Saturday, May 29, 2010

R.I.P. DENNIS HOPPER



Few careers have been as interesting—and influential—as Dennis Hopper's. Hopper died earlier today after a long battle with prostate cancer at the age of 74, and without speaking ill of the dead it is absolutely fucking amazing that Dennis Hopper made it to 74. This is a man who, in the early 80s, after he'd “cut down” on his controlled substance intake, was consuming twenty-four beers, a quart of rum, and two grams of cocaine . . . a day. At that point in his career, Hopper was unemployable as an actor and director, and was planning to fake his own death to escape shady creditors, and so planned an elaborate performance art piece involving dynamite, figuring that if the dynamite killed him he was no longer liable for his debts.

Of course, there was more to him than that. Although no one was as theatrical a disaster as Hopper at his height (low?) he was a very accomplished actor, photographer, and filmmaker. As a teenager, Hopper worked with James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause and Giant, and found himself influenced by Dean in ways both positive and negative (Hopper was more taken with an incident where Dean pulled a knife on one of his directors than his dedication to craft) that would stay with Hopper for life.

In the 60s, with his career as an actor hindered by his tendency to indiscriminately tell people to go fuck themselves, Hopper was given the opportunity, by Roger Corman, to shoot some second unit footage for a picture called The Trip, which inspired both Hopper and old friend Peter Fonda to make their own movie.

That movie was Easy Rider. While to modern eyes Easy Rider is kind of boring, sloppy, and extremely pretentious, it definitely had its moments and no one had ever seen anything like it. Hopper directed and co-starred as Billy the Kid, and claims to have written the whole script by himself (Fonda, who played Captain America, claims to have had the initial idea while staring at a bike movie poster while on drugs and written the script himself, while Terry Southern, the third credited writer and the one who actually was a writer, claims to have written the whole thing himself with occasional notes from Hopper and Fonda). Hopper was already lurching around, dangerously out of his head on four or five different drugs at once at all times, yelling at George Cukor that the establishment was finished and that he—Hopper—was the vanguard of the new cinema, pulling a knife on Rip Torn, who was supposed to be in the movie (Torn took the knife away and put his foot in Hopper's ass; years later when Hopper claimed on the Tonight Show that Torn had pulled a knife on him, Torn sued Hopper for a few hundred thousand dollars and won), beating up his wife when she said the idea for the movie was stupid . . . and this is all before one frame of film was shot.

Eventually, through all the drugs and epic battles between Hopper and Fonda, and despite Hopper's utter lack of any practical knowledge of how to make a movie, Easy Rider not only happened, not only was a massive hit, but was responsible for a cultural paradigm shift. It popularized not only cocaine (something for which Hopper gleefully took credit) but a particular kind of stylized realism, pessimistic in outlook, that would be prevalent in Hollywood pictures for the next half decade. And, lest we forget, Easy Rider made Jack Nicholson a star (he filled in for Torn). The enormous, near unprecedented success of Easy Rider made Hopper a cultural icon.

As an already difficult, belligerent, and unpredictably violent man, Hopper became even more so, combined with and augmented by a messianic ego. (Hilariously, while all this was going on, John Wayne used to chase Hopper around the True Grit set with loaded guns whenever any counterculture-related item would hit the news; not because he was pissed—the Duke got a kick out of Hopper—but just to show the little motherfucker who the alpha dog was).

So it was that even though Easy Rider made such a massive impact and Hopper so venerated in the press, no one in Hollywood wanted to make his next picture. Eventually, Universal, in a desperate and clueless grab at cred with the kids, rolled the dice on Hopper, who promptly fucked them over so badly the studio almost ceased to exist (first he miscast himself in the lead, didn't bother writing a script, and shot in Peru so he could do mountains of cheap coke and smuggle a bunch back, then he informed the studio he was going to need a year to edit and presented them with a four-hour cut when he was done). This effectively ended Hopper's career as a director.

Hopper spent the rest of the 70s incoherently fucked up to the point where, on the rare occasions he did get an acting job, the director would include notations on the call sheet indicating which drug Hopper should do for which shot. This was followed by the low in the early 80s mentioned earlier, when Hopper's death was an acceptable option to him, weighed against the reality of an extinct career, a massive drug problem, and mountains of debt.

Eventually, though, Hopper pulled himself together. He—apparently—got sober and had two terrific comeback performances in 1986: nitrous-huffing gangster Frank “Daddy wants to fuck!” Booth in David Lynch's Blue Velvet, and haunted alcoholic Shooter in the crowd-pleasing basketball drama Hoosiers.

The acting comeback was followed by a directing comeback: Colors, while a borderline piece of shit, has the advantage over The Last Movie of actually being a movie (and the soundtrack, like Easy Rider's, is great), and The Hot Spot, which is about 45 minutes too long but is one of the greatest movies ever made for featuring Jennifer Connelly's bare breasts; in all seriousness, it's a fairly decent noir aside from the overlength.

Hopper had a very good 90s (well, aside from getting his balls sued off by Rip Torn). His performance in True Romance alone would qualify him for icon status, even if he wasn't so beyond iconic that he'd fucking been friends with fucking James Dean. This scene's awesomeness cannot be described in words (featuring bonus Walken!)

Around that time Hopper starred in a number of ads for the NFL, wherein he played a hilariously unhinged fan in a referee outfit ranting worshipfully about several stars of the day (“It's Junior Seau, maaaaaaaan!”) These were what initially inspired me to watch Easy Rider as a young teenager and realize “Holy shit, this man's career was epic!”

And then there was Speed. Wherein Dennis Hopper was outwitted by Keanu. Let's reiterate that for dramatic impact. Dennis Hopper was outwitted by Keanu.

DENNIS HOPPER and KEANU are on the roof of a speeding subway train
Dennis Hopper: I'm smarter than you. I'm smarter than you!
Keanu holds Dennis Hopper at arm's length; Dennis Hopper is decapitated by a light
Keanu: Yeah? Well I'm taller.
This sort of humiliation would have driven a lesser man back to drugs and drink. Hopper, though, unpredictable sort that he is, decided instead to become right-wing, much like many other 60s-vintage leftists who get off the drugs, realize they're middle-aged with bills and get cranky about how much tax they have to pay.

Hopper's last hurrah as an actor came on the first season of 24, as Final Boss Victor Drazen, complete with one of the most bizarre accents ever committed to tape and a particularly Hopper-esque oozing, delightfully over-the-top villainy.

And today Dennis Hopper shuffled off this mortal coil. It is often said “There will never be another like him,” but Dennis Hopper is perhaps the worthiest subject of that, with a career spanning six decades, in none of which was there ever a dull moment. Dennis the Menace, rest in peace, and thanks for the memories.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

LOST IN LOST


The last decade has seen some of the most compelling television ever created (which is funny, because it's also seen some of the most hideous; peaks and valleys, I suppose). Tracing this period, which many critics have called a Golden Age and claim constitutes a surpassing of the cultural value of movies by TV, back to an origin is a little imprecise, but it's not much of a stretch to say that it started around the time both OZ and The Sopranos were on HBO in the late 90s. Both of these shows had long-form narratives, and were very difficult to follow if you didn't start at the beginning. These were not the first such shows—Twin Peaks comes to mind as an early example, as does the criminally underrated Wiseguy—but, completely aside from the fact that people could say “fuck” and show tits (and, in OZ's case, lots and lots and lots of cock), OZ and The Sopranos were operating on another level of narrative consistency and artistic ambition within the medium of TV. The next few years saw network TV come up with ballsy, artsy concepts like 24's real-time conceit (even if it turned into absolute bullshit after season 1, still, they tried). HBO outdid itself with The Wire, which is not only the best thing in the history of television, it ranks with the great works of narrative fiction in the Western canon (I'm not exaggerating, so fuck off).

Network TV, due to the shackles of censorship, hasn't seen as much innovation as cable, though people who watch more TV than me can probably go on and on about the good stuff on network (I can personally vouch for Arrested Development, though I'm taking others' enthusiasm for 30 Rock, The Office, Friday Night Lights, Battlestar and other such titles on faith, since I've never seen them). I, however, submit that the high-water mark on network TV, in terms of balls, erudition, and sheer ability to compel is a series that saw its series finale the other night: Lost.

Lost is the only show I can think of on network TV where you literally have to start with the first episode to understand what the fuck is going on on any level whatsoever. Even shows like 24 can be followed season by season, and when Nina or Tony come back you can turn to the nearest nerd and go “Hoozat?” and they can tell you “Oh that's Jack's old fuck buddy who went bad.” Lost, on the other hand, absolutely requires that you start at the beginning. The only other TV show, network or cable, that I can think of where the same can be said is The Wire, and The Wire was so meticulously constructed (and “All the pieces matter” as Lester Freamon would tell you) that repeated viewings yield new layers, colors, and meanings like re-reading a great novel.

The things that make Lost different from The Wire (aside from the obvious shit like McNulty never had to shoot a polar bear, etc etc) are endemic to the differences between network and cable television. David Simon was allowed to fly relatively under the radar creatively, due to low ratings and a handful of executives at HBO convinced of his genius and the importance of the show who let him do whatever he wanted. Lost showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse had no such luxuries: they did have the advantage of absentee boss J.J. Abrams' big name, but they also had to deal with the fact that some executive at ABC corporate parent Disney, sitting behind his desk, stroking a Persian cat, might suddenly and arbitrarily murmur in deep, sinister tones, “Bring me their heads.” Because Disney is run by Blofeld. This brings about more of a need—either conveyed by an evil white guy in a suit or self-imposed—to keep the fans happy, which all too often means playing up romantic storylines, avoiding ambiguity and overly cerebral content, and certainly no controversy.

For some reason, Abrams and subsequently Lindelof/Cuse managed to get away with all the ambiguity and cerebral content they liked by having lots of romance and, ultimately, bringing the show to a resolution that, in openly and enthusiastically endorsing faith and religion, is as uncontroversial as one can get in the USA, United in Stomping Atheism. Lost managed to straddle the fence between being a magnificently erudite geekgasm and mainstream, popular entertainment by being just weird enough to keep the audience guessing and posting hundreds of thousands of words on the Internet comparing guesses, but giving people something to hold onto, in the form of compelling (and, for the most part, extremely good-looking) characters.

Largely because of my own biases against TV (I have a neurotic inability to follow more than one TV show at any given time; now that Lost is done, I'm back to catching up with Treme) I find myself comparing favorite shows like The Wire and Lost to literature rather than other TV. Whereas playing this game with The Wire leads to lots of juicily pretentious name-dropping like Emile Zola, Sinclair Lewis, and Frank Norris alongside the novelists who contributed material to the show like Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, and George Pelecanos, doing the same with Lost brings to mind less the writers name-checked on the show (Locke, Rousseau, Hume, et al as well as the endless parade of books in characters' hands) than the Harry Potter series, and that is by no means dismissive. Both are very long, multi-volume tales of strange and fantastic worlds and the battle between good and evil, and both resolve their final chapters with moving testimonials to the power and necessity of love.

Summarizing Lost in anything resembling a coherent fashion is fucking impossible; in one of the final episodes, perhaps the perfect guideline for the show is uttered: “Every answer will just lead to another question.” Even if you watch every single episode, there will still be a ton of shit you don't understand, and that's not only not a problem, that's one of the best things about the show (until the last ten minutes of the series finale, Lost was almost like a Rorschach blot; religious people saw it as a parable about Purgatory, SF geeks saw it as Viagra, and mothers of two in the Midwest saw it as sensitive-guys-with-stubble porn). That being said, here's an overview:


Season 1

Oceanic Flight 815 crashes on a tropical island somewhere in the South Pacific, about 1000 miles off course where no one will think to look for it. A band of survivors stares down death by starvation/thirst, and eventually bands together around reluctant leader (and man of science) Jack Shepard, a surgeon flying his overbearing alcoholic father's body back from Australia to Los Angeles. Jack meets a cute girl with some skeletons in her closet named Kate, and faces antagonism from (apparently) amoral con man Sawyer (who also likes Kate) and nature enthusiast (and man of faith) John Locke, who until landing on the island, was paralyzed and in a wheelchair . . . but upon arriving on the island can walk. Hmmm. WAIT HOLY SHIT IS THAT A POLAR BEAR???? WHAT THE FUCK ARE POLAR BEARS DOING ON A TROPICAL ISLAND????

We flash back to all the main characters' lives before the island, wherein tantalizing connections to their lives on the island are revealed, including the above-mentioned Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Locke, single father Michael and his son Walt, former Iraqi Republican Guard torturer Sayid, junkie Britrock has-been Charlie, mysterious Korean married couple Sun and Jin (Sun hides that she can speak English for like half the season), pregnant Australian blonde Claire (who eventually becomes Australian blonde mother Claire, to a son she names Aaron), unlucky lottery winner Hugo “Hurley” Reyes (his winning numbers were 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42), and twatty rich kid siblings Boone and Shannon.

And who's that French woman we hear on the radio? Is she just batshit or are there really Others on the island? What the fuck is up with Walt? Did he make the polar bear appear by reading about it in the comic book? Did he make that bird fly into the window of his house in the flashback scene after seeing the picture of it in that book? Why the fuck did Walt burn the raft? What do the Others want with Claire's baby? How come the numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42 keep reappearing all over the goddamn place (I mean, we all know that 42 is the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything, but still)? Why did The Others kidnap Walt? What's the Smoke Monster? And what in the holy name of fuck is in The Hatch?

Awesomeness of season (on a scale of “fuck off” to “fuck yeah!”): Fuck yeah!

Best episode: “Walkabout” (ep. 4)—when they reveal at the end of the episode that Locke was in a wheelchair, I unleashed the first of what I came to call a “Lost 'holy shit!'” This is a “holy shit” where the o in “holy” lasts a really long time and the “shit” ends in a very wide smile.

Deaths: Boone, in the first of many “he was lame until he got killed then he was kinda cool” Lost deaths, in an accident.


Season 2

The season 1 cliffhanger saw Jack and Locke peering down into The Hatch as the camera pulls back. The first sequence of season 2 is a jaw-dropping, hard-on inducing walk through the first couple minutes of an unseen man's day . . . in The fucking Hatch! It turns out the guy living there is a slightly unhinged Scottish guy named Desmond—who Jack met pre-Island—who has been tasked with pushing a button every 108 minutes to keep the world from coming to an end. Hmm. Interesting. The Hatch was built by some mysterious bunch called the Dharma Initiative. The good news is, the Hatch (or, as it's actually named, the Swan Station) is very well-stocked with a ton of food, and there's running water, so all the survival issues of season 1 are over. The bad news is, the Others are out there, and they've still got Walt. Our heroes find a guy in the jungle claiming to be “Henry Gale . . . from Minnesota!” who they take prisoner. He turns out to be Benjamin Linus, the brilliant, Machiavellian leader of the Others. Ben gets all our heroes tied up in moral, intellectual, and ethical knots, and then gets back to his people.

We meet another group of survivors, from the tail section of the plane, including Bernard, a guy who was in the bathroom when the plane crashed, whose wife Rose was in the main section with all the season 1 people, LA cop Ana Lucia (whose misfortune of being played by the dramatically limited Michelle Rodriguez earned her a high degree of enmity from fans), a mysterious (largely because she was killed before any of her backstory was revealed) woman named Libby who falls in love with Hurley (as a member of Fat Guy Nation, it did me proud to see our president-in-exile pull a cutie like her), and a mysterious (largely because he doesn't talk and carries a stick with Scriptural verses carved in it) Nigerian named Mr. Eko. After Michael kills Ana Lucia and Libby to spring Ben so he can trade him back to the Others for Walt, only Bernard and Eko remain alive from the tail section, aside from the plane's stewardess and a bunch of kids, who defect to the Others.

Eventually, Locke decides to see what'll happen if they stop pushing the button Desmond was tasked with. Desmond tries to convince him how shitty an idea that is (the only time he ever forgot to push the button, a little flight called Oceanic 815 crashed) but you try arguing with John Locke. John Locke will fuck you up. So Locke wins the argument, and the dangerously powerful electromagnetism which the Swan Station monitors and contains is at risk of being released . . . except Desmond, because Desmond is awesome, crawls underneath the station and activates a “fail-safe,” which keeps the Island from being destroyed, but also causes The Hatch to implode, leaving the fates of Charlie, Eko, Locke, and Desmond up in the air.

Some of the questions remain the same: seriously, what the fuck is up with Walt? The Others go to this huge effort to kidnap him, and he hacks into the fucking Hatch computer to chat with his dad, and then suddenly the Others just let him go off with Michael? What the fuck happened that they suddenly wanted to get rid of his ass? Not as pressing, but the whole pregnancy thing—women who conceive children on the island invariably die—is like what the fuck? And are we going to live together . . . or are we going to die alone?

New questions: who the hell are the Dharma Initiative, and why does all their stuff look awesome, and why do they wear those beige jumpsuits?

Awesomeness: fuck yeah, far out.

Best episode: “The 23rd Psalm” (ep. 10)—Mr. Eko's flashback episode. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is one of the king-hell badasses in the history of the performing arts. In what I swear will be the last Wire reference in this post, I want to see Adewale and Idris Elba playing two gangsters called The Englishmen who just scare the living shit out of everybody someday.

Deaths: Shannon, again, right when she was starting to get cool (and providing Sayid a lot of opportunity to mourn decoratively), shot by Ana Lucia; Ana Lucia (meh), shot by Michael; Libby, being in the wrong place at the wrong time when Michael shot Ana Lucia and thus had to get got (HOW THE FUCK COULD YOU DO THAT TO HURLEY, MICHAEL?)


Season 3

Wherein are contained some of the show's highest highs and lowest lows. In the former category, the first scene of the season premiere, where a bunch of the Others are sitting around in this idyllic suburb . . . when Oceanic flight 815 crashes into the Island, where said suburb is. That sequence got a “Lost 'holy shit'” out of me. The lowest of the lows was probably the “do you guys seriously think we're fucking retarded” introduction of Nikki and Paulo, not so much because the characters themselves were so annoying, but because a) Nikki was so ludicrously hot that we would have noticed her before now if they'd always been on the plane, and b) the writers kept shoving Nikki and Paulo into the middle of scenes and tasks where there was no need whatsoever for two more pretty people getting in John Locke's way. The show already had a useless, sexy character. Her name was Kate, and unless they were introducing Nikki as part of a lesbian mud-wrestling subplot involving the two of them there was no reason for her to be there, unless she was a spy sent by the Others, in which case John Locke would have to fuck her up. (Because John Locke will fuck you up).

Anyway, Nikki and Paulo are soon dispensed with, and shit starts picking up. We learn how Locke got paralyzed (his fucking father threw him out a window! HOOOOOOOOOOOOOLY SHIT!) Jack's vagina continues to grow into a singularity that threatens the existence of the universe itself, that guy with the awesome eyelashes who hangs out with the Others, Richard Alpert, hasn't aged in at least fifty years, another stunningly gorgeous woman lands on the Island and is promptly murdered by Locke, Charlie sacrifices himself to save everyone, warning Desmond before he dies that the ship that they all think is coming to save them is not from Desmond's fiancee Penelope . . . and the “flashbacks” in the season finale are really flash-forwards! To Jack, strung out on Oxycontin suppositories he's apparently been ramming up his vagina, telling Kate that they have to go back to the Island.

Mysteries include the time-honored and eternal “what the fuck/Walt” enigma, the now-familiar “what up with the pregnant broads” noodle-baker, why the fuck Nikki and Paulo even existed and why Lindelof and Cuse didn't just pull some Stalinist purge-them-from-the-canon maneuver and never speak of them again, who the hell is on that boat if Penny didn't send it, what Penny's dad Charles Widmore is up to and why he speaks with an Australian accent even though he's supposed to be English, and why the fuck they need to go back to the Island even though they haven't left it yet and have been trying to leave since 2004.

Mysteries answered include the polar bear question! The show answers it in such a matter-of-fact way that you almost miss it, and the answer is pretty obvious in retrospect: the Dharma Initiative brought them to the Island. Also solved is the following:

Locke: Where do you get electricity?
Ben: We have two big hamsters running around in this giant wheel in our secret underground lair.
This is notable for being the first notable moment where the writers said to the fans, “You want to know how [x] works? FUCK YOU, that's how it works.” (Ed. Note: anyone pissed off about the series finale can look back to this episode, and Ben's quote, for their answers)

Awesomeness: Season 3 will make you schizophrenic. Everything either sucks or rules, no in between. Overall, it gets a quiet, gentlemanly fuck yeah, but Nikki, Paulo and the whole Sawyer and Kate in the polar bear cages epoch can go fuck themselves.

Best episode: "The Man From Tallahassee" (ep. 13)—Dude, seriously, any episode involving both Locke going out the window and the hilarious, revelatory hamster wheel quote has no equal. Honorable mention goes to the following episode, where Nikki and Paulo are buried alive.

Deaths: the aforementioned superfluous shitheads, with said burial taking place after the Smoke Monster assumed the form of some poisonous spiders or something; Mr. Eko, ignominiously and incongruously killed by the Smoke Monster because Adewale didn't like it in Hawaii; Naomi the hot parachutist, owned in the back with a knife by John Locke; Charlie, martyrdom by water; a whole shitload of Others.


Season 4

Pound for pound the best season. Season 1, which had held that honor, was hamstrung by the need for exposition. Season 4, wherein we already know the main characters, can go full speed ahead. I watched this entire season in one day, and by the end of it I was both drained and exhilarated. Season 4 is fucking intense.

So the “rescue ship” arrives, and it turns out it wasn't sent by Penny, but her father. A team of scientists arrives, looking for the hot girl Locke killed, and physicist Daniel Faraday (Jeremy Davies, in full-on “I just landed on Earth the other day and you'll have to pardon me for being a little spaceship-lagged” Jeremy Davies Martian mode) introduces a whole lot more questions about the Island from a scientific standpoint (none of which are ever answered, but Jeremy Davies is so awesome at playing flaky scientists that it doesn't matter).

The flash-forwards continue, with varying degrees of cool (Jack and Kate being married, snore; Sayid doing hits for Ben in Europe, HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLY SHIT!!!!!) and no small amount of mystery about why it was only Jack, Kate, Sayid, Hurley, Sun, and Aaron who made it out. And who the fuck is this Jeremy Bentham cat who keeps visiting them . . .? Locke assumes control over the Others from Ben, and is told by the mysterious Jacob (the guardian of the Island) to “move the Island.” Ga-wha? It's a fuckin' island, isn't it? How can you move it? Apparently with that gigantic, ancient-looking wheel somewhere under the basement of Ben's house (not the one the hamsters make electricity with).

So Ben moves the Island, the ship explodes, but the Oceanic Six are rescued by Penny. Sun is devastated, since she assumes that Jin died in the explosion (where apparently the only person of any consequence to the show who was killed was Michael, who had returned as a crew member, in an attempt to redeem himself for killing Ana Lucia and Libby).

Oh, and the last flash-forward of the season reveals that the deceased Jeremy Bentham, who's been visiting everyone to tell them to go back to the island . . . IS JOHN FUCKING LOCKE! WHAT THE FUCK? John Locke will fuck you up, you don't fuck John Locke up! But, wait, the flash forwards are the future . . . goddammit, Jack, give me some of your Oxycontin for the headache this shit is giving me. Trust me, having a headache by this point doesn't mean you're a civilian.

Awesomeness: FUCK YEAH!

Best episode: Season 4 is one 14-part episode. The poor bastards who had to wait a week to get a new episode back in '08 have my sympathy; I didn't even start on Lost til three months ago (thank fuck for Netflix instant streaming and Hulu). What it must have been like waiting a week for shit this intense, I'm glad I'll never know.

Deaths: John Locke, as yet undetermined causes (eventually revealed to be Ben garroting him out of jealousy); Michael, martyrdom by C-4; Alex Rousseau, shot in the fucking head because Ben thought the guy with the gun was bluffing (quel un peu monstre pourrait tuer une si belle fille?).


Season 5

Aaaaaand we have time-travel. Because, ya know, Lost was really too fuckin' simple up to this point. Due to Ben having fucked up when he moved the Island, knocking the wheel loose from its moorings, everyone on the Island—Locke, Sawyer, Juliet, Faraday, Charlotte (Faraday's weird-looking redhead), Miles the psychic—is hopping around in time. At one point they hop so far back that they see the whole statue over by New Otherton with the four toes that freaked Sayid out a couple seasons ago (of an Egyptian fertility goddess, bringing back the long-standing and seemingly forgotten pregnancy thing back). The hopping about through space and time eventually causes Charlotte to have a brain hemorrhage so Daniel can have a big dramatic scene where he cries to give him something other to do than his “hey guys, I'm from outer space, let's talk about science” routine, but eventually Locke travels through time and tells himself how to fix things (or something, he might have used Richard as his proxy) and he goes and does, and thoroughly freaks out some 1950s-vintage Others (led by a same-as-he-ever-was Richard) before returning to the present day and doing his Jeremy Bentham routine. And being killed by Ben. And returning to the island, not dead. Or . . . wait . . . fuck, I give up.

Eventually, Sawyer, Juliet, and Miles all end up in the 70s working for the Dharma Initiative, who are revealed to be a (mostly) harmless bunch of hippie scientists. Jack, Ben, Kate, Hurley, Sayid, Sun, Locke's corpse, and Frank the pilot all hop on another plane that, through flying through a singularity, will bring them back to the Island; it works, except Jack, Kate, Sayid, and Hurley all end up in the 70s and Ben, Sun, and Frank end up in the present day . . . with Locke somehow alive. The mysterious “bounty hunter” who busted Sayid to get him on the plane turns out to be a Jacob cultist, who with a bunch of co-religionists figures out that something's a little fishy about this alleged Locke, who meanwhile has reassumed leadership of the Others and scared the living shit out of Richard.

In the season finale, we're introduced to Jacob for the first time, along with a man dressed in black who expresses a desire to kill Jacob and assures him that he will find a “loophole” that will allow him to do so. And, in 1977, Jack, convinced that if they detonate a nuclear warhead the Island has conveniently laying around, all the time-travel shit will stop, the Island will cease to exist, and they'll all wake up happily on Oceanic 815 (Daniel having muttered some crazy science talk to that effect before being killed by his mother, who then dedicates the rest of her life to make sure Daniel grows up to be a scientist so that he can prevent her from shooting him, instead of it just occurring to her that if he gets as far the fuck away from science as he can, he'll never time-travel and she'll never shoot him . . . trust me, I'm washing the Oxy down with vodka by this point; the fuckin' headache is giving me a nosebleed). Season 5 ends with the nuke going off. Boo ya.

Awesomeness: Fuck yeah . . . wait . . . fuck . . . what the . . . hmmm . . . no, okay, the nuke bumps it back up to a fuck yeah.

Best episode: one of those middle ones, either “316” or “The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham.”

Deaths: Daniel, shot by his mom (a fate I almost suffered myself a few times as a fuckheaded teenager, making this death particularly resonant); the whole Dharma Initiative; Locke, strangled by Ben; Charlotte, terminal Superfluous Character Syndrome.


Season 6

This season was when I started feeling like each season was a different show. Season 1 was about a bunch of people trying to survive on an island, seasons 2 and 3 were about said survivors locked in a battle against a malignant, duplicitous Other, season 4 was about the survivors and the Others banding together to fight off outsiders, season 5 was about the writers smoking a mountain of weed and whipping their dicks out, and season 6 was about religion. This last revelation didn't come until the last ten minutes of the series finale, but the second Jack's dad explained to him that Jack was dead and that he was in a place he and his friends had built in the next life to meet up before going into the light, I was like, “Yeah, it makes sense that they were headed here.”

The first thing to understand about season 6, as a summation of the show, is that it does not Answer All The Questions. “What the fuck/Walt,” the pregnancy thing, what the Island actually is, who built the statue of Tawaret, what the Man In Black's real name was (I had been hoping either for “J.R. Cash” or “John Locke” but was disappointed on both counts), how Hurley never managed to lose weight, why the fuck Kate wasn't killed in the middle of season 3, why Ben and Widmore's battle for control of the island disappeared from the storyline when it had been so huge for like four seasons, when Jack mysteriously regrew his balls (he had them by the finale, but I was confused by other shit and didn't notice when they grew back), etc etc. None of these questions will ever be answered definitively, unless Lindelof and Cuse commission an “official canon” novelization.

One question that was answered was what the hell the flash-sideways shit was: the afterlife, where everyone lives their ideal life. Except why Kate was still a fugitive, Sayid's love for Nadia was unrequited, Charlie was an eyeliner-wearing emotard, and Sawyer was banging Daniel Faraday's girl (who was waaaaaaaaaaaaay hotter this season, so much so that I didn't even recognize her when she showed up) when he was meant to be with Juliet will also go unanswered. At least they gave us something, even if it came perilously close to directly contradicting the frequent assurances from Lindelof/Cuse that the Island wasn't Purgatory (yeah, the flash-sideways wasn't the Island, but still).

All kinds of cool shit happens season 6. There was no real reason for Dogen the Temple guy to only speak in Japanese so his hippie-de-camp could translate for him, except it was cool. The Richard episode, “Ab Aeterno,” didn't really contribute anything to the show at large except being cool. The Jacob/MIB origin story “Across the Sea,” did contribute to the show, not because it mattered where the hell Jacob and his rival came from—they turned out to be twins . . . oh, sibling rivalry—but because Allison Janney (my celebrity fourth cousin! What's good, baby?) tells us “Any answer will just lead to another question.”

I think that line, and the “fuck if it makes sense, that was cool” tone of so much of the final season is, ultimately, the message Lindelof and Cuse wanted to leave us with. “Don't trip about Walt. The pregnancy thing, meh, sands of time. At the end of the day, giving yourself an aneurysm worrying about plot points we pulled out of our ass on deadline five years ago isn't productive. This isn't Literary Eschatology 420 with professors Abrams, Lindelof, and Cuse, motherfuckers, this is entertainment. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and if you're seriously that bent out of shape about Walt, go ahead and write some fanfic. But first fuck off so we can count our money.”

This is an entirely defensible position. Let's look at the big picture. Damon Lindelof is a nerd. J.J. Abrams is a nerd. They get themselves this gig where a bunch of people with a shitload of money are saying “Sup babes. Here's 12 million bucks, go shoot a pilot in Hawaii about a plane that crashes on an island. Come up with some strange shit.” As nerds in good standing, Lindelof and Abrams dutifully delivered a smorgasbord of SF, fantasy, and other delights earthly and divine. Then Abrams had to go make movies, so Lindelof brought in Carlton Cuse, another nerd, and said to him, “Hey . . . they're giving us a fucking whole lot of money to do whatever we want.”

Cuse stroked his chin and said, “Whatever we want?”

And Lindelof assured him, “Whatever we want.”

Now, put yourself in their shoes. If you were a nerd (who am I kidding with the “if”?) and someone gave you a shitload of money to do whatever you want, what would you say? If that was anything other than a full-throated “fuck yes” you're lying to yourself. This is not to say Abrams, Lindelof, Cuse, et al, are uncaring, unfeeling, money-grubbing trolls. Far from it; they're nerds like you and me. But they're nerds who by dint of hard work, talent, and luck got themselves into a position where they got the opportunity to live out one of the great nerd dreams. They have the right to do whatever the fuck they want with their own dream.

Chuck Klosterman pointed out on a podcast where he discoursed on the Lost finale that modern TV fans have this odd sense of entitlement, to wit, that they have a proprietary right over a favorite TV show. This is not the case. Liking something does not confer ownership, nor does it give your anger at the series not ending exactly the way you wanted any righteousness. My own feelings about the way Lost ended are ambivalent; as a non-religious person (to put it extremely mildly) I got a slight case of narrative blue balls about the flash-sideways turning out to be the afterlife, and as one of the tens of millions who J.K. Rowling spoiled rotten with the perfect way she wrapped up the Harry Potter saga (well, near-perfect, she was a little cavalier about the way she iced Lupin and Tonks, but hey, one fuck-up ain't bad with something that massive) I was a little let down that we never found out what the Island was.

But you know what? I'll live. First of all, I only started watching the fuckin thing in February, and as awesome a ride as it was, ten mildly disappointing but still well-crafted minutes of TV isn't something worth getting bent out of shape about.

Anyway, season 6 awesomeness: a lower key fuck yeah than seasons 1 and 4, but a respectful one.

Best episode: “Ab Aeterno” (ep. 9)—sure, everyone went goo goo ga ga over this one, but with reason. Nestor Carbonell works it, convincingly portraying an extremely unworldly 1860s dude from Tenerife who gets sold into slavery and ends up crashing on the Island because Jacob decided to make him consigliere, granting him immortality in the process.

Deaths: literally everyone on the show. Well, except Walt, because no one knows what the fuck happened to him.

Overall highlights:

Terry O'Quinn as John Locke/Smoke Monster/CockbLocke

This man is a god. Even before he became a supernatural being on this show, he was always the most awesome part of it.

Michael Emerson as Benjamin Linus

Running a close second.

Jorge Garcia as Hugo “Hurley” Reyes

The president-in-exile. You know why his nickname is Hurley? FUCK YOU, THAT'S WHY!

Henry Ian Cusick as Desmond David Hume

Romantic. Tragic hero. Lover. Constant.

Sunjin Kim and Daniel Dae Kim as Sun and Jin

No one has ever been as in love.

In the end, Lost needs to be hailed for what it is: a television show of uncommon boldness, that dared to be literate, that managed to entertain both intellectually and viscerally. To blame it for not being exactly what you wanted it to be is a waste of time. Do what I do when something pisses you off: write your own fucking script.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

(COMIC) BOOK TO FILM: TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES


I was once described as “the kind of guy who looks like he reads comic books.” (The source was mad that I was dating a girl he liked. Bahahaha!). This may be true. However, I'm a total comic book civilian. What random scattered titles I know though, I love with the enthusiasm and intensity that I love favorite movies, books, and albums. My favorite series, dating from the time my uncle picked up an issue when the name caught his eye and then regifted it to me for my 9th birthday, is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Started in the early 80s exactly the way you expected—two nerds sitting around their apartment, one nerd says to the other “Hey . . . let's do a comic called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” to which the other nerd replied, “That's awesome,” followed by a frantic grab for pencils—TMNT started life as a black and white independent comic, fairly dark in tone and very violent. The turtle protagonists, famously, were named for Renaissance artists. Over the first couple years, the—sporadically published—title took the turtles all over space and time and even teamed up with Dave Sim's legendary Cerebus.

This was around the point my uncle introduced me to the series, though he wisely started me at the beginning. He, my dad, and their younger brother the painter were all very pleased that I was starting off with indie comix at a young and impressionable age. This was around the same time they were nervously nudging me toward the Velvet Underground to make sure I grew up with hip musical taste (I, being wise to their game, trolled the fuck out of them by singing Bobby Brown songs at every opportunity).

But then something weird happened. Some smart, commercially-minded person looked at the phrase “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and went, hey, let's make a cartoon aimed at little kids. This, of course, meant that certain of my favorite things about the original comic—the cursing (which was only “damn” and “hell”), the beer drinking, the cutting people to bloody shreds with swords—had to be chucked, in favor of a junkie-like fixation on pizza, kid-friendly catchphrases like “cowabunga” (another great opportunity to troll my dad; he was so pissed off that I didn't care “cowabunga” was ganked from Howdy Doody that he used to turn purple) and a general lowering of the dramatic stakes. The turtles' first and most memorable nemesis, The Shredder, was turned from a vengeance-seeking younger brother of a guy the turtles' master killed into a bumbling fucko with an alien brain sidekick (himself inspired by these weird aliens in the original comic who accidentally beamed the turtles across the universe, who were good guys). Master Splinter wasn't changed much, but he was cuted up a bit. Most disappointingly, the turtles' human friend, April O'Neil, was forced to abandon her decorative cleavage tops for this nasty-ass yellow jumpsuit that she apparently never took off.

Don't get me wrong. I watched the cartoon. I was young enough that being a little kid won out over being an indie comix purist. I was, however, just enough of a douchebag to haughtily tell my classmates “Yeah, the show's cool and all, but you should read the original comics, they're much better.” And as much as the absence of bad language, violence, and cleavage was disappointing, I rather liked the cartoon, but not so much that when they announced that a movie was being made that I didn't go, “Man, I hope they base it on the original comic, not the cartoon . . .”

To my pleasant surprise, the movie splits the difference fairly elegantly. The introduction blends the origin story from the comic with the pilot episode of the TV show, as the turtles become friends with TV reporter April by rescuing her from marauding ninjas a couple times. They introduce her to Splinter, who tells her how a rat and four turtles mutated into anthropomorphic form in an almost direct quote from the debut issue of the comic. Later on, other plot elements are taken directly from the original comic. The tone, for a kids' movie, is quite dark in places, and the violence doesn't fuck around, though stopping short of spouting blood and severed limbs and shit, because I mean, come on, it is a kids' movie.

The movie begins with a crime wave sweeping “New York” (it's clearly shot somewhere else; just cuz you put a cat in the oven, that don't make it a biscuit), which intrepid TV reporter April O'Neil hears may have something to do with something called “The Foot Clan.” The pigs are pissed off that she's running at the mouth on TV about the crime wave, because it makes them look bad, but she kind of has a point, to wit: take the fuckin donut outta your mouth and get to work, fucknugget.

One night some creeps mug April, but before anybody knows what the hell happened, the lights go out, and when the fuzz turns up, the muggers are subdued, disarmed, and tied up. The only clue as to what the fuck happened is a sai, dropped by Raphael, ninja turtle, which April grabs and puts in her bag.

Introducing Leonardo, Donatello, and Michelangelo celebrating their triumphant victory over the muggers. Their cranky brother brings up the rear, pissed off at having lost his sai. Splinter, their rat teacher/father figure, tries to calm Raphael down, but the hijinks of the other three piss Raphael off to the point where he says fuck it, grabs a trench coat and hat and goes out to the movies. (The fact that all their “going incognito” outfit consists of is a trench coat and hat, when their skin is green and they have gigantic fucking shells on their backs, is a wonderful joke on New York in the 80s, and it's accurate, too—I wouldn't look twice at someone with green legs, bare feet, and three toes south of 14th St.)

On his travels, Raphael meets a guy who looks even stranger than he does, some Canadian guy in a hockey mask who carries around a golf bag full of sporting goods (baseball bats, golf clubs, even a cricket bat). They have philosophical differences and beat the shit out of each other, with the Canadian winning the battle, further pissing Raphael off.

April runs afoul of the Foot Clan, and they set upon her in a train station (which, surprisingly, looks like it was shot in New York, on the unused platform at Hoyt-Schermerhorn that's been every subway station in the city at some point or other), whereupon April shows moxie by whipping out the sai. The Foot Clan, however, scoff at such feeble gestures of bravery, and show them how real men treat a lady: in parties of thirty, masked, and heavily armed.

But the turtles are there to kick ass and rescue the fair maiden, who is initially a little freaked out by them and Splinter, but eventually conquers her racism and they become friends. The turtles accompany April home, where they quickly have to hide because her boss and his fuckup petty criminal son drop by for some weird reason, and the kid rips off $20 from April. This whole scene makes no sense in a kids' movie, because in a grownup movie, they'd have dropped by because April was fucking her boss and the kid was a junkie, but stripped of those necessary bits of context it's like, huh?

After eating all April's pizza, the turtles head back home, only to find their lair trashed and Splinter gone (presumed dead). So they go back to April's to hide out. April's boss' kid gets arrested for boosting a car stereo (again, what the fuck? WHAT MOTIVATION DO PEOPLE WHO AREN'T ON DRUGS HAVE TO DO THIS?) and he has a talk with his asshole dad (oh wait, right, some people's dads aren't agreeably trollable like mine, some people's dads eat cock) which leads to him running out in traffic and running away to this massive den of criminality which I guess is supposed to be on Randall's Island or something (so hard to keep NYC geography straight when we're not in NYC) whereupon we're introduced to the Shredder, who is a pretty bad motherfucker like he's supposed to be, and his army of juvenile delinquents (They smoke cigarettes! They ride skateboards! They play the video games!) with whom he terrorizes New York to no apparent end other than the sheer fuck of it. The baddies are holding a bedraggled—but alive—Splinter hostage.

And, because they're bad, they lure Raphael away from the strength of the pack and ambush the sweet green Jesus out of him, throwing him through the skylight of April's place. A massive battle ensues, wherein the turtles fight the Foot basically to a stalemate, until the Shredder decides to torch the junk store downstairs, at which point our heroes, joined by the Canadian weirdo (who just happened to see the Foot fucking up his “friend,” and boy are you weird if some green motherfucker with a shell you smacked with a cricket bat in Central Park one night qualifies as a friend) beat a hasty retreat.

In a sequence lifted straight from one of the best issues of the original comic, they head to the Canadian's mom's place in Massachussetts (hmm . . . maybe the character isn't supposed to be Canadian . . . Elias Koteas, you're lucky you're awesome, dude, your accent is thick as a fuck) and the turtles all do a bit of soul-searching as they nurse Raphael back to health. The humans flirt, in an amusingly chaste we-pretend-to-hate-each-other-even-though-we're-crushing-like-mad way that the older kids will recognize and their parents will find hilarious.

Eventually, the turtles find their strength again and have a vision of the still-alive Splinter, and it's back to New York, to take the fight to the enemy. April's boss' kid, having had a crisis of conscience (aided and abetted by a couple conversations with Splinter where the sneaky little fucker guilt trips the kid into being good) inadvertently leads the Foot to try and ambush the turtles at their pad, but the turtles fuck shit up to the point where they end up in a rooftop Final Boss Battle with the Shredder, who is each turtle's clear superior in one-on-one combat, but they start getting to him as a team, though it does take Splinter to save their ass. The Shredder ends up hanging off the roof, and falls into a garbage truck. The Canadian throws the lever “by accident” (a rather callous maneuver, and not very sporting, I say) and adios Shredder. Fin de pelicula.

What I find impressive about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is that it manages to be a faithful adaptation of both the original comic and the TV show. The fact that a lot of the dialogue is stupid and a lot of the acting sucks is an element of this fidelity to the original subject matter. Certain kinds of movie are supposed to have stupid dialogue and shitty acting, and in the days when only DC comics got made into movies with movie stars in them, comic book movies certainly fit the bill (though there's plenty of stupid dialogue and shitty acting in Richard Donner's Superman and Tim Burton's Batman). In Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the pace is brisk, the tone agreeable, the protagonists compelling, the bad guys bad (and for borderline Goldfinger-esque evil for evil's sake raised to the level of an aesthetic principle motivations; if you can parse that sentence, I'll give you a cookie) and really what the fuck more do you want from a movie?

So that's the cake. This is the icing:

(1) Golden Harvest produced this movie. Golden Fucking Harvest! RAYMOND CHOW IS AN EXECUTIVE PRODUCER. This fucking rules. For further explication, see this.
(2) Corey Feldman did the voice of Donatello, which is funny because Michelangelo was the one who sounded stoned in the cartoon, and because in this day and age, the name Corey Feldman itself is tantamount to a punchline (see the episode of Greg The Bunny where he takes Greg hostage or some fucking thing mid-nervous breakdown). Even then, in 1990, he had already kind of gotten to that point.
(3) When Johnny Law and the Blue Revue show up to bust the remaining Foot Clan and juvenile delinquent associates, one of the juvenile delinquents turns snitch and tells the coppers that all the evidence they're looking for is in “The East warehouse on Lairdman island.” Because Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird created the comic.
(4) Elias Koteas provides a timely reminder, like Tony Hendra in Spinal Tap, that a cricket bat is one of the best things in the universe to fuck someone up with.
(5) A number of not-half-bad pop culture jokes, a few years before every single fucking movie devolved into a bunch of dickheads making cracks about the Partridge Family to each other.
(6) The sequence where Michelangelo haggles with the Dominos guy over the price of delivering a pizza to an address that doesn't exist is both funny and kind of existentially poignant . . . . not that I would have ever watched this movie high enough to have that insight . . . ahem . . .
(7) The fight scenes, especially the ones involving the turtles, are pretty impressive, and while I am grading on the curve because some poor bastard had to do the whole fucking thing in a giant, heavy rubber suit, they're still well-filmed and edited, especially for such a low-budget picture.

Overall, would I recommend Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to someone without a nostalgic attachment to the comics or the cartoon? Hell no. One's ability to appreciate the finer points of the adaptation process are entirely contingent on one's patience for the material, and the kids these days who know this weird, newfangled TMNT are gonna look back on this old pre-CGI bullshit and say “lol wut iz dis sh!t” or however those warped, jaded, ADHD-addled cockmongers talk to each other. However, those of us with a little gray in our hair and a little light in our souls can look back fondly on what really is a hell of an entertaining movie.

Stay tuned in a few days for my Lost postmortem!

Monday, May 17, 2010

FUN WITH CURMUDGEONRY


(Ed. Note: Today's grouchiness brought to you by the NYPD, who kicked in the front door of the author's building this morning!)

The passing of Ronnie James Dio led to a bit of cogitation. I've never really liked metal—the closest I get is Zeppelin (who weren't really metal) or Guns 'n' Roses (who weren't either)—but it's always seemed like everyone else in the world does. This is why I'm reluctant to say “metal sucks” even though I think and feel it all the time.

Metal is not the only thing I don't get (by any means). Horror movies, wrestling, salad dressing, the nobility of the underdog . . . the world is full of things that make me scratch my head, which subsequently causes other people to scratch their heads at me (“Why the fuck don't you put dressing on your salad? Why the fuck do you root for the Yankees? What the fuck do you mean you think of Roddy Piper as the guy from They Live? Are you fucking kidding me, you never saw Texas Chainsaw Massacre until you were 31?”)

This prologue should cushion the shock that will result from the admission that there are a few movies out there that everyone loves that I not only don't get but occasionally kind of despise. If you're a fan of any of the following, I ask only this: do not leave comments asking me to watch any of these fucking movies again.

Every movie Christopher Guest has made since The Princess Bride

One of the biggest mistakes I ever made in my life, outstripping even my failure to realize that hot Filipina chick in high school wanted me to ask her out, was watching Waiting For Guffman. Holy fucking shit that movie is mean-spirited, unfunny, and truly ugly in its judgment of ordinary, guileless dreamers. Someone once argued that my take on Waiting For Guffman was flawed because Christopher Guest's character comes off like a dipshit too, but he's being judged just as unfairly, with just as much unearned superiority, as any of the suburbanites. These poor fuckers are guilty only of wanting to put on a play. Oh, you mean they're not brilliant actors? SCANDAL! (The My Dinner With Andre lunchbox, an admittedly genius touch, cannot save this monstrosity.)

Ever since, Christopher Guest and his repertory company have been remaking the same movie: a mockumentary—with emphasis on the “mock”—about some subgenre of people Guest finds ridiculous, be it dog show owners, folk singers, Oscar aspirants. None of them are funny. They've gotten a little less mean-spirited over time (not difficult to do, Guffman was fucking hateful) but no funnier. How the hell was this guy responsible for Spinal Tap?

The Shawshank Redemption (1994) dir. Frank Darabont

This one I don't hate. I just don't love it. I have a theory that people who've never seen any prison movies see Shawshank and go “wow, that was fucking great, I've never seen anything like that before!” and that this is responsible for its bizarre reputation as one of the best American movies of the 1990s. Morgan Freeman is great in this because he's Morgan Freeman, but there's nothing at all to his character except the archetype of the wizened old lifer. Tim Robbins has his moments in this, but his character is so inscrutably aloof that it's hard to see why anyone gives a shit about him.

Bob Gunton is awesome as the warden, but the thing about having seen a lot of prison movies is that you come to realize after a while that the warden is always awesome in a prison movie (no further proof needed than Joan Allen being so terrific in the Death Race remake; when you can put the words “terrific” and “Death Race remake” in the same sentence, larger metaphysical forces are at work), if it's any good at all. The warden is a big scenery-chewing part, because he's always the bad guy. This is not to slight Bob Gunton. Bob Gunton fucking rules, and he fucking rules very very hard. But I still like him better in Demolition Man and on Greg The Bunny and 24.

The Shawshank Redemption is a well-executed by-the-numbers prison movie, but when it wasn't even one of the five best movies (and barely even one of the ten best) of 1994, let's ease up a bit on the all-time classic foolishness.

Moulin Rouge! (2001) dir. Baz Luhrmann

I have a theory about how Baz Luhrmann came to exist: it involves eugenics, the Necronomicon, and an attempt to plant Andrew Lloyd Webber's brain in Michael Bay's body gone horribly awry. As to why he exists, I couldn't tell you. He's yet to make a watchable movie, and the way he carried on in the press is insufferable at best.

Moulin Rouge! doesn't really belong on this list, since a lot of people don't like it. But the fact that anyone does is an outrage, especially any of those people have ever claimed to actually like movies or music.

Casino (1995) dir. Martin Scorsese

This one hurts. I love Mr. Scorsese. His best pictures are some of the most exciting, deliriously alive works in the history of cinema. But when he fucks up, he fucks up big. Casino might be his biggest fuckup, even more so than the endlessly frustrating Gangs of New York or the wrist-slasher that was New York, New York. Let me count the ways:

(1) A three-hour running time infers a story that takes three hours to tell. Casino is basically a three-character chamber drama about Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Sharon Stone. That warrants literally half the running time.
(2) The amount of rote repetition of not only been-there-done-that move Vegas cliches but also whole scenes concerning the dissolution of De Niro and Sharon Stone's relationship is staggering. A good hour could have been trimmed off the picture just by losing the third through twelfth times Sharon Stone threatens to leave De Niro.
(3) NOTHING FUCKING HAPPENS FOR THE ENTIRE FUCKING MOVIE.
(4) Everybody in the movie seems to have been given about a pound of coke and the acting note “Go as over-the-top as you can.” This is disastrous in a movie with James Woods in it.
(5) When we're shown that Robert De Niro's car blowing up didn't actually kill him, it's a horrible disappointment. If it's not Cape Fear or Bang The Drum Slowly, you should not be rooting for Robert De Niro to die. Something has gone very wrong if you are.
Fortunately, De Niro was in a good three-hour crime movie that came out in 1995. And Scorsese has since redeemed himself. But I swear, I never want to hear one more fucking person claim that Casino is one of Scorsese's best movies.

John Hughes' Shermer, IL cycle

I'll be kind, in light of Mr. Hughes' premature passing last year. He did write the
script to one of my favorite comedies, National Lampoon's Vacation. I liked Uncle Buck. I liked the first Home Alone. But I have major moral issues with his teen angst pictures. These issues often don't hold up to arguments with John Hughes fans, so I won't embarrass myself again by cataloging them. But even if I'm a lousy rhetorician sometimes, I still cannot endorse picking Andrew McCarthy over Jon Cryer, Anthony Michael Hall getting stuck writing the essay while everyone else goes off to make out, or Alan Ruck destroying his father's car instead of just going to his room, fapping to Mia Sara, and taking a nap. (Though if #4 on this list was actually the case, I would do a 180 and wholeheartedly support Ferris Bueller as one of the best movies ever made).

Eraserhead (1978) dir. David Lynch

And last, but not least, the one that's probably going to piss more of you off than any of the previous ones put together. Yes, that's right, Eraserhead can eat a dick. Granted, David Lynch comes from such a different place than me aesthetically, philosophically, and intellectually that we might as well be two different species, so of course I'm not going to get him 100%, but I like Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Dr. However, I could not find any way to get into Eraserhead. I don't know why it's not a short. I have no idea why it (and not, say, Dark Star) is the ur-Cult Movie. I suppose I never will. Hell, when I saw Eraserhead the first time and was so stoned that I slept through about an hour of it, when I woke up, a devoted fan of the movie told me I didn't miss anything. I rest my case.

Happy Monday folks! Leave hate mail and/or your own things you hate that everyone
else loves in the comments!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

"SUCH A SHAMEFUL FALL FROM GLORY."

Stevie Wonder is 60 today!

God DAMN that song is good. In honor of this momentous occasion, let's examine a small but illustrious subgenre in cinema: the action movie where someone's shitty driving leads someone else (or themselves) to attribute same to Stevie Wonder having been his instructor. You see, because Stevie's blind. Ya know.

It's kind of a lazy joke but can be made to work in the right circumstances. Two examples:

Eddie Murphy in Delirious, having a hypothetical conversation with Stevie, while Eddie's miming driving a car: “The piano and the singing . . . I told you how I feel about the singing. I ain't impressed. You want to impress me? Take the wheel for a while, motherfucker.”

Bruce Willis in Die Hard, watching Reginald Veljohnson doing a very leisurely donut outside the Nakatomi building while Alan Rickman, Alexander Gudonov, et al are ripping shit up inside: “Who's driving this thing, Stevie Wonder?”

The first, while not from an action movie, is nonetheless from Eddie Murphy, and it
works because he's Eddie. The second works because John McClane is a regular dude, not a hetero Oscar Wilde with a badge, and he's gonna make a normal dumb guy joke.
Now, there are countless examples of stupid action movies using this joke out of sheer laziness, but rather than catalog them all, let's take an example from what may be the single stupidest action movie ever made:

Sly: “Who taught you to drive?”
Kurt Russell: “Steve Wonder!”

I speak, of course, and with proper reverence, of Tango & Cash. When we first saw this, in 1989, my mom said, as we walked out of the Duffield Theater, former jewel of downtown Brooklyn (closed after someone got shot there during a screening of New Jack City), with a huge smile on her face and a tinge of awe in her voice, “That might be the stupidest movie of the year.” I nodded and said yeah, a smile just as huge on my own face. And make no mistake, my mom and I saw some stupid fucking shit at that theater. We saw Firewalker there and multiple Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. In fact I think the only thing I saw there that wasn't stupid was when my dad and I saw Aliens. But Tango & Cash will always stand out among all those worthies.

Let us make a fine distinction here. “Stupid” and “Entertaining” are not mutually exclusive conditions, obviously. Tango & Cash offers the versatile cineaste heights of glee rarely—extremely rarely—approached in the history of movies. It stars Sly playing against type as a yuppie narcotics cop who spends the time when he's not out getting into car chases and shootouts talking about margin calls with his stockbroker, and Kurt Russell playing his arch-rival in the department, who gets into just as many car chases and shootouts, but clearly spends all the rest of his time at the hairdresser maintaining that glorious mullet. They have nothing in common except an ability to kick ass and blow stuff up. And by the end of the picture, they're the best of buddies. Awww.

We open with some loud, pounding music and Sly driving really fast in the desert. He's chasing two scumbags driving a tanker truck, but soon tires of this and drives way the hell ahead, in spite of being reminded that he's out of his jurisdiction via radio. Sly ignores this (being Sly) and parks in the middle of the road, right in front of the tanker truck. As the truck pulls within view, Sly puts a couple shots through the windshield. This spooks the scumbags, so much so that rather than just run Sly over (they are, after all, in a very large truck), they jam on the breaks and go flying through the windshield.

Sly (tossing them handcuffs): “You boys like jewelry?”
Big-jawed scumbag: “Fuck you.”
Sly: “I prefer blondes.”

Hurr hurr hurr, cuz he used to be married to Brigitte Nielsen! Because that's . . . funny . . . heh. Ahem. The baddies now under arrest, a bunch of redneck cops come up and yell at Sly for being out of his jurisdiction again, but Sly will hear none of it; he's been after these guys for months. (The question of how it took him months to catch two guys so retarded that they didn't just run him over and keep on truckin' is left unanswered). One of the rednecks says, “He thinks he's Rambo.” Sly turns on him, cool as can be, and says “Rambo . . . is a pussy.” BWAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!! Because, get it? SLY ALSO PLAYED RAMBO! (Actually, I shouldn't make fun, Sly's sense of humor about himself is one of this movie's saving graces.)

We then have a question of the contents of the truck. The rednecks are finding only gasoline. Sly, however, thinks otherwise, and fires a bullet into the side of the truck. Everybody's like fuck we're gonna die . . . but some white powder starts flowing out. Sly has a taste.

Sly: “Anybody wanna get high?”

Sly, I'm already high.

So, just so we're clear: firing your gun through someone's windshield and putting a round through the side of a tank that has gas in it, all good as long as you find some blow. We all good? Okay, let's continue.

We then meet Kurt Russell, scruffier and prole-ier. He ganks someone's copy of the LA Times, where he sees a story about Sly above the fold, and one about himself under the fold. Pleased with himself, he swaggers into his apartment, where a Vietnamese guy busts a couple shots at him. Kurt Russell takes them in his vest (movie vests are awesome; when you get shot you take a nap for anywhere from thirty seconds to five minutes and wake up all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed) and appears to be down for the count, until he suddenly shoots a gun out of his boot . . . wait . . . his boot is the gun. Hmm, okay. The Vietnamese guy runs for it, Kurt Russell pursues, they get in cars and end up in a parking garage where they destroy every car in the place, and some random Russian guy bellows in a Yakov Smirnoff accent about why the fuck Kurt Russell just destroyed his car, but Kurt Russell doesn't let this bother him as he busts the Vietnamese guy.

At the station, Kurt Russell brags on his exploits, and finds that someone fucked with his gun. (OR DID THEY? Could it not be the same gun? NO!) Sly is visited by his sister, a very young and decorative Teri Hatcher, who is reassuring him that her “dance tour” will not be non-stop debauchery. Both Sly and Kurt Russell are given a tip that some shit is going down . . . at the same address. Hmmm.

Meanwhile, Jack Palance explains to his two lackeys—who are thought to be the two biggest crimelords in LA—that he's setting Sly and Kurt Russell up. When asked by James Hong, in one of his more lucid and reasonable screen moments, Why don't you just kill them? Jack Palance has a delicious answer:

“Where would be the fun in that?”

Man, you gotta love villains who aren't just interested in being evil, but in being evil with style. One love, Jack Palance, one love, baby.

So our heroes walk right into a setup and get totally fuckin' railroaded by the system. The prosecution's entire case is basically handed to them by Jack Palance, through his right-hand man, a red-headed, pony-tailed, hilariously “English” accented Brion James. Sly and Kurt Russell bicker a bit, and get sent to prison together . . . only it's not the minimum security golf prison they were promised, it's a Movie Prison.

Movie Prison is an interesting construct, populated entirely with colorful eccentrics who spend their entire time bribing guards, having gladiator fights, and fucking new guys in the ass. Depending on the quality of the movie, these tendencies are either subdued, or over-the-top baroque. Tango & Cash is not a good movie. You know what that means. The inmates are throwing shit that's on fire. They're basically rioting in their cells. And the guards ain't doin' shit.

Sly gets put in a cell with Clint Howard. Kurt Russell gets to experience Negro Terror with his cellmate. Their first night, the whole fucking prison gets let out their cells by Brion James to take Sly and Kurt Russell down to the laundry room to be electrocuted, leading to two questions you probably shouldn't ask:

(1) Why don't they just kill Sly and Kurt Russell?
(2) Why doesn't everybody in the prison just escape, if Jack Palance has the power to just waltz in and do whatever the fuck he wants?

Again, don't ask shit like this in this kind of movie. An old buddy of Kurt Russell's who's the one hack at the prison Jack Palance hasn't bought, intervenes (why the inmates all just scatter instead of just killing him, especially since they do just a couple minutes later, another thing not to ask) and cooks up a scheme to bust Kurt Russell and Sly out. Sly's reluctant, and accepts his fate to eventually be tortured to death with an impressive serenity, but when Kurt Russell goes to escape by himself—and finds his hack buddy dead—Sly intervenes at just the right moment to save Kurt Russell's ass.

The prison escape is a pretty fuckin good example of action filmmaking. The camerawork's dark and sinister, the editing's tight, and if two motherfuckers know how to acquit themselves in an action sequence, it's John Rambo/Marion Cobretti and Snake Plissken/Jack Burton. They eventually electrocute the guy with the big jaw, slide down high tension lines, and get their asses out, but not before Sly, in response to Kurt Russell saying something sarcastic about “coffee and danish,” gets off the classic quip “I hate Danish.” BECAUSE OF BIRGITTE NIELSEN! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

Sly tells Kurt Russell if he ever needs help, to go to Teri Hatcher's club and ask for her. In short order, Kurt Russell does need help, so he goes to Teri Hatcher's club and asks for her, and when introduced immediately falls head over heels (understandable, considering how hot she was back then and how nice a person she is in this), but the fuzz are closing in, which leads to one of the movie's dumbest (and, since the dumb in this movie exists symbiotically with the funny, most hilarious) moments—Kurt Russell sneaking out of the club in drag to the strains of “Harlem Nocturne” with Teri Hatcher posing as his lesbian biker girlfriend. The world's single stupidest cop takes one look at Kurt Russell and Teri Hatcher and says “Any chance of a threeway?” They fire their cigarettes at him in unison (throwing lit cigarettes at a cop is assaulting a police officer . . . wait, you don't give a shit either? Oh okay, moving on) and ride off into the night.

Sly comes by Teri Hatcher's house as she's giving Kurt Russell a backrub to fix the slight back injury he suffered bustin out of the hoosegow, and naturally thinks they're having sex (this is actually an intentionally funny scene). Sly, pissed though he is, is willing to suffer in silence until he sees someone outside the house, whereupon he grabs a wooden duck and springs into action, ending up totally scaring the shit out of his commanding officer, who's come by to warn Sly and Kurt Russell that they've got “48 hours” to clear their names (how the fuck he arrives at this figure when every cop in the universe except him is trying to arrest them anyway is as much a mystery as whatever happened to Walt), and so our heroes decide to get proactive.

They track down Michael Jeter, the sound geek who doctored the tape that basically single-handedly got them sent to the joint. Eventually, the road leads to Brion James, who our heroes manage to corner, and try the time-honored “hang the guy by his ankles off the top of a building” interrogation technique, but Brion James doesn't crack. Sly thinks of something, though, the slightly more radical “duct tape a grenade to the dude's face” interrogation technique, which causes Brion James to both piss his pants and inform our heroes of Jack Palance's existence and role in the larger affair. This is one of Sly and Kurt Russell's key bonding moments.

So some other dumb shit happens and Teri Hatcher gets kidnapped by the bad guys. Sly and Kurt Russell drop by Michael J. Pollard's to get some gadgets. This is one of my favorite dumb things in this movie—the LAPD has enough of a budget to afford to keep Q on staff? Awesome. The fact that it's Michael J. Pollard just makes it all the more awesome. Take a bow, sir.

And now, the final action sequence. Our heroes acquire a heavily armed SUV from Michael J. Pollard and storm Jack Palance's desert compound, guns blazing, explosions left and right, Kurt Russell's Stevie Wonder joke, etc etc. Fairly standard stuff, but well-staged. They kill everybody—Brion James with a grenade down the pants like before, but this one explodes—and finally corner Jack Palance, who's holding a gun to Teri Hatcher's head, in a room full of mirrors so you can't tell which one of him is real.

This climax, ironically, features one of the movie's only moments of intelligence: Sly and Kurt Russell separately figure out which Jack Palance is real, for two wholly different reasons, and shoot him, freeing Teri Hatcher. But there's still a bomb set to go off (ah, forget it, nothing else in this picture makes any fucking sense) and our heroes and the girl they both love have to flee the explosion with the requisite slow-motion face-first leap forward. Sly gives Kurt Russell and Teri Hatcher his blessing (grudgingly, but generously) and everyone lives happily ever after.

In the parlance of Tropic Thunder, the ultimate thing that saves Tango & Cash is that it never goes full retard. Ultimately, after extensive rewrites (done by Sly), a fired DP, a fired editor, a fired director, and a fired co-star (Kurt Russell was supposed to be played by Patrick Swayze . . . I love Swayze, but he ain't Kurt Russell) the picture comes out being exactly what it's supposed to be: loud, fast, and stupid. But as dumb as it is, there's an element of self-awareness about how stupid it is, and the credit for this has to go to Sly. Sly is a very smart guy who knows exactly what the fuck he's doing. He knew when he wrote Rocky to become a star, that if he wrote a simplistic screenplay that catered to a lot of the audience's worst and most sentimental impulses, and performed it like he meant it, that he'd be a big star. It also helped that a large part of him really did mean it. Every single other choice he made in the prime of his career, and even afterward (fuck it, I'm going to see his new picture that everybody's in) has been spot on, and the man is seriously, seriously rich.

And this brings us back to that Stevie Wonder joke. A throwaway line in the movie, to be sure, and it's kind of sad that Stevie is more known for the jokes than his tunes nowadays, but nobody held a gun to his head and forced him to write “I Just Called To Say I Love You.” Anyway. Instead of dwelling on the jokes and stuff, let's close with another great Stevie vid. Happy birthday, sir.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

THE FANDOM MENACE

It is time to address a plague upon popular culture. Being as I am a serious intellectual, a student of literature and history, and a lover of language, let there be no mistake that I use the word “plague” without levity and with proper respect. Remember when Old Testament God (back when God had balls) unleashed his decahedral fuck you on the anti-Semite Pharaoh? He came up with some good ones:

---Changing the water of the Nile to blood (fucking trippy, see The Shining for proof)
---Egypt shall teem with frogs (the French are an acquired taste . . .)
---All the dust shall become lice (with all the sand in Egypt, that's even worse than it sounds)
---Swarms of flies (been to a barbecue lately? That shit sucks)
---All the livestock will die (God's tough enough to deal with them becoming vegans)
---Festering boils (yuck)
---One motherfucker of a hailstorm (self-explanatory)
---Locusts (one thing I really dig about Old Testament God, He knew when to stick it in and break it off; the flies should have been bad enough, but sometimes you gotta remind motherfuckers who's God)
---Darkness (sounds kind of all right, especially to nocturnal types like me, til I remember how bad my uncle flipped out the winter he spent in Stockholm when the sun never came out)
---The slaughter of the first-born (“Too Jewish.” ---Hedley Lamarr)

But one thing that, without any of this other shit being necessary, would have brought the Pharaoh to his knees would have been to set loose some fanboys to post thirty times a day on Pharaoh's message board. Holy shit fanboys are fucking annoying.

Now, I'm a nerd myself. Let's be perfectly clear, I am not putting all of nerdity on blast. What I'm talking about is the kind of shithead who offers the following type of complaint following an extremely generous review of a comic-book FX movie:

“When are you planning to hire someone to review these kind of movies who actually likes these kind of movies?”

and offers the suggestion
“[Hire] someone who's enthused about the films in question.”

Now, full disclosure necessitates the concession that the author of the above quotes does offer an articulately composed defense of this position, and those quotes are taken out of context. However, the sentiment is fucking odious. Not only does the idea of a critic paid to gush indiscriminately about big-budget FX pictures do nothing but serve the interests of the evil-white-guy-run multinationals who in turn run the studios (which contradicts the whole point of big-budget FX pictures, which is to have men in armored suits keep the world safe from evil white guys), the whole fucking point of being a critic is to discriminate.

Fanboys cannot handle the idea of their chosen object of fandom being reviewed by anyone other than a fanboy. Movies are not the only medium where this happens—Old Testament God help any music critic who dares to admit s/he still likes The Bends and OK Computer best when reviewing a new Radiohead album—but the movie bitching is the most obnoxious, considering that the movies the fanboys get all bent out of shape over are so insubstantial.

The bile vented over Ang Lee's Hulk movie, for example (which I liked, but me and my buddy saw it smashed out of our minds on tequila with our feet up on the railing at the Ziegfield, and when you have that much style, my friends, the petty concerns of mortals are irrelevant) and the nuclear Internet wars over whether the Louis Leterrier one (which I haven't seen) was better really pissed me off. Not only because of the nastiness involved, but because the fanboys would even turn on critics who liked their favored version for not liking it for the right reasons. Or for mentioning Lou Ferrigno. I hate to break it to all them, but the Hulk comics fucking suck. The TV show had the same cultural merit as The Rockford Files, only if James Garner was green and less articulate. Sure, I'm all for someone trying to make a good movie out of that bullshit, but the movie needs to be judged as a movie, not by whether the director committed blasphemy by using the Frank Miller origin story rather than the Jack Kirby origin story (I honestly don't care whether there's any real comic that both of them wrote for).

Another point regarding summer action movies with a shit-ton of CGI. When a critic calls out an action movie for having shitty action scenes, that's not an automatic indicator that the critic doesn't like action movies. Let's take me for an example, since this is my blog and I know more about action movies than the Pharaoh knew about getting fucked in the ass by God. When I see, say, Transformers, and I say, say, “These action sequences suck hammerhead shark dick,” I'm not saying this as some tweedy shithead who can't handle anything more violent than the introspection in a Bergman picture. I'm saying this as a guy who knows what the fuck good action is. It's the car chase in The French Connection. It's Jet Li fighting Fujita. It's Daniel Craig chasing the parkour guy in Madagascar. Hell, just so you know I'm not pissing on CGI, it's Neo fighting a hundred Smiths. The action scenes in Michael Bay movies suck because he cuts so fucking much you can't see what the hell's going on anyway, and they're so goddamn long, and in Transformers they're between these big, generic robots where you can't even tell who the good guys and who the bad guys are. They are thus shit. And I'm the target audience for Transformers, I had all the toys when I was a kid, I read the comics, I would have been more than happy to enjoy a Transformers movie. But, ya know, it's gotta make sense as a movie. Or, at the very least, you should know who the good guys and bad guys are, since I know Michael Bay wasn't making a philosophical statement about moral ambiguity (though if he was that would be some delicious trolling).

Getting back to Iron Man, where this all started, I saw the first movie and liked it, because the idea of Robert Downey, Jr. headlining that kind of movie was bizarrely hilarious before you saw Iron Man and made perfect sense afterward (by which I mean, of course, that he was really good). Some of the effects were kind of cool. But the action scenes were the least interesting thing in the movie. Again, not because I have something against action movies—bitch please—but because they weren't interesting. CGI robots fighting against each other are fucking stupid. In order for an action scene to be interesting, the hero needs to be kind of an underdog. Take Jet fighting Fujita again, Fist of Legend. Jet's a little guy. Fujita's six foot plus. Jet's whole trip is that he's graceful and his moves are breathtaking (though he can do one-armed pushups and other tough guy stuff) whereas Fujita can hammer nails through boards with his hands, break dude's necks with his pinkie, and is completely, utterly, totally invulnerable to pain. How does Jet beat him? By shooting lasers out of his fucking hands? Nope, by listening to what Funakochi told him: “If you learn to adapt, you'll always be invincible.” Jet adopts Fujita's style, learns his self-mind-fuck to nullify the pain, and eventually cuts Fujita's head off with a sword that he's swinging with his belt. Badass? Badass. Now take Iron Man as a counterexample. He's already invulnerable, to the extent where the way they had to make him an underdog in the climax (of the first movie) was by making the power on his suit low for some contrived, retarded reason. Which, ya know, doesn't make the movie not good, but in order for a climactic battle to have any weight, the adversary needs to be more badass. Iron Man's too fucking awesome for anyone to put up a good third act fight, which, hey, if you're going to have a problem, your protagonist being too cool is a good one to have, but nonetheless, it's a debit for an action movie.

Anyway, back to the point. The only reason to care about fanboys is that now that the movie business has evolved to the point where their bread and butter is fanboy-driven franchises, suddenly a bunch of poorly socialized obsessives are dictating the thrust of the modern cinematic narrative. Now, I say this as a poorly socialized obsessive. But even though the summer is entirely devoted to making fanboys happy, the motherfuckers still aren't satisfied. Any critic writing a review of a comic book movie needs to have read every issue of that comic thirty times and hold the exact same set of opinions on it as the fanboy. Even if those criteria are met, some other fanboy, in a rival camp with a different set of opinions, is going to declare that critic's opinion worthless. This is why the Internet sucks.

Now, being a nerd with a blog who's in the process of being very cranky about movies, I'd be a gigantic hypocrite except for one thing: what I'm pissing and moaning about is that I want there to be variety out there. Sure, the odd comic-book FX picture is nice. The Dark Knight was great, the first couple Spider-Man pictures were fun. But I want choices. What the fuck's wrong with putting out something like Lawrence of Arabia as a summer blockbuster? Or The French Connection? Or an SF picture with ideas, rather than just “Hey, there's some aliens! Hey, let's blow 'em up!” (granted, Inception, if it delivers, could satisfy this particular desire). Why the fuck do we have to wait til December to get intelligent pictures, and why the fuck do all of those have to be so fucking depressing?

But, no matter what kind of pictures there are coming out, we need to get off the critics' balls. We need to remember that no matter how many hardcore devoted fanboys there are out there, civilians are where the money's made in this business, and they need to know whether it's a good movie, and insider lingo alienates civilians. Fanboy circle jerks are better kept to blogs no one reads.

Wait, what . . .?

"NAH . . . YOU CAN HIT ME LATER": MIAMI VICE


Miami Vice, for me, has many happy nostalgic connotations. Not the same ones everyone else has: I was too young to get it when it was actually on the air and thus only saw the one episode where the kid jai alai player got in deep shit and let the ball kill him at the end. No, my happy nostalgic Miami Vice memories date from this couple months back in like 2005 or something when the short-lived Sleuth channel had this uncanny ability to air Miami Vice reruns at the exact time I needed them. It was thus that I became an enormous, near cultish fan of the show. So, rather than it being Miami Vice that made me enjoy Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, it was vice (city) versa.

For a show that is considered so inextricable from the time and place it first aired, Miami Vice holds up surprisingly well (the first 2+ seasons, anyway). In many ways, it was rather ahead of its time, as a TV show that utilized any but the most cursory cinematic technique in storytelling.

As absurd as he became by the end of the show (like whenever the hell it was when that episode with James Brown and the UFO was shat out onto the screen) Don Johnson was fucking awesome at the outset. Sonny Crockett, once upon a time, was a god among men. Don't let's get cause and effect get muddled viz a vis those ridiculous pastel outfits—Sonny Crockett was so fucking cool he could wear that stuff and still be gangsta.

And, as thoroughly as his subsequent career did not exist, Philip Michael Thomas was pretty fuckin badass as Tubbs (and a much better dresser than Crockett). There's a mistaken impression of Tubbs as being a dork because he didn't get laid as often as Crockett and wasn't as blasé about shit, but both of those comparisons are unfair, because nobody got laid as often as Crockett, and the blasé act was an act, Crockett got just as bent of shape about shit as Tubbs, he just hid it better, being a WASP. That's how we do. We are to repression what the French are to wine. Even barring these important distinctions, Philip Michael Thomas would get a lifetime pass simply for the way he said “Calderone.” Certain voices are just meant to say certain words.

Just as important as the terrific lead performances and the clothes was the music. Jan Hammer's theme, and the credit montage with all the pelicans and shit and that building in Miami with the hole in the middle, was iconic (and charted, impressively). Coming as it did in the early years of MTV (and being, as it was, originally pitched as a cop show with an MTV aesthetic), it also featured a number of pop records as a song score. This led to the perplexing situation wherein Phil Collins and Glenn Frey songs actually have positive connotations for me (“In The Air Tonight” will always be the “rolling up to the shootout” song, not the "Tom Cruise hooking up with Rebecca De Mornay on the El" song) for which I hold Miami Vice to be even more awesome.

So, with all this being said, one would think that when I read that Michael Mann was making a movie version with Colin Farrell as Crockett and Jamie Foxx as Tubbs, that my knee-jerk reaction would be “oh, blasphemy.” Well, not so fast there, knee jerker. Michael Mann, despite being responsible for such atomic turds as Public Enemies and Ali, has earned lifetime, unswerveable trust for Heat. Heat was so fucking good Michael Mann could direct a romantic comedy with Dane Cook and Sarah Jessica Parker and I'd go see it.

And, let's not forget, Michael Mann was the showrunner for Miami Vice, and in TV, the showrunner is the auteur. Michael Mann deciding to make a movie about Miami Vice is not some fuckface evil white guy in a suit at some studio being like, “Hurr hurr, let's get paid.” Michael Mann deciding to make a movie about Miami Vice clearly means he's like, “Let's see what Miami Vice means in the modern era, now that a lot of the trends that were beginning in the 80s, such as Miami being the portal between North and South America and a major business hub, have played out.”

Still, you might counter with the argument, “But why do you have to call the movie Miami Vice, since 'Miami Vice' is so inextricably linked to the clothes, the music, and the 80s? Why not just do a new movie about early 21st century Miami?” To that, I riposte: “The comparison of time and place through the eyes of the same characters makes a valuable statement about the differences wrought by two decades of changes in South Florida, and the separate iterations of the character thus have a symbiotic relationship with the setting. NOW GO HOME AND GET YOUR FUCKIN SHINEBOX.”

The movie as shown in theaters is a radically different entity than the one available on home video, and it is so with relatively few changes. Apparently as the result of a panicked eleventh-hour re-edit by Michael Mann right before release, the theatrical version starts by tossing the audience in the deep end of the pool. We open getting smacked in the face by loud music and a tumultuous night out in an exclusive Miami club. We're forced to figure out on our own that these random people in these closeups (is that Colin Farrell in that hideous ponytail? Man, Jamie Foxx looks constipated . . .) are cops running a sting operation on Isaach de Bankole. This sparse approach to exposition in the opener leads to the experience of the rest of the movie as being disorienting, loud, and short on help figuring out what the fuck's going on.

Now, the DVD version, with the only major change being an opening scene where Crockett and Tubbs are racing a fast boat and Herc (sorry, Domenick Lombardozzi, you'll always be Herc, even though you're supposed to be Switek here) is revealed to be undercover trying to crack a prostitution ring, has a completely different feel, and it's entirely because of the tone established by the opener. Even those two lines about sending Herc to go shtup some high-end hookers for God and country, so small a thing, makes the entire rest of the movie more coherent. The rest of the movie is just as short on expository hand-holding as it was before, but it all makes more sense (and I don't say that because I'd already seen it).

So Herc goes in to fuck a couple of Isaach de Bankole's hoes. Suddenly, Crockett and Tubbs are called away by an informant in trouble, and so they have to abort the sting. It turns out the informant has run afoul of some white supremacist meth dealers, who've murdered his family, and when Tubbs informs him of this (with brow-furrowing sincerity on the part of Mr. Foxx) the informant wanders out into traffic and is no more.

Crockett and Tubbs, worried that their cover is blown (the call from the informant wasn't secure), are introduced by Castillo to Special Agent Ciaran Hinds of the FBI (in an interesting scene, since the actor playing Castillo in this is clearly not Hispanic, and Ciaran Hinds' character has a Japanese name; fortunately, repeat viewings enabled me to gloss over this aberration) who works out an arrangement to send Crockett and Tubbs undercover to get next to uberbaddie Jose Yero.

In short order, after Crockett and Tubbs establish their cover in characteristically ballsy and dangerous fashion, they're summoned to Port au Prince for a meeting with the illustrious Mr. Yero, where they find that in spite of his massive wealth and power from the drugs and arms trades, he is merely a middleman for a real uberbaddie named the Archangel, who's so fucking badass he has sex with Gong Li.

Oh yeah, that's right, Gong Li is in this. See what I mean about not doubting Michael Mann? For me, as erotically fascinating as I find repressed women, you can imagine the effect Gong Li had on me as a young teenager in Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern. Her relatively thankless role as the Archangel's financial adviser/mistress achieves depth the second Michael Mann points the camera at her, because she's Gong Li and that's the way things are.

Crockett and Tubbs go to work for the Archangel, dealing with Yero. A lot of cool sequences involving fast boats and fancy flying to avoid radar detection ensue. And Crockett—in a nod to the original series—epically trips on his dick by taking up with Gong Li. The good news is, all of us who've been crushing on her since the early 90s get to see her naked in the shower scene. The bad news is . . . Jose Yero finds out and suddenly develops homicidal intent toward Crockett and Tubbs, and starts poking around their cover ID's. Which, naturally, start showing some cracks.

It turns out that Jose Yero does business with the skinheads who fucked over Tubbs' informant at the beginning, and they further fuck with Tubbs by abducting his girlfriend, fellow cop Trudy. Our heroes, in a classic Michael Mann sequence, bust in to the trailer park where she's being held hostage and very concisely and thoroughly kick ass, but not without talkin' a little trash:

Skinhead: [Holding detonator] Shoot me, she dies. Shoot me, go ahead. Fuck it, we can all go. That's cool.
Gina (the Saundra Santiago character): That's not what happens. What will happen is... what will happen is I will put a round at twenty-seven hundred feet per second into the medulla at the base of your brain. And you will be dead from the neck down before your body knows it. Your finger won't even twitch. Only you get dead. So tell me, sport, do you believe that?
Skinhead: Hey, fu—
[Gina shoots him through the head; nice pink mist squib]
But, wouldn't ya know, right when they think they've got Trudy out all safe and sound, another bomb goes off and she's in ICU. That's what makes that sequence so brilliant, that it kicks you in the balls like that.

Naturally, Tubbs is now on the warpath. Jose Yero's gonna get fucked. In another nice nod to the original series, Crockett and Tubbs roll up to the climactic shootout with “In The Air Tonight” playing, though sadly it's a lame “metal” cover, not Phil. (Goddammit, why does Miami Vice make me like Phil Collins? MUST EXTERMINATE!) And they have the shootout, which is the moment when I fell head over heels for Michael Mann as a director, all over again for like the 90th time. This time, the reason was that I suddenly realized that he uses gunshot sound effects AS CHARACTER REVELATION. I know, that's deep, I'll explain. In Heat, the gunshots are loud, but very matter of fact—guns are a tool Bobbert and Val Kilmer and Danny Trejo and Tom Sizemore et al use as part of business, but it's just business. In Collateral, Tom Cruise's gun is fuckin LOUD and fuckin vividly metallic, to highlight Jamie Foxx's alarm and confusion that his fare is a sociopathic hitman. In Miami Vice . . . the gunshots are muted because Crockett and Tubbs have been undercover so long that the whole world is muted, everything is gray, metaphorically speaking (see also the DV cinematography, very muted, very post-hurricane green at night).

So yeah, sound geek nerdgasm, massive shootout, not the best shootout ever, but it's still cool. The way Jamie Foxx comes out of a somersault to blow Jose Yero's abdomen all over the side of the freighter with his shotgun is fairly badass, though the effect is lessened slightly by how awkward Jamie Foxx looks doing it (you can't help but wonder why some skinhead didn't blow him to kingdom come first).

The picture concludes with Crockett looking the other way while Gong Li gets the fuck out of Dodge, and the discovery that the Archangel has vanished into thin air (gotta think about that sequel, ya know). Oh, and Trudy's okay. Roll credits.

There isn't really 140 minutes of plot in Miami Vice, but then again, this is Michael Mann. He likes to let the camera linger, let his actors take their time getting that dialogue out, and so forth. His saving grace is that he's Michael Mann; that kind of leisurely mise en scene is insufferable in someone with smaller balls.

Colin Farrell does damn fine work as Crockett. It's fashionable to hate on Colin Farrell, but it's not his fault his pictures lose money, and there's a limit to the degree his off-camera debauches should color one's opinion of his work. The work is always fairly solid, though he's been known to come up with some fairly ridiculous, never-before-seen-in-nature American accents if his dialect coach slacks off. This time, though, he's all right; he only sounds like he needs to clear his throat.

Jamie Foxx is a little ridiculous as Tubbs, mostly because his “serious” acting style, when he doesn't have a mannered Ray Charles impersonation to hide behind, consists of frowning and whispering a lot. It sounds bizarre to say that an Academy Award winner's performance suffers in comparison to Philip Michael Thomas', but hey . . . Jamie Foxx doesn't have that PMT je ne sais quois.

In the end, the movie version of Miami Vice is a really well shot cop movie, just like the TV version was a really well shot cop show. That the movie values guns and flashy vehicles over fashion and music is a sign of the times, partially because the fashion and music distracted from the fact that the show was a rock-solid cop show. Absolutely everybody did a cameo appearance (Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts, Pam Grier, Dennis Farina, Wesley Snipes, Stanley Tucci, Willie Nelson, Ian McShane, Luis Guzman, Chris Rock, Richard Belzer, G. Gordon Liddy, Bernard King, Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, etc etc ad infinitum).

The movie never reaches the heights the show, at its peak, achieved. It is, however, a thoroughly enjoyable cop picture, and some of the tunes (with the exception of the crappy “In The Air Tonight” cover) are excellent, and, in the case of that Jay-Z/Linkin Park track that's playing in the opening nighclub scene, achieve the same “why the fuck are these sadistic bastards making me like a song by these shitheads (that's directed at Linkin Park, not Hova)?” effect as the Phil Collins/Glenn Frey trolling on the series. At the absolute worst, it's a DVD I can throw on and spend two and a half hours being entertained. And hey, Manohla Dargis agrees with me about how dope this movie is. AND what, motherfucker?