Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Community: A Pre-emptive Eulogy

News of the renewal of Arrested Development for a fourth season via Netflix seems to have been met with a mixture of muted excitement and skepticism from even the three-season sitcom's most ardent fans.  Creator Mitchell Hurwitz has said he plans only ten more episodes (no word yet on that ever-so elusive movie the cast keeps teasing).  Some fans are concerned the show will "Family Guy-itself."  I don't mean to suggest a qualitative comparison between the two shows, only to say that when both shows were cancelled they had garnered a vocally pissed-off viewership.  Though Family Guy began to show signs of spinning its wheels early in its run, protests against its deletion from the Sunday night line-up prompted FOX to allow it to continue to do for the past six years.  "Arrested Development's fate was seemingly more final.  FOX had already cut the second season from 22 episodes to 18 (something the show even winked at - and winking at the mistakes the suits at the network are making always plays out well - I'm looking at you, Norm MacDonald).  By the third season, they only ordered 13 episodes and unceremoniously ran the last four in a two hour block against the opening of the Winter Olympics, effectively pouring cement in Hurwitz child's already deep grave.

There was brief talk of Development being rescued by HBO or Showtime that never came to fruition.  Now, Netflix, desperate for some kind of facelift, has stepped in.

Of course, Arrested Development couldn't possibly Family Guy-itself.  It was a show with a coherent throughline, well-drawn characters and, if we're comparing the two, Development's pop-culture references served the plot as opposed to just being one-off jokes.  The fans' skepticism comes from the fact that, though rushed, the last four episodes successfully wrapped up the lingering plot threads and gave Michael Bluth, the burdened main character, a moment of serenity.  In other words, they managed to conclude it properly.  So a fear of spinning wheels in the sand with a new season and possible film is justified.  Family Guy can go on forever, should the network allow.  The Simpsons have been on air since 1989 and have been repeating plotlines since before the millennium (they're still better than Family Guy, by the way).  Arrested Development completes a story.  So fans' nervousness about continuing a story that ended as best it could in the time it had is legitimate.

Either way, around the same time fans skeptically rejoiced at the resurrection of Arrested Development, NBC saw fit to put a currently-airing, equally cultish sitcom on hiatus.  The rest of season three of Community has been delayed from airing until 2012 and, though NBC has assured audiences that the rest of the season will be shot and aired, it smells to even some of the cast a brief layover is on the way to imminent cancellation.

I've had my issues with Community, but a great deal of them grew out of what I've come to expect from a sitcom since America has started to ween itself off the dreaded laugh track.  While middle-America still wants to be told what's funny via canned laughter, catchphrases and subtle bawdiness, the rest of the country that bookends that particular black hole seems to have gotten a handle on the whole "when to laugh" thing all by themselves.

(Note to middle America: If I'm glad you're poor, it's only because you can't afford a television to ruin the ratings of superior shows.  If I'm upset that you're poor, it's only because I want to rally to find you employment - preferably a nightjob - so you'll be too busy to watch Two and a Half Men.  And if I want you to die off, it's only because I want people who regularly watch The Big Bang Theory to die off.)  

And now, sans-laugh track, the modern sitcoms' ability to inject some kind of heart between characters is equally no longer hampered by a canned-fawning "aw" or a "woo" for an ethnically diverse kiss.  Freed from the necessity of constant one-liners to keep an audience's attention, sitcoms can now allow their characters to grow, develop a continuity that can rival premium cable dramas (which also has picked up some emotionally and plottingly complex half-hour comedies).

With Arrested Development gone, it seemed Community was primed take the mantle of clever, laugh track-free network sitcoms.  Has it entirely succeeded?

Not quite, but on these days, you take what you can get.

For the uninitiated, Community began as a deceptively simple sitcom about disgraced, slimy lawyer, Jeff Winger, forced to attend Greendale College to validate his Bar exam.  Immediately he is sidetracked by an attractive, over-earnest blonde named Britta and, in order to get closer to her, forms a Spanish study group of quirky strangers for her to attend.

Sounds like a standard premise for just about any new sitcom - until, that plotline is almost immediately forgotten, Jeff grows less shallow, and by the end of the first season there's an episode devoted to (expertly directed) action movie-parodies with paintball guns.  The only thing keeping show grounded from then on is the staunch devotion creator Dan Harmon has to continuity.  No matter how zany the premise of the episode may be, its events still manage to effect future and ongoing plotlines.

Harmon is a man who clearly grew up on television, poking fun of standard sitcom tropes while still embracing them fully (my favourite: a "clip show" episode in which none of the clips the cast reminisces about in the frame-story were ever actually in an episode).

He's also savvy enough to understand that a die-hard cult audience appreciates layered easter eggs.  It took me several viewings to realize one of the lead characters helped deliver a baby throughout the background of an entire season 2 episode (which also comes into play later in the season in a major way).  Just recently, someone posted this youtube:  Notice that after the third utterance of
"Beetlejuice" a man dressed as the Michael Keaton character walks by behind the blinds.  This is also in keeping with the show's continuity, as it was a Halloween episode.  Also note that all three utterances of "Beetlejuice" occured exactly one season apart from one another.

That same love of classic television makes the casting of Chevy Chase as the curmudgeonly, racist ("I'm not racist...I have a young Afro-American friend") billionaire Pierce Hawthorne.  Chase famously burned a lot of bridges after leaving Saturday Night Live halfway through the second season to pursue Hollywood fame.  Similarly, Hawthorne seems to have lost a lot due to his old-world attitudes and now is trying to garner respect from a world that no longer understands him and he never could grasp ("How long was I out?  Is Napster still a thing?").  Episode two involves Hawthorne trying to impress Jeff by turning a five-line Spanish presentation into an elaborate play that, as Jeff says, was "oddly critical of Israel."  It is to Chase's credit that he can finally easily lampoon himself after years of rumoured bitterness.

Another standout performer in an already stellar cast is Stand-Up/Hip-Hop Artist Donald Glover as Troy Barnes, the dim-witted former-high school football star who finds himself a fish-out-of-water when he finds himself bereft of his glory days.  In a telling and heartfelt early episode, Troy flirts with returning to football at Greendale and reverts to his former cocky self.  It's only when he befriends Abed - a seeming autistic with an elaborate working knowledge of pop-culture - that he embraces his nerdiness and comes full circle.

Even Gillian Jacob's Britta, the show's least-developed character, is wisely portrayed as a needlessly-defiant activist who, as Jeff says, "has seen the world and doesn't get it" with a desire to make an impact in said world but has yet to find her own way.

Try getting anything close to that depth of character from a standard, half-hour laugh-a-thon.

There are episodes seemingly universally beloved by fans that left me cold, mostly laughless.  Some of the more dramatic decisions Community made run incongruous to some of the sillier ones.  But perhaps that's exactly why its audience is so die-hard.  There's a kind of discord between heart and comedy (and plenty of nerdy references and parodies to boot) not seen since Arrested Development, yet its not as cynical.  There is a sincerity to Community that doesn't get undercut with a laugh, as though embarrassed by it.  That's a tight rope to walk, particularly when the sillier, more parody driven episodes are getting more and more outlandish.

Both Community and Arrested Development burst out of their premieres as seemingly shows with nothing to lose - black sheeps of successful line-ups to network executives and the old guard, but pioneering wonder boys of what is to come.

Should this hiatus mean what fans all fear, let that be Community's epitaph.  In a way, Community is the reverse of its character Pierce Hawthorne: boldy progressive and ahead of the times.

Fans might even call it, "Streets ahead."

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Children's Films That Will Irrevocably Screw Up Your Children (pt. 1)

1.  The Monster Squad (1987)

The movie:  A group of ragtag nerdy 11-year-olds go up against Frankenstien, The Mummy, Wolfman and The Creature From The Black Lagoon, who Dracula has recruited to help him find an amulet that could destroy the world.  Also, the kids become friends with Frankenstein and the fat one kicks Wolfman in the nards (hey, he said "nards," not me:

That sounds like fun.  Harmless Halloween-style fun.  What's the problem? 

The story is that director Fred Dekker (since placed in director jail without parole due to Robocop 3) wanted to update the classic Abbott-and-Costello-Meet-MGM-Monster-and-hilarity-ensues formula with a charming, funny, kid-friendly movie.  The DVD's special features explain why and how this plan turned into a fairly violent, creepy, unfriendly kid's movie.

First, MGM would not lend out the rights to the designs, forcing special effects artist Stan Winston to create new looks for the monsters.  This is the late, great Stan Winston of Jurassic Park fame - also Pumpkinhead, Predator, The Terminator, Friday the 13th part 3D, and Danny DeVito in Batman Returns - real kid-friendly looking stuff.  As a result, to a child, the new Creature, the greasy Frankenstien and the decimated Mummy are fairly terrifying.

One day, Dekker approached the screenwriter during lunch thinking he was doing rewrites. It turned out he was actually tinkering with his next screenplay, which would turn into Lethal Weapon.  Shane Black, the highest paid screenwriter of all time, wrote a kid's movie.  This led to said kids movie involving a lot of blood and death, explosions, near-nudity, vicious stabbings, a mummy unraveling into nothing but a skull and - hey, what the hell - he threw in references to the holocaust too.  Of course, as a grown person in 2011, it's fairly tame, but for 1987, it's pretty gruesome.

Okay...but is it worth fucking up my kid for?

Absolutely.  It was my favourite movie for a time when I was young.  It's often funny, pays plenty of homage to the old great horror films.  It also updates them in inventive, clever ways.  It also includes the most awesome '80s montage ever and an original Monster Squad rap over the credits.  Enjoy it for the camp, or just plain nostalgia.  Basically, it's The Goonies if The Goonies didn't suck.

2.  Watership Down (1978)

The movie:  This animated adaptation of Richard Adams' novel features a group of anthropomorphic rabbits trying to escape a facist rabbit leader.  It all boils down to a rabbit war, involving a dog ripping the animals to shreds.

That sounds like a clever, educational allegory, what's the problem?

Yes, it is a clever, powerful allegory for tyranny and it stays pretty faithful to its source material.  In fact, The Economist hailed the original novel as a triumph, proclaiming, "If there's no place for Watership Down in children's literature, then children's literature is dead."  So its a timeless adapt-Um....I'm sorry, I need to address this, did you miss the part where I said a dog tears a rabbit to shreds on screen?  Because, even though animated, it is gruesome.  It isn't just the dog, it also contains extreme rabbit-on-rabbit violence.  And animated blood.  So much animated blood.

Is it...can I...?

Considering that I saw it for the first time last year and it left me in a fetal position, it's a tough call.  You should, but I'd wait a couple of years or really drill it into the kid that rabbits suck and deserve to be literally torn into pieces in front of their eyes.  The animation is incredibly unique, the voice acting by John Hurt and Nigel Hawthorne is compelling.  And the kid's gotta learn there's awful in the world one day, right?

3.  Cloak and Dagger (1984)

The movie:  For some reason, 11-year-old Davey wants his imaginary friend to resemble his widowed father, a pilot.  Both the father and the friend are played by Dabney Coleman (my imaginary friend was way cooler-looking).  After witnessing a murder, the victim hands Davey a video-game cartridge containing military secrets.  Davey and his imaginary friend - a secret agent named Jack Flack - are on the run from murderous spies.

That sounds like a great child fantasy, in the tradition of The Last Starfighter and The Manhattan Project...wait, what's wrong with this one?  Nothing, right?  This is a trick.  Every healthy, growing boy has an action movie fantasy like that.

Typically, a growing boy's action movie fantasy doesn't involve murdering a guy for killing your imaginary friend and implied psychological trauma.  Near the end of the movie, the villain shoots at the boy, hitting a wall where the boy thought Jack Flack stood.  So the 11-year-old grabs a gun and straight-out murders the guy.  Realizing that Jack Flack had tricked him into shooting the villain, the boy becomes filled with rage, shouting "I don't wanna play anymore" like, you know, a lunatic would.

But the trauma doesn't end there.  The remaining evil spies take over a commercial airliner.  They kidnap little Davey and, in exchange for him unharmed, demand a pilot so that they may flee the country with the military secrets in hand.  The spies are unaware that Davey intentionally smuggled a bomb onto the plane (this is, I forgot to mention, the most malevolently clever 11-year-old boy of all time; also, he seems to have a death wish).

Remember when I mentioned, for seemingly no reason, that Davey's actual Dabney Coleman was a pilot at the start?  Yeah, he volunteers to fly the plane in exchange for his son.  In the distance, Davey watches the plane explode, only moments later seeing his father walk away unharmed and hug him.  The happiest ending ever.

Except, hold on.  We never saw Davey's father leave the plane.  There was no reason he would, he was just as unaware of the bomb as the evil spies.  So we're left to assume that Davey's real Dabney Coleman is as dead as his imaginary one, and his dead father is now his new imaginary friend.  The child, now officially orphaned, has had yet another psychotic break.

Suck on that, kids.

Should I allow them this kind of existential crisis so early on?

It's most likely that your child won't understand that kind of psychological complexity, and rather just think his dad got out of the plane somehow.  Hell, that's what I thought at first.  It would take a pretty advanced toddler to latch on to the fact that little Davey is well on his way to being a serial killer with delusions of grandeur.  Though as I got older, I started to think about the logistics of the ending, and it haunted me.

Jesus God, what have you done to my child?

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On Mean Doctors and Meth Manufacturers: The Limits and Virtues of Network Television

In case you haven't noticed, last month Fox's medical procedural drama "House" entered it's eighth and most likely final season.  And of course you haven't, you have basic cable - and in the past ten  years, it's become far more interesting than some story-of-the-week that will easily be forgotten come 7 days later. I sincerely doubt you noticed beyond catching a teaser in between your beloved sitcom of choice (if said sitcom is not currently "Community," it's unlikely you and I are terribly close) or passing through the room while your parents watched a Criminal Mind or an NCIS or a CSI: JAG (which I think is just what I call NCIS).  

Occasionally a network show will have a two-parter, some will even drag out story arcs over half a season or so.  But ultimately network television was borne of and worships but one God:  Episode.  No matter how many follow or reference past events, past events will remain just that.  Once said arc is completed, there may be passing reference for superfans (of which I can't imagine there would be many for shows that are intentionally disposable), but otherwise, no matter who nearly dies, who has sleeps with who, who has guilt over shooting who, who gets addicted to what - for the most part - network TV has remained successful for nearly 50 years because people have lives outside of television (read: the employed, attractive or World of Warcraft-obsessed).  By it's very nature, it has to be familiar, but not intrusive.

I realize I'm not saying anything new, necessarily.

Throughout my childhood, I suffered severe migraines and missed a lot of school. This meant I grew up with hours of reruns of '70s and '80s television each day.  A&E, weekdays, by 2 p.m. I'd be in my parents' room leaning on a chest and a pillow on the floor, parked in front of the most diligent, clever, and kind detectives, judges, doctors - it ran the typical TV drama gamut.  Judge Harry Stone would rather show a perp a magic trick than convict.  Peter Falk's Detective Columbo used to constantly ask forgiveness for bothering people he totally knew just murdered some guy (I recall more than once, the killer was Leslie Nielsen - how did he get out of jail the first time?); hell, they even ran the ill-fated "MASH" spin-off "Trapper John M.D." - who had aged greatly but was as benevolent as ever.  That's how doctors were in those days, that's how heroes on TV were.  They were the ombudsmen between the ensuing episodic conflict and resolution and - rest assured audience that just endured Vietnam, The Manson Family Murders, Watergate, Mark David Chapman killing John Lennon, assassination attempts on both Carter and Reagan, the Iran Hostage Crisis, Iran-Contra, gas shortages - at least they wouldn't fail you.

Until recently.  A lot has been written of the rise of television's anti-hero as the predominantly popular figure since James Gandolfini first hunkered down with his therapist in the pilot episode of "The Sopranos."  Ever since, premium cable channels such as HBO and AMC (and Showtime, but only if you're a 14 year-old living with Ambien-induced parents who has no other access to softcore pornography), have been rightly praised as a new kind of television drama.  For talented, sometimes legendary actors appearing in a television show ten years earlier would have been considered a step down.  Today, those very same actors you'd think would remain forever on the silver screen, are flocking to premium television dramas.  It's not just the actors, either.  Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte will soon star in director Michael Mann's executive-produced HBO series "Luck" (and, being a prominent EP for a high-profile show means you must at least direct the pilot).  Alexander Payne produces "Hung."  Martin Scorcesse, of course, works just as closely with "Boardwalk Empire."

Once again, I doubt I'm reporting new information.  A lot credit has been given to those premium cable channels for changing the game.  So it may be a little controversial to argue that, next to HBO's "The Sopranos," "House" deserves a little bit of credit as well.

That fact that "House," a network procedural that wrestles with complex ideas without the criteria to explore them beyond heavy-handed dialogue, is still on the air is emblematic of the reason it's not credited more for paving the way for more bold television storytelling.

When it began in 2003, it wasn't a procedural that most of America who would invest their time weekly would have a lot of fun with.  Its themes were dark.  The first three seasons addressed issues such as why people lie; why we like one another; do we test our friends intentionally?  What's the limit to a cynical philosophy?  What good does commitment to such a philosophy do?  And my favourite, parents have a natural impetus to protect their offspring, except for all the ones who don't.

I was quite excited to enjoy a procedural drama of a caustic, vicodin-addicted doctor who doesn't care about his patients, as past television doctors.  Quite the opposite.  I think he was as necessary, if not more so, as Tony Soprano in the through-line TV critics like to trace in the evolution of the anti-hero.  If network television, or more importantly, an audience hadn't embraced a show in which the hero was pretty much fully unlikable, then who would have taken a risk on "Breaking Bad," whose character winds up inexcusably evil in ways his milquetoast personality would have never suggested?

Of course, in network TV, "House" had to the have a caveat to be sold - "He's a jerk...but he saves lives! And he's flawed!  See?  He's actually the good guy."  But Dr. House earned another get-out-of-jail free card that other shows with an anti-hero don't:  he's funny.  He's a wisecracking prick, and that's worked since screwball comedies, so long as they get their comeuppance.  The issue with House now, is that he's been shot by the husband of an angry patient, nearly imprisoned by a vengeful cop he unnecessarily stuck with a rectal thermometer, is constantly tormented by his addiction and his leg (even trying methadone), and been imprisoned.  Thus is the curse of network television.  If the ratings work, they always want more.  Premium cable has all but eradicated that issue.  It's the economy of story that creates this possibility.  Think about how much happens during an episode of a show such as "Breaking Bad" or "Mad Men" (a friend mentioned to me last night that, during the last season of the latter, pretty much nothing happened).  An entire episode of "Breaking Bad" focused on Walter White and his partner trying to get a fly out of the meth lab lest it contaminate it, but the minutiae and gravity of previous episodes gave "Fly" an epic emotional resonance.

The networks allow creators to tell complete stories, have arcs that will call back to several seasons previous.  In short, it forces the audience to become far more engaged and attentive and doesn't ask forgiveness for the sometimes horrible acts the characters sometimes carry out.  There aren't always the easy outs of humour and decency, no comfort zones (oh, and they get to say "shit" after 10 p.m. now).  This allows a much darker look at the worlds each show inhabits, but also a much broader and interesting one.

There are plenty of network shows that are dark - I've mentioned a few of them - but they serve another purpose. I recall an episode of "Criminal Minds" (a show I'm convinced has some kind of Videodrome-esque ability to make you dumber should you succumb to it) in which the killer was rather brutally cutting off someone's hand - yet many fans of the show would never sit through a gruesomely violent horror film, or an episode of "The Walking Dead" because - well, quite like the characters in "The Walking Dead," they'd be in unfamiliar territory.  A show in which, after 10 p.m. jaws are allowed to be ripped off and eyes blown out by revolvers.  What particularly angers me about "Criminal Minds" is the audience's willingness to take it seriously.  Criminal profiling has often been debunked - and though there are psychological ideas in the minds of killers that many sub-types share, it's much more undramatic and far more complex.  This is evidence of what I consider a danger of cracking a drink, sitting down after a hard day and "turning your brain off" as too many people like to say.

But there's hope for primetime as well, as many recent critically-acclaimed dramas are beggining to emulate their premium cable counterparts.  "The Good Wife," a CBS hit, began as a standard procedural with a Blagojevichian-hook and quickly developed into a West Wing-esque show about the sacrifices one makes in balancing personal and private life.  "Lost" spent six seasons (three to four of them nearly universally appreciated) laid out a complex, epic mystery that it doled out in ways that often tested it's fans' patience (and infuriated others).  Risks are still being taken, even though these shows still must adhere to the standard primetime formula.

After there was a television in nearly every home in America - so ashamed at what was coming out of his precious cathode receptor - inventor Philo T. Farnsworth drank his ass to death.  He lived just long enough to witness the moon landing on his invention, which he considered the one redeeming piece of footage for which it was ever used.  It almost, he claimed, made it worthwhile.  A lot has happened since we faked the moon landing (I'm kidding, we totally landed on the moon, I just assumed "faked the moon landing" might draw a lot of hits from crazy people who just learned google), both in fictional shows as well as innovations such as 24 hour news networks.  One must wonder just what Farnsworth, if anything, would have thought of a more innovative, exploratory kind of storytelling.  Though one also must wonder what he watched, if anything, that made him think he brought about the end of intellectual thinking.  If he were still alive, would he have preferred the cynicism of Dr. House or Walter White of "Breaking Bad"?  Would he have preferred a show with a barrage of cliche or obnoxious catch-phrases and laugh tracks like "Laugh-In" or something like "The Dick Van Dyke Show" - a show that preternaturally understood the absurdity of Farnsworth's gift to humanity, and embraced its invention just as much as it did its silly, silly use?

What will the next show offer us?

We'll never know, of course.  But we certainly all know what we like.

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Friday, September 23, 2011

Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (very late)

Never will you cheer for the downfall of humankind as much as you will during Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Part-prequel, part remake of the fourth film in the original series (with many references to all), Apes is quite possibly the best and most surprising blockbuster out there.

James Franco plays a scientist obsessed with finding an alzheimer's cure.  He is personally invested due to his father's condition (John Lithgow).  His lead test ape for the new drug goes mad and is shot dead during an investors' meeting.  Turns out, however, she was protecting her baby, who Franco raises and soon realizes his drug can be passed on through generations.

From there, it is almost entirely the apes story - from its love of Lithgow (who doesn't? Even an ape loves that man) to its encagement and, soon after, its prison break.

Franco described his role as "work for hire" but I don't think that meant he was in a bad film.  He meant it wasn't his story.  Andy Serkis, of King Kong fame, the world's finest CGI actor, plays every ape in the film (also, he's quite good as David Bowie's assistant in The Prestige).  And he delivers an expressive performance. Most of the film is from the apes' perspective.  The motion-capture (and this is coming from someone who rarely cares about such things) has never looked better.  The humans slowly start to dissipate from the narrative.

Despite a few trite and obvious references to the original films, it becomes a touching and terrifying story of its own.  Essentially, it's The Shawshank Redemption of the Apes.

Though we're never one step beyond or one step behind any character in the film, it remains an absolutely perfect thriller; at some point, as I said, getting you on the side of ending the world as we know it.

And that's how James Franco ended the world as we know it.  Spoiler alert.  Kind of.

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Review: Drive

Drive is a film that doesn't take enough advantage of what the economic story and subtlety of dialogue allows it.  In fact, it regularly abuses it - behaving like the worst kind of throwback to '80s crime noir (are we already getting that reminiscent?).  It's a Michael Mann film from a foreigner's perspective.  It wants to recall the great To Live and Die In L.A. and Heat, but instead reminds you of Miami Vice.  What should be dream-like and hypnotizing, such as constant shots overhead the Los Angeles skyline, come off without even the glory of being pastiche.

But it's not all bad.  Ryan Gosling stars as the titular unnamed Driver, who works part-time as a stunt-driver for films and nightshades as an escape driver for various heists.  He drives with as much precision as he speaks - both like a man with autism.

After getting involved with a woman next door to his apartment (Carey Mulligan) while at the same time being drawn into a deal with a mob boss and his partner (Ron Pearlman and, in an inspired casting decision, Albert Brooks), both situations cross paths in the messy, noir-ish ways you'd expect.

Brooks is especially fun.  Hearing that familiar groaning voice of a stand-up turn sinister is chilling.  He plays a mob heavy as though I'd never seen one played before; as someone who actually feels bad about doing bad things.  When killing a man he likes, he assures him there'll be no pain.  There's nothing glamorous about what he does, and he knows it.  It's a very impressive display.  Pearlman,  while entertaining, is in all out gangster-mode.  He's a resentful schmuck who'll stop at nothing for his place in his world.

Drive is unbearably tense in its slow-burn early scenes - with Gosling and Mulligan taking deep, long pauses between conversations as the camera just lingers.  There are shots clearly inspired by Taxi Driver, such as the well-known shot of De Niro on the phone in which the camera passes by him as though uninterested.  Here, that shot means something else;  it becomes the character that lacks interest.

Unfortunately, Drive doesn't change that kind of momentum in any way.  Even when the film lingers on long pauses of glorified (often unnecessarily) gruesome violence, there are still shockingly long pauses.  If anything, the shots should have suddenly been shorter, the action more heightened rather than left dull and gruesome.  It was as though a European filmmaker took hold of Dirty Harry halfway through production, and didn't fully understand it.  The audience wouldn't have been able to decipher such a film either.  The aesthetics are there, and some of them are quite good, but in the end it's just a brutal mess.

There are things to marvel at in Drive, though nothing to gawk at but the gruesome last third.  It's almost comically violent in a film that doesn't seem to have a sense of humour - one thing most neo-noirs get to enjoy.

It's masterfully shot, with a thrilling opening scene.  It's certainly not all style, no substance, but it definitely makes you wonder just how much substance is entirely borrowed and how much is earned.

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Friday, May 13, 2011

In Memoriam

I am mumbling and muttering. The things I say might be construed as charming and intelligent if she could make them out through the molasses slur. But she’s cringing and edging toward the fat guy in the red sweater vest on the opposite side of her. Earlier, when light still poured through the porthole windows of Reggie’s and the booze was more conservative, she had told me he wasn’t attractive and that he had a weird smell coming off of him. Now she clings to him; anything but me.

“Warren G. Harding was the most corrupt president. Fuck Nixon,” I try to say. If she didn’t turn her attention from me, I would explain that Harding was chock-full of whores, opium and booze.
I plan to finish my story, but Kyle slaps my back and puts his arm around me.

“Wanna get out of here?”

I nod. “This place sucks.”

“Before we go…” Kyle says and slaps a pack of matches in my right palm.

I don’t say goodbye to the girl, whose name I either never heard or forgot, as I head to the men’s room. Behind the matches is a small plastic bag half-filled with Columbian nose powder. In the stall, I take a small pile on the edge of my house key and inhale through my left nostril, then my right.
I am elated. I am beaming. I am headed to the next club to find a less judgmental woman. Kyle and I step out on the snowy side street - arm in arm - singing Beach Boys tunes.

“Plan?” I ask.

“I have something special lined up.”

I follow him outside, both of us sipping from a mickey of Troika Vodka Kyle keeps in his messenger bag. We stumble down Peel toward St. Jacques and into an abandoned construction site in between the old O’Keefe’s brewery and a police station. It is a half-finished, six-story building with only a skeleton exterior.
There is an alley on the left. We find a fire escape that leads to the roof. Without speaking, we climb it. We are confronted with a bitter chill that burns out cheeks into a rosy mess. The Montreal skyline hovers. The buildings slide down the side of the island like collapsing tombstones. We sit with our legs dangling off the Northeast corner of the roof, waiting for it all to come down. We trade swigs.

“Good to be done. Fuckin‘ semester,” Kyle says.

I come clean. “I‘m not done.”


“My last final was two hours ago, I didn’t show up.”

We laugh in sync at nothing at all, until the pedestrians and traffic below are drowned out in boozy giggles and guffaws. And when it subsides, I search for another break in silence.
To my left is a pile of car tires and unused bricks. I stand, stumble, but recompose myself and grab a tire.
I lob the first one off; it probably lands in the alley. The next heads into St. Jacques.

“What the fuck?!?” Kyle screams.

I turn around, expecting to see someone else; someone lovely. Then I remember she’s gone. She was lovely and now she’s gone.

A brick I throw lands in the police yard. Glass shattering. The echo of a car alarm.

We run. Down, down down.

We run until we’re on the street. We run until I slip and land hard on a snowy plain.

I wake up hours later, half-drowning in the rain water falling from above. My cheeks sting and my head aches. Dried blood crusts over my upper lip.

I am in a park filled with industrial sculptures somewhere off Rene Levesque, alone.

I climb over the park wall and sit atop it, watching the morning traffic rise and fall out of view on the 720.
Last call ended hours ago, but I know a little place. Sun is rising now. Where are we headed for breakfast? Someplace close, I hope. Darling, I’m just too damn exhausted.

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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Old Movie Review: Phone Booth (2002)

I plan to make this a regular column; revisiting older works in a present context as best I can.  Hope you enjoy.

Director: Joel Schumacher.
Starring: Colin Farrell, Forrest Whitaker, Radha Mitchell, Kiefer Sutherland (who is a pirate, and that would explain everything:, Katie Holmes.

I recall quite enjoying Phone Booth in theatres.  It was the kind of audacious, high-concept thriller that could easily attract a general popcorn crowd, but also manage to cram in a few ideas about human connection and such and such (more "and such and such" than anything else).  At best, it was the most entertaining useless yuppie redemption film of the early 2000s, far surpassing screenwriter Larry Cohen's Cellular - a film equally obsessed with antiquated technology.

Upon revisiting it, could there have possibly been a worse director than Batman & Robin's Joel Schumacher for a film meant to be set entirely on a city block?

So, instead, the movie opens in space, zooming into New York to focus on a barrage of cell phone users.  According to Wikipedia and IMDB (granted, not the most reliable sources), Cohen apparently pitched the idea of a man stuck in a phone booth for an entire film to Alfred Hitchcock in the 60's.  Though Hitchcock liked the idea, neither party could think of a reason for a man to stay in a booth for a feature-length film.  I somewhat doubt the veracity of the story, given that rifle assassins in book depositories and motels were rather prevalent at the time.  According to Cohen, the idea of a sniper only occured to him in the late nineties.  The film was then delayed release after filming due to the D.C. sniper attacks.

Cell phones were largely ubiquitous by 2002, so Cohen goes a long way to justify the use of a phone booth.  This leads to an obnoxious, Twilight Zone-style narration full of statistical data on the uprise of cell phone use and the upcoming destruction of one of the last phone booths left in Times Square - the one, of course, our lead Colin Farrell is destined to use.  Farrell, an egocentric PR man, spends the first fifteen minutes of the film wheeling and dealing with some of the most ham-fisted movie-celebrities ever on screen.  Hollywood can be really good at parodying itself, particularly when actual L.A. royalty is willing to participate.  But a 62-year-old screenwriter like Cohen, mostly known for his excellent, offbeat B-movies as opposed to mainstream genre schlock like this, gets you an Eminem-clone named Big Q offering up lines like, "Voodoo on you-do, motherfucker, from Big Q to Big Stu!"

So after Schumacher introduces us to, you know, space, Farrell lands in a phone booth.  By 2002, again, even this requires justification.  Farrell takes off his wedding ring to call his would-mistress (Katie Holmes) so his wife won't catch the call on his cell phone bill.  After being rejected for drinks with Holmes, the phone rings, and the robotic but oddly threatening voice of Kiefer Sutherland takes over the movie.  At least now, it's genuinely fun crap.  The first act, consisting of Farrell doing his job, is nearly unbearable; using old screenwriter tricks to establish Farrell as fast as possible.  Unpleasant though it may be, it works.  But once Sutherland kicks in, at the very least it becomes fun.

But Joel Schumacher didn't think so.  So terrified was he at the prospect of filming something claustrophobic, he constantly employs busy little inserts of police gearing up and other frantic action.  Cohen's script is fast-paced and smart enough for a film like this.  There's quite a lot going on outside the booth to keep the story moving - including Forrest Whitaker as the most needy hostage negotiator ever written.  He mentions his divorce repeatedly, but not in the way a negotiator would - more like he needed the sniper victim to counsel him (bad fucking timing, right?).

Sutherland's voice, creepy as it is, also never establishes much of a motive.  He mentions shooting a Wall Street investor who stole millions and refused to repent, as well as a German child pornographer.  What's Farrell's crime?  He almost cheats on his wife.  Almost, maybe.  For a sniper/serial killer, it just seems like a step far too down. German child pornographers and Bernie Madoff?  I'm with you, Kiefer Sutherland.  But aren't there worse people to prosecute who use pay phones?  Drug dealers, at least, still used phone booths in the early 2000s. A guy who's only crime is being kind of a self-promoting dick?

But Sutherland sells it.  His voice carries.  But Farrell's doesn't.

As I said, the yuppie redemption story is just brutal, with self-confessional lines like, "My two-thousand dollar watch is a fake and so am I!"

It would have been wonderful to see what Hitchcock would have done, if that story is accurate.  It's a feat he pulled off beautifully with Rope, a far better film and one that includes even more of a gimmick.  I think Schumacher was afraid the gimmick wouldn't sell action figures.

I must close, though, on a full-fledged defense of Larry Cohen.  I've been a little hard on him tonight, but he truly has written some of the most inventive B-movies available.  I recommend Q: The Winged Serpent and God Told Me To.  

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Friday, April 29, 2011

The Blog Where I Say Nice Things About Gore Vidal and Bad Things About Quebec

I'm going to be blunt and brief.  Montreal is the only significant city in the Godforsaken, blue-neck, ass-backwards province of Quebec and it always will be.

That being said, Montreal can fuck up too.

Never was this more evident than this evening's Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival event at McGill featuring Gore Vidal.

I haven't seen an intelligent, charming man take so much bullshit from idiots at face value since Obama had to reveal his long form birth certificate. Okay, so it's been less than a week.

The event was the epitome of lazy.  Montreal is known as a party city, a laid back place most of the time (post-70s, I suppose).  The drunk kids on the street from Boston seem to think so, anyway (oh, and fuck Boston, too).  But it's also a city renowned for its festivals, events, bands, films.

The moderator asked approximately three questions, most quotes were taken directly from Vidal's wikipedia page, and then turned it over to the audience.  The pitch:  "Let's get Gore Vidal, one of the most respected intellectuals still living, to just hang out and talk."

Here's where it fell apart.  A friend of mine recently told me about interviewing a Francophone comedian.  He asked him what the difference was between English and French-canadian audiences.  "He said, 'You can't talk about anything outside of Quebec culture.  Otherwise, they just start talking to each other.'"

The questions asked by the audience were largely related to Canada, particularly Quebec.  The ones that weren't, again, were wikipedia'd on an iPhone before being asked.  It was an event derailed largely by that same, cancerous self-interest of which this province seems so bloody proud.  One lady asked about how he felt about Quebec's quiet revolution - which Vidal didn't bother to address (probably because even a man of his wealth of knowledge - a man who has met Pierre Trudeau and liked him - doesn't really know about because no one gives a fuck but you, lady).

I've been to many lectures, Q&As, debates, etc.  Nothing prepared me for how thrown together everything felt.  It was an affront to the man they were supposed to be honouring, and it seemed like he knew it.

Vidal never actually seemed to answer anyone's question.  So many were self-interested local questions, how could he?  If he wasn't such an engaging figure, it would have been torturous.

The highlight came when an audience member asked Vidal about his support for Kucinich three years ago and his later statement that his was "100 per cent behind Obama."

"DO YOU KNOW YOUR ARITHMATIC!?!" The man shouted.  At an 85-year-old man in a wheel chair.

"Consistency," Vidal quipped, "is the bane of a weak mind."

Weak minds organized Blue Metropolis.  Weak minds can't think past their own territories.

But Gore Vidal is still Goddamn engaging.  And charming.  And bitter.  And by the end, all I really learned is that I wanted to give Gore Vidal a great big hug.

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Friday, April 8, 2011

After This (pt. 1)

A young boy dressed in a backwards baseball cap and a red Stanford sweater was standing in the doorway of Charlie Penn’s one bedroom apartment.  The door was open and it appeared to be very late.  Charlie slowly lifted his head off the pillow and then he jumped back.
“Hey,” the boy said.  “You’re dead, dude.”
“Please don’t hurt me!  I don’t have much…”
“No, like, you’re dead.  Already.  You died.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Yeah. Looks like naturally.  And you’re not in your apartment either.”
The boy pointed up.  Charlie followed his finger to find his ceiling was missing, replaced with just a bed of stars that seemed to shine larger and brighter than usual.
“The fuck is…”
“Come on.  I gotta show you around and then split.”
The boy exited.  Dazed, Charlie followed him out to a vacant field save for his apartment complex.  “Where is every…”  in the distance, on a plane, he could have sworn he saw the end of the world.  He fell to his rear, gawking.  
“Yeah, that got me too.  We’re not on anything round.  It’s all flat.  Well, for now.”  
“Where the hell is this?”
“This is whatever it is, dude.  Space.  But Darren said it didn‘t look like ours.”
“…I’m sorry, Darren.”
“My dealer.  And he went to Northwestern, so…”  he trailed off.  
“I’m dead?  I’m dreaming.”
“No, dude. For reals.  I’m dead, too.  I got hit by one of those busses, you know with, like, the accordions?”
“…an accordion bus?”
“Yeah, yeah.”
“Then how did I die?”
“Beats me.  Naturally, it looks.  When Darren came to me - he died a few years back mainlining - it happened right after the accident and I could walk and shit fine.”
“Who are you?” 
“Brad. You, man?”
“Charlie…Why am I not galvanized with terror?” he asked the nothingness.
“Yeah, I know, dude, when I looked around and saw just this and the block I got hit on, I thought I’d freak…I mean, I did for a second then…nothing.”
There was a pause as Brad let Charlie take it in, then he clapped his hands together and started walking.  “Alright,” he said, “I got to explain some things.”
“Are you…God?”
“Naw, man.”
“Who are you?”
“Yeah but…did I know you or do you know me before…”  There were too many things to ask, and Charlie suddenly felt stupid starting with something so arbitrary.  Brad, for some reason, had the answers to the afterlife and Charlie was fumbling like he might have if he’d met him drunk at a party.
“Oh wait, yeah.  I made you a Sandwhich at Subway the other day.  I saw you just a few minutes ago.  As far as Darren and I and Mr. Traxler figured, we each go through this thing and then we stay on to explain it to the next guy before we go on.”
“Go on? Where?”
“I don’t know, man.  When Darren left he didn’t either.”
“And Mr. Traxler?”
“Darren’s high school football coach.  Who actually was kind of, like, his mentor or whatever so it’s weird I got you.  So we’re dead.  Where ever this is, this is what’s next and I don’t know what’s after that - like, God or whatever.  In a minute this thing we’re on is going to start moving.  And it’s going to have everywhere you’ve ever been in your life on these platforms.  Or almost everywhere.  I saw a lot.  And so, you can visit wherever you want in your life, whenever.  But there are rules, too.  Well, like, not rules, but things you can’t do.”
Charlie slowly got to his feet, uneasy about his new companion.  It seemed like an elaborate fictional conspiracy, made worse and more confounding by it’s narrator.
“Such as?”
“The way Darren put it, it’s like you’re living inside your own head, but you have access to everything.  Like, when you died, it was like this giant USB key of your life clicked on when the last synapse shut down.  So even some things you don’t remember, or didn’t.  You can rehave conversations, but you can also talk to people like you’re imagining talking to them as long as you know them enough to kind of know what they’d say.”
“’Know what they’d say?’  In this situation I don’t think I’d know what anyone-”
“Trust me, man.  You’ll get the hang of it.  So you can only summon people and situations you’ve met and…uh…experienced.  Oh, and you can’t see anyone naked you didn’t already see.  Believe me.”
“Really?  Not even, say, someone on the internet?”
“Oh shit, man.  That would have been a  really good idea.  Fuckin’ Anne Hathaway.  You see Havoc?”
“Back to the…afterlife?”
“Darren said it was like you don’t get any answers you couldn’t have found in your lifetime, but maybe you could get all of those.  And he went to Northwestern, so…”
“I just…I don’t…what does this say about God and…”
“Oh, and the food!  You can eat anything you ever ate, but nothing new.  I went with the stuff I ate when I’d smoke.  Thought I’d never have that again.”
“Can you…die again?”
“Well, you don’t get tired, that’s for sure.”
The thought occurred to Charlie that perhaps this was just the preamble - what people meant they said they saw their life flashing before their eyes - and that perhaps at the end of it there really still was a pearly gate or a firey pit.  He wondered briefly where Brad would go, and if that it would be fair.
“No heaven,” he said.  “No hell.  No correct religious choice.  Your life…again.  Like with footnotes…and even more arbitrary rules.”
“Darren said he met Chuck Klosterman in a bar in Minnesota and he was rambling about a situation like this.  They were both really wasted, though.”
“…you on your way, then?  To-”
“I always figured if there was a God, he’d feel about me like I felt about my third cousins.  We never met, but I heard their names around the house at Christmas and shit.  So every time one of them died, I’d fake being sad for a second but…hey.”
“That’s… very well-put.”
“Oh, totally don’t freak out when you look at yourself in the mirror.  You think you see me like I think I see you, but…we’re not on legs anymore, man.”
“Thanks for that horrifyingly vague description.”
“Darren said he thinks were, like, these celestial things.  Like, we’re the 21 grams people talk about sometimes.  And-”
“-Northwestern, yeah.  So…what was it like?”
Brad scratched his eyes.  “Um…you know.  I died at 21.  Hey, if you want, now that we’ve met and talked, you could go visit your projection of me.  I could make you that sandwich again.”
“I might actually do that.”
“So maybe I’ll see you when you get out of, this thing.”  
The ground started vibrating.
“This is about when Darren faded.”
And with that, Brad started to look like a picture negative before vanishing.

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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Review: Season of the Witch

 One thing is certain: Nicolas Cage takes himself way too seriously when he shouldn't.  As evidenced by the awesome - yet vaguely confusing - video clip of Cage pulling a Christian Bale in Bucharest shouting repeatedly, "I'll die in the name of honour!" and even further evidenced by his incredibly boring performance in Season of the Witch.  What could have been prime camp material comes off as something that, without Cage's starpower (he still has that, right?), would have gone direct-to-DVD.

The film begins with an incredibly overwrought montage of Behman (Cage), a knight who will indeed die in the name of honour, and his friend Felson (Ron Pearlman) fighting through the crusades.  And fighting. And fighting.  And, yet, still fighting. After participating in the slaughter of women and children, both abandon the church.  Soon, they find themselves tasked with shepherding a young girl accused of witchcraft (Claire Foy) to a city of monks which holds an ancient book that will cure her, thus ending the bubonic plague.

Director Dominic Sena, formerly beholden to Michael Bay, follows every possible beat a medieval actioner should - including an interminably long rickety bridge scene and a spooky forest - with almost as little interest as he has with originality.  He briefly plays with the idea that Foy is merely a scapegoat for the church, but Sena and screenwriter Bragi F. Schut seem to find fuzzy, close-up action sequences of the pseudo-Bourne variety much more interesting than ideas.

Though it should benefit from some ham from one of the hammiest out there, Season of the Witch has its lead descend into freak-out mode only once, while keeping Cage quietly, almost bizarely, reserved. Pearlman seems to be the only one having any fun.  His laid-back, affable knight who cares more about post-battle ale is more in keeping with what Season of the Witch could have been.  If only Cage had followed suit, it could have at least been another Wicker Man.  It winds up just being dull.

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