Sunday, December 31, 2017

Top Ten Movies of 2017

1.   Bodied (2017, Joseph Kahn)
2.   The Beguiled (2017, Sofia Coppola)
3.   Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017, Luc Besson)
4.   Slack Bay (2016, Bruno Dumont)
5.   Wonder Wheel (2017, Woody Allen)
6.   Song to Song (2017, Terrence Malick)
7.   Suburbicon (2017, George Clooney)
8.   Alien: Covenant (2017, Ridley Scott)
9.   Detroit (2017, Kathryn Bigelow)
10.  Phantom Thread (2017, Paul Thomas Anderson)

An Air of Quiet Death

When I was 20 and living at the Dustbin in Portland Magnolia (1999, Paul Thomas Anderson) was my favorite movie. But now that I'm so much older my PTA tastes have changed a lot. There Will Be Blood (2007, Anderson) is so much different from Anderson's early work, and so is The Master (2012, Anderson). These two richly characterized period pieces historically entrenched in twentieth century American industrialism remain profoundly dark and perfectly executed, to say nothing of the effects Jonny Greenwood's scores have had enhancing their viewings.

Phantom Thread (2017, Anderson) is a nuanced atypical love story brilliantly adorned in high fashion costumes and emotionally underscored ceaselessly by Jonny Greenwood's classically elegant music.

Daniel Day Lewis as REYNOLDS WOODCOCK is the movie. Phantom Thread feels like the final entry in a trilogy that could encompass There Will Be Blood and The Master, about dark obsession centered around a male central protagonist. And what could be as abysmally dark as oil, Scientology, and love, respectively?

Phantom Thread is a flawed film though, unlike There Will Be Blood and The Master. While Phantom Thread is magnificent in its rapturous May-December propulsion into the development of a romantic fantasy made reality by two relatable archetypal yet highly neurotic adults, there is little more that the film offers.

And while the film's beautifully and effectively realized core is provocative and truthful, the film's third act is uneven and falls miserably short. But hey, doesn't all romantic love? Another big problem with Phantom Thread is its cinematography. While there is no director of photography credited, Paul Thomas Anderson himself serves in this capacity. And the results are ravishing in some shots, but more often amateurish. So many scenes look like a bad student film because of spill. It's like he has something against flags. Or, in other words, it appears that many shots were filmed without using traditional photographic tools to block light by unwanted sources from contaminating the exposure. Maybe Anderson likes this effect? It's bewildering.

I must give praise to the craftsmanship and elegance of this intimate world along with the trio of characters who inhabit it. Phantom Thread possesses an exceptional command of portraying and pathologizing the intricacies of the elusive apparition that is true love.

Evidently Phantom Thread lacks the staggering tragedy that befalls the antiheroes of There Will Be Blood and The Master, yet suffering from poor cinematography and a stupid plot device supporting its third act, maybe said tragedy is exemplified through subtext? PTA being the victim? Now this is what makes for interesting art.

And I will say the vignette with BARBARA ROSE as an emotionally overwhelmed socialite stands out as a high point keeping me on the edge of my seat while generating such a surprisingly unexpected type of empathy, mixed with laughter, shame, identification and sorrow.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Wonder Wheel Is the Closest Woody Allen's come to Nailing Ingmar Bergman

There's a poster of Face to Face (1976, Ingmar Bergman) at the Bleecker St cinema in Annie Hall (1977, Woody Allen); Interiors (1978, Allen) is Woody Allen blatantly trying to imitate Bergman's cold claustrophobic theatre with South Hampton filling in for Fårö; in Manhattan (1979, Allen) the Diane Keaton character offends the Allen character by making an offhanded comment that Bergman is overrated; Another Woman (1988, Allen) borrows its plot directly from Wild Strawberries (1957, Bergman) and was shot by Bergman's DP, Sven Nykvist—who also shot Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989, Allen) and Celebrity (1998, Allen). But these are just a few coincidences.

Wonder Wheel (2017, Allen) is a period theatrical domestic melodrama about the failed attempts of finding happiness that a handful of characters, whose paths cross on Coney Island, inevitably confront.

Wonder Wheel is uncharacteristically stylized for Allen. From Vittorio Storaro, the lighting is expressionistic, with key moments that burn characters in the glow of fiery sunsets and transition into cold blue darkness before our eyes, underlining the sense of hope departing. The production design by Santo Loquasto adds to the unnatural quality of staging on a constructed set with its forced perspective amusement park backdrop forever contrasting the foreground interior depression of the dysfunctional homelife.

GINNY'S (Winslet) sex headaches, alcoholism, and neurotic lapses into detachment are mirrored by her son's obsession with starting fires and hate of school. Wonder Wheel may be as colorful as Thor: Ragnarok visually, but emotionally it's as dark as oblivion—a fitting contrasting companion piece to the nostalgic warmth of last year's Café Society (2016, Allen).

Jim Belushi is a delightful choice, Juno Temple gives life to CAROLINA, and it'd be a waste of time to say anymore about how well the acting comes off. To say as much would be redundant because it's always been Woody Allen's greatest talent. And along with Crimes and Misdemeanors and Melinda and Melinda (2004, Allen), Wonder Wheel's ending provides no respite, intentionally and profoundly ripping our hearts out with its embodiment of nihilistic existential malaise as the wheel keeps turning. Also the staging of Winslet in the foreground staring off into space is undoubtedly lifted from similar shots of Liv Ullman in Persona (1966, Bergman) and Cries & Whispers (1972, Bergman).

Finally a depressing movie this year!

Saturday, November 25, 2017

MCU Stands for Medium Close Up Not Marvel Cinematic Universe

I have one sibling, my brother. He's three years younger than me. There have been times when I had wished I could banish him from this universe. But I also love him more than anyone else.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017, Taika Waititi) is a comicbook comedy serial with traditional morals about family and maybe Jews? Pardon me if I am being condescending or trite by saying this, but I don't watch a lot of comicbook movies. And Thor: Ragnarok is the first Marvel movie I've seen in a theatre since Spider-Man 2 (2004, Sam Raimi). For the most part my sole criteria for judging the quality of movies centers on rewatchability. However, an exception to this has occurred here due to viewing format. In an age of HD 65" LED screens having become commonplace in households, I had started to blur the line between theatre and home viewing, with the exception of 70mm's glorious resurgence; man The Hateful Eight (2015, Quentin Tarantino) righteously made clear that watching a movie on a home TV is a paltry substitute for the one and only true big screen. And even though I don't have any desire to rewatch Thor: Ragnarok, the experience I had seeing it in IMAX instantly captivated me and took me back to my youth and the excitement of seeing a movie larger than life. Also, I didn't go to one of those lame theatre-chain IMAX screens, I saw Thor: Ragnarok here in Austin at the Bob Bullock museum across the street from UT; at six stories high and 84' wide it's the biggest screen in Texas.

Still enduring as my favorite thing about the Thor series is the brother relationship between THOR and LOKI. The chemistry between Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston is immensely true to life and enjoyable for me as a lens through which I'm able to remember how important my brother has been to my life. And not to get too weird or sentimental, but my only remaining family is my dad, my brother and I, and we just shared a Thanksgiving dinner a couple of days ago which was amazing. So, I also wanna add that Anthony Hopkins as ODIN their dad is surprisingly top-notch for a comicbook movie. Old man Hopkins is awesome white-bearded and serving as an exposition device full of class and wisdom, just like my old man.

But there's also Cate Blanchett. Some villains are just outright obnoxious at how one-dimensional their appetite for evil is to endure, but Blanchett's performance is fun to watch because she's so theatrical and somehow still likeable throughout the whole affair. And she's the sexiest I've ever seen her with black hair, tons of black eye-makeup and skin tight costumes out of Barbarella.

Yet the biggest treat for me was Mark Mothersbaugh's 80s New Wave Devo meets Daft Punk 8bit videogame synthpop kid high on sugar dance beats score throughout.

But now back to the plot. The setting of the junk planet feels too much like Idiocracy (2006, Mike Judge), especially with the gladiator arena looking identical to the staging of battles against BEEF SUPREME. Although I am able to overlook the similarities because these Marvel Cinematic Universe movies are obviously made for idiots. Why not? That's where the money is. At the screening I attended there were actually three 15 year old boys who decided to sit a few seats down for me and being that close to them was excruciating. Nothing in Thor: Ragnarok felt like it possessed pristine literary inspiration, but it can't and shouldn't. It felt like a comicbook. Crap. Something to kill time. And every once in a while I now understand the value of that in one's cinematic diet. Thor: Ragnarok was big, fun, funny, and had a tender family bonding core that to me was worth far more than the price of admission and 2 hours of my time I traded for it. It's also maybe the most colorful movie ever.

And while somehow it may have been the most enjoyable 2 hours I spent in a theatre for all of 2017, I am sure I will never ever feel like watching Thor: Ragnarok again. Some movies should only be viewed on the big screen. There's still a part of me that mourns the invention of the TV set. Also it's best that I don't say anything about watching movies on computers or smartphones, or this could get ugly.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Visceral, Ugly Beauty

Everyone I know who likes modern foreign arthouse films likes Yorgos Lanthimos. I'm embarrassed to say that I do not. It's like it negates my taste. I wanted to like Dogtooth (2009, Yorgos Lanthimos) and The Lobster (2015, Lanthimos), but they did little for me. I feel the same shame for not being crazy about, say Michael Haneke. In my defense though, why don't more of these people's conversations praise Bruno Dumont, huh? That's what I'd like to know.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017, Lanthimos) is a conceptual narrative involving a 16 year old named MARTIN (Barry Keoghan) who morally scrutinizes a surgeon (Colin Farrell) about ethics. Martin makes the movie unbearable. He's like an arthouse JIGSAW from the Saw franchise. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is nowhere near as frustrating and impossible as Knock Knock (2015, Eli Roth), but I was reminded of the use of a stifling claustrophobia brought on by the inescapable suffering enacted by a young, lower-class psychopath torturing an affluent career-man. And the spaghetti scene triggers a coded link to Gummo (1997, Harmony Korine) that disgustingly portrays white trash as people who completely lack table manners.

The film plays out like The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick) formally due to wide-angle Steadicam tracking shots following or leading characters through long corridors, slow zooms, and an off putting continual use of cacophonous Ligeti. The dialogue is always delivered monotonously and feels distractingly stylized, unlike Rainer Werner Fassbinder's films, where the same technique achieves an enjoyably Brechtian detachment.

However, I did find the mystery in The Killing of a Sacred Deer intriguing and in no way gratuitous.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

we are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars

Todd Haynes has now directed 7 period features and Mildred Pierce (2011), thus maintaining my assertion that he is the only filmmaker who hasn't set any of his work in the present.

Wonderstruck (2017, Todd Haynes) is a PG rated period YA mystery that plays out concurrently through 2 separate narratives.

The first narrative takes place in Gunflint, MI beginning in 1977 and centers on BEN (Oakes Fegley), a boy in search of answers about his family; while the second starts in Hoboken, NJ in 1927 featuring ROSE (Millicent Simmonds) and her voyage to find out more about her family.

Wonderstruck is the first time Haynes has directed someone else's script. And while it may not feel entirely like a Todd Haynes film, it is entrenched in his personal style. Rose's story is filmed by Ed Lachman in black and white (Eastman Double-X 5222) and Millicent Simmonds steals the movie. (I didn't even know they still manufactured black and white film anymore.) Rose's film-within-a-film is my favorite part. It's legitimately a silent movie. And it's important to consider the time it takes place, 1927; the year The Jazz Singer was released by Warners; the first year of sound movies. The silent movie is also (along with the rest of the film) superbly scored by Carter Burwell and remains true to the era, complete with emotional underscoring and stingers supplied by an organ. It's as fun and moving as the black and white B-movie aesthetic Haynes went all out in recreating in the "Horror" thread from Poison (1991, Haynes). And it has Juliane Moore.

Wonderstruck feels slight at times, but as the mystery is revealed there is a device that goes all the way back to Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988, Haynes) that is used to tie everything together, which made me realize just how intricate and subtle Todd Haynes, who graduated in semiotics from Brown, carefully crafted this sweet, beautiful, innocent film that happens to be his most mature work to date.

With all the dark, arty, ugly, sensual, violent elements I typically enjoy in cinema, Wonderstruck has instantly become vital to me as an instance of possessing all of the complexity, angst, and familial turmoil, with impactful images and sound that I would never have expected to find in a kids movie.

Monday, October 30, 2017

In Defense of Suburbicon (and Other Poorly Received Movies)

Among friends and colleagues there have been a few films that I've gotten flack for speaking highly of. And while I'll be the first to admit I can tend to resort to superlative praise maybe a little too often, it's exemplary of my taste in cinema--and taste is personal, subjective, and should be modified by the individual communicating it. Usually I know whether I'll love or hate a movie before I see it. Usually. I also believe in broadening one's sensibilities and trying out movies you may not expect to fit into the typical characteristics of your liking just to see what happens.

For several reasons I consider 2012 the date that marks my coming of age as having acquired a mature critical voice when speaking about movies. Examples of titles that fall into the category of which I am here attempting to describe include:
  • The Canyons (2013, Paul Schrader) 
  • The Counsellor (2013, Ridley Scott)
  • Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014, Scott)

Suburbicon (2017, George Clooney) is a period neo-noir that achieves pitch-perfection with its somber tone. (I intentionally chose to leave out adjectives like comedic, existential, and satirical because after calling it a film noir, those terms are redundant.)

Firstly, I'll start with my gripes concerning audience expectations and reactions. The critical climate around Suburbicon begins with people not realizing what a film noir is. Coincidentally, I've been reading Jim Thompson novels recently, and after last Saturday night when I visited the theatre to watch Suburbicon, I delved back into one to fall asleep to and found George Clooney to have nailed the genre aspects of his film.

Viewers who complain that Suburbicon is slow are failing to appreciate Clooney's stark crafting of a tone that expertly builds the suspense this genre piece exceeds in. Viewers who complain that Suburbicon misses the mark of what makes Coen Bros.' movies work so well are failing to understand that Clooney never implied that he was attempting to execute a style that pays homage to the Coens, and why should he?

I love that Clooney minimized his camera's movement to set his look apart from the Coens. And while I think perennial Coens' composer Carter Burwell is the most talented (intentional superlative praise) composer for contemporary films, to the degree that his melodies remain in my memory, hauntingly, relentlessly, they attain such prominence that comparatively I find Alexandre Desplat's original music for Suburbicon crucial to preserving the period feel and suburban setting of the diegesis, which works better because again, it points to a somber, emotionally dark void.

No, really, as I sat in the theatre one of my first thoughts through the first act was, "I love how serious this feels." So much is restrained: the camera, the music, the pacing. Whatever happened to less is more? To quote Bresson:
"Be sure of having used to the full all that is communicated by immobility and silence."
In defense of detractors who complain about Suburbicon's political misfires or irrelevance of the black family, THE MAYERS, it seems to be a case of a lack of placing the first-person point of view that the narrative establishes. The boy is trying to make sense of people, family, adults, and America; the black neighbors are just another ingredient in the mix. Suburbicon is primarily a hard-boiled crime tale so the sleazy townsfolk's oppressive conduct fits in with the stock characters the genre supplies.

Okay to take a break from my harangue, Suburbicon was shot on 35mm by Robert Elswit, ASC and the camera dept was led by gaffer Ian Kincaid along with key grip Chris Centrella. Ian and Chris are Robert Richardson's team and really nice guys in person. Suburbicon's look also benefits from playing out mostly in masters while when going into traditional coverage the subject is in profile or directly facing the lens, which is unusual, and looks great. Also classically adhering to the tenets of Hollywood noir of the 40s, Clooney frames graphic images like shadows defining the action or a struggle that plays out from a POV under the bed limited to black leather oxfords and bullets.

And yes, Suburbicon works as a superb comedy. It's different, that's for sure, but since when is that a bad thing? Matt Damon as GARDNER isn't as zany as he was in The Informant! (2009, Steven Soderbergh) or as over the top as typical Coen's protags when indulging in screwball, but this is another instance of just the right balance that cumulate in making Suburbicon work.

Maybe the reason I'm so defensive about all of this is because I'm still surprised initially when people in summation describe my taste in movies as "dark." Although I'm learning to accept it. After all, darkness isn't such a bad thing.

Saturday, October 14, 2017


I love the slasher genre of movies. I have watched a lot. Historically the genre took place between 1978-1986. For me it starts with Halloween (1978, John Carpenter) and ends when The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986, Tobe Hooper) decided to be a comedy. Okay also, I'm not saying that makes Chainsaw 2 a bad movie by the way, I love Bill Moseley as CHOP TOP, so many great one liners he has: "Dog will hunt," and "Naaaam flashback," spring to mind. Ironically the main reason I love slashers though is because they are really fun.

I've wondered why everyone says Black Christmas (1974, Bob Clark) is the first slasher, mainly because Blood and Black Lace (1964, Mario Bava) is about a masked killer murdering several beautiful young women in a fashion house. Why isn't that the first slasher? I've learned that it's probably because Black Christmas added the final girl device, and takes place on a holiday. Good enough for me. But since none of this is official, I still call Halloween the first slasher because of the final girl + masked killer + takes place on a holiday formula, but adds nudity and graphic violence, (with a cool synthesizer score).

To switch topics, Jason Blum's Blumhouse production co. has had a really good 2017 for horror movies, partnering with Universal releasing Split (2016, M. Night Shyamalan) and Get Out (2017, Jordan Peele).

And since it's October and I watch a lot of horror movies when this time of year comes around I couldn't resist going to the theatre yesterday on Friday the 13th.

Happy Death Day (2017, Christopher Landon) is a fun PG-13 post-slasher with a Hollywood life-affirming message built in. That title works.

I just wanted to report that I had a good time and found the whole endeavor emotionally effective. Happy Death Day takes place on a college campus and involves the insolent, witty teen milieu found in Heathers, Clueless, and Mean Girls, but in a sorority. From the first frames, as the poster tips off, the Universal logo resets itself several times to set the tone.

The craftsmanship of the narrative is well done and reminded me of my favorite teen genre-defying movie Detention (2011, Joseph Kahn) in ways; there's even a girl killed in a way as spectacularly designed as the murder of TAYLOR FISHER. And I have no complaints about the lack of explicit scenes of violence. Coincidentally I rewatched Blood and Black Lace the night before and was surprised at how little was actually shown on screen when its murders occurred. So what we get is Groundhog Day as a springboard into a deliriously exhaustive tale of final girl TREE on a mission to figure out how to escape her catastrophic time loop.

And lucky for me I resisted looking at my watch out of curiosity to know when it would end, because I got sucked in and was genuinely surprised at the development of the narrative. Another great thing about Happy Death Day is how many different places it goes and how fast, if that makes sense. I feel like most traditional movies often take place in only a few locations, during the span of a short period. Or at worst there are those 12 Angry Men types--mostly all in one place in near real time has never struck me as an impressive innovation. Happy Death Day covers a ton of ground and like at ADHD speed. And for me that's one of my favorite novelties found in some newer movies. Although it still doesn't hold a candle to Detention in this regard.

Happy Death Day isn't a masterpiece or anything. But it never sucked, and I took away a lot from its ambitious re-envisioning of the slasher. As far as it fits into the post-slasher canon, it's not as dark as Scream (1996, Wes Craven), but the Booji Boy-looking masked killer gave me some jumps.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

pen is in my hand

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the internet has been a net bad for humanity. By allowing glib, superficial access to largely decontextualized facts, it's created a vast army of people—mostly men—who, perniciously, believe both that there's nothing they don't understand and that understanding things requires no more than a cursory googling and quick skimming of somewhere under four web—usually just Wikipedia—pages. (There's also the brain-poisoning feedback loop wherein the most casual expressions of approval somehow displace and outweigh any/all other potential inputs, eventually, out of sheer volume, replacing the real world entirely. But that's a matter for another time.) But I cannot deny the few archipelagos of what I can only call Good Internet which remain. Mostly they're singular. What characterizes Good Internet is usually that it is and does One Thing. It expresses one sensibility, maybe, or, more reliably, it treats (of) only one topic. Good examples of Good Internet would include:
I'm sure we'll eventually cover all of these individually. But right now I want to talk about Pen Internet.
Pen Internet is good. Here are some examples, some people taking an interest in something and working to communicate that interest to whoever might be listening.

That was fun. Now I want to talk about pens. Mostly I want to talk about good pens. What can I say? Pen Internet is intoxicating, also inspiring.
Most of what I write personally (rather than professionally), I write by hand before typing it up in vim. Some years back, I learned, by watching Tinzeroes, that everything works better when I put everything into one notebook that is always carried with me and close to hand. That way, I always know where everything is. I never have to wonder where to put something. And different pieces can, just by brute juxtaposition, connect in unexpected ways. Writing in a notebook implies needing a pen—so:
I have a lot of Moleskine type notebooks. An underreported feature of those notebooks how poorly their paper takes so many kinds of ink. The right-hand pages have a slicker coating than the left; a lot of pens skip on the right, bleed on the left. Displeasing. Also I like to write a lot of postcards, which tend to have a coating that smears basically all inks...
This means a popular option doesn't work well for me, so, so sorry G-2, but you don't really make the cut. Other reasons: (1) I have had spills annihilate things I have written with this gel ink (making it bad for mail); (2) the rubber thing (a) is condescending and (b) gets loose on the shaft, which is distracting, or gets gummy, which is disgusting. Linewise, 05 is a little bit too thin (scratchy on soft or thick paper); 07 is a little bit too thick (makes it hard to write as small as I like to). Poor experience on coated paper, ill-advised hand feels, ubiquitous, cheap, allows fidgety clicking, adequate weight for debate spinning: 6/10; acceptable fallback option. Often have one to hand to loan out or write a check with.
Le Pen felt tip. Dirt cheap. Colorful! Beautifully designed, remarkably comfortable. Ink not at all waterproof. Too light to be debate-spun. Make a delightful scratch sound when used. Last a surprisingly long time, often given to me by my girlfriend. Can't write a check with it. 8/10; excellent option to be deployed in virtually any circumstance.
Those weird ones Noodles likes. Widely considered the gold standard for people who don't fetishize writing really really small. Good for writing checks with. Wonderful pens, but somehow don't work for me. Too fat, with too thick a line, maybe. Maybe just a vibe thing. 5.5/10; make me feel guilty, like I don't like chocolate or something.
"Artist pens." Magnificent writing experience, can be a little too cushy. Easily lost or stolen. Hyper fucking expensive. Can intimidate by giving writer the sense that the ink is too permanent for anything but a good thought well expressed, and can therefore inhibit getting things down on paper, which is the only important/useful thing about schlepping a fucking notebook around.
But what did you expect? When you pull Excalibur from the stone, you gain power, but you also inherit mad responsibility. 7/10; can't really be spun, no good for the checkbook, fairly good for postcards, other mail.
Papermate El Cheapos. Blobby ink, but last forever. Spin well with a cap on the butt. Acceptable choice, unless you have the option of:
Bic Crystal. Platonic ideal of the ball-point pen. Perfect design: looks good, looks potent, but accessible; fits the hand, accommodates any style. Ink is decent, and can be laid down on essentially anything: paper, denim, skin, walls, seats, Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars. As Robert Heinlein once said, "I feel the way about a Springfield that I do about a Gooney Bird; some pieces of machinery are ultimate perfection of their sort, the only possible improvement is a radical change in design." (Glory Road, p. 58) That's how I feel about the Bic Crystal. Also a good example of William Gibson's dictum "the street finds its own uses for things", in that the hexagonal barrel is the perfect size to stick into a cassette tape for manual fast-forwarding. Perfect for the checkbook, ideal for postcards and envelopes, superb for debate spinning. 9/10; as close to perfect as this world can offer.
Pilot V5. Can be debate-spun, but for whatever reason, I never do so. Not great for check carbons; perfect for envelopes, rarely bleeds; mixed bag for postcards, often smears. Beautiful thin line. Can write pretty small with it. Barrel the right size for my slim paws. Lined up like this, it's not wildly impressive. But...

Somewhere after high school, I spent a lot of my free time (read: fired by the movie theater, working a couple days a week at the gas station, before getting fired there, too) playing Wing Commander on somebody else's computer. It's a game where you fly around in space ships shooting down space ships flown by giant space cats, and it had a really good manual. One of the weapons was called the "Mass Driver" and, from memory, it was described in the following way: "No pilot ever made a mistake engaging the mass driver." (NOTE: I was pretty close! The basic fighter weapon - medium range, medium damage, nothing special. The mass driver cannon is reliable and accurate. Heat build-up and power drain are minimal. Though lasers and neutron guns are more effective in certain situations, no pilot ever went wrong activating a mass driver.)
That's how I feel about the Pilot V5. You never go wrong reaching for one. 8.8/10; lately, I leave the Crystal at work, and use the V5 for personal writing. Boundaries are important.

Monday, October 09, 2017

More Notes on the Total Theory of the Messenger Bag: Defy Marketing (The Defy Strapped)

Sometimes, I am a complete sucker. This is the story of one of those times.

(The Defy Strapped, sejant.)

As should be clear, I do like to shop. And a man's craving for novelty can be real, and confounding. Thus it was that late in 2016, I took occasional respite from ... life, by browsing endless for that great passion of mine, the new messenger bag. Somewhere in there, a company called Defy arrived and began issuing pronouncements which intrigued:

  • Materials matter: we have an intriguing sourcing model and are using elements others aren't, from recycled bike innertubes for trim, to truck tarp for the bag body, and to seat-belt webbing for strapping and pocketing
  • Local, local, local: handmade in America (Chicago)
  • Design is king: let's use our neat materials in novel ways
  • It's expensive as all hell: so it must be good!

I should have understood what I was looking at. The company story—because isn't that what we're all interested in? the stories ... of companies?—was and is explicit: "I'm a marketer who has moved into making things." SPOILER: what the company is good at making is in fact marketing collateral; their bags are not great. Or at least the bag I bought is not great.

The main problem is the material. Defy—and other companies—are, reasonably enough, bored with the same old Cordura fabric that essentially every company uses to make messenger bags. To differentiate themselves, they try new stuff. Defy thought to try something they call "M35 Military Truck Tarpaulin Material". Here's what they say about it:

M35 Military truck tarpaulin vinyl/canvas is the same heavy duty tarpaulin used to protect US servicemembers in theater today. It's thick, matte, rubbery feel makes for an incredibly durable bag material which with use over time starts to soften & wear nicely taking on a different patina and character. While it's tougher than the vast majority of tarp material used by other bag companies with enough beating, use and life it can eventually show signs of wear. Those wear marks are a badge of honor! It's military tough as hell for sure, but nothing's indestructible even though it may look it!

If you don't want the material to crack and fray, don't, uh ... buy this bag.

The truth of course, is that the thick, matte, rubbery feel is extremely cool fresh out of the box. About a week later, the outside feels like plastic. (The inside still feels pretty cool.) "After enough abuse it will start to show wear" means that instantly the material will start to crease, and the bag's own hardware will immediately mar the fabric and leave visible scars. Anywhere the bag folds regularly will split and tear. In short, the material isn't strong enough to stand up to itself, much less significant "beating, use and life". To call it "incredibly durable" is at best puffery, at worst a lie. I had scarred it badly within five days of receiving it: it arrived on January 12; on January 17, I pinched the flap between the bottom of a seat at a movie theater and a bottle of wine I'd smuggled into the theater. Smuggling a bottle of wine into a movie theater is, to me, is basically the definition of "normal use", and five days of "normal use" should not permanently mark a bag. Using this material defies convention, to be sure, but no less does it defy usability.

Another major miss is the buckles. Defy is nutty for buckles. Their marketing consists mainly of impassioned praise of these crazy buckles they buy from Austria: supposedly they can hold 1,500 pounds or something, but, when the fabric they're sewn to couldn't possibly hold half of that, who gives a damn? And why would a person want to close their messenger bag that hard anyway? Anyway, all their bags feature these buckles, except for one, the one I bought, which is called the Strapped. First, it's Strapped because it heavily features seat-belt straps, as the shoulder strap, as reinforcing strapping, and as the business-card-and-pen holder. Second, it's for people who strapped for cash, because it's the same form factor as the more expensive Recon bag, but replaces the ridiculous buckles with buckles that are cheaper ... but still ridiculous.

(When the buckles are big.)

See, there is simply no reason to use two two-inch buckles to close a bike bag flap. It looks cool, but is pointless overkill. And, since they're simply difficult to use one-handed, they're less functional than they should be. The whole point of a messenger bag is easy access to the contents, balanced with being able to secure them quickly. This bag fails on both counts. On material and hardware, Defy allows visual appeal to outrank functionality.

This trend—good visuals, poor use—continues when we examine the pocketing and storage options. The slash pocket across the back of the bag does fit a slim laptop: my work Mac fits there, I think my old work Windows machine did as well, but my beautiful boat anchor from Zareason decidedly does NOT fit. (That most bags are designed for the smallest laptops on the market is a sad fact.)

The front pocket is okay. It's quite tall, though very shallow. A quick-access pocket like this is always going to have more of my stuff in it than is reasonable, so I can't blame it too much for not being thick enough, but it's worth noting that my glasses case alone is basically enough to make it bulge. (If I had one message to all bag makers, it would be: always include one pocket that fits a glasses case; there are people with prescriptions in this world, after all. My first Jandd had this, as did one of my Timbuk2 bags, and for my needs, this is, essentially, essential.) It's probably too flat/shallow, if I'm being fully critical, and arguably too tall, because small things are inevitably at the very bottom, under my glasses and earbuds, so it's tough to get my chapstick or whatever. But whatever, it's fine. It's fine.

(If the pockets you make are too short for a pocket notebook, the pockets you make are too short.)

The internal pockets, riding on the front of the back slash pocket, are a different story. It's not clear to me why they are the size they are. I.e., what the hell is supposed to go in them? They're too shallow for the Mac power brick they're a half-good fit for, and they're too short for a tablet or even a small-sized pocket notebook. What's up with these? In the event, I stuff them full, with my knife, my brush and comb, my little notebooks, and other crap I need to find more or less quickly. They're bulgy and everything in them scruffs out over the top unappealingly, but they're there, anyway, and you can (sort of) put (some) things in them.

The main compartment is intriguing, in that it is simultaneously too big (it's incredibly tall and quite wide, call it 13.5" tall and 15+" wide at the bottom, wider at the top) and too small (it's preposterously thin, something like 5.5" when it's sitting, thinner when lifted/carried). The general experience of using it involves the top 3 or 4 inches being filled with air, and whatever you want to pull out of it being underneath something else and difficult to get. This bag is wildly not meant to be used like an actual messenger bag—swung off the back to the front, the flexible flap pushed easily aside, the cargo quickly in hand and the bag just as quickly flapped closed and pushed back out of the way—the flap is too stiff, and the bag doesn't yield its treasures without some wrangling, because its top is narrow and a good couple inches higher than it needs to be. For office use, its obvious intended function, though, it's basically okay.

Keen-eyed observers will have noted that none of the pockets close in any way (except the main compartment), which is a sop to two purported failure points or annoyances: first, zippers are held to be fragile; second, velcro hook and loop fastener is held to be annoying. These are both more or less true. Things have slipped out of the internal patch pockets, probably because they're too short, but I don't think anything fell completely out of the bag at any point, and the absence of fasteners is something I came to find quite appealing.

Overall storage is not great. With most bags, you're buying a system as much as a bag, and here, there's just not much in the way of a system: no way to mount other carrying options, nor anything interesting in the way of internal bags to add. To organize my belongings, I ended up using a congeries of Jandd ditty bags and a few options Noodles, TWBGITW, has sewed together for me over the years. And since the Strapped's effective carrying capacity is so small, I started carrying a second bag for my lunch and leaving my dopp kit and spare clothes in the car, instead of being able to carry them with me. Probably good for my discipline, in that it helps teach me not to overpack, but inconvenient nonetheless.

Riding the front of the bag are my favorite features by far. By sewing a length of seat-belt strap to the wall, they are able to make a business card holder and three pen slots. The pen slots need a thicker pen, and one with a clip: my Le Pen (pictured) has been knocked through and gone missing several times, but it's just such a cool way to make a pen slot, I can't stay mad at the bag. Similarly cool is that little business card holder. The D-ring and the snap ring are also excellent, and that they're attached with scraps of recycled innertube is functional, thrifty, and unique. Across the front of the bag, in other words, is Defy at its absolute best: interesting materials used in unusual ways to good effect. If everything about the bag were designed and made this well, this would be the best bag on the market. Or anyway, would be a much better bag than it is.

The inner color, and this must be mentioned, is actually beautiful. My second-favorite feature most days (and my favorite, on the days the pen holder fails to hold my Le Pen). Sadly, this green material is even softer than the outside fabric, and can be scuffed or scarred even more easily. The bag's own hardware scratches it, and a USB stick plugged into a laptop did the same.

The shoulder strap is okay. It's wide and comfortable, but not grippy. When thrown over a shoulder, instead of cross-body, it's constantly causing worry that it's going to slip off. There is a grab handle. This seems like a small thing, but it's as easy to put one on as it is to leave one off, and the incremental convenience it adds, when compared to the cost/benefit of not having one, makes it a practical necessity.

In a very frustrating move, if you want to ride a bike with this bag, you're going to have to buy an extra strap, which is going to add something like 25% to the cost of the bag. This hidden cost is a really annoying way to do business.

Costs in general seem a little high, compared to the value received. While the bag does come in a lovely bespoke cardboard box sealed with Defy-branded tape, this isn't something that helps me fit my laptop, nor does it take the edge off the experience of watching the fabric disintegrate under normal use.

In the end, it's a decent bag sold as an outstanding one. If you saw it in the store, you might find it appealing and want to take it home. Its design is essentially identical to the Israeli Paratrooper bag (main compartment, slash pocket behind it, pouch pocket riding the front with mad pen slots, not much else), which presents a blend of more or less adequacy and more or less elegance. It does have a terrific look, and if it hadn't been so relentlessly oversold by Defy's marketing collateral, it might be an easy bag to love. But it was relentlessly oversold, so my experience with it was mostly a disappointing one. Failures of design—poor materials choice, pocketing decisions made according to appearance rather than function, ill-conceived hardware—overwhelm the Strapped's virtues, and that these failures so closely correspond to what the company claims as its strengths leaves the buyer feeling betrayed, or even cheated.

It's worth noting that Defy may have independently come to similar conclusions as mine: the Strapped is no longer available on the Defy site; the tarp material doesn't seem to figure as centrally in their messaging; the new version of the bag is less tall, and deeper. These are all positive moves. One hopes that their evolution continues to blend functional considerations into the mix that produced a Strapped that was overwhelmingly concerned with appearance.

Previous entries in the total theory of messenger bags megathread:

Previous entries in being a complete sucker:

Monday, September 25, 2017

Why Joseph Kahn is the Best Kept Secret in Hollywood

I've said before that I don't recommend movies, except for The Spanish Prisoner (1997, David Mamet), and I'm not going to contradict myself here. But when it comes to the one movie I freak out over it's Detention (2011, Joseph Kahn). I mean I can't describe it to someone without getting excited, overly animated, and thrilled that it was made. I love Detention so much. But I don't expect others to like it. I guess kind of like early Melvins.

Joseph Kahn's follow up to Detention is somewhat less schizo but it has a lot to say, is way more thought provoking, and just as fun.

But first another digression, remember the first time you realized that Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock) is like the only big Hollywood studio of the Golden Age that lets the villain walk away scot free? Or the first time you saw Happiness (1998, Todd Solondz) or Ichi the Killer (2001, Takashi Miike)? I do. And I was thrilled to find movies so dark. It takes an artist, a master even, to do it right.

It's sad that there are so many awful movies I hate that are just mean or ugly or involve violence or debauchery in the guise of entertainment or art or creativity. I am so picky, but I have my reasons. Such is the nature of personal taste.

Bodied (2017, Kahn) is an article from a scientific journal thoroughly investigating political correctness.

All I knew going into it was that it's about a grad student who is writing a paper on rap battles. I don't know anything about rap battles and this movie didn't sound that appealing. But I was quickly won over. Bodied plunges the audience right into the middle of a rap battle in an abandoned warehouse and immediately establishes its tone.

Think of the first time you heard DAWSON and JOEY talking and got that feeling that their dialogue was obviously written by someone way older. Now imagine if that were sped up, and if a whole underground community of black rappers were thrown in who also speak in this same manner, only while simultaneously saying the most un-PC offensive things imaginable. And adding to this ADHD fun activity a heaping of pop-culture references. That's what Bodied feels like. And I love it.

Plus since this is Joseph Kahn, we get textual imagery. The first battle is introduced with on screen text that tells us the match is X-TRACT vs. BEHN GRYMM, and this is maybe one of the film's most characteristic devices because of how frequently it's used, but also in how many different ways. Kahn also still enjoys horizontal blue streak lens flares from practicals in the frame; his earthquake VFX; and a dynamic camera that has about as much trouble staying still as mischievous undisciplined child.

I was very curious to learn what kind of plot Bodied would have. I mean it can't just be filmed rap battles, right?

Bodied follows its protagonist, skinny white college kid ADAM, into his success and fame as the ultimate champion of rap battles. But while he gains the world and loses his soul, it is portrayed in a way that shows that might not necessarily be a bad thing.

Competing in rap battles takes Adam from a shy cowardly kid to a vile, racist, misogynist monster. But right as he transforms into Satan, the movie ends; on a seemingly uplifting, empowering note. And it's funny that these archetypes feel Old Testament and the main character's name is Adam. Maybe it's just a coincidence.

Bodied got me thinking a lot after I left the theatre last night. Mostly about what's offensive to others, and who's to say. And I was pleasurably humbled by watching a movie where so much of it went over my head or flew right past me. Also a lot of the references, pop culture or otherwise, were lost on me. And I would surely benefit from hearing much of the political discourse one more time.

So due to the limits of free speech being pushed, how much fun I had, and how intellectually stimulating and educational a comedy I found Bodied to be I think Joseph Kahn has crafted a major work of art here. And while I wish he would gain more fans, I can see his strong commitment to his own instincts as a factor in his niche appeal.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Dog Day Afternoon Meets After Hours

Josh and Benny Safdie have made some indies set in authentic NYC locales that run a hundred minutes, are shot on film, and center around a desperate, impassioned, often volatile protagonist whom has a significant bond with a loved one. Somehow they feel like they've preserved the 80s indie NYC spirit inherited by Jarmusch, Lee, and Ferrara from Cassavetes.

I don't find anything wrong with Noah Baumbach or Lena Dunham, they're great. But the Safdie Brothers seem to have come out of nowhere and maintained an ability to avoid pressure from the studios. They're films are raw; the plots feel like something mundane happens and then the character just meanders along a hamster wheel of repetitive complications. They capture the spontaneous. They start nowhere and get nowhere, but some point in between there's a point where we find emotional identification.

Good Time (2017, Josh and Benny Safdie) is an indie urban crime drama set in New York that feels like the New Hollywood's best of the early 70s. Like the other films from the Safdie Brothers, Good Time is shot on film (35mm Techniscope) with mostly long lenses and handheld; the story's pacing is relentlessly climactic; the conflicts are melodramatic and the wall to wall moogy Cliff Martinez sounding score from Oneohtrix Point Never never lets go, and remains the sole modern touch in this wonderfully realized gritty tale about family and redemption.

The centerpiece of any Safdie Brothers movie is its lead actor, and Robert Pattinson as CONNIE NIKAS marks the first time the directors have cast a movie star in that role. Pattinson's intensity is the film's cornerstone. But Benny Safdie as NICK NIKAS enthralled me in his turn as the innocent brother trying to live up to his older brother's expectations.

Connie is the ideal Safdie hero. There's a nice touch with Connie's dialogue where he tends to exaggerate figures lower than they ought to be. Connie asks for "a few thousand dollars," when he needs ten thousand. Connie tells the bus driver he needs to be dropped off "just a couple blocks away." Connie will need "just 2 minutes." And when he makes his parasitic opportunistic demands, he'll usually repeat himself to emphasize the importance of the matter.

As I sat in the dark theatre, the opening scene was so riveting I knew the Safdie Bros. had not only preserved their talent but have continued improving it in exciting ways. The anger, hostility, and defensiveness exhibited by Nick towards the therapist, embodied by his tough, masculine determination quickly shatters and crumbles revealing his delicate filial pain and remorse. I often question whether or not and how effectively a drama is either sentimental or contrived. But Nick's backstory involving his grandmother, and Good Time's bookending device left me with a profound sense of pathos and a cathartic identification with the unintentional suffering we bring on those of our family members who love us most.

When Nick has his haircut and is wearing the black and yellow Southpole puffer jacket I couldn't help seeing my own little brother up there. And aside from my overwhelming emotional baggage that left me with, Connie's journey gave me a vividly realistic empathy for fuck-ups in that way that tells us they are not other, they are us. But it also gave me a newfound understanding about the motivations of people who seem to have lost all moral sense and how they may have arrived at that point.

Sorry to be so serious. I should add that Good Time actually has a lot of hilarious moments of comedic brilliance.

Late Jodorowsky

In press interviews after 1998 Sean Penn has frequently referenced his eagerness at the opportunity to act in a movie directed by Terrence Malick "the guy who made Badlands," but went on and reviled him based on the declining quality of his subsequent films from The Thin Red Line (1998, Malick) on. That's how I feel about Alejandro Jodorowsky, or the guy who made The Holy Mountain (1973, Jodorowsky). Badlands and The Holy Mountain were both released in 1973? What a coincidence.

For the record I think Malick is a genius from 1998's The Thin Red Line onward. I guess this all boils down to individual taste, but Malick's no imposter. He's discovered how to achieve alchemy through cinema.

On the other hand, unfortunately I have a bias against films from Jodorowsky's late period. Aside from The Holy Mountain, I worry he's too much an amalgam of things I hate: poetry, the circus, and art about the artist.

Endless Poetry (2016, Jodorowsky) is an autobiographical lyrical voyage dream through memory. With cinematography by Christopher Doyle and inspired with imagination and a thoroughly surreal directive, Jodorowsky's latest exegesis hits a profoundly emotional chord as it lets us share in its author's most private and nuanced life experiences as he sees fit.

The surreal inventiveness won me over instantly, when in the opening sequence the young ALEJANDRITO embarks on his maiden voyage with a crowd of black and white cardboard cutouts of figures whom I think represent ghosts, with skeleton-costumed figures supporting them bidding him farewell. Shortly following this we get a cardboard train that recalls Gondry. But beyond this one point, comparing the two is a stretch. Gondry is to surrealism playful, whereas Jodorowsky is deep. And I don't know if it comes from the world of theatre, but I love the black leotard shadow figures who pop in and out to help a character with a prop.

I have yet to verify this, but I suspect there are no VFX shots in Endless Poetry, and that's such a delightful touch. Everything staged seems to follow the logic and laws of the theatre. But a little more on Doyle's contribution. Shot on HD, the saturated reds—especially when that dude fucks that midget on her period in the red bedroom—dominate the pallet, but we get bold primaries, green and blue mostly; and the Doyle signature lit by practicals look goes full on here. For me the cinematography is the best thing going in Endless Poetry.

The crowd scenes are spectacular too. The red band of carnevale festival revellers were a great treat to end with. Well I find that Endless Poetry has won me over. I expected to rant on more of a tirade against it, but in the end Jodorowsky's passion and penchant for midgets, amputees, and carnevale are too entertaining to resist. Sadly, I feel like I respond to Endless Poetry more as an autobiographical document than on its own merits as a standalone work of art though.

The joys of Endless Poetry are episodic and sparse. And as much as I seem to be laboring to appreciate it here, Endless Poetry does suck. I mean seriously, a dude talking about wanting to be a poet has always been torture for me to endure in drama. It's the biggest so what? I've ever mustered. And how much poetry do we get? That shit about an illuminated butterfly and bringing fire from the dream? I still hate poetry so much.

Like poetry itself, Endless Poetry is worthless, trite, pretentious, and doesn't really say anything. I'll file this in the special category I think of as worthy of a single viewing in the theatre, but so help me God I hope I never have to sit through it again. But again, Doyle's beautiful cinematography and the mild pleasure of Jodorowsky's one-man recital were undoubtedly engaging.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Ocean's 7-Eleven

Steven Soderbergh said Side Effects (2013, Steven Soderbergh) would be the last film he directed.

Remember in summer 2013 when Spring Breakers (2012, Harmony Korine), The Bling Ring (2013, Sofia Coppola), and Pain & Gain (2013, Michael Bay) were all released and all of them had young sexy good looking people performing capers?

Logan Lucky (2017, Steven Soderbergh) is a classic star-studded Hollywood heist comedy set in the South. This is Soderbergh in top form. This is a seasoned veteran auteur working within the narrow confines of the crime genre and pushing the craft to its most effective potential, for a broad audience, playing by the rules, and orchestrating our emotions the whole time knowing he's gonna leave us with a life affirming ode to good people. Soderbergh has done more experimenting in the last 30 years than any other American filmmaker; but he rotates between one for me and one for them. This is maybe his best one for them he's done since the Ocean's trilogy.

And this is really weird, but it sounds like this weekend Logan Lucky didn't perform as well at the box office as some were expecting it should. Could this possibly have anything to do with last weekend's vehicle ramming and deaths during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville? The Hitman's Bodyguard with Samuel L. Jackson debuted to a strong opening at number 1 this weekend. Okay I'll stop here. I'm not supposed to talk about this kind of stuff, it doesn't have anything to do with the movie.

But Logan Lucky is centered on rednecks in West Virginia. And what I couldn't get over was how well paced and funny its story is crafted. Logan Lucky is a strong character piece and reminds me of how intelligent and dramatically effective the Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s were. Chan as JIMMY LOGAN and Craig as JOE BANG deliver star performances. Has Daniel Craig ever done a comedy before? He's great in Logan Lucky. The comedy is what did it for me, but progressively I had so many unstoppable crying attacks over sentimental moments that I feared I may have developed a medical condition.

Ever since Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004, Quentin Tarantino) I've claimed that that's the only movie that caused me to cry tears of joy. Every other of the countless moments I've cried in movies have been from sorrow. Logan Lucky bests Kill Bill by having several moments that devastated me with their old-fashioned sweet morals and good nature.

The rest of the cast includes a knockout where has she been Katie Holmes, who really lights up the third act in gold capri pants and a silk leopard tank top; Adam Driver as CLYDE LOGAN, sounding like the manchild from Tideland and acting like DELMAR from O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Katherine Waterston with her same Alien: Covenant doo and looking as adorable as always; also with Seth Macfarlane as a cockney asshole called MAX CHILBLAIN who almost turned the whole thing too silly and into Talladega Nights though.

Some of my favorite of the comic gags involve Jimmy's ongoing hatred of cellphones, like the scene where after the barfight Chilblain's cronies are attempting to phone for help. Seriously, I laughed a lot. And holy crap that scene of the bear in the woods! Who throws in jokes like that? The bear moment defies all logic and is never explained. It's brilliant. I love it! Also, yeah, maybe it's almost too cheesy, but I love the gag with the prison inmates desperate for new George R.R. Martin novels.

What carried me as fast as a speeding NASCAR into the third act was the thrill of hoping maybe they'd get away with it. And without spoiling anything, Logan Lucky caught me off guard and its unpredicted ending impressed the hell out of me. And it also made me love rednecks this weekend. Like any group, they're not all bad. Another thing that works toward making this such a feel good movie is the central father daughter relationship, and how real it feels, bolstered by a chemistry that features exchanges between the way smarter young girl and the father who's proud of her. Man, I didn't know I was so vulnerable to this kind of maudlin confection.

The actress who plays Jimmy's daughter is great. She's whip-smart, clever, funny, and tucks her smartphone in the front waist of her wind pants.

I'm glad I wasn't scared off by the Logan Family Curse and Logan Lucky might be my favorite movie of 2017. It's like Soderbergh is teaching a class on how to apply classic Hollywood basics and almost a miracle that it actually works so well.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Dramatics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a beautifully complex series of questions to leave Detroit with. I feel like it's all really provocative and I wasn't let down. Okay but also something just kind of hit me: if Zero Dark Thirty could maybe look to some people like Bigelow embellished facts about the methods used to capture UBL and in a way implies support of torture, Detroit could be a definitive counterstance that shows how typically torture ends hopelessly and destructively without uncovering any new clues.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Valérian and Laureline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Horrors Heroes and Youngandinnocentocide of WWII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 06, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous entries: