Sunday, July 13, 2008

Demolition Man as Post-Marxist Nostalgia

I've been in Mexico for the past month, hence no posts (not that anyone is out there in TV land anyway). Here goes.


For my money, Demolition Man, Sylvester Stallone’s 1993 sci-fi epic, is Sly pretty close to the peak of his game (obviously the Rambo and Rocky movies are on another level entirely, but this is every bit as badass as Cobra, Tango and Cash, and Over the Top—yeah, I said it). He plays John Spartan, late twentieth-century super-cop, who is wrongly convicted of blowing up some civilians and sentenced to a stint in cryo-prison. A few decades down the line, super villain Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes), who actually blew up all the innocent civilians Spartan was blamed for blowing up, is thawed out and unleashed on the metroplex of San Angeles, a peaceful, pussified new world, where violence is a thing of the past and everyone is a raging sissy. Since Spartan is the one who put Phoenix away the first time, and the cops are totally useless and unschooled in the way of ass kicking, they thaw out our good buddy Stallone and much mayhem ensues.

While I don’t normally associate the films of Sylvester Stallone with post-Marxist political theory, read Fredric Jameson’s essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” and tell me that Sly doesn’t immediately to mind.

The ideas in Demolition Man fit into his arguments in an interesting manner. There are the obvious class conflicts between the wealthy elites, the working police force that they control, and the uber poor, radical factions (led by Denis Leary as Edgar Friendly) that live underground and attack with graffiti. The raid on Taco Bell, the only franchise left after the fast food wars, screams of underclass rebellion.
Underground is a throw back. They eat meat, use gas, have sex because it feels good, touch, drive muscle cars, and are in direct opposition to the sterile, distanced world above, where no one has any physical contact or participates in “fluid exchanges.” Everything on the surface is quiet and pure, and no one has any options. The underground represents the freedom of mutiny and upheaval, as well as the unpleasant and ugly aspects of choosing to live outside the accepted society—while those who live above ground live in a world of stale bureaucracy, where everything from swearing to diet to mode of dress is regulated, the people who live below have their freedom, but may fucking starve.
Demolition Man is a 'nostalgia film' much in the same way that Jameson talks about Star Wars and Body Heat. It is a throw back to dystopian novels like 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Brave New World, to which the film makes numerous overt references. The heroine, played by Sandra Bullock, is named Lenina Huxley—a combination of one of the central characters first names, and the surname of the books author, Aldous Huxley; Stallone's character, John Spartan, is referred to as a savage, invoking John Savage, the hero in the book; and society has been wiped away of all unpleasantness, and everyone is distracted and medicated.

Society has been made perfect and ideal, but in true dystopian form, upon closer examination it becomes blatantly apparent that nothing could be further from the truth. What sacrifices had to be made to create this perfection? How much was destroyed and covered over in order to build the foundation? What still lurks beneath that surface? "The allusive and elusive plagiarism of older plots is, of course, also a feature of pastiche,” says Jameson. Demolition Man is definitely a work of pastiche, a contemporary rewriting of an older story.

Jameson makes the point about the predominance of nostalgia movies; it is “as though we have become incapable of achieving aesthetic representation of our own current experiences.” We cannot deal with time and historical context, so even in films set in current landscapes (or the future) we look for some cue, some model from the past with which to interpret the artifact.
And let us not forget the most frightening aspect of Demolition Man. It accurately predicted Arnold Schwarzenegger would become governor and then went even further, foreseeing an eventual Schwarzenegger presidency. This is what the future has in store for us. Truly it is a visionary work of modern cinema, and a frightening picture of what is to come with a tip of the hat to what has been.


Footnotes:

This is not a paper, so I'm just going to tell you to read the essay "Postmodernism and Consumer Society," by Frederic Jameson. You can look it up on-line. Don't be scared, it won't bite.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Aliens? Why the fuck is it aliens? The only thing I hate more than “it’s aliens,” is “oh, it was all just a dream.” I can even stomach the biblical mythology from Raiders and the Last Crusade, but this is going way too far. Thanks George Lucas for fucking up yet another of the treasured cinematic memories of my youth. Don’t worry, I didn’t give anything away, the movie starts out at “Hanger 51” in the Nevada desert, so you have two hours to think about aliens and fume.

In 1989 I was in the fifth grade, and I went on my two first dates with my first ever girl friend. One was to the roller rink where methed out junior high kids would while away the hours of a Friday or Saturday night twitching and picking at imaginary bugs. The other date, I don’t recall which came first, was to see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Like many young men of my generation, much from my formative years is tied up in this series of films.

The movies were always ridiculous and over the top, that was part of the allure. I bought, and still buy, that Indy and Short Round can jump out of an airplane in a rubber raft and live and then drop off a massive cliff into a river and be fine. That doesn’t seem implausible to me in the least. However, I don’t buy that Indy can survive an atomic fucking blast that physically tears apart houses and buildings and cars simply by locking himself in a goddamn refrigerator that magically makes it out unscathed. That might be a little much, even for me.

Also, I think Shia LeBeouf (known to most of my friends as Stinky LeBeef for some reason) should be shot for crimes against cinema. We all know how cool Marlon Brando is in The Wild One, but you know what isn’t cool at all? Dressing a scrawny little pipsqueak up like Marlon Brando in The Wild One. You know who I don’t buy being any use in a fight? Stinky LeBeef. As soon he rides in through a wall of steam at a train station (yup), I started muttering to myself, “please don’t be his son, please don’t be his son, please don’t be his son.” Yeah, he’s Indy’s son.

They could have been merciful and cut about twenty minutes out of this movie. We get it, it was the fifties, people were paranoid about Communism and Communists. After a brief interrogation about his possible Communist sympathies, we never hear about it again, save the fact that the Russians are the bad guys. Oh yeah, did I mention that apparently after the war Indy, in addition to being a tenured professor, was part of the OSS, precursor to the CIA, and did a bunch of missions for them, including helping to recover alien remains at Roswell, New Mexico in 1947? Because that’s a bunch of bullshit on its own. Indy is so much more badass when he’s just an archeologist running around the globe having adventures. That is one of the most appealing aspects about the character, that he isn’t some highly trained government agent. He’s a nerd who likes to dig around in dirt and find old things, and that gives hope to all the other nerds of the world that one day, maybe they could fight Nazis and have kickass globetrotting adventures, too. It’s what I based my life on.

Anyway, because of the Red Scare, Indy is run out of academia on a rail. As he’s on his way out of town in a huff, Stinky shows up. Apparently some guy named Ox, who sort of helped raise Stinky in some way that is never really clear, has found a crystal skull (imagine that), and possibly the mythical city of gold, El Dorado. But he’s lost his mind and been kidnapped, along with Stinky’s mom, who turns out to be none other than Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) from Raiders. She also happens to be the love of Indy’s life who he almost married before he ran away just before the ceremony, and every other woman since then has had the same problem, namely that they are not Marion.

There are some shenanigans in the jungle, a cemetery with some unexplained guards that are easily frightened away, a convoluted story, and a good guy who becomes a bad guy and turns into good guy again only to be ultimately exposed as a bad guy once and for all. I told you it was convoluted.

There isn’t really any tension to the story. No one ever seems to be in any imminent danger. Never once did I ask myself, “how the fuck are they going to get out of this?” Even when they drop over not one, not two, but three sequentially larger waterfalls, did I think there was even a chance that someone might actually get hurt. The heart tearing out scene in Temple of Doom was one of the most frightening, not to mention awesome, things I’d ever seen. Moments like that are completely absent in this movie.

I’ll admit that some of the chase scenes aren’t bad. None of them are great, but the one through the jungle is passable. It was even ok when Stinky and Kate Blanchet (I didn’t used to mind her, but now I kind of hate her) had a rapier duel while leaping back and forth between cars careening through the jungle. But seriously, Stinky swinging from vine to vine like Tarazan with a bunch of animated fucking monkeys? Again, too much, even for me.

It also bothers me that the guy who spent most of the movie being bat-shit crazy, all of a sudden recovers and gets lucid at the end. Cough, cough, cop-out. Oh, excuse me.

By the time the space ship takes off to return to whatever dimension they’re from, I was done. Couple that with the abundant CGI prairie dogs, and grumble grumble grumble, I could go on for days.

Did anyone else notice the woeful lack of bullwhip? I’m calling bullshit on the whole deal.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Hostel

I finally got around to watching Hostel the other day. Are you fucking serious? Really? People like this shit? It pisses me off that when I say I like horror, this is what people assume I’m into, which is really too bad, since this has no redeeming qualities. The only things worse than this are PG-13 action and horror.

The first half of the movie is spent on some douche bag American frat boys out on a European jaunt before delving into lives of corporate meaninglessness. All they want to do is bang hot Euro sluts, smoke weed, and party. Are we supposed to want them do die? Because I do. They eventually get lured to a Slovakian hostel where they get fucked and drugged and, oh yeah, eventually kidnapped and tortured by rich dudes who paid for the privilege.

In reality, this is just the most recent adaptation of “The Most Dangerous Game,” which was written in 1924 by the way. You should watch Hard Target, it is the same story, a much more entertaining movie, and you get to see Van Damme’s jerry curl mullet flapping around in slow motion for ninety-seven minutes. Or check out Surviving the Game, and watch Ice-T fuck up Gary Busey, Rutger Hauer, and John C. McGinley.

These new-jack torture films aren’t horror. There is no tension, there isn’t any story, and they are not scary. I’m all for gratuitous blood and guts and gore, but all of this is to no end. I know writer/director Eli Roth and some critics have stated this movie has lofty goals, like showing capitalism gone to an unchecked extreme, and the nature of violence, and all that fun stuff. There are hints of these things, but just hints, and it is chiefly to excuse excessive and pointless violence by hiding behind a supposed message. The gore serves no larger purpose other than to be gory. I can’t stand the Saw movies, that entire franchise is a lame pile of crap, but at least they try to include the elements of horror that make the genre truly frightening. They try to have plots and surprises and twists and friction and legitimate scares. This movie has none of that.

And for a movie that relies solely on gore as the central focus (well, a good portion of the movie is also focused on naked breasts, so there’s that), the gore isn’t that good. The camera looks away for most of it. We get a snap and a scream over a shot of a dingy floor. Even what we do see is pretty run of the mill. The Achilles’ tendon cutting scene in Pet Sematary is way more brutal than the one in Hostel.

If you insist on watching stuff like this, at least get something Japanese so you can see some shit, not this nonsense mush for American audiences that has to be watered down because no one has the balls to release an NC-17 movie. Who the fuck are they going to let into the theater to see this anyway? I got carded for Pulp Fiction when I was seventeen.

The only thing about this movie I liked is the group of feral Gypsy children who randomly show up to demand cigarettes and bubble gum, and are capable of horrific acts of violence on their own. I partially retract an earlier statement. When the kids crush the skulls of two big burly thugs, it does look pretty cool.

Shit, this movie makes me want to torture Americans for making the rest of the world think I’m a butt hole.

Alien vs. Predator: Requiem

I read someplace that the people who made Alien vs. Predator: Requiem hoped to make audiences forget that the first Alien vs. Predator movie ever happened. That is a worthy and noble goal, as the first movie is a dismal piece of shit. Seriously, who thought it was a good idea to make a movie that featured either the Predator or Aliens primarily about people, and PG-13 to top it off? When will people learn that anything that is supposed to be scary or violent or both will never be appropriately rendered with a PG-13 rating? There’s really only one Alien against Predator fight in the whole damn movie, for God’s sake.

That said, at least they gave it a shot in the second film. The trailer even listed a body count. There was a significant increase in the Alien on Predator action, but even that couldn’t help deliver this movie from the depths.

This movie tried to have plot. It didn’t work. This movie tried to make me care about flat, boring characters, of which there are far too many. It didn’t work (they tried to interweave a bunch of generic subplots, only to end up with a bunch of generic characters we neither know, nor care about). This movie tried to have tension. It didn’t work.

I just have one question. Who is going to make the third movie to try to make me forget about this one?

Iron Man

I was skeptical going in to Iron Man, but my fears were quickly assuaged. Essentially, this is exactly what I want out of a big budget, summer blockbuster, popcorn movie.

This is Marvel Studios first independent production, and they started off with a doozy.

Iron Man has all of the things you want in a great comic book movie. It has high flying acrobatics, tons of action and flash, and the requisite fan boy nerd shit. Jim Rhodes (Terrance Howard) is there—they even set it up for him to be Iron Man in the future. Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow) is around. Obadiah Stane (the Dude himself, Jeff Bridges) is the Iron Monger. There is even a little bit of S.H.I.E.L.D. thrown in for good measure, and of course, Stan Lee makes his obligatory cameo. And since it is Marvel, without interference from co-producers and studio heads who’ve never read a comic, they can stay pretty true to the story and characters. I have read some Iron Man books, but not a ton, but pretty much everything I do remember is in here. That said, I’m still pretty forgiving about adaptations, but I’m sure you can find someplace that lists every wrong detail.

And I do have to say, Robert Downey Jr. is spot fucking on as Tony Stark. He is better than I ever hoped. Really though, it is the role he was born to play. Who better to portray an alcoholic millionaire than an alcoholic millionaire?

The movie starts out with Stark, weapons manufacturer and world renowned playboy, getting blown up and abducted by some gnarly terrorists. At this point I was pretty worried that it was going to be one of those, all Arabs are terrorist, go team America, woo, movies. Admittedly they do a pretty good job of keeping that shit to a minimum, and playing the enemy in our own back yard card.

The terrorists are well armed, stocked to the gills in fact with the very weapons Stark manufactures with the intention of protecting America (okay, so I have a little trouble buying that any large scale weapons manufacturer would really be so naïve, but after some witty banter, gunfire, and explosions, I’m along for the ride). He’s got some shrapnel inching ever closer to his heart, so his buddy, and fellow prisoner, Yinsen (Shaun Toub) rigs up an electromagnet to keep them away. The bad guys want Stark to build them a weapon. He fools them into thinking he is, while in reality he is building the Mark I suit. He makes a daring escape, Yinsen dies, and the entire ordeal makes him see the error of his ways, and that he should be using his resources for the good of the people of the world, not leaving a body count as his only legacy.

It is not a half-bad adaptation of the Iron Man origin. It is pretty true to the original. From then on we get some sweet armor making montage action, complete with comic relief in the guise of a bunch of hapless, but loyal and friendly, robot assistants. There is the requisite double dealing, sexual tension, corporate intrigue, friends revealed to be enemies. If you’ve ever read superhero comics, then you know what to expect. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, because it totally is. But really, it’s all about watching Iron Man fly around spreading some justice, and in the end, fighting a big ass evil mechanical suit. That it what this movie is all about, and that it precisely what it delivers. I’m not a fan of most CGI (did you see the bullshit in I am Legend?), but in this movie, as much as it pains me to say it, it actually looks really good.

Outside of Batman Begins, this may be the best of the bunch when it comes to guys in tights, superhero movies. We’ll see what Marvel has in story for us with the release of the new Incredible Hulk later on this year (and the rest of the absurdly long list of their catalog they plan to adapt to the big screen). Now if only someone could make a decent Punisher movie.

With a movie like this, you know enough to know you have to stick around past the credits, right? If you don’t, you don’t have any business being in the theater. If you didn’t hang out, you should probably go back and take another gander, because I’m about to ruin some shit for you. After the credits it gets real nerdy. Stark comes home after admitting to the world he’s Iron Man, only to find a shadowy figure lurking in his super posh living room. Who is this mysterious individual? None other than Nick Fucking Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D., that’s who, motherfucker. I don’t know if I buy Samuel L. Jackson as the eye-patch wearing badass, though. Not because he’s black, in the Ultimate Universe, Nick Fury is indeed an African-American gentleman. My problem is that one David Hasselhoff gave a pretty definitive portrayal of Senor Fury in the 1998 powerhouse made for TV movie, Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. I’m just saying, Mr. Jackson, you have some rather large shoes to fill.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

The Western is back with a vengeance, and I love it. The genre is digging out of the grave like the undead, one rotten hand protruding from the dirt and mud, ready to crush the world in its zombie fingers.

I cut my teeth on a lot of movie sub-genres—post-apocalypse, zombie, slasher, spy, Seagal, Van Damme (yes, they are both categories unto themselves). Westerns were always a prominent feature in this mix; from the Man with No Name trilogy, to Django, to the Great Silence, the Searchers, the Wild Bunch, Unforgiven, and everything in between.

This rash of New Jack Westerns is pretty sweet. From the modern day setting of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and the pseudo-Western, No Country for Old Men, to the late nineteenth-century Australian outback of The Proposition, this revival has been consistently solid. They are grim, they are savage, and they are not to be trifled with. (Though, I still feel a pain every time I am reminded that Ridley Scott is attempting to adapt Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian for the screen. Unless he has the sac to go with an NC-17 rating, all hope is lost.)

2007’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma (the second adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s story) is an admirable addition to this canon. I can’t stand Westerns where everyone has grime streaked faces, but a set of perfect pearly whites, and the grills of everyone here—from Peter Fonda and that retarded kid from “Freaks and Geeks” (Ben Foster), to mega-stars Christian Bale and Russell Crowe—are adequately grizzled (maybe not to a wholly realistic degree, but decent enough so to suspend my disbelief—they probably have it in their contracts that their grill can’t be too fucked up. Besides, Bale is Welsh. He might have a cultural sensitivity where teeth are concerned).

At the core, 3:10 to Yuma is about the depths desperate men will sink to, and about trying to find God in a Godless land. Bale plays Dan Evans, family man, rancher, a pussy according to his oldest son. He is a former Yankee soldier missing the lower portion of his leg. He’s a good man just trying to hold his family together and scrape by until the wet season comes. This shit is dry. Seriously, the only rain Evans has seen in months is the monsoon of shit the world keeps dumping on him. He owes this banker dickweed a shit ton of money, he’s got one son who’s tubercular, another who thinks he’s a bitch for not shooting said dickweed banker when he burns down their barn, and his wife doesn’t respect him. At one point he tells her, “No one can think less of me.”

Crowe plays Ben Wade, a burgeoning artist with a poetic soul, who also happens to be a legendary stick up man. You can tell he’s all deep and shit because while waiting to stick up a stage coach he sticks a quick pencil drawing of a hawk to the branch the hawk he was just sketching was just sitting on. He likes to quote the Bible, especially Proverbs, has a gun called “the Hand of God,” and really just wants a good woman and a little bit of peace.

Despite any personal feelings about the actors, both of the leads do an admirable job with their characters. There is a solid supporting cast, including the aforementioned Pete Fonda, who plays Wade’s nemesis, a bounty hunter named McElroy, who is on hire to the Pinkertons. He blows up a horse, and then has Pirate Steve from Dodgeball pull a bullet out of his gut without anything to dull the pain. He is a rough, rough man. Foster plays Wade’s sociopathic wingman, Charlie Prince. There is a demented glee in his loyalty to Wade, and in his destructive mayhem. He’s the kind of dude who would shoot you for scuffing his Puma.

Evans and spawn first stumble across Wade and Co.’s hijacking in progress while attempting to round up their stray cattle. Later, Evans is key in distracting Wade while Fonda and posse get the drop on him in a saloon after Wade banged the bartender and drew her nekkid. No one wants to help transport Wade to the town of Contention, to the 3:10 train to Yuma prison, for fear of reprisal by his bloodthirsty gang of outlaws. Against the protests of his wife, Evans goes along for the ride for the price of $200. “We won’t make it through the next six days if I don’t do this,” he tells her. Desperation trumps everything else.

Wade is man of conscience, he just wants to do right by his family, run his farm, and teach his boys the proper way to be men. He is surrounded by McElroy, who has no need to read any book but the Bible, but will unflinchingly mow down Apache women and children. Wade throws out bible verses like bird seed, but has no qualms about killing. He is a foil to McElroy; he quotes scripture, but doesn’t hide behind the hypocrisy. Wade knows he is a bad man and doesn’t use sanctimonious duplicity to mask his depravity.

The good guys have boundaries. That is what makes them the good guys, and that is why they will lose. For all their prayers, for all their piety, God has abandoned these men in a world where there is no black and white. “I’ve been standing on one leg for three damn years, waiting for God to do me a favor, and he ain’t listening,” Evans says. In the end he is alone, and this is where he learns to do what he must. The only chance he has is to cross his own lines, to stand on his own against the darkness, in the darkness.

Through the journey to Contention, their numbers gradually dwindle, and Wade plays head games with Evans. The two form an uneasy, yet symbiotic relationship along the road; one can no longer exist without the other.

One of my favorite badass movie moment clichés is, when after a prolonged period of waiting, the doomed hero stands, clenches his jaw, and says, “It’s time.” With the tension created in those two words, you know all hell is about to come down. The last hint of God for these characters is a sketch Wade draws of Evans on the inside cover of a hotel Bible as they are about to run the gauntlet to the titular 3:10 train to Yuma.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay

I haven’t smoked weed since high school. My drug of choice now comes in a bottle or a can. That said, to this day I get a kick out of stoners and stoner humor (and dick and fart jokes for that matter—I admit it, I maintain the mentality of a stoned thirteen year old boy wolfing down an entire box of Wheat Thins).

Still, upon it’s original theatrical release, I didn’t even give 2004’s Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle a chance. It came and went with little to no impact on my day to day life.

In early 2005 I found my self in Reno, during the worst snow storm since either the mid-1980’s or the early nineteen-teens, depending on who you talked to. All I did for the week I was there was trudge through waist deep snow from my buddy’s record store to the house where a dozen plus random travelers were stranded. We drank a lot of coffee, smoked a lot of cigarettes, played a lot of Trivial Pursuit, and watched a lot of movies.

In conversation it came out that I had never seen the aforementioned film. It was one of those shocked silences where the entire room is aghast, as if I just admitted to stealing babies, and they weren’t sure if they should still speak to me.

The argument that finally made me cave in and agree to watch it was, “Dude, they get stoned, and ride a cheetah.” That sounds like a good time.

In order to rectify the situation, half a dozen of us piled into a borrowed Jeep and ventured to the video store. It was a journey fraught with multiple near death experiences, snow drifts, a 360 degree spin out, hoots, hollers, and a rampant shoplifting jag at the supermarket.

We watched it three times in the next day and a half. Any time someone who hadn’t seen it popped in, we watched it. If you poked your head into the living room, there was a good chance either Point Break or Harold and Kumar was on the television. I bought copy on the way home from the airport.

John Cho and Kal Penn reprise their roles as our bong ripping heroes in Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. The story picks up where the first leaves off, with Kumar taking a moist and massive, White Castle inspired shit, while Harold is in the shower, cleansing himself of the grime of the previous night, and reliving the moment with Maria (Paula Garces), the girl of his dreams from down the hall. It is revealed that they are on their way to Amsterdam to stalk Harold’s recently acquired love interest. En route to their flight, Kumar screams racial profiling, and they run in to his ex, Vanessa (Danneel Harris), who is about to marry the douche bag who landed Harold his shitty ass banking job.

Kumar of course can’t wait the few hours until they get to the weed capital of the world, and all the legal weed they can handle, and smuggles a “smokeless bong” onto the plane. A paranoid old biddy mistakes it for a bomb, screams “Terrorist,” and our boys wind up in Guantanamo Bay, from which they promptly escape before having to chow down on Big Bob’s “cock meat sandwich.” From there it doesn’t really matter what happens, it is an epic quest to clear their names and stop Kumar’s one true love from marrying a complete tool.

The journey bears some passing resemblance to The Odyssey, complete with a Cyclops and an oceanic voyage with Cuban refugees. I can’t do any of the humor justice here without spoiling it, so I’ll just drop some highlights. Civilized rednecks, dog in KKK robes, unicorns, “Starship-fucking-Troopers,” parachuting, and a mathematics based love poem. And there is so much more.

Neil Patrick Harris reprises his role as himself, which all you eager little stoners have been waiting for, and does not disappointed. Rob Corddry plays a homeland security agent hot on their trail, who employs every racist stereotype you can imagine, including, but not limited to, throwing a bag full of pennies at Goldstein and Rosenberg (David Krumholtz and Eddie Kaye Thomas), and dumping out a grape soda in front of an African-American orthodontist.

The film played in March in San Francisco at the Asian-American Film Festival. When I first heard that, I found it really amusing, until I actually thought about it. What else has become such a bona-fide pop culture phenomenon featuring two non-white protagonists? Not much. And while they poke fun at racism in an over the top manner, the truth is, it isn’t far off from the way a whole lot of people in this country think. The entire saga is an interesting cultural artifact, as well as a notable reaction to our national climate.

The friend that I went to visit in Reno three years ago, remarked that some of the humor goes overboard. My reaction was, “Dude, in the first one, they get high, and ride a cheetah.” Yeah, maybe it is not quite as good as the first one. Maybe the hype machine built it up so high that it doesn’t entirely deliver. Maybe it is too absurd at points. But that is exactly the point. And overall, I think it is a fun and admirable addition to the party, one that deserves watching at least a couple of times, both sober, and in your altered mental state of choice.

This movie makes me wish I liked smoking weed, and want to watch Starship Troopers again.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Daredevil

I have never walked out of a movie in my life (and I saw the first two Resident Evil movies in the theater—during the second installment, I didn’t care that the one other person in the theater with me answered his phone and had a protracted conversation thirty minutes in). In fact, the first time I saw Black Cauldron in the theater in 1985, I intentionally pissed my pants so I didn’t have to miss a second of the movie by going to the bathroom. I made the right decision. So, not only have I never walked out of a movie before, it takes significantly more than a painfully full bladder to get me out of a movie theater.

That said, within minutes of 2003 shitfest, Daredevil, I stood up and had to be restrained from leaving. Sure, it has the usual reasons to walk out (or never see it in the first place), Ben Affleck and his she-male bride are chief amongst these. Though they did do me the courtesy of getting hitched, so when I ultimately blow them up with an RPG, I will likely be able to get both with one shot. If anyone knows the trials and tribulations of procuring decent weaponry in this day and age, it is the Afflecks. So thoughtful, it will almost be a shame to blast them into oblivion.

The fact that they bastardized one of my precious childhood memories, is another reason to avoid this pile. No beef with Michael Clark Duncan, but he’s no Kingpin. Colin Ferrell plays Bullseye like a reject from the opening act on a Limp Bizkit tour. And seriously, director, Mark Steven Johnson, might just be the devil (I don’t even recognize Elektra as a movie). Every one who had anything to do with this movie in any capacity, made my list of people that I will fight within my lifetime.

Despite certain comic nerd leanings, I’m usually pretty flexible on movie adaptations. In most cases you’re dealing with decades of accumulated story lines, multiple origin stories, and dozens of different writers. No one movie is going to encapsulate every aspect, nor will any single film please every last rabid fanboy. I accept that. As long as they get the character even remotely right, I’m usually game (the Hulk and the Fantastic Four movies are a different thing entirely).

The reason I attempted to walk out of Daredevil is simple. Within minutes of the opening credits, they completely betray who Matt Murdock/Daredevil is. Daredevil is the ultimate straight shooter, letter of the law guy (his civilian alter ego is a fucking blind lawyer for God’s sake). No matter how fucked up and corrupt, Daredevil believes in the system, in due process, in the law. He abhors the violence he has to employ, and on numerous occasions, has stopped more death-friendly vigilantes, like the Punisher, from doing harm. One of the first things we see in this fucking movie is Daredevil standing idly by while a subway runs down a criminal, something he would never do. No matter how worthless and vile someone is, he would put himself at risk in order to save a life.

That made me angry. I let out an audible, “What the fuck was that?” But I did not try to leave.

The very basis of who the character of Matt Murdock and Daredevil is, is inherent in how he was blinded. As a child, Matt Murdock sees a forklift (occasionally a truck, depending on you’re origin story of choice) carrying 50 gallon drums of toxic waste, bearing down on a blind man. With no regard for his own safety, young Mathew shoves the blind man out of the way. For his efforts he is rewarded with a full frontal blast of said toxic waste, which not only blinds him, but heightens his remaining senses, thus giving him the ability to ‘see without seeing.’

Daredevil gains his abilities through a selfless act. That one moment defines who he is, and who he will become. In the movie, the first thing they so is fuck that up. Angsty teen, Matt Murdock is running away from an argument with his father, runs out of a blind alley, causes a forklift carrying toxic waste to swerve to avoid grinding him into the pavement, and low and behold, he gets a splash across the eyes.

Instead of getting his powers through an act of good, he gets them because he’s a fucking dipshit, who didn’t bother look both ways before crossing the street. That pretty much sets the tone for the remainder of the movie.

That’s where I stood to abandon the theater.

Mind you, I first saw this movie on a date. I was being treated to a film adaptation of my all-time favorite comic book superhero, by my longtime partner, on opening night, which just so happened to be February 14th. Valentine’s Day. You can imagine how my attempt to flee went over. In retrospect, that pretty much set the tone for the remainder of that relationship.

Tango & Cash: A Violent Work of Art

Rambo and Snake Plissken play the title roles of Detective Ray Tango and Gabriel Cash. Tango is a slick dressing, glasses wearing, badass cop hell bent on getting his man at any cost. He’s sophisticated, well muscled, and makes a shit ton of money playing the stock market. He’s in the cop game for good old American action. We see him stand in the middle of a highway and face down a tanker truck full of blow in the movies opening scene. Sorry boys, no white Christmas this year.

Cash is another wisecracking rogue cop from the Central division. Shit is real down there. Where Tango’s station has palm trees and sunshine, Central has grey and hobos. Cash is a schlub who wears t-shirts, boots that shoot bullets out of the sole, and is not too proud to steal a slice of pizza from some dude walking by.

The two rival cops have made careers out of ruining the business of shadowy arms dealer, Yves Perret (Jack Palance in prime over the top madman glory), a man obsessed with watching his precious pet rats in a maze (you know a man in a nice suit playing with vermin can’t be all there). They’ve cost him millions, and of course, simply putting a bullet in their respective brain pans wouldn’t give him the satisfaction a megalomaniacal international criminal demands from his vengeance. No, they will not be made martyrs. With the help of an army of corrupt FBI agents (seriously, fuck those guys) and his trusty right-hand man, Requin (the late, great, Brion James, with a wee little pony tail and a rough ass British accent—“’e’s thuh guvnah”) set out our boys up but good.

The duo winds up in a prison that resembles the medieval fortress of some sadistic warlord. “They don’t put cops in general population.” Oh, let me tell you something, Tango. If you have the money, they’ll stick cops wherever you damn well please. Everyone is corrupt, our boys get pummeled, electrocuted, and generally FUBAR in a number of ways. Their only chance is a risky escape in the middle of an electrical storm that entails leaping from the top of a building, grabbing a power line, and using their belts to slide over the prison walls. Then all that remains is to clear their names, rescue the girl, and take down the bad guy. Nothing these he-man, super-cops can’t handle.

This is the all-star cast of all-star casts. Not only to we have Rocky Balboa and Jack Burton themselves doing battle with the powerful duo of Palance and James, but we got Teri Hatcher as Tango’s stripper sister who has a crush on Cash, James Hong as Quan, and Michael J. Pollard as Cash’s mildly retarded gadget crafting buddy (who do you think came up with those gun-boots?). Clint Howard pops up, Eddie Bunker shows his grizzled mug, and Billy Blanks even makes an uncredited appearance as a prison thug.

You know why I love this movie? I love this movie because in the climactic scene, they’re not afraid to have a bullet proof SUV with a 20-mil cannon on the side, tearing through a giant dirt maze while blowing the living shit out of everything, and being pursued, not only by multiple monster trucks (Gravedigger style, not just the jacked-up, redneck variety), but industrial grade earth-moving equipment. That, my friend, is balls.

In my opinion, this may have been the last hurrah of late 80’s, smart-ass, odd-couple, buddy-cop movies. They have a wisecrack for every occasion, aren’t afraid to beat information out of some sleaze-ball, and play by their own rules. There are not one, but two instances where a hand grenade is stuffed down the front of a pair of pants. Today, some grubby little Michael Bay knock-off would sink his eager little claws into this and we would wind up with a lot of seizure inducing cuts, or it would be relegated to the straight-to-video market and no one would take is seriously except yours truly and a half-dozen other like-minded people in the world. It would be tossed aside and forgotten before the next remake of a classic movie even gets the green light.

The era of seeing this brand of action on the big screen is long gone and regrettably lamented by few.

In the 70’s, Roger Corman had hungry young directors cutting their teeth on b-grade action movies for the drive-in circuit. I would like the DTV market to become the twenty-first century equivalent, where you go to pay your dues and hone your chops, but instead it is peopled largely by hacks and film-school rejects. There are a few bright spots, a slight glimmer of hope. Action luminaries like Seagal, Van Damme, and Snipes (sorry about that whole prison thing, Simon Phoenix), work exclusively in the genre, but the quality is hit and miss. To find the gems, you have to wade through the crap.

Alas, music videos are the new training ground. Quick cuts, slow-motion, and wires have replaced action sequences, blocking, and stunt work. We are destined to inhabit a future of CG heavy, holiday-weekend release, block-buster fodder, while true action toils below the surface. I’m glad Charles Bronson didn’t have to live to see this.

At least we still have Asia for action and horror (though anything decent will invariably be remade and dumbed down for our bland Western palate). And as long as Tony Jaa keeps kicking out the jams, there may still be hope.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Monster Squad

Some people have told me that Monster Squad doesn’t hold up over the years. Those people are what I like to call, wrong.

Yeah, it’s campy, but it was campy in 1987 when I was ten. You know what else it was in 1987 that it still is today? A lot of fun.

Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps, House, Robocop 3, prolonged obscurity) takes a bunch of kids, the bad guys from classic horror, some Stan Winston monster effects, and the resulting mash-up is a blast.

Dracula is back and plotting to take over the world. And who can stop him? A wily band of pre-teen misfits known as The Monster Squad, that’s who, fuck-o, and don’t you forget it. They may not have pubes, but they certainly have nards enough to man up and go toe-to-toe with Vlad, Wolf-Man, the Mummy, and the rest of his fiendish crew.

Dracula is a tool, Frankenstein’s monster is misunderstood, the Mummy is just a skull wrapped in toilet paper, and Wolf-Man just wants to be free from his curse so he doesn’t hurt anyone. “Scary German Guy (Leonardo Cimino) is bitchin’.” Not to mention a pie obsessed, concentration camp survivor (which Cimino is in real life—this is one of two on-screen instances where he flashes his real-life tattoo). You know he’s not going to puss out when it comes to facing some evil douche in a cape.

It was a kinder gentler time, where a young girl could befriend a giant monster constructed out of reanimated body parts, where you could make silver bullets in shop class during one of the prime preparing-to-fight-evil montages of the day. Gotcha and T&C Surf Designs gear abound. Have you ever seen garlic pizza used as a weapon with such prowess? Thought not.

Admit it, when you were a kid you wanted their fort, you wanted your friends hot sister, you wanted to fight monsters and save the day when no adults believed you. You, like them, just wanted to be important. Your parents were getting divorced, too, and you wanted something huge and earth shaking that would make them forget about fighting all the time and stay together forever. You had a friend named “Fat Kid,” there was a house in your neighborhood where no one trick or treated on Halloween, and you were a potty mouthed little shit, just like them.

Yeah, there are some questions. How did Van Helsing’s diary and a magic amulet wind up in small town middle-America in the hands of twelve-year old with a “Stephen King Rules” shirt? Where did Dracula get that bitchin’ hearse? Why is the Creature from the Black Lagoon so damn easy to kill? Who the fuck cares? The movie is less than eighty minutes long. You don’t have anything better to do for eighty minutes. You know you don’t.

“It was boss. I saw Dracula and kicked Wolf-Man in the nards.” That pretty much sums it up.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Bittersweet Life

Korea doesn’t fuck around. And they prove it with this existential look at the Korean mob in A Bittersweet Life.

Lee Byung-hun plays Kim Sun-woo. He is a handsome young man. Thin and unassuming, he resembles as Korean Conan O’Brien, if Conan O’Brien wasn’t eight feet tall. He also happens to be the baddest kid on the block. We get a glimpse of just how badass this guy is right out of the gate. Some local thugs, up to no good, have overstayed their welcome at the luxury hotel/club/brothel/HQ for all manner of nefarious dealings where Sun-woo is an ‘enforcer.’ He is summoned to take care of the problem. Calmly walking through the hotel, even the straight employees react to him with fear and reverence. He then proceeds to take down a roomful of mob heavies without so much as ruining the crease of his suit.

He is quiet, respectful, loyal to his ‘family,’ and most importantly, he takes care of business.

Trouble arises when President Kang (Kim Young-cheol) asks a personal favor of Sun-woo. He wants his trusted soldier to keep an eye on his nubile, twenty-something girlfriend, Hee-soo (Shin Min-ah). See, the boss suspects she’s fucking around on him behind his back. Sun-woo is supposed to watch her, and if she is in fact two timing, he is to do what he does best, TCOB.

Hee-soo is a sexy cellist with ridiculously cute, elf-like ears, who is in fact fucking around behind the old man’s back. Sun-woo discovers this, but after following her for a couple days, he’s smitten, and in a rare moment of conscience, he decides to neither kill the young lovers, nor inform his boss.

That’s when shit really starts to go downhill for our boy Sun-woo. There is some double dealing, betrayals of trust, he gets sold out by a joker named Moon-suk (Kim Roi-ha), and winds up on the wrong end of being buried alive.

Do you want to know just how badass my good friend Kim Sun-woo is? At this point in the film we’ve already seen him run a car full of jokers off the road in the middle of a freeway bridge, kick the living shit out of the lot of them, then throw the keys into the water. That’s pretty harsh, that guy probably had his house keys on that ring. He better hope his girlfriend still has that spare he left at her place, if not, he’s screwed.

Sun-woo is the kind of guy who will hit another dude with a lamp if he needs to. But he’ll probably feel bad and buy you a new lamp afterwards.

That’s tough, but now watch him, with a mangled left hand, dig his way out of a grave in the middle of a rainstorm. Captured again by his tormenters, Sun-woo then stabs Moon-suk in the face with a cell phone battery, and what follows is one of the best fight scenes in recent cinema. The weapon du jour? Flaming boards. And yes, some of the aforementioned flaming boards do have nails in them. I’ll leave the rest to your more than capable imaginations.

From here on out, A Bittersweet Life becomes a good old fashioned revenge story. “Reasons don’t matter anymore.” Sun-woo wants answers, and the only place he will find them is in vengeance.

There is action in this movie, but not action in the Bay/Bruckheimer kind of way. There are actual action sequences. Choreographed action, not just quick cuts, explosions in every frame, and slo-mo dives with a pistol in each hand.

The plot is deliberate and smooth. Director Kim Ji-woon (A Tale of Two Sisters) uses a lot of long takes that encompass the lingering shadows and modern architecture available in Seoul. The primary score is a haunting (yes, I said haunting—the girl is a freaking cellist, of course it’s haunting) mix of a lone piano overlaid by a mournful arrangement of strings. Brutal violence lurks just below this subdued, placid surface, and is all the more jarring when it erupts. Like I said, Sun-woo is the type of dude who will hit another dude with a lamp when the situation dicates.

A Bittersweet Life has one of the grimmest endings since The Great Silence (with a name like A Bittersweet Life you weren’t exactly expecting sunshine and lollipops, were you?). There is too much pride involved, everyone knows they are moving towards their ultimate destruction, but at the same time, they are all aware they have no other choice. They know no other way.

In the end, as he sits bleeding out on the stairs, the only conclusion Sun-woo can come to is “this is too harsh.” He has seen a vision of happiness, a life with Hee-soo, a possibility he knows can never happen.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Forgetting Sarah Marshall makes me hate that “Veronica Mars” girl a little bit less. Not because she’s great or hot or talented (she is in fact none of the above). But I now hate her a little bit less just for being involved in this movie in any way.

Jason Segel, my second favorite “Freaks and Geeks” alum, wrote and stars in this bawdy, hilarious romantic comedy produced by Judd Apatow. Now, I’m a sucker for a good romantic comedy, and if you’re a fan of Knocked Up, Superbad, The 40 Year Old Virgin, and the like, you’ve probably already seen this. Good. This shit is funny. You should see it again just to encourage these guys to keep making movies. This movie even made me like Mila Kunis a little bit, and that is something to be proud of.

Segel plays Peter Bretter, a hapless TV composer who somehow wound up dating sexy cop drama star, Sarah Marshall, played by Veronica Mars (and no, I will not be learning or using her real name—I said I hate her less than I used to, but that doesn’t mean my hate has dwindled to the point where I will learn the actual name her parents gave her). She dumps him in one of the funniest break up scenes I’ve ever seen. How can you dump a naked crying man? That’s just cold blooded. Of course there is another guy. Things happen, and Peter, drunk, despondent, and lonely, winds up at the same Hawaiian resort as his ex and her new beau. He cries a lot and drinks a lot of tropical drinks, then falls for the free-spirited hotel clerk played by Kunis.

The story isn’t really important here. You’ve seen a romantic comedy before; you know exactly what is going to happen. He falls for a new girl, the old girl wants him back, things get fucked up with the new girl, everything works out in the end. Only this time the end involves a puppet musical based on the story of Dracula. Yep.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall isn’t as free and loose as some of the movies this crew of fellows has made. There isn’t as much obvious improvisation as, say, Knocked Up. It is more structured, and the story is tighter, but it still has as many, if not more, fall down funny moments as any of the other movies you have in your collection. And the amount of dick shown on screen is pretty impressive. Seriously, I feel like I could be best man at the wedding for Jason Segel’s wang.

The supporting cast is spot on, including Russell Brand as a slimy, long-haired British rock star, and Judd Apatow regulars Jonah Hill as a doting groupie, Bill Hader as Peter’s straight laced step-brother, and Paul Rudd as a stoned surf instructor. Also, keep an eye out for Branscombe Richmond, a.k.a. Bobby Sixkiller of “Renegade” fame.

Juno

I finally got around to watching this years cuddly indie darling Juno. You already know what it’s about, so I won’t bore you with the details. Yeah, it was cute, and I admit there are some moments where I laughed out loud, and I do love Michael Cera, possibly the most adorably awkward human being alive. This is the kind of movie my ex, KG, would be all about for a few months, until the charm wore off and the next super-cutesy, touchy-feely lil’ flick with an annoyingly perky soundtrack came out to obsess over. It tries way too hard to be quirky and mostly just succeeds in being annoying. I imagine there are a lot of funky secretaries who quote this movie and think they’re hip and edgy.

Cera plays his usual disaffected and uncomfortable teen, a role I’m sure he’ll be playing well into his thirties, a role I’m sure I will continue to enjoy. This time, however, he runs cross-country and inhales box after box of orange Tic Tacs.

The other high point for me is Jason Bateman. I continue to be stoked that he has a post “Hogan Family” career. He plays a skeevy, thirty-something sellout who is married to man-faced Jennifer Garner, the worst actress in generations. They want to adopt the titular character’s unborn baby. He writes commercial jingles, clings to the time in ’93 when his tight band opened for the Melvins, and desperately dreams of regaining some sort of rock stardom, or at least a little bit of legitimacy in his own eyes. Bateman is wonderful as a dick who wants to bang a pregnant teen. I thoroughly enjoyed his subtle creepiness.

Oh yeah, the script was written by an ex-stripper, whoop-dee-doo.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Wild Zero

I first encountered Wild Zero, this rock’n’roll zombie escapade, at a midnight showing for the Seattle International Film Festival. The Egyptian had to delay the start by twenty minutes to accommodate the expansive restroom lines. I went based on love shared for both the undead and Guitar Wolf, the raucous Japanese trio who are the ostensible stars of the film. I was immediately infatuated, though for years I had to sate my lust with an inferior bootleg VHS copy. Synapse Films finally grew a pair and the movie got an official DVD release. I rented it from Scarecrow, watched it three times in a day and a half, and bought a copy of my very own when I returned the rental.

All you really need to know about this movie is encapsulated within the drinking game on the DVD. Yes it has a built in drinking game. When you are supposed to drink the silhouette of a mug appears in the upper right hand corner. You drink when one or more of the following things happen: when someone drinks, when someone combs their hair, when fire shoots out of anything, when someone says rock’n’roll, when anything explodes and when a zombie’s head pops. All of these things happen. All of these things happen a lot. From personal experience, don’t play it with hard alcohol, I will not end well.

And remember, Ace, “love has no borders, nationalities or genders.” Words to live by.

Heston RIP

Being a proud life-long lefty wing-nut, but also an equally committed devotee of the Cinema of the Badass, I am understandably torn by the death of Charlton Heston last week on April 5th. He opposed abortion, I try to keep abortion awesome. He opposed gun control (despite issuing a statement that supported it in 1968 after Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated), I don’t. There was precious little middle ground between our political beliefs, but that aside, films like Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, Soylent Green and Almost an Angel impacted my life far more deeply than I care to admit.

Well, my friend, my enemy, my Moses, it will now be a little easier to pry that rifle from your cold, dead hands. Good bye, Heston, sweet, sweet Heston.