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An infant terrible comes of age.
14 December 2004
Ishii's first and second films were boisterous, flashy, colorful, and irreverent, but his mastery of editing, sound design, and narrative (not to mention the surprisingly touching romance at the heart of his debut, Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl) suggested that behind all the fireworks is a real genius who truly loves and understands the medium of film, not just a flashy showman using his advertising experience to deliver 90 minutes of pretty looking entertainment. With Ishii's third film, the dreamlike, funny, occasionally absurd, and ultimately mournful Taste of Tea (best feature winner at the 2004 Hawaii International Film Festival) he tones things down a notch from his prior efforts and gets personal, telling the story of a single family rather than an ensemble of oddballs (though the family is admittedly a little weird). The result is wonderful. Touching, hilarious, beautiful, odd, and constantly surprising. If you weren't paying attention during some of the moving and humane "slow" parts of Sharkskin Man, you might be shocked that Taste of Tea is from the same stylish hipster who once told an audience not to treat his first film like a cultural artifact but just to "enjoy the idiots on screen." Like Pierre Jeunet with Amelie, Ishii has demonstrated with Taste of Tea that there's real substance to be found under all that style. Absolutely not to be missed.
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Magnolia (1999)
Moore is dead on.
27 February 2001
Felt I had to respond to people criticizing J. Moore's performance in Magnolia. I have a clinically depressed mother and two manic-depressive ex-girlfriends, and I've lived through quite a few breakdowns and panic attacks EXACTLY like those in the drug store and the lawyer's office. I felt Moore's performance was the one of the most realistic portrayals of mental illness on film. Anyone who thinks she was overacting has been apparently never dealt with any of the millions of real people like her character.
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Genius or Madness? You make the call!
7 December 1998
Movie Review: Sometimes in film a scene which is weird, horrifying or disturbing is carried to such an extreme that it transcends being grotesque and becomes beautiful. Jodorowsky's "Santa Sangre," Fellini's "Satyricon," and all of Lynch's films have moments like these. Unfortunately, "Greaser's Palace," though it tries really hard, never quite goes from ugly duckling to swan. Weird, horrifying and disturbing (and sometimes hilarious) it is indeed, but the pieces in the puzzle never quite come together. I must say this, though, Robert Downey has made one hell of a riveting film. I couldn't turn away from my TV screen for an instant. The movie seems to be a rather loosely told version fo the passion of Christ, set in the wild west. There is a Christ figure (who arrives on earth rather anachronistically via a parachute wearing a pimp suit), some disciples (about 17 of them), a miracle or three (some walking on water, some raising of the dead, a little healing, a little stigmata, etc.), and the obligatory being nailed to a crucifix. However, I don't recall the rest of the plot being in the Bible. I'm not going to try and describe it, except to say that the Christ figure is a singer-dancer-actor going to Jerusalem, to get an audition with the great agent Morris. Indeed, in one scene he puts on a little song and dance routine for his disciples, but they aren't impressed with his performance until he starts screaming and bleeding from the holes that appear in his hands, at which point they applaud. The image of Christ as showman, rather than a shaman, is quite provocative, and the audience that is only satisfied when their savior is in pain seems to be a glimpse into human nature not often afforded the viewer of this film, which is filled with cartoony violence, stilted dialogue, and unnatural posturing. The fact that this hint of truth about what we really want out of entertainment (in an age when we pay $29.95 to watch the Ultimate Fighting Championship on Pay-Per-View, who wouldn't enjoy a little screaming and stigmata?) comes in the midst of all these people doing their best to act inhuman, or at least unhuman, may indicate that there is more to this film than meets the eye. But is the movie good? I'm not certain about how good or bad it is, but I know that I was mesmerized by it. There were so many disturbing, fantastic, and humorous things...A few that come to mind are: --Herve Villechaize as the diminutive gay man who has "Jesus" over for dinner and flirts with him. --Herve's "wife," a bearded man in drag who angrily squeezes the Messiah's testicles after he refuses to sleep with the couple. --The woman who keeps getting shot throughout the film by an unknown assailant. --Mr. Greaser's intense orgasm and/or bowel movement which causes his palace to explode (I didn't understand either...). --Lamey Homo's description of the afterlife, "I was swimming in a rainbow with naked babies, and I turned into a beautiful smile," which he repeats three times during the film (he keeps getting killed and brought back to life). --The Holy Ghost. --The Native American who gets his lower back problem fixed when the Messiah turns out to be not only the son of God, but also a fairly good chiropractor. --The savage beating of a transvestite nun by Lamey Homo and the monk. --Etc. Throughout the film I was continually trying to determine whether I was watching the work of a genius or a just a load of crap. I'm still not sure, but I know one thing; this movie is fascinating, and though it never really becomes more than the sum of its parts, they certainly are interesting parts. "Greaser's Palace," is weird, funny, disturbing, gross, ugly, and strange, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. I guarantee you won't forget this film.
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Trainspotting + The Professional + Pulp Fiction + Japanese Manga = COOL!
4 December 1998
I saw S.S. Man & P.H. Girl at the Hawaii International Film Festival in Nov. 98, and it took my breath away. This flick is the funniest, coolest, most invigorating piece of eye candy I've ever seen. Based on a Japanese manga, this debut film from Ishii (previously a director of Japanese commercials) is a road movie about a young woman on the run from her domineering and perverted uncle who meets up with a young man on the run from the stylish gangsters he's ripped off. The gangsters are the funniest, most outrageous, coolest bunch of baddies I've ever seen. Their dialogue is great, their costumes are incredible, and they're all so enjoyable to watch that it's always sad when one gets rubbed out. The uncle also sends someone after the pair on the run, a diminutive little freak who would totally steal the show in any other movie. Here, he just adds to the mix.

I can't really describe how much I enjoyed this movie, but I remember that at the end of it, my face hurt from smiling so much. I think I was grinning during the entire film... If you're a fan of the films of Lynch, Tarantino, Jeunet, Boyle, Besson, the Coens, John Woo, Ringo Lam, and Tsui Hark, then you have GOT to see this movie. The funny thing about S.S. Man and P.H. Girl is that it's so over-the-top that you know it's a parody of the work of some of the above directors, but the damn thing is so much fun that it actually works as a "cool lovers on the run movie," and not just a parody of one. In fact, I thought it worked so well that it is now my favorite film of this genre. Tarantino was in the audience when I saw this movie, and when Ishii answered questions at the end of the film, and someone asked him who influenced him, he grinned at QT, and said (through his translator) something like "I think you know the answer to that." (subsequently QT hired Ishii to direct the animated sequence in Kill Bill, so I guess they hit it off). Perhaps the lesson here is that there's no such thing as too derivative.

Some people note that the film has some slow moments. Interestingly, having seen the movie quite a few times by now, what sticks with me now are some of the quieter romantic and/or contemplative moments, especially the penultimate scene in the car where Samehada's former partner talks about seeing God.
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