Battle Royale
Battle Royale: The Complete Collection
Carnage
Dragon Ball Z Kai: Season 1, Part 7
Dream Eater Merry: The Complete Collection
Ef – Tale of Melodies: The Complete Collection
Fairy Tail: Part 4
Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life
General Orders No. 9
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Lady for a Day
Letter Never Sent Criterion Collection
A Lonely Place to Die
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
The Muppets
My African Safari
National Lampoon’s The Legend of Awesomest Maximus
Roadie
The Sitter
Splintered
Russell Mulcahy’s Tale of the Mummy
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
The War Room Criterion Collection

THE SHINS – PORT OF MORROW

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It would appear that The Shins are now, to all intents and purposes, a James Mercer solo project, with Broken Bells perhaps the exemplar of his sound these days. Gone for good this time are keyboard player Marty Crandall, drummer Jesse Sandoval, and bass player Dave Hernandez; replaced by Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer, ex-Crystal Skulls bassist Yuuki Matthews, Hope Sandoval on backing vocals, and most significantly, producer Greg Kurstin, whose resume of work ranging from Beck to Kelly Clarkson gives some indication of the aural ambition at work here: Point of Morrow inhabits a complete, fully-realized sonic world, with some of Mercer’s most engaging guitar work, and glistening pop production.

It would also appear that Mercer’s decision to carry on the Shins name is not married to a desire to continue running the “adolescent outsider ponders the world, finds love with same” playbook. Port of Morrow is the next step: early-onset midlife crisis from a happily married dad whose daughter loves “the good side of me.”  And he might well be singing sage dad-type advice to her: ”I know that things can really get rough / When you go it alone,” “You wanna hop along / With the giddy throng / Through life / But how’ll you learn to steer / When you’re grinding all your gears?” Veterans like John Hiatt and Bruce Springsteen have addressed the inevitability of aging-and even maturing-via rock and roll, but if a guy as young as Mercer has reached that point, we’re really getting old.

LOST IN THE TREES - A CHURCH THAT FITS OUR NEEDS

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I can’t even imagine the creative impulse that would allow someone to share their feelings about a mother’s suicide in public – much less one that would allow it to be crafted into an exquisitely lovely album of lush baroque pop, but one that eschews the expected intimacy for an expansive sense of sharing: Ari Picker’s honest celebration of his mother’s life, and coming to terms with her loss, extends to the stark, battered snapshot of her that graces the album cover. Though the album was released regionally last year, this week marks its national release

The backstory (an emotionally abusive marriage, the loss in childbirth of twin daughters, cancer, and the choice to end her life just hours after Ari’s wedding-all alluded to here, along with scraps of her recorded voice) would seem to lend itself to something akin to Neil Young’s devastating Tonight’s the Night, but Picker’s emotional choice throughout the album is sweeping uplift, and joy at how much his mother was actually able to give him: “I’ll tell you it’s worth it all / All that I’ve seen / All of your tears,” Picker sings on “Golden Eyelids,” as he mourns his stillborn sisters with a sweet ache in his voice. Even places where you fear he’s going to be too on-the-nose (“This Dead Bird is Beautiful,” Villain (I’ll Stick Around)”) he adds unexpected lyrical and musical touches.

Picker’s classical music training means that he has no need to hand over the mass of strings, brass, and keyboards to a hired gun for arranging and conducting: he handles both chores himself, and succeeds better than most of his peers at integrating massed choirs of strings and voices with pop music’s familiar bass/guitar/drum configuration.

The simple valedictory of “Vines,” to a strummed acoustic guitar, might be the album’s most quietly devastating moment: “My songs can try / But there are things / That songs can’t say / I cower under your grace.” My only reservation about recommending A Church That Fits Our Needs is to be wary of your own emotional state before you put it on: it’s been haunting me for a couple of weeks now.

ESPERANZA SPALDING – RADIO MUSIC SOCIETY

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I’m sure the day will come when jazz bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding’s name will no longer be linked with that of Justin Bieber… but that day’s not here yet, and it’s more or less obligatory to mention that her latest album comes out in the wake of her having upset Bieber for the Best New Artist Grammy last year. But it’s really kind of apt: after listening to 2010’s Chamber Music Society, it was hard not to picture Spalding reading over all the frantically hateful tweets and forum postings from Bieber fans, and wonder just what the hell any of that had to do with a serious jazz artist. Radio Music Society often sounds like her attempt to come to terms with the whole thing: “OK, if I WERE a pop artist of some kind, what would I sound like?”

Well… kinda like a bit of Alicia Keys, a dash of Lalah Hathaway (one of the seeming dozens of guest musicians on the album), some of the groove of Terri Lynne Carrington (another guest), the sunnier side of Sade… but, apart from wicked bass chops, not much of an individual personality for Spalding herself. And the fact that each song evidently has a sort of travelogue video to accompany it further reinforces the idea that it’s the marketing of music, rather than the creation of it, that’s uppermost in her mind on this album.

Spalding, her co-producers (including Q-Tip), and the various combinations of accompanists manage to keep the sound consistent from track to track, but by means of a lush smoothness that sands down too many interesting edges into a mushiness that verges on easy-listening. The list of musicians is certainly a potent one, including Joe Lovano, Jack DeJohnette, Gretchen Parlato and Billy Hart; tasty licks abound. But there’s nothing from these artists, or from Spalding herself, that would suggest her as the first jazz musician ever to win that Best New Artist Grammy: no one’s challenged, no one soars. The covers could have come off any “quiet storm” jazzbo collection (including Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It”), while the originals are mostly undistinguished (save the sweet “Cinnamon Tree”), and the lyrics that Spalding grafts onto Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species” are awkwardly bland, though it features one of the album’s more rewarding ensemble performances.

As I say, I’m hoping this was more a “try it and see” experiment for Spalding: OK, fine, she can do perfectly listenable smoove jazz. Next time out, let’s get back to more of the real stuff.

OTHER NOTABLE 3/20 RELEASES

(Note: I’m heading into a busy couple of months in my “real” life, with reduced time/opportunity to preview new music. So, for better or worse, this “other” section will mostly be a listing of some of the week’s key releases, with little or no commentary. But only for a while. So don’t get comfortable)

The All-American Rejects – Kids in the Street
Cowboy Junkies – Wilderness
Justin Townes Earle – Nothing’s Going to Change The Way You Feel About Me Now
Billy Hart – All Our Reasons
Iron Maiden – En Vivo!
B.B. King – Live at the Royal Albert Hall 2011
Madonna – MDNA
Brad Mehldau – Ode
Ministry, Relapse
Odd Future – The OF Tape Vol. 2
Overkill – The Electric Age
Robert Pollard – Mouseman Cloud
Lee Ranaldo – Between the Times and the Tides
Lionel Richie – Tuskegee (words fail me…)
Chris Standring – Electric Wonderland
Tanlines – Mixed Emotions
Various Artists – The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond

NINJA GAIDEN 3 (PS3, 360)

The one thing the modern entries in this franchise have going for them is an insane difficulty. So naturally, they took that shit out this time. And replaced it with…morality? What the fuck, Tecmo? Yeah, we really need people begging for their life as the core mechanic in my ninja murder simulation. I don’t need to hear someone tell me about their kids as I remove body parts – I need to sleep tonight, thank you. If GTA IV taught us anything, it’s that characters who talk about how terrible killing is as they are committing mass murder are annoying, inconsistent fuckers. If you want to play around with the morality of death in video games, find an appropriate story and characters. You know, like Shadow of The Colossus did six years ago. Don’t just shove that shit into my Ninja Gaiden.

This somehow makes NES Ninja Gaiden 3 sound fun. Even with those goddamned limited continues.

RESIDENT EVIL: OPERATION RACCOON CITY (PS3, 360)

A squad-based shooter with zombies? Sounds like the perfect way to make Resident Evil boring again. Oh, and you can play as the faceless enemies of the series, some sort of Umbrella Seals. So, it’s a SWAT team that works for an evil megacorporation and kills civilians. What a dark and edgy new direction. How novel. Seems like it’s “Miss the Point of the Franchise” week. Hey Capcom, how about a MegaMan tower defense game? MegaMan: Dynasty Warriors?

Okay – that one could be pretty awesome.

SILENT HILL HD COLLECTION (PS3, 360)

Silent Hill HD Collection is the antidote to bullshit Resident Evil games and last weeks Silent Hill: Downpour. Which is also really, really bullshit. Silent Hill 2 and 3 are easily among the best survival horror games every made and look gorgeous, even with a half-assed upres. If you haven’t experienced this series in its prime yet, this serves as the best possible introduction. After that you could play Shattered Memories and never touch a Silent Hill game again in your life. Don’t make the same mistakes I did.

ARMORED CORE V (PS3, 360)

From Software does giant mech battles better than anyone. Their latest release includes a big emphasis on multiplayer, with some very unique features. Games are played 5 v 5 with each team having four mechs on the field and one player who doesn’t pilot a mech but has a tactical command view of the battlefield. That player serves as sort of a tactician who can mark and give orders to the team on the fly. If giant robots and From Software weren’t enough, that’s the single greatest implementation of team deathmatch I’ve ever heard of. I’ve had dreams of being in the war room of a giant mech battle pretty much all my life.

And so there you go. We’re too damn hype.

FIN.