Tuesday, February 22, 2011

2/19 Lucha Libre USA TV Taping Report

My report of Saturday's Lucha Libre USA TV taping is now up at PW Torch.
"From the start, it was clear that several of the problems plaguing the last two shows had been addressed. Technical difficulties and delays were almost entirely absent, and a new ring announcer had great charisma and got the crowd excited from the get-go. Unfortunately, it appeared as though Lucha Libre USA has not been doing a great job at keeping people excited about the product - the “Casa De Lucha,” which in December was entirely sold out, seemed to be only a little over one-thirds full for Saturday’s event... The live crowd was enthusiastic, but small, and it feels as though nothing has been done to let a larger audience know that this will broadcast on MTV2 soon. From a strictly wrestling perspective, though, Lucha Libre USA continues to deliver tremendous action."
Overall, a really fun show, but the continued lack of strong advertising is really starting to hurt the crowd size and any possible momentum going into their season 2 premiere (whenever the hell that'll be). Shame, too- outside of some of the goofier aspects of the show, everything has been really solid. The local crowd recognizes and loves the good guys, recognizes and boos the bad guys, and the booking has been well paced and very solid (believe me, I really, really, really wanna see Marco get his hands on Lizmark). Hoping it stays that way, and that it translates when it's finally aired. I'll hopefully be at the next show on March 19th, so stay tuned!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What I've been up to

This blog is dead, long live this blog, etc., etc.,

Yeah, I haven't really been using this space too much lately. Maybe I'll get around to writing more stuff here, or at least use it as a place to keep up links to other stuff I end up writing. As is, I want to at least post a "catching up" entry right now to put everything in one place. I've been writing for a few different places, including:

PW Torch! This is a great site for pro wrestling news and views. I've been sending in book reviews as well as writing up reports of live tapings for MTV2's Lucha Libre USA second season that have been going on at the Hard Rock Casino in Albuquerque (hoping to gain momentum to maybe one day having a regular column). Read em!
-12/12 Lucha Libre USA TV taping
1/22 Lucha Libre USA TV taping
GUEST BOOK REVIEW: "Cross Rhodes: Goldust, Out of the Darkness" by Dustin Rhodes
-GUEST BOOK REVIEW: Chris Jericho's "Undisputed: How to become the World Champion in 1,372 Easy Steps" (AKA The Review That Chris Jericho Himself Retweeted!)

Middleclass Haunt! This is a blog started and mostly kept going by my friend Dave. This summer he added myself and my good friend Julia to the contributors. It only took me... oh, about 6 months to finally write something there. Now I regularly contribute wonderfully insightful pieces about wrestling toys and Justin Bieber movies.
-I Don't Wanna Grow Up: The Joys of WWE Rumblers
I, Schlub: Louis CK's Hilarious & Todd Glass' Thin Pig
-True Beliebers: Justin Bieber: Never Say Never 3D

Twitter! @RoQnRollMartian. I tweet too much. Some of it possibly not worthless!

That's about it for now. Stay cool!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Island With A Movie Camera: Shutter Island

On the set of Message in a Bottle 2

Martin Scorsese makes movies about America- America as the land of opportunity and freedom; namely, the opportunity for madness, the freedom for violence. Early on, US Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) comments that it appears as though the island’s inhabitants fear that insanity is spreading. By film’s end, Scorsese seems to imply insanity’s the only thing we’ve ever shared.

Daniels is on the titular island with his cipher of a new partner (Mark Ruffalo) to investigate the disappearance of a patient from the island’s mental asylum. Of course things seem fishy from the start- higher-ups (including psychologists Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow) are uncooperative and have ties to shady government operations, orderlies seem nervous, and Teddy’s suffering from headaches and delusions of increasing severity. It’s not the most novel setup, then- it’s clear there will be a shocking reveal by film’s end, and savvy viewers might even be able to figure out which, of several possibilities, the film will go.

If the story’s something of a boilerplate, what’s revelatory is how Scorsese handles the plot as just that- he fills the story to the brim with a mad, idiosyncratic stylization, paying self-aware tribute to noir archetypes and thriller pretense. It's all trench coats, Lucky Strikes and "beats me, Boss," and the film is aware of the space these artifacts exist in. Shutter Island becomes its own camera, filming the visions, delusions, fictions of its inhabitants- in the process capturing, and casting piercing doubt upon, our recent American history. It doesn’t seem like coincidence that, after Inglourious Basterds, it’s the second film in the past year to display the open massacre of unarmed Germans by our erstwhile WW2-era American Heroes. It’s one of Teddy’s memories, as fragile and questionable as any presented in Shutter Island- as fragile, really, as any memory, any recollection. Scorsese identifies our history as one written by animals wounded by unspeakable events, set in motion solely by violence and made bearable, beautiful by the Hollywood Hallucination. It’s such a beautiful hallucination- with one or two scenes as heartrending and perfect as I can think of- that Scorsese, ever the historian, ever the informed auteur, offers with Shutter Island.

Shutter Island (2010, d. Martin Scorsese): 4/4

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Enemies Within: My Faves of 2009. Plus: My Long Unseen The Orphan Review.

It varies slightly from year to year, but generally my resolution for the new year is the same- work out a bit more, read a bit more, and attempt to stay creative and productive- get some writing done, maybe some arts and crafts, etc. Aside from a few strolls around the neighborhood, it seems as though I've broken my resolution for 2010 already, and we aren't even past January. For, you see, I had planned/hoped on resurrecting this little blog sometime in late December- by now, this place should be absolutely swimming in movie reviews, musings on culture, and all forms of trivial banter. Consider this too-long belated attempt at a year-end retrospective as both a second chance at keeping my resolution and, more basically, as an exercise to get my lazy ass (and brain!) up and active after over a month filled with little more than playing an alarming amount of online flash games.

We're here for Twister and soda night!

The idea that the call is coming from inside the house, as it were- that the real enemies, the most dangerous corruptions are to be found within as much as from without- seemed to resonate through nearly every film I viewed this year. In some, there was the sense that we've stared into that Nietzschian abyss a little too long; in others, the distrust of any sort of innocence or purity we may have once thought existed. 2009 saw World War Two won by a band of bloodthirsty sociopaths; saw our current military campaigns reduced into a mainlined drug frenzy with its veterans broken, unreachable; saw one Bad law enforcement agent hallucinate the reptile he was becoming... nay, that he had been all along. It's seems not insignificant to me that in the same year that films were revisiting and questioning our history, culture and values, we saw both the arrival of our first Black president and a startling resurgence of militant nationalist, xenophobic and White Power groups and sentiment- progress hampered, as it must always be, by the demons and ugliness of the past. Likewise, our wars and our "enemies" took a backseat to domestic issues, reminding us that there's reason enough in our own character and our own borders for worry. As we enter 2010, it's clear- the call is coming from inside the house.

Distrust and chaos reigned in the films of 2009, so much so that a film like Pierre Morel's Taken felt almost impossibly naive in its sense of certainty. Even there, though, no efforts were made to soften the fact that Liam Neeson's Bryan Mills has become a monster- violent, obsessed, unfeeling- to save his daughter. We're not so different from that mythical, fearful Other, then- hell, we are the Other- that's what these films seemed to say the most to me.

About this list: I didn't keep good enough notes about the films I saw this year and, truth be told, I'm not even sure if I could order five or ten or fifteen films into a "best of" list I'd be happy with. I'm also certain I missed a lot of great films this year. As it is, this list will just be of the movies of 2009 I saw and enjoyed, in no particular order, with only my loose ruminations to defend them.

Inglourious Basterds (d. Quentin Tarantino)
If it isn't his masterpiece- as the film's closing line proclaims- it's at least proof positive that Tarantino remains perhaps the most exciting, most masterful, and most subtly profound auteur working today. For beneath his anything-but-subtle idiosyncrasies and movie-geek stylizations lies a seemingly innate understanding of why we see movies, why we love movies, why movies are today's most important and popular cultural medium. Inglourious Basterds is made up of about 5 or 6 perfectly constructed scenes- the best of them buoyed by a perfect, endlessly fascinating turn by Christoph Waltz- ending in an act of historical revisionism as ideologically difficult and startlingly bold as any scene I can think of. It's probably no coincidence that this scene most resembles the bloody and frenzied finale of Peckinpah's seminal The Wild Bunch- and it's no accident that both films are ultimately reflections of the death of idealism and the truer, stickier nature of our folk heroes. Tarantino charges brazenly into the last war our country had the undeniable moral high ground in and finds that, in war, there really is no such thing as a moral high ground. It's WW2 turned into a spaghetti western and, further, a spaghetti western forcing its audience to face the bloody consequences (never has Tarantino filmed bloodshed so visceral, so... ugly). And it may well just be the consummate film for our past decade of tragedy, warfare, and queasy patriotism.

The Last House on the Left (d. Dennis Iliadis)
It's not as unhinged or unpleasant as Wes Craven's legendary 1972 original- very few films ever will be- but what it lacks in muddy, ugly/beautiful perfection it makes up for in a peculiar sensitivity and dignity in portraying the characters concerned. Take, for instance, the rape of main character Mari Collingwood. Throughout the entire terrifying scene, actress Sara Paxton is shot in such a way to avoid being violated by the camera- and, by extension, the audience. It's grindhouse without being truly exploitative, and violent and vengeful without the usual righteousness and easy answers one has every right to expect. Yes, the semi-infamous final kill acts as something of a catharsis, but it's also an act so calculated and cruel that an uneasiness about this family's resolution remains. It's the thought- here encompassed both by Mari's vengeful parents and also by main thug Krug's abusive relationship to his shy son Justin- that violence and hatred are inherent, inextricable, inevitably passed down by family and experience. It's an honest, powerfully realized remake, and features a wonderfully complex, seething performance by Garrett Dillahunt that somehow bypasses the inevitable comparisons to the legendarily oily presence of David Hess. Yes, it's not the original by any stretch, but it carries enough of its own ideas and confused melancholy to rebuke those who would reject all remakes point unseen.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (d. Werner Herzog)
Werner Herzog and Nicholas Cage are a match made in heaven/madness. He's no Kinski, sure, but as the drug-addled, hunchbacked Lieutenant Terrence McDonagh, Cage gives a gonzo, bravura turn filled with clenched teeth, shaky hands and unchained mania. It's the perfect compliment for Herzog as he once again searches for his Ecstatic Truth, this time in post-Katrina NOLA. Herzog's New Orleans is a place made up of equal parts miracle and corruption, ritual and blackmail, reptiles and lucky crack pipes. In an oeuvre marked by an obsession with nature and man's place in it, it's hard to find a film where Herzog places as much ironical faith in a character as he has here with the addicted, erratic, yet somehow in-control McDonagh (compare- or don't, as Herzog has vocally protested- this Bad Lieutenant with the damaged, impotent turn by Harvey Keitel in Abel Ferrara's 1991 film). Meanwhile, the hallucinated iguanas of the film's most unchained scene provide that same simultaneous foil/counterpart as Stroszek's dancing chicken and Timothy Treadwell's grizzly family. It's as bizarre and obsessed as one could expect, proof that Herzog still has a story to tell and and the will to stare down death to tell it.

The Hurt Locker (d. Kathryn Bigelow), Brothers (d. Jim Sheridan)
War is Hell, and the constant attempts at conveying this reality through cinema has made us numb to it. If War really is Hell, why is it universal throughout human history? Along comes Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker and with it, at the risk of sounding hopelessly hyperbolic, a real, believable answer. It's war as a drug, as a rush and, in the end, the only legitimate expression of the Will to Power in an age of comfort and convenience. Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner, in what has to be his official breakout role) has a family back home, but his real family, his only love, lies in the bombs that threaten his life and give him his only tangible sense of accomplishment (watch as James lights a post-coital cigarette after an encounter with a particularly terrifying trunk full of artillery shells). It's an experience untenable, internal, impossible for the uninitiated to understand- the same, it turns out, as the depiction of war's fallout as seen in Jim Sheridan's Brothers. In a film driven by a few solid performances (including the best turn by Jake Gyllenhaal in my memory), it's Tobey Maguire's Sam Cahill, an American POW left for dead and forced into unspeakable horrors, that startles and proves hardest to reconcile. Cahill's Post-Traumatic Stress, channeled through Maguire's wild-eyed glare, is not romanticized, never relatable, never made comprehensible- its causes can be known, but its true nature will only be known by Sam Cahill and innumerable fellow veterans. I admit a bias towards Brothers and its beautiful scenes shot in my hometown of Los Alamos, New Mexico, enough so that I can forgive the film's sometimes unconvincing scenes and overall melodramatic tone. Regardless, these two films compliment each other perfectly, illustrating the causes and consequences seen and unseen of our current military conflicts.

Adventureland (d. Greg Mottola), Observe & Report (d. Jody Hill)
It's my hypothesis/hope that 2009 marked the beginning of the end of this Frat Pack "irresponsible man-child" comedy that we've seen dominate theaters for the past several years. The box office success of The Hangover aside, 2009 saw a decline in movies in which the central source of humor consisted in Will Ferrell yelling and rolling on the floor, while Judd Apatow, arguably the movement's figurehead, hit rock bottom with the bloated, pointless, nearly unwatchable Funny People (if I was making a worst of list- or at least a list of the movies I couldn't stand- that movie would have topped it). In their place was a string of, shall we say, post-Irresponsible Man-Child comedies, pieces more mature, more willing to deal convincingly with their own consequences... in the end, more melancholy. The beginning of the year saw I Love You, Man, an auto-critique of the blatant homophobia 0f most contemporary comedies and a surprisingly touching look at male bonding and loneliness. Then there was Adventureland and Observe & Report, two works of sadness and longing, featuring some of the most unsettling scenes of the year. Adventureland represents perhaps not so much a step forward for Superbad director Greg Mottola as much a new starting point. If Superbad is a semi-autobiographical work filtered through hormone-driven selective memory, Adventureland finds those same ruminations filtered through a mature, bittersweet realism. It's sensitive and heartbreaking and sweet and perhaps the only work of 80s nostalgia so far that's not embarrassingly obvious or obnoxiously snarky. In Jody Hill's Observe & Report, find the sticky, unpleasant, logical conclusion to the misogyny and immaturity of the Frat Pack, starring Seth Rogen, the movement's breakout star. Hill cites The Taxi Driver as a main influence, and it's fascinating to watch as the film goes through the usual motions only to imbue them with the unbearable weight they've carried all along. It's Knocked Up, only this time it's meant to be disheartening- this film's infamous date rape scene perhaps the most damning indictment of the unthinking, institutionalized misogyny of Apatow's last few films. They didn't make me laugh that much, truth be told, but both these films nearly brought me to tears, and I think that's perhaps worth quite a bit more.

A Perfect Getaway (d. David Twohy)
It's a bit of a minor piece, but A Perfect Getaway still works as a great, enjoyable genre film. It understands the conventions of a thriller, it openly references them, yet it's not glib or overreaching. The main fun, of course, is in watching the film for the first time and getting caught up in the who-done-it intrigue. However, there is still quite a bit to take home, not least of which is an immensely enjoyable performance by the immensely enjoyable Timothy Olyphant. His turn as an Iraq vet who may or may not be the killer we're searching for reflects the feeling found throughout the works of 2009 that rank, status, or a trustworthy past no longer put one above suspicion. Likewise, the film's twist reveal leaves one with the disturbing notion that perhaps the only way to avoid living a life of Sartean Bad Faith and, furthermore, to truly achieve the American Dream is to never acknowledge the past, to always morph and evolve even as it leads to atrocity. It's very difficult to say much else about a film that relies so much on knowing very little about it going in- suffice to say that, minor or not, it was one the best times I had at the theater in 2009.

Star Trek (d. JJ Abrams)
What better way to reboot a sci-fi franchise than to literally reboot its entire galaxy- to create a space in which a new story can be told while still acknowledging and taking direction from its past? Abrams' Star Trek, in following a paradigm-shifting plot, is able to connect directly with past Star Trek films while finding its own direction. As such, Star Trek's appeal both to the diehard and a wide audience feels natural... logical. Reports of the death of Star Trek's humanist core feel utterly false to me- this new entry feels just as committed as any to seeking out new life and civilizations in the hope of peace and unity. True, there is a sense of doubt and of danger, typified both by Chris Pine's young, headstrong Kirk and his apparent foil, Eric Bana's vengeful (there's that word again) Romulan, Nero- both products of an inescapable past (a past inescapable even in time travel) and of failures both personal and collective. It was perhaps the most moving image I saw in movies last year to watch the aged Captain Spock watch from afar as his home planet is destroyed. It's not far off from what we've witnessed in the past years, of course- whether 9/11, Katrina, tsunamis or the recent catasrophe in Haiti- and proves, once again that, beyond the fandom silliness, Star Trek remains elastic enough a franchise to reflect our highest ideals and most popular fears.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Waaaay back in August, I had planned to write a big three movie summer horror blowout, featuring reviews of The Orphan (see below), The Collector (not so good), and A Perfect Getaway (not so bad- see above, won't you). I got through my review of The Orphan and then failed to write anything else in this blog until now. Because it kinda corresponds to some of the ideas I tried to touch on in my Faves of '09 list, if only slightly, I decided it was worth finally putting that review up... here! Now! So, enjoy.

It's in the very first scene of The Orphan (directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, of 2005's in-such-bad-taste-that-it-tastes-pretty-darn-great House of Wax) that we are transported into the mind of wife, father of two, and recovering alcoholic Kate Coleman (Vera Farmiga). It's one of Kate's recurring nightmares, reenacting her stillbirth third pregnancy in a giddily gory, hallucinatory fashion. If, like me, you were somehow able to guess the The Orphan's big twist after the second or third viewing of the trailer, it strikes as an almost too-perfect setup for what promises to be a story that knowingly harkens back to a sort of pre-feminist gothic literary tradition. Home invasion (a theme of almost tantamount importance to nearly every film I've seen this year), infertility and maternal guilt, the inability/callousness of males in understanding uniquely feminine problems (perfectly captured in that first scene when hubbie John [Peter Sarsgaard] hands Kate her bloody carcass of a child in revelry, immediately casting John in a richly deserved light of suspicion for the rest of the film)- all themes richly explored in stories like Charlotte Perkin Gilman's "The Yellow Wall Paper" and Louisa May Alcott's Behind a Mask- incidentally the story from which *SPOILER ALERT* this film's twist no doubt derives, consciously or not- and ones that seem locked and ready to explode across The Orphan's narrative landscape when we learn that perhaps part of Kate and John's decision to adopt arises not only from her stillbirth, but from the fallout of an accident that left their youngest (Arayana Engineer) deaf... one that Kate could have stopped had she not been passed out drunk in the house. This fever dream of guilt and distrust only builds as John is the first to meet loner orphan Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman, giving a performance I'm still kind of in awe of... easily the best aspect of the film) and it's Kate's hand that we first see holding Esther's in a sign of welcome and protection. A connection is being made, dear readers, and is only made stronger as the apparent sexual reawakening of erstwhile frigid Kate seems to bring to life the devil inside Esther. Is Esther a projection of Kate's latent desires and aggressions? It would certainly seem so when the first of Esther's atrocities involves attacking an antagonizing schoolmate (in a most clever, delightfully inappropriate transformation of a children's playground in an Argento-esque setpiece) directly after we see John flirting with a female neighbor. Something is rumbling under the surface here.

Most unfortunate, then, that by its final scenes, The Orphan has devolved into the sort of slasher conventions that are most unbecoming in a film of this kind. By the end, the ambiguities are evoparated, the lines clear cut and simplistic, and, after the big TWIST REVEAL, Esther is blessed with all the powers of Jason Voorhees. A film-long obsession with false-jump-scare, false-POV shots goes from slightly problematic to utterly engulfing in these last few scenes, while a climax that would have been pregnant with troubling meaning had a softer, creepier approach been taken becomes just another disposal of a menacing bogie, complete with, no lie, a macho line stolen directly from the ending of one of The Ring movies. The Orphan stands, then not so much as a disappointment- largely because, as far as I can tell, I was the only person in the whole world who expected anything from it in the first place- as it is a healthy reminder that just a little restraint, ever so little, goes a long way. When The Orphan tends to its garden of psychological hangups and gothic creepiness, it's divine- when it hastily snips its flowers and presents it to us as a sick joke, it's juvenile and more than a little tiresome.

The Orphan (2009, d. Jaume Collet-Serra): 2/4

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Fashionably Late: Sacha Baron Cohen and Brüno

(I originally wrote this review for the Santa Fe Reporter, where I'm one of their hard-working and ruggedly handsome editorial interns, to be put on their hugely successful blog, www.sfreeper.com. However, I was assigned this at a time when I was too busy/tired/lazy to get it finished at a reasonable time- when I finally presented it, everyone had long forgotten about Brüno and his antics. For the sake of my own bemusement, and to try and make this blog not seem so gosh darn dead, I offer you this review which would have no doubt garnered thousands of reads and mounds of critical acclaim on the Reeper, as opposed to here, where I'll no doubt be beaming with pride if I get a single comment on it. Enjoy!)

Does this bug you? I'm not touching you. Does this bug you?

In a strange way, there’s a sense that the apparent failures of Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles’ Brüno- its mixed critical response, its apparent inability to spawn a pop culture catchphrase out of Brüno’s “Vassap!” in the same way Baron Cohen did with nearly every word he uttered in 2006’s Borat, the reports of repulsed moviegoers fleeing the theater en masse – could really be its greatest successes. If Baron Cohen’s mission from the start has been the decidedly political one of exposing us (“us” being the American public, cultural elites… really anyone he ends up interviewing) as an ugly, bigoted and ultimately hypocritical lot, what could possibly fulfill that goal better than- in the space of less than three years- creating a pop icon out of the misogynistic, thoughtless, funny-accent-wielding Borat only to turn around and make a cultural villain out of the misogynistic, thoughtless, funny-accent-wielding Brüno… the difference between the two, of course, being that Brüno is flamboyantly gay? Indeed, aside from looking rather embarrassingly out-of-the-loop (as certain groups did in railing against Borat’s obviously in-bad-taste, button-pushing portrayal of Kazakhstan and its people), what feels rather unfortunate about certain gay rights activists speaking out against the film is that they seem to miss that, under the film’s miles and miles of dick and ball jokes, there lies, in its own twisted way, a call for tolerance as Baron Cohen sometimes literally puts his life at risk for no more awful a crime than making unsuspecting victims uncomfortable.

Don’t get the wrong impression, though, as at the end of the day, Brüno is still, at the risk of sounding vulgar, all about balls- namely, the gigantic pair hanging on Sacha Baron Cohen. Witnessing Baron Cohen, in character and flanked by AK47-wielding guards, tell a terrorist cell leader that his “King Osama looks like a kind of dirty wizard, or a homeless Santa,” almost makes the most suicidal stunts of the Jackass crew appear staid and sensible. It’s in these situations where Brüno shines, offering not cutting-edge comedy so much as scenes that become comedy by virtue of how far past that edge Baron Cohen is willing to go. There’s something bordering on the sociopathic in scenes of a nude Brüno attempting to force his way into the tent of a homophobic deer hunter in the middle of the night or, as the handlebar-moustached character-within-a-character “Straight Dave,” Baron Cohen and costar Gustaf Hammarsten passionately making out as they are pelted by cups of beer and more than a few folding chairs in the middle of a mixed martial arts event that Baron Cohen and company had promoted on their own with hilariously over-the-top shirts proclaiming the straight pride of those attending. Had Brüno been presented as an almost Jackass-style collection of stunts, the film certainly would have been more successful, both as a comedy and as an incidental indictment of America’s odd dual obsession/repulsion with violence, sex and masculinity. Instead, we’re privy to a loose narrative concerning Brüno and his travels that may, more than anything, make Baron Cohen’s comedic weak points glaringly obvious. Satirizing celebrities who make sex tapes and adopt African babies, for instance, can’t help but feel incredibly stale and limp at this point in the game, while a brief segment of Brüno’s fake Austrian TV show that compares Autism and Chlamydia as to which is more fashionably “in” and the film’s constant references to Hitler feel like the last dying gasps of the kind of South Park-style transparent, transgressive attempt to offend at any cost that seems to be going out of fashion in favor of a more subtle, sophisticated approach (see: Zach Galifianakis as the only point of interest in The Hangover). What’s disappointing about Brüno is not its “controversial” material, but just how behind the curb Baron Cohen seems this time around. What’s even more disappointing, though, is that society at large seems to be even farther behind- more offensive than any of Baron Cohen’s antics is the hacking to bits and heavy editing of certain scenes, mandated by the MPAA to escape the dreaded NC-17 rating. What one comes away with from these mangled scenes-mostly those of imaginatively over-the-top and clearly simulated gay sex- is Baron Cohen’s impish delight in offending and pushing boundaries of taste… and of the movie industry’s general inability to treat its audience as discerning, intelligent creatures that understand the concept of “humor”. In a decade that has seen so many ups and downs in the fights for gay acceptance and marriage equality, Brüno may just stand as one of its oddest relics- as tepid and lazy at points as it is overwhelmingly brave and brilliant in others, and at once both enemy and product of the fears and irrational prejudices of society at large. Whether or not Brüno and its humor appears antiquated years from now, one can at least hope that its priggish, unsophisticated reception does.

Brüno (2009, d. Larry Charles): 2.5/4

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Turn it up, Bring the Noize: Public Enemies


There are roughly one and a half... maybe two scenes of any real heat in Michael Mann's Public Enemies (as I didn't realize I was making a shitty Michael Mann pun as I wrote that, I hope you'll forgive me). I say "and a half" as a way of mediating the unease I feel in labeling these scenes as such, as they are all quickly and gracelessly defused moments after they're lit. One (more or less) of these scenes finds Marion Cotillard, as Dillinger's love interest Billie Frechett, cuffed to a chair in the Chicago Police Department as a big ol' brute of an officer tries to beat some confessions out of her with a stiff back hand and, at one point, a phone book. For the first time during the film's two-hour-plus running time, my noodle began buzzing. Was Mann finally giving us the ugly climax of what had seemed to be a film-long investigation into the bureaucratic hell made of law enforcement with the advent of Hoover's FBI and its dehumanizing, incompetent, vicious tactics born more out of personal insecurities than respect for the word of law? Would we finally see some sort of dialogue regarding the reasons that, as a nation, America lifted John Dillinger and not the Good Guys up to the status of Folk Hero as we faced the (1st?) Great Depression? No such luck, as immediately before our slobbering oaf of a law enforcement agent is able to lay Billie out with a haymaker to the kisser but good, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), like the hand of benevolent God, is able to intercede (right as the brute is rearing his right arm back, natch) and, more, carry the quivering dame to safety. The only other scene I'll mention right here is near the film's final minutes, as Johnny Depp's John Dillinger is enjoying his final film at Chicago's Biograph theater before meeting his demise outside its doors. The film's Manhattan Melodrama, a movie I admit to basically not knowing anything about and also admitting to know wanting to see a whole lot more than I want to see Public Enemies for a second time. As the film plays, it becomes apparent Dillinger is finding himself, his own worldview and, finally, his own coda in the characters onscreen- "What's life but losing it", "It ain't worth it if I can't live how I want", all of that. Of course, this scene is ruined by the film's overbearing score- a score that ruins a frightening amount of scenes, truth be told- and the fact that this moment lives only as one, confined little moment. It does nothing to encapsulate, clarify or make beautiful anything we've learned about Dillinger up to that point, and it doesn't even carry over to lend a sense of tragic fate to Dillinger's assassination mere moments later.

In honesty, there are a few other scenes I could list in a like manner, but the fact of the matter is that all of them- from Dillinger seeing his own news clippings and the pictures of his deceased comrades on the walls of his very own investigation bureau, to the look of despair and guilt on Purvis' face as he allows a wounded bank robber to be tortured for whereabouts, to the numerous bank heists and shootouts- are sabotaged from the start, doomed to sink into the indifferent and pretty empty spectacle that is the bulk of this movie. My friend Eric told me that he saw the crew, out n about his Chi Town neighborhood, when they were filming the final, fateful scene. They shot it outside of the real Biograph, but to make the scene fit they still erected entirely new '30s-style buildings and scenery on the spot. That, along with the last two scenes I spoke of, are instructive, at least for me, with what's ultimately the problem with the film. It mistakes trivia and triviality as realism, the indistinct and the faux-verité as the gritty, and, perhaps most fatally for this particular work, the historical and the mythic. Let me be clear, though- it is not the obvious use of digital photography (here running the visual gamut from "very ugly" to, for a surprising amount of the film, "sleek, streamlined and really quite nice, actually") or even Mann's kinda-trademark, sorta-shakey cinematography (is this a trademark of his? Having only seen, like, Collateral, I realize that's a kinda irresponsible claim to make, but I get the feeling that it's at least partly correct) that make me feel that Mann was aiming for a work of historical, gritty realism... ok, it's not just that. It's also his lack of any real stylistic or tonal flourishes, his unwillingness to allow any of the character's neuroses and hidden motives (hidden, of course, from even themselves) to bubble to the surface and become actual themes, and his weaving of the myriad historical nuances, figures and events into one of those nearly impossible to follow Factual Tapestries that usually leaves one chomping at the bit to run home to Wikipedia and find out just who the hell Baby Face Nelson was and which character in the film was supposed to be him. I admit I'm not really an opponent of this particular sort of narrative, as it often leaves room for viewer's reasoning, knowledge or, barring that, thirst to gain this knowledge to kick in, but the fact of the matter is Public Enemies plays, more often than not, less like a thrilling gangster film and more like one of the fastest-paced, most confusing advertisements for a book on the subject I've ever seen. Rarely did I fully grasp what was going on, where it was going on, why and with whom it was going on- indeed, I thought the film was ending about 20 minutes sooner than it actually did when I mistook a gunned-down gangster to be Dillinger himself.

I fear I have wondered into the realm of the technical and narrative gripe... BUT WAIT! I have more gripes. What I'm trying to get to with all this is that Mann has crafted a work that is, among other things, preoccupied with the depictions of the crime and times of John Dillinger in a historically accurate, unromantic fashion, and this particular style becomes at least underwhelming and at worst moth-ridden and downright unsalvageable in the face of the structure and content of the film. The thing is, the other aspects of the film- the acting, the writing, the dynamics between cops and robbers- lack that grittiness or psychological realism. Indeed, they're almost embarrassingly underfed- Depp's Dillinger is played like an only-slightly-subtler Jack Sparrow, allowed to swagger and rumble and live the high life while strapped with dialogue so quick-witted and perfect that any guy in the theater who has ever attempted to smooth talk a woman should be waxing indignant at the falsity of it all. Look, I can respect this image of the ideal, infinitely suave, devil-may-care-and-I-actually-mean-that male figure... I just can't respect it when it's passed off as objective reality, as the traits of a goddamn historical figure ferchrissake. It's The Man With No Name given a name, a date of birth and death and a place in our history texts- there's nothing admirable about that, in my estimation, and there's little that's joyful about it either. There's gotta be something churning underneath the hood of this John Dillinger, something that gives him a reason to rob banks and seek thrills and vow his never-ending love to Billie moments after meeting her... just don't expect to find it anywhere within Public Enemies. The result is a character (and performance... I suppose laying out my reasons for my relative antipathy towards Johnny Depp recently is an activity for another day) so slight, forgettable and underfed in motive and humanness that one gets the feeling that Dillinger plays a bit part in his own story. Sadly, there's nothing else to pick up the slack- Bale's Purvis is too tepid and, frankly, uninspiring to stand a chance against the bravado image of Depp robbing banks in all black and a Beretta in each hand. Cotillard's Billie is given all of about 15 minutes of screen time, begging the question as to why this slight and rather odd relationship merited becoming the film's central emotional pillar. The fact is, there's nothing really great and nothing really that bad here- it's all just mildly palatable and empty, like a friend's collection of vacation pictures. It indeed seems best to describe Mann's work here as a sort of artistic and historical tourism- a work preoccupied with scribbling down facts and figures and taking a snapshot of the scenery with no attempt at grace or a deeper, lasting meaning. He delivers a work that aims for little and delivers little and invokes the spirits of Film Noir Past at its own peril. What you get through the experience is the image of Johnny Depp toting a tommy gun as he rides through the streets on the side of an old Buick and, truth be told, some really impressive gun sound effects (really, 1930s weaponry has never sounded better)- what you leave the theater with, though, is the nagging question of why all of that didn't pack the kind of power and lasting impact it shoulda.

Public Enemies (2009, d. Michael Mann): 2/4

"I have read in La Nouvelle Critique under the byline of Francis Cohen that Stalin was literally the greatest scholar of all time, since he was the receptacle of all the knowledge in the Communist world. I'll properly refrain from denying Stalin the personal and historical excellence that these films attribute to him. But what I am able to see after a moment's reflection is that I am being asked to accept as real an image of Stalin that rigorously conforms to what the myth of Stalin might be, or had better be!
No construct of the mind could better satisfy the demands of propaganda than this one. Either Stalin is a genuine superman, or we are being presented with a myth. It is not my purpose here to argue whether or not the idea of a superman is a Marxist one, but I will venture to say that myths function aesthetically in the same way for the Western bloc as for the Eastern, and that, from this point of view, the only difference between Stalin and Tarzan is that the films devoted to the latter do not claim to be rigorous documentaries.
" - André Bazin

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Machine Within The Machine: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Drag Me To Hell

Boo Hoo

I'm a bit surprised at myself that I even took the time to write out the full name of Transformers 2 in the title above. Partly because I don't care, and partly because I honestly thought I didn't know its full title. Blame it on months and months of advertising, perhaps
, that I was able to somehow pull the full title out of my ass, a feat that I fear, just mere days after witnessing the film, I will not be able to do for the film's plot. The fact is that just like Michael Bay's first Hasbro-toyline inspired debacle two years ago, the experience of watching the film is much like coming face-to-face with a void that leaves in its wake two n a half hours that feel as close as I think I've come to a complete arrest of all mental function; the visual experience of the film is somewhat akin to crossing one's eyes and blinking as fast as possible for 140 minutes, but the experience on any other conceivable level amounts to little more than a slight, vague sense of outrage and very little else.

The fact of the matter, maybe, is that hating on Michael Bay and the abhorrent fruits of his labor is something I admit I'm a bit tired of doing. Maybe because most people, on some level, sense that this shit is everything that is wrong with cinema, wrong with America, wrong with humanity- Transformers 2 is bloated, graceless, obvious, misogynistic, homophobic, racist, anti-intellectual, disgusted by sexuality and degrading about the human body, infinitely violent and baldly fascistic- all, of course, while proudly flaunting its bigger and bigger weaponry like so many erect dicks on the set of a hardcore porno (a weak comparison, I admit- at least a porno has something within its frame that is more than a smattering of 1's and 0's in a vain attempt to convince the viewer there is something of interest to be seen). The point being, you certainly knew this already, and for me to deride it being all these things strikes me as about as impotent and packed to the gills in cliche as any and every scene of Transformers 2. In fact, I'd even say that the incredible, all-encompassing ugliness of Bay's work does more good than ill for me- at a time in my life when I'm afraid I've become too content with the world and where its headed, Transformers 2 reminds me that there are indeed still elements so ugly and hateful and so lacking in art and humanity that I feel compelled to fight back in some way, in any way. It reminds me that some are, at best, indifferent and, at worst, rooting for a vision of the world in which all females are either hysterical, nightmare mothers or objects (pretty literally here- every female worthy of desire here is so drenched in oil and spray-on tan as to appear horrifically artificial and plastic) to masturbate to, where a couple of gold-toothed, tired-lingo slinging, voiced-by-a-white-guy (Tom Kenny, lord forgive 'im) self-admitted illiterate black robots figure as perfectly suitable comic relief, and where our purest, truest heroes ask an incapacitated foe whether he has "any last words" before blasting him between the eyes at point blank. It's rotten to the core, no doubt- but I think its clear that those who give two shits about the directions and dialogues of serious film, those who see cinema as more than a place to turn off your brain for a few hours, don't need to even see the thing to get that feeling. It's the Slumdog Millionaires and the Junos of the world, in all honesty, that I am most troubled and incited by- films every bit as rotten but in a package insidious and shiny enough to cause thoughtful, caring people to think they are watching something of merit, of nutrition and importance even. Basically, I don't really want to harp on Transformers 2's failings as a worldview (which every film, no matter how small, ultimately is) and success (if that's what you'd call it) in capturing the hateful, cynical center of a hateful, cynical auteur.

What I'd rather harp on, with all that said, is the film's utter and complete failure as a film, as an action piece with any possible reason to invest thought or feeling or as an agent of the most primitive cinematic gift, that of sight. If Transformers 2 feels hopelessly antiquated and outdated socially and thematically, just get a load of its visual and narrative presentation- the whole thing plays like a computer graphics demonstration; that is, it plays like every empty and forgotten "Whiz-bang" blockbuster that relied on the spectacle of technology predestined to appear helplessly corny and, well, antiquated mere seasons after its release. That Transformers 2 one-ups these films, however, by appearing visually outdated and pathetic upon its release is almost beside the point but still worth mentioning. In the rare instances when they aren't contorting and spinning themselves into an incomprehensible, eye-splintering digital maelstrom, the titular robots display features so ill-defined and murky that the idea that we were ever meant to relate to or even believe in these creations is cast into serious doubt. That these gigantic machines appear to be weightless and of a variable size doesn't help matters; they move about without causing so much as an imprint in a field of grass (except, of course, during actions scenes where, from what I can gather, Bay's technique involves throwing the camera in the air as hard as his crew can while simultaneously blowing up every real object on the set) and see-saw from as huge as a building to just a hair taller than human companions given the particular technical (and, no doubt, creative) limitations of each scene. These digital atrocities, because they are digital and because they are atrocities, lend themselves perfectly to Bay's signature worst-thing-you've-ever-experienced style of action filmmaking. Every action scene plays roughly the same, with the indistinguishable forms of two or more fighting Autobots and Decepticons rendered into the empty spaces of the shakiest, most ineptly filmed landscapes you ever did see. The experience, again, is akin to doing that trick where you turn your eyelids inside out with your pointer finger and thumb and, once you've done that, start darting your vision left and right as fast as you possibly can. For 2 and a half interminable hours. It's painful, yes, but more than a little boring, which leads me to the real question at the heart of Transformers 2: Who cares? Who COULD care? What is there to care about? At what point do the interests of humanity and the interests of two or more indistinguishable fighting digital robots intersect? The genocidal body count of every action scene in this film reminds us early and often that puny human weaponry is useless against these giants- why have a single soldier on the ground of any of these battles? Perhaps as a weak attempt to create some sort of urgency and reality to all these battles, but the fact is that the sight of a few dozen extras being squashed by imaginary robot feet doesn't stand a chance to the overwhelming falseness of the whole affair. Any human interest or faculty is pulverized, literally and metaphorically, by these weightless and flat place markers performing feats that make no logical, emotional, or aesthetic sense. The real casualty here, of course, is reality- any sense or scent of it. We are left staring at a screen filled with an almost literal void- works of fiction and fantasy intended as the real and fragments of the real shattered to fit a fantasy, neither of which coming close to something persuasive, artistic, compelling or fully realized. It is, simply put, no exaggeration to say that any camera in the hand of any person the world over capturing any image, no matter how mundane or graceless, is infinitely preferable and, on some level, truly superior to the rape of the senses that Bay offers here. I do not intend in saying this to propound a populist or egalitarian vision of cinema but instead to uphold the importance of a fundamental realism in the cinematic arts. This is not to declare digital imagery and special effects an enemy of the state, as it were, but to declare that an interest of some sort be allowed in these images- there should be something more than the satiation of the most naive, uninformed instincts behind them. I proposed as a joke to a friend that this movie could be improved by screening the film in 3D but with only the digital special effects appearing 3D. The more I think of it, the more I am certain that such a gimmick would legitimately and seriously improve the experience of the film. It would add a reflexive and structural element to the movie and at long last, and if only in the most literal sense possible, relieve the film of its suffocating flatness.

It is along similar CGI-centric lines that I found an unlikely and rather welcome ally Saturday night in Sam Raimi and his latest, Drag Me To Hell. I have seen the film described as something of a Rosetta Stone for Raimi and his work, a claim I admit I am not equipped to affirm or deny. I know pitifully little about Raimi's oeuvre- I enjoyed what he did with the Spiderman franchise and I'd even, without embarrassment, count myself as one of the few who really liked the goofy "Peter Parker goes emo" scenes in Spiderman 3, but I've never been a fan of his beloved Evil Dead series, and I've seen very little outside of that. That said, I was informed enough to come into Hell expecting Raimi's sorta-trademark Spookhouse approach to horror, and I admit that I found it almost wholly charming and fun. To call the set pieces and visuals (especially in the film's second half) expressionistic doesn't even begin to cover it, and sorta misses the point besides. It's the kinda of film that loves film and loves being a film, and throws all the fake blood, maggots, decrepit old women and icky bodily fluids it can to disgust the uninitiated and prudish and delight the true believers. I think that at least part of my aversion to Raimi's Evil Dead series is my preference for horror that takes itself a bit more seriously- that said, I couldn't help but grin in appreciation when the Lamia, the demon sent to Drag to Hell our cursed protagonist, manifests itself as two hoofed feet casting a shadow from behind a closed door. Raimi has reached a pretty great balance between traditional special effects and CGI here, at some points approaching the idea of the kind of digital graffiti that may well go towards saving CGI from itself and its worst instincts. I've never been the biggest proponent of digital effects, but it's inspiring to see a film like this use the technology in a way that's sly and self-knowing and joyfully over-the-top. There's a sense of hope here that those most ready and able to deal with such effects in a creative way simply haven't been given the chance yet, and that the reason such effects are so often used as cheap cop-outs and empty spectacle is precisely because uninventive, unimaginative brutes like Michael Bay have been those privileged enough to access it. That said, there' still something that draws some of my affection away from Drag Me To Hell, and I can't pinpoint exactly what. Perhaps there's something a bit too self-aware about it at points, a critique that I might also bring over to my feelings about the Evil Dead series. I'm drawn, for whatever reason, to consider 2007's I Know Who Killed Me and to view it as a modern classic the more I think of it. That Lindsey Lohan-starring flop had a real spine to it and a strange spark of insanity that allowed it to tell its absurd and trashy story in an honest and strangely affecting way. Raimi has a spine and a spark of insanity, no doubt, but it's of a different kind. I don't feel a sense of danger in applauding or defending his work. I get the strange sense that Sam Raimi and his work is nearly identical to the sort of "paracinematic", fringe, midnight-movie experience I cherish heartily, yet is in some way still a distant, foreign cousin. It's perhaps that Raimi winks too much, that at the end of the day, no matter how slimy and disgusting, his films tell us to smile when we wouldn't need to be told. It's still better than being told to smile when it's the last thing we want to do, of course, and with a summer of movies that have so far proven to be very little except dreck, Drag Me To Hell stands as a very pleasant surprise.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009: d. Michael Bay): .5/4
Drag Me To Hell (2009, d. Sam Raimi): 3/4