Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Incorporated

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

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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?