Archive for the ‘movies’ Category

Oh also, check out my kickstarter!

July 27, 2012

I am not sure how, but WordPress stats show that this blog still gets like 50 hits every day! There was one post that was featured in the “City Room” section of the New York Times website years ago, so maybe that accounts for it. In any case, maybe some of you random folks out there would care to take a look at my kickstarter project and donate a couple bucks. Thanks!


Postmodern Basterds

February 7, 2010

I’ve seen appallingly few of the 2009 Oscar nominees, but I did manage to catch Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds yesterday. QT has been called a “postmodern” director because he loves parody, he loves to re-imagine the film genres with which he youthfully and nerd-ily fell in love — the samurai movie, the exploitation movie, the heist film — and to amplify their characteristic cheese into slick, Tarantino brand meta-films.

What’s interesting about Inglorious Basterds is that, although it was (sort of) billed as a revisionist historical film, it’s actually QT applying his formula to Hollywood’s WWII genre films of the 40’s and 50’s — which were themselves pure propaganda. So you end up with Brad Pitt doing a John Wayne impression for two hours; one film icon impersonating another.

On a related note, Essayist Lee Sandlin wrote a brilliant piece exploring, among other things, the disconnect between the historical reality of WWII and the American popular perception of it:

Out of idle curiosity, I’ve been asking friends, people my age and younger, what they know about war — war stories they’ve heard from their families, facts they’ve learned in school, stray images that might have stuck with them from old TV documentaries. I wasn’t interested in fine points of strategy, but the key events, the biggest moments, the things people at the time had thought would live on as long as there was anybody around to remember the past. To give everybody a big enough target I asked about World War II.

I figured people had to know the basics — World War II isn’t exactly easy to miss. It was the largest war ever fought, the largest single event in history. Other than the black death of the Middle Ages, it’s the worst thing we know of that has ever happened to the human race. Its aftereffects surround us in countless intertwining ways: all sorts of technological commonplaces, from computers to radar to nuclear power, date back to some secret World War II military project or another; the most efficient military systems became the model for the bureaucratic structures of postwar white-collar corporations; even the current landscape of America owes its existence to the war, since the fantastic profusion of suburban development that began in the late 1940s was essentially underwritten by the federal government as one vast World War II veterans’ benefit. (Before the war there were 3 suburban shopping centers in the U.S.; ten years after it ended there were 3,000.)

Then too, World War II has been a dominant force in the American popular imagination. In the mid-1960s, when my own consumption of pop culture was at its peak, the war was the only thing my friends and I thought about. We devoured World War II comic books like Sgt. Fury and Sgt. Rock; we watched World War II TV shows like Hogan’s Heroes and The Rat Patrol; our rooms overflowed with World War II hobby kits, with half-assembled, glue-encrusted panzers and Spitfires and Zeroes. I think I had the world’s largest collection of torn and mangled World War II decal insignia. We all had toy boxes stuffed with World War II armaments — with toy pistols and molded plastic rifles and alarmingly realistic rubber hand grenades. We refought World War II battles daily and went out on our campaigns so overloaded with gear we looked like ferocious porcupines. Decades after it was over the war was still expanding and dissipating in our minds, like the vapor trails of an immense explosion.

(Read through the Sandlin piece if you have time, or you can listen to an excerpt in episode 195 of This American Life)

Bad or Amazing?

October 12, 2009

I am somewhat under the gun work-wise so I don’t have too much time to elaborate on this, but I just have to get this off my chest.

I’m often preoccupied with the mysterious line between bad and amazing in media. Sometimes a movie or show is so bad that it can be viewed as absurd, a (conscious or unconscious) self parody, which makes it amazing…like Breakin’ and its magnificent sequel Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo or, say, any work featuring C. Thomas Howell.

Then you have movies or shows that are so bad that they really are painful to watch, like the movies reviewed by Something Awful. (Did you know that the film Nukie holds the coveted title ‘Worst Movie Ever’? As far as I know, it is the only film ever to receive an actual rating of -50)

But here are two shows that, unfortunately, I have seen the commercials for, that I *really* am having a hard time with. Not having had the opportunity to actually see them, I don’t know how to evaluate them. Bad or amazing? Surely, by now, with the amount of time I’ve invested watching low brow media, I should be able to tell!

Here are the sources of my anguish:

Steven Segal: Lawman is a real show, firstly, in case you were wondering. Is it gonna be sweet? or terrible? There really is no way to tell.

And then comes Celebrity Ghost Stories This could be amazing! or it could be nauseating. I have no idea which, and this makes me sad. That is all.

A few words about Star Trek

May 27, 2009

I hesitate to cast myself as a truly hard core Trek fan, because of the negative connotations surrounding convention goers and the like, but I have in fact been a devotee since I can remember. (I have a super retro poster signed by Roddenberry himself.) What with the recent arrival of JJ Abrams’ revamped prequel, I’m positively bubbling with enthusiasm for all things Trek.

BUT unfortunately for whoever reads this, the liberal arts student in me wants to to apply some (totally unoriginal) cultural criticism to the subject. Here we go:

The world envisioned by Star Trek is the ultimate goal of the Enlightenment project, it’s the “positive” end of logical positivism, it’s the future triumph of science, technology, and rationalism. Egalitarianism has been enshrined, money (for the most part) no longer exists, nor does poverty. In Marx’s terms, humanity is no longer shackled to the means of production hence social class disappears. Meanwhile the military, such as it exists, pursues an altruistic mission of peace and understanding.

Mark Twain, who appears on a *great* two part episode of The Next Generation, raises the classic post-colonial objection: “I know what you say, that this is a vessel of exploration, and that your mission is to discover new worlds. That’s what the Spanish said… and the Dutch, and the Portuguese…” And (to jump the gun) that’s what we’re meant to believe about contemporary US foreign policy. Like the US, Starfleet is supposed to be the benevolent peacekeeper of the universe (though each starship is armed to the teeth) and Starfleet values egalitarianism and diversity (though of course it operates according to a strict hierarchy and values conformity among its agents)

Another contradiction: Starfleet crew are meant to uphold cultural relativism via the prime “non-interference” directive. They aren’t meant to interfere with other cultures or intercede in their development. But during pretty much every episode (especially of the original series) the crew steps in to set things right and teach the aliens a thing or two about correct values. As scholar Valerie Fulton has pointed out, Starfleet’s multiculturalism has clear boundaries, since the Federation only really tolerates cultures that have internalized their vision of modernity. The Klingons, Romulans, and Vulcans are suspect — Worf, Spock, Data, and the other non-human crew members are always being put in moral dilemmas in which they must prove themselves loyal to Starfleet and its values.
Similarly, as countless ethnic studies scholars have argued, the “melting pot” welcomes immigrants, but only if they subordinate their own values to those of white middle class culture.

As Katey Rich points out, “Everyone knows that sci-fi and fantasy operate as metaphors for our current world.” Accordingly Trek writers have invented ways to address our own social anxieties within the metaphor that is Star Trek — primarily by re-asserting the Federation (the idealized US) as the best social system in the galaxy. Those episodes of the original series that can be said to be about anything other than crappy stunts were about mind control, watered down expressions of 60’s paranoia. Trek IV is about environmentalism (sorta), Trek VI is about the Cold War, The Borg represent our fear of corporate sponsored techno-media induced conformity, the Kardassian/Bajoran dispute elaborated in DS9 is a thinly veiled allegory for the Israeli Palestinian conflict, etc. The latest installment in the franchise features a fanatic villain (clearly marked as “other” by his speech patterns, tattoos and whatnot) remnant of a fallen empire, driven to terrorism by his mad desire for a return to an arkane social order. Sound familiar? (He is actually something akin to the famous Kahn, whose acquisition of the Genesis device in Trek II perhaps expressed latent fear about the dangers of nuclear proliferation)

It is hardly a spoiler to reveal that the the new Trek movie re-invents the original Trek using a time travel trope, setting it up to become the infinite sci-fi franchise. (It’s only potential rival in this regard, the now discredited Star Wars)

I have officially spent too much time writing this, but I will conclude by quoting
a recent conversation with my friend Tracy: “what with time travel and alternate realities, each new generation can rewrite the star trek narrative to express the aspirations and insecurities of its times …forever. It can be a permanent cultural form.” Yes! Trek has proved very flexible to adaptation, partly because it is just cool and partly because it reinforces the fantasy of benevolent colonialism and justified violence, ideals which carry over neatly from the largest American mass media cultural form, the Western.

As Mr. Spock would say, “Fascinating.”

Ask Why

September 29, 2008

If you never saw (or read) “Enron: The Smartest Guys in The Room”, you should check it out.
As of this writing it is posted on youtube — albeit lo-res, parsed into 11 segments and featuring Spanish subtitles (which I kind of enjoy…)

Since you may not have the time to watch the whole thing, I’ll go ahead and embed the last segment:

The energy firm’s spectacular failure, propped up as it had been by elaborate (and borderline hilarious) financial deception and boundless corporate greed, is looking pretty familiar these days. I bet the government reaction to the Enron crisis — essentially to frown but do nothing of consequence — will recur this time around. Why? Why do people invest in the first place?

Well inflation is pretty much always on the rise, so your money is always worth less than it was the last time you looked. So you must invest in something or you’ll be losing money. Since you have to invest, but you don’t necessarily want to be a captain of industry yourself, you might as well put your finger in corporate stocks, bonds, market indexes, funds, etc. This is because corporations, and the financial instruments that exist on their behalf, represent large amounts of capital by way of lots of different stockholders who are not liable to know or care where that money comes from. So you minimize risk *and* responsibility! You get easy money (or at least you beat inflation) and corporations get the equity they need. It’s win-win! Investors in and executives at Enron were just doing what the system was designed for them to do!

But why is inflation always on the rise? Why is the global economy always growing? Why is there no limit to its growth? Why does the drive for profit trump every other value? Why can’t we just industrialize the whole world, produce and sell more and more stuff? Why can’t we make money forever? Why can’t every generation be richer than the last, with an endless bounty of natural resources and happy, faceless laborers?

Beyond Good and Evil: The Postmodern Batman

September 12, 2008

OK check it out:

Czech author Misha Glenny recently wrote a book concerning the globalization of organized crime entitled McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld. She maintains that, “criminal corporations aspire to penetrate markets the world over, mirroring the global goals of legal entities such as McDonald’s.” Just how would they do that?

When the Kremlin fell Russia became, in Glenny’s words, “a chaotic scramble for riches and survival that saw virtually every citizen sucked into a vortex of violence.” Apparently crime became a very profitable enterprise for a new class of capitalists just coming into their own. The shadow market, in everything from narcotics and weapons to cigarettes and sex workers, saw tremendous growth. The resulting explosion of capital, “traveled well beyond the Soviet Union’s borders into all continents of the world as money poured out of the country, looking for safe havens, some legal but most decidedly dodgy. Throbbing at the heart of these extraordinary events was Moscow.”

Because of continuing financial liberalization, it was fairly easy for the international mafia to mix its profits with legitimate capital. Indeed, “according to figures culled from the IMF, the World Bank, and research institutes in Europe and North America,” Glenny says, the worldwide shadow economy — including tax dodges, black market trading and other criminal activity — “now accounts for between 15 and 20 percent of global turnover.”

Glenny admonishes: “If we fail to construct an adequate regulatory mechanism — that is, some form of global governance — then organized crime and corruption will combine with protectionism and chauvinism to engender a very unstable and very dangerous world.”

Ah ha! This is an excellent example of the dark side of globalization — an undesirable global phenomenon which eludes regulation under current law.  Glenny suggests that to combat this, we need some kind of global governance which represents the interests and cooperation of every country.  We all know this is a pipe dream.

But what if there was some kind of mysterious, totally independent actor with practically unlimited resources, not sponsored by or accountable to any organization? What if it acted only according to its own version of vigilante justice, unrestrained by “slave morality” or state-sponsored doctrine? Wouldn’t we all be better off?

I’m speaking, of course, about Batman.

If you haven’t seen The Dark Knight yet, I’m loathe to point out that there are spoilers ahead — I’d argue that at this late date, you should be expecting them. So this is what I mean: the mob in The Dark Knight can transfer capital across state borders effortlessly. Meanwhile, local law enforcement, restricted by the geographical limitations of state power, can do nothing. Bruce Wayne, the ultimate ad-venture capitalist, must sweep in to the rescue!

Batman Begins has Bruce Wayne return to Gotham City to discover his company in the hands of petty bureaucrats who, no doubt adapting to changes in global demand, are now using Wayne capital to manufacture and sell heavy weapons. (Iron Man Tony Stark’s revelation, that his company’s weapons have fallen into the hands of terrorists, is an interesting parallel here.) At the end of the movie, Wayne uses financial trickery to buy the company back on the open market and puts in his friend Fox as CEO — thus he has won back his control from the suits, who remained for the most part nameless and spineless throughout the film.

In Dark Knight, which picks up more or less where BB left off, we see Wayne using his new found corporate clout to case a corrupt Chinese company, in a way that government agencies would never be able to do. (Indeed, unless there was some kind of strategic or profitable reason to probe into the machinations of Chinese companies, the state wouldn’t *want* to do so) But Bruce Wayne and Batman both operate well outside of the traditional justice system — as well as the predictable motives of the self-interested corporate/state apparatus.

Unable to predict (and hence control) Batman, the mob establishment hires The Joker to murder him — unaware that Joker is also a totally independent actor and will not respect the unwritten code of mob activity.  What is this code? Enthusiasts will remember that Hermine Falcone, the mob boss from the first installment, reveals its essence: Power.  In his off-the-cuff retort to the naive Bruce Wayne, Falcone insists that the criminal underbelly thrives on “power that you can’t buy” i.e. the power of fear.

It’s worth noting that this sort of power is the estranged cousin of that which the state relies upon — the power of “moral legitimacy.” The Joker is immune to fear, hence he cannot be controlled by his mob cohorts. Batman does not accord moral legitimacy to anyone except himself, hence he cannot be controlled by his police cohorts.  Batman’s goal is justice; the Joker’s is anarchy — yet neither one of these goals can be fit completely within a prescribed category of “good” or “evil”.  The comparison to Neitszche’s ubermench is irresistible.

Actually, if I *really* want to indulge in quasi-academic metaphors, which appears to be one of the primary purposes of this blog anyway, then I’ll go ahead and say thatThe Dark Knight is the first superhero film that uses realpolitik to tell the story. That’s what cool about it.
The Batman Begins screenplay foresees this approach because the Nolan brothers successfully created an atmosphere of paranoia in that film — no one can be trusted. But there remained the implication that Batman, with his “good” violence, Bruce Wayne with his “good” capitalism, Rachel with her “good” maneuvering the justice system, and Gordon with his “good” law enforcement, could triumph over rampant crime and corruption. The Dark Knight poses a strong challenge to this idea (epitomized by the brutal transformation of Harvey Dent.)

My general point about the Batman Begins/The Dark Knight movies is that, going way beyond what any previous super hero franchise has done, it portrays a Good vs. Evil, Cold War-esque system that then becomes totally unstable with disastrous consequences. This situation makes one question what morality is in the first place — I think Alfred’s comment about burning down the jungle to catch a thief, certainly a veiled Vietnam reference, is very telling in this regard. Now in the first part of this post, I wanted to relate the movie to the apparent “globalization” of mob activity for several reasons: it’s a phenomenon which sprang up after the Cold War, it doesn’t get a lot of publicity, and it goes along with the film’s re-imagining of Batman’s traditional crime fighting purview. It appears also to require Bruce Wayne’s newer tools, drawn from the playbook of global capitalism, i.e. corporate espionage. Evidently Batman, and the role that he plays in the Gotham universe, has changed a lot.

Consider the fact, which Bill first pointed out to me, that The Dark Knight is the first truly “post 9/11” superhero movie. Not only does it deal with radical terrorism, forcing Batman to create an ingenious and very intrusive surveillance system in order to catch The Joker, but also it forces Batman to face the grim consequences of the “escalation” process that Gordon outlines at the end of BB. (“We buy kevlar, they buy armor piercing rounds…etc.”) The assumption on the part of the United States that they enjoyed unquestioned dominance of world affairs — hence could ignore the consequences of arming the mujahideen in Afghanistan, among other inflammatory and originally anti-Soviet measures in the Middle East, was smashed on 9/11. (Thus began what Benazir Bhutto calls “World War IV”.)

Yesterday was the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks so I’m not saying anything lighthearted here. What I am saying is that The Dark Knight, in all of its extreme darkness, approximates the way the world is today. This is why, even beset as it is with clunky dialogue from time to time and the tragic lack of Katie Holmes throughout, it is a *great movie*.


Politics and Rashomon

June 22, 2008

By now you all probably know that Obama pulled out of public campaign financing:

Stories are enormously important and so far I’ve heard two stories about this.

Story 1: Obama, seeing a strategic opportunity to humiliate his opponent and raise unparalleled dollar$, which he claims he will need to survive the blistering attacks which destroyed Gore and Kerry, renounces public funding.

Story 2: Obama, seeing a way to break with politics as usual and enliven his populist grassroots support, renounces public financing.

I say there are elements of the truth, of what “really happened”, in both stories. Obama has thus far proved to be extremely good at managing his image, and he’s done well with this potentially volatile campaign finance thing. NYTimes columnist David Brooks wrote very astutely that the Obama video, “made a cut-throat political calculation seem like Mother Theresa’s final steps to sainthood.”

Now the role of the political press, no less than the candidates themselves, is to fit complex issues into easily digestible narratives. The genre of these narratives usually varies along with the medium — compare talk radio political analysis with op-ed pages and you’ll see vastly different storytelling strategies at work. But the goal is always the same: tell a story that people will understand and believe.

Brooks likens BHO to a split personality sociopath, which is much more common as a Hollywood trope than as a real psychological condition. It was immortalized in Robert Louis Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and later found many more incarnations in Hollywood film.

Now this whole good/evil split personality thing may be a good way to tell a gripping story, but it is way too simplistic to encapsulate this kind of politics. If, like Brooks, I wanted to use what is essentially a cinematic metaphor to explain the situation, I’d turn to Rashomon, the classic Kurosawa film in which a murder is retold from different perspectives and nobody can figure out what really happened.

Both Story 1 and Story 2, if repeated enough times, will become the truth. As the Commoner points out in Rashomon, “we all want to forget something, so we tell stories. It’s easier that way.”

I’m no Kurosawa scholar, but I can point to a few facts: Japanese movies of the 1950’s tended to attack more difficult topics, using more puzzling and engrossing storytelling techniques than their Hollywood contemporaries. Plus Japan in 1950 was still reeling from the insanity of WWII. Appropriately, then, most all of Kurosawa’s films from this period blur the boundaries between truth and fiction, dwelling instead on how it’s really impossible to get to the root of things, on how human existence is ultimately futile.

Rashomon is set in 12th century feudal Japan, the classic Samurai movie setting, a time when the island was divided into many warlord states with complex inter-related power relationships. You can’t trust anyone, samurai have all sworn loyalty to their masters and yet everyone has a price, real power is largely hidden. Today’s political landscape is a lot like this!

Obama calls the public financing system “broken”, which the NYtimes editorial says is “only half true.” He calls his system of getting funding “public” even though its made up of private donations. But the “public” system which is in place allows for donations from corporate interests and so-called 527 “shadow groups,” so how can it be considered “public”? Who knows what the “real” story is?

The Brooks article definitely called my attention to the fact that by refusing to play by the rules, Obama has outed himself as a political trickster. But then that’s a good thing! (especially if you’re trying to survive in feudal Japan.) Like I said, he has shown an amazing capacity for managing his image so far. So it’s encouraging that unlike Gore or Kerry, Obama may be able to weave a compelling counter-narrative for himself when the general election rolls around and the smear ads really start to fly.

ALIENS PREDATOR TERMINATOR (Stan Winston dead at 62)

June 17, 2008

As a kid I spent hours watching and re-watching a VHS tape crammed with 6+ hours of classic 80’s action fare; labeled “ALIENS PREDATOR TERMINATOR” in my step dad’s stark handwriting, this amusingly lo-fidelity tape was a relic of his days as a bachelor, and a staple of my own development as a hopeless movie nerd.

At the end of Aliens, as the eerie Goldsmith theme plays and the credits start to roll, I would be *just* about to turn off the TV (perhaps to go play outside or read a book) — when suddenly Predator is on! That movie rocks! Gotta watch.

Alright, alright. The Predator has blown himself up with a final gesture of extraterrestrial bravado, Arnold is scratched up and dusty but otherwise miraculously unscathed by the explosion and sitting safely in his evac chopper, and all is well in the jungle.  Time to get up, stretch out, maybe get a glass of water. Then BAM! It’s Brad Fiedel’s Terminator theme, with its military rhythm and beautifully simple 80’s-tastic synth melody, and I’m right back in.  Yeah dude! The Terminator!

I don’t care to reveal how much of my early adolescence was spent in this fashion.

One time (in the days before IMDB) I tried to think of some of the different intersections that those three classic movies share:

James Cameron directed two of them.

Lance Henricksen featured prominently in two of them.

Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in two of them.

Michael Bien starred in two of them.

Bill Paxton had roles in two of them.

And Stan Winston did the visual effects for all three of them!! Unbelievable.

On the one hand, this means that I can’t think of any one person more responsible for gluing me to the television and wasting my precious youth (except for my step dad of course!)

On the other hand, Winston’s contribution to special effects in the movies we all love is unparalleled. Like Syd Mead, he is an  unsung hero of mis en scene, especially in sci-fi films that would fall flat without that element of sheer, eye-popping spectacle.  What an amazing body of work, what a brilliant mind, what an untimely death.

I want to send my sincere condolences to his family and friends.

Citizen Guy (The Motion Picture Event of the Century)

May 12, 2008

(southern drawl)…Rosebuuuud…

[Empty 40 oz bottle of Miller Hi Life drops from the dead man’s hand and shatters, dramatically]

In Xanadu did Larry the Cable Guy / a stately pleasure dome decree

Citizen Guy


The increasing popularity of redneck parody comedian Larry the Cable Guy has led producers at Fox to give the green light to his longtime pet project, a shot-for-shot remake of Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane. Apparently the Cable Guy will play a pathological cable television baron whose entrepreneurial drive and search for acceptance stems from profound loneliness. Details of the pre-production schedule can be found on the comedian’s blog. Responding to questions from the press about his plans to shoot this controversial film, Mr. Guy has been quoted as saying “GIT-R-DONE!!!”

A Note to Leonardo DiCaprio + Green Movies

May 2, 2008

Look man, I really don’t want to turn my blog into a soapbox for environmentalism.  So get out of my head!

To those of you who haven’t seen the film The Eleventh Hour, narrated sparsely by Leo himself, it is without a doubt the most complete expression of the current social and environmental crisis, the most urgent call for radical change, and the most engaging portrayal of possible solutions that exists in contemporary cinema. I cannot urge you enough to see it as soon as possible.

See it!

That having been said, here’s a list of other movies you could check out if, like me, you enjoy movies and you want to learn more:

Mindwalk — The dad from Home Alone and the lawyer from Law and Order have a long, stimulating philosophical discussion about the flaws of Cartesian thought and the application of ecological systems theory, set against the background of the surreal Mont St. Michel.

An Inconvenient Truth — (Vice) President Al Gore provides probably the best, and certainly the most famous Powerpoint presentation ever.

The Corporation — Canadian filmmakers dissect and diagnose the corporation, the dominant form of power in our world. Since it is legally a person, thanks to a history of deliberately misleading 19th century Supreme Court rulings, the corporation is subjected to standard psychological batteries with unsettling results. (check it out on youtube)

Life and Debt – Globalization and Jamaica — A fascinating look at 21st century Jamaica, caught in impossible post-colonial relations of power, called “globalization”, due to exploitative Western economic policies. (check it out on google video)

Crude Awakening: The Peak Oil Crisis — This is the best movie I’ve seen about the history and future of oil based living. It is pretty grim folks.

Manufacturing Consent — Half Noam Chomsky biopic, half documentary about the mainstream media’s coverage of East Timor, those same Canadian filmmakers outline the famous linguist’s stark views of the way the corporate media operates in the American Empire.

A Convenient Truth: Urban Solutions from Curitiba, Brazil — Local solutions to problems of scale in a mid-size Brazilian city. Shitty production values, cool story. A city governance faced with huge problems and no budget worked out ways to fix multiple environmental and public health problems systematically and simultaneously, and made money in the process.

My Dinner with AndreTwo actors play themselves (kinda) and discuss the art of living.

Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control — Erroll Morris’ bizarre and brilliant profile of several eccentrics; this movie expresses interconnectedness through cinematography. Mind blowing.