Saturday, April 16, 2011

“We’ve got people playing stringed instruments; it’s the end of days, brother.”

Once again, Brad and I have teamed up for another Blog-Off, so be sure to check out Brad's review/essay when you're finished here.

Christopher Morris' Four Lions initially caught my attention for two reasons. The more innocuous reason being that it is the first film distributed (Stateside, at least) by the Alamo Drafthouse's new distribution arm, Drafthouse Films. The second, potentially nocuous reason is that it is a farcical British comedy about a group of inept would-be London suicide bombers. I don't know how this film was received in its native England, but it's the kind of movie that would have generated plenty of controversy, had it gotten a little more mainstream attention that is.

Before getting into any kind of discussion about the merits of making such a comedy, I just want to say a few things about the movie itself. Overall, I think Four Lions is a great film. I think it primarily succeeds in its ability to handle tone, particularly its ability to gradually shift from a light-hearted farce to a grim dark comedy over 97 minutes. For the first 30 or so minutes, Four Lions is a black comedy almost in theory only. The suicide bombing aspect could have been easily switched out for any other harebrained scheme, and the movie would have only lost its nominal edginess. It is a fleet, fast-paced, British comedy, reminiscent of the excellent In the Loop. But just as it lulls the audience into almost forgetting that they are watching a group of potential suicide bombers, the movie begins introducing darker elements that proceed to progressively ground the movie in more realism. Its near-slapstick buffoonery slowly gives way to a grim, dark, and utterly audacious black comedy by the film's end. It's wonderfully executed, at times laugh out loud funny, and generally a bold success.

That being said, I would be remiss if I didn't at least try and address the issue of making a comedy about suicide bombers. Should a movie be made about suicide bombers? I'm of the mind that nothing is categorically off limits for comedy. Just, the more sensitive the subject, the more onus the filmmakers bear for justifying using such a topic as a basis for humor. Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, his 1940 lampooning of Hitler, gets referenced lot when discussing Four Lions as an example of a film that uses humor to address serious social and political topics. Generally, simply being funny can be enough for me, but the addition of some kind of social or personal insight will all but earn my seal of approval. I'm not terribly sensitive about a lot of topics, but it certainly is not a given that people can pull this off (Louis C.K., one of my favorite comedians, tends to walk this line but not always necessarily on the right side of it, in my opinion).

Does Four Lions justify its existence as a comedy regarding suicide bombers? I would argue yes, with one caveat. It is funny and ultimately treats its subject matter with appropriate reverence by the end. What it does not do, that some viewers may wish it would, is really explore more in-depth facets of suicide bombing. Whether that be what drives an individual to attempt such an act, what underlying social ills give rise to a culture featuring such behavior, or what the human consequences of suicide bombing actually are, Four Lions doesn't concern itself with delving too deeply into these issues. This may earn it some accusations of simple sensationalism, but personally I would disagree. It earns its place by virtue of being funny enough, while fully acknowledging what it's dealing with as the film progresses. I don't think it provides any scathing personal or social insight into suicide bombing, though. Some have argued that the movie is saying that suicide bombing is born of a dangerous mix of misguided passion and blatant idiocy, but within the insular world of the movie, almost everyone is an idiot, suicide bomber or not.

In writing about this, I realized that Four Lions prompted a lot more thoughts than I initially thought it would. Rather than make this any longer than it already is, I'll just say that Four Lions is destined to be a cult classic. It seems to have avoided a fair amount of controversy by virtue of flying more or less under the radar, but it's the rare film that seemed to have avoided its potential detractors and landed in the laps of its intended audience. An audience that I can only imagine will grow via word-of-mouth over time.

[NOTE: In writing this, I may have googled some very suspicious phrases. If I happen to disappear in the near future, please inform the US Federal Government of my undying patriotism.]

Saturday, April 9, 2011

“Do you want to meet a ghost?”

Warning: reading this post may kill you. Or at least turn you into an unsightly black smear on your wall. Beware…

Over the past couple of years, I've taken to listening to more and more podcasts (mostly of the film variety, with Battleship Pretension probably being my favorite). As listening to podcasts has increasingly become part of my daily routine, I've caught myself almost referring to podcast hosts as "friends" or "people I know" when talking to real-live people. I have yet to actually verbalize that mistake, but it's been on the tip of my tongue more than I care to admit. The immersion into online life is a massive contemporary issue, and one that becomes increasingly important by the day. It's no wonder, then, that movies like Catfish gain (relatively) large amounts of attention. All the more impressive is a decade-old film that elegantly, prophetically, and terrifyingly explores what the online world can potentially do to us as social animals.

Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa's 2001 film Pulse is considered by many to be the pinnacle of the J-Horror genre. And although it may be the best that I've seen, it is hardly a traditional horror film. The plot consists two parallel stories; one follows a young woman, Michi, whose friends and coworkers start to mysteriously kill themselves or simply disappear, while the other follows a college student, Ryosuke, as his first experience with the internet drags him into a dark world littered with ghosts seeping through into our world via the internet. Ultimately, their paths cross, as the epidemic spreads throughout Tokyo, Japan, and the rest of the world.

Pulse initially presents itself as a typical, though excellent, Japanese ghost movie. Characters start dying almost immediately, replaced not with corpses, but with dirty black smears hidden inside rooms sealed off with red tape. As Michi, Ryosuke, and their respective friends investigate, they stumble upon unsettling videos of the dead and missing online, as well as terrifying apparitions that appear from within the sealed rooms. Through the first 30-45 minutes, Pulse is a tense and terrifying horror movie about the ghosts in various machines. The ghosts themselves are nerve-wracking and otherworldly; Kurosawa's use of slow motion and blurry focus creates a simple but utterly terrifying effect. But what elevates Pulse beyond a well-executed horror film is its abandonment of the horror genre at about the 45 minute mark, at which point it veers away from horror and into a bleak philosophical meditation on isolation, loneliness, and the fear of death.

As I watched Pulse, I remember being thoroughly confused by it. It was going in directions that seemed so out of place with its own first half. After watching it, I wasn't sure what to make of it. My initial reaction wasn't so much that I liked it, but more of a general "what was that?" After a day or two, though, everything had seeped into my brain, rattled around a bit, and I realized how thoroughly impressed I was with it. It is dark, bleak, and more than a little confusing, but it's ultimately a fantastic movie about the dangers of the replacement of real life social interactions with digital facsimiles. It grimly warns of the dangers of our ever increasing need for interconnectedness being taken over by less and less nourishing replacements. Our reliance on easily accessible replacements ultimately breeds a desperate feeling of loneliness and isolation, instilling a fear that drives more attempts to feel connected, but that simply erode social ties even more.

Part of what is so impressive about Pulse is its ability to seemingly have increasing relevance as the years go by. Made during the nascent years of the internet's takeover of mainstream life, its horrific vision of what our reliance on technology does to individuals seems amazingly prophetic (albeit somewhat dated, especially when it comes to Ryosuke and his initial ventures into the computer world). Unlike many sci-fi and horror stories warning of an overreliance on technology, Pulse sets its sights not on technology's takeover of human function, but its takeover and erosion of the interconnectedness of human existence. Ten years old and I struggle to think of a film more geared toward the (admittedly paranoid and overly grim) concerns and issues of our evolving social lives than Pulse.

I recently had an exchange with a college friend via Facebook. Among other things, we both lamented that our college friendships seem to have withered over the past few years. We were both surprised and disheartened by this, both of us assuming that our various friendships were too important and meaningful than to just evaporate over time. I made a passing mention that maybe Facebook provides a bare minimum of connection that no one makes the effort to really, truly keep in touch. The fact that our friends' lives are so easily accessible online removes all motivation to actually keep in contact. I'm sad to say, I think I (and Kurosawa) may have been right.

[On a related and depressing side note, I passed up the opportunity to attend a leisure suit party last night, in which the leisure suits were actually provided for you, in order to sit in my apartment alone with my cat and work. Probably best not to take my advice when it comes to maintaining some semblance of a human social life. Consider me your bleak, ghastly Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.]

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The (not really) annual OM BlogMix or: How a good of a mix can I make in 5 hours?

While drinking my coffee this morning, I realized that today was the fourth anniversary of my very first Octopus Motor post. There once was a time when I would post a special annual OM anniversary mix every year to mark the occasion (see, for real). Seeing as I actually remembered in time this year, I thought I'd give it another go. Because I decided this this morning, I couldn't really get started until I got home from work and it needed to be posted by midnight in order to be dated correctly. So how good of a mix can I crank out in roughly 5 hours? For the answer, join me, won't you, in this self-congratulatory, pointless (but hopefully fun) bit of wankery.

Scissor – Liars (Sisterworld, 2010)

I've written about Liars plenty already (they were even on the first anniversary OM BlogMix), so I won't belabor the point. I love Liars. Even though Liars and Sisterworld were both somewhat underwhelming compared to their first three albums, "Scissor" is a fantastic song that does a pretty admirable job of encapsulating everything there is to love about Liars. It's gentle, brutal, sparse, heavy, and, above all, weird and unpredictable. All in the span of about 3 ½ minutes.

Everyone Choose Sides – The Wrens (Meadowlands, 2003)

I remember buying this album, listening to it and thinking, "eh, that was OK, I guess…" I also remember putting the album on months later and immediately replaying it as soon as it ended. I guess it took a while to grow on me, but Meadowlands is easily one of my favorite albums front-to-back. Stylistically it might not venture too far from typical indie rock, but what the Wrens do, they do just so goddamned well.

Common People – Pulp (Different Class, 1995)

I have to admit, Pulp has always been one of those bands that I heard about but never actually heard. Up until recently when I got my hands on a copy of Different Class, they were always just one of those bands that I knew was a big deal without ever actually hearing them or knowing anything about them. I can't offer my verdict on whether or not Pulp are as worthwhile as I've been lead to believe, but Different Class is solid, and "Common People" is certainly one of the highlights.

Rid of Me – PJ Harvey (Rid of Me, 1993)

PJ Harvey is a woman who I find to be both incredibly sexy and absolutely terrifying. Rid of Me is an album filled with brutalizing songs filled with bitterness, anger, resentment, and heartbreak, all propelled by Steve Albini's razor sharp, stark production. The entire album drips sex, but not the sexy kind. The kind that will leave everyone bruised, bloodied, and filled with regrets. (Plus, it features the greatest song ever about a woman bragging about how big her dick is.)

In the Shadow of the Horns – Darkthrone (A Blaze in the Northern Sky, 1991)

As one of the preeminent members of the Norwegian Black Metal scene, Darkthrone has earned their place among bands like Emperor, Mayhem, and Enslaved in the pantheon of extreme metal. Darkthrone's music has always been more straightforward than their peers, but never any less unrelenting. They've definitely earned their legendary status with absolute classics like A Blaze in the Northern Sky.

Lux Aeterna – Clint Mansell (Requiem for a Dream OST, 2000)

Clint Mansell seems to have left pop music behind for good to focus solely on film scores, which is without a doubt a good thing. There's a reason that this song keeps getting reappropriated for excessively dramatic trailers over and over again. As the center piece of the score for the devastating (and excessively melodramatic) Requiem for a Dream, "Lux Aeterna" is a simply a stirring, powerful (and yes, dramatic) piece of music.

Jah War – The Bug, feat. Flowdan (London Zoo, 2008)

Confession: I don't like reggae music. At all. But I love the reggae-infused house music on The Bug's London Zoo. I love its grit, its bleakness, its dark paranoia. It's a suffocating and exhilarating album, and no songs fill me with the excitement and unease that permeate the entire thing quite like "Jah War." This was definitely the song that served as the gateway for me to appreciate the entire thing.

Secrets of Sumerian Sphynxology – Melechesh (Sphynx, 2004)

Originally hailing from Israel, Melechesh is the world's only (as far as I know) self-described "Mesopotamian metal" band. Over the past decade or so, Melechesh have proven themselves to be one of the most technically proficient and interesting metal bands around today. There's plenty to say about them, but I'll just leave it at the fact that they're phenomenal. ("Secrets of Sumerian Sphynxology" may be a great song, but it's certainly not my favorite. Just my favorite song title.)

The Mercy Seat – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (Tender Prey, 1988)

Nick Cave (and the Bad Seeds) excels in his specialized heady mix of gothic, organ-grinding, post-punk, Americana, murder ballads with "The Mercy Seat." While his music is often infused with a drier than dirt wry wit, "The Mercy Seat" is unrelentingly bleak, and is one of Cave's best. A couple years ago, Amazon had a massive sale on Nick Cave mp3s. I have no idea why they did that, but that was an awesome day.

A Horse Called Golgotha – Baroness (Blue Record, 2009)

Apparently there's a kick-ass metal scene in the steamy, Spanish moss festooned town of Savannah, GA that I've only just discovered. Baroness and Black Tusk both play with an urgent driving force, combined with a certain sludgy, swampy, Southern-ness. Black Tusk may be more straight forward metal, with Baroness having a bit of a prog-y psychedelic bent to a lot of their music, but both bands hold their own in representing a (hopefully) growing Southern metal scene.

Squeeze Me Macaroni – Mr. Bungle (Mr. Bungle, 1991)

Just because I have to have at least one Mike Patton song in every mix. This was just about the least weird Mr. Bungle song I could find.

Odessa – Caribou (Swim, 2010)

I listened to this song exactly once before I put it in this mix. Yup, that's just how good it is.

B.O.B. – Outkast (Stankonia, 2000)

I don't really have much to say about "B.O.B." I'm guessing everyone has heard it before, and I'm guessing everyone loves it. As a matter of fact, I'm also guessing everyone loves Outkast just as a general rule.

Atlas – Battles (Mirrored, 2007)

An improbable supergroup of sorts featuring members of Helmet, Tomahawk, Don Caballero, and Storm & Stress, Battles is a mindblowingly good experimental instrumental band. Mirrored came my way in a massive music swap with a friend of mine over a year ago. It has not ceased to be in my go-to rotation of music ever since. (Life tip: Battles makes for excellent music for over-caffeinated all night work marathons.)

Center of the Universe – Built to Spill (Keep it like a Secret, 1999)

I remember being at a party a few years ago, talking to a guy from Boise. I had just found out that a band I liked was from Boise and couldn't remember who it was. The guy kept insisting that it was Built to Spill, to which I repeatedly responded, "no, it wasn't Built to Spill…who was it?" Turns out he was totally right, it was Built to Spill, and I wasted like 20 minutes of that guy's life debating him about it. There's really no point to this story. Built to Spill is pretty great, and Keep it like a Secret is a great album.

We Belong – Pat Benatar (Tropico, 1984)

I like Pat Benatar. I like this song. And I wanted to end on an uplifting note. You're welcome.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

“This is what it’s all about. Beer, sun, and naked honeys making out underwater!”

It has been over nine months since I posted here. Children have been conceived and born since the OM was last up and running. It's been a sad, sad state of affairs around these parts. But thankfully, as he has done in the past, my brother Brad has resurrected the OM with a tempting offer of yet another OMvBLDPFMBoSD. On the table this time around? Piranha 3D, now in glorious 2D in my living room! So after you're done reading my (much more insightful and better written) take, be sure to check out Brad's.

Spring Break has descended on the small, usually sleepy Lake Victoria, overrunning the town with bikini-clad coeds and shirtless meatheads partying and boozing. A good orgiastic time was had by all. The end. Oh wait, not so fast. It seems a local earthquake has cracked open the lake bottom, opening a fissure into an enormous, previously isolated and self-contained underground lake, releasing countless vicious prehistoric piranhas intent on feasting upon the hordes of oblivious revelers. Then a good orgiastic time is had by all.

Director Alexandre Aja built his reputation as part of the vanguard of extreme French horror (e.g., Inside, Frontier(s), and most notoriously Martyrs) with his 2003 film Haute Tension (a film whose merits Brad and I adamantly disagreed about). Although Piranha is Aja's 3rd English language film, after his The Hills Have Eyes and Mirrors remakes, it is a marked tonal departure from his previous movies. Rather than the oppressively grim, nihilism of his previous movies, Piranha was clearly always meant to be campy, exploitative trash, more intent on having visceral fun than hammering the audience with dehumanizing brutality. Piranha is replete with near constant nudity and exaggerated, pretty silly, albeit still very graphic, violence.

Overall, Piranha is almost exactly what I was expecting it to be, but it was still a bit disappointing. My initial reaction was somewhat reminiscent of my reaction to Hostel, though I liked Piranha much more. I think there's an inherent problem with trying to make an intentionally campy exploitation movie. Sometimes a film, by pure accident, slips from the realm of bad to stupidly and entertainingly insane. But attempts to recreate that phenomenon on purpose usually rob the subsequent film of an earnestness that is often a necessary and organic part of its appeal. Essentially, too much self-awareness can doom a project like Piranha. Although Piranha is definitely not "doomed" by self-awareness, it is hobbled by it. For whatever reason, I didn't care for the Richard Dreyfuss cameo at the beginning, and a scene in which Ving Rhames uses a boat motor as a weapon was more a rip-off than wink towards Dead Alive. Christopher Lloyd's appearance as a manic marine biologist was great fun, though.

Speaking of the cast, Piranha sports a pretty impressive roster. It's always great to see Elizabeth Shue, here as Lake Victoria's sheriff (she seriously needs to get more and better work; she was easily the best part of Leaving Las Vegas, outshining Nicholas Cage's Oscar-winning but painfully one-note performance). Adam Scott is an actor on the ascent that I always like seeing, and he's good here as a seismologist/general man of action. Jerry O'Connell appears as a Joe Francis (of Girls Gone Wild and general terrible human being fame) surrogate, and while I don't much care for O'Connell, his admittedly one-dimensional performance is played to the nines and a lot of fun. Everyone seems very game for the very over-top silliness of the movie. Including a cameo by Eli Roth as the host of a wet T-shirt contest, that's really only worth mentioning to point out that at one point he calls a woman's breasts her "Danny DeVitos."

All that being said, Piranha is an entertaining, trashy good time. For all of its problems, Piranha does succeed in its essential mission, to cram as much sex, violence, and superficial fun into a lean 88 minutes as humanly possible. The aforementioned violence varies greatly in quality, entirely dependent on whether Aja is utilizing CGI (which is embarrassingly bad) or practical effects (which are extremely gory and overall pretty impressive). Especially during the central set-piece of the movie, a pretty astoundingly prolonged scene of the piranhas' attack on the party-goers. For instance, an initially great effect (that loses a lot of its impact due to its repeated use) is when someone is attacked in the water and then pulled out to reveal their limbs have been reduced to skinny, bloody bones, held together by a minimal amount of flesh. (The first few times this happens, it's a great use of practical special effects and an effective reveal. After a while, all it did was remind me of that old Titannica sketch from Mr. Show.) Piranha does its job of providing a number of memorable kills, such as an attack victim splitting in half as she is being carried out of the lake by two cops and (in my opinion the most cringe inducing) a woman getting her hair tangled in a boat propeller. And I have to admit, the very strange extended nude underwater ballet scene was something I have never seen before. Made all the stranger by characters' constant insistence that it was "so hot."

I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention the 3D elements. Piranha was filmed in 2D and post-converted (as opposed to having been filmed with 3D cameras a la Avatar), but was always planned to be 3D. And the "it's coming right at me" moments are pretty obvious to pick out. There are a lot of piranhas that turn and snap at the camera, a couple of scenes of fast moving piranha-vision, and at least one moment of a girl puking directly at the camera. Probably the most notorious moment in Piranha is Jerry O'Connell's death, in which the piranhas devour the lower half of his body, including "taking [his] penis." Cut to a shot of a piranha swimming up to you and regurgitating said half-digested penis. I'm sure seeing this movie in the theaters in 3D would have amped up its trashy appeal, but I'm not sure that it would have been worth all the extra money.

Overall, Piranha 3D gave me pretty much exactly what I was looking for. While it wasn't overly satisfying, it still provided a pretty substanceless good time. This is very much the cinematic equivalent of junk food, plenty of empty calories with absolutely no nutritional value.

[EDIT: In true OM fashion, this has been up for less than an hour, and I've already had to fix a couple of typos.]

Sunday, May 9, 2010

“Do you love him, Loretta? [I love him awful.] Oh God, that’s too bad.”

Well, we're at it once again. Brad and I are writing up simultaneous posts, and at the risk of pigeon-holing ourselves after only two ventures, we're doing another Nicolas Cage movie: Moonstruck. I promise that the next OMvBLDPFM blog-off won't be about Nicolas Cage. It'll be about F.W. Marnau. Or maybe Aliens versus Predator: Requiem. Or something in between. Who knows? But not Cage-related. Probably.

Moonstruck is a multiple Oscar-winning romantic comedy from 1987 about a few days in Brooklyn when the full moon brings the trials and tribulations of love to the fore. Cher plays Loretta, a widow, who upon accepting a marriage proposal from Danny Aiello, agrees to invite his estranged brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage) to their wedding in an attempt to act as a go-between in patching up their rift while Aiello flies to Italy to be by his dying mother's bedside. Loretta, as much as she resists, falls hard and hopelessly in love with the emotionally intense and charismatic Ronny. The conflict between what Loretta wants v. what she can't resist, who she likes v. who she loves, and doing what she wants v. doing what she must is mirrored in a pair of subplots involving her father and her mother. These various conflicts play out in a close-knit, family-oriented, über-Italian Brooklyn setting.

I had seen the first half of Moonstruck a couple of years ago. I was at a conference in Tampa when I came down with the flu. The first thing I did when I got home was brew some chamomile tea and turn on TCM. Moonstruck was on, so I laid in bed, drank tea, and watched a romantic comedy starring Cher. When later recounting this to my mom, she promptly asked me when I had turned into an old woman. My mom's opinion aside, the truth is, I really liked what I saw. It was entertaining and heart-warming in a completely comfortable and non-threatening sort of way. It turns out the movie only starts strong before meandering through some perfunctory plot points, eventually petering to a painfully unsatisfactory conclusion.

That may sound overly harsh, but given its critical acclaim and its strong beginning, the mediocrity on display is a little more painful than usual. Aside from a couple of good performances and a few good moments, Moonstruck doesn't have much to offer that can't be found in your typical romantic comedy. Not to dump on romantic comedies. Some of them can be pretty great (see It Happened One Night, The Apartment, High Fidelity, or even Notting Hill), it's just that Moonstruck is decidedly not great.

As far as its Oscar pedigree, Moonstruck picked up wins for Best Actress (Cher), Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Olympia Dukakis, playing Loretta's mother, Rose), as well as three additional nominations for Best Director (Norman Jewison), Best Picture, and Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Vincent Gardenia, playing Loretta's father, Cosmo). After watching the movie, I'm convinced that Moonstruck just had the good luck of being 1987's pick for the annual non-stuffy Oscar pet. Much like Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, Erin Brockovich, The Blind Side, and countless others before them, there always seems to be one mediocre movie that has some combination of pseudo-indie (and thus "artistic") credibility and mainstream appeal that the Academy touts and rewards with undeserved attention (full disclosure: I've never seen Juno, so for all I know, it deserved all the praise it got, but the rest are painfully average, at best). The Academy seems to pick one a year and nominates it for a host of awards, presumably to draw popular attention to the bloated, meaningless, political, and ultimately very frustrating self pat on the back that is the Oscars. My guess is that Moonstruck was 1987's offer from the Academy to the hoi polloi.

Ultimately, the worst element to Moonstruck was the story. It suffers from spreading three tales of infidelity in the service of love, infidelity in spite of love, and fidelity in the face of temptation too thin over its 100 minute run time. The romance of the primary storyline never gives the viewer any reason to buy into it, it simply plugs along with a mechanical sort of "because that's the way it's written" mentality. It very obviously takes for granted the viewers' need for any kind of relational development. Not fairing any better, the two subplots are only easy to believe because they're so trite. One thing all three storylines have in common is that none of them go anywhere of interest. The ending to Moonstruck is so pointless and insulting that it borders on personal offense. If you've ever seen an ending to a movie that is a frustrating combination of obvious and so stupid you can't believe they actually went through with it, that's the ending to Moonstruck.

The beginning is comfortably enjoyable, but the movie quickly reaches an apex when Cage's Ronny delivers a manic, melodramatic monologue about the origins of the rift with his brother somewhere around the half an hour mark. There are a number of ridiculous lines that Cage delivers with a pitch perfect tongue-in-cheek earnestness, if such a thing is possible. That scene and the final breakfast table scene are easily the highlights of the movie, with Cage replacing manic, off-kilter intensity for a comical silence as he plays passive observer to the unfolding drama. Cage and Dukakis's understated performance as the somewhat prideful, always calm, and (mostly) quietly suffering matriarch are really the only two things Moonstruck has going for it. And unfortunately, that's simply not enough.

Don't forget to check out Brad's take over at Brad Liening's Daily Poem Factory-Machine.

[Note: I glanced over the last few entries, and Jesus there are a lot of typos. I'll try and put a little more effort into proofreading these things before posting them. Sorry about that. It's kind of embarrassing, actually.]

[Note: God damn it, I already found a typo and fixed it. Seriously, why is this so hard?]

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

“Like every serial killer already knows, eventually fantasizing just doesn’t do it anymore.”

I don't have any kind of clever personal lead in to this. Basically, my friend Conor called me and asked if I wanted to see Kick-Ass at the Alamo, and I said yes.

For those who don't know (presumably people who aren't huge nerds), Kick-Ass follows a nondescript teenage boy who asks himself, "why hasn't anyone ever tried to be a super hero?" and decides to take it upon himself to do just that. He figures that super-heroism requires nothing more than a costume and a desire to help people. Granted, he has no super powers, is movie-scrawny (which is to say super fit, but skinny), and knows nothing about crime fighting, or fighting in general, for that matter. After constructing a costume out of a scuba suit and naming himself "Kick-Ass," he sets out on the streets of New York City to fight crime. This sets off two chains of events: first, one of his ill-conceived attempts at stopping crime is recorded and uploaded to the internet, making him a viral sensation; second, he runs into a father-daughter team of masked crime fighters who have been operating for an indeterminate amount of time, but entirely under the radar.

I will start by saying that I enjoyed the movie. It's incredibly vulgar, extremely violent (in that over-the-top, comical, desensitizing way), and is frequently laugh out loud funny. It's a clever, action-heavy, super-hero send up, that at its best is exciting and fun, and at its worst is a little too wink-at-the-audience and has a tendency to fall into the same clichés it's satirizing. People who aren't into comics and super-heroes will probably find it to be enjoyable escapism, and people who are familiar with the ins-and-outs of comics will find it to be smart (and at times, frustrating) on top of that.

The two basic storylines mentioned above more or less breakdown what I liked about Kick-Ass and what didn't really work for me. I really like the character of Kick-Ass. Granted, his real-life alter-ego is something of a non-entity, but the ways in which he attempts to adopt the super-hero lifestyle can be absolutely hilarious. In a twisted bizarro sense, he actually succeeds at his job. In multiple scenes, Kick-Ass successfully stops crime on his own essentially by getting his ass kicked. Either the criminals spend too much time beating him and the cops show up or his beating attracts too much attention from nearby gawkers. Kick-Ass is perpetually in over his head in a comically brutal yet determined way. His naivety and determination in the face multiple savage beating and near total ineptitude manages to elicit a funny combination of inspiration and embarrassment, admiration and facepalming.

Mixed into Kick-Ass's personal storyline is a fair amount of pretty clever satire. The dialogue, for instance, is often intentionally clunky and heavy-handed, and when it hits, is a pitch perfect send-up of tough-guy super-hero movies. There's a fair amount of comedy mined from the idea that the simple pragmatics of being a hero are actually a lot harder than one would probably anticipate. For instance, Kick-Ass sets up a Myspace page to act as a sort of "hero upon request" system after he realizes that just wandering the streets looking for crime doesn't really work (such as his attempt to find a lost cat). This side of the movie, the more comedic and satirical side, is really what I enjoyed.

Eventually Kick-Ass runs afoul of a low level drug dealer. Coincidentally, a father-daughter hero team has been targeting this particular drug ring. Hit-Girl and Big Daddy save Kick-Ass and thus he is introduced to two legitimate vigilant heroes. At this point the real plot kicks in, as Kick-Ass is thrust into real-life crime-fighting and the battle between a drug king pin and a pair of sociopathic costumed avengers. It's this element to the movie that didn't work nearly as well for me. It bears exciting action fruit, to be fair, but it also undercuts a lot of the more clever satire from the rest of the movie. In most respects, Kick-Ass turns into a typical super-hero story.

There are two things that I feel obligated to mention. The first is the character of Hit-Girl, an extremely foul-mouthed eleven year old girl trained by her father her entire life to be a brutally efficient killer. Just about every review of Kick-Ass makes explicit mention of Hit-Girl and how she steals the movie. Personally, I wasn't all that impressed. The acting is fine for a young actress, but hardly noteworthy. Her character is extremely one-note, the novelty of watching a little girl dismember mobsters and drug dealers wears off almost as quickly as the novelty of watching a young girl spout near endless streams of profanity. It's sort of like a bloody version of Sarah Silverman. I get it. The trailer alone was enough for me to tire of the shtick. About the only thing that stuck out to me as really good about the Hit-Girl character was that since she is so small, a lot of her stunts were pretty acrobatic (a lot of jumping and flipping over and around the villains).

The other thing I feel I must mention is Nicolas Cage, who plays Big Daddy. His performance is oddly un-Cage-like, too self-aware and too labored to really be a true "Nic Cage" performance. This isn't to say it's bad, it fits with the style of the movie quite well, actually. From the way he refers to his daughter as "child" to the stilted Adam West speaking cadence he adopts as Big Daddy to the special costume element that perfectly rounds out his disguise. It's an over-acted performance that I found enjoyable at a pretty easy and superficial level. It's no Wicker Man or Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, but it's pretty fun just the same.

Oh wait, forget what I said earlier, there is a personal side to this entry. I guess it's more of an outro than intro this time, though.

After the movie, Conor and I decided to head out around downtown for a while. We first headed to the Driskill, a fancy historic hotel in downtown Austin with a very relaxed and comfortable bar. First of all, there were two separate wedding parties at the bar, so brides, grooms, and fancily dressed wedding-goers abounded in the background. To start off with, I order a whiskey and ginger ale, only to be told that the bar is out of ginger ale. The bartender asks me if I would prefer a whiskey with coke and sprite mixed together. I respond, "uh…does that work?" with flashes of Seinfeld going through my head. He assures me that ginger ale is just sprite with a splash of coke, so I acquiesce. And what do you know? He's right! It totally tasted the same. So Conor and I take our drinks and plop down on a big cushy leather couch with garish/awesome spotted cow hide sides.

After about a drink, we relocate to the bar, at which point Conor and I became privy to the hooking up of a pair of middle-aged bar flies. To my right was a forty-something man wearing a white T-Shirt that said "I (heart) lesbians" and to Conor's left was a lone forty-something woman. We were their go-betweens as they passed notes written on bar napkins back and forth. Eventually the man moved to sit next to her and they proceeded to full-on, open-mouthed make out, while the woman rubbed the man's crotch with her knee, before the two departed into the night, holding hands (seriously, holding hands). Watching those two may have been the highlight of the night.

At one point I get up to use the bathroom. The Driskill bathroom has two urinals with back stones in the bottom in lieu of urinal cakes and stalls with full floor-to-ceiling doors. I walk into the bathroom and both urinals are in use, so I head to the first stall. I open the door just as the man inside is pulling up his pants. After a quick, "oops!" I shut the door and go to the next stall, where I again walk in on a man pulling up his pants. After a somewhat bewildered, "shit, sorry!" the first guy explains that there are no locks on the door, and just as he was pulling up his pants, he saw the handle turn. He said he figured it was "uncanny timing" so he didn't say anything. I proceed to use the now vacant stall and walk out to wash my hands. There is a fifty-something Asian man in full engineering nerd attire (khaki pants, short-sleeved button-down shirt, tucked in, with an enormous phone holstered on his belt) using the sink next to me. A stranger yells from the urinals "I can't tell my asshole from a black stone in a urinal!" This makes no sense to me, but sends the Asian man into boisterous guffaws and muttering things like "good one" to himself as he strolls out of the bathroom. Nothing about the individual elements is that outrageous, but added together, it was one of the more surreal bathroom trips in recent memory.

The night finally ends with Conor and I meeting up with my friend Lance at a place around the corner from the Driskill. My attempts to meet up with Lance lead to a frustrating "who's on first" series of texts. Lance: Come meet us at Lavaca St between 4th and 5th. Me: Cool, where are you at? Lance: Lavaca St. Me: I know, which bar. Lance: Lavaca St between 4th and 5th. Eventually I gave up trying to get Lance to tell me where he is, and it wasn't until Conor and I saw the sign that we realized the bar was actually called Lavaca St, as well as being located on Lavaca St. We all had a good chuckle when Conor and I got there. "Oh, hahaha."

And so ended my Kick-Ass adventure…

Monday, April 19, 2010

“I need the coke back. I snorted what I thought was coke, turns out it was heroin, and I have to be to work in an hour…”

Well, the time has come. It's the Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans Octopus Motor v. Brad Liening's Daily Poem Factory-Machine Blog-off Smack Down: 2010 (aka BL:PoCNOOMvBLDPFMBoSD: 2010)! So be sure to check out Brad Liening's Daily Poem Factory-Machine for Brad's take on Bad Lieutenant, and feel free to declare the Octopus Motor the winner in the comments while you're there.

I fully intended to watch Abel Ferrera's original 1992 Bad Lieutenant before writing this, but I haven't gotten around to it. And to be perfectly honest, I don't think it would have contributed much. I've seen Bad Lieutenant, but it was years ago and I don't remember much. Harvey Keitel is a lieutenant in the NYPD investigating the rape and murder of a nun, and all I really remember is a lot of Catholic guilt themes and two specific scenes that fall into the "things I can't unsee" category of odd and unpleasant (one involves watching a fully nude Keitel smoking crack and crying while shaking his erect penis at the camera, and the other I don't think I could describe without feeling all kinds of dirty). But really, the only connection between the original and the new Bad Lieutenant is that the main character is a drug-addled police lieutenant with dubious morals investigating a murder. (Much has been made about the name since Herzog's Bad Lieutenant is not really a sequel or remake, but it's not really worth getting into. Essentially, no one is happy about it.)

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans follows Terence McDonagh (Nicholas Cage), a police officer in New Orleans who is promoted to lieutenant after saving a drowning prisoner during Hurricane Katrina, and in the process hurts his back. Jump forward one year and McDonagh is addicted to any number of narcotics (primarily the pain medication for his back and coke/crack), seems to be entirely morally bankrupt (e.g. he routinely shakes down drunk night clubbers for drugs and parking lot hand jobs), and has been placed in charge of investigating the execution of a Senegalese family. What follows is two hours of Cage lumbering and slumping through the seedier parts of New Orleans, ingesting huge amounts of drugs, hanging out with his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes), trying to manage his gambling debt, and attempting to solve the murder by tracking a local drug kingpin (Xzibit).

There are two ways to approach Bad Lieutenant, one as a Herzog film, the other as a Nicholas Cage film. Let's tackle the Herzog angle first.

To be perfectly honest, I have absolutely no idea what Herzog was doing making this movie. The entire film has a pervasive devil-may-care attitude about it. Herzog doesn't seem the least bit concerned with making a sensible or trenchant police procedural, but he also doesn't seem to be interested in subverting or deconstructing the genre either. In fact, there seems to be little to no point to the movie, aside from assembling a series of events that range from hilarious to strange to awkward (many times all three). It's fairly obvious that Herzog is having a lot of fun with the movie, but it's also seems fairly obvious that he doesn't really care one way or the other about it. This seems particularly obvious as the movie draws to a close. Ultimately the movie culminates in a series of events that are so wildly incompatible with everything that has happened before it, swinging wildly off in tone in the final scenes (McDonagh's boss's final appearance is definitely a highlight, though). If you're willing to look hard enough, you can probably pick out serious themes and elements, but personally, I feel like that would be a combination of trying too hard and, as far as I can tell, missing the point. In sum, I have no idea what Herzog was doing or thinking, but ultimately that may be beside the point.

That previous paragraph may make it sound like I didn't like Bad Lieutenant, but that's not entirely true. Let's now consider this as a Nicholas Cage vehicle. This is the most recent evidence supporting my theory that Cage's career hasn't been derailed in recent years by progressively worse acting, but more by horrible decisions regarding what movies to appear in. Cage's acting style has always been overblown and full of full throttle eccentricity, but it's just the case that Moonstruck and Leaving Las Vegas are simply better movies than The Wicker Man and Ghost Rider. While I'm a little skeptical of arguments that Bad Lieutenant is a legitimately good movie, its careless and absurdist tone is the perfect match for Cage's careless and absurdist emoting.

Cage shuffles through the movie with a constant, painful, slanted gait. His eyes never cease to have a wide-eyed, intense craziness. He alternates between a stern steeliness and a (usually crack induced) hyper-mania. This is, without a doubt, entirely Cage's movie. His performance is a constant combination of impressive, tireless, charismatic, and train-wreck fascinating. It perpetually blurs the line between being awe-inspiring and cringe-inducing. In every scene, Cage seems to elicit amazement for both good and bad reasons. For every great scene like when Cage and his partner, played by Val Kilmer, debate whether or not to save the drowning prisoner, there are scenes like Cage's the nonsensical threat to "kill all of you, to the break of dawn!" And managing to hit both the good and bad notes in a single scene, there is the certain to be classic old lady scene:

Ultimately, would I say Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a good movie? No, but that's not to say it's bad. "Good" simply seems like an inapt description. I actually really liked it. It is certainly enjoyable as a near unbelievable piece of B-movie exploitation, but there is the constant voice that sits in the back of your mind, prodding you with questions about what the hell Herzog is doing. Cage's performance, and in turn the entire movie, is almost too big and overblown and borderline nonsensical to completely wrap your mind around, but it is almost guaranteed to leave you feeling exhausted in a vaguely good, if somewhat confusing and slightly dirty way. (Probably the way a crack fueled parking lot hand job would make you feel. I guess. Maybe. Probably not. Nevermind.)

Don't forget to check out Brad Liening's Daily Poem Factory-Machine for his half of the BL:PoCNOOMvBLDPFMBoSD: 2010.

PS. Apparently everybody has Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans on the brain lately. Shortly after Brad and I agreed to joint reviews, the AV Club wrote it up for their "New Cult Cannon" series and the /Filmcast chose to review it this week rather than a new release. Odd.