Monday, January 19, 2009

Big (and bizarre) in Japan: “Executive Koala”

I’m sure Japanese pop culture doesn’t fully deserve its stateside reputation of being bizarre almost to the point of obscenity. I mean, obviously it can’t all be sadistic game shows, Hello Kitty underpants and tentacle porn. Some of the most thoughtful pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen came out of Japan, and the works of Haruki Murakami are evidence of a lyrical, forward-looking literary scene. Sure, the Japanese imports that make it to American shores tend to lean toward inscrutable TV commercials and hermaphrodite manga, but I like to tell myself that has more to do with cross-cultural filters and lazy stereotyping than a national tendency toward the gonzo.

But then I see something like Executive Koala and I’m right back to wondering what the hell is the matter with those folks. At first blush, this looks like a by-the-numbers psychological thriller, as a milquetoast businessman uncovers repressed memories of a sordid past that may include robbery, spousal abuse and even… MURDER! It’s the same type of hackneyed plotline we’ve seen in a dozen mediocre movies starring Michael Douglas/Richard Gere/Harrison Ford, but with one fairly noteworthy twist: the executive is a six-foot-tall, Japanese-speaking koala in a business suit.

If you’re familiar with director Minoru Kawasaki, that bit of bestial stunt-casting probably won’t catch you off guard. This is, after all, a man whose body of work includes films about a crime-fighting hairpiece and a squid who aspires to be a professional wrestler. I came into Executive Koala with only a cursory knowledge of Kawasaki’s work and was pleasantly perplexed at the way the film unfolded.

Early on, Executive Koala plays things pretty much by the book, following the koala through the mundanities of life at a thriving pickled foods company. The protagonist’s marsupial nature is treated as no big deal, even though the rest of the film’s populace is almost exclusively human. The only exceptions are the koala’s rabbit-headed boss and the frog-man behind the counter at the local grocery store. As the movie proceeds along familiar thriller lines, no explanation is offered as to why these freaks live and work among regular folk. Strange as all that seems, I spent much of the film’s first half disappointed that Executive Koala wasn’t weird enough.

Around about the midway point, however, Kawasaki starts to take things off the rails. As more and more details emerge about the koala’s ugly past, the movie’s tongue sinks deeper and deeper into its cheek. Before the show’s over, we’ve seen a series of absurd martial arts showdowns, one gut-busting musical number, a bit of animation and the revelation of a fantastically ludicrous motive behind all the madness. I could have done without a couple of meta-textual winks to the audience, but aside from that, it’s a helluva strong finish. The bizarreness of the second half casts a different light on the comparatively sedate beginning, making the “straight” scenes hilarious in hindsight.

It’s tough to imagine anything as peculiar as Executive Koala coming out of the U.S. Even an over-the-top studio like Troma would layer the production with a smirking self-awareness that’s mostly absent here. In fact, it’s difficult to think that something like this could be made anywhere but the home of heroic, flying turtles and Segway-riding chimps. Much as I hate to reinforce tired-out cultural stereotypes, there’s only one conclusion I can draw from Executive Koala:

Those Japanese are fuckin’ weird, man…

- Ira Brooker

Monday, January 12, 2009

An appreciation: Mark "Mad Dog" Madsen

As I write this, the Minnesota Timberwolves are on a five-game winning streak, the longest in the NBA. Granted, they’ve had and extraordinarily weak schedule lately, and the wins have been against sub-par teams like Memphis, Oklahoma City and Chicago, but it’s still nice to be the best of the worst. It’s been fun watching the fellas get a little bit of validation, but I suspect the balloon will start deflating when Miami hits the Target Center on Tuesday.

I’m a thick-and-thin type of sports fan. I love my teams when they’re winning, but I almost love them more when they’re losing. There’s something endearing about a squad that’s pretty much doomed from the get-go, but still goes out every night and does its damnedest to stay above water. Maybe it’s the humanizing effect – we’re taught to revere professional athletes as god-men who make unfathomable amounts of money for doing something most of us would give our eyeteeth to do just once, so it does us good to take a peek at their feet of clay.

Following a team like the Timberwolves shows us that even these guys probably have a lot of nights when they dread showing up for work. Playing to a half-empty arena populated by silent, disinterested fans likely makes the guys feel underappreciated, undervalued and stuck in a dead-end job. I know I feel like I’m wasting the best years of my life with each hour I spend in my cubicle, but at least I’ve got many years ahead of me to adapt and make career changes. With the average NBA career lasting just under four years, how disheartening must it be to know you’re burning through at least one of them on a team bound for nowhere? I know it’s tough to feel too sorry for the rich and famous, but it sucks for anyone to feel lost and adrift within his chosen occupation.

That’s why I like Mark Madsen. A role player even in his college days at Stanford, Mad Dog was drafted into the NBA as basically a spare big man on a 2000 Lakers team overstuffed with talent. Over the course of his nine-year pro career, nobody has ever expected much more from Madsen than a handful of rebounds and maybe a blocked shot every few games. That’s not to say he’s never contributed – he played decent minutes off the bench for two Lakers championship teams and the 2003-04 Wolves squad that knocked on the door of the NBA finals – but it’s safe to say that Mad Dog’s impact on the league has been negligible. Now, at what is presumably the tail end of his career, he is firmly entrenched on Kevin McHale’s bench, barely an afterthought on a team full of them.

But none of that seems to get the Mad Dog down. Season after season, he’s the first guy off the bench to high-five his teammates during breaks in play. He’s the guy who stands up and hollers at the officials when the Wolves have been done wrong. He’s the dude waving his arms, pumping his fists and generally generating more energy than the mascot and cheerleaders combined. He hardly ever sees the court these days – he’s gotten into exactly two games in the past month, including nearly seven minutes of action in last week’s 42-point rout of the Thunder – but that doesn’t diminish his demonstrative enthusiasm one bit.

Madsen is what sportswriters frequently call a “fan favorite,” which is generally shorthand for “borderline inept player who generates a lot of ironic cheering.” The crowd loves it when Mad Dog gets into the game. The stands go wild whenever he grabs a rebound or scores a basket, and even wilder should he brick a layup or go flailing to the hardwood. He ensures that Brian Cardinal is, for the first time in his career, not the whitest guy on the roster, and the fans' support is laced with more than a trace amount of mockery.

That’s not a pleasant role to find oneself in, as I can attest from personal experience. The summer after seventh grade, I attended my first sleep-away basketball camp at Bethel University, a small Bible college in Saint Paul. I was a pretty ridiculous kid at that time: tall, pale, skinny as hell and sporting an inexplicable hairstyle best described as an ultra-mullet. I lived for basketball, but my unorthodox appearance, unsophisticated background (I was one of the few kids not from the Twin Cities metro area) and uncoordinated lurching around the court made me an instant object of fun for the other campers. By the end of the week, they’d taken to chanting my name rhythmically every time I entered a room. Under other circumstances, I’d have felt good about being the best-known kid in camp, but as it was I prayed feverishly every night for an injury that would send me home early.

And that’s another piece of the Mad Dog appeal: he’s an everyman amongst supermen. It’s often said that Ron Jeremy’s long and fruitful career in porn is due to his off-putting appearance. Guys watching at home can’t really connect with most of the chiseled hardbodies of the porn world, but they view the scuzzy little fat guy as a surrogate, an ugly low-life who can effortlessly bag an endless array of exotic skanks. Likewise, most Timberwolves fans know they’d never be able to execute a perfect low-post drop step like Al Jefferson or throw down a breakaway dunk like Rodney Carney, but they could picture themselves doing Madsen work like grabbing a rebound in garbage time or burning off a couple of fouls to protect the starters.

Mad Dog’s the kind of guy who keeps the dream in reach, and he does it with an optimistic verve that’s undeniably infectious. It’s always a pleasure to see someone take joy in his work, especially if that work is less than joyful. He’s the living embodiment of the NBA’s best slogan of the past decade, “I Love This Game.” Mark Madsen clearly does, and when you watch him bouncing around the bench, it’s hard not to feel the same.

- Ira Brooker

Friday, January 9, 2009

Watching "Clockers" in a post-"Wire" world

When I read Richard Price’s novel Clockers back in high school, I was pretty well blown away. Here was a book that took me deep into a world about which I knew nothing, that of streetside drug dealers in the New Jersey ghetto. I was captivated by the dealers’ inscrutable lingo, their mysterious street names, the curiously malleable code by which they lived. It’s a hefty novel – more than 600 pages – but I breezed right on through, devouring Price’s muscular prose during study hall and between screenings at the movie theater where I worked.

Back in the mid-1990s, we were still feeling the hysterical reverberations of “Just Say No” and the D.A.R.E. program. Street gangs were an improbably omnipresent bogeyman, even in small town Wisconsin. That made Clockers’ treatment of the crack game all the more remarkable. It astonished me to see dope-slinging treated like any other business, and drug dealers depicted as actual people with feelings and families. Price tossed me deep into the heart of this foreign landscape by crafting a fully seen world, coloring his corners with the most vivid eye for detail I’d ever seen in a novel.

I first picked up Clockers in late 1995, in anticipation of Spike Lee’s forthcoming film adaptation. I was a devoted Spike Lee fan in high school, so the concept of Brooklyn’s own auteur bringing one of my new favorite novels to life was pretty exhilarating. Since it wasn’t the type of movie that was likely to play theatrically anywhere near Sparta, Wisconsin, I had to wait for the video release. When Clockers finally hit the shelves of Preferred Video (R.I.P.), I snatched it up and settled in to my friend Matt’s basement, anticipating a kick-ass evening of tension and artistry.

What I got instead was an okay adaptation that hit most of the right notes but never quite captured the spirit or urgency of the book. Here’s how much impact the movie had on me: at a literary trivia event a few years ago, I correctly answered four of five questions about Price’s novel, which I hadn’t read in 12 years, while the only question I missed was about the movie. In fact, the only elements of the adaptation that stuck with me over the years were Delroy Lindo’s brutal performance as the neighborhood kingpin and the irksome fact that the movie changed the protagonist’s favorite beverage from vanilla Yoo-Hoo to “Chocolate Moo.”

When I started watching the first season of The Wire last summer, Clockers was the first reference point that popped into my head. As the courtyard drama of David Simon’s masterpiece unfolded, I started to believe The Wire was a far better representation of Price’s work than Lee’s film was. There are plenty of obvious parallels between the two stories, most markedly in their lead drug dealers. The Wire’s DeAngelo Barksdale is essentially Baltimore’s answer to Clockers’ Strike, an ambitious young middle manager trying to save his soul while climbing the ladder. Both men have dreams that reach beyond the corner, but each is trapped by his personal relationship with his higher-ups.

DeAngelo mirrors Strike closely enough to make The Wire feel instantly familiar to me, but that didn’t distract one bit from my enthrallment with the show. It’s become almost a cliché to heap praise on The Wire, but every word of that praise is well deserved. (Yes, I am that annoying friend who won’t stop telling you how it’s The Best Thing That Has Ever Been on TV.) Anyway, David Simon and the first-season Wire writers go Richard Price one better by digging even deeper into the day-to-day business of slanging dope and the lives of those who do it. Anyone who’s been stuck in a draggy office job should be able to empathize with the dealers’ head-butting with upper management, disputes with unscrupulous customers and long stretches of stifling boredom. Even more than Clockers, the series drives home the idea that selling drugs is a job like any other, albeit one with an exceptionally high mortality rate. There’s little doubt that The Wire owes a lot to Richard Price, a debt that Simon paid back by bringing Price on board as a writer later in the series.

While jonesing for a Wire fix last weekend, I decided to revisit the Clockers video that’s been gathering dust on my shelf ever since I found it in a supermarket cut-out bin many years ago. (Underwhelmed though I was, I apparently I liked it well enough to drop three bucks on it back in the day.) I didn’t presume it would hold up to The Wire, but I was intrigued to see how much carryover there was between the two.

Clockers’ opening credits sequence – a montage of genuine crime scene photos of young black men killed by gunshots – could stand as shorthand for most of Spike Lee’s directorial career: it’s undeniably powerful, but remarkably heavy-handed. Thankfully, this isn’t one of Lee’s worst offenders, although he does shoehorn in some thudding commentary about social issues from guns to AIDS. Other than that and an oddly slow-jam-heavy soundtrack, I wouldn’t exactly say there’s much wrong with the film version of Clockers. The cinematography is lush and stylish and the acting is solid, with Lindo’s old school hustler and Keith David’s watchful cop standing out. In some ways, it’s a film ahead of its time; the depiction of life on the corners still looks more realistic and sympathetic than most anything that’s followed in its wake, with one major exception.

It’s that exception that really sunk Clockers for me this time around. The Wire looms so large that it seriously deadens the impact of any comparable work of fiction. For every effective aspect of Clockers, there’s a more indelible counterpart from The Wire. Sure, Clockers’ Rocco Klein is a charismatic cop who knows how to talk to dealers on their own terms, but he doesn’t approach the self-destructive brilliance of Jimmy McNulty. Lee does a good job of introducing Errol Barnes, a stone-cold killer with a haunted past, but he’s not half as scary/sympathetic as The Wire’s Chris Partlow. And when we meet a hero-worshipping young boy in danger of being seduced by the streets, no Wire fan could help but flash on the wrenching stories of Michael, Randy, Namond and Dukie.

None of this is Clockers’ fault, of course. It’s just that The Wire changed everything. Call it the Beatles effect: Their early music was fun, iconic and revolutionary in its own right, but the release of Revolver rendered songs like “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” instantly dated, if not downright frivolous. The Wire simply lays waste to all that went before it. Procedural shows like Law & Order and CSI were never exactly heavyweights when it came to things like plotting, realism or dramatic integrity, but I could still sit down with them for some empty-headed entertainment. Now David Simon has rendered them nearly unwatchable for me. I’m afraid to revisit my previous all-time favorite cop show, NYPD Blue, because I don’t want the contrast to ruin it for me.

So where does that leave Clockers? Price’s book, I think, remains undiminished. Admittedly, I haven’t read it in more than a decade, but I still retain vivid memories of the bracing prose and fully drawn characters. In some ways, the novel may have been more cinematic than the movie. When I remember scenes from the story, they are as they played out in my head back in study hall, not as Spike Lee translated them to the screen. Price crafted a difficult, indelible novel that deserves its place among the best literature of recent decades.

As for the movie, I don’t want to be too hard on it. It’s an admirable adaptation, handsomely shot and populated with top-notch performances. It ranks in the top tier of 1990s “hood” flicks, yet it feels weirdly unsatisfying. Maybe my reaction would have been different had I gone into it with no knowledge of the book, but as it is the movie stands mainly as an interesting footnote to a couple of fantastic works of art. Lee’s work is more than passable, but I’m very glad that David Simon eventually (if indirectly) gave Price’s novel the adaptation it so richly deserved.

- Ira Brooker

Thursday, January 1, 2009

CD Review" "Sonic Portation" by Yahowa 13

(Originally published at MadeLoud)

The press material for the new Yahowa 13 record Sonic Portation – in true exaggerated press fashion - describes this as “the best reunion album of all time.” That’s a pretty bold claim for an independent release by a group unheard of by the vast majority of the music-buying public, but the underground legends of Yahowa 13 make a mighty strong case for their dominance.

Whatever the hippie equivalent of street cred is, Yahowa 13 is pretty much its living embodiment. The group was originally the house band for the Source Family, a group of religious seekers and vegetarian restaurateurs founded in the late ‘60s by a charismatic spiritual leader named Father Yod. Yahowa 13 became one of California’s most prolific psychedelic rock acts of the early ‘70s, cranking out nine entirely improvised albums that would later become sought-after collector’s pieces.

Following Father Yod’s death in a 1975 hang gliding accident, the group drifted apart but stayed in touch. The mostly instrumental Sonic Portation reunites the band’s three original core members for their first recording in more than three decades, and the years seem to have only intensified their musical passions.

The album opener “E Ah O Shin” starts with an ominous rumble and a mantra-like chant, then fades into the free-form cacophony of Octavius Aquarian’s insistent drum beat, Djin Aquarian’s meandering, distorted guitar and Sunflower Aquarian’s easy-flowing bass line. The music rolls and swells over the track’s twelve minutes, finally emerging as an Eastern-tinged groove that’s as danceable as the rest of the tune is spacey. This track works as a nice capsule of the band’s approach – three distinctive artists with individual styles who still manage to gell in a uniquely organic way.

The cohesion between the three musicians would be remarkable even if the songs weren’t made up on the spot. Despite Yahowa 13’s hippie pedigree, this is a long way from the sunny, mindless noodling usually associated with modern jam bands. An undertone of darkness runs through the album, fueled largely by Octavius’ aggressive beat. The fuzzy clatter of cuts like “Traveling Ohm” and “Raga Nova” sometimes bring to mind Neil Young’s apocalyptic score for Dead Man, but on a larger scale. There’s as much, if not more, prog and metal than ‘60s psychedelia in the band’s sound, and in this case that’s a very good thing.

So is Sonic Portation truly the best reunion album of all time? That’s arguable, obviously, but it’s to Yahowa 13’s great credit to say that it’s not nearly as far-fetched a claim as one might assume.

- Ira Brooker