Friday, December 27, 2019

Souls at Zero

Sometime around the beginning of the decade I had been watching several classic Hollywood movies, foreign art films, and obscure, challenging works of cinema, which led me to revisit George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy, through home viewings—and I fell in love with it. It was exactly what I’d hoped: a dazzling, fun, adventure that I don’t have to think about while watching. If Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991, James Cameron) was the last big budget vfx action movie I thoroughly enjoyed as a kid, the prequel trilogy restored my interest in the genre as an adult.
     What followed were The Matrix trilogy, Prometheus (2012, Ridley Scott), World War Z (2013, Marc Forster), Valerian and the City of Thousand Planets (2017, Luc Besson), Thor: Ragnarok (2017, Taika Waititi), the first two Transformers (I’m shamelessly devoted to Michael Bay’s movies, particularly the period from Bad Boys II to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) and Alita: Battle Angel (2019, Robert Rodriguez). For me most of the fun in thinking about the movies I’ve watched is narrowing my taste down; or, finding the prize that comes after all the work of looking for what you like most.

     Also I began watching and enjoying Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy, which I owe to the Harmy despecialized editions, which I’ve only recently discovered. I’ve learned to appreciate the original trilogy as the first Hollywood movies to go all out with special effects, but also sincerely coming to acknowledge the inspired genius of Lucas for pulling it off. At the risk of broadly generalizing, what Lucas did in the 70s, and Cameron in the 80s, along with Peter Jackson in the 00s, has transformed pictures into what they are now: big budget vfx movies. And I’ve learned to stop worrying and love the big budget vfx movie.

     Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019, J.J. Abrams) is an adventure set in outer space that’s about REY leading the Resistance and fighting to save them from the First Order. I really don’t want to be one of those trolls who bitches about it sucking, because I’m sure those kinds of reviews aren’t hard to find.
     So what is there good to say? I cared about the characters. Also it’s fun. And I laughed often. The big draw for me with this movie is its promise of taking us to other planets. And space craft. And aliens. And droids. Rey's costume is cool too.

     Yeah who am I kidding? I can’t write a Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker review. What was I thinking? It’s too safe. What do my favorite big budget vfx movies: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Prometheus, and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets all have in common? Most people said they sucked when they came out. And they kinda do. And that’s kinda why I love them. They have their own character… style… art.
     Maybe that’s what I’ve learned writing this: that my adolescent awakening to basing my lifelong aesthetic sensibilities on a punk anti-mainstream foundation prevents me from really loving J.J. Abrams sequel trilogy. Episode IX is fun, and it’s well made. It looks spectacular. And the best I can say is I liked it. It was okay. It wasn’t challenging, or revelatory. But was it supposed to have been?

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Good Time

The Safdie brothers are only getting better at their style of filmmaking, with bigger stars, budgets and above the line crew, while keeping the sometimes difficult to define spirit of independent film intact—not only in the city where Cassavetes started it all, but where it seems to work best.

     Uncut Gems (2019, Josh & Benny Safdie) fundamentally takes the dramatic approach of focusing on the most significant point of its protagonist’s life, with the highest stakes possible, and creating as much conflict as possible in every conceivable way. And all of this suits the Safdie bros. continuing foray into the crime thriller genre. The pace is relentless. The action occurs here and now, and begins and ends in a compressed timeline. These are expert filmmaking practices on which to construct an indy film upon.
     To begin with, one aspect that makes it indy (aside from A24) is how prominently Jewish its milieu is. And Uncut Gems isn’t just about a Jewish watch and jewelry shop owner. It’s about credit, negotiations, deals, scams, and gambling: or, all the things I’d want out of a movie about a Jew who owns a jewelry store.

     The world of Uncut Gems moreover is America. It’s everyman up there with the material obsessed avarice, desperate attempts to legitimately be somebody; winning as sublimation for the desperate desire to fit in. It’s so sad because it’s so hollow but so real: the Benz, the condo, the young mistress, attending nightclubs to be around pro athletes and music stars, having everyone look at your drip and designer swag.
     Is HOWARD RATNER (Sandler) any better than Gordon Gekko? I don’t know. But I like Howard. And I guess that’s what makes Uncut Gems work so well.

     The look of the film is grainy 35mm, mostly nighttime interior colorful handheld photography on long lenses with predominantly upscale urban locales, so yes, intentionally claustrophobic to suit the subject. Darius Khondji serves as the DP on Uncut Gems, and I’ll take this opportunity to digress for absolutely no reasonable explanation to mention Khondji also shot Too Old to Die Young this year for Nicolas Winding Refn. And even though I don’t ever talk about TV here that series is better than most movies I saw this year. And speaking of #NWR, Uncut Gems has a dreampop synthy score that feels like a precious gemstone’s refracting the color spectrum tonally.

     In closing, Uncut Gems gambles in hopes of hitting the jackpot and keeps placing higher bets, until eventually it’s all or nothing. And dramatically as a thriller it works. Oh and one final note, I’d like to cite Eric Bogosian’s role as a great example of a character with almost no dialogue as an instance where it succeeds, in response to anyone who criticized Margot Robbie’s part in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019, Quentin Tarantino) as misogynistic.

Sunday, December 22, 2019


The hills are alive with the silence of Bressonian existentialism. A Hidden Life (2019, Terrence Malick) is art of the highest order. Snippets disseminated by the press hinted that Malick’s new film was his first linear narrative since The New World (2005, Malick), and that he is atoning for his indulgent wandering period that culminated with the aimless hedonism and materialism of Knight of Cups (2015, Malick) and Song to Song (2017, Malick).
     Part of that is true. Although using The New World for comparison is clearly misleading. The contrast between the two films is that the earlier work depicts the genocide of a country by white colonists told through individuals that lived through the events in 1607 Virginia who played active roles on both sides of the conflict. However, A Hidden Life is based on a man and wife all but forgotten, whose actions were of little to no consequence as citizens of Austria during WWII. Or were they? This is what the film asks us to ponder ultimately.
     Also in contrast to The New World, A Hidden Life’s plot is minimal. FRANZ JÄGERSTÄTTER (August Diehl) refuses to vow allegiance to Hitler—that’s the extent of any story development. But all of this serves Malick’s purpose. As an artist, Malick gives his full attention and commitment to portraying this historical footnote and elaborating on all of life’s big questions, investing them with meaning, poetry, and beauty.

     The contrast I responded to most in A Hidden Life is that between the respective doctrines of the Christians and the Nazis. The film opens with old black and white stock footage of Third Reich agitprop crowd rallies, then later swastikas and Luftwaffe—these are images of the actual events, damaged, deteriorating. But the Catholic cathedrals, murals, and holy processions are colorful and take up the whole wide screen, from newly shot footage, fresh, crisp. Also I admire the subtlety in the ways scriptures from the Gospels are dropped into the dialogue: “My burden is light,” “He never lets us have more than we can carry,” and where they're placed. Or it can be thought of as those who are devoted to God the Father and those who are devoted to the Fatherland (and Hitler); the crucifix and the swastika.

     A Hidden Life has many locked off shots, something that never occurs in the last of Malick’s 5 films shot by Lubezki. But there are still a majority of shots shot with wide lenses, I think a 16mm or sometimes a 12 or 14 (credit here to a friend I know from film school, Huay, who was Chivo’s assistant on Knight of Cups and Song to Song). And Malick’s edits are kinetic, poetic in astounding ways. What else did I notice? Every shot in the entire film is daytime.
     Is A Hidden Life too long? I thought so, but no. I realized the subject matter requires its length to feel the weight of it. This stuff isn’t just something you rush through. And Malick’s elliptical narrative is every bit as spontaneously nuanced as it’s ever been. The setting and attention to detail is realer than real. The performances are perfection. And there are so many moments we get to just find and be delighted to observe and ponder: the moment when Franz leaves the chair in the judge's chamber and the way Bruno Ganz as the judge sits in the chair left vacant, his expression, his hesitation…

     And finally no other filmmaker since Kubrick has as extensive and exquisite taste in classical music and the talent to place within their films. Does the word sublime get tossed around gratuitously?

Saturday, December 21, 2019

List of 10 Favorite Movies 2019

1.   The Irishman (2019, Martin Scorsese)
2.   Dragged Across Concrete (2018, S. Craig Zahler)
3.   A Hidden Life (2019, Terrence Malick)
4.   Parasite (2019, Bong Joon-ho)
5.   Alita: Battle Angel (2019, Robert Rodriguez)
6.   The Image Book (2018, Jean-Luc Godard)
7.   Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood (2019, Quentin Tarantino)
8.   High Life (2018, Claire Denis)
9.   First Love (2019, Takashi Miike)
10.  Dark Waters (2019, Todd Haynes)

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Promised Land

Todd Haynes’s body of work as a whole is an impressive contribution to cinema. His films are fun, inventive, intelligent, and project a vast spectrum of emotions through his protags. His art is never achieved at the expense of heart. Even his made for TV miniseries resulted in a work as satisfying as any of his best films. Haynes takes trash genre aesthetics and repurposes them as a means to shape his own style. Is he that rare case (in cinema) of high art legitimately turned pop? Or am I exaggerating how wide his appeal has become?
     Haynes isn’t easy to classify. The second I find myself tempted to describe his indulgence in artifice I’m immediately confronted with Safe (1995, Todd Haynes) and its committed psychological realism. Also what other filmmaker only makes period films? This is a key to enjoying Haynes’s brilliance: the contrary effect of simultaneous verisimilitude along with distancing the audience.

     Dark Waters (2019, Haynes) is yet another instance of Haynes taking his style of filmmaking into a different direction, namely history-based social drama. It’s Haynes relinquishing his role as artist in exchange for chronicler (he can still pull both off though). But being a longtime fan I find the most enjoyable aspect of Dark Waters is the familiarity with Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988, Haynes), Poison (1991, Haynes) and Safe; having the awareness of this string of films from early in Haynes’s career 30 years ago with their explorations of innocent characters succumbing to advanced stages of corporeal decay.

     What makes Dark Waters more than an Erin Brockovich knockoff is Haynes’s aesthetic. And while he’s gained subtlety with maturity, his uncanny ability to terrify hasn’t diminished. What stands out for me are some degraded shaky images of cattle mutilation found on a cache of VHS tapes stored under the floorboards of a quiet rural farmhouse where a quaint family lives. Also a POV shot of a little girl riding her bike with her little sister, smiling and revealing a mouth of black rotting teeth. These are the primary examples of Haynes’s aesthetic—the feminine sphere of the woman’s picture disrupted by sci-fi horror motifs. And Dark Waters does it while maintaining a commitment to realism not seen to this degree before with Haynes. Or maybe it’s just more refined.
     Another benefit of Haynes’s penchant for period pictures is the authenticity found in the production design, art direction, hair, and costumes utilized in recreating middle-class suburban homes and women’s appearances in particular. And when Haynes does period pieces they’re most enjoyable when the period is recent. (I still get a kick of how Safe was made in the early nineties but set in the late eighties.) Dark Waters boasts some faux wood grain and gilt filigree touches that give such a lived in quality to the homes in the world of the film (were there doilies or am I just imagining there were?), and the baggy legged men’s suits along with prevalent shoulder pads regardless of gender is fun.
     Trivia Fact: Ed Lachman (who’s shot Haynes’ last 5 films and Mildred Pierce) was also the DP on Erin Brockovich (2000, Steven Soderbergh), the last movie Soderbergh would use a cinematographer on before serving as his own DP for all of his subsequent movies. Dark Waters has a distinct (shot on film!) palette, with blue popping up a lot, with hints of straw and many artificial-hued practical fixtures, several night shots, and generally dark throughout. Lachman really emphasizes color in the eighties Robby Müller tradition. 
     Even more of a trivia fact: Lachman was Müller’s assistant on The American Friend (1977, Wim Wenders), which is considered to have pioneered the technique of implementing un-corrected fluorescent tube practicals in shots in a way that would go on to be seen in much of Lachman’s work.

     So, in addition to the look of Dark Waters the other big draw is its domestic drama, especially the women. Without Anne Hathaway and Mare Winningham the movie would just be a bunch of suits arguing. And now that I’ve highlighted what works for me in Dark Waters, to conclude I’ll admit that I was skeptical at first as to whether or not its environmentalist agenda would get in the way of its accessibility. But that wasn’t the case because foremost I engaged with the people this story is about. Historically the events depicted in Dark Waters are unsettling to say the least, and Haynes was the perfect person to blend it all into a compelling drama.

Friday, November 15, 2019

You don't know how fast time goes by until you get there

Any doubts I’ve had about the ability for older filmmakers to deliver works possessing the vitality found earlier in their careers are gone. My bias began recently when Tarantino said he would retire after his tenth film and he doesn’t want to be an old man making movies. And the more I thought about it the more I realized directors’ later works do indeed decline in quality.
     But I finally became convinced that old men can sometimes make their best work late in life. In cinema, there are no rules and there are always exceptions. My favorite Buñuel films are Viridiana (1961), The Exterminating Angel (1962), Belle de Jour (1967) and The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), which were all made toward the end of his career. Malick’s anti-plot phase didn’t begin until he was in his late sixties with The Tree of Life (2011). And now Scorsese shows once and for all that I have all the proof I need.

     The Irishman (2019, Martin Scorsese) is a mob epic that delves into the legend of Jimmy Hoffa. Combining the crime genre with a hint of history has always drawn me to the novels of James Ellroy. And as David Thomson points out the most fascinating parts of JFK (1991, Oliver Stone) are the scenes of the “lurid gay underworld.” But neither come close to mining the richness of Hoffa’s life.
     What excited me about the premise of The Irishman beyond the popular rumors that I’ve grown up with surrounding the disappearance of Hoffa, was his role in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and alleged ties to organized crime—ambitious territory for a screenwriter and director to tackle. But they succeeded. The political intrigues and portrayal deliver, and HOFFA’S (Al Pacino) “If you have it, a truck brought it to you” speech is incendiary.  I left the movie theater exhilarated today after everything The Irishman did for me as a viewer.

     Does it live up to Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995) though? Easily. Not only does The Irishman show the expertise, refinement, and calm of Scorsese as a filmmaker not found in those earlier crime operas; and not only is its cast all close to pushing 80; but, the characters are older men whose lives are anchored in a perspective that they only attain toward the end of their lives. And Zaillian’s screenplay gives us the intricate web of conspiracies in a ratio perfectly in balance with the development of the ensemble of characters.
     You often hear talk of modern movies being faster to cater to shorter attention spans. I’m not sure if I find truth in that. While The Irishman blew by me despite its three and a half hour running time, I often thought about how at times it felt slow, in a good way, or classically and confidently eased by at times. Especially the climax: I didn’t look at my watch or get out of my seat once, but I sensed it approaching, and as it did I felt a tranquil euphoria and thought it was as though the plot smoothly glided by like one of the large bodied lead sled domestic ‘70s autos often seen throughout the film. (Yet I was on the edge of my seat at the same time, contrarily in suspense not knowing what was about to happen.)
     And Goodfellas was already displaying a rapid jumpy wired on coke narrative with voiceover, flashbacks, freeze-frames, and chronological deconstruction as types of its screen vocabulary that I’d grown up with. So no, I don’t think movies have gotten faster? The Irishman utilizes several of those techniques, like voiceover, flashbacks, and especially cutaways that make me hopeful it will connect with a younger audience. Another thing I enjoy immensely in The Irishman is its staggering amount of locations and how quickly we jump all over the place geographically and chronologically throughout the story.
     Another motif I spotted occurring often is narrative repetition. Paul Schrader describes Bresson’s use of “doubling” (or tripling) in Pickpocket (1959, Robert Bresson) citing the scene where MICHEL writes in his journal  “I went into the hall of a large bank,” and says through v.o. “I went into the hall of a large bank,” while we then see him go into the hall of a large bank. This occurs several times in The Irishman, with, for example in a scene where FRANK SHEERAN (Robert De Niro) speaks in v.o. saying: “Whenever anybody says they're a little concerned it means they’re very concerned,” as a man sitting across from him says “I’m a little concerned.” Then the man says he's very concerned. Frank goes on to say “and when somebody says he's very concerned, he’s desperate.” Schrader says this is “contrary… to normal film language,” but with Scorsese there’s a comedic dimension that’s added. This technique was likely cultivated to its apex in Casino with the scene where Pesci’s character says something about these “guys back home,” in v.o., on top of us seeing these guys back home, and on screen text that reads “back home.” It’s really funny and The Irishman knows it.
     Also like Goodfellas and Casino, The Irishman is a jukeboxical—but most of its playlist is confined within the end of the first half of the twentieth century. And The Irishman’s songs also display Scorsese’s theme of maturity with their nostalgic, soft, sentimental romantic beauty and tone.

     Something else that gets praise from me in The Irishman as a sign of maturity or wisdom that comes with age is not only its restraint and refinement of its mise en scène and songs used in its soundtrack, but in a sense the way it replaces the rampant coke binges and wild sex of Goodfellas and Casino with more of a family ethic and sense of loyalty. Does that make me sound square?  I mean I applaud Scorsese for not just churning out the same formula.
     There is so much more Scorsese improves upon with The Irishman. The goombah slang is plentiful and makes for an authentic genre entry—like when Frank suggests using “candy.” But it’s all here: the violence, the f-word, cars, the restaurant and nightclub sets, the suits, pinky rings, the hairdos, and maybe most of all, the eyewear. Nobody’s got nuttin on Scorsese when it comes to thick framed bifocals, sunglasses, or gradient lenses.

     In closing I can’t remember the last time I’ve been more excited seeing a cast make their appearances on screen: Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci are magic, Scorsese manages to keep Pacino from verging into farce while instead getting a simmering, committed performance, Harvey Keitel, and hundreds of supporting actors (and even bg have an intriguing look in Scorsese’s Philly). Yep I really love The Irishman.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Just Another Calendarman-ic Monday

(Your author, coming at you with all the powers he gained after being bitten by a radioactive page-a-day Far Side calendar in middle school.)

I've been thinking on and off about calendars since about 2015. That was a busy year. I needed to juggle two big projects: one usually on alternate Sundays, one roughly every 10 days, all year long, these alongside all the other normal activities constituting everyday life (food, work, family, art, uprising, etc.), and it was difficult to do such juggling. What worked for me that year was to: print out Bram Moolenaar's fold-and-stand-up desk calendar and

  1. Circle my alternating-Sunday deadlines in red
  2. Circle the every-10-day deadlines in green
  3. Put it on my desk where I could see it

(Bram's yearly calendar. I recently discovered that this is pretty much the output of the Unix utility ncal with the -w flag! Unix can be pretty cool.)

It worked well for me! Obviously, this is not a tool that accepts a great deal of information, but for helping visualize a cadence of more or less regularly occurring events, it served effectively.

Over the next few years, unfortunately, the events to coordinate got less regular, less predictable, and probably more numerous. Bram Moolenaar's calendar stopped helping me organize things. That's whenDavid Malki stepped up. He has several long, interesting posts on calendars, and the high-end calendar he makes he is a beautiful, funny, and probably useful object. But what really fired my soul was his devastatingly simple "continuous calendar" idea1, just a year's worth of boxes organized by month, fitting on six pages of printer paper.

(Malki's simple calendar.)

One reason for my soul's resonance with this object is context: at my work, a very common activity to to grab a blank piece of butcher paper, sketch out a grid representing a month or so, and calendar out some events in / for / of / constituting a campaign. This simple template of Malki's saved the drawing-and-adding-dates steps, and I used it a few times in different campaigns to help visualize timelines, deadlines, and possible conflicts. It worked well.

What didn't work well was trying to use the template to help organize my life. I had a couple problems with what he had made:

  1. Squares too small to add significant information (70 squares on one 8.5x11 piece of paper is a lot)
  2. Shading to indicate a month makes it hard to to write on with, say, a black ballpoint pen, or a Sharpie®|Pen., or whatever
  3. I really hated having Saturday and Sunday at the end of the week: this was confusing because it meant that this calendar didn't match any other calendar I'd look at ever

So eventually I decided to stop being frustrated with a tool that didn't work for me. I decided to try to brew my own. I wanted bigger squares, I wanted weeks to start with Sundays, and I didn't want any shading. The best way to attain bigger squares seemed to be to move from portrait to landscape. I really liked Malki's insight about making the months flow into each other, so I kept that layout. I made a couple three-month templates and tested them, and they seemed to work the way I want them to work.

(My calendar looks like this. I like to mark it up with bill due-dates in red, and other notable things in black.)

If you would like to see if this tool will serve your purposes, you can download it and print it out and play with it. (Right now it runs from October 2019 through February 2021, so I recommend judicious use of the "print selected pages" function so as to save our mother the Earth from additional abuse.) If you find that you like using this tool, why not send David Malki a couple bucks: it was all his idea anyway! If you find that this tool doesn't work well for you, why not spend a little time figuring out why not, thinking about what you need, and go try to make something that will help you?

1 What's hilarious is that Malki uses a different term, not "continuous calendar":

progressive calendar

By that, I mean a calendar that doesn’t have any breaks between months. I think I invented the term? By that, I mean “nobody else has ever used this term.”
Evidently, he IS the only one to use the term. Since I use a different term, perhaps I ... invented the idea? (No, no clearly I didn't.) Anyway, this is a long digression prompted by my inability to remember what words he actually used.

(Your author's ambitions when it comes to calendars.)

(Bonus Venture Brothers content re: calendars.)

Monday, November 04, 2019

Pen 15 Club: Just (Broke) the Tip: All Good Things (& All Other Things) Will Come to an End -- OR -- Rest in Peace, Zebra

I have been happy with my Zebra ballpoint for a while now. The ink is okay, a bit blobby on some paper, and it's maybe a little too heavy for seriously extended writing sessions, but it's a solid pen. Maybe too solid, I discovered tonight, doing some precinct walking in San Francisco.

(Pictured: a so sadly fucked friend, one who served not long but stoutly and well, before a moment of (my) failure cost it any chance of future success.)

Struggling up a hill, marking up the sheet of turf I'd been cut, I dropped the Zebra. I guess it landed more or less point-down, because the tip broke clean off, probably due to the stainless steel's shaft's weight. (The shaft and tip are steel, each screwing onto the black plastic grip. It's frustrating, when you buy something with a lot of metal parts in part assuming it will last longer and be less disposable than an all-plastic something, and then find that it is no more durable; annoying to have a single drop reduce a tool to no more than spare parts. ((My thinking right now is that I'll keep it around in case I need for kit-bashing or whatever. Probably that's just a rationalization for having trouble with the idea of loss.))) It's maybe worth noting that this is the second time a night of politics work has cost me a Zebra. I'm not certain what this could mean.

Nor am I certain what comes next. I sorta feel like blue ink is better for me than black: but all my Zebra refills are black, and Zebra blue gets worse reviews than either Zebra black or, importantly, than Bic Crystal; blue. But I'm burnt out on the Bic Crystal right now (been using it too much at work) and I just don't have any other ballpoint ideas. Or any other ideas.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991, James Cameron) was the first R-rated movie I saw in the theater. It’s also the last movie I saw where I suspended disbelief. I was wholly immersed in its world and believed what I was seeing.

All of the sequels after T2 are garbage. Is it because Cameron left? Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003, Jonathan Mostow) attempts to replicate T2, except the T-1000 is a blonde woman—it doesn’t work. Terminator Salvation (2009, McG) is set in the Skynet resistance—it’s kinda cool, sucks the least of them. Then there’s Terminator Genisys (2015, Alan Taylor), which is so overly convoluted and silly it feels like an episode of Rick and Morty without the edginess though and messier.

Was Terminator 3 the first sequel to overtly copy its predecessor? I’ve only began to think about this recently, having considered both Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015, J.J. Abrams) and Halloween (2018, David Gordon Green) as examples.

T2 is the movie that inaugurated the modern age of big budget vfx. And not only does it still hold its own, but I think it’s one of the best movies of the nineties; and maybe one of the best action movies of all time. And if I’ll just cite a couple of key factors, first, there’s JOHN CONNOR (Edward Furlong) and his delinquent pal rebelling and having so much fun. (By the way that pal is played by Danny Cooksey, who I knew at the time as BOBBY BUDNICK, star of Nickelodeon’s teen summercamp comedy Salute Your Shorts. Like in T2, Budnick sports the same red mullet, but also plays something like a teen version of Problem Child, another favorite of my little brother and I’s.) John wears a Public Enemy t-shirt, owns a dirtbike, robs atm’s, and spends all his time at an arcade in the galleria.

The other factor is how dark and violent T2 is, and still, the subsequent sequels pale in comparison. Particularly the opening scenes of the apocalypse and seeing all the innocent children turned to ashes, along with similar images recurring later in SARAH CONNOR’S nightmares. That opening sequence explodes from idyllic tranquility into that war-torn future beginning with the metal terminator skeleton crushing a human skull under its step, followed by intense pulsing electronic ominous score and lasers blasting with giant airships menacing overhead.

James Cameron returns as producer for Terminator: Dark Fate (2019, Tim Miller). So, whatta we got workin’ in this one? For starters, the opening, in rough degraded video images over the Paramount logo is Sarah Connor’s (Linda Hamilton) speech from T2: “You know the dream's the same every night. Children look like burnt paper. Black. Not moving. And then the blast wave hits them. And they fly apart like leaves. It's not a dream, you moron. It's real. I know the date it happens. On August 29, 1997 it's gonna feel pretty fucking real to you too! Anybody not wearing two-million sunblock is gonna have a real bad day. Get it? You think you're saving a life? You're already dead, everybody, him, you, you're dead already. This whole place, everything you see is gone. You're the one living in a fucking dream, Silberman. Cause I know it happens. It happens.”

And as early as possible, devastating depictions of mass human extermination fill the screen. These images are followed by the metal terminator skeletons with laser rifles invading. So, we’re off to a good start here. (Notice the T2 font is back.) Then we see the iconic staple of the franchise, a naked figure that appears human, in a light sphere arriving from the future. This time it’s an androgynous blonde woman. And another trend in modern movies that’s as prevalent as vfx is the physical appearance of stars after months of intense working out to look excessively fit, which Mackenzie Davis exhibits Cameron style for most of the movie: in a tight tank top.

Something else common to the franchise is a good terminator and a bad terminator; or a protector and an attacker. Both are concerned with the same target. And in Terminator: Dark Fate it seems they’ve decided to pander to the four quadrant bullseye because the primary cast features old characters, Mexican characters, young characters, and a badass teen dykes can root for. It’s 2019, why not, right?

The action is there. The pace is as relentless as T2. And Sarah Connor is as salty and cynical as ever. In contrast to the other sequels, this installment is way better, but is it a true return to form? Sadly, I doubt any sequel can be as good as the first two. Terminator: Dark Fate has a danger that the other sequels lacked, which also made me think it might live up to its expectations. And I realize this might make me sound like a homicidal maniac, but another thing I think the sequels missed was innocent civilian casualties. Terminator: Dark Fate realizes this, and by including scenes with this type of violence the tone is indeed darkened. A key example is when GRACE (Davis) escapes custody in the detention center and the way she assaults the law enforcement officers is something that I think audiences cheer for, with a disavowal of moral guilt because she’s the hero. Like when she asks that woman for directions then slaps her down and knocks her on the floor. Is that funny? I laughed, hard.

Yet while Terminator: Dark Fate manages to have a dark tone it still isn't as bleak as the ones directed by Cameron. Take the good guys for example. In Terminator: Dark Fate, the Mexican family is squeaky clean, functioning as one big happy loving whole with jobs, passions, bright futures. But T2 opens with John Connor stuck in a foster home life with no love (Xander Berkeley is great as TODD), and his mother is incarcerated without hope of parole.

I think it might be due to Cameron that the level of detail involving the Mexican border, and all of the military bases, choppers, airplanes, and vehicles is included. It definitely feels like it’s all been researched by someone who really knows about all this stuff. And the Mexican take on this franchise recalls the scenes in T2 when Sarah takes refuge there with her friend ENRIQUE’S family in Baja. But as someone born and raised in Texas (and one of those people who are proud of it), and being half Mexican, I got a huge kick out of Terminator: Dark Fate. A nice touch is the way the Mexican terminator assimilates his voice to a Texas accent once they get to Texas. Even the words he uses are authentic.

So, I regret to say Terminator: Dark Fate isn’t the second coming or anything. But it’s got amazing action, pacing, and everything is riveting and holds you in. (And it updates the biblical undertones by replacing Cyberdyne with Legion i.e. an army of demonic forces.) It just feels like it followed the recipe of the first two close enough yet somehow there's still something off about the way it tastes.

A Cure for Wellness

One of my favorite games as a kid was the Memory Game. You know, the one where you take turns flipping cards over and trying to match two with the same image? Anyway, that’s part of where I think I get the compulsion to associate movies with other places I’ve seen a similar scene, or motif, or technique, or heard the same song. But I’m trying to cut down on it. Like in my Jojo Rabbit post I refrained from mentioning The Tin Drum (1979, Volker Schlondörff) or Wes Anderson.

But another game I loved was Candyland. Its influence on my taste in movies is apparent when I think of how often I enjoy rewatching Alice in Wonderland (2010, Tim Burton), even though there’s not much to it except its look, which is odd because I reread both of the Carroll books often? Then there’s Marie Antoinette (2006, Sofia Coppola), the only movie that has an eye candy fantasy art direction, costumes, hair, makeup and is perfectly created to fit its post punk soundtrack. Marie Antoinette is also one of my top favorite movies and a masterpiece I could discuss at length.

The look of Paradise Hills (2019, Alice Waddington) made me want to see it. The all white costumes look like something out of Alice in Wonderland. It looks like a fairy tale. And I’ve been a sucker for the beauty of Emma Roberts, so the image of her with pink hair intrigued me.

Paradise Hills is a dark fairy tale. It’s easy to follow, being a simple clear plot that develops into an original narrative I didn’t feel was all that predictable or anything. And it’s moral is timely. It has a great ending. But what’s wrong with it?

Something about Paradise Hills is cheap. The production design in many of the night scenes feel like what I imagine a neon Miami nightclub looks like. I don’t know why I’m complaining about this because Dreamland made a handful of masterpieces that will last long into posterity, created by John Waters, Vincent Peranio, Van Smith et al. Is it the soft digi-fuzzy video aesthetic that’s bothering me?

There’s also the sudden and underdeveloped way the Eiza González character falls in love with UMA (Roberts). It’s like as soon as Uma gets to the spa or clinic or whatever AMARNA (González) is smoking a cigarette in a cave and they meet, then Amarna has to be with Uma and that’s all that matters to her. Maybe I missed something?

Paradise Hills has that late nineties indy charm going for it too though. I’ll say it’s fun, but flawed. And Emma Roberts is dreamy, so great casting.

Gallows Humor

Thor: Ragnarok (2017, Taika Waititi) was the first Marvel movie I saw in a theater, on the six story high screen at the Bullock Imax in Austin. Man, I miss that theater. Thor: Ragnarok’s biggest strength is as a comedy, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Soon I realized that its director had a name, but I hadn’t seen any of his other work.

Then a few months later I was working in Charleston, SC and was hanging out with some friends when one of them put on What We Do in the Shadows (2014, Waititi). For such a casual mockumentary, I laughed through almost the whole thing and find it clever even after multiple viewings. I rank it up there with This Is Spinal Tap (1984, Rob Reiner) and Christopher Guest’s comedies.

Apparently there’s more that he’s done and I hope to get around to seeing soon.

Jojo Rabbit (2019, Waititi) is a black comedy that’s also a coming of age film and happens to be set during the end of WWII in Germany. But it’s also vibrant. And, in the end, it’s also a celebration of life and offers a sincere portrait of humanity.

Best of all, Jojo Rabbit is the kind of art that makes you ask yourself difficult questions about what you’re watching. And the subjective nature of the types of answers I imagine arising as a result of those questions is exciting. First of all, the film is about a young Nazi boy, JOJO, discovering a Jewish girl named ELSA hiding in the walls of his house. And I can’t imagine it taking viewers very long to guess that somehow by the end the girl will teach the boy to not hate Jews anymore.

For Jojo, hating Jews drives him more than anything else, motivated of course by its potential to please the Führer. Okay so like I hope this doesn’t make me sound too creepy or anything but, we have this adolescent boy with no friends (well, one) who now has a pretty sixteen year old girl prisoner in his home while his mom is gone all day and no one else is around. Isn’t that like almost some kind of kinky pornographic male fantasy? Please let me finish. So, after weeks of Jojo hating Elsa for being Jewish, lying to her and intentionally hurting her, he falls in love with her. But is it really love? I don’t think so. I think he’s horny. (This is where I realize the film is so effective as a coming of age.) Jojo’s going through a lot.

Jojo’s character arc is so wonderfully written because of how many changes he goes through, along with lessons he learns through the course of the film. By the end nothing is what it seems. But I guess that’s why his mother’s so important (played by Scarlett Johansson), because she’s constantly trying to get him to learn what life’s about. Yet even she tells him a few lies. But this is also integral to Jojo Rabbit’s functioning as a coming of age film—learning what you need to when you’re ready. And that’s something for the audience too: accepting that hopefully it’s never too late to change the way you think about things. Does that make sense or am I being too vague?

Another thing to add is the subtle depiction of the Sam Rockwell character and his adjutant as a gay couple. Because in a comedy as absurd and irreverent as Jojo Rabbit, by not resorting to gay jokes it makes it easier to empathize with these two. They don’t particularly seem to have any reason to be Nazis either. For instance, anytime Jojo asks CAPTAIN KLENZENDORF (Rockwell) about Jews he’s completely disinterested. However, what does interest him are his sketches for outlandish costumes he plans for wearing in combat someday—also one of the funniest bits.

Anyway, Jojo Rabbit all came together in the end and there’s a hit pop song that’s played in a German version I didn’t remember having heard until it played, and I cried, then cried some more, and felt really great about life and humanity and everything okay? Now I don’t really know a ton about history or anything but I do feel truly horrified when I think about the Holocaust, the famine, the mass extermination of six million Jews, the concentration camps, the final solution to the Jewish problem, the gas chambers, the liquidation of the Warsaw ghettos, Dachau, Auschwitz, Treblinka and while I watched Jojo Rabbit, even though it’s not acknowledged in the film I thought about it. And I thought about it after it was over. It’s the worst atrocity of human history I know of. But I can still laugh. Is that messed up? That’s the portrait of humanity I got out of Jojo Rabbit, which is heavy.

Jojo Rabbit is silly, tragic, sweet, compassionate, and optimistic. And again I think all of that bears the mark of true art. Unlike say Joker, which is just really dark and depressing.

Autumnal Almodóvar

Almodóvar makes films about passion. All his films are set in España. His cast usually revolves around a strong female character, supported by other women, junkies, homosexuals, and transvestites. His art direction is saturated with primary colors. And his soapy lurid narratives depict his own passions for cinema, novels, art, and the theater. Yet let’s not forget how often he features medicine and particularly human anatomy in his work too.

Of all his films that I’ve seen none are bad. But All About My Mother (1999, Pedro Almodóvar) was brilliant, a breakthrough where all of his themes coalesced into a career-defining work that achieves everything he’s best at, punctuated with a romantic thank you to and for his fans and subject. Almodóvar is not a woman’s director, he’s the woman’s director.

Much of what followed maintained a high degree of quality. All of it displays a polished, flawlessly immaculate sense of décor. The Skin I Live In (2011, Almodóvar) finds the writer-director tailoring the horror genre to his vision and making it fit like a glove.

Like Julieta (2016, Almodóvar), Pain & Glory (2019, Almodóvar) feels incomplete, and tells the story of a character at the end of middle-age, trying to find the missing piece that will provide meaning for life.

But Pain & Glory is boring even. It’s about an aging film director with all sorts of physical ailments who starts freebasing heroin as an escape into memories of his mother and an illiterate laborer whom he taught to read and write while he was a young boy. There’s also the discovery of a meaningful relationship from the director’s youth and its role in his inspiration to write about it.

In general, a movie about a rich successful artist moping around elicits little sympathy from me. At least he’s Spanish. If this dude was white Pain & Glory would suck way more. Pain & Glory is also very quiet and calm. I just couldn’t find anything compelling in it. I kept thinking even if the protagonist, played by Antonio Banderas, shot up that might have given the film some kind of edge, but he just chases the dragon. In today’s age of opiate addiction I don’t even find that smoking horse makes him a junkie—plus it doesn’t cost him anything. So what’s the point? Who cares?

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Black Korea

Wasn’t Bong Joon-ho described as the Korean Spielberg at one time? That sounds about right. But maybe with a little bit more of an edge (and more violence and sex). I’ve never liked Spielberg. For me his name has the connotation of technical proficiency, white suburban families, and an imagination reduced to narratives that play it safe. Recently someone asked me what my favorite Spielberg movie was and I said 1941¹.

     Bong is a similar case because even his best film, The Host (2006, Bong Joon-ho), doesn’t really do it for me. Yes, it’s visually inventive and wonderfully immersive in its own world. And yes, its characters have realistic qualities that make me care about their family, especially Song Kang-ho. But so what. Beyond pointing to strengths or weaknesses, the only reason I watch movies and write about them is because I’m in search of the best films—my favorites. And I doubt Bong or Spielberg will ever make a film that I fall in love with.
     Bong has been an interesting case to study. He belongs on my list of best directors of the twenty-first century, even if it’s at the bottom. And speaking of Korean directors, that list should also include Kim Ki-duk. I haven’t bothered googling the subject, but my preliminary efforts seem to result in:

·         Joseph Kahn
·         Charlie Kaufman
·         Michel Gondry
·         Apichatpong Weerasethakul
·         Steve McQueen
·         Carlos Reygadas
·         Kim Ki-duk
·         Bong Joon-ho
·         Jonas Åkerlund

     I’ve gotta be missing someone.

     Parasite (2019, Bong) is one of those movies that seem to have it all. It’s original. It has a message, which seems similar to what Us (2019, Jordan Peele) is trying to tell us, but executed in a more subtle and resonant way. And we get a family with a patriarch played by Song Kang-ho that drives the narrative, and compellingly provide a nuanced portrait that is both sublime and devastatingly earnest. Also it won the Palme d’Or this year.
     As much of an aversion as I have to films with a message, Parasite gets it right. Also I can’t recall the last time I found myself surrendering to a film dealing so prominently with cellphones, social media, and other technological features of the modern age I usually go to the movies to get away from. But what really hooked me into Parasite is its moral ambiguity, and depiction of lying as casual common practice and the rehearsed performances that arise out of a result of this.

     As a confessed auteur snob I was excited to see Bong return to making a Korean film, but also elated to discover how well Parasite fits in his body of work. Specifically, Parasite embodies Bong’s talent for defying audience expectations. And this isn’t just about plot points. It’s also the tone, which is probably what really sets his vision apart. Bong always parcels out bits of morality and circumstance that keep you reevaluating how you relate to his characters, what you would do in their place, and finally, where these new revelations mean the plot’s heading.
     Then in a more general way, there’s his rain trademark. At the very least I know rainstorms play a huge part in set pieces in Memories of Murder (2003, Bong) and The Host. But Parasite out does any of his previous efforts in this regard. I’ll just say the rainstorm in Parasite occurs right when Bong’s got you trapped in his web and then he hits you with an onslaught of provocative, genre storytelling that shapes the film into its final form. Aside from that there’s also a funny bit that involves a cellphone with a slo-mo camera, a homeless man urinating, a water bottle, and a bucket full of water. Yes, Parasite is probably one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.
     Bong is also an expert at foreshadowing as a narrative tool. Maybe foreshadowing isn’t the right word for what I’m trying to say here, but it’s more like when he plants a seed and then gets the most out of it he can while the story unfolds. In Parasite for example, consider the rich mother buying her son an Indian arrow. The first time KI-WOO (Choi Woo-sik) enters the Namgoong-designed house, we see the rubber suction cup-tipped arrow stuck high up in the wall as the housekeeper removes it. What at first seems insignificant is developed into gargantuan: the teepee, the headdresses, the motif of playing make-believe but I don’t want to spell it out here so as to avoid spoilers.

     In closing, Parasite is powerful, defies genre categorization, exceeds at clever, intricately plotted storytelling that produces a range of effects in the results of its unraveling; and finds director Bong at the height of his talents. And like The Host the title’s meaning is elusive even after you’ve seen the movie, but in a good way. As a devout fan of the importance of family in filmmaking, Parasite proves a miracle in the truths it embellishes and the ways it leaves you to understand your own definition of the word.

¹From a historic point of view I think 1941 (1979, Spielberg) is fun because it stands along with Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Coppola) and Heaven’s Gate (1980, Michael Cimino) as these giant movies greenlit because of the status of their auteur directors and remain monuments of excessive budgets, length, and scope, yet still somehow work and don’t deserve the stigma that’s followed them. But also I think 1941 might be Spielberg’s only comedy? And I really do think it’s funny.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Light Sleeper

The Witch (2015, Robert Eggers) seemed auspicious with hints of Dreyer, but wasn’t as good as I’d hoped. After Split (2016, M. Night Shyamalan) I realized how great Anya Taylor-Joy can be. But I’ve also grown in my appreciation of period English dialogue lately, like finally getting around to reading Shakespeare’s historical dramas for example. So I decided to give The Witch another try. Anya Taylor-Joy was every bit as captivating as I’d hoped. The seventeenth century New England dialect was a real treat. And I found the atmosphere and pace entrancing and suspenseful. But still, the whole thing felt kind of flat.

     So with this cinema addiction I have, the thing is I’m always holding out for that high that lives up to the exhilarating satisfaction I’d found that first time. Every few years I find it again. My point is that I find movies that seem to have a lot going for them, and it’s hard to come to the decision that if I either love or hate a movie, and I don’t love it… well. Like Midsommar! It has such a cool look and setting. And Florence Pugh is amazing in it. But…


     The Lighthouse (2019, Eggers) is like if Herman Melville made Clerks. And I mean that in the worst possible way. Don’t get me wrong, I love the books Moby-Dick and Billy Budd, up there with the best stuff I’ve ever read. And I’ve been reading a lot of mid nineteenth century English, which is one of the features that drew me to The Lighthouse. And particularly the Dafoe character’s period Maine dialect and the way he delivers it is the best thing going for this film.
     In many ways The Lighthouse is also the perfect alternative for those sick of the Marvel flood. It’s in black and white, shot and framed in the 1.19:1 aspect ratio, with a cast of two. I’ve always been a huge fan of Willem Dafoe, and everything about his performance in The Lighthouse fits this role perfectly. So if the movie didn’t really do it for me, I’m sure glad I got to see Dafoe in this.

     The Lighthouse has great atmosphere, just like The Witch. But this time its sound design is expressionistic industrial like say Eraserhead (1977, David Lynch); except a little more aggressive and less subtle.  Although in general comparing The Lighthouse to Eraserhead or Guy Maddin would be lazy. There just aren’t too many black and white surreal movies that carve their niches so far off the beaten path.

     I’m not saying this is one of my favorite movies by any means, but I am so happy a movie like this got made. It was fun, odd, cohesive, and exactly the type of work that utilizes entertainment as art.

Sunday, October 20, 2019


What do I remember about seeing Zombieland (2009, Ruben Fleischer) 10 years ago in a theater? Not much, except that foremost it seemed unique at the time for being a gory horror comedy with big name actors released by a major studio. That and the surprise Bill Murray cameo.

     It’s not surprising that a big studio made Zombieland. It’s fun, clever, and has heart. But is it cinema?

     As a big fan of the screwball comedies from Hollywood’s Golden Age, and particularly those of Lubitsch, Cukor and Hawks, I also find myself asking if Zombieland 2: Double Tap (2019, Fleischer) is a screwball comedy disguised as a zom-com? To begin with, Emma Stone could be the Katherine Hepburn of her generation—Hepburn being likely the most talented actress of the screwball genre. Like Hepburn, Stone isn’t conventionally sexy, but on-screen something magnetic about her proves she can be. It’s part of that something that makes her a star. Yet I doubt she has the capacity for Hepburn’s skills when it comes to broad and physical types of performance. Or maybe that just comes down to popular styles having evolved.
     The chemistry between COLUMBUS (Jesse Eisenberg) and WICHITA (Stone) forms the arc of Zombieland 2’s narrative. And that chemistry is strengthened by the addition of Zoey Deutch as MADISON. At first I wondered why Madison’s stereotypical Paris Hilton blonde ditz with pink Juicy Couture tracksuit feels like it’s from 10 years ago, before realizing in the Zland universe the apocalypse occurred 10 years ago. And a shallow stereotype is a staple of the screwball genre, so I’m not detracting from the addition of her character. She might be the best thing going for Zombieland 2.

     There’s also the quick pace, wit, and irony of the dialogue. Zombieland was written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who also wrote Deadpool (2016, Tim Miller) and both of their respective sequels. The style to be found in these movies is crafted around a meta, first-person v.o. filled with sarcasm and pop-culture references. Is Deadpool our modern equivalent of the type of comedy that would have been written by the Algonquin group of the 1920s? If that seems like a stretch, consider the lack of esteem those movies had with their contemporaries—the Manhattan highbrow literary set.

     So after the broad comedy, fast pace and witty dialogue, there’s the theme of family, which gives form to the narrative, but is also where things end up feeling like generic Hollywood sentimental crap. Seriously, the zombies aren’t really that big a part of this movie y’know? They get killed so quickly, and like they’re just there and the movie’s never about what to do about them other than survive. So back to where I started, if you’re looking for a smart, fun, screwball comedy, you’ll find the entertainment you’re after. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The Unholy Three

Growing up I didn’t watch any horror movies. When I was in high school, one night I was hanging out with this rich kid I worked with at a grocery store and my little brother and we went to the movies. The rich kid wanted to see Scream (1996, Wes Craven), and I remember thinking it would be lame. But the Drew Barrymore cold open prologue blew me away—and still holds up better than the rest of the movie. In its day, I was hyped about Scream.
     For many years after that the only other horror movies I saw were the wave of “attractive high school teen ensemble” knock-offs that followed: I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Disturbing Behavior (1998), and Urban Legend (1998). Can I help it if at that age raging hormones clouded my aptitude for being capable of discerning quality filmmaking?

     At last I had gone from buying tickets to see a horror movie because of a hot actress to having a date and seeing a horror movie because of the time honored tradition of scary movie as date night. And it was out at the movies one of these nights when I saw The Ring (2002, Gore Verbinski), which remains my favorite horror movie.
     Eventually I saw all the horror movies I could. There’s maybe no other genre as rich and with as many categories and sub-genres—from silent German expressionism to possessed pets. Yet the only horror movies I’ve found exceptionally well made and returned to repeatedly are the masterpieces The RingAudition (1999, Takashi Miike) and Trouble Every Day (2001, Claire Denis). Okay and The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick). And early Cronenberg!

     When House of 1000 Corpses (2003, Rob Zombie) was released I was a huge fan.  And something about that movie made you want to see more stuff like the classic monsters from Universal in the 30s and 70s slashers like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper); or, if you loved Bill Moseley in it as much as I did, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986, Hooper). But then The Devil’s Rejects (2005, Zombie) got caught up in a genre that’s come to be known as torture porn, and traded spooky frights for depraved terror. And 31 (2016, Zombie) is the worst movie I've ever seen.

     I’m writing this after having seen 3 From Hell (2019, Zombie) screened last night in a theater. Despite having low expectations based on Zombie’s diminishing output, curiosity compelled me to give it a chance. The 80’ high screen in the multiplex helped hold my attention, but I left disappointed. Why did I go?
     If House of 1000 Corpses is playful and almost cartoon-like, and The Devil’s Rejects is bleak and disturbing with an increase in realism, then 3 From Hell falls somewhere in between; although what’s problematic is how it feels like the look Zombie's aiming to achieve is excessively stylized. It’s as though he tries to hide his screenplay’s flaws with as many bells and whistles possible. You’ll often hear directors talk about how a close-up loses its effect if over-used. Rob Zombie wouldn’t be one of those directors.
     3 From Hell is shot mostly hand-held, with long lenses, zooming and tracking its subjects in close-up. There are also scenes of violent assaults patched together with freeze frames. And the movie may set a record for the length and amount of slow motion shots. What at first seems like Zombie has developed new techniques ends up feeling misguided or even desperate.

     The premise itself is never even close to being believable. I wonder if Zombie was going for a look as excessive as the narrative? There’s a scene where OTIS (Bill Moseley) holds a prison warden and his family hostage when a clown knocks on the door, then proceeds to perform his act. Where did the clown come from? It’s never mentioned. And yeah I get that it’s just a movie, but I question the choice of including incidents like this one that indulge in such bits of absurd surrealism when it's the final part of a trilogy that never has before.

     Without Sid Haig, all that’s left of the Firefly clan are Otis and BABY (Sheri Moon Zombie). It seems that Baby is supposed to be the star of 3 From Hell. And I get that she’s played by Rob Zombie’s real-life wife, but how does she get top billing over Bill Moseley? Baby isn’t nearly as enjoyable as Otis, although she gets some characterization in her prison scenes where we learn she “gets in people’s heads,” as we also get in hers courtesy of an anthropomorphic cat ballerina who dances in the snow; obviously this harks back to Zombie’s white horse visions from his Halloween 2 (2009). But at this point I’m just beating a dead horse.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Color of Money

I was still in middle school the first time I saw a Dolemite movie, or more accurately a scene from one. The same older kids who I’d met through skateboarding and who got me into The Simpsons and Melvins had The Human Tornado (1976, Cliff Roquemore) playing on a t.v. at someone’s house, and the indelible impression of Rudy Ray More getting caught in bed by a white sheriff with his white wife and escaping by jumping down a hill naked followed by a freeze frame as he’s in mid air, on screen text that says “instant replay” and a v.o. dialogue hilariously expounding “so y’all don’t believe I jumped check out this good shit.”
     And that scene remains the crowning jewel of the Dolemite films. Taken as a whole the movies themselves suffer from low-budget production values and bad acting, but what they possess is authentic streetwise dialogue crafted with a sophistication of raunchy wit.

     It’s been at least twenty years since I’ve seen a Dolemite movie, and I’d rather preserve the high esteem I have of them instead of risking the danger of discovering they really aren’t as good as I remember. But there was a time in the mid aughts when I found a Dolemite website and streamed files of his comedy albums for free. His stand-up act is pure genius and benefits from lacking the extraneous elements of his movies.

     Dolemite Is My Name (2019, Craig Brewer) is the first comedy I’ve gone to see in a theater this year, and while the movie does have its funny moments, ultimately it lacks depth and feels like a movie-of-the-week. It’s also the first Netflix movie I had an opportunity to see in a theater, which is something I’d hoped for and very thankful to having been able to take advantage of.
     The screenwriting duo who wrote Ed Wood (1994, Tim Burton), Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, also wrote Dolemite Is My Name. And if Burton’s Batman (1989) was my favorite movie as a kid, then Ed Wood has to be my favorite Burton film as an adult—now that’s one dark fucking movie. Or is it? Because Ed Wood is also sweet, kind, full of empathy, romance and admiration for its characters. And that’s what makes it so powerful is that mix of feel-good schmaltz and the fading dying Lugosi shooting junk in his veins without a friend in the world except Eddie.
     Dolemite Is My Name shares the narrative structure of Ed Wood: naïve amateur passion goes all in to make a movie Hollywood has no interest in and succeeds. The big problem with Dolemite Is My Name is that there’s no dramatic conflict whatsoever. Every time an obstacle pops up, it’s so quickly and effortlessly overcome that it feels artificial. There’s a line when the Rudy Ray Moore character finally gets his movie in a theater through sheer tenacity and DIY ingenuity and tells his fellow cast and crew friends “Don’t nobody worry about what happens ‘cause tonight is a victory already.” Sadly, the whole movie never feels like there’s ever any reason to worry about what happens. There’s always a quick and easy fix for everything. Like the scene where Dolemite and friends have just gotten their movie distributed legitimately and are reading the baleful reviews in the next day’s newspaper just like in This Is Spinal Tap (1984, Rob Reiner), has no weight because whereas we feel uncomfortable with the failure and shame of Spinal Tap, here we know that they made their Dolemite movie on their terms for their audience and it’s selling; so what feels like the end of Spinal Tap here is money and fame for the Dolemite group.

     And with such an amazing cast, Dolemite Is My Name doesn’t so much find comedic gold, as it features credible performances. Do I buy Eddie Murphy as Dolemite? Absolutley. But he’s nowhere near as funny as he is in say, Bowfinger (1999, Frank Oz). Wesley Snipes is great too. But is he funny? Okay the exception might be Mike Epps—the funniest supporting actor in black movies over the past 20 years.

     The only funny parts in the movie are when Murphy performs the lines from Dolemite’s act, which leaves me to conclude that the best thing going for this movie is its historical aspect. The whole thing feels like a made-for-t.v. documentary reenactment. So, while the costumes and hair & make-up are terrific, and the real Moore was funny with an inspiring life story, the movie itself doesn’t really seem worthwhile beyond that. 

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Precautions on Zipper Use

Precautions on Zipper Use

On vacation, carrying a second-hand roller bag, my ritualized carrying-too-much approach started to impose negative consequences as the bag began to degrade. Day one saw the top handle detach from the bag's body. The last day, pulling a zipper closed, the part I was pulling came off in my hand.

Obviously, once we were on the train, I needed to look up zippers so I would know what their parts are called. I was more or less hoping for a zipper enthusiast site, something like Ian's Shoelace Site, but for zippers. What I found, however, was a full-on brand experience brought to me by YKK. Turns out the part that was in my hand, and no longer attached to the zipper, is called the "pull-tab"! Mission more or less accomplished.

But once you get locked into a powerful vein of specialized information, it can be difficult to pull yourself away, and that's how I ended up on a page entitled "Precautions on Zipper Use". As a clumsy man, with a penis, I'm well aware of at least one major zipper precaution that I would recommend, strongly, to anyone who finds themselves described in this sentence, but that precaution, involving tucking and double-checking, was not to be found on this page, and that lack is literally the only thing wrong with the page.

From "Rough Slider Operation" to "Proper Laundry Procedure", this page will likely teach you more or less everything you need to know about zippers and will almost certainly leave you muttering "STOP. SAYING. 'ZIPPER'" after a while. Some of the warnings will be familiar to the real zipper freaks amongst us—who doesn't at this point know that you rub a candle on a sticky zipper to thereby introduce a lubricative coating?—but it's nice to have everything compiled into a single (re-)source, so you know how to wash, iron, protect, and use your zippers and the fabric around them. Plus the art is really cool. Here's a taste.

(Some art from Precautions on Zipper Use. Note the extremely cool box-outline that shows what the important part is.)

And here is some of the text. I particularly like the style here. It's masterfully clear, and it's so dry it might as well be being narrated by Fred Willard.

Pulled Out Elements

Trying to forcibly close the zipper of an overfilled bag will cause element and tape breakage due to the excess load on the elements.
Reduce the burden by reducing the content of the bag and by bringing both sides of the chain close to each other before closing the zipper.

Fabric Caught in Slider

A slider may catch the fabric, hampering its operation.
Avoid forcing it to move or it will worsen the problem.
Slowly move the slider while pulling out the caught fabric.
Please allow enough room for the slider to move smoothly when sewing the zipper onto the fabric.

Anyway, zippers are good and cool and should be treated with care and respect, whether they are true YKK zippers or not. Please, if you are a real citizen of our fair Reviewiera, act always in accordance with the teachings revealed unto us and curated into our consciousnesses by the good folks responsible for Precautions on Zipper Use.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

After Hours

It wasn’t until 2005 that, to my joy, I discovered the works of Takashi Miike. These were the days of dvd; and with Miike, very often dvd-r. It began with Audition (1999) and Ichi the Killer (2001), which are still his only masterpieces. Both of those films are perfect and deserve their own essays if I were to do justice in describing them. And Ichi the Killer has always been one of my favorite movies of all time. But what of the rest? There’s a lot to see. And I’ve spent many years going through them. Even just recently going back to the video store—Miike is the strongest argument in favor of the vanishing video rental house vs. online streaming—I was floored and amazed by my first time seeing Graveyard of Honor (2002).
     Graveyard of Honor is a bleak nihilist tale of an exiled Yakuza disintegrating into oblivion and the woman he takes with him—themes familiar to Miike’s work. Like Audition, Graveyard of Honor establishes a serious dramatic tone and holds it. This is a strength of Miike: his body of work ranges from pitch black serious drama (typically embodied in the genres of crime or horror) to zany, ludicrous  B and even children’s movies (even at the opposite end of this spectrum again there are crime and horror entries).

     The last decade also marks Jeremy Thomas coming on board as a producer for some Miike films. Thomas’ name has always caught my attention because of what projects it’s been attached to: Bad Timing (1980, Nicolas Roeg), Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983, Nagisa Ôshima), Eureka (1983, Roeg), The Hit (1984, Stephen Frears), Insignificance (1984, Roeg), The Last Emperor (1987, Bernardo Bertolucci), The Sheltering Sky (1990, Bertolucci), and Naked Lunch (1991, David Cronenberg) are but a few.
     Thomas has been the producer on Miike’s Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011)—my first time seeing one of Miike’s films in a theater and in 3D (of course the joke being that most of the movie is slow long scenes of dialogue in zen gardens with no real reason for shooting in the format?), Blade of the Immortal (2017), and First Love (2019). And for the time being not only has Thomas been collaborating on prestige Miike projects, but also ones that have received theatrical distribution here in the US.

     First Love is advertised as an action/love story about a boxer and a girl (apology if that’s being heteronormative with my nouns) with some stolen drugs on the run from the yakuza. This not only sounds like run of the mill Miike subject matter, but worried me as a premise similar to so many other True Romance types that it might not have even been worth my time. But was I glad that I didn’t miss the opportunity to see this in a theater.
     While I will admit First Love comes nowhere near the genius of Ichi the Killer or Audition, it maintains a consistent dramatic tone with excellent pacing and is genuinely suspenseful. And it also, in its own way, continuously defied my expectations. So, without spoiling anything, I really can’t say much else about the plot.

     The ensemble cast is the strongest part of First Love. The two teen star-crossed lovers the film centers around, again being vague to avoid spoilers, kind of exist apart from the dozen or so Rogue’s gallery of underworld figures that populate the narrative. The ensemble is so perfect because just as I began to realize how much I’d fallen in love with all of them, I also realized how there were so many but not too many. And okay, when the credits roll at the end, over the text there are portraits of each character and it made me giddy smiling at whatever magic made them all so individually entertaining and memorable.
     In order of my personal favorites I’ll just really quick mention a few. Seeking revenge against the perpetrators of an attack on her dealer boyfriend, JULIE is a volatile force of exceedingly menacing rage with an indomitable charm who’s  delightful every time she’s on screen. And in Miike’s dark world she faces the threat of danger from a Chinese thug who demands her at gunpoint to get naked, “bottoms off only,” which results in her spending nearly the whole movie in knit wool booty shorts, barefoot, and wielding the biggest crowbar they make. Then there’s ONE-ARMED WANG, who I’ll resist describing—yeah those two easily.
     And Ichi the Killer himself Nao Ōmori stars as a narcotics cop with a Beatles mop who carries the movie with a performance that early on, in rumpled trench coat, really establishes the crime genre with his weathered veteran who’s lived in this world long before we arrive on the scene.

     Maybe it’s just me but I feel like there’s a kind of Yojimbo-Fistful of Dollars thing (something that’s derivative of something that was actually inspired by it, does that make sense?) goin’ on where First Love’s female lead MONICA feels like The World of Kanako (2014, Tetsuya Nakashima), which felt like it was trying to imitate Miike in the first place.

     So First Love isn’t as insane as other Miike, but it’s exceptionally well executed. It’s like a late work of his displaying maturity and the proficiency of his craft. And though it lacks the disturbing sexual violence of Ichi the Killer or Dead or Alive (1999, Miike), that’s fine. I mean Miike has charted some truly deranged territory, that he’s proven, but First Love feels a little more friendly towards a wider audience. But it does have Miike’s trademark Japanese absurdist cutesy fun in a few bits. For instance, what has to be the film’s most memorable moment: let’s just say a small robot puppy, an elderly woman knocked unconscious, candles on a birthday cake, and I’ll leave it at that.
     Another quality that keeps me coming back to anything Miike is his eye for filming Japanese urban locations (and how often he does). And as settings for his Yakuza movies, these spots are vital. In First Love though there’re also a lot of scenes shot with a straw filter gel over the fixtures—basically a yellow cast over a shot, like in the boxing ring, the restaurant, the Triad lamp shop hideout, the hospital ct scan, etc…  Again, I’m no Miike scholar (but they exist, i.e. Tom Mes) but it’s worth mentioning the Triad’s role in First Love because so many of Miike’s films depict Triads in Japan or Yakuza exiled in China—The Bird People in China (1998, Miike)—or similar variants.

     In closing, as a huge fan of dark movies, in particular the crime subgenre of gangster movies, and having praise for Takashi Miike as one of the most endlessly fun and thought provoking master filmmakers whose work I’ve ever come across, I have to say I was surprised and thankful at how enjoyable First Love is.