Friday, January 30, 2009

“No zombies have been seen in the area, and with any luck, Tuesday’s cold front killed off any undead…”

I've mentioned in the past some of the things about Austin that I really appreciate, such as men in g-strings and trustworthy auto mechanics (though, that auto mechanics thing is debatable). Well, like all people, places, and things (and any noun, really), Austin isn't perfect. Traffic is terrible, for instance. Oh, and the zombies.

Apparently Austin's developed a bit of a zombie problem. But hey, at least they're giving us a head's up about it:

I guess someone hacked into one of those programmable detour signs to warn everyone about the zombies in the area (some of whom are apparently of the dreaded "Nazi zombie" variety). Pretty awesome thing to do, I'd say. Though, I question traffic controller Bruce Jones' speculation that the prank was perpetrated by a "hacker…computer genius from UT." Not so much the UT part, I'd buy that it was a college kid, but a genius? Really? They can't make hack-proof voting machines, but those detour signs are unhackable by anything less than a genius?

Also, as my brother Matt astutely pointed out, "Ms. Katie Petroski [the article's author] is really endangering the citizenry of Austin by suggesting that cold will kill off the zombies."

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Too awesome not to steal

I saw this on blog's are about ego a while ago and thought it was too rad to not pass along. I have no idea where this came from, but I'm stealing/reposting it. Enjoy the flow chart of heavy metal names:

Thanks Dustin!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Jandek Reviews, Pt. 2: Living in a Moon so Blue

As I mentioned in my review of Six and Six, I'm anticipating a lot of these Jandek albums to sound very similar to one another. For now, I'll give a brief recap of Jandek's sound, but focus more on giving a brief description of how Living in a Moon so Blue (1982) differs from Six and Six (1981). The upcoming installments in the Jandek Reviews series will follow this general format (brief description of Jandek's style with a description of how the current album differs from those that came before it). Unless I come across an album that is such a departure that warrants a brand new, from scratch review, I'll stick with this format. On to the review of Living in a Moon so Blue:

Jandek's music consists of a single man playing guitar and singing. The guitar is out of tune, and played with hard, unpleasant plucking, rather than strumming. The guitar playing can be arrhythmic and seemingly random. Jandek's singing is usually a hushed whisper, a sort of speak-singing, but can at times rise into a strained, somewhat atonal singing voice. The lyrics tend to be of a stream-of-consciousness, surreal, and nightmarish style. His music is unpleasant and strange, but much like his almost nonsensical lyrics, there is deep emotional and intimate content that is as easy to feel as it is oblique and difficult to make sense of.

Broadly, Living in a Moon so Blue doesn't deviate too much from that description. It does, however, differ from Six and Six in some ways. Lyrically, the album is not as impenetrable. The lyrics are still oblique and personal, but they make more literal sense than Six and Six. The guitar work seems to have progressed a bit. It is still difficult, out of tune, and consists mainly of plucking, but it seems less random. A few songs even incorporate some strumming, but it is just as harsh and abrasive as the plucking (e.g. "One Step Ahead" started giving me a headache by the end of its 2:24 run time). At times, the guitar sounds like it is being strummed and smacked at the same time ("Crime Pays"). Just as the guitar playing has progressed a bit, harmonica is introduced as well, such as in the song "Alexandria Knows."

Overall, Living in a Moon so Blue is very similar to Six and Six, but includes a little more variety and is slightly more straightforward. But make no mistake, this is still harsh, unpleasant, and difficult music. Part of what makes listening to Jandek rewarding is having the patience to appreciate the subtle changes to such a simple and singular approach.

“What’s it like to be stupid?”

If I had to describe Smart People in one word, it would be "generic." It is one of those self-consciously quirky pseudo-indie dramedies, populated by self-consciously quirky characters, who have self-consciously serious conversations peppered with overly clever dialogue. It's not unwatchable, by any means, but it is definitely something that you have seen before. Its familiarity is probably its best asset, lending the movie a nonthreatening sense of comfort.

Smart People follows how a series of events following a head trauma induced seizure changes everyone's lives (at first for the worse, but then for the better). Dennis Quad plays Lawrence Wetherhold, a curmudgeon of an English professor at Carnegie Mellon, who is taken to the Emergency Room after hitting his head while breaking out of the campus impound lot. There he meets Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), a former student of his, who informs him that due to the fact that he suffered a trauma-induced seizure after his fall, his license would have to be revoked for six months. This prompts the arrival of Lawrence's ne'er-do-welll, lay about adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Hayden Church), who invites himself to stay with Lawrence and act as his chauffeur. Add in Lawrence's two children, the over-achieving, politically conservative, book-smart, socially inept Vanessa (Ellen Page), and the willfully distant, bitter, poetry-writing James (Ashton Holmes), and you have the makings for some quirky family indie drama.

Lawrence, a widower, starts dating Janet. Chuck makes it his mission to get the 17 year old Vanessa to act her age, that is to say, he talks her into smoking pot and getting her drunk. James basically shows up now and again to point out how miserable everyone is, and how Lawrence is so self-involved that he has no idea what's going on in his own family. With the exception of James, who is probably the least fleshed-out character in the movie, the characters' relationships do evolve in some interesting ways. Vanessa masks her own feelings about her father dating again by becoming over protective of him. There is less a sense that she is upset that her mother is being replaced, but more that she herself feels replaced, long having taken on the role of a surrogate housewife. Vanessa's relationship with Chuck takes a somewhat interesting turn, just as it looks to be another free-spirited slob rescues square from button-down boringness story. Unfortunately, Lawrence and Janet's relationship, arguably the main storyline of the movie, is probably the most boring. There's no real emotion progression. Basically, some stuff happens, and that's about it.

Smart People isn't a bad movie. All the main actors (even Parker) are serviceable at their worst, legitimately charming at their best. The directing is competent. The writing is fine, even if it is overly generic. I can't think of a situation in which I'd recommend watching this. I guess if you're looking for an easy movie, a way to turn off your brain and watch a very middle of the road movie, it might do the trick.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

“I get a funny feeling”

I was just eating dinner, reading /Film, and listening to iTunes on shuffle. I stopped momentarily, thinking "Holy shit, this is really good." And yes, I was at least partially reacting to some good Gilliam news (of which there has been quite a bit lately), but no, that wasn't really what gave me pause. The song playing on iTunes was big, anthemic, and extremely catchy. I looked and saw that it was "The Fan" by Material Issue, off their 1994 album Freak City Soundtrack.

As I recall, I bought a used copy of Freak City Soundtrack about a year and a half go as part of a 3-CDs-for-$10 deal, and never really gave the album that much attention. I listened to a few songs, but never paid much attention to it. After hearing "The Fan" I turned shuffle off and listened to the album in its entirety while I finished dinner.

Freak City Soundtrack is filled with fantastic power pop. The entire album is quintessential power pop, loud and fast guitars speeding through pop songs overflowing with infectious hooks. The best songs on the album celebrate feelings of unrequited love. And I do mean celebrate. There is no sad bastard moping to be found, instead the songs rejoice in the nervous excitement one feels when they've met someone new.

This nervous excitement, whether represented in the lyrics or not, permeates the album. You get the impression that lead singer and main songwriter Jim Ellison is the kind of guy who's sort of nerdy, awkward, and much cooler than he thinks he is, and that impression is exactly what comes across in the music. In this respect, he sounds like the bridge between power pop pioneers like Cheap Trick and later bands like Weezer, who found much more success just a few years later.

Material Issue does sound distinctly 90s, which can make them sound a little dated. But songs like "Goin' Through Your Purse," "Kim the Waitress," "A Very Good Thing," and "Ordinary Girl" are near perfect pop songs, showcasing masterful songwriting. Ellison unapologetically incorporates sounds from 60s pop, 70s arena rock, 80s punk, and distills it all into catchy, upbeat, 90s alternative pop. Despite the fact that it sounds very much of its time, the songs on Freak City Soundtrack are simply too good to be tarnished by seeming too dated.

Needless to say, this album was more than worth the $3 or so that I paid for it.

Sadly, Jim Ellison committed suicide less than 2 years after the release of Freak City Soundtrack.

[Note: I was going to embed the video for "Kim the Waitress," the only song off the album that has a video, but Universal Music has disabled the embedding feature. You can watch it here.]

“You can feel it. That cold ain’t the weather. That’s death approaching.”

I've never read the 30 Days of Night comic book, but I've heard that it's fantastic. At the very least, I've seen some of the art work, and it's pretty amazing. I'm not sure if I'll ever get around to reading it, but seeing the movie adaptation certainly isn't motivating me.

30 Days of Night starts with a pretty awesome premise. Every winter, the town of Barrow, Alaska experiences 30 days without sunlight. The small town is so remote that there are no roads in or out, and the flights to and from civilization halt during the month-long darkness. On the eve of final sunset, a rash of vandalism besets the town. Power and phone lines are severed, sled dogs are viciously killed, a commercial helicopter is stripped, and a mysterious stranger (Ben Foster) appears. Shortly after the sun sets, the town is overrun by a pack of vampires, signaling the start of a month-long siege. The story follows the attempts by a small group of residents to hide and wait for the eventual sunrise. Among the residents are Sheriff Eben (Josh Hartnett), his estranged wife Stella (Melissa George), and a handful of other locals.

Though 30 Days of Night may have a few things going for it, overall it's, at best, a by-the-numbers horror thriller. Hartnett is terribly bland as the typical horror movie hero, specifically the calm, competent, self-sacrificing, All-American-Boy variety. George's Stella is essentially the female version of the same archetype, she has all of the same characteristics as Eden, just to a lesser degree. It isn't even worth talking about the other residents; they're not even fleshed out to the point of being archetypes. They're just sort of there to be picked off, one by one. Even Ben Foster (Six Feet Under, 3:10 to Yuma), who generally impresses me more every time I see him, is almost laughable as the Stranger. He talks in a strange and strained accent, speaking in riddles that are supposed to be eerie or terrifying, but are mostly just irritating.

One glaring problem with the movie is the pacing. The vampire siege don't build or escalate, it sort of lurches forward in abrupt leaps. It jumps from build-up, to full on war, to cat-and-mouse hide-and-seek, to confrontational resolution in near transitionless scene changes. On top of robbing the movie of what could have been a slow, suffocating sense of tension, I was also left with the impression that without the subtitles announcing "Day 7" or "Day 18," I probably would have completely forgotten about the 30 days without sun concept, assuming this was all happening over the course of a single night. Hartnett's single proclamation that being rough, pioneering Alaskans, they know how to deal with the cold and ration food appropriately robs the movie of getting any tension out of the 30 days gimmick. A single night, a week, a month, or even a year, there is no tension in how long the vampire siege lasts. No one seems particularly worried about supplies or how long they have to last in the Arctic cold without power.

30 Days of Night's main problems are its combination of genericness, erratic pacing, bland acting, and missed opportunities. Which is not to say the movie is a complete failure. There are a few things that it manages to do well.

The movie's take on vampires, for instance, is initially exciting. These vampires are much more animalistic than most representations. With the exception of a few locals-turned-vampires, the only vampire to speak is the leader (Danny Huston), using an archaic language. The rest of the pack communicates through bird-like chirping and screeching. They behave like a pack of well-organized wild animals. The vampires are reminiscent of the infected of 28 Days Later, just with a bit more self control. There is some every effective use of fast-motion early on, when the vampires are seen only as blurs of dark colors on the white snowy background, picking off residents, who seem to fly off the screen. As with most monster movies, though, once the vampires come out of the shadows, they get progressively less scary.

The residents soon realize that their attackers can't be stopped with bullets, and discover that decapitating them is the most effective way to stop them. This leads to a few gory scenes in which Hartnett graphically chops the heads off of some vampires and some bitten locals (usually taking two or three whacks to do it). The first time around this is a jarring and horrifying sight, but as with the vampires themselves, it is used more and more with diminishing returns. (It also seems oddly timely, given the conversation I had had at a party the night before about real life decapitations like this one and this one.) Along the same lines, there are a few scenes that should have been much more upsetting, but movie simply didn't earn the right to elicit any real emotion from the audience (such as when they're forced to kill a little girl vampire, who inexplicably has an Einsturzende Neubauten tattoo, or when Eden discovers that his deputy has murdered his entire family rather than let the vampires get them).

There are a few scenes that are done well. The vampires' first full-on assault on the town is shown using aerial shots of the town's streets. We see the chaos spread out over a few city blocks, as people scramble through the streets, vainly shooting at the vampires as they are chasing them. Or a husband's vain attempts to chase his wife from crawlspace to crawlspace, as the vampires drag her through the snow and under houses. As the vampire leader, Marlow, Huston is somehow both animalistic and somewhat debonair, almost like he's constantly struggling to remember what it was like to act human. I'm sure there are others, but I'm at a bit of a loss trying to remember them.

Ultimately, 30 Days of Night is a fairly bland, by-the-book movie. I certainly wouldn't recommend renting it. It's the kind of movie that might be worth watching if it's on TV and you have nothing better to do, but that's really the only circumstances I can imagine where watching this movie wouldn't seem like a waste of 2 hours.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

How does this make you feel?

Personally, this makes me feel good.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

“We’ve met before, haven’t we?”

I recently watched David Lynch's Lost Highway. I remember seeing it shortly after it came out, which means it would have been some time in the late 90s. I also remember being thoroughly confused by it, but still liking it. I didn't really trust my previous opinion of it, and for good reason. I was probably 15 or something when I saw it the first time, which means my opinion is worthless for a few reasons. First, no wonder I didn't understand any of it, I was 15. Second, the soundtrack features a lot of Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and Rammstein, so 15-year-old me thought that was pretty sweet. Finally, the movie features plenty of nudity, and no one should ever trust a 15 year old boy's opinion of anything that involves nudity. So, anyways, here we go, Lost Highway Round 2:

Lost Highway starts out following avant garde jazz saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette). Fred suspects Renee of cheating, and is especially wary of her friendship with a man named Andy (Michael Massee). Their marital issues are put on hold, though, when Fred and Renee begin receiving video tapes in the mail. The tapes initially show the outside of their home, but soon begin showing the interior and even Fred and Renee asleep in their bed. Fred and Renee's storyline continues to progress (I won't say much more for the sake of spoilers), up until Fred is literally replaced by Pete (Balthazar Getty). Fred goes to bed one night, and the next morning Fred is gone and Pete is in his bed. Pete is a young mechanic who gets the majority of his work from Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), a violent and ruthless (albeit pretty charming) mob boss. Mr. Eddy introduces Pete to his girlfriend, Alice (Patricia Arquette, yet again), and soon Pete falls in love with, and starts a torrid affair with, Alice. As the situation between Pete, Alice, and Mr. Eddy spirals out of control, Pete's mind begins to slip away. All of this, both Fred and Pete's stories, are overseen by a threatening and mysterious diminutive Mystery Man (Robert Blake).

Lost Highway revels in film noir conventions. The mobsters, the femme fatales, seedy motels, double-crossing, and infidelity. The film also has a decidedly nourish style, steeped in darkness, the sets are draped in deep reds, stark whites, and urine-stain yellows. (Though, apparently, the Region 1 DVD release looks different than other versions) The film is certainly a David Lynch film, exploring concepts of identity and reality, presented in an ambiguous, fever dream style. Lost Highway seems to be Lynch's homage to the more exploitative side to film history, recalling classic noir and drive-in fair like Siodmak's The Killers, only seen through the distorted and nightmarish lens of classic Lynch.

While it doesn't reach the heights of Lynch's upper pantheon (e.g. The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks), Lost Highway most certainly has its merits. It's an exceedingly dark and terrifying movie. It is certainly confusing and even frustrating, but worth the effort, especially if you're a fan of David Lynch (or neo-noir or psychological horror, for that matter). Plus it has one of the more ridiculous casts I've seen in a while. The following actors are all in the movie in roles of varying size: Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Robert Blake, Robert Loggia, Richard Pryor, Gary Busey, Henry Rollins, Giovanni Ribsi, Marilyn Manson, Twiggy Ramirez, and Balthazar Getty (who, for whatever reason, I feel like I should know, but admittedly don't).

I do want to talk a bit about the confusing nature of the movie, but that requires discussing things that are definitely spoilers. So if you haven't seen it, and want to see it, stop reading here. Part of what makes the movie so exciting is not really having any idea where it's going.

*** SPOILERS ***

So, I'll admit up front, I had no fucking clue what was going on when this movie ended. I was trying to piece together how Fred and Pete's stories were connected. There were obvious connections (e.g. the Mystery Man, Renee/Alice, Mr. Eddy/Dick Laurent, Andy, etc.), but I still couldn't seem to make the two worlds fit. Not even a little. I wasn't expecting the pieces to all line up perfectly, but I was seriously at a loss.

I did a little internetting, and pretty quickly came across what seems to be the prevailing interpretation. One that, in hindsight, made me feel extremely stupid for not figuring out on my own. Here goes: the entire Pete storyline was a fantasy/delusion/dream of Fred's. The second half of the movie was essentially an "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" story (which, by the way, you can read in its entirety here), meaning Fred was condemned to die and experienced a sort of dream-like hallucination or psychotic break. A fantastical escape from his inescapable fate.

Here is basically how I see the movie's story breaking down. Fred suspects his wife of cheating on him, kills her, and is sentenced to death. He experiences his escape from reality in the form of "becoming" Pete. Pete goes along with his normal existence (which apparently is comprised of going to dances at bowling alleys, having sex with his unbelievably good-looking girlfriend Sheila, and working at the garage). Pretty soon, Fred's reality comes creeping in to Pete's world. Alice, the ersatz Renee, enters the picture, and Pete begins reliving Fred's life. Soon the Pete fantasy has become so overlapped with Fred's real life, that Fred re-enters the picture, re-replacing Pete, and proceeds to finish out his own story (i.e. killing Renee and her lover Dick Laurent, aka Mr. Eddy). After informing himself of Dick Laurent's death (i.e. the first scene of the movie, as seen from the other side of the intercom), Fred leads the police on a high speed chase through the desert while being electrocuted in the "real" world (hence the strobe lights and all that jazz).

Now, this obviously doesn't explain everything. Is Pete a real person? If so, how did he and Fred switch places? If not, what was all the talk about what happened "that night" to Pete? Who is the Mystery Man? Why was he sending Fred and Renee the video tapes? How could Fred tell himself that Dick Laurent is dead?

There a number of answers to those questions (e.g. the Mystery Man is something akin to Fred's conscience, and was sending him the tapes to remind him of what really happened as opposed to simply what Fred chooses to remember), and plenty of other questions one could ask. I'm not looking for definitive answers, especially given that this is David Lynch we're talking about. No matter how you look at it, this movie is not going to wrap up into a neat package. There will always be loose ends, and that's definitely not a criticism. He doesn't give you everything, and many times, I'm not sure there's an "everything" to get. But that's just part of what makes Lynch Lynch. It's part of what elevates him from simply a filmmaker or storyteller to an artist.

Plus, any movie with a scene as terrifying as Fred's confrontation with the Mystery Man is worth seeing. "Alice who? Her name is Renee. If she told you her name was Alice, she's lying. And your name? What the fuck is your name!"

[Update: The discussion of interpretations of the movie has continued in the comments. It is filled with spoilers, but my opinion has progressed past the "Owl Creek" interpretation.]

Good luck and Godspeed, President Obama

Today was a good day.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Jandek Reviews, Pt. 1: Six and Six

I've been listening to those Jandek albums for a while. I'm get the distinct impression that Jandek's style is so singular, if I'm going to review each album individually, I'm going to end up repeating myself a lot. I'll give it a shot anyways, but most of the reviews (at least until I get to some of his later albums when some he starts incorporating other musicians and starts varying his style a bit) will be short and to the point. With that in mind, here's part 1 of what will hopefully be a 10 part series, my review of Jandek's Six and Six.

As I had previously discussed, Jandek's music consists mainly of a single man playing a lone acoustic guitar while sing-whispering stream-of-consciousness lyrics.

The guitar sounds grossly out of tune (though in one of his two "interviews" Jandek claims it is not out of tune, but an open blues tuning). It is rarely if ever strummed, mainly plucked slowly, hardly, and generally arhythmically. Often the notes seemed to be selected at random, a slow and harsh cascade of random dissonant tones. The more his songs play, some semblance of reason emerges, and whether there is subtle, hidden rhyme or reason to his playing, or if I'm just being dragged into such an insular world that I'm developing a sort of musical apophenia, I honestly can't tell.

More central to Jandek's guitar than tuning, strumming, plucking, rhythm, or technical ability is the simple, basic, emotional gut-reaction to it. At times it is quiet and slow, creeping about in an almost suffocatingly vast empty space. As songs build, the plucking becomes harsher, louder, and faster. At first the notes seem to linger threateningly in the air, before coming alive, flying at you, and attacking.

Over this cacophonous guitar, Jandek sings and whispers lyrics that are surreal and nightmarish, that ache painfully of desperation. While the lyrics may maintain a certain level of nonsensicalness, they reek of something deeply personal. You might not know what he's singing about, but you get the distinct sense that whatever it is, it is so serious, so intimate, that you shouldn't be listening to them. That you've inadvertently walked in on something that wasn't meant to be heard by anyone, least of all, you.

He may never yell or scream, but Jandek's voice follows the same pattern as his guitar playing. He often sings in a hushed whisper that suggests a deep resignation, but just as the guitar turns from haunting to dangerous, that resignation turns into a thinly veiled, barely controlled rage. That seeming desperation gives way to a base fury, as his voice rises and that whisper turns into strained harsh singing.

The two basic ingredients to Jandek's music, his guitar and his voice, echo and hiss, sounding like they were recorded in a large empty room in an old house. The sound of the recording suggest a man, sitting alone in a room with little to no furniture, in a decaying house out in the vast prairies and scrublands of East Texas. The echoing of his guitar and voice sound almost oppressively vast and empty, as if Jandek and his guitar were the only things as far as the eye could see. A single man, with his guitar, out in a harsh, wide-open landscape.

Juana Molina – Un Día

Do you like Björk, but wish she were less icy and synthetic? If so, I'd recommend checking out Juana Molina. On her newest album, Un Día, she makes extensive use of looping and layering multiple vocal tracks, interweaving them with traditional Argentine drums and guitars. Electronic and synthetic elements creep in now and again, but are used as minor flourishes and accents, leaving her music thoroughly warm and organic sounding. Individual tracks are made up of mostly acoustic guitars, drumming, vocals, humming, whistling, and are then layered, looped, and intertwined.

The music on Un Día ranges from upbeat and lush ("Un Día") to relatively more spare and elegant ("No Llama"), but maintains a sense of unity throughout. Many times single songs ebb and flow between sparse guitar/singing and a denser/lusher multilayered style ("Vive Solo"). Generally the songs are a little long for pop songs (only one clocks in under 5 minutes, with most lasting between 5:30 and 7:30), but this gives Molina plenty of breathing room to let the songs wander in and out of different variations of her distinct style.

And a distinct style it is. I had compared her music to Björk's, and that seems fairly apt, but Molina is making music that is definitely unique and definitely her own (unless there is a whole genre of Argentine atmospheric acoustic quasi-electronica out there that I don't know about, which could certainly be the case). The way in which she combines the more experimental elements of someone like Björk with the warmer sensibilities of the singer-songwriter yields music that is both unique enough to be exciting, but familiar enough to not be off-putting or inaccessible.

Un Día is a beautiful, fun, and inviting album. It is only Molina's fifth album in 13 years. She is, apparently, primarily known in her native Argentina as comedic television actress. Her music, quite surprisingly, is more of an occasional sideline gig. And while I have yet to hear any of her earlier work (and I will certainly go back and check out more of it), Un Día will hopefully serve to be an introduction to some great music.

Here is a video of the title track, "Un Día "

“A long time ago we knew each other for a short period of time. You don't know anything about me.”

A few nights ago I was about to go to bed when I saw that The Big Chill was starting on TCM. I remembered a conversation I had with a guy about The Big Chill four or five years ago. He was in his early-to-mid 40s, and was telling me though he loved it, he didn't think I'd like it. He had said that there is so much generational identity wrapped up in the movie that he didn't think that I'd be able to appreciate what it was saying (he also said all the characters were assholes). Actually, the conversation was probably more like, "You haven't seen it? Don't bother, you're too young. Oh, and all the characters are assholes…" So when I saw that it was on, I decided I could sacrifice a couple of hours of sleep to check it out. It's considered something of a classic, but mostly I wanted to see if that guy was right.

Following the suicide of their friend Alex, a group of old college friends reunite at his funeral, and subsequently turn it into a weekend-long reunion of sorts. There is Harold (Kevin Kline) and his wife Sarah (Glenn Close), with whom Alex had been living at the time of his death, who own a series of shoe stores that are about to be bought up by a large corporation, and who play host for the impromptu reunion. Michael (Jeff Goldblum), a reporter for "People" magazine, TV-star Sam Weber (Tom Berenger), public defender turned real-estate lawyer Meg (Mary Kay Place), drug dealer and Vietnam vet Nick (William Hurt), and finally Alex's young live-in girlfriend Chloe (Meg Tilly) round out the rest of the group. They spend the weekend talking, drinking, musing, smoking pot, listening to music, etc. (Oh, and watching Michigan football. Go Blue!)

The Big Chill is well acted and well written. Overall, it is a good movie, but I can't help but feel like that guy was right. A lot of what the movie explores is wrapped up in the Boomer generation coming to terms with growing up and abandoning the ideologies of their youth. The suicide of their friend Alex, who is talked about as the one with the most potential and the one who was always the most lost, makes for an easy introduction to serious "life" talks and an obvious metaphor for all that is lost in the transition from youth to adulthood. Their reunion forces them to stop and evaluate where they all ended up, years after their politically active and socially conscious college experience. They are all confronted with the realization that none of them have lived up to their youthful ideals. Meg abandoned her altruistic instincts to defend the poor when she realized how many of the criminals she was defending were "scum," and took up real-estate work. Michael never became an investigative journalist, nor a novelist, and instead writes pap for celebrity magazines. Everyone's relationships are struggling, unfulfilling, or have fallen apart.

And this leads into the second reason that I couldn't really connect with the movie. There are a lot of themes that are specific to the Boomer generation, but large portions of the movie are simply about looking back on life, regardless of generation. All the characters are in their mid-to-late 30s, and are dealing with how their lives have turned out. A lot of what the characters are dealing with doesn't necessarily have to do with loss of idealism, but simply disillusionment. Their careers have not turned out as they had hoped they would. They all, for the most part, hate their jobs, and still expound on pipe-dreams they all know they won't follow through on. They've realized that marriage is difficult, and even Harold and Sarah, who have the strongest marriage in the group, are obviously struggling.

And while this is all fertile ground for a movie, and done quite well here, I'm admittedly about ten years shy of having to deal with this kind of disillusionment myself. Now, most movies tackle issues and themes that I personally have never had to deal with but could still emotionally connect with, The Big Chill for some reason left me with the distinct feeling of being on the outside looking in. I could engage with the movie in cerebral ways, and occasionally in a deeper more emotional way, but overall I felt a bit like I was watching the movie from arm's distance. Which is not to say the movie is not good. I would say it was definitely good, but this feeling of detachment kept it from being great. I can't put my finger on why I struggled to connect with it. The generational gap could be it, but I feel like it was something else.

If it really is the generational issue, I am curious to see how the movie ages (the fact that it's already 26 years old, notwithstanding). As the Boomers retire and the torch of film history and film criticism is passed on to the younger generation, what will happen to a movie considered a classic among its target audience but keeps everyone else at arm's distance? Can revisiting a film not only turn critically reviled movies into classics (a la Peeping Tom) or flops into cult favorites (a la Harold and Maude), but also turn previously "great" movies into simply "good" movies? Just some food for thought.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

“Hope I’m not freaking you out. Wait! I hope I AM freaking you out!”

Hamlet 2 generated a huge amount of buzz when it was screened at Sundance, but it garnered pretty mediocre reviews upon its release (it has a 63% on RottenTomatoes). In reality, Hamlet 2 probably belongs somewhere between those two.

Failed actor Dana Marschz (a fantastic and fully committed Steve Coogan) has been teaching high school drama in the apparent cultural wasteland of Tucson, AZ, producing his stage adaptations of Hollywood motion pictures (including Erin Brockovich, Mississippi Burning, and a plan to do a musical version of The Lake House). Following budget cuts, the school has decided to shut down drama. Following a heart-to-heart with Dana's nemesis, a middle-school aged drama critic for the school newspaper, he decides to stage his greatest play ever in an attempt to save drama. He is going to stage his original play "Hamlet 2", a sequel to (as Dana calls it) "Hamlet 1" that is mostly about Dana's troubled relationship with his father.

As a consequence of every other elective having already been shut down, Dana's drama class is now populated by stereotypes of kids from the wrong side of the tracks, mainly Latinos (though, as Dana points out, "Just because they're Latino doesn't make them gangbangers"). Things are even more tumultuous for Dana as his harpy of a wife simultaneously belittles him and pressures him to have a baby, Dana meets actress-turned-nurse Elizabeth Shue (playing herself in a small but great role), and intense controversy spreads as words gets out that "Hamlet 2" contains scenes of violence, graphic sex, and non-stop heresy.

When Hamlet 2 works, it produces plenty of laugh-out-loud gags. Dana's lack of social awareness and basic social tact are the basis for plenty of the movie's best moments. His unbridled enthusiasm, combined with his total lack of any talent (not just acting talent, but also teaching, directing, writing, and basically everything) makes Dana both likable and the non-stop butt of most of Hamlet 2's jokes. This combination of likableness and obvious ineptitude works to allow the audience to both root for Dana and revel in his constant failure.

While not all of Hamlet 2's humor is irreverent and offensive, a good portion of it is. As you can imagine, a parody of the "inspirational teacher" movie about a man staging a high school production containing a scene of group sex between Hamlet, Gertrude, Polonius, and Hillary Clinton is not going to be very PC. Don't worry, the more offensive humor isn't mean-spirited, but based more on character ignorance. Unless you're from Tucson. Tucson really gets taken to task (as Dana tells one of his students: "You're going to have a magical life. Because no matter where you go, it's always going to be better than Tucson").

There are things that don't work so well, though. The characters-as-stereotypes gag can get a little old. Try as she might, Catherine Keener can't really give too much depth to the role of Dana's unbearable bitch of a wife. Amy Poehler's ACLU lawyer is painfully abrasive and not at all funny. There is not any real emotional depth to the movie, which can be both good and bad. While the movie doesn't try to shoehorn in any life lessons or commit any emotional blackmail, there also isn't a lot of investment in the characters. You just sort of ride along, from one hilarious moment to the next.

Plus there is a lot of Steve Coogan ass. And maybe some balls, too. I'll leave you to decide if that's good or bad.

Ultimately, Hamlet 2 is definitely funny. It might not be a classic movie, but it has plenty of classic moments (e.g. the "creative process" montage, Elizabeth Shue telling Dana's students her favorite thing about acting, Dana's declaration to his unborn child). I wouldn't say anyone needs to see it, but it's worth checking out if you're looking for some fun and easy laughs.

“The game's out there, and it's play or get played. That simple.”

I recently finished the last episode of the last season of HBO's The Wire. There's not much I can say about The Wire that hasn't already been said in any number of other places (for instance, this 3+ hour special /Filmcast all about the series). It is an amazing series, for a number of reasons. It may be the best written television series I have ever seen. It's incredibly well cast and well acted. The series on the whole reaches an epic level that I have never seen another television show achieve.

After finishing the last episode, I was talking to Molly about it. Molly has never seen it, and was skeptical about whether or not it was worth watching. I admitted that it was hard to recommend it if you have zero interest in watching a police procedural. But you know what? Fuck that. There is no reason for me not to recommend The Wire to anyone and everyone (except maybe my parents, there's plenty of bad language and my mom didn't even like The Departed because of the language).

While The Wire starts as a police procedural, it grows into something much bigger. The first season, and even superficially the second, The Wire is on the surface about the police fighting the drug war. Even as a procedural, it is unique in its realism. You see how police work is probably done. Slowly, frustratingly, bit by bit, until after countless hours a case, maybe a strong case, maybe a weak case, is built. You also see the mechanics of the drug trade. From the dealers on street corners all the way up the hierarchy to men who probably haven't touched any actual drugs in years (and in Season 2, the men who supply it). Even within the genre of the police procedural, The Wire is impeccable. Not unlike Zodiac in its ability to take a genre and do it so perfectly that it feels like something entirely new.

Beyond the police v. drug dealers, The Wire broadens its scope and embraces its real theme, the breakdown of bureaucracy and our failing institutions. Be it the police departments, the schools, our elected offices, everything is broken. The series on the whole paints a bleak and grim portrait of how our society is collapsing under the weight of our inhuman and unwieldy institutions that are drastically broken, but so large and so ingrained as to be unchangeable. Characters struggle to circumvent these institutions, bend the rules within them, or simply do their best to follow the rules, and in every instance they are harshly reprimanded in one way or another. It is in this way that The Wire transcends most every other television show. Its massive cast of characters, its many fingers in many pies, its multi-season long story arcs, and the fact that all of this is handled so well raises The Wire to heights that I'd be hard pressed to compare to any other television show.

One thing that is worth mentioning, though, is as bleak as The Wire may be, it is never depressing. It has plenty of good guys winning and plenty of comic relief (such as the famous scene in which McNulty and Bunk investigate a murder scene only using the word "fuck"). It is true to life in many respects. Everyone wins sometimes, everyone loses sometimes, no one is entirely evil, and certainly no one is entirely pure. One of the elements, from a story perspective, that makes The Wire so engrossing is its unpredictable nature. It is never a foregone conclusion that people will get their comeuppance (be it good or bad). Right up through the last episode, I wasn't sure what was going to happen to most of the characters.

I think I've said all I can say about how much I loved The Wire, and tried my best to explain why I loved it so much. I'll end with some quick and dirty recaps (spoiler-free, I promise) of each of the seasons. It is worth saying, you must watch the episodes in order, and you must watch them all. So no jumping to Season 4 if you're only interested in inner-city education. It is worth it, trust me.

Season 1: Dealers and Police

We are introduced to the Baltimore Police Department, and specifically Detective McNulty of the homicide unit. In a move that is typical of McNulty, he complains to a judge about a recent acquittal, and inadvertently causes the creation of a special detail to investigate the Barksdale gang. The detail is meant to be a sham to appease the judge, and McNulty is added to a patchwork group of police investigating Barksdale. We are also introduced to the Barksdale gang, a massive drug dealing organization run by Avon Barksdale and his right hand man Stringer Bell. We are given the ins and outs of how a drug organization of this size operates. This season follows the detail's initial investigation into the Barksdale organization, and illustrates how bureaucratic drug organizations are and how dysfunctional our legitimate institutions are.

Season 2: Dealers, Police, and the Docks

At the opening of Season 2, we are thrown head first into an entirely new cast of characters, the Baltimore dock workers. Both the police and key members of the Barksdale organization are reintroduced, and their stories are continued, but now we also have the dock workers and see how they are involved in the drug trade. On top of following characters introduced in Season 1, the new characters in Season 2 shows how the decline of American blue collar work rots out a city in surprising places and surprising ways, and if that decline is ignored, it is allowed to spread and fester.

Season 3: Dealers, Police, and Politics

Season 3 retains the characters from Season 1, but for the most part drops the characters and stories from Season 2. As we continue to follow the exploits of the BPD and the luminaries of Baltimore's drug trade, we get our first glimpse into the political arena of the city. We see how politicians can easily hinder everything else, but do not have the power or authority to make anything work better. We see how the selfless desire to better the community around us gives way to selfish self-promotion and senseless politicking. We see how this politics-as-usual corrupts not only the political system, but everything that falls under the neglectful gaze of our elected officials.

Season 4: Dealers, Police, Politics, and the Schools

Again, we continue to follow the storylines and characters introduced in Season 1 (the police, the dealers) and Season 3 (the politicians, the up-and-coming Stanfield gang), and add on the public education system of inner-city Baltimore. A character from Season 1, an officer of the BPD, has left the department to take the job of a middle-school teacher. As the previous seasons have taken a sort of top-down perspective, looking at organizations and institutions from the point of view of how they work (or don't work) and the failings of their leadership, in Season 4 we are giving a more bottom-up point of view. We see the children who fall out of the system and into the arms of the drug trade. We see how a drug organization is built, established, and grows. We see how the old is replaced with the new, and how the new is a lot like the old.

Season 5: Dealers, Police, Politics, the Newspaper, and (sort of) the Schools

In the final season, we continue to follow the police, the dealers, the politicians, and as a sort of abstract/absent non-character, the schools. We now begin to follow the media in the form of the Baltimore Sun, a local newspaper. The media is presented as just as corrupt as every other institution, but sinking much faster. The media's role should be to play watchdog, keeping an unflinching eye on our leaders and our institutions, but that role has been replaced with mindless pandering in an attempt to survive an increasingly harsh economic climate.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Apologies for “Kitten Party”

It was brought to my attention by Molly that the "Kitten Party" picture that I included in my "Goodbye 2008, Hello 2009" post was not a painting, as I thought, but in fact a photograph. A taxidermist/artist named Walter Potter created extremely intricate and elaborate displays using stuffed animals.

At first I was horrified when Molly told me this. Then I actually started looking at Potter's work. Dead kittens aside, his work is really pretty incredible. Look at the details in the Kitten Party picture, the tarts on the plates, the tea in the cups, the plates and saucers. And this is only half of a larger piece, the other half shows a group of kittens playing croquet in front of a house. Pretty amazing stuff, all things considered.

And don't worry, not all of his work is posed dead kittens. There are squirrels fencing (I really like that one), frogs training for track and field, rabbits in school, a monkey riding a goat, and plenty others. I was going to post pictures, but accidentally subjecting people to the Kitten Party picture was enough. I would recommend checking out some of his other stuff, though.

C'mon, you know you want to. Do it. Just go ahead and google "walter potter".

And again, my apologies for making you looking at dead kittens before. I swear, it (probably) won't happen again.

“Yellow! Yellow! Yellow! Yellow!”

Darkon is a game. Darkon is also a movie about Darkon the game. Darkon is a not particularly good movie about Darkon the game.

Darkon the game is essentially live-action D&D, an elaborate role-playing game. Players dress up in medieval style costumes, wield foam-padded swords, staffs, battle axes, and shields. They meet every two weeks, with weekend-long campouts once a month, to play in forests and fields around the greater Baltimore area. Playing Darkon consists mainly of going to these gatherings and spending the entire time in character (as with D&D and other RPGs, each person creates a character, complete with costume, backstory, etc.). Characters form countries and vie to take over more and more land. "Winning" Darkon ostensibly means taking over the entire realm, including conquering other countries and seizing their land. Much of the time playing Darkon seemingly consists of political discussions (whether or not to take over another country, forming allegiances between countries, backdoor dealing, etc.), and battles. The battles are when two countries fight each other with their big foam weapons, resulting in a spastic melee of wood, foam, limbs, and yelling (there is an elaborate hit-point and armor system that goes into determining which side wins that involves waling on each other while yelling colors).

Here is a video of a Darkon battle, apparently filmed by a Darkon player, that is not in the movie:

At the beginning of the movie, there is a major conflict brewing between Laconia and Mordom, two Darkon countries. Mordom has been dominating the realm for an extended period of time, and Laconia has split from their alliance with Mordom to unite the smaller countries in an effort to stop Mordom from winning Darkon (it's never clear in the movie if anyone has even actually won Darkon in the past or if it's really even possible). There's some stuff about Bannor of Laconia (real name Skip) wanting to bring the Mordom leader, Keldar (real name Kenyon), before some kind of war crimes tribunal. Mostly there's a lot of yelling in pseudo-Shakespearian-medieval-speak, building to what appears to be a massive war. The movie jumps back nine months to introduce the audience to the world of Darkon, and the specific events that lead to this confrontation.

Darkon lays its cards down pretty clearly and pretty early. The movie follows a select group of players (they never state the actual number of Darkon players, but it appears to be quite a lot), both in their real workaday lives, as well as their fantasy Darkon lives. It's immediately apparent that we are to view the Darkon players as good-natured noble misfits, reluctant social outcasts, who can only truly express themselves and find happiness when they are playing Darkon. And that's OK. They don't care if you think it's childish or silly or embarrassing. This is where they go to get away from you and all your judgment.

That's one half of the movie. The other tracks the goings on in Darkon the game, presenting it mainly as an actual fantasy movie. This sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. There is the dramatic voiceover that starts the movie, and the music that swells as the battles rages, both of which work pretty well in a silly/fun sort of way. Unfortunately there is also the attempt to film and edit the fight scenes like something out of Braveheart, which doesn't really work, seeing as these aren't carefully choreographed battle scenes. The camera tries to dramatically shoot a horde of people running around hitting each other, but it can't get close enough or in the middle of it without getting in the way.

The pairing of players-in-their-real-lives paired with the Darkon-as-real is established from the get-go, and the film never really deviates from that. Ultimately, this means that even though the movie is less than 90 minutes, it gets pretty old by the end. There is some drama in what will happen in the world of Darkon, but not enough to make the movie very engrossing the whole way through. There is a sort of second order suspension of disbelief that the viewer has to buy into that presents some problems. There is little to no drama in the players' real lives. Most of the older players seem happy, successful, married, with children, etc. Some of the younger players seem more awkward and unsatisfied with their real lives. But there really isn't any progression beyond what is immediately presented as the players are introduced (with the exception of one female player who lives in her parents' basement because the father of her child left her and hasn't been keeping up on child support, but even that isn't particularly dramatic – the father starts paying and she gets her own place).

Darkon is enjoyable in that you get to watch a bunch of nice people have a ton of fun doing something they love. Unfortunately, it doesn't make for a particularly engrossing movie.