Glenn Beck's an asshole, Suvari shines, and Mizoguchi's discourses on the female condition rule
Glenn Beck: Unelectable
Arts Alliance America
Being Bill Maher's hard. Not only must you sport razor-sharp comedic wit but you also have to, like, know stuff about politics and culture. I know Bill Maher, and, Glenn Beck: You, sir, ain't no Bill Maher. A baby-faced blowhard who hosts a popular Limbaugh-lite radio show, Beck operates under the fraudulent claim of a nonpartisan free-thinker when, as his live special Unelectable demonstrates, he simply spouts hardhat conservative orthodoxy to a crowd of true believers. Beck shares with Maher a political incorrectness that is welcome in punditry, and to his credit, he can pound a podium and rouse a crowd with the best of anyone on the AM dial or cable news airwaves. It's the material that Beck pitifully lacks: His comic stylings are those of an eager wannabe at the Laugh Shack open-mic who only tested out his material on friends too nice to tell him his Michael Moore "meatball in shoes" analogy just isn't very funny. Suggesting we kill polar bears to drill for oil? Hilarious! Mocking Obama by contorting his face in a constipated grimace as he "prays for hope and change?" Hysterical! If that isn't insulting enough, he even labels Detroit as the worst city in America. Douchebag. —John Thomason
You'd think Hollywood would find a better flick hook than the old crusty "based on a true story." Or, dare we utter, "inspired" by real events. No matter how they word it, any skeptic worth his salt will tell you to beware such disclaimers.
And the "factual" premise of 2007's Stuck is hard to swallow even if you're gullible. A hardworking retirement home nurse (Mena Suvari, American Beauty) runs down a homeless man (Stephen Rea, The Crying Game) after partying hard at a club on a Friday night. (Up to this point, it sounds pretty plausible, especially if you watch the local news, right?) But your bullshit detectors might howl when the victim here ends up alive and embedded in the windshield. You may even want to fact-check with Ripley's Believe It or Not when the nurse continues to drive home and parks her car in the garage with her conscious victim begging her to call an ambulance — which, by the way, she never does. There's no way this really could have happened. Right? As loony as it all sounds, the exact thing did happen in 2001. This ain't to suggest Stuck is fact. Director Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator, From Beyond) and writer John Strysik have altered a few details and skipped the gruesome real-life outcome. But what they've added is a sobering and humorous survival-of-the-fittest contest that pits the up-for-a-promotion nurse against the corporate-downsized everyman struggling to find employment. So they've crafted a macabre black comedy about the decline of humanity, social anomie and the desperate measures a person might take to hold on to a job in unstable economic times. And as creepy as it may sound, Stuck will have you wondering, "What would I do if that happened to me?" Neat stuff. —Paul Knoll
Kenji Mizoguchi's Fallen Women
At a time when Hollywood was dominated by the male gaze, feminists had to embrace underground and foreign filmmakers to find insights about the subjugation of women and the female condition. It's a wonder that these four Kenji Mizoguchi films, combined for a series titled Fallen Women, have until now been virtually neglected from feminist film theory, when they should be considered seminal in its development. True, Mizoguchi was not Dorothy Arzner, battling a patriarchal studio system with products that defiantly (if ineptly) channeled female desire and repression. But these distinctly women's pictures, shot over a 20-year period, addressed the dominant issues facing women in Japan and beyond with devastating emotional acuity and a desolate absence of Hollywood frills.
The series begins with 1936's Osaka Elegy, a formative effort filmed before Mizoguchi etched his own visual style. Modest in scope and anchored by filial concerns of love, marriage and kinship, Osaka Elegy finds the director following in Yasujiro Ozu's footsteps, which is hardly a bad thing. Its focus is singular, following one woman's descent into prostitution. A selfless and self-sacrificing figure, she will contribute to her family's financial stability only to be shamefully ostracized by the same father, sister and brother she helped in their times of need. In this cynical and tragic indictment, women are always on their own, with marriage and familial fealty acting as fantasies or facsimiles of happiness.
In its rapid follow-up, Sisters of the Gion, Mizoguchi expands his critique, doubling his account of fallen women to include two geisha sisters of contrasting viewpoints: traditional, subservient Umekichi and progressive, independent Omocha. Gender lines are drawn in the sand in the first few scenes, with Omocha branding men as enemies. It appears that just one film after his leading lady helplessly succumbed to her predestined plight, at least one of Mizoguchi's women is in command. But no: Aided by stunning tracking shots, Mizoguchi employs the post-gangster film, proto-noir panic of shady alliances and danger around every corner to paint a picture even more bleak and morally sobering than his previous effort: These women's only choice is between male servitude and a hospital bed.
Prostitution is again the only viable option in 1948's Women of the Night, a shattering document that should rank alongside Sansho the Bailiff as one of Mizoguchi's masterpieces. We get the same sense of overwhelming hopelessness as in the previous films, with the director's focus broadening from two characters to three: A war widow forced into prostitution to pay the bills; her sister, who becomes an accessory in her lecherous boss's opium dealing; and their young friend, whose dream of escaping home becomes a nightmare. The savagery of human nature, both implied and depicted in this barbaric film, is still shocking today. The divisions within the families of his previous films gives way to an internecine war of prostitutes, in which anarchy and Darwinism decide who lives to trick another john.
And finally we arrive at 1956's Street of Shame, which would be the final film of Mizoguchi's career. From one, to two, to three central figures spawns this totalizing ensemble set in a bagnio in Tokyo's notorious red light district. The stories are all compelling and emotionally shattering, from a prostitute who uses a new law to leave the business only to find herself forced back on the streets to the bordello's most respected courtesan, whose own son disowns her out of shame. Mizoguchi concludes his filmography essentially where it began, his heroines similarly doomed, their situations disturbingly interchangeable from 1936 to 1956. But his continued efforts to expose and critique the inevitable downfall of so many women had a silver lining: Prostitution was outlawed shortly after the release of Street of Shame, a box office smash. This should be enough reason for feminist film scholars to reappraise Mizoguchi. — John Thomason