Friday, July 31, 2009


There's this show called Eastbound & Down. It amuses me. I wrote an article about it for Moving Image Source. You can choose to read it or not. I'm just putting it out there.

I also wrote a review of Funny People (for The Rumpus), another cultural product that tickled my particular fancy.

I've made a promise to myself to write a dissenting view of The Hurt Locker this weekend. I'm only putting it here to force me to write it. Otherwise I'd just watch baseball and massage my belly. So this paragraph is important.

Is everyone starting to compile their best-of-decade lists? Well, you should. Just expect a Tativille and Termite Art free-for-all that will have Termite Artisan Matt and Tati-villain Michael J. Anderson sniping at each other for a week or two (at least: catch their fabulous back and forth on Michael Mann here). I will calmly sit on the outside and contemplate how high Anchorman should be on the list. Something to look forward to.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Briefly: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

The character in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen that best exemplifies the movie itself is Devastator: an enormous monster, clumsily assembled from half a dozen disparate parts that's only good at lumbering around and striking badass poses. T:RotF is an action movie, a war movie, an alien invasion movie, a cartoon, a sex comedy, a moving Maxim pictorial, but it's not particularly effective as any of them. Mostly it just sits up there on the screen, looking like a million bucks (or maybe a couple hundred million bucks) but sounding like shit. That's because Michael Bay clearly doesn't care about anything except his low-angle, slo-mo, hyperstylish visuals; if he did, he probably would have addressed how characters walk out of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. into an airplane graveyard somewhere in the Mountain West. Someday, scholars will someday study the film for its representation of America's early 21st century sexual and military power fantasies. For now, it is a lifeless husk of a blockbuster, loud, flashy, and utterly robotic.

(Suggested Transformers 2 drinking game: take a sip anytime one character screams another character's name at the top of his or her lungs.)

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Briefly: Not Quite Hollywood (2009)

If, as Quentin Tarantino believes, the real core of exploitation cinema is found in images so crazy you cannot believe your eyes, then the new film about the history of Australian exploitation “Not Quite Hollywood” not only documents its subject, it embodies it as well. For 100 lightning-paced minutes, director Mark Hartley takes you inside the era of “Ozsploitation,” when restrictive censorship laws were lifted and the first true Australian film industry -- and a slew of nudie, horror, and action pictures -- were born. Hartley's approach is in the great exploitation tradition, with lots of flashy editing and plenty of titillation. The result, by design, is light on serious critical or cultural analysis and heavy on batshit insane film clips (like the one where George Lazenby engages in a karate fight while his back is completely covered in flames), cheeky interviews (one is conducted in a working strip club) and hilarious on-set anecdotes (the one about the girl with the machete and the director yelling “Cut!” is worth the price of admission all by itself). It's not the most comprehensive history lesson, but it is a highly entertaining one, and the final product is bawdy, vulgar, and thrilling enough to make its subjects proud. And if you're a fan of genre cinema, you're guaranteed to find plenty of fodder for your Netflix queue.

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

YouTube Art: Sylvester Stallone: DRINKENSTEIN

This clip is also posted on YouTube under the alternate title "The Moment Sylvester Stallone Decided to Fire His Agent."

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Brüno (2009)

Prank comedians are their own worst enemies. For traditional movie comedians, success opens doors: access to greater budgets, less studio meddling, finer actors to select a cast from. But a prank comedian lives and dies by his anonymity and, in Baron Cohen's particular case, his ability to convince ordinary people to let their guard down and reveal their innate prejudices and idiocies. His Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan grossed over $125 million dollars in the United States, in one fell swoop turning its title character into a household name and destroying his viability as a social commentator and trickster.

Which is to say it must not have been easy for Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles to make another movie after Borat. Their follow-up film, Brüno, certainly doesn't look like it was easy to make. Hell, at times it looks down right hazardous. How hazardous? Put it this way: the scene where Baron Cohen suggests to an apparently legitimate terrorist that Osama bin Laden should shave his beard because he looks like a "dirty wizard" is only the third most dangerous situation the actor puts himself in in service of his art. There's one moment where I wagered "Brüno" stood a damn good chance of getting shot in the woods, and another where an unruly, drunken mob nearly takes his head off with a chair. As a provocateur, Baron Cohen is beyond fearless.

Yet as a filmmaker, he's surprisingly timid. The narrative of Brüno is little more than a Mad Lib of Borat with the new lead character's name inserted into all the Proper Noun blanks and "homophobia" in exchange for "anti-Semitism." In both films, Baron Cohen's bumbling, nudity-prone protagonist journeys across America with a dimwitted assistant, crossing paths with low-level celebrities and ignorant Southerners. Whatever differences existed between the Brüno and Borat characters from their shared tenure on television's Da Ali G Show have basically vanished, right down to Brüno's mockery of the cruelty and stupidity of the fashion world, all of which is essentially scuttled after a terrific early setpiece where Brüno, wearing a suit made entirely out of Velcro, causes havoc at a Milan runway show.

Instead, the film becomes a vehicle for an exploration of modern American attitudes toward homosexuality, both onscreen and off. Some find Baron Cohen's characterization of Brüno offensive; in an article on Salon, David Rakoff calls him "a gay minstrel." After opening his review by calling Brüno "one of the worst films of the year," At the Movies' Ben Mankiewicz said "He's demonstrating these people's homophobia but in the process he's behaving in the exact way these people think about gay men." Isn't that the point? All of Baron Cohen's characters are outlandish stereotypes deployed to expose American ignorance and prejudice. Where was all this outrage when the (glorious) nation of Kazakhstan took umbrage at Baron Cohen's less-than-positive depiction of their populace? From my perspective, the best stuff in Brüno is the material about homophobia. The first half is uneven; mostly uninspired satires of celebrity culture, like a disappointing sequence where the character plays an extra on a TV courtroom drama and another featuring an almost certainly staged encounter with Paula Abdul. The closest the film gets to achieving the old Ali G Show magic are the sequences that set the hero loose on gay "converters" or a surprisingly uptight swingers party, and Baron Cohen can skewer their self-righteousness, bigotry, and hypocrisy.

I have no inside knowledge of Brüno's production, but if I had to guess, I'd bet that Baron Cohen and writing partners Anthony Hines, Dan Mazer, Jeff Schaffer, and Peter Baynham schemed up the jokes first and then wrote a narrative around them that could be added in post-production via voiceover (I'd also wager Baron Cohen got recognized a lot more this time around, scuttling some planned skits that had to be replaced with less thematically appropriate material). But Baron Cohen's contemporaries, the Jackass crew, never bothered to gussy up their art for the silver screen by trying to string their gags together with a story. They just threw together they best jokes they could: all killer, no filler style. If Baron Cohen couldn't do more than recycle his last film's story, he would have been wise to follow their lead, a lesson he should have learned after his mostly narrative (and mostly disastrous) first feature, Ali G Indahouse. Instead, Brüno feels like a standard Hollywood sequel — a rehash of the first movie with bigger setpieces and more sex and violence — from an artist we've come to expect unique and original things from. If you want more than that from Brüno, I'm afraid the joke's on you.

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Friday, July 03, 2009

Briefly: Stripes (1981)

Few movies deserve an "Extended Cut" but I can think of few that deserve one less than Stripes, which was already twenty minutes longer than necessary in its original theatrical edition. Rather than expanding the film to a bloated 126 minutes, Sony should have created the first "Abridged Cut": 80 tightened minutes of the best basic training high jinks and Bill Murray improvisations. Thankfully, the DVD does also provide the theatrical cut, which limits the damage caused by Stripes' regrettable fourth act behind enemy lines in Czechoslovakia. Made with the inexplicable logistical support of the U.S. Army, the film up to that point follows two thirtyish goofballs, Murray and Harold Ramis, who join the Army to get their lives in order. The movie wouldn't work at all without Murray as jocose enlistee John Winger, and all of Stripes’ best moments belong to him: an unorthodox seduction scene (he promises a woman “the Aunt Jemima treatment” then prods her with a spatula), a droll-but-impassioned piece of patriotism ("We're American soldiers! We've been kicking ass for 200 years! We're 10 and 1!") and the famous razzle-dazzle drill routine. But the movie should have ended right there. Don’t give us a show-stopping musical number and then refuse to stop the show.

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

NYAFF, Part 3: Breathless

The two highlights of the 2009 New York Asian Film Festival (so far), have been Yang Ik-June's feel-bad domestic violence yarn Breathless (2009) and Lee Kyeong-Mi's obsessive farce Crush and Blush (2008) [more on the latter later]. Both are disturbing psychological freak-outs from South Korea, with the former opting for tragedy, the latter comedy.

Breathless is very nearly a one-man show. Yang Ik-June wrote it, stars in it, and co-directed the film with Lee Hwan. According to the NYAFF programmers, he sold his house and maxed out his credit cards to get this outrageously vulgar film made. It's nothing if not a passion project. The language is what immediately registers (and I can only imagine the difficulties for the translator), a peppery melange of "cunts", "bitches", and "motherfuckers". They're used as punctuations, terms of endearment, and imminent threats. Yang is the primary linguist here as Song-Hoon, a morose shakedown artist working for a fatherly moon-faced loan shark.

Song-Hoon's violence emerges immediately in the opening scene, as he and his team of thugs break up a student protest. His rage is uncontrollable, as he ends up debilitating anything in his way, even his fellow baton-wielding brothers. He is a savage, and early on Yang plays these bestial traits for laughs, pivoting his uncouth attitude around the uncomprehending locals around him. The uneasy tone is established early on, as he saunters down an alleyway, and spits over his shoulder. The spittle lands on a high-school girl, Yeon-Hee (a devilish Kim Gol-Bi), who tuns out to be just as nihilistic as he is. They exchange blows, and a tentative truce is built up for the rest of the film's running time.

As their backstories are filled in (abusive and deceased parents, intense emotional scarring), the tone tints darker and darker. The plot follows a fairly traditional arc, as Sang-Hoon seeks closure for his bereft youth and attempts to master his rage to fit into (however uncomfortably) the wider society. These are beats hit by every rebellious teen film ever made, but Breathless enlivens them with its mordant wit, fearless performances, and the ragged intensity of its HD compositions.

The final screening of Breathless takes place today, July 2nd, at 2PM at the IFC Center.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

NYAFF, Part 2: Tactical Unit: Comrades in Arms (2009)

Law Wing-Cheong has paid his dues at Milkyway Image. Working as an assistant director and editor since 1995, he was the AD on Running Out of Time, The Mission, and PTU, among others. Milkway seems to work on the habits of the old studio system, where one apprenticed in technical positions before rising to the director's chair. Law has gotten his feet wet on a few sequels, with his first gig on Running Out of Time 2, up to his two sequels to PTU: Tactical Unit: The Code (2008, for TV), and Tactical Unit: Comrades in Arms (2009, theatrical). The latter film recently screened at the NYAFF, and was another example of Milkyway's well-oiled genre machinery (also see Tativille's take on their Eye in the Sky).

All the characters from Johnnie To's original return, including Simon Yam's ramrod straight cop Sam, his careerist competitor May (Maggie Siu), and the lazy, demoted curmudgeon, Fat Lo (Milkyway axiom Lam Suet). Sam's unit is competing with May's unit for promotion, and this not-so-friendly rivalry starts the film off on a Keystone Kops vibe. Filmed with slapstick vigor, the two teams chase down a petty thief, down opposite sides of the street, eventually combining into a morass of tangling feet, dangling handcuffs, and bruised morale. May's boys win out, and eventually are bumped upstairs.

The day before the promotions are to take place, though, a major bank heist takes place, and the perps disappear into a forest. Thus the two bickering units are forced to work together to take them down. This is where the main body of the film begins, and Law shows a distinctly light touch in this darkly scripted tale. His deft use of cross-cutting shows the various bumblings of the teams, as they all variously get lost in the bowels of the night, not unlike an old dark house comedy-horror film like The Cat and the Canary (1927).

As funny as it is, Law doesn't skimp on tension, wrapping things up with a tightly choreographed shootout in a quaint rural church. Esssentially it has everything one could desire in a quick and dirty crime film. Definitely worth seeking out, especially if you're a fan of PTU.

There are no more screenings, but it's readily available on HK DVD at the usual vendors (YesAsia, HKFlix, etc.)

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