Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Goodbye 2008, Hello 2009

I can't go out of 2008 on that angry rant against Time Warner. That just wouldn't be right.

So here are some things that should help 2008 go out with a smile:

Kitten Party!

Crispin Glover + the Fonze + Jefferson = Amazing!

And for a little inspiration to get us all started on the right foot in 2009, here is Bo Schembechler's infamous "The Team" speech:

Those who stay will be champions.

Happy New Year!

I hate Time Warner

One of the few perks of living in my apartment building is that I get free cable TV. Actually, that's probably the only perk. If you know me, then I'm sure you've heard plenty of stories about my building, including but not limited to my mentally ill neighbors and their shenanigans, the drug addict ODing upstairs, and the fact that it can take over 6 months for them to fill maintenance requests. The downside to the free cable, though, is that I have to put up with Time Warner and their bull shit.

Earlier in the year, a dispute between Time Warner and LIN TV (owner of local NBC affiliate KXAN) resulted in Time Warner pulling NBC from its line-up. I get over 70 channels, and yet I was missing one of the major networks. It didn't help that this happened right about the time 30 Rock came back on the air. (This was eventually settled, and NBC is back).

Even though I get cable TV for free, I have to pay for cable internet. After trying to live without internet for about a year and half, I finally decided that I just had to bite the bullet and order it. In part for work purposes, but also because, like everyone, I just like having the internet. Seeing as I already had Time Warner cable in my apartment, I just decided to order internet from them as well. The $35 a month for internet seemed a little steep, but whatever. That is, until, I got my bill for this month, and the rate has jumped. Now I'm paying almost $50 a month, which strikes me as fucking bogus.

And finally, just this morning, I found out that at midnight, I could lose all Viacom channels. Again, Time Warner is in some dispute, and they're going to screw their customers over by just dropping the channels until it gets settled. I'm not too worried about losing MTV or Nickelodeon, but losing Comedy Central kind of sucks, and I'm not sure what other channels are owned by Viacom. Regardless, it's ridiculous that two massive companies are having some kind of dumbass pissing contest, and in the end all Time Warner customers and Viacom viewers get screwed.

I hate you Time Warner. I'm thinking it might be time to Go Grande, and if you live in the Austin area and are thinking about getting cable or internet, I suggest you do the same. Fucking Time Warner…

I still think the snow is pretty (as long as I don’t have to drive in it)

A few posts back I got a little whimsical about snow in Austin, and ended up sparking a heated debate (or at least what passes for a heated debate here at the OM) in the comments. I half-jokingly said I was going to take a bunch of pictures of the snow while up in Michigan for the holidays. Guess what? I did!

Enjoy some nice snowy pictures of my parents' backyard:

And just because, here's a picture of my cat sitting in my suitcase while I was trying to pack:

Happy Holidays! Have a fun and safe New Years!

Monday, December 15, 2008

“And here we go!”

So, I finally got around to watching The Dark Knight. I think I may be the last person in the U.S. if not the world to see this movie. I will forgo warning about spoilers, since there is probably a 105% chance that you've already seen this movie. Here are some general thoughts I had about it. Before I get into it, though, let me just say that I liked it. I don't know that I'd say it was the 4th best movie ever (as it is currently ranked on IMDb, which really just makes it the 4th most popular movie to come out recently), but I would say it was good. Great, even. But, that being said, there were a couple things about The Dark Knight that really bothered me.

I remember columnists and commentators writing about how the movie offered support for the policies of the Bush Administration. I also remember dismissing those interpretations out of hand, without having seen the movie. Now that I've seen it, I have to say, they're actually kind of right. The most obvious example of this is Batman's giant city-wide sonar/cell phone wire-tapping machine. Sure, Lucius Fox says he doesn't like it. Then he uses it. And it saves the day. Good thing Batman had bugged the entire city.

This isn't the only instance, simply the most obvious. There is the manipulation of the public trust, endorsement of torture (of course, Batman roughing up some thugs for information is nothing new), violation of another nation's sovereignty, just to name a few. Ultimately, the movie makes the argument that for the greater good, especially when people are scared, it's OK for one person to do what they feel is necessary, regardless of how immoral, how illegal, and how many rights are violated. Do what you want/feel you need to do, then feel like a martyr about it later because people are pissed.

Also, just like the Bond movies, I hate it when Batman stories get too gadgety, and The Dark Knight definitely crossed that line a couple of times. The Joker is hiding and needs to be found by midnight? What are we going to do? I know, use the aforementioned city-wide cell phone powered spy machine, complete with voice recognition, that way, as soon as the Joker uses his phone a big red square lights up, telling you exactly where he's hiding! The reliance on gadgets for the progression of the plot just strikes me as lazy writing. Rather than finding the Joker using clever detective work, they just made up a giant machine that found him automatically. Same goes for when Batman makes the digital recreation of the bullet to lift a print off of it, and his needlessly ridiculous escape out of the Chinese skyscraper. It's not a huge deal, I guess, but it's something that's always bothered me about some Batman stories.

And, of course, there's Bale's über-growly Batman voice. That was just silly.

There were definitely things about the movie I appreciated, as well. Nolan tried to address very big, very serious psychosocial and sociopolitical (and any other combination of two or more words) issues in The Dark Knight. This is a tricky thing to pull off in such a huge summer blockbuster. The sheer spectacle of the movie can be distracting when trying to deal with such serious issues. Not to mention the fact that the story still boils down to a billionaire in a scary costume matching wits with an evil clown. But ultimately, I admire that Nolan took a superhero movie with an enormous budget and made such a serious film, even if summer blockbusters and large scale social issues can make for strange bedfellows.

Along those same lines, there were a couple of moments that really struck me, when I realized how large of a movie it was, both in its scope and its sensibility. The funeral procession following the death of the police commissioner featured some amazing shots of the Chicago streets filled with people, really showcasing the size of the movie. As well as the scene in which the "ordinary citizen" shoots through the crowd at Coleman Reese (the accountant or whatever who was going to publicly out Batman) in an effort to keep the Joker from blowing up a hospital is emblematic of the seriousness of the movie.

Also, I liked the way the character of Harvey Dent/Two-Face was handled. And I don't just mean he kick-ass half burnt face (watching that eyelidless eye roll around in the socket was awesome!). Two-Face is one of those characters who has a lot of potential, but can easily delve into the ridiculous and silly. It was nice to have the horrible taste of Tommy Lee Jones washed out of my mouth.

Oh right, and there were some seriously kickass action set pieces. That scene when Dent is being transported to central holding, and the Joker and crew pull up next to them in the semi? Awesome. When Batman flips that semi end over end in the middle of the street? Also awesome.

And of course there is Heath Ledger. Hands down the greatest representation of the Joker there is. Not only was Ledger's performance the best Joker performance there is, but it was just flat out a fantastic performance, period. I won't get too much into it, because there's not much I have to say that hasn't been said. Even if the movie on the whole didn't live up to the hype (seriously, after 5 months of hearing about this movie, there is no way it was going to meet expectations), Ledger's performance did.

So, that's it I guess. It's a strange movie to consider. I feel like there are a lot of ways to look at this movie, and a lot of different points of view from which to judge it. I'll leave it by saying that I enjoyed it. I watched it twice in two days, and definitely enjoyed it both times. I'd say it was pretty great.

Friday, December 12, 2008

“Joy Division, you cunt!”

Anton Corbijn's Control tells the story of Joy Division's legendary frontman Ian Curtis. Corbijn has a background as a music video director and rock photographer, including photographing Joy Division and directing the video for their song "Atmosphere." I don't know how well Corbijn knew the members of Joy Division personally, but it is a good sign that the remaining members (AKA New Order) and Curtis's widow Debbie (who wrote the book, Touching from a Distance, on which the film is partly based) all had positive reactions to it.*

Control is shot in gorgeous black and white. Corbijn's experience as a photographer has obviously served him well. The film is beautifully shot, painting the gritty industrial cityscapes of Manchester and Macclesfield with a depth that can be both warm and chilly. The entire film looks like a moving version of just about every picture of Joy Division out there. The entire movie has a stunningly beautiful and artful look. Here is the trailer, if for nothing else, to illustrate the visual style:

Control is not only beautifully shot, but also exceptionally acted. Sam Riley, whose filmography is extremely short and features mainly TV work (and a bit part in 24 Hour Party People as The Fall's Mark E. Smith, oddly enough another movie that contains a fair amount of the Joy Division story), turns out an incredible performance as Ian Curtis. His performance exemplifies, in large part, what made the movie so touching and moving. Throughout the movie there is little to no exposition in the dialogue. There are no grand heart-wrenching speeches or explosive scenes of melodrama. Emotion is portrayed almost entirely through glances, prolonged stares, and silence. While that may sound like it could come across as a brooding emo-esque melodrama, Control's quiet intensity and unspoken emotional tension comes across simply as a realistic depiction of life. And Riley is not the only one up to the task, the whole cast lives up to the challenges of this cinéma vérité

It is also worth mentioning, while on the subject of realism, the actors playing the members of Joy Division all performed their own music. They all learned the instruments of their respective characters, so the scenes of the band performing live are the actors actually playing the music live on camera. Given Joy Division's reputation as a live band, the concert scenes are crucial and on film they are fantastic. The members of the band with Riley as the spastic, crooning frontman, effectively recreate the legendary intensity of Joy Division's shows. (Obviously, I never had the opportunity to see Joy Division live, seeing as I'm not English and not in my mid-40s. I just wanted to make that clear.)

There are problems with the movie. Generally, the kind of problems you would find in most biopics. It is factually dubious. While I think it does a fair job in representing all of the characters, it does buy into the Ian Curtis as Martyr mentality at times. Though it is a film about Ian Curtis, specifically, and not Joy Division, I don't know that you could walk away from it even knowing the names of the other three guys in the band. But these issues, though valid, are minor, and the movie on the whole is able to avoid a lot of the biopic movie clichés. The film on the whole is fantastic.

It bears mentioning that I am an ardent Joy Division fan. I'm not sure if that makes me harder to please or easier to excite. Molly, who was not familiar with Joy Division, watched it with me, and she liked it as well, though maybe not as much as me. She said she appreciated the ambiguity of the characters and the movie's ability to eschew most of the biopic clichés. So, for what it's worth, a diehard Joy Division fan thought Control was fantastic, and a non-fan also liked it.

And seeing as I can't just prattle on about a movie about a man in a band that I love and not give you some of their music, here is Joy Division's first television appearance, on Granada Reports in 1978 (a performance that is recreated in the movie, by the way):

[*Note: I remember reading this somewhere when the film was released, but a quick and lazy fact-checking search didn't turn up anything. So I gave up. Take this tacit endorsement by New Order and Debbie Curtis with a grain of salt.]

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Another Jandek Update

I recently mailed in an order to Corwood Industries for some Jandek albums (see Part I and Part II for more information regarding Jandek). Trying to decide what to order seemed like a daunting task, seeing as his discography spans 30 years and 50 albums (including live albums, but not DVDs). After my friend Laura went and saw him live in Gainesville (he has been playing relatively more frequently the past few years) and reported back with nothing but glowing things to say about the performance, I finally decided to just bite the bullet and order some damn albums.

A combination of nerdy excitement about delving into an extremely obscure musician and gnawing fear that Jandek could disappear at any moment and I'd never be able to order more later prompted me to order 10 albums, roughly covering the duration of his discography. Here are the albums:

Six And Six (1981)

Living In A Moon So Blue (1982)

Chair Beside A Window (1982)

Interstellar Discussion (1984)

Foreign Keys (1985)

Blue Corpse (1987)

Glad To Get Away (1994)

New Town (1998)

This Narrow Road (2001)

Glasgow Sunday (live) (2005)

With the holidays coming up, I'll be spending about two weeks back in small town Michigan, so hopefully that will give me time to start pouring through hours of music. I'm planning on doing a ten-part series of individual reviews for each album, but I have the feeling that that might not totally pan out. We'll see.

In the meantime, here is the note that was included with my order:

It Snowed in Austin Last Night

While watching Anton Corbijn's biopic about Ian Curtis, Control, last night with my friend Molly, I glanced out the window and saw giant white flakes gracefully floating past my window. This will be my third winter in Austin, and I have never seen it snow here. I've seen sleet, freezing rain, and one massive 3 day long ice storm (also crazy-ass hail, but that's more of a spring/summer thing) , but never snow.

We paused the movie and stepped outside to watch the snow for a while. My upstairs neighbors were sitting on their patio watching the snow, and the parking lot of the apartment building across the street had a small crowd, huddled together, enjoying the snow. In that moment, I felt like a true Texan (or at least a true Southerner), standing in the cold, in awe of the snow.

It reminded me of the aforementioned ice storm, which happened during my first winter here. The temperature hovered around freezing, while it rained for days, coating everything in thick sheets of ice. The city (including the university, and hence my job) completely shut down for a few days. I spent my time wandering around my neighborhood. I saw a couple trying to have a snowball fight in their front yard, using the inches-thick ice on the grass as snow. I saw a guy trying to scrape the back window of his car with the claw-end of a claw hammer (and I don't mean gently scraping, I mean full arm swings into his window). They were enjoyable walks; brisk fresh air, trees picturesquely coated in ice, people either enjoying their days off or making fools of themselves in their frustration. As a recent Michigan transplant, I couldn't help but enjoy what I thought was the town's silly reaction to real winter weather.

And then, just two years later, there's me standing in the cold, watching the snow fall, trying in vain to take pictures in the dark. Giddy that it was snowing. I'm sure that I'll get more than my fill of the snow when I fly back to Michigan for the holidays, but for now, I'm happy having spent a few minutes admiring the snow fall in the streets of Austin. I guess context is everything.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Sukiyaki Western Django

A little over two months ago I sent an email to my brother with the subject line "AWESOME!!!" The actual content of the email included a lewd joke that I won't reprint here, but the point was that I was excited. I have just found out that Takashi Miike (Audition, Dead or Alive, Ichi The Killer) was coming out with a new movie, an homage to the spaghetti Westerns of yore, called Sukiyaki Western Django. And as if the prospect of a new Miike movie wasn't exciting enough, or the fact that it was going to be a spaghetti Western, I saw the trailer:

I mean, really, how fucking bad-ass does that look? Pretty fucking bad-ass, right?

I was really looking forward to this. Miike elicits visceral reactions from me in ways very few directors can. Years of gorging myself on horror movies left me feeling like there was little in the way of graphic violence that could really shock me (see my review of the booooooring Hostel), but then I saw Miike's Ichi The Killer. The movie is insane, awesome, and crazy as all hell in a number of ways. It is thoroughly fucked up. In fact, here is a trailer for the DVD release (be warned, even the trailer is pretty graphic and NSFW):

That only gives you a small idea the craziness in that movie. It's that and so much more. Plus, as anyone who has seen Audition can attest, Miike can not only do balls-out crazy, but he can do creepy, eerie, and disturbing in much more subtle ways (not that Audition is overly subtle, especially by the end). Anyways, in short, the guy knows how to make some fantastic movies, and I'm on board with anything he's doing.

And what was he doing this time? Making an ode to the old spaghetti Westerns. If you think you don't like Westerns, do yourself a favor and rent The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly or The Wild Bunch or Django (which this film is apparently meant to be a prequel to, and which I still have yet to see, so take that last recommendation with a grain of salt). In short, I dig Miike and I dig spaghetti Westerns. Perfect pairing, right?

Well, not exactly. I watched Sukiyaki Western Django a few weeks ago. Overall, I was kind of disappointed. Inflated expectations definitely had something to do with it. I was so excited for this movie, there really is no way for me to not be at least a little disappointed. But in reality, expectations aside, the movie was only pretty good. There are definitely great things about it, but there are also plenty of things that are less than great.

The action is amazing. There are a lot of crazy gun fights, some fun sword play, all kinds of explosions, and quite a few crossbows. Aside from all the action sequences, the film is also filled with Miike's bizarre sense of humor (the character of the Sheriff is particularly funny in a very Miike-way). The problem is that the film is pretty back-loaded, just about all of the excitement comes in the second half of the film. Which wouldn't be a problem, if it weren't for the first half of the film.

The first half isn't bad, just slow and kind of incomprehensible. The entire cast is made up of Asian actors all speaking English, with accents of varying degrees of thickness (kind of a cool idea, but also kind of frustrating). The exception being Quentin Tarantino, who I know for a fact can speak fluent English, but still felt the need to speak with some kind of bizarre made-up accent. The first half of the film is spent setting the story, which was difficult to follow in part because a lot of the actors are hard to understand (Tarantino and his bizarro-accent included) and in part because the story was just confusing.

Essentially, the story revolves around a small frontier town in Nevada. During the gold rush, rumors would spread throughout the West that certain towns had secret caches of gold, and inevitably gangs of prospectors and thugs would descend on said town to steal away the gold. As had happened to so many towns before, word spread that this town had its own secret gold stash. Eventually the violent Heiki clan ("Red") came to town and began bleeding the town dry as they searched in vain for a treasure that may or may not exist. Shortly thereafter the rival Genji clan ("White") also come to town, looking for the same treasure. A race to find the gold, combined with an ongoing war between the clans, effectively destroys the town. (The rival clans were lifted directly from Japanese history, FYI)

The movie begins at this point, as a lone gunslinger comes to town looking to get rich. He offers his services to the highest bidder, and quickly joins the Genji clan. Inevitability deceptions and betrayals set off a full on gang-war that threatens to consume what remains of the town, all on the eve of the delivery of a special weapon guaranteed to tip the scales in the Genji's favor. As the gang-war escalates, the gunslinger begins to align himself not with either gang, but with the few remaining residents of the town, comprised almost entirely of the proprietor of the local saloon, her granddaughter, and her loyal employee, and discovers an improbable link between the two warring clans. It is about this point that the full-on crazy action starts.

As I said, I was a little disappointed. I think that this movie, in reality, is probably somewhere between pretty good and kind of great, but it just fell short of expectations. The movie is definitely entertaining, don't get me wrong. If you like Westerns or Miike, and are looking for an entertaining way to spend a couple of hours, you could certainly do a lot worse than Sukiyaki Western Django. I think I may have shot myself in the foot with my crazy expectations. As long as you go in anticipating an entertaining but not great movie, I think you'll be satisfied. And if you have the stomach for it, watch more Miike.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

“They’re taking our children away”

So, I had mentioned in my previous post that while watching The Sweet Hereafter I noticed a bizarre connection between that movie and the song "They Don't Want Your Corn, They Want Your Kids" by Liars. Well, I said I'd post another entry about it, and here it is.

Some of the things I am going to cover regarding the movie involve some plot points that may not ruin the movie per se, but will definitely give some stuff away. So consider this your spoiler alert. If you're interested in watching The Sweet Hereafter (which I would recommend), I might hold off on reading this.

***Spoilers Start***

As I was watching the movie, I kept hearing bits of dialogue that sounded vaguely familiar. By about the third time this happened, I realized that all these lines in the movie were also lyrics in the aforementioned Liars song "They Don't Want Your Corn, They Want Your Kids". After I realized this, I picked up on a few more lines of dialogue that are also lyrics. Most of the time, the lyrics aren't exact quotes from the movie, but are practically identical. Here is an example:

In one scene, Sarah Polley's character is reading "The Pied Piper" by Robert Browning to two children, and this becomes a reoccurring theme throughout the movie, her character providing voiceover in multiple scenes as she continues to read the poem. The poem includes the lines:

Fathers, mothers, uncles, cousins

Cocking tails and pricking whiskers

Families by tens and dozens

Brothers, sisters, husbands, wives

Followed the Piper for their lives

This is actually what brought this to my attention. The Liars song contains the lines:

Fathers, mothers, uncles, cousins

Families by tens and dozens

Brothers, sisters, husbands, wives

All of them fighting for their lives

Again, not an exact quote, but pretty close (actually, I'm not entirely sure about that last line, but it's close enough). Now, I realize that it seems perfectly reasonable that Liars took their lyrics from the original Browning poem rather than the movie. Which is more or less what I thought, but it kept happening. Here is another example. The character of Mitchell Stevens is talking on the phone to his runaway drug addicted daughter, Zoe. They have the following exchange:

Mitchell: Tell me your news, Zoe.

Zoe: OK. Yesterday I went to sell my blood. I'm in this fucking city, and I'm selling my blood.

Mitchell: That's not news, Zoe.

Zoe: No, but this is. They wouldn't take my blood. Do you know what that means, Daddy? Does it register? I tested positive. Welcome to hard times, Daddy.

Mitchell: What do you want me to do, Zoe? I'll do whatever you want.

Zoe: I need money.

Mitchell: What for?

Zoe: No, you cannot ask me that! Not anymore! You asked me what I wanted, not what I wanted it for. I want money.

Mitchell: Do you have a blood test?

Zoe: You don't believe me? You don't fucking believe me?! I like it when you don't believe me. It's better that you don't believe me, but have to act like you do.

[Both are quiet]

Zoe: I can hear you breathing

Mitchell: I can hear you breathing, too.

[Zoe hangs up phone, Mitchell continues to whisper into the now dead line]

Mitchell: I love you, Zoe. I'll take care of you. I'll take care of you.

Pretty intense, right? Well here are the lines from "They Don't Want Your Corn, They Want Your Kids" sung in a back-and-forth call-and-response style:

Mama, I'm selling my blood

Welcome to hard times

Daddy, I can hear you breathing

I'll take care of you

I'll take care of you

And finally, one last example that I noticed. When Mitchell is trying to convince one of the parents to join the lawsuit, and the parent refuses, Mitchell explains that his daughter is a drug addict. That everyone is losing their children, if it isn't bus accidents, it's drugs. If it isn't drugs, it's any number of other horrible things that destroy our children's lives. He concludes by saying:

Something's happening that's taking our children away.

In the song, the four lines quoted above ("Mama, I'm selling my blood…") are followed with the repeated phrase:

They're taking our children away

I'll take care of you

They're taking our children away

***Spoilers End***

I want to make it clear, it's not like the entire song is somehow lifted from the movie. There are just some lyrics that are obviously inspired by (or taken from) the movie. More than anything, this just seemed extremely bizarre. Buried in the middle of a dense and strange concept album about German witch folklore is a song seemingly inspired by an independent Canadian film from 1997 (that has absolutely nothing to do with witches, mind you). I've just been trying to wrap my mind about what a strange and totally unexpected pairing this is.

Regardless, both the song and movie are amazing. I'd highly recommend seeing The Sweet Hereafter (check out my entry about it to see if it sounds up your alley). I also absolutely love the song "They Don't Want Your Corn, They Want Your Kids." In fact, I love everything Liars do, and They Were Wrong, So We Drowned is definitely my favorite album. It's a strange, dense, ugly album, so it's not for everyone. But it's one of my favorites.

[Note: I totally had the quotes formatting really nicely in Word, then the formatting got all screwed up when I uploaded the post. Sorry about that.]

“No, not mean. Just very angry.”

After being thoroughly taken in by Atom Egoyan's Exotica, I bumped another of his movies to the top of my Netflix queue, The Sweet Hereafter.

Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter (an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Russell Banks) tells the story of how a tragic school bus accident forever changes a small mountain town, and how easily the grieving process can be disrupted and distorted. Following a school bus accident that takes the lives of over 20 children, a lawyer named Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm) arrives in town, intent on initiating a law suit. As he works his way through family after family, his presence confuses the town and disrupts its ability to deal with the tragedy. The mettle of all involved, including Stevens, is called into question as the impending lawsuit drives a schism through the already fractured town.

The premise of a lawyer exploiting the deaths of children sounds like it could easily have been unwatchably depressing, yet The Sweet Hereafter has less a feeling of crushing depression than a feeling of exhausted resignation. It is definitely sad, but never exploitative or melodramatic. The town, in its state of perpetual shock, seems coldly calm as anger, blame, confusion, pain, and loss all simmer below the surface. There are no grand scenes or gestures, but simply a town full of people, who all know each other, trust each other, who are all trying to deal quietly with the same personal and shared tragedy.

Egoyan dismantles the narrative and weaves it back together into a single coherent tapestry, painting a broad portrait of the town and its people. Even though scenes jump back and forth in time, the story never seems disjointed, flashbacks to known and unknown times flow coherently in and out of the ongoing story. The viewer is ultimately given not just a story, but a panoramic understanding of the characters and the small world they inhabit. Matching the broad narrative, the film is filled with stunning, beautiful photography of the small snowy mountain town. Large skies and monstrous snow-capped mountains fill the frame, giving the town a harsh and natural beauty, making the town look so small and isolated in an intimidatingly large world.

The acting is fantastic throughout. Be it Ian Holm as the lawyer whose motivation has less and less to do with money, the bus driver who must deal with the knowledge that she was behind the wheel when the bus crashed, or any number of the parents dealing with the death of their children. An eighteen year old Sarah Polley deserves special recognition as the lone child to survive the crash. She delivers a subtle and nuanced portrayal of a girl whose world is thoroughly and irreversibly changed.

The film is beautiful and powerful, but never melodramatic or exploitative. The story is twisted, subtle, and confusing, but never frustrating. Just as in life, there are no clear motivations, no good guys or bad guys, no complete resolutions. Everything moves forward, for better or worse, one day at a time. No faster, no slower.

Just as with Exotica, at the end of the film, I was left thinking about The Sweet Hereafter long after it was finished. I went to bed thinking about it and resuming thinking about it as soon as I woke up. If all of Egoyan's films are this deeply affecting, I am more than willing to dive completely into his filmography. I think I liked Exotica better, but acknowledge that The Sweet Hereafter was probably a better movie. But really, it doesn't matter, they were both amazing films, and both deserve to be watched.

[Note: I noticed a bizarre connection between this film and the Liars' song "They Don't Want Your Corn – They Want Your Kids" off of They Were Wrong, So We Drowned. I plan on writing up a brief entry on this soon, so look out.]

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Groovy Automotive – Another Awesome Austin Legacy

As I had mentioned a few posts back, I had some problems with my car's brakes. Specifically, they didn't work. At all. Well, I got them fixed recently, and just wanted to spread word about another great part about Austin – Groovy Automotive.

Now, Groovy isn't a hold-over from hippy-era Austin. In fact, according to their website, they've only been around since 1993 or something (despite their multi-colored neon sign with the Peace Signs for "o"s), but that doesn't change the fact that they're fantastic. Not only the best auto shop I've been to in Austin, but they are easily the best I've been to anywhere. Cheap. Quick. Trustworthy (they have never tried to fix anything that I didn't explicitly tell them I needed fixed). Courteous. Accommodating. All-in-all, just about the best experience I could expect to have while dealing with one of the shittiest of all errands (god, I hate car troubles).

Really, I just wanted to give Groovy their due as a fantastic mechanic's shop. I can't begin to explain how frustrating I find dealing with car troubles (it doesn't help that I know absolutely nothing about cars), and what a foul mood it puts me in. So to take care of something as serious as brakes that don't work (and they didn't work at all) with so little headache is nothing short of a small miracle.

In the unlikely event that you ever find yourself in Austin with car troubles and don't know where to go, trust me. Go to Groovy.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

G-String’d Cyclist: The Musical

This afternoon I momentarily stepped out of my cave-like studio apartment, and ventured into the harsh Texas sun. As I stood next to my apartment building, I saw a heavyset guy cruise by on a recumbent bike, complete with little-kid-style flag sticking up out of the back wheel. As I watched this guy, amazed that his bike was able to stay upright despite his almost unbelievably slow speed, I was greeted with an even better sight. Just as the first guy passed out of view, heading west, another bicyclist entered my view heading east. This guy was on a regular bicycle, and was moving at normal speed. So what made him awesome, you ask? Well, how about the fact that it was a full grown man, riding his bicycle through my neighborhood, in the middle of a pleasant Sunday afternoon, wearing nothing but a green G-string.

A full grown man. On a bicycle. Riding down the street. In the middle of the day. In nothing but a G-string. Just a G-string.

Not only was this event totally fucking awesome, but it also got me thinking. Not so much about men in G-strings. I mean, I already got to see that today. But more about the character of Austin. While this bicyclist was definitely a noteworthy event (as soon as I went inside, I called my brother to tell him about it – after which he provided this post's title), it's not completely unprecedented. I want to be clear, I'm not a long-time Austinite. I've only been here for about 2 ½ years, and I am not even from Texas (Michigan, what!). So this is all based on my somewhat limited experience in Austin and definitely limited knowledge of Austin history.

Back in the 1960s, Austin was the little liberal, counter-cultural oasis for the South and Southwest. A strange, little hippy haven in the big sea of the conservative south. Over the years, Austin's hippy, counter-cultural past has evolved, leaving an indelible mark all over the city. There is the legendary music scene. The well-respected independent film industry. The abundant art galleries. The numerous experimental theaters. The murals that adorn the side of just about every building. The love of local business, organic food, etc.

And then there are some things that seemingly haven't changed all that much over the years. Hippies are still plentiful. There are a bunch of communes all over the city. There is the nude beach, Hippy Hollow. Apparently a lot of those experimental theaters do weird nude fertility plays. And then there's probably my favorite legacy of Austin's hippy past. The fact that, of all the hippy-type stuff to stick around, one thing that is still going strong in Austin is the good ol' fashioned hippy freak out.

Now, I guess I shouldn't say that these freak outs haven't gone unchanged. They aren't full blown Merry Pranksters-style happenings. More like individual expressions of personal weirdness. They may be a little more self-conscious than simple free expression (there is the ubiquitous "Keep Austin Weird" campaign, after all), but that doesn't make them any less enjoyable. The fact that at any moment you can come across something like a guy riding a bike in a G-string really lends the city a certain playful whimsy.

On top of the G-string'd Cyclist, there was the guy last year who hung out in my neighborhood, dressed in flamboyant clothing and a rainbow afro, dancing on street corners while holding a sign that read, "In the future, you will all look like me." There is Leslie, the city's favorite transvestite homeless guy/girl/perennial mayoral candidate (see picture). Actually, Austin has no shortage of transvestite homeless people, a special little subgenre of Austin weirdness. A friend of mine went to the post office downtown, and the man in line in front of her was inexplicably wearing a Superman costume. On the University of Texas' campus, a cadre of students have taken to riding giant unicycles around.

My G-string'd Cyclist induced musings didn't really lead to any grand conclusions, simply a conscious appreciation for the city of Austin. Sometimes I forget how great of a city Austin Is, and it's nice to have a people around who are willing to ride by my apartment in skimpy underwear to remind me of that.

[Note: After leaving a voicemail for my brother about the G-stringed cyclist he responded with the following series of text messages: "G-String'd Cyclist: The Musical", "starring Josh Hartnett", "and Jamie Lee Curtis", "Christmas 2009". Screenplay is in development, and I am currently in talks with Philip Glass to compose the music, with lyrics by Rod Stewart.]

“Well, I’m not gonna get another [body], so I’m gonna use this one until it’s all used up.”

Bob Flanagan was born in 1952, and shortly thereafter was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis. Ordinarily, Cystic Fibrosis, a genetic disease that causes the lungs to fill up with thick mucus, kills those who have it by the time they are 6 or 7 years old. Sometimes, suffers of CF live into their early 20s before dying, usually of a lung infection. Flanagan lived to be 43, gaining notoriety for his writing and performance art that focused on his pain and struggle with his disease, often through public demonstrations of extreme self-mutilation.

Documentarian Kirby Dick chronicles Flanagan's final years in his film Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. True to the title, the film follows Flanagan, as well as his long time partner/Mistress Sheree Rose, starting in his early 40s right up through his death in late January, 1996. Sick sheds light on the many aspects of Flanagan's life: his art, his relationship with Rose, the anger and humor he directs at his disease. Flanagan makes for a fascinating figure, be it because of his controversial art or his particularly unique perspective on life. One can't help but have a unique perspective on things when you've lived your entire life being told you're going to die and, by all accounts, you should already be dead. But you're not. (In Flanagan's own words, "All the articles about me start the same way, 'Bob Flanagan should be dead by now. But he isn't.' That's what they always say. 'Instead he nails his dick to a board.'")

In case that last comment about nailing his dick to a board or the term "Supermasochist" didn't clue you in, Flanagan made his name in the art world for his acts of extreme self-mutilation. These acts of supermasochism included, but were not limited to, hammering a nail through his penis into a wooden board, suspending himself upside down from the ceiling of art galleries, being physically abused in just about every conceivable manner, often accompanied by Flanagan's darkly comic monologues about living with CF. The film presents plenty of examples of Flanagan's performances, so be warned, this film is extremely graphic. So if you don't think you can handle watching a close-up of a nail being driven through the head of penis, near constant spanking, frequent cutting, and at least one instance of on-camera sodomy, you should probably stay away.

The film generally focuses on two aspects of Flanagan's of life: how his proclivities for BDSM, both in his art and in his bedroom, gives him a sense of control over his body, a body that refuses to function properly; and the intimate and trusting relationship he has with his longtime partner Sheree Rose. These two elements are, realistically, inseparable. Rose was not only Flanagan's SM Mistress, but also his partner in life and art. The trust and intimacy that is inherent in such a long term BDSM relationship is on full display. The film does not shy away from showing the couple's extreme intimacy, whether it is through homemade videos of their SM adventures or through quiet conversations in bed. It is apparent that there is a closeness, an intimacy, and a trust between the two of them that is rarely found in the most functional of relationships.

In terms of Flanagan's art, the film explores how Flanagan views his masochism and his self-mutilation as a way for him to reclaim control over a body that refuses to function as it should. His explorations of the limits of what he can endure forces him to engage with his body in a way that gives him a fuller understanding of his physical self, as well as teaches his body what it is capable of, despite its disease. It is as much about his own self discovery as it is about confronting audiences with shocking experiences. It is about bringing the audience into Flanagan's own experiences with his disease (including one art gallery exhibition of his work, a part of which included Flanagan sitting in a hospital bed, in the gallery, throughout the duration of the exhibition, allowing viewers to see him and talk to him).

Ultimately, Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist paints a very intimate portrait of a man who had to learn very young what he wanted and how to take it for himself. Up through the end, in which Dick films Flanagan dying in his hospital bed, Flanagan seems scared and, above all, confused by his own death. Even though he has spent his entire life confronting his own death, he seems just as terrified and confused as anyone else. Sick and its subject are extremely funny, intimate, heartbreaking, and, more than anything else, inspiring.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

"Do you have a lot of friends? [Not really…] Do you wish you did?"

Writer/director Atom Egoyan is one of a host of independent filmmaking luminaries to arise in the 1990s. He has a reputation for making deeply emotional, moody films that delve into the darker and more complex realms of the human condition. And Exotica is no exception.

Broadly, Exotica examines the individual lives of a set of disparate characters, all related in some way to the titular strip club. There is Francis, the IRS (or the Canadian equivalent of the IRS) auditor, who is obsessed with Christina, one of Exotica’s dancers. There is Eric, also obsessed with Christina and her former lover, the DJ/MC at Exotica. There is Zoe, the pregnant owner of Exotica, who has a vested interest in both Christina and Eric, beyond that of employer/employee. And finally, there is Thomas, the reclusive, socially awkward, and lonely gay pet store owner, who is dragged, somewhat unwillingly into Exotica’s world.

The characters are slowly fleshed out, not only through their actions in the present, but through the slow reveal of their individual histories. As the film progresses, we see how each of the individual characters’ stories are deeply entangled with one another, in ways both known and unknown to the characters. I don’t want to get much more into the plot than that. To reveal much more would ruin the impact of the story.

Unlike films such as Crash (the racism one, not Cronenberg’s auto accident fetishism one) or the films of González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel), the interweaving story lines of Exotica are not the result of grand spectacular events (car crashes seem to be a popular one). In fact, with one exception, none of the relationships in the film take place during the film, the vast majority are revealed slowly through flashbacks and characters’ histories. Egoyan paints a vivid world that by the end seems so small, so claustrophobic, that it is not only natural that these characters’ lives have tangled themselves up with one another, it would be almost unbelievable if they hadn’t.

It is a testament to Egoyan’s story telling ability that he takes a concept (the interweaving storylines of seemingly unrelated characters) that is so inherently contrived, and manages to tell a story that is so naturally convincing. Rather than spectacular, sensational events, Egoyan reminds us that all of our lives are naturally tied to the lives of all those around us, either in profound ways, or ways so subtle that we are totally unaware of them.

Upon finishing the movie, I remember thinking something along the lines of “oh, well, that was pretty good,” but I’ve been thinking about it for days. The more I think about it, the more I realize how good it was. The story is so well constructed and so subtly presented, that the more I reflect on it, the more I grow to really appreciate how good it was. I’m actually pretty disappointed that I sent it back to Netflix the next day, rather than watch one or two more times. It’s the kind of film that gets under my skin, and now I can’t stop thinking about it.

I would highly, highly recommend Exotica. It is a gloomy, moody, beautifully told story of how all life experiences, good, bad, and heartbreaking, impact everyone who comes in contact with it. Reminding us that all aspects of life are extremely fragile and their fallout contagious, spreading far and wide.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

"I'm not a preacher and I'm not drunk. I'm a politician."

In 1962, character actor Timothy Carey released his labor of love, The World’s Greatest Sinner, which he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in. It took Carey four years to bring his vision to life, creating a bizarre, blasphemous, surreal cult masterpiece.

The World’s Greatest Sinner is about an insurance salesman named Clarence Hilliard (Carey), who decides one day that he is completely unfulfilled with his life. He quits his job to form a new political party, proclaiming that the only true God is man. He runs for president on a platform of promising entire life to all of his followers, deeming them “super-beings.” Along the way he starts a rock band, renames himself “God Hilliard,” and manages to incur the full wrath of God.

Think that sounds strange? That doesn’t even begin to describe the bizarre craziness that is The World’s Greatest Sinner.

The movie starts with Clarence Hilliard sitting at his desk at his insurance salesman job. After giving the entire office the day off for no reason, he takes a call from a woman looking to buy some life insurance. He convinces her that life insurance isn’t worth buying since “once you die, your body starts smelling pretty bad. They’ll just bury you for free eventually.” Shortly after this exchange, Clarence’s boss fires him.

Upon his return home, Clarence explains to his wife and daughter that he’s going to write a book. He’s going to change the world. Then he’s going to write another book. He’s going to run for president. He continues to plot out how he’s going to change the world in a manic craze, roping his more than willing gardener into his plan.

That night he goes to a teen dance club, where he witnesses the awesome power that rock’n’roll has over the teenie boppers. He returns that night, declaring that rock’n’roll is the perfect way for him to spread his gospel and gather followers. He and his gardener set out the next day, guitar in hand, to begin preaching on street corners and in vacant lots. Slowly but surely, his message of the supreme power of man, his promise of eternal life, and his unassailable enthusiasm begins winning over more and more followers.

Soon he starts a full rock’n’roll band, touring the country, holding crazed and unruly rock concerts that double as political rallies. As he continues to preach his message, Clarence begins to refer to himself as “God Hilliard,” declaring himself and his followers the only true gods. As his movement continues to gain members and momentum, God Hilliard becomes increasing manic, believing himself to be a true god. He starts seducing all women he comes in contact with, including the elderly and the underage. God even forces a follower who expressed doubt to commit suicide, proclaiming the follower’s doubt a symptom of his weakness, rendering him unfit for the power God would have given him.

God’s “political party” increasingly becomes a cult of personality, taking on tones of fascism as a mysterious, bispectacled campaign manager appears, blatantly feeding God’s delusions. Eventually God Hilliard begins openly challenging the Christian God, daring Him to prove His existence. Ultimately, this leads to a climatic confrontation in which God Hilliard teeters between repentance and full-blown megalomania.

I can honestly say that The World’s Greatest Sinner is one of the most bizarre movies I have ever seen. The premise is strange enough, but as a self-financed, independently filmed movie, shot over a number of years, the movie is imbued a number of surreal qualities. The editing is so bizarre that a scene will change seemingly before the previous scene has had a chance to end. Scenes are edited together in ways that make it difficult for the viewer to understand what is going on spatially (the poor film stock and lighting doesn’t help either). The dialogue is confusing and hard to follow. While all of this may make the film seem amateurish, it also lends it a nightmarish fever-dream quality. You vaguely know what’s going on, but you can’t really nail down specifics, be it what the characters are discussing, where the characters are, or how you got from scene A to scene B.

The movie appears to have been filmed in sequence, as some of these editing and lighting problems lessen as time goes on, suggesting they were figuring out the basics of filmmaking as they went along. As God Hilliard and his movement fly more and more off the rails, the viewing experience gets progressively more accessible. Though it never really obtains a level of normal competence, which is actually a good thing. As straightforward as the filmmaking gets, it maintains its difficult and surreal style throughout.

While The World’s Greatest Sinner takes on serious issues like religion, politics, media manipulation, and the corrupting natural of power, I do want to make it clear that the film is flat-out entertaining throughout. Be it the very strange and strangely powerful musical performances (pre-Mothers of Invention Frank Zappa wrote all the music) or moments of truly laugh out loud humor (a discussion Clarence has with his gardener about whether or not he should grow a goatee to look more like a real leader is fantastic – he compromises and starts wearing a glued on goatee), the movie is thoroughly enjoyable.

I would highly recommend tracking it down if you have any interest in bizarre cult movies, and have a high tolerance for borderline incompetent filmmaking. It is truly a mesmerizing, surreal, hilarious, and confusing viewing experience.

Single White Female v. Single White Female 2: The Psycho – A late night Lifetime Movie Network Showdown

This past Saturday I was supposed to attend a housewarming party at my friend Brencho’s new place. I got in my car and noticed that there was a warning light telling me my parking brake was on. This struck me as odd, seeing as I never use my parking brake. Turns out the light was actually warning me that my brakes didn’t work, because they didn’t. I pretty quickly figured out that my brakes essentially do nothing. After a very short, and somewhat terrifying, drive back home, I decided it would probably be best for everyone if I just stayed home.

Upon getting back to my apartment, it was 11pm on a Saturday and I had to decide what to do with myself. I had a couple of movies from Netflix I could watch. I could do some reading. Maybe spend the night having a few beers and listening to music. Or I could just go to bed at a reasonable time like a normal person. Then I found out that Single White Female was on the Lifetime Movie Network (which as you could probably guess, LMN is a channel that shows Lifetime movies 24 hours a day). I’d never seen Single White Female, and had the impression it was supposed to be a pretty good movie, or at the very least, campy, guilty fun. So Single White Female it was.

Bridget Fonda plays Allison, a beautiful, young, successful urbanite. When Allison discovers her fiancé cheated on her, she kicks him out of the apartment they share, and must take in a roommate in order to make rent. Enter Jennifer Jason Leigh as Hedra, an insecure and emotionally needy woman who by all appearances is the opposite of Allison. Naturally, Hedra becomes the roommate, and naturally, she turns out to be crazy.

I should confess, I missed the first 30-40 minutes of the movie (I think I was watching “The Soup” on E!). I missed all of the lead-in with Allison’s fiancé cheating on her, and Allison meeting Hedra (I checked the synopsis to catch up on what was going on, and subsequently stole it for the previous paragraph). By the time I came in, Allison and Hedra’s relationship had already developed into unhealthy and creepy codependence. Allison’s selfish ego was fed by Hedra’s lavish adoration. Hedra found confidence and a sense of self-importance by tying herself as close as possible to the seemingly have-it-all Allison.

Shortly thereafter, their relationship changes from unhealthy to dangerous. Hedra begins dressing in Allison’s clothes, and even cuts and dyes her hair to look like Allison’s (a bigger deal than it sounds, when you consider Allison had a pretty heinous super-short bob-cut that was dyed a ridiculously unnatural red). Eventually, Allison and her estranged fiancé begin to make amends, threatening to destroy her relationship with her new roommate. With her ego having been restored by Hedra’s attention and her reconciliation with her fiancé, Allison is about to kick Hedra to the curb, and resume her life as it was before. Hedra, seeing the object of her increasingly dangerous obsession pulling away from her, begins lashing out violently.

In what is probably the movie’s most famous scene, Hedra dons Allison’s clothes and perfume, and heads over to the fiancé’s apartment. She slips in and seduces the fiancé, who thinks it’s Allison until after they’ve had sex. After revealing herself post-coitus, Hedra explains that she knew the fiancé would cheat on Allison again, and has proven it by seducing him. As the ensuing argument escalates, Hedra stabs the fiancé in the eye with the heel of her stiletto. From there on out, it becomes a scramble by Hedra to hide everything while framing Allison for the murder.

The rest of the movie revolves around Allison trying to play off of Hedra’s obsession to escape her escalating rage, and Hedra trying to reconcile her love for Allison with her obsessive desire to destroy her. The second half of the movie becomes an emotional cat and mouse game between the dangerous and unstable Hedra and the frightened Allison.

Ultimately, the movie was pretty good. Not great, but a pretty solid thriller. Jennifer Jason Leigh as the emotionally unstable and needy Hedra was fantastic. Bridget Fonda was good as the vapid and selfish Allison. Director Barbet Schroeder lets the movie dip its toes into sensationalism, without letting it plunge headlong into ridiculousness. Overall, it ended up being better than I thought it would be.

Feeling pretty satisfied with Single White Female and the fact that it was now pushing 3am, I was about to go to bed when I saw that LMN was going to show Single White Female 2: The Psycho. Even the commercial made it look terrible, but I figured I could have another beer and watch a little before calling it a night. I ended up watching the entire thing and not getting to bed until 5am.

Single White Female 2: The Psycho immediately has a lot going against it. That subtitle should serve as a pretty big warning that the movie is going to suck in a very straight-to-DVD kind of way. Kristen Miller (“She Spies” – remember that show? No? Too bad, it was kind of awesome) takes over the Bridget Fonda role and Allison Lange (who has apparently been in nothing I’ve ever heard of) takes Jennifer Jason Leigh’s spot. The movie also starred Brooke Burns (who was on Baywatch, I think, but has since popped up periodically in a variety of places) and some actor whose name I don’t actually know (he was in one of the many “Saved By The Bell” rip-offs that ran on NBC’s Saturday mornings in the ‘90s and may have been on “Band of Brothers”). Not a very encouraging cast. By the end of the credit sequence, you can already tell you’re watching either a made-for-TV movie or, at best, a straight-to-DVD movie (after some terrible dubbing over of swear words later on, I figured it was the latter). Generally, it’s usually not a good sign when your sequel comes out a full 13 years after the original.

The plot is essentially the same as the original, just dumber. Holly is SWF2’s Allison. Tess is the new Hedra. Holly’s roommate sleeps with Holly’s boyfriend, prompting Holly to move out. She ends up moving in with Tess. Tess is sweet and insecure, Holly is confident and successful. Tess starts wearing Holly’s clothes and dyes her hair the same crazy red color. Holly gets back together with her boyfriend. Tess starts murdering people. Yadda-yadda-yadda.

Really, one of the only differences between the original and the sequel was that the sequel was terrible. Terribly acted, terribly written, terribly shot, edited, etc. and so on. Holly moves in with Tess, rather than the other way around. Holly’s roommate is the one who gets the stupid bob-cut this time around. There was some crap about Tess being into BDSM, but that really only seemed to come up as an excuse to shoot a scene in a sex club. Instead of something about a dead sister, Tess was crazy because of some botched suicide pact with her high school best friend. And the big climatic show-down between Holly and Tess was probably the least climatic ending I may have ever seen: Tess was about to stab some guy, Holly shoots her. The end.

Well, actually there was one more scene were Holly is in her new apartment with her boyfriend (unlike the original, he just gets almost killed, not full on killed), and she looks at a razor blade. Cue Tess’s face superimposed on the screen, delivering her speech about how death is the end to all pain. Holly looks thoughtfully (or what passes for Kristen Miller being thoughtful) at the razor, before smiling and gallivanting off with her boyfriend. (What the hell was the point of that?) Now, that’s the end.

After watching Single White Female and Single White Female 2: The Psycho back-to-back, I can confidently say, Single White Female was the better of the two, by far. That’s not saying much though, because SWF2 was embarrassingly bad. And after watching LMN for 4 hours straight, I can also confidently say that it was a night well spent. As bad as SWF2 was, it was totally worth staying up until 5am for. In fact, it’s exactly the kind of movie you would stay up watching on cable until 5am. Definitely worth it.

The movie starting at 5am was an actual Lifetime movie proper about a college professor who develops a dangerous obsession with a sexy young student. Looked pretty promising as far as Lifetime movies go (which are totally enjoyable in their own special way), but at that point I had to call it a night. Four hours of LMN? Awesome. Six hours of LMN? Maybe a little unnecessary.