Wednesday, January 28, 2009

THOSE POSTMASTER BLUES

What my heart looked like after hearing the news...

On a busy news day where people were understandably nervous about job losses, stimulus plans, and Hawaiian Tropic girls, one story in particular made my eyes sweat and the ring finger on my mouse hand tremble against the desk:

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Massive deficits could force the post office to cut out one day of mail delivery (!), the postmaster general told Congress on Wednesday, in asking lawmakers to lift the requirement that the agency deliver mail six days a week.

If the change happens, that doesn't necessarily mean an end to Saturday mail delivery. Previous post office studies have looked at the possibility of skipping some other day when mail flow is light, such as Tuesday (!!!).

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If, like me, you're an unhealthy movie obsessive ("cinephile" sounds so much more intellectual... but let's be real here), you likely just had the following thought plow through your head: "OH GOD... how will this effect my Netflix!?!?"

Yes. Like many other dorks, I have a comfortable system set-up already. A system that allows me to have four movies at a time, rotating in-and-out as if on an assembly line, assuring me that I'll have at least one movie at the house at a time while all together "renting" more in a month than my subscription fee adds up to.

But if we move to only five days of mail a week, all of that Netflix joy (pictured below) could be lost....

You can kiss the traditional family goodbye...

You see, Netflix already kind of screws the customer by not processing DVDs on a Saturday. However, Saturday is still a travel day for mail, meaning movies will make it to your mailbox, and, more importantly, your outbound movies will make it to the Netflix mailbox. (Put a movie in the mail on Saturday and Netflix will have it by Monday).

But let's say the USPS decides to go weekend-free with their deliveries/pick-ups. That means you'd have to have your movie(s) in the mail on Friday morning for a Monday processing. Worse, if USPS decides to take Tuesday off, you could put a movie in the mail on a Saturday, and not receive your next arrival until Wednesday!!

......this sucks......

I mean, I'm lucky in that I could just cancel my Netflix and go back to relying solely on local video stores. But, see, I'm worried about people like Rick Olson who lives on a boat in Alabama, or the Kindertrauma boys who live in a castle out in the country, or Jonathan Lapper, who lives in a tree house in South Carolina. THESE are the people that will suffer! President Obama, what are you gonna do for these people, sir???

Solutions:

1. Netflix can contract with FedEx. (This will likely cause an increase in subscription fees because of postage issues, etc.)

2. Netflix can rely more heavily on its Watch Instantly feature. (F**k that! I'll be canceling if that's the case. I ain't watching Paris, TX on my laptop!).

3. Netflix can lower it's subscription fees.

4. Perhaps USPS can still deliver to P.O. boxes on their "day off".

Ahh, who knows. This is probably just premature paranoia on my part. Like I said, I'm mainly just worried about people like Bill R. who lives on the second floor of the library in the 700-800 section.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

ON DVD: BATTLE FOR HADITHA

Two things immediately jump out as you watch the Iraq War docudrama Battle for Haditha: 1.) I can't believe frickin' Nick Broomfield made this, and 2.) who in the hell is this guy playing the character of Corporal Ramirez?... because he's incredible!

On that first point, I was very prematurely negative about Battle for Haditha when I first read of its production. Of the straight documentaries Broomfield made prior to Battle for Haditha, I'd seen Kurt & Courtney, Biggie and Tupac, and part of one of his Aileen Wuornos films. I found them all to be the equivalent of tabloid TV trash, and didn't think much better of their maker. I'm not the greatest fan of the documentary genre, and, to me, Broomfield was among its worst offenders. So it's no understatement to say Battle for Haditha hit me like a revelation. Broomfield's scattershot and scatterbrain attempts at finding truth in his non-fiction films play like a bunch of headless chickens bumping breasts and kicking up dirt. But apply that technique to a fictional retelling and exploration of the clusterfu*k surrounding the controversial and still unclear events of November 19th, 2005 in the Iraqi province of Al Anbar, and you have the rebirth of a filmmaker.

I'm no expert on the Haditha killings, but here is what I do know (if readers find any of this to be inaccurate, don't blow a fuse, let's talk about it in the comment section): an IED blew up a Marine vehicle killing one Marine and wounding two others; in retaliation, the Marines killed twenty-four Iraqis near homes adjacent to the site of the IED explosion; fifteen of the twenty-four Iraqis killed were known innocent civilians; the Marines tried to brush aside the incident with a press release saying shrapnel from the IED killed the civilians; it was discovered that the video evidence of this incident was provided by a man who had also made propaganda videos for Al Qaeda; since this occurred, all charges against the group of Marines have been dropped except for those against Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, who is still awaiting trial.

Anyone who has followed the story of the Haditha killings with the hope of obtaining a knowable conclusion to it all, understands the true complications and confusions surrounding the event. It seems, at this point, that a definite answer will forever be out of reach, and to his credit, Nick Broomfield respected that lack of clarity and made an honest, heartfelt drama dedicated to the lives affected by this emotionally-charged tragedy.

Since Broomfield knows as much as the rest of us about Haditha, he forgoes any personal agenda and turns his camera to the soldiers, the innocent civilians, and the terrorists who planted the IED. The characters are fictional, but parallels follow the various true accounts closely. The central figure is Corporal Ramirez, played by real-life former Marine Elliot Ruiz. I don't know if Ruiz had acting aspirations prior to Battle for Haditha, or if he has any now, but his presence is magnetic, his physical features riding the line between youth and manhood, nailing what Francis Ford Coppola hoped to evoke by casting a young Lawrence Fishburn in Apocalypse Now!

Doing a quick search on Ruiz, I found a fascinating interview with him on Defend Our Marines, a site set up with the goal of arguing in favor of the Marines charged in the Haditha killings. Here is an excerpt from that interview:

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Defend Our Marines: You know, people, including me, are angry at you.

Elliot Ruiz: Yeah, I’ve been on DefendOurMarines.com. That’s why I wanted to do this interview. The thing is that nobody’s seen the movie yet. From the trailer what they see is a bunch of Marines killing all these innocent people. I want people to understand that this film isn’t trying to incriminate the Marines.

Defend Our Marines: But your portrayal of the shooting at the white taxi is cold-blooded murder. Your character shoots five Iraqis who have their hands in the air. In reality, the shooting at the white taxi was nothing like your portrayal. SSgt Wuterich was a good distance away: his line of sight was blocked, another Marine almost certainly fired the fatal shots. Forensics and testimony all tend to corroborate statements that the Iraqis were moving away from the car.

Elliot Ruiz: The film is definitely a fictional portrayal. At no point are we blaming the Marines for this. I wouldn't want to be part of something that gave the Marine Corps a bad name. I saw what the director, Nick Broomfield, was trying to do. Nick wasn’t trying to blame the Marines, Nick wasn’t trying to blame the Iraqis. And it wasn’t just a two-sided story, he also showed how the innocent Iraqis are caught in the middle between the military and the insurgents. So he’s actually showing three stories at once. (READ THE ENTIRE INTERVIEW HERE)
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What's fascinating about this exchange is that both men share a professional closeness, yet they passionately disagree. I don't know if David Allender (aka Defend our Marines) ever served, but he is definitely pro-military. Ruiz obviously is too. Both men are "on the same side" yet they debate the portrayal of real-life events in Broomfield's film. Typically, in a discussion like this, we'd have two ideological opposites yelling at each other, getting everybody nowhere. Here, we have two experts, loyal to the Marines, respectful of the honor to all who have served, disagreeing on important details between the cracks. It's gray area disagreement between two like-minded people that we don't get enough of these days. For entertainment, the media wants two opposing firemouths (not intricacy), and hardcore ideologues on the left and right will exile you if you step out of line.

It's like Cpl. Ramirez says, "the Corps don't give a fuck about you, you gotta take care of yourself". We know Ramirez doesn't believe this, but we also sense that it's an emotion, born of frustration and fear, that every member of a combat unit in Iraq has likely experienced at one time or another. Broomfield nails this area of personal complexity that Kimberly Pierce ended up turning into goofy melodrama in Stop-Loss.

I hope people will see Battle for Haditha. It never made it to the big screen in my town. In a way, that makes sense. Most of us feel comfortable taking hard-line, black & white stances on the Iraq War and the greater War on Terror, so when a challenging film like Battle for Haditha or the excellent - and also barely seen - Grace Is Gone surfaces, audiences turn away because they only crave agreement from their entertainment. But what you think you know, you may not know, or you may just even - gasp! - change your mind. Remember what I used to think about Nick Broomfield?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

HONG KONG'S DING DONG EXPERIMENT


According to Worstpreviews.com, 3D porn is just around the corner:

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Hong Kong filmmakers are preparing to release the world's first pornographic movie in 3-D. Shooting on the Chinese-language film "3D Sex And Zen," budgeted at $4 million, is scheduled for April with producers promising some of the most realistic close-up sex scenes ever.

"Just imagine that you'll be watching it as if you were sitting beside the bed," said Stephen Shiu. "There will be many close-ups. It will look as if the actresses are only a few centimeters from the audience."
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As if trying to masturbate with a laptop wasn't awkward enough already, soon perverts the world over will be making phantom love to a woman/man that isn't there. Plus, being pant-less with a pair of 3D glasses on isn't a very attractive look no matter who you are.

I'm already skeptical about the commercial appeal of this...

I mean, most of us are already humbled by the size of your average porn star wiener. Do we really need to be taunted & teased by those things in 3D??? That's kinda cruel. It's humiliating in the first place to you find yourself resorting to such third party stimulation, so is it really gonna make you feel better to have Rocco Siffredi's ching-chong laughing in your face?

Yeah, yeah... I already know what some of you sickos are thinking: "But wow-oh-wow, it's gonna be great to have Gianna Michaels boobies swinging two inches in front of my face!". OK, but what happens when one of the Bang Bros blasts one over her head and onto the camera lens??? (True, to some of us that could be a plus.)

Just some things to think about, you know? Now, if some genius would just invent a pair of 3D glasses that could make your own wiener look impressive when you glance down. That would be a huge seller. Haha... get it? "Huge" seller? Get it??

Thursday, January 22, 2009

"BE BLACK, BABY" AND THE SOCIAL RELEVANCE OF BRIAN DE PALMA'S HI, MOM!

Last night I took in a screening of an old 35mm print of Brian DePalma's excellent 1970 comedy-cum-WTF?!? movie Hi, Mom!. Before the show, our emcee prefaced it with a shaky disclaimer of "if you're offended by anything in this film, just remember what era it's from". He also admitted feeling a tad uneasy knowing that "this was the movie we were showing on the day Barack Obama was inaugurated". Having seen Hi, Mom! before, I immediately knew what our timid host was referring to, and that was the (in)famous "Be Black, Baby" sequence that practically takes over the second half of the film.

But what our host completely misunderstood, was that "Be Black, Baby", and the entirety of Hi, Mom!, makes for the most ideal type of viewing on a day when a black man was sworn into our nation's highest office. Because even though we just elected our first African-American president - and probably because of that - our culture has become more gun shy and eggshell aware than ever before. The elephant in the room that is "race" has been shrunk and is now hanging around the neck of every American daring to engage in a discussion of social politics.

Once again, in taking a step toward "political progress", what's sadly come along with that is an underbelly of weak-kneed cultural distress and a hesitation over open discussions.

Fortunately, we still have a handful of visionaries like Brian DePalma around that just don't care what the gatekeepers think. For the better or worse of the output, DePalma's body of work has garnered him a variety of labels, including "misogynist", "sadist", "racist", "conservative", "liberal", "homophobe", "anti-American", "plagiarist", "hack", and "asshole". But what makes DePalma unique, is that for each of those negatively intended descriptors, an admirer of his will argue the flipside: "feminist", "culturally-sensitive", "liberal", "conservative", "gay-friendly", etc.

One final label that occasionally pops up - admittedly not as frequently as it used to - is "the American Godard". Most will attribute that to the way DePalma shares a keen eye for colorful pop-tastic imagery a la the French genius, but what often gets omitted is that both directors share a sly artistic maneuverability that prevents them from being pigeonholed into a single paradigm.

Hi, Mom! is about Jon Rubin (a perfect Robert DeNiro), a white American male just back from Viet Nam, and ready to fulfill his ambitions as a filmmaker. But first, Jon must pay his dues, and so he takes a job as a low rent adult filmmaker. Working in an underground industry affords Jon the exposure to walks-of-life he's yet to experience. One of those is a radical leftist street theater, and this is how he ultimately becomes involved with the interactive anger play, Be Black, Baby.

But let's back up for a sec...

In between the comedic, satirical story of Jon Rubin, DePalma interjects segments of a fictional made-for-TV documentary called The Black Experience. It's a four part series airing on a public-television spoof of a network called N.I.T. (National Intellectual Television). We see black & white boho radicals confronting regulars on the street with a question of, "Do you know what it's like to be black?". This seriously filmed segment-within-a-movie reaches a quick-witted and uncomfortably hilarious peak when one of the black female radicals asks that question of a non-English speaking Asian man. His authentic-looking reaction to the question is loaded with more meaning than a director could ever ask from a trained actor.

The troupe of radicals ultimately aims to make the public realize the answer to the question themselves by organizing a play called Be Black, Baby, where audience members shuffle through the "physical experience" of being a black person. In a guided tour through a project building, white audience members are painted-up in black face, forced to eat pigs feet & collard greens, harassed, sexually humiliated, beaten by cops, and called "nigg*r" about 200 times.

Suddenly... the play is over, and the audience is shoved out onto the street, happily free, smiling and applauding like a gang of Manhattan socialites collectively appreciating an exhibit at MOMA. With fresh blood and degradation hanging off their faces, these stereotypical limousine liberals condescend to enlightenment, and cultural transformation. The sight of the theater players congratulating the bunch post-performance adds a level of absurdity to go around. These aren't truth seekers, just arrogant, post-graduate approval seekers.

This element of misguided intention is expressed brilliantly when DePalma shows the moment Jon eyes a poster for Be Black, Baby and decides to audition:







The final scene in Hi, Mom! brings us back to Jon Rubin, who, overnight, has gone from leftist urban guerrilla to hawkish right-wing bigot. DePalma is showing the fine line that exists between these two ideological fringes of extremism. As a good friend often says to me, when you move too far along either end of the political spectrum, eventually you may find yourself around onto the other side.

After ripping through a slur-filled rant to a news reporter, Jon looks at the screen and says "Hi, Mom!". Freeze shot, the end. And what a timely image for a post-Election '08 American audience to take in in this age where the cult of personality is raging like I've never seen it before.

Monday, January 19, 2009

ON DVD: TOWELHEAD

From watching American Beauty, one would've probably guessed that Alan Ball was a bitter man. Eight years on, however, the contempt inside that film's screenwriter has only swelled. "What's it like being you?" David Thewlis' Johnny iconically asks Uwen Bremner in Mike Leigh's Naked, and I'd like to lean in on a lonely street corner, myself, and lob Mr. Ball that exact same question. Immature ain't a strong enough word to describe this fifty-one year old who still seems hung up on mommy & daddy issues. Yet Ball doesn't present them in a confessional, self-reflective Ingmar Bergman way, but in that egocentric modern hipster way that's part Augusten Burroughs "admire-my-pitiful-upbringing" and part Paul Haggis "fuck-the-world" philosophizing.

Why Alan Ball chose a thirteen year-old girl to be his spit-bucket surrogate in his latest film, Towelhead, is a mystery, but one thing it reveals for certain is that Ball is some kind of sick suburban-sadist. Jasira (Summer Bashil), is a preteen Lebanese-American girl living with her divorced mother. The first sound & image we get of Jasira is of her having her pubes shaved by her mother's scumbag boyfriend. The mother then blames the incident on Jasira's precociousness, not her boyfriend's perversions, and thus ships Jasira off to live with her father in Houston. Towelhead is already a zero star film at this point, and we've still got one hundred minutes to go.

Critics who stand-up for this kind of tripe typically use the excuse of "black humor" to defend it. Yet, these are the same people who will defend sadist-horror as having Bush-era political relevance. The thing is, saying that, doesn't it mean it is. There's a timidness behind these arguments and you can sense it on the face of the words. Mainstream critics are reluctant to simply admit they get pleasure from these exhibitions of punishment, so they'll cover it up in fanciful wordplay, keeping their fantasies in the closet.

The fantasies being played out in an Alan Ball film are the destruction and annihilation of a social-class, most specifically, of suburbia. It's a kind of acceptable, agreeable, and fashionable fascism for the set who'll claim that "violence is never the answer". It's interesting, then, when these same people, who admire films like American Beauty or Towelhead, act offended upon seeing something blatant and direct like Pasolini's Salo. Perhaps it's because Salo, at its heart, exposes and blasts these social & cultural-sophisticates for what they are.

Though the actress who plays Jasira, Summer Bishil, was eighteen-to-nineteen years old during the production of Towelhead, it's objectionable what she was put through for the film, not only as a young woman, but as a human being. Jasira is raped, has her pubes shaved (twice), gets molested (twice), is sexually humiliated, beaten, called countless slurs, spit on, and more. But what mostly creeps one out is the way Ball films Bishil in the most sexually suggestive moments.

Using Larry Clark-style cocktease close ups and innocent, seductive lighting (look at the way he lets the color bounce off Bishil's face in the above still) Ball perplexedly aims to attain a mood of eroticism for scenes that are nothing but rotten. No, I don't think Ball is personally getting off on this, but it does bring to mind the way fellow filmmaker Gus Van Sant chooses to shoot savagery in beautiful ways. It's as if these two director's visual acumen are totally separated from their understanding of the language in an image. Don't call them brave, don't call them challenging, don't call them rebellious... call them Shitheads.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

EARLY HAWKS BLOG-A-THON: BARBARY COAST (1935)

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The following post is my contribution to the Early Hawks Blog-a-Thon taking place over at Ed Howard's Only the Cinema. Ed is prolific every week, but during this one, he's been cranking out Hawks' posts so fast that even Peter Bogdanovich himself would blush. So do yourself a treat, head on over to his blog and spend some time checking out the various links to this long overdue tribute to an important man.
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In Ed Howard's write-up of A Girl In Every Port, he points to instances in that early silent "buddy movie" of Hawks' that signal the budding beginnings of what would form that non-comedic Hawksian trademark of men behaving honorably amongst each other in times of service, showmanship, and silliness. For me, I'll always recognize the sensitive masculinity of Air Force as Hawks' finest moment of inter-gender bonding and brotherhood. If we ever need to time capsule what real men were like, let's be sure to throw in stills of that film's cockpit and hospital sequences.

Well, I borrowed Ed's thinking cap tonight after watching Hawks' Barbary Coast, and couldn't help but read it as an out-of-genre precursor to, perhaps, his most acclaimed film His Girl Friday. Yes, if you've seen both films, it's true that on the surface these films feel fourteen shoulder lengths apart in tone, style, and drama. But consider this:

* Ben Hecht wrote both films (His Girl Friday by way of his play The Front Page).

* There exists a bizarre love triangle which one party is left unaware of until very late (the Hecht penned Scarface also has this).

* The drama of both films revolve around newspapers.

* The exchanges between Miriam Hopkins and Joel McCrea in Barbary Coast are similarly sharp-tongued and filled with the bitter wit (McCrea tells a friend he feels like a "shorn lamb". Moments later, Hopkins orders some "lamb kidneys & liver" for dinner) of Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in His Girl Friday.

Though Barbary Coast came out at the dawn of the production code-era, its limitations feel more as a result of some studio head's "happy-ending" pressure than any adherence to the enforced moral checkpoints of decency and flavor. Still, credit Hawks and Brecht for being able to jam the entire evolution of Hopkins and McCrea's love affair within an impossible fifty minute time frame (McCrea doesn't make his first appearance until the fourty-three minute mark). With these contraints, and the demands of the studio, Hawks incredibly makes the film's most unconvincing attributes and plot points ultimately convincing.

Film historians often site Japanese minimalist Yasujiro Ozu as the master of driving narratives through a strict reliance to the medium-to-long steadily held shot. No doubt he deserves that accolade, but it should also be respected that Hawks worked his way to that same economical and efficient artistic achievement within a much more commercial and watched-over environment. Though his frames weren't as evocative and rich as Ozu's, I would argue that Hawks' facial captures were just as brazen as was his ability to line-up subtext and subplot through the simple placement and direction of an actor's physicality.

What I really enjoy about blog-a-thons like Ed's is that they force upon their participants a demand to spend time with an earlier era. No matter how many films you've seen, everybody can benefit from slowing down and relearning appreciation from the designers of the early days. Just today, I went and saw My Bloody Valentine and then chased it with Barbary Coast. It's an extreme example, sure, but it still reminded me of what can be lost when too much devotion is given to a single era, genre, or director. That's why I have Ceiling Zero sitting over there next to my TV right now. Yes, it's on VHS, but I see that as just another reminder to remember and appreciate. Slow down & relearn, slow down & relearn, slow down & relearn...

Thursday, January 15, 2009

SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION WOULDN'T BE ENOUGH DISTANCE FROM THAT WOMAN!

I like Will Smith, but I can't stand his coattail clinging wife.

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"The thing about a love scene is that it's so awkward. I was talking to Jada and I was like, 'You know what it's like, to take an opportunity for legal cheating, that's kinda how people think about it'. And Jada was like, 'Listen, don't embarrass me, whatever you give Rosario, that's what people are going to think you give me. So you better go out there and represent!' "
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Eww. That is some open-toe sandal skank-ass sh*t right there!

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Smith also said that because he gets so involved in his characters, this has an impact on his real life - and it usually means his sex drive goes up, he admitted to Philip Schofield and Fern Britton on ITV1's This Morning.
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Well dang, he must have really been peaking after he did I Am Legend, because co-star Alice Braga is one of the hottest women in the world:


BTW, for those who haven't seen Smith's new film Seven Pounds, it's about a cursed man that can only thrust seven times during intercourse before pre-maturely climaxing.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

THE WRESTLER

"Witness the Resurrection of Mickey Rourke!" says the prize-like banner of a quote in the upper right corner of the poster for The Wrestler. Underneath is the image of a blond-locked Rourke, leaning for life-support on the ropes of a wrestling ring. Just above his head are the bleached-bright lights of the ring, forming somewhat of a half-circle, and creating a symbolic image of a crown.

Nope, I'm not being very subtle about the direction I'm heading in here, and I don't think director Darren Aronofsky intended to be either. Because, indeed, the final shot of The Wrestler is as close to a spiritual sports metaphor for human resurrection that you'll ever see. As Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Rourke) climbs those corner ropes one last time in order to lay down his signature "Ram Jam" pin move on rival nemesis The Ayatollah, we're uncomfortably aware that he's "burning it at both ends" with a ticker that's about to explode. Ram takes flight anyway, arms extending Christ-like, soaring above the camera and our eyes in a moment that cuts to black with cathartic punctuation.

This Jesus stuff ain't no coincidence. Earlier in the film, in a moment feeling so much like a left-field non sequitir you can feel the alarms going off in your head signaling PAY ATTENTION NOW!, Ram's hip-pocket stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tome) quotes him some dialogue from The Passion of the Christ and says, "they just beat him up for two hours straight, and he takes it... just like you." Yep, pretty much, and that's not a bad summation of what The Wrestler is either. But unlike the knives-out masochism of Lars Von Trier and his always dead heroines, Aronofsky doesn't want you going home a misanthrope. Sad, yes, but not resentful. (The Wrestler kinda plays like an indie-cool weepie for hipsters.)


If ever there was a movie that could scare our future young adults into choosing the option of college after high school, The Wrestler might just be the one. Hey, you gotta do what you gotta do, and I got nothing but great respect for the people who grind out long hours on the shittiest of jobs, but you can't get much more humiliating than being over the age of thirty-five and having to strip or wear neon green tights for a living. Add to that the onset of "bitch tits", being turned down by college kids for a lap dance, playing video games on an 8-bit Nintendo, working at a deli counter, liking Ratt, etc., and you're beyond a mid-life crisis, you're at the wrong end of a life lived at the limbs of decadence and hedonism. And what that looks like, what it exactly looks like, is fried-out suicide blond hair tips and a can of spray-on tan.

Some critics have argued that The Wrestler is overly-dreary and hopeless, and since we're considering the work of a director who made one of the dreariest (and worst) films of the last ten years in Requiem for a Dream, giving somebody the benefit of the doubt on an opinion like that would not be unfair. It's hard to argue with that viewpoint after watching a scene from The Wrestler like the one of a fan club gathering for ex-wrestlers to sign autographs and meet fans. The sequence is a pure depressive slide down a slope of concrete bumps. Old, worn-out men in a run-down rec center, sitting at card tables with stacks of VHS tapes for sale and nobody around with an inch of curiousity left to care. When Aronofsky's camera follows Ram's line of sight to a urine bag hanging out of a fellow wrestler's pants, flashbacks of a pasty Ellen Burstyn and a sweaty Marlon Wayans tease your gag reflex.

But Aronofsky's grown up, and with the underrated The Fountain and, now, The Wrestler under his belt, I've gone from passionately disliking the guy (I really f*cking hate Pi and Requiem for a Dream) to wanting to keep a heartfelt curious eye on his career. It may sound odd, but while watching The Wrestler, I felt a bit of a genuine Norma Rae-style working class hardship coming from both Rourke's performance and Aronofky's direction. The pair collaborated to achieve a unique blend of bittersweet pleasantness that truly hangs around once you've left the theater.

Much has been made of Mickey Rourke's autobiographical-channeling performance, but it's the kind of award-season hype that finally feels validated. Perhaps it's true that there isn't much "acting" going on here, but I was fully seduced by Rourke's body, voice, face, walk, grunts. I won't deny that that may just be the signs of a healthy crush because I still have the sound of The Ram's slamming elbow pads ringing in my ears. And to me, right now, that's the sound of "awesome".

Monday, January 12, 2009

TOERIFC: THE TRUE MEANING OF PICTURES (2002)

I watched the above movie, and I have many opinions about it and its subject, Shelby Lee Adams. So do many other film bloggers. So come on over to Marilyn's website Ferdy on Films to either join in on the discussion or to just see us duke it out.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

GRAN TORINO

Not three minutes into Gran Torino and Walt Kowalski's (Clint Eastwood) squinty-eyed, mumbling growl ("mmmgrrrrr") is already walking itself towards the door of infamous movie verbalizations, grabbing a chair at the table of Al Pacino's "whoo-wa!" in Scent of a Woman, and Billy Bob Thorton's "mmm-hmm" in Sling Blade. Luckily, that cartoonish mannerism fades away, but because Eastwood is not a subtle director (remember that glow in the dark cross that dangled from the priest's neck at the beginning of Mystic River?... oy) he continues to beat the audience over the head with the many flaws/traits of Walt: racial slurs, "these kids today" jibes, tobacco spitting, rifle toting. It's enough already after thirty minutes.

But then Gran Torino gets good. Walt's relationship with his Hmong neighbors, and his place in the transformed Hmong community of old Detroit, opens up honest moments of modern cross-generational racial anxiety. Instead of the Hmong brother and sister joining together to help Walt grow a golden heart of rainbow tolerance, Eastwood shows the emotional depth and complexity that can exist under the skin of someone who wears a face of bigotry. Even as tempers cool and the Lor family accepts Walt into their home, the old man doesn't refrain from his stereotype-driven humor. While grilling, Walt asks, "How do you take your dog?". Without missing a beat, Sue fires back, "I've told you, we eat cats!".

This true-to-life method of breaking down preconceived notions and confronting cultural differences (Richard Pryor, anyone?) flies in the face of the regressive divide-and-conquer militancy of Milk and the quick-to-incriminate post-Prop 8 judgmentalism that came along with it. What Gus Van Sant propagandizes in Milk is a one-strike and throw away the key method of dealing with surface bigotry or even philosophical differences.

Walt is prejudiced, but he's not a bad man. The Hmong grandmother may be prejudiced, but she's not a bad woman. These are old school people refusing to roll along with the new world's rules. Their leisure time is spent sitting on porches, not shopping, watching DVDs, or playing video games. Their spitting, exclaiming, and the racial epithets of Walt's, are defensive moves, actions used out of self-preservation more than pure hatred. Take a step back, and Walt is more accurately defined as a bitter man than a racist, equally showing contempt for everyone & everything around him (his grandchildren, his priest, retirement homes, horoscopes)... everything but his dog. This is a contempt he acknowledges, and isn't proud of, when he tells Sue, "I'm not a good man."

Eastwood's direction is decidedly simply throughout. His camera moves delicately between, and inside, the adjacent houses. Check the generational contrast Eastwood creates between the upstairs and downstairs sections of the Lor's house. Sue (Ahney Lor) invites Walt over for a friend & family barbecue. Upstairs are the adults, a representation of traditional Hmong culture existing in a new homeland. Sue instructs Walt of the customs, that "it's considered rude to look a Hmong person in the eye", and that touching a Hmong on the top of the head is forbidden because "that's where the soul lives". But just a floor below, the younger, American born generation of Hmong teens carry-on like regular western high school kids. Music, flirting, gossiping. None of the rules Sue laid out for Walt upstairs apply anymore.

Yet, despite Gran Torino's achievements - and like many Clint Eastwood movies - there are errors in artistic judgment that hold the film back from greatness. For example, Eastwood should have practiced restraint on the slur-slinging after he clearly establishes the mentality of Walt. The scene where Sue takes Walt down to the basement to meet her friends could have been executed visually without Walt calling the kids "slopes" or "zipperheads", or calling Thao a "pussycake". At this point, the insults start to become comical, and they begin to lose a significance that applied earlier in the film.

Visually, why didn't Eastwood carry this basement scene by just simply shooting himself among the teenagers that are observing him and he them? There is a brief moment, prior, where Walt's cautiousness is physically expressed when we see him nervously leaning against a wobbly washing machine. That splash holds a visual tone that Eastwood should have run with for the entire sequence, yet, strangely, he abandons it. Unfortunately, he does the same in other sequences as well.

Still, it does feels nice to finally have an award-season film that I feel like rooting for.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

IT'S LIKE STEP UP MEETS ROCKY

Dito Montiel's debut feature, A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints, was one of the 2006's slow boiling successes that grew even wilder when it hit DVD. Arguably, the film had the greatest collection of performances of the year: Dianne Weist, Shia LeBeouf, Melonie Diaz, Robert Downey Jr., and the criminally underrated Channing Tatum. (You can throw out Rosario Dawson).

Well, Montiel is back with a new film and he brought Channing Tatum along with him. I can't wait...

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

NEW YEARS RESOLUTION MEME/ MAN ON WIRE DEBATE/ CHE BASHING (THE MAN, NOT THE MOVIE... NOT YET)

***UPDATE***
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Since this post evolved from a New Years resolution post into a Man on Wire and "Cult of Che" discussion, I wanted to add those two topics to the title. Plus, if Fidel happens to Google "Che" while he's chillin' in bed in his favorite jumpsuit, maybe, JUST MAYBE, a link to this post will pop up and El Comandante will join us in the discussion!
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Adam Ross at DVD Panache tagged me with a clever idea for a meme:

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1. Post a list of nine movie-related resolutions for the new year. These can be as serious or light-hearted as you want them to be, and it also gives you a topic at the end of the year to post about when you take a look back at the resolutions.

2. Tag five other people with completing this meme.

3. Link back to my blog in your post so I can keep track of how many cool people are going along with this, and also for the purpose of compiling a list of the most interesting resolutions.
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I think this a good way to clear my head in anticipation of the first full "new movie" weekend of the New Year...

My 2009 Film-related Resolutions:

1. Stop arguing with people about The Dark Knight.

2. Start arguing with people about Man on Wire (this shall intensify if it wins Best Documentary at the Oscars).


3. Watch Berlin Alexanderplatz. (I don't do well with long books, and I don't do well with long films. I'm a consume-in-one-sitting type of guy, because the next day I'm usually curious about something else. But this movie/made-for-TV miniseries is 15 hours and 31 minutes long!! Seems like a good excuse for a sick day).

4. Attend more Terror Tuesdays and Weird Wednesdays. (The fact that these two weekly events are FREE and I've yet to go to one is very, very sad.)

5. Fart really loud during the quietest moment of Revolutionary Road. (This could go down this weekend!)

6. Yell "Che Guevara can eat my f*ck!" at a screening of Che until one of the many coffee-shop revolutionaries comes and puts a plug in the back of my skull. (This could go down in about two weeks!)



7. Listen to more commentary tracks of lesser films. (The commentary track on The In Crowd was one of the best I'd ever heard. Who knew!?!)

8. Watch (or re-watch) every Ken Russell movie that is available on DVD or VHS.



9. Go on a used-bookstore search for that most recent Ken Russell tome.


**I tag Jason Bellamy, Bob Turnbull, Jonathan Lapper, Pat, and the Kindertrauma gentlemen!

Monday, January 05, 2009

STEELY DANS

Is it me, or are these new Terminator : Salvation toys really lame????

Forget lame... how about perverted! Check out that Tetsuo : The Iron Man-style machine gun penis on the Jesse Ventura looking one. (I know what you're thinking, "That's a gun he's holding you idiot!" ... yeah, well, that's what they want you to think.) If you ask me, a little Japanese techno-horror is exactly what this franchise needs anyway.

And what's up with that terminator's weirdo face?!?! It has a grin on it that could put it on Cute Overload or possibly make it a LOL TERMINATOR! on I Can Has Cheezburger.

Do I even need to point out the Simon Rex/underwear model-looking cyborg on the right??? This is gonna be the gayest Terminator ev-er!

Which would be pretty cool, actually.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON

I'm not the biggest David Fincher fan, but The Curious Case of Benjamin Button feels like the obvious ugly duckling among the director's brief, but powerful, body of work. From Alien 3 to Zodiac, Fincher's revealed an obsession with the procedures humans follow in order to either fit in, protect, or solve questions. Visually, Fincher's always kept one hand in the seedy, and another in the technically adept, a combination that I can admire from far away but that's left me cold in widescreen. The exception was Panic Room, a film worthy for not only pulling off Jared Leto in corn rows, but in giving a fresh face to the siege movie, turning Jodie Foster into a timely post-9/11 paranoid American and strong single mother.

Maybe this has been kicked around on internet movie sites already and I've just missed it, but, after watching Benjamin Button, I'm curious about something myself. Did David Fincher just lay down for a contractual obligation, OR, was this a pet project he'd been wanting to tackle for some time? Because you coulda shoved cotton in my ears for a year, taken my virgin senses to a screening of Benjamin Button, then told me it was directed by Ron Howard and I would've believed you. But I knew it was Fincher, and from those early trailers with the creepy looking Brad Pitt midget that carried old skin and a sex offender grin, there was a convincing Fincher-esque quality to it.

Then there's the hook of the story itself: a male infant that is born physically old and ages backwards. This isn't as lame as it sounds. There's a buzz to be gotten from these Big/Vice Versa type of scenarios where the inner being of a child is shifted into the body of an adult. Benjamin Button just pushes this to the extreme. A seven year old in a eighty year old body... a seventeen year-old in a seventy year old body... a ninety year-old in a two year-old body.

This could make for some interesting insights. How much is our perception of old age built on the idea of youthful beauty? As Benjamin (Pitt) replies to an offer of sympathy about being burdened with an elderly body, "Being old isn't bad". But no, Fincher simply slips in some convenient and easy yoinks! jokes about penises, incontinence, and an old-man who can go all night without the assistance of Viagra.

It's not that Benjamin Button is ultimately so terrible, because it's not. Brad Pitt is markedly cute throughout, Taraji P. Henson is huggably loveable, and while Benjamin's adventures aren' t as guilty pleasurable as Forrest's, they do fine. But when the best compliment you can give to a movie is to say that it's "harmless" (aka a passable treadmill movie) then you're just tolerating mediocrity again, and the last thing our movie culture needs now is more mediocrity.

But truly, you really gotta start wondering what a year like this could mean for an institution like the Oscars. With media moving online, wider catalogs of movies becoming more accessible, and Best Picture honors seeming more like a momentum-killing kiss of death towards a film's legacy than an "ageing classic" badge of honor (know anybody who really admires Chicago, A Beautiful Mind, Crash, Shakespere In Love, or American Beauty as "great" anymore?????) maybe this traditional year-end punctuation ceremony is nearing its death. Uh, yeah, sorry... forget that.... because as Woody Allen alludes to in Annie Hall, the ego-driven elite will never forgo an opportunity to get lit, hang out in a room together, and tell each other how awesome they all are.

It makes me wonder how aware they are that the only reason we watch anymore is to get together with friends and play some really fun, self-made, Oscar party games. I'm proud of the way Americans have adapted in order to make something useful out of the annual five hour narcissism exhibition. We gave up on the Academy Awards entertaining us, so we figured out a way to do it ourselves... and they're just the pawns.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

TRACTOR FACTS MOVIE ROUND-UP FOR 2008

THE BEST MOVIES OF 2008


10. Baby Mama

Michael McCullers and Tina Fey built a sincere social-comedy around a popularized slang term and ended up diffusing the ghettoization of it. Baby Mama says more about class and status than critics gave it credit for, and Amy Poehler's batty-to-gentle performance was one of the year's best.


9. Fighter

In aiming for climactic Karate Kid-type magic, Fighter misfires. But as a teen coming-of-age/female-empowerment film, it is richer than any made-for-eighteen-and-under film of 2008. Aicha, the daughter of Turkish-Muslim immigrants, pushes back on cross-cultural confusion (a recurring dream sequence of Aicha fighting a ninja later reveals itself as her fighting a figure in a burqa) while wooing the interracial love of her life on the mats. Fighter is the ideal pop-friendly picture for young women living in our porous border world.


8. You Don't Mess With The Zohan

The slapstick satire of John Tuturo and Adam Sandler playing paddle ball with a grenade won't bring peace upon Gaza anytime soon, but art this good helps chip away at the stubborn preconceptions held by each culture. Zohan corrects what the 2001 documentary Promises exploited.

7. My Brother is an Only Child

Between the walls of a home, two brothers beef about far-left and far-right politics in Blackshirt-era Italy. The hormones of young manhood run up against ideologies of commies and fascists, producing pimples, puberty, and propaganda. My Brother... makes a nice companion piece to Marco Bellochio's Good Morning, Night, while Italian filmmakers continue to wrestle with politics better than most.


6. Before I Forget

Writer, actor, director, and eloquent idea-man Jacques Nolot continues to explore the life of the over-50 gay cruiser and the consequences that come when men choose sexual promiscuity over commitment and monogamy. Revisiting this movie post-Milk makes Gus Van Zant's film seem even more irrelevant than it already was.



5. Burn After Reading

As our political machines appear to be more incompetent now more than ever, the Coen Bros. cranked out a quick, smartie-pants farce about how close each one of us actually is to having an impact on the national security of our country. Burn After Reading blows through your head so fast that repeated viewings are required. And John Malkovich gives the best supporting performance of the year.


4. My Blueberry Nights

Like Bertolucci, Wong Kar-Wai could probably film a sewage plant and make a more visually evocative drama than most. But that's selling this modern master short. Kar-wai understands the colors of human emotion as much as the moonlight that reflects off city streets. The looping of Cat Power's "The Greatest" (as well as her brief and classically-beautiful appearance) adds a level of unexpected devastation.

3. Tropic Thunder

Hollywood usually condescends to thinking they know so much about the world we live in, that when Ben Stiller, Etan Cohen, and Justin Theroux decide to eat their own in this multi-layered comedy it feels like one of the most refreshing and enlightened films to come out of this industry in years.
2. Be Kind Rewind

In a film about movie love and community goals, Michel Gondry outwits every other visual stylist with his recreations of genre hits and iconic classics, thus giving re-birth to the fascination and fashion that once dominated this medium we love so much.

1. Happy-Go-Lucky

I walked out of Happy-Go-Lucky knowing that nothing else would top it. I worked it into as many movie conversations this year that I could; it hasn't washed off of my memory yet, and I doubt it ever will. Mike Leigh continued along the lines of his pitch perfect class-conscious dramedies, but what he gave us in Poppy (Sally Hawkins), was one of the most debated creations of 2008, and a character that is sure to go down as legendary in cinema.



THE WORST MOVIES OF 2008
1. Inside/Fronteir(s)/Martyrs (tie)
2. Religulous
3. Doomsday
4. The Visitor
5. The Strangers
6. Mamma Mia!
7. Paranoid Park
8. Seed
9. Hamlet 2
10. Snow Angels
Onto 2009! Bride Wars and The Unborn, here I come...