Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Dramatics

Kathryn Bigelow directed "Fallen Heroes," the 2 hour sixth season finale of Homicide: Life on the Street in 1998. And while I was a fan of the series and had then not yet seen its early seasons (which are tremendous in quality) I was religiously watching and taping that season. "Fallen Heroes" is explosive for concluding vendettas that had gone back to earlier seasons involving the GEORGIA RAE character in a shootout with her nephew JUNIOR BUNK (Mekhi Phifer) where, in custody, in the homicide office of the Baltimore P.D., handcuffed, he manages to gain hold of a pistol, murdering and injuring several cops in a lengthy sequence. Or as I remember it, the scene where the young black gangster blows away a shitload of white cops.

Then there's The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). I love Kathryn Bigelow.

And I have a long standing theory that Homicide: Life on the Street influenced Lars von Trier to adopt his handheld documentary realism approach to everything from The Kingdom (1994) and Breaking the Waves (1996) to Dogme 95, which beginning in the late 90s would prove one of the biggest cinematic trends of the twentieth century. In the 2000s it's cult fanaticism died down some, but not for Kathryn Bigelow. With The Hurt Locker, she found collaborator Barry Ackroyd, B.S.C., who previously had honed the very same style of camerawork to perfection in United 93 (2006, Paul Greengrass).


Detroit (2017, Bigelow) is an historic agitprop riot-police brutality drama set in 1967. Barry Ackroyd's subjective handheld gritty camerawork paints canvases of rioting masses in night urban exteriors. Kathryn Bigelow contrasts a racist evil white cop helplessly giving into his violent impulses as he desperately tries to maintain justice in the middle of a huge riot with a Christian pious black Motown singer with an angelic voice and his friends being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This might all seem outrageous, but I'm a huge fan of the way it all goes down. The bulk of the first two acts comprise harrowing racism, police brutality, corruption, and rioting with large scale scenes of huge crowds interspersed with old bits of historical footage that is so convincing if you ask me I think it's all real, then segues into a nightmare claustrophobic raid at the Algiers motel.

Is there a riot genre in movies? Recently I got to enjoy the superb ESPN doc O.J.: Made in America (2016), which delves into the history the LAPD and 1965 Watts riots. And a lot of the same footage is used in the prologue of Menace II Society (1993, The Hughes Bros.), which sets the right tone for what follows in that movie. Remember in 1992 when Spike Lee and other celebrities were wearing Starter baseball caps that had a block all-caps arch font of the word LOOTERS? The rest is fuzzy, but after the 1992 L.A. riots the movie had to change its name to Trespass (1992, Walter Hill) and the movie also has nothing to do with riots. What a let down.

Detroit took me into the riot and left me there, with Bigelow's painterly eye and sense of textures utilizing tapestries of a decaying city. And the coda courtroom proceedings with loathsome Krasinski giving us something to hate pulled me out of my seat with outrage. Okay, I saw this coming but still, I became susceptible to my own anger over injustice. The cops. The courts. Anyway I guess the politically correct thing to say here is: even though this kind of situation may happen, it doesn't happen all the time.

What a beautifully complex series of questions to leave Detroit with. I feel like it's all really provocative and I wasn't let down.

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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Valérian and Laureline

As long as I've tried, I haven't ever liked any of Luc Besson's movies.

I am a huge fan of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999, George Lucas). Since, say, 1990 I'll say it's my favorite sci-fi fantasy movie and for the longest time I hated sci-fi and fantasy movies. But I wanted to broaden my tastes. The colorful imaginative alien worlds and species along with futuristic space ships and colonies finally became of particular interest to my artistic sensibilities. And The Phantom Menace is what led me to discover this latest personal cinematic obsession.

But key to appreciating The Phantom Menace is recognizing its inherent drawbacks as a giant budget VFX franchise entry (PG-13, positive values, kid-friendly) and being able to overlook them in favor of finding something you've never seen, and personally, some camp and space oddities that are fun in a shocking looking at a trainwreck at times kind of way. Still, since 1990 the only sci-fi movies I truly deeply love are the Star Wars prequel trilogy and The Matrix trilogy. But I love the look and feel of: Total Recall (1990, Paul Verhoeven), Starship Troopers (1997, Verhoeven), A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001, Steven Spielberg), Minority Report (2002, Spielberg), Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991, James Cameron), Avatar (2009, Cameron), Prometheus (2012, Ridley Scott), Alien: Covenant (2017, Scott) and John Carter (2001, Andrew Stanton).
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017, Luc Besson) is a big-budget sci-fi fantasy screwball comedy that rapidly jumps from all over several sequences in a quaintly comic serial manner. The best thing going for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is its art. It just feels like it delivers the promise of what I'd imagined and hoped to see based on my connotations of the term 70s French comic book. I'm very uninformed when it comes to comics, especially 70s comics or French comics; but names like Jean Giraud/Mœbius, Heavy Metal, H.R. Giger, and Frank Frazetta always draw my attention and leave me wanting to see more.

Similar to what I find to be The Phantom Menace's greatest strength (believably creating and populating another universe), Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets offers 302,036 different species in Alpha (the space station where the title comes from). And this is the source of all the film's eye-popping imagery, along with the heaping assortment of inventive sequences. First, the beach utopia is so colorful and surreal in its depiction of the alien ecosystem; and the jumpcut to VALERIAN (Dane DeHaan) sunning as LAURELINE (Clara Delevingne) enters in a black bikini (we are introduced to her by way of a close-up of her ass before we even see her face) on their own beach establishes the correct genre tone taking us into the enjoyably unfamiliar. Cara Delevingne in black bikini with her bushy eyebrows and high ponytail is a total movie star.

Secondly, the Big Market sequence is one of the most jaw-dropping spectacles of sight and scale. (The narrative device that enhances this business is the set of goggles that setup the possibility of having this scene play out simultaneously cross-cutting from different dimensions.) And well there's also the benefit of Luc Besson's passion of dizzying heights when he creates his visual geographies. The scene where Valerian is hit by heavy metal ball bearings and sinks through a series of floors is awesome. And as much fun as Big Market is, Alpha is an even larger maze of chutes and ladders where Valerian at one point gets in a dogfight piloting his skyjet then later has to escape running through a wall that he breaks through into more assorted rooms, including an orchard, and an underwater civilization.

There's this one character the commander is speaking with who looks so amazing in his thick white plastic coat with clear red bubbles and purple blob body who only appears on screen for a few seconds but it's moments like this that make me feel the craft here is worth appreciating.

The Paradise Alley set piece rounds out the city of a thousand planets and introduces BUBBLE (Rihanna) in a cutting-edge music video really cool gimmick that allows her to effortlessly morph around the stripper pole from a cabaret Sally Bowles outfit to nurse to jump rope schoolgirl to 70s rollergirl to French maid. As Bubble, Rihanna channels Jake Lloyd as ANAKIN for her performance and I love it. The ham was needed. Like The Phantom Menace, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is camp. I mean come on, the entire plot centers around a rainbow kinkajou who shits pearls. But it's some of the best, most artistically adept, coolest camp around.

Oh yeah before I forget, normally I don't associate movies with political messages (ahem Avatar coughing), but, in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, the good guys were attacked (6 million casualties) by a bad guy (a government commander who lied by telling everyone they had weapons of mass destruction) and I think it's all just a coincidence so why read anything into it. And I think there's a whole bunch of hints about gender diversity which of course I'm not saying is bad. Like, this might just be me, but while Clara Delevingne is strikingly high fashion sensationally cute and sexy, she is a lesbian from what I hear and I found absolutely zero chemistry between her and her male costar; nor do I buy the playlist maguffin. I look at Laureline as the smart one who puts up with douchebag Valerian and his sexual harassment only for the greater good of the universe. And Valerian has a woman trapped in his body the whole movie. Also all the aliens are like gender swapped, like the father who talks with a woman's voice. Progress evolves slowly.

I love Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.


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Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Horrors Heroes and Youngandinnocentocide of WWII

I don't recommend movies. With the exception of The Spanish Prisoner (1997, David Mamet). For the last 20 years that's the one movie I recommend. Why? Maybe because first of all I don't expect most people to have heard of it. Secondly, it's a David Mamet sleeper plot about tech jargon that features the casting of Steve Martin in a dark, straight role. And third, the rest is better left without description.

For a while, when it first came out on home video, I recommended Memento (2000, Christopher Nolan) often, but its novelty has worn off long ago. I've wanted to but have yet come to appreciate any of Christopher Nolan's work. His movies are tedious and boring.



90s filmmakers are my contemporaries. For me the modern era of cinema is 1990--. That's my main focus. The 90s are my main passion. The Thin Red Line (1998, Terrence Malick), Che (2008, Steven Soderbergh), The Hurt Locker (2008, Kathryn Bigelow), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012, Bigelow) spoiled me. As of this writing, since 1990 no other movie has come close to qualifying as a great war movie. But I'm still looking. Inglourious Basterds (2009, Quentin Tarantino) is amazing, but really it's such silly fun I kind of have to set it aside. Saving Private Ryan (1998, Steven Spielberg), Black Hawk Down (2001, Ridley Scott), Flags of Our Fathers (2006, Clint Eastwood), and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006, Eastwood) are cool. Miracle at St. Anna (2008, Spike Lee) sucks.



Dunkirk (2017, Nolan) in 70mm is a documentary realism World War II drama streamlined to 100 minutes of Hans Zimmer-scored first person any-minute-this-could-be-the-end patriotic nailbiter. Probably the best thing going for Dunkirk is its breathtaking technical craft using David Lean formalism by way of subjective POVs that place us right in the middle of imminent danger with the sense of scale and space uncomfortably close. I mean like that scene on the beach when the British troops hit the ground for cover and we see the plumes erupting spewing wet sand telling us that as this gets closer and closer it ends in death; yet, wait it comes closer than it normally would. And there is the death. Everywhere.

But my favorite thing about Dunkirk is its proficiency at telling a story through silence. And when I say silence I obviously mean every sound but dialogue. This is so uncommon nowadays. Also another thing nifty and great about Dunkirk is the illustrated key that tells us in the film's opening that 1. THE MOLE 1 Week, 2. THE SEA 1 Day, and 3. THE AIR 1 Hour sequences elapse at different lengths of time. So cool.

And well I am a total sucker for how cool the Tom Hardy dogfight Spitfire sequences are, or really even just anytime he and the other two Spitfire pilots are doing any kind of maneuvers--I used to love drawing fighter planes and playing with jet toys so much when I was a kid. And the shots from the cockpit benefit from a constricted POV that has the same limited field of vision as the pilots do.

Returning to the evocative depictions of horrific death: the climax of the attack on the Heinkel, the submerged destroyer, and the fuel engulfed waters burning and trapping the young soldiers in between burning or drowning, the surrounding perils in Dunkirk continuously shape together cohesively towards the final minutes. And at the end Hardy, Kenneth Branagh as a British Naval Commander, and Mark Rylance as a civilian with his own boat, combine to give this genre piece some pretty worthwhile performances. Yet at the end I also near my fill of British gentlemen at war high culture. It's so obnoxious. Evident most when the son of the Rylance character saves the British troop greeting him with: "Good Afternoon," in that stupid ha ha isn't it ironic that I'm being civilized at such a moment? kind of way.

So Dunkirk might be a great war movie. It certainly is one of the best pure cinema exercises in genre filmmaking. Cold? Sure. But that is another of its characteristics that fit it well.

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Sunday, August 06, 2017

Toward a Total Theory of the Messenger Bag: Volume 3, the Israeli Paratrooper Bag

Years ago—12 or more—I had many special needs. I rode my bike everywhere, with a 12-mile round trip to work, regardless of Portland weather, and I didn't spend a lot of time at home outside of sleeping and (rarely) bathing. This all meant: I needed to carry layers, for rain, for stench and a hat to keep the sun out of my eyes and rain off of my glasses; I needed to carry entertainment (reading material [Moorcock paperback?], music, my beloved pink handheld, maybe a DS, one or another notebook); I needed to carry bike locks; I needed enough storage space to pick up a sudden Gundam or Stikfa, or wedge in a thrifted Dreamcast; I needed somewhere to tuck my travel mug; at the end of my idiot nights, I often needed a six-pack of tallboys and a Totino's party pizza.

I had two bags at that point. One, my college LL Bean Turbo Transit backpack, big enough that I once lived out of it, travelling, for six weeks, magnificently ugly, but not strong against rain, and not convenient for getting into / out of without taking it off. Two, an early model Timbuk2 messenger bag, modified by its previous owner to use a length of seat belt material as its strap—a bag I adored, but found too big for some summer nights.

Thus it was that Tinzeroes and I betook ourselves to the local surplus store, where I first encountered an item listed as an "Israeli Paratrooper Bag". My first reaction: "Wow, evidently Israel's paratroopers need to do a lot of paperwork, because this bag is like 80% pen slots." My second reaction: "I really like this bag's look, feel, size."

Besotted with notions of kit-bashing and customization, and at a surplus store, I bought a couple strips of hook and loop fastener, a big buckle, and a length of wide, thick strapping. Once home, I grabbed a case of dental floss, my sewing kit, my pocket knife, and an X-acto blade from my model-building set.

I added the hook and loop to close the bag's flap more easily, and replaced the shoulder strap, sewing in as much strength as I could with floss. I added an attachment loop for a blinky bike light, and heat-sealed the straps where I'd cut them with my pocket knife, held over the stove's burner. The X-acto knife cut out one of the two main compartment's dividers, freeing up space and lightening the bag a bit (but I think it was mostly just doing something for the sake of doping something).

Even for summer use, it was never quite big enough. With anything at all in it, it was a little too full for much more than a six-pack, and even the most wadded-up hoody would more or less fill it. And since I hadn't tested where to put the velcro, if the bag was too full, I couldn't close it. Rainy season ruled the bag out entirely for outdoor use: the thick canvas wasn't waterproof, or even really colorfast.

But I loved it. The experience of customizing it had only taken an evening, but had bonded me to it as securely as the shoulder strap was bonded to the bag's side wall.

The size was too small (14" wide, 11" tall, main compartment 4" deep), but every force that constrains my overpacking is welcome. The material wasn't waterproof, but it didn't promote gross back sweat as badly as a plastic bag on longer summer rides. Plus, the canvas was strong without being stiff or rough, meaning that it didn't tear up things it came into contact with (sweaters, for example) or wear through where it creased, with the exception of this one spot, after substantially longer than a decade.

The organization options weren't incredibly robust, but the flat pocket at the back wall was always a good spot for a U-lock, and the front pouch pocket always seemed to accommodate more than I'd expect. And a big empty main compartment is a must no matter what your needs are.

I still have the bag! I throw it in a larger bag sometimes if I'm flying somewhere I expect to be walking around a lot. It's also good for those late-night "need beer" rides. Most of my special needs from circa 2004 are no longer, but a good bag is a good bag. This is a good bag.

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