Saturday, November 17, 2012

be prepared: Shellac, 22oct2011, New Parish

No easy way to say this: Shellac were as potent a collision of tight and rocking as I've ever seen. Flawless stop-starts, underrated melodies, hammy yet satisfying showmanship (glossed by Noodles as "guy's got a taste for drama, no?") and an unparalleled ability to sell previously unheard songs. Every bit as good as the best NoMeansNo shows I've seen, which means: as good a show as I have ever seen.

Track list:

the watch song
steady as she goes
my black ass
he came in you*
a minute
squirrel song
bikes (on the wall)*
prayer to god
dog & pony show
the end of radio
o my brothers*
*new tune (name approximated/estimated)

Shellac: a synchronic appreciation

A feature of my life to date that truly deserves the appelation so sadly fucked is that most of the great lessons of/in life I've absorbed have come lyrics. A feature of my life to date that truly deserves the appelation seriously, dude, you're a pile of crap is that the bulk of those lyric lessons have been penned by lyricists like Gibby Haynes & Steve Albini. Normally I wouldn't kick--wisdom's where you find it--but Albini's first recorded lyrics included bons mot like

I've never hung a darkie, even a big one
I've never seen an Indian on a horse know...a little defensive.

now I got an engine
a big perverted engine
that runs on strength of will

do you get the same jokes as me?
do you get the jokes the same as me?

wrote him a letter
said I'll never come home
he never sent it
but he wrote it again and again
stacked up to the ceiling
then another stack
he burned them all winter
for heat

Shellac: a diachronic appreciation

Every Shellac release I own is a sun-like locus of memories, with planet-anecdotes orbiting. I frequently forget how much I like this band. I always forget to put them on, but whenever shuffle finds them, my moment improves. I won't miss them live, either.

Singles & At Action Park

A dipshit, I missed the initial singles at the time--a bigger dipshit, I now own multiple identical copies of them, in case of...needing...multiple...copies of the same 7"--and had to be turned on to At Action Park by some buddies. I bought my own copy with a copy of Big Black's Songs About Fucking the same day, put them on a cassette, and spent most of a year listening to little else. To this day, I remember the warehouses I'd walk by on the way to work, headphones on, boots thumping over the three miles no matter the weather, from cold forcing breath to congeal to ice in my beard to diagonal thunderstorms, to arid Denver heat, 1996 grinding away under the weight of my failures, herky-jerky stabs at adulthood and art, violent spasms toward attempts to be a good person, at long last, warehouses and train tracks trudging by morning after morning as I'd walk to work.

The singles--Uranus, with the impeccable "Doris" and "Wingwalker", and A Pictorial History of the Rude Gesture, with top-5-favorite-song-of-all-time "the rambler song" and whatever else is on it--I had a special relationship with from the beginning. Instantly I knew I didn't actually want to play them that often: they're special, and need to be reserved for those times a man truly needs a piece of art capable of frank absolution. One year, probably 1996 or 1997, I drunkenly called my friends who'd turned me on to Shellac and left a message along the lines of

Hey...guys...just...thinking about friends...and a cigar...a good cigar now and again...
For whatever reason, the best way I could think of to communicate my love for my friends was quoting Steve Albini lyrics from "the billiard player song". I think I've come a long way.

1000 Hurts

Somehow, in that largely pre-Internet age, everybody I knew knew the new Shellac was going to drop. I think I preordered it from Jackpot on Hawthorne in Portland, but fucked up and didn't get in on the first batch, so had to wait for the second. When 1000 Hurts arrived, everybody--everybody--was listening to it. You couldn't set foot on campus without hearing (somebody talk about) "prayer to god". I wore it out. Probably we all did.


Comparatively, Terraform was a massive disappointment. The two longest songs were static exercises, 12 minutes and 7 minutes of difficult-to-play and difficult-to-listen-to slow technicalisms that please no record owner. I told people often that, minus those two songs, it would have been a phenomenal EP, and I took immense pleasure from the frankly poppy put-down "copper", savage riff showcase and Albini standby diss track "Canada" and ventriloquism hatchet job "mouthpiece". At a time when my consumption of new music had essentially flatlined, this platter was a piss-poor lifeline into productive consumption; but I still listened to it a lot, and it still taught me who the amazing Cheley Bonestall is/was.

Excellent Italian Greyhound

Then...nothing. For years, nothing. They played a pair of memorable shows in Portland, including a couple new songs, and shot their mouths off about "yeah, the new album exists, and we'll release it when we feel like it." Eventually, they felt like it. As a product, Excellent Italian Greyhound skews 'way closer to Terraform than to At Action Park, but still includes a handful of my favorite Shellac songs, which means it still includes a handful of my favorite songs.

I put it on the jukebox at the bar I worked at, and took infinite comfort in those depressed years from stompers like "be prepared" and the second-best bass solo ever, in "boycott". At the shows, their long, slow, methodical versions of "the end of radio" taught me what they'd been up to with the disappointing numbers on Terraform: a platform for performativity, a framework for stringing an audience along and compelling maximal attention to minimal information, demanding total focus in case the band/song changes. It works beautifully live--"the end of radio" has happied me every time I've heard it played--and nearly reverses my opinion on the real estate it occupies on wax.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

be brave, Watt: Mike Watt & the Missingmen, New Parish 8nov2012

It's a promise of something. Nobody's gonna get hurt here, nobody's going to get hated. Everyone is going to dream their most intense dream and not be scared. Not try to push it all the fuck away. Ya know? Of making and creating.
--Mike Watt

A cold night, a concrete floor, I'm waiting for a Mike Watt show. Could be pretty much any time from 1991 on. My first such show was in Boulder, Colorado, at a place called, I think, Ground Zero. My mom drove me up from Aurora, went and drank coffee until I was done moshing to fIREHOSE. I saw "this ain't no picnic" on Teletunes, and Minutemen records ended up represented in the first three or four CDs and 45s I bought. (Second 45, after 99 Luftballoons, I think, was Paranoid Time.) Just like at that first show, I'm one of the younger dudes in the room, though one of the opening bands, Disappearing People, has a young, enthusiastic posse along for the ride.

A few years after that first (amazing) gig, at the Gothic Theatre in Denver, my head was coming down as another was coming up, and I still have a chipped front tooth from the collision. I came up from the floor okay, though, with my bent-ass glasses and fucked-up mouth, and joined in as the whole room sang Brave Captain. Other shows: Portland shows where I got to annoy Watt when he was trying to talk to Richard Meltzer, California shows; a million records, a movie, even a solid handful of books (Spiels of a Minuteman, Double Nickles on the Dime, Mike Watt: On and Off Bass.

All those shows, all that stuff; it's safe to say that I'm a fan...

There is a part of me that feels frustrated at my show-going, though: when I look at bands coming through town, or at my show list, I sometimes feel a little resentful that I see the same bands over and over, as they and I age. It's like they expect me to keep showing up, and to pay $30 when I once paid $12: it's like I'm a hostage to my own youth.1

But that's the kind of thinking that only happens when I'm standing around before the show, or when I'm at a desk, looking at show listings. Once the sound starts, I'm where I want/need to be, and I know that someday there just won't be any Mike Watt shows to go to—and I'll be doubledamned if I end up having to look back and admit that I skipped some because I was too old, or too tired, or because I had to work the next day, or because I decided I had something better to spend a couple bucks on.

If the money isn't a challenge, something that is is Watt's entirely admirable conviction that "punk is whatever we made it to be": I'm only now really figuring out his third solo album, The Secondman's Middle Stand, and that came out a full eight years ago. He's been touring the new one, "hyphenated-man" for a couple years now, and only at this New Parish show do I really start to feel it. (The Bottom of the Hill show we caught last year suffered from that venue's abysmal sound2 and tendency to overfill the space with colossal dickheads.) The new one is light on tunes where the whole band is playing one riff—to use a possible Watt-ism, there's not too many songs where all the rowers are pulling in the same direction. Live, that can be a tough proposition, because listening to complex interplay like that can easily devolve into a sense that there's three guys not really listening to one another... As Watt himself says before the show:

"We're about to do a pretty fucked-up thing here. We're gonna play one long song in 30 parts for 45 minutes."
While Watt never gives anything but his very best effort, his aesthetic has gone some weird places over the past decade or so, and there are definite bars to entry.

There's definite rewards, too, though. On this night, the band is in incredible form. The sound is balanced perfectly—at least for Noodles and me it is, standing about two feet away from Tom Watson, playing his fingers off all night. For the first time, I hear and feel how the bass and guitar lines are complementing one another song to song. For the first time, the songs have a real groove: everybody there can feel it, and everybody's dancing their asses off.3 For the first time, I pick up on the playful genre moves, from big-rock to country to singalong-shanty to Minutemeny-tribute to blues-rock and beyond. Watt's in excellent voice, too: for a lot of years, I've kind of wished he'd abdicate the singing role, but on this night, it's impossible to imagine anybody inhabiting these songs but him and his bull-roar.

The crowd is pretty good, too, even if I did get pissy with a couple old dudes over issues of personal space and how I'm not really about talking to strangers in public because I'm a prick. Everybody's dancing, and, more impressively, everybody's along for the ride as Watt pushes hard on his intense desire to explore a huge dynamic range. Which is to say: everybody shuts the fuck up and listens during the quiet bits, which are quieter than any other set I've ever seen. (The Bottom of the Hill show was particularly noxious in this regard: listening to a couple drunk bros conversate through "mouse-headed-man" made me want to walk out on the show.) There's a reward for this, too, because the recitation in "pinned-to-the-table-man" was as riveting and—fuckin' right—inspirational as anything I've seen at a show:

loss and liberation
forever the connection
forever the question
be brave, watt
stop never reflectin'
the lesson ain't ever less than
the lesson never lessens

The piece concluded, the band took a quick break, while the audience clapped for a return. Rarely, I suspect, were so many people ever given so much frank joy by complicated jazzy rock in a Bosch-inspired "all middle parts" rock opera performed by a power trio with an average age in the middle 40s. It's a tribute to the excellence of the music and the passion of the performance: Tom Watson and Raul Morales played with absolute conviction and immense skill. (I read once that late live shows of The Who's Tommy were better than the record, because the band had had time to figure out how best to play and present the parts: I wonder if something similar happened here.)

How much skill and conviction was brought that night? Well, they covered Jimi Hendrix' Machine Gun in the encore, and they pulled it the fuck off.

A few more covers, including a lights-out version of "one reporter's opinion" and it was a wrap. Raul sold me a kick-ass button and a 7" I need to fix my turntable to play. Watt sold me a Hand to Man Band CD and a shirt and said he needed to play Oakland more often, after I told him it meant a lot to me that he played Oakland on a work night.

A great show, a great experience, and a great lesson. We put in the work listening to some singular music, we put ourselves in a position to have a rad experience coming out on a work night, and we got rewarded bigime for both. Thanks for playing, guys: it was wonderful.

--Fat, long-time listener and gig-goer

1 I should note here that Watt is not now nor has he ever been one of these offenders. Mostly I'm talking about one particular Mountain Goats show at the Fillmore, I think. In general, anybody I want to see is likely to want to charge a pretty reasonable price.

2 It's always incredibly trebly there. I remember an Obits/Night Marchers show where Greg's guitar sounded like burning tinfoil.

3 Watt even noticed the dancing, though he had to ignore it to pull off playing the piece.

Friday, September 21, 2012

A Battle That's Been a Trillion Years in the Making

Paul Thomas Anderson is to contemporary Hollywood something only maybe Terrence Malick can also be claimed as--an heir to the prestige rank of what the New Hollywood of the 1970s had established and set out to do. In his last two films he's found an actor willing to take on a gutsy unsympathetic lead and forged some unforgettable character studies. I bring this up because among the primary narrative elements used in a screenplay--character, setting, plot, dialogue, and genre--Anderson of late has mastered character and setting most. And since the only other top rank big budget director aside from Anderson and Malick that I can think of is Fincher, I find it telling of current Hollywood fiscal trends that Fincher specializes in plot and genre, for that's where the big money is at for artists of their caliber.

While almost every other Hollywood director has gone HD and begun pushing that envelope, Anderson remains committed to the potential of what film can do. A final Fincher comparison to ponder is he and Anderson's key collaborators for both of their last two films, the composer especially. Anderson's DP, Robert Elswit, ASC, was absent from his latest production--for the first time in their careers. That still leaves him with composer Jonny Greenwood and production designer Jack Fisk though. And this suits him just fine.

And some other trivia: Mihai Malaimare Jr., who shot Anderson's new film, shot Youth Without Youth (2007), Tetro (2009), and Twixt (2011) for Francis Ford Coppola, the last remaining figure from the 70s New Hollywood contiunuing in that vein of filmmaking, which Coppola calls "personal" fims.

Elswit first gave Anderson sprawling Ophülsian large canvass ensemble mosaics, then dark, naturally lit-appearing, artifact speckled tableaux. In The Master (2012, Anderson), the cinematography does not call attention to itself; and, no offence to Elswit, but, in a good way.

And Greenwood's score is less prominent.

Okay, here we go.

From the simple windsor font against a black background single title card, Anderson is relentlessly restrained. We're plunged into the world of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and observe him on the beach, post WWII, catching some R&R with some fellow sailors: with little dialogue or context, we begin to study his character through action--his behavior, his rowdy primal lusts and pursuits.

And then, aside from the introduction of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the narrative keeps adding tiny crucially revealing pieces to the layers and layers of Freddie's existence, identity, and ultimate place in the universe.

And after most of our curiosities about Scientology are allowed to explore this similar narrative, imagining the parallels to Freddie's Master in the same way Last Days (2005, Gus Van Sant) did with a Cobain analog, it becomes possible to view The Master as an alternate take on There Will Be Blood (2007, Anderson). Plainview courted our empathy, but here Dodd does not; and, that leaves us with an even more cynical worldview to process. We empathize with Freddie. If Plainview glorified our dark side, Freddie reminds us how lost we can get.

And that's the scary part of the master. Because by the end, I actually did sympathize with Dodd. Maybe I should leave it at that. These are big questions. What does it take for Freddie to allow himself to be subjected to Dodd's demands? Is he worse off? Maybe not. All's I'll say is I reconfigured my connotation of what a cult is after watching The Master.

Anderson's breakdown has become signature. Plainview bitch-slapping Eli started something. And Anderson's most intriguing when he bridges man's spiritual identity to his animal nature. The Master shows Freddie going rabid on more than one occurence.

Dodd is a return to the nucleus that formerly held the surrogate band of miscreants in Anderson's early films together. And his stalwart wife and daughter remind one of Plainview's reliance on HW to sell his family image to his buyers. Philip Seymour Hoffman is magnificent in the way he truly embodies the charisma that needs to be that believable for this thing to really work, which it does.

I'll just close by saying that a few years ago I did some searches about Scientology, as I had just heard about it, and I read about it for hours. I still can't think of any movies other than A Woman of Paris (1923, Charles Chaplin), Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles), All the King's Men (1949, Robert Rossen), The Last Hurrah (1958, John Ford), The Last Tycoon (1976, Elia Kazan), Velvet Goldmine (1998, Todd Haynes) or Last Days ("last" is common in these titles) where the biopic's subject has been thinly disguised while obviously resembling the real he or she quite a bit, but The Master's focus on Freddie safeguards itself against it being a Hubbard bio. The Master remains as a character piece, and one that boldy portrays our weaknesses and most lasting needs we shuffle through along the way to our own searches for a master, on whatever paths they lead us, which often resemble just these kinds of ethical and moral wrestling matches that take place beteween Freddie and his master.


Thursday, September 13, 2012

I Just Knew It Was Going to Happen

Being human is weird. Some stuff disturbs me and I don't quite know why. I get mega creeped out by bodybuilders, opossums, and semi-trucks.

In the age that I live in, the monsters that scare me the most are those who take advantage of others out of a morbid sadism. This train of thought first began for me years ago when I began to imagine who invented junk mail, telemarketing, spam emails, or who turned those channels into agents of malicious harassment. This generated no answers.

Even more recently I learned that a friend of mine used to engage in elaborate prank calls in his teens. I won't go into detail, but I (a little shamefully) must admit that it altered my view of him as a person. Timid as I am, I can't accept how some people exploit the misery of others for their own sick amusement.

Prank calling has never creeped me out more after watching Compliance (2012, Craig Zobel).

Does anyone remember Bye Bye Love (1995, Sam Weisman)? It was the first movie I saw that took place in a McDonald's and I freaked. That's all I remember about the movie because anytime the action took place at the McDonald's, I was riveted by the chance to glimpse backstage. I don't know why this was the only time that happened--I was nonplussed by McDowell's in Coming to America (1988, John Landis), I have yet to see Goodburger (1997, Brian Robbins), Waiting... (2005, Rob McKittrick) looked too invested in a certain type of disgruntled comedy that never seemed worth watching.

But Compliance takes care to craft the world of ChickWich with the utmost attention to detail. The first act introduces us to the fast food restaurant and its assortment of workers. They are individuals, each fleshed out in their own way (oops, pun). There's Harold the custodian, who abstains from his shift meal--undoubtedly due to its poor nutritional or dietary quality. And this is effective because I myself was already thinking about how gross fast food is. And later in a gruellingly uncomfortable scene Sandra (Ann Dowd) offers some of the people waiting soft drinks, and a couple of them ask for, "Diet Coke."

The second act is the bulk of the narrative and it feels too long. The frustration is inescapable. It finds Becky (Dreama Walker) the victim of a strip search that harrows into increasingly bizarre ordeals she must suffer. But this is intentional.

The third act makes up for the second. Zobel orchestrates his sociological case-drama with just the right beats. What seemed like impossibly dim character motivations in the second act become more palatable. We reflect on their mistakes, which become less improbable, just as the demands taxed on them hit a crescendo of respite.

The acts of transgression toward Becky visually resemble something of a modern day Salò (1975, Pier Paolo Pasolini). And the libertine decadence of inflicting such horrid demands on her gives the film some link to timeless themes.
Compliance felt like a true horror to me. Because this is the kind of stuff that really scares me: grimy fast food restaurants resembling dungeons being turned into real dungeons of human depravity and debacle. But Zobel's Milgram discourse saves the film from being nothing more than torture. Good. I can't stand those films that are nothing more than evil deeds for the sake of evil; like, Breakdown (1997, Jonathan Mostow) for example--J.T. Walsh's character is truly frightening, but that's a little thin to sustain a feature narrative.
Most of the film features little music, but the cello on the score punctuates and underscores the movie tastefully. The cinematography is always looking for nuances in the location in service of atmospheric verisimilitude.
If someone asks you to do something super fucked up, think twice before you comply!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Revocate the Agitator

Takashi Miike makes directing look so fun. His material ranges from gruesome torture macabre to G rated children's films, hitting almost everything in between along the way. What genre hasn't he tackled?

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011, Takashi Miike) is majestically sparse.

Set in 17th century Japan, this Jeremy Thomas-produced, Ryuichi Sakamoto-scored costume samurai buskin portends a solemn, restrained ballad of desaturated hues, tons of silence, and ominously zen rock gardens.

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai doesn't appear as a filmed play, although because of its minimal use of characters and locations, it easily could have. Miike overcomes this pitfall by shooting ornate tableaux with a floating 3D omniscient POV through predominantly wide-angled lenses.

Miike often makes movies without any graphic violence, but just because Hara-Kiri:Death of a Samurai doesn't illustrate the explicit carnage doesn't mean that the film isn't visceral--it is.

The gut becomes the epicenter of where a man's test of self is played out. In Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai a nuclear family has to deal with the throes of insurmountable poverty. Motome, Miho, Kingko and their unnamed white cat inherit the same set of circumstances most Hollywood casts battled during the Great Depression, with a similar uncorrupted innocence.

The film's themes are embedded in the arc of Hanshiro and his virtue in the face of oppression. He's up against impossible odds, and Lord Kageyu of the House of li represents an unswayable set of fixed values as old as the rocks and wood that make up the architecture of the various structures the film occurs in. The plot is classically archetypal, yet is stripped down to the grim mechanics of the court martial-like interrogation of the samurai Hanshiro.

Characters are sketched lightly. The dominance of the House of li's military might is in direct opposition to the starving family--and this is the heart of the film. Doomed lovers practically deserve their own genre. From Romeo and Juliet to You Only Live Once (1937, Fritz Lang) and They Live by Night (1949, Nicholas Ray), the death of young romance is the fodder of endless photoplays.

And seeing as how this is one of those rare occurences where the victims (Motome and Miho) are completely faultless, their struggles earned my sympathy especially in the way in which I kept thinking about how this story is so relevant today. What's the solution? Beats me.

We're a frail species.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Behead the Prophet (No Lord Shall Live)

A trend currently common among narrative feature filmmakers is to shoot a feature on HD, with a budget of around $1-5 million, on location, in order to more freely experiment without the pressures of studio financing. It is uncertain when this first began. Soderbergh shot The Girlfriend Experience (2009) and Ed Lachman lensed Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime (2009) on the Red One, Damsels in Distress (2011, Whit Stillman) on a Red One MX; Tim Orr shot Prince Avalanche (2013, David Gordon Green) on an Arri Alexa; and Red Hook Summer (2012, Spike Lee) was shot on a Sony F3.

Red Hook Summer is subtle.

On one level it is a coming of age tale about Flik (13) spending the summer with his crotchety grandpa, Da Good Bishop Enoch. This comprises about 2/3 of the narrative. As typical with the coming of age genre, Flik tries to combat boredom and his grandpa expounds life lessons through wisdom. The Red Hook neighborhood is an Our Town microcosm ranging from church parishioners and a youth group, to others with less optimistic plights. This aspect I'll call the Church Chat portion.

The Church Chat portion achieves a level of vicarious restlessness, as Enoch's sermons drone on and on, for Flik becomes our surrogate and we are forced to sit through quite a bit. Hey, I'm always one for sentimental sweet excursions away from the fast-lane of mainstream Hollywood to spend some time with some peaceful, good-natured old folks anytime, and the slight unfolding of their world was a little charming.

Red Hook Summer skewers the Bishop as iconoclast.

Near the climax of Red Hook Summer, conflict rears its ugly head (up until this point, the only conflict per se was a few bags of potato chips and bottles of soda missing from the church commissary).

Bishop Enoch has some backstory. He committed the taboo involving a priest and a little boy--that's a crime and hot button in itself, you don't even need to use your imagination when those two nouns are joined.

And while Red Hook Summer invests in this thread prominently, it does so in a way I despise. But, I want to despise this particular hot button, so, I suppose that's a good thing. As strong as my sense to recoil from this awkward debacle's revelation was, it did endear the neighborhood to me as characters even more.

There's a place for these kinds of personal films, and Spike Lee seems to be doing this for the love of making movies. It's tender, bittersweet, and biting with Lee's cynicism. His trademarks include Blessing's entrance (subject floating toward camera lens on z axis on unseen skateboard dolly underfoot), portraits of characters from a shared community snapped and often directly addressing the camera, and cutaways to sports statistics/and/or history.

Lee makes a cameo as Mookie (which didn't seem as funny as I'd hoped) and Isiah Whitlock hilariously reprises his role as Detective Flood from 25th Hour (2002, Lee). Whitlock's Flood is famous for his use of the word "shit," which he draws out as, "sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeit." (He also riffed on this catchphrase playing another entirely different character on HBO's The Wire.)

Additionally, the student film feel of this prosaic tale is oddly scored. Bruce Hornsby? Nonetheless, it feels like classic Spike Lee.

I do dig the Baptist gospel music though, since Lee's scores are never shy on soul.


Monday, September 10, 2012

Dead But Dreaming

Who newly emerged in the US during the 80s as auspiscious personal filmmakers? It doesn't seem like there were many. Michael Mann, Tim Burton, John Hughes, Jim Jarmusch, (unofficially) Oliver Stone,  James Cameron, Tony Scott, Joel Schumacher, Rob Reiner, James L. Brooks, Lawrence Kasdan, Joel & Ethan Coen, Sam Raimi, Kathryn Bigelow, Susan Seidelman, Penelope Spheeris, Gus Van Sant, Hal Hartley, David Mamet, (barely making it) Steven Soderbergh and Cameron Crowe; and, Spike Lee are the only ones I can think of.

Impressively, it is Spike Lee that proved in the 90s to have the most prolific body of work, with 9 features and 2 documentaries. And they remain fascinating, varied and sometimes bordering on trivial, entertaining time capsules of 90s pop culture in a significant way.

Since it was over 10 years since I'd seen Summer of Sam (1999, Spike Lee), all I had been able to recall were a scene of a large black lab tormenting Berkowitz and the protests of a friend of mine in PDX who was aggravated and intolerant of the movie she continually renounced on the grounds of Mira Sorvino's character squeaking in Brooklyease, "I could taste her pussy juice all over your face," to her Leguizamo-played husband in one scene.

Interestingly, when I saw the film this past weekend those two scenes are still the ones that stand out most, and maybe even work best for me.

The two strongest elements supporting Summer of Sam are the self-destruction of Vinny (John Leguizamo) and Terence Blanchard's, umm, Harlem Renaissance-stately, Aaron Copeland-like, sweeping operatic swells contrasted against 70s punk rock--okay, I'm going to argue that as far as I've known The Who were never punk. Am I wrong?

The visual look is a kinetic frenzy closer to Oliver Stone than the suave rapture style found in Mo' Better Blues (1990, Lee) and Jungle Fever (1991, Lee). It starts with the classic Hollywood studio crane sweep of a cavernous set to evoke 70s disco glamor, but is one of so many similar sequences that even use the same music, like Boogie Nights (1997, Paul Thomas Anderson), The Last Days of Disco (1998, Whit Stillman) and Blow (2001, Ted Demme). Although the context of "Best of My Love" is sly here.

Lee's visual fever isn't as nauseating as Natural Born Killers (1994, Oliver Stone) because he's succeeded with something closer to the 90s MTV music video aesthetic, yet uses it strategically so as not to let it get stale. All of the Berkowitz cutaways are ghastly (the greens especially) in the distorted result of cross processing, and on top of that, he heaps a tilt shift on the lens. These moments are disturbing, and inserts within them like the homicidal messages misspelled with children's building blocks further enhance some of Lee's most ambitious stagings. And the plastic, commercial, store bought production design that's supposed to show Berkowitz's squalor looks like it's all brand new and they bought it at a Toys R Us--which I really enjoy.

The comedy fits well too. Lee again squares off two pressure keg factions in a Brooklyn neighborhood, and this time its an Italian-American civil beef. Ritchie (Adrien Brody) doing a Brit accent and taunting the rough and tumble heavy hitters in their dead end neighborhood is one of the main ingredients in this thriller, but those scenes are also often funny at the same time in the way some of the best scenes in movies can have you laughing one second, then recoiling in tension the next.

Ritchie is supposed to be some kid who would be prime trade at Warhol's factory, but as was the case with much of the 90s punk creations, looks like he bought all of his clothes at the mall brand new recently.

Vinny is not supposed to be Warren Beatty's character in Shampoo (1975, Hal Ashby), but he mostly is.

As most know, this film is about Vinny, Ritchie, their neighborhood, and incidentally the Son of Sam murders. The murders raise the tension, but I for one wondered why the film didn't bother to ever mention the victims' identities, any relevant details about them, or even the number of how many there were. The killings just kind of loom. Most of the film is dancing, sex, dancing in the sex industry, fighting about sex, fighting about where to dance, and people swearing. The first disco scene struck me as romantically special when the rest of the crowd disappear for a moment as Vinny and Dionna dance alone--yeah I eat that sugar up.

I find none of the ensemble grating, although I used to find Leguizamo really obnoxious. I think John Leguizamo is fantastic in Summer of Sam because by the end, he was what held it together--his plight was earned through its dramatic portrayal on the page and with his performance. And the escalating dementia of Vinny and Son of Sam parallel one another purposefully, to effective results.

While this film did a lot for me and I want to come back to it, by the end credits when I saw how the Brooklyn neighborhoods, New York Yankees, and other iconography seemed a perfect fit for Lee, I couldn't help being distracted thinking about what Fincher would do in SF 7 years later.

And one last thing I haven't checked: is that last beatdown scene copying the Rodney King beating? That's what it felt like. I thought if it was, that would be something to recognize the space and arrangement of those bodies and batons.


Sunday, September 09, 2012

Satan Spawn, The Caco-Daemon

If I were in the mood to watch a movie that takes place in a trailer park and boldly exploits taboos for shock value, I'd watch a Guiseppe Andrews movie. He's amassed an entire oeuvre doing just that and his films use non-actors and real locations.

I did not find Killer Joe (2011, William Friedkin) shocking in the least bit. It's a $10 million dollar competently executed, if not inspired, B movie with a strong, simple plot, with very limited locations and a few characters.

If I were to wager what a producer should try if they wanted a guaranteed hit, I'd probably come up with a formula close to what Killer Joe follows: plentiful female nudity and trashy revealing getups + disgustingly gory realistic attacks peppered throughout + a singular premise, easy to follow, that brings ever increasing obstacles before its central protagonist.

This is a formula movie of the most primitive variety and it's badly dated. Do bare bush and bloody broken bones actually hold any stimulation for anyone these days? Gratuitous is the word. And when you take that away, what Killer Joe remains as is a visually dull wannabe Blood Simple (1984, Joel Coen). The sad part is that even though Blood Simple only cost $1.5 million, it's the flick I'll see a few more times, whereas I have no desire to see Killer Joe a second time.

Killer Joe is novel in the sense that it feels like something a dark lonely teenager would wet his appetite with in the form of a graphic novel. But that's to say it's kid's stuff. Its writer knows how to keep an audience paying attention, but that's not a feat to me--otherwise, I'd herald Mission: Impossible III (2006, J.J. Abrams) as the best movie of the 2000s.

I've always had the hots for Gina Gershon though. And I'm glad to see her in something for more than a few minutes. For me, she's the secret to why Showgirls (1995, Paul Verhoeven) is a timeless masterpiece.

I guess I'll close by mentioning I don't use B movie pejoratively. While Killer Joe suffers from that hard to define filmed-play symptom, I do cherish the quality that pits all of its characters against obstacles that drive them to their own utterly devastating disintegration at the lowest possible point in their shared lives. It's a black comedy--I know it's PC to say "dark" comedy. And its tone is well crafted, just not quite fitting to my particular tastes. The blue strip club scene was nifty and there's some very effective use of jumping the line between Ansel and Chris during their conversation. And the seduction of Dottie is expert in its use intentional blocking; and, an open frame used in the same way Blow Job (1964, Andy Warhol) did.

McConaughey closes out by dominating Summer 2012 with a role that will rest along side his turns in Bernie (2011, Richard Linklater) and Magic Mike (2012, Steven Soderbergh).


Friday, August 17, 2012

Angel of Death

Richard Linklater seems to have good taste in movies. I think I read him say he wished he could have lived and worked in the classic Hollywood era, being assigned different projects, not having to worry about financing or distribution; but, I may be mistaken.

Once when I was 13, I was sick with a fever and could not get out of bed. My dad surprised me with a VHS of Dazed and Confused (1993, Richard Linklater) he'd rented and I watched it twice in a row. I've still never watched the same movie twice in a row. But nearly 20 years later, I still have not discerned a Linklater style or developed an appreciation for any of his work since I was a teenager and crazy over Dazed and Confused.

Bernie (2011, Linklater) is one of those films that you watch and think to yourself hey, this is actually damn good; it's like the kind of movies Hollywood made in the 30s; the characters and setting are modern yet authentic, and we haven't seen them before like this; cool, Linklater's doing his homage to 30s rural Ford comedies, like he did with The Newton Boys (1998, Linklater) and Bogdanovich did with The Last Picture Show (1971, Peter Bogdanovich) and Paper Moon (1973, Bogdanovich).

But you might also realize, yeah, wait a minute, is competent handling of a quirky black comedy worth 10 wing wangs? Is it worth 100 minutes?

Tough to say.

Bernie's like one of those jokes someone tells and you aren't compelled to laugh, but perhaps produce a sympathy grin or chuckle for the effort.

It almost could have been funny. For me, the funniest moments are when Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) begins abusing Bernie (Jack Black), but they're too fleeting. I'd also laugh harder at five minutes of Andy Dick's old sketch from The Andy Dick Show on MTV, where he played a character based on himself who assaults his Hollywood intern assistants relentlessly though too. Shirley MacLaine's face is maybe also one of the last to have survived classic Hollywood, coincidentally. She looks great in Bernie and we can recall her youthful features from appearing in something like The Trouble with Harry (1955, Alfred Hitchcock) at a time when Hitchcock'd still be waiting to enter his pinnacle.

The extras all look, dress and talk like gaudy real Texans. Sonny Carl Davis and McConaughey's mom are both excellent and are the only other part of the movie I think came off as genuine comedy.

The detailed exposition of Texas and funeral directors, and the detailed production design and art direction, prove Linklater took special care to research and prepare Bernie. It looks great, seriously. I guess it was just too alright for me. Jack Black as the weird-in-a-real-life-way effeminate, pants up to his waist-wearer is continuously interesting, but isn't he supposed to be funnier? Or is this supposed to be dry? Depends on your taste.

Matthew McConaughey as D.A. Danny Buck Davidson has the meat of the film's theme summed up in his final prosecution when he drills Bernie about whether or not he is accustomed to the "fancy" life. That's what sells the drama authentically and hit the story home. It defines the conflict of Carthage and doubles up the ambiguity over which of the townsfolk are for or against Bernie and Marjorie and a big part of what their speculations on the couple focus on.

To close, somthing silly: when Bernie describes the preparation of a cadaver before its final rest, he mentions things like, left hand lightly placed above the right crossed, head slightly turned to the right... And during his tranquil oration about its significance I eerily realized that's exaclty how I was sitting in the theatre. The black box, as Godard said.


Thursday, August 09, 2012

Seasons in the Abyss

After graduating high school I first began devouring Jean-Luc Godard's films and critical essays. I had not gained much from the films, aside from their spontaneous episodic structures and flimsy B movie plots; and, there were the pretty actors, brightly colored pop cinematography with text, novels, paintings and misplaced music cues; finally, the endless references to cinema, including his own.

À bout de souffle (1960, Godard) is Godard's first film and probably his most widely seen; and, it still holds up as a Bonny & Clyde style road film of early 60s Paris youth culture. He'd follow with similar works, but with increasing experimentation and a resulting distancing from audiences, due to his political bent, and ever-diminishing narratives.

Weekend (1967, Godard) marks the end of Godard's early phase, a style he would never return to, in favor of his form of visual essays or lyrical reflection. I'd always be primed for a sacred experience when I popped in a home video copy of Weekend, but last week was the first time I had a chance to see a newly restored 35mm print of it screened in a theatre.

To many, Weekend boasts the reputation of being something like Godard's weirdest, least accessible movie. The 8 minute tracking shot of a traffic jam is also mentioned often. And sometimes you'll hear people talking about the taboos: the lewd group sex monologue recounted by Corinne, the brutal murder of Emily Brönte at the stake, the filmed bludgeoning of a live pig, or the cannibalism. All of these elements assembled together still elude me as I look for deeper meaning.
But, I'm familiar with a phrase Godard often places in his films, "La Monnaie de l’absolu," which translates to the coin of the absolute, I think. To read this phrase as a metaphor for Weekend, it means something like the film is a currency that travels into foreign markets, but displays two sides.
First, say is the heads side. The heads side are the beautiful actresses outfitted in the latest trends in modern fashion, the shiny new autos, the bright colorful corporate advertising, the idyllic trip to the countryside to visit family.
But the tails side would then include Corinne's avarice, her deceptive debaucheries, her sociopathic obsession with materialism.
There's more. In general, I merely attempt to engage with both sides of the coin. Corinne's erotic monologue does recall the similar scene from Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman) where Alma tells the tale of herself, her girlfriend, and the boy at the beach. But in Godard's hands it feels explicit and gratuitous even, in the same way Marquis de Sade wrote. So if globalism and consumerism are clearly subjects that Weekend focuses on, it can be argued that the monologue pushes audience expectations and conceptions about erotic subjects in then-modern cinema. Because, out of context, is the scene nothing more than dirty talk? Does it matter that Corinne is filmed in silhouette? Does it matter that we don't know who the other people are she's talking about?
Corinne is the central protagonist of Weekend, and her journey is still one of the most modern of cinematic quests. She's gotta get to Oinville. Oinville points to something of a twentieth century Sodom and Gomorrah, of consumerism that is. And from point A to B and every stop in between, we can be sure that some form of satire is being launched. The thematic content is as antagonistic as the onslaught of car horns are abrasive--in the theatre I truly appreciated how obnoxious they sound.
It's up to viewers to word their own ideas about Weekend, but I'm here to say I'm just starting myself, in any significant way. There are perhaps confrontations of old and new, or classical vs. modern, as evident in the Emily Brönte burning by Corinne and Roland. There's also the obviously scathing attack on too many people owning automobiles--the disaster of what a trip to the country may look like one day. But to be fair, I doubt I'll ever catch the full extent of the dozens of literary and obscure historical references. It sure is a fun challenge to attempt though.
I've personally been really crazy about dolly tracks lately and just can't get enough. I was astounded to discover how most of Weekend is filmed from dolly tracking shots that maintain a consistent speed throughout. It made the film feel like Godard was our tour guide and refuses to relinquish his dominance over what we see and when; it's like we expect him to yell, "Hey, keep all arms and legs in the ride! Look over here, not there!" Weekend is an alarm that still reverberates, even after having been set off 45 years ago.
To end with a coin analogy: Weekend identifies itself textually with two introductions. The heads side shows, "This is a film adrift in the cosmos." The tails side shows, "This is a film found on a garbage heap." It's both simultaneously.

And Weekend's Corinne saying one of the funniest most memorable lines in cinema, as she esapes the burning wreckage of a car accident, "My Hermès handbag!" still kills riotously.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Dirty Black Summer

There are two kinds of movies I go to see: first, there're the latest releases of my favorite directors and secondly, there's everything else. Right now my favorite working filmmakers are Todd Solondz, Steve McQueen, Claire Denis, Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne, and Harmony Korine; and my favorite director is David Fincher.

When I go to see a new movie by one of my favorite filmmakers my response is wholly esoteric. I view the film through the lens of auteur criticism. I place the film within the context of the director's entire oeuvre. I project what I believe is the director's identity somewhere, engulfing what is most vital and worthwhile in the work. And then, I look for what's most pertinent and topical current society, and what's most pertinent and topical to my own current state of being in life in general.

Todd Solondz has not only been my favorite filmmaker for the longest--14 years counting back to a vhs of Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996, Todd Solondz) I copped while still in high school--but, I've also found every film he's completed to date to be a masterpiece. 1998 was a watershed year for the development of my critical taste in films because it's the year I saw my first Woody Allen movie in a theatre, and quickly built on this fancy by seeking out other movies released theatrically at the time that amounted to what I found to be classy adult highbrow melodrama like, Your Friends & Neighbors (1998, Neil LaBute) and The Last Days of Disco (1998, Whit Stillman). These types of films are still the closest model to what I am aiming to make with my own films.

Todd Solondz is the new Woody Allen. Of course, despite the fact that Woody Allen is still alive and making movies. The new Woody Allen movie was actually playing in the same theatre last week when I went to go see Dark Horse (2011, Solondz).

Palindromes (2005, Solondz) marks a shift in Todd Solondz trajectory. It provides a coda for his first three films in the way its multi-actored-single-protagonist device turns the movie into a surrealist work. Before Palindromes, Solondz would puncture the prosaic world of his Jersey misanthropes with a single surreal shocker scene. I like to think of the first three Solondz movies as, to appropriate the label thrown at Woody Allen, "his early funny ones." I find Solondz to have matured after Palindromes, which is why Dark Horse came as no disappointment.

To get the Woody Allen comparisons over and done with, one final note about the parents of Abe (Jordan Gelber) is that the actors portraying them are both remnants from an earlier time in Allen's career. Christopher Walken is practically a Solondz prototype playing Annie Hall's brother in Annie Hall (1977, Woody Allen) and Mia Farrow starred in 12 films directed by Allen.

Abe's parents are the most adorable, cuddly, even stylish 65+ year olds I can think of. Farrow's glasses and pastel accented outfits are youthful in a way that didn't seem ironically ridiculous.

Something that recurs throughout the films of Solondz is the dilemma whereby his characters are incapable of attaining happiness, yet in ways that don't seem to be worthy of our genuine empathy. Solondz shows us how feeble we are and makes us feel guilty over having the nerve to express feelings of forlorn emptiness.

Dark Horse is also Solondz first foray into genuine surrealism. Not here and there, but as a whole Dark Horse places the viewer in unknowable states of subjectivism throughout the narrative. Who's view are we seeing this through? Is part of this imagined or a dream? Is all of it?

Surrealism has never had a more adequate form to support. Solondz is still in New Jersey and still concerned with an upper-middle class Jewish family. One of the most glaring tonal contrasts comes from Abe's chirpy demeanor in the face of his comically pathetic future. He's even challenged a few times by this when characters ask if it's ironic or not.

Dark Horse is intimate and engaging with the tiny little corner of the world it depicts. Among the details that stimulate audience conceptions are Abe's yellow Hummer, just like the one in Bad Boys II (2003, Michael Bay); his rhinestoned necklace with his name on it; his oversized brightly-colored jerseys and polos; his nerd layer, where seasons 1-9 of The Simpsons on dvd are on display; the innocuously braindead brand of twee bubblegum he jams out en route to his various errands; and of course the Lionel auction he's bidding on on ebay.

Hollywood is ruled by a conspiracy that commands its films to have sympathetic characters, a protagonist the audience empathizes with, a clear goal with obstacles that the protagonist pursues while experiencing some significant character change afterward, an uplifting ending, etc... However, Dark Horse avoids most of these obnoxious edicts by having Abe suffer the ultimate of tragic endings, accomplishing nothing, suffering for no fault of his own necessarily, and finally unable to do anything about it. But this provokes other questions like, "what could he have done different, really?"

The performances are so soft, as is the direction and writing. Solondz has huge balls to make these kinds of movies that would seem to be a huge red flag to any producer. Luckily, this played for a week here in Austin and I've never felt so enamored by something so seemingly slight.


Wednesday, August 01, 2012

How the Gods Kill

One of the best things about Alien (1979, Ridley Scott) is how it went against the common wisdom of classical Hollywood filmmaking that always thought it best to not show the monster. In Alien, a classic horror model, a monster hunts a small group of people and picks them off one at a time; the ending is one of the modern prototypes that define the final girl subgenre of horror. But the audience is eventually confronted with what lurks in the dark. The H.R. Giger creature designs still stand as the most memorable of all movie aliens next to the Star Wars franchise's more family friendly characters and E.T.

To crib a style from some of Godard's critical language, we don't remember why the space truckers are on a mission; we don't remember who sent them; and we don't care what Ripley actually accomplishes other than saving her own life.

But, we remember the alien baby popping out of someone's stomach and the other one that looks like a crustacean and sucks face; we remember the wet, slick, reptile-headed monster with the mouth that comes out of a mouth; we remember the android bleeding milk as he dies; we remember that Ripley was the last one alive on the ship and in her bra and panties, she saves Jones.

Finally, Alien's also such a strong space horror because its own cache lies in its mystique. They show just enough of the monsters to let us stare in wonder, and they don't talk about any higher purpose for being there. They merely act as a Hawksian team and devise a way to survive.

On the other hand, Prometheus (2012, Scott) was made by Ridley Scott at 73 as opposed to 41. I'm ageist, okay? I don't think most directors have the same vitality or edge that they did in their youth or even middle aged periods. I'm thinking mostly of Americans who made their mark in the 80s: Brian DePalma, John Carpenter, Walter Hill, Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, and Jim Jarmusch, for example.

So I'm not necessarily comparing Alien to Prometheus. Prometheus does however remind me of the Star Wars prequel trilogy and moreover, Micheal Bay's Platinum Dunes production practice of rebooting the first installment of 80s horror franchises with a sort of pilot that surveys all of the most memorable kills and motifs from the entire run of its predecessor.

And there is often a sense of most of Blade Runner finding its way into Prometheus--evident in the premise of the movie. The driving force is that Weyland wants to meet his maker. And on the note of themes, I was a little disappointed in the recurrent dialogue about believing "because I choose to believe," which just feels really Matrixy. The opening images of spacious green vistas also recall how Ridley Scott inserted outtakes of the opening helicopter shots from The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick) into the ending of Blade Runner. And the romantic scene in Shaw's bedroom where she spends the night with Holloway is reminiscent of similar scenes between Deckard and Rachael, mostly due to the design of her flat and the white balanced spot light outside that pierces into their solitude like Big Brother or something.

Fifield's line: "I'm not 'ere to be your friend, I'm 'ere to make money" reassured me though. Awesome. It's like Ridley Scott is letting me know this is tongue in cheek and he's in command. He's not here to draw us into a yarn, he's here to blow us the fuck away. And I suppose that matter of taste will likely be what divides the Prometheus audience.

Cutting edge special effects and post visuals shot on a Red look as good as I've scene, and the ships, gizmos like Fifiedld's pups, and spacescapes lay the foundation. Some pseudo-supernatural mythological origin of the species type exposition and mock historical evidence that's supposed to be the Lascaux cave paintings fill out the setup.

The Giger look is cast over this thing far and wide; and the dark, sensual, shiny, black, biomechanical, occultish, alien world and the Engineers are prominently featured at their spookiest. The space suits with the bubble glass helmets are something I seek out in sci fi, and they look cool here. The elements build as one and Scott even appears to have restrained his coverage.

But Prometheus's genre is blockbuster effects exploitation thriller.

To start with the sex, Charlize Theron as Vickers enters in a wide shot from slightly overhead as she does pushups, drenched in her own sweat (this guy made G.I. Jane, remember?), wearing the standard 2093 underwear that consists of an Ace bandage bikini (tubetops for the standard female issued sets). (There's even a hard cut from this scene to the floor of an examination room that Shaw is vomiting on, really emphasizing the image system of wet substances.) Pretty much anytime Theron's onscreen she's outfitted in some tight eye-cocaine infused bit of spacewear that clings to her body like the way the aliens cling to their hosts. Am I stupid for thinking Vickers is human? I do.

And the third act really takes us into the wham-o. It starts with what is definitely the strongest setpiece: Shaw's automatic operation machine C-section to destroy the alien spawn inside her womb. Shaw is of course wearing one of the sports bandage bikinis, soaked in her own obligatory sweat, and claustrophobically confined into the cramped chamber, which is glass so we can see into, as she moans while getting blood-spattered, with the camera even having the audacity to view her from a setup that looks in between her legs while all this proceeds.

Then there's the violence. The third act is again where the wham-o is most evident. While the first act is exposition and the second is composed primarily of space spelunking, the silica storm must be tied as the other strongest setpiece. I had not seen anything like this in the space sci fi stuff I've watched, and it was impressive to be caught up in. The snake-like alien that kills Millburn is something of a midpoint, and marks the beginning of the gore effects we'd all come for. And while Shaw's trying to do something about her demon seed, the zombified Fifield show up to the ship's entrance just to keep things thrilling. When Vickers torches Holloway I knew I was sure that Ridley Scott had pulled this off. Scott's returning to the world where he created a legendary space ballad to follow it up with a space opera.

To close with another ageist statement: I have a hunch that most of the people who really hate Prometheus will be around 18-25, but older fans, already familiar with the franchise, will appreciate it.


Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Comedy for People Who Wish Movies Were More Like TV

(The following post is very biased because two years ago I unhooked my cable at my home and I think that everything on TV since then except for Eastbound & Down and Mildred Pierce (2011, Todd Haynes) sucks.)

When I first began enjoying classic Hollywood films of the 30s, the films of the Marx Brothers struck me as bold, inventive, and even timeless. But, as is my own personal dilemma, I have to test my ideas by looking at them from a completely different angle. A couple of years ago, I changed my long standing perception of the Marx Bros.

Somehow I became frustrated by suddenly seeing the photoplays of the Marxes as nothing more than filmed Vaudeville (still riotously hilarious nonetheless). This matter of opinion arose from a then infatuation with Chaplin's concurrent offerings, which were so much more ambitious--his slapstick schtick exists foremost for the camera because he understood camera angles' relationship to blocking and editing, whereas the Marxes could probably be performing on a stage without losing much of their punch.

I get absorbed into Modern Times (1936, Chaplin) as though I'm visiting another world. However, A Night at the Opera (1935, Sam Wood) doesn't suspend my disbelief; its delight comes from being amazed at how witty and funny the dialogue is, and how well timed and perfectly it's delivered.

In recent years, I've nearly given up on comedy. Representing the two schools as I see them now are the rightful heirs to Chaplin, Being John Malkovich (1999, Spike Jonze) and Adaptation (2002, Jonze); and on the Marxes' side, Woody Allen.

Ted (2012, Seth MacFarlane) is not original or smart.

But, as Hawks said, "As long as you make good scenes you have a good picture--it doesn't matter if it isn't much of a story."

Ted is the creation of Seth MacFarlane: 1 part frat-shock humor/1 part obscure pop culture references/1 part boring bland nauseating musical selections.

I'm bummed out by his taste in music and it's personal. I apologize. Big band, Hootie and the Blowfish, and Norah Jones are some of the moments that made me look at my watch in the theatre.

So I laughed five times at pot jokes (and guiltily at one handicapped joke in poor taste, yeah I suck, I know) and was moved by two Mila Kunis scenes (overly effusive sentiment or pathos is a question of personal aesthetic tastes, but I'm'n'a say pathos). Mila Kunis is doing great work lately.

A lot of the pop culture name dropping just left me puzzled, and probably the rest of the audience too, because there were several instances where no one laughed. I wonder if others and myself just laugh because they get the reference? Is that comedy? I caught myself doing this once.

The gay scenes in Ted are a huge problem.

Okay, there are a few scenes where two men are dating and they stand out, disrupting the film's comedic momentum because there is nothing in the scenes other than the fact that the men are dating. Is that supposed to be funny? Everything else in this movie has some angle that makes them funny except the Patrick Warbuton gay scenes. One of his character's lines of dialogue goes something like, "Yeah we're dating."

There were also a couple of homoerotic moments that baffled me, but maybe I'm just not sophisticated enough to know how to respond to them properly. What starts as hero worship for another character turns quite homoerotic in a fantasy sequence, but I guess that scenes about latent homosexuality with no context or explanation are funny to MacFarlane. I don't know why this is so difficult for me to explain. I still crack up hugely over the progressively ridiculous Matt Stone gaffer scenes in Orgazmo (1997, Trey Parker): "Hey, I don't wanna sound like a queer or nothin', but I think unicorns are kick ass!"

The one sheet is cleverly effective. It advertises something like an experience in the theatre that's as fun as watching TV. People are supposed to see Mark Wahlberg and the bear watching TV and subconsciously desire the same experience for themselves. I'm just glad there weren't commercials.


Saturday, July 14, 2012

Mission Colon Impossible Line Break Ghost Protocol

0. Intro

Another stick-tap to The Flophouse Podcast, who have really helped me reconnect with my desire to watch movies I don't particularly enjoy, then say things about them, the movies. This time around, I decided to revisit a franchise I have--or, anyways, SPOILER, had--some real affection for, the Mission Colon Impossible Line Break Something Cryptic series. I'd missed a couple. Never saw the third, can't remember the second. Another Redbox hit!

I. Watching Mission Colon Impossible Line Break Ghost Protocol

Started accidentally w/ audio description on--a man dryly narrated the Paramount intro logo for a while before my horror-benumbed genitals fingers could work the remote keys to reset the operation. 'A five pointed star soars through the air and dips one point in a glassy lake before approaching a craggy bluff summited by a beefy peak. Paramount.'

If you were waiting for the first idiotic Matrix ripoff, it comes at 1.24.(One)

The first completely preposterous thing at 1.27.(Two)

The first flatly ridiculous thing--2.10. Kids, if your phone rings and it's a picture of a scowling blonde w/ the word ASSASSIN on it? Some chick may be about to shoot you three times, then hug you, shoot you two more times, and steal your satchel.(Three) I really can't stress this enough: caller ID is important and effective technology--please do not ignore it nor fail to harness its awesome life-saving power.

2.22: first Great Escape ripoff.(Four)

3.54: first reprehensible nihilism played for a desperately unfunny cheap laff. The tech guy is releasing prisoners from a Russian jail to cover something, and when the prison guard meets the first released prisoner, tech guy mutters 'Let's give him some more playmates', and releases more prisoners. When the three prisoners knock down the prison guard & start kicking in his teeth, tech guy mugs a 'sorry bro' at the camera HAW HAW HAW boots to the ribs = comedy gold.

I give the movie one eighteenth of a point for making me think for about 10 seconds about the morality of Russian prison guard (boo!) versus Russian prisoner (boo!). This will be the last time anything in this movie makes a human think that much in a row.

4.55: first gawdawful nonsense. Why is tech guy playing a Dean Martin song over the rioting prison's surprisingly good sound system? Why?

You guys? This isn't going well. We're not five minutes in and already I have said like five negative things, gotten up to four angry footnotes (Five) and damned the movie with faint praise as my lone positive act. It bears mentioning that this truly bizarre non-pop culture reference to Dean Martin is a complete one-off: in this movie, it will never be explained or mentioned again.

Oh! Tom Cruise is doing like superhero gymnastics moves in a Russian prison! Neat! Now he's ruining the rescue operation to wade into a Russian prison riot. Sure seems like an appropriate backdrop to a movie film, a Russian prison riot. (We're at about minute two of the isn't-this-hilarious kicking-to-death of a prison guard. Big laffs continue to abound. I am angry and miserable that I spent $1.30 to support this hate-crime-based piece of wretched pandering.)

The opening credits are literally a tv show intro, for no reason anyone can fathom. There is no reason for this. It is stupid. We are watching a movie but the credit sequence is the credit sequence of a tv show. Brad Bird, you have directed movies that weren't stupid. Not this stupid anyway. What are you doing?

Minute 13: we're now getting some deep exposition, explaining the initial mission. Two minutes in, we see the courier they're ambushing exhibit the most abysmal tradecraft imaginable. 'Ow this guy who's been walking behind me just put his hand on mine and it stung oh well, guess I'll keep walking oh I feel woozy guess I'll let him ease me to the ground hey I wish I'd worn my satchel in a more secure way than just on my shoulder where the guy can just slip it off oops I died.'

Note here that literally everything I know about "tradecraft" is (a) that it is a word vaguely associated with doing spy stuff and that (b) it kind of means "skill + professionalism" in William Gibson's Spook Country. That somebody with this little knowledge is rolling his eyes angrily at your movie is probably a bad sign.

Ahahahhaha! The ASSASSIN? (As seen on Caller ID!) Is described out loud by a human adult as 'Contract killer. She works for diamonds.'

Half-decent heist. They have to steal from the Kremlin to prove to the Russians that they, the Russians, know who is the big bad, b/c he worked for Russian intelligence at one point (maybe still). Apparently a phone call saying 'check yr archives, G money' to Russian intelligence is just out. Apparently stealing from the Kremlin will be a better move for convincing them of something than trying to talk to them like allies do. Simon Pegg/tech guy is babbling b/c he's nervous while heisting w/ TC. Nice unique character trait--haven't seen it before in this type of movie, and certainly I look forward to seeing it in future scenes. (Note: in all future scenes, this character will be cool as a cucumber.)

Minute 23 haha--we're rooting for the bullies! Tee fucking hee, it's awesome when Simon Pegg's nincompoop toady weasel gets some power & starts pushing around characters we'll not see again HAW HAW HAW!

Minute 26--the movie has decided that really what we're interested in is the iPhone/iPad-based holographic gadgets the 'characters' are using. Fuck, man, I thought this was some kind of Mission colon Impossible movie--where's the stunts? (There was one okay scene when Pegg's weasel tech guy inappropriately referenced the Cruise character's dead wife and Cruise did a wonderful bit of acting on the topic of 'why is this lesser being ruining my focus at this important moment?'. Reminded me strongly of the scene in movie one when DePalma exercised every iota of genius he had & made Cruise perfectly compelling as a threat when he snapped 'You've never seen me very upset.' TC is really good at stuff like that.)

Around minute 28, we have the first 'obvious thing gets narrated', as Cruise opens boxes, looks at library-grade microfilm spools w/ no film on them, and says out loud "they're empty". The Kremlin is apparently using the same archive technology and procedures for their level-one intelligence operatives the public library I used in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1985 did for the local newspaper. Seems reasonable.

It's an ambush! Somebody has 'piggybacked on their frequency'! (If you are wondering how the ambusher--it is the big bad--knew they were there and knew what frequency they would be using? You are sharing something with me and you are not sharing anything with the writers of this movie. Also: the piggybacker? When he talks, the Russians hear I guess the IMF team would have been heard if they talked? Except they were on their radios earlier no problem. Again: no sense is this making.)

Now there's a chase scene with no pursuers. Because that's what we like: people running and not being chased, like in noted spy thriller Chariots of Fire. And apparently the ground floor of the Kremlin is the Bastille, as we get lots of brick tunnels & brown arches for TC to run thru. Did I mention there's no pursuers, only an abstract countdown we weren't told about, but that is being figured by the music? There are no pursuers. There is an abstract countdown we haven't been told about. But the music is clear (also he's running): he's in a hurry. Wait--TC just called for the building to be locked down. I guess the hurry was for get to the door and make sure it was closed before he walked another 50 feet and left out a slightly different door?

I have no idea what is going on.

Tom Cruise is wearing a dickey! This movie just got about 8% better. His General shirt and General tie were just a dickey over his Bruce Springsteen shirt. (His disguisey General coat reverses into a bomber jacket! Good coat, but I worry about the lining of a spy's coat being an obvious indication that he's a disguised person.)

The Kremlin blows up after TC makes good his escape. Now he's in a hospitalish, 'cuffed to the bed. The nation's Travoltas sigh wetly. He's getting threatened by some Russian thugs who would have felt lame in The Saint(Six). They are using his coat as evidence against him. I knew that coat was up to no good. Cruise filches a paper clip--he is escaping his ass off!

Pretty rad scene--TC is on a ledge, couple stories high, looking at a dumpster--a hospital dumpster, for you medical waste enthusiasts--and pondering a-jumpin' on in. He has a rueful moment of chat w/ his Russian thug, & honestly it's pretty charming & nicely done. He makes his escape differently, no dumpster but no spoilers, and I'm not complaining about the no-stunts thing anymore, but I will say his instant subsequent escape thieving of conveniently-hooded coat, boots, & cell phone is less plausible than some other things I have seen in this movie. But he's escaped & called for extraction. If a team comes and pulls him out...I hope they take me too, b/c I want out of this experience.

Whoa! The big bad can move & infiltrate silently! Neat! This will surely prove significant later in the film! (Note: this will never come up again.)

Uh-oh. I think maybe TC is in trouble--his actual boss is extracting him! The secretary! From the narration! And we're getting a deep exposition shaft. The secretary is going to resign, b/c, you know: when the Kremlin gets blown up, American Secretaries of Things need to resign. The big bad is a Swedish physics professor who was once in the Swedish special forces. Erm. Guess we shoulda sent Chuck Norris playing Richard Feynman? There is a line about 'the Russians think we blew up the Kremlin--tensions between Russia & the U.S. haven't been this high since the Cuban Missile Crisis'. Guess we coulda blown up the Kremlin, then, b/c they sure backed the shit down over Cuba, amirite Patriots!? And not to belabor the point or anything, but when the Pentagon got blown up, we invaded several countries and stayed in them for more than a decade apiece so I kind of think if the Kremlin got blown up, modern not-exactly-paragon-of-political-stability Russia would probably do a little more than get tense. Shit--look at what they did to Chechnya.(Seven)

For, apparently, the 4th time, TC is disavowed and is gonna need to ZZZZZZZZZZ. Jeremy Renner is here, doing a pretty terrific stuffed shirt. Like that guy. Dig his acting. Would love to grab a coffee with him & chat about his script-picking procedure. (To which he'd likely respond "how you like my check-cashing procedure you little faggot?". To which I would respond with shutting my mouth.)

Escape with a stupid gimmick. A quiet moment--Renner is questioning the stupid gimmick. This is the second time that a stupid thing the movie has done has had a hat put on it (the ASSASSIN-on-your-phone bit earlier got turned into a Big Joke too). Dear This Movie: there is such a thing as being too clever for your own good. Particularly when you are not very clever. Renner's pretty funny tho.

Minute 51--idiotic red herringing about maybe TC is a traitor b/c he's forbidding murdering certain baddies. Yup. The guy who was like I'm playing a Nazi BUT A GOOD NAZI is gonna be a traitor CAN YOU PLEASE STOP WASTING MY TIME YOU KEEP TEASING PLAYING THIS CARD YOU WILL NEVER ACTUALLY PLAY THIS CARD.

Minute 52--just in case you missed it, Pegg is now bullying the fish-out-of-water Renner. We're rooting for the bullies. Tits. Also Renner's character is only here to say 'this is implausible & can't be done'. This: (a) corrodes the movie's metaphysics, making it less fun & (b) doesn't make sense in the movie, b/c he's the IMF's chief analyst, and therefore needs to have some idea of their operational capacity to do his job, right? Again: overclever.

Minute 55--in case you missed the previews, TC's gonna Spider-Man up the side of the world's tallest building to set up something that was done with tape recorders & mirrors in every iteration of the tv show. There is a moment where TC leaps out a window and runs down the vertical surface, meaning (a) he can run 32 feet per second--squared--and (b) his feet stick to the glass, which a minute ago his hands needed magic gloves to stick to. So that's cool.

Lookit, I'm not some kind of continuity/plausibility fetishist. I want these guys to be the savviest hackers, the robustest kickassers, the best drivers & deadeyest shots, and the villains to make things impossible, demanding surprising adaptations & unusual activities before triumph. But more than that I want to feel like somebody cared about what they were putting together--I want to feel like somebody thought for more than a quarter-hour about things, I want to think that somebody involved wanted as much to entertain as they did to profit. And those desires are left entirely--entirely, I say--unfulfilled by this cheap, shoddy, shabby, cynical nonsense.


Pretty nicely constructed doubling scene. Actual thought and talent went into this, and it...mostly works. Some dumb physical tradecraft/comedy business I could have lived without. And I am reasonably sure I just saw through one loop of the plot. More chase scenes--and another reveal, as the fish-out-of-water Renner flashes some swinging-dick field agent chops. (Better chops than his would be needed to explain exactly why TC did that whole operation in capri pants.)

Couple more reversals, & there's a catfight in which one character literally rips clothes off another. Guess the thought & talent ran out in the last scene. Second TC running scene. There's a sandstorm & all this shit is impossible to give a shit about in any way. The thing I liked about the first one--and maybe the second--is that all the stupid twists & recondite betrayals perpetrated on the audience also had in-movie exponents for the characters: when we, the audience were at sea, so were the characters, so we were invested in them figuring out what was going on. Here, though, we've got at least three teams pulling stunts on one another--but we only know what one team is doing: the other two teams only come in to clobber what we think we know. Which is to say, nobody in this movie except the ones we're following is doing anything coherent on their own behalf: they're just obstacling the Good Guys and obfuscating our understandings. Even the big bad? We have had maybe one minute of motivation--third-party motivation, at that--on his behalf and have heard maybe one minute of him talking. There Is No Villain--there are only heroes and minor obstacles, like hills or sandstorms or whatever, but nothing else.

As I finished typing that, the courier we were watching getting chased turns out to be the Big Bad in a Scooby Doo mask. This makes sense to zero audience members, in part b/c we were teased that TC had somehow managed to ensure that just that courier would be present, in part b/c why wd the big bad fetch his own laundry... But it was probably really fun to write.

Tiny note: TC is talking to a smuggler/arms dealer type. He sez 'I'm looking for a dude--you may know him as Cobalt'. Except 'Cobalt' is the codename the IMF has assigned to the Big Bad. So...why would the smuggler/arms dealer dude have any knowledge of this appellation?

More Renner peeing on the premises of the franchise. 'This awesome technology can't possibly work!' Also: he was working security when TC-on-vacation's wife got killed, so he's freaked out & guilt-ridden. Which is odd, b/c every line he's had w/ TC to this point has been mean-spirited sniping, including '[the picture you drew on your hand of the big bad is] a crude drawing, but [I guess I can tell who you mean]' and 'why did that work? What was your scenario? What did you assume they were thinking?'. For a guilt-ridden I-let-your-wife-die-sorry guy, he sure takes a lot of dipshit potshots. Also, all the fish-out-of-water stuff was nonsense, b/c he really is a kick-ass field agent. But wasn't acting like it b/c...if he had...then...we wouldn't've had a plot twist. I'm starting to hate this movie. Actual physical anger.

Now some explicit James Bond 80s riffage--except the characters are narrating it to us, essentially saying 'We're spies' over and over--which apparently has annoyed even characters in the movie, b/c the helper spy lady character just complained about it (she can hear the characters narrating over her earbud mic).

Renner just stole the entire film industry w/ a knee-bend stretch. Very happy right now. The plausibility of the entire scene was just sacrificed on the altar of a cheap gesture at suspense. Spies? Should probably not be stalking through parties screaming at other spies to execute the mission that the first guy is supposed to be being the diversion for. On cell phones. Less happy right now.

Pretty horrible lady-spy scene. Pretty great Renner scene/line, w/ the only non-hateful moment of sexual politics we've seen in the entire movie. Maybe the entire franchise. (I dunno--I missed III and was there one after that before this?)

Unimaginably bad special effect follows. The big bad continues to make no sense--and remember the courier? He's still alive. Why? NO ONE KNOWS. Was he being saved for something? Is that why the big bad dressed up as him? YOU WILL NEVER KNOW. But at least now main guy can kill big bad & 2nd guy can kill Only Other Identified Enemy Because Movies Don't Need Antagonists.

We're at an hour fifty-two. It's not clear to me that there are any hands on this wheel at all. The big bad--who was introduced as a physics professor--is a better fistfighter than TC, who has to this point been the world's kickassiest field agent ever. Guess Swedish Special Forces are no laughing matter--keep your eyes open, Finland! TC redeems himself SORTA by pulling a decent Michael Mann Miami Vice self-destruction thrill-seeker move. TC is good at that driven-dude stuff, so. Works pretty well. Shockingly, the big bad does not succeed: a nuclear war does not in fact start. Since we really thought it might and understood so clearly why he wanted to start one, this is quite rad.

One last this-was-stupid callout by special guest Ving Rhames. STOP BEING CLEVER YOU DUMB CRAPS. Spend less time poking fun at the actual enjoyable parts of this movie and more time trying to make the plot and characters not insult me, please.

Some dumb denoument. Pegg mugs more. I really wish he wouldn't take these roles. I enjoy his presence, but his characters' singular function is everything's that wrong w/ these movies. More dumb denoument--I thought we were seeing TC hand the franchise keys to Renner, but maybe not. Maybe Renner's just ready to go back to the field, since he now knows that not every time he goes out to work will he end up killing TC's wife. Anyway, who cares? It's over and that was a cynical, lazy, inept piece of filmmaking.

II. Some Notes on Film What It Is & Why This Was so Bad

Let's look back to the first instance of Mission Colon Impossible. At the very least, it's a movie that knows where the pleasures of movies come from at all--from Tom Cruise's weirdo intensity, from Vanessa Redgrave's sensual chuckle, from helicopters fighting trains in tunnels, from wall-sized aquariums exploding. These elements are far from making a great movie, but the movie they make was enjoyable and consistently entertaining. It's even modertately satisfying and intermittently memorable. MIGP is none of these things.

I think the main difference is that Brian DePalma, for all his faults, knows why we go to the movies: to enjoy some spectacle; MIGP knows only that when we do go to the movies, it costs us 10 bucks.

DePalma does a pretty good, convincing job of showing us the team's amazing technical toys, then taking them away to make their tasks harder and more meaningful. GP botches this badly: when they have to go do their tasks, they pick and choose what they want from an entire secret train car full of toys. There's just no sense of effort, no sense that they're really challenged or accomplishing anything.

One last weird plot moment. So the agency can just "disavow" any agent at any point. And the president can "invoke Ghost Protocol" and just unilaterally disband--and presumably defund--a governmental agency. So apparently these agents & their oft-mentioned support staff don't have pensions...much less a union...and no other branches of government have any say, so is the IMF the president's private military force? And does the agency get reestablished? At the end, it seems clear that, for example, Renner & Pegg have jobs to go to, so I guess the president can create a non-drone TOPICAL--ZING private muder force with the stroke of a pen? That seems sub-optimal. But, then, so do these times.

--Fat, who tried hard to have fun with this sneering, despicable exercise in contempt for the consumer

(One) For the record, it's the gag where you jump off a building & turn & shoot back up at the people who chased you until you jumped off the building.

Wait. If you were chasing somebody, and they jumped off a skyscraper...why would you bother racing to the edge to look down? Can they fly? Do people usually survive jumping off buildings?

(Three) I've watched this opening & recap four times & I still can't tell what spy dude does w/ the satchel. It's across his body when he jumps. He turns the corner, is checking the contents--b/c, I guess, paper documents are usually damageable by being in a satchel that just fell a couple stories--and it's on his shoulder, not across his body. So I guess in a scene we didn't get to see, he took it off his cross-body orientation, and put it on his shoulder.

But in the recap...spy dude gets satchel. Runs. Puts the strap across his body. Runs/fights. Then I guess it's...supposed to jump to the opening scene, where he jumps off a roof he was never shown to be on.

Two other dumbnesses about this intro. First--spy dude barks 'armed hostiles!'...but we haven't seen any arms at all. Second, spy dude has been shot *five times* by the contract killer--but spy lady says (and this is her character's *entire motivation*) 'ASSASSIN left him alive just enough to let me see him die'...b/c apparently ASSASSIN knew when spy lady would discover the spy dude she had just put five bullets into. Five bullets calibrate a death to the second, I guess.

(Four) In case you care at all, he's playing catch with himself, but instead of a manly and American baseball, he's got an irregularly shaped pebble, so presumably it's bouncing wildly and only his superheroic reflexes allow him to blah blah blah who cares boring CGI bullshit.

(Five) Footnote Angry will star Nic Cage as David Foster Wallace, returned from the middle ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell to remind us all that conversational structures with elevated register and incongruous matches of form and content are not actually mandatory for all pieces of writing. He may also pause to point out that it probably owes more to Melville than to Wallace, an observation I owe to David J. Roth.

(Six) I think often and semi-fondly of Val Kilmer's masively failed attempt to start a movie franchise, The Saint. Worth a look: the thing's a master class in Hollywood ineptness: story, casting, directing, acting: very little of it works, and what does work is immediately undercut by some other example might be half-bright collie Elizabeth Shue cast as "the only scientist brilliant enough to decipher her father's cold fusion notes". That works about as well as the story does after the tacked-on "oh, she didn't actually die" scene.

(Seven) Too soon?