Friday, June 26, 2009

Ding dong, the king is dead.

I hadn't wanted to write a Michael Jackson post. I mean, the man was one of the best dancers ever, and a helluva singer, and a spotty songwriter, and he sold a lot of records, and... y'know, whatever.

But I'm finding myself indignant over all the "burn in hell, pedophile" posts. Granted, the serial incompetence of the L.A. prosecutor's office, which results in a string of celebrities walking out of the courtroom free, does little to reassure people that his acquittal was for real. But the fact is, the person who first made the accusation really does seem to have been a fraud out for the money, and those who know say nothing ever happened.

Jackson was a weirdo, no doubt about it, and I mostly agree with Chris Rock's "I wouldn't let Michael Jackson watch my kids on television"---not because he was a pedophile, but because he was a six-year-old. But the evidence really does point to Jackson being an entirely asexual child obsessive, who would be as horrified by the idea of sex with children as he was by the idea of sex with anyone. The crotch grabs of his adult career always seemed as performative---and phony---as the girl-pining of his childhood singles.

As a number of music writers have noted, the thing that always was bothersome about Jackson was that he was always a performer, never a revealer---his incredibly fluid body distracted from his shadowy face. If nothing else, his whole career has been a reminder that you don't actually need to feel emotions to communicate them in art---I don't believe the little boy singing had ever felt the things expressed by "I'll Be There" or "Never Can Say Goodbye", and he doesn't actually need to. But it's jarring to be reminded of that, especially in America's authenticity-obsessed music culture.

Maybe that's why the glee at his downfall in the 90s---people always resented that someone who attracted so much adoration gave so little of himself. Jackson's combination of hugeness and unrelatability made him a perfect hate object---he was famous enough that hating him felt like revenge, he was vulnerable enough that you felt like a big man, and he was distant enough that you never had to worry about an actual human being being hurt.

But god, it's ugly! Michael, Brittney, Lindsey---there's this terrible urge to crush children. And all of them were children, child stars sufficiently coddled that they would have been completely unprepared for the vitriol suddenly turned on them. I've actually known a child star or two, and they all confirmed that being a child singer is a bizarre combination of being shielded from anything real and being constantly provided with performance-enhancing substances and the occasional hooker. South Park, in one of their more insightful moments, accurately summed it up as some kind of pagan Corn King ritual, wherein a young 'un is made king for a year, then sacrificed. I don't know if Michael Jackson committed child abuse. But Epic Records *definitely* did.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

C'mon You Homosexual Demon

No post today. Not because I'm so lazy, but because I saw this, and got inspired to make... this:

There is no more. But there's seemingly no way to turn off that freakin' "Read more" in my template.

The Yakuza

Flickr gallery for this piece here

The Yakuza is not a lost classic of '70s cinema. Robert Towne was paid an awful lot for the script, which does do a nice job of using noir tropes as setups for chop-socky fight scenes, but it's lumpily-paced and frequently confusing, with hunks of exposition so ungainly that Lumet has no choice but to fade and dissolve his way through the speeches..

It's always fun to watch Robert Mitchum wisecrack with the guys and pine for the girl, and paunchy, puffy 70s Mitchum is just as much the ideal man than the young, beautiful Robert Mitchum---maybe more so. He and the able, charismatic Ken Takakura seem like they could get a really good rhythm going were Takakura not so visibly derailed by the English language---when acting in Japanese, he's as quick and smooth as in the fight scenes, but every time he has to speak English he drops his arms to his sides and twists his head like he's frozen at a desk. Their climactic fight scene, when they jointly kill several score bad guys, armed with Takaura's sword and Mitchum's Halo-like pistol & shotgun combo, is their one chance to get a good non-verbal relationship to happen, and it's squandered by the back-and-forth editing and uncreative framing.

But even though Pollack's visual direction is stolid, the visuals are still pretty thrilling, thanks in large part to Stephen Grimes' endlessly groovy production design. Grimes has a star-studded production design career, and he sinks his teeth into the scripts opportunities for campy japonaiserie, including a bright-blue boss' office with surrealist decor, and a sauna with inexplicable high-contrast red floor, equally inexplicable aquarium and even more inexplicable Porkysesque window to the girl's locker room. He has a great time filling the frame with artful patterns, or just a whole lotta brightly-colored Asiatic stuff, as well as finding some terrific city-of-the-future locations.

Director of Photography Kozo Okazaki also does a lot to keep the visuals exciting too, with great use of good ol' 70's Technicolor. The variety of rich, stylized hues are enough to make you weep for the candy colors that were to take over Hollywood filmmaking. I'll admit, this may be entirely personal, as despite being a child of the 80s, I feel that way about most films made between about 1968 and 1981---even the worst have a look that feels real in a way almost no color film would again, which may be one of the reasons 70s horror, no matter how crappily-made, has as unnerving authenticity.

Lumet's actual direction is really just workmanlike, with enough pans, dollies, and fades to feel properly professional, but most of the real visual magic is being worked by the production team. This is one of the nice things about having a full-crew sense of who makes a movie---even when the movie isn't much as a whole, there's still plenty of fine workmanship to admire, as well as some bizarre costume choices to, er, enjoy.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Over The Hedge

So the Wolverine game has prompted the usual round of "a licensed game that doesn't suck" or "licensed games always suck" talk. But allow me to put in a word for something even rarer than a licensed game that doesn't suck---a licensed game that doesn't suck on the Nintendo DS!

I know, this is hard to believe. Not even the world of cell phone games is so crammed with undercooked mediocrity as the DS movie game world, where developers with little time and less motivation crank out shameful crap on the assumption that it's all going to be bought by clueless moms who'll never play it anyway. The technical limits of the DS further encourage laziness on the part of developers---since your game isn't even going to look good enough to be on your studio's showreel, why bother making it anything other than an object in a box, the box being what sells anyway? My heart sinks a little every time I see my little brother-in-law's game collection---in the front, the first-party titles he saved his allowance for, in the back, the terrible Transformers and Disney games his mom bought him (and that he, bless his heart, it too polite to melt down).

Which is why Over the Hedge is such a stunner. It's not that it's such a fantastic game, but it's actually got a good concept going for it, and in the movie-game world, that's like getting an Audi from your office Secret Santa. It's not an original concept, but it's a great one-liner: Metal Gear Solid with raccoons. I can only imagine the design session where they looked at the plot of Over the Hedge---woodland creatures infiltrate suburban homes---and someone had the brilliant idea to apply the stealth-game template to the antics of nature's sneak thieves.

Though the game gets repetitive pretty quickly, it's executed with some impressive technical skill. I particularly liked the contrast between the top screens 3-D view, and the overhead view on the bottom, a use of the DS's unique properties that makes big console games seem... almost lacking. And you play as a number of non-raccoon-Americans, each with unique abilities.

But ultimately, this is a game made worthwhile by its idea---it's like the digital equivalent of a Warhol film, but shorter. The promise of the DS was always that its technical limitations would inspire developers to compete on the level of ideas, and this is one of the rare times where they did (and blew the console versions of the game out of the water, a definite first). I'd love to see more of this kind of meta-wit applied, not just to licensed games (interestingly enough, the other similar title I can think of was the very funny Simpsons game, another licensed title), but to all titles---sufficient in-jokey decadence can be a good way to stumble across originality, if only by making the unoriginal funny.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

You've given me hate when I know there is love

The thing is, I basically enjoy Roy Edroso's alicublog. It's relentless mockery of those with different beliefs than mine is kind of a guilty pleasure, but most conservative writers are so willfully ignorant, so deliberately crazy, and so cynically disingenuous that I just don't feel bad when they're treated with the same kind of contempt that they show for their readers.

But man, did the latest post piss me off! Mocking the pundits convinced that we can save Iran with Twitter is well and good. And mocking the pundits insisting that Obama needs to insert himself into Iran's election process is well-deserved. But when you just write off Iran as "a theocratic shithole going through a paroxysm", that's when I get off the bus. There's just something so ugly about casually dismissing an entire country, one which has produced some of the major artworks of the last fifteen years, as well as the last few thousand---it's lazy, it's parochial, and it's flat-out racist.

Not that any objections will be raised in the comments, of course. Some websites get even better in their comments section, but alicublog's comments make me wonder if I'm wrong to like the site at all---it's mostly just Two Minutes Hate, plus constant dittoheady bleatings of "what a great post, roy!" and royal court verbal mincing as everyone competes to come up with the funniest comparison of Jonah Goldberg to a tube of biscuit dough.

I probably shouldn't have bothered sticking my beak in---no one responds well to being told they're sounding like Mark Fuhrman (not even Mark Fuhrman!), and the cocooned posse at alicublog is about as likely to say "gosh, we are being dicks" as the readership at RedState. But it was still kind of astounding to see that when one suggests that some nominal sense of solidarity with an oppressed people trying to throw off their government might preclude dismissing their entire country, the response was a lot of carping about Iraq. Iraq is, of course, the opposite of the situation in Iran---a foreign power marching in to impose itself through warfare, rather than a bottom-up rebellion of the people.

It's not unlike the grim experience of reading the diaries of Roy's hero, H.L. Mencken, and seeing how easily contempt for the boobosie could turn into contempt for ignorant negros, filthy chinese, penny-pinching jews, and everyone else who wasn't H.L. Mencken. It demonstrates neatly the limits of the "I'm not a racist, I hate everybody equally" argument---a white guy turning his vast intellectual contempt on poor brown people is just plain different, because history is different, and a denial of that deserves the same respect as "why ain't there no White History Month?" arguments.

David Foster Wallace argued that the danger of television wasn't that people would believe its lies; it was that people would learn early on that they were always being lied to, and a sneer would become the only expression available. Over at alicublog, where they've gone from laughing at those with inflated pretensions of doing political good to laughing at the very concept of political good, it's like watching a baby turn into a wizened old bastard in high-speed timelapse. If the revolution in Iran fails, it'll be business as usual. But if it succeeds---and I'm still willing to hope it does---than the people now mocking Andrew Sullivan for doing more to aggregate information than any other westerner will... okay, not feel ashamed of themselves, because they're visibly incapable of shame, but at least be left behind at history's highway rest stop, where they will bitch about the bathrooms until a farmer shoots them.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

Why is Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars so impossibly fun? There's a pretty substantial technical achievement in cramming a big, open, no-load city onto a DS cartridge. And the art design team deserves serious kudos for making areas of the city look and feel significantly different despite the tight constraints of a more or less 2-D design. But I'd say the basic system-level strength is that the minigames are fun.

For most hardcore gamers, the sweetest words are "Grand Theft Auto game", and the bitterest are "minigame collection", so it's a little blasphemous to say that's pretty much what GTA is. But it is---and that's always been its strength. In any GTA game, you spend a lot of time taking missions, most of which are just drive-here-shoot-him. But what's always most memorable are the missions that change the rules for a little while---the jetpack in San Andreas, or the sniper runs in Vice City. GTA IV didn't have as many rule-shifting missions, which is much of why GTA IV got---ulp!---a little dull in the middle.

GTA:CW tells you right up front that you won't just be driving and shooting when your character, upon arriving in America, is immediately kidnapped, and is stuck in a car that's dumped into the river. You quickly tap the windshield to bust your way out---nothing fancy, or even particularly entertaining, but a straightforward warning that you're going to have to keep your stylus handy. This would be a pretty serious strike against the game---holding the stylus while using the thumb-pad and buttons is kind of a pain in the ass. But it's justified by the number of times the game shifts context on you---forces you to twist wires quickly to steal a car, tap numbers to bypass a security system, twirl a Chinese dragon costume, and so on.

Combined with GTA's usual attention-deficit-disorder approach to level design---"now steal a car now drive to Hey! let's be a cabbie! drive to your destination and collect your Hey! Let's help this guy bug his wife's car! follow the car until it parks don't get spotted while you Hey! Let's buy some acid!"---these stylus-based minigames don't have to be very challenging to accomplish their basic goal, which is to keep you from ever settling into a unitary rhythm of play. Instead you're always a little surprised, never sure what you're going to be doing in the next 10 minutes.

That's why Chinatown Wars has me hunched until my neck snaps, while Far Cry 2 is languishing in my 360. Far Cry 2 has a lovely open world, a solid story, and some very nice mechanics. But it's all driving and shooting, and after playing for 2 hours, I felt like I had done pretty much everything I was going to do in the game and now just had to do it another hundred times. Besides a reasonable level of wit and some solid visuals, GTA remains the king of the unexpected mission parameter, and that will keep me playing to the end.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Flickr gallery for this post here

Francis Ford Coppola's Tetro really shouldn't be watchable at all. The story of crippled princelings setting things to right with love smacks of the fairy tale, which is fine, I guess, for opera, the form Tetro keeps throwing itself against. But the actual storytelling in the movie is kind of a mess---after an efficient first act, plot points get raised distractingly and connected obscurely, information about the characters is taken for granted, and the dialogue often thuds its ways through Big Themes and narrative repetition (the words "on the boat" are repeated like the cast has been assigned tongue twisters).

What makes it hold together is that the whole movie is so utterly, tongue-dryingly beautiful. The black and white---choke!---videography fills every shot with a range of shade and texture that I didn't think even HD video could pull off. The high-definition online trailers don't convey quite how stunning it is on the big screen; this, even more than Che, is the movie that convinces me that DV is ready to take over from film visually, not just economically. And the framing, replete with shadows, mirrors, and careful balancing of elements, pulses with compositional intelligence---nearly any still captures the movie's themes of doubleness, dominance, and foreignness better than all the family shouting matches.

The film's full of the things that make a film enjoyable long before it makes any sense---visual ravishment, eruptions of comedy and eroticism, and a sure-footed forward momentum. It also helps that all the performances are as good as in anything Coppola's ever directed (yes, including that)---he knows how to give actors enough stage business to keep their performances natural, and when to give them space to roll. It's no surprise that Maribel Verdu continues to be both an intelligent performer and spectacularly hot, but it's equally great to see Vincent Gallo do some of his most generous scene-work ever, as though he's finally ready to stop being a performer and become an actor. Some of the dirty jokes risk descending into late-Bertolucci satyriasis, but they're presented with such delight that it's impossible to stay mad.

Honestly, I'm glad that Tetro doesn't bother to solve its narrative problems. There's something liberating about seeing a film at once so aesthetically accomplished, so obviously personal, and so blithely not giving a fuck whether you're following along. What Coppola wants is to move you, and a good Catholic boy knows that the best way to do that is to dazzle the eyeballs right out of your skull.

Coppola, like Tetro's title character, is an artist who's been tormented by both the success and the failure of his art---under the huffing and puffing of his 90s films, you could feel his yearning to sit like Harry Caul, peacefully playing saxophone amidst the wreckage of his career. The story's strange elisions---the way themes are abruptly yanked into play, the way plot points get taken for granted, even the characters' somnambulistic tendency to seemingly forget the explosions that happened in the previous scene---don't seem like failures of craft so much as the inarguable, inscrutable decisions of an individual language. Even the movie's oddest narrative jump---how Bennie goes from wanting to be saved by Tetro, to wanting revenge on Tetro, to wanting to save Tetro---seems in retrospect like a perfectly accurate depiction of the family, where love and punishment often twine together too closely to ever be put in sequence.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Christ, now Twitter's good for something?

It's astounding how fast Twitter has gone from being a digital frisbee, good mostly for one-liners and embarrassment, to a central tool of a people's uprising, of such importance that it could legitimately change the course of human events if it goes down for 90 minutes (and anyone reading this on June 16, write in now and tell them not to freakin' do that!).

What brought Twitter from Ashton Kutcher to Herbert Morrison wasn't so much the service as the technology on which it piggybacks. Someday our phones may all be browsers and our wishes all horses, but right now the most ubiquitous tool for global communication is the cheap-ass cell phone. By allowing for easy sending and receiving via a technology with far more market penetration than smartphones (once again proving that smart is the antonym of ubiquitous), Twitter first became a handy way to tell the dudes that you were gonna be at the quad, and then became the best means for those dodging bullets in Tehran to tell the world what's going on.

Even if the media wasn't so pathetically dropping the ball on coverage, Twitter would still be the best way to find out what's happening right now. Not the best tool for understanding what's going on in Iran---there's no way to know what tweets are just rumor-mongering or disinformation, especially in the absence of visuals---but certainly the best way for those on the scene to do live reporting, and for those interested to see that reporting.

That is not to say that the current GOP Twitterspoogefest isn't as completely stupid as most every idea that comes from the GOP. Twitter is very good for realtime organizing, but the Republican party doesn't need organizing in the sense of "get 1,000 people to meet in the middle of Grozny", they need organizing like "let's get a party leader who's neither a clown, a fraud, or a sociopath." They also need a more compelling message than the one they've got, which they won't find at under 140 characters---that's plenty of space for their current message, but then, that's the problem.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Girlfriend Experience

I liked Bubble, Soderbergh's previous digital improv experiment, a helluva lot, largely because it got the white working-class speech I grew up with better than any movie I've ever seen. The Girlfriend Experience is a very different milieu, and a much more sharply satiric experience. Where Bubble was immersed in its characters' unmoored, dead-end lives, TGfE keeps its distance, both narratively and visually (nearly every shot of Christine puts some object between us and her).

It's very hard to identify with anyone in the film, but I'm okay with that, and I'm hugely irritated by how many critics seem to regard that as a fatal flaw, writing as though Modernism never happened (although the NY Post's description of it as "a stag movie as conceived by the editors of the Financial Times" is actually pretty apt). It's all the more depressing considering that many of those same critics know to pay homage to directors like Resnais and Antonioni, even as they refuse to consider a contemporary American with similar objectives.

As usual, a lot of my thoughts come out best commenting on other sites. At Amy's Robot, Amy mostly liked the film, but we disagree about Grey's performance. And I have a lot to say about Lauren Wissot's review at The House Next Door; Wissot manages to combine Pauline Kael's unpleasant sense of aesthetic entitlement with the smugness of a San Francisco sex activist, then tops it off with Armond White's defensive laziness, but I always have fun getting peeved with her.

Like A Faceful of Seawater

As Hannibal used to say, "I love it when a plan comes together."

The executive-pay restrictions on the bank bailout money seem to have done exactly what they were supposed to do---not so much keep bankers from getting big bonuses on the taxpayer's dime (though that's nice too), but rather to make them really, really *want* to pay the money back. It seems like the Obama team learned one big lesson from the S&L bailout: rich people hate repaying loans.

So the money lets everyone ride out the real-estate valuation crisis, and then gets paid back promptly, with a little profit on top. More loans should work out this well! Rightie outlets are saying the banks were healthy all along, and only took the money because the government forced them, but considering that Hot Air's list of poor, oppressed institutions being forced to play sick for nanny includes epically-dysfunctional Citigroup, I would take those claims with enough salt to preserve beef. Their complaints that the Treasury is holding onto warrants for bank stock---in effect, engaging in stock speculation---strikes me as a feature, not a bug. Instead of just giving away money, the government gets the money back when things calm down; poetically, they get it back thanks to the health of the banks they saved. Again, this is in pleasant contrast to the S&L bailout, where the banks simply collapsed, costing the government truckloads of FDIC money which was pure loss, never, like my hairline, to return.

If conservatives took deficits as seriously as they say they do, they'd regard this as a great success, but then they'd also be cursing Reagan and praising Clinton and we'd all be wearing shoes on our heads and taking bears to church, so... nevermind.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

David Byrne at Prospect Park

David Byrne's free Brooklyn show, playing the music of the Byrne/Eno collaborations, was a great Brooklyn event, even if the music was only so-so. Old David Byrne is inevitably not young David Byrne, and the need to co-ordinate with a big band and a lot of backup singers only added to his tendency to give the songs a mannered delivery, fussy and calculatedly antic where the original versions sounded genuinely strangled.

But it was still a great evening, not least because of the sheer fall-of-Saigon crowd---the pre-show line started at the 11th street bandshell, extended back to the 15th street entrance, then wrapped around twice. At least twice, that is---I never did manage to find the end of the line. Marty Markowitz, Brooklyn's elected mascot, gave his typical dem, dese, 'n' dose opening speech, which was charming as always (I hope he doesn't really have any power, but he's totally delightful as the political equivalent of Mr. Met).

I wasn't thrilled with the singing, or The David Byrne Modern Dancers (not their actual designation), who boogied around in loose modern-dance-wear while executing what mostly struck me as filler choreography. But it was delightful when Byrne danced along, and any opinion I have must be filtered through the fact that I could only see them in occasional 2-second increments between the heads of everyone else way out beyond the bandshell fence.

And the band had a great funky sound---they truly killed it on "I Zimbra"---and it was amazing to be reminded of just how many hits the Byrne/Eno collaboration produced, including "Once In A Lifetime", "Life During Wartime", and the big encore number, "Burning Down the House". My Life In The Bush of Ghosts remains the most ridiculously ahead-of-its-time record ever, and it's always neat to hear Byrne doing those songs live and singing all the samples, which turns them from collages into surprisingly cohesive songs.

That said, it was a shame that the carefully-planned show didn't give Byrne a chance to note, during the chorus of "Life During Wartime" that nowadays there ain't no Mudd Club nor CBGB. The Mudd Club was an early casualty---the Talking Heads were still playing "Wartime" on the road when it was gone. But while CBGB outlasted most of the bands that played there, the lyrics referencing it em-past-ened the music as surely as all the grade-school kids brought to the show by their parents.