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, 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

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The RoQnRoll Must List: Butch Willis & The Rocks on Forestville Rocks/Reflections: The End of New Order

I discovered this video, pretty much by accident as I recall, about a year ago. Its power hasn't subsided one bit since then for me. From one of the most incredible public access intros of all time (it's apparently from a public access broadcasting out of Forestville, Maryland), to the bemasked, chip eating host, Mr. Rock and Roll, to the gold high heels and wavering voice of Mr. Willis himself (he was on some sort of medication at the time), to the final fog machine incident that cuts the show short, I am in legitimate awe of this piece every time I see it. I have heard whispers that this is simply a portion of a longer performance available somewhere on VHS, but I've been unable/too lazy to search it out. What stands out most of all, I think, is the power of Butch's two songs performed here, "The Garden's Outside" and "The Girl's on My Mind". That Butch Willis & The Rocks' star isn't brighter in underground/outsider circles is simply unfathomable. I own three of Butch's albums (which you can find on Amazon and, what's more, even on iTunes) and they are legitimately hard rocking, quirky, excellent affairs, with songs about cigarettes, pizza on his jeans, kitty cats, TVs from outer space, being a rock star and long lost love, among other topics. Check out related video "Bring Me the Head of Butch Willis" which opens with the following:
"Butch Willis has moved into the most selective rock n roll territory, that of the inspirational primitive. Guided by neither the commercial concerns of mainstream pop nor the calculated artsiness of new wave nor the hip rage of punk, Willis stands quite alone; undaunted, he dreams the rock n roll dream..."
For dreaming the rock n roll dream like no other, Butch Willis makes the RoQnRoll MUST list.

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You Got Looove Technique: Pete Hook on Other Side Of Midnight with Tony Wilson

Well, if it wasn't official about, what, two or three years ago, it sure is now:
New Order is dead. New Order remains dead.
(thanks to my bro and fave New Order fan, Dave, for
bringing this to my attention).
If you'll recall, Hooky left the band in 2007, and things had been a bit blurry since, with Bernie threatening to march on regardless and Hook, I can only assume, telling him to fook off. How perfect, then, that Bernie, what's left of the original lineup (that would be drummer Stephen Morris) and Gillian's 2005 replacement Phil Cunningham would arise from this blur with Hooky's replacement, the bass player from... Blur! You'll excuse me if I don't have a whole lot to say about Blur or their apparently Hook-replacement-worthy bassist. I honestly had heard their name only about a handful of times before reading the announcement, and literally learned about two days ago that the one "WHOO HOO! WHOO HOO!" song from the 90s (which, I'm being told, is entitled "Song 2") was in fact done by this selfsame Blur. Wikipedia informs me that they are considered Alternative rock, Britpop, and Indie rock, further solidifying my position that I would have very little in common to talk about with the members of Blur were I to sit next to them at a soccer game (or a football game, for that matter... they are British, after all).
Anyway, if I could veer violently back to the topic at hand, this new former-New-Order-with-guy-from-Blur collective has christened itself Bad Lieutenant, a name that I'm honestly not sure how to feel about. Yes, it has traces of the transgressive snark that's characterizes New Order since, well, Joy Division (when you can get an utterly befuddled and clueless Bono to ask "what's up with the whole fascism thing?" as he did in the NO documentary New Order Story, I'd say you're doing something right), but there's just something to it... maybe blame it on my infatuation and familiarity with Abel Ferrara's 1992 film of the same name and, perhaps, also on the fact that Werner Herzog's new "re-imagining" of Bad Lieutenant that'll be out soon, but there's something so... obvious about the connotations. It gives me the feeling that some of the cheekiest wankers in music, the same guys that would name their songs "Weirdo" and their albums Low-Life, are really grasping at straws here. That said, it's not their new name that's leaving me none too hopeful about their upcoming album- it's the fact that Waiting for the Siren's Call and Get Ready had about two or three enjoyable songs each crowded out by filler that ran the spectrum from forgettable to kinda appalling ("Working Overtime", eh?). It's also, perhaps more importantly, the lack of the one member that may just be the reason I started loving New Order in the first place...

There are quite a few parts of my personality that I think I can attribute to my near obsession with Peter Hook my sophomore year of high school. If nothing else, though, I am certain that it was the combined force of my repeated viewings of New Order's " The Perfect Kiss" music video and Big Country's Tony Butler (and, later, Jaco Pastorius) that caused me to forever and unalterably view the electric bass as my favorite instrument. Rewatching the nearly ten minute long video again for the first time in ages, those close-ups of Hook wailing on that red bass still strike me like lightning. In a band full of moody and disaffected post-punks, he was the moodiest, he was the most disaffected, and he slung his bass lower than anyone. I remember telling a friend that I wanted to start a band and, following Hook's example, play my bass almost exclusively in the high registers. He scoffed off the idea as too difficult and a bit goofy; I took this is as a challenge. When my cheapo red Rogue bass finally arrived at my house in late March of 2004 (the entry from the day it came is still up on my embarrassing Blurty I kept at the time) the first thing I did was hit the frets as high up on the neck as I could. I had no idea what I was doing and I felt like the coolest person in the world.

Favorite New Order Albums
1. Brotherhood (1986)- Technique is the popular pick for the top spot, but I think New Order's 1986 LP is their true peak, an album consistently breathtaking and breathtakingly consistent and the truest statement of the band's synthesis of the organic and the robotic.
2. Low-Life (1985)- If it weren't for the fact that the album version of "The Perfect Kiss" is far inferior to its 12" counterpart (which is easily my favorite NO song ever) this could very easily be my top pick. Still, it's certainly their darkest post-Movement entry and a perfect soundtrack for late nights, alienation and never-ending Hudson Valley winters.
3. Technique (1989)- It doesn't congeal as well as a complete album in my mind- songs are rather rigidly divided into the extremely electronic and the extremely guitar/rock-pop heavy- but that doesn't stop almost every second of it filling me with such strong emotions that I can almost taste 'em.
4. Power, Corruption & Lies (1983)- There's uncertainty and hesitation to be found on nearly every track here, no doubt. It doesn't take too long, though, to also find the first real "New Order" here after the ruminations, growing pains and long backward glances of Movement. "Your Silent Face" could single-handedly save this album even if the rest was utterly useless- it's as elegant and beautiful as anything New Order would ever do.
5. Republic (1993)- I realize putting five New Order albums onto a faves list only leaves out three albums, but I just can't bring myself to ignore Republic. I got this on cassette my junior year of high school and played it to death while driving around town in my Volvo wagon. It's a pretty oblique affair, one that, on consideration, required that I play it to death while driving around town in my Volvo wagon to make heads or tails of it. Give it some time to sink in, though, and I'd argue there are moments later on here- the layered synths of "Young Offender", Hook's ethereal bass line in the middle of "Times Change", the heartbreaking majesty of "Avalanche"- that actually exceed the album's too-good-to-be-true opener "Regret" and large swaths of NO's classic output.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Exciting Newness: The Hangover

Well, I've had this blog up for about a week now, and have failed to post anything of note. The blog has been a great success! I was hoping originally to post a very complete, comprehensive lil essay about my thoughts and feelings about the first 4 Friday the 13th movies, which I suppose I could attempt to put across as "timely" as February's Marcus Nispel helmed franchise reboot arrives on DVD (and Blu-Ray!) pretty soon, though the real reason for it is that I just enjoy revisiting the franchise around this time of the year, a time when I wish I could be out with my friends camping, having sex and being picked off one by one by a deranged killer. I really love those first four films, truth be told, and I'll try to put something meaningful together soonish. As it is, I feel I just need to write SOMETHIN here to get the juices flowing and to overcome my phobia of writing/failing at what I write, and why not review a movie that hit theaters friday, and fashionably late at that?

Above: Several of the actors in The Hangover, which is being reviewed below

The Hangover, 2009, d. Todd Phillips

There's a brief few moments at the opening of The Hangover that left me with a faint hope that this latest entry in the "Irresponsible Man-Child Comedy" genre may contain the sense of weight, or at least the near apocalyptic tone, of April's Observe and Report. I wouldn't quite label myself a big fan of the film, at least not yet, and I'm unsure of how it would hold up on a second viewing (though I do want quite a bit to see it again), but there was something going on in parts of Observe and Report that were quite special. Up until the ending, which I experienced as a bit of a cop out, the exploits of Seth Rogen's manic-depressive, violent mall cop were treated with an urgency and seriousness that was rather shocking. For the first time since this wave of comedies, wielding the dual swords of "offensive" humor and "meaningful" frankness, took off with stuff like The 40 Year Old Virgin, here was a comedy, black as pitch, that actually looked like it had the nerves and honesty to back up what it offered; a movie, in short, with consequence as well as action. Watching Rogen attack a group of policemen only to be pummeled into submission, or brutalize a group of skateboarding teenagers, or, hell, shoot a naked man in the middle of a mall (!!!) were played up for more than yuks- there is a troubling reality here, the sense that the zero-sum, zero-lessons-learned atmosphere of irresponsibility Observe and Report appeared to be the innumerable incarnation of was falling apart in the terrible, only logical way it could. What made the now infamous date rape scene shocking and, to my mind, the best, most important and perfect scene of the film, was not the predictable fallout (all-too-predictable, sadly- one side, including Rogen and Anna Faris, making the usual, tired, pathetic "it's just a movie", "it's just a comedy", "she wasn't COMPLETELY unconscious" excuses, even going so far, in one interview, to justify the scene by pointing out that Faris' character is, let's face it dudes, a huge bitch- and the other side arguing essentially that such content ought never to be seen, that art has its limits, etc [I do apologize that, with the rather vague accusations made here, I do not have direct links and quotes. I will try my hardest to find them and post them]) or even the effectiveness with which it further examined and developed Rogen's character and his insecurities, but the way in which it immediately detonated the dormant charges left on the screen and in the viewer's mind from numerous other "edgy" comedies cut from the same cloth. Here is the first indictment in any of these movies, to my mind, of the casual misogyny and hedonism these films offer as their ethical alpha and omega, the first indication that maybe, just maybe, the macho posturing and innocent fun of pickin' up drunk bitches at the bar could lead to something a good deal uglier than love, wealth, and success (or even, y'know, being puked on in a hilarious fashion). That the film also has some of the most developed and sympathetic female roles in this current cycle of comedies in Celia Weston's alcoholic mother to Rogen and Collette Wolfe's sweet, heartbreaking coffee booth attendant further distances Observe and Report as far more the exception than the rule. I don't remember laughing very much through Observe and Report's running time, but I do remember nearly crying at points, and I haven't had a better time at a comedy in ages, truth be told. This might be a simple reflection of what I personally search for in movies, I admit, but it might also point to the larger problem inherent in a lot of the comedies coming out lately- if you're gonna try and tackle volatile gender and culture issues and you're aiming for something that rings true and honest, it doesn't hurt to have some cold, hard bedrock under all that comedic sand.

The Hangover opens, if I might continue my half-baked metaphor for just a bit, with the Nevada sand playing the part of that bedrock. In the middle of the Mohave Desert, Phil (Bradley Cooper, a man who, between this, He's Just Not That Into You and his recent hosting of Saturday Night Live, is apparently a big deal, but whom I admit I would have a difficult time recognizing if I passed him on the street), weathered, with blood on his lip and shirt, is, in desperation, telling Sasha (Tracy Garner), dressed in her white gown and anxious, that her fiancee Doug (Justin Bartha) has gone missing at some point during his own bachelor party. They aren't going to make the wedding, which is only hours away. There is a sense of utter doom in this short opening scene, the flat, endless, dead desert a perfect compliment to the hopelessness contained in Phil's admission. This striking scene was enough to carry me through the next few rather flat comedic episodes to the next sequence of interest: as the four companions, rounded out by requisite uptight, straight laced (or is he?!) friend, Stu (Ed Helms, who, between this and what little I have seen of him on The Daily Show and The Office, I can honestly say has not offered a performance that I have found for one second convincing), and the requisite weirdo, Alan (alternative comedy royalty Zach Galifianakis, obviously and almost painfully better than the material given to him throughout), drive into Vegas as darkness falls, shepherded in to the sounds of Kanye West's Can't Tell Me Nothin' (an obvious nod to the fact that Galifianakis made a hilarious alternative music video for the song which can be seen on youtube, the mere recollection of which is largely funnier than the bulk of The Hangover), we are privy to some frankly breathtaking shots of Sin City all lit up at night in all its sex, drugs, and rock n roll peddling glory. Personally, my thoughts ran immediately to a passage by Roland Barthes concerning the spectacle of professional wrestling, an interest in which I've recently been rekindling. "In fact wrestling is an open-air spectacle", Barthes writes, "for what makes the circus or the arena what they are is not the sky... it is the drenching and vertical quality of the flood of light... wrestling partakes of the nature of the great solar spectacles, Greek drama and bullfights: in both, a light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve." So it is here in Las Vegas- immaculately lit and larger than life, the fountains, signs and buildings of Las Vegas extinguish a certain idea of inner truth, replacing it with pure spectacle and artifice. Here, a light without shadow generates a sin and excess without reserve. When our hard partying companions wake up in the movie's titular trashed condition, half clothed on the floor of their 4K a night Caesar's Palace villa, surrounded by empty champagne bottles, beer cans stacked to the ceiling, with a baby in their closet, a tiger in the bathroom, their soon-to-be-married friend nowhere to be found and no recollection of the night before, one has the right to be hopeful that, like Observe and Report, The Hangover may actually have that little extra something, that it might actually have the guts to become a pop culture exploration of what responsibility means, exactly, in a place where the mere idea of responsibility has no meaning, where restraint, strategy and clear thinking are as close as they can be anywhere to being literally forbidden (you can't count the cards, remember, not even in your head).

I, unfortunately, did not have the right to hope for this, as I had read a review that gave away the revelation that becomes the movie's get-out-of-jail-free card. Turns out that (SPOILER ALERT! Well, sorta) Alan, crazy man that he is (and who, we're lead to believe, is a sex offender as well; we're given something of a further hint to this through a gag where he makes their toddler companion pantomime masturbation, a gag offensive only in its utterly botched, flat execution) had spiked the groups opening shots of Jaeger with what he though was Ecstasy. Turns out the ecstasy was really Rohypnol, wouldn't you know it, and with that The Hangover is allowed to throw any ethical burden or question of culpability out the window for our party goers. What ensues is a pretty typical collection of comedic situations as the three friends attempt to piece the events of last night together while searching for the missing groom-to-be, while the audience is blissfully unburdened with the task of coming to any judgment about the actions committed and how it reflects the character of our protagonists because, c'mon, they were totally wasted and, what's more, that wasn't even really their fault! One may protest that I'm just reading too darn deep into this stupid little movie, that it's meant to be fun and slight, and that as a comedy I should just enter the damn thing with lowered expectations. The fact is I'm not asking the world from the movie, I'm asking for a little honesty and a little danger. There's nothing honest about lightening the tone of a movie through such a simplistic, simplified plot device; indeed, looking past the flattening of characterization and easy excuse the plot device provides, the chemical nature and social reputation of roofies should be enough to indict the lightness of the film's disclosure as flat out irresponsible- just another excuse for the most callous and misogynistic to crack date rape jokes without a thought to the graveness of what they are mocking. Likewise (or perhaps conversely), there's nothing dangerous (I suppose I use the word, perhaps, in something of a romantic sense- I guess I mean that it's challenging, confrontational, difficult) to the reckless actions the protagonists take part in during their crazy night. There's no weight to the idea that perhaps the reason Stu got married on a whim in one of those infamous Las Vegas chapels to a prostitute is because he is unhappy with the life he's led with his viciously controlling wife (Rachel Harris, of Daily Show and all those "I Love the ..." VH1 series), just as there's no weight to stealing Mike Tyson's tiger or stealing $18,000 worth of chips from the Bellagio. This isn't a problem in itself- the problem is that The Hangover then turns around and pretends that there is weight there. After making light, quick, cheap gags out of the whole affair, we are then supposed to be touched when Stu and his hooker once-wife promise to have lunch together sometime down the line, supposed to be (at least slightly) involved as Alan Rain Man's his way into a small fortune at Blackjack, supposed to feel... relief, I guess, as the four rush back to Los Angeles to make the wedding on time (with the help of a tuxedo company that'll toss yer tuxes into yer car on the highways of Los Angeles, natch) and, essentially, destroy the entire premise the introduction of the film had given us. But hey, who doesn't like a happy ending, right?

If my rant hasn't convinced you that the film is flat, dishonest, and completely sanitized despite its "mature" leanings, I suppose I could bring up how the film is overtly racist, sexist, misogynistic, etc (that I don't recall any scenes that struck me as really homophobic leaves me less relieved than simply concerned that perhaps the theater in which I watched it had simply misplaced an entire reel of the film film featuring a flamboyant wedding planner and our heroes accidentally walking into "the wrong bar". It could also be that the recent decision to uphold Prop 8 in California has left me hesitant to search out more bad news). Doug is able to smooth over his seemingly-ruined wedding with an embarrassing boys'll-be-boys, I'll-never-put-you-through-this-type-of-thing-again pep talk to his wife while they take their vows, while Stu finally gains the guts to tell his Bitchy-Bitch-Bitch Super Bitch of a girlfriend to fuck off. The Hangover takes the stance, as a lotta these movies seem to, that there's nothing questionable, dangerous or irresponsible enough that a man can do for him to deserve being reprimanded too harshly, while any woman too shrill, controlling or jealous to do anything about it deserves to be nuked off the face of the fucking planet. Really, the fact is that any of this wouldn't be a problem to me if the movie just had the courage to really be something as troubling and ugly and excessive as its subjects demand, if it didn't place its bigotries and unpleasantness as an ultimately upstanding, healthy, brave worldview. It encapsulates a lot of the tendencies that have caused the comedy in general to become such a tedious and often useless little genre to me. Chick flicks, Bro flicks, whatever- all too often they're where you find the easiest, laziest material around, filled with easy breezy gay jokes and racial stereotypes, too cowardly or self-important to give in to the full-on comedic anarchy that makes a movie like The Jerk such a joy and lacking the firm dramatic ground of something like, say, Sideways, leaving a forgettable, utterly disposable void of an experience. In fact, I feel Sideways is the perfect movie to discuss alongside The Hangover. Had it been honest and brave and essentially most of the things it isn't, The Hangover, with its predisposition towards sleaze and excess and a more marginalized audience, could have been truly something, a film able to explore highs and lows, Sin City, and the Road Trip in the way a more mainstream, prestige-y film like Sideways is simply not afforded. Ultimately, though, while there's still fun to be had in Galifianakis' performance (and it is my sincerest hope that this film, if nothing else, helps Zach and his ilk grab a bigger piece of the comedy pie, as it were- the kind of fresh, strange comedy he's been one of the most visible purveyors of could be just the thing pictures like this need to eventually rise out of the muck), a few sly (if ultimately empty) references to movies like Casino, and, for me at least, it's fun to see comic Brody Stevens in a brief cameo, The Hangover is slight and forgettable, casually offensive and slightly amusing where a little more thought and bravery would have made it transcendent and hysterical. It'll no doubt become a slight fan favorite amongst a particular demographic of college students, which I suppose makes it pretty much a success. It really only hurts when I think about all the potential it squandered.

Tentative Rating: 1.5/4 (I'm not sure how I'll be doing ratings in the future, though I feel relatively comfortable with an "out of 4" system. My ratings are way subjective, of course, and I'm sure they sometimes take into account things I haven't actually discussed in my actual review. Here, for instance, any movie featuring Mike Tyson singing along to In The Air Tonight is almost certain to get nothing higher than a 2, ever.)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The RoQnRoll Must List: Lionel Davis- Candy Pants

For my first exciting new post, I wanted to make sure I was putting up something worth posting and something that I can look back years from now and feel content that I decided to place it here. The RoQnRoll Must List, for the time being, will be my way of trying to electronically collect and document all those things that, simply put, are MUSTS in your life. I can't think of anything more deserving of the title of a MUST then the following video. Submitted for your approval- Candy Pants

I feel that I have little else to add here. The video pretty much says it all. I don't know a whole lot about Mr. Davis, outside of the following:
1. His work had apparently been played on WFMU on occasion, and Lionel Davis seems to have a bit of a following in certain Outsider music circles
2. His album, "The Electric Man", can be found on with both a full version and instrumental version of Candy Pants (though they seem to be different recordings than the one performed here)
3. The Wikipedia page for Lionel Davis has very little (that is to say, nothing) about Candy Pants and a whole lot about being against Apartheid. Reading further, I get the feeling that we may in fact be dealing with two different Lionel Davis' (Davi?) here.

So there you have it. And men, if you really want to get the ladies, it's a MUST that you wear a piano print scarf and serenade your love interest with this song. I haven't tried it personally, but I can only imagine positive things coming from it.

Introductions: Hi Everyone!

As I'm quite aware of the importance of first impressions not only for others but for oneself, I've been sitting in front of the computer for hours, blank-faced, thinking of what exactly to write here for my first blog post. I've had Livejournals and the like before, yes, but I'm hoping that this blog will end up a bit more focused and quite a bit less... whiny, I guess? Here goes.

My name is Alex. I'm a film student at Bard College entering my senior year in August. It's only natural that this blog reflect, in some part, what I find important and what I love. I find film and film criticism important. I love good beer, death metal, synthpop and surfing Youtube. I find reading, music, and philosophy important. Truth be told, I pretty much love all forms of criticism and all forms of thinking about stuff. I'm hoping to integrate all of that (and more!!!) into this blog.

My username and blog name are derived from the scene at about 1:25 and 3:20 in the following clip which I originally witnessed on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (another love of mine, albeit one that has become more and more complicated as the years go by. I'm sure I'll write more about that in the future). I was inspired to swap out the "C" and the "K" for a Q from the "FreQs" of the Playstation 2 games Frequency and Amplitude and because I thought it was a good way to be different. I feel that's at least partly helpful in understanding something about me.

"There are no absolute errors in criticism. Truth in criticism is defined somehow by the excitement it provides the reader: its quality and amplitude. The function of criticism is not to carry on a silver platter a truth which never did exist, but to prolong as much as possible in the intelligence and sensibility of those who read it the original shock of the work of art" -André Bazin (1918-1958)

I think this quote is as good an introduction to what I'm hoping to accomplish with this blog as any (and I'm sure I'll be quoting Bazin a lot here since I love him so damn much). This is my place to share what I like, what I don't and, what I hope for most of all, what it is that makes me like what I like and don't what I don't. And hey, if anyone actually cares to read what I write that's great too.

I also apologize for the plain, boring layout of the blog right now. I promise I'll get around to making it fucking awesome at some point.