Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"It was St. Sebastian I thought of, and his arrows..."

So jokes Nick Cave at one point in his darkly comic song about a psychopath killing all the patrons in a small-town bar, "O'Malley's Bar", off the classic album Murder Ballads.

It's an album about murder and death that deals with both man's drive towards destruction, while also examining the wreckage in the aftermath. For an album about murder, it never languishes in one mood for too long, while never shying away from the ugliness of man's inhumanity towards man.

I can't really say WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN ever hits that sweet spot. It's half of a great movie, with beautiful and evocative imagery, and a great central performance by Tilda Swinton as a woman who is first ambivalent about the joys of motherhood and then ambivalent towards her existence in toto.

But this movie is about Swinton's character's relationship with her psychopathic son, and, while Tilda is always very convincing and real, her son (played by Ezra Miller) comes off as a cross between a comic book super-villain and Hannibal Lecter. I should say, this is not totally Miller's fault. Sometimes he underplays the material quite well, and his final scene, where his defenses are stripped away and he's forced to confront his choices, is affecting.

It's that the script expects us to believe not only in Miller's escalating psychopathy, but that his boyish facade only ever slips for precisely one person, leaving the whole world fooled until the s**t hits the fan. The screenwriters seem to think that most psychopaths operate along the same rules as Snuffleupagus and the Great Gazoo.

WNTTAK is a film so unceasing in its miserabilism and so heavy-handed in way it drops s**t on Swinton's character, that it provokes an incredulous response. I spent a good portion of the film wanting to shout "Bullshit" at the screen.

Which is frustrating, because the few moments when Lynne Ramsay lets the leaden depression go for a moment, Swinton's plight becomes more tragic. There's a moment in a parking lot where Swinton runs into one of her son's victims, and the young man greets her with compassion and kindness. We can see the pain and guilt on Swinton's face, and it is so much harder to dismiss than the other victims' parents who act like bullies.

 David Cairns and Tim Brayton have more in-depth reviews that are very perceptive and fascinating, but I just had to get those thoughts out there.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

I'm sick, so time for some heresy to spark discussion...

People like to complain about how Spielberg and Lucas created a generation of films aimed at overgrown men-children. But I wonder how much of the youth-oriented nature of films today are the fault of John Hughes. All his generic teens and their generic issues, the films in the end coming down on the side of the conformists and middle-class whitebread midwesterners, preparing us for a crop of faux-rebellious teen flicks that are scared of real diversity or class difference.

Who's your vote for director/film-maker most responsible for the immature crop of pictures the American film industry puts out?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

HALLOWEEN COUNTDOWN: Horror on a minimum wage

Directed by Ti West
Starring Sara Paxton, Pat Healy and Kelly McGillis

If you had told me that the next movie from the guy behind House of the Devil was also going to be a throwback to an earlier style of horror, I certainly wouldn't have been surprised. But if you'd told me that he was making a slow-burn ghost story with very little gore, along the lines of the original The Haunting or Les Diaboliques, then I'd probably say you were crazy.

But that is, in fact, what writer/director/editor Ti West has given us, and it's pretty darn good.

The story concerns itself with the last weekend of business for an old inn called the Yankee Pedlar, in a declining town in the New England. It's clear that the owner is only interested in keeping the place from burning down, so the entire staff for the weekend is two young people working the front desk, trading off 12 hour shifts. Claire (Sara Paxton), the younger of the two, is an imaginative, sweet, and naive college drop-out still trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life. Luke (Pat Healy), several years older, is a burned-out cynic, unwilling to do even the minimum amount of work the inn's paltry two guests request. (One of the subtler running jokes is Luke's refusal to put towels in any of the rooms no matter how many times a guest asks).

Perhaps the only thing interesting about Luke (and the main topic of conversation between him and Claire) is that he is an amateur ghost-hunter, with a website (albeit one that makes old Geocities sites look professional) devoted to the hauntings at the inn. There's a rather generic legend about the place and a young woman who supposedly killed herself after being stood up at the altar, and Luke has convinced Claire that the young woman, named Madeleine O'Malley, still haunts the place These two working stiffs have decided that they're going to make the most of this long weekend by actually recording some manner of supernatural phenomenon.

At first, they have about the success you would expect from two amateur ghost-hunters, but when Claire is recording audio phenomenon alone, she records something that might be supernatural. And when she consults with one of their guests (as much out of loneliness and fear as for any credible reason), the guest (Kelly McGillis) turns out to be a faith healer, who makes contact with a ghost who may be Madeleine and warns her to stay out of the basement...

I know up above I compared this to a slow-burn horror movie like Les Diaboliques or The Haunting, but in the early parts, The Innkeepers plays like a low-key, quirky character study of two listless young people (a la Tiny Furniture or Ghost World or a Swanberg pic), with some laughs and the occasional jump-scares. In a slasher film, Luke would be the prank-happy annoying nerd who gets killed off quickly, but this is a film about three people and the body-count is actually very low.

If the idea of Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham makes a brief cameo as an over-sharing barista) and The Haunting swapping DNA sounds to you like the worst thing ever, you aren't being fair to the film. The amount of time we spend getting to know the characters means that when they are threatened by the supernatural, we're genuinely concerned. And by then, we also know the tics and quirks that will cause them to react a certain way.

West and his cast deserve a lot of credit for the careful and credible way they build the relationship between Claire and Luke. It's clear that they've mainly become friends because they spend so much time with just each other for company. And while Claire is definitely the most sympathetic of the two, Luke rings very true. If you've ever worked a minimum-wage job, you've probably known a burn-out like Luke, not really as great as he thinks he is, but with one or two characteristics that, to a callow youth, make him seem cool. For Claire, it's Luke's ghost-hunting site. For me, it was that a co-worker's rock band.

But Claire is the protagonist , and she's a refreshingly complex female character. She's a little jumpy and nervous, but she also shows the most courage of any of the characters we encounter. Even though the thought of trash juice dripping on her as she throws garbage in the dumpster grosses her out, she's willing to risk life and limb to save the soul of a restless ghost. And Sara Paxton plays it all with a lack of self-consciousness that's very lived-in.

And the other nice thing about the slow build is that, by the time the spooky stuff starts, we know the inn very well. It's almost as much a character as Claire and Luke, and, despite being a real, functioning inn, is definitely a triumph of production design. It's picturesque and creepy, but never feels like a soundstage creation.

The other element I have to give West kudos for is the balance he strikes between what we know and what is left (often rather horrifyingly) unsaid. [Possible Spoilers] Our characters assume the ghost haunting the Inn is Madeleine O'Malley, but a lot of the other evidence and the words of McGillis' character suggests there are at least three ghosts haunting the inn, and it's never proven that O'Malley is one of the three. (There is an angry ghost bride, but I would suggest the events that unfold in the Honeymoon suite suggest there's an more than one possibility for that ghost). And yet, there's an internal coherence to the way the hauntings happen and the way they interact with the cast that suggests a logic and a backstory to what's happening, only our protagonists misunderstand it.

Much like the original The Haunting or the early parts of Hell House, what's so creepy and tragic about the events that unfold is that we don't even know why the ghosts selected the victim they did, or for what purpose.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Halloween countdown: He served a dark and a stupid god

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Directed by Tim Burton
Starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall

I know quite a few people I like and whose opinions I respect won't agree with what I'm about to write. Not just friends, but apparently even Mister Stephen Sondheim himself. But Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd just isn't good.

In all fairness, it's not bad, either. But that's the disappointment. Because what Burton turns in is the sort of cowardly pseudo-musical and pseudo-horror film that Hollywood churns out for respectable people these days. And that really is what disappoints from Burton, of all people, who, in the first half of his career, often put out off-kilter movies with only the slightest concessions to present popular culture. A parody of 50's alien invasion films cross-pollinated with '70s disaster films? An ode to a cult film-maker notorious for being awful, shot in black-and-white? A horror comedy about a ghost that exorcises living people and wants to abduct a teenage girl as his bride?

But the grotesque and strange taste that made these films wonderful has congealed into something more "bubblegum goth", giving us a movie afraid to fully leap into the campy and also terrifying.  Burton is willing to give us a lot of blood and gore, but he's afraid to give us the sexual insanity of the Beggar Woman, Toby's final transformation into something as twisted as Sweeney, or Joanna murdering the insane asylum director. And of course, Mrs. Lovett has to feel bad about what she's doing, to some extent (missing the entire point of the character, but whatever). Our heroes have to be sympathetic, goshdarnit! And we have to have clear delineation between good and bad!

Heaven knows what Christopher Bond, the playwright whose work gave Sondheim the basis for Sweeney Todd by marrying the revenge motive to a more vicious Marxist reading of the story. After all, Bond rewrote King Lear to be less romantic and hopeful!

But this is really Burton giving into the most trite and cliche of his excesses: almost everything production designed to a somehow charming goth version of urban blight, cleavage-baring outfits for Helena Bonham Carter (regardless of appropriateness), and generic,ugly CGI that makes 18th Century London look like a video-game cutscene.

Burton really doesn't seem comfortable with the fact he's directing a musical, stripping the movie of almost every group chorus, shoving several songs off into dream sequences or fantasies, as if the audience will be hard-pressed to believe that people could just burst into song.  It doesn't help that Carter's voice is a slight and mediocre one, and that Johnny Depp sounds like he's trying to channel either Anthony Newley or David Bowie.

There are some moments that hint at the better job Burton could have done. Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall, though underused, are both living embodiments of nightmares of authority figures, and Sacha Baron Cohen as the barber/mountebank Pirelli is an unnerving mix of oily charm and barely-restrained rage.

Even Depp, in a few moments, hits the mark, such as when he rushes about London in his mind, brandishing a razor at every person he meets.

But for every moment that works, there's a song chopped to bits, or another godawful bit with Helena Bonham Carter, and it just becomes a junk food film again, every bit as much a mish-mash as Mrs. Lovett's pies.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Quick Link Love...

I already have a bit of an intellectual crush on Jess Nevins for his series of pulp posts at io9, his annotations of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Top 10, and his tumblr blog.

But now he has to go write an awesome and inspirational article about Asian history in the 18th and 19th century and Asian pulp literature for sci-fi publishers Tor.

RTWT, but my favorite part (and best idea for a story ever) is this:
 "From the mid-17th century through the 1920s Chinese novels translated into Mongolian were in huge demand in Mongolia, and there was a flourishing trade in them. But the problem for the Mongolian bookbuyers and booksellers was not only the bidding wars which would break out with Russian, Mongolian, and Chinese buyers, but that getting the manuscripts back to Mongolia to sell was difficult because of the very real chance that those transporting the books would be attacked on the way back by bandits wanting to get the manuscripts and sell them for themselves. This resulted in decades of adventurous Mongolian book traders as skilled with sword and gun as they were at selling books." [Emphasis mine].

A network of swashbuckling mercenary booksellers in Mongolia that had to fight off bandits who wanted to steal their wares! That would be a great trope to replace the archaeologist/explorer that usually pops up in adventure narratives.

Updated to add: P.S. Had to share this, which I posted on Twitter. NY Times review of HUUUUUGE Spanish history book mentioned Phillip II of Spain planning an invasion of China in 1580. What the what what? How has that not been written by some spec-fic/fantasy genius yet?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Halloween Countdown: I love Lucky McKee...

I love Lucky McKee. I've only seen two of his three and a half films (the half is his episode of Masters of Horror: Sick Girl), but I've loved both May and The Woods for the way they played around with the conventions of horror, while still finding the monster/villains sympathetic.

And the way he switched from the low-key "indie" style in May to a very lush '60's feel in The Woods showed he had a greater range than some horror film-makers.

So tonight I'm checking out a preview of his new film, The Woman, based on a Jack Ketchum novel, that is to be followed by a Q&A with the director himself. I hope to have a post up about the experience this weekend.


Wednesday, October 5, 2011

"I knew I'd never take him alive... I didn't try too hard neither."

Yet another half-written blog post I've discovered from a couple of months ago. Figured I might as well post it, because, though it isn't a full review, you should at least consider it a recommendation.

d. John Milius
Starring Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, Harry Dean Stanton, Michelle Phillips, Richard Dreyfuss and Cloris Leachman

John Dillinger (Warren Oates) is a famous bankrobber, working the Midwest, who has formed a super-gang with "Pretty-Boy" Floyd (Steve Kanaly) and "Baby-face" Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss). Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson) is the FBI agent tasked with taking them all down. Cue bloody shootouts.

... Whoah. This and the Don Siegel-directed Babyface Nelson are my must-see gangster films, so you can imagine my delight when Netflix Streaming added this to the queue. Unfortunately, it was a pan-and-scan version with occasionally poor picture quality. To be fair, for all I know, the DVD might be pan-and-scan. Not a lot of care is taken with AIP re-releases, and I'm sure we might wait in vain for Blu-ray versions of these films.

But even pan-and-scan couldn't sap this film of it's pungent hard-boiled flavor. And the visuals still retain their power. The opening of the film, viewed through a bank-teller's window, where we endure a fussy matron withdrawing her money, only to immediately have Warren Oates introducing himself as John Dillinger and then yelling at the viewer not to try anything foolish, packs a punch. The wit of Oates breaking the fourth wall to kick off the film just adds to the outlaw feel of this film. It's a daring start to a film that wants to prove it can match The Wild Bunch, Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands blow-for-blow.

Dillinger doesn't quite hit that heady goal, but it certainly comes close.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Adventures in Victorian spec-fic...

I recently got a Smartphone, thanks to the generosity of Father K and Mother K, and one that came pre-installed with a Kindle app. After about two days of playing with the Smartphone, I remembered that, "gee, Amazon lets you download works in the public domain for no money."

At which point I began a downloading binge of (less-than) epic proportions, focusing on obscure or lesser-known public domain books that I'd wanted to try. Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey , Melville's The Confidence Man, Welles' The War in the Air and The Sleeper Awakes standing as great examples [I've already read The Confidence Man, but it's short and so clever, I couldn't resist].

I also downloaded Mary Shelley's The Last Man, published about 8 years after Frankenstein, which is supposedly about a plague that wipes out humanity.

Unfortunately, though I doggedly continue reading, I've remembered why Shelley's Frankenstein, unlike Stoker's Dracula, is mostly remembered and enjoyed for the Universal and Hammer adaptations than in the original novel form. It's a problem that extends to this book as well. Mary Shelley spends a lot of time giving her characters looooong speeches about philosophy or their emotional states. She's hardly the only person of her time to have that problem (after all, she was writing for serialization and multi-volume collection), and some of the passages are decent if sentimental. But all the characters in The Last Man sound the same and their moanings and philosophical ruminations distract from a future world that is quite interesting. Unlike with Dickens, who wrote characters you wanted to spend time with even when they were doing very little, or Scott, who would throw lots of adventure and incident into each section, Shelley is rather dull.

I'm not going to claim that Shelley's predictions are accurate. Set around 2086 (in the first volume, which is where I am), she talks about lighter-than-air craft that were only "recently" discovered and seems to view England as economically and technologically about the same. Politically, the British government has abolished the institution of the monarchy (the one point on which Shelley's predictions might seem optimistic to our eyes), though the nobility is a mostly intact and substantial (if gradually waning) political force.

So, if your main criterion for reading sci-fi or judging it is how accurate the predictions are, this probably isn't the book to read. However, in this age of steampunk, it seems to me an interesting and thought-out alternate future Shelley is proposing. Once we get to the actual "everyone's going to die" parts, I'm interested to see what tropes of the disaster/post-apocalyptic genre Shelley anticipates and what tropes she ignores. After all, she lived in a time where plague was a much more real and ever-present threat than ours.

But, oh lord, someone needs to do an abridged or Classics Illustrated version of this story. I guess it makes sense that there's so much blather from the two main male characters that aren't the narrator once you realize they're based on Percy Shelley & Lord Byron (the fact that Lord RAYMOND is an ambitious asshole who gains fame fighting in Greece is a dead giveaway). But still... wanting to write fanfic about your dead husband and his best bro is not a goal that works with a vision of the future undone by a plague.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Dear television networks:

I have an idea for the greatest show ever, that will hit all four quadrants:

Two grown-up bros, approaching middle-age, have to move to the suburbs with their daughters (who are teen witches and Mean Girls at the same time!) to uncover the mysterious past of their dead wives, who occasionally come back as ghosts to help them change their lives and/or give them sassy relationship advice. Together they all solve crimes and occasionally travel through time.

Please send all your cash monies to:

Mr. K
[Address Redacted]
Hollywood, CA 

Thanks and I look forward to working with you.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Memoirs of an Invisible Blogger

Sorry for the sustained radio silence, geeks & geekettes. I've been very busy with a new job, attending a friend's wedding, and having my girlfriend move in with me. So, yeah, expect posting to be light for a little longer to come.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Religion in the Marvel and DC universes

So, the wonderful and talented Wizera has decided to enter the internet blogosphere, and her post about modern-day depictions of the Olympian underworld as a Hell-equivalent reminded me of how weird the Marvel and DC universes are, where religion is concerned.

For example, in the Marvel universe, you've got the Norse and Greek pantheons, who have their own afterlives (Hel running Valhalla, Pluto running the Olympian underworld) and own special cosmology. At the same time, there is also a group called the Eternals who are clearly the basis of many of the Marvel universe's legends (and, by extension, ours) who were created by a group of alien intelligences called the Celestials who exist on a cosmological plane with a lot of other vague cosmically powered beings such as the In-Betweener, the Beyonder, the Watcher, and Galactus.*

See, he's a Norse demi-god fighting the forces of Hell with a machine gun. 
Makes perfect sense, right?

On top of that, there are various supernatural planes, deities and forces such as Nightmare, Dormamu, Cyttorak (which is a dimension as well as a god, I believe), and the Darkforce/Living Light duality. These have frequently been shown as capable of interacting with both the mythological gods and the cosmic forces.

And there is still a Judeo-Christian cosmology and afterlife, since, for example, Doctor Doom's mother is a gypsy trapped in Hell who he frequently tried to rescue**. These afterlives might co-exist/be the same aspect of the occasional place-holder concepts meant to avoid literally saying the words Hell and/or God, etc in a mainstream publication aimed at kids. So, therefore, you have characters like Mephisto (who is clearly the Devil) at the same time as having a character whose name is Son of Satan who is the son of the actual (Judeo-Christian) Satan.***

Bet you didn't know you could defeat the Devil if you just combined science & sorcery!

Now, this kind of confusion is not intentional. A lot of the problem goes back to the fact, originally, that a lot of these comics were written in an age where Judeo-Christianity was assumed to be practiced by most people in America WHILE, at the same time, it was considered offensive or improper for low culture especially to name or reference religion. And more importantly, a lot of these characters were supposed to be aimed at kids or teenagers, and very few people want a young person's religious education to be from a SILVER SURFER comic (though whether their normal religious education is actually any better thought out or put-together than a given SILVER SURFER comic is a question rarely asked.)

See, you can trust him because he's definitely not the Devil. Definitely not.

But around the end of the 1960s/beginning of the 1970s, some writers and artists started wanting to explore the morality of comics with some level of complexity. At the same time, the Comics Code Authority started lifting some of the bans they'd had on supernatural characters, which led creators to stretch their boundaries some more.

At the same time, however, comic fans had matured. They'd grown up with characters who got their powers from Heck or fought the powers of Hades. And while they wanted to see their characters get more complex, the morality of the characters get more nuanced and adult, they also believed in the sanctity of the stories that came before.

So, while still toeing a Judeo-Christian line (as that's the ethic that pervades Western superhero comics, so that even Supergirl, after being erased by a cosmic meta-fictional entity, could show up and tell a ghost created by a pseudo-Hindu god what the meaning of Christmas was...)

 They really couldn't have timed this for Makar Sankrati instead?

Both DC and Marvel have quietly become polytheistic universes, without quite admitting or understanding it. It's like how pagan gods got co-opted by early Catholics, transformed into non-canonical saints and martyrs, or how even real saints took the place of sprites/demons/fairies/household gods in the minds of the medieval peasantry.

But hey, as a result, we can have comics where a magician gets almost killed by Satan's bastard son and then learns the secrets of the Druids from some Tibetan lamas.  So there's that.

* OTOH, Galactus was supposed to be from some sort of higher plane of existence, which was destroyed by entropy, and was transformed by the shift in planes. So he actually does have a start and end date, being co-terminal with the Marvel universe instead of preceding it. And if any of you have ever read anything of Medieval philosophy and theology, you know why that's a big deal.
** For those of you new to this aspect of Dr. Doom, his mother ending up in hell had more to do with an actual deal with the devil rather than some sort of high-handed "how dare you not go to the right church" kind of thing.
*** Yes. He was a superhero in spandex and a cape, who fought evil with powers he got from being the son of the Devil. Which has to be the worst superhero origin story ever.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Writer makes disappointing directorial debut. Also, dog bites man...

Directed by Garth Ennis
Starring Tank Jones, Lauren Alonzo, and Kate Kugler

Synopsis: The survivors of a crashed American chopper in Afghanistan face a greater threat than the Taliban when they are set upon by a seemingly invulnerable army of the undead. And then the SAS shows up...

I blow hot and cold on Garth Ennis. On the one hand, he has written some great and compelling comics (Punisher: The End, Punisher: The Tyger, Preacher, Hitman). On the other hand, he's a writer whose aesthetic interests I increasingly find hard to separate from his limitations. He writes the foul-mouthed badass & the strong, stoic man of action very well, but writes characters he doesn't agree with or respect as the most contemptible straw men. And sometimes his admiration of tough men making hard choices easily shades into fascism.

So, Garth Ennis making his directorial debut on a short film about soldiers in Afghanistan encountering a supernatural power more evil than the Taliban? Oh, and produced by the people at Avatar (a company that, for every good book it puts out, puts out seventeen stolen from Warren or Alan or Garth's commonplace books)? If it wasn't for the fact that chances to see this outside of Comicon were going to be rare, I probably wouldn't have lined up for it. And a small part of me hoped that Ennis, pushed into a new medium, out of his comfort zone, might do something interesting.

Unfortunately, Stitched isn't even an intriguing misfire. It's just a bore.

The writing isn't the problem, though what comes across on the comics page as clever exposition feels awkward coming out of a real person's mouth sometimes.

The bigger problem is that Ennis just doesn't have a grasp on how to do film. His time as a comic book writer has clearly taught him how to think visually, but the fact he doesn't have to execute those visuals means that good ideas are botched. The carnage of a previous battle that the soldiers stumble across is filmed in such a flat, matter-of-fact way that it comes across as a joke more than a horrific moment. And not a dark joke, but a Zucker-Abrams-Zucker joke.

A better example is a sequence of the soldiers climbing a hill. The soldiers are shot from behind and below as they ascend. It's a good idea either to sell the tiring nature of their trek or to give a mythic image to these tired warriors. In practice, the shot is framed and lit with the minimum amount of attention possible, and instead looks like a series of asses jouncing up a hill.

But the biggest problem is that Ennis can't direct actors. While it's hard to assess from the IMDB resumes of the stars how talented they are, the fact that all the line-readings are given with a similar lack of inflection, as if the scripts were handed to them five minutes before the shoot started and they were told this was merely a read-through. While Jones and Alonzo are poor actors, a special Razzie should be given to Kugler, who manages the amazing feat of being both dull and infuriating in her portrayal of a shellshocked PTSD soldier as a whiny teenager whose parents aren't letting her go to the mall.

Note to directors: stylized dialogue requires special attention to actors to make it work. Note to Garth Ennis: your dialogue is stylized.

If I sound so annoyed, it's because the monsters at the center of the short film are so fascinating. They're similar to zombies in that they are slow, stupid and can't use tools. And like traditional zombies, they're dangerous due to their numbers and tenacity as much as anything. But the visual, of creatures with every hole in their face (eyes, nose & mouth) stitched shut, who stumble along like the Templars from Tombs of the Blind Dead, is amazing. And Ennis' conceptual twists on these creatures (they can't be killed with a shot to the head or severing of the spine, for example) suggest a fascinating mythology.

But all of that is hidden inside a boring, indifferent film whose main purpose, at this point, is to serve as an extended trailer for the inevitable Avatar Press ongoing. Color me unimpressed.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Stop talking about comic books or I'll kill you...

I'm heading to Comicon. Posting to resume after I return!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Because Eve Tushnet always has such interesting posts...

Eve challenged her readers to think of Christian films and atheist films for hypothetical film festivals. Apparently, it's been easier for her readers to think of atheist films than Christian ones.

For the purpose of this post, she's talking about films that represent those worldviews, not necessarily films made by Christians or atheists.

Christian films

The Trial of Joan of Arc (d. Robert Bresson) - Not just because the subject is Joan, but because Bresson is focused on the suffering and humility of Joan, even her very human weaknesses, and her faith enables her to endure and transfigure those elements of her life. That transfiguration is the miracle we see in the film, not some fantastic magic trick (which is how film usually defines them).

Love Exposure (d. Shion Sono) - Actually, this film can probably be interpreted multiple ways. And while there is a fair amount anti-religious material here, it's notable that the worst behavior is of people who turn religion to their purposes. The hypocrites and those without humility are those that cause the most suffering, and it is love (both secular & religious) that gives the male protagonist the strength to struggle on against a world that is turned against him. It's also about the way that outcasts can find fellowship & express Christian brotherhood for each other. I'd love to see Eve's reaction to all the complex & weird ideas about religion, love, gender & sexual orientation that overflow this film.

Terri (d. Azazel Jacobs) - This film, focusing on an intelligent, perceptive but troubled boy & his attempts to reach out to the world, deals with the injustice and pain of engaging with a flawed world and the broken, foolish people who inhabit it. Despite all the heartache and pain that engagement brings, the movie shows us the need to reach out to our fellow sufferers and sinners, since only that outreach can shape our suffering and pain into something better.

That's all that I can think of, off the top of my head, at the moment. But there are two relatively recent films and one older film that promote a Christian humanist worldview, to balance out all those despairing films Tushnet & her readers have thought of so far.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Quick Appreciation of Stan Lee....

So I'd been feeling burned out with comic books lately for several reasons (which will be the subject of a later post). Luckily, I decided to dig out those black & white phone book-style reprints of  Kirby's Thor & New Gods that Marvel and DC put out about ten years ago. I've always been a big Kirby fan and I even enjoy his late period stuff, which is certainly flawed, but has a wonderful energy.

Still, you can never go wrong reading/looking at Kirby's Marvel work in the mid-'60s and the first flowering of his Fourth World stories. He's not stretched quite as thin as he was in the early '60s when he worked on every Marvel book (it seems like) and he's not burned out or saddled with corporate remits the way he was after DC canceled the Fourth World books. There's a real sense that he's challenging himself in every issue to do something new with character designs or layouts or fight scenes. And on Thor, Vince Colletta's much-maligned inking is very beautiful. Even if he did erase or ignore the detail of Kirby's pencils, Colletta's thin brush strokes give Kirby's pencils a newspaper adventure strip feel (like Prince Valiant).

Kirby's always worth checking out, but New Gods and his run on Thor as it transitioned from Journey Into Mystery into Thor are amazing.

But one thing I noticed, reading the two back-to-back, is the differences between Kirby's work with Stan Lee and Kirby's solo work. Both periods have plenty of fans and supporters, and I enjoy both.

The thing that emerges from his work with Stan Lee on Thor is how the characterization is more subtle and grounded. Kirby's bombast and melodrama have their charms (and Stan Lee certainly wrote his share of melodrama), but he's not one for nuance. While Orion, upon rereading New Gods, certainly is quite complex (the irony that New Genesis relies on the rage and fierceness Orion inherited from Darkseid to defend themselves from Darkseid is acknowledged quite well), outside of Terrible Turpin, none of the human characters really register. They keep getting crowded out by all the superhumans.

Whereas in Thor, even the walk-ons end up making an impression. There's a sequence where Thor takes a cab to escape a crowd and ends up having a really frank heart-to-heart with the driver. It's a very nice moment, but the capper is, after Thor leaves, the driver's next fare asks him if that's really Thor.

The driver, who from the previous exchange we've seen is a humble, friendly guy. But he can't help but half-brag/half-joke that Thor takes his cab all the time, that they're old pals. And then, he ruefully adds, Thor forgot to pay his fare. 

Lee and Kirby together, through the dialogue and art, get across the complexity of this exchange very well. The cab driver comes across as a complex person, and it really illuminates Thor's character as well. Thor has "the common touch", unlike many of his fellow immortals, but even he can lose sight of the details.

What's really impressive about Thor is how funny it can be. Lee has a good touch for leavening the bombast, when it threatens to get too overwhelming. Volstagg's presence keeps Asgard from feeling too cold or inhuman, for example.

I know the attribution of what Kirby and Lee brought to their collaborations is always very tenuous. It's tempting to ascribe to Kirby a lot of what made their collaboration great, both because of Lee's boosterism at the expense of his collaborators and Lee's lack of creative success post-Kirby & Ditko. I think most people, given the choice, would put rather Mister A or Captain Victory on their resume than Ravage 2099 or Stripperella.

But Lee did bring something to Kirby's work. At the very least, he pushed Kirby out of his comfort zone as a co-writer, forcing him to deal with characters and emotions that Kirby preferred to avoid in his solo work.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

And now for something completely different...

So, I know I haven't been posting a lot lately. Part of it is because I've been busy, but part of it is just exhaustion and boredom. So I want to change things up a little, with a special experiment.

About a month or two ago, I read a movie script by a friend of mine named Brock Wilbur. He's an amazingly talented writer/musician/actor, and the script he wrote, called Your Friends Close, combines all those sides of him into a dark, funny and eerie screenplay that's a science-fictional version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Now he's trying to raise some money to shoot this thing himself with the help of his friends. Now, I'm not involved with the actual film in any way. I'm not in it, I'm not working on it. I just happened to read the script and really liked it. I already donated to the film on Kickstarter, but I don't have enough money to make this film happen myself.

So here's what I'm going to do. Has there been anything on movies or comic books or theatre that you've wanted me to post about? Something I mentioned once but never followed through on? Then here's your chance to read that long-promised post. Here's all you have to do:

1. Donate at least $30 to Your Friends Close' Kickstarter page.
2. Then post the name you donated under (if it's different than your blogspot screenname) and the subject/topic you want me to blog on.
3. I'll write at least 500 words on the topic you want me to write about.

That's it. I'll probably be posting more content at some point, but think of this as your chance to hear my opinions about something you're interested in.

And remember, I know the people involved in this movie, but I'm not getting any benefit out of this, other than getting to watch an awesome indie film eventually.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

THE PETRIFIED FOREST plus Nazis should really be more exciting, shouldn't it?

d. Edward A. Blatt
Starring: Phillip Dorn, Jean Sullivan, Irene Manning and Alan Hale (yes, the father of the Skipper from Gilligan's Island)

While I don't really count myself as nostalgic for long-gone ages in most respects (no contact lenses, lots of diseases, and racism and sexism out the wazoo), I usually have a rather rose-colored vision of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Whatever the faults of the system itself, it certainly produced some classics, and even the more mediocre efforts of the era usually have a professional sheen and charm that help them go down easy. On the other hand, this vision of the Golden Age of Hollywood escapes Sturgeon's Law (that 90% of everything is crap) by grading on a curve. After all, while a select few masterworks are lost to time, a lot of the material that Hollywood put out in those days that is still missing is lost or locked in a vault for good reason. It's just not that good. 

But every now and then, while trawling TCM's listings, I'll come across something that reminds me of that. In this case, I watched an obscure film called Escape in the Desert. Directed by a man whose main credits on IMDB are as dialogue director, and starring actors and actresses with few other credits, there's very little of that professional sheen or charm to make up the weight.

The story is about Phillip Artveld (Phillip Dorn), a Free Dutch soldier who is hitchhiking across the US on his way to San Diego. Unfortunately, his journey across the American Southwest happens to coincide with an escape by Nazi POWs, and a crotchety old man (Samuel S. Hinds) makes a citizen's arrest after picking him up. The misunderstanding is soon cleared up, but the upshot is that he's stuck at the old man's gas-station, which is run by his grand-daughter Jane, who wants nothing more than to escape the desert (Jean Sullivan), and Jane's suitor/sometimes-boyfriend/all-around idiot Hank Albright (Bill Kennedy). Oh, and then the real escaped Nazis show up.

Now, you probably couldn't guess from the plot description alone, but this is a rewrite/remake of The Petrified Forest. You know, that little picture that starred Leslie Howard and Bette Davis. The same film that gave Humphrey Bogart his start as the Golden Age's number one bad-ass in the role he originated on Broadway as Duke Mantee. Oh, and a play whose ending suggests that the brutish, violent thug and the disillusioned humanist are two sides of the same coin?

As you can imagine, the film is, to put it lightly, problematic. The people behind the cameras are straining to twist the story into something it isn't, and there's no one on either side of the camera to make it work. Certainly Hollywood has completely changed the message of a story while adapting it it, with Key Largo also making an odd ideological transformation from a reactionary stage play response to the Spanish Civil War to a cinematic defense of intervention in the Second World War (with an ending stolen from To Have And To Have Not). The difference is, John Huston, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Edward G Robinson all worked to sell it. 

When you have an ersatz dialogue director running the show with the rather inexpressive Phillip Dorn and the blandly pretty Jean Sullivan as your leads, the odds are against you.

And I'm not even a big fan of The Petrified Forest. While I rather enjoy Bogie's gangster, the script is pretentious, Leslie Howard comes off as the annoying dandy the Nazis in 49th Parallel accused him of being, and I can see Bette Davis still trying to figure out her technique. But still, it's Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart. And the script, for all it's faults, at least follows someone who is having a crisis of faith and comes to a big decision at the end.

Whereas Escape in the Desert has Phillip believing in the war but being slightly tired of fighting it. The narrative is explicitly set after the liberation of Holland, so he's not even chickening out of fighting, he's just doubting the wisdom of liberating colonial possessions that the Dutch really wouldn't get to keep anyhow (or at least, how you can cynically argue it in retrospect). There's not even a sense of conflict between Phillip as a warrior being mistreated by the people he's fought for. The guy gets kidnapped, held at gunpoint and punched because he's not like them. Hank, who might be shirking military service (the point is never quite made clear), even calls him a coward. But he never shows any resentment over that. I'm not expecting Stallone in First Blood-type reactions, but still... heck, go back to Key Largo, where there's a tension between Bogie's returning warrior and the people on the home front whose comfort and groundedness he resents.

So the only conflict is basically, will Phillip capture the Nazis? And we already know he'll survive since the story is a flashback. And the Nazis aren't really worthwhile villains. I never expected to type that phrase, but there's never even a two-dimensional level of characterization like the Nazis in 49th Parallel had. 

At least it's reassuring to know ours is not the only age that has a problem with ill-conceived remakes of popular films.

The Petrified ForestKey Largo (Keepcase)

Friday, June 3, 2011

"What does katana mean?" "It means 'Japanese sword'."

d.  Amir Shervan
Starring Robert Z'Dar, Matt Hannon, Matt Frazer and Gerald Okamura

Now let me start off by saying: I like bad movies. Some people think the "so bad it's good" designation for some movies is a snobbish thing, born out of some cruel, classist impulse to mock people whose artistic values are not your own. That bad movie fans just get a kick out of seeing stuff they're "better" than.

Now, in all fairness, as Rob Schrab said at the Cinefamily screening of Samurai Cop, sometimes seeing a deliriously crappy film is a reminder that, if you just remembered to properly light a scene, you're a friggin' modern-day Orson Welles compared to the guy who made Birdemic.

But at the same time, these movies certainly bring me joy, and 9 times out of 10, they make me laugh harder than almost any Hollywood (intentional) comedy has in years. I certainly have fond and grateful memories of Timechasers and The Apple and those other treasures of the cinematic trash dump. I could tell you more about those films than something like Atonement or On Golden Pond.

Of course, there are any number of bad films that have one delirious moment of "holy s**t, is this actually happening", and another hour of ho-hum mediocrity. Even Ed Wood produced some clunkers that are merely dull. So when the movie gods (or Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre, who are like unto a god) hand me something like Samurai Cop, I have to tell you all about it.

Because, even among crappy movies, this is a wonderfully crappy movie. It is slightly more technically competent than Manos: Hands of Fate, in that there actually is a story and the right equipment seems to have been purchased and utilized in filming. But beyond that, this is the kind of film that instills in you a respect for the most basic elements of film-making.

This character, here, for example, must have inspired Dean Lerner on Garth Marenghi's Darkplace.

For example, I've called a film visually uninteresting before, but even the most static, talky actor-turned-director piece looks like a Pressburger/Powell film compared to Samurai Cop, which seems to forget that you can do something other than medium shots on a camera. Not to mention that those medium shots often have people half in frame, half out of frame. 

And we've all seen ropey special effects work, but how often do you see gunfights where the squibs go off five seconds AFTER people duck? It's a wonder that anyone gets shot in this universe, since you clearly have to wait for the bullets to hit you.

But this is a film that fails on every single level. From a conceptual failure to follow-through on the title (he's really more of a karate cop who can use a sword, not a samurai), to deathless dialogue (like the quote in the title) to sex scenes that appear to be choreographed by middle school boys, there's a lot to enjoy and laugh about.

And, sure, I know that sounds condescending, but this is a bad film that rewards re-watching, as every new viewing gives you an appreciation of how much it fundamentally misses the mark.

Even the most jaded bad movie watchers will have to admit Samurai Cop hits that sweet spot of 'so bad it's good" for every minute of viewing. This is a film where Robert Z'Dar comes across as an understated and subtle actor compared to the wooden mannequins and strippers inhabiting the other roles. 

This is not even the most disturbing image of Robert Z'Dar you will take away from this film. Trust me.

Anyway, I don't want to spoil for you all the amazing badness. Just trust me and check it out. 

Or, just watch this clip for a taste.

Samurai Cop The AppleBirdemic: Shock and Terror (Blu-ray)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

And we're back! (almost)

Whooo... That was quite a crazy couple of weeks.

I just wrapped shooting on the first film I've ever had made out of something I wrote. The shoot was wonderful. I couldn't have asked for a better cast and crew. We did run into problems, but people kept their cool and we worked around them. And from the dailies I've seen, this project is going to be amazing. I'm not just saying that because I wrote it. The people involved took my words and ideas, and without rewriting them, made them their own.

It's a good sign, I think, when you're laughing at jokes on set that you wrote months ago and have written and rewritten several times.

Back to real blogging soon!

Friday, May 20, 2011

The best crime film to involve Beethoven's birthplace...

d. Samuel Fuller
Starring Glenn Corbett, Christa Lang Fuller, Anton Diffring, Eric P Caspar & Stephane Audran

I had a chance to check this out thanks to a friend in UCLA's film archives graduate program who had it screened with Christa Fuller (the star and Fuller's wife) talking about it afterwards. This hard-to-find Fuller film was actually shot for German television in the 70s as a TV movie version of a German policier TV show. The effect is rather like finding out that von Trier directed an episode of Law and Order, with all the attendant weirdness.

Furthermore, Fuller, who had little familiarity with 70s West Germany, decided to that he'd throw the street-level "realism" of the TV series out the window and just have some fun.

To be fair, the people involved with this lark of a movie had great pedigrees. Jerzy Lipman, a Polish cinematographer who'd worked with Polanski on Knife in the Water, was Fuller's cinematographer, and art-rock band Can did the score.

The plot, about a call girl (Christa Lang Fuller) and a gang of extortionists taking incriminating photos of politicians and the American private eye (Glenn Corbett) who decides to take them down when they kill his partner, is fairly standard stuff.  But Fuller displays a great deal of wit in the execution.

There's a fair number of meta-film jokes that liven up the film, like a brief detour where Corbett's character follows Lang into a movie theatre showing a German-dubbed version of Rio Bravo, so we can luxuriate both in the awesomeness of that film and the strangeness of a German-speaking Dean Martin imitator. For that matter, Claude Chabrol's wife Stephane Audran pops up in a small role as a former extortionist named Dr. Bogdanovich. Lang's own appearance in Godard's Alphaville is even excerpted as evidence of her character's failed film career!

Beyond the in-jokes, Fuller plays around with the conventions of movies and the policier/noir genre. A shootout takes place in the nursery of a hospital's maternity ward, images of the gunfight intercut with images of sleeping babies, mocking any pretensions of realism the viewer might approach the film with. As one blackmail victim examines his photo, the expected ominous sound cue appears, but the next shot reveals that the sound cue is coming from a band in the same room as the character.

In some moments, the absurdity of Fuller's approach to the story circles around and becomes ominously threatening. As the streets of Cologne fill with Carnival celebrations in the film, the events of the film become seriocomic like an Elizabethan mystery play. Eric P Caspar, as a clown-suited henchman, runs through the streets, confetti covering his lips, muttering drugged-out nonsense as he closes in on Corbett and Lang, and everything resolves into eerie surrealism. Much like in Losey's Modesty Blaise, where Amsterdam's Carnival offers a site where the funny becomes dangerous, Fuller's film develops an unresolved tension from the impossibility of predicting which mode (comedy or thriller) it will end in. As a result, the ending, which brings us back to the beginning and the title, has the gut punch of a particularly well-told sick joke.
Knife in the Water: The Criterion CollectionDead Pigeon on Beethoven StreetA Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking (Applause Books)Eclipse Series 5: The First Films of Samuel Fuller - The Criterion Collection (The Baron of Arizona / I Shot Jesse James / The Steel Helmet)Modesty Blaise

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The American healthcare system failed me...

This post has nothing to do with art. I'm sorry. I promise to resume posting on the stuff most people like to read about here soon. But this is something I've needed to say for a long time.

American health insurance has failed me again.

I've heard all the arguments for and against reforms to American health insurance. I've heard a lot of arguments for and against almost each specific reform. I'm not an economist, I'm not a politician. But I do know that health insurance is failing me, personally.

Tonight, I received an e-mail from yet another health insurance company telling me they will not accept me.

Until last summer, I worked a job that provided health insurance. When I left that job to move West, I continued that through COBRA. When the government allowed people under the age of 26 to get on their parent's insurance, I went back on my parents' plan. I turn 26 in June. I'm now looking for private health insurance. But I can't get any. I'm too high risk.

Of course, I'm "high risk" in insurance company terms. I'm the right weight for my heigh, I have low blood pressure, I don't smoke, I rarely drink more than 1 serving of alcohol a night. I haven't even ever gone to the ER since breaking my arm at 14.

However, I do have two pre-existing conditions. They're fairly mild (I've never needed to be admitted to the hospital for them) and I manage them with a few prescription drugs (all of which are on the formulary). In fact, I take a total of 3 prescription drugs, 2 of which are available as generics.

Apparently, this puts me beyond the pale for health insurers in the state of California.

Now, I haven't set high standards for health insurance. The plan I was just turned down for had a deductible of $1000 (and a prescription deductible of $7500, if memory serves). It didn't cover psychiatric treatment, or chiropractors or any other "controversial" treatments. I just wanted something that would cover me in case of an emergency and pay for a couple of regular doctor visits a year. And to pay less than $400 or $700 (those are the figures that COBRA ran me and the "High Risk" pool info I've received quoted me).

However, I'm too big a health risk for that.

I'm not asking for the government to pay for everything. I'm not asking for a handout. But I notice that the "free market" is failing me pretty consistently. And that everything that has been labelled government "interference" is what's keeping me from falling into that great big group of uninsured people that exist in the US.

If the free market can't provide options for a guy like me. then maybe the government should step in.

And if you think the stuff I've mentioned above are reasons I should be denied insurance, then you know where you can go.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A special treat for Mr. K fans...

I fly to Chicago tomorrow. I'm going to be gone for a week, and probably without internet access for most of that week.

But I do have a special treat for you. I was volunteering at Cinefamily last week for a special event they did with clothing label Stussy. They screened Punisher: War Zone and clips from a bunch of obscure Marvel multimedia (including the Japanese live-action Spider-Man and that Turkish film where Captain America and El Santo are pursuing an evil Spider-Man). I got some neat Stussy-designed pins of Marvel Comics characters and they took some pictures.

I'm the guy in the blue polo shirt and khakis midway down the page. Too bad you can't see those pins. They're pretty awesome.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Another blog post about blogging...

Once again, sorry for the huge gaps between posts. I'm co-producing that short film I mentioned last post (new content on our official website, along with the trailer), I've been volunteering at the amazing Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre a lot (buy me a drink and I'll tell you about the angry mob at the Natural History Museum), and I've been writing and revising a scene for an alumni showcase that's being performed the week we start shooting Women and Men and Women. On top of that, I'm obviously still trying to write a new screenplay and find a permanent day job. Finally, I'm going to the Midwest for about a week next Wednesday to meet The Best Girl Ever's family.

Just typing all that has me exhausted. I'm hoping I can get back to posting more regularly once I get back in mid-May. I might even fit in a post or two before then. No promises, though.

And check out the Women and Men and Women website!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

WOMEN AND MEN AND WOMEN: Rare self-promotion post...

Most of you might know me as that nerdy guy who posts snarky things about science fiction or old movies. But I also write other things that I don't post on the blog.

One such thing is a script for a short film called Women and Men and Women.

It started life as a satire on all those infuriating plays about how white male artists have such a hard time finding a girl who understands how hard they have it, man. It was performed as a staged-reading at Stage Left in Chicago and when I got out to LA, some friends suggested I try to turn it into a screenplay.

Well, now, a mix of friends from college and new friends are trying to turn it into a self-produced short film. And we're trying to raise a small amount of money to help us put it together. 

A short promo video (showcasing other people saying my words) and some information about what your donation is going to can be found here.

Even if you don't actually want to donate any money, I'd appreciate it if you'd just view the video. I think  it's pretty funny, and some pretty funny people are working on it.

But we're not looking to get paid, we're just looking for some help with some of the very real production costs you face even when you make a very simple and small film.

Thanks for your attention and I promise that I won't turn this all into all self-promotion, all the time.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Everyday I write the script...

Sorry I've been away for a while. Life keeps interfering with blogging, as it tends to. The good news is that part of the reason I've been so busy is another writing project, about which I plan to post more soon. The bad news is that, between that project, keeping my hand in at attempted screenwriting ("Do they give a Nobel for Attempted Physics?", I can hear Sideshow Bob whine) and my family coming to visit this week, it might be a little longer before I can post more.

So while I'm away, check out some of the blogs on the sidebar, especially The All-New, All-Different Cigarette Smoking Blog (for all your Catholic & historical nerd needs), Shadowplay and Antagony & Ecstasy. Those latter two will certainly fulfill all your cinematic nerdery needs.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Profiles in awesomeness...

Okay, this isn't really a profile per se, as me taking a moment to give thanks I live in Los Angeles because it enables me to see all manners of awesomeness by awesome people.

James Jean, the artist responsible for amazing covers for series such as Fables & Umbrella Academy, has a gallery show here in LA that closes April 30th. It's at the Martha Otero Gallery at 820 N Fairfax.

I plan to check it out very soon. I encourage all my fellow Angelenos to do the same.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

As a counterpoint to Zev's thoughtful post over at On Chicago Theatre...

I suggest this article over at Slate, by Bill James trying to explain why we as a nation produce so many great athletes but don't produce very many great writers (or sub in actor/dancer/classically-trained musician/fine artist, etc.). Really... RTWT, I'll be waiting.

I don't disagree with Zev's post at all, btw. I think he points out that the best way to fix things is to actually try ways of fixing him.

I think what James points out that is useful is that, the reason we have so many great athletes is that we encourage them along every step of the way. We're all familiar with the cliche about schools building a new stadium while shutting down the arts departments. But it goes beyond that. The fact is, athletes who show promise are encouraged from a very early age and given the resources to develop their talents so that they can become superstars.

Whereas, in comparison, writers are told to go hone their craft by themselves, get really good, and then come back in 20-25 years.

Or actors are told to go act for free, pay for training, and generally pay their dues before they might start getting something approaching a salary.

I'm not trying to say that the arts don't require hard work, some thankless honing of craft. But athletes work hard too, in high school and college and when they turn pro, at least when it comes to training. And schools and pro/semi-pro teams give them incentives and rewards and acclaim as they develop.

This doesn't mean "support all theatre equally" or "don't criticize bad work". But it suggests that artists and their institutions need to recognize that artists take time to develop, along with mentoring and resources.

Sure, no one would say that America has no good writers or actors or etc etc. But Bill James points out that Shakespearean London was the size of Topeka, Kansas, and gave us Bacon, Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson (and that's just hitting the biggest names).

Even being conservative, that suggests that every small to mid-size metropolis should have a burgeoning literary community, at least two or three small theatre companies competing to out-do each other each season, a couple of chamber music groups or orchestras...

There should be the equivalent of at least a hundred Elizabethan Londons scattered across America. But there aren't. Maybe part of this is a difference in the national character or the modern temperament.

Or maybe part of it is that, from the highest to the lowest levels of the arts, we focus on short-term projects and goals, getting our thing done, raising our money, winning our company praise, just keeping the doors open, instead of thinking about who will join our company in the future, or create the new theatre company that.will replace ours.

Moving forward, that has to be both a subject for discussion and something to put into practice. Self-reliance isn't a bad thing to have, but community is certainly not a bad thing either.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

John Brown's Body is Moldering in the Grave...

Watched Santa Fe Trail (d. Michael Curtiz, 1940) last night and was very disappointed. It's one of those Errol Flynn/Olivia de Havilland swashbucklers, but here Flynn is JEB Stuart, doing his best to restore order to "Bleeding" Kansas and defeat John Brown.

Now, there's certainly a lot to discuss about how the picture gets history wrong (we're talking National Treasure 2 levels of inaccuracy) but what's most disappointing is that the movie just isn't very good. It's Flynn/de Havilland, but they keep getting pushed aside by the need to plug more historical b.s. in. They Died With Their Boots On is incredibly inaccurate, but it manages to give us plenty of romance and derring-do for Flynn. Instead, Flynn barely does anything in the finale of Santa Fe Trail.

Overall, the film is as mediocre as Ronald Reagan's performance as George Armstrong Custer. The movie is at its' most interesting when it totally rewrites history, because then it allows the mind to occupy itself with thoughts of what it changed and why did they change it?

This might make an interesting acid test, though, because anyone defending it as a great movie, from whatever side of the political spectrum, clearly has no love for cinema, only propaganda.
They Died With Their Boots OnThe Adventures of Robin Hood [Blu-ray]

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Trial of Lucullus and/or Jesse Camp...

I watched Aeon Flux, the animated series version, for the first time tonight. The first few episodes are fascinating. I'm pretty sure indie comics tackling genre stories are only now exploring that kind of territory.

However, the legacy of MTV's original programming reminds me of a Brecht piece called the Trial of Lucullus. I'm retelling this mainly from memory, so excuse any errors.

The Roman general Lucullus dies and enters the underworld. The Gods put him on trial to decide whether or not he deserves punishment or reward. The people who he dealt with in life are called before the assembled group to testify for or against him.

A long group of witnesses come forth, who condemn Lucullus for the lives lost and ruined to war, his service in the extension of an imperialist dictatorship, and for pillaging & looting his victims.

On his behalf, a cook comes forth. In the course of his conquests, Lucullus developed a taste for cherries. So he ordered his cook and other servants to bring some cherry tree saplings to plant in Italy. Thus, Lucullus has advanced Western civilization by introducing a new food-source. However, it is not enough on balance, and thus he is sent to hell.

In the same spirit, I am grateful that, for a brief period, MTV gave us The State, Aeon Flux, The Maxx, Beavis and Butthead and Daria. But it in no way makes up for them inflicting The Real World, Road Rules, Rob & Big, Laguna Beach, and Jersey Shore (among a list of others) upon us.

The State: The Complete SeriesDaria: The Complete Animated SeriesAeon Flux - The Complete Animated CollectionBrecht Collected Plays: Four: Round Heads and Pointed Heads, Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, SeƱora Carrar's Rifles, The Trial of Lucullus, and two one-act plays (Methuen World Classics)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sci-fi tropes that need to be banned for 50 years...

I had a serious post half-written about how I'm somewhat tired of the sci-fi genre. And then I realized it would probably be more helpful/fun to make a post of sci-fi tropes/plot devices that need to be banned for at least the next 50 years.

Clearly I'm not a governing body with any kind of authority, so, think of it this way. If you are writing something in which any of the following things are used, just think twice about it. Are you really writing something that original?

  1. Despite being the distant future, America still exists pretty much like it does now, both geographically and sociologically.
  2. Despite being the distant future, America's main political/military rivals are still exactly the same as they are today.
  3. Despite being the future, the one world government is run suspiciously like a US-style democracy, and most of the leaders seem to be white and/or male.
  4.  Despite being the distant future with high technological advancement, the roles of men and women are exactly the same. If they are being disputed, it is in the same way they are currently being disputed.
  5. Mankind has encountered only one alien race, and they are monolithically united in fighting us.
  6. The morality of totally wiping out a sentient race is never questioned, or only by a straw man.
  7. Mankind is technologically set back by a disaster. It responds by adapting SCA/medieval political units, with no alterations.
  8. When mankind loses technology and forms a quasi-utopian pre-Industrial society, no one ever requires internal medicine or modern pharmaceuticals.
  9. Despite major technical advances, including mass teleportation, mankind still relies on 19th/early 20th naval tactics for warfare. Especially in space.
  10. The Nazis/Confederates win World War II/the Civil War.
  11. The Nazis/Confederates win World War II/the Civil War with the aid of time travelers/aliens/dragons.
  12. A quasi-fascist strong man is the only one who can save the Future US/Earth from a major threat. Anyone who questions him is completely wrong.
  13. Except for uniforms that look like Iron Man joining a SWAT team, average soldiers are completely the same as the stock types from a World War II movie.
  14. Sexual relations and mores are exactly the same as they are currently.
Ok, this is just a start. If you have more suggestions, leave them in the comments.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

"A mother-in-law ought to know where her son-in-law can be arrested..."- The Three-Penny Opera, 1931, d. G.W Pabst

The Threepenny Opera - (The Criterion Collection)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

"Watch the picture, then. And don't move."

The post below contains my thoughts on Edward Dmytryk's Crossfire. This was one of the films I considered posting about for the Film Noir blog-a-thon, but didn't have enough original thoughts to bring it to a full post.

However, Ed Howard did end up writing a wonderful post about Crossfire. And, luckily for me, one of his thoughts, regarding the fact we know the culprit for the inciting murder relatively early on, plays into some of my thoughts on the performances in the film.

As I argue below, the tension for the film comes not from the mystery of who the killer is, but whether our heroes will let him get away with his crime.

Thoughts below the break...

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Spy versus spy (Joseph Losey division)

Modesty Blaise (1966)
d. Joseph Losey
Starring: Monica Vitti, Terrence Stamp, Dirk Bogarde, and Clive Revill

If there is one silver lining to wearying but banal illnesses like a cold or the flu, it is the way they justify catching up on one's movie viewing, especially lightweight cinematic confections. I might not be interested in watching Salo right now, but something like Modesty Blaise or a giallo or a minor '40's b-movie is right up my alley.

And Modesty Blaise is good. Not great, but definitely good. From the buzz (or lack of it), I expected to find something like the atrocious 1967 version of Casino Royale. Instead, it could sit comfortably alongside Mario Bava's Danger: Diabolik. Just like Bava's film, MB is a comic book caper that is definitely more style than substance, but that style...

Saturday, February 26, 2011

I'm listed MIA...

Whoah, thanks to everyone who checked out my post on Hangmen Also Die! as part of the For the Love of Film Noir Blog-a-thon.

I've got some follow-up posts in the works, but I spent last week in Chicago, and this week was spent with me drained by the twin demons of poor health and day jobs.

But on the positive side, I've now got a blu-ray player that is Wi-Fi enabled, so I'll be watching Netflix even more easily now. And I also ordered Warner Archive's version of The Outfit, so hopefully a review of that will be up soon.

In the meantime, I recommend my cinephile friends check out Walter Hill's little-remembered Extreme Prejudice (1987). Scripted by John Milius, starring Powers Boothe, Nick Nolte, Rip Torn, Clancy Brown, William Forsythe and Michael Ironsides, it really deserves to be better remembered. It's a very strange and uneven film, but it hangs together much better than you'd expect. It really strikes a fascinating balancing act between neo-western and action-thriller, with the tension between the two genres serving as a thematic emphasis on the way the American spirit/character has changed.

Extreme Prejudice

Monday, February 14, 2011

"We do not make mistakes!" HANGMEN ALSO DIE (1943)

d. Fritz Lang
Starring Brian Donlevy, Walter Brennan, Anna Lee and Gene Lockhart

A while back, the talented David Cairns posted an excellent tribute to the obscure noir/WWII film THE DEVIL STRIKES AT NIGHT by the German transplant/film director Robert Siodmak. It's an amazing reversal of audience sentiment, drawing us in with a traditional procedural, then reversing our sympathies and expectations by having the procedural aspects conducted by the Gestapo. It ends up being a damning condemnation of Nazi Germany because of the way even the most normal and necessary elements of civilization get perverted in the name of racist ideology and a refusal to confess weakness.

By the end of Hangmen Also Die! (one of two Hollywood efforts to dramatize the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich) Lang's direction and Brecht's script accomplishes a similar feat. Instead of perversely wishing that the Gestapo actually succeed in their goal of catching a man, I find myself sympathizing with a Nazi collaborator and traitor who is being pursued and prosecuted for a crime he never committed. Even though this man is complicit in the regime's crimes, we see the ways in which an ideologically corrupt government ends up obliterating the one man who should offer them no threat.

Some credit should also go to Gene Lockhart, who portrays his Quisling brewer Emil Czaka in a way that makes us despise him when he is riding high on the Nazi bandwagon, but whose very childish selfishness makes him pitiful when the world stops making sense. He's certainly evil and we want him punished, but, like Kafka's narrator in The Trial, we remember that feeling of guilt and the worry that whatever we're being punished for, it's for that crime that no one knows.

The complicated element, however, is that this is the thing that sticks with us at the end, the Quisling, the monster, being hunted down by his own kind, reality turned against him.
There certainly are a lot of intentional echoes of M in the end.

[ Sidenote: Record shows that Brecht was quite dissatisfied with this film, the only film project of his Hollywood years to reach completion. He felt that the script was watered down and the film was buried. Certainly the imbalanced nature of the film suggests he was right. On the other hand, Brecht the theorist often contradicted the results of Brecht the author. We need merely look at Mother Courage and Her Children for an example of how they disagree. The theorist thinks Mother Courage is a ridiculous, even monstrous figure at the end of the play, but the author has created someone we pity and admire.

Looking at the picture as a piece of the Brecht canon, there certainly are a lot of elements that strike me as Brechtian. Ideologically, the film is obsessed with the importance of mutual cooperation and, more importantly, the way the needs of the many outweigh the desires and petty moralities of the few. Again and again, a character is forced to embrace a behavior that is normally wrong, such as Nasha faking unfaithfulness or Svodoba refusing to take responsibility for his actions, because of the greater need of the group.

Also, there is a keen insight into the way groups and hierarchies function that represent the Brechtian fascination with the street scene. The opening, in which a crowd of industrialists and bureaucrats argue as they wait for the Reichsprotector, for example, highlights the contradictory impulses and desires of the toadies in the corporatist fascist state in an efficient and telling way. The same in a street scene where Anna Lee's attempts to reach Gestapo headquarters is discussed by the community, which then bands together to ostracize her.]

That's not to say that the rest of the film is bad or uninteresting. Fritz Lang is directing with James Wong Howe as his DP! The whole film plays out in a real world played by people so varied and homely in appearance (even our leads, when they are good-looking, are of boys and girls next door type) that even the smallest part is given the lived-in feel of a sketch or a woodcut.

And there really is an amazing visual eye and design sense to the film, like in a Gestapo investigator's office that is filled with clearly looted furniture and art mingled with shabby office furniture, or a horrifying series of sequences in Gestapo headquarters that pave the way for Orwell's description of similar spaces in 1984.

One of several arresting images from the Gestapo HQ sequence. 
(Image courtesy of DVDTalk)

There's so much to talk about here, from the daring and effective decision to have the Germans speak in German while the Czechs speak English, to the weird sense of dissonance brought on by Walter Brennan pretending to be an intellectual European when you want him to be croaking at John Wayne, to the way that Alexander Granach's Gestapo officer comes off as a perverse, sadistic but compelling version of Hercule Poirot.

But I'd rather encourage you to watch the film yourself and come back and leave your thoughts in the comments. It really is an amazing, under-rated film that deserves further exposure.

This blog post is part of the For the Love of Film (Noir) Blog-A-Thon, which is raising money to restore the influential but obscure noir The Sound of Fury. If you are interested in donating to this important cause, click here.

Hangmen Also DieFuryMother Courage and Her Children (Penguin Classics)