Sunday, October 21, 2012

Mixtape: Party Monster

Because we are living in the age when the pursuit of all values other than money, success, fame, glamour, has either been discredited or destroyed. Because we've gone too far with the drugs, darling, and while we know the best superstar is a dead superstar, we're hoping that you love us.  Oh, and do you like my UFO?  22 songs to get you dressed up, decked out, and make you a Party Monster. Sometimes Halloween lasts all year.

*Gif grabbed from Wisawall's tumblr.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Love: Argo

The teenagers cleaning the theater couldn't sweep up the popcorn fast enough.  Plans had taken a turn and a friend and I found ourselves waiting in an empty queue for a late night showing of Argo in a deserted mall.  The screening before had released a stampede of married couples, old people, and ladies who lunch all muttering about the merits of Ben Affleck. We waited. I tried not to listen to their comments. With only a few stragglers left, it was too late...we were cornered.  Argo had attracted the rare breed of movie talker: the person who can really only talk about a movie with any certainty to people who haven't seen the movie, and who asks said people to explain to them how key parts of the movie were working.  She was waiting for her husband, and in the meantime she wanted to impart deep thoughts. "It really gets you thinking about what's happening now, you know?"  she said.  When we didn't respond well, she repeated it to the two others who had appeared behind us in the empty queue.  "All the stuff in the Middle East.  All the riots."  Her query, besides, was a squawked question: "I still don't know where those pictures came from. Where did those pictures come from? How did they get them?"  When her husband showed up, he looked at her like she was a moron. "Easily. I'll explain it to you later."  If they're the photos I'm thinking of, she had to have been asleep through the movie.  This was our introduction to Argo: a movie tailor-made for old people, a movie that makes shallow people think shallowly deep thoughts, a movie where people are like "oh hey, did you know Ben Affleck directs now?"
Yes. There are things Ben Affleck does.  He probably brushes his teeth, for example. One would assume. Apart from that, however, he has now directed three films and I am prepared to go on record with my opinion that Ben Affleck is a better director than an actor.  He's an alright actor, sure, but he's got a sort of preternatural knack for helming a thriller, and he seems to know how to get the best performances out of himself.  In Argo, Affleck stars as real-life CIA operative Tony Mendez.  In the do or die days following the 1979 storming of the US embassy in Tehran that resulted in the Iran Hostage Crisis, Mendez was one of the men charged with the task of devising a way to sweep in and rescue the six American embassy employees who had managed to escape capture and hide away unseen in the Canadian ambassador's house.  The situation is potentially explosive, the violence on the streets has escalated to a staggering level, and a US military presence is out of the question if the lives of the 52 hostages are to be spared.  With nothing but shitty options, Mendez hatched a plan so far-fetched it sounds fictional: set up a fake movie, fly in pretending to be a Hollywood producer, fly out with the six stowaways assuming new identities as the location scouting crew of a phony science fiction blockbuster.  It's a true story that lends itself easily to adaptation, and Affleck knows how to doll up declassified history to keep the audience in suspense.  
As the man with the plan, Affleck is as dry and grounded as he needs to be.  Because the story itself is a convoluted mash-up of what we saw, what we didn't see, and what we might never have known, there's room for the camera to bounce between elements of the narrative and to keep the action in balance with just enough development of the primary characters.  Mendez isn't a slick hero, but sort of an unassuming guy who just happens to be really good at his job.  Affleck knows not to glamorize him, and Argo exercises surprising amounts of restraint and faithfulness to the psychology of its source material.  The six Americans are never given the chance to rise above their roles as 'parts' of Mendez's mission.  They're each human, each fragile, each scared, but the film is only concerned with the telling of the story in a way that follows procedure.  Connections aren't formed where there are none, relationships under duress don't magically sprout in a tender moment somewhere near the brink of failure.  There's something about this realism that feels like restraint, that creates the sense that we can trust the film to show us something true.  This is Argo's greatest strength, and a testament to Affleck's skills as a director.  Though the film is highly stylized towards a period influence, and though its subject may be direct from Hollywood, Affleck is using the flashy elements to lure us in and then burying them in the Tehran sand.  It's partially an illusion of real substance, as it can be said that Argo is conventional in any number of ways; that it's the uniqueness of the trivia that makes it any different from your dime a dozen thriller, that in some ways the what happened doesn't always make the best 'what could have happened' movie scene. That's all based on another true story, but there's certainly something to be said for the quality of the illusion. While I wouldn't call it Oscar-worthy in any of the major categories, Argo is an illusion of that brand of seasonal substance that's sharp, entertaining, and curious enough to be of note. It knows where it's going and it knows exactly how to get there without breaking a sweat.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Love: Frankenweenie

When I was a kid, one of my go-to staples from the library or video store was Tim Burton's live action short Frankenweenie (1984).  Yes, live action.  Yes, this is not the first telling of this story.  Yes, there was a time when the short was packaged on its very own tape (it's shown up since in the special features on Nightmare Before Christmas).  It was blue and pink, I think, perhaps in an effort to distract kids from the fact they were willingly entering into a black and white movie.  I loved the original Frankenweenie, but even then it seemed conducive to something bigger.  Given the right reasons, the right attention to style, there was room for more story, for more characters in that brief half an hour. Still, there was no reason for a larger arc to happen. If the new Frankenweenie hadn't come along, I'd probably have continued life perfectly happy with memories of the old one as a one-off, a nostalgia tinted early film from a now 'overblown' director. I'd have been alright, but, luckily, Disney and Tim Burton couldn't let Frankenweenie lie.  They decided to resurrect the dog once again, and I'm insanely, dementedly glad they did.      
Where Laika's stop-motion ParaNorman was a dizzyingly inventive animated kid-slant on a more adult breed of horror film (the slasher, the zombie, etc), Frankenweenie is a lush, gorgeously goofy homage to the worlds inhabited by Universal's monsters.  Tim Burton's finger-prints are all over every frame of this feature. The character design is as comfortably familiar as it is inventive; big eyes, narrow chins, spindly arms and legs. The human characters walk on Edward Gorey pins and needles, prematurely exhausted as young children, the animals have tiny bulb noses. The suburban sprawl is a dark shadow of the pastel streets in Edward Scissorhands, the neighbors grotesque versions of the usual suspects.  Then, there's a sort of B-movie zeal in the homemade mad science labs and grave-robbing experiments. This is a film world untouched by digital gadgetry, where kids make things, have kites, carry jars of trapped critters, and cause chaos come science fair time. Frankenweenie is vintage Burton, a refurbished relic from a time that predates the explosion of big-budget fare following his crash landing on the Planet of the Apes.  It's an honest, genuine, ingenious little treasure that's endearingly, adorably wonderful as it delights in Burton's special blend of the heartfelt macabre.   
For those who didn't have the pleasure of growing up on the short film, allow me to outline the basic idea (and some of the snazzy new expansions): Frankenstein with a beloved dog.  That's really all it is.  Young Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is a gawky, hyper-intelligent kid whose only friend is his beloved dog Sparky. When Victor's dad attempts to push him to be someone he's not, the fates intervene, chaos reigns, and poor Sparky meets his tragic end.  Torn up by his loss and inspired by his new, sinister science teacher, Victor decides to try and secretly reanimate Sparky's corpse. Needless to say: it works. Sparky is a living dead dog whose appendages may sometimes fall off, but who happily scampers about as if nothing had ever happened.  Of course, a reanimated corpse is kind of a big deal, and Victor knows it's a fairly creepy, taboo thing to have even considered.  So, the pressure is on to keep Sparky a secret as his classmates suspiciously lurk about seeking solutions to their science fair woes.
As if the animation weren't already good enough, the massively expanded screenplay offers a seriously clever, relentlessly entertaining solution to the switch in form.  Where I'd hoped to be merely charmed by the film, I found myself in fits of hysterical giggling. There's a hearty dose of sharp dialogue here, the sort that works on multiple levels to acknowledge and comment on the dark implications while simultaneously keeping things light enough for the wimpiest of wimpy children.  Mr. Rzykruski's (Martin Landau) overtly dramatic science lessons were much appreciated by this kid, as were the seriously oddball comments of the spectre-like Weird Girl (Catherine O'Hara on helium) and Peter Lorre-esque adolescent Nassor (Martin Short).  There's something about the strange movements of the stop motion bodies (especially the aforementioned Weird Girl and her cat, Mr. Whiskers), too, that suggests the delightfully deadpan, and it's just plain hard not to laugh at the squiggly flailing limbs of a fallen clay poodle.  Whether the squiggly poodle grabs you or not, though, I recommend you go out of your way to see this perfect Halloween treat.  If you've found yourself missing the Tim Burton of yore, this is the return to form you may have thought wasn't coming.  Frankenweenie has style and substance, it's old school in all the ways that count. 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Halloween Mixtape: WIFE + 'Antichrist'

Electronic side project WIFE is the byproduct of Irish black metal, and "Bodies" is a gently throbbing, soothingly unsettling piece of music that lulls you to a sleepy death.  There's a touch of Planningtorock in there, a bit of some remnant Druid ritualism, and some creepy antler stroking.  All in all, it's just the right mix up of pretty and disturbing for me to pair it easily with Lars Von Trier's controversial Antichrist.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Halloween Mixtape: The Orwells + 'Carrie'

Sometimes I get ideas and I just decide to go with them.  With the arrival of October comes a Halloween-style ADD in which every thought is punctuated by stupid shit like "I NEED A COSTUME" or "DO THEY MAKE WIGS LIKE THAT" or "PUUUUUUUUMPKINS" or "WHAT IF MICHAEL MYERS TOOK OFF HIS MASK AND HE WAS MICHAEL SHANNON?"  So, today I decided that whenever I had a second I would try and be minimally festive on the internets and post some seasonal musical stylings. Then I was like: this is a film blog, so clearly the musical stylings must be matched with a movie (and minimal commentary).

So, I ran across the premiere of "Halloween All Year" by Chicago garage band The Orwells on Pitchfork this afternoon and obviously had to continue along this path. The Orwells are apparently a band of 17-year old suburban kids, a little rough around the edges, perhaps, but certainly ambitious.  Pair the glittery slasher track "Halloween All Year" with the telekinetic misery of poor, poor Carrie White, serve bloody. 

Squalor: Pitch Perfect

How many puns can we make here?  Pitch Perfect hits a sour note?  Pitch Perfect a little flat?  Pitch Perfect, not quite?  Let's stop there. Three is enough. We don't want to become too tedious in our exuberance, you know?  Not like, um, Pitch Perfect.  Though I tired of Glee's relentless, exhausting idiocy long ago, Pitch Perfect looked like a bright spot on the movie calendar; a couple hours of goofy, girl-powered teen comedy with an added bonus in the scene-stealing Rebel Wilson.  Granted,Wilson makes her brand of awkward comedy work, and newcomer Hana Mae Lee's sneakily off-the-wall lines are another surprising touch, but the rest of it?  Cute...but also over-complicated, underdeveloped, tonally confused, strained, phenomenally shallow, and only moderately funny. The most disappointing part?  It has so much potential for truly effective Mean Girls-style satire that it shouldn't have to resort to formula antics.  Yet, it fits comfortably into them, snuggly in confinement, never bothering to try and do anything just outside the norm.  
Ostensibly, Pitch Perfect is the story of Beca (Anna Kendrick), a girl pushed into attending college by her professor father. She resents it because, well, she seems to generally resent everything. Beca doesn't have an interest in friends, in participating, in movies, or in learning; she just likes wiling away the hours mashing up tracks on her Traktor software.  Beca belongs to a class of characters who do not qualify to be protagonists.  Her lack of interests makes her uninteresting. Her attitude isn't a steely reserve, but instead simply an absence.  She's a stand-in for a skill set which we know,  without question, will serve as the hail mary for the campus's ailing a capella group: The Barden Bellas.

Kendrick has a reputation as a capable actress, but here her self-aware, stiff, shoulder-chip style is so uptight it's nearly unbearable when she actually starts singing. She's singing through her teeth, standing like her ever-present headphones are plugged into her ass, and it's nearly impossible to buy into her as the fresh new presence in a stale old group.  Of course, Chloe (Brittany Snow) and Aubrey (Anna Camp), the veteran pair heading up the Bellas are even more rigid. Simply put: Snow and Camp just don't seem young anymore.  They look comparatively haggard when mingling with the new recruits, and the longer their characters cling to the failed 'old traditions' of the group, the more tiresome the film becomes. By the time we reach the inevitable final round of the competition, we know next to nothing about the characters, little about their motivations outside of the club, and so much has been left to brainless coincidence that the story is going through the motions straight through the forced musical numbers.    
A few years ago I found the feminist implications of The House Bunny's post-make over process to be a serious damper to an otherwise entertaining film.  As I watched Pitch Perfect, I found myself beginning to wish for some of that movie's jokes. While Pitch never forces its characters through unnatural changes or into a set mold, it also never bothers to really let them operate as anything other than two-dimensional devices to forward the exposition.  They may be able to sing, and it may not aspire to grand social change, but I'm certainly not seeing enough of a difference between what Pitch has to offer (other than Wilson's 'Fat Amy') and the swirling silliness of Glee. Though, oddly, the cinematographers here could learn a thing or two from Glee about filming a successful, energetic musical number (these are a little lazy). Still, there's enough innocuous cute in the film to keep you at least moderately interested, and if you see it with a slight fever while laid up on the couch, you'll probably like it tremendously.  As for me?  I'll stick with those opening puns.

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