Amazing what movies get a PG rating these days!
In case you haven't guessed, they left a "-use" off the end of that. That was how they had it listed in LEDs over the box office, too.
The movie was okay -- no prizewinner and I slept through half of it but it beat the other kids' movies in town last weekend.
While folding a big pile of laundry I just watched Party Monster, the Macaulay Culkin vehicle about king of the club kids Michael Alig. Despite all the negative reviews it wasn't bad -- at least its arc didn't conform entirely to the obligatory Horatio Alger story of most biopics, and the wardrobe alone would have been enough to hold my interest.
It made me wonder about the real story so I did some Googling and found too many accounts to make sense of. One that starts off lurid but turns into an almost musicological history is Alix Sharkey's Death by Decadence piece. It's worth a visit if only for the throbbingly bad design of the michaelaligclubkids.com site which hosts it; I love their admonition, "If you have difficulty reading the text go to <view> in your browser." That's a new take on user friendliness!
Music wasn't really the point, though -- early on in the movie one character tells another that all he needs to know as a DJ is to play Studio 54 compilations and Madonna -- so I suspect that people who care about dance music would be happier with 24 Hour Party People.
Anyway, something that caught my eye in Sharkey's piece was this description of one category of parties that Alig threw:
Now making enough money to do things his way, Alig started organising Situationist art events in the form of impromptu "outlaw parties". He and his merry band would just turn up and party in a public place, generating chaos and disorder. They set up detour signs on the Washington Bridge and broke out the vodka, handing drinks to astonished commuters; to celebrate the birthday of Disco 2000's club mascot, Clara the Chicken, Alig and 100 others in blonde wigs, chiffon, hot pants, feather boas and platform shoes boogied on the platform of 34th Street subway station. These events rarely lasted more than 30-45 minutes before the cops arrived and broke them up, generally with good humour. Home video tapes showed the NYPD laughing and wishing Clara the Chicken a happy birthday as the party engulfs the next downtown train.
Yes! Flash mobs! (Which Google also tells me is far from an original comparison, but what the hell.)
Just as the gift shop is the most compelling part of the museum, so do my daughters prefer the previews on the DVD over the feature.
So my idea: all-preview videos! Charge the distributors, charge the consumers a couple of bucks, and get the rental stores to carry it for free... I'd be rich.
I'd heard of the Yes Men before and knew that they engage in high-profile pranks in which they impersonate officials from organizations like the WTO and take the podium at conferences to say what these guys really think. They also give fashion tips.
I was a bit confused because the Cinema Texas program referred to a set of short films but the Yes men site said that this weekend was the New York and LA premiere of their feature-length documentary The Yes Men. So what were we going to see, the shorts or the feature? It turned out to be a bit of both. Yes Man Tyler Nordgren showed excerpts from the feature as well as some short pieces by other allied artists and online demos of some of his art/subversive websites. He was the creator of the now-defunct site Re-Code.com (archived copy) which invited users to generate new bar codes for their favorite consumer goods at more favorable prices. His specialty is "reamed" sites, satirical clones of existing sites, for which the Yes Men have even published a tool called "Reamweaver". It was their spoof of a World Trade Organization site, gatt.org, which got them invited to to conferences by organizers who thought they really represented the WTO.
The video of those appearances was pretty amazing. It's remarkable enough that a bunch of international bureaucrats and the journalists who cover them would sit quietly through a purported WTO official's defense of slavery, but to do the same when the WTO dude appears in a golden body suit sporting a four-foot inflatable phallus? Let's hope the movie does well enough in New York and LA to be released nationally.
Dear Pillow is the latest addition to Austin's low-budget pantheon of movies that succeed against the odds.
It's a small film about a high school kid whose interest in porn takes a turn toward the obsessive under the influence of a couple of older neighbors. It's an unusual movie in that it deals very directly with sex without either glamorizing or demonizing it. It raises a lot of questions about desire and exploitation without being compelled to offer a pat resolution (unlike, say, the much less daring American Beauty).
The filmmakers shot Dear Pillow for $4000, which may show in the sets but not in the acting or the script. The three leads were all convincing and memorable (I want to rush out and see everything Viviane Vives has done) and it was especially good to see the role of a teenager played by someone who actually looks like a teenager.
The movie will be at the Alamo Village for the next week. Since it hasn't found a distributor, this run is its first chance to make a little money and start paying some of the Austin filmheads who put their sweat into making it. Now would be a good time to turn out and support the home team.
Although I'm freshly returned from Brazil, my mind is also on Cuba. In Rio I got to see Walter Salles' new film, The Motorcycle Diaries, set to open in the US some time this fall. As I mentioned previously the movie is about the trip young Ernesto Guevara took along the length of South America before he became the revolutionary Che. I had high hopes for the movie but I'm afraid it left me with mixed feelings: as a road movie it's gorgeous but as a biopic it seems simplistic.
It's not that I don't believe in the story -- an idealistic but naive young med student becomes radicalized by a trip through the realities of Latin America. That's an archetype as old as Buddha and an experience that I and the hispanophile liberals of my generation so longed for that it spawned a kind of political tourist industry in Nicaragua and elsewhere. And it's not that I don't believe in Gael García Bernal's once again outstanding performance. The problem is that Salles paints his subject with such an untarnished halo. I know that we're seeing young Che before he had any blood on his hands, but wouldn't a nuanced portrayal of his conversion include at least a hint of the moral ambiguities to come? And the symbolism used to show him crossing the line, even if it's biographically accurate (did he really swim that river?), is so heavy-handed that it threatens to swamp the whole project. Not even Salles' moving use of non-actors as the peasants, Indians, miners and lepers Che meets along the way (something he brilliantly underscores in a Richard-Avedon-like gallery during the credits) creates enough sense of reality to overcome the suspicion that we're watching hagiography instead of biography.
So when I got home the first book to jump off the shelf into my hand was Andrei Codrescu's Ay, Cuba! I've just started it but Codrescu's ironic form of anarcho-liberal anti-communism seems to be just the tonic I need after that movie. Codrescu cites Jon Lee Anderson's biography of Che to show that by the time of the Cuban missile crisis, Che was an "insane ideological maniac" who was furious at Kruschev for not proceeding with WWIII, certainly destroying Cuba if not the planet in the process. Where is the tender-hearted med student in that murderous death wish? Maybe I'll read Anderson's book next to find out.
Meanwhile Codrescu's book has stirred up my longstanding wish to see Cuba once before Fidel dies and the gusanos carve up the place.
And the Steven Soderburgh-Benicio del Toro project Che is scheduled to start shooting in August, 2005. Let us hope that Soderburgh learns a lesson from Salles' mistakes and drops the halo.
JM Branum notes that Dazed and Confused is coming out on DVD, but last I checked Slacker was still only only available on VHS. Amazon is even out of stock on that, although plenty of copies are available used.
What's more annoying is that the VHS version is abridged. I didn't watch it with the script in hand, but I noticed, for instance, that the whole thread involving Poi Dog Pondering's Frank Orrall as "happy-go-lucky guy" is missing -- you know, where he's accosted by the unbalanced woman at GM Steakhouse and then apparently hit by a car. I'm pretty sure there's more that was cut. Pity, as Slacker is still the essential Austin movie and arguably the spore from which much of the Austin film scene grew.
If you're new to town, go rent Slacker ASAP. You'll see one layer deeper into the weird that is Austin.
Diarios de motocicleta is based on a trip the young Che Guevara took across South America with a friend -- or, as his family describes it, a trip taken by Ernesto Guevara before he became the revolutionary Che. You don't have to be a fidelista to be interested in that premise. The movie is directed by Brazilian Walter Salles (Central Station) and stars Gael García Bernal (Amores perros, Y tu mamá también). That a Brazilian would direct such an iconic movie about Hispanoamérica is intriguing; it reminds me of the statement of Guevara's travelling companion, Alberto Granado, that "Like most Argentineans at the time, we knew more about the Greeks and the Phoenicians than we knew about the Incas and Latin America." I get the feeling that most Brazilians know as little about Spanish-speaking Latin America as do we gringos.
A world away in tone and geography is A Day Without a Mexican, a comedy in which anglo California gets its wish and all the latinos suddenly disappear. "I had to wash a dish!" exclaims a horrified restaurant owner. "I had to risk my life for a tomato!" cries a consumer. You get the idea. I expect the humor, though broad, to be pretty good -- it's directed by multitalented journalist/artist/musician Sergio Arau.
Both movies' websites are pretty interesting, but if you want to be horrified, take a look at the forum for A Day Without a Mexican. You'll think you're at a Klan rally.
The Motorcycle Diaries just opened in Brazil and according to IMDB is scheduled for a limited US release in November. A Day Without a Mexican is counting down to a May 14 release, but the website lists only California theaters. Let's hope it makes it over to Texas.
(And thanks to Ethno-queer for the link!)
IMDB lists 4425 entries from Brazil whereas Vulcan Video only carries 32 Brazilian titles, so my choices are somewhat limited. (Netflix carries even fewer, which is why I'm no fan of Netflix. What's the point of abandoning your local video store if the big faceless service in the sky doesn't offer a better selection?) But here are the highlights.
Black Orpheus / Orfeu Negro (1959) - The movie that started the worldwide bossa nova craze. A retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice set against a gorgeous backdrop of Rio and music by Tom Jobim. I was humming tristeza não tem fim, felicidade sim for days afterward. There's a remake with music by Caetano Veloso, Orfeu (1999), which I haven't seen because I know it can't touch the original.
Bossa Nova (2000) - A fluffy bilingual romantic comedy by Brazilian director Bruno Barreto and starring his gringolandian wife Amy Irving. If you spot it a few points for occasional clunkers in the dialogue, it's a perfectly fine example of the genre, and again it's worth the rental price for the scenery of Rio alone.
Central Station / Central do Brasil (1998) - You probably know this one because it was Brazil's biggest art-house breakout in recent years, at least before City of God. Genuinely touching drama of an orphan and a lonely older woman who set out to find his family. Director Walter Salles' next project, The Motorcycle Diaries, has been getting lots of buzz: it's based on the trip Che Guevara took by motorcycle throughout South America before he became a revolutionary icon.
City of God / Cidade de Deus (2002) - Something I never thought I'd see, social realism wedded with a Quentin Tarantino-style aesthetic of violence. Somehow it works, perhaps because the departures into choreographed mayhem get across the appeal that violence might plausibly hold for kids trapped in the slums. One of my favorite movies.
Copacabana (2001) - An elderly resident of Rio's most famous beachfront neighborhood looks back over his life and the changes the city has seen. A good effort, but it requires some serious suspension of disbelief to see past its limited production values, notably the lead's old-man makeup.
Dog's Will / Auto da Compadecida (2000) - The copy I saw had one of the strangest covers in Vulcan, which is saying a lot: titled in Chinese, with several scruffy peasants overshadowed by someone who looked made up for the Chinese Opera. It turns out that the movie is 100% Brazilian and the strange dude is the devil, who appears only briefly. It's a thoroughly funny picaresque comedy about a couple of tricksters in rural 19th-century Brazil. The one feature which approaches the strangeness of the cover is some peculiar rapid-fire editing -- all the better for its cult value, I suppose.
Domésticas (2001) - Sympathetic but satirical look at lives of domestic servants in the big city. Some funny spots, some flat ones, on balance a good try.
Four Days in September / O Que É Isso, Companheiro? (1997) - Serious political thriller in a Costa-Gavras vein about an underground group during the Brazilian dictatorship who kidnap the American ambassador. Watchable, although both the characters and the plot would have been more interesting if they'd been a little less straightforward.
Me You Them / Eu Tu Eles (2000) - A poor woman in the badlands of the Brazilian Northeast accumulates four sons and three husbands. Slow, gorgeous, funny and sad. Regina Casé is remarkable as the anti-Sónia Braga: she looks like someone who spent twenty years chopping sugar cane and having babies but is sexy as hell anyway.
O Homem Nu (1997) - Silly and repetitive comedy about a man who gets locked out of his apartment, naked, and leads a slapstick chase across the city. It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Rio.
Ópera do Malandro (1986) - A Brazilian reinvention of the Threepenny Opera, with music by Chico Buarque. It's a noir musical, if you can imagine that combination, so it calls for a specialized taste, but I enjoyed it.
I saw The Barbarian Invasions (Les invasions barbares) yesterday, sequel to one of my favorite movies, The Decline of the American Empire by French-Canadian director Denys Arcand. I managed to rent Decline and re-watch it first, which I recommend: it gives the pair a time-capsule quality like Michael Apted's Seven Up series. Not only do we see the changes in hair styles and attitudes we could find in any two movies from 1986 and 2003, but we also see the physical changes and, more importantly, the persistence of personality in the characters (and the actors) over 17 years. Nothing strengthens an examination of youth, maturity and mortality like watching it happen.
Decline and Invasion are talky movies. Both concern a circle of old friends who talk incessantly about their past, about aging and about history. American viewers may be reminded of The Big Chill (1983) and the John Sayles movie it ripped off, Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980), but a better comparison would be Alain Tanner's For Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976). History is experienced unconsciously in the American movies, but consciously in these Swiss and Canadian ones; in fact Jonah and Decline both begin with a teacher standing in front of a class giving a history lecture.
But don't think these movies are dry. The're funny and sad and engaging. For instance the characters talk a great deal about sex and, in Decline anyway, act on their talk. (It's unclear whether they are reenacting the Summer of Love as they hop in and out of each others' beds or following an older philandering tradition.) One of the most notable differences between the two movies is that the younger characters in Invasion, grown children of the principals, are devoid of both humor and sex. The death of sex could be attributed to AIDS, I suppose, but not that of humor. Does Arcand really believe the baby boomers had a lock on belly laughs? He doesn't address pop culture much, so no Simpsons, Onion or Internet memes are seen to serve as counterexamples. Maybe he dismisses humor experienced via a glowing screen and is only interested in humor experienced live, with friends. If that's so, he could have a case.
His political and historical points are also obscure, at least for this resident of the empire. Each movie has an overt thesis: in Decline it is that decadence and the pursuit of personal happiness are signs of the collapse of a great power; in Invasion it is that 9/11 was a watershed not because of the relative handful of deaths but because they occurred in the heart of the system. We also see a contrast in the value of being just outside the splash zone; in Decline the characters revel in being Canadian and Quebecois, at arms' length from the cultureless Americans, but in Invasion it's clear that being outsiders has its costs. (Has the Canadian health care system really turned into a bombed-out Sarajevo hospital?)
There's more talk on each of these themes, but the movies seem more complicated than such simple points. Which is why I've enjoyed watching Decline several times over the years, and plan to do the same with Invasion.
I still haven't seen Mel Gibson's Passion and don't know whether I will, despite its status as a linguistic curiosity. Maybe if I make it a double feature with Life of Brian.
Given that Gibson's gamble is paying off at the box office, can imitators be far behind? In particular I think India, which already has a history of monstrously successful religious epics for the small screen and plenty of secular violence for the big one, would go in a big way for the hyperrealistic religious gore people say is the core of Gibson's Passion. You only have to browse a few Amar Chitra Katha comics to find plenty of material. And while Muslims are offended by pictorial representations of Muhammad, to the extent that movies about his life have been made without him appearing on screen, would that proscription apply to Muslim martyrs like Hussein?
Unfortunately, given the current state of religious extremism in India and the Muslim world, I fear that any trend toward graphic representations of religious conflict in those places would make the flap about alleged anti-Semitism in Gibson's movie seem like a walk in the park.
Despite my newfound interest in tango, somehow I missed Assassination Tango when it was in the theaters. It is better than I expected -- Robert Duvall's character of a quirky old hit man out for one last job could have been a My Left Foot/Rain Man -style acting exercise but it seems more genuine. Perhaps the fact that Duvall wrote and directed the movie and cast himself opposite his real-life partner Luciana Pedraza has something to do with it. The suspense subplot isn't bad if you remember the "sub" part, but what makes the movie is the tango, both the performances themselves and what I took for unscripted conversations with real dancers (an Austin Chronicle interview confirms that). I've never had much understanding for dance or patience for watching it, but in a dramatic setting and with outstanding music behind it I found it gripping.
I discovered Assassination Tango from a preview I saw in Brazil at a showing of Good Bye, Lenin. (Watching it in German with Portuguese subtitles was a nice linguistic challenge!) It is a nicely done comedy about a young man in 1989 East Berlin who attempts to convince his invalid mother that the wall hasn't come down. It is full of references which must be curiously nostalgic for Ostdeutsche -- crummy old Soviet bloc brands of canned goods and 60's socialist children's cartoons, for instance. It doesn't pretend that the DDR was any better than it was but it does recognize that there must have been a lot which people were attached to. I suppose a decent term paper could be written comparing Good Bye, Lenin with dramas about Nazi family life like Tadellöser & Wolff. Come to think of it, it has a thematic similarity with the concentration-camp comedy Life is Beautiful but I haven't seen that one so I don't know.
I was less impressed with 21 Grams. I had high hopes based on Amores Perros, the previous movie by Mexican director Alejandro González Iñarritu. 21 Grams was shot with a similarly gritty, washed-out look and the performers all put in some heavy emotional lifting, but the story didn't pull me in at all. Nor did the back-and-forth achronological structure -- I felt like we were being set up for a thriller-style twist at the end but there was none. Ultimately the movie is more like a throwback to 70's European plotless angst and it takes more than that to interest me nowadays.
Catching up on a few other titles: Lost in Translation is as good as everybody says (although I don't understand how Gwen could put Bill Murray's rendition of More Than This on a compilation CD); Matchstick Men is no Grifters but it is a decent caper flick, certainly good enough as airplane fare (that's where I saw it), and doesn't turn the father-daughter angle into treacle as I expected; Intolerable Cruelty is not the Coens' best but funny enough.
I went to see the documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised hoping for a clearer picture of Hugo Chávez and his populist regime in Venezuela. If you listen to the American activist community, he's the last best hope for the left in Latin America. If you tune into the the Spanish-language blogosphere you're likely to hear mostly voices who consider him one step removed from the devil.
My skeptical hunch has been that there's some truth and some falsehood on both sides. I don't find it implausible that both Chávez's supporters and opponents would be guilty of intimidation or worse. While I'm as happy as the next bleeding heart to see someone stand up to the IMF and the Bush administration on matters of economic and foreign policy, it's not clear that defiance is a workable strategy, especially not when the elite is willing to sabotage Venezuela's economy with general strikes. The predominance of Chávez critics online isn't hard to explain if you consider who has access to the Internet in Venezuela.
Unfortunately this documentary doesn't answer the large questions about the legitimacy of the Chávez government, the realism of its economic reforms or its alleged abuse of power. Instead it's an exercise in dumb luck: the Irish film crew happened to be caught in the middle of a rightist coup that temporarily ousted Chávez. There's footage from inside the presidential palace in the tense hours while the generals threatened to bomb it unless Chávez surrendered to his kidnappers, and more footage as the loyal palace guard re-took it with the support of thousands of Chávez supporters outside. We see Chávez's confused cabinet emerge from hiding and strategize his successful release and restoration to power.
What the filmmakers do attempt to analyze is the effect of media concentration as the events unfolded. As pro- and anti-Chávez forces clashed in the streets, Venezuela's private TV stations conspired to broadcast only pro-coup propaganda: an embargo on coverage of pro-Chávez demonstrators except for fabricated video to pin the worst violence on them. The one pro-Chávez outlet, a government station, was taken off the air by sabotage. I'm sympathetic to the filmmakers' message that corporate control of the media threatens democracy, but in fact satellite TV, the Internet and word of mouth soon revealed the coupists' lies. Once the pro-Chávez forces realized after all that they had not been routed they made short work of reversing the coup.
So I'm not sure that this documentary provides the smoking gun to prove that Fox and Clear Channel and their equivalents around the world are the embodiment of evil. If anything it suggests that crude 1984-style 2+2=5-isms no longer work, which leaves us only subtler and harder-to-prove Chomskyan arguments about the manufacture of political reality.
Meanwhile I'm still looking for insight into Chávez. The Frontline piece seems about as good as their stuff usually is. And while Amnesty International doesn't seem to equate the Chávez regime with Castro's, their annual report doesn't give him clean hands, either.
(One last thought: the more I learn about Chávez, the more I think Brazil is blessed to have Lula.)
It was a good movie and a ripping yarn, but I'm sure I can't have been the only person watching Master and Commander who thought of Kirk and Spock. Which means the slash fiction must already be proliferating. I think I'll refrain from typing "Master slash Commander" into Google, thank you very much.
Some time recently in Austin I saw a trailer for Mel Gibson's biblical epic The Passion. That's curious, because according to a 9/15/03 New Yorker article (not online) and various more recent news reports, the movie is still looking for a distributor. Is Austin part of its pre-distribution marketing strategy for some reason? Maybe trailers for not-yet-bought films are common, I don't know.
In the theater I had a couple of immediate reactions. One was my visceral defensive response to any sort of religious propaganda; been there, done that, thank you very much. But trying to see beyond that I couldn't tell whether the movie might be interesting or not. It is clearly shooting for historical realism in a Hollywood sort of way, but there is one obvious error: the cast is so European. That's such a naive ethnocentric mistake (or conscious propaganda tactic, you pick) that I couldn't believe anything else I was seeing, either. Shades of the epic Hindu soap operas from India: give me an art movie or give me a scrupulous historical reenactment, but spare me the plastic helmets and cardboard swords, please.
That said, there are other reasons to be interested in The Passion. One is that Gibson has his cast doing their lines in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew. No telling yet whether that will be philologist's Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew or Monty Python Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew. IMDB lists just four movies with Aramaic dialogue (one of which is the 1991 adult title Rocky Mountains starring Leanna Foxxx and Jake Steed -- say what?) so whatever happens The Passion will be a significant contribution to that genre. For you language geeks who want to be prepared, you can find Aramaic lessons online. I'm not quite that excited, but if someone can point me at a one-pager on the high points, with perhaps a bit on how to tell the difference between spoken Aramaic and spoken Hebrew, I'd be much obliged. (Oh, the movie also has a promotional website in modern Aramaic, presumably a first.)
The other is the controversy about the movie itself, which is too complicated to do justice to here (for that see the New Yorker article), but the short version is this. The movie is Gibson's personal vision, based on a very literal Catholic Traditionalist interpretation of the Gospels. That upsets Jews because the Gospels are commonly interpreted by literalists in a way which blames all Jews collectively for the crucifixion. It also upsets mainstream Catholic authorities, secular biblical scholars and many Protestants because of the association with antisemitism and because of their belief in interpretations which transcend the inconsistencies of literalism. But in support of Gibson's film are large numbers of evangelical Christians and conservative rank-and-file Catholics who believe in literalism on principle and love the idea of a representative of godless Hollywood making the ultimate Christian movie. At present the two sides are lined up to pressure the distribution houses as to whether or not to buy the rights and if that happens to pump the word of mouth, pro and con. It's a relief that for once the controversy doesn't pit sacrilegious artists vs. religious censors, as in so many others; this time it's the religious vs. the religious, and the rest of us can take a breather.