Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Doom Generation (1995): The Downfall of Generation X, Part 2 (Murder)

The Doom Generation (1995)
dir: Gregg Araki

The Doom Generation is the second movie of Gregg Araki's Teenage Apocalypse trilogy. Instead of being a documentary made by teenagers, The Doom Generation uses a put-upon style of a student fictional film made by the students. While the production values are clearly higher, as in there are extensive sets, loads of guest stars, and seems to be shot on something better than a home camcorder.

But, student films don't hold up as well as documentaries. As such, The Doom Generation doesn't hold up nearly as well as Totally F***ed Up, nor is as entertaining as Nowhere. The only way The Doom Generation actually works is as the middle entry of the Teenage Apocalypse trilogy. It's decidedly average as a standalone b-picture.

Araki fashioned The Doom Generation as a road movie...though it is a road movie without a destination. The opening scene occurs in a goth bar with the opening shot saying "Welcome to Hell" cut out of metal and backed by fire. At the end of the scene, the characters say they're going to Heaven, an abandoned drive-in populated by skaters and teenagers intent on having sex, and that's the second scene.

The remainder of the movie is the journey away from...something. Anything. It actually isn't TO anything, nor is the goal made obvious. Our hapless characters never arrive at a destination, nor is there a goal that is achieved by the end of the film. It's a journey that goes nowhere fast.

The action of The Doom Generation centers around Amy Blue (Rose McGowan), her boyfriend Jordan White (James Duval), and the bashing victim they pick up in Heaven, Xavier Red (Jonathon Schaech). The whole movie centers around four repeated actions: Sex, Food, Misidentity, and Violence.

Sample sequence: after picking up Xavier, and dropping him off on the side of the road, Amy and Jordan try to buy food but have lost their wallets. When the clerk pulls a shotgun on them, Xavier saves the day by blowing the head off the clerk. They go on the run, and get a motel room where Jordan and Amy fuck in the bathtub while Xavier jerks off outside the door. And then they try to get food at a fast food drive-in where the clerk thinks that Amy is his long lost love, and pulls a shotgun on them. They take off, and then Xavier bangs Amy in the back of the car.

Summary: food, violence, sex, food, misidentity, violence, sex. This occurs practically ad nauseum in the course of the 83 minute movie (for the uncut version). In the vein of every teenager I have ever met, the movie pushes the envelope in every offensive way you can imaging. Amy knows every insult and way to say "fuck" I've ever heard. Xavier and Jordan fawn over each other without ever touching each other. Both fuck Amy repeatedly, even to the point where Amy flips a coin for who goes first. And, everywhere they go, there is violence of every kind.

The Doom Generation is bookended by gay bashings. The first might be a misunderstanding, or not, but Xavier is repeatedly called faggot by the gang of guys who are beating his ass bloody. The movie closes when three guys, led by somebody who also mistook Amy earlier in the movie, attack Amy, Jordan, and Xavier, rapes Amy with a Virgin Mary statuette and cuts Jordan's dick off.

The majority of the violence in The Doom Generation happens to others. The Asian convenience store clerk, the redneck at the drive-through, there is a guy in a hippy dippy bar who gets a sword through the cock. It's all violence to others, and it's over the top and comic. But, then there is the accidental running over of a dog, which is considered tragic and treated with respect. And the final gay bashing and rape sequence is harrowing and horrific. Violence is horrific when it is personal, or happening to helpless people. It's funny when it is done to those trying to oppress you.

The sex in The Doom Generation idealizes more of a fluid sexuality with a polyamorous bent. Unlike Totally F***ed Up, which Araki had dubbed "Another homo movie by Gregg Araki," The Doom Generation was dubbed "A heterosexual movie by Gregg Araki." And, up until the final menage, the boys do everything but touch. They stare, fawn, and flirt...but they never ever touch. Even in the menage, it's never clear if they touch when Amy's in the room, but they don't touch when she isn't in the room. Even Jordan says "my woody is starting to droop." But, the polyamory of the group is presented as idealized. Sure, Amy is fucking two guys, but it doesn't mean that she isn't in love with Jordan any less.

Teenage Apocalypse Part II

As the second film in Araki's self-dubbed Teenage Apocalpse trilogy, Araki is continuing the destruction of the subcultures of Generation X. The world that Araki presents is far more commercial and commercialized than the world of Totally F***ed Up. The world is populated by cameos from the likes of Parker Posey, Margaret Cho, and Perry Ferrell. That's not to say every secondary character is now populated by the B-List celebs. There are also the requisite D-listers, like Dewer Weber was the leader of the final gay bashers, whose most outstanding work up to that point would be as the bookending truck driver in Showgirls.

The commercialization in The Doom Generation is still on the antagonistic outside. James Duval is the staple of all three movies, Rose McGowan had only been in a cameo in Encino Man up until that point, and Jonathon Schaech was in four episodes of Models Inc. These were not celebrities yet. Yet, they made up the center of The Doom Generation while the rest of the movie was populated by all kinds of celebrities. This is a metaphor for the oncoming commercialization of the Gen X subculture. They're all preying on our heroes both physically and emotionally. They want to suck up the Gen X subculture and eradicate the aggression, while our heroes fight back with all they can. Of course, all is for naught because, in the end, Xavier asks Amy, "Want a Dorito?" An innocuous line, except this is the first brand name that has been mentioned (though the brand Death cigarettes was featured prominently for its Jolly Roger casing). Commercialization is inevitable. We all give in to the advertising that we're surrounded by.

And, so, Gen X is being attacked and defeated by America and religion. The final attack is being held in front of an American Flag, while the star-spangled banner plays by all-American cornfed white boys with backwards swastika's painted on their chests. And, yes, the swastikas are confirmed to be painted backwards, but dripping with red. The stupid inbred white power groups are intent on breaking the subcultural teenagers and bringing them back to the American fold of patriotism, heteronormativity, and Christianity.

In making The Doom Generation a road trip to nowhere, with a meaning of whatever, we're also seeing how the alienation which caused Duval to kill himself in Totally F***ed Up is seen as desirable in The Doom Generation. Amy is full on intent on escaping from everybody by Jordan. In the bar Hell, her whole intent is to get out of the bar. Her first instinct with Xavier is to ditch him. She wants to leave every character that invades her privacy. They constantly go towards more and more isolated locations, moving from the city/suburbs to an abandoned warehouse in the desert headed to nothing completely visible in the distance. Earlier, I stated that The Doom Generation is a road trip without a real destination. I kind of lied. The destination is nowhere. The goal of The Doom Generation is for the characters to get away from everybody who wants to do them harm. The characters go towards more and more alienating and backwater locations in search of a life with as few people as possible. But, it is a futile attempt. You'll always need somebody, or something, commercial. Like a Dorito.

In Totally F***ed Up, we watched the beginnings of a self-destructive subculture which has been populated by the teenagers. In The Doom Generation, we see the kids as they see themselves, and also watch as they're being destroyed by the random and nonsensical forces of commercialism and nationalism.  And, in Nowhere, we'll see how Hollywood finally co-opted the subculture, and how alienation is actually physically manifested to finish the job.

Ed's Note: There are two versions of The Doom Generation that exists. An Uncut DVD which runs 83 minutes, and a censored R-rated version which runs 72 minutes. Any movie that has 11 minutes (almost 15 %) excised from it, beware.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Totally F***ed Up (1993): The Downfall of Generation X, Part 1 (Suicide)

Totally F***ed Up (1993)
dir: Gregg Araki

In 1993, Gregg Araki embarked on a 3-film odyssey that served as his own personal farewell to youth as he knew it. He had been watching all of the behaviors of the gay teenagers around him, and also seeing how they interacted with the culture art large, and had been noticing certain trends. The Teenage Apocalypse trilogy can be seen as the oncoming co-option of certain subcultures, but it can also be seen as the end of the teenage years of Generation X as they move into adulthood.

Grunge, No Wave, Goth, and Industrial music

In 1993, teens were adopting adult culture faster and faster. In 1991, Nevermind brought the aggressive and aggressively negatory grunge scene to the forefront of American culture. The music that surrounded Nevermind was a wide range of aggression, depression, and nihilistic apathy. If that was the mainstream culture, what was the underground?

One of the subcultures that had been developing through the '80s, and came bubbling closer to the surface in the wake of Nevermind's crunchiness was the goth-industrial scene. The scene had its roots in the works of Kraftwerk, David Bowie, Post-punk and No Wave. Lydia Lunch, in a more recent interview on the roots of No Wave in the late 70s, said "Nihilistic? The whole fucking country was nihilistic. What did we come out of? The lie of the Summer of Love into Charles Manson and the Vietnam War. Where is the positivity? I'm supposed to be fucking positive? Fuck you! You want positive, go elsewhere. Go find a different lie." In the same interview, China Burg said "It was nihilism in the sense of a rejection of the future."

The industrial scene that grew out of no wave took this giant ball of noise and static and ran. They made music that was darker, angrier, and even more aggressive than No Wave had seen, taking sonic cues from the heavy metal scenes that industrial was also patently against. The goth scene, which is intrinsically tied in both tastes and attitude, grew out of brooding and nihilism. The works of Siouxsie and the Banshees demonstrates a more brooding icy sound that would show how the trippy tinged shoegazing genre would be co-opted by a group of people who are just as happy to stomp their feet and shout as they are to broodingly shufflestep and clean the cobwebs of their mind.

Homosexuality and HIV/AIDS

The next prong is the gay scene...as seen by a teenager. In 1969, as we've constantly mentioned before, Stonewall happened, launching queer pride. But, in 1978, HIV/AIDS started hitting the gay groups, and in 1981 it was fully recognized by the CDC. The adults, and new youths were rallying around Act Up and trying to get funding for the crisis through the 1980s. Reagan didn't mention AIDS until 4 years after CDC came on record about it, and really provide adequate funding for it until 1987.

Part of that funding went into preventative education. As teenagers were going through sex ed, straights and gays in the more liberal cities were getting full on STD talks, and going on about condoms. I remember one of my cousins having a sticker on the wall that said that condoms had pores and there was a 7% chance of failure, or something. I didn't mention it to her at the time, but it was a weird sticker to have on her mirror.

Gay teenagers were also being told that they had to be extra careful because of HIV and AIDS and how horrific this disease was, because HIV/AIDS was still equated as a death sentence. Fear of sex was growing and growing through the good intentions of STD prevention. Bret Easton Ellis would note this in The Rules of Attraction which features a female student looking at pictures of STD-ridden genitalia in order to stop her from having random sex.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, more major cities and metropolises saw some major moves towards acceptance of gays, at least in terms of cultural visibility. There was the ongoing influence of Warhol. Keith Haring's art was decidedly gay, and widely accepted. But, while gays were starting to become more integrated in the major cities, gays were still outsiders even in those major cities. There were still gay bashings. There was still in school bullying. There was still outside pressures from church and news. The politicians were still all against the gays for moral votes. It was a time period where gay teenagers were starting to feel accepted enough to participate in the subcultures of their straight peers. However, especially if they were closeted, they participated in angry bitter nihilistic subcultures, such as the goth-industrial scene. One of my friends put it, if you were a gay teenager in the 90s, you had a larger chance of being attracted to lyrics like "I wanna feel you from the insides."

So, we have the nihilism of the no wave scene co-opted into the goth-industrial scene. The oncoming acceptance of gays. The anger and nihilistic tonality of the HIV/AIDS discussions. But, there's still a part missing.

The Real World and Slacker

MTV, in May 1992, started the new-fangled The Real World which was one of the first reality television shows to actually hit big. It didn't invent the genre, but it did bring it to a new light, and it brought everything to the teenagers. The Real World, original flavor, was not purely exploitative. Sure, they cast a couple of colorful characters, but the main intent of The Real World was exposure to multiple alternative viewpoints, and the emotions that happen when people who come from different walks of life actually have to face each other. The Real World also had been instrumental in bringing homosexuality into the common discussion as part of real life and not just that of eccentric, disgusting, artists. They had an openly bi dude, Norman Korpi, in the first season.

The Real World would also have an influence on how kids were communicating with each other, and also on the style of Totally F***ed Up. The style of Totally F***ed Up is a mix of video diary/documentary interview and semi-professionally filmed scenes. This style wasn't original then, but it was increasingly prevalent among youths of a certain age. The grungy Houston movie, Reality Bites, even trainspotted this a bit to discuss the commercialization of youth and their subculture in a more succinct and commercial venue.

Coincidentally, also in 1991, Richard Linklater released the landmark-y indie film Slacker, which also influenced everything. Richard Linklater orchestrated a film which felt like a single roving camera following characters as they talked about their strange goings-ons in Austin, TX. It took the documentary feel of a handheld camera, the casual feel of a guy walking around and following people, the reality show feel of life, and turned it all into one big ball of life. This would be one of the defining movies of the Gen X culture (along with Clerks).

Generation X (1965-1978)

Gen X is the generational wave of babies that is defined by a people born in a range of time from the mid-1960s to the early-1980s. For the longest time, it would generally be considered 1964-ish to 1979-ish, and only until recently have some of the scholars been putting it the end date as 1981, and some all the way to 1984. Using the core range, however, Gen X would be hitting 18 from the years 1982 through 1997. Gen X was defined by its pointed rejection of leadership and anti-establishment natures, while also not seeking to replace the culture. It was a collective, "Well, the Boomers fucked up. What the fuck are we going to do?"

Generation X is, in quotes from Wikipedia:

- "Compared with previous generations, Generation X represents a more apparently heterogeneous generation, openly acknowledging and embracing social diversity in terms of such characteristics as race, class, religion, ethnicity, culture, language, gender identity, and sexual orientation."

- "Unlike their parents who challenged leaders with an intent to replace them, Gen X'ers are less likely to idolize leaders."

Basically, an open-minded attempt at creating the soup that is America with no real needed leadership structure. This is Generation X when they were coming out of high school. Not as they are now, which are as an industrious generation when we can be. But, as an angry, disaffected youth who were seeing all the corruption and hypocrisy of the leaders we knew and hated. Reagan and George H.W. Bush reducing taxes on the rich, while increasing spending through the roof. And, in 1993, Bill Clinton would take office to reduce the debt while also selling out the middle class and sign DOMA and DADT into policy. So, jaded was the name of the game.

Just to sum up. Gays coming out after Stonewall. No Wave leading up to goth-industrial. HIV/AIDS being funded in 1987-ish. STD education coming online hardcore in the mid-80s. SlackerNevermindThe Real World. Goth/industrial, with Nine Inch Nails releasing Broken in 1992. And, they were all coming alive and marking the life legacy of Generation X.

Totally F***ed Up

Gregg Araki opens Totally F***ed Up with the title card, "Another homo movie by Gregg Araki" with the letters as punch-outs filled with the static of television. And, of course, the title card. In two succinct cards, we're talking about television (the MTV Generation), homosexuality, nihilism, ironic posturing, and anger.

What Totally F***ed Up is, on the surface at least, is a portrayal the life of Los Angeles gay youth as they see themselves. It is a based-in-reality portrayal of kids doing stupid shit that gay kids do. They listen to Ministry, Front 242, and other goth industrial bands. Fall in and out of love. Cheat. Hurt each other. Ironically play shitty board games about heterosexual coupling. Fuck. Worry about HIV/AIDS. Do drugs. This is the life of gay youth on the outskirts of life. Not associating with drag queens and musicals as one expects gay kids to do.

It is told in 15 segments, each of which feature a certain theme. One segment is about safe sex and post-HIV coupling.  Another is about how you score a baby if you're a lesbian but are conflicted about safe sex. Another is about how you pick up new tricks or boyfriends. Another is about gay bashings.

The semblance of structural narrative concerns James Duval as a gay boy who picks up his first real, older, love. He falls head over heels, though doesn't show it. But, James Duval discovers that the guy is cheating on him the night one of his friends was beaten, and offs himself when he can't contact anybody about his existential dread.

Everybody else is living their lives, but they have no real end to their story. One guy cheats on his boyfriend, and is dumped harshly, but they have the same circle of friends so everybody is annoyed. The lesbians stay together in lesbian fashion.

Totally F***ed Up is a complete and effective portrait of gay subcultural youth rejecting the gay culture, and the mainstream culture to embrace the goth-industrial culture and each other. It portrays the gay lifestyle as completely normal compared to the hetero lifestyle, with some guys even desiring monogamous relationships (just like the arguments over monogamy vs open relationships in The Boys in the Band), yet still as outsider through their co-option of the gothic trappings and disaffected stances.

Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy, Part 1

What Araki is beginning isn't the opening shot of gay youth. He's starting to document how a generation finally will off itself. The ending of Generation X by the oncoming commercialism and the rejection of Gen X ideals by the incoming Gen Y (aka the Millennials).

The Teenage Apocalypse trilogy details three different ways to kill a culture: Suicide, Murder, and Abandonment. It also presents three different filters through which one can view a culture: Documentary, In-Culture Fiction, and External Fiction. The filters and the methods of death are completely related.

Totally F***ed Up uses the form of the pseudo-documentary and reality television in order to show how teenagers would document their lives if they didn't have to worry about fictionalizing their attitudes for some audience. Totally F***ed Up is the equivalent of reading somebody's diary. In the avant-garde form, half lifted from the French New Wave and half from The Real World, Araki's characters are allowed to fill in some of the details with inter-section title cards dictating what they were actually thinking at the time of the situation. For instance, a title card will say "Not so safe sex."

Sometimes these title cards are foreboding, much like the shot of the news article about gay teen suicide. But, sometimes these title cards dictate exactly what the teenagers are getting from the culture at large. The messages they're receiving from the music or people in their lives. Most of these title card are pointing to the defining of the apathy that was defining the culture Totally F***ed Up was detailing.

These cards would also point to the suicide that is related to this. In documentaries, teens can be more vulnerable. In fiction, everybody has a big shot attitude that is somewhat of a Fuck You attitude that will point to an ironic vulnerability. In reality, these attitudes also are prevalent, but the shields come down when one is on their own.

It is why we are able to get the vulnerable shot of Duval calling all of his friends, and getting no answer, or getting busy signals. This wouldn't happen in a fiction movie, without real cause. When Duval coldly tells his friend that he "got burned. N.B.D." it is the ironic posturing that is the actual makeup of these teenagers. And, so it is fitting that it would end in suicide compared to the violence that happens in both The Doom Generation and Nowhere.

This also poses the question that the outside world is forcing the teens to kill themselves. There is nothing really to live for. The world sucks. Sex is a hassle. Intimacy could be a sham. The teenage culture of ironic distancing can only last so long. Of course ending it yourself is a way out of this emotionless hellholes.

It is really no wonder why the inverse culture is the one that would replace the goth-industrial complex. The emo took over for the goth in the early '00s. It is for the kids who feel deeply, are sensitive souls who need to find a connection and project their turmoil inwards instead of outwards. Suicide made little sense because of external pressures. To the emo crowd, suicide became the way to end the inner turmoil.

As a metaphor for the culture, Duval is the stand-in for the distanced edge of the culture. Killing himself out of a joyless panic because he has been replaced for a newer unseen culture is the only solution. And, that's what Totally F***ed Up is ultimately about. Culture expiration and replacement.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Blue Jasmine (2013): The loop of cruelty

Blue Jasmine (2013)
dir: Woody Allen

Woody Allen created an adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire for the 99%. He sets up his Blanche Dubois, in this case Jasmine (Kate Blanchette), as the wife of a Bernie Madoff-esque financial cheater. Allen then proceeds to make her out to be as cruel of a character as he could make her so that he could justifiably inflict humiliations that she set up for herself.

Jasmine is the wife of Hal (Alec Baldwin), who was a financial investor who ran all sorts of Ponzi schemes while she pretended not to care about any of the details. Even as phony bank accounts and corporations are opened and closed in her name, she pretends that she didn't even look at the details because she's so trusting of Hal. Hell, she even chose not to notice Hal's philandering until he went to Paris with their au pair.

When we meet Jasmine, she's arriving in San Francisco to live with her somewhat-estranged sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who, with her ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), had invested $200k of their lotto winnings in Hal's schemes, and lost all of it. Ginger, who is playing Allen's Stella, is now dating Chili (Bobby Carnavale), Allen's greasemonkey version of Stanley.

Jasmine thinks Chili is beneath her and her sister, and immediately starts trying to tear them apart, making enemies in the process. Jasmine also schemes her way into almost marrying a rich diplomat with political ties by covering up her past. Ultimately, her world collapses when her estranged son runs into Augie, who runs into Jasmine with her new beau-to-be, and we find out that she called the FBI on her own husband out of revenge for him falling in love with her au pair. Not out of a sense of justice, just pure anger.

And, so, almost all of Jasmine's problems are her own doing. The Ponzi scheme collapsed because she called the FBI. Her husband committed suicide because he had been convicted. Her son found out about the phone call and estranged himself. Her beau-to-be finds out about her past, and dumps her on the side of the road. Her story that she's found a new husband, combined with her cruelty to Chili, causes her to lose her last vestige of a house, and so our once-rich woman finishes the movie insane and destitute, just like Blanche. The collapse of her world is just as cruel as she has been in her past.

Except for the sexual assault. The sexual assault is not her fault. She's taken a job that she cannot do well, and that was her only "crime" when she is sexually assaulted by her boss. For no reason. Almost everything in Blue Jasmine is about moral equivalency. We're meant to see how casually cruel Jasmine is to the world at large, and that all the retribution she receives from the world is equal to the damage she set up for herself. But, she didn't set herself up to be assaulted. The world is a brutal place, but this whole scene is dropped as fast as it happened.

Allen's use of sexual assault in Blue Jasmine is probably intended to be a call-back to the sexual assault in A Streetcar Named Desire. Except, Allen's sexual assault isn't the result of mutual cruelty, or even an animalistic act of cruel domination meant to break an equally strong mind. Allen's sexual assault is merely there as a plot point to get Jasmine to cry to a friend getting her invited to a party, and is dropped as soon as she gets her invite. No more is mentioned of the dentist, and it isn't seen as anything major that happened.

I had heard Blue Jasmine is grotesquely misogynistic, especially because the main female is as much a character as a symbol of the 1% meant for the audience to throw all of their hate onto and to relish in her destruction. For the most part that analysis is true, though Jasmine is as cruel to everybody and deserves all of the devastation that happens because of her own doings. When an assault is casually thrown in, I start to have a problem. It becomes just as casual as rape and death threats on the internet and is not pleasant or pleasing in any way possible, especially when treated as "just something that happens."

Blue Jasmine is a cruel comedy. Occasionally, Allen creates a comedy that is meant for us to revel in the bleak darkness of his mind. Deconstructing Harry, and Celebrity come immediately to mind in this vein. Blue Jasmine is far superior to either of those films, and smooths out some of the jagged edges to allow us to revel a bit more easily in the destruction that Jasmine invites upon herself. And, it is truly quite funny. But, the sexual assault single-handedly moves the movie from casually blackly comic to grotesque.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Prisoners (2013): Torture is useful unless it isn't?

I remember Jake's haircut from the 90s.
Prisoners (2013)
dir: Denis Villeneuve

In December 2012, Katherine Bigelow released a movie that started to steer the nation's conversation on torture, long after it was supposedly a closed subject (HAH!). Supposedly, Obama had already banned it, and America wasn't doing it anymore. But, because Zero Dark Thirty was about America's engagement in torture, any progress it brought us, and the cost it may have on both the torturers and the country, ZDT reopened the conversation for a few months. In August 2013, Prisoners was rushed into theaters, in no small part to continue the conversation in the pulpiest, trashiest, most exploitative movie this side of torture porn.

On Thanksgiving, two little girls are playing around their neighborhood when they are abducted. Earlier that day, a mysterious RV had been seen in the neighborhood, and was found nearby being driven by Alex Jones, an emotionally stunted manchild (Paul Dano). Of course Alex Jones is arrested, but there is no evidence linking him to the crime.

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is on the case, and he has never had a case go unsolved (Super detective trope). When interrogating Alex Jones offers up no information, Loki starts following other leads, which leads to him finding a pederast priest with a basement that has a dead guy with a maze necklace. Because that necklace is important, we get a closeup of it.

Eventually, the 48 hour hold period has lapsed, with no clues, and Loki has to release Alex Jones because he has no evidence to charge him with anything yet. And, of course, the chief is no help and will not bend any rules while also outright lying to Loki for no apparent reason (unhelpful salty Chief trope).

The angry father justice trope kicks in (see also Taken), and one of the fathers, Keller (Hugh Jackman) attacks Jones outside the police station. Jones quietly says something like "They were crying when you left," but the police won't believe him. So, Keller kidnaps Jones and takes him to an abandoned apartment building where Keller and the other girl's father begin to torture Jones to get the answers out of him.

Meanwhile, Loki spots a suspicious dude, who also has been buying children's clothing at a mall. He's arrested and also has mazes around his house. Also, for some reason, snakes. He's arrested and looks like the actual criminal, and thus Keller may be torturing the wrong person because the crying line was said so quietly it was barely heard on the soundtrack.


Anyways, lots of stupid shit happens, and it turns out that Jones and his aunt did actually kidnap the kids. The mysterious dude was an early victim. Jones eventually says that the kids are in a maze. And, thus the torturing was somewhat justified.

END SPOILERS (though spoilers are kind of a part of the rest of the discussion)

Prisoners is a truly trashy film that has two main political thrusts.

1) The justification of torture

2) NALT (Not all of us are like that)

Let's start with NALT, because it actually feeds into the metaphor of the first. The two girls are kidnapped by a crazy cult of maze-worshipping psychos who also use the phrase God. Loki is a worshipper of other religions (tattoos and such), but Keller is a Christian man. He has religion tuned in to his radio, says Our Father before torturing Alex Jones, and has a Christfish on his car. He's a good ol' American.  But, the maze-worshipping psychos are posed to be mildly Christian, kind of like the cannibals of We Are What We Are (American). Prisoners is reinforcing that Christian men are the true victims here, and that some of the psychos are giving religion a bad name...which, ugh, because torture is being justified in this movie.

And, the torture is the American government torture. Because the kids are being kidnapped by some religious sect, one can easily heavy-handedly say that the cult kidnapped America's innocence, and we're just trying to get it back through torture. Which...gross. Because, the torture is occasionally threatened to be not justified, but in the end it does get answers. So, in Prisoners' world, if the torture gets answers, it is completely justified. But, if it is the wrong person, it isn't. Prisoners would have been more interesting by a factor of 10 if the movie had stopped with them finding the kids after finding the first crazy guy. Because, what if you're torturing somebody who had nothing to do with anything?

But, the torture didn't really spawn anything interesting. All Jones says is "maze." Keller gets all his information from the girl who escaped. Torture didn't really get any real information, even if it was torturing the right person. Maze just is information to the audience, not to the character, as I don't think he saw the maze drawing. But, since it was information that informed us that the Jones participated in the kidnapping, it actually is a valid technique in this world.

All politics aside, what really kills Prisoners is that it is fucking ridiculous. Cop cars in Prisoners are equipped with lights, but not sirens for some reason. Keller willingly goes into a hole after being shot for no apparent reason. Why he doesn't go after the aunt with the same vigor as he did with Jones is beyond me. Half of the movie is "well, that happened." Prisoners is a trope-heavy ball of ridiculous behavior.

The final shot of the movie is hysterical. I can't even tell what they're trying to say. Is Jones going to be rescued? Should we care? Or, is it that this case will haunt Loki for his life, like a whistle in the wind? What the hell does this stupid stupid ending mean?

Prisoners is trying to be a cruel movie that is asking serious questions about torture, and how far you will go as a person. But, what Prisoners ends up as is an unintentional comedy that would be hilariously over-the-top if Villechaize didn't keep the tone so dour, and the pacing as plodding as it is. It's mildly brutal, but it is also like the mentally challenged stepchild of Se7en.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Six By Sondheim (2013): Editing a Love Letter to Sondheim

Six by Sondheim (2013)
dir: James Lapine
editor: Miky Wolf

It's Christmas, you're sitting around with your family. You probably ate a bit much. But, you may be a bit wary of all the Christmas cheer that has been permeating culture since practically Halloween. A good match for a post-Christmas dinner family watch is Six by Sondheim, James Lapine's ode to his frequent collaborator, Stephen Sondheim.

But, I want to really open this review by giving a callout to editor Miky Wolf. Because, this movie is an ode to the editor. It is not as much a documentary pieced together by a director, as a montage created on the editing table by a careful culling of just the right quotes from Sondheim and his friends and collaborators to perfectly tell the idealized story of Stephen Sondheim's career throughout the years. The editing is masterful, and defining of how much work an editor needs to do to find the perfect phrase for the perfect section.

Six refers to six songs that Sondheim and Lapine have decided to use to spell the emotions of eras. His first musical as a lyricist, West Side Story, opened with "Something's Coming." Merrily We Roll Around has the song "Opening Doors" about three musical creators trying to get their musical created on Broadway. A Little Night Music brings the first mega-song "Send in the Clowns" to detail how to write for scenes and for specific actors. Follies brings us "I'm Still Here" about the ups and downs of a career. Company gives us "Being Alive" wherein Sondheim claims to have only fallen in love at 60. And, we close out with Sunday in the Park with George's "Sunday" which is a funereal march to forever.

Six By Sondheim isn't a be-all end-all guide to Sondheim. It's an ode to his musical career, which is always what Sondheim will be known for. At The Other Films, we love Sondheim for both his musicals and for his dramas, including The Last of Sheila co-written with his supposed then-lover Anthony Perkins, and Getting Away With Murder, which has nothing to do with the Lily Tomlin/Dan Ackroyd vehicle of the same name.  More of those, please Mr. Sondheim!

Six By Sondheim erases his occasional dramatic side ventures, as well as any relationship with Anthony Perkins to focus on his musical career, his influences as an artist, how he writes, and other such informational stuff that is best left up to be discussed by Mr. Sondheim himself from the mountains of archival footage that was lovingly culled through. It has original footage of Ethel Merman on stage as Gypsy Rose Lee. There is lost 16mm interview footage of Sondheim that was b-roll for an earlier interview in the 70s. Television footage, and just about everything you can imagine. It's all out of the mouth of Stephen Sondheim, and it works wonders.

And, if you don't want just talking heads, 3 of the 6 numbers are old videos. "Something's Coming" is taken from what looks like a television version. "Being Alive" comes from the documentary about the original cast album by D.A. Pennebaker. And, "Sunday" comes from the original stage show. And, 3 of the numbers are completely newly created. "Opening Doors" is directed in a technicolor candy-coated style by James Lapine featuring a cast of Glee singers to bookend the musical career. "Send in the Clowns" is sung by Audra McDonald and Will Swenson.

But, the most radical rendition is Jarvis Cocker's take on "I'm Still Here" in the segment directed by Todd Haynes, a New Queer Cinema movement alumnus. The story concocted around this is Jarvis is a bar singer, and this is a slow sultry take on it as various women look on. As "I'm Still Here" is usually a song of female power (see Shirley MacLaine's powerhouse performance from Postcards from the Edge which was left out of Six By Sondheim), especially given that it was based on Joan Crawford's career. Haynes' version is the diametric opposite. And, it works beautifully. This is a song so flexible that it is either the tragedy of bumpy roads, or the forceful determination through all the rough times.

Six by Sondheim is an amazing venture through archival footage that you'll love to discover. It's family friendly, and could be cherished in the holiday settings once you're done celebrating and are looking for something new and heartwarming to stumble across on television.

Only on HBO for now.

P.S. Please have more bonus footage on the blu-ray when it comes out. Including more on Sweeney Todd which was all but ignored in this documentary.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Ice Harvest (2005): Because, Screw Christmas

The Ice Harvest (2005)
dir: Harold Ramis

"As Wichita falls, so falls Wichita falls."

Every Christmas, Hollywood counter-programs one or two cynical acidic movies around Christmastime in order to appeal to those of us who don't really want to watch award-winning film and are tired of the family feelings holiday genre. In 2005, that piece of counter-programming was the slice of lemon that is Harold Ramis' The Ice Harvest.

Harold Ramis is the comedy veteran who came out of SCTV, directed National Lampoon's Vacation, co-wrote Ghostbusters and also directed Groundhog Day. Ramis, however, is only as good as his screenplay, as Multiplicity and Bedazzled aren't exactly testaments to the genre.

That's where Robert Benton and Richard Russo step in with a brilliantly bitter, acidic adaptation of Scott Phillips' debut novel, The Ice Harvest, a screenplay about the last Christmas Eve in Wichita for a mob lawyer who just ripped off his employers.

Charlie Arglist (John Cusack) and his pal Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton) steal $2m from Arglist's employer and local mob boss Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid). As a freezing rain coats the city, they wait for the morning before they actually make their getaway. Charlie is bombarded by a slew of challenges from his drunk friend who is now married to Charlie's ex-wife, a strip club bartender who is getting revenge on a guy for beating the guy's stripper girlfriend, and the sultry woman who is running the bars.

Ramis and team keep the movie somewhere between a drunken goodbye to the city and a Payback-esque revenge mob comedy. The good guys are sleazy, and the bad guys are worse. The movie is full of acidic burning dialogue that is filled with irony and sorrow. With a movie styled like a low-rent film noir (and not the new-fangled neo-noir), bitter humor, violence and nudity, and enough alcohol to cause 4 people to pass out, The Ice Harvest really pulls out the stops to make a Christmas movie for the people who hate Christmas.

There is little joy in The Ice Harvest. The little icy black comedy is sandpaper dry. The humor feels like a cross between fatalistic and regret. And, yet it is hilarious. The movie's half-assed twists and turns at the end are less genius than just accepted and tragic. This is the anti-Christmas movie that is all about the people who have lost the reason for Christmas. Why watch it? Because, screw Christmas, that's why.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Toxic Hot Seat (2013): Unraveling the story

Toxic Hot Seat (2013)
dir: James Redford, Kirby Walker

Toxic Hot Seat is one of this year's premiere HBO Documentaries, and it's a blistering one. James Redford and Kirby Walker unravel a story of government influence, misused reports, corporate money and influence, and ill-conceived laws to outline how America is sitting on furniture that are filled with toxic chemicals under the guise of fire safety.

It starts with San Francisco firefighters coming down with cancer at rates that far exceeded national averages. If I remember right, the rate of cancer among SF firefighters was 11 times that of the national average. The main reason is because they go into fires which has all of the chemicals in our house burning into the atmosphere, especially furniture.

This all started in the 1970s, when there was an observation that most house fires started by a burning cigarette. But, Big Tobacco wouldn't develop and/or release a cigarette that self-extinguished in order to reduce the fires that an ignored cigarette could cause. Instead, they pushed for the furniture to be less flammable. Which lead to the development of flame retardants in furniture, which was launched by a study that said it could reduce escape time by half a minute.

This led to a law in California, where all furniture now had to have flame retardants in them, with a negligible increase in escape time. Since that law existed, it was cheaper just to have all furniture with padding that had those flame retardants in them, and so all of America got the furniture.

Fast forward into the '00s where we have discovered these chemicals, after 20 years of being in the houses, are now causing cancer. The fight is on. Maine and California had dual state initiatives to ban flame retardants, and the chemical companies spent huge amounts of money to astroturf the hell out of these states. Maine wasn't used to it, and suspected something was up. They successfully banned flame retardants. But, California was duped and the bills continuously failed due to astroturfing.

Where Toxic Hot Seat is successful is that it isn't just a bunch of hippies talking about hippy things, like a lot of radical documentaries. Toxic Hot Seat starts with Salt of the Earth firefighters, moves on to PhD scientists teaching at U-C Berkeley and Chicago journalists, and then moves on to mothers and female freshmen senators to tell the story. There is no voice over used in Toxic Hot Seat. And, while the details of the chemicals are glossed over on occasion, there's enough there to know that the research has been done. There is something wrong at stake here.

To me, the most important part of Toxic Hot Seat is the story of astroturfing that exists in its modern day sections. The chemical companies created groups with innocuous sounding names, and paid children and colored people to testify on behalf of the flame retardants in order to dupe the politicians and the voting public that there was a grassroots movement for the use of flame retardants. It took journalists from the Chicago Tribune to do an expose on the toxic chemicals in our furniture and lives to properly call out the astroturfing. And, while even journalists can be bought, this is why we need to have independent journalists at newspapers which are not beholden to giant corporations. We need some unbiased information to discover the roots.

Toxic Hot Seat is a vital documentary not just on flame retardants, but also on the political processes that we've let develop. It's about astroturfing, and complacency. And, it's about how legal misinformation and deception actually is. This is required viewing for Americans who need to know what strings are being pulled how...not just on flame retardants, but every issue that is against the big bad corporations.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Leather Jacket Love Story (1997): Coming out of the closet

Leather Jacket Love Story (1997)
dir: David DeCoteau

"Sometimes a poem about fucking is just a poem about fucking." - Jack

Leather Jacket Love Story is the story of a first love, a cross-generational fetishistic movie, and also the meta-story of a director coming out of the closet.

David DeCoteau, whom we've explored with his more recent efforts of 1313: Bigfoot Island, and A Christmas Puppy, had been making very heterosexual exploitation movies up to this point, largely for Full Moon Features. His movies like Test Tube Teens from the Year 2000 were fun for both ogling men and women, but were geared towards a heterosexual audience. He had been making films for 12 years when this movie came out, and had only made a handful of gay hardcore pornographic films under the pseudonym David McCabe. 

By 1997, the New Queer Cinema of angst and anger had been run through the ringers. Many in the queer audience, as well as the rest of the world, had been tired of the anger and aggression that had pervaded the early 1990s culture. Looking at pop music, industrial would start retreating from the national view, metal would turn into rap-metal and die a last gasp, and pop music would start turning to acts like Goo Goo Dolls, The New Radicals, Dave Matthews Band to replace the void that had been filled with the likes of Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, and Rage Against the Machine.

As such, David DeCoteau wanted to use some of the techniques of the New Queer Cinema movement to create a happy celebration of queer culture. And, really, he wasn't the only one at that point. Jeffrey would come out in 1995, Beautiful Thing would be in 1996, and Get Real would come out in 1998. 1997 was also, as mentioned in my review of G.B.F., was also the year of Ellen's The Puppy Episode, where she came out of the closet.

Putting Leather Jacket Love Story into a cultural context is almost necessary, as, with the exception of Jeffrey, queer culture was reacting to the idea of being angry at the system, and coming to the idea of coming out of the closet as a joyous activity. Leather Jacket Love Story is the shallow Go Fish-esque first love movie of a young 18 year old boy falling for an older kinky promiscuous man, creating an a coming into happiness story for the gays. 

Kyle, our hapless hero, is an 18-year-old fledgling poet who grew up in WeHo (aka Gay LA), and needed to go West to get away from the gay shallow stereotypes which he has become bored with. He moves to another area where he encounters the more colorful underground gay stereotypes in Silver Lake. Kyle finds a coffee house which is populated by drag queens and arty crowd types, and meets Mike, a manly 35-year-old-saying-he's-29-years-old construction levi-and-leatherman who takes control of the 18-year-old and dominates Kyle into dating him.

Of course, Kyle has never really been in love. The first time that anybody falls in love, they fall hard. After their first overly long, rather heavily softcore, night together, Kyle buys a leather jacket to match Mike. By the end of the second night, he's at a party in a kinky leather party where he gets his nipple pierced at the insistence of Mike. And, Kyle is telling Mike to throw away phone numbers of other boys. When Mike refuses, Kyle, in a fit of despair, goes with his old WeHo friend to a bathhouse.

Meanwhile, Kyle is subject to a gay bashing, but requested by three drag queens from the cafe. And, when one of them is arrested for having a firearm, they hold a Rescue Amanda fundraiser for Kyle to read his poem. As Kyle is reading his ode to Mike's Leather Jacket, Mike finally appears, and tears up the business card of the earlier guy...hinting at the idea that monogamy is the idea of any relationship, gay or straight.

One might notice by now that this review is far far different than any of the other DeCoteau reviews on this site. And, that's because this is an actual movie. This isn't a "let's knock out some shit in a day or two" fly by night film. This is a 10-day shoot with pages and pages of dialogue, characters who are actual characters, and pretentious creativity. Unlike any of DeCoteau's post-Leather Jacket gay films, this movie has full nudity, gay sex, and was created for a gay audience. This is the anti-1313 film. 1313 is like a pseudo-Warhol artistic series, but Leather Jacket is more like a pseudo-Morrissey film with a fuckton of dialogue that, while shallow, is not actually terrible. The actors are actually acting. And, DeCoteau is actually directing a movie with camera setups, lighting, music, movement, acting, and a plot. 

Leather Jacket Love Story is a black-and-white happy-go-lucky film that deals in old-school cinematic tropes like the old spunky sprightly scored nudie films. It doesn't present a dour take on gay cinema, nor does it neuter the gay culture by refusing to take out the gay sexuality. It's not exactly deep. It's about the first three days of a first love between two shallow gays in LA. Sure, it occasionally acts really hilariously derpy, such as when Kyle starts berating Mike for putting their child up for adoption and Mike gets all hilarious defensive saying that he didn't get proper sex ed in his high school. But, its a cutesy hilarious piece of gay bait.

After this, DeCoteau wouldn't make many more directly gay films. Sure, he'd be making hilarious films about straight teenage beefcake in their briefs, occasionally getting tied up or being attacked by men or women. But, they wouldn't be directly gay themed, like Leather Jacket Love Story. And, they wouldn't be as actually cinematic as this movie is either. It's not an amazing piece of work, but Leather Jacket Love Story is a dirty minded wholesome film. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Point! (1971): The point is not the point unless it is the point

The Point! (1971)
dir: Fred Wolf

""I was on acid and I looked at the trees and I realized that they all came to points, and the little branches came to points, and the houses came to point. I thought, 'Oh! Everything has a point, and if it doesn't, then there's a point to it.'" - Harry Nillsson, Bright Lights Film Journal

Confession: I grew up on this movie. I remember renting it several times on VHS, and would love it on television. Watching it as an adult, this may have been the best piece of film that I loved as a child. I'm also surprised that my parents didn't wonder about me since I kept re-watching this movie.

The Point! is the most acid-tinged cartoon this side of Yellow Submarine, which I did not grow up on. It is both crude and hand-drawn, like a children's book. It is dark but nonsensical. This is Alice in Wonderland but for the post-60s generation. A meditation on race, circles, sense and nonsense, The Point! challenges the world that everybody takes for granted.

The Point! tells the story of Oblio and his dog, Arrow. They live in the Pointed Village, a world of points, where everything is pointed and sharp, including people's heads. Except, he has a round head, and has to wear a pointy hat to disguise his point. While the town's citizens are accepting of Oblio, the Wizard, who is the King's right hand man, doesn't appreciate Oblio's non-conformity. When Oblio bests the Wizard's son at a game of ring toss, he is banished to live in the Pointless Forest, where he encounters a series of strange people who teach him that everything has a point. 

As with Alice in Wonderland, the encounters pretty much define the point of The Point! My personal favorite was always the circular and far too short segment Think About Your Troubles, which details the life cycle of people's problems, and their tear drops. In a metaphorical sense, it details how everybody's depression creates a ripple and will mostly come back to haunt you, going from a teardrop to the ocean, which gets recycled by fishes and whales to come back through the faucet back to your teapot. This is the first stop on Oblio's journey.

Along the way, Oblio and Arrow encounter the Pointed Man, a man who points at everything all at once, which, it is argued, points at nothing at all. They encounter the Rock Man, who speaks and talks like a bluesy beat, who tells them that they see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear. They encounter three very large joyous bouncing fat women. They stumble across a businesstree who grows leaves for money. They're picked up by a giant bird, who shows them the forest from a different perspective: the treetops. 

Of course, along the way, he discovers that everything has a point, except the pointed man who says that everything is pointless. The Point! becomes its own ironic paradox of life. It makes a strange case for everything matters except those that say nothing matters. It's certainly anti-nihilistic. Nilsson's point is that nothing doesn't matter.

In turn, it also discourages passive acceptance of everything having a point. The Pointed Man reprimands Oblio for thinking every chance he gets. You're not supposed to think. You're supposed to accept. Which would give the Pointed Man his reason to exist, and thinking about him causes him to vanish. 

The thing that The Point! is closest to is Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, another of my childhood favorites. Incidentally, in 1970, The Phantom Tollbooth had a toothless film adaptation which retains none of the psychedelic absurdity of the original book. Both The Phantom Tollbooth and The Point! discourage the laziness of childhood, and encourage active thinking and participating in life.

Nothing exists in a vacuum, of course. The anarchic joy of The Phantom Tollbooth foretells the joy of the 1960s hippy movement as well as the anti-authoritarian, questioning, nature of society and children. In 1970, as the movement had started receding, Harry Nilsson's The Point! indulges in the joy of the psychedelic movement, but also is telling the sadness as it comes crashing down around everything. Not only does Think About Your Troubles sing about the circular nature of sadness, but Life Line also is about drowning in depression and needing to be rescued.

What The Point! brings is a certain wisdom as well. A high and a wistful post-comedown that is all about clinging to the reality one wants to cling to, even though it is ripped out from under you. These are far too advanced concepts for most kids, who will cling to the absurdity and the anti-authoritarianism of The Point! wondering why things had happened. The Pointed Man even admonishes Oblio for thinking "Why?" But, The Pointed Man is not who you're supposed to be idolizing. Whether you're idolizing the rock man, the dancers, or the businessman, at least they have a point. 

The Point! is a strange movie that still brings enjoyment to those who are completely in tune with its wavelength. There are few movies that have been for children that have so effortlessly captured the strangeness of figuring out the world without jumping through hoops to get there. While it's not flawless, as it can be somewhat on the nose, and sometimes blunt as a sledgehammer, The Point! is an enjoyable rewarding experience.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Southland Tales (2007): The Revolution will be satirized

Southland Tales (2007)
dir: Richard Kelly

Is it too soon to start the Southland Tales redemption movement?  Because, this movie is the messiest mind explosion that has ever exploded in pure form on screen.

The original form of Southland Tales shown at Cannes was an unfinished film that ran 160 minutes, and ended up with disastrous results including critics booing the screen. But the time it reached theaters, it was shrunk down to 144 minutes, but the final version of Kelly's movie is still border incomprehensible, tonally uneven, and just a big brains-on-the-wall splatter criticism of everything.

Southland Tales is a savage indictment of everything that existed in 2006. This is just a partial list of the topics Richard Kelly directly references: war, military, oil, energy, pollution, pop culture, porn, celebrity worship, commercialism, government, surveillance states, Republicans, class warfare, anarchists, Marxists, drugs, television, marketing, police, armageddon, and slam poets. Kelly is weaving a tale so sprawling, and so huge, that he didn't even keep it contained to the movie on screen. The movie starts with chapter 4, with the first three chapters being designated to a series of graphic novels which were released just before the movie. The problem is that the first three chapters do not provide a key to what Kelly is saying.

The closest experience to Southland Tales is the sprawling jungle of Infinite Jest, which took on many of the same subjects in an even more incomprehensible, sprawling, and lengthy take. Southland Tales is, in my opinion, far more successful than Infinite Jest, and I believe that Southland Tales is one of the most unfairly maligned films of the 00s.

To try to unravel the story of Southland Tales is an exercise in futility. The Rock is an action star who had been lost in the desert and comes back with amnesia. He had been married to the daughter of a prominent Republican politician, who is also in the pockets of big business, and also the biggest pusher of the surveillance state which has the politician's wife at the head. The big business in question is Treer, who is developing a new energy source pulled from the waves in the ocean to create a wireless energy field. Treer also has discovered another energy source from beneath the mantle of the Earth. Both are named Fluid or Liquid Karma. The liquid form is also a drug which was tested and given to people, and it causes them to bleed into the past and the future. Treer is also a mega-airship company who has created the largest airship.

Meanwhile, The Rock, with amnesia, is dating a porn star who is also psychic and created a script which is a metaphorical version of the end of times, which is a hilarious commercialized version of Southland Tales. She is also tied, by another porn director, to a neo-Marxist movement which is trying to rebel against, and overthrow, the fascist government mentioned in the earlier paragraph. They plan to do this by creating controversy around the amnesiac The Rock, and also using an ex-military officer who had been partying with the porn star before the movie.

The ex-military officer also has a second form, who is actually the true form, and is a guilt-ridden aggressive racist. He had been serving with another military officer who is overseeing the Los Angeles area, and also dealing Liquid Karma to those who need it. The two forms of the military officer meet up in the end on a floating ice cream truck to bring about the end of the current times, and bring about a new world under Christianity.

And, that's just the basics. This doesn't include the pre-movie graphic novels, in which The Rock and the military officer had been partying with the porn star, did Karma, and jumped through a time rift where both of their versions came out separated by 69 minutes. A car explosion killed one version of The Rock, but left the second version alive. Or, the subplot of the arms dealer who is suppplying everybody with their weapons. Or, the side character of the racist cop. Or the porn star's attempts to commercialize herself as a pop culture artist.

This is also all founded in the Book of Revelations, where Treer is the anti-christ, the government is the false prophet, the porn star is the whore of Babylon, there are two witnesses, and the re-connection brings about the second coming of Christ.

This actually all exists in Southland Tales, and it really is no wonder why this was savaged by critics and given up by the audiences. I don't think that most people are ready for sprawling messy headtrips that are also angry sci-fi twinged dark comedies which have the effect of listening to 2.5 hours of some guy ranting about everything under the sun. That being said, Southland Tales will never have the mass audience that it so badly wants. It's completely cerebral head-candy for those willing to take the trip.

But, what it is is nothing short of amazing. I mean, this movie is near perfect. It reflects the chaotic and distracted times that we live in. It's multi-media. It uses books and advertising and screen scrolls and scripts. There are groups upon groups warring with each other. It's about everything under the sun. It's raging against the system that surrounds us. And, when unweaved, the movie is an embarrassment of riches.

Southland Tales has a shitton of actors, all playing fucked up versions of themselves, if not against type. Jon Lovitz is a serious racist cop. Justin Timberlake is a pop star whose career was derailed by WWIII. Sean William Scott is a military guy who is amnesiac and innocent. Cheri Oteri, Wood Harris, and Amy Poehler all play self-important artists who are also anarchic Marxists. The Rock plays an action star married to the government but who really doesn't have any action sequences. Sarah Michelle Gellar is a porn star who is trying to market herself as a news icon. This brings a layer to the movie that will be lost in 20 years, as all of these stars start fading into the silence of the past.

But, really, Southland Tales is just constantly pushing. It is more aggressive than Moulin Rouge in its constant assault of the senses. In that, it is reflecting the world we live in. We are constantly bombarded by advertisements, music, news, commercialization, and information. We have groups constantly warring for our attention and our dollar. Even in the current, incomplete form we have now (where Janeane Garofalo was completely dropped, as was the motivations of a sorceress who has a key role in the movie), Southland Tales constantly reminds us that we're never meant to get the full story all at once. It's only on repeated viewings that Southland Tales fully reveals itself as a snarling full-plotted movie.

This isn't a movie of little heart, either. This is a combination of cerebral calculation, emotional rage, and faith. Richard Kelly cares about this movie, perhaps more than he did for Donnie Darko. This is his version of a primal scream. We're struggling out here. And, the thing is, with primal screams, it will resonate with those who share it, but also reflect by those who don't want it. It is more like a wolf howling, where it will probably be amplified by other wolves.

It is about time for a re-evaluation of Southland Tales, especially with it available on home video and in need of rewind and repeat viewings. In theaters, it flies by. You have no idea what brick you were just hit with, but you have an idea that it was amazing. It's not an obvious movie either. Southland Tales will not take your hand to walk you through its themes. It throws them at you and sees what sticks. In a world where everything seems to be spelled out for people, this is a needed novelty.

Highly highly recommended, and required viewing.

P.S. This review doesn't even mention that the movie poster used the 2004 Presidential cartogram as it's logo. Nor the musical number of The Killers' All The Things That I've Done. Nor, the amazingly bizarre dialogue like "I'm a pimp, and pimps don't commit suicide." Nor "Nobody rocks the cock like Krysta Now." There is so so much detail in Southland Tales that to make reference to everything that the movie is would be a multi-post, book version of an undertaking.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Hot Flashes (2013): Female Power means Men Still Suck

The Hot Flashes (2013)
dir: Susan Seidelman

I hate saying that Susan Seidelman seems to have a problem with men based on three movies, but she kind of has a problem with men based on three of her movies.

In Making Mr. Right, a woman is needed to create a civilized man. In She-Devil, she eradicates any implications that the woman could also be doing dastardly deeds in a male-dominated world. And, in The Hot Flashes, most men suck...unless they're midgets or pot smokers.

The Hot Flashes is Seidelman's attempt at a Calandar Girls-esque comedy for America. The base plot is a rust-belt mobile breast cancer testing unit has become bankrupt for some reason or another, and needs a lot of money. Brooke Shields decides to get together a gang of women to try a fundraiser to get money to save the van. Except, Seidelman doesn't believe in exploiting bodies for sex so she has the old women create a basketball team to play against the high school state championship team.

At first the team is at odds with each other, as Daryl Hannah is a closeted lesbian, or Virginia Madsen slept with Camryn Manheim's then-boyfriend, now-husband years ago, or Wanda Sykes is running for mayor in a white town. But, they all come together to win the games, even through the adversity that happens.

And, there is adversity. The first source of adversity is Brooke Shields' husband, Eric Roberts, who is sleeping with another basketball mom and town Christian. The second source of adversity is Virginia Madsen's ex-husband, Carl Roberts, who is also the coach of the high school basketball team, and doesn't want to help the female team out by exploiting his team. And the third source of adversity is the all-male school board, who wants to cancel the game after receiving a complaint from the basketball mom. Men suck.

And, so does Christianity as the daughter of the town Christian is also a tramp, and both her and the mother hates lesbians. And, of course, the whole movie has to stop when Daryl Hannah finally comes out and brings her girlfriend to the game.


Susan Seidelman actually makes this concoction of cliches go down rather smoothly, and it helps that she has an obviously all-star cast. And, she's really trying to retain the men suck nature of her earlier films, but its just so much that it's ringing a bit hollow by now. Even Camryn Manheim's faithful man is portrayed as too interested in the young bodies on television to be interested in Manheim anymore. But, the only woman who is awful in the whole movie is the Christian woman, because she hates lesbians, cheats on her husband, and also sleeps with Eric Roberts.

I mean, really. Can you get any more obvious?  This whole movie feels like a feminist internet meme list of grievances. Christianity? Check. Homophobia? Check. No good cheating men? Check. Body image? Check. Men controlling the world? Check. Divorce? Check. Racism? Check.

There isn't any grace to it either. While it goes down smoothly, it has all the subtlety of a Steven Spielberg movie, and all the grace of an Adam Sandler movie. Or, worse, a Lifetime Original Movie pre-2005. The dialogue is stilted, the jokes are lame, the games are expected, and almost everything is by the book. Seidelman whittled away all the edges of her jagged little pills in her earlier work to make this more of a mass market movie (though she included enough sexuality, drug use, and foul language to somehow garner her an R-rating) and, in turn, made a movie that was boring and obvious.

It should be noted that this movie isn't just Susan Seidelman either. There is another voice behind this movie, and its a voice of a man. Brad Hennig, a gay man from San Francisco. The initial version of this script has probably been tooling around Hollywood for 8 years at least, as it is mentioned on this website, which celebrates a contest that was won in 2005 for some script called Heavens to Betsy. Now, in the 8 years between when that was out and when the movie was finally made, Seidelman may have made any number of changes, but Hennig is the only credited writer. Of course, gay men are more acceptable as they're not as much of a threat to feminists due to them being an oppressed minority, so that's cool with Seidelman.

Maybe that's the point, though. This might be a movie that is to sell to the rust-belt television watching moms on a Saturday who wouldn't normally watch an obviously-feminist movie (though I think they're the ones who, like me, loved the dark comedy of She-Devil). Maybe this is to push them to rethink their decisions and the world around them.

And its smooth enough to maybe work in that conceit. But, this is the type of movie to watch idly when you're sick and it comes on on a weekday afternoon and its either this, soap operas or trial reality shows. It's a mildly boring crowd-pleaser. And...Susan Seidelman, you can do better than this. I've seen it. Try harder.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977): Randomness is not Scary

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)
dir: John Boorman

This week of "Outside a Director's Wheelhouse" returns to 1977, with a sequel of truly epic proportions. It's almost hard to imagine that cocaine didn't play a part in the making of this movie. Alcohol was definitely a part of this movie, as Richard Burton is constantly drunk or in the throes of DTs for the course of this movie, but the film was subjected to the hands of John Boorman.

John Boorman had leapt to fame with Point Blank in 1968, and then Deliverance in 1972. Deliverance was a nominee for Best Picture and Best Director. And, then John Boorman lost it. Boorman followed Deliverance with the Sean Connery-in-a-harness sci-fi psychadelic Zardoz, but not being satisfied with having lose his mind with Zardoz, he was hired on to do Exorcist II: The Heretic.

There were plenty of problems facing Exorcist II. The first problem is that Linda Blair didn't want to be in makeup again, so we couldn't have her play as a possessed made up demon. The second is that neither William Friedkin (featured earlier with The Boys in the Band) nor William Peter Blatty (the author) wanted to do a sequel. So, we're left with John Boorman creating a film from a screenplay by William Goodhart. Or, at least the original form of the script was by William Goodhart.

Boorman was unsatisfied with the screenplay, and told Goodhart to rewrite it, incorporating ideas from Rospo Pallenberg (who would work with Boorman on Excalibur and The Emerald Forest). When Goodhart refused, Boorman and Pallenberg worked on their own, and were constantly rewriting the script as shooting went on. Linda Blair has gone on record saying the end product was nothing like the original screenplay.

So, what are we left with?  Well, I don't quite know. The plot is practically incomprehensible. The film opens with Philip Lamont (Richard Burton) visiting an African native village where a young girl, who had been claimed to be a healer, being possessed by a demon and then spontaneously combusting during the exorcism. His followup assignment is to investigate the death of Father Merrin, aka the priest that was killed in the original movie.

Meanwhile, Regan (Linda Blair) is now a tap-dancing psychic who is going to a psychiatrist who helps sick children. The psychiatrist believes that the demon hasn't been exorcised, but has merely been repressed. The shrink uses a biofeedback machine that syncs up people's subconscious thoughts in a trance. She uses the machine with Regan, but ends up with heart palpatations, as demon Regan is trying to kill her through their mutual subconscious.

Meanwhile, there is something about how the world is starting to telepathically link to everybody, and Regan can link to other people. And there is something about Father Merrin successfully exorcising a young African boy, who grows up to be James Earl Jones. And something about how Pazuzu only attacks people who have healing powers, as James Earl Jones is now a doctor. There's also a connection between Pazuzu and locusts, with some sort of spinning ball that prevents caterpillars from turning into locusts, probably by disrupting the swarming communications. 

OK, if you can figure out what's going on in this movie, more power to you. I don't need my movies spelled out for me, but if you're going to give me 2 hours of random shots and then call it a plot, I hope that it makes sense without having to drop acid. And, the scenes should actually be scary! But, they're not. They mainly range from average to terrible, with fairly frequently dips into hilarity.

There's Linda Blair's TWO tap dancing sequences, including the one where she is psychically attacked by stones and falls off the stage. There's Richard Burton finding a box of flaming oily rags in the basement of the shrink's building, and then attacking it with a wooden crutch. A flight of the grasshopper sequence where the locust is up close and personal, goes through Africa, and comes face to face with James Earl Jones in a locust outfit. The shrink's constant need to help other people while they're racing Burton and Blair to the house. One of my favorite scenes of all time is Linda Blair's helping out a girl with autism. 

The final cherry of insanity on this flaming pile of confusion is Morricone's score. I once read some wag comment that the score for Exorcist II was probably written in an evening soaking in the tub while drunk. It just feels like there was even director intervention on this score, and there is incomprehensible clashes in the score itself. The film opens with the score mainly consisting of a lady squealing and screeching in a stupidly psychic insanity playing over the titles. But, the credits end with a one last sudden shriek, as if she was stopped cold by a wall.  

The movie has been seen as ranging from terrible to amazing. Friedkin likened it to a car accident. But, Scorsese commented in 1978 that it surpassed the original. It is this latter comment that leads me to wonder if cocaine might be the key to enjoying this movie. That you have to be in a bit of a hyperactive frenzy yourself in order to see this absurd pile of shit as a good movie.

Me? I find Exorcist II hilarious. It's hard not to laugh at Linda Blair tap dancing funny. Or her almost falling off a roof, screaming then passing it off non-chalantly. Or, James Earl Jones' locust costume, as if he's in the rejected version of Blind Melon's video for "No Rain." The movie is a laugh riot to me. Many of my friends think it is just a purely awful movie. They're wrong. This is hilarious.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Punch Drunk Love (2002): Inverting the Formula

Punch Drunk Love (2002)
dir: p.t. anderson

It's fairly easy to say that given the work of p.t. anderson, he wouldn't make a movie that was an Adam Sandler vehicle. And, given the work of Adam Sandler, he normally wouldn't deign to appear in something as cerebral as a p.t. anderson film. Yet, in 2002, anderson and Sandler collaborated on a film which took the usual formula of an Adam Sandler film and flipped it on its head. In the process, anderson also turned his own formula on its head. And, out came the best movie that didn't satisfy either fan base.

A typical Adam Sandler character is that of a middle or upper class white man with hilarious anger problems. Normally, he ends up screaming at a wide variety of people just out of the blue, and also feeling like the whole world is pressuring him. The plot of an Adam Sandler film is usually that character being acted upon by 2 forces - an outside force, and a female - in order to deal with his emotional stuntedness and win the girl. Or, at least that had been the main plot through the mid-2000s.

Punch Drunk Love follows that formula to a T. Barry Egan (Sandler) is an owner of a novelty element distribution center. One thing we notice that he's selling is novelty plungers. Egan also suffers from emotional problems that could be seen as semi-autistic in nature, but also the results of being the only boy in a family of forceful females. Early in the film, he pitches fits that break glass doors, and screams at his sisters and everybody else who is picking on him.

Barry, being single, starts calling a sex hotline after a particularly contentious day. But, the operator at the other end begins to extort Barry for money. She has his credit card information, and starts pressing him for even more money. This is a full-on extortion operation run by Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman) out of his mattress operation. And, this outside force causes Barry to use his emotional anger problem and focus it on a specific target in order to extricate himself from the problem.

One of Barry's sisters also high pressures Barry into going on a blind date with her co-worker Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), introducing the love interest of the film. She is a quirky, quiet woman who is able to take Barry in strides, and Barry falls in love with her as a person who won't pressure him or constantly berate him. Barry wants to better himself for Lena.

It is the Adam Sandler formula...except Sandler is played as obviously disturbed. He isn't an entitled straight white guy with whom the audience is expected to completely relate. Sandler is somebody whom we're meant to hope gets better for the sake of everybody else around her. The comedy, as people see it as a comedy, isn't derived from the aggressive outbursts that usually are the hallmark cues for a Sandler comedy. When Sandler busts the sliding door, or the restaurant bathroom, he's fucking scary as hell. It isn't the humor of Sandler punching Bob Barker saying "The price is wrong, bitch." It's intimidating.

p.t. anderson also hasn't repeated himself. Punch Drunk Love isn't an analysis of an era, or a location, or both as almost all of his other movies are. Punch Drunk Love is a study of a singular character. It uses the Sandler formula as placement for the era or location. Magnolia rips apart the connectedness of the Los Angeles story, such as Short Cuts, or Crash. Boogie Nights dissects the rise and fall of the cocaine-induced porn era. There Will Be Blood uses the development of the oil tycoon as a backdrop to dissect family and faith. But, then there's Punch Drunk Love, which uses the Sandler formula to see how people actually do react to people with anger issues.

Not only is the Sandler formula inverted, but so is the anderson forumla. By making the external internal, we're treated to a weirdly deep analysis and indictment of pop culture, while also bringing up the spectre of asperger's or austism. This actually is my favorite p.t. anderson movie, but it isn't nearly as picked up among the usual fan base.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Boys in the Band (1970): Preserving the pre-Stonewall gays

The Boys in the Band (1970)
Dir William Friedkin

God bless William Friedkin. He had been doing film for a couple of years before he did The Boys in the Band, which some people mark as the last film before Friedkin's career truly took off, and others consider to be the first real film of his career. The Boys in the Band is also a landmark film of circumstantial time and place.

The play The Boys in the Band came out in January of 1968. Stonewall happened in June of 1969. The film The Boys in the Band was released in March of 1970, and the first gay pride parade happened in June of that year.

The play The Boys in the Band was kind of a smash hit Off Broadway, but was never off-off Broadway. It post-dated the Warhol Factory, and the Cino Cafe crowds. So, gay theater was already starting to take off. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? had already taken Broadway and the film world by storm, so combining the two, plus the coming awareness of homosexual self-identity would lead to The Boys in the Band, which would pinpoint attitudes prevalent in the gay community before Stonewall that many eventually detested after Stonewall.

The plot of The Boys in the Band is deceptively simple. A bunch of gays get together for a friend's birthday party when the host's straight, square, college friend drops in after having an existential crisis with his wife.

But, this is pre-Stonewall. Closets were prevalent, self-hatred and hetero-envy were side dishes, and straight people wouldn't normally be seen fraternizing with gays. Hell, this is practically the set-up of La Cage Aux Folles, where the straight son of two gay guys invites his fiance and her conservative parents to meet the family. Hilarity ensues.

But, The Boys in the Band is not nearly as polite or as French as La Cage Aux Folles. The gays in The Boys in the Band each have their own personalities and levels of camp and history. They're used to passing in public society, but when you have to repress behind closed doors, tensions come out, games are played, and hatred is spewed from all angles. This is more the gay version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? except it's 6 on 1, and that is gay vs straight.

Our host for the evening is Michael, a rather not-campy recovering alcoholic, is setting up for his friend Harold's birthday party. Alan, an old, straight, married college roommate calls up crying demanding a drink, and is invited up. The guests eventually arrive, including Donald, a lazy bastard; Emory, a femme guy; Hank, a soon-to-be divorced guy who is dating Larry, the town bicycle; and Bernard, a black bookseller.

When they're all together, protective attitudes are dropped, shields are let down, and everybody is catty and bitchy at each other. But, when Alan arrives, and the shields have to suddenly raise behind closed doors, everything goes haywire. When Harold, the late-arriving birthday boy, finally arrives, the games really begin.

The second half is dedicated to Michael's parlor game where he offers points to any guy who will call up the one guy they have truly loved. This is an attempt to get information out of Alan about his breakdown, and perhaps to get him out of the closet. But, it also pierces everybody's politeness as their shields don't just come down, but explode into shrapnel.

What makes The Boys in the Band feel alive is also what makes the gays hate it so much. Everybody in The Boys in the Band is casually and caustically cruel to each other. The words are first wielded like foam bats used in therapy, but end up as ice picks aimed at each other's throats as well as their own. The emotions of The Boys in the Band are complex and incisive. There's the usual emotions that always happen when you're good enough friends for a long period of time. There's the overlaying emotions of the closet when you have to hide who you are in straight company. There's the resentment of the outside world and the cruelty that happens when that world is hellbent on oppressing you. And, then there's the self-hatred that can happen when you're not happy with your situation and you lack the ability to change it.

When I say that The Boys in the Band is pre-Stonewall, this isn't an insult at all. It's the transitional period of the time, as it didn't glorify the gay lifestyle to be shiny and glittery. Nor was this a celebration of cruelty. Rather, this was an an incisive dissection of the gay lifestyle, being observant of the attitudes, and the source of the problems that the attitudes presented.

The director, William Friedkin, a straight man, says that these attitudes aren't gay-exclusive. This play was a play about humanity and basic human emotions. The writer, Mart Crowley, however, was writing about the life he saw around him. Whether or not the movie is gay-exclusive, or a universal human experience, The Boys in the Band codified the attitudes of an era. As a play it provided the kick-in-the-ass mirror that was needed to push from closet to pride. And, as a film it preserved what the attitudes were like.

By the time The Boys in the Band came out, the self-hatred became embarrassing and tired for gays to be associated with, and they picketed the film. They didn't want to be seen as self-hating queens who couldn't help themselves. They wanted to be seen as proud happy people. It was a total marketing move to push people into a happier, more accepting place. But, the tongues and the attitudes of the film are still finely attuned to the gay dialect and lifestyle. I've seen these catty queeny bitchy people in real life. Hell, the bitchiness is the basis for Andy Cohen, or that stupid show on Logo, The A-List.

Compare this to the works of Andy Milligan. Really, the personalities here aren't all that different from that of Cherry in Fleshpot on 42nd Street. It's a bit more middle-to-upper class, and it is more about the emotional games one plays, but there can be lines drawn directly from The Boys in the Band through Vapors to Fleshpot on 42nd Street.

William Friedkin would go on to do a wide variety of movies like The French Connection, or The Exorcist. He returned to the gay community to do Cruising, in which Al Pacino has to go undercover as a gay leatherman to stop a series of murders in the gay leather community. Of course, this was also picketed because the gay community didn't want to be seen as a bunch of murdering sluts, or something. It's not that Friedkin had been only making movies that demonized gay people. Look at the The French Connection or The Exorcist. Those straight people were fucked up royally. Friedkin specialized in sour looks at life. And, his latest movies prove that with Killer Joe and Bug.

Poor William Friedkin. We're sorry! Your films were victims of bad bad timing. They preserved sides that we didn't want presented. Please, come back and make another gay movie. I will be there to watch it (even if others in the community won't be).