Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Wonder Women


I finally caught up with Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman (2017) and found it much better than what I think most superhero movies tend to be. Full disclosure, I don’t see superhero movies. The 3 Iron Man films, for various reason, were my fill up to now.

What’s most interesting about WW, and less discussed lately than a couple months ago, is how political a woman-centric superhero movie was. Not because it was particularly transgressive, except it automatically is by dint of its mere depiction of gender roles, let alone treatment of them. And even from my limited POV of a white male, there remains a strong sense of empowerment to have Gal Godot take up the (slightly adolescent) ass-kicking mantle peppered with an oh-so-serious alternate history, proto-Spongebob Nietzschean philosophy, fake retro fashion, geek trainspotting, and plenty of beefcake cameos.

This is the superhero film the women have been asking for. Or is it? Is it enough to switch the cast sheet, or as Carol Clover argues, maybe it doesn't even matter your sex if we all want is the protagonist to fight the evil they're facing, and get out at the end to star in the sequel.

There was a similar inkling during The Force Awakens (2015), when Princess Rey wields that light saber. I saw at least one post how ecstatic it was for women viewers to finally see a heroine positioned squarely in the center of the current popular culture myth.

This isn’t the place to analyze women in traditionally male roles, or even to discuss why there have to be such things in our entertainment. I’m just noting that in geek culture lately, you got some cross-dressing that gets a lot more political attention and resonates beyond what it might deserve.

Don’t get me wrong. But I'm guessing Gal Godot in that short skirt sold as many tickets as the filmmakers' feminist creed.

Men have been getting this wrong for a long time. Angelina Jolie with hand guns and Gina Corano kicking guys in the balls appeal to 12-year-old impulses in male audiences. Not gonna convince your wife to come see those on a Saturday night.

James Cameron sticks a horse-cock in his heroine’s hands and he thinks he’s doing feminism. Even Kathryn Bigelow thinks that makes characterization. She's wrong, too.
 
A long time ago (in a galaxy far away), Aliens was playing at the movie theatre I worked at. Giant hit,  you’ve heard of it, and the dynamic of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) protecting the young Newt (Carrie Henn) from the bad ass mother alien was powerful emotional stuff. The big moment near the end that James Cameron engineers so well, Ripley appears in the mechanical Transformers-style skip-loader and snarls, “Get away from her, you bitch!”

A scream filled the theatre, the ultimate sense of female empowerment and catharsis. And the scream was from the women. There was an emotional connection beyond a simple action-movie beat.

Hell, just look at the poster. I wasn’t sure Cameron knew exactly what he’d inadvertently stumbled onto there. (After True Lies, I was sure.)

Now, with the huge positive financial responses to Rey and Diana, Hollywood have decided maybe they're onto something. And I might be seeing more superhero films.


Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Buffalo Will Roam Because They Have No Where Else To Go

We miss Hunter S. Thompson more than ever recently. His journalistic viewpoint aside, his character is as large and as imposing as any on the political landscape, although it's generally considered he deteriorated into a sideshow (back into a sideshow?) after Nixon's fall from grace, which he took partial credit for.

Shout Factory has just released Art Linson's 1980's "Where The Buffalo Roam" on blu-ray,  previously MIA in its original form because of some troublesome music rights that couldn't get cleared until now.

It's Hollywood's first foray into codifying Thompson's unique brand of journalistic anarchy, a vein with a rich history in movies I've written about before. Newspaper writers are outsiders, colorful, generally "good guys" and tend to find themselves in the middle of the action. Without having to shoot anybody.

The film is loosely based on his article in Rolling Stone ("The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat" in 1977) about the disappearance of his friend/lawyer/partner in crime Oscar Acosta. You may know Acosta by Benicio Del Toro's depiction in Gilliam's Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. I think this article was about the time in which Hunter became unreadable to me. At this point he'd become Hunter-exclamation-point (trademark pending) and was more concerned with playing the brand cashing the checks than in adding to his written legacy. Nothing wrong with the Examiner column work. I just like his earlier funnier films. As it is, this first version of history is instructive and on its face much more transgressive than Gilliam's strangely conservative take, and is poking down at HST himself as the asshole he really is. And he was listed as a consultant.

It's the first directorial effort of Art Linson, who previously produced rock'n'roll stalwarts as Car Wash and American Hot Wax, and starred Bill Murray, still not sure what he wanted to do with his SNL fame (this just before Meatballs and Stripes). Later he'd figure out he wanted to be in Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch movies.

The film rides the supposed anti-establishment charm of HST and a weird Nixon nostalgia, produced forebodingly at the beginning of the Reagan era. It ends up, accidentally, as a paean to a mode of press coverage we didn't know we'd never see again.

And it's packaged as a buddy film. Murray gives a coked-up Snagglepuss performance that Johnny Depp would channel in Gilliam's Fear and Loathing, hanging, fighting and increasingly focused on the yin-yang of his relationship with Lazlo (the "Buffalo"). As in any good buddy film, Peter Boyle (as Lazlo) goes one way while Hunter tries to pull him in another. Lazlo veers increasingly out of his lane while Thompson, determined to bring down his man (Nixon), gets closer to the white-tiled corridors of power, with many antic stops along the way.

The Buffalo is the metaphor of chaos HST is either siding with or fighting. Lazlo's more radical than the radicals he's representing, while meanwhile, Thompson screams at phones, breaks statues, drinks with apparent ill effect, shoots guns, gives his press credentials to total strangers, slips drugs to straights. It's all slapstick background to his real goal, which is to get a story, or simply, to be in one more exciting than the one he's assigned to cover.

And Linson in 1980 pulls it all off with straight-faced incorrectness. Gilliam's version, 10 years later and behind the curve, seems too reverential to really embrace Thompson's true thuggish nature, too anxious and guilty, even as it falls head first into the shiny neon of CGI hallucinations. If only Alex Cox had stayed on the project.

Linson is just happy he got Bill Murray. He should be. It's a velvet-smooth performance, a barrel-aged sing-song Venkman, deeply flawed with his insecurities completely under the waterline. He's a crooked top that seems to gain momentum with each careen off the bumpers of authority.

Spoiler alert. Near the end, HST finally comes face to face with Nixon on the campaign trail, at a urinal in a men's room. Apparently based on HST's single true-to-life encounter with Nixon, the most powerful man in the country and the clown reporter make small talk. Thompson, having appropriated the credentials of another reporter ("Harris from the Post") strips down while he talks. People in this world are either doomed or "screwheads." Is this an existential identity crisis? The scene both belittles and raises both men, and beat journalism and high-stakes politics, to the level of inscrutable metaphor and myth.

The film is busy and sloppy. Neil Young from his grunge period and Jimi Hendrix pepper the soundtrack. But the film is trying to get at something. The final scene has Thompson's wearing the disguise that got him the farthest, the suit and tie in his Harris persona (and hair slicked back), having gotten closer to the innermost bowels of power he ever has. And it was a men's room.

His triumph is ephemeral. Thompson ends up standing on a lone airstrip, pleading with his gonzo friend Lazlo, trying to talk sense into him. But the Buffalo is onto another journey, heading for a far-off jungle to fight another vague rebellion. This time he'll disappear for good, having (literally) lost the map, unable to agree with Hunter.

Who would? Thompson's original article insisted Acosta was the crazy one. Not even Hunter could control the buffalo. And he's left alone on a runway, the wind mussing his tie, fire extinguisher foam staining his ill-fitting suit.

The movie suggests he'll go on fighting the good fight. But reading it differently (and now we know Thompson drank himself into obsolescence, and in an era where journalism is more embattled than busman's folly), in that 3-piece suit, Thompson's been co-opted. It's as if he's realized, "I'm crazy, but I'm not that that crazy." He's been tamed, trapped by his appetite to get inside -- and his own inability to break the rules that really matter. That really meant something.

Thompson's childhood pranks are just that, adolescent, sexless and ultimately inconsequential.

The film, loose-limbed and compelling as it is, both holds up Thompson as a figure of anarchic fun and damns him as someone who doesn't have the conviction to, maybe, be crazy enough.

The film didn't do well when it first came out. No one knew what to make of it, or Murray, and Hunter Thompson was no Woodstein hero figure. A cinematic footnote because of those Motown and Hendrix tracks (and possibly Murray's singing of "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds"), now resurfaces 35 years later, a completely different kind of history lesson.

Linson directed one other film, The Wild Life, Cameron Crowe's follow-up to Ridgemont High, and would produce The Untouchables, Dick Tracy and Fight Club among a respectable array of films. Hunter S. Thompson stopped his own presses in 2005. Bill Murray reportedly bad-mouthed the film too, even though it may be his best sustained performance.

As a comedy, it's a bit of a failure. It's one of those films that are only funny the third time you see it like Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It's really a drama, with funny people in it. Now it has the unexpected subtext of showing the downside of being a counter-cultural icon, before anyone involved quite knew what kind of prison that could be.

No wonder Thompson didn't like it. He saw his own future, even if wasn't really playing himself.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Fellini In Order

I haven't been able to find anything worth watching on Netflix lately. All old shows and flashy fake sitcoms.

Amazon Prime's selection, beyond the darts at a more meaningful new internet TV, is a disaster. They even took off Take This Job And Shove It last year.

So for the last month or so I've been watching old stuff again, like I've been promising myself for years. My own personal film festival.

I always told myself I should really revisit was Fellini's oeuvre; I'd seen maybe half of them over the years, out of order of course and mostly the classic middle period. Some of the early neo-realist ones eluded me and most of the tired later films never made it to my attention.

He directed a couple dozen films along with a handful of shorts; not insurmountable to get through the entire list. Most all are easily available at the local video store if you have one. The local video store without a Fellini section isn't in business anymore anyway. And if you have to, there are streaming options.

To follow an artist with such a signature personality and outlook as Federico is to newly understand his development as if it were preordained. His work breaks down into 3 distinct phases. The neo-realist/rural vs. urban cautionary tales, going from Variety Lights (1951) to La Dolce Vita (1960), is the first, where his characters are invariably diminished in social stature while aiming at something much larger and likely impossible to attain, whether it be fame, understanding of a spouse, to simple grace. La Strada (1954) is the closest to a parable outlining his concept, highlighting what people do what they do, even if they don't know they're doing it.

This is the meat and the heart of Fellini's stature, the awards and the international recognition. The second phase begins under what must have been the crushing fame and existential crisis first hinted at in La Dolce Vita. In his first entry post that glorious signature bummer, "The Temptation of Dr. Antonio" in the portmanteau film Boccaccio '70 (1962) he's magically developed (perhaps helped by access to more money) the baroque camera moves and surreal design sense that not only defies narrative but, somehow, will soon become it. Nothing can be taken literally anymore.

The fragmented and fanciful episodes of 8 1/2 (1963) and Juliet of the Spirits (1965) are better served embodied in his larger historical epics. Both the hippie Fellini Satyricon (1969) and Fellini's Casanova (1976) (both using the possessive in the title, not an accident) are parables and have little to do with history as much as Fellini's own personal artistic crises. The title "Fellini Satyricon" places the creator on equal footing as the source work, while "Fellini's Casanova" reasserts the fact that both these works, actually age-old classics, were more known by their authors ("Have your read your Petronius today?") until being appropriated and re-authored by the new maestro.

A film near the end of this cycle, Fellini's Roma (1972) (that possessive again), highlights the friction he's exploring with narrative from the other side of history. He's taking on the documentary form full-face, and, starting with the film-maker as character in 8 1/2 through A Director's Notebook (1969), a behind-the-scenes film for television, Fellini has moved off graceless savages and is increasingly interested in how film itself constructs story. Even a story presumably "autobiographical" and true.

Since La Dolce Vita with a journalist at its heart, to 8 1/2 which treats film-making as existential burden, to his short in 1968's Spirits of the Dead, about a decadent actor who sells his soul to get out of the business (and of life), Fellini investigates how a film tells lies about itself. "I'm a born liar." Roma is Satyricon's good twin, not really about Rome, and not really a documentary. It's self-consciously staged, and includes a character called Federico Fellini who's the director of the film you're watching, played by Fellini himself.

How meta can you get? The process doesn't seem to matter anymore. Casanova is arguably the most lush, decadent, personally depressed treatment to assert that the "artiste" is no longer happy when he does it too long. Whatever "it" may be.

This middle period is soaked with self-disdain, a surprising lack of fun (in spite of the antics of 8 1/2's circle-of-life finish, which in retrospect seems forced and half-hearted, I'm now reminded, by ending on a minor key with that out-of-tune rag-tag band as the light fades).

Was it the money? The girls? The drink? Film-making used to be so much more fun when people (and the producers) weren't paying so much attention.

The last period goes from Orchestra Rehearsal (1978) to the final The Voice of the Moon (1990). The budgets are shrinking, the triumph of Amarcord (1973) had been waterlogged by the failure of Casanova, and his themes seem less relevant, playing in minor keys with limited aspirations. Had Fellini taken the criticism of extravagance and arrogance to heart? Amarcord certainly seems like a mature and measured melting of what we liked before, the perfect marriage of La Dolce Vita and Roma without the crazy bits, his nostalgic Limelight.

But -- Chaplin didn't stop making movies either. City of Women (1980) reads as a weak-wristed swipe at feminism by a provincial misogynist who's not sure he wants to change his ways, and his takes on television, both Orchestra and Ginger and Fred (1986), are grumpy and begrudging, considering it was TV money that got them funded in the first place.

The familiar playfulness with the documentary format reaches its naked apogee with Intervista (1987) which adds Fellini's nostalgia about being "Fellini" (trademark) with awkward cameos of Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg, wishing they were younger, in a film that makes you wish they were, too.

I found it astounding how many of Fellini's themes persist through his 40-year career, many present from the beginning. The mode of attack and resources at his disposal change dramatically after the success of La Dolce Vita and then 10 years later with Casanova's failure. Yet you can watch a film from the mid '50s and see its echo in the '80s. He continually shows a curiosity about people, a gentle hand against questionable behavior, a willingness to explore how art can reveal the heart of the most ugly character.

In all of them, Fellini "hates the sin but loves the sinner." And not one of these felt a chore to sit through. Okay, maybe The Clowns (1970). I don't get the clown thing. I'm not sure he got to the heart of it, either.

It's a misconception Fellini was obsessed with clowns. This isn't his statement on something we've seen his entire career. There's a thin layer of grotesquerie, really a showman's distraction, and side characters with too much make-up and funny hair inserted for effect, all with an underlying threat of artistic anarchy.

Maybe that was his point the whole time. I took it too literally. I should watch it again.


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Incorporated

N.B.: This one is a little inside.

* * *

I like podcasts -- they make my commute go by quicker and more productive. You should really try it (I know you won't listen).

One of my favorite used to be a horror-film one called Killer POV, from Geeknation, which ran for 2 years from April of 2015 to this year, running 145 episodes.

The show was comprised of 3 horror writers/"experts," Rob Galluzzo, Rebekah McKendry, and Elric Kane, some of those names possibly familiar to you from Fangoria's pages, Icons of Fright and other various online sources, talking about current and classic horror films. This motley but well-matched collection of film nerds (and I mean that in the best possible sense) mixed a flavor of populism (Galluzzo), academia (McKendry), and elite snobbery (Kane), and the talks were loose, hip, usually centering on a theme for each episode, from horror comedies to DIY to Christmas to anthologies, to interviewing horror filmmakers and icons in depth like never heard before, from Dean Cundey to Darren Bousman, from Savage Steve Holland to the team of Kevin Kolsh and Dennis Widmyer.

Their knowledge of Ti West to Richard Stanley was informative and entertaining. Their most valuable and informative episodes to me were the extended interviews with two heads of marketing for the DVD label Scream Factory, Jeff Nelson and Cliff McMillan, and with the head of the Twilight Time label, Nick Redman, outlining the practical and financial realities of putting out cult legacy and cult films on blu-ray nowadays.

Don't quote me -- I place the age of these hosts at mid- to late 30s, and obviously having grown of age during the VHS era they know their stuff, certainly from the '80s on. Kane's expertise seems to go backwards in a very art-centric vein while McKendry, the professed academic of the group who mentions her "thesis" more than she should, perversely seems to favor nunsploitation and the Satanic Panic films of the '80s. Galluzzo tends to always keep what could easily turn a dinner party gone wrong on track.

(When they're drinking straight shots during the podcast (admitted to us more than once), he also seems to be the one who can best hold his liquor.)

Continually dropping names of famous people they'd met at conventions, terminally underemployed, and always bragging about which DVDs they'd gotten ahead of release date to review for free, their conversations were woolly and rapid-fire, dropping references we'd be thankful they'd occasionally circle back around to explain when they remembered to. Like the best horror films, we weren't sure what we were getting and the banter could easily get lost before it righted itself again.

I loved it. I like horror because it doesn't politely follows the rules. The worst horror is too polite, takes relatively few chances with narrative; feels too conservative. Horror is supposed to take chances. We love it when a films go, as I've heard them say many times, off the reservation and a little batshit.

Early this year Galluzzo and McKendry found jobs at Blumhouse Productions (the house that Paranormal Activity and Insidious built) writing and editing for their website. A portal to discuss and report on all things horror, a quite fractured and disorganized space on the net. Seemed like the jobs they were made for.

Determined to remain independent and announcing often early on they would treat Blumhouse films as fairly as any others, a tension began to enter the podcast. Not only having to justify every mention of a Blumhouse film (of which there are many) ("No no, if I didn't like it I would have certainly said so."), it now seemed Kane was suddenly the odd man out, having missed the Blumhouse gravy train (but hey, he's got a job as a teacher) and also having recently lost his hobby coffee house/ screening room business the Jumpcut Café (where many of the current crop of indie filmmakers hung out).

Vague attempts at gaining a sponsor for the POV podcast and the hosts trying to read ad copy in a voice that didn't seep fake sincerity failed miserably and quickly.

Last April the trio rather abruptly announced they were stopping the POV podcast, mouthing excuses of being "too busy" during their last episode which happened to be about sequels that have lived out their welcomes yet kept coming back one more time. (This one after the previous, perhaps also not so coincidentally about horror franchises' "final chapters.") The announcement was sudden, cursory, and uncharacteristically unsentimental, papered over with promises of being back "sooner than you might think."

I sensed underlying intrigue not yet revealed.

A week later it was learned the podcast had magically been resurrected as Shock Waves, under the auspices of -- wait for it -- the Blumhouse podcast network.

Blumhouse Productions, and all the success they've had, is a fascinating movie-making model. Akin to Roger Corman, AIP, and other old exploitation entities for which the POV/Shock Waves hosts have a nostalgic affection ("Tell us what was it like working with Roger Corman again?"), Blumhouse have found the sweet spot between low budgets and marketing to create a 21st century aesthetic brand that's both derided and admired. They've been accused of revitalizing the horror genre in the last 10 years, of ruining it, of taking chances no one else would dare, and of playing it all too safe. All of that is true.

My own fascination with them stems from these very conflicts. I like their films, I often wish they were better, I have been surprised by them, as often not so much.

It's fascinating exactly because it is a model.

The new podcast was almost exactly like the old one, with rundowns of current films, hip guests, lots of insider information and new regular appearances of Ryan Turek...who happens to be the director of development at Blumhouse.

Our heroes had, on the face, been co-opted. Left GeekNation in the lurch, while secret plans for a new, more lucrative podcast (with even more free stuff?) was in the works with the corporate entity Blumhouse. They waited a respectful one week before announcing the new arrangement?

And while the perception of impartiality was still thinly addressed, the Shock Waves iteration couldn't really be believed, no matter how often someone said they didn't like Blumhouse's new Purge film. (All three of them loved the new Purge film.) And while the personalities are the same, the structure, the weekly schedule, the show now seems to have listed about 10% to the right.

Not that it's sinking. But something not quite right. Now they're dropping references to Blumhouse parties where they met the new director of _new film to be released by Blumhouse in December goes here_. McKendry and Galluzzo mention "the article I wrote for the site last week." And there seems just 2 pitches more per inning of even more inside baseball talk among the deskmates from Blumhouse including the well-spoken new member Turek. He seems to have all but silenced McKendry by his sheer presence and willingness to be the first to offer an unpopular (but usually correct) opinion. McKendry has devolved to a busy working mom (two kids) who barely has time to keep up with the site, let alone see all the films Galluzzo and Kane watch all night at Tarantino's fabulous New Beverly cinema, promising to "catch up soon."

(We never did hear their take when Tarantino ousted long-time manager Michael Torgan, which first alerted us to the fact even among our hosts, there are politics.)

I have a feeling she pines for the days when they'd talk about old Italian snuff films. And Kane's snobbery and occasional tone-deaf douchery has mellowed, possibly because he now has a vague deal for a film he's written and hopes to direct (and keeping it relatively down low -- he wouldn't want to be the one to jinx it).

The shows still averaged over 2 hours as before, but they recently started to cut them into one-hour segments for our listening pleasure, the rambles being the first half and then an extended conversation the second part. More episodes, you can pick which half you liked better, and no one complains you went on too damn long.

Are they pulling punches? Not necessarily. Have the rough edges been sanded off? Maybe they're just getting better at what they do. Am I constantly reminded Blumhouse Productions is the primary source of 3 of the 4 hosts' gainful employment? Once every 5 minutes.

I'm reading between the lines here. It's easy to hate on something that gets popular. Like Star Wars or Nolan after Batman. I prefer Woody Allen's earlier funnier movies. The show arguably had quite a fanbase and influence before, helping Gardner's The Battery and Begos's Almost Human get wider audiences. I don't know the numbers here, but a higher profile must mean more listeners. I just don't happen to be a faithful one anymore.

I used to listen to every one front to back, regardless of topic.

I don't know if it's just perception on my part there's some hidden agenda. The ghost of a conflict of interest is inescapable. The lady doth protest too much. I could call out that every interview seems tied to an upcoming release -- but who else would spend 2 hours talking to Larry fucking Cohen about a documentary that isn't even in post yet.

I appreciated that, Elric. But my nerdy drunken horror friends aren't entertaining me like they used to. I don't bemoan them a living. But the show has become more polite. It's not surprising me. It's no longer going to go batshit.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

How to Win Your Office's Oscar Pool

 
It's the end of February and the Super Bowl is history. That means the fantasy football betting at work has been temporarily replaced by the Oscar pools.

Should be easy to win the pot on this, right? A lot fewer variables than the NFL.

The problem is no one's always got a clear line on who's gonna win the Oscars. They aren't really about which pictures are the best, so much as an excuse to have a 3-hour worldwide commercial for Hollywood (and so do they really care if it goes over the scheduled time?).

The raison d'etre of the show has always been showing clips, reminding you to rent last year's winners on VOD (oh yeah, Birdman), the nervous glamour on the red carpet, Kate's (and Cate's) designer dresses, and who's so drunk they mess up their acceptance speech.

But who gets the gold statues is increasingly impossible to predict -- #OscarsSoWhite not withstanding. The Academy tries each year to be more inclusive, nominating films no one's heard of, letting James Franco and Anne Hathaway host (ruin) the 2011, and featuring well-meaning foreign-based issue pictures for lesser awards to class up the joint.

How can you possibly win your Oscar poll this year? The secret to remember is the best films and performances seldom -- never -- get the prizes.

You saw who won the Golden Globes (The Martian as best comedy or musical, it must have been that Abba music on the boombox), and what the Spirit Awards has nominated (Carol, which only appears in the acting and adapted screenplay categories among Oscar's major awards). The most popular films of the year aren't even nominated (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, and Avengers: Age of Ultron aren't "Oscar material"--they don't need the extra publicity push).

Inside Out, the 4th highest grosser of 2015, is safe, being in the animation ghetto; also, it's a little girl's bike. The front-runner among the best picture nominees, The Revenant at #17, is modest enough to pass the art-over-commerce test.

None of these are predictors for how to mark your ballot. But you can have the inside track, beat that Oscar pool and annoy your co-workers as you agree to take them to lunch next week when you trump the odds.

Here are the things to remember:

1. Don't watch any of the films beforehand.

No. Really. Millions of people try to see all the nominees in the weeks leading up to the broadcast to give the ballot an objective, fair ranking.

Don't.

Measures of quality will only confuse and confound you. What wins has little or nothing to do with actual accomplishment and everything to do with who's sleeping with who, whether or not the grosses were too big (but not too small), how many little people you pushed aside on the way up, or if they forgot to nominate you last year.  

This is inside baseball and you're better to read Deadline Hollywood than Manohla Dargis. Does it feel like it should win? What looks good on the front page tomorrow will statistically win more than the best film.

The more culturally acceptable and polite, the better the odds. Ergo, Crash beats Brokeback Mountain (2005), Out of Africa beats The Color Purple (1985), Ordinary People beats Raging Bull (1980), Kramer vs. Kramer beats Apocalypse Now (1979), the list goes on. The losers, all worthy, were made by young turks and maybe those guys hadn't paid their dues yet.

Their time will come (see 3 below). Shakespeare In Love won over Saving Private Ryan (1998), but that upset seemed to be about the size of Spielberg's bank account. Plus, Spielberg. (Nothing against any of the winners, but no one's teaching Gandhi in film school nowadays.)

The winner can't embarrass anyone when it's picked. If you steer clear of quality, you're alright. It's strictly business. Deserve's got nothing to do with it.

The runners-up tend to engage with youth culture, which brings us to:

2. The Academy is old (and white) (and male).

The real truth is the Academy (spoiler alert) picks what it understands, and being made up predominately of old men who used to work in the industry (who are also, yes, mostly white) this year as much as any made it clear the field inadvertently gets biased towards films they feel comfortable with.

The voting ranks are filled with professionals at one point were nominated for or won an Oscar, or were invited by their peers (white, male nominees) to join.  It ends up being a self-selecting "minority" of the majority.

And until this year, you didn't leave the Academy until you died. The average age is 74. It is not a democracy. So imagine a screener of Straight Out Of Compton hitting a retired cinematographer's mailbox along with Spotlight. Which one gets popped in first?

Those Academy members might have voted for Compton when they were 22, but they weren't in the Academy when they were 22.

Remember who's casting the votes, and you can't go wrong on your Oscar poll. What would rich grandpa vote for?

(The Academy has recently revised its voting rules so that anyone who hasn't been "active" in the industry loses their voting status. This ensures younger voters will have more of a voice in future nominees, and will, for the good, dramatically change future ballots. Tab Hunter however will still be allowed to participate.)

(The full effect of this change remains to be seen. Next year's meme: #OscarsSoYoung.)

3. Timing is everything.

Oscar history is rife with people who won for "last year's performance," when the Academy failed to honor what they should have and are now playing catch-up.

Did Paul Newman really win in 1986 for The Color of Money, or for Cool Hand Luke, Hud, The Verdict, The Hustler, or Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, all of which he was nominated for but didn't win?

Jeff Bridges's Crazy Heart win (2009) is really acknowledgement for a long career of solid work. It's not because he did anything special in Crazy Heart he hadn't already done better in, for example, The Big Lebowski.

And speaking of the Coen Brothers, they've made better pictures than No Country For Old Men (2007) and there were better pictures that year, too. But there might not be another chance. (Hasn't been so far.) The Academy realizes time is running out. The Departed? MillionDollar Baby? Thanks for the memories, boys.

(This doesn't explain Argo.)

4. The "trash" awards.

All those minor awards -- documentary shorts, make-up, editing that take up the middle hour while you're making more margaritas and surreptitiously changing your ballot when the boss isn't looking? Just flip a coin. Only people in certain guilds are allowed to nominate and vote on these and who knows what the hell they think?

Difference between sound editing and sound mixing? Time for another margarita.

Besides, your poll probably only assigns a single point to each of these, a handful of darts in the dark. Odds are no one will get any more right than you did. (N.B: If it's French, knock it out. If the animated short's about a cat, automatic win.)

5. It ain't fair.

Mad Max: Fury Road consistently impresses in all the categories it's nominated for. I predict it'll win nothing important. It's a Mad Max movie. This is the Oscars. In a fair fight, Spielberg and Boyle would be with the director and Samuel L. Jackson would be representing The Hateful 8 instead of Jennifer Jason Leigh.

But Matt Damon lost all that weight on Mars and Leonardo DiCaprio wrestled a real bear.

Now you have the inside track. Good luck!



Thursday, February 4, 2016

So Lonely You Could Die

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David Bowie's penultimate album, The Next Day (2013, presumably created before he knew he had the liver cancer that would take him away) is soaked with anger, a dread of violence, and a sense of fighting against mortality that doesn't quite fit our idea of a retired 66-year-old rock star. After 10 years, Bowie was still writing -- and rewriting -- his legacy, calling out images reminding us of the old days, from space dancers to corpses hanging from trees.

"Here I am / not quite dying," he announces. And he's still the magpie he always was. He loved to  reference other songs, from The Beatles ("Beep beep") to Broadway show tunes ("Get me to the church on time") to old novelty songs ("Look at that caveman go").  Part of the fun is in the trainspotting.

And as always, The Next Day's referencing his past and also your impression of his past. The Tin Machine era aside, he continually referenced his earlier tones ("Ashes to Ashes"), and this one's not entirely brand-new Bowie either, as just adding extra notes (post-it?) on a previous iteration.

The cover fairly insists it's just a re-do of "Heroes" -- of course it's not. But its tonal and musical variety of anger and sometimes punk-inflected or broken drum signatures call back most Scary Monsters. "The day after Heroes"?  Yeah, close enough.

From bodies in trees to the armed shooter of "Valentine's Day" -- the lyrics are a dark update of Scary's schizophrenic urban nightmare. Within this context, the track "You Feel So Lonely You Could Die," on the face a romantic-sounding palate cleanser before the drone of the closer "Heat," emerges as something quite different, when digested with the rest of the meal.

The first clue something sinister is up comes from the title, an easy version of Hank Williams' 1949 standard "I Feel So Lonesome I Could Cry," but also calls back to Lennon's "Yer Blues" from the White album. A close reading of the lyrics reveals a night encounter with a lonely figure walking through the park, a silent gun, a character reviled for stealing "their trust, their moon, their sun." 

He's done something awful, and the moon (and the stars (out tonight)) and the sun can't help remind us of karma (instant) -- and those other elements all across the universe, which doubles the reference back to Bowie again (and further evokes whom he collaborated with on that particular record).

With images of rain-soaked streets and a cold concrete city, I can't help think the song's mourning a New York without John Lennon. We know that when Lennon was shot, Bowie was in NY playing on Broadway in The Elephant Man. He didn't make any new music for two years, and then it was the digestible, non-confrontational and non-obsessive Let's Dance. But the event didn't leave our new romantic completely unscathed.

Without naming the subject of the song, there's vitriol hiding behind his Elvis Presley croon. "I can see you as a corpse/ hanging from a tree... Please, please make it soon." Bowie wants him to die lonely, cold -- death his last and only companion.

There's some polite sympathy with "You got the blues, my friend" but Bowie's clipped and tense vocal, purposely limiting his own range past what might just be age (shades of his monotone delivery on Low), suggests he's spitting it out between his teeth. "People don't like you." Karma indeed.

And yet, the track has the romantic wash of a torch song. Bowie's given it the shade of a ballad about love lost (which it also is), disguising the venom behind a theatrical production closer to "Heartbreak Hotel" than to "Working Class Hero." Bowie doesn't ever make it too easy. He can't give everything away.

Ain't that just like him?

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Canon

That’s Lawrence Kasdan, and he’s probably the true creator of the Star Wars phenomena for the last 35 years.

That probably doesn’t sound right. Success has many fathers. Let’s assign the godhead to George, okay, but also, investigate the historical effect when these films, almost from nowhere, appeared.

Star Wars, yes, was a huge unexpected success from out of the gate, and suddenly, that dumb robot kid movie was going to have a sequel. Do you remember sequels in the ‘70s?

Airport 1975 (in 1974, by the way), Airport ’77 (we didn't finish this one early), and The Concorde…Airport ’79 (they seemed to want you to know when and how old back then). Shaft had a Big Score in 1972 and was in Africa in 1973. Each one with decreasing expectations and returns. Godfather II is presumably the first major film to use the actual number in the title and was the exception that proves the '70s sequel rule.

It wasn’t until 1980 that the Empire struck back, and it did three things. First, it absolutely exploded the original, adding content and backstory and far more serious conflicts no one thought a light-weight robot film could support. It turned into a multi-generational family drama approaching Greek tragedy. It opened the series visually and spatially (something you’d think no one would have been worried about in a SF film), with extended set pieces in the snow, puppets talking pidgin English in a swamp, spaceships with infinity shafts, black guys, and mischievously sneaking in the green-armored Boba Fett (who the hell is that guy?!).

It also seemed to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Not only is our supposed hero figuratively castrated, he’s fated by blood to go to the dark side anyway, and the only other male lead is melted into a block of aluminum. What? No space battle to close it out? How do they make a first-person shooter out of this?

I think Kasdan got access to all of Lucas’s notes (and his wild schemes), and suddenly the idea of having nine of these started to make sense. Kasdan is setting up what he thinks is a whole universe, and he’s not going to be held back by goggle-eyed midgets and lizards drinking green liquid in a stupid bar scene.

It was a weird time. It did almost as well as the first and was re-released, alone and then in a pair with the first, a kind of 4-hour-long package advertisement for episodes yet to come. Yet it had no closure. The question gauntlet had been thrown aggressively down and blew our minds, while our most pressing desires had actually not even been remotely answered.

The theories and predictions were elaborate and far-fetched, yet not entirely impossible. And who the hell was Irvin Kershner? I need to see the rest of his movies. George said the only think he liked worse than writing films was directing and now didn’t have to do either. The screenplay even had Leigh Brackett’s name on it, a famous fantasy writer who’d also worked decades before with the likes of John Huston and Howard Hawks. Who‘s in charge here? More moorre MORE!

For 3 years all popular culture was abuzz with talk of Star Wars, not only the plot twists and proper use of a Muppet as key deliverer of philosophical wisdom, but a deeper, near existential consideration of how a film series could tap into current and ancient myths so completely. People were passing around Joseph Campbell. The films took us all hostage. The conversation reached epic proportions.

And infiltrated the culture in a way that couldn’t be unstuck, not even by the teddy-bear letdown of Return of the Jedi, a by-the-numbers dénouement barely livened by a speeder chase, a half-hearted kiss on the cheek (“He's my brother, silly”), and a sing-along from hell over the campfire.

It’s the echoes of that conversation from 1980 to 1983 that fuels the enthusiasm for the next entry in a couple weeks, that kindles childhood memories of a more innocent (or at least, simpler) time, that inspired the $4 billion price tag on Lucasfilm that Disney paid gladly.

The three Lucas-directed sequels/prequels couldn’t kill it. Dozens of spin-off novels and watered down canon couldn’t kill it. The Matrix brothers tried to get the same lightning in a bottle but their Empire ended up being Reloaded.

Even the supposed touch of J.J. Abrams won’t kill it. In fact, his careful expertise following previously trod paths and love of lens flares is exactly the polish the new one needs, a safe and nostalgic return to something we haven’t actually had since 1980. They are going to fool you by casting Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher (at any cost), and they hired Lawrence Kasdan, whose credits, for those who paid attention a long time ago, includes  a couple movies we remember fondly.

Kasdan worked decades ago with the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. How bad can it be?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Fast Food

Back in the old fogey days I worked in a video store, a step removed from the opening-night show-business excitement of a movie theatre, most of the films at least 6 months old and just more boxes filling up the New Release wall that stretched from one end of the store to another.

It was all so much product, all the same, some more popular than others. What really got our cocks hard though was the burgeoning undertow of old cult classics that would be released to backfill the catalog of the Blockbusters and Hollywood as secondary rentals and alternates when the new hot releases weren't in. Don't have any more copies of "Die Hard 3"? Have you seen Bruce Willis's "Color of Night": we have 6 copies currently in stock. "Heat" all checked out? How about "The Real McCoy" also with Val Kilmer?

We arranged the old titles next to the new ones, putting boxes with like subject matter together to trick the rubes, increase rentals and get another $100 on our bonus that month. It was a film-geek exercise worthy of Tarantino remembering vague co-stars and stretching thematic connections between unknown arch oddities ("Sonny Boy" (1989)) and new hip films ("Miller's Crossing"(1990)). One thing we could always count on renting out were erotic thrillers. In the go-go age of straight-to-video they knew how to design those boxes. Casting Tayna Roberts always helped.

We made our own sub-sections, pulling things off of the Never-Rented lists and spotlighting them on an endcap. We actually has a small section called "Never Watched," which slowly got smaller once someone rented one. Then we placed "Bonnie & Clyde," "Dick Tracy," "Melvin & Howard," "Scrooged," "Tango And Cash," a couple TV things and "Roxanne" in their own section and named it the Michael J. Pollard Section because they all had him in them, a goofball sidekick you saw everywhere during the '70s and '80s who would steal a scene by doing nothing.

Seriously, in "Fast Food" (1989), some kind of precedent to either "Hot Dog the Movie" or "Mortuary Academy" he steals the film from such scene gobblers as Kevin McCarthy, Traci Lords and Jim Varney by just standing there with a goofy goddamn look on his face listening to the exposition.



He'd become one of our favorites since someone taped "Big Fauss and Little Halsy" (1970) off cable and passed around the VHS like a dog-eared and much-loved dirty magazine.

"Scrooged" was the only one that ever rented, usually in December.  Completely an inside joke.  But imagine the delight when some film student came in and actually asked for "Bonnie & Clyde" and I was able to say, "Oh that would be in our Michael J. Pollard section" and walked him over to it where he saw this Pollard guy had quite a few legit credits, as well as some junk (but hey who doesn't?), and wondered why he hadn't heard of a guy who rated his own endcap.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Film Projectors

Two years after Paul Thomas Anderson forced the issue by releasing The Master in a limited (very limited) number of theatres in 70mm, Christopher Nolan has pushed the envelope by gently demanding not only 55 70mm runs but another 190 35mm runs for Interstellar.

When Nolan talks, they listen. His films have made over $2 billion dollars worldwide and any scheme he has breathes golddust.

With delicious irony, the film is being released by Paramount who announced last year they would be the first major studio to stop distributing their films on 35mm - convert to digital or get out but if you ask nice we do still have 35mm stock (foreign markets are still mostly analog).

The apparent attraction to exhibitors was the film versions would open 2 days early (November 5th) and enjoy the high first-nighter grosses, be in Mr. Nolan's "preferred format," wouldn't be scratched yet and hey, you know, he shot it in film not that digital phone camera crap.

It's been a mere 2 years since all the 35mm projectors were not only wheeled out of the way but ejected from the major chains' booths. Certainly we can move them back in?

But based on numerous reports from friends, professionals and various websites the sad truth is the skill to install, run and maintain 35mm has already gone the way of hot-type. Sound mixes way off, audio tracks going silent, dirt and scratches running through the middle of Kansas and the void of space, etc. 70mm is a more rarified format with its own challenges you'd assign only to a journeyman projectionist.

Anderson, more an instinctual businessman than filmmaker, ended up with ten 70mm installations (most re-installations) for The Master in 2012, a manageable number and good enough for the publicity of the gesture. Nolan's (it's on him) aggressively retro, certainly well-meaning stubbornness may have inadvertently hastened the audience's disdain for old film formats.

Presumably Tarantino's The Hateful Eight is being released in 70mm as well as a couple others. (But not Star Wars VII - Abrams is using 65/70mm stock, the standard IMAX strategy and hasn't announced an actual 70mm release.)

This is not a trend so much as a fetish. These filmmakers value the texture as much as the text and precious few (Tarantino, Nolan, Spielberg, barely Anderson) have the power in Hollywood to be petted and indulged. Others (Fincher, Abrams, Scorsese) have the mojo to keep movies on film and out of our handhelds but choose to weave different myths.

Most every member of the sold-out crowds who witness a bad presentation due to lost skill and scratched prints will avoid the next film release if they have a choice. To them 70mm is already like the gimmick of 3-D. An acquired taste and of questionable financial and aesthetic value.


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Picture from DoobyBrain.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

What You Wish For

In other news, Quentin Tarantino, film nerd and savior of the New Beverly 7 years ago because he started paying the rent to keep it open, then actually bought the building when it was going to be redeveloped, has taken over the management from the previous manager/ programmer Michael Torgan.

This story has been reported, poorly of course, in various publications the last couple weeks. The New Bev is closed until October, when Mr. Tarantino's schedule and plan (and maybe a new paintjob) are revealed.

The sentiment among the film preservationist community is conflicted. In the absence of actual evidence of whether or not Tarantino was really actually pissed Torgan bought a digital projector and therefore kicked his ass out, or if his announcements at Cannes were just a coincidence of timing, without any apparent ill will actually expressed by either Tarantino ("I want him to be involved as much as possible") or by Torgan ("Quentin couldn't be a better landlord"), various commentators (such as this one) suggest it was "uneasy" or "not pretty," that QT the rich Hollywood plebe is destroying a man's livelihood and the insular and cineaste community that surrounded the New Bev.

As of this writing we still don't know why or other details. Comments spilling under the articles are overwelmingly sentimental for the films watched, the wonderful double bills, the star appearances - as they should be. As I am about the Pacific Center 3 and the Fashion Valley 4 in San Diego, all gone now and where I saw seminal films in the '70s and '80s myself.

There's a palpable sense of betrayal and distrust in Tarantino's motives.

He "wants to make it his own." He's doing this for a hobby, that he's going to show films from his own extensive collection. He's got 1000s of prints and apparently knows there are 1000s more out there so he is only going to show 35mm only, no more digital, a true film fan's dream.

I guess he got what he wished for.

I know a little about the financial realities of trying to keep an aging theatre alive. The New Bev is shabby, in spite of new seats (the old take-seats-from-a-closing- theatre-only-slightly-newer-than-the-ones-you're-replacing trick), in a dodgy area and with audiences often no more than double digits, sometimes less than a dozen by some reports. The additional fakt that most of the films they show are available elsewhere (albeit digitally) or stone unknown, makes the math hard to stack.

QT isn't the bad guy. He allowed the theatre, unlike hundreds of others just like it, to remain open with what amounts to a donation approaching (possibly exceeding) $1 million or so. A labor of love. Preservationists and archives, film fetishists to a man, appreciate his response and want a theatre devoted to 35mm, want one that shows old, odd, inspired double bills. They want the theatre in the shaggy Fairfax district as its show business anchor, to see Clu Gulagar in the front row, to get free popcorn.

They also want Michael Torgan. The guy who works 60 hours a week, drove his own car, projected, this unmarried guy (he can't be married - she'd be behind the snackbar every night). He even changed the marquee himself. A love of labor? I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy.

I think there's so much hand wringing because they also know - it's a lost cause. The digital projector was a way to mitigate the future but it won't matter. Tarantino doesn't have enough 35mm prints or ultimately, the right prints. Even if he suggested arrogantly in an interview (in the LA Reader) that filmmakers demand the studios make more film prints:

Indie Filmmaker to Studio Head: "You have to strike a 35mm print so we can show it at the New Beverly!" (Laughs heartily).

Maybe if you're Tarantino this gets traction. His last 2 films grossed at least $120 million domestic each so he can call up a studio and ask a print be struck (or a new one of some old forgotten favorite and Paramount's happy to spend the $10k for a print of Hickey & Boggs to make QT happy. Then he gets to keep it for his collection).

Maybe that's why the Bev had the pristine prints they did the last few years. There's more to this story. There's been precious little information about exactly what Tarantino offered, said or threatened or when, and what Torgan wanted, lost or demanded. Everyone's quite civil but I know for at least someone, this came as no surprise. Only to us on the outside.

The prosaic reasons for QT to "make it my own" are probably more complicated and less interesting than the most vocal want it to be. It's not just little guy vs. big guy.

The guy with the money gets to try now. We're not sure this is a great idea or a terrible idea. But we feel sorry for Michael, 'cause he made that lost cause our own private secret.