Friday, January 24, 2014

Kill Them All But One.

 (an article originally published in the May 2012 issue of The Scene)

When the world as you know it is on the brink of irreparable collapse and the majority vote of the younger generation seems to be leaning overwhelmingly toward a permanent, 'fuck you!' state of mind, what would be the most productive way in which to attempt to address the situation?

Simple enough, take a fat batch of these rowdy, disrespectful brats, toss them on some remote locale and have them fight 'til death until only one lucky soul remains. For extra good measure, have their former teacher (who's class they often avoided) supervise the whole bloody event and share the cruel outcome with a sensation starved general public. Such is the basic, catchy premise for the now notorious (in cult film sub-circles) Japanese grown slice of dystopian flavored savagery, Battle Royale. The film does propose a 'what if' outline of such an alternate reality where, devoid of a confident infrastructure and a stable, civil population, the powers that hope to restore any portion of order have reduced themselves to employing the youth as dependable fodder in a succession of morally bankrupt war games meant to help satiate the nagging demands of an overpopulated citizenry starving for more than just eats. The picture never gets overly explicit on the detailing of the how, when and why aspect of this society's apparent dire straits, but it's enough to know that times are tough all over and the kids must suffer their fair share of the unholy consequences.

Thus the invention and implementation of the Millennium Educational Reform or 'Battle Royale' Act. Selecting random classes by way of national lottery, the governing body (such as it dictatorially is) is freely able to ease on to a thinning of the herd (a more blunt and unapologetically fascistic variant on our real life practice of patriotically manipulating poor, gung ho kids to allow themselves to be groomed for the kill and to be shipped off to fight often meaningless combat). Once transposed to a deserted, nondescript island, the chosen ones are each read the rules and regulations of this so-called game that proves to be their sorry lot. Each player is issued a supply bag plus a random object that they must somehow use as a weapon (everything from highly useful firearms and sharp objects fit for stabbing to something as completely worthless as a stove pot lid, some get lucky and others get the short straw) and are ushered on to kick off the three day long, kill all or be killed off competition.

Attempts to resist the game or flee the island to the safety of the real world (or what now passes for it) are abruptly discouraged by way of handy explosive devices fitted inside snug neck brace like contraptions applied to each of the contestants. They try anything funny, the brace goes POP! and their throat will open up in due fashion, fanning the immediate area with a vivid, crimson shower. With the intense particulars of the game firmly established, the ensuing melodrama sees old wounds reopened, friendships compromised, flimsy grade school social systems collide and combust and genuine, youthful affections clear the path for handy suicide pacts.

Commanding over this troubling, ultra violent molestation of the normally harmless by comparison tropes of the rebellious teenager genre is a long shopworn soldier of the Japanese cinema, Kinji Fukasaku. Making his 60th directorial entry with Battle Royale, Fukasaku reaches an apex in a career he has been banging away at since 1961. He has affixed his mark on such titles as Battles Without Honor and Humanity, The Black Lizard, The Green Slime, Message From Space, Virus and many, many more than I feel like reiterating here. Fukasaku was also responsible for helming the Japanese segments (along with Toshio Masuda) of the all star, Hollywood WWII opus Tora ! Tora! Tora! (when that one hack, Akira Kurosawa got himself fired) so you just know the guy has his chops refined and honed up for tackling damn near anything, especially something as safe a bet as a youth gone wild scenario.

Turns out, a main portion of the motivation for Kinji Fukasaku to take on the production of Battle Royale (adapted by his son, Kenta, from the popular, same named novel by Koushun Takami) stemmed from his wartime imprintings as a teenager slaving away as a munitions worker and developing a deep set disdain for all manner of adult, authority figures (most importantly, those who represent the government of Japan). The curious thing about this is that it seems to have inspired the director to impart a significant measure of empathy toward his relatively naive protagonists, allowing the plight of these poor pubescents pushed into class execution to have a greater impact while the elder figures mostly lingering in supporting statuses remain deliberately underdeveloped. The sole adult who does manage to eke out some shading of nuance over the course of Battle Royale's two hour litany of relentless carnage is the former school teacher Kitano (essayed here by Japan's beloved jack of multi trades Takashi 'Beat' Kitano, a man who earned his way to fame as a comedian/television personality and additionally as an actor/director with such films as Violent Cop, Brother & Outrage) a man off put from any facet of happiness as a result of a dismal family situation (explored in greater depth in the much inferior sequel, Requiem) Takashi does his darnedest to make this sap sympathy worthy.

As the picture ambles its way toward what one would assume to be an inevitable denouement, it appears to take prioritized pleasure in dissecting and, at times, even deliberately satirizing the particulars of the often clique driven structure of this teen aged caste system that has been set on its head. Battle Royale's total dedication to brutal mayhem as a method of enhancing the impact of its rapid fire brand of socio-political mockery has led to its grandstanding amongst the hallowed annuls of cult filmdom. The fairly odd twist to all of this is, until this very year we live in now, Battle Royale has never once been granted an official, licensed home video berth in these United States. Now, theories and suppositions on this matter very, everything from a lack of distributor interest or financial confidence in this 'product', to the hot potato suggestion (by some) that this America was not ready to digest a film as heady as this, especially during its initial bow, right in the thick of the kids of Columbine and their nihilistic antics back at the close of the 20th Century. 

Nothing to fret much over though, as time (and pop culture convenience) seems to soothe most troubles. As fate would have it, the generous folks at Anchor Bay Entertainment ( have taken it upon themselves to wrangle together something called Battle Royale-The Complete Collection , a title that proves to be a slight misnomer (as anyone who already owns one or more of the easily obtained import DVDs of either film can attest). This is, none the less, a noble and very polished attempt to bring this saga to the Red, White and Blue once and for all (coincidentally corresponding with that one big scale, Lion's Gate film adaptation of the mega chic, book series about young-ins in a depressing future world forced to pick one another off and such to the sound of box office cash registers endlessly ringing).

The fresh, four disc set (available as both DVD and Blu-Ray) presents both Battle Royale films (the first in both theatrical and slightly extended director's cut versions) and a decent (yet far from complete) selection of bonus materials (though with nothing at all to represent the sequel), which lend insight into the behind the scenes mechanics and promotional thunder that encompasses the B.R. phenomenon. Shamefully, there are no commentary tracks of any kind nor deleted scenes to satisfy that trivial desire for something beyond the films as they stand completed. Some passing, minor complaints to be sure, but it hardly diminishes the fact that Battle Royale has finally been granted admittance into the mainstream, albeit probably to bask in the residual effects of a dumbed down, PG-13 blockbuster with a hot, blond trophy lead that serves, at best, as a flavor of the moment.

No matter, track it down and placate your hunger for crazy, quality Japanese ultra violence. You won't be underfed.

Also, something totally unrelated.

Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone.


One of the most tragically undervalued (in commercial terms mostly) and yet thoroughly influential bands of the past several decades finally, almost, receives its just due with this not at all landmark but still very welcome and entertaining documentary profile. Piecing together the origin through modern area timeline of this South Central L.A. born outfit by way of standard practice devices like, industry peer commentary (including but not limited to; Ice-T, Les Claypool, Gwen Stefani, Mike Watt and that overrated bass whore from the Red Hot Chili Peppers), plentiful archival footage and a guiding narrative voice lent by Mr. Laurence Fishburne, filmmakers Chris Metzler and Lev Anderson shed light on the means and methods by which such a wildly varied and potentially implosive collection of creative voices managed to change the formula of what a 'rock' band is perceived to be.

Not surprisingly, the film gains its sharpest nuggets of insight from the two primary, original founding members; Angelo Moore and Norwood Fisher (the only two cats who never abandoned the Fishbone rollercoaster at any one point). The pair explicate on the epic lifespan of this band that never climbed higher up the ladder of fame than their Lollapalloza/'Reality of My Surroundings' peak. From a socially awkward first meet up in high school all the way to bickering like an old married couple while enduring the cold truths of greatly reduced concert attendance and record sales (be honest, how many of you out there who even knew who this band was even thought they were still around?), these two remain the key voice and recount without hesitation everything from getting major label love while still in their teens, cutting some stellar records ('Truth and Soul', 'The Reality of my Surroundings', 'Give a Monkey a Brain...and He'll Swear He's the Center of the Universe'), partying it up too much, seeing members cycle in and out and back again and even suffering the loss of the pivotal guitarist Kendall Jones to a religious sect or something (an ensuing intervention attempt nearly led to Fisher's incarceration).


Truly one band that shone brighter on stage (their live energy is astounding) then they ever could in a confining record studio, Fishbone still succeeds in the crafting of worthy enough releases to this very day. Anyone who has bought into the sonic benefits of No Doubt, Primus, Mordred (yeah, right) and those Chili Pecker boneheads have Fishbone, in no small part, to thank for that. So do your damn self a solid and look in to their discography, catch a live gig if at all possible and set aside a few hours for Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone (the DVD of which is stuffed with quality bonus goodies and can be procured Now let the majesty of the 'Bone' be overlooked no further.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Hell is Where the Heart Is.

Being the efforts of a local film dude inspired by Pig Destroyer.

Stowed deep away atop the mighty House of Heroes comic book hot spot in the thick of Oshkosh is a grand laboratory adorned with majestic posters (mostly of the original 'Evil Dead') and copious objects truly fitting a film savvy scholar that houses one mad soul hard at labor on a challenging collection of projects and ideas meant to work the value of the area filmmaking community to an ever higher level. The soul in question is that lovable man on a seemingly endless movie mission, John Pata. Pata, many of you should swiftly recall, is one of the chief creative engines behind one of the most positively received and widespread cinematic success stories to ever have been generated out of the Oshvegas/Fox Valley landscape, 'Dead Weight'. That film (which finally landed a fully legit, national distribution deal via Kino Lorber and became available online and on store shelves late last month) signaled the clear arrival of a potent cinematic commando with a natural knack for the form.

For those yet to witness 'Dead Weight' (a number of the populace that hopefully continues to dwindle), it is the tense, often troubling story of a young man named Charlie (Joe Belknap) and his increasingly self centered quest to be reunited with his eternal true love Samantha (Mary Lindberg) across a post outbreak tainted, mid western backdrop. The film plays out with minimal flaw despite the relative inexperience of many involved on either side of the camera and serves as a much more effective study of the strange ticks of the human mechanism than some entrail laden 'Walking Dead' wannabe or entry level slasher also ran (though the new packaging its been draped with may lead some to assume otherwise).

'Dead Weight' has done a serious number of festival dates and managed to win over a phat percentage of the folks who took it in, many of whom (myself included) would eventually gain the itch to see just what this Pata fellow and his constantly expanding army of contributors (especially his Head Trauma co-hort Adam Bartlett) would follow this baby up with.

Enter, of all damn things, Virginian grindcore band Pig Destroyer and their frontman, J.R. Hayes' engagingly demented arrangement of words. See, several years back, when Pata was in the midst of his U.W.-Oshkosh student tenure, a friend introduced him to the writings on the inlay booklet of Pig Destroyer's 2001 record 'Prowler in the Yard'. Now, Pata, not traditionally given to the fashion of sonic violence contained within the record, nonetheless found himself immediately taken by a brief (4 paragraphs+1 sentence) piece of writing included in the booklet. The words attempt to convey the very fractured psyche of a severely downtrodden soul sitting in his car outside the house that contains the 'better half' of a recently terminated relationship while holding depraved intentions of a dire sort of reconciliation close to his crippled heart.

During a meet up a short while back, Sir. Pata confessed to me that he found that scant passage to be one of the most 'beautifully disturbing' he'd ever run his eyes across. It stuck with him and he found himself returning to it a few years on when, in the wake of a rather disheartening creative setback (the disintegration of an ambitious horror opus named 'Among the Dead'), Pata immersed himself in the penning of a series of short film scripts, the Pig Destroyer idea (to be tagged 'Pity') fell easily in line.

It would ultimately be a tad longer as the whole 'Dead Weight' thing soon came together and soaked up a dominant chunk of Pata's precious time. But in 2013 the focus came right back around to 'Pity'. In the small interim between the close of production on 'Dead Weight' and this new short, Pata kept his filmmaking chops well oiled by lending assistance in varying capacity on several film projects guided by others. One such production, an Illinois based anthology called 'Chop-Shop', introduced John to several crew members whose work ethic and overall skill sets greatly impressed him ('They were all on the same was almost like they 'shined', they didn't have to verbally speak!', he told me), most of all, cinematographer Robert Patrick Stern who would carry his considerable abilities and enthusiasm over to 'Pity'.

The time spent helping out and lugging around equipment on the sets of other people's productions only worked to magnify the itch in John Pata to get back to realizing his own cherished vision. Pata reapproached the 'Pity' script, sent word out to Pig Destroyer main men Scott Hull and J.R. Hayes of his adaptation intentions and pitched to them his plan on how to interpret the material as a short in hopes of acquiring the official rights to do so, which he did. The next obvious step was to pull together the bodies, locations and gadgets necessary to take this thing all the way. Along with the already mentioned Adam Bartlett (who served as assistant director) and camera ace Stern, Pata tapped Sarah Sharp to realize the production design and to embody the lone acting requirement of the story, there is a guy named Jake Martin. Martin, a onetime frontman for a local band named Lead Me Not, is a long standing friend of the director who has taken part, on camera, in each of his three film projects (as a zombie in 'Better Off Undead" and an intimidating redneck in 'Dead Weight') and was deemed a natural fit for the brooding, closed off and ever silent 'Anonymous' (the only words spoken in the piece come care of voiceover).

Following around two and a half months of pre-production the actual meat of the production process was largely meted out on an area soundstage with a heady array of toys (lights, cameras, rainmaking devices) to give the project a much greater polish than anything Pata has attempted to date. The shoot only needed two days to complete,yet the director explains that 'Pity' required a greater level of complexity and variety in the camera work and number of set ups for shots designed to help spice up a potentially limiting concept of one individual doling out his last moments of mortality while sitting in a car. Once the 'Pity' shoot wrapped up nicely, Pata set to the arduous undertaking of piecing the resulting footage together into a coolly effective 6 minutes of elegant, dark storytelling.

Nicholas Elert (the man behind the band Northless who scored 'Dead Weight') is back matching lovely sounds with the imagery and the completed 'Pity' is set to make its big public bow during the natural monthly chaos that is the Oshkosh Gallery Walk this coming April. This is going to transpire at the Time Community Theater (of which John Pata serves as President) right on Main Street with the film running every half hour and accompanied by an exhibition of on set photographs snapped by Mary Manchester and David Burke. From that point, Pata plans to push his 'Pity' heavily toward the sprawling film festival circuit (15% of the short's $4,500 budget was set aside for submission fees) with a possible DVD package featuring a much longer 'making of' documentary to arrive at some time down the road.

Once this 'Pity' thing and the 'Dead Weight' official roll out have both cemented their respective places in the film universe, John Pata will likely not waste time before jumping headlong into the next significant stage of his filmmaking career. He already has multiple concepts in rapid development (including one about a troublesome chain letter he's at work on with Mr. Bartlett described as something along the lines of 'if John Carpenter directed an episode of The X-Files'). In addition, John will be toiling as an editor on a documentary that is attempting to chronicle the rabid punk music scene that erupted in Green Bay back in the day between 1977 to 1987 (Kutskas Hall anyone?) and is slated to arrive sometime late in 2014 or early 2015.

Beyond all this, who knows, just rest assured people of Wisconsin, this native son has no plans in the direction of slowing down. Like the man himself summed it all up in relation to all of his experiences to date working on films, 'No time on a film set is time wasted.' Prime words from a perfect source.

Keep up on the progress of 'Pity' and other John Pata projects at these handy web spots;

We Are What We Are.

Rising to a dismal rainfall, the matriarch of a remotely situated family in rural New York State sets out to embrace the clear inevitability of her impending demise. Left in the wake of this abrupt departure, an emotionally distant, ever mulling father and his brood of socially exempt offspring find themselves burdened with the obligations of a particularly daunting legacy. Such is the core plotline establishment of Jim Mickle's studied yet freshly unnerving re-take on the 2010 Mexican thriller of the same name (or 'Somos Lo Que Hay' to keep it culturally specific) by Jorge Michel Grau. Transplanted to a storm ravaged East Coast setting with a shift in gender alignment for many of the key characters, the story remains close in basic theme and situational development all filtered through a fully distinct and personal directorial touch.

As with the two prior Mickle pictures ('Mulberry St'-probably among the finest of those After Dark Horror Fest entries and 'Stakeland') the director provides equal, perhaps even superior, space to aspects of persona and genuine human behavior patterns as opposed to over saturating his story with too many cheap, exploitation friendly shocks and excessive carnage that would most likely reduce the proceedings to the lower ranks of the disposable representations of the horror genre. Sticking closely with this suddenly degraded family four pack (surname Parker) as they shuffle weakly forward with their deep rooted lifelong rituals, the film charts their struggle as they enter into a sort of 'fasting' process while pieces and portions of their closely held secrets have slowly come to the literal surface care the violent mischief of cruel mother nature.

The thing that has placed this family so curiously outside the communal mainstream is the very disturbing fact that they are, indeed, full on cannibals. Not quite the grindhouse type sleazy savages of all those (mostly Italian) flesh munching flicks that so peppered the drive-ins and low brow venues in the bygone days of the 70s and 80s, these cannibals are a somber, meditative lot who almost seem perpetually trapped in this hell embedded throughout their lineage. Seems the ancestry of this clan enacted this human consuming human option due to being unfortunate, Donner Party like settlers stuck with no other survival alternative. Because of this intrusion of hostile weather working past sins to the fore, many key members of the small surrounding populace (i.e. law enforcement) inch ever closer to the Parker's tightly hewn personal bubble. With the threat of discovery closing in, the Parkers hurry to find a way, any way to keep their unit from being torn apart eventually leading to a rather brutal collision of worlds at the film's startling climax.

The fair body of Mickle's variant on this flesh eater saga centers close to the effect of this plight on the two young sisters (played by able actresses Julia Garner and Ambyr Childers) who must wrangle some semblance of stability together in their homestead as their pa appears to degrade into a remorseful waking coma. Mickle makes the most of his rather limited resources (this is no high priced studio epic, mind you) as he has with his other works and sculpts some quality performances from a completely game and impressive cast that includes veterans Michael Parks (whose measured way of delivering dialogue elevates his performance even more) and Kelly McGillis (far removed from her 'Top Gun' prime but effortlessly effective here as a friendly neighbor) plus some lesser known folks like Bill Sage as the casually deteriorating father figure, the director's long time partner in crime Nick Damici as the local Sheriff and even Kurt Russell's son Wyatt as a deputy with an eye on one the Parker daughters.

'We Are What We Are' comes to DVD and Blu Ray courtesy of the good folks at eOne Entertainment who have included an entertaining enough running audio commentary by director Mickle, his camera man Ryan Samul and several cast members who give the impression of a fun and very creatively healthy production process.  There is also a near hour long collection of behind the scenes footage that seeks to impart some of the day to day hands on craftwork it took to make this film the fine little piece of disturbed art that it came to be. Recommended to any and all who favor a little bit more thought and class in their cannibal cinema.

Thank you for reading, may you never hunger for long.