The Big Short

The Big Short is a film adaptation of the Michael Lewis book of the same name. But in a similar fashion as Dr. Strangelove being a version of the Peter George thriller novel Red Alert, this film is done as a dark comedy, directed by Adam McKay. It’s an oddly-toned film, not a ha-ha funny comedy, but more like a comedy based on the absolute absurdity of the collapsing ponzi scheme of the credit default swap market of the mid/late 00s.

The plot follows a few players: a borderline-autistic hedge fund manager (Michael Burry, played by Christian Bale) who’s got one eye and a Supercuts bowl ‘do, used to be a doctor, blasts thrash metal in his office, and walks around wearing no shoes and the same t-shirt and cargo shorts every day, but is able to zero in on the housing bubble before anybody else. When he calculates that the mortgage industry is going to collapse in about two years, he goes to Morgan Stanley and purchases a fairly new financial instrument which enables him to bet on the collapse of the housing market, which he could do without actually owning any of said market. It’s essentially like taking a fire insurance policy on somebody else’s house. And because the banks thought that metaphorical house was fireproof, they were more than glad to sell him a billion dollars of fire insurance and take his money.

Ryan Gosling plays a trader who hears of this scheme, and accidentally hooks up with a damaged, type-A personality hedge fund manager played by Steve Carell and his ragtag team of misfits. There’s also another team of garage band young investors partnered with a retired banker played by Brad Pitt (whose Plan B produced the film) and gets in on the action.

The movie covers some of the background of the predatory lending market and absurdity of the housing run-up, like mortgage companies handing out loans to people with no income and no jobs (a so-called NINJA loan), but is fairly light on this information. I think the film would have been much more preachy if they spent any time on it (and it already clocks in over two hours) but there’s certainly the case that a different film could cover this human angle much more.

Instead, this film blows through the Manhattan banking side, and at a quick pace. McKay does try to explain this slightly by breaking into celebrity cameos, for example having Anthony Bourdain explain repackaging bad mortgages into investment vehicles by explaining how old halibut is repackaged into fish stew for the Sunday brunch crowd. Even with this, it might be well beyond the ability of an average civilian to grok all the financial background here. I recently read Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia, which was a good high-level introduction to the financial crisis (albeit sensationalized, Taibbi-style. And cognitive bias trigger alert: he skewers Obamacare in the book, calling it a gross giveaway for the insurance industry, which, as much as I love affordable health care, is largely true.) Anyway, without that background, I would have been lost. But with it, the total absurdity of the scenario becomes hilarious.

The other thing I appreciated about the film was the near-past nostalgia aspect of it. The trading aspect starts in Manhattan in 2005, only a few blocks from where I worked at the time, and my company at that time had most of the major players involved as customers. As the timeline of the film advanced, I spent a lot of time in the back of my head calculating where I was or how the events correlated to my own timeline and when I left the city (about halfway through the film.) I also kept an eye on the backgrounds of the street scenes, looking for anachronisms. (License plate colors, guys! And a Ralph’s in Florida?)

Overall, an interesting film. Best picture-worthy? I don’t think so, but it was entertaining without being too preachy, and the absurdity of the black humor made it enjoyable for me.

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Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies

I remember buying a copy of Hated, the Todd Phillips documentary about GG Allin, in 1995. It was right after my last student loan disbursement, and I bought a copy on VHS at Karma Records for some outrageous price, like $40 or $50. Blockbuster didn’t have this one as a rental, and this was way before torrent, so I ponied up full price and bought my own copy. I was with my pal Larry, and we went over to his apartment and watched the tape, hoping for some insane footage of the then-deceased shock rocker.

I remember at the time being somewhat unimpressed by the movie; this was before YouTube, which made the notoriety of characters like Allin much larger. Unless you caught the Geraldo show or traded video tapes with someone who recorded it, the only exposure (no pun intended) to GG’s antics would be third-hand, like the way urban legends used to be spread. That’s where I heard about him — I used to hang out in this bagel shop with this punk guy named John, and in 1992, while he played Hated in the Nation on the store jambox (much to the chagrin of the store patrons) he told me all about this guy who ran around stage naked, beating up fans, shoving the mic up his ass, and cutting himself with bottles.

I remembered the movie as being a bit flat, not capturing this rawness, and being a bit of a let-down. After the first viewing, I almost completely forgot it. It’s something that pops in my head when I fall down a k-hole about GG or old New York, but I haven’t revisited it, until yesterday. I was pleasantly surprised at what a nice little time capsule of the early 90s New York this has become.

Hated was directed and produced by Todd Phillips, who later became an accomplished Hollywood director of such films as Old School and The Hangover. But this is anything but a Hollywood blockbuster. It was filmed when Phillips was a junior at NYU (and employee at Kim’s Video) with a budget of only $12,000. The film looks like a student film, and is even more dated now, in a pleasant way. It resembles 1970s news footage shot on film, then tele-cined to betacam video and back to film again, with old pre-computer titles and washed out lighting.

My first thought on this was that it reminded me of a Nick Broomfield movie, like Kurt and Courtney, which I also saw recently. It had the same feel, with voiceover between segments, establishing the story. Phillips isn’t actually in the film, in the same way Broomfield does the on-camera gonzo interviewing. But I looked it up and there’s a good interview on the Suicide Girls site where Phillips said Broomfield was a huge influence for him to get into documentary.

Another reason I really liked this film was it captured a New York that is now gone, an early-90s lower east side grimy New York. If you consider a generation to be twenty years, New York moves at five times that speed; a mayoral term is four years, and the average restaurant lasts a year. At any given point on Broadway, every business will have turned over in four years. When I arrived in 1999, there had been at least two cycles of this renewal, and there were only small hints of this old world for me. It was like standing in an average city in 2000 and thinking about 1960, like the level of nostalgia Mad Men brought about, any time I would see a speck of graffiti from the era of this film. So I really loved the washed-out views of St. Marks and alphabet city in this.

(Side note: GG’s last show was at a club called the gas station at 2nd and B. Here’s a great article about it, with some film: http://vanishingnewyork.blogspot.com/2015/01/2b.html. The site of this infamous club is now a Duane Reade and high-end condo.)

The film is hilarious, in an unintentionally hilarious way. GG’s brother Mearle and other various hangers-on are over-the-top bizarre, and even though they are being straight-up serious, I could not stop laughing at them. It’s a total Jerry Springer guest type of humor, but the film takes it further by showing the various scatological antics of the crew. It’s not for the squeamish; like there’s a scene where they get a hooker to piss in Allin’s mouth at a barbeque, and he starts puking up beans and franks while she’s squatting over him and urinating on his face. So it’s not exactly family entertainment.

The film in general though made me think more about who the “real” GG Allin was, and if such a persona could survive in today’s always-on media. Phillips has professed that Allin only acted the way he was when he was drunk or high, and that drugs fueled this persona. He claims that when he was sober, he was a calm and rational guy you could hold a conversation with. It seems like in the days of paper news and videotape journalism for only an hour a day, it was easier to ration out his antics, to only go insane and knock teeth out for a rare show, or save the “I am Jesus and the Devil and I will die for rock and roll” speeches for televised court appearances. Could he have kept up the persona in an era of TMZ, 24-hour news cycles, and every passer-by carrying a video-enabled iPhone? Would he have killed himself much sooner? Or would he have become a person like Marilyn Manson, who had a brief tenure as a crazed satanist, then vanished from the limelight and spent years holed up in a mansion with various Hollywood starlets?

I feel like GG was close to his persona, the product of deranged parents and crippling substance abuse issues. But I also think it could have been the ultimate Kauffman-esque ruse. Most people dismiss his music as noise, but sometimes I listen to Hated in the Nation and think this stuff is far too catchy to be written by a completely blotto drug addict on the verge of murder/suicide. And I wonder if total exposure in the media would have cracked the shock-rock image and showed a person behind it.

At any rate, this is worth seeing if you’re interested. I believe this was re-released on DVD with more footage from GG’s funeral, although once you fall down a YouTube k-hole, you’ll see it there, too. (A good starting point is this three-part camcorder video of the riot ensuing after GG’s last performance at the gas station: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3F9yk8X1TAw)

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Ex Machina

Finally saw Ex Machina last night, which I didn’t see in theaters for whatever scheduling reason earlier this year. I liked it quite a bit, for a few reasons. It’s a basic premise: The Island of Doctor Moreau, but robots. Oscar Issac plays a brogrammer CEO of a google/facebook type company, hunkered down in some remote location Lost-type secret bunker to develop an AI robot. Domhnall Gleeson is a nerdy programmer who wins a contest to spend a week at the hidden fortress and run a Turing test on the robot’s AI. Antics ensue, what is intelligence and reality, etc.

The first thing I took away from this is how writer/director Alex Garland uses Issac’s character to depict the trend of uber-genius CEO types in Silicon Valley, and how they all want to become god in some grandiose way, be it creating driverless cars or their own private space program or achieving the singularity. It was an interesting jab at this current industry trend, a nice touch to the typical genius mastermind profile.

The other thing I really liked about the movie was the general feel of this British indie sci-fi genre. The movie it reminded me of in some odd was was 2009’s Moon, not in content, but in the ambience. Both had a modernist desolation, where the technology was futuristic but realistic, and the general mood of the film was enhanced by the director taking the pace slow, with lots of dead space around a muted action that gave the opposite effect of a glossy science fiction future with an artificial sped-up bustle to it.

I really appreciate this school of thought, because I always feel that the future isn’t about this “bustle” — I think there’s an expectation, based on eighties sci-fi or even older Asimov-type books that these super-populated worlds of fifty billion people in deeply-tiered cities will mean a great unity of humanity, that you would always be interacting with other people. But I have a strong feeling that as population grows, people will be more alone, more desolate. It’s the way I felt living in New York; at any given time, I was surrounded by thousands of people, yet I felt far more alone than when I was in the middle of nowhere in the midwest. These films seem to capture this perfectly, that Ballardian loneliness, and I really appreciate that.

The plot of the film itself has the requisite number of twists and flip-flops to keep a viewer interested, and Alicia Vikander is certainly easy on the eyes. But my main takeway from the film was the general feel of it, which I can barely describe, but it makes me greatly appreciative of this type of film, outside of the Hollywood summer tentpole billion-dollar sci-fi mega-blockbuster, which often seems like the only way sci-fi films get made these days.

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The Wolfpack

(I have a half-resolution this year to try to write down something about every movie I watch, which I’ll probably stop doing by mid-January, but it’s only the third, so bear with me.)

The Wolfpack is a documentary about a group of seven kids who were never allowed to leave their New York apartment, and were homeschooled and cloistered by their weird hippy Peruvian father and slightly altered mother (played by Gary Busey.) The kids, unable to see reality, fell into a world of Hollywood films, and spent all their time remaking old classics like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction shot-for-shot, using cardboard props and cheap camcorders. Then the oldest son decides he wants to explore outside the apartment, and the whole thing falls apart, or comes together, I guess.

The situation is an interesting premise, although I didn’t feel there was enough content to fill a 90-minute film. The director, Crystal Moselle, took a more poetic structure to the documentary, instead of being expository, and the more artistic approach didn’t hold my attention, and presented more questions than answers. (How much was their rent? Where did they get money? What happened to everyone after the film? How did they do things like go to the doctor?) Also, the oldest kid, Mukunda, looked enough like Adam Driver that it really bugged me (especially after Star Wars) and I spent the second half of the movie playing Scrabble and making jokes about this. So yeah, I’m the asshole for not paying more attention, but it didn’t fully click with me.

But here’s what did throw me, and made me waste half the movie scouring Google Maps: these kids lived a few blocks from the last place I lived in New York. For those interested, they lived in Seward Park Extension, which is at 65 Norfolk Street. I lived in Seward Park, at a building at Grand and Pitt.

I don’t know the exact history of Seward Park, but they lived in a much more run-down public housing building, whereas we lived in the co-op buildings. (Also weird trivia: one of the guitarists of Guns ’N Roses lived in my building, which would have been a weird mindfuck for these 80s-obsessed kids.) But yeah, while they were locked away on the 16th store of that building, I used to walk past it almost every day on the way to work. Maybe their camcorder footage of the streets below has an image of a dude with coke bottle glasses and a leather jacket, walking to the McDonald’s on Delancey to shove another Quarter Pounder meal into his fat face.

There are the usual allegations of “is this fake” and “was this exploitative” and I don’t care either way. All documentaries are fake now, and they all exploit someone; it’s a carryover from reality TV, and it’s why they largely bore me. As a metafiction nerd, I’m much more into reflexive documentaries, that play with the idea of their constructedness and dance around going meta with it. David Holzman’s Diary is my favorite example of this, although good luck getting anyone to pay attention to a film that bizarre.

This ultimately didn’t blow my skirt up, but I did enjoy the random bit of scenery reminding me of my old home. There’s a brief bit where Mukunda breaks free and goes to the grocery store, and I was thinking “oh my god, that’s the Swine Fair on Clinton Street!” So, interesting, but a bit of a nostalgia trigger, and not much else for me.

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The Martian

I saw Ridley Scott’s The Martian as my final film of 2015, and it encapsulated 2015 in film well for me, because I found it mostly meh.

The basics: a 141-minute Robinsonade about a guy that gets left for dead on Mars; the next mission won’t arrive for four years, antics ensue. It’s based on the 2011 novel of the same name by Andy Weir. The screenplay was written by Drew Goddard with the intention that he’d direct, but then he got the chance to direct Sinister Six, and direction shifted to Scott.

I don’t know if or how this shift in direction colored the final film, but it’s most definitely not a typical Ridley Scott film. It has none of the darkness of Alien or atmosphere of Prometheus. It’s much more of a cheery attempt at wittiness with a dose of ha-ha funny bits by Matt Damon, a typical Hollywood overcoming adversity vehicle with enough light-hearted cheer and a typical plot curve to keep Christmas audiences entertained.

The science aspect of the film was decent. They spent a lot of time working with NASA, trying to get the technology and astrophysics aspects of the story correct, and that seemed to work. (The film passed the Neil deGrasse Tyson test, which seems to be the bar for these sorts of things.) I think I had some minor quibbles on it, like the fact that the film put great plot priority on the shortage of food and water, but the Mars station seemed to have endless air and power. (Yes, solar cells, but if I was stuck there, I’d probably start shutting off interior lights.) And Damon is a perpetually dopy actor for me, and I couldn’t believe he would be a genius botanist academic. He also kept a totally ripped six-pack body while eating a starvation diet of only potatoes for like a year, which seemed unlikely.

I did not like the sanitized, high-design aesthetic of the film’s space stations and mission control interiors. It was way too slick and artificial-looking, like bad CGI from the early 2000s. These were supposed to be ships built by the lowest bidder, hurtled through the stresses and wear of space with people living in them, and they looked as perfect as a European modern art museum, not a single scratch or smudge on them. This was incredibly uncharacteristic of Ridley Scott. I realize Alien was a long time ago, and the intention was different, but look at the two back-to-back and it’s striking.

I also did not care for the overly generic plot. The film basically took the most crowd-pleasing parts of Gravity, Armageddon, and Apollo 13, and threw them in a choose-your-own-adventure story. Taking a film and swapping out this for that like a Lego set might be entertaining to the masses, but it’s ultimately unchallenging and bland. This was the kind of film where I immediately knew the first and second attempts at a task would fail, because the third would be the payoff. I don’t expect huge plot twists and payoffs, but this formulaic writing makes a film have no real repeat value, which was the case here.

The film was ultimately successful at the box office. I’m sure Star Wars stepped on the back end of their campaign. I actually thought the film was still in theaters, and was surprised to see it had already moved to VOD. I’m still used to the old days when a video came out on VHS for rental half a year later.

I didn’t hate the film, but didn’t love it, either. That sums up my entire 2015 experience with film, where everything seemed to play it safe and go through the motions. Without digging through notes, I can’t think of what my 2015 standout movie would be. Anyway, I hope 2016 picks up.

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Bridge of Spies

When I was a kid, maybe ten or so, I got a book at the school book fair called Is James Bond Dead? Great Spy Stories. It was a little 64-page book with an illustration at the start of each chapter, about various true spy tales, such as the story of Mata Hari, and Operation Mincemeat, where the allies planted a body of a dead “spy” with false information on the D-Day invasion for the Axis to “capture.” But one of the stories that stuck in my head was that of Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy during the Cold War, who hid microdots in hollow nickels and planted them in dead drops all over Manhattan, while posing as a painter and ham radio enthusiast. He was captured, prosecuted, and later exchanged for Frances Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot shot down over the USSR.

I’ve fallen down the Abel k-hole a few times, as well as all things black-op spy plane related, and apparently so has Hollywood. Bridge of Spies is a Spielberg-produced Tom Hanks film, written by British relative newcomer Matt Charman, and punched up by the Coen brothers. The movie ties together three (or four) stories with one pivotal event.

First, there’s the Abel story, told in a vintage late-50s New York (which was partly filmed in my old hood of Astoria, which doubles for nearly everything these days.) The other leg is Francis Gary Powers, the secret overflights with spy planes, and his capture. It’s joined together by lawyer James Donovan (Hanks) who was first asked to defend Abel in his espionage case, but who later brokered the hostage exchange, which took place in East/West Germany. A side story involves Frederic Pryor, an American economics student who was captured by East Berlin and held on suspicion of espionage, who was also released with Powers.

The movie itself is a predictable and lukewarm meander through the usual tropes of spy stuff and “let’s be like Mad Men” throwback nostalgia. The Donovan kids are shown duck and cover films in school and cry accordingly; everyone reacts to those goddamn reds who want to nuke us, and so on. There are attempts at chuckles thrown in, making the film something your mother-in-law will enjoy, but ultimately making it a whitewashed PG-13 maybe-historical drama, and not a dark thriller. The Germany sets look like a Hollywood backlot that was used for a Band of Brothers shoot, with the Nazi flags hastily replaced with GDR black, red, and gold. It’s not badly done, but it’s not excellent, either.

The history isn’t horribly mangled, although it is very compressed. There’s great on-ground footage of the U-2 in the hanger, ala a training/introduction montage that teach us all about the high-altitude spy plane, but the film squishes the timeline so it appears Powers is shot down on the plane’s maiden flight. In reality, there was a long test period at Groom Lake (aka Area 51) with three pilot deaths, and 23 missions over five years prior to Powers and the May 1960 shootdown. Abel’s timeline is similarly compressed; no facts are greatly changed or even omitted, but Abel was arrested in 1957 and didn’t get released until 1962. The film makes the five-year saga seem like a couple of months of time.

I didn’t know anything about Donovan prior to seeing the film, so it’s interesting to read about him. The Pryor thing is also an odd footnote that I knew almost nothing about. It’s also difficult to find anything describing his involvement or arrest. Pretty much any mention of him is the same single sentence wedged into discussion of the exchange, and I can’t tell what he really did to get arrested, if there was any backstory at all. Maybe there’s some Stasi paperwork on this (that got shredded, probably.) Given the situation, it would not be unfathomable that someone from the CIA pulled him aside in a cafe and told him to snap a few pictures of a building for a few bucks. Or it was a wrong place/wrong time thing. Who knows.

I liked the film in that it was an endless stream of things I later read about. It’s very easy for me to take off from the various points on this and read about the Stasi, the Prior situation, East Berlin, the Glienicke Bridge, U-2 planes, Lockheed’s Skunk Works, Area 51 — the list is endless.

(An interesting sidenote: the movie mostly wrote out the involvement of Milan Miskovsky, the CIA agent who was largely instrumental to the exchange. After retirement, Miskovsky was appointed to lead an investigation about the 1967 Detroit riot for the Kerner Commission. He interviewed MLK and other leaders, and wrote a report concluding the US was transitioning into two societies that were greatly unequal, which is an interesting deep-dive if you’re up for reading about civil liberties in the sixties.)

I didn’t like the Spielberg-ization of the movie, though. The film was agonizingly long (141 minutes) and meandered and shuffled through the plot slowly. There were places where he chose to smash-cut between the subplots at a fast clip, but too many other places where he vegetated and made the movie an hour too long. Hanks had a weird Bosom Buddies comedy slant to his character, which didn’t help. And the general sterility of the experience soured it for me. If the Schindler’s List Spielberg, or even the Munich Spielberg direct this, it would have held my interest a bit more. Instead, we got Catch Me If You Can Spielberg, which was meh for me.

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Sleep Research Facility and ambient music

I’m always searching for music to listen to while I’m writing, because I can’t think and fall into the right kind of trance to dump my subconscious onto pages when extreme death metal is screaming away in the foreground. Classical music puts me to sleep, and jazz is jazz, so it’s hard to precisely nail it. I do like ambient music, as long as it isn’t too passive, and doesn’t veer off into the Yanni-esque new age shlock. All points south of classic Eno can be good, but that specific sound doesn’t imprint my brand of writing exactly the way I need it, so I’ve been looking for more.

Dark ambient, for better or worse, is closer to what I like. It contains a texture that provides a good underlying current for my work, and blocks out everything around me, yet doesn’t invade my mind in a way that would turn it in the wrong direction. Dark ambient removes from the equation the type of music a hippy-dippy acupuncturist would play in his office, which is good. The main problem with dark ambient is that it’s impossible to find a straight answer as to what it is. Ask ten people what ten bands constitute death metal, and you will get twelve highly contested answers. Dark ambient is the same. It shares distant borders with Krautrock and experimental music, and I don’t know enough about it to give you a defined answer as to who the main players are. (Maybe you should tell me.) I can tell you about a specific band I like, though.

Sleep Research Facility, the working name of Glasgow musician Kevin Doherty, has released five albums of essentially beatless dark ambient music, along different themes. The one thing in common is a dark, textured soundscape, usually without musical elements, or maybe with long, sustained chords. The name of the band relates to the work’s lack of any elements that would disturb sleep. That’s a slight peeve of mine, because it’s difficult for me to listen to dark ambient that contains extreme screeching, loud noise, and distorted shrieking voices. It’s hard to get in a trance state to work when interrupted with those elements. I’m not saying they don’t have artistic merit within a composition, and I can enjoy listening to them for the sake of listening to them, but when looking for functional music, it’s an issue.

Another challenge with creating any ambient music is having a central theme or “gimmick” or some set of tracks for the train to roll down. SRF seems to do this well, in the choice of conceptual framework. The prime example, and a good starting point, is the album Nostromo. This is a nearly 70-minute album that was inspired by the ship from the movie Alien. The album details a walkthrough of the ship from Ridley Scott’s scifi/horror movie, starting in the A-Deck, while the crew is in suspended animation, hurtling through space back to Earth. Scott meticulously detailed the ship, not as a sterile, futuristic vessel, but as a beaten, worn, working man’s craft, like a battle-damaged oil platform in the middle of the ocean. But when the crew is in stasis, prior to the computer waking them, there’s a certain calm, or anticipation in the vessel.

Nostromo starts in the A-Deck of the ship, presenting a deep-bass flow of sound, with slight electrical static and drifting sounds of machinery. It’s not like the harsh industrial sounds of the cyberpunk-influenced electronic genres of the mid-90s (I’m thinking the mechanical sounds of, say, the interstitial tracks of early Fear Factory, or even the earlier sounds of something like Front 242. (and sorry for the horrible reference points. This is very far outside my wheelhouse of musical knowledge, trying to learn here.)) Anyway, the dozen-minute tracks drift deeper into the ship, as the sounds and textures become more refined. The entire album is very dream-like and drifts seamlessly through the ship. The 2007 release contains a bonus track named “Narcissus,” which was the lifeboat escape pod of the Nostromo, which contains similar elements, although it is texturally different. You could imagine Ripley putting herself in stasis and drifting back to earth during the final track.

I listened to Nostromo constantly when I was writing He. I’d sit down to write every day, start the album on repeat, and keep it as a constant soundscape. I do this a lot when writing; for Atmospheres, I listened to the Sleep album Dopesmoker every day for at least a year. It’s not exactly ambient, but it’s an easy album to fall into.

So what album do I use for the next book? More importantly, what is the next book? Still working on that.

Anyway, check out more about SRF at their home page: http://www.resonance-net.com

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Sicario

Sicario is Denis Villeneuve’s critically-acclaimed crime thriller about Mexican cartels and narcoterrorism. I went into the film only knowing that Benicio del Toro was in it, that it had done well enough in its limited-market launch to green-light a sequel along with the wide release, and it was “intense.”

I’m a little curious about Villeneuve, because he’s slated to be in the chair for the upcoming Blade Runner sequel. Given the state of Hollywood, this can only end in disaster, but it’s still something I will watch car-crash style, for the same reason I always click on the comments section of an article on a school shooting, and never, ever should.

Sicario was not what I’d call “intense.” It actually rolled out slowly, with an interesting yet convoluted story of inter-departmental confusion, where the protagonist junior FBI agent played by Emily Blunt gets dropped into a mysterious interdepartmental task force run by Josh Brolin, with del Toro as a “special advisor” to some unnamed agency. The bits of the backstory are slowly put in place as the team goes to get the big cartel boss, antics ensue, etc.

The film largely plods down a single set of rails, a quiet journey punctuated with the occasional intensity of a gunfight or explosion. It was oddly muted for a blockbuster movie though, and did not stray far from the central plot as far as b-story or subplot. It was refreshing in the sense that it did not follow the Save the Cat formula religiously, and trot out Blunt’s love interest exactly on page 30 of the script. But for a 121-minute movie, it did plod on endlessly.

My main issue with the movie is that it was designed as a sort of Zero Dark Thirty of Mexican narcoterrorism, which makes me question its value. I’m not saying this stuff doesn’t happen in real life — it does — but I feel like this movie unconsciously enforces the stereotype of Mexicans/bad Americans-with-guns/good. It seems like the kind of thing Donald Trump fans would point at as evidence that we need to build that wall. It wasn’t gung-ho about it, like a straight-to-VHS Chuck Norris movie of 1986 would be about the evils of Communism. But there was an underlying tone there that seemed to reinforce this.

And like I said, this stuff does happen. There were hostages in Iran, ala Argo, but that movie (which I thought was well-done at the time, until I really thought about it) reinforces this stereotype that everyone in Iran is a flag-burning terrorist, when really, almost everyone in Iran is just a person, nothing more. It makes me uneasy that a huge stable of American films, when viewed from a distance, are nothing more than American propaganda. If that’s what people want, and that’s what they pay for, fine. But when thinking of an art form with so many possibilities and so few slots for screen time, it makes me question the value of the work.

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Review: Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography by John Gruen

I’ve been on a modern art trip lately, trying to learn more about art and artists. I never learned anything in school about art, and other than maybe Jackson Pollock and a bit of Damien Hirst, I don’t know anything.  But I enjoy modern art in the sense that I want to figure out how the artists get famous, how their personas develop, and how they go from throwing paint at a wall to being a part of history.

I recently read Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography, which I picked up used for a couple of bucks on Amazon.  I know next to nothing about Haring, but I found the book fascinating.  First, it was a real slice-of-life thing, because the book came out I think in 1991, but right after Haring died.  It’s got that 1991 feel to it, the cover and design that makes it look like a rushed-to-print book by a division of MTV made to cash in on the GenX craze, or maybe a Douglas Coupland cash grab of a bunch of Polaroids (I guess he really did do that, though.)  I’m not saying the book was bad from that aspect; it’s just very interesting how book design can become extremely dated, and looking at a book from 1991 or 1992 can immediately pull you back to that era.

My big takeaway from the book was the vision of late 1970s New York.  I’ve discussed this before, but living in Indiana with no connections to NYC meant I had a very specific and jaded view of the city.  When I finally visited for the first time in 1998, it completely changed that vision for me, but I was never sure if this was the Giuliani cleaned-up-Manhattan image and I missed that old New York, or if my vision of the city was completely wrong.  (It’s probably a bit of both.)  Either way, this mythical city still knocks around in my brain, an island sculpted in my head from images in Ghostbusters and Taxi Driver, peppered with horror stories from my stepmother, who grew up there.  I envisioned a post-apocalyptic city with burned-out buildings, crazed murderers high on PCP roaming the subways, and mad Wall Street executives always wearing suits and making millions.

When I moved to New York in 1999, it was completely different, but little things reminded me of this alternate universe. Like I’d be in a subway, and find an old sign in a forgotten passageway that hadn’t been changed, one of the white background ceramic signs with the old school font in black letters, and it would make me think of the French Connection-era BMT tunnels, the low-rise turnstiles that people jumped over when they didn’t have a token.  Or they’d tear down a storefront in Times Square to install some new Disney-Time-Warner-Viacom monstrosity, and for a brief period, the ancient, worn signage from the 60s or the 40s would appear, a labelscar of the long-missing sign for an automat that later became a heroin dealer mecca, and then got boarded up and later turned into a place that sold Statue of Liberty t-shirts.  Even on a hot summer day, when the smell of an ancient New York would waft up from a broken underground transformer or air shaft, I’d briefly get transported to this ancient Manhattan in my mind, the city of The Ramones and Son of Sam and Bernard Goetz.

Haring’s book reminded me of this from his beginning, the guerrilla art projects where he used chalk to draw murals on the subways, in those black portals set in the ceramic-tiled walls, the place where they normally pasted up ads.  He’d get out of a train, rush to one of those, and draw an intricate image, something he could dash off quickly, but that looked so right in the train tunnel, the images of UFOs and babies and dogs.  I love those old drawings of his, but even more, I love the mental image of the old graffiti-covered trains pulling into the station, the ones with real straps to hang onto, and Haring jumping out with a stick of chalk to swim through the river of New Yorkers and etch out the image.

Another thing I liked was that Haring, right when he appeared in NY for art school, stumbled upon William S. Burroughs and his Nova Express conference.  He attended, and later befriended Burroughs.  But one of his big takeaways from the conference was the memetic quality of cut-ups, and that’s when he started using common, repetitive imagery in his street art.  He came up with the baby and the dog, and repeated these symbols, much in the same way Burroughs did with images within his cut-up trilogy.

I also like how Haring would often get approached in the subways when drawing, by people wondering if he worked for the MTA, or had an art grant, or if the drawings were ads for something.  And to cement that artist-patron relationship, and take the memetic thing a step further, he got some buttons made of the little baby drawing, and later the dog, and when someone stopped to talk to him, he’d give them a button.  These became extremely collectible in the art world, a badge proving a meeting with the artist.  It makes me think I really need to print up some buttons.

The end of the book, and the death of Haring, was sad.  But it was a fun read, and still has me thinking of that old New York.

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Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel, the latest Wes Andserson flick, last night.  I don’t like watching movies like that on opening weekend, because they draw the baby boomer intelligentsia Berkeley crowd, the ones that never see movies and then laugh at the wrong places at the stupid pre-trailer ads that I’ve seen a thousand times and hiss at trailers for blockbuster summer tent-pole movies and generally drive me insane. But, we’re in the dead period of films, post-Oscars, when all of the turds are released until the next holiday weekend, so I’ll go see almost anything that isn’t some Jesus freak epic (which is about everything right now.)

Anyway, just a few short notes on this, not a review.  This film has incredible production design, absolutely flawless stuff.  It was shot in Germany at some abandoned gothic department store, and then supplemented with models — not CGI, not stock footage, but little scale models that have that quirky, awkward look like a bizarre story book.  The whole thing had that Wes Anderson absurdity to its look, like even the warning sign in the back of the decrepit 1920s spa talking about electrical treatments for liver toxins made you laugh out loud.  That was great.

The script had an interesting bookend shell game: a girl goes to a statue in tribute of a famous author; cut to the old author reading from his book; cut to the young author staying at this hotel as it is in decline and talking to the old proprietor, who has dinner with him and tells the tale of his youth and the hotel in its heyday.  I liked that quirky twisting of the plot.

Unfortunately, I thought the actual plot itself was a bit too Wes Anderson, too cookie-cutter.  No strong b-story, and just plodding along on this stock adventure.  There were lots of twists and turns and some good humor.  But the 99 minutes seemed to drag a bit in the middle, and the whole thing was a fluffy cake, pure sugar without a lot of weight at the bottom of it.

Acting was great, an absolutely solid Ralph Fiennes as the lead, with Tony Revolori (relatively unknown?) as the young hotel owner, F. Murray Abraham as the older version. But one of Anderson’s key tropes is to have the usual gang pop in with minor roles.  It always gets a laugh to see Owen Wilson or Bill Murray show up with a single line or two, but the cameos have gotten to the point where they almost annoy me.  Marching on Jason Schwartzman in a funny hat (or whatever) does not make a film.  It’s a chuckle, but it’s getting predictable.

Overall though, a pretty good one, especially if you’re into his stuff.  It’s no Life Aquatic, but the design though, is worth the price of admission.

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