Couch Trip

May 28, 2008 at 12:00 am

Karaoke Terror: The Complete Japanese Showa Songbook
Synapse Films

There ain't a soul who hasn't hit their local get-shitfaced watering hole only to have the night massacred by wretched renditions of "Free Bird" and "Wind Beneath My Wings." Karaoke is a culture unto itself, of course, driven by the love of music, plenty of booze and personal delusion. It's a lovely thing, then.

These things hold true for the two gangs in Karaoke Terror, a wicked and insightful flick adapted from a novel by Ryu Murakami (Audition). In one corner you've got the Gakis, a surly and immature bunch of slackers who do elaborate karaoke re-creations of their favorite "showa"-era tunes. And in the other are the Midoris, a middle-aged coterie of divorcees all with the same first name and a love of karaoke clubs.

The two disparate groups cross paths when Sugioka, the most socially disaffected of the Gakis, kills one of the Midoris after she rebuffs his sexual come-ons. This sparks a revenge-ripe gang war that begins with knives and ends in nihilistic absurdity. Beneath the gushing jugulars and pitch-black comedy is a much deeper story about those lost in our dumbed-down culture and worsening economy. Without purpose or direction, these souls find a connection in things as tentative as a same first name, a love of karaoke or a common enemy.

Director Tetsuo Shinohara gives his flick some great visual flair without it looking labored and obvious. Another plus is the great performances, all of which appear completely realistic, even as the flick shifts from parody to drama then back again. Karaoke Terror will be lumped in with other "Asian Extreme Cinema" titles, a limiting label that doesn't do justice to a flick whose insightful view of the disenfranchised is universally thought-provoking. — Paul Knoll

Le Gai Savoir
Koch Lorber

The wording of the plot synopsis on the box art for Jean-Luc Godard's Le Gai Savoir reads like a parody of a Godard film: "While alone in an abandoned television studio, two militants ... have a discourse on language." One of the director's most abstruse non-narrative affronts to traditional cinematic pleasure, Le Gai Savoir was commissioned for French television but never broadcast. Even today, it's one of the least discussed works in Godard's '60s canon. It stars Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto as the two revolutionaries who converse in a studio lit for a Charlie Rose taping. Godard intercuts their exhausting exchanges with documentary street footage and manipulated stills of political figures, movies and pop-culture staples, mashing unmatched audio and images together into an obscure goulash. The soundtrack is too complex — often changing with a channel-surfer's restlessness — for a comprehensive translation, surely leaving non-French speakers struggling to take everything in. Indeed, what is Godard doing here besides testing our patience? This is taking the idea of Eisenstein's associative montages to their most esoteric extremes. If you weren't living in Paris in 1968, you should get a decoder ring as a DVD extra. The film is an interesting curio for a while, until it starts to come apart in an arduous anti-conclusion, and you'll eventually start pulling your hair out. To reference another iconoclastic "artiste," if Godard's magnificent Two or Three Things I Know About Her, made just a year earlier, was his Berlin, then Le Gai Savoir is surely his Metal Machine Music. —John Thomason

Rachel's Choice
Evil Angel

When it comes to Rachel's Choice, porn fans can be thankful that Ms. Starr opted for the sex biz as her vocation. And goodness knows she's made for it; the shameless vixen was born with a keister that apparently walked right out of God's own ass factory and demanded to be in porn, not to mention a set of well-pierced knockers that the Man in Heaven had little to do with, and a wicked and gorgeous face topping it all off.

Longtime triple-X auteur John Leslie (one of very few male porn directors who understands the form) helms the flick like the pro he is, squeezing every last bit of tension and tease from ever-willing Starr and co-stars Lexi Belle, Adriana DeVille and McKenzee Miles, none of them slouches. Office fetish fans will take a particular liking to Starr's Sapphic dom work, clad in a not-really-workplace-appropriate outfit of skintight black skirt, classy white blouse that barely contains her bound-for-freedom knockers, plus glasses, so she looks smart, apparently.

Starr takes on all comers be they male, female, or combinations thereof. So, really, choosey she ain't. —Fern LaBott

La Chinoise
Koch Lorber

Jean-luc Godard's La Chinoise is a post-1968 French film made in 1967. Anticipating the student revolt to come a year later, Godard's densely batty riff on communism, socialism, Marxism-Leninism and all other class-divide-isms is both a reverberation of his early '60s genre farces and a preview of his often insufferable Maoist period to come. In other words, it's only fun Godard half the time. Capturing the discussions, mock exercises and commentaries of a small group of student revolutionaries living in a parents' bourgeois apartment, La Chinoise is a shambling left-wing treatise devised by feeble armchair revolutionaries whom Godard seems to be mocking even when championing their beliefs. When they finally are brought to violent recourse, the film's lone action scene is suggested, in typical Godardian deadpan deconstructionism, with comic-book imagery. Elsewhere Godard gives us pseudo-documentary interviews, still photographs, evocative tracking shots and inter-titles galore, touching on familiar subjects like cinema (his beloved Nicholas Ray is referenced again), theater, literature and philosophy. The Koch Lorber disc includes four short but revealing extras, the best being a Venice Film Festival press conference clip of Godard wishing he could put most of the people he works with in prison. —John Thomason

The H.P. Lovecraft Collection, Vol. 1: Cool Air
Lurker Films

There've been numerous cinematic adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft's works throughout the years, and most of them have been undertaken by well-meaning devotees of the man's fantastic horror fiction. Few of them, however, have been undertaken well. This DVD — the first of four volumes of recent, low-budget Lovecraft-ian films to be released by Lurker Films — contains five films by three directors, and doesn't do much to change the arithmetic on that formula. The Bryan Moore-shot Cool Air seems to get top billing due mainly to its length, rather than any pronounced difference in quality, as the other four pieces here are just as hamstrung by cheap locations and low-fi effects. Lovecraft's written works are deeply atmospheric and spooky, and on paper they resonate with an oppressive mystery that's sadly missing from their cinematic counterparts. That's not to say these aren't solid pieces of low-budget filmwork, and certainly the filmmakers are strident fans of Lovecraft's fiction. It's just that when you're evoking "The Crawling Chaos" part of the writer's Cthulhu mythos (as Christian Mantzke does in Nyarlathotep), you need a little more than good intentions to get the creepiness across. —Jason Ferguson