Quickie Review: LOVE & MERCY (2014)

A very well acted biopic of legendary songwriter Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. A touch predictable, though. After all, (I don’t think this is much of a spoiler, but) whenever you have a character split between two time periods, you go into the film knowing that at some point they’ll at least metaphorically come face to face. At least the film tried to do this in a way that would almost make Alejandro Jodorowsky proud.

But the film had a tough task. How do you show the life of a rock legend with a storied half-century career in two hours? One is by using the kind of trick I just mentioned. Another is to avoid direct dramatic reinterpretations of (real or imagined) biographical events, and allude to them instead, which is a plus. (Cheeseburger, anyone?) Another involves making the delineation between the story’s heroes and villains as stark and simplistic as possible. The results on this score are mixed. You get Paul Giamatti’s awesome scene-chewing Dr. Evil, but you also get not very nuanced portrayals of Mike Love and Murray Wilson that serve only to make you rage against their toxicity to Brian’s creative spirit.

As enjoyable as the ride was, some questions nagged me throughout the film. It’s one thing to depict a person’s behaviors. But part of Wilson’s struggle was the fight to transfer what he heard in his head as faithfully as possible to tape. How could any movie deign to try depicting what’s in his head for a moviegoing audience? Was I being a little foolish for not realizing from the outset that this ride could only take me so far? On the other hand, if Wilson himself is happy with the film, what do I know?

Quickie Review: MAGGIE (2015)

I really wanted MAGGIE to be Arnold’s JCVD, that is, an art house flick that plays with everything we think we know about a foreign-born actor and the American Acton heroes he played in the ’80s. It did not let me down! MAGGIE deconstructs the expectations built up over 30 years of Governator- and zombie-film over-saturation, and subverts them at literally every turn.

If you’ve seen enough Schwarzenegger and zombie films, you’ve seen every scene setup in MAGGIE before. Thus, you’re not surprised to see tense moments with John Matrix poised to kick ass, or creepy moments where you just know Abigail Breslin (who’s been in similar surroundings before) is about to take a bite out of someone. But few things play out as expected here, and MAGGIE prepares you for this by setting up the characters properly. So yes, you have scenes of Dutch Schaefer brandishing a shotgun, because Ah-nold! But when you write his character as a man clinging desperately to what is best in life, whose former wife instilled in him a love of reading(!) and planting daisies(!!), and then have Trench Mauser play that character convincingly, then you have a Schwartzenegger zombie film where anything can happen.

Quickie Review: AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

Spoilers ahead, minor and major — YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

Suffice it to say, the movie appealed to my inner six year old.  This is a good thing.  It’s also a bad thing.

That aside, I still have to say that AofU didn’t thrill me like the first Avengers film.  It didn’t bore me, though.  There were certainly enough comic book “Fuck yeah!” moments.  But I suspect part of that was my brain trying to keep up with the plot, and not stumble over the holes where things were obviously cut out.  In fact, yes, I felt like I was watching an edited version on FX, “compressed for time”.   On the plus side, though, there was the particular way this film hit my comic book geek spots.

Because if you’re really going to hit all the highlights of Marvel Comics history on film, then fuck it — go for broke, from the creation of the synthozoid Vision, down to creating an “All New, All Different” B-team at the end of it all, just like in the comics.

This past Free Comic Book Day, I found this: a fresh copy of MARVEL SUPER-HEROES Vol. 1, No. 80, one of the first comic books I ever remember reading as a child.  The cover date is 1979, so I was 5 or 6 years old.  (The issue itself is a reprint of THE INCREDIBLE HULK Vol. 1, No. 128 from 1970.)

The Avengers roster started changing in the comics after the second issue.  Characters like General “Thunderbolt” Ross were already missing the classic line-up…

Okay, even as a kid maybe I knew this team seemed a little wanting, just like the team introduced at the end of AofU seems to be.  But six year old me still thought this image was bad ass!  (Don’t worry, Wanda gets her licks in by the end of the issue.)

Just like people have “My Doctor” (i.e. the one they imprinted on as a kid), I have my Avengers.  And my Avengers will always have Goliath, The Vision, The Beast, Yellowjacket, and Wonder Man in the turtleneck and the red pimp safari jacket, because they were the ones in the comics I read after this one.
For me, that’s the joy of AofU.  I enjoyed this retelling of Avengers history!  Very well done, “A” for effort!  I want to see what Captain America, Black Widow, War Machine, Falcon, Scarlet Witch, and The Vision do in the next go-round!
And yet, although I judiciously avoided all spoilers, I knew I’d seen this — well, read this — all before.  Which begs the question of who exactly AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON was written for — six year old boy comic book geek me, or for over-forty dude comic book geek me?  I’m fairly sure much of the praise or scorn heaped upon this movie is based on the answer to that question.
Six year old me might’ve interpreted that scene between Black Widow and Bruce Banner a little more generously than most (if you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about) and might’ve thought Widow’s MCU history reveal probably means something different to the character than it does to people watching the film.  Part of over-forty me believes that.  But the rest of over-forty me knows a reveal like that doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it’s a shame, too.  A revelation that might’ve offered some additional depth (“My soul is as dark as Banner’s, but I have the same heroic potential.”) is doomed from almost the very start of the movie and it’s “lullaby” scene, and frames things in a way that makes the snarky “cleaning up after you boys” quip a mere one step above that one line in the last movie.  

Currently Reading, Backyard Fracking, and Filipino Rondalla

CURRENTLY READING: All of my reading lately has been on the non-fiction tip. The last fiction I’ve read was a slog of a collection that I haven’t finished yet. (It has some incredible craftsmanship, but damn if most of the stories just don’t do it for me.) Anyway, what HAVE I been reading? I’ve made it into the Dark Horse years of AMERICAN SPLENDOR. I’m about halfway through NOTHIN’ BUT BLUE SKIES: THE HEYDAY, HARD TIMES, AND HOPES OF AMERICA’S INDUSTRIAL HEARTLAND by Eric McClelland which I discovered while perusing BELT MAGAZINE’s website. And lest you think I’m just now jumping on the whole “Rust Belt Chic” bandwagon, I’ll just say that I grew up during most of the stuff in Chapter 4 of BLUE SKIES (i.e. the Cleveland chapter). It’s been enlightening nonetheless to look at the historical context of my early life.  And, I just picked up BIOPUNK: SOLVING BIOTECH’S BIGGEST PROBLEMS IN KITCHENS AND GARAGES the other day at a bookstore discount table for $4, because there just has to be a story in here somewhere.

BACKYARD FRACKING: Something I forgot to mention when I wrote up having seen the short documentary BACKYARD at FLEFF. During the Q&A with the filmmaker, someone asked if she attempted to get any comments from the fracking industry. She says she did, and that it was rather easy to. She was granted tours through various rigs — sans her camera crew — and interviewed workers who apparently only had the same pro-fracking talking points. She reported being unable to find anyone with a unique pro-fracking story, which she attributes to the industry’s powerful propaganda machine. Power that was corroborated by an audience member with an account of the presence of energy companies in the independent film business and festival circuit. Know thy enemy and co-opt. Basic, really.

FILIPINO RONDALLA: Of course they’d have a Filipino Rondalla group at the Ivy League for which I work. To paraphrase the motto, “Any person, any extracurricular activity,” apparently. It brought back some childhood memories of my first visit to the Philippines when I was about four. I remember a candle dance and a tinikling demo, just like what I saw at the group’s concert last Saturday. That said, I have to acknowledge that this student display of Filipino culture–the culture of my parents–isn’t the culture of everyone in the Philippines. I fear for the non-Filipino audience members who may have left feeling armed with a proper overview of “Filipino culture”, and then trying to share this knowledge with, say, someone from the Visayas or Mindanao. They may not be received well.  After all, Filipinos have stabbed people for far less….

Next time, I’ll probably talk about the lung pox I’m fighting.

FLEFF, Fracking, and Experimental Short Films

It’s been a couple of years since I’d last made it to FLEFF, the annual Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival.  It’s typically a week-long affair with screenings and panels, and typically I miss most of it because of my day job.  This year, I was determined to make it to something, anything, and I did last Sunday.  I didn’t catch much, but I got a lot out of what I saw.
BACKYARD (2014). A short documentary by filmmaker (and proprietor of Pale Blue Dot Media) Deia Sherman about fracking and its effects on the lives of different people from different states.  Living in upstate NY (in one of the areas that’s managed to keep the frackers at bay so far), the stories had familiar themes.  But it’d be a mistake to dismiss this film as some echo chamber piece, tailor made for an “environmental film festival” in Ithaca, NY.  Its stories are compelling and, to me, eerily reminiscent of the environmental, labor, and health and safety problems at the start of the auto and steel industries in the Rust Belt.  That’s a line of research I’ve been chasing for a bit, and the subject of a big post or two down the pike.  All I’m saying is that the Clean Air Act and OSHA were established for reasons.  Take it from a former denizen of the land of the Burning River.

UPSTATE FILMMAKERS’ SHOWCASE.  A series of experimental shorts by (mostly) cinema faculty from Binghamton University.  Each of the films played with the notions of time and linear narrative in some way.  They’re were all good (all the details at the event link), but my favorites: Close the Lid Gently, SoundPrint (which involved some audience participation using greeting card sound modules — that’s what I’ve got in the pic there), and 300 Features and 40 Shorts.

It’s been too long, FLEFF.  Catch you next year.

Quickie Review: ILO ILO (2013)

A screening of this Canne Caméra d’Or-winning film was hosted by the dayjob and I went, having prepared myself to go all Hooper from Chasing Amy during the Skype Q&A with Singaporean director Anthony Chen. But this film about a Hong Kong family who takes on a Filipina maid during the Asian financial meltdown of 1997 thankfully wasn’t rage inducing.

During the Q&A, the director mentioned having been taken to task for not providing any critique of the OFW (Overseas Filipino Worker) system. I was just happy that we didn’t get either of the two “typical” OFW horror stories–Filipinas being physically or sexually victimized, or victimizing the families they work for, stealing money, abusing children and elders, etc. Hell, I half-expected Teresa (the maid) to have some anting-anting which makes her some Asian Mary Poppins who teaches young Jiale about, I dunno, love and family or somesuch. 

(She probably would have if this was some Hollywood film.)

Anyway, I’m fine that the film wasn’t about the plight of OFWs for two reasons. One, I think Chen gives a pretty even-handed representation of the part most people play in that whole system, in a way which jives with the memories I’ve had as a child observing Filipinas who were brought over to the United States to help with the families of other Filipinos. And two, that kind of message would’ve taken away from the film’s focus on the compelling study of how four very different people cope against forces outside their control.

5 out of 5.

Quickie Review: THE ONE I LOVE (2014)

If I had it to do over, I’d Netflix this one but I definitely wouldn’t pass it up. If you liked 2012’s Safety Not Guaranteed, you’ll probably like The One I Love. There’s something to be said for a movie that resists being described in other reviews because to do so even in the slightest would spoil it.

Other reviews have noted similarities to (and the film actually name-checks) The Twilight Zone, and it does so as more than simply a code for “something freaky’s going on here.” The film’s plot absolutely feels like something out of a Richard Matheson episode. And of course, I can’t even reference which Matheson episodes came to mind as I watched this, because spoilers.
The one thing this film has over a Twilight Zone episode is the feeling the film’s resolution leaves me with, which I can only describe as the same feeling described by Bruce Sterling in his oft discussed and debated definition of “slipstream,” namely “…a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.”  If slipstream is that form which is, as it’s said, “some degree of the surreal, the not-entirely-real, or the markedly anti-real” then I’d definitely call this a slipstream film.

Quickie Review: FRANK (2014)

I admit it, I watched this film because I caught the trailer a week or so ago at the local art house theater, and was captivated by the head…

Inspired by Chris Sievey’s persona of Frank Sidebottom and the time the co-screenwriter Jon Ronson spend in Sievey’s band, the film is about far more than the eponymous character wearing a big head, in the same way that any (good) band is more than the sum of its parts.  Frank shows the complexity of the chicken-and-egg question about the origin of creativity. And then it complicates the question further by throwing in the the added dimension of collective artistic expression; this is about a band, after all. Think of it as a po-mo version of The Commitments where you spend less time cheering for band, and more time going back and forth between “WTF?” and “Huh, that’s kinda deep.”

I don’t think it’s spoilery to say the band breaks up.  C’mon, it’s a band movie–when was the last time a movie band didn’t implode? But Frank might surprise you a bit with the whys and hows of the breakup, and might also surprise you with how the breakup leaves you feeling.