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In the winter of 1896, Auguste and Louis Lumiere premiered one of the world’s first movies, The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. The fifty-second film shows exactly what its title promises: a train pulling into a station. While plain to modern tastes, a locomotive powering across the silver screen scared the pantaloons right off the nineteenth-century audiences unaccustomed to the realism of film. A scene in Hugo (also in the trailer) pays homage to the Lumieres, but also injects 21st century Real™ 3-D techno-vision — a subtle commentary on the progress of the medium (even more realistic today, but nobody loses their pantaloons). The promotional material for Hugo advertised the typical pre-teen world of magical wonder, a knock-off Narnia or The Golden Compass 2: The Clock; instead, Scorsese delivers a surprisingly personal film about coming of age, cinema history and the profundity of creation. I liked it, but I think kids might be bored by all the two-hour running time and the watchmaking metaphors.

The eponymous Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan who lives inside the steam tunnels of a French metro station. After Hugo’s family of clockmakers dies, Hugo uses his inherited tinkering abilities and winds the station’s giant clocks for a warm place to sleep and store the automaton his father gave him. Since orphans are not conducive to railway commutes, a security guard with a leg brace (Sacha Baron Cohen) constantly tries to catch Hugo and his robot. With the help of a precocious blond girl, Isabelle, (Chloë Grace Moretz), Hugo learns the robot is related to a famous French filmmaker from the early 20th century — and then the movie becomes a movie about movies.

For 3-D, there’s hardly any explosions or climatic fight scenes! Of course, this is one of Hugo’s biggest strengths. Scorsese uses 3-D for depth and dimension, not cheap pop-outs or literal 4th wall breaks. Pan shots of gears grinding, clocks chiming and machines in motion give Hugo a kinetic aesthetic. Like a clock, the motion is purposeful — Hugo and his family are watchmakers, after all (it doesn’t take a deist to see the significance of a world founded on a well-calculated order). Also remember: Scorsese is dissecting early cinema history by juxtaposing cutting-edge filmmaking of the 21st century. It’s pretty lofty stuff. It hardly feels like a kids movie: if the intellectual rigor isn’t enough to scare the kids away, maybe the dreary setting of the Great Depression or the adults who all seem to despise children will. Yet, Hugo is more significant in the genre of Scorsese than family-friendly classics. Hugo is a boy obsessed with watching, tinkering and creation. It’s hard not to draw parallels to little Marty — a sickly child stuck watching his peers from a bedroom window — dreaming of the escapes of filmmaking. Who knew the guy who made Mean Streets would finish out his career making a kids movie that reaffirms the narrative magic of film while proving 3-D doesn’t have to be a gimmick?

Esoteric pop culture went viral before the internet. Proof: in 1987, two Wisconsin punks started tape-recording their queer neighbors’ vicious fights; eventually, the tapes were released as “Shut Up! Little Man”, and spawned a rabid cult made of cassette-tape collectors, indie comic book creators, playwriters, general Pavement-era hipsters, and weirdos all over the world (well…America!). Matthew Bate’s documentary tells two stories: one about the two men fighting, the other about the two men recording it. Of course, the stories intersect to form an eclectic documentary that’s a quirky, kinda-exploitative-certainly-voyeuristic personal history and populist art criticism about a true-viral success that used magazines and the U.S. postal system instead of blogs and Twitter. The best part is, Shut Up! Little Man is available onDemand and through other streaming video services (Google it!), so you can go watch it immediately after reading this article!

Verbal conflict is both scary and compelling. Some people totally lock up, shut down, and curl into a ball when they hear screaming: these are the children of divorce. Other people get a sick thrill out of listening to loud arguments–it’s private, it’s vulnerable, it’s embarrassing–and hearing that gets them off: these are children who’s parents stayed together. I fit the latter category, so listening to the Shut Up! Little Man tapes, for me, is a “Fun Freudian Fulfillment of Childhood Desire” (FFFOCD). Peter is an overweight homosexual with a wry wit and a subtle lisp; Raymond is a raging homophone riddled with sexual repression and a propensity for physical altercation. However, they’re both agoraphobes completely crippled by alcoholism and government pension checks. Even though they fight, they’re perfect for each other: who would want to live with such sad strange weirdos? Plus, when they got drunk, they said the most hilarious shit! Accusing one another of false giggles–“You always giggle falsely! You don’t have a decent giggle in your body.”–Raymond’s seething gay bashing that sounds way too defensive–“I hate queers! I like girls!”–or Peter’s anti-zen mantra–“Shut up! Little man!” screamed over and over to both perpetuate and disarm the conflict. These middle aged drunks are hilarious! But the more you think about their relationship, the stranger it gets. Speculations that they were lovers do not seem unfounded (all that testosterone trapped in a slummy apartment, it sounds like a Tom Waits song). Isn’t it invasive to take such an intimate look into the lives of two sad drunks? Yes, definitely. Who would do such a thing?

Two men named Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchel D. violated their neighbors privacy and accidentally made their very own piece of pop culture white noise. The “punks” that made the tapes are also discussed in the film. Punk is a confusing word: I think Sausage and D. are better described as dudes who wore flannel and a Charles Bukowski t-shirts, pre-hipsters probably. Initially, they made the tapes to document evidence of their neighbors who were clearly disturbing the peace; then, they realized how funny the arguments were, and slipped snippets into mix-tapes for friends. Eventually the Shut Up! Little Man tapes were distributed through Bananafish magazine (ultra-hip!) and Matador records released a greatest hits CD (you know, the label who was also putting out Pavement, Guided By Voices, and Yo La Tengo). Sausage and D. were famous! Famous to a hyper-specific group of pop-culture snobs who trade media instead of purchasing it. That didn’t stop Eddie and Michel  from trying to take Raymond and Peter’s story to Hollywood for big summer blockbuster treatment! In a sentence a Hollywood producer pitches the coolest idea ever: “Get Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando on the set of a shitty one room apartment; get the alcohol flowing; and just watch them scream and fight and abuse each other in a three day shoot.” That would be the perfect movie. Unfortunately, for a multitude of reasons (including a fascinating piece of copyright litigation), a cool movie was never made and a poorly produced independent version came out to the approval of no one. Framing Sausage and D. inevitably got greedy and lost the punk credos that inspired them to make the tapes. Just like Peter and Raymond would fight on rent day or when the vodka was gone, everybody becomes a pissy drama queen when money gets involved.

My favorite part about Shut Up! Little Man is its tenacity to inspire countless remixes and adaptations. Sausage and D. included a mention in the first tapes liner notes stating anyone could use Shut Up! Little Man however the listener saw fit. Plenty of folks took that to heart including: various indie-comic authors who adapted Peter and Raymond’s fights into strips (everything about the pair’s gritty rawness fits the  post-Crumb comix); plenty of Youtube homages with cartoons, puppets, and muppets; and full out dramatic productions of the drunken drama at the core of Raymond and Peter’s relationship. What is it that makes these two men so compelling? And is recording your drunk-bum neighbors art? These are the two questions the movie seeks to answer. Both Peter and Raymond are dead but there are some unreleased interviews trying to see their response to becoming “popular” in a mean, ironic, 90’s kind of way. The movie also has an interview with Tony–R&P’s third sometimes-roommate–that adds even more layers of intrigue into the Raymond/Peter love-story.

I just got home from the comic store! Let’s start with Miles Morales!

ULTIMATE SPIDERMAN #1

Is Marvel allowed to kill Peter Parker? That is the topic of debate in this USM’s letters-to-the-editor page this month. Even though four of the printed letters hope otherwise, the answer is yes. They already did. To make money, a franchise must stay relevant: in fact, the Ultimate line was always intended for re-invention. I remember initial skepticism at the release of the 2001’s Ultimate Spiderman, but now (those early issues in particular) are generally regarded as some of the best Spiderman writing in the history of the character. A more recent example, Spiderman One More Day/Brand New Day felt gimmicky, but the reboot simplified/revitalized the series, allowing for stories with that “lively exploration” typical to good Spiderman writing (Loeb/Sale’s Spiderman: Blue for example). Two lessons: first, much to the chagrin of harcore-comicbook-mythology nerds, change is usually a good thing for a serialized narrative; second, as a character, Spiderman works best as a bildungsroman (pretentious word alert! How about, coming-of-age-story?)

I’m pro-reboot if the reboot’s good; thankfully, the first issue is excellent. With a tight script, Bendis firmly establishes the character, location, and living situation of the new Spiderman. Miles Morales is a precocious pre-teen from a poor New York neighborhood. The “first conflict” the reader watches Miles face is peculiar for a superhero. Miles and his parents are entered in a random lottery to win him enrollment to an exclusive charter school so Miles can avoid the bad school in his own neighborhood. Bendis highlights the personal drama of this scene beautifully. Miles quickly realized the random cruelness of a school lottery; he’s unsure how to act when his name is chosen. Immediately, we meet a young hero who’s bright and hopeful, but still clever and distrustful of authority: sounds like a Spiderman!

Next, we meet Miles’ Uncle Aaron. Uncles hold a special place in the Spiderman mythos, so Aaron is an appropriately cool uncle. Instead of a maxim spouting old man, Aaron is a cat burglar, and even though his parents forbid Miles to see his uncle, he just can’t resist. Aaron’s most recent robbery was a red box holding a special spider; the spider escapes from his box and bites Miles on the hand. Ka-boom! New Spider-man has powers! The first issue packs all this in only 21 pages. Sarah Pichelli’s knack for facial expressions shows her knack for visual storytelling.

But wait. Isn’t he black? Yeah, Latino too! Miles was thought up during the Obama election cycle, and Bendis seems intent to use this book for dissecting race. Putting a school lottery in the first issue is a great example. Also, notice that the man with four Ph.Ds in the opening Norman Osborn flashback is black  (I hadn’t mentioned that scene until now because I found it confusing).Spiderman can be black, super scientists can be black, the president can be black: Ultimate Spiderman wants you to recognize, anybody can be black. The final page shows us a new power exclusive to Miles Morales: camouflaging invisibility–the power to blend in. You don’t have to be Ralph Ellison to see the significance of this artistic addition. I loved the first issue of Ultimate Spiderman. It reminded me of when I was 12, reading the Peter Parker’s Ultimate Spiderman at the library in trade paperback.

THE ULTIMATES #1

I missed the first printing, so I bought the reprint today! Big fan of Mark Millar’s Ultimates, so expect me to be one of those annoying “Don’t Change Stuff!” nerds I mocked a few paragraphs ago. The first issue of Jonathan Hickman’s Ultimates has good art, but a confusing story. No, it’s not groundbreaking in redefining how Marvel superheros talk to one another like Mark Millar’s original; however, it certainly doesn’t suck like Jeob Loeb’s Ultimates 3.

Hickman’s Ultimates seems to be awesome storyboards for a boring blockbuster movie. We have: a mysterious first scene; white out to a stark two-page “title screen” page (albeit, cool looking); framing shot; cut to elevator, follow Nick Furry talk about incomprehensible Government Superhero Agency BS; cut to shots of flying superheroes; close-ups and talking-head shots; Robert Downy Jr. playing Tony Stark; more flying; fight scene between Thor and Captain Britain; more incomprehensible dialogue; flying; explosions, of course; and finally, dramatic last line. It has the schlocky feel of this summer blockbusters Thor and Captain America. Thankfully, a comicbook isn’t noisy, so you can admire penciler Esad Ribic’s clean “cartoon-y” realism and his nontraditional paneling (like fast film edits); also, Dean White’s saturated colors make the comicbook look…well, like a really expensive movie. I’ll stick around this arc for the art alone, but the story was disappointing. Of course, it’s just the first issue!

Before digital film,  sci-fi seemed a genre off-limits to low budget, indie-film making; science fiction was filled with special effects and the bread and butter of summer blockbuster season. Then, in 2004, Primer came out (albeit, Primer, wasn’t shot on digital, but gimme a minute!). Primer marks a shift toward “cerebral” science fiction. Not only are the movies “cerebral” in a slow, quiet, art-filmy kind of way, but I also mean “cerebral” literally: most of these films’ conflict takes place inside the character’s’ head. Taking cues from films like 2001: A Space Odyssey,  Primer, Moon, and now, Another Earth focus on the existential crises brought about by living in a hyper-technology driven society. Unfortunately, the most recent of the three, Another Earth, misses what made the former two films so interesting: AE’s “cerebral” musings are under-cooked and nebulous; a much buzzed about debut that’s too ambitious for its own good.

Perhaps the reason I found Another Earth unsatisfying is because I found it misleading. The title, the trailer, the poster and the film’s first twenty minutes all suggest it will be a science fiction movie. Rhoda (co-screenwriter, Brit Marling) is a promising high school graduate just accepted into MIT; while driving home drunk, Rhoda is distracted by a suspicious twinkle and accidentally “kills” a family of three. The twinkling turns out to be a parallel planet–one exactly like ours–looming right below “Earth 1”. Rhoda spends five years in prison, and after her release she becomes obsessed with exploring the new mirror world. After Rhoda enters an essay contest to go to space, the film takes an unfortunate turn. The science fiction element is dropped (only to return in the last ten minutes), and Rhoda finds out that one of the people she thought she killed in the crash survived; then, to atone for her mistakes, she cleans his house without ever revealing her identity (which, made me thing the character was flighty and cruel [perhaps that was the point?]). It seems like the sci-fi element is just a contrived metaphor. Did Mike Cahill just want to make a movie about the consequences of drunk driving? Maybe the genre twist is there to get the movie picked up by a studio? Maybe Cahill wanted to do more with the sci-fi but ran out of money? It’s all speculation. Really, the only thing the sci-fi elements provide are lame exposition in the form of news stories and websites. Don’t let the Carl Sagan-esque narrator trick you into assuming the movie has some sort of lofty profundity. The ending’s ambiguity might lead one to suspect the film is deep, but it seems the film mistakes “lack of resolution”with “general confusion.” What would you do if you found out a parallel version of yourself exists? The film asks the question without elaboration–literally, characters keep asking each other this question, but nobody has the gumption to wager a guess. And while were on the subject, go ahead and call me a stickler, but if you’re making a film hinged on the hyper-realistic dramatic reaction of real characters put in real situations, at least try and explain the completely implausible science of the film. The second Earth appears so big in the sky, it must be closer than the sun. That would completely throw off the gravity of the solar system. Nobody mentions it. Another clue that leads me to believe the film is only interested in using science fiction as a metaphor, not telling a science fiction story. Another Earth is a total cock-tease: it’s not interested in solving questions of profound existential weight, it’s really just a character study into the mind a terminally boring white girl.

Now here’s the turn! I’ll admit, tearing apart this movie makes me seem silly. What I didn’t tell you is that Another Earth was shot digitally, and it looks beautiful. Calhill’s direction/cinematography show a true grasp on the fundamentals of film-making. Marling and William Mapother (Ethan from Lost) give great performances. The film is high in mood and emotion. Yet, this quiet atmosphere is what helped me realize all of the films problems; whenever I stop paying attention to the movie and start thinking about how I’m going to structure the review I know it’s not a good flick. This movie is boring, plain and simple; it seems more like an exercise than a finished product. It’s pretentious in the truest sense of the word: it suggests something interesting is going on, but the ideas are only surface deep. I assume Calhill and Marling will make movies inside the Hollywood system and someone can reign them in; then, Another Earth will just be remembered as a student film that jump-started the careers of two talented, young filmmakers.

Jesse Eisenberg doesn’t care if you like him. In an interview with the A.V. Club, he said, “You know, it’s not our jobs to account for the perceived likeability of a character.”–that’s why he’ll play an idea-stealing, internet billionaire, or a bratty teenager dealing with divorce and both characters will be selfish jerks, empathetic and vulnerable, but most of all, too smart for their own good. In 30 Minutes or Less, Eisenberg’s all those things as well as a joint-smoking pizza boy who robs a bank. His best friend (Aziz Anzari) is sick of his shit; his true love merely tolerates him; everybody else thinks he’s mostly unpleasant. I can see how lots of folks (read: old people) would find a movie like this off-putting; but if you agree that sometimes the funniest jokes are the meanest ones, you’ll  enjoy 30 Minutes or Less. Its fun to spend a little time with shitty people.

I assume 30 Minutes or Less was pitched as a “Comedy Bank Heist”–even the characters are hyper-aware of genre conventions because they rent movies like Point Blank, Die Hard and Lethal Weapon. This sets the film up for two things: stupid criminals and climatic explosions. Danny McBride plays the same role everybody loves, an egotistical slob who refuses to consider the consequences of his actions. Nick Swardson acts as Eastbound and Down’s Stevie by playing a toned down version of “Flamboyant Moron” and giving McBride someone to yell at. Both characters are total shitheads, but they’ve got a bickering chemistry that comes out funny. Then, there’s explosions. Zombieland showed that Ruben Fleischer can shoot action scenes, so 30 Second’s car chases straddle the line between goofy-slapstick and legitimately-badass. But the movie certainly leans more toward comedy than action. Most of Ansari’s dialogue was improvised; makes sense, because 30 Minutes owes a lot to UCB-improv comedy. The film keeps a brisk pace, the jokes stay conversational, and almost every punchline returns with a snappy call-back. 30 Minutes is a much leaner Pineapple Express, a meaner Hot Fuzz, or Superbad after Evan and Seth go to college and realize they fucking hate each other. During a boring summer of sappy-sweet rom-coms,  30 Minutes tastes deliciously sour.

The best advice I can give: choose Halloween costumes wisely because they are windows into the subconscious. Oliver, the protagonist of Beginners, dresses like Sigmund Freud for Halloween. Initially, the costume gives him an excuse to sit quietly and “psychoanalyze” strangers, but as the film unfolds the metaphor gets broader, deeper. It explains Oliver’s relationships with his parents, women, identity, sex, emasculated fathers, Oedipal urges, life and death. Oliver is an introspective thinker; a loner struggling to find happiness against life’s indefatigable deluge of depression; and maybe, someone who thinks he understands people better than he actually does—like Freud. What makes Beginners one of this year’s most rewarding films, though, is it seems there’s something profound and lofty inside Oliver’s head. Maybe? If not, at least there’s a cute French girl and a talking dog.

Beginners is autobiographical, so a short biography of its writer/director Mike Mills is in order. In 1999, Mills’ mother died. Two weeks later, at age 75, Mills’ father revealed he was gay; after living an openly gay lifestyle for five years, Mills’ father died in 2004. Oliver’s situation is identical and this context is revealed in the film’s first five minutes. Through flashbacks, voice-over narration, and picture collages Oliver tries to make sense of his parent’s “unloving” relationship, and the new-found happiness his father has found in the homosexual lifestyle. All of this could come off as excessively maudlin, or even crudely absurd (how would you react if your geriatric father started putting out personal ads soliciting oral sex from younger men?) but it stays grounded in reality–perhaps only because it actually was reality for Mike Mills.

Really, that’s only half of the movie. The other half is classic Woody Allen rom-com–a nebbish nerd goes for a beautiful actress–but foregoes Jewishness for extra-depression (although, Jewishness is still touched upon). Like Allen, Mills has a propensity for quirky relationships, jazz music, and slightly-surrealist visual humor (like the aforementioned talking dog, an adorable Jack Russel Terrier who’s thoughts are delivered in subtitles). However, while Allen’s movies have a wistful nostalgia for the past, the characters in Beginners can hardly hold up history’s epochal crush.

If Beginners was a book, it would be uncomfortably depressing. It takes more than talking dogs to make parental death and overwhelming loneliness a bearable cinematic experience.  The performances of Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plumber, and Melaine Laurent allow Mills” first-hand sadness to be refracted into manageable metaphors. Plumber is able to show human dimension to Oliver’s father, Hal, a character coming to terms with his sexuality at 75; he’s just as confused as his son is. But Plumber brings an energy to Hal even when he’s supported by machines on his deathbed–a wise man once said, “Death is only one final moment.”

Hal’s demons reflect Oliver’s. The parallels between Oliver’s lover and his mother (sound Freudian?) bring the film full circle. Death, life, love, loneliness, etc. It’s got everything folks! Go out see if our wayward protagonist ever fulfills childhood desires, because Beginners is one of the best films of 2011.