Tuesday, April 27, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so ended my Kick-Ass adventure…

Monday, April 19, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ow, that hurt all my senses at once…

I seem to have the exact same reaction to every Jason Statham movie. At first I think it looks absolutely terrible. Then I really, really want to see it. Then I see it and realize that it was both absolutely terrible and absolutely awesome. This leads me to a night of dubious distinction, a Crank mini-marathon in which a small group of intrepid friends joined me for a night of drink and Crank and Crank: High Voltage.

Plot is hardly either Crank's strong suit, so I guess consider this your SPOILER WARNING, in as much as it's possible to spoil a movie with almost no plot. So let's get the plots, such as they are, out of the way now. In Crank, Jason Statham plays Chev Chelios, a mob hit man who is poisoned and the only way to hold off death by heart failure is to constantly keep his adrenaline pumping. In Crank: High Voltage, Chelios has had his heart stolen and replaced with a mechanical one that requires constant electrical jolts to keep it from failing. In both movies, Chelios goes on a violent rampage through the streets of Los Angeles, killing multitudes of people, causing near limitless amounts of property damage, all while trying to track down salvation from his imminent demise.

The two movies are fairly similar. Both are hyper-stylized, filmed and edited in a post-MTV sensory barrage. The experience is akin to watching a hard-R 90 minute music video, and it is as awesome, bizarre, and exhausting as that might sound. The stylistic flourishes on display can be so constant, varied, and fast-paced that it almost defies description. In terms of content, Crank and Crank: High Voltage are both filled to the brim with unending, extremely graphic violence. For instance, in one memorable moment from Crank, Chelios chops off a man's hand and the man then proceeds to take a swing at Chelios only to miss and punch the pavement with his bloody stump. And that could probably be considered fairly tame (if more cringe-inducing) compared to the rest of the movie.

Despite the fact that Crank and Crank: High Voltage are so similar, it's kind of astounding how different my reaction to each movie was. I thought Crank was extremely fun, well made, and surprisingly witty (more clever than intelligent, but occasionally witty nonetheless). The movie is definitely inventive and a whole lot of fun, assuming you have a tolerance for comical over-the-top violence, irreverence, and a healthy dose of absurdism. One of my favorite moments is when Chelios goes to a hospital to steal a shot of artificial adrenaline. He forgets how much his doctor (played by Dwight Yokum of all people) told him to take, and ends up taking five times as much as he was supposed to. Upon realizing this, he shoots out of the elevator and sprints down the streets of LA, going full tilt in a hospital gown, on the phone with his doctor, while an erection visibly flops around under his gown. (That may sound stupid in writing, and is also stupid in the movie, but it's still incredibly funny. If this sounds just regular stupid and you can't see any reason why this would be appealing, Crank probably isn't for you.)

Crank: High Voltage, on the other hand, is the kind of movie that you walk away from feeling a little stupider than you did before you watched it. Even the paper thin plot is abandoned fairly quickly, as the movie dissolves into a mind-numbing series of increasingly bizarre and nonsensical events. The most egregious example of this is when Chelios chases a Chinese gangster toting Chelios's heart in an ice cooler into an electrical transformer. After Chelios charges his heart by grabbing the transformer, he mutates into a giant Godzilla-monster version of himself, the Chinese gangster also inexplicably mutates into a giant, and they fight for a while before they both inexplicably change back to normal. The rest of movie tries to push the envelope with results that are mixed at best. It's not a total loss and there are some pretty great moments (the movie opens with Chelios literally being scraped off the pavement with a snow shovel), but those moments are overshadowed by absolutely horrible ones that are sprinkled liberally throughout. For instance, a shoot out in a strip club involves a stripper having her breast implant shot and ruptured, spewing silicon all over, and in another scene an obese gangster is sodomized with a motor oil covered shot gun. All-in-all, the hit to miss ratio in Crank: High Voltage is pretty bad.

I can honestly say that if you think Crank might appeal to you, you should really, really check it out. It's an extremely fun, entertaining movie, and surprisingly inventive at times. While Crank: High Voltage wasn't a total waste, I was ultimately pretty disappointed. I guess if you walk away from Crank thinking to yourself, "you know, that movie was kind of slow and boring and way too plot heavy," then maybe Crank: High Voltage will be right up your alley. (All that being said, I'm already pretty jazzed about the possibility of a third Crank movie.)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

“Maybe there’s no middle ground. The void has won.”

As evidenced by the massive delay between my last post and this one, I had all but abandoned this blogging business. I had vague intentions of taking it up again, but a lethal combination of an exhausting work schedule and laziness effectively killed any efforts to resurrect the OM. Thankfully some gentle nudging from my brother Brad has finally got my ass in gear. So send your thanks/curses to Brad, because the Octopus Motor is back! (Until I get busy/lazy again, anyways…)

I am definitely one of those people who goes through phases in which I tire of all of the music in my collection. Not only that, but I tire of all of the music that sounds like the music in my collection. As frustrating as this can be, I usually end up finding something that is unlike anything else I've heard before. There are few things I find as exciting as hearing something completely new after a drought of listening to the same things over and over again.

"Excited" is definitely an apt describe for how I felt after hearing Shining for the first time. The first song I heard was "Healter Skelter" (yes, that's how it's spelled) off their newest album, Blackjazz. With an album title like that, I was expecting some combination of black metal and free jazz, and "Healther Skelter" pretty much delivered just that. Or at least the first minute to minute and a half did. As random squawks and awkward staccato drumming rambled on for about a minute and a half, I was not impressed. But by the half way point through the five and a half minute long song, the drumming took shape and the squawks were enveloped by propulsive, intricate, face-shattering guitars. By the time it ended, I was sold. I had to have more and as soon as possible.

Shining are a band that is incredibly hard to pin down. Writers have described them as "part bop, part experimental composition," "jazz metal," and "neither black metal nor jazz." Odd as it sounds, a combination of "jazz metal" and "neither black metal nor jazz" sounds about right. Ultimately, Shining's music is (in no particular order) abrasive, intricate, heavy, progressive, influenced by both black metal and free jazz, intimidating, smart, and incredibly unique. The first time I listened to Blackjazz's first track, "The Madness and the Damage Done," it sounded like a disjointed wall of noise, as if there was a room full of musicians, all playing different songs as loud as they could, trying as hard as possible to drown each other out:

But by the second time I heard it, I realized that the song (and most of the rest of the album, for that matter) was an intricately woven tapestry of interlocking parts. Like some kind of experimental game of sonic Tetris. All of the musicians were playing incredibly different parts, but all those parts fit together to form an initially difficult-to-grasp whole. The drums pummel at a break neck speed, while multiple guitar lines jump in and out of the song at unexpected intervals and the vocals seem to be off in their own world. But "unexpected" doesn't mean inappropriate or random. It all fits together in a very structural, almost architectural sense, just not in a typical song-writing sense (I guess that means you can probably add "math rock" to that list of influences and descriptions).

Shining can be, and often is, heavy, abrasive, and seemingly inscrutable. The music also, just for good measure, will periodically all give way to lengthy passages of ambient noise, jazzy horn squawks, slow gentle instrumentation, or full-on, mind-breaking free for alls. Though "The Madness and The Damage Done" is probably the most accessible song on the album (and first single), to get a real sense of what Shining does so well, one needs to look no further than the true centerpiece of Blackjazz, "Blackjazz Deathtrance:"

To truly enjoy and appreciate Blackjazz takes a certain combination of patience, attention, and tolerance. This is music that will only appeal to a very small contingent of people. It's too strange to appeal to most metal fans, too heavy to appeal to most prog rock fans, and just flat out too weird and abrasive to appeal to pretty much anyone else. But that being said, Shining is making truly unique music. The more time I spend with Blackjazz, the more I realize how unlike it is from just about anything I've heard before.

As exciting as uniqueness can be, it can also cover up plenty of deficiency. I've been duped by novelty before, but Blackjazz is more than mere novelty. As viscerally exciting as Blackjazz was the first few times through, that visceral excitement has given way to a more cerebral appreciation. What was mind-erasingly intense the first few times through has shown itself to be well executed and well structured musical innovation. But make no mistake, as the layers of howling quickly pile on top of one another at the start of "The Madness and The Damage Done," I still feel my body brace itself for an intense sensory assault. And then it starts all over again, better than the last time.

One of the ways Brad was able to convince me to resurrect the OM was the suggestion of some joint projects in the near future. I think we have our first one lined up, so stay tuned to the OM for the forthcoming Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans Octopus Motor v. Brad Liening's Daily Poem Factory-Machine Blog-off Smack Down: 2010. Or as it will be henceforth known, the BL:PoCNOOMvBLDPFMBoSD: 2010!