Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"I DON'T CHANGE MY STYLE FOR ANYONE...."


"....Pussies do that." ---Michael Bay
The man. The legend. The exploder of more things than any sapient being in the known universe. Read this massive, massively entertaining GQ thing. I'm going to be reviewing Transformers: Dark of the Moon tomorrow for Tor.com, and I'm experiencing that odd sensation of simultaneous, reciprocal eager anticipation and existential dread invariably caused by a new Michael Bay spliff. Like they say in the GQ piece, you may think his pictures are hopelessly fucktarded, but you can always tell they're his. There's no confusing him with Simon West, Dominic Sena, or any of his contemporaries. Michael Bay, my friends, is an auteur. And there ain't shit you can do about it.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

YOUR 20TH CENTURY BOY: VELVET GOLDMINE


You make me act real gone, you make me trawl along
I had to ravish your capsule, suck you dry
Feel the teeth in your bone, heal ya head with my own
Why if I don't have you home, we'll have to fight alone
Hang all together

Velvet Goldmine, you stroke me like the rain
Snake it, take it, panther princess you must stay
Velvet Goldmine, naked on your chain
I'll be your king volcano right for you again and again
My Velvet Goldmine

--David Bowie, “Velvet Goldmine”


Released as a B-side to “Space Oddity” when Bowie re-released it in '75, “Velvet Goldmine” had been gathering dust for a while by that point. Its original lyrics were rumored to be along the lines of “I have lots and lots of sex with dudes” and spent four minutes being totally blunt about it and not couching it in euphemism at all. Even in '71, which was Bowie's prime wearing-a-dress-on-his-album-covers period and winking at the line “Gotta make way for the homo superior” in “Oh! You Pretty Things,” the original lyrics to “Velvet Goldmine” were a little too much, so he backed off and dressed everything up in euphemism and threw in the line about “panther princess” for plausible deniability and all that. But still, “Velvet Goldmine” is totally about having sex with dudes, which is why when Todd Haynes made his movie about glam rock, he used it for his title.

Velvet Goldmine is very much a movie about having sex with dudes. There's this locket or something with that gets passed down from Oscar Wilde to the Marc Bolan/Little Richard character (the movie has that kind of poetic approach to history), to the Iggy Pop character, to Christian Bale's journalist character. One reading of the movie could lead one to believe that it has some sort of mythic power of gay, but considering Todd Haynes' background in semiotics it could very well just be a signifier of fabulousness, and it is pretty fucking fabulous. Then again, so is glam rock.

Arising as it did in the early '70s, when the gay rights movement was making strides, and when world events had gotten upsetting enough that a move from weed to cocaine was necessary to keep spirits up (and the resultant cynicism, plasticity, glibness, and obsession with surface that resulted from that shift), glam rock both informed and was informed by popular culture. It was very much about posing, looking fabulous, acting incredibly fabulous, and doing a whole fucking goddamn hell of a lot of cocaine.

In very broad strokes, it started with Marc Bolan wearing glitter and a boa and making a couple mindblowing pop records, continued and got really really big when David Bowie saw Bolan's glitter and boas and raised him science-fiction aesthetics—teasing the idea of space alien as metaphor for sexual otherness—and epic theatrical scope, and eventually split into having a visual, presentational influence on disco and a musical influence on metal and punk (while metalheads and punks fucking hated each other in the 70s, they all liked Bowie). A little over five years after arriving in its massive decadent glory, glam rock died the death, with Marc Bolan's literal death in a car crash, and David Bowie quitting cocaine, moving on from rock 'n' roll, and becoming exclusively hetero again.

This last apparently sat badly with Todd Haynes, as Velvet Goldmine is very critical of the Bowie character, Brian Slade. He's a pretty enigma who charms his way into the hearts of his tragically enamored manager, his American wife, the Iggy Pop character Curt Wild, and gay teenagers (notably Christian Bale's character) who see him perform and listen to his music and go “That's me!” Eventually, he goes crazy on blow, fakes his own death, and then emerges in the 80s as an unrecognizable pop singer whose music supports a Ronald Reagan-inspired US president.

The story is structured, a la Citizen Kane and Eddie and the Cruisers (Velvet Goldmine pretty much exactly splits the difference in quality), around a journalist trying to piece together a story about an enigmatic figure, with a series of interview subjects. Haynes does a lot of jumping around in time, and doesn't do a lot of hand-holding with regards to which character is which, instead relying on visuals and moments to evoke emotional reactions, not a bad way to approach making a movie about glam rock.

It's a fun movie. Form and content are one, as it's long, decadent, gloriously self-indulgent (I remember thinking, the scene where “Bowie” first sees “Iggy” perform live and Ewan McGregor as “Iggy” is freaking out on drugs and jumps out of his leather pants and starts wagging his dick at the audience, “I can just see Todd Haynes being like, 'Damn, sorry, Ewan, the lighting was fucked up, man, you're gonna have to wave your dick around for a thirtieth take, I'm really sorry.'”) The performances are all pretty solid. Jonathan Rhys Meyers, in his breakout role as “Bowie” does a good job being pretty, inscrutable, and snotty. Ewan McGregor is awesome as “Iggy,” hiding his wounded sensitivity behind bluster, swagger, and drugs. Christian Bale is a little gnomic as the journalist, as he isn't really given much to do beyond being gay and British. Toni Collette is her usual awesome self as the former Mrs. “Bowie,” as is Eddie Izzard in a non-drag turn as the Evil White Guy In a Suit with whom “Bowie” signs and who encourages “Bowie” to fuck over everyone who got him where he is. But the most fun performances come early on, when the manager is telling Christian Bale about “Bowie” before he was a star, and there's this one scene where the manager and a bunch of middle-aged English homosexuals have a conversation in Polari with English subtitles. That scene is fucking great, and it's a sign that Todd Haynes knows his history.

Velvet Goldmine is not exactly short on similar signs (or signifiers either. Zing! Tip your waitress!) Just about everything in the movie is a reference to something. The Bowie character being named Brian “Slade” is a reference to the band Slade. His drummer has the same name as Marc Bolan's drummer. There are Stooges and Velvet Underground references all over the place (Ewan McGregor's character, though I called him the “Iggy” character earlier, has trace amounts of Lou Reed floating around as well). The “present day” stuff all takes place in 1984; Diamond Dogs, anyone?

And the soundtrack . . . oh, dear God the soundtrack. For some bizarre reason, David Bowie objected to being portrayed as a Machiavellian closet case and refused to grant permission for his songs to be used in the movie, though this actually helped the movie be more of a universal thing about glam rock, with Roxy Music and T. Rex covers standing in nicely. A couple different “supergroups” were assembled to perform those covers, one of which had Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead performing with just about everybody from Roxy Music except Bryan Ferry (though Thom does a fucking great Bryan Ferry impersonation; wonders never cease).

Despite the unfriendly Bowie euphemisms, Velvet Goldmine isn't an angry movie. Its attitude toward Bowie feels more like “you used to be all right . . . what happened?” (sorry, I can never mention Radiohead just once) and its attitude and Haynes' toward glam rock is kind of a wistful, nostalgic, “that shooting star sure was gorgeous” feeling. And of course, like any fleeting moment in the past, making a movie about it means everyone who sees the movie gets to share in that moment. Maybe some of them'll even buy some records. I know this movie is how I started listening to Roxy Music and T. Rex, and I fucking love them. And it's not like my love for Bowie's music got shook by Velvet Goldmine. It helped that the movie had no pretenses to being literal, naturalistic reportage, and it also helped that Bowie's real-life “conservative” 80s pop records were really fucking good (well, Scary Monsters and Let's Dance both were).

Velvet Goldmine may be kind of a mess, but it's a gorgeous mess. It's obsessed with surface, and scared that there's nothing underneath (okay, law of threes, now we're done with the Radiohead). And man oh man does it bring the gay. This movie brings the gay like a Jason Statham movie brings ownage. Dudes who want to fuck dudes go right ahead and fuck dudes. And in between fucking other dudes, they go full speed ahead on the fabulousness. Whether or not the gay is your thing, you gotta give it up to these cats, especially Ewan McGregor (whose penis should have won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar when he whips it out during “T.V. Eye,” just for the reaction shot of Jonathan Rhys Meyers going “Wow, I really want to suck that.”) Hell, it's not just Ewan McGregor, this whole movie's gayness has its dick out. And goddammit, Todd Haynes, you get a fucking round of applause for that. Good job, dude.


This post is dedicated to the passage last night of same-sex marriage in New York state. One love.

Friday, June 24, 2011

ONE MOGUL TO RULE THEM ALL


The greatest thing about unlimited power is the inevitability with which it reveals the true character of the holder thereof. People say it corrupts absolutely, but I say it corrupts the corruptible. Which is kind of the same thing but a little more cautiously optimistic. Thankfully life affords us few opportunities to play God with the attendant consequences (i.e. fucking up the entire universe), but what few there are can be immensely satisfying in an extremely retarded way.

I like video games where the player gets to act as the general manager, head coach, or whatever the proper terminology for the given sport. I do have fantasies of being the omnipotent Michael Jordan baller who can bend time with his mind and dunk on four dudes in traffic, or break off one of those Maradona “fuck the defense, I just snorted three grams, I can take these assholes” runs and inspire grown men to cry in Spanish, or take a handoff and Barry Sanders my ass through 97 yards of steroid redwoods for six, or be Babe Ruth and blast homers into the upper deck without spilling my drink. But in sports video games, I get the biggest kick out of assembling unbeatable rosters and laying waste to the opposition. It's kind of like being a producer; assembling a baseball team full of high OBP/40 doubles a year guys, or a football team full of fast, mean defensive players, or a futbol team full of athletic two-way players I can play 70s Dutch Total Football with, or a basketball team of brilliant passers and team defenders is like making a movie where you get a writer, director, cast, and crew that all function harmoniously and selflessly in the pursuit of the work. You know, if you were able to manipulate every inconvenient variable to work in your favor.

This is why I've always been fond of the Hollywood Mogul computer games. They're strategy games where the player is put in charge of a studio, tasked with developing, producing, and releasing profitable pictures, created by a screenwriter named Carey DeVuono after a bit of frustration trying to get one of his scripts produced by Fox. It's all text-based, so there's a certain amount of imagination involved on the player's part in visualizing just what their pictures would look and sound like.

The game's also customizable so you can play with “real” actors, directors, writers, and scripts. In the first version of the game I played, Hollywood Mogul 2.something, all the fake original screenplays, novels, and plays you could develop into movies had thumbnail synopses, or you could create your own, and a number of variables like where you wanted to shoot, with how much FX, with which actors, and so forth. After figuring out a fairly decent system for making money (making big FX pictures with an A-list star in the lead, releasing them in the summer, radical shit like that) I decided to start screwing around, much like in Football Manager when I test the patience of Chelsea's board of directors by selling Frank Lampard for a buck because he's a dick (unless Chelsea are winning, they usually overrule the decision and fire me, cuz Frankie Lamps is one sacred fuckin cow, boy, lemme tell ya).

I decided to “create an idea” and hire the lowest-rated $5 million-per-script writer in the game to develop it. I used the first draft because it sucked. Since there was only one actor in the movie—which was set at a science station in Antarctica, because Antarctica was the most expensive place to shoot in the game—I cast Tom Hanks because he was the most expensive available, and had him produce and direct. I gave auteur Hanks a $600 million budget and let him do his worst. I don't remember exactly how I did this, but I made sure none of the $600 million was spent on anything practical like infrastructure (or hiring a crew), so Hanks had shitloads of delays and overruns and special effects disasters because he had to operate the cameras, do the effects, handle catering, and so forth. I was never clear on exactly what the movie was about, but I remember even though Hanks was the only actor in the movie there were “graphic sex scenes” and his nudity rating was as high as it would go, so as best as I can tell I was spending $600 million for Tom Hanks to shoot a movie in Antarctica that consisted entirely of him butt-ass naked and whacking it.

Eventually, after about five in-game years, Hanks' opus (which, if memory serves, was titled Fuck You, Motherfucker) was ready for release. Due to the way DeVuono set up the rating system in the game, as well as there being the normal G-through-NC-17 ratings there was also an X, with which the computer MPAA, not buying my beautifully crafted rhetoric about the film being a statement about onanism as a fractal of every dimension of existence itself (Ed. Note: this is back when I used to smoke lots of weed), slapped the unfortunate Mr. Hanks. And so, his $600 million epic, that I was supporting with about $300 million in P&A—damn, America must have been sick of Tom Hanks whackin' it into their cornflakes every commercial break—ended up grossing about $10 million. My studio, almost a billion dollars in debt, went tits up, and I think the only reason I ended up not getting whacked was because DeVuono had yet to release the “Russian mobster patch.”

I had some massive successes with Hollywood Mogul 2.whatthefuck, including the massive hit franchise Holy Shit, It's a Fucking Earthquake parts 1-5, each of which grossed about a billion dollars. I loved the game dearly, but there was room for improvement. In 2006, after fielding hundreds of requests for features for the next game, DeVuono released Hollywood Mogul 3.

HM3 has a whole lot more detail and more closely resembles the actual development process in a lot of ways. The only thing that ever really bugged me about HM3 as opposed to the previous iteration, is the writing process. In the older game, sometimes no matter how hard you tried, some scripts just sucked and you were stuck with them. In HM3, if you're willing to wait an in-game year or two, your writer will invariably deliver you a literary masterpiece. However, the sacrifice in realism leads, as it so often does, to a gain in escapist value: you can be sitting there like “EVERY PICTURE I RELEASE IS A FUCKING MASTERPIECE.”

Because the customization in HM3 permits—kind of—directors to write their own scripts, I decided to replace George Lucas in one of the real-director files with one “Danny Bowes,” since I also, obviously, write. And, naturally, I put all my talent levels, things like “action, comedy, drama,” “visionary,” “authority,” “story sense,” and so forth to the maximum. Not only does this accurately reflect reality—seriously, I'm a fucking genius, people—it's a lot of fun to be like “Hey, I need a director for this $200 million adaptation of Voltron . . . let's get Danny Bowes, if I can pry him away from his five other incipient masterpieces.”

As a result, no matter what I'd hire “me” to direct, I ended up winning the Oscar for Best Director. I won Best Director for video game adaptations (I mean, not my $100 million-grossing big-screen Leisure Suit Larry, but I totally took home a statue for my three-hour adaptation of Red Dead Redemption even though it tanked like a fuck at the box office). I won Best Director for my big-screen version of The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist with Anne Hathaway in the lead (we did not win Best Costume Design, because Phoebe doesn't have a costume, of course), that despite being an NC-17 (the price one pays for having the heroine be nude for the whole picture) ended up grossing $100 mil because I went gonzo on P&A and got big-ass stars like Angelina Jolie to play the Amazon lesbian villainess (in a move that would enrage purists and add box-office, thus making it a perfectly cynical Hollywood move) and Daniel Craig to play the badass secret agent guy who gets killed five minutes after being introduced.

Just about everything you could possibly want to customize, you can in HM3. It offers over a dozen different kinds of properties you can acquire, from comic books to graphic novels (it differentiates) to foreign and domestic remakes (same) to short stories to novels to non-fiction books to original screenplays to plays to TV shows. Like its predecessor, you can cast these with “real” actors. It's an incredibly fucking geeky way to spend one's time (though it passes a long-ass train ride nicely) but like many incredibly fucking geeky things, potentially a lot of fun.

The Hollywood Mogul games also, weirdly, can serve as a critique of actual Hollywood. Originating as they did in DeVuono's “goddammit, is my fucking picture ever going to get made?” frustration with the studio system, the way the in-game system works, with dumb pieces of shit becoming enormous hits, the Oscars being really retarded and meaningless, and creative decisions being made capriciously by inscrutable entities for reasons other than the good of the work . . . why, it's almost like . . . no, that has nothing to do with the way Hollywood actually is. It's just a computer game. Cough cough. (Ed. Note: the author may want to do business with a studio some day).

However realistic though it may be, it's equally as much fun to fuck around and be like “I'm going to make a $600 million movie about Tom Hanks masturbating for six hours in black & white and only release it in New York and Los Angeles” (HM3, if anything, only adds to the genius of this project). I'm not ashamed of the hours I've spent hiring Michael Bay to direct the imaginary comic book movie Space Marines, nor of turning my own scripts into big Oscar-winning movie star things, nor even of the Hanks. Actually, especially not the Hanks. If liking Hollywood Mogul makes me a nerd, then you can take being cool and blow it out your ass. Especially next time I gotta Amtrak it somewhere.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

YET MORE SELF-PROMOTION (OR, THE THIRD WORD IN MOVIES BY BOWES WILL ALWAYS BE THE MOST IMPORTANT)


Sup byetches. As of today, every Wednesday I'm going to have a column up at my old buddy Dan Hudak's excellent movie site Hudak on Hollywood. Back at Bard (before the ubiquity of the Internet; yeah, we some old mahfuggas) Dan and I used to play the Six Degrees game (which, contrary to popular opinion, you can play without Kevin Bacon; my mom's fond of a variation where you have to use Bart the Bear from The Edge and Legends of the Fall, among others) and more than a few times, we came up with linkages so obscure that we'd actually attract an audience hoping to watch our brains explode as we tried to solve them. Yeah, I know, life before the Internet was a quaint place. But here's to the continuance of an excellent partnership in movie geekery.

My first post over there is a slightly edited reprint of my post from a while back about how much I hate the term "chick flick." Future Wednesdays (or whichever day it might be should it change) may feature new material, in my own inimitable style. So be sure to check in over there every day, and like his site on Facebook and follow Dan on Twitter and all that good stuff. (And follow me, for fuck's sake).

That's all for now. I'm a little busy futzing around with a movie script I want to try and shoot, that I'll be talking your ear off about in the coming weeks/months, but many good posts with lots of cursing and addled brilliance are on their way at this fine establishment. Happy summer, Northern Hemisphere!

Friday, June 17, 2011

THE MOST COMPREHENSIVE GREEN LANTERN REVIEW ON THE ENTIRE INTERNET



That Tupac is something else. He releases new posthumous records all the time, and even finds the time for some film criticism!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

BETTER LIVING THROUGH NETFLIX, VOL. 8: THE TOURIST, THE FIGHTER, AND AMITABH BACHCHAN


Before we get to the main thrust of this post, a bit of preliminary venting (and I am well aware of what a First World Problem this is, shut up and let me do my thing): fucking Netflix has sent me two separate discs of Zanjeer, both of which have been irrevocably fucked up. This pisses me off because a few weeks ago I saw Amitabh in Sholay, and for those of you who don't yet know, Amitabh Bachchan is basically the guy who when John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, Toshiro Mifune, Charles Bronson, and Chow Yun-Fat finish beating Chuck Norris to death and they're trying to figure out if it's even theoretically possible for anyone to best them in either combat or general badassery, Amitabh walks in and they're all like, “right, that guy. Well, shit, fellas, we're all competing for second place.” Sholay is so fucking good you have to start bringing people like Sergio Leone and John Ford and all the above-mentioned leading men into the discussion to explain to people, and it's not even like Amitabh's the coolest motherfucker in the picture by any kind of wide margin either. Co-star Dharmendra's so fucking cool in it he's the one who gets the girl. There's decades-long vendettas, mind-blowing action set pieces, and you'll never hear the phrase “How many men were there?” without shitting yourself the rest of your life. So, naturally, I wanted to see the picture that made Amitabh a star, and from what I've heard, in Zanjeer he plays a cop who doesn't play by the rules. Fuck and yes. Done. Bring me that movie, modern society. So listen up, and listen good, you red-envelope so-and-sos: send me a non-broken copy of Zanjeer.

So that's me last night. I was all set to watch Zanjeer only to have those dreams cruelly snatched from me. Since I was already in movie-watching mode, I decided I'd give the other two DVDs a shot. They could not have been more different from Zanjeer, but had some superficial connections with each other, both being 2010 releases by major Hollywood studios. One widely panned, one widely praised. I decided to watch The Tourist first.


The Tourist has a lot of assets at its disposal. Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie are two of the biggest movie stars in the world, and the two of them together is like exotic sexiness critical mass. Add in the fact that it's set in Venice, it's directed by the genius who made The Lives of Others, and the story sounds like straight up Hitchcock, and you got yo'self a whole mess of promise. Or, if you fuck up the execution, you got yourself a mess.

It'd be tempting to take that very contrived build and cap it off with “The Tourist, sadly, is the latter.” But the thing that's weird is that it doesn't totally suck. It's nearly crippled by an awkwardly stitched-together script, Angelina looks like she was rendered by a state-of-the-art sapience simulation program, and some truly stupid things happen. And yet, The Tourist has its charms.

It takes a while to get to them, though. The first ten minutes of the movie are wheel-spinning horseshit, and weaken the movie, because at least six of those minutes are spent trying to figure out whether Angelina's an android, on Valium, or needs a sandwich, and going “when the fuck's Johnny Depp gonna show up?” It's like the writers were in a morning-after coke coma and the designers and camera crew were like, “fuck it, somebody's gotta make this movie.” And they do their jobs really, really fucking well on this movie. Everything the entire picture looks absolutely gorgeous. (Well, except Steven Berkoff, but we're not there yet).

Ten minutes in, we have what really should have been the opening scene: Angelina made up and dressed immaculately, slowly walking through a train looking for a patsy, and coming across . . . Johnny Depp. The entire opening ten minutes of exposition are conveyed in the one shot of Angelina gliding through the train; there would literally be nothing of any value lost if you chopped the first ten minutes out of the picture. And Johnny is by far the best part of this whole movie. He's been in a couple dipshit Tim Burton movies (and a couple good ones, which feel like a while ago now), and the Pirates things are incoherent and oppressively frenetic, but Johnny fucking Depp is a movie star. He's an actor of great skill, to be sure, but like most true movie stars, there's a point at which you can't buy him as an ordinary person, because he's an otherworldly entity.

This is why the three biggest lies I've ever been told are:

1—“Yeah, dude, this shit is totally straight from Amsterdam.”
2—“I swear I won't get mad if you tell me what you really think.”
3—“Johnny Depp is a dorky, unworldly math teacher from Wisconsin.”

Now, let's be clear. I'm not knocking Wisconsin; they have enough trouble these days with that lunatic union-busting fuckstick governor of theirs. Math teachers either, I had one in high school who was an actor when he wasn't teaching (this meant he never slept and frequently got emotional and would rant at us in this half-Paul Lynde half-Yiddish patois that more often than not ended with him letting us read for the rest of the period while he went outside to exorcise the dybbuk with a cigarette; that dude was fucking awesome). I'm not even knocking unworldly dorks. The latter isn't something you have any power over, and neither is the former, most times.

The only problem is, Johnny Depp. If he was a math teacher, it would be in like fucking Sri Lanka or Suriname, or some such place where the women are brown, the weather is gorgeous, and everything is like one of those paragraphs in magic realist novels where you're just like “All right, already, my life is prosaic, stop rubbing it in.” (Ed. Note: if you're keeping score, no such place actually exists except in a Johnny Depp movie where he fucks some woman who's so beautiful you can't even fap to her because it would be rude). He's not a normal dude. This isn't a hierarchy thing, normal people are fucking great. Johnny just ain't in that genus.

So there's that. But here's where Johnny the actor manages to prevail against Johnny the movie star: he does all his “oh shit I'm a dork in over my head” business so goddamn well he shames anyone who's ever had to play this kind of role. Well, except Cary Grant. But dude. Cary Grant. Johnny's so good he keeps making you forget how retarded the rest of this movie is whenever he's on screen.

How retarded is the rest of the movie? Very. Some mysterious ex-lover of Angie's is sending her cryptic notes telling her to be places at certain times, and seemingly every cop in Europe has her under surveillance, led by Paul Bettany in full-on shithead mode. You ever notice how the bigger a prick Paul Bettany is, the worse the movie ends up being? He was a really cool guy in Master and Commander, Master and Commander was great. He was something Russell Crowe could do without in A Beautiful Mind, A Beautiful Mind was a movie we could do without. He was a useless psychotic turd in The Da Vinci Code, The Da Vinci Code was a useless turd of a movie. The Tourist falls somewhere mildly favorable but still hugging the middle on that spectrum, as Paul Bettany is kind of a shithead, but he's not malignant. Seriously, if you read about a movie, and Paul Bettany is playing the heavy or some random shithead, wait for the DVD. If he's playing the good guy, watch it. Unless he's playing a priest. He needs to stop playing priests.

So on top of the cops, Steven Berkoff and a whole bunch of Russian henchmen are after Angie and her mysterious ex. Angie tries to get everyone to think Johnny Depp is the mysterious ex, but the cops don't fall for it, except Steven Berkoff's man inside the cops tells Steven Berkoff that Johnny's the guy. So everyone starts chasing everyone else and Johnny and Angie look hot and Angie looks more and more like a computer-generated character and blah blah blah.

Right when you think the whole movie is going to be a total pile of bullshit, it springs a motherfucker of a third-act twist on us, that would have made the whole movie so much better if we'd known about forty-five minutes earlier: Johnny Depp actually is the mysterious ex. And he and Angie sail off into the sunset. What makes this so frustrating is that the whole movie you're like, “these two things would make this movie actually be good.” And you have to wait til like, what, five minutes left for that payoff? After a whole lot of inelegant scripting and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck playing the part of Sisyphus trying to overcome the shitty script and actually make the kind of movie the script fucks up at being? Sigh. So close. And yet . . .

After a brief intermission, I put the second movie in: The Fighter.



I remember seeing Micky Ward fight on TV a few times. I think I saw him lose to Zab Judah (back when Zab Judah was good, it was hard to tell one fight from another, he just beat the fuck out of guys), I know I saw parts of the epic career-concluding Arturo Gatti triptych, and the isolated highlight from the rest of his career. I knew little bits and pieces about him—he was from Lowell (which rhymes with prole), sportswriters liked him because he was white and not very athletic (the biggest boners recorded by science are the ones sportswriters have for short, slow white athletes), and his not inconsiderable success was attributable almost entirely to balls.

If the above sounds negative, I should clarify that I didn't really know anything about the guy that I didn't learn from sports media, which is a singularly frustrating beast. Mainstream sports writing is dominated by a very cloistered, sentimental, white, middle-aged, heteronormative male perspective unaware that any other perspective exists. This has eased up a bit in recent years, but only a bit. The irony of my distaste for the prevalent tone in mainstream sports journalism is that I am a white guy, I'll be middle-aged someday, and most of these dudes who get all teary-eyed whenever a five-foot-six-inch white guy bunts have seen way more of the world in person than I have in my life. I should be just as bad as they are. But sorry guys, David Eckstein is a shitty baseball player.

What this has to do with Micky Ward is that the media coverage of him was basically slashfic, and since so many of these little white fetish objects (of whom David Eckstein is basically Angelina Jolie in Gia) suck at sports, one sometimes assumes they all do. The three Arturo Gatti fights went a long way toward dispelling this impression of Micky Ward, as those fights were legitimate boxing legend, and Ward was damn close to winning all three of them.

So I was interested in seeing The Fighter, especially since practically everyone I know who saw it was like, “Holy fuck, dude.” And that was the first time some of them had ever said “fuck” or “dude,” so I knew they were serious. I popped it in, preparing myself for the worst—sports movies tend to be written from much the same perspective as sports journalism, and almost all of them adhere to some form of the “underdog overcomes adversity and wins the big game/race/fight at the end” formula—and hoping for the best.

What I wasn't prepared for was . . . holy shit Christian Bale. The Fighter is one of those movies where you need to watch the making-of doc afterward because otherwise you'll miss the fucking eerie way he became Dicky Eklund. Every last mannerism is right there. Despite the fact that Christian Bale is about fifteen years younger than Eklund and his hair hasn't gone gray, people who had known Dicky Eklund all their lives occasionally thought Bale was actually him. It's as a good a Method performance as you're ever going to see.

The fact that the rest of the cast manages to not get blown off the screen by not only Bale the Method actor but by Dicky the character is an enormous credit to the force of their performance. Mark Wahlberg is sneaky good as Micky: he spends almost the entire movie having other people speak and act for him, and it never reads as weakness in his acting. Every last insecurity and moment of fear reads clearly on his face and in his posture. If you want to do the Method dick-measuring contest between him and Bale, well, after you go fuck yourself I'll concede the point that Mark Wahlberg (and yes, he's good enough in this I'm suspending Marky Mark jokes for the duration of this post) doesn't transform himself into Micky the way Bale does Dicky, but he gives the performance this movie needs, a rock-solid movie star performance that serves as an anchor. Some roles need the Christian Bale Method Magical Mystery Tour, some roles need a movie star. Christian Bale is a Serious Ac-TOR, Mark Wahlberg is a movie star. If they were trying to out-Method each other the whole shithouse would go up in flames and it'd be a plodding wankfest, and if Bale didn't plumb the depths and go to the scary places he had to go to become Dicky and just spent the whole fucking movie posing for the trailer, it would have been pointless. Each does what he needs to do, and as a result each is as great as the other.

The whole rest of the cast is right up there on the same level. Jack McGee, a character actor of not just “That Guy” but “holy shit, THAT GUY! I fuckin love that guy!” status (it's a fine distinction, but a distinction it most certainly is), plays Micky's father, and is fucking great. He adds to his portfolio of great lines, which include these gems—

“Get the guy with the penis!” The Doors
“She makes me want to go out and buy rubbers.” Lethal Weapon 2
(Michael Douglas asks him “He had a girlfriend?”) “No....she did.” Basic Instinct
“Sorry man, John Wayne time. You're on your own, boss.” Backdraft

—with a fine assortment of terse quips about being afraid of his wife. There are two reasons Jack McGee is able to do this without seeming like a pussy. One is, he's Jack fucking McGee, fuck you. Two is, the wife in question is Melissa Leo, about whose performance one can only sit there not blinking for about an hour with smoke slowly wisping out of one's ears, murmuring faint unintelligible shit that might be language.

Melissa Leo, as the mother of not only Micky and Dicky but a truly terrifying armada of Massachussetts-accented daughters, is just unbelievable. It's hard to talk about just where she's coming from without sounding like either a sociology textbook or a condescending prick; suffice to say her violent distrust of anyone who isn't blood family is rooted in class insecurity, fear, and a ferocious maternal instinct. She's the general, and those daughters of hers are the army, and if you fuck with them you are on your way to the past tense.

Amy Adams, as Micky's girlfriend Charlene, manages to fuck with this group of women simply by existing. This highlights one of the great truisms of class warfare: no one openly cannot fucking stand each other like two ever-so-slightly different members of what appears to any la-di-da outsider to be one homogenous group. Amy Adams is from the neighborhood, she works at the local bar, she's a redhead just like a few of Micky and Dicky's scary sisters . . . but she went to college and she's prettier than they are, so she can do no right. Not to mention once she takes up with Micky and starts speaking for him (because he won't), shit is on.

The thing that particularly impressed me about what Amy Adams does in this is that she manages to play someone who isn't always a particularly nice person—Melissa Leo and the Leoettes are actually right, she does put on airs and talk to them like insects, and it isn't all due to their provocations—while still making it perfectly clear what Micky sees in her (beyond the obvious fact that she looks like Amy Adams). She's every bit the equal to all the other acting heavyweights in her midst, which is especially welcome in a role that in a lesser movie would be the textbook Annoying Girlfriend Role.

A certain amount of credit for all this great acting has to go to David O. Russell. It's one thing to assemble a bunch of really good actors, it's another thing entirely to actually get all of them together in the same movie. Russell grounds everything in a vividly realized Lowell, achieving a really impressive level of verisimilitude, selling the audience that this world he's created is real. And really, if you take away what Russell and the cast (and the brilliant choice to shoot all the fights with the same TV crews who shoot actual fights on TV) bring to this movie, you're left with a script that's pretty straight-up sports movie formula: Micky's an aging fighter not really getting anywhere, his ne'er-do-well brother drags him down, the brother gets locked up and rediscovers purpose, Micky rededicates himself to boxing, the brother gets out of jail and working together, Micky wins the title. The producers repeatedly say, without a hint of irony, that their inspiration was Rocky. Even if you like Rocky—which I really, really don't—you have to concede its formulaic structure, where the only thing keeping it from being simply unacceptable is the climactic fight itself (wherein Rocky really brings it, and though he loses he puts up a good fight, literally).

What Russell and the actors do with The Fighter is inject that same basic formula with such intensity, grounding it in a recognizable reality where the people are three-dimensional, that its only after you're done watching it, charting the sequence of events, that you go, “wow, yeah, that hit every single boxing movie beat except it hit them all so well I didn't notice.” Or maybe you do, but I got so caught up in the movie that I didn't. I ended up just repeating “wow” a whole lot, especially then when I watched the making-of doc and went “Goddammit, what the fuck did Christian Bale do? He fucking turned into that guy!”

Ultimately, one thing jumped out at me about this double feature. These two movies, watched consecutively, are an object lesson in the importance of execution. The Tourist has two of the sexiest movie stars who ever existed, a premise and setting tailor-made for two sexy movie stars, and yet is undone by an ever-so-slightly off-key tone and a script that seems like it started off shitty and then underwent a number of frantic, dissonant rescue rewrites done by too many different writers. And then there's The Fighter, which seems like it should be just another scrappy underdog boxing movie, and through sheer force of execution comes damn near the Body and Soul/Raging Bull caliber of boxing movies (the fight scenes really bring those two to mind; some of the shots are total James Wong Howe on roller skates shots, and Mark Wahlberg takes some hits that feel even more brutal than the ones De Niro takes in Raging Bull).

Execution. You can have all the assets, or all the liabilities in the world, but it's the work done with those assets or liabilities that makes the movie. You can have it all and blow it, or you can turn “meh” to gold. Sometimes you even make a movie so good it makes up for the absence of Amitabh Bachchan. But per that last point, and I cannot stress this enough, do not press your fucking luck. If that third copy of Zanjeer doesn't play in my DVD player, shit . . . if I'm not back by dawn, call the president.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

YOU'RE ALLOWED ONE


“That word is special. We only use it for something really important.” 
---Hope and Glory
For a variety of reasons, I find the movie industry's adoption of the PG-13 rating as the only acceptable mainstream standard annoying. One of those reasons is variety: while I understand the industry's desire to make movies that are all things to all people, I personally like to change it up every now and again. While I might be in the mood for a touching, heartwarming tale of family reconciliation one day, I might be in the mood for gruesome, blood-soaked ownage the next. And, every now and then, a little sex. Another reason the universality of the PG-13 sucks is how arbitrarily it's defined. Sexuality, forget it, nothing more explicit than cock/clit teasing allowed. Violence, that you can have all you want. You get the feeling Scarface would be a PG-13 today if they cut the number of times Tony Montana says “fuck.”

But that last is one of the things I'm starting to enjoy about PG-13 movies. Among the stupid, arbitrary definitions of the rating is: you can say “fuck” (as you may have gathered, one of the favorite words here at Movies By Bowes ™) once. That's it. Occasionally someone sneaks a second in there—like in Ocean's Eleven—but the second one tends to be either mumbled or spoken, as in Ocean's Eleven's case, in a heavy enough accent that the Republican soccer moms on the ratings board might not have processed it as a “fuck.” But, for the most part, PG-13 movies are allowed one.

The reason why I've recently become very fond of this rule is that filmmakers, tailoring their script toward the commercially-friendly PG-13 rating, have started to realize that if strategically deployed, their one “fuck” can be extremely memorable, maybe even the best quote of the movie. I just saw Super 8 the other day, and it's awesome and the second coming of sliced bread and kittens and sunshine. It's a PG-13 movie because writer-director J.J. Abrams is a pretty PG-13 guy; not knocking him, it actually works really well for him, since he can totally make the kind of movies he wants without having to censor or euphemize too much.

Super 8's one of those movies that shouldn't be spoiled, so I won't go into too many details, but there's a bit where all manner of hell has just broken loose, and this one guy has totally just slept through most of it, and walks over, looks at a massive pile of shit that's just been destroyed and goes, “What . . . the fuck?” in this perfect line reading. It's easily the funniest thing in the whole movie.

Then, of course, there's the magnificent Fast Five (the year's second-awesomest movie of the year so far only because Super 8 is really sincerely that good), also a PG-13, which also deploys its one “fuck” quite well. When The Rock and his gigantically muscular ownage squad touches down in Rio and Rock liaises with the Brazilian cops, he delivers his curt tough guy speech, and caps it off when the Brazilian cop asks him if he needs any help by responding “Stay the fuck out of my way.” Awesome.

In both instances, the solitary “fuck” got an enormous, enthusiastic response from the audience. This is partly because hee hee “fuck” chuckle chuckle naughty naughty. But also because each movie used its one “fuck” to its maximum strategic potential. It's like Abrams writing Super 8 and Chris Morgan writing Fast Five went “How the fuck can I make my fuck work for me?” and came up with the right answer. I like to picture both of them sitting at their keyboards after writing the line in question and going “Heh heh. 'Fuck.' Hehehehehehe.” This is because I'm 12. In a related story, this is why I liked both of those movies so much. And yet I digress.

I think that, rather than rail against the MPAA for its arbitrary, irrational, hypocritical, pointless social conservatism—a losing battle, since they're never going to change—the more effective way to point up just how dumb this shit is is by continuing to do what Abrams and Morgan did in their respective scripts. By making such a big deal out of the one permitted “fuck” they actually call more attention to the word than in an R-rated movie (or this blog, to be painfully honest) where it's like “fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck” til it just becomes background noise. So, by keeping the “one fuck per PG-13” rule, intending to minimize “bad” language, the MPAA has actually, for lack of a better term, fucked up. If I can remember the exact scene and character and context under which the guy in Super 8 and The Rock in Fast Five said “fuck,” but couldn't begin to tell you all the different people were who said “fuck” in any given R movie—and I was paying more attention to other stuff in Super 8 and Fast Five, believe me—the “one fuck per PG-13” rule is not serving its intended purpose.

The MPAA basically has two choices. The first (not that I intend to give them any ideas, mind you) is to simply ban all “bad” language. They can totally get away with this, since the First Amendment only applies to government censorship, and the MPAA is not, de jure, the government. But even though they could get away with pulling that kinda shit doesn't mean they won't look like total fucking assholes if they try to. The other choice is to lighten the fuck up (so to speak) and stop tripping about a commonly used, extremely versatile word. If the MPAA is so concerned about kids and want to protect them, the way to be an uptight conservative fussbudget and actually do some good is to get more concerned about violence. I like ownage as much as the next guy, and I was watching extremely violent shit since I was very young, but I watched all that shit with careful parental supervision. My mom was always there to explain that what I was seeing was not only fucking awesome but just a movie. Since not everyone is as lucky as me (she took me to The Terminator, Robocop, Total Recall, and all the Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal you can shake a stick at in the theaters, among many many others) and since all those pictures I mentioned in that aside wear their R rating with defiant pride, it would behoove the MPAA, if they're going to “protect” kids, to enforce some standards about the way violence is portrayed in movies rated PG-13 and under. Language is just language, you know, sticks and stones may break my bones, but “fuck” can never hurt me. Sure there are situations where it's impolite to curse, but if you think about it, you can determine which ones those are.

Sadly, the whole “one fuck” rule derives, in large part, from not thinking. The simpler and less flexible the rating rules are, the easier it is for the Republican soccer moms to just dismiss something as an R. One fuck per PG-13, and it can't be “I want to fuck you” or have anything to do with the old in-out, otherwise boom: R. So if the MPAA wants to play it this way, and be dicks pointlessly over one special word, screenwriters owe it to the notion of justice (and trolling) to weaponize their “fucks.” After all, the only good thing about censorship is making the censors look like assholes.

Friday, June 10, 2011

A FOND SALUTE TO ONE OF THIS BLOG'S GUIDING AESTHETIC FORCES


Happy 49th birthday, Gina Gershon. You've been responsible for me watching more bad movies than marijuana. And they were all fucking WORTH IT. Thanks for bringing the light, cara mia.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

SERIOUS CINEMA FOR CIVILIANS


I've written before about the needlessly contentious relationship between film writers and civilians, mainly as a chance to be rude to more successful critics, often in vague, non-specific terms, about what I think they're doing wrong. This doesn't accomplish much other than make me look like an asshole, so I'm going to try a different tactic, one that I think more serious cineastes should take (naturally, since it's my brilliant fucking idea): reach out to civilians.

None of them are reading this blog, obviously, because they're all off doing whatever civilians do. I mean . . . what the fuck do they do with the time that we're writing 7000 word articles about the role of UFA in shaping the visual aesthetic of Hollywood's First Golden Age, or getting into fistfights with people over Terrence Malick movies? Whatever they get up to, that's not the point, we could spend years of field research tagging them and studying their habits, but why waste all the tranquilizers sedating them when we can use them to get high (and anyone who's tried to watch a Godard picture from after 1967'll tell ya: getting lifted helps). Point is, we all know a civilian or two—they're fairly easy to identify—and it's about fucking time we let them know we're not big scary eggheads with insular vocabularies and superhuman boredom thresholds. At the core, we're just like them: people who like movies.

This is the thing a lot of the civilians I talk to get hung up on: because of the unctuous jerkoffs who take five minutes to say the word “film” and insist on the brilliance of shit that sounds fucking boring (or, worse, the unctuous jerkoffs make it sound fucking boring), civilians think “serious” cinema is not for them, and regard art cinema and entertaining movies as two disparate entities. This is a shame, because while there are any number of art pictures that are challenging to their audiences, there are also a whole lot of really great “films” that also rule the fuck out of shit as “movies.”

The intent of this post is to give us—because don't even try to bullshit, if you're reading this, you're One Of Us—the vocabulary to let civilians know that just because it's serious doesn't mean it can't be serious fun. So, first, an important distinction:

Film vs. Movie: Basically they mean the same thing. A lot of people use “film” and “movie” interchangeably, which is fine, for the previously stated reason, but you want to watch it with the word “film” in certain contexts, especially when dealing with civilians. A lot of them hear the word “film” and go, “ooh, that sounds serious,” and while we all know serious is (or can be) awesome, your civilian might get a little wary. Especially if it's used as a suffix to the words “foreign” or “independent” you might end up totally fucking blowing it. So if a civilian asks you something like “what kind of movies do you like?” don't make the mistake of ending the conversation by being like “I like foreign and independent film” because they're just gonna go, “Ahhhh,” and pretend to be interested and end up either changing the subject or leaving. On the other hand, if—for whatever fucking reason, and goddammit this had fucking better be because the civilian brought him up—Ingmar Bergman gets dragged into the conversation, there's no ifs ands or buts, the only acceptable phrase is “Bergman film.” This holds true for a select few foreign and art cinema directors. But the handy thing is, you're usually not going to be talking about any of these directors until way past the entry level, and by the time your civilian is watching Wild Strawberries or whatever they're not going to be civilians anymore, so it's a moot point.

This is not a rant against the word “film.” When we're among our own kind, we can use whatever language we want, be as pretentious as we like, and the only danger is mouthing off to someone smarter than you or getting busted trying to pawn off something you've read as your own thoughts. Then, there's no real danger of anything except looking like a dickhead. You're not alienating a potential movie lover. Cuz really, that's the thing, we want more people loving movies, and feeling uninhibited about liking good ones.

Basically, we want to use friendly, non-intimidating language. I find the word “picture” to be the best of all possible worlds. It's a little old-fashioned, so older civilians won't find it threatening. It's short for “motion picture,” so it makes sense, and it's not excessively casual like the word “movie” can be under the wrong circumstances. But the coup de grace is that it's so fucking pretentious a lot of serious cinema people will cringe occasionally, and what good is hanging around with serious cinema people if you can't fuck with them and give them dyspepsia every now and then? The best part is, only serious cinema people know how pretentious it is, so you've basically got your own private screening going on in your head while having a seemingly innocuous conversation about a “Humphrey Bogart picture” with your nice civilian friend over a beer.

So, good, we've got our civilian all warmed up. We still have a bunch of big fucking obstacles in our way. Our tripartite demon of civilian fear and loathing is thus:

Old
Foreign
Independent

All three of these shibboleths cast massive, dark, foreboding, frigid shadows over our nice, friendly civilian and send them scrambling to watch unspeakable things, movies which I shan't even name for fear of upsetting the more sensitive readers out there. Our challenge is to present these types of movies in as palatable a way as possible. Not to tell them, “This is good, thus you must like it.” Describe why it's awesome, and if you do so properly you get “That sounds awesome.” Then all you gotta do is watch the fucking movie, better known as the fun part.

Of paramount importance, of course, is picking the right movie. Let's start with “old” (read: anything made before the civilian in question was born).


OLD

The way to figure this out is to figure out what your civilian actually likes, because if you try and force what you want them to like on them, le jeu sont fait, motherfucker. So here's a couple hypothetical answers to the (impossibly reductive, but fuck it) question, “So what do you like?”

Civilian: “I like ownage. Who in old-ass movies owns the shit out of people?”

Answer: Humphrey Bogart



Beginner's Level: Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon
Intermediate: The Big Sleep, In a Lonely Place
Advanced: well, shit, if they're at the advanced level they're probably off watching The African Queen and The Caine Mutiny and shit on their own initiative. Good job.

Keep in mind the purpose of this post is to provide general unsolicited advice, and so the question becomes, who has the broadest appeal? For ownage alone, one might be tempted to answer “John Wayne” and while it's true that John Wayne did own, there's the political problem. Like in fucking Hondo when he's out there protecting the woman and her kid and he throws the fucking kid in the river to teach him to swim and growls something right-wing and the woman gets all aroused. That scene aged badly. Bogart works better, as he makes up for not owning as many dudes as John Wayne did by really makin em fucking count. Major Strasser. End of list.

There's a reason everyone trips about Casablanca. One of the first posts I ever did on this blog was about how great it was, but words are ephemeral. Casablanca will win over anyone except apostate nitpicky killjoy assholes farting about how there's no such thing as “real” letters of transit and all that fuckin shit. Of course, you don't phrase it that truculently to your civilian. You go, “Oh, yeah, I know everybody's been sucking this movie's dick for the last hundred years but trust me, half an hour in, its balls will be on your chin, too.” Or paraphrase. Build up enough trust with your civilian so that if you go “Trust me” they don't just go “fuck you.” Casablanca will not betray that trust.

The Maltese Falcon also works because it's every bit as good as Casablanca is except it won't make you cry. Casablanca occasionally makes people cry, and if your civilian isn't progressive and is mumbling about “chick shit” like romance, show him (chicks rarely complain about chick shit) The Maltese Falcon, which features pretty much nonstop Humphrey Bogart ownage, of verbal, physical, and even intellectual varieties. The Maltese Falcon is powerful shit. People buy fedoras and tan raincoats and shrink six inches and start rolling their own cigarettes to be like Bogart in that fucking movie. As well they goddamn should.

Shocking as it may seem, some civilians might be looking for something other than ownage in their old movies . . .

Civilian: “I like comedies.”

Answer(s): Pretty much anything Preston Sturges ever made.



This one's a little tricky for me because it's outside my usual home territory; any number of you out there better-versed in classical Hollywood cinema than me might be able to think of better suggestions. Preston Sturges works well for civilians, though, because he was such a stunningly fucking good writer and his dialogue and characters hold up remarkably well over the decades. The Lady Eve is fun as hell because Henry Fonda's a dork, Barbara Stanwyck is Barbara Stanwyck, et cetera ad infinitum, so if you want to keep it light, that's a good one to go with, but if you want to blow your civilian's fucking mind, show them Sullivan's Travels.

Sullivan's Travels is hilarious in some places, really really dramatic in others, and ends on such an exhilarating, transcendent note that you'll be talking about how awesome it is with your civilian for hours afterward. You do have to be careful, though, because the dramatic parts may make some tune out, so if you're sensing an unreliable attention span you might want to try something else first.

This is where Billy Wilder comes in handy. Specifically, Some Like It Hot. Actually, what the fuck am I talking about? Disregard all that other shit. Watch Some Like It Hot with your civilian, and say “you're welcome.”


Answer: “I like tearjerkers.”

Solution: There is but one. The man is Douglas Sirk. The movie is Imitation of Life.



Some might say I'm crazy, busting this out for a civilian. And sure, I'm crazy. And sure, parts of Imitation of Life are dated as shit, though Troy Donahue menacingly growling the n-word is one of the funniest things ever. And, yeah, it's over the top. And sure, the average civilian, not (over)thinking the matter, is going to look at the ending and go “Get the fuck out of here, did she really just die of a fucking broken heart?” To which there's only one reply, “Yes, yes, she does.” (Ed. Note: Imitation of Life is fucking awesome). Your civilian will at this point perhaps sneer and go, “Well that sucked.” So . . . what am I on about here? Why did I tell you to throw on Imitation of Life? Because your civilian is going to turn right around and tell you “This sure isn't any An Affair To Remember.”

Therein lies the brilliance of my plan. Only civilians have ever seen An Affair To Remember beginning to end (little known fact: even Nora Ephron, who's not a civilian, only saw the couple seconds of it she used in Sleepless in Seattle). Serious cineastes had to turn it off or leave the theater or whatever after the first five minutes to either throw up or get treated for diabetes. Because your civilian is a civilian, they've seen An Affair To Remember. They all have. They can then use this knowledge to get one up on you, the nominal expert, and the first seed in the orchard that is cinephilia has been planted: the feeling of superiority attendant to having seen something the other person hasn't.

By the way, the whole above scenario is word for fucking word the way it'll actually play out. The sneakiest thing about civilians is that they do know more than you do about old tearjerkers, it's a glitch in the Matrix (by the way, that brings up another excellent point that I'll consign to an aside just to be a dick: confirming to civilians that movies they like are actually good works wonders. Their eyes light up when you tell them, yes, The Godfather and Lawrence of Arabia totally count as Greatest Of All Time picks).

So, to make a long story short, the trick with getting your civilian to watch old movies is basically just getting them in the right mood, not being condescending, and picking the right movie. Easier said than done, sure, but so is everything. Except defenestration: throwing a motherfucker out the window is quicker than that long-ass word.


FOREIGN

Much harder. Shit, if you thought getting someone to watch a black & white movie was hard, getting them to watch something with subtitles usually involves bribery of some sort. Or one of those Clockwork Orange-style chairs. I was actually a little disappointed when I got my Lasik surgery back in 2000 that the apparatus wasn't more old-school with razor-sharp shit sticking out everywhere, and no anesthesia and all that cool stuff, me going “NOOOOOOO!!!” as they went for my eyes. Instead everything was all comfortable and soft and they gave me all the drugs I asked for—which, considering I was a couple months shy of 22 was a fucking lot—and said reassuring things to me and I barely felt a thing and only whined like a bitch for like two seconds.

I'm digressing because it pains me, way more than that extremely smooth and painless surgical procedure, to admit how fucking impossible it is to get civilians to watch pretty much anything foreign. The only person who ever figured out how to get civilians to watch foreign movies is Harvey Weinstein, and a distressingly high percentage of the foreign movies Miramax released in the 90s sucked marmoset dick (Cinema Paradiso, Chocolat, shit like that, even if neither of those technically came out in the 90s). How Harv did it, man was not meant to know.

The best advice I can give to anyone who wants to get civilians to watch foreign movies is the way Arthur Dent taught himself how to fly in Hitchhiker's Guide: throw yourself at the ground and miss. By which I mean, if you think about it for two seconds, the whole shithouse'll go up in flames, you just need to go with the organic flow of the universe. If you're with a civilian, and they want to watch anything foreign, don't question it. Just watch (or endure) it with them and hope they like it well enough to be talked into watching something good later. You cannot prod them at all until they've lost their cherry, and even then you have to give them space until they volunteer enthusiasm.

This is the most frustrating thing of all. Much as you know in your heart of hearts your civilian would like a gritty French gangster movie, or a big bright crazy Bollywood masala picture, or a sparse, minimalist Japanese drama, or a picture about a bunch of Iranian chicks who are totally nuts about soccer . . . you cannot make the first move. Just about anything you say to your civilian suggesting they watch something foreign, unless they've given you a clear indication that they're open to it, could result in a “meh,” or the dreaded “I don't like foreign movies, I hate reading subtitles.” And once they've given you that initial sign that they might dig something foreign, be careful. Don't fuck it up, you don't want to create one of those “I saw a foreign movie once, I didn't get it” people.


Hope I didn't bum you out too much, because fortunately, the last one's really fucking easy:


INDEPENDENT

These have the advantage of usually being in color and not necessarily having subtitles. They also have all kinds of cool stuff like nudity that the studios have to foreswear in their idolatrous worship of the PG-13 rating. Or, if you're dealing with someone who isn't into that kind of thing, there are PG-13 and under independent pictures as well. That's the big secret of independent cinema: they're just regular movies that are financed and produced by someone other than a Hollywood executive.

And yet, “independent” movies are regarded as this big daunting thing by a lot of civilians. They tend to have this unfortunate stereotype of independent movies as boring, pretentious, and cheaply made. This stereotype didn't come out of nowhere, there are plenty of boring, pretentious, cheaply made independent pictures. They're also known as shitty independent pictures. The good ones are fucking rad, and civilians will not be able to tell the difference between a good independent movie and a studio picture that isn't one of the big special effects things.

Perfect case in point: back in 1994 when Pulp Fiction came out, none of the dipshits I went to high school with had any idea that it had a whole foofball independent movie backstory, playing at Cannes and all that shit. This was because it was screening in non-arthouse movie theaters, and when it came out on video it was right there on the shelf just like every other “normal” movie.

You can certainly make the case for Pulp Fiction not being a typical independent movie, because it's not. It's got dudes with guns just like studio movies, it's got recognizable movie stars, it grossed $100 million, and got shitloads of media attention. But in that last is the key: getting people who would ordinarily make the “who farted?” face when you say the words “independent film” to them will have no such negative reaction if you just present it to them like a normal movie. It's all in presentation.

Of course, you don't want to bullshit your civilian. Telling them Blue Valentine is just like The Notebook because Ryan Gosling's in it is going to accomplish nothing except pissing your civilian off. What you do instead is get your friend who likes crime dramas and pitch Winter's Bone, for example, as a story about meth dealers and shit and maybe drop some oblique hints about the chainsaw scene. Or, fuck, now you can just tell them Mystique plays the lead. That's a good strategy, finding an actor they know from a big studio picture and being like, “hey, you get to see more of them in this!”

The best thing about getting civilians into independent movies nowadays is that between Netflix and the other nine million ways to watch movies online one of the biggest pains in the ass from back in the 90s and before is gone: access. Used to be, you wanted to see something independent or foreign you had to get on the fucking subway, shlep into either the Angelika or Film Forum and if you were in the Angelika you had to put up with the motherfucking subway going by all the time on top of the incredibly unfriendly ambience, and that's the bullshit you had to put up with in New York, where it was easy. Outside of major cities, unless the gods were kind and granted you an arthouse within driving distance, you were shit out of luck. Now, once something comes out on DVD, it's just a movie. And if you've been good and built up trust with your civilian, they'll look at “keyword: independent” and ask you “Independent, huh? Is it good?” and you'll say yes, and they'll listen to you.

And thus, we come after a long and hopefully entertaining amble to the whole point of this: if you're not a dickface about knowing more about movies than someone else, they're more likely to trust you when you suggest stuff. That's it. Be nice to people and don't lord shit over them, and things will be okay. You may even, after getting an amiable newcomer to the joys of cinema to watch something good with you, create a new One Of Us. Then, when they get to the point when they get that reference, you'll brush a tear away and say, “Oh . . . they grow up so fast!”

Thursday, June 2, 2011

SALUTING SHAQ: A LOOK BACK AT BLUE CHIPS


Today we sing the praises of one of the true giants of our era. Shaquille O'Neal, one of the greatest basketball players to ever breathe air, retired from the NBA yesterday via Twitter, and in so doing self-bequeathed yet another in a line of many nicknames built around the idea of his large size (ie “The Big Aristotle,” “The Big Daddy,” “The Big Baryshnikov”), this time choosing “The Big 401k.” Over the two-plus decades comprising ol' Shaq Palance's basketball career, he augmented his stunning achievements on the court—seriously, watching him play was like watching a steamroller modded with low-rider hydraulics and nitrous oxide hyperdrive tanks and seismic speakers, only if that mindboggling automobile had an AI chip and talked very witty trash in a rumbling monotone—with a wide variety of extracurricular endeavors. These ranged from ambling by a Walmart or Home Depot and hanging out at the registers for an afternoon paying for everybody's stuff and signing autographs and stuff, to a hip-hop career most charitably described as unfortunate, to an acting career that is most often described in similar terms. It's that last that concerns us here today.

Now, it's true that he wasn't exactly Shaq Nicholson up in this (Ed. Note: there's a lot more puns coming, and there's nothing you can do about it), and his music did clearly suck (just about the only human being to ever be a worse rapper is Abhishek Bachchan), but there are a couple extant, demonstrable circumstances of Shaq Bauer puttin' in some respectable thesping. One notable instance was his cameo on Curb Your Enthusiasm as himself, where he plays entertainingly off Larry David; he displayed sharp timing and was great fun. Another, also playing himself, in Tom Green's legendary Freddy Got Fingered, wherein he's fucking Tom Green's mom, but that's kind of hard to gauge his talent because the whole movie's so wonderfully strange. But the most extended glimpse at his Shaqtastic mummery was in his debut, 1994's Blue Chips.

Basketball movies are rarely very good, and so few of them are made that the title of “best basketball movie ever” is a default term. It's usually applied to 1986's Hoosiers, which is a pretty good movie and everything. But—he said, tapdancing on a political third rail—it's deeply problematic to have a movie be about basketball and the only black people in it are the bad guys . . . and the white guys win the big game at the end. Not only is the notion of the humble white underdogs from the country beating the big scary flashy black guys from the city fucking stupid on like eighty levels, there's the problem in basketball of there only having been six truly transcendent white players in the history of the sport: Larry Bird, Bill Walton, John Havlicek, Jerry West, Bob Cousy, and Jimmy Chitwood (Ed. Note: by down-is-up basketball racial standards, Europeans aren't white; don't look at me, rules is rules). Not only are those guys spread out over the entire hundred-year history of the sport, Jimmy Chitwood, the star of the victorious team in Hoosiers, is fucking fictional. For comparison's sake, there are as many truly legendary black players currently active in the NBA. That's not even including the recently-retired Shaq Lemmon. But I digress. And I'm already in enough trouble as it is.

Blue Chips, much like Spike Lee's He Got Game, has the advantage of being directed by an enormous basketball fan. William Friedkin, looking to rebound (Ed. Note: you're welcome) from a series of flops starting with the underrated (but low-grossing) Sorcerer, took on Blue Chips, a story about corruption in college basketball, starring a college coach who stubbornly insists on following the rules about recruiting athletes, and thus never attracts elite talent. Worn down by losing, he makes a Faustian bargain with the school's alumni something-or-other (read: evil white guy in a suit), who gives him a shitload of money to get the three best freshmen in the country to play on his team. The coach does it, gets his players, they kick ass left and right, but his conscience gets the better of him and he blows the whistle on himself and everyone more or less lives happily ever after except the evil white guy.

It's a fairly run-of-the-mill Hollywood plot, but Friedkin films the basketball scenes well, and cast the picture very well. He got a (relatively) sober Nick Nolte to play the coach, which he does well. Mary McDonnell is her usual awesome self as his kinda sorta off and on love interest, and the late, great J.T. Walsh is outfuckingstanding as the evil-white-guy-in-a-suit alumni plutocrat asshole. The most memorable performances in the picture, though, come from the non-actors, among whom is the above mentioned Shaq.

He's not the only one, though. When Nick Nolte goes shopping for stud players, one of whom is a gigantic 7-footer from the sticks in Louisiana (Shaq), who while an utterly unstoppable player could not give less of a fuck about studying if textbooks were on fire. He's flanked by two other star players, each of whom provides insight into ways in which the system of college athletics is hopelessly corrupt. There's also Butch (Shaq's at-the-time real-life teammate Penny Hardaway), the kind of black athlete about whom white sportswriters say all kinds of condescending, unintentionally racist shit like “he's so clean-cut” and “well-spoken,” who got like a 1400 on his SATs, but whose mother realizes she can profit greatly from her superstar son—whose game, modeled after Hardaway's real-life outlier 6'7” point guard, is the kind that gives scouts orgasms—and gets every dime she can out of the colleges competing for her son's talents. And finally, most insidiously, there's a white player (Matt Nover) who realizes full well the degree to which media and fans overrate white players to the point of myth, and who intends to use that bargaining chip, much like Butch's mom, to get every last bit he can from the recruiters.

Bob Cousy plays Nick Nolte's athletic director, and in one memorable scene shot in one continuous take, manages to skillfully play a “things ain't like the old days” scene with Nick Nolte while hitting a couple dozens free throws in a row in an empty gym (this is thirty years after he retired from the game, no less). A few other basketball people show up as themselves: Larry Bird, the legend himself, shows up for a cameo facilitating the introduction between Nick Nolte and Matt Nover. And in a funny running gag, several real college coaches (Jim Boeheim, Jerry Tarkanian, and Rick Pitino all of whom got accused of and/or popped for real-life recruiting violations at one time or other, too, which is awesome) play themselves, traveling in a pack one step behind Nick Nolte as he lands his players with J.T. Walsh's filthy lucre.

The above-mentioned performances are all quite good. The one that really stands out, as mentioned earlier, is Shaq's, because Shaq cannot but stand out anywhere he goes. He's a hair under 7'2”, considerably more than 300 pounds, very dark-skinned, and possessed of a smile that lights and warms the earth like the sun. Especially when he was young, before he put on a bit too much weight and got injured too many times, Shaq was one of the most physically astonishing athletes ever seen. Where many extremely tall people are slower or not as well-coordinated as “normal” sized people, Shaq (as many basketball writers observed) was like you put a “normal” person in an enlarger and set it to 1.5. He was not only bigger than everyfuckingbody in the universe, at the time Blue Chips was filmed, he was also faster. Friedkin's camera captures Shaq performing some truly stunning physical feats, and without trying too hard either: just by existing, he inspired facial expressions like in Jurassic Park when Sam Neill and Laura Dern first see the dinosaurs.


All this would be “so what/who gives a fuck” kind of like the taller, funnier-looking, nowhere near as talented Gheorghe Muresan in the crap Billy Crystal picture My Giant, if Shaq wasn't such a gifted performer. The phrase “like a kid” is often used in a patronizing way, but it fits Shaq in Blue Chips quite well. His apparent guilelessness, ready smile, well-developed sense of fun, and underdeveloped sense of giving a flying fuck about anything serious all fit this description. Kept hidden, except when called for, is his intelligence. There's a bit of business early on in the movie about how Shaq needs to get a certain minimum grade on his SAT in order to be allowed to play on the team. Shaq initially protests, maintaining—not without basis—that shit like SATs and IQ tests are racially biased (Shaq's character makes the point quite incisively and cogently), but Mary McDonnell, hired by Nick Nolte to tutor him, hits on a system of incentives for correct answers. With something in it for him, Shaq starts giving a fuck and just barely squeaks his passing grade. This whole business escapes that loathsome “white person helping out the poor unfortunate blacks” bullshit through the fact that Shaq's near Mallarmé-an absence of giving a fuck drives her nuts to the point when he gets his result, she's proud of him but also partly like, “Jesus Christ, Sisyphus is a fucking pussy compared to getting this motherfucker to give a fuck.” (Ed. Note: verbatim quote from Mary McDonnell's inner monologue, surprisingly).

Of course, Shaq truly comes alive in the basketball scenes. Penny Hardaway was pretty damn great back then, too (though largely forgotten now, for a few years Penny Hardaway was the most elegantly efficient basketball player in the world) but it's hard to compete with the giant tear-assing around the court like the camera's undercranked, destroying worlds with the smallest of motions, laying waste to cities, hearing the lamentation of the enemy's women. Blue Chips arguably owes its entire existence to these scenes, capitalizing as they did on two of the game's bright young stars (Penny but especially Shaq) doing what they did better than just about everybody in the world at that time. Blue Chips' continued relevance as a movie, if any, will likely rely heavily on its being a document of “holy shit, remember when Shaq was young?”

Really, this post was just an excuse to write about Shaq, and salute the big fella upon his retirement. It is very hard, unless you're one of his ex-wives or Kobe Bryant, to look at Shaq and not just smile. Shaq brings the light. But I'm not entirely talking out the side of my ass about Shaq's acting ability: the fucking guy made a late-period Billy Friedkin movie watchable. That's an impressive feat of, at the very least, charisma. And that warrants a salute on a movie blog. Peace, Shaq. Thanks for the memories, dude.