Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Future of Cinemachine

Hello readers,

In the early days of this blog I wrote about whatever I felt like, categorically and by topic. These topics were to my recollection mostly odd subgenres, compelling figures in film and the occasional news item.

I switched to reviews of each film I saw. This has been fun and challenging and has changed the way I watch movies. The posts have gotten longer even on films which I had less to say. My last two reviews, Black Swan and Expendables, have really been the only off-the-cuff undrafted reviews in a long time and got me to thinking.

I would like to announce that this blog will be returning to articles rather than reviews, and in longer essay form. These essays are tentatively about trash movies and will feature a lot more photo-analysis of scenes and images in addition to lengthy text. This will give the blog a bit more of a thematic focus as my interests are centered around the low arts of exploitation.

I know, who doesn't devote their movie blog to sex and horror already? Armond White is entirely accurate in his damnation of the Internet's influence on thoughtful film criticism, and Ivan Brunetti predicted in a cartoon that popular culture will devolve our intelligentsia into an atrophied, degenerate circle teaches courses on "TV's wacky neighbors as reflections on mores of a shifting zeitgest." Patton Oswalt recently wrote an important article for Wired lamenting among things the current crop of nerds weakened by easy access to their obscure tastes.

Trash movie criticism has come a long way since Joe Bob Briggs, Carol J. Clover and The Psychotronic Guide. On some level it's not as vital to devote serious thought to the sci-fi/horror/fantasy genres, especially when they've seeped into the mainstream. However, the mainstream does not know what to do with them. The exploitation era of movies which ended in my estimation around the mid 1990s was one of purer entertainment - raw, visceral, independent - and still has the most to offer movie lovers. The continuing discovery of forgotten cult treasures like Hausu and Joysticks are as valuable to us as Greek antiquity was to the Romans.

There are two kinds of online writing about movies. Pea-brained fan gibberish, as Armond White put it - or earnest, informed criticism and appraisal from a precious few websites like Slant Magazine and bloggers like my colleagues Andrew and JR with whom I am very proud to associate in film appreciation. I'll veer to the latter company and at least keep my own myopic fascination with fun junk literately articulated.

Thanks to subscribers and regulars for tuning in.

- Chip Butty

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky)


Black Swan is indicative of a major problem in post-New Hollywood era Hollywood movies; there are less and less stories about people who work very hard to accomplish something without also losing their souls in the process. The bias toward countercultural antiheroes in place of those who believe in the social contract doesn't leave room for a lot of heroic stories about doctors or lawyers, for instance, unless they're somehow "fighting the system." In the realm of the arts, where post-boomerdom has prized bacchanalia as a prerequisite for uninhibited creativity, our heroes are drunks and drug addicts and pansexuals who find their voice by losing their minds. Natalie Portman's character is told early on by her pimplike director that her years of chaste, sober study of ballet are not enough to succeed: she must find her dark side to play the part. She does so through lesbianism, drugs and drink, while her mind begins to slip away - not as a result of those activities, but because her monastic life up until this point has been so repressive, or something. By literally going crazy, she achieves artistic fulfillment.

This is a typical story not only for reenforcing countercultural establishment myths about art but the triangle created between Portman, Mila Kunis as her ambiguously deceptive friend and rival, and the ballet's director Vincent Cassel, all three of whom give good performances. The backstage drama between the women, with its themes of competition and age, recalls All About Eve and Showgirls. The script allows for sophistication only from Cassel while the women gaze wide eyed at him with fear and hope and attraction, which is rather the point and thus suitable. Kunis plays the whorish one well although its highly unlikely in real life that a professional ballerina with large visible tattoos would be employed. Portman is well suited as a solitudinous central character as her peaked eyes invite empathy throughout her silence.

Aronofsky's healthy interest in singleminded protagonists unfortunately impasses with his trademark freakout shtick which has become art house cliche since Requiem For a Dream and condemns Black Swan to trite sensationalism. Watch, won't you, as poor Portman loses her mind? In shock moments whose special effects are alternately disturbing (broken legs) and cornball beyond belief (paintings coming to life) we have our silent empathy with Portman turned against us. Which is a shame, since her journey until that point is a refreshingly rare acting job of restraint and quiet intensity. When she loses her mind, there's nothing we haven't seen before. When Aronofsky makes us guess as to whether what's happening is in her imagination or not, she becomes a cipher for his predictable escalation of gimmicky directorial tricks.

The first half of the film is not rendered completely worthless by the second. A far better film about metaphorically and literally "losing yourself in the part" as performers like to put it is David Lynch's masterful and criminally unacknowledged Inland Empire (2006). Unlike Aronofsky, Lynch has the courage to place his audience directly inside the head of his schizophrenic actress protagonist Laura Dern, with no horror movie chair-jumpers to distance us from the madness. When Dern goes nuts, we see through her eyes for the next two and a half hours as the world stops making sense. Lynch tries to be a genuine empath to his women. Aronofsky would rather you squirm watching Portman's fingernails crack and bleed.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Expendables (2010, Sylvester Stallone)

I'm not sure if Stallone's apparent affection for the action genre excuses how boring the final product is, but unlike your typical marketing exercise with a movie attached at least he wanted to make a good movie. The problem is he's neither smart enough to satirize the genre that helped define his persona, nor self-deprecating enough to indulge in excess. Your average drive-in action film of the 80s is ridiculous beyond parody, which is why Stallone did the right thing with Rambo by continuing to take his own idiotic Rambo series seriously. Expendables is trying to be clever just hard enough to show you how ignorant it is. Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme all turned down this movie. Good for them for being too genuinely stupid to try for stupid-smart.

What's advertised as a throwback to good old fashioned-ness is actually the same generic modern action movie template with just enough bad language and onscreen blood to earn an "R". I was kind of reminded of 2005's Doom, which hyped it's "R" rating to Internet nerds for credibility while hiding the fact it had replaced the computer game's trademark story of hell demons in space with a lame genetic-experimentation-gone-wrong plot. They knew non-nerds wouldn't care. Then I noticed both Doom and The Expendables were co-written by the same guy, Dave Callaham, who from now on should never be trusted on any claims of authenticity.

PG-13 wouldn't have been that big a stretch. I don't blame people for looking forward to this movie. I was too. Having seen it, I think what the expectations and hopes really embodied were a return to the days when virtually all movies, especially action movies starring adults, weren't made for 15 year olds - even if they were aimed at adults with the maturity level of 15 year olds.

There are three components to the kind of 1980s action movies this movie ostensibly pays homage to through the all-star casting. One is extreme violence. While tons of people do die in firefights and explosions, tally alone doesn't make an impact. Deaths in 1980s action movies made sadism priority number one and came up with ridiculous ways for the bad guys to get it so that the ensuing post-mortem one-liners would be in hilariously bad taste. Like decapitating someone and saying "Don't lose your head, now!" The effect would be achieved with much the same kind of splatter makeup effects being used in all the Friday the 13th type slasher movies of the same era, and would look perfectly gross. Expendables has a few extreme deaths in terms of pain, but not elaborate novelty. Worse, almost all the blood is CGI. If there's one thing Stallone should have been able to pour on in buckets for resurrection of 80s action ethos, it's good old kayo syrup and red food dye.

Violence started leaving the genre in the 1990s when baby boomers got organized around the content levels in mass media. First, they came for Mortal Kombat. Then they put ratings on TV shows. Next thing you know, Die Hard 4 (Live Free or Die Hard) and Terminator 4 (Terminator Salvation) are PG-13. Stallone directs a good car chase scene and a good clinging-to-an-airplane scene and a couple good hand-to-hand combat scenes, but that's what PG-13 action movies have been specializing in for the last 20 years to qualify as "action movies" without any of the good stuff.

The second component the film fails to deliver on is homoeroticism. This is the element which everyone involved with the 80s was too close to to identify objectively. Again, as recently as the 1980s it wasn't assumed that every movie needed to appeal primarily to either 15 year olds or middle aged women and filmmakers figured that guys going to action movies were MEN'S MEN and didn't want any sissy WOMEN characters butting in on screen time which could be used to show off awesomely ripped PECS AND DELTOIDS. Most women in films starring Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal or Charles Bronson get killed really quickly for extra revenge motivation, if they even got speaking roles.

In the 1980s the aerobics fad was peaking and people weren't into lightning quick martial arts on screen. Ninjas were funny talking little Asian guys in hoods who existed to be blown away by giant guns, and those guns were held only by the men who spent enough time pumping iron at the gym to lift them. In other words, the cameras at Cannon Films or any other shlocky exploitation studio had no problem lingering all over sweaty male skin. Then in the 90s came the popularity of actual martial arts movies (as opposed to 1989's American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt), the popularity of female butt-kicking heroines lusted after by nerds and high school girls (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and the increasing visibility of gays in pop culture who popularized pointing out the latent homosexuality of everything from Top Gun to Ernie and Bert.

Expendables hinges its second and third acts around Stallone returning to the fictitious South American island where they spent the first act kicking butt in order to rescue an evil general's daughter after his tattoo artist, Mickey Rourke, delivers an emotional monologue about how he should've saved some random girl's life on some random butt-kicking mission. Remember in Total Recall when Schwarzenegger shoots his traitorous wife in the head and smirks "Consider this a divorce?" Can you even imagine that in a movie today? That wasn't even a "real" action movie by the standards of its time, it was a silly sci-fi special effects romp. At least Stallone gave Rambo the self-awareness as a character in Rambo to know he was just looking for his next excuse to start killing, and women in danger were a convenient excuse.

There's a subplot about Stallone's sidekick Jason Statham being away from his girlfriend so much that she's hooked up with an abusive new guy, which is fine, but only feels acceptable since Statham is from the modern era of action movie stars with onscreen girlfriends who live. She doesn't even have the decency to get kidnapped like Bruce Willis' daughter in the last Die Hard. The inclusion of this emotional backstory unrelated to killing is exactly the kind of depth Stallone purports to be correcting with this film, then he goes and makes sure everyone knows he knows how shallow this kind of movie and these kind of characters are, and he's better than that.

In Rocky III, Stallone and Carl Weathers ran on the beach together in tight shorts. In Tango & Cash he showered with Kurt Russell in prison and they commented on each other's pieces. The all-star cast of The Expendables hinted at a glorious never-ending smorgasbord of wink-wink dick and fag jokes between him and Jet Li (Asian, tiny), Jason Statham (British, fag), Terry Crews (Black, big), Stone Cold Steve Austin (wrestler, shriveled by 'roids), Mickey Rourke (alcoholic, limp), and Dolph Lundgren (European, fag.) Tragically, all we get is one mutual admiration blowjob joke from Bruce Willis directed at Stallone and Schwarzenegger when they cameo together. It's hilarious and a little sad because you can tell it's the only one you're going to get. Today's audiences are too hip for latent homosexuality and all the aforementioned stars are too hip to be left out on the joke anymore, so the result is that such humor simply isn't there. Stallone and Arnold even do an awkward-pause take after Willis makes his remark to, again, let you know that they know.

The third and probably most disappointing element missing from The Expendables is right-wing extremism. With the Cold War still on, 80s action movies had a go-to plot-by-numbers for any situation: send your star to a fictitious Commie country and let him rack up obscene numbers of Rooskies, brown people or Red Chinese. Stallone was arguably more active than anyone in making politics part and parcel of the 80s action experience: 1985's Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV are explicitly about literally avenging the loss of Vietnam and symbolically winning the current struggle against the Soviet Union. The political content in Expendables is a baffling compromise / concession to liberal status quo. After a promisingly topical prologue in which the titular team takes down some Somali pirates the main bad guy Eric Roberts is introduced and he's a rogue CIA agent using a third world dictatorship to run drugs. He also makes the time to waterboard Stallone's love interest. What is this, The Bourne Identity?

Roberts is pretty good - ironically, only the best actor in this movie gets to ham it up - but for goodness sake, did 9/11 really mean the end of silly escapist action movies using people who are actually, currently planning to kill red blooded Americans as villains? In 1984's Red Dawn the uber-right-wing John Milius showed high school kids arming themselves against a Soviet Invasion. The 2011 remake will instead have an invasion by China, since that's even less probable and no one wants to depict America turning into some giant version of Israel.

I remember thinking Stallone's use of postcolonial Burma's current genocidal strife as the backdrop of Rambo was in poor taste. Now I realize the poor taste came from impersonally exploiting a part of the world America isn't implicated in as the battleground for Rambo, his symbol of the American military. The Expendables doesn't call for political content the way that film did, but as a retro-style militaristic commando movie it would've been perfect to include the right-wing slant on contemporary world power struggles off-handedly. To do so casually would be even more incendiary than a prominently demonized ideology with moustache-twirling ethnic stereotypes. Unfortunately Sly didn't have the kishkas and the bad guys are as inoffensively generic as your average 1990s drug runners or computer hackers or white supremacist militia.

The Expendables is a decent action movie only by today's degraded standards. There are a lot of decent performances from the much-ballyhooed ensemble; Statham and Stallone even have some chemistry together and they probably should've just starred together alone. What was the point of assembling a gimmicky stunt cast of action stars if you're not willing to then cut loose and have some campy fun? Because the makers of those films and the men who starred in them weren't self-aware. The only modern action film I can think of which attempted to revel in the ridiculousness of the genre was 2007's Shoot 'Em Up, which no one saw. They did it without "action stars," and now I realize that might have been necessary. After putting everyone through the motions, the only reason Stallone's film has for existing proves to be putting a bunch of these journeymen through said motions together under his auspice. Compared to any film it was supposedly inspired by, The Expendables is disgustingly tasteful and palpably preoccupied with winning over film critics.

The end credits unsurprisingly play "The Boys Are Back In Town" to reinforce Stallone's marketing his work as some kind of return to a golden age. Turns out he's not clever enough to even comprehend what happened, let alone apply that knowledge with a sense of appreciation. He just wishes it could be the way it was again and that he wasn't getting too old for this stuff. His phony, desperate affability in the face of modernity isn't witty or nostalgic. It's pointless and sad.