Friday, November 08, 2013

"Eeney, Meeney, Miney... Magic!" (Venture Bros. - Season 1, Episode 4)

Although 'Mid-Life Chrysalis' was the first episode to take place mostly at the Venture Compound, 'Eeney, Meeney, Miney... Magic!' is the first to entirely unfold at such. Indeed, in the cold open we find Hank and Dean playing Ouija board in their pajamas. We are also more fully introduced to the differences between Hank and Dean.

After mistaking Doc's new renter, the necromancer Dr. Orpheus, for a 'Dracula,' Dean goes to wake up Doc to report this sighting, but Hank goes to Brock. Doc is disproportionately irate with Dean. Brock proceeds to let Hank hang out in his basement room while he does push- and pull-ups, and the resulting dialogue is where Brock breaks out of his mold from the first two episodes, shedding the twitchy-rage-machine and gag humor so dominating in 'Dia de Los Dangerous' and 'Careers in Science'.

 Although this episode is the first to take entire place at the Venture Compound, it is not isolated from the outside world.  To the contrary, we are introduced to Dr. Orpheus' daughter Triana, who, other than having a necromancer for a dad and affecting a goth fashion sense, is the first 'normal' person to appear on the show (to be explicit, she goes to public school and has a life outside of the compound).  By comparison, previous episodes have only featured the 'normal' kind of people you would find in strip clubs ('Mid-Life Chrysalis') or Tijuana ('Dia de los Dangerous'), or have featured no ordinary people at all (i.e. astronauts Buzz Manstrong and Anna Baldavich in 'Careers in Science').  And they certainly have not featured anyone who could be conceived as a peer of Dean or Hank.
What's particularly fun about Triana Orpheus is that she can operate as a substitute for the audience by virtue of her normality – ergo her conversations with Dean are what it would be like if you or I talked to Dean.  And what is revealed from those conversations is that the Venture brothers live a very isolated life, populated by a few adults and more than occasional violence.

 Of course, based on the little we have previously seen in 'Careers in Science', Hank and Dean's experience is not that altogether different from their father's childhood and adolescence.  The difference, it would appear, is Doc's self-loathing compared to his father's confidence and legendary status.  The father-son relationship is not just replicated between Doc and the boys but actually exacerbated.  Dean's head-over-heels crush on Triana should come as little surprise, given its allure as escape pod from the drudgery of his otherwise lonely and violent existence. 

"Mid-Life Chrysalis" (Venture Bros. - Season 1, Episode 3)

Thursday, November 07, 2013

"Mid-Life Chrysalis" (Venture Bros. - Season 1, Episode 3)

The hooks for the puntastically-titled "Mid-Life Chrysalis" are two-fold: (1) Brock's secret agent permit is expired and he must take a test to renew it, and (b) an air force officer calls Doc "grandpa," triggering some textbook mid-life crisis coping (buying a car and deciding to seek a relationship).

Observe Doc's array of hand and facial gestures in the above sequence. His eye brows literally dance upon his brow! His speech is patently ridiculous, but his facial expressions lend it a certain seriousness. Is Doc so egotistical as to earnestly believe what he says, or he is simply playacting and enjoying the role?

Once Doc and Brock have absconded to the local gentleman's club, we are introduced more intimately than before to the strange life of Hank and Dean At Home, where it is revealed that the boys exist in a state of never-ending arrested development, and also that Hank is prone to eclectic citations of popular culture.

Without Brock to protect him, Doc is easily drawn into a plot by the Monarch, and is administered a injection by Dr. Girlfriend which causes him to transform into a giant caterpillar.  The boys the begin to deviate from thier obvious mystery-gang and jet-age-boy-adventurer inspirations by revealiing thier callousness to weird and extraordinary circumstances, which is expressly discussed by Doc and Hank.

Despite this confession of sorts by Hank (noting that just last week they saw a dinosaur), Doc's response (that he wasn't the dinosaur) remains consistent with the egotism Doc has displayed in response to both the boys and other issues in the previous episodes. 

This is the first episode to mostly take place at the Venture Compound, the place this quirksome four call "home."  Perhaps that is why it is the strongest episode so far - Hank and Dean's bizarre uses of thier free time would seem out of place in Mexico (in "Dia de los Dangerous') or in the Gargantua-1 space station ("Careers in Science").  Similarly, Doc's mid-life crisis antics and Brock's moping about his expired license to kill require the comforts of home as a suitable stage.


Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Mother London

by Michael Moorcock (1988)

Mother London is Michael Moorcock's valentine to London - his childhood there, his youth there,neighborhoods and streets and boroughs he has haunted, people he has no doubt known and no doubt despised, memories of British movie stars and cheap pulp adventures, the ebb and flow of his own life reflected in chapters which invariably feature at least one sojourn to a London pub. And, of course, that distinct Moorcockian politik delightfully shot through the whole thing - sometimes a quick jab, sometimes in longer prose.

The novel charts the course of three survivors of the London Blitz - David Mummery, Josef Kiss, and Mary Gasalee, although not always at the same time and not sequentially and not exclusively. Notably, however, all three survived the Blitz: Mummery pulled heroically from the flames by the Black Captain; Gasalee and her newborn daughter surviving the destruction of her home and death of her husband in a bomb shelter (although Gasalee falls into a coma-state for several years after); Kiss can read minds, and is a hero of the Blitz as he could locate survivors.

All three are a bit off. Mummery is a crypto-historical geographer of London. During her coma Gasalee lived in the land of dreams, populated by 1930s movie stars, and did not visibly age at all during the long period of her sleep. Kiss shuns his gift and seems more the washed-up vaudeville performer than anything out of the comics, and is also haunted by the lament of his divorced and long unseen wife and child. Gasalee has also been the lover of the younger Mummery and the older Kiss. The social circles of all three overlap, and there is a host of secondary characters who step in and out of the narrative-perspective to provide peep-holes into specific chapters of London's past (1940 to 1985).

My Moorcock bibliography is, like most, steeped in Elric stories, plus some of his other Eternal Champion stuff and the first two Oswald Bastable books. Astute readers will know these are all thin paperback volumes, usually maxing out at about 200 pages. I read the considerably longer and meatier Gloriana, or the Unfulfilled Queen in the summer of 1997, I think. The descriptions of that fantasical alternative reality London are still with me (a heavy Peake homage by Moorcock, there, I think - the city described as almost one giant sprawling building). All by way of saying (with the exception of Gloriana) my Moorcock was limited to the lighter, more (let's just admit it) juvenile fare. Mother London is my first adult Moorocock novel, read by me firmly in, as it so happens, adulthood.

And here's the thing. After reading Mother London and the slightly related King of the City, I went back and read the Elric novel Stormbringer. That core Moorcock sense of politics? It's in Stormbringer, too, albeit mostly under the surface.

So, with me loving the politic in Mother London, and noting the politic under the surface of Stormbringer, read and consumed in my childhood, I realize that I am in fact an intellectual child of Michael Moorcock.


Tuesday, November 05, 2013

"Careers in Science" (The Venture Bros. - Season 1, Episode 2)

The handful of themes established in Episode 1, regardless of whether they remain in place as the series progresses, are also present in "Careers in Science." Brock remains a surprisingly cardboard absurdity, only really buoyed by Patrick Warburton's priceless delivery of a few choice lines - otherwise there is another violent rage and more of Brock-as-ladies-man elements. As before, however, Dr. Venture and his problems provide the tale's meatier content and more subtle humor, mainly in the form of a double whammy of prescription drug withdrawal coupled with a concussion, resulting in the hallucination of Dr. Venture's father, whom appears as a giant.

Another theme is explored, which is the naive "mystery-solving" of Hank and Dean and their apparent deep experience with vaguely supernatural phenomena and jet-age era superscience (in other words, the 'Scooby-Doo' and 'Johnny Quest' patisches).  This element is fairly involved and fully fleshed out in this episode (which, based on the animation, is probably one of the first episodes produced - some of the animation looks almost like flash, and the title card is just "careers in science" imposed on a still from the title sequence - other episodes use a stylish unique title card more in line with Episode 1).  In later episodes it will still be present, but the naivty gets dialed down significantly.

Guest character Buzz Manstrong is well written and voiced as a middle-aged boyscout hopelessly crushed out on his counterpart, the oversexed Anna Baldavich, but Manstrong's problems are perhaps a little too predictable?  Its a fun vein to mine, poking fun at the 1960s superman of the astronaut, but doesn't gel well with the supernatural and jet-age influences noted above.  To compare to Doc's strengths which make him compelling as a character, its not that Manstrong doesn't have issues, its that they aren't complicated enough.


Monday, November 04, 2013

"Dia de los Dangerous" (The Venture Bros. - Season 1, Episode 1)

Let's skip the easy observations about this very first installment of The Venture Bros.: some of the voice acting is not quite nailed down yet in terms of inflection or tone (Dean, The Monarch), the animation is slightly crude at times; Brock always does this twitching eye thing, and also a more unhinged-murderous-rage thing going on (as the series progresses, Brock appears to be a bit more joyous in his combats).  All these things change, and Brock's violence has more than a certain absurd chuckle appeal, but as in all thing The Venture Bros., there is a seedier, softer underbelly that provides the tale's real pull.

These are characters with problems. Dr. Venture has a X-1 superjet, a bodyguard, and a talking robot, but he's strapped for cash, and inquires about payment for a lecture at Community University of Tijuana mere moments after the last student leaves and even fewer moments after casually referring to Dia de los Muertas as that "dead people Christmas."

To further underline Dr. Venture's selfish craven nature, he literally walks out of the building, shoves a wad of cash into the hands of Hank and Dean and dismisses them so he can go obtain prescriptions from a Mexican doctor, an exchange where he further asserts the backwardness and inferiority of Mexico.

Meanwhile, the boys are kidnapped by the Monarch, who becomes disturbed by the unresponsiveness of Dr. Venture to his ransom calls.  To Dr. Girlfriend he notes that Dr. Venture has never even told the boys he loves them. Contrast this with the end of the episode, where Dr. Venture casually refers to the "world's greatest dad" thing in order get what he wants from the boys.  Disfunctionality is writ large in the margins, and while other elements of the serial change as subsequent installments unfold, this undertow remains consistently strong.


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Speed 3: Zero Gravity

I've never been a fan of Alfonso Cuarón. I don't remember Y Tu Mamá También (2001); I don't watch Harry Potter; and Children of Men (2006) was boring as shit. I dismiss Children of Men because I typically decide if I love or hate a movie before I see it. And, based on the premise: a world where women can't have babies anymore... I knew I would hate it and I do. Similarly I love Jonze/Kaufman, but Her (2013, Spike Jonze) already frustrated me with the what if a guy fell in love with his computer? premise in its trailer.

But Cuarón has Chivo as his ace. When I saw the trailer for Cuarón's big budget Fall 2013 3D blockbuster in space with Bullock and Chivo in the mix, I knew I'd love it. And I was shocked because of the films I know I'll love, rarely are hundred million dollar effects blockbusters the ones that hook me.

Gravity is perfect.

It's a fine dessert.

It's eighty minutes and change of flawless eye candy.

The main draw is the setting. We are in space. That's the whole point. Take the story and restage it anywhere else and this movie is yawn inducing. However, this short capsule of Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) dealing with debris from a soviet satellite explosion is riveting because of the detailed portrait painted by Chivo and Cuarón.

Chivo is Emmanuel Lubezki, AMC, ASC. He shoots all of Malick's films since The New World (2005, Terence Malick). I prefer his style in Gravity. Chivo's  more static and fluid, not as kinetic and Jell-Oey. The images in Gravity aren't as arty as Malick's stuff. I don't know why but this movie is so applaudable for characteristics I would normally connote a sell-out piece of crap of imbuing. And that's why I have come to call Gravity a classic.

Chivo's soft lighting always keeps a feathered gradation of shadows and skintones on these 2 movie stars. He's learned that hard shadows are his enemy. We never see the sun in Gravity. And we are usually within close sight of the Earth, which makes sense considering that's the confinement of the world of the story--just above the Earth's atmosphere.

The two big set pieces are the two separate instances of orbitting debris that Kowalski (Clooney) clocks in as arriving in ninety minute intervals. The first act is so awesome and serene, when the collision approaches it is truly breathtaking because the technology of the vfx is used so effectively. I didn't even realize I could think astronauts and spaceships were cool until now. And the silence is a neat contrast to all of the loud visuals.

Bullock, America's sweetheart, is wonderful. Normally I can't stand her. She is America's everywoman. She's in shape, but not stripper hot. She's mousy, but alternately exotically striking. She's vulnerable, but brave. She's mediocre, but sharp. The cypher of Bullock in zero gravity is the perfect prism to refract this protagonist's lonely "Twilight Zone" confrontation with isolation.

I didn't laugh once. But Clooney is adequate as comic relief.

I can't begin to wrap my head around how they blocked this, but the feeling as an audience member of floating in space and the filmmaker's success in orienting the geography of the set pieces is undoubtedly masterful. The look of a film is something I'll always value above all else, and Gravity is so aesthetically well thought out that I got to go back to the joys of suspending disbelief.


Sunday, August 18, 2013

The English Civil War: 1642-1651.

by R. Potter and G.A. Embleton (1973).

I found this little volume* at Powell's, and as it's nicely printed on glossy paper and has lots of 17th century illustrations throughout, it seemed worth the pick-up.  This is what I call a "museum history book", in that the text wanders from one topic to the next with no transitions, rather like walking from one room of a museum exhibit to another, so, for example, in this room we find samples of mid-17th century English women's clothing, and in this room a little bit about various firearms, and in this bit some pretty flags, etc etc.  In the end, I found this volume quite enjoyable, since I like finding out about the little details, and the "Big Story" elements are thankfully absent (especially as they are covered exhaustively elsewhere).


*Just 96 pages and that's counting some pages that might as well be blank.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Country for Old Men

Bret Easton Ellis is my favorite living author. My second is James Ellroy. I'm trying to write film criticism here, so I must admit no one gives a shit who anyone's favorites are. However, I include this information because here on Reviewiera I get to document a record of my personal take on the review outside of objective criticism.

My favorite of Ellis' novels are Glamorama (1998), The Rules of Attraction (1987), American Psycho (1991) and the short story collection, The Informers (1994). The latter three have been adapted into movies. I think the less I say about them the better.

One of my favorite moments from Ellis' books is the revelation in The Informers that there are vampires living in L. A. Not metaphorical vampires, but full on Lost Boys or Anne Rice realized classic monsters. The vampires are mentioned earlier in the book to establish a foreboding thread to be used later.

I have become sick of the ad nauseum syndicated drivel that regurgitates the same lazy adjectives to describe Ellis' characters: shallow, homosexual, paranoid and homicidal, for example. Nowadays who in filmed entertainment isn't? Paul Schrader describes Ellis' style as, "rich people doing bad things in very nice rooms." I think Ellis characters are a combination of the rich and poor; the naïve and the sociopathic; the sexually obsessed and the sexually exploited; and the thin and beautiful and the thin and beautiful. His satire is targeted at the heads of the entertainment industry and all of the mouths that feed at the teet of Hollywood.

Tied for the best screenplay of 2013 along with Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen) is a movie directed by a 67 year old man from a vital 49 year old author.

The story goes something like: Schrader asks Ellis if he'd like to rework some of his characters into a script to shoot on a microbudget, and it should work because the film would consist of mostly interior dialogue scenes. The project gets launched on Kickstarter with $30,000 from Schrader, $30,000 from Braxton Pope, and $180,000 from Kickstarter. Schrader casts Lindsay Lohan and Ellis fights for James Deen (who is apparently Ellis' idealized manifestation of his essential male lead character) and succeed because no studios are involved--the insurance would supposedly be too risky.

The Canyons (2013, Schrader) was shot on the Alexa and filmed in L. A. locations. It looks like film. The pacing is slow, but brooding--layered with ambient electronic suspense cues.

It's a Bret Easton Ellis movie.

Ellis' lead characters are the three involved in the classic love triangle. Christian (James Deen) stands out as the sneering, lip-pouting walking tool of alpha masculinity. He is a constant: a trust fund kid with daddy issues and a libertine taste for kinky sex. Ryan (Nolan Funk) and Tara (Lindsay Lohan) are defined ultimately through the changes Christian causes them to undergo.

Christian is practically one of the vampires from The Informers or, more accurately, etched out of the same mold as Sean and Patrick Bateman or Bobby Hughes. Ellis specializes in this type of character--depraved monsters whom no one suspects of the atrocities they are capable of until it's too late.

Christian makes a comment about producing the movie Ryan is cast in that describes his motivations as, "I said whatever money the Mexicans came up with I'd match." And furthermore adds that he only got involved in producing so his dad can approve of his career. The world of The Canyons is literary because L. A. used to be the capital Tinseltown, yet it's replaced here with a porn actor named James Deen (if Ellis is saying this kid is today's James Dean, and I think he is, then one begins to appreciate the satirical fantasy and its aim), Lohan acting as a lazy sexessory, and a bunch of rough trade who get cast because they let someone fuck them. Oh yeah, and Ryan drives a white Bronco (yeah, one of those white Broncos).

That scene where Tara switches off the classic Hollywood movie she's watching to use texTV says a lot.

Tara represents the real life 2010s celebrity. She's a mess. She does nothing but smoke, drink, and screw. But she looks kind of sexy.

In a world where anything goes, it is Ellis' focus on Christian's wants (sex and Tara) that make this tale indelible. Since I saw this the same day as Blue Jasmine I noticed that The Canyons also features a man with wealth who abuses women and an opponent without money who tries to compete in the romantic world of the upper class and learns that he is outmatched.

All Christian cares about is sex.

All L. A. cares about is sex, in this film. And I guess this is where the final layers of self-reference are noticeable. The Canyons is a sex movie in the sense that all of the power these characters are battling over is sexual, essentially. All of the characters are basically sleeping with someone and that defines their existence. Only incidentally do they happen to all work in movies.

Is the point that if all of the movie industry types in L. A. are as vapid as a porno flick, then one should assume that Hollywood movies will become as dull and pointless? Maybe. But Ellis and Schrader have crafted a story of substance and new ideas about the plasticity of showbiz.

I commend Deen's performance. He's got that rich asshole good looking guy quality. But his performance obviously isn't for everyone's tastes because I heard quite a few people gasp-giggling at his delivery.

The Canyons also has Ellis' signature gallows humor that pops up out of nowhere you'd expect. Some of the laughs are intentional.

Lindsay Lohan walking around stripping into her bra and panties, with her white bruised thighs, freckled shoulders, smoking cigarettes and holding a wine glass through most of this movie coalesced into something insightful. Namely that this looks like what goes on in the real life of someone like her.

Sometimes the film feels low budget because of the heights the melodrama attempts to attain. But the story as a whole is crafted wonderfully. Ryan is equally as important as Christian by the end. And the way the story all takes place in 4 days makes it a wholly accessible little valentine to Hollywood in the electronic social media age.

And it is okay to laugh at Deen, even I'll admit.


Friday, August 09, 2013

Blue Is the Warmest Color

I grew up in Corpus Christi, TX. For my last couple of years of high school my family moved to the suburbs, outside of Tulsa, OK. I hated that place. After I graduated, in 1999, I moved to Portland, OR. And that's where I met most of the Reviewiera personnel.

In 1998 I enrolled in a film appreciation course at Tulsa Community College. For one semester, I made an A in that class, along with Fs in 4 others. My final paper was a superlative-ridden celebration of the first Woody Allen movie I'd seen, Celebrity (1998). That was the first film I'd admired the cinematography in--shot in black-and-white by Sven Nykvist, Ingmar Bergman's longtime D. P., crowded with statuesque supermodels like Charlize Theron and the earthy ingenue Gretchen Mol--and the beginning of my obsession with all of Woody Allen's films.

Being in a small town I quenched my itch at collecting that had failed to persist with baseball cards, comic books, or other novelties by cataloguing my own Woody Allen filmography and watching every title I could find. I had bought my own satellite dish that showed many of them, the rest were only available on VHS.

I didn't hang on to my VHS tapes.

But Woody Allen's films will always remain vital.

I've made ageist comments about directors here before. However, the best screenplay of the year 2013 has been filmed by a 77 year old man.

Wealth attracts deception.

Woody Allen is known for having delightfully clever creations in his scripts that play with parallels. Like the sketch in Husbands and Wives (1992) about married Pepkin and playboy Knapp envying each other, all of Melinda and Melinda (2004), or Roy's and Strangler's respective fates in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010).

The screenplay for Blue Jasmine (2013) focuses on a tower of petite bourgeoisie characters headed by Hal (Alec Baldwin) that leave a deluge of disaffectedness, deception, and destruction at its base; although, the victims are the working class whom these noveau riche are family with, and find love with. The consistency that occurs most clearly is that men with money abuse women. But, early on Ginger (Sally Hawkins) defends her sister Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) by citing, "she wasn't the crook, he [Hal] was," which follows down the tower by disavowing Jasmine's culpability because she was oppressed by Hal, yet Ginger was innocent.

This movie is about "looking the other way," as Jasmine is accused of. The rich characters are devoid of ethics and if their middle class loved ones want anything at all to do with them, they must ignore their glaringly hostile transgressive-abusive natures.

Jasmine's rich backstory is told in flashbacks. This stuff is Woody Allen showing off his master screenwriting skills. It's charming. Every character is desperate to salvage some catastrophe on the verge of disaster, but it's modern and class-conscious. Jasmine is similar to some of the best roles Judy Davis acted out, as the hysteric jilted lover she so often played in other Allen films. But Jasmine goes insane for real, not movie ha ha insane, and this is where the story shows it's got balls.

The rich are made out to be insane for actually buying into the myth that they are above everyone else, and in the world of fiction that's fun to play around with. Why not? The WASP culture of material obsession is sickening in this film, and it's played for high drama. And it is because Allen is deriving his comedy from such a touchy real life source that it works so well. It's funny because it's true.

Allen has a couple of penetrating closeups that really compliment Blanchett's face. The scene where she boasts of her socialite life to Ginger's bewildered boys; the scene where she's without make-up at the end, lost, deranged.

Alec Baldwin has been in a few Woody Allen films before. He's great. But, Sally Hawkins really is the other half of Blanchett's movie. These are probably two of the most established American female leads of the year, and both of the women playing these characters are British--just a trivia note.

With the exception of Hal and Al (Louis C. K.), the men in this film are subservient to their women. And Hal and Al are the only guys who own their own businesses or are otherwise financially wealthy.

I first appreciated the way Allen can take real life situations and get so much out of class, sex, age, race, religion, and have mostly just scenes of people talking be so accomplished. But, at this late in his career, the fact that he's still covering this same material and getting more out of it is really something rare in movies.


Thursday, July 25, 2013

Drive, He Said

Summer brings big budget blockbusters. But this summer, there have also been a number of minimalist-structured narrative art films: Like Someone in Love (2012, Abbas Kiarostami) and To the Wonder (2012, Terrence Malick) in March kind of kicked things off; followed by Spring Breakers (2012, Harmony Korine); The Bling Ring (2013, Sofia Coppola); and Prince Avalanche (2013, David Gordon Green). Another word to describe these films would be slow.

My first Nicolas Winding Refn film was Bronson (2008), which I hated because it treaded over the same dramatic elements too much: it was a movie about a badass who fights when cornered, so he goes to prison where... guess what?... he gets cornered and fights. In the film's defense, it looked amazing with its theatrical lighting stylization, and I had been burnt out by a festival schedule where I had already seen three films before Bronson that night.

Drive (2011, Refn) is a treat. Cliff Martinez's synthesizer 80s New Wave madness and pop songs really characterize Drive. And Carey Mulligan's damsel is the right kind of distress The Driver (Ryan Gosling) needs to check his desires. Comedy and violence finally add to create a work that can travel around to plenty of audiences effectively.

Power attracts beauty.

Only God Forgives (2013, Refn) is an urban Crime Drama that takes place in Bangkok and focuses on the few individuals who wield substantial power in the close-knit criminal underworld, and the attainability of beauty, justice, and morality that their respective statuses and power afford them.

The film opens with a kickboxing ring Julian (Gosling) runs. Slow camera dollies fluidly present sumptuous production design, highlighted by real Thailand locations, elaborate black-on-red wallpaper schemes, strong red lights, and ornate floral arrangements. This Bangkok, like Tokyo in Enter the Void (2009, Gaspar Noé), is painted in its most dark, dangerous, and aesthetically elegant form.

Once the tone is established, the following 85 minutes sludge forward charged with the behemoth Cliff Martinez score, which is unlike his recent electropop funk arrangements. Martinez's score features foreboding low strings that sound like tectonic plates must be shifting, along with bizarre atonal percussion arrangements that sometimes sound like the music from the stargate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick). In the film's third act climax, Martinez finally brings out his Moog funk for a big fight though--what fun.

Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) is the central character of the film. He rules Bangkok as a Police Chief, dishing out his own brand of justice, as he sees fit--which usually involves bloodshed. His stoicism seems contagious. The entire cast barely moves a face muscle, appendage, or even mutters a word that they don't absolutely have to. This movie is heavy. It's about a triangle of powerful people who cross each other, and the ensuing resolution.

The brothels and 12 year old Thai prostitutes are shockingly beautiful in their context here. And so is the venerable Chang's karaoke performances, with his adoring disciples (Bangkok PD) solemnly and piously granting him audience.

The blocking is very important in Only God Forgives. Audiences must pay close attention to eyelines to decipher where Julian is looking often, as cuts mismatch geographical and temporal unity. Is all of this real? Is some of it imagined? Obviously we are meant to decide ourselves, but we can assume the shots of the bloody samurai sword, for example, represent something more than your typical connect-the-dots narratives.

Only God Forgives meets the challenge of the cliché, "Go big or go home." I love the way the gargantuan metropolis Bangkok can represent the pinnacle of exotic beauty and vice, and we get to study the power dynamic through a few White expatriates primarily--it's fun to imagine that these criminals are so big that they just live off the fat of the land down there pursuing the classic safe haven for American outlaws, while running shit and living the life of luxury. And it is even more fitting that they all answer to Chang, the benevolent Chang.

I just dig Chang. Something about how formidable his presence is, always wearing that short-sleeved black shirt and slacks uniform. And Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas) is hilariously adept at being the termagant who commands her own empire.


Friday, July 19, 2013

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is as hellaciously bad as any movie ever made

I know everybody liked Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. I also know it's been out a while.

I loathed that movie. The reviewer linked above is good at finding things that aren't there, but "ineptly told" isn't the same thing as "dreamlike". I did see one internet comment that was like "this is like somebody remade Apocalypse Now and crossed it with Dollhouse and Total Recall and and and" and those things certainly all went into the stew, but so did a whole lot of not knowing how to tell a story. I will say that both Lundgren and Van Damme give really really really bizarre performances that I liked a lot, and some of the fights were...I dunno. Like the director and fight choreographer watched a lot of video games and wanted to recapitulate them. Here are a few claims the reviewer made.

This movie is a secret masterpiece.
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is a movie Werner Herzog, David Lynch, and Shivers-era David Cronenberg might make
The actual director, John Hyams, has a distinctive voice and style.


He and his cinematographer, Yaron Levy, create a nightmare-scape of blighted semisuburbia through which the hero drifts


The compositions are beautiful.


The cheapness of the sets


Interiors look like Gregory Crewdson photographs and exteriors look like William Egglestons.

No, and then again, no:

But the movie is more than just a feast for connoisseurs of composition and atmosphere.


It both invites and supports a close reading.


In Day of Reckoning, the history of the individual is a alterable commodity, subject to manipulation by both the state and those who oppose it.


At the same time, John’s search for his family’s killers folds back on itself to become an investigation into his own identity


and then a radical recalibration of his moral code;

No, and then again, no:

in addition to being a political parable, the story is a subtle and elegant portrait of a consciousness maturing from psychological childhood to adulthood.


When he realizes his memories are untrustworthy, he faces a climactic choice

No, and then again, no:

about the most fundamental of human questions


Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is the most exceptional movie of 2012


he made a strange,


haunting, sometimes even beautiful odyssey


Thursday, July 18, 2013

A Grotesque Moment.

A long long time ago*, Henry Abbott had a post1 regarding Michael McCann's article abt recent policies implemented by the NBA in relation to player autonomy, and followed the initial post up w/ an interview of McCann2 . I especially enjoy McCann's dichotomy between fans who relate to the owner's perspective and fans who relate to the players' perspective. The gauge of said relation is pretty easily figured by "fans" who tend to often bring up the subject of the size of player salaries, such as "getting paid $10 million to toss a ball through a hoop sounds like Eddy Currie [sic] is coming out ahead."

The gravitational pull exerted on me by McCann's argument also stems from the fact that I've read David Halberstam's The Breaks of the Game. Specifically, the tale of Larry Fleisher.3

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The Fleisher section is where Halberstam lays out the founding of the NBA Player's Association. I have found that Halberstam's version of events appears to include episodes I have not found recorded elsewhere, or at least not on the 'nets. I suppose it's for this lack that I want to get a few of the better parts out there. In direct relation to McCann's article there's this gem.
The owner often quite unconsciously looks down on his players. In part it was a reflection of the fact that the owners thought the athletes were stupid, but it was also a feeling that they should be eternally grateful for the chance to play a little boy's game and be paid for it. With blacks, Fleisher thought, the attitude was far more blatant and nakedly expressed, the racism barely concealed; there are not thousands, but millions out on the playground who want your job, so should be even more grateful.4
I consider this the root of seeing things from the owner's perspective. It's important to note the basic prejudice here is that NBA players are athletes, & athletes ("jocks") are stupid. In addition to this there is the "you're getting paid to throw a ball through a hoop" angle, which implies that players should be grateful, & do as they are told.

This second attitude turned out be the very crux upon which the nascent player's union won their first concession. It was the 1964 All-Star break & after 4 years of effort the player's union wasn't getting anywhere. The owners simply weren't listening. However, Fleisher's early strategy had been only to recruit the best players on each team. "They wanted first and foremost the peer respect worthy of a Russell or a Petit or a Wilkens, and secondly they wanted players skilled enough to be immune from front office pressure."5

In '64, NBC was bailing on NBA coverage. ABC decided to do the All-Star game, w/ the tacit understanding that if ratings were good they might pick up the '65 season. In the '60s the NFL was rolling in the cash w/ lucrative teevee contracts, & NBA owners wanted a piece of that action. This placed the players' union in a position of leverage, & they decided to strike - by not reporting to the floor for the All-Star game - demanding only a most-minimum of a pension plan. The owners said no.
The strike was a shaky business; a few minutes before game time it was still uncertain they would go through with it. The breakdown was about eleven to nine in favor and some influential players like Wilt Chamberlain wanted to play now and negotiate later. At that moment Bob Short, one of the owners of the Los Angeles Lakers, sent word down to the locker room that the two Laker All-Stars, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, better get dressed and get out on the floor immediately or they were gone. It was a grotesque moment and it had a sobering effect on everyone in the locker room: West and Baylor were two of the most respected people in the history of the game. Yet were was an owner treating them as if they were untested rookies, do this, do that, go here, do as I say. The mood in the room swung completely, and solidified behind a strike. ABC meanwhile was squeezing the owners. If the players were not dressed and on the court in twenty minutes, ABC said, there would be no coverage this year or next year. With that the owners folded and promised a pension plan.6
Bob Short's command is definitely something I've never found floating about on the 'nets, probably because Halberstam is right in identifying its ugliness. NBPA histories will occasionally mention the threatened strike of the All-Star Game, but will ignore the particulars of what went on in the locker room that day.


* Apologies. I found this lingering in my drafts and figured hell with it let's hit publish.
1 Link broken when Abbott went to ESPN.
2 Link broken when Abbott went to ESPN.

3 Halberstam, David. The Breaks of the Game. Ballatine Books. New York. 1981. p. 341-349.
4 ibid. p. 344.
5 ibid. p. 344-345.
6 ibid. p. 346.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

UPS is Decadent and Depraved: A Tale of Porches (Which Do Not As Such Exist)

Initial Question: "porch"? This should have been delivered to my office, which is entirely porch-free. Where is my package?

Susan B.: Hi, this is Susan B.. I'll be happy to assist you.

Fat: Hi, great, thanks.

Susan B.: Just a moment while I look into that for you.

File attachment upload has started.

The file porch.png (72.16KB) was received.

Susan B.: I am showing the package was delivered to:

Is that your correct address?

Fat: Sigh.

Fat: That's an apartment building.

Fat: I am #6.

Fat: There is no porch there either, and several days ago I paid to have the address changed.

Fat: So there's kind of a lot of problems there.

Susan B.: I do see apartment 6 as well.

Fat: Okay...

Fat: So...

Susan B.: Have you looked around your delivery area possibly behind and bushes or furniture and check with any other household members that might have picked up the package?

Fat: I guess I'll leave work and go do that.

Fat: Is there a reason I was charged to change my delivery address when the delivery address was not changed?

Susan B.: I hope you are able to find the package, but if not, what you will want to do next is contact the shipper and let them know you never got the package so they can initiate a tracer investigation. Shippers are encouraged to report lost packages because receivers may not have all the shipment information needed to perform a thorough investigation.

Fat: I think I have enough information!

Fat: I changed the address, was charged money to do so, then your driver took my package to the wrong address and dumped it on a non-existent porch.

Susan B.: Sorry you were charged in error. I'd be happy to message the local center and request a refund for you. May I have your contact phone number including your area code please?

Fat: xxxxxxxxxx

Susan B.: It will take me just a few minutes to complete the message and I'll be right back with you.

Fat: Okay, thanks. While you're working on that message, can you explain why the UPS InfoNotice(R) I received said my written authorization was needed? B/c I didn't give them any written authorization to dump my package on a non-existent porch.

Susan B.: Thank you for you patience. Urgent message is on the way to the center and they'll be giving you a call within one hour regarding your package. The shipper did not send your package with a signature required at the time of delivery, so it is up to the driver's discretion whether your package is left or not.

Susan B.: Is there anything else I can help you with today?

Fat: Nope, thanks.

Monday, July 08, 2013

The 5th Film by Sofia Coppola

One thing Sofia Coppola has going for her is that her entire oeuvre displays a directorial authorship and she has written all of her films. Her motifs include a sense of isolation refracted through a protagonist's femininity, celebrity, or adolescence--sometimes all three. She also has a precious hand at art direction, with iconography and milieus often involving a noticeably girly insight into a delicately hand-decorated stylization.

However, her films exhibit an anemic quality that I imagine resembles what Coppola is like in real life. From what I've heard of her public speaking persona, she often mumbles, appears fatigued, and languidly struggles to make her points (I wonder if she's always like that? Her father, Francis Ford Coppola, seems incapable of ever shutting up.).

So, as an American female filmmaker of personal and original works, she has no peers. The only other American female voice I can think of in cinema to point out currently is screenwriter Diablo Cody. These two women maintain a literary consistency to their work that is responsible, without sacrificing the quality of the entertainment.

Did anyone see the alternate design Spring Breakers (2012, Harmony Korine) poster that this ad resembles? It's no shocker that advertisers would try to piggyback onto a market trend. Yet, The Bling Ring (2013, Sofia Coppola) is an entity that's saturated with themes of imitation, impostors, and moral and intellectual wastoids. Since The Bling Ring operate as criminals who are obsessed with looking good and getting rich by assimilating with and robbing those who already are good looking and rich, they are following the newest trend this summer, as evinced by Spring Breakers or Pain and Gain (2013, Michael Bay).

There are no characters or character development. All members of the Bling Ring Five serve a single function--they steal. That's it. We're introduced to them as a gang of thieves who seek high price-tagged luxury goods, they succeed, and they are punished. The plot archs, but the characters do not. This works because it fits the world of the story. I don't want more character here because it's depicting shallow teenagers who are looking for something that they don't know themselves--fun--and don't know it 'til they find it.

This feels like Coppola's adaptation of the video game Grand Theft Auto. The bulk of the film is a pass into the proceedings for the sake of fun, as opposed to a glimpse into the procedural of why and how they did it and why and how they got caught. Go read Crime and Punishment if you really care about heftier literary crime narratives that pathologize burglary.

The familiar structure of inserting mock interview footage of the culprits after they've been convicted of their crime amidst flashbacks of the crimes themselves seems like a new direction for Coppola, but it is similar to the structure used in The Virgin Suicides (1999, Coppola).

After The Virgin Suicides, Gus Van Sant would spend the '00s churning out his "Beautiful Corpse Trilogy," Gerry (2002), Elephant (2004), and Last Days (2005). Van Sant and Coppola have a lot in common. If Van Sant's trilogy can be said to have followed The Virgin Suicides, Coppola definitely seems to have returned the homage. Coppola hired DP Harris Savides (who shot all of Van Sant's trilogy) to shoot her 2010 film Somewhere, and The Bling Ring was his final film. By itself, this is weak evidence, but the pacing of Somewhere was glacial and the point of view in general feels more detached.

Savides' look is desaturated. There are no strong blacks or whites. He doesn't light for subjects, so actors often walk through areas of the set where they fall off into shadows. And this obviously stands out against the complete opposite look of Spring Breakers.

The production design is the star of this movie. We get the cool Coppola teen girl bedrooms, although the mansions are superbly evoked. It's almost like we're back in her 18th century Versailles.

The music is every bit as legit as it should be since we're supposed to feel like we are hanging out with the coolest kids in America. The culture of singing in one's car is also an astute addition.

While I did say there was no character, I'd like to close with one final Van Sant analogy. Nicky (Emma Watson) isn't developed as a character really, but her two dimensional stereotype strongly resembles that of the Buck Henry-created sociopath Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman) in To Die For (1995, Van Sant). And Nicky seems to anchor the cast.

At least the actors were all actually pretty and young. Katy Chang is flawlessly cute.

While the film doesn't attain the heights of an actual tabloid opera, its modestly scaled case study does manage to show what it feels like to be a teenager again; and additionally, the dangers and excitement of breaking into houses, burglary, and snorting cocaine (for those of us who didn't actually experience these thrills first hand).


Saturday, July 06, 2013

The More You Look at Something the Less You See

After Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, and David Lynch, the Coen Brothers are the most crucial American filmmakers I have followed, appreciated, and critically studied for my entire adult life.

To separate movies from films, the Coen Brothers' widely praised works are typically their movies: Raising Arizona (1987), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), No Country for Old Men (2007) and True Grit (2010); and unfortunately, it's been a long time since I've had the desire to revisit these in hopes of finding something new.

However, their films: Barton Fink (1991), The Man Who Wasn't There (2001), and A Serious Man (2009) easily remain some of the most intellectually stimulating and classically entertaining narratives any American filmmakers have crafted since the 1990s, in the modern era. Yet, their movies are necessary to identify them as auteurs, and their films only become stronger if you take their body of work as a whole.

Yesterday The Man Who Wasn't There screened in a 35mm print at a theatre. Since this movie was shot on 35mm and converted to a DI, watching it on DVD or digitally projected in a theatre leaves something to be desired. However, seeing the film projected in 35mm returns the black and white converted DI to its native analog look because the print shows dirt, dust and other debris and feels like you're watching an old black and white movie from the 40s.

The black and white look and the film's period small town somewhere near Sacramento, CA setting make this a Film Noir. Normally I confine Noirs between 1941-1958, but this 2001 movie qualifies because they set their film back then. But this isn't merely a Film Noir. It's more like the Coen Brothers making a Neo Noir because they are drawing heavily from the established conventions of historical Film Noirs, but have crafted the film as an existential crisis--with a plethora of big questions, most notably: "What kind of a man are you?" And in addition to all of this, they have succeeded in delivering one of their most sparkling deadpan comedies, with one of their most uniquely droll and prosaic assortment of everyday small town folk, dryly skewering all things ordinary.

The look of this film separates it from B-movie Noirs. Roger Deakins primarily using the barbershop, photographs sublimely contrasty, detail cluttered set pieces almost as gorgeous as images Henri Alekan achieved in Der Himmel über Berlin (1987, Wim Wenders). Also, the Nerdlinger's department store features cavernous shadows and broad pillars of blackness against smoky shafts of light that create geometrically designed representations of the protagonist's psychological inner chaos like the films John Alton shot in the late '40s. And notice the striking use of medium to medium close up-framed dolly tracking shots, overcranked, and often rain soaked; these are among the most lyrical segues in the film.

Some of the strongest evidence to support categorizing this film as a Film Noir is Ed Crane's guarded near-paranoia. He's cynical, as are most hard-boiled Noir protagonists. And he's our narrator, so in a way, the film is cynical. Film Noir often means an American looks around sometime after The War and realizes people, society, or the government aren't what they seem. This is Ed Crane's path. Sizing people up seems to be his only reason for living. And he usually concludes that they're all phonies. Think about how often he slings that slur.

Birdy almost takes on an existential significance, as she's obviously something like a manifestation of Crane's ideal female. And in the glorious scene where she attempts to give him fellatio as a consolation prize, Crane's dreams are finally shattered once and for all, causing him to take account of his place in the universe one last time.

Existential is a big label that gets thrown around way to much. I'm not saying I'm the one to categorize this film as such, but I think it does ask big questions instead of setting the same conflicts and resolutions as most plot-driven works. There is something said without words that floored me when Crane gets his leg shaved before his execution--because we remember that everynight he used to shave his wife's legs in the bathtub--like, how odd that on his last night alive someone else would be shaving his. There's no point. It's a mere observation. But, what else is there? These shots may support the motif that Doris' marriage proposal suggests ("Why? Does it get better?").

She has a point.

Maybe this is all there is.

Doris (Frances McDormand) is a riot as the comedic relief, and Crane is here merely to serve as her foil mostly. She's got the balls and spits fire like one of Hawks's gals. And what cracks me up is that religion or a higher power isn't a governing factor for Ed or Doris (or anyone else in this movie really) but, she kind of symbolizes everything the ten commandments try to dissuade. Doris cusses like a sailor, loves to use blasphemy, "Enjoy your goddamn cherries," is racist, "I hate wops," is an alcoholic, commits adultery, commits grand larceny against he employer, and finally is convicted of murder. The irony is that even though Doris didn't kill Big Ed, one wonders how long before she might have.

Her first line in the film is a riot, "Bingo!" I saw McDormand on a Charlie Rose interview from the time of the film's release and I remember she said some of the best direction she had was in that scene because Ethan told her, "when she gets bingo, it's life or death for her."

The casting in this film is brilliant. No one holds a candle to Tony Shaloub (as Freddy Riedenschneider). Riedenschnieider's machine-gun rapid-fire dialogue as a fast talking big money attorney from Sacramento takes the second half of this film into vastly entertaining dimensions. Everyone is a small town rube, but he kicks the cobwebs off of the mausoleum once he arrives. He talks fast, eats fast (and voraciously), and thinks fast. He's arrogant, rude, manipulative, and driven. His musings on Heisenberg's uncertainty principle are ridiculously hilarious. Although my favorite Riedenscheider lines have always been his curt summary of how crummy Doris' case looks:

You say he was being blackmailed. By who?
You don't know. For having an affair. With
who? You don't know. Did anyone else know
about it? Probably not, you don't know.

Carter Burwell (he's scored every Coen Bros. movie) wrote one of the only scores in a Coen Brothers movie where I actually felt like they were being sentimental. The Burwell excerpt I'm talking about doesn't play until Act III, when Frank has to sell the barbershop over to the bank. And it is after this point I feel like the Coen Bros. have transcended most of the stuff they usually do, and why The Man Who Wasn't There is so important for me. (I wonder if Burwell's similarly heart-breaking score for Being John Malkovich (1999, Spike Jonze) was a breakthrough that paved the way for this?)

In closing, the haircuts for kids were:
The Butch
The Heine
The Flattop
The Ivy
The Junior Contour
(And occasionally) The Executive Contour

Friday, July 05, 2013

Watch This and Grab the World by the Asshole

A few months ago I had received some movies from a guy who downloaded the files on a drive for me. There was one title I didn't recognize. After I looked it up I learned it was a 1975 Blaxsploitation movie about a pimp who drives a custom-paint jobbed orange Rolls Royce, and that copies of the movie on home video are virtually non-existent (a local video store has an old bootleg VHS, and an inscription that says, "Samuel L. Jackson's favorite Blaxsploitation movie!").

I hesitated watching the movie because Blu-ray and a city that shows and cares about movies makes it hard for me to watch low-res shoddy transfers, if I can help it (often I can't, i.e. Warhol's films). Thanks to the Alamo Drafthouse there was a screening of The Candy Tangerine Man (1975, Matt Cimber) projected in 35mm.

Style is what this movie has going for it.

The genre is Blaxploitation Crime. Blaxploitation isn't really a genre because, like Film Noir, it's more of a feeling, an attitude, and hopefully, acknowledged to be historic. I date Noir from '41-'58. I think Blaxploitation is probably somewhere around the 70s.

I haven't done adequate critical work to call myself knowledgeable about Blaxploitation movies. I grew up watching Dolemite, but that's about it. I do like a movie called Emma Mae (1976, Jamaa Fanaka) that I saw fairly recently. That was some of the best Blaxploitation because of the way that it used real locations and non-professionally trained actors to evoke a vérité Compton.

But The Candy Tangerine Man doesn't transcend any of its low budget limitations in any significant way. Style does go a long way though. The star of the film is John Daniels, who plays The Baron. The Baron is a pimp, but in this film he's glorified and heroic.

Something about the score really stood out. It's so slow. It creates a constant sense of foreboding because of its menacing slow nature, but this also compliments The Baron--he's slow and menacing. The Baron is an anomaly in this film because every other character whines in obnoxious high registers except him. And everyone else are two-dimensional stereotypes but him.

This milieu is so rich. The Candy Tangerine Man doesn't come anywhere near having the verisimilitude of Iceberg Slim's masterpiece 1967 novel "Mama Black Widow," but it does cover the same turf (procuring and prostituting as run by Black people in a metropolitan US city). There is a scene where a rival pimp challenges The Baron: "I ain't into the slave trade," which seems like a pretty hefty accusation, but The Baron (and the movie) let this comment slide.

The big twist in this movie is that The Baron has a beautiful wife, child and home in the suburbs that he visits by day, and who are unaware of his alter ego's profession. So if one were to look at the morals (I'm not gonna dare attempt to say racial politics) this movie upholds, it is clear that it sees the pimp as industrious and prestigious rather than exploitative or immoral. And why not? I like seeing movies from alternate viewpoints, and the rare movies where crime does pay are always  fun.


Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Hideous Mutant Freekz

The Golden Age of Pop Culture for me dates from around 1989 to 1999, and I'm not just talking about movies. For the purposes of this post, I cite one of the most influential early 1990s television programs MTV ever aired, "The Idiot Box," created by Alex Winter, Tom Stern, and Tim Burns and running from 1990-1991. "The Idiot Box" was a half hour sketch comedy series that would be better labeled as deranged humor than absurdist. It's manic, kinetic, non-sequitor assortment of satirical parodies featured exclusive use of ADR, and mostly Winter's VO, resulting in Winter and Stern's characteristic style of mocking mainstream television corporate structured advertising and production.

One of my earliest childhood memories was visiting a house where I remember playing with Lite-Brites and being astounded at something on TV that an older boy was watching. All I recall is seeing the dude who played Bill S. Preston Esq. (Winter) being chased through a set that resembled The Evil Dead (1981, Sam Raimi) with the Ram-A-Cam by a bald woman, while Bill yells, "Oh no, it's Sinéad!"

"The Idiot Box" was my introduction to television sketch comedy programs and I've been keeping up ever since. "Portlandia" is a lot more like "The Idiot Box" than it is "Monty Python's Flying Circus," "Saturday Night Live," or "The Kids In the Hall."

And then there's the tale of one of the rare instances in Hollywood History when someone slips something past a major studio, gets a ton of money, makes something the studio ends up disowning, but because the film survives on home video and repertory screenings, becomes a cult classic. The way the story goes basically is that after the success of Bill & Ted, Alex Winter pitched a similar vehicle to star he and (a disguised in dog makeup) Keanu Reeves to Twentieth and they gave him fifteen million dollars before they realized they hated his film, Hideous Mutant Freekz.

Have you ever found the style of a filmmaker so brilliant and enjoyable that you wish you could see other work they've done in the same vein? Jackpot!

The $15,000,000, Twentieth Century Fox-produced, Special Effects by the most elite and legendary artists working-endowed gross-out comedy Freaked (1993, Tom Stern and Alex Winter) screened in a 35mm print, and I was able to attend the viewing.

The plot is that Elijah C. Skuggs (Randy Quaid) illegally purchases a toxin called Zygrot 24, which has hideous freak side effects, and shanghais a band of victims to perform in his sideshow, Freek Land.

This is "The Idiot Box" the movie, for sure. Fans will get all of the trademark ADR cheesiness, interchangeable absurdist roulette structure that gives "Family Guy" a decent run for its money, Alex Winter, and stupid gross humor; and Freaked opens with a VO PSA that it's safe to return to your homes because the "Flying Gimp," has been killed.

I've had a few memories of watching a movie for the first time in the theatre and being shocked at the consistency of the amount of times I'd laugh. Usually upon revisiting the films, I could not recreate the alchemy. I think for me it was BASEketball (1998, David Zucker) first--I'd learn that ZAZ did this as early as The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977, John Landis); then there wasn't really anything similar until "Family Guy." Yeah, when I first saw "Family Guy" I was enthralled because I felt like I was laughing every 30 seconds non-stop, every episode for the first season.

Anyway, I haven't been able to watch "Family Guy" since the previous millennium. But Freaked was as good as I'd always remembered.

The big budget shows. The production design, sets, costumes, and especially the prosthetic special effects are dynamite. Alex Winter as Ricky Coogin spearheads the adept comedic ensemble in the raucous, rowdy, raunchy, ribald, rotting putrid gem of a freak show.

I love Stuey Gluck (Alex Zuckerman) in all of his overly-sentimentalized, Steinbeck meets The Champ adorned goofball screen appearances.

The sound design is as aggresively Hollywood as Jablonsky doing Transformers. And this production comes off seamlessly because the creators actually worked for 2 years on development before the cameras were brought in for production. They left nothing to chance, which is very impressive for a first-time director.

Some of the pop culture references might be lost on some (like the "Jake and the Fatman" diss.) But most of the gags are, what Winter describes as, "dumb jokes that only guys get." I laughed the hardest I have in a long time at the scene where they reveal flashbacks for every freak to show how they were shanghaied by Skuggs. The last flashback tilts down to a hammer on the ground. Next, intense suspensful music, sound effects, lighting and editing reveal through flashback that once upon a time Skuggs bought this character as a wrench in a hardware store.

Aesthetically this movie is important because I love all things toxic, pop culture, and absurdist black comedy. And I really can't express how important this film is to me, being one of the trashiest oddities I actually hold as high art.


Monday, June 24, 2013

When You Hear the Words Foreign Film, Think of France

Okay, so you've all heard the distinction between films and movies, I'm sure. As a filmmaker, I define film as pure cinema. My basis for this definition consists of three broad groupings. The categories are as follows: the Alfred Hitchcock style of pure cinema (Hollywood), the Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard, and Claire Denis respective styles of pure cinema (France), and the Terrence Malick style of pure cinema (The New Hollywood). There are subtle variations inherent in these distinctions.

Sometime around the early to mid aughts I had repeatedly skimmed the title Beau travail (1999, Claire Denis) in print articles found in the New York Film Society at Lincoln Center's monthly "Film Comment," often in best of lists. I'd also been hounding David Thomson's The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and come across his monograph of Claire Denis--he specifically refers to her biggest fans being "the 'Film Comment' critics." So, I finally gave Beau travail a chance around 2009.

Claire Denis is probably my most recent discovery that has allowed me to find that elusive scent I hunt down so desperately--that of creative aesthetic brilliance. (Actually, Bruno Dumont is the most recent, to be accurate.) Beau travail won me over firstly with its short running time, splendid Benjamin Britten score, and insurmountably calculated final shot.

I love Beau travail as a foreign film. It's foreign in many senses of the word, especially for me. Denis uses tiny details to establish the Djibouti location in ways that evoke its people, markets, landscapes, transportation systems, and merciless barren deserts along with marvelously azure coastal planes. When I watch this, I always appreciate the quality of being transported to Africa for an hour and a half--and I've never been to Africa, but it strikes me as the most foreign of continents because I have the hardest time imagining what it would actually be like to visit.

The iconic French veteran actor Denis Lavant (he's got a mug like a French Dafoe) stars as Sgt. Galoup, an inwardly-turmoiled French Foreign Legionnaire who struggles with his jealousy over the new thin recruit Sentain. So the foreigner stacking piles up here: Galoup is a Frenchman in Africa, appears to be either a closeted homosexual or conflicted similarly with a dark impulse that arises out of his jealousy over Sentain, and all of this was filmed by a 43 year old French woman who AD'd for Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch throughout the 80s (Don't tell me you can't think of Wenders' Paris, Texas (1984) or Jarumusch's Stranger Than Paradise (1984), or Down by Law (1986) as having a similarly foreign protagonist in a foreign place, typically encountering other foreigners).

The Djibouti discotech scenes are easily some of the finest craftsmanship Denis has arranged, infusing the bleak desert locale with lively colors, seductively corporal gyrations, darkness and energy. This counterpoint evokes part of the mysterious inner life of Galoup.

It was Godard who famously said that, "a film needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But, not necessarily in that order." Beau travail's famous final shot has been reported numerous times to have been found at another point in the script initially; only in post did Denis realize where she wanted to put it. But, this holds as a vital example to Godard's original intent.

This is the rhythm of the night.

Galoup's queer demeanor is a locked door. Perhaps we will never really know him. However, it is clear that he lives for the corps--the Foreign Legion, his body, their bodies, Sentain's body, and even Rahel's (Galoup's African mistress) body. But, the final shot nearly guarantees to us that there is something locked up behind that door that is bursting forth to get out--the subjective responsibility of the audience is to spend a moment trying to think about it.

Last night getting to watch this in 35mm (the print was a little scratchy) was a welcome and refreshing oasis in my week of watching big budget effects movies.


Saturday, June 22, 2013

Paramount's Plagued Production

Summertime for movie fans means the promise of big budget effects pictures.

The cinematography in World War Z (2013, Marc Forster) is identifiable firstly by Robert Richardson, A.S.C.'s tendency to toplight and bounce off of practical surfaces, most typically using a table top. Furthermore, Bob still creates images wherein a character finds themselves in a pool of harsh source light that is overexposed and looks like they are some sort of apparition. The scene in the underground bunker in South Korea where the Brad Pitt character receives intelligence from the James Badge Dale character is especially beholden of this distinct look.

The director really fucked up his chance to give this any clear stamp of authorship.
But, the crowd scenes in Jerusalem primarily, Philly, and also elsewhere, are magnificent in their D.W. Griffith worthy opulence. The geography of the action is layed out with forethought and polished. The edits are quick and we stay on the move. The jolts are nerve wracking. And, there are quite a few laughs scattered throughout--like when the cop shows up to take command of a throng of looters, but is revealed to be one of them.

But, for the most part, the movie feels like it keeps striking the same note again, and eventually becomes a little monotonous.
And while the film may not be the work of an auteur, I do still commend its focus and realistic commitment to the protagonist's uphill battle to save humanity. Who says the zombies aren't scary? These are the scariest kind of zombies because they bear the strongest resemblance to living humans in the sense that they are stupid, dangerous, and just clogging every thoroughfare with their rotting carcasses.

Contagion (2011, Steven Soderbergh) is a way better outbreak picture, but with Bob's lensing and $170 million for crowd scenes and effects work, World War Z manages to earn its own spot in movies that matter for me.

I did have one qualm with plot continuity. SPOILER ALERT:
Doesn't the UN chief answer the Pitt character's phonecall and tell him that "there was nothing we could do," about his wife, but then at the end we find out she was fine the whole time? Or is there something I missed? I think that the chief meant that he couldn't keep a close watch and security detail on the Pitt character's wife and girls, but it came off as though they were dead--this movie is PG-13 though, so of course no real harm can come to the Pitt character's family.


When I first began writing for Reviewiera, I had envisioned the goal of subjectively writing film criticism (as opposed to movie reviews) and writing predominantly from a first person perspective that would allow any digressions as long as I felt they were pertinent.

But, sometimes I've found myself slacking lately. And unfortunately, the result is shoddy tidbits of criticism. At least when I say something, I've tried to back it up.

So, this week I was working on a Chevy Silverado commercial that was directed and shot by one of my artistic heroes, cinematographer Robert Richardson. I picked him up from the airport 2 weeks ago and immediately gushed about how I'd been indoctrinated into personal/subjective filmmaking when I was 13 because of Natural Born Killers (1994, Oliver Stone). He was very cool and brought me along to have dinner at uchi (probably the hottest sushi restaurant in Austin--I can't believe I just said that) with he and his producer and production designer.

And nearly 20 years after being dragged out of Natural Born Killers 10 minutes into it by my disapproving parents (in their defense, maybe that isn't a movie a 13 year old should watch), my influences have remained uncannily consistent.

Richardson shot every Oliver Stone movie from Salvador (1986, Stone) to U Turn (1997, Stone), winning an Oscar for JFK (1991, Stone); he also shot Casino (1995, Martin Scorsese), which I always preferred to Goodfellas (1990, Scorsese) and when I was 14 I knew that the cinematography was stellar--he was the only D.P. I could identify by his style (particularly the blown out table tops and harsh source lighting), before reteaming with Scorsese for Bringing Out the Dead (1999, Scorsese), winnning his second Oscar for The Aviator (2004, Scorsese), Shutter Island (2010, Scorsese) and the film that earned him his third Oscar, Hugo (2012, Scorsese); and Bob's been Quentin Tarantino's D.P. since Kill Bill (2003/4, Tarantino).

I didn't see JFK until I was 24, but I fell in love with dude's style all over again. This was the same time I'd been punch drunk over Kill Bill.

If I didn't work with Bob this week I wouldn't have known that he shot World War Z, or that he took his name off of the movie because Paramount insisted on releasing the movie in 3D, despite the fact that the film was shot in 2D without 3D cameras. Richardson won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for the 3D Hugo and knows what it takes to make a 3D movie right. Anyway, on the Chevy commercial I also got to meet Bob's 1st AC, Gregor Tavenner (whose credit is still on IMDb and in the movie), his Key Grip, Chris Centrella (whose credit is still in World War Z, but not on IMDb?), and Gaffer, Ian Kincaid (whose credit, like Richardson's, has been removed from IMDb and the finished film). 

And earlier this week, after I'd spent an hour or so talking with Ian, he told me that Tarantino says, "Friends go see friends' movies on opening day," and that he always mails Tarantino a ticket stub to prove this every time he releases a new movie.

Basically I said all that to say normally I wouldn't have been inclined to go see World War Z, but I did it for Bob.

Richardson, right, with an adoring fan.

So was it worth it? Definitely. I've been known to watch a movie just because Keira Knightley is in it. Now, usually I'm an auteur theorist who follows directors like sports clubs, with the exception of Miss Knightley. I questioned the moral ramifications about watching a movie just because she's sodreamy I hang on her every syllable.

Similarly, the reason I watched World War Z, was to check out Bob's cinematography, and it was worth it for me on that merit alone. I don't know if I'll ever really come around to big budget action effects movies. The last action effects movie I saw that I thought was truly brilliant was Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991, James Cameron)--I know Fat is somewhere along the lines of David Foster Wallace level disdain for that movie though. For me, T2 is not only the work of an auteur, but presient about the public's taste with CGI, sexy, dangerous, and a lot of fun (but, I did fall for it when I was 12).

I see every Michael Bay movie in the theater, because since T2, I feel like he's inherited its legacy in a way, and dare I say, the Transformers films are the closest thing to T2 I've found for my tastes. (Okay, I'm also a little biased because I worked on Transformers 4 last week.) But I don't go for The Matrix films, the Star Wars prequels, J. J. Abrams, or Spielberg (although I do really like Mission: Impossible III (2006, J. J. Abrams), Spider-Man 3 (2007, Sam Raimi) and  The Adventures of Tintin (2011, Steven Spielberg)). I've also never liked Peter Jackson's films because I don't like any wizards and faries films ever, but also because I feel, much like with Baz Luhrmann, that the spectacle is bloated and not edgy enough. But District 9 (2009, Neill Blomkamp) was stellar, even though I have yet to come fully on board--I can't wait to hear what Fat thought of Elysium (2013, Blomkamp).

So yeah, World War Z is a little flat and it suffers from the PG-13 curse of knowing Gerry (Pitt) and his family will be safe and he will be the hero who saves the world, to be fair. But it's got spectacle, and Bob's cinematography is amazing.


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

BEARDS NOT WORDS: (OR) Bostwick Redux

Tight bro @todf just put up the screen you see below, some introductionalizing textery from inexplicably talked-a-lot-about-by-us-on-Reviewiera film from 1982 and overall life model MegaForce. The film is, as the textery suggests, a thing of joy, inspiration, and rocket-powered beards motorcycles. (I will be suggesting to that "a thing of joy, inspiration and rocket-powered beards motorcycles" replace the description of the film currently available:

Story about a rapid deployment defense unit that is called into action whenever freedom is threatened.
Though I am very excited about any IMDB movie description beginning "Story about". Wouldn't want to mistake anything for a documentary or non-narrative exercise!)

Despite official denials by leaders of the free world, sources now confirm the existence of MegaForce, a phantom army of super elite fighting men whose weapons are the most powerful science can devise.  Their mission .... to preserve freedom and justice battling the forces of tyranny and evil in every corner of the globe.

So I thought it would be fun to take a quick look back at a thing we return to as a dog returns to its vomit. Enjoy!

  • Bostwick—Probably the single least explicable entry in the archives. Plucked bloody from the heart of conversation between Tinzeroes & Fat, this one is the most MegaForce moment in the history of Reviewiera.
  • Red-Hot Flower of Hysteria—Offhand mention of MegaForce in Tinzeroes' magnum opus on SF zine Cheap Truth
  • serpent-skinned—Offhand mention of MegaForce in a long ode to a mediocre childhood and the horror movies thereof
  • Quick Look at the Cover

It's no Buckaroo Banzai, but as a relic of a simpler time, it will do. There is little wrong with a reminder that a more or less successful premise for a more or less successful film used to be "let's go tearassing around the desert on some dirt bikes and add laser effects later".

—Fat, under a fluttery banner reading DEEDS NOT WORDS