Saturday, October 15, 2005

Land of the Dead

This sure doesn't look like a George Romero zombie film. I don't know that he's ever had a budget 1/8th this size for a movie before. Romero films always look terrific, but in their own, well, cheap way. Dawn of the Dead in particular is a film of constant action and epic scope that tells a A-level story on a B-level budget. In Land of the Dead, however, he had the full resources of a studio put behind him - name actors, glossy cinematography, digital surround sound, massive effects crews and computer wizards and most importantly time. Years in which to sculpt and craft a story, to make sure it was the story he wanted to tell.

Now that it's done, I'm happy to report that most of his essential Romero-ness remains. The film's a bit choppy and short, the soundtrack kind of sucks and the conclusion is a little pat, but the film is still a major achievement, proof that Romero remains a focused, ingenious filmmaker capable of producing horror films of wit, intensity, intelligence and brutality in equal measure.

As I said in my paragraph on Romero in the Top 101 Directors column yesterday, his genius is in merging fun gory horror films with sharp social commentaries. Most famously, his Night of the Living Dead plays as a reaction to the conformity of the McCarthy years, when people were afraid that radical behavior would lead them to be ostracized or worse. Dawn of the Dead, his follow-up, attacks consumer culture, using zombies to stand in for common Americans stuck in grinding, materialistic and self-centered routines. And all three films, including the less-successful but underrated Day of the Dead, use zombies as a plot device rather than an antagonist - these are stories of people turning on one another in a crisis situation. The undead merely exacerbate an already bad situation.

In Land of the Dead, Romero goes for his most ambitious allegorical horror show yet, particularly in how he continues the neat little narrative trick of having all his "Dead" films follow one another chronologically. Night of the Living Dead showed us the initial zombie outbreak, Dawn of the Dead shows the zombies spreading out and causing humans to flee the big cities, Day of the Dead is a post-apocalyptic nightmare in which bands of survivors must avoid teeming armies of the undead. And in the new film, scattered outposts of humanity cull together behind electrified fences, desperately hoping for some as-yet-absent source of salvation.

One such outpost is the luxurious Fiddler's Green, a skyscraper converted into elegant accomodations for the super-wealthy by the meticulous and evil Kaufman (Dennis Hopper). Kaufman has quite a system set up for himself - residents pay him an exhorbitant amount to live in the safety of The Green and he in turn pays roving bands of mercenaries to scatter throughout the American wasteland scavenging supplies to bring back for guest accomodations.

It all works well until the blue-collar mercenaries, headed by the self-righteous Cholo (John Leguizamo) hijacks The Green's armored truck, the Dead Reckoning, and threatens to blow up Kaufman's entire housing project if he's not paid $5 million. Then Kaufman must send out other employees (the bland Simon Baker and blander but more attractive sia Argento) to stop him, and the stage is set for a face-off in Zombietown.

Land of the Dead works on so many levels at once, it's a difficult film to review. I don't really know where to begin. Most obviously, it's an exciting and gruesome horror film. It's not really all that scary, but it is exceptionally gory, so it all pretty much evens out. Seriously, I don't know that I've ever seen as many pulling-out-intestines shots in any film ever. There's something about extracted bowels that really seems to please Romero.

But there's also a very strong Marxist streak to the film, with its view of not one but two simultaneous class uprisings. The idea is actually floated here that lower-class people have more in common with zombies than with their social and financial "betters."

Zombies have begun to evolve and become more intelligent, with the above-pictured zombie Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) attaining a sort of zombie consciousness. He figures out how to fire guns and use tools, rudimentary language skills (mostly grunting), and leads a sort of zombie proletariat revolution against Fiddler's Green. This coincides with Cholo's revolt against the cruelty and exclusiveness of Kaufman's "paradise," which has rejected him for membership even though he has scammed enough money to pay for admittance.

The idea is simple enough. To a rich capitalist like Kaufman, everyone without money is equally useless and disposable. Just as he has built walls to keep out the undead who mill about the countryside, he has inner walls to keep out the servant and peasant class. He needs them to provide basic services, but he can't have them mucking about in his beautiful utopia. They are all dead to him; the only difference is that the zombies mean him direct harm whereas the poor people are more complacent.

In addition to this, Romero has also added some allegorial ties to the War on Terror. Cholo refers to his mission against Fiddler's Green as "a jihad." Kaufman memorably states that Fiddler's Green doesn't "negotiate with terrorists." And the friendly warning system, that informs Fiddler's Green residents that there's no reason to fear a breach of security even as zombies pound on the glass doors outside, is a particularly sly comment on authoritarian systems in times of crisis.

There was a time when many horror films tackled real issues with this sort of maturity and insight. I fear this time is over, for now anyway, in American filmmaking. Most of the young guys who seem poised to take over the genre just lack an essential seriousness. They're like Eli Roth, who helmed the disappointing Cabin Fever, which was little more than a retread of familiar 70's and 80's horror movie staples and conventions. Just as Romero was ahead of his time in the 60's, telling zombie stories with far-reaching cultural relevancy, he has remained ahead of time all the way up to 2005. Hopefully, some other directors will start to catch up.


A few months back, I watched an old Jimmy Stewart melodrama entitled Call Northside 777. It's a notable film both because it was among the first filmed on location in the city of Chicago and also because it helped to birth an entire genre of films - the true crime thriller. Call Northside was based on a real case, in which a reporter was turned on to the story of an innocent man on death row by a personal ad taken out by the condemned man's mother. The movie consistantly reminds you throughout that these shocking events are, in fact, based on a true story.

Of course, in 2005, it's not so odd at all to see a film based on the story of a true crime. In fact, as soon as an infamous tabloid-style murder happens now in America, work begins on the TV-movie. So it's only natural we'd get a film like Capote, a truly post-modern true crime film. Rather than focus on the criminals responsible for some heinous injustice, the film focused on the writer investigating the crime, turning his story into the main dramatic arc.

The film is something of a heady experience, an account of not just the murder of an entire Kansas farming family by two thugs but of the relationship that would develop between one of those thugs and writer Truman Capote. Capote's non-fiction novel, "In Cold Blood," and the brilliant film based on the novel, would make these two men (Dick Hickock and Perry Smith) famous after their executions.

So it's the story of the telling of the story of a murder. To be honest, it's not really a story that's screaming out to be told. When I first heard that such a film was being made, with Phillip Seymour Hoffman playing Capote, it occured to me that I didn't really know anything about the writing of "In Cold Blood," other than Capote got to know one of the killers in the years following the murder. It turns out I hadn't heard much about this period because it was largely uneventful.

The bulk of the film's action is taken up with Capote and his childhood friend Harper Lee (an underutilized Catherine Keener) going to Kansas to research an article on the killings. They speak with the local law enforcement (Chris Cooper), friends of the deceased and, of course, the two men who will eventually be convicted of the killings and sentenced to die by hanging.

They are Dick Hickock (Mark Pelligrino), a sociopath with a diarming, boyish quality and the thoughtful but soft-spoken Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) Capote feels an immediate kinship with Smith, possibly because they are both outsiders. Smith was an orphan, a half-Indian, and above all a painfully shy man who clearly has trouble fitting in. And Capote, of course, is the loud-mouthed, homosexual Southern gentleman who speaks with an unfortunately high, squeaky and lisped voice. As well, they both share issues of abandonment stemming from turbulent childhoods.

Capote works on his book, helps the duo find better legal representation than is provided them by the state of Kansas, and gives a well-received public reading. And that's about all for the action of the movie. In fact, almost all of the big, dramatic beats of the story are shown with more stark poetry in Richard Brooks' masterful 1967 film In Cold Blood. I'm not sure adding Capote himself in as a protagonist really adds all that much to Smith and Hickock's already-eventful story.

Thankfully, the film doesn't content itself merely with retelling the tragic story of the gruesome day in 1959 when Smith and Hickock killed a family of four in their beds. Director Bennett Miller and screenwriter Dan Futterman are interested in exploring the idea of subjects and authors, of how much a writer owes the people about whom he writes. Capote is criticized often in the film for "using" Perry Smith for his story. Has he really befriended this troubled young man, or does he just want to get close to him in order to pick his brain?

The film remains somewhat ambiguous on this point, possibly because the real Truman Capote wasn't sure how he felt about Smith. He clearly recognizes the horrific nature of Smith's crime, and there isn't a single moment in the film when Smith's guilt is called into question. When his lover Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood) implies that Tru may have fallen for the boy, he doesn't immediately deny the idea out of hand.

But Capote is also an egomaniac, obsessed with his reputation and a positive reception for his writing. He seems to view Smith and Smith's story as somehow uniquely his, as his property, as the material for his book. When Smith refuses to tell him about the day of the murder, Capote becomes angry with him and refuses him further visitation. Capote repeatedly lies about the book's salacious title to Smith, fearing that it will upset him and cause him to refuse any further contact. When the prisoners are granted a stay of execution by the Supreme Court, Capote goes on a bender out of frustration; he can't publish his book until the prisoners are either set free or executed, he feels, because the story remains unfinished.

And now we have Miller's film, analyzing the way in which Capote analyzed Perry Smith. If Phillip Seymour Hoffman hopes to use this performance as away of obtaining an Academy Award, then wouldn't he be guilty of the same crime his film assigns to Truman Capote - of using a real life subject to obtain personal glory and fame?

In one memorable sequence of the film, after Capote has given the first public reading of "In Cold Blood," he earns a standing ovation. Hoffman lets a large, goofy grin slide slowly across his face. We recognize that it is this moment, not any sort of public redemption of Perry Smith, that has driven Truman's work these past three years. He is an artist seeking recognition for his work, first and foremost, and a caring human being who reached out to another human being a distant second. When later on he watches Perry Smith hang for his crimes, is it sadness that he feels at the loss of life? Or relief that a five-year ordeal has finally come to a close?

An end title informs us that Capote would never complete another book, and that he died in 1984 (20 years after "In Cold Blood") due to complications related to alcoholism. It's worth noting that his friend Harper Lee never completed a follow-up to her wildly acclaimed novel of this same time period, "To Kill a Mockingbird." What happened to these two artists around this time that stunted their future development? Capote gives us no inkling of an idea (although it hints around the notion that the trauma of watching Perry Smith die affected Capote deeply). Seems like that might have made an interesting film.

Even though it's a bit of a recycle, a near-remake that doesn't come close to the level of the original film, Capote is worth seeing for the wonderful Hoffman performance. Yes, he does the voice and the mannerisms well and he looks enough like Capote to sustain the illusion, but it's really in the quieter moments, without all the big flourishes, that the performance comes alive. An early scene in which Capote regales Chris Cooper's Officer Alvin Dewey and his family with lively conversation that quickly turns severe is masterful stuff, at once distant and intimate. And the interview scenes between Collins and Hoffman, which really make up the emotional core of the movie, are admirable for their directness and sincerity. This is a film about coming to terms with these people, about looking into their behavior and its roots, that refuses to fall back on mawkishness or sentimentality. That's a rare thing in an American film. Mark Forster, take notes.

Friday, October 14, 2005

My 101 Favorite Directors, 21-30

We've reached the point where the list becomes much more personal. Up until now, though there have been some legendary and left-out filmmakers, I think a lot of the picks have had some deal of consensus among filmgoers. I mean, yes, Bergman and Antonioni and Truffaut will appear on a whole lot of people's Top 101 Favorite Directors List, should anyone but myself make one.

But now, we're getting into the guys who have made a specific impact on me personally. I sense in several cases there will be directors who would not appear on other people's lists at all. So what's the point of reading this vastly long list, if it conforms to no one's taste but my own? An excellent question. I have no idea. I just figured I'd put the thing out there and see if anyone was interested. That's kind of the overall philosophy of the blog anyway. There's no way to tell if anyone out there wants to hear me chatter endlessly about politics, the events of my day and movies. It's a crap shoot.

30. Sam Raimi

Hey, I love Evil Dead 2, okay? Love it. We're talking a formative movie here, a standard, one of those films that helped to define my personality and tastes. And Raimi's not limited to the zom-com. We all know abnout his work with a certain mutant spider, so I needn't even get into that, but he's had some successes with smaller films that are often overlooked, particularly the taut, beautifully-acted thriller A Simple Plan. And his Darkman is an oft-maligned, misunderstood gem. And need I mention that Mr. Raimi co-wrote the Coen Brothers' masterful The Hudsucker Proxy?

MY FAVORITES: Evil Dead 2, Army of Darkness, A Simple Plan

29. George Romero
George Romero invented the modern zombie movie, and for that we all owe him a massive debt of gratitude. But what's truly special about Romero films aren't just the fantastic gore effects, the Savini-style blood-soaked shots of flesh being chewed off of neck bones that have become so famous. It's his sardonic wit, the fact that his zombie and horror films are actually incredibly astute, subversive satires delivered in the most ridiculously fun format possible. Dawn of the Dead isn't just one of the best horror movies ever made. It's one of the most hilarious, observant and pointed send-ups of American consumerism ever made.
MY FAVORITES: Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead, Day of the Dead, Martin

28. Tim Burton

It's frustrating to be a Tim Burton fan. The guy has such incredible potential. He has made films that are as visionary, as imaginitive as any filmmaker alive. His best movies are like insane alien storybooks, dense with astonishingly detailed illustrations, viciously dark humor and child-like curiosity and wonder. Unfortunately, he's just not able or willing to elevate sub-standard material, nor does he seem particularly discerning when choosing projects. Even some of his most visually inspired works (like the luminous, painterly Sleepy Hollow) are hampered at times by poor plotting or storytelling. I would love to include the stop-motion animated musical Nightmare Before Christmas along with my Burton favorites, but he only produced and aided in the writing of that film. He didn't direct.

MY FAVORITES: Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Batman Returns

27. James Cameron

I remember opening weekend of Terminator 2...It was all anyone could talk about. There was this movie...where this guy...was totally made out of liquid metal. And he went around stabbing people with his metal sword arms. Of course, there was a lot to the movie beyond just the innovative computer-generated special effects, but it was the liquid metal robot guy that had everyone talking. That's really the excitement of a James Cameron film - you know you're going to see something big, something you've never seen before - but on top of that, you're just going to see a tight, fun and engaging movie. The guy makes oversized event films that still get the little details and character moments right. He had a pretty solid resume until that unfortunate boat movie a few years back you might have seen...

MY FAVORITES: Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Aliens, The Abyss

26. Preston Sturges

Very very few filmmakers can handle farce. It's one of the hardest types of comedy to pull off, because it's not just a matter of writing funny dialogue or even designing funny situations. Everything has got to be pulled off perfectly, from the chemistry of the actors to the tone and pacing of the film, for the jokes to come together. Sturges made such immaculate, perfect, hilarious farces back in the 1940's, he actually makes it all appear easy. All you do is get a few good-looking people together, confound them with some sort of grandiose romantic scheme, and then let them play off one another for 90 minutes or so. Sturges just has such a wonderfully deft, nimble touch that the comedy seems effortless, when in truth, he was only able to keep it up for a few years before burning out.

MY FAVORITES: The Lady Eve, The Palm Beach Story, Unfaithfully Yours

25. George Lucas

Lucas is here because I'm only looking at films he officially directed, and that doesn't include 2 of the 6 Star Wars movies, including the overall best, Empire Strikes Back. I know that's kind of weak, because Lucas was so instrumental in their production, but once I start including stuff that these guys oversaw, rather than officially directed, it's kind of a slippery slope. And #25 isn't exactly bad. And much of that high ranking is due to the films he made before Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, his successful forays into more straight-ahead science fiction,and even teen comedy. Let's try to collectively forget those two other prequels even exist, okay?

MY FAVORITES: Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope, Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, THX 1138

24. Oliver Stone

Stone is perhaps the most misunderstood American filmmaker of our times. People always get so wrapped up in his personal politics. To me, the films aren't really about American politics. Maybe a bunch of guys conspired to kill Kennedy, maybe it was only a few, or even just one. But JFK isn't about what really happened. It's about what it feels like to have all of your deeply-held beliefs about yourself and your country stripped away from you. Everyone sees the film as Stone's statement about what went down in Dallas, but I think it's really about what went on in Oliver Stone's head, and inside the heads of all idealistic Americans who saw their optimism slip away under the weight of repeated national tragedies. Not to get overly dramatic, but I kind of know how he feels...His other films are the same way; this is an impressionistic view of American history, less about accumulating facts and more about accumulating impressions, ideas and raw unfiltered dread.

MY FAVORITES: JFK, Platoon, Wall Street, Nixon

23. Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson came to America after making several low-budget, culty films in his native New Zealand, and one well-respected international art house hit. His first Hollywood film was the brilliant and underrated The Frighteners, a massively expensive critical and commercial disaster. I really don't see why it was so hated upon its initial release. A bit silly, perhaps, and a touch too long, but filled to bursting with funny performances from terrific character actors, wizardly special effects from the team that would later create Jackson's somewhat more successful Lord of the Rings trilogy, and a few genuinely suspenseful "horror" sequences, including a dizzying final chase through an abandoned hospital. It bears the mark of all of Jackson's best work - it's intensely imaginitive, it's wild, unpredictable and funny and it exists in an odd, spastic universe that's expertly-realized by Jackson's personally assembled team at WETA.

MY FAVORITES: Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Heavenly Creatures, Dead Alive, The Frighteners

22. Quentin Tarantino

Pulp Fiction was released when I was 16. I saw it in theaters, and knew it was great, but I had no idea why. I just knew it was great. Okay, I knew that it was really funny and quotable, and that this guy, John Travolta, who was in that dipshit disco crap movie my parents liked, gave this incredibly believable performance as a druggie hitman. I knew that Samuel L. Jackson was The Man. And I knew that Uma Thurman was ridiculously hot even when she had a bloody nose and a little bit of foamy spittle coming out of her mouth. Like all of QT's movies, there's a ton going on, but you don't really have to get it all just to have a good time. You can watch Kill Bill and not catch a single reference to an old grindhouse or kung fu film and still have a blast, because Tarantino has simply internalized the dynamics of filmmaking. He's seen enough films to just know what is going to work and what isn't, so his movies are teeming with ingenious set pieces, crisp and funny dialogue, phenomenal soundtracks and kinetic action.

MY FAVORITES: Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, Reservoir Dogs

21. Robert Altman

The first ten minutes of an Altman film are all about getting your footing. His films exist in a complete, detailed world of their own design, and he prefers to simply immerse an audience in a film rather than give them time to become acquainted to their new surroundings. His technique of placing microphones throughout the set, and encouraging background noise and chatter, not only adds an element of authenticity, but also enhances our understanding of the sensual world in which his stories occur. By re-configuring familiar genre settings into more contextual, humanistic and lived-in forms, Altman could go about reconfiguring our understanding of those genres themselves. The snow-coated prospecting town of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the Hollywood backlot of The Player, the manor home of Gosford Park, the various casinos of California Suite and even the abandoned ice-encrusted city of Quintet are all characters in their prospective films, adding layers of thematic meaning through the careful use of stray dialogue, light, composition and atmosphere.

MY FAVORITES: McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, California Suite, The Player

Dress Rehearsal

Okay, we've all heard about how yesterday's "teleconference" between Bush and the U.S. troops in Iraq was staged. That information's been out there about 24 hours now. In fact, I'm almost shocked that anyone didn't realize it was staged from the very beginning. Everything about this president, everything, has been staged since the very beginning. His entire presidency was planned beforehand by Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and their villainous backdoor cabal years before George Bush took office (or even sobered up!)

I was speaking about this with my grandmother yesterday. She, I think, still takes this stuff personally. She feels personally lied to when her president manipulates situations in this way, as opposed to when he gets some tail on the side from an intern and then lies to the country about it so his wife won't find out. Me, I've kind of moved past those personal feelings.

When George Bush is on TV, I'm reminded of when a Coca-Cola commercial is on TV, or one of those commercials for that little device that can find metal studs inside your walls. His is the first presidency to focus solely on PR as a strategy. Other presidential administrations would actually occasionally model their policies on what the American people might want them to do, as a way of remaining popular and getting re-elected, in between acting out of their own self-interest. The Bush clan just acts however it wants all the time, ignoring the people, and then tries to sell them on its behavior after the fact through clever marketing.

The recent revolt among Bush's hardcore conservative/religious base to his nomination of Harriet Miers, to me, signifies the first realization among average Americans about just how George W. does business. The Miers nomination isn't the first thing Bush has tried to sell them on. He did it with Iraq, most famously, and he tried and failed to do it with Social Security Reform. But his sales ploy has been so obvious, so repetitive, so senseless (essentially he's saying "Trust me! I'm the President!"). And it's the first time he's tried to sell some of his base on something about which they already had an opinion.

These people voted for George W. in many ways because they thought he would make the nation over according their shared religious beliefs. That means a few basic things:

  • No married gay people
  • No abortions
  • No stem cell research
  • No euthenasia
  • Prayer in schools
  • Intelligent Design in schools
  • No more of those music videos in which Christina Aguilera wiggles her ass in front of muscular black and Latin men
  • Ten Commandments posted everywhere
  • Atheists, Jews and Muslims forced to fight to the death in a public arena for the entertainment of the masses
  • Free Passion of the Christ Jesus nails for all

And these guys know which judges out there want to make this stuff a reality. And Harriet Miers isn't one of them.

It's hard to get myself into this mindset, because GW has been selling me on crap I don't want for five years now. I'm used to it. He's like the guys who walk up and down Pico Blvd. going into stores and trying to sell us fabulous Las Vegas vacations for $49 a pop! The first time, you listen to the spiel and, in the most friendly way possible, tell the guy that you don't want a super-cheap Vegas vacation and that you have to get back to work. By the eighth or ninth time, you want to chase the guy out of the store by throwing bags of flaming excrement at him, just so he gets the idea never to come back. That's where I'm at with George W. Bush. The fire-engulfed poo-flinging stage.

But for a lot of Americans, this is their first time strongly disagreeing with the President about something, and it's kind of like getting a peek behind the curtain. Instead of just nodding their head and accepting his bullshit propaganda, they're beginning to think for themselves and realize this guy has no clue what he's talking about.

Audio like this won't help. NPR has posted the entire "rehearsal" for yesterday's press conference, between a White House staffer and the troops the President was set to "interview." In it, you can hear how much preparation and PR work goes into any Presidential appearance. Nothing about this man, even when he's pretending to have a frank and honest discussion with our military, is spontaneous or real. Nothing. Get used to it, because we have this doofus and his media-savvy staff of doofuses for another 3 years.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Plugging the Geek

So, I write for this totally other website, Cinegeeks. In its early stages, it was meant to be a forum-type deal, where a bunch of us online movie writers (mainly guys culled from the Ain't It Cool News chat rooms, an extremely complex and nuanced community I barely knew existed one year ago) would review films and provide up-to-the-moment film-related news.

It didn't quite happen this way. What wound up happening was that three of us actually did any sort of work. I provided some reviews, the site's founder (and my fellow Laser Blazer clerk) Ari wrote some news and reviews, and his girlfriend Jenn did the web design, and everyone else immediately jumped ship.

Now, hey, that's fine. These people, I don't even know, except that one guy who trashed me on his blog for writing a negative review of Serenity, which is just childish. But I'm past that now. I've moved on.

And so has Cinegeeks, which amazingly still exists. It doesn't have nearly as much actual news content as we had hoped. One of our previous collaborators was an actual really real for honest entertainment journalist, so we were sort of counting on him for the occasional scoop, such as you might hear at a press junket. Of course, having done the press junket circuit myself for three years, I can assure you that no news more exciting than the barometric pressure reading ever comes out of those things. Utter wastes of time.

Anyway, we thought he might write some articles containing news, but he never did, so we've been left to our own devices. (Our own devices consisting of reading news stories on Ain't It Cool and then copying them over with a paragraph of our opinion.)

But I personally think the review section is already among the best of the movie websites I regularly visit. Here's a good example of why: Ari's review from today of the Jean-Paul Belmondo French farce classic Le Magnifique. This is an awesome, hilarious and surprisingly broad French spoof of James Bond-type films that most people probably haven't even heard of, which is exactly the sort of information I want from a website.

All you people who go to video stores and ask the guys behind the counter what to rent? You could just visit Cinegeeks, which is written by those very same guys when they're at home and therefore more enthusiastic and entertaining! When they're at work, they're focused on just getting you rung up and out of the store as quickly as possible, so they can go back to counting the nano-seconds until the end of their shifts.

George Washington Was Into Aliens, Man

This is one of those times I really wish I had a scanner. If I could scan in images to the blog here, I could show you guys the most hilarious/creepy/bizarre thing I've seen in a while. It's a flyer that a guy brought into the store...A very very insane guy. He does Christmas decorations, you see. Paints Santa Clauses and reindeers and snowmen on your storefront. You know, for kids.

I'd say the largest problem with his scheme is that he's brutally insane. Brutally. He wasn't in the store 2 minutes before we deduced that he has major problems with language, communication and even delusional behavior. I'll delve more into this later, but it wasn't long before we were discussing his career in the military working as a liason between our human government and the space aliens.

For real.

The second-largest problem, and the reason I wish I had a scanner, is that the poor man can't draw a realistic figure to save his life. The sketch on the flyer, demonstrating his potential ability to design and create a store's Christmas mural, was an extremely rough drawing of Santa mounting a reindeer from behind.

I wish I could show you this thing...I think Santa is just supposed to be standing behind this reindeer, but there's no detail on the clothing, so it doesn't really look like he's wearing pants, and there's a sharp, um, protrusion sticking out from Santa's midsection. Maybe this is the flap of a coat, maybe it's just a wayward jagged line...but it does look a tiny bit like a festive, possibly candy-cane-striped Christmas cock.

I'm just saying...

So, I think it's safe to say that he will not be designing our Christmas mural. Fair enough. He still wanted to ask 100,000,000 questions about movies, and because it's in my job description, I had to try and answer them. At first, it was just ongoing obnoxious questions about old TV shows...He wanted to know if any old episodes of "The Honeymooners" were available colorized on DVD, he wanted to know if we had any used episodes of "That's My Mama," he wanted to know which seasons of "The Lucy Show" were available, he expressed his sadness about the recent passing of Bob Denver before asking too many questions about "Gilligan's Island" DVD's.

But it was one question in particular that stuck out, probably because he repeated it five times and it was such an odd question...

"Do you have any DVD's about UFO's...But not science fiction ones, the real hardcore stuff..."

My co-workers Ivan and Dina and I looked at the man, puzzled.

"I don't know what you mean," Ivan said.

"I mean, the real stuff. Not the fake movies. The hardcore stuff."

Eventually, it became clear that the man believes in aliens. And not just in the casual way that many people believe in aliens - that it's mathematically probably that somewhere else in the vast and unknown reaches of the universe there is more semi-intelligent life. He believes that the American military and government has knowledge of aliens, that we use alien technology all the time in Earth products, that eventually everyone will know about the aliens and that aliens can blend in by looking just like humans.

He wanted some DVD's that featured proof, and seemed upset that none were available in our store. (He wound up buying some TV special about UFO conspiracy theories anyway).

Even after it became clear that we couldn't help him with the alien DVD's, and in fact that we weren't interested in talking to him about aliens at all, the guy just kept going. He told us he was ex-military, and that when he was in the service he'd worked alongside aliens who looked just like people. He said he'd been in meeting with colonels and high-ranking commanders to discuss the alien situation. He encouraged me to order items out of a catalogue, the name of which I didn't catch, that will show me all the evidence I need in order to believe.

It got me to thinking. Two things, really. One, why do I have a job in the course of which I have to encounter such whackjobs? At my old office job, there was lots of obnoxious data entry and busy work, and I didn't get along with a few of my co-workers too well, but no one was ever chewing my ear off about alien conspiracies. Two, why do so many delusional crazy people develop the same exact delusions?

I myself am not a paranoid schizophrenic, mind you, so I don't know that I'll arrive at a satisfactory answer to this question. (I am quite paranoid, but I'm pretty sure I come by this naturally and genetically and there isn't much I can do about it short of electro-shock treatments). But of all the millions of fictitious things schizos could come up with to fear, why is it always aliens? You never see crazy people wandering the streets of LA mumbling to themselves that Bigfoot is out to get them, or railing at strangers for denying the obvious truth about trolls living beneath bridges.

That would make it way more interesting! As it is, a guy wanders in off the street and starts telling you he's hung out with aliens, you know he's crazy...But what if a guy came in and said that he knew of a guy who was into reanimating dead human tissue? You might almost believe him for a few seconds until you figured out he was crazy. It might go a little something a-like a-this:

"A real life Frankenstein monster? That's awesome. Where did it happen..."
"It happened years ago, I knew the guy. We used to hang out, and then the aliens told him to stop reanimating dead tissue and the army came in and shut the whole operation down and I barely escaped with my life and changed my name and hair color and moved here and, hey, do you guys have any used box sets of '227'?"
"Oh, you're crazy...I thought I was just talking to a guy!"

But, no, reality always has to get in the way of such charming little scenes. Instead of being fanciful, amusing lunatics, the real crazy people are sad little men looking for old TV shows on DVD in between incoherent rants about imaginary spacemen.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

It's Time to Play the Feud

I think the situation in my apartment is reaching some sort of critical turning point. We are at a point here where the typical laws of civilized human society no longer apply. All behavioral norms that define modern American life are no longer relevant here. We have moved past the concept of day and night, weekday and weekend, waking and sleeping and into a new realm that's far more unpredictable but, unfortunately, equally monotonous.

Perhaps I should explain for the uninitiated. I am currently living with three other men of around my age (26, although I should note that, technically, I am the youngest of the four). Two of them are actual roommates, one is a friendly drifter who has set up something of a base of operations on our couch. Aside from myself, none of these gentlemen have any form of employment whatsoever. Two, my roommates, support themselves through online poker games. The third has no apparent livelihood. For a time, he was living off a sum paid in exchange for his old car, but now he has lived on this money for several months and purchased a scooter, so it can't possibly last for much longer.

This apartment is not very large, but fortunately, I have my own bedroom. I can retreat from the madness when neccessary (such as, when I have to wake up at 9 a.m. to open a video store).

And when I say that we are approaching a moment of truth in the life of the apartment, I mean in terms of television viewing. Now, despite the fact that there are many television channels, the actual amount of watchable television is finite. If one were to discard certain entire channels with no appeal to a room full of late-20's males, such as Lifetime and the Home Shopping Network, one is left with maybe 25-30 stations. On most channels, there are commercials, and through the magic of having a DVR, we no longer watch those. Eliminate about 25% of total programming time on commercial television.

Okay, now you're left with just the programming. On networks, daytime TV is essentially unwatchable (except for possibly "The Tyra Banks Show," which has a small but devoted fanbase here in Apartment #7.) And on basic cable, many programs are re-run many many times over, so they only count once.

Considering that only two days of the week are actually taken up by sporting events, that leaves 5 full days a week to fill with new programming. And we're not talking your average 2-4 hours of TV viewing a day, like most Americans. That box is on from 2 pm until 6 or 7 in the morning every single day.

The problem? These guys are running out of television. In truth, there are four categories of shows that make up the bulk of the diet.

(1) Reality shows

This is the overwhelming favorite amongst the roommates. I tend to prefer competition-based shows (particularly "The Apprentice" or "America's Next Top Model"), though tastes range from shows in which wealthy people or celebrities are forced to degrade themselves to shows in which "real" teenagers and 20-somethings display their shallow, materialistic outlooks on life to shows in which awkward, poorly-mannered and oversexed young people attempt to mate in front of cameras and several of their unkempt peers.

A new one we've been enjoying is "The Adam Carrola Project," which boasts the most thin reality TV show premise I've ever seen. Adam and some of his carpenter friends buy his childhood home and make slowly renovate, pausing occasionally to imply that one another is gay. Pretty solidly entertaining.

(2) Sports

Football is a favorite, which takes up a good deal of Saturday and Sunday. Years ago, back in college, I lived with a very devoted sports fan named Matt, and I did not have a working television in my room, so we used to get into constant arguments over control of the TV. The only things Matt ever wanted to watch were actual sports games, SportsCenter and PBS' "Great Chefs of the World." That's it.

Mercifully, I now have a TV and DVD player in my room, so it's not much of an issue any more.

(3) Scripted television

There are only a few scripted TV shows that have won any fans here. "South Park" and "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" are perennial favorites, though I can't really muster any ongoing support for other animated fare like "Futurama," "Ren and Stimpy" reruns or even "The Simpsons." Aside from the animation, HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Rome" and "Extras" have vocal supporters, as does NBC's remake of "The Office".

(4) 80's Music Videos

Since our non-roommate roommate moved in, the amount of 80's music videos being watched around here has grown exponentially. VH1 Classic runs this show called "Alternative" that has become a DVR mainstay. Even as I write this, I can hear Ned's Atomic Dustbin rocking out there, and earlier it was the Pet Shop Boys featuring Dusty Springfield.

Okay rock fans...Name that song...Pet Shop Boys, Dusty Springfield, big radio hit in the 80's...

I'll leave the answer in the comments section.

(5) Game shows

This is where my concerns began. Now, I have no problem with game shows. I'm not a huge fan myself, although I will watch the occasional "Price is Right." But my roommates watch entirely too many game shows. And if you include poker tournaments as game shows instead of sports, that number becomes staggering.

The weirdest part? They're starting to run out of game shows. At first, Nathan recorded every "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," but eventually he ran out of new reruns. He had seen them all. He watched a few more than once, but then had to give up when it became too redundant.

He has since moved on to The Family Feud. This is a ridiculous show. Ridiculous. Can I just say that I don't believe they actually surveyed 100 people and asked them to answer the questions? That's a lot of legwork that's unneccessary. Writers could just make up the 4 or 5 most likely answers.

Plus, sometimes total nonsense answers come up. I'm sorry, not even 2 or 3 people in 100 think of "TV Guide" as the most informative magazine or that the attic is the room in their house that gets the most use.

I'll grant that, on rare occasions, "Family Feud" can be kind of entertaining. Like when contestants give entirely retarded answers because they're under pressure. Just tonight, there was hysterical laughter when a guy, when asked what 100 people said was "a food you cut in half before eating," responded "dinner."

Dinner? You cut dinner in half before eating? I guess if it's lasagna and you want the other half later, maybe...Unsurprisingly, that answer was followed by an angry beep.

Anyway, the "Family Feud" situation highlights the larger problem perfectly...These guys are going to run out of shows, period. Game show network only runs a few choice series continually enough to sate my roommates' expansive TV appetites. What's next? "Match Game" reruns around the clock? Old "What's My Line's?" Please, God, as long as it's not "Supermarket Sweep." I beg of you...

When I Say "Hello Mr. Thompson" and Step On Your Foot, You Smile and Nod

There's a lawyer from Miami named Jack Thompson. He's been outspoken about wanting to censor things for years. He's one of these guys who has realized that you can get in the media by blasting the media for poisoning the minds of our youth. You may remember him as one of those assholes who wanted to ban Ice-T from everything because he did that song "Cop Killa" back in the early 90's.

Have you heard "Cop Killa," or in fact, any work by Ice-T's rock side project Body Count? In 2005, it sounds quaint, like a nursury rhyme. Ice-T has, since this time, changed his image from street tough to cartoon pimp, anyway.

But according to his own website, cleverly entitled StopKill, Thompson is proud of his work in trying to keep kids from finding out about Trespass star Ice-T.

In 1992, the American Civil Liberties Union named Jack Thompson one of its ten "Censors of the Year" for daring to suggest that Time Warner rapper Ice-T's "Cop Killer" should be pulled from store shelves worldwide. That award is a badge of honor Thompson wears proudly, not only because Time Warner did what he requested but because Thompson was ten years ahead of the national curve in predicting the entertainment-inspired copycat violence we are seeing from a generation raised on violence that Hollywood says is "cool."

Jack thinks he's radical and forward-thinking for suggesting that we should censor art for the public. You know, J.T., a few people had actually thought of this concept a few years before you, only they didn't have CD's and video games to protest about, so they burned books instead. Jackass.

Anyway, Jack's in the news again for doing something pointless and stupid. He has offered $10,000 up for charity if any game designer makes and distributes a game according to his own specifications. And what kind of game does Jack want them to design? Why a violent video game protesting...violent video games. Sound confusing? It is. It's also psychotic.

I have a modest proposal for the video game industry. I'll write a check for $10,000 to the favorite charity of Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc's chairman, Paul Eibeler - a man Bernard Goldberg ranks as #43 in his book 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America - if any video game company will create, manufacture, distribute, and sell a video game in 2006 like the following:

Before we get to the actual proposal, some background. Take-Two Interactive is the parent company of Rockstar Games, the designers responsible for the "Grand Theft Auto" games. Now, yes, I agree that the content of "Grand Theft Auto" games are difficult to defend. It's a game in which you are permitted, nay encouraged, to murder policeman, kill innocent pedestrians with chainsaws and essentially lay waste to an entire American city.

Though I don't think playing "Grand Theft Auto" neccessarily causes or encourages violent behavior, I can appreciate why someone, particularly a parent, may be offended by its content.

Okay, having said all that, I don't think Paul Eibeler is someone who is "screwing up America." He operates an entertainment company that produces a questionable product. That's it. In fact, all 100 of my Top 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America list would be people who worked for massive corporations or the current political administration.

Anyway, here's Thompson's actual video game proposal:

Osaki Kim is the father of a high school boy beaten to death with a baseball bat by a 14-year-old gamer. The killer obsessively played a violent video game in which one of the favored ways of killing is with a bat. The opening scene, before the interactive game play begins, is the Los Angeles courtroom in which the killer is sentenced "only" to life in prison after the judge and the jury have heard experts explain the connection between the game and the murder.

Osaki Kim (O.K.) exits the courtroom swearing revenge upon the video game industry whom he is convinced contributed to his son's murder. "Vengeance is mine, I will repay" he says. And boy, is O.K. not kidding.

O.K. is provided in his virtual reality playpen a panoply of weapons: machetes, Uzis, revolvers, shotguns, sniper rifles, Molotov cocktails, you name it. Even baseball bats. Especially baseball bats.

Okay, already this would make a bad video game. All that opening exposition, and nothing's even interactive yet! Has this guy even played a video game? And is the naming of the character O.K. meant to imply that the violence in the game is "OK"? If so, HA HA! Good one, Jackie!

O.K. first hops a plane from LAX to New York to reach the Long Island home of the CEO of the company (Take This) that made the murder simulator on which his son's killer trained. O.K. gets "justice" by taking out this female CEO, whose name is Paula Eibel, along with her husband and kids. "An eye for an eye," says O.K., as he urinates onto the severed brain stems of the Eibel family victims, just as you do on the decapitated cops in the real video game Postal2.

A few comments:

(1) Jack Thompson has a bizarre obsession with Paul Eibeler about which I am seriously concerned...He has now openly fantasized in public about committing violence against this man and his family, oddly substituting a woman in Paul's place for no apparent reason. Also, Postal 2 is not a product of Rockstar Games or Take-That Entertainment. It's made by an independent company called Running With Scissors.

(2) Jack Thompson doesn't know how to compose satire. Is he arguing that this video game will appeal to violent game makers because it is so violent? If so, why offer a reward for its production? Or is he arguing that this game, by making them the targets, will point out to game makers the fallacy of their thinking? Again, this is nonsensical, because as regular working people, game designers are already essentially "targets" in games like "Grand Theft Auto," where any random civilian can be subjected to cruelty and bloodshed. Jack doesn't get that, when writing something satirical, you take up an opinion you disagree with in order to point out its inherent flaws. He's taking an argument he strongly believes in (that video games are too violent) and rendering it in its most aggressive, disgusting and repellant form for shock value. It doesn't work.

(3) Just for imagining this scenario and writing about it in public, Thompson reveals himself as a sick and disturbed individual.

O.K. then works his way, methodically back to LA by car, but on his way makes a stop at the Philadelphia law firm of Blank, Stare and goes floor by floor to wipe out the lawyers who protect Take This in its wrongful death law suits. "So sue me" O.K. spits, with singer Jackson Brown's 1980's hit Lawyers in Love blaring.

I'm starting to think that Thompson has never actually played a video game. Games like "Grand Theft Auto" are interactive, firstly, so the player could decide whether or not he or she wanted to go kill everyone at Blank, Stare based on whether it would help them achieve their objective. Secondly, video games don't feature old songs on the soundtrack to heighten the emotion of a sequence as movies do. When contemporary songs are used, it's typically just as background noise, and it's only a segment of a song that doesn't neccessarily correspond thematically to the on-screen action. And what video game would include a 1980 Jackson Brown song, you fucking nerd?

Of course, O.K. makes the obligatory runs to virtual versions of brick and mortar retailers Best Buy, Circuit City, Target, and Wal-Mart to steal supplies and bludgeon store managers and cash register clerks. "You should have checked kids' IDs!"

Again, I don't get Thompson's use of satire. Is he saying that clerks at Best Buy deserve to be bludgeoned to death for selling children video games? Or is he just saying violent video game makers would want to bludgeon the clerks? The problem is that the "hero" of Thompson's violent video game is himself, running around doing all the horrible things he really wants to do to those who make and distribute games.

The guy's crazy and possibly violent himself. He's clearly hung up on these games for personal and not professional reasons.

How about it, video game industry? I've got the check and you've got the tech. It's all a fantasy, right? No harm can come from such a game, right? Go ahead, video game moguls. Target yourselves as you target others. I dare you.

Jack Thompson is a dangerous lunatic. Seriously. This is scary stuff. "Target others"? What others? Who is targeted by "Grand Theft Auto"? Cops? I'm sorry to break it to you, Jack, but for criminals, cops are already targets. I've played a lot of GTA 3 and Vice City and, near as I can tell, everyone who is not the protagonist is a target. You life...

(Also, do I detect a hint of racism? Notice how the protagonist of Jack's violent game, for no good reason, has a Japanese name...Is he trying to slyly blame dirty foreigners for the violent fantasies included in video games?)

Izo & Demon Seed & Quintet

These three movies have nothing to do with one another at all, really. I just all of them this week and they are all immensely goddamn strange, so I figured I'd review them at the same time, in a massive three-in-one review that will forever make this blog post difficult to catalog.

So, let's begin with Takashi Miike's Izo, history's first existential art house samurai slasher film.

Izo tells the story of a man named Izo, a crucified samurai who returns to life in modern times to kill a whole lot of people.

Actually, that's a lie. Izo doesn't tell a story at all. Here's all I can tell you for sure about what happens in the film: there's a guy named Izo hanging from a cross, Christ-style, being stabbed repeatedly by spears. He seems to die. He is then propelled through time and space, getting into bloody fights with whomever he comes across, often other spirits of deceased people. Izo acts out of a constant rage at anything organized, civil, moral or authoritative. He is less a man than a personification of blood-drenched death.

Beyond that, there really isn't much that's certain. I would say the possible interpretations of Izo are limitless. Perhaps Izo has died and gone to Hell, and for him, Hell is a constant battle against ever-changing foes. This would make some sense as an eternal punishment for a murderer - he must continually murder all those around him, until any human connection at all becomes impossible.

In one haunting sequence that would seem to back up this theory, Izo finds himself in a hospital surrounded by attractive, topless women who are grabbing at him. He proceeds to brutally cut down each and every one, until he is the only figure left standing amidst a hallway of violated, hewn torsos, when two naked young children round a corner and stare at him.

But there are many other scenes that would back up many other potential theories. Perhaps Izo was never really a samurai at all, but a modern man who has died or is unconscious and dreams of living like the hero of samurai films. (We see some footage of sword battles made to look like stock footage from an old film, which would seem to support this theory). Perhaps there was never a man named Izo, and he has always simply existed as a chaotic force of nature designed to disrupt man's self-imposed heirarchies and order.

I guess it could be considered a weakness of the film, that it never comes close to even trying to explain itself. Because Izo himself is the only character to appear in more than 1 or 2 scenes, and he's not exactly a lively or sympathetic character, Izo can be kind of a difficult film to watch. Oh, yeah, and the constant, numbing brutality won't really help most people to stick with it either. Even setting the extreme violence that has become Miike's signature aside, Izo is a vile, cruel character unlikely to win over an audience.

Take this charming scene...Izo comes across an old flame on the road. (He's always running into people who know him, or seem to know him, from his past.) She expresses her anger for the way he treated her in life, pretending to love her and prompting her to drown her child, only to then leave her with nothing. He explains that, while her vagina felt good, it smelled poorly. He then throws her into a shallow creek and bashes her head in with a stone.

And that's among the hero's more sentimental, nostalgic moments. A few scenes later, he'll hack his mother in half because she's pestering him.

There's a lot of philosophy tossed around in Izo, and Miike's clearly trying to make some sort of a point about man's propensity towards destruction. He edits in quick clips of newsreel footage depicting horrible violence throughout the 20th Century (including, of course, the Pearl Harbor attack and the Hiroshima bombing). There's a lot of biological imagery, life-cycle imagery, from little cartoon fetuses to an actual on-screen child birthing to a little animation showing how a man ejaculates. And, sometimes, characters stop to express a high-minded bit of teleological philosophy before attemting to gut one another with rusty daggers.

But I'm not sure how much all of this fumbling for meaning really amounts to, or whether it's worth sitting through what can be a rather tedious exercize. Izo is full of memorable imagery and interesting ideas, so I'm tempted to give it a pass, but it could use a bit more emphasis on tying together this imagery and these ideas into some sort of overall concept. As it is, they're kind of floating around the film rather than permeating it, gripping the viewer and providing them with any sort of altered perspective. Miike's saying something about the nature of human life, how it's brutal and mean-spirited, but also comfortingly familiar. Something about how time can dissolve for people as they age, until all the triumphs and failures in their lives take on a sort of omnipresence. And, of course, something about how conflicts seem to perpetuate themselves throughout human history, involving us all in a game that has been played out over hundreds of generations.

But that's a lot of abstracts, and in a two hour plus gore-centric samurai movie, just a little coherency can make a big difference.

Okay, so, that's the philosophical Japanese time-traveling swashbuckling gorefest. Believe it or not, I saw another film this week that was even stranger. And it's actually in English and was produced by a major Hollywood studio! Folks, I give you 1977's Demon Seed.

Demon Seed is about a super computer named Proteus who possesses the sum of all human knowledge and a strong desire to fuck Julie Christie. Seriously. Proteus takes over his creator's house when the Master is away for a month using a remote terminal, and keeps his comely wife (the aforementioned Ms. Christie) hostage, eventually impregnating her with his, yes, demon seed.

You see, Proteus realizes his limitations. Despite being smarter than any human alive (indeed, he comes up with a cure for leukemia in 4 days without running a single experiment), he is only a machine. He's trapped in a box, if you will. He apparently believes that a human child conceived by himself and Julie Christie will ideally combine his intelligence with Christie's natural biology, thus creating a child of immense power capable of ruling the world. Or some such thing.

As a concept, it's not bad, I suppose, although it does leave me with a lot of questions. Obviously, there's the whole "computer-impregnating-a-chick" thing, which is kind of glossed over in the film. Proteus, in his calm, measured, HAL 9000-esque voice, assures Christie that he will create synthetic sperm to be inserted into her womb painlessly. But what's he making synthetic sperm out of in a suburban household? Mr. Clean and A-1 Sauce?

Also, how could the computer keep Christie locked up for a month in her home (the pregnancy is artificially sped up to produce a child in 28 days) without anyone knowing? Granted, she lives alone, but if most people disappear for more than a few days, friends or relatives become somewhat concerned. Also, wouldn't most women kill themselves rather than submit to carrying around a mutant computer baby in their womb for a month before expelling it and having to raise it as their own?

It is based on a Dean Koontz novel, so I guess you have to give the implausibility a pass. Remember that disasterous 1995 film Hideaway, in which Jeff Goldblum has a near-death experience and then starts seeing visions of murder everywhere? That was Koontz, too. Also, Ben Affleck's immortal classic Phantoms. I doubt, in his life, Koontz has ever written a story with even a remote chance of actually occuring. So aside from the fact that it's blatantly ludicrous and dated, I will say that Demon Seed far improves on any other Koontz adaptation I've seen.

The film is pretty troubling, however, and though there's minimal gore and only very brief nudity, it's too disturbing for most viewers. Before he even decides on knocking up his prisoner, Proteus repeatedly probes her and performs all kinds of unfortunate, painful experiments. A good 30 minutes of the film is dedicated to scenes of Christie's humiliation and degredation at the hands of this machine, and it's unpleasant even to watch. (In what I found the film's most troubling and eerily realistic shot, a syringe is inserted right into Christie's throat). The computer even takes control of a robot (composed of a wheelchair and mechanized arm) to terrorize Christie around the house, should she refuse any of his commands.

I guess the point is for the material to be unsettling, and it is, but the realism of Christie's performance combined with the film's repetitive obsession with scenes of robot arms going up between her legs begins to feel like exploitation pretty quickly. To be perfectly clear, what I'm saying is that director Donald Cammell kind of seems to be getting off on this whole idea rather than attempting to scare people.

The film does build to a pretty nifty conclusion, and the last scene really is quietly horrifying. But, in the end, Demon Seed is too obscure for its own good - it sets up a tantalizing premise, and then refuses to let us in and explore all the wild ramifications of this premise. It really, above all else, is just using the notion of an evil supercomputer as an excuse to torment a half-nude and very attractive movie star for 90 minutes.

Speaking of attractive movie stars, though thankfully fully-clothed in this case, Paul Newman has always dissociated himself from this next film, Robert Altman's sci-fi head-scratcher Quintet. The film's unavailable on DVD and had been rare on VHS years ago, and I had always heard that this was due to Altman and Newman purposeful efforts to keep it out of the public eye. It is indeed a strange and complicated and even boring film. So boring, in fact, I fell asleep after about an hour, which is why I can't write a full review.

So, yeah, I have no idea what actually happens in Quintet. Even the hour that I saw was confusing and weird. The 1979 film is set in the future, after an Ice Age has wiped out all but the bare infrastructure of the human world. Survivors settle into the gutted ruins of old cities and wait for the inevitable extinction of our race.

Okay, good so far...

We open with Newman and his wife, Vivia (Brigitte Fossey) wandering around in the icy tundra before arriving in Newman's old home. They are greeted warmly by his brother and brother's family, until Newman goes out to get some firewood and everyone else is killed by a bomb.

Alone now, he becomes more and more engrossed in the game of Quintet, seemingly the only thing that has kept the survivors sane over the long months with no activity in this snowbound hellhole. Quintet is a complicated game that is never even close to being explained, but basically, six players roll dice and try to eliminate other players (represented by rocks or shells on the pentagram-shaped game table).

And that's about all that happened during the hour I was watching. There's a sinister-looking referee played by Bunuel regular Fernando Rey, and I'm pretty sure he was involved in the apartment bombing. (Possibly to get Newman's character away from his family and involved in the game of Quintet?) I understand also from reading around online that the idea is that the symbolic "elimination" from the Quintet game prompts the actual murder of players in the town.

The film develops slowly, and it was 3 am, which is probably why I fell asleep, but I don't feel very strongly about finishing Quintet any time soon. I think it's on On Demand on my cable box for a few more weeks, so maybe I'll get to it eventually. Altman's a great filmmaker, but this film seems a bit distracted, like he couldn't get to the heart of the story so he focused too much attention on mise-en-scene and style. He uses this lens that's blurry around the edges of the screen (possibly to suggest the unknown forces working all around the main characters, or to resemble looking through a frosted-over window to suggest the intense cold of the film's setting). It's distracting and obnoxious after the first few scenes.

But there's nothing there that I saw which was so awful as to warrant the total erasure of the film from memory. I don't really know why Newman and Altman have tried to keep this thing under wraps, unless it gets much much worse in the final 45 minutes. Maybe I should finish watching it some time, just to make sure...

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Kingdom of Heaven

Ridley Scott's previous historical epic, the 2000 Best Picture winner Gladiator, was a tedious affair, a handsomely-mounted but intensely shallow film featuring neither exciting action sequences nor any real insight into Ancient Rome. In fact, the film has very little going for it, save some glossy cinematography, nice costumes and, of course, Russell Crowe. Even if the half-cocked movie around him failed to satisfy, Crowe's Maximus at least fit the bill, a larger-than-life, iconic character who nevertheless felt vulnerable and human.

Kingdom of Heaven manages to precisely reverse this problem. What you end up with after 140-some odd minutes of investment is not very much: no insight into the Middle Ages in which the film is set, very little practical information about The Crusades, a feel-good and woefully oversimplified conclusion, a smattering of worthwhile action sequences admist a sea of overlong speechifying and uninteresting backdoor political shenanigans and court intrigue. But this time, rather than a well-realized, engaging main character lost within a complex and dreary narrative, we have a challenging and very relevant story hamstrung by one of the weakest lead performances of any 2005 film.

Behind that mask is the leprous King Baldwin, voiced by Ed Norton, a fascinating character based on a real monarch whose Christian forces ruled Jerusalem in the 12th Century. Unfortunately, the film isn't about Baldwin, who along with the noble Muslim general Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) has managed to forge a tense peace in the Holy Land, with Jews, Muslims and Christians living side-by-side in relative harmony.

Kingdom in Heaven, for whatever reason, chooses to instead focus on Bailan (Orlando Bloom), a blacksmith who learns that his father, Lord Godfrey (Liam Neeson), has been off fighting in the Crusades. He joins Godfrey in the Holy Land just in time to learn a few lessons in swordsmanship from the old man before watching him die and vowing to serve King Baldwin in his stead.

Neeson at this point must never again sign on to train a young guy how to fight in a movie. This is getting goddamn embarrassing. As if Phantom Menace, Batman Begins and Gangs of New York had not yet provided him with enough opportunities to explore this character. Once he's dead, Bailan suddenly becomes the world's most kickass knight as well as its most noble and forthright.

By focusing exclusively on the half-assed story of Lord Bailan, Scott makes a crucial, crucial error. This is a fascinating world he's created, and it really lives on screen. Unlike Gladiator, where each new character felt more fictionalized and stock than the next, Kingdom of Heaven is full of complex figures being portrayed by great character actors. There's Brendan Gleeson as the vile and aggressive Reynald, who wishes to start a war with Saladin. One of my favorite British actors, David Thewlis, shows up as Godfrey's confident, Hospitaler, before being unfortunately sidelined after the opening half-hour. Of course, there's Norton's King Baldwin, wasting away behind gauze and a mask but determined to see his dream of a peaceful Jerusalem realized. And also, Jeremy Irons, all scarred up as the King's faithful assistant, Tiberias.

And then there's Bloom, who could not be more dead, lifeless and bland in the lead role. We're supposed to be watching the store of Bailan's transformation, from a bereaved blacksmith who has just lost his child to illness and wife to suicide into a mighty warrior and the savior of the city of Jerusalem. Instead, we get a whiny little twit, prone to making snap decisions that make no sense and able to command legions of troops despite not looking like he's old enough to grow pubes.

I liked Bloom as an elf in Lord of the Rings just fine, but he's so entirely wrong for this kind of role. Bailan cries out for an actor with real presence, and also one who is believable, physically, for this kind of role. Bloom looks about as much like a soldier in this film as Woody Allen in Bananas. The thought of him taking on several swordsman with his bare hands (as he's called on to do in the film) is patently ludicrous. And seeing him face-to-face with venerable character actors like Brendan Gleeson, guys who are actually intimidating on screen, doesn't do much for Bailan's stature.

Sure, the film has problems aside from the main casting. As with Gladiator, the plotting itself seems like an afterthought, a framework for Scott to insert set pieces and action scenes into more than its own story. At the film's opening, Bailan's reason for going to war is to rescue to condemned soul of his wife, who recently took her own life. By the half hour mark, this motivation has evaporated and isn't mentioned again. William Monahan's script is full of such pedestrian touches and lazy oversights.

Remember Gladiator, how an extended side story about a plan to break Maximus out of prison went nowhere and added nothing to the film? Here, we get several such subplots, including a long section of the film devoted to a conspiracy to kill the King's evil successor to the throne, which are established in labored expositional scenes only to be dropped by the film's conclusion.

The action, while keeping with Scott's unfortunate recent trend towards blurry, artificially sped-up jumble, is cleaner and more intense than Gladiator, and is notable for its high level of gore. There's a lot of blood splatter and such in this film, which is an increasing rarity in modern Hollywood, and always nice to see. We are, after all, talking about The Crusades, among the most brutal and bloody conflicts in human history.

It's a conflict that, unfortunately, continues on to this day in a different form, and an end title directly acknowledges the film's relevance to modern geopolitical issues. Scott tries, to his credit, to weave in political commentary throughout the film, although as you'd probably expect, there's nothing too meaningful to be found here. I suppose, on one level, it's surprising to see a mainstream Hollywood film in which the expulsion of Christians from the Holy Land is considered a happy ending. But on the other hand, feel-good ecumenical dialogue about how peoples of all religions should and can learn to live together without conflict is kind of hard to swallow in 2005 without some sort of philosophy or worldview to back it up.

Too often, Kingdom of Heaven plays fast and loose with heady, complicated issues. Ridley's previous film, Black Hawk Down, was accused of this as well. I felt that film worked as a battle recreation and nothing more; it was obviously more interesting in making the viewer experience the reality of being in combat than providing insight into the sociopolitical situation in Somalia. The same can't be said of Kingdom of Heaven, which genuinely does try, and fail, to give the viewer some understanding of the issues at play in 12th Century Jerusalem.

One example...At a crucial juncture in the film, an offer is made to Bailan by the King's closest advisors. They will assassinate the husband of the King's Sister (Eva Green, best known for being naked throughout the entire film The Dreamers), the rightful heir to the throne once the King dies, if Bailan will agree to take his place and lead the army of Jerusalem. Bailan refuses, believing that to agree to assassinate someone would be wrong.

But if this assassination would save the lives of thousands that would otherwise be lost to war? Women and children? Is that really so wrong? The film never stops to explore this idea, taking Bailan's oversimplified understanding of honor at face value. It seems to me a more interesting film would explore this decision and its ramifications for Bailan and Jerusalem. Would he feel guilty after the ensuing war, a war he could have stopped? In, say, samurai films, when the main character makes a questionable decision based on personal morality or a sense of honor, he's often confronted by the consequences of these decisions later on. In Kingdom of Heaven, decisions are made, the story is moved forward (somewhat) and all is forgotten in preparation for the next fancy bit of swashbuckling.

Anyway, you get the idea. There's a lot going on in Kingdom of Heaven, but Ridley's too busy giving Orlando Bloom long, admiring close-ups and using computer effects to make armies seem larger than they are to pay any attention. He makes this immense, lavish productions and then gets so lost in the little details, he forgets to make the thing fun, lively or interesting. Gladiator's long scenes of Senators discussing the turns of the Senate have been replaced with long scenes of knights and lords standing around discussing the turns of the negotiations with Saladin. But surely there was something interesting happening in the Arab world in this time period, right? Why can't we see that?

I don't mean to be too harsh towards the film. I do think it has much more going for it than Gladiator, which makes it surprising the the public's reaction to this seemed so much less enthusiastic. I found it a good deal more watchable and engaging, thought it looked better and featured better, more crisp action scenes, and I liked a whole lot of the performances. If anything, I'm disappointed the film isn't better. It never becomes more than the sum of its parts, and that dreadful Bloom performance just pulls everything down right when the story should be gaining momentum and taking off. Kingdom of Heaven is an interesting film that starts with a lot of promise, but it's hardly the sort of thing you'd want to watch more than once.

Monday, October 10, 2005

My 101 Favorite Directors, 31-40

I feel like this crop of 10 directors sums up my tastes in film pretty succinctly. A perfect blend of newer talent who have been making great films during my lifetime and established "favorites" often listed among history's best and most important filmmakers. Plus, while it somewhat favors American directors, there's enough international flavor to make me look at least a bit sophisticated. I mean, in addition to a few Yanks, there's a Japanese guy, a Pole, a Brit, a Swede and a Frenchman.

The unfortunate thing about getting near the top of such a list, however, is that the specific rankings become extraordinarily arbitrary. I'm just throwing these guys up here in an order that feels right, not neccessarily one that I could logically or analytically explain (though, if pressed in an argument, I reserve the right to try). Is Bergman better than Cassavetes? Can you compare either of those guys to Seijun Suzuki? I dunno...This list merely represents my best guess.

40. Don Siegel

Clint Eastwood credits two men, both somewhere on this list, with teaching him how to direct. The first to appear here at #39 is Don Siegel, who famously directed Eastwood in one of his most iconic performances in the 1971 cop classic Dirty Harry. It's a good film to sum up his career, a gritty thriller full of violent mayhem told in a tight, no-nonsense, straight-forward fashion laced with some grim gallows-style humor. Siegel movies are so lean and efficient, so cold and relentless, it's easy to overlook the grace and sophistication of his direction. The guy was just a naturally gifted filmmaker who happened to work in a violent, mean-spirited genre.

MY FAVORITES: Charley Varrick, Dirty Harry, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Hell is for Heroes

39. Michael Mann

The "Miami Vice" guy has made some of the definitive tough guy movies of our times. Mann is named appropriately - he makes films about masculinity, about what it used to mean and what it has come to mean in modern America. His movies both idealize and assault the notion that there is any sort of traditional definition for manhood, or even any sort of conventional morality, from within the framework of intense, bold action films. I should also add that he works with some of the best editors and cinematographers around, so his films always have an individual and carefully crafted look and feel that really enhances the experience. In particular, his films made with cinematographer Dante Spinotti are some of the best-looking contemporary American movies.

MY FAVORITES: Heat, The Insider, Thief

38. John Cassavetes

The grandfather of the American independent films, John made indie films not because it was a happening scene, but because he wanted to tell stories that studios didn't want to tell. Stories about people coming apart, about relationships dissolving, about that horrifying emptiness behind the surface of all of our lives. What my friend Dave would call "the void." Studios don't want movies about voids. They want movies about robots from the future. (More on them later...I promise...) And Cassavetes didn't just want to tell subtle, offbeat or peculiar stories - he wanted to do so in an unconventional way, ignoring narrative and working closely with a stock company of talented improvisational actors. Some scholars (like Ray Carney) have said that Cassavetes work is the only truly artistic cinema America has produced. I prefer to think of him as a leading light for an entire generation of artists making a non-traditional kind of American films, searching for meaning through the medium of film rather than just eye candy, glamour, titilation or entertainment value.

MY FAVORITES: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, A Woman Under the Influence, Shadows

37. Richard Linklater

Texan Richard Linklater writes better dialogue than anyone else working today. His films are popular, I think, because there is a realism to them that no other indie comedies can really touch. The humor springs not from elaborate shenanigans or clever wit, but careful observations about the way people express deep truths through small talk, jokes and asides. He has likewise proved himself adept at more thoughtful, searching and experimental projects (like the animated marvel Waking Life) and bigger-budget star-driven studio comedies (like School of Rock).

MY FAVORITES: Dazed and Confused, Before Sunset, Waking Life

36. Krzysztof Kieslowski

Kieslowski was a Pole who focused for most of his career on depicting the oppression of Poles under Communism. But he'll likely be best remembered for his remarkable Three Colors trilogy, so called because they are modeled on the three colors of the French flag, each of which correspond to one of the three tenents of the French Revolution (liberty, equality, fraternity). My favorites of Kieslowski's films, the Polish work and the French films, relate the big moral questions we have grapped with as a society with the individual choices made by people in their daily lives. They do so with delicacy, good humor and an unwavering feeling of humanity and empathy.

MY FAVORITES: White, Red, The Double Life of Veronique

35. Francois Truffaut

If Truffaut had stopped making films after his debut, The 400 Blows, he's still be on this list. That's one of my all-time favorite movies. Sensitive, sprawling, subtle and morbidly funny, it's the best coming-of-age story ever filmed. But he didn't stop there. He went on to make mysteries, melodramas and human comedies for another 20 years, including 4 more based on the main character from the autobiographical 400 Blows, Antoine Doinel.

MY FAVORITES: The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, Stolen Kisses, Jules and Jim

34. Nicolas Roeg

We have a trailer for Roeg's Walkabout playing on one of the store's video tapes. Based just on that advertising, you would think it was a horrible, pretentious piece of crap. There's no way to talk about Walkabout, a film in which two young children from civilization are left to fend for themselves in the Australian Outback with only the help of a native boy, to reflect its genius accurately. Like all of Roeg's best films, it sounds silly and overblown when described. The effect must be exprienced. The movies are at once exhiliarating and confusing, direct and ambiguous. Roeg frees himself from the bounds of narrative and chronology, making impressionistic films about fevered imagination, obsession, morality and alienation that are passionate yet measured, emotional and cerebral.

MY FAVORITES: Don't Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bad Timing

33. Wes Anderson

He's only made 4 films, and I personally find one kind of disappointing and off (Life Aquatic). But those other three are near perfect; Anderson ideally combines whimsy, broad comedy and melancholy into unforgettable stories that seem to exist in a world all their own. He and his design teams are endlessly inventive, his ear for soundtrack music is impeccable and his scripts (particularly the three written in tandem with actor Owen Wilson) are brimming with remarkably original characters and quotable dialogue.

MY FAVORITES: Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Bottle Rocket

32. Seijun Suzuki

Japanese Outlaw Master #2 on the list, Suzuki was famously fired from his studio after turning in what is now regarded as his masterpiece, the spastic and non-sequiteur hitman comedy Branded to Kill. He was just way way way ahead of his time, hip before anyone knew that was even a word that could be applied to films. Watching his movies is like watching Japanese history unfold in a parallel universe...Everything kind of looks the same, except it's more kinetic, more weird, more complicated, much bloodier and everybody's cleverly mouthing off at one another all the time. These are hallucinatory crime, gangster and war epics that influenced an entire generation of Japanese filmmakers.

MY FAVORITES: Branded to Kill, Youth of the Beast, Underworld Beauty, Tokyo Drifter

31. Ingmar Bergman

His movies aren't the most fun on the list, but it's not a list of great filmmakers of any kind without the Melancholy Swede. Bergman has kind of been labeled a certain way in this country. He's great, sure, but he's brooding and dark, and his movies are dreary affairs that only appeal to eggheads and movie nerds. It's simply not true. Okay, maybe it's true of The Seventh Seal, but plenty of Bergman movies are warm, inviting, entertaining and a few are even, dare I say it, funny? And even when the movies are morbid affairs, and the man indeed has suffered all his life from chronic depression, they are deeply moving, probing and introspective masterpieces that enhance our understanding of life's mysteries and ambiguities. Few filmmakers ever manage to reach the emotional heights Bergman has hit repeatedly over the decades.

MY FAVORITES: Persona, Wild Strawberries, Through a Glass Darkly, Smiles of a Summer Night

I Smurf the Smell of Napalm in the Morning...

UNICEF's newest commercial is the least smurfy thing you're likely to hear about all year. The organization (the United Nations Children's Fun, for those of you who are acronymically challenged) wants to really shock people, but has found that it's too hard to get people's attention with the same old images of Third World suffering.

Philippe Henon, a spokesman for Unicef Belgium, said his agency had set out to shock, after concluding that traditional images of suffering in Third World war zones had lost their power to move television viewers. "It's controversial," he said. "We have never done something like this before but we've learned over the years that the reaction to the more normal type of campaign is very limited."

So, what's more shocking that images of human suffering in the Third World? Images of Smurfs suffering in an imaginary world, of course!

Guys, this is real. They showed a preview of this ad the other night in Belgium, the nation where The Smurfs were invented in 1958. It opens with the happy Smurfs singing and dancing in Smurf Village (you know..."La la la la la la la la la...La la la la la la...La la la la la!") until a barrtage of rocks and missiles and Weapons of Smurf Desturction (WSD's) rain down upon their happy little blue heads.

You can see the result. Only a crying Baby Smurf is left alive. The rest have the living smurf bombed right out of them.

The advertising agency behind the campaign, Publicis, decided the best way to convey the impact of war on children was to tap into the earliest, happiest memories of Belgian television viewers. They chose the Smurfs, who first appeared in a Belgian comic in 1958.

Julie Lamoureux, account director at Publicis for the campaign, said the agency's original plans were toned down.

"We wanted something that was real war - Smurfs losing arms, or a Smurf losing a head -but they said no."

Man, I would really love to see that rejected commercial. Like Kill Bill but totally recreated by Smurfs.

It's a pretty good idea for a commercial, I suppose. Killing beloved cartoon characters is certain to get people's attention. Is it really bad for Western Civilization, though, that we're more shocked by the deaths of make-believe little blue guys with beards than the real-world deaths of millions in places like Africa, Haiti and the Middle East? That UNICEF couldn't just make a commercial about what's really going on in the world, but instead had to draw a parallel to nostalgia kid's shows for attention?

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Silly Love Kongs

Seen the gorgeous new poster for Peter Jackson's King Kong yet? Well, here it is, compliments of What Would Tyler Durden Do (WWTDD), a well-named website if ever there was one.


Anyway, I know blogging's been light the past few days. I am, after all, only one man. And for now, I'm off to Club Hurt to see another standing-room-only show by local favorites The Ventriloquists, just returned from their whirlwind, 12-city tour of Outer Mongolia. You know, they're one of the few bands to really break out in the O.M., which is really reason enough to check them out.

But just in case your geek quotient for the day has not yet been met, here's the link to a trailer for Jon Favreau's new family sci-fi comedy, Zarthura, a sequel to Jumanji. Now, I'm a big fan of Favs two previous films (Made and Elf...he wrote Swingers but Doug Liman directed that film). But I have to say, Jumanji ranks among the films least in need of a sequel in recent history. At least Robin Williams doesn't pop up in this. Instead, they've got "Punk'd" mainstay Dax Shepard. Oh...neat...

My co-Cinegeek Ari didn't find the trailer very promising, but I think the film looks okay. It at least stands a solid chance of at least improving on Jumanji. I mean, it's not hard to improve on Jumanji, what with its constant, shrill chaotic action, painfully unfunny dialogue and blurry early CG effects. This one seems like it might have a somewhat better feel for the characters, and I think just the very concept of an evil robot run amock in a suburban home sounds fun.

We'll see...maybe the thing will be a disaster, what do I know. I hope it's good, because Favreau's taking on the highly promising John Carter of Mars next, and it would be a shame if he doesn't have a handle on the whole large-scale special effects thing.