Friday, January 27, 2012

5 Things Worth Watching at the 2011 Oscars

I know what you're going to say. The concept of the 2011 Academy Awards being "worth watching" seems a little optimistic, but I'm not on nitrous oxide -- not today anyway -- and there are actually some interesting stories going on.

First, the bad news: The nominees are a pretty motley list. If I had just the list to go by, I would term 2011 Oscars the "Year of Nostalgia." The top contenders are The Artist and Hugo, both movies about the good ol' days of film. The rest of the list is weighted down by old-fashioned movies about old-fashioned times, such as War Horse and The Help. Midnight in Paris is a movie entirely about nostalgia, Tree of Life and Marilyn hearken back to the 1950s, Tinker Tailor is about the Cold War, and the whole theme of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is memory and loss. Even the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which should be a slick modern thriller, has an old 1970s exploitation vibe. Apparently recognizing this, the Academy has hired Billy Crystal to host the awards.

Billy Crystal hasn't appeared in on a film poster since Analyze That in 2002.

A train wreck? No reason to watch?

There is, if you're willing to look.

1. Bullhead

The out-of-nowhere Best Foreign Language Film nomination for the broody Belgian Bullhead is my big story of this year's Oscars. Distributed by the new upstart Drafthouse Films (yes, run by the film chain Alamo Drafthouse), Bullhead is a tense, moody film about illegal steroid dealing in the Belgian cattle industry. The film follows a sad and ‘roided-out son of a cattle family as he struggles with the family business, a longstanding crush on the girl next door, and childhood traumas that left him permanently scarred. Oh, and of course he's doing all this under the influence of massive amounts of animal steroids and hormones. Seriously, go see it; it's brutal in all the right ways.

2. Jean Dujardin

If you haven't seen The Artist, you may not realize what a big deal he is, but Jean Dujardin is easily the funniest French actor working today. If you haven't seen them, get on Netflix instant and watch OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and OSS 117: Lost in Rio, which are parodies of the racism and misogyny present in the early James Bond films. It's impossible to watch both of these films and come out the other side without loving Dujardin. They're also interesting to watch now, since Cairo, Nest of Spies was the film that put Dujardin together with director Michel Hazanavicius and actress Bérénice Bejo, who are all up for Oscars this year for their work in The Artist. Anyway, with Dujardin's bubbly personality and penchant for physical comedy, there's sure to be fun moments, particularly if he wins. (I’m pretty sure it’ll involve the dog, too.)

3. The Descendents

Okay, so this is a regional concern. I’m “being regional.” It’s allowed.

Hawaii is one of the most filmed states in the U.S., but having born there and lived there twenty-three years, I could barely recognize my home from the way it’s portrayed onscreen. I’ve seen my home become Elvis’s playground, watched velociraptors roam its jungles, sat through seasons of plane crash survivors searching for civilization, and have endured Michael Bay blowing up the state’s most sacred military monument (for what I can only assume was niche pornography for people who really like explosions). What I’ve never seen from Hollywood is a real effort to show modern Hawaii for what it really is – warts and all. So I’m rooting for The Descendents if only because it tells a local story about local people and local issues.

Oh, you know what else is great about The Descendents? Unlike a certain Hawaii cop show, they didn’t film at Punchbowl Cemetery on Pearl Harbor Day, then act like dicks to the Pearl Harbor Vets who were coming to visit their fallen comrades.

4. "Man or Muppet" Performed Live

Jason Seigel, that obnoxious dude from The Big Bang Theory, and Jim Henson's felt-swaddled dream machines all onstage together. If you tell me you don't want to see that, you better run for the confessional booth because you're lying.

Admit it, you want this.


We love to act as if the Oscars celebrate what’s best in film, and that all of us movie fans watch from our private boxes with opera glasses trained to see the height of cinematic artistry.

That’s bullshit, though. We love the Oscars because it’s an unpredictable, illogical, and frequently unfair. The voting is groupthink, the hosting is often stale, and there are times when we’re pretty sure the presenters are on something. That’s why we like it.

There’s only one thing that film fans like more than watching films, and that’s crapping on films we hate. When we see a movie we enjoy get snubbed in favor of one we dislike, our eyes turn amber like Anakin Skywalker and we go on a blood-soaked rampage. True story: I once dated a girl who threw her shoe at the TV when Traffic didn’t win Best Picture.

Most years the hate is spread around, but this year it’s all focused on Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.* Someone better hand Stephen Daldry a blindfold and cigarette when he steps onto the red carpet because he’s got a giant target on his forehead. If you haven’t been following this story: EVERYONE HATES THIS MOVIE. Critics disliked it, audiences shunned it, it performed badly at the box office, and there are even a fairly large number of people who think its saccharine strum-your-heartstrings story is an exploitation of the September 11th attacks. It doesn’t matter who you are, there’s something for you to despise about this film.

Here’s a barometer of how bad Extremely Loud is: It currently has a 46% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Here is a list of movies last year with a higher rating than Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close:

Fast Five
No Strings Attached
Justin Bieber: Never Say Never
Scream 4
Mr. Popper’s Penguins
Final Destination 5
Red State
Real Steel
Paranormal Activity 3
Tower Heist
We Bought a Zoo

I can’t emphasize enough how dismal this showing is – for Christ’s sake, Extremely Loud barely edged out The Green Hornet and Drive Angry 3D. It simply doesn’t belong in the Best Picture category if it couldn’t be better reviewed than a movie about goddamn boxing robots.

You'll like it. It has both Tom Hanks AND Sandra Bullock!

People are going to throw a GIGANTIC HISSY FIT about this, which will go way beyond jokes in the opening monologue. This is going to be a legendary Oscar folly that people will refer to for decades to come, much like the infamous Shakespeare in Love beats Saving Private Ryan incident, which triggered a riot resulting in the death of eleven film critics.

And let’s face it, you want to be a part of that angry mob.

*This should not be taken as a criticism of the Jonathan Safran Foer novel the film was adapted from, which is excellent. This foregoing statement has nothing to do with the fact that Jonathan Safran Foer teaches at NYU’s Graduate Creative Writing program where I have applied to get an MFA. None at all. All hail Foer!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Fantastic Fest Part 1: The Indie Films of Fantastic Arcade

This year, Fantastic Fest debuted “Fantastic Arcade,” a new wing of the festival focusing on independent video games and all their heavenly glories. Rather than giving you a rundown of the festival, I’ll just direct you to the article I wrote for The Escapist covering the event.

Unfortunately, 1,500 words just isn’t enough to talk about everything that happens during a four day event, especially if you’re writing a travelogue rather than doing straight-up events coverage. As a result, I didn’t really get a chance to talk about the films I saw during Fantastic Arcade, some of which really deserve attention – so consider this an appendix to my article.

NERDCORE RISING (U.S., Available on DVD)

What the hell can I say about this movie? Nerdcore Rising was by far my favorite film of the Fantastic Arcade portion, indeed, one the best music docs I’ve seen in years – which is saying quite a bit, since the Mötorhead RockDoc Lemmy was one of my favorite films of this year’s SXSW Film Festival.

Unlike Lemmy, which is more of a celebrity profile, Nerdcore Rising follows an identifiable story arc. As the film opens, we find then 32 year-old Damian Hess, a man with a Bond villain’s name and a line coder’s body, preparing for his first national tour. Hess works in the rap subgenre of Nerdcore, a term he himself coined. Nerdcore rappers like Hess – stage name MC Frontalot – perform rap and hip-hop music that expresses geek culture experiences like playing collectible card games and pining over goth girls. It’s a fun, often hysterical mash-up that leads to some extremely clever and unexpected lyrics. The chorus of one of his headliner songs, Braggadocio, runs: “Now it’s time for a little braggadocio / While I swing my arms like Ralph Macchio.”

Thankfully, Nerdcore Rising doesn’t make the same mistake as the other music film of the festival Reformat the Planet by focusing too much on the music. Though the concerts are one of the highlights of the film, Nerdcore Rising succeeds because it gets you invested in the characters. Frontalot and his bandmates are a mish-mash collection of hyperactive band geeks, RPGers, and Star Wars nuts. They’re oddballs, but amiable and supremely likable oddballs. As they yammer at each other in British accents on the tour bus, quote Reservoir Dogs, and practice their Wookie screams as a voice exercise before concerts, I couldn’t help but feel like I wanted to hang out with them. One scene, where the bassist tries to teach the film’s director to play Magic: The Gathering, is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in a documentary.

And that, for me, is what separates a good music doc from a mediocre one. In a good music doc, the music itself takes a backseat to the artists who make it. It gives the audience something to latch onto and care about. There’s real drama on display in Nerdcore Rising. Frontalot was taking a major leap of faith with a nationwide tour, leaving his freelance programming work and gambling his savings on something that could’ve very well turned out to be an enormous financial error. That tension reverberates beneath all the gags and performances like a just-strummed guitar string. It lends meaning and sincerity to the action, and lets the audience share in highs and lows of the tour, as MC Frontalot and the Minibosses play packed bars, injure themselves, lose equipment, and pick up their first groupie (who repeatedly insists to the camera crew that she’s not a groupie).

Capping things off, Frontalot was there for the screening. He played the opening night of the festival – one of the perks of attendance.

RED VS. BLUE: REVELATION (U.S., Available at
Strongly Recommended

If, like me, you haven’t seen the hit Halo Machinima series Red vs. Blue since the early seasons, Revelation feels like being smashed in the face with a thirty-pound graphics card. What sold the series originally was its clever writing, but now the visuals are, well, there really isn’t any word for them other than “beautiful.” The Halo 3 engine looks incredible, and on the big screen it’s eerily close to theatrical-quality, especially when the Reds and Blues launch into all-out CGI action scenes that are awe-inspiring yet still hold onto the series’ unique brand of humor that shifts from highbrow to lowbrow and back again in the time it takes to reload a Battle Rifle.

Honestly, with action scenes this inventive I’m not sure why anyone’s still holding their breath for a Halo movie. My overall experience with Halo is shaped less by interacting with Cortana and Master Chief, and more by BSing with my friends while running them down with the Warthog. Frankly, Red vs. Blue captures the vibe of playing Halo like no cannon-correct film possibly could.

The plot is a little beyond me. After missing something on the order of three seasons, I kept up with what was going on alright, but don’t feel like I could describe it without extreme generalizations and factual errors. I’m not sure if Revelation is the last of the series, but it wraps the plot up nicely enough that it easily could be. If so, it’s a fitting sendoff for the little show that could, a true indie success story the likes of which Fantastic Arcade was created to celebrate.

If you are interested in videogames GO SEE THIS RIGHT NOW

Playing Columbine could easily be characterized as the most important film of Fantastic Arcade. Currently, it stands as possibly the only seminal film about videogame controversy.

In April 2005, indie game programmer Danny Ledonne released a self-made game titled Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, allowing it to be downloaded free from his website. The game is a sprite-based top-down RPG similar to the Zelda games, with simple SNES graphics. The game itself is an exploration of the motives behind the Columbine shootings, and places the player in the shoes of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris to show what Ledonne believes led to the tragedy – namely lack of parental oversight, social isolation, and easy access to guns. The game is chilling, informative, never shows a gun being fired or a student being killed (when they’re clicked on they disappear) and is an extremely strong piece of rhetoric suggesting that the media and the American public would rather blame violent outbursts like Columbine on scapegoats like videogames, metal, and horror movies than address questions of gun control and absent parents. The game is not fun, and can’t be classified as entertainment.

Of course, you can’t make a game called Super Columbine Massacre RPG! without causing an enormous stir, and a story-hungry media picked up the story and ran with it without ever playing, or even viewing, the game itself. The issues brought up by the controversy are still central topics in the games-as-art and the games-as-self-expression debates: Are games protected under the 1st Amendment? Do violent videogames promote violent action? Are games a legitimate medium for exploring sensitive, and even tragic topics? Do the detractors of videogames have a point, or are they using the debate for political capital? You’d be hard pressed to find any film that engages this wide a range of questions, and does so with as much finesse as Playing Columbine does. The debate is framed through a series of interviews with the game’s creator, the game’s detractors (including recently disbarred attorney and longtime videogame opponent Jack Thompson), school shooting victims, professors, and judges from the Slamdance games festival. Slamdance plays a large role in the story of Playing Columbine, since the game was pulled from competition at the height of the controversy, causing a mass walkout of other indie game participants and event sponsors.

There are certainly problems with the film, however. The most glaring issue is that Playing Columbine was both produced and directed by Danny Ledonne, the creator of Super Columbine, a fact that’s not made explicit until the end of the film. It’s a sneaky tactic, and makes you call into question every point the film makes, even the ones you agree with. The film also frames Super Columbine in a manner that’s slightly dishonest. Watching the film, you’d think that the game ends with the shooters’ suicides, and a slideshow of crying victims and destroyed infrastructure, finishing with a photo of the shooters’ bodies. In fact, the game goes on after this point, as both Klebold and Harris go to hell and fight demons. The section is supposed to be a satirical treatment of news reports that insisted the shooters’ proclivity for Doom led to the shootings, but the hell section muddles the overall message and just seems in poor taste. (Some would argue that the whole game is in poor taste. I might be on board with that, but I would argue that at least the portion in the school uses poor taste to prove a point.) While Ledonne has always resisted people’s calls to remove this portion of the game, arguing artistic integrity, it appears that his artistic integrity is fine with editing around it if it makes it easier for him to prove a point.

Playing Columbine is a must see for anyone interested in the future of videogames and ethics in the age of interactivity. Agree with it or not, you’ll be talking about the issues it raises long after you’ve ejected the disk.

See It If You’re Interested

As stated above, there are basically two ways to go about making a music documentary. The first is to make the movie about the musicians, and the second is to make a movie specifically about the music. Reformat the Planet is of the second stripe, and it carries the same risk that all documentaries about music do: namely, if the viewer isn’t interested in the music, then he’s not going to be interested in your film. Unfortunately, I didn’t fall in love with Chiptunes during Reformat the Planet, and as a result felt a little lukewarm about the movie as a whole.

Chiptunes are songs played on vintage videogame equipment, most popularly played on the Nintendo Game Boy but also on the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Sega Genesis. Contrary to what it looks like during the performances, the Chiptunes DJs don’t actively play songs on the equipment. They compose the songs in advance and essentially press “play” onstage, then create a show by dancing, using colored light displays, and modulating the sound output of the electronic equipment. As a spectacle, it’s mesmerizing; the problem is the music itself.

It’s not bad, really. It’s highly danceable, often high energy, and has a good beat, but it’s too much like Techno for my liking. Songs tend to be extremely repetitious, so that you’re bobbing your head to a good beat thirty seconds in, but start tiring of the song at the one minute mark. Ten-second riffs tend to get used over and over for minutes on end, and after awhile everything just starts to run together.

This is a problem because Reformat the Planet uses New York’s premier Chiptunes event, the Blip Festival, as a microcosm of the larger worldwide movement. As a result, a substantial part of the film showcases one festival act after another, with little respite to let the audience process the music in between songs. Speaking for myself, it was just too much. I staggered out of the theater not being able to tell the difference between any of the acts I saw, except two that were headlined by women and one that was a more traditional guitar band with an NES backing them up. The flashing lights and bleep bloop music had wiped out everything else.

Which is a shame, really, since the movie is perfectly interesting during the interview portions, particularly when the artists are demonstrating how they modify their hardware in order to turn a 20 year-old electronic toy into a sophisticated sound synthesizer that produces extremely catchy music. I only wish that these portions were more interspersed with the later performances to give the audience a little breathing room, rather than bombarding them with one seizure-inducing show after another.

On balance, I liked Reformat the Planet. The pacing was off, but it was a cool exploration into a subgenre I knew almost noting about. It also sports what is hands-down my favorite film title of Fantastic Fest, and that certainly counts for something.

PS: I was unable to see Richard Garriott: Man on a Mission because of scheduling, but I’ve heard really good things about it, and Garriott’s such a fascinating guy that this basically counts as a sight-unseen YOU MUST SEE THIS recommendation.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

SXSW 2010 Film Review: The Red Chapel

Documentary comedy The Red Chapel contains some of the bravest comedy I have ever seen. Forget Sacha Baron Cohen, he only tackled prejudice, whereas The Red Chapel infiltrates North Korea, one of the most oppressive dictatorships in the world, and mocks its pretensions in the faces of the secret police. No wonder it won “Best Foreign Documentary” at Sundance.

The group gets into North Korea on the pretext of being a socialist comedy troupe called The Red Chapel, who have come to the country as part of a Dutch cultural exchange program. The group is eclectic to say the least. The brainchild and narrator of the experiment is an unscrupulous journalist, willing to utter any lie and parrot North Korean propaganda to get the shots he wants. The comedy duo following him consists of two Danish-Koreans, one a tattooed but sweet man, the other a self-described “spastic,” who has a developmental disability and a terrible speech impediment. One wonders how these artists agreed to this mission.

Freshly landed in Korea, the Danish troop is introduced to their communist minder, Ms. Pak, who proves to be the most interesting character in the film. Though she seems motherly and polite, Ms. Pak is a highly trained communist official, possibly a member of the secret police, and is utterly convinced of Korean superiority. Within minutes of deplaning, she scolds the comedians for not knowing the Korean language, and insists on teaching them to count from one to ten. They find this amusing, and repeat after her. Each time they finish, she smiles and says, “Again.” On the sixth repetition, they give up, realizing that they are being drilled instead of taught. The next morning, she takes them to get tailored North Korean military uniforms, exactly the type worn by the “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-ill. The culture wars continue to the performance itself, when the Koreans revitalize the (admittedly, terrible) Danish comedy show, replacing all Danish elements with ones that will be “better” and more geared toward North Korean tastes. The most grotesque change involves confining the disabled performer to a wheelchair which he is in no need of, and telling him that he must pretend that he is an able-bodied actor playing a disabled person. This is particularly revolting when one realizes that North Korea has been accused of killing disabled children at birth, and sending persons who develop physical handicaps to work camps.

One wonders while watching if the changes are meant to make the show more accessible to Korean audiences, killing any thought of cultural exchange, or make performance terrible, reinforcing the superiority and professionalism of the North Korean girls’ choir serving as backup singers.

The Red Chapel makes little pretence of being a fair documentary, and frequently shades into propaganda itself. The director/narrator defends these tactics as pitting one piece of propaganda against another, and as a viewer I find myself agreeing with that statement more often than not. To be fair, the film doesn’t show anything that the North Korean propaganda machine doesn’t want an audience to see (the secret police watched the tapes daily) and the fact that the socialist perversity staged for the camera is the best face North Korea can show proves the film’s thesis that North Korea is a dictator’s puppet show. For all the cheap shots pulled, the film doesn’t hit below the belt—it never tells us that the founder of the country, Kim Ill-sung, is kept in a glass casket like Snow White, labeled with a sign reading “Our Leader For Eternity.” Nor does it mention that state propaganda occasionally suggests that Kim Jong-ill controls the weather. Instead, the director lets the country speak for itself: the near-empty streets of Pyongyang, the aggressive military parades, the deliberate misinterpretation of history, and the creepy groupthink mentality of the schoolchildren.

This all makes The Red Chapel sound like a bleak film, and it is, but that didn’t stop me from laughing throughout the entire running time. Everyone in this film is funny, the devious director, the over-earnest Ms. Pak, and the “spastic” Jacob, whose speech impediment is so thick that he’s the only one who can speak his mind without fear of blowing their cover.

The only downside to the project is the camera work, which is frequently shaky and sometimes pans fast enough to make the audience motion sick. Likewise, the subtitles are sub-par for a movie this good, blocky and far too high up on the screen. Still, these are small issues that didn’t detract much from my overall enjoyment of the film.

I dare not reveal how far their charade goes, and where it leads them, but it is fair to say that if I were a member of The Red Chapel theater troupe, I’d have kissed the ground after landing back in the Netherlands.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Film Review Flashback to SXSW 2009: BLACK

This review was originally posted following SXSW 2009. Since the film has now been released for pre-order to the U.S. market, I decided to re-post the review in order to drum up interest and prime the pump for the SXSW 2010 reviews I will post later this week.

Black is a French nouveau Blaxploitation heist film, in which a group of Parisian North Africans pull a bank heist in Dakar and end up embroiled in a gang war that involves con men, a Russian Spetsnaz Colonel, a shaman, American military contractors, giant machete-wielding wrestlers, a femme fatale from Interpol, a witch, and an arms dealer who's mutating into a snake. If that list didn’t excite you, this isn’t your movie.

The current racial tension in France is roughly analogous to that of 1970s America, so it makes sense that French directors are becoming attracted to the strong, virile, anti-establishment heroes of the American Blaxploitation era (think Shaft or ) as both artistically interesting and commercially bankable. To his credit, director Pierre Laffargue has no qualms about hijacking the genre and running with it as far as it can go, including bloody bank heists, sexy cast members, kung fu, big guns, nasty white villains, and a soundtrack that’s unapologetically funky. The end result is dizzying, violent and leaves the viewer with a lunatic grin.

The best thing about Black is MC Jean Gab’1 (District B-13, District 13: Ultimatum), the French rapper who portrays the titular character. MC Jean keeps the film grounded with his wicked smile, tough-but-handsome face and precisely delivered one-liners. (The best of which has him pulling grenades from a glove compartment and growling, “If they want Beirut, I’ll give them Beirut!”) The man’s got talent, which only shines all the more in a film where every actor consciously and consistently goes over the top. The manic Russian Colonel is especially fun to watch. In this era of “realistic” depictions of Batman and James Bond, it’s nice to see a villain that jumps out of hiding with a grin on his face and shouts, “Ah ha!” The Interpol agent played by Carole Karemera is the closest thing to subtlety in the movie, which isn't saying much, but she plays her part competently... or maybe Ms. Karemera is just really beautiful—it’s hard to tell when she’s speaking in such dreamy French. The action scenes aren’t anything we’ve never seen before, but they’re shot with an urgency and personality that makes them breathless. The soundtrack, as noted, is delicious ‘70s retro, beginning with a funk remix of the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The only fly in the ointment is a subplot where the leads begin to, literally, morph into animals. If you feel uncomfortable seeing urbane, modern characters with African ancestry transformed into jungle beasts via tribal magic, rest assured that you’re not the only one. At least that's what the nervous laughter in the theater told me. The French have a different standard of what’s racially appropriate than the United States, where this wouldn't fly. It doesn’t spoil the film, but for a few crucial minutes, this guilty pleasure offers up more guilt than pleasure.

Black was by far the most bizarre film experience I had at SXSW this year, which is really saying something, since I also saw a short film about a cupcake sailing to an island of vegetables. Black is easily worth a rent, if only for its sheer madcap zaniness.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

There Is No Fumble: The Wachowski Brothers Come to the NFL

EDIT: There was a really good article on CNN today, suggesting that instant replay has ruined both sports and life. Frankly, I think he stretches the point too far, but it's a good piece.

Wow, how 'bout them Saints, huh? So what is there to talk about other than a heartening upset and a second-half comeback for a city that's overdue for something to celebrate? No, the NFL announcer meatheads will cover all that- you know the ones, the guys that yell at each other over the action, like a bunch of arguing patients in a head trauma ward.

How about the cameras?

Yeah, that'll work.

Saints 2-Point Conversion- Neo from New Orleans?

Watch the video above, and watch it very carefully. It was exactly at this moment, when we watched Lance Moore float down to the turf, stretching the football toward his ankles for a 2-point conversion, that I realized Hollywood filmmaking techniques had changed the face of sports as we know it.

There's a reason this shot, and most NFL slow motion shots like it, make you think of The Matrix. Essentially, it's the same filmmaking technique that the Wachowskis used to freeze Carrie-Ann Moss in a crane stance and unnaturally resuscitate Keanu Reeves' career. To put it very, very simply, the cameras shoot an incredibly impressive number of frames per second as the camera zooms around the subject, taking it in from all angles, then splices the frames together digitally. This technique is why the NFL cameras seem to always be at just the right angle to see whether the ball crossed the goal line. It's known as EyeVision, and is responsible for every digitized first down line and field readjustment during instant replay.

To prove that the similarities in these systems are no accident, see article below, in which the makers of EyeVision are clear about their inspiration:

NFL Cribs Notes from The Wachowski Brothers

Ok, so maybe my revelation is nearly a decade late. EyeVision is nothing new for the NFL. It premiered in January 2001 during Super Bowl XXXV- a more innocent time when the Backstreet Boys sang the national anthem, General Schwazkopf made an appearance for the 10th anniversary of Desert Storm, and we all thought the joint halftime show between Aerosmith and 'N Sync would certainly be the largest national disaster befalling us that year. When it premiered, most people thought of EyeVision as a gimmick-little more than instant replay on psychedelics, that is, until it helped uphold a fourth quarter touchdown by Jamal Lewis. Today, it's a fairly standard weapon in the Ref's arsenal of play reviews. If you watch the NFL, you see it every so often. It's become part of the gradual digitization of the football field.

Even so, I find it fascinating that Hollywood technology is being used for practical applications. (There would be those that would suggest that referee play-review is not a "practical application," but screw them, we know better.) Really the only difference between EyeVision and the Matrix rigs is the network of cables and zip lines that let them circuit the players, rather than swooping around on a 360 degree dolly. What we're really talking about here is special-effects magic affecting the real world, where it sometimes, as we saw today, decides the outcome of games. This is amazing stuff, since most special effects tech is wholly useless outside a film set.

How much Hollywood SFX will become part of pro games world will no doubt be subject to the traditionalism of individual sports. American Football has always led the pack in introducing innovations- college football harnessed the power of instant replay in 1963, whereas Major League Baseball didn't introduce it until 2008, and waited to actually use the thing until 2009. The NBA didn't catch on until the 2002-2003 season, and the NHL likewise waited years. In all of these cases, and international sports such as rugby, instant replays are rare occurrences only used to confirm goals or fouls, in fact FIFA is so old-school it doesn't allow IRs at all. Out of all sports, only American football could be said to have developed an instant replay aesthetic, where it has become as much a symbol of the sport as the ball, the uprights, and the helmets.

While this is no doubt because the stop-and-go nature of American Football allows audiences to watch slow motion replays between plays, it does make me wonder what other cutting-edge SFX and cinematography tricks football might co-opt in the future.

I'm crossing my fingers for a Na'vi Football League.

Monday, January 25, 2010

My Top 10 Films of 2009

This list is tentative because I haven’t nearly finished seeing everything I wanted to see, or felt obligated to see, in 2009. For example, I have little doubt that if I had managed to see either The Cove or A Serious Man they would probably have bumped Up In The Air off the list. Likewise, I haven’t included anything I saw at Fantastic Fest (though I have included two in the honorable mentions section).

I’ll try and be brief here:

1. The Hurt Locker
Possibly the best war drama of the decade, The Hurt Locker follows an elite Explosive Ordinance Disposal team as they try to survive the last 38 days of their rotation in Baghdad. A taut action/suspense thriller, The Hurt Locker is one of the most realistic depictions of modern warfare ever filmed. Written by an embedded journalist and based on factual events, the film is brutal in its authenticity. Every inch of the costume fatigues are stiff with sweat and flies crawl over the eyelids of the actors. The gunfights and bomb defusal scenes are harrowing rather than exciting. Director Kathryn Bigelow (of Point Break fame, and James Cameron's ex) manages to create a film where imminent death seems to lurk in every blind corner and empty window.

Jeremy Renner’s tour-de-force performance as the intense and reckless Sergeant James carries the picture and deserves an Oscar nod. Chalk this up as the best film I saw in 2009, without any question, and one of the most suspenseful movies I've ever seen. It just won the Producer’s Guild of America Award for Best Picture, so consider it a dark horse for Best Picture at the Oscars. (Can you imagine the drama of James Cameron and his ex vying for Best Picture? It's a reason to watch the telecast in itself.) See it, see it, see it. Seriously, go now, it’s out on DVD, you can finish reading this post when you get back.

2. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Every five minutes of Werner Herzog’s dreamlike crime drama serves up another steaming mug of “Holy Crap I Can’t Believe I’m Seeing This.” Lieutenant Terrance McDonagh (Nicholas Cage) is the worst kind of bad cop—a drug addict, a thief, a compulsive gambler, a rapist—a demon prince in the hell that is post-Katrina New Orleans. Tasked with solving a multiple homicide, McDonagh tries to close one last case, even as he senses that this is his last circle around the drain before he finally succumbs to madness. Cage goes back to his indie roots with this film, playing the character so over-the-top that his crimes alternate between funny and horrifying. The levels of insanity here are tremendously deep, eventually he begins hallucinating iguanas crawling across crime scenes. See it if you have the stomach.

3. Watchmen
Though it only broke even at the box office, Zack Snyder’s art house superhero film was two and a half hours of cinematic dynamism. Though possibly too dense for the uninitiated, Snyder captured the same cosmological depth as the graphic novel, creating a world that seems more real than most of the places we visit at the movie theater. Best of all, Snyder chose not to talk down to the audience, sacrificing wider accessibility in return for a more active viewing style where audience members had to put together the pieces for themselves. It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen, and nothing we’ll ever see again. (PS: The Director’s Cut made notable improvements to the film.)

4. In The Loop
Developed from the British TV series The Thick of It, In The Loop sets itself up to be the Doctor Strangelove of the 2000s (or Naughts, or Aughts, or Naughty Aughts, or however, you want to style them) and it’s a testament to the film’s success that I’m actually considering whether that might be the case. Shot like a documentary, the film follows British Minister for International Development Simon Foster, who is swept up on the Washington warpath after departing from the party line in an interview, and stating that a proposed war in the Middle East is “unforseeable.” Bounced as a political pawn between Republicans, Democrats, irate constituents and his own country’s civil service employees, the hapless Foster sinks in way, way over his head in a town that manipulates everyone and forgives no one. Peter Capaldi gives the standout performance as Malcom Tucker, the Prime Minister’s Scottish “enforcer” who weaves chains of obscenities so intricate they’d make R. Lee Ermey’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman blush. Don’t miss this one.

5. District 9
Thank you Neill Blomkamp, thank you for delivering an original, high-concept science fiction film that uses its fantastic setting to deal with real-world issues. This movie made me connect with the plight of South Africa under apartheid more than Invictus, which is no mean feat, since Invictus was a hell of a movie too. That’s what good sci-fi does though, it sneaks past your guard and sucker punches you. It approaches problems from a different angle and allows you to look on the world with fresh eyes. Added to that, we finally got to see some genuine Starship Troopers-style power armor! Dear Lord, I’ve been waiting ten years to see someone do that. Kudos, Neill Blomkamp, your giant robot suit beats James Cameron’s hands-down.

6. Inglourious Basterds
There’s been so much written about Inglourious Basterds that it’s hard to think of something original to say, though I find it telling that Tarantino’s madcap, highly inaccurate World War II epic is actually better than most period-accurate films about the War. As is standard for QT’s movies, Basterds isn’t really about the War itself, it’s about World War II films, and the culture that’s grown up around them.

While European films look on the War with a sense of melancholy, weaving narratives of desperate hardships and tragedies, American films often depict the war as a grand adventure, with tough American soldiers swooping in like comic book heroes to save Europe from Hitler’s tyranny. The real brilliance of Inglourious Basterds is that it fuses those two traditions, placing the gung-ho Aldo the Apache and his squad of larger-than-life commandos amongst characters from a holocaust drama. In doing so, he says a lot more about the War, and its cultural legacy, than most historical movies dream to.

7. Moon
Before Moon, I thought hard science fiction was a thing of the past. Well it’s back, and in a big way. The plot contains so many great surprises that I’ll restrain myself from explaining it other than this: Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is the lone crewman of an automatic mineral mining station on the lunar surface, harvesting Helium-3 to solve the Earth’s chronic energy crisis. Nearing the end of his three-year tour with only video communications from his wife and the station’s AI system GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) to keep him company, Sam begins bug out to see and hear things that aren’t there. Or are they?

Moon is a movie full of ideas with the feel of old hard sci-fi dramas like 2001 and Solaris. It even bogarts their look, using models instead of CGI for the lunar station and its moon rovers. The models actually make the lunar surface seem much more realistic, they’re not overly detailed, and by God, they have weight, unlike CGI objects, that always seem to defy gravity. I can’t tell you why Rockwell is such a joy in this, but believe me, he is. Can someone give this man an award please?

8. UP
Another movie that needs little introduction, UP is a delightful return to the pulp boy’s adventure stories I sucked down as a kid. Airships, lost ecosystems on sky-high plateaus, talking dogs, and giant silly birds—if that was the only thing this film had going for it, it would still be the best kid’s movie of 2009.

However, it also contains the most touching four-minute romance story I’ve ever seen. If you’re not borderline bawling by the end of the Elle and Carl montage, you need to take a Voight-Kampff test because you're surely a replicant. Disney Magic might make princesses into frogs and show us incredible musical numbers, but leave it to Pixar to create something so poignant from an everyday story. Who else would front end a children’s movie with something so meaningful? Who else could make us care about characters so intensely in under ten minutes that we're reduced to tears?

9. Avatar
Screw the haters, this is an incredible movie. Not the greatest script in the universe, but it gets the job done and is surprisingly adept at juggling the large cast of characters so that everyone has a purpose and clear character objectives. Is it a leap forward in filmmaking? Yes, very much so in a technical sense. As much as the average moviegoer likes to think anything is now possible with special effects, there are several things that are still elusive for CGI artists. James Cameron has now cleared one of the last and largest hurdles in special effects—the creation of animated characters that look convincingly real.

The problem is that our brains are so well-trained at recognizing what real beings of flesh and blood look like, it’s nearly impossible to fool us with any sort of artificial life, but Cameron at least makes us suspend that disbelief for awhile. The Na’vi have shifting irises, they have chests that move with breath, and they have muscles that bunch and slide underneath their skins. As an audience, we can tell them apart by facial features, an amazing feat, yet we’re so desensitized to cinema magic that the average moviegoer dismisses the amount of artistry that it took to create these wonderful creatures.

The environments too are a triumph of artistic concept, mixing the bioluminescence of the deep sea with the topography of a triple-canopy rainforest. If you saw Avatar and doubt that it was a leap forward, I want you to think about the last time you felt pity, or joy or any strong emotion at all for a photo-realistic digital creation. There’s a reason Lucas confined Jar-Jar to pratfalls.

10. Up In The Air
Make no mistake: this is a corporate horror film. Timely and diabolical, Up In The Air is a bleak, bitterly funny drama about how our personal relationships are increasingly defined by technology. The main action of the story, for example, centers around a man whose job makes him travel around the country to lay off unneeded workers. He’s good at his job, and often is able to let his subjects down easy, taking some of the stress out of the experience. He’s developed a system that works, until a newly-minted graduate comes along and convinces his boss that they could cut costs by firing workers remotely by webcam.

Many of the conversations during this film, especially the key emotional scenes, take place over cell phones, text messaging, or webcam. It’s a sort of eternal proxy battle between the three principal characters—in some scenes we almost feel as if they’re keeping their emotions locked down in person so that they can later spill them over the phone or by email. What hope is there for our society, now that we seem to be losing the ability to speak face-to-face? Are there things that social media was just not meant to do? Up In The Air has no answers to these questions, and maybe, as it suggests, there really are no answers. This is a hard movie to like. For all the admiration I had for it, I wouldn’t name it as one of my favorite movies of the year, but the amount of time I’ve spent thinking about it means it belongs on this list.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: The Fantastic Mr. Fox; Invictus, Mandrill (see review below), A Town Called Panic, Coraline, Private Eye (see review below).

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Hardboiled World of Detective Pulp Cover Art

A few weeks ago I found myself at a book shop in the Tenderloin, sifting through stacks of old pulp magazines. I was scouring the shelves for a vintage copy of Weird Tales, preferably with an HP Lovecraft story, and having no luck whatsoever. Spotting a set of archival drawers, I decided to delve into them, and was soon up to my elbows in paper dust from copies of Doc Savage and old Conan comics. When I pulled out the sixth drawer and waved away the cloud of dust particles, I saw them-- a stock of vintage Detective magazines.

I love old detective pulps. Yes, the stories in them are mostly awful if you're not reading Chandler or the like, and the bad quality of the paper means it's almost impossible to keep them in good condition as a collectable (the name "pulps" actually came from the rough, wood-pulp paper they were printed on) but detective pulps have one thing about them that's always incredible: the cover art.

See, back in the days when pulp fiction magazines were big, there were literally a dozen of them lined up on the newsstand. The authors themselves weren't usually enough of a draw to make a young boy or a bored industrial worker pick one mag over another, so the publishers wisely made it their focus to have the most wicked-cool cover art on the rack. The preferred themes for these covers were murder, pin-up girls, and a surprising twist in the same picture, a combination that proved endlessly fruitful in the artist's imaginations- it eventually reached a point when authors were asked to depict the covers, rather than the other way around. As the art developed, film noir made its mark on the covers, bringing its palette of shadows and blood to the print medium to create increasingly sensational images.

Eventually, as publishers tried to one-up each other with salacious and action-packed covers, the art became so over-the-top that it shaded into self-parody. For example, one mens magazine in the early 60's depicted Fidel Castro holding a bikini-clad girl at knifepoint while a musclebound CIA agent rushed to her rescue. As you'll see, there's some serious "found comedy" waiting on the covers of the pulps below.

Overcooked or not, pulp art is fantastic at visual storytelling. Each pulp cover is itself a self-contained story, a little violent tableaux that whets the appetite and hooks the viewer with unanswered questions. Silly as they are, it's almost impossible to look at one and not have a narrative leap to mind.

These three I bought were my favorites, think of them as spark plugs for the imagination:


Famous Detective Stories, February 1951, Featuring: Trigger-Happy Honey, and The Chortling Corpse

Believe it or not, scenes like the above that show the hero "ambushing" a goon sneaking up on him or her are common in pulp detective magazines. Of course, the hero's ambush plans are often so overly-elaborate that they're just as absurd as they are exciting.

Let's consider this: obviously our hero is a hard-boiled detective of some sort. Obviously he's been roughed up by a street hood or a gangster to make him drop a case- he managed to survive, but now he's in a wheelchair, broken arm in a sling, getting 24-hour bedside care from a nurse that looks suspiciously like Marilyn Monroe. He knew that the bastards were coming to finish the job, and somehow he managed to convince Nurse Monroe to wrap his broken right arm in plaster while still gripping his forty-five.

Then he waited.

I love everything about this cover. The horror on the nurse's face, the firing detective who looks like he's cursing the goon as he kills him, and especially the enormous muzzle flash coming out of the cast. Hell, with the size of that cast, he could have anything under there- a shotgun, a Tommy gun, even a Mega Man cannon. The fact that the hardcase detective has a blanket over his knees like a Southern granny is just icing on the cake.

Man I hope this scene is in the actual story.

Oh, and how about The Chortling Corpse as a title, huh?


G-Men Detective, September 1947, Featuring: The Kidnap Kills

The cover above is from one of a series of "G-Men" pulps that were popular during the 40's and 50's, which centered around FBI agents being good, flag-waving, upright Americans while outwitting bank robbers, smugglers, and people who believed that workers should control their own means of production.

This is a pretty standard pulp cover, if a highly intriguing one. Note how it establishes a story hook right off the bat: a man has been shot, and a woman was seen taking a packet of documents off his body, but she can't be identified. Who is this mysterious woman with excellent taste in shoes? What are these missing documents, and what makes them worth killing for? Who is this man? Is he an FBI agent? A consular officer? My God, if he's a consular officer, could those be diplomatic dispatches?! Secret codes?! Could this be the Russkie's first move?! Has the balloon finally gone up, leaving Berlin on the very brink of being ravaged by the Soviet horde?! Can Hoover's intrepid band of agents thwart the Red Menace in time?! Oh dear God I have to read this story!

This is a classic example of visual storytelling. Admit it: you want to read what's behind this cover. This single illustration suggests murder, intrigue, mystery, and a femme fatale, and all in the space of a single sheet of office paper.


Smashing Detective Stories, March 1951, Featuring: Smell Money, Smell Murder and Blonde and Bad

This is hands down my favorite of the bunch for its sheer ridiculousness. Here we see another "ambush" picture, but this time the hero isn't pretending to be hurt, she's pretending to be dead. That's some dedication, right there. What's even more intriguing about this picture is the fact that the victim doesn't seem to be carrying a gun at all- so what exactly is happening here? Did he try and kill her, and she's taking revenge on her would-be murderer?

Here's my stab at it: she was a too-trusting dame with a good heart and a bad taste in fellas. Against her better judgement, she took out a massive loan from the local loan shark to finance a business deal for her no-good boyfriend, who to no one's surprise, split for Atlantic City with a cocktail waitress and the suitcase full of cash. Suddenly she's being chased by a mob shylock with a monographed pair of brass knucks and an unforgiving demeanor. At the end of her rope, she gets an idea: she fakes her death and arranges an open-casket funeral, then waits for her weepy, regretful, no-good dirtbag ex-squeeze to come by and pay his final respects, then... Surprise, Darling!

But that still doesn't explain why she chose to be eulogized while wearing the sluttiest cocktail dress known to science. Honestly, the thing I love most about this cover is how ham-handedly it smashes together the themes of sex and death. Consider it: not only is a scantily-dressed fantasy pinup killing a man, she's doing so from inside a casket. Even before you factor in the irony that the pair have switched places-- the "dead" woman coming to life and the living mourner being killed--the picture already has a lot of accidental subtext to process. The warm and inviting look of the stained glass windows in the background make the whole thing even more surreal, like Easter Sunday in the Village of the Damned. Also notice the lady in the background sniffing into her handkerchief... I mean most funerals are awkward, but really.

A creative writing professor once told me that every great novel could be boiled down to sex and death. Based on this evidence, I postulate that Smell Money, Smell Murder, sold eighty-six trillion copies and won every Pulitzer for literature between 1951 and 1964.

What do you guys think? Do any of the covers above suggest an alternate narrative to you? Tell me in the comments!