Monday, March 31, 2014

Tally Up

Taxi Driver
Blade Runner
Army of Darkness
They Live
Back to the Future
The Warriors
Return of the Jedi

Monday, March 24, 2014

On My Radar: Sofia Coppola’s The Little Mermaid

One of my all-time favorite directors set to take a stab at the classic fish-out-of-water story.
It should go without saying -- of course, there are a lot of "shoulds" in this world -- that The Little Mermaid is not a Disney creation but originally a work of fairy tale literature from Hans Christian Anderson, and that comparisons with the 1989 Disney animated film is like comparing Disney’s The Jungle Book with Kipling’s original story: vast differences, to say the least. Anderson’s telling is hauntingly dark, psychologically rooted, sociologically reflective (of the times in which it was written) and concludes rather fatalistically. There are no songs. No Flounder.
I know a lot of people think very little of Coppola, either dismissing her on claims of nepotism or her films for being hollow and superficial, or both. Some might also dismiss this project as yet another cash-in on the current trend of classic fairy tale adaptations. The latter might be true to some initial extent, but Coppola is definitely her own auteur filmmaker and bringing her onboard to direct, in my opinion, indicates a likelier departure from mainstream genre tropes where a young heroine graduates to warrior princes and gets caught up in CG set-pieces.
Coppola is traditionally not a plot-oriented, narrative filmmaker, so I’m interested to see how, or how much, she might venture into such storytelling, or if at all; assuming Universal doesn’t let her take the adaptation entirely into her own realm of fashionized, mood-piece minimalism and observationalism. Another point of consequence for me is that, to my recollection, all of Coppola’s feature films have been shot on various locations, whereas the fairy tale material in question beckons the fanciful artifice that only soundstage filmmaking can provide. I’m not sure which I find more enticing: the prospect of Coppola delving for the first time into more overt Hollywood spectacle or that she may nonetheless opt to render fantasy settings through immersive real world environs to surrealistic effect. Either way should prove to be a visual splendor.  


Saturday, March 22, 2014

A.I. Artificial Intelligence: some passing thoughts

[Reiterated from a previous blog]

'The Best of Both Worlds' by Jonathan Rosenbaum

A.I. Artificial Intelligence - A Visual Study Part I and Part 2 by Ben Sampson

Discussed to great lengths by many, as it should be, A.I. Artificial Intelligence needs to be examined and debated and disagreed over. Analysis is warranted. So many have long since provided deeper insights; at this point I have no major revelations to offer, only a few observations and my own personal, clipped opinion of the film's intentions and lasting philosophical message.

Stanley Kubrick was not an idiot. He wasn't naïve about Steven Spielberg as a filmmaker. There is a very specific reason he chose Spielberg to direct this film, and one that proves effective once you look beyond the surface-level sentimentalism. People think Kubrick would have rightly subverted the material had he directed, while not realizing the obviousness of such an outcome: Spielberg was the subversion, and a masterstroke of genius it was on Kubrick’s part to assign him the film. Moreover, Spielberg was not unaware of these reasons either, nor is he unable to recognize his own filmmaking sensibility and seize it antithetically when necessary.

We never see the outside placement of Harry and Monica's house. We never get a sense of just where exactly they live. This may seem trivial at first, but consider how common a practice it is in film to begin each new scene or setting with an establishing location shot i.e., a home, workplace, police station, castle etc. There's a general sense of geography that never really happens in A.I. The home of David's adopters seems to materialize from the inside out of nowhere – nowhere, in fact, becomes a place of its own in this film; because while the affordable livings and social lifestyles of Harry and Monica implies an upscale suburban setting, the small glimpses of their outside surroundings reveals just the opposite.

Behind Monica when she first encounters David is a open balcony revealing windblown trees beyond. During the couple's first sit-down meal with David in the dining room, notice through the background window a forest stretching the evening horizon. No streets, no neighborhoods; just endless wilderness under dark, watery ambiance. In later scenes we see Monica, David and Martin sharing a small boat along a forested lagoon, and a backyard birthday party is walled by fern and foliage, barely showing the house exterior.

Mossy primeval environments extends beyond the home setting, seemingly everywhere, on the road to Cybertronics, to the place of David’s abandonment, all-encompassing so that Flesh Fairs and even the sprawling Rouge City feel like secluded remnants of modern humankind amidst a larger natural world reborn. This of course plays into the film’s sci-fi conceit of a future Earth subject to extreme changes in climate and ecology, but it also refers the bedtime story metaphor of David’s quest for the Blue Fairy. The world depicted is at once a connotation of Christopher Robin’s Hundred Acre Wood and the inverted terrarium-like biosphere of Jurassic Park. Spielberg would revisit this aesthetic to a lesser extent and with more rainy, noirish effect in Minority Report.

The timeline in A.I., despite its two millennia stretch, seems relative to a dream temporal. As mentioned in the Youtube review, the film’s beginning, post Professor Hobby’s prologue, on up to the final movement is bookended with two different boys sleeping in cryostate. In his book 'Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster', Warren Buckland proposes the idea that Martin and David are one and the same, but split within a single dream as two different individuals in contest for their mother’s love. Perhaps it is Martin dreaming of both himself and himself as David and David’s journey or it could be the ambitious concept that Martin dreamed David but, upon awaking, became David, who in turn remembered the dream as himself.
Read that last part back again to help make better sense.

Within this dream David occupies not only the form of Martin (or vice versa) but also the form of Gigolo Joe, as they, too, become traveling parallels of the same psyche. Consider the fade-to-black transition from one character to the other’s introduction, the psychological implications: David left abandoned by his mother who is then a grown robotic version of himself, forever seeking to be the ultimate sexual and emotional prize for all women. Cynically mirroring the desires of Monica, now in sexual form, Joe says to his client, "I think you’re afraid of letting go. I think you’re afraid of happiness... once you’ve had a lover-robot you’ll never want a real man again... you deserve so much better in life. You deserve me."
David is loving and naïve as a boy, but as Joe he becomes cold to the idea of human love and is but a mere user of women, as he (David) was used as a boy. There is a strikingly evocative image of Joe holding Teddy, standing at the entrance to Professor Hobby’s chambers, next to the door engraved with the quote –- from 'The Stolen Child' by William Butler Yates -- spoken earlier by Doctor Know. This vision of Joe is an aged mirror of David, still holding his bear. And this brings us to Teddy, who, upon further notice, is a rather peculiar character. At first he seems a superfluous addition to the story, a cutesy tagalong.

Yet I’m beginning to wonder if Teddy is something of an R2-D2 equivalent, secretly observing the events from an irreverent outside perspective. He certainly seems sentient: "I am not a toy!" and more than once does he prove vital to David’s quest, for it is Teddy who helps in David’s escape from the Flesh Fair and it is Teddy who brings forth Monica’s DNA ripe lock of hair, which in itself proposes an interesting idea: did Martin’s jealous scheme indirectly lead to David’s ultimate wish fulfilled? Two of the same mind; one unconsciously serving the other?
The denouement to A.I. is a whopper of nihilism beset with the rosy illusion of Hallmark sweetnes. Don’t think so? Look matter-of-factly at what is being presented. The statement being made about the human race is not a promising one. At first we see the externals of our failings, Global Warming’s final coupe de grace as the world frozen over. This is harsh enough all its own. Yet buried in the ice, so to speak, is the internal cause, one that stings the very heart of human nature. Yes, David is granted "the happiest day of his life" with his mother, but she is not his mother. She is not even complete human. She is a lie.
The Supermecha must contort the human genome in order to create an idealized version of Monica. To resurrect the real being is to resurrect her (our) inherent failings of responsibility beyond love. Even when Monica was real, she never really loved David. What she felt for him was ultimately selfish. She used David to fill the hole left by her dead son. Because the Supermecha are great descendants of human creations, they carry on the smallest but most potent fabric of human nature. Everything repeats itself. In the beginning the humans create David as a lie to fill Monica’s needs; in the end the Supermecha create Monica as a lie to fill David’s needs.
"But in the beginning didn't God create Adam to love him?"

Lastly is David himself. He's a monster, as much Frankenstein as he is Pinocchio. Rendered forever childlike and adorable, beneath the pleasantries is a spectrum of emotions made extreme. When David loves he loves absolutely and unconditionally. He's nice to his mommy. He hugs her and warms to her and makes her coffee. When darker emotions take hold David assumes strange forms and commits heinous acts. His programed loving smile behind a bedroom door glass is divided into multiple vertical planes, like a scan revealing synthetic repetition.

When challenging Martin to an eating match, jealousy (not spinach) distorts his face into something grotesque. He rants frantically to Joe, reaching a near state of psychosis:
"Mommy doesn't hate me! Because I'm special and...unique! Because there has never been anyone like me before! ...when I am real, Mommy's going to read to me and tuck me in my bed and sing to me and listen to what I say and she will cuddle with me and tell me every day a hundred times a day that she loves me!"

And less we forget the fact that David violently murders another David, not long before throwing himself from a skyscraper ledge; from homicide to suicide. David is a dark being. A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a dark film.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Soldier (1998)

[Reiterated from an old blog]

Soldier was written by Blade Runner co-writer David Webb Peoples and, by extension, was done so, not as a sequel per se, but as separate story set amidst the cannon of Blade Runner's future as a distant Off-world exploit. Peoples himself referred to the film as a "sidequel". Soldier is also something of an antithesis to Blade Runner, the latter of which, being a sci-fi gumshoe noir, waxes uncertainty and ambiguity on virtually every level; here, the story is about as straightforward as you can get. This is an extremely basic action film about the quest for humanity and the strong defending the weak. Think of it as a hybrid of Rambo and Shane in outer space where formula and instantly recognizable themes are equaled only by unpretentiousness. Even the opening title credit telegraphs the no-nonsense mentality of the film as a whole.
Kurt Russell is Todd (simply Todd, or Sergeant Todd), a man who is not a man, but an automated tool of the military. Chosen from birth and harshly indoctrinated to such a degree in all things war, Todd and his kind are, by all accounts, functioning sociopaths. They do not execute orders; they essentially are the execution of orders, materialized as walking GI units with zero questioning, hesitation or any hint of reasoning that does not serve their command. And they certainly do not feel. Correction: they entirely feel.
But what they feel has been conditioned to a rudimentary vector of fear and discipline. And when asked how often they feel this, the answer is simple: "Always". Todd is only human biologically, as follows the arc of his character and the heart of the story. However, the extent to which he finds a soul is careful not to break credibility by undermining his pre-programmed militaristic nature with tact-on excess saccharine. Todd never becomes a softy; he just adds enough game-changing micronized compassion to his resume as a total killing machine. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
The first problem Todd faces in opening act is his replacement by a new breed of tubie-soldiers, genetically engineered freaks with super physical attributes and a singular emotional drive that trades in fear for pure aggression. The two different makes are pitted against one another and Todd proves the lesser, an outdated model – still too human. His broken but-not-dead form is literally discarded as trash and dumped on the surface of a vast waste disposal planet called Arcadia 234. There, he strolls into a Western motif colony of peaceful scavengers who welcome him, albeit timidly, and thus sets up the 2nd act conflict of whether or not he can live amidst a semi-normal community, or if he can even connect with other people on basic human levels. The 3rd act comes full circle as the military roundtrips Arcadia 234 as a place to test their super-soldiers against the futilely armed colonist, and where Todd must step in as a lone wolf protector. The movie is 99 minutes. It feels even shorter, and it gets the job done.
First and foremost, let’s talk about Kurt Russell. In the hands of a two-dimensional action star the role of Todd could have been an unforgettable dud. In fact, see Jean-Claude Van Damn in the similar Universal Soldier as a perfect example. But Russell is a genuine actor who shapes himself a hardened blank exterior while slowly revealing the most subtle emotional nuances through his eyes, physical responses and speech. Speaking of speaking, Russell is limited to 79 lines of dialogue throughout the entire film and only with one or two exchanges does he communicate something other than dry operational jargon. Yet even with these fragmented verbal expressions does Russell maximize a great deal of angst and confusion, particularly when explaining tersely how he ended up astray:
"I was...replaced."
"By a better soldier, sir."
Most of Russell’s performance is conveyed through two varying forms of mannerism: the classic-yet-made-extreme Cowboy gestures of affirmation and steely resolve or befuddlement bordering on desperate reluctance when in close proximity to others. Note the latter when a beautiful woman tries to embrace him with sympathy; Todd all but malfunctions like a robot presented with intimacy for the first time. Said beauty is a mother and wife villager named Sandra played by Danish actress Connie Nielsen; blonde, long legged, and stunningly gorgeous. Her character unknowingly tempts Todd with sexual desire, but the story appropriately avoids any kind of building romance (though such prospects are left open-ended). Other familiars lend apt service to the film including Sean Pertwee as Sandra’s noble husband, Michael Chiklis as the village nice guy, Gary Busey as an old dog army Captain and Jason Isaacs as the sniveling General.
British director Paul W. S. Anderson has made and surprisingly maintained a career of helming B-movie entertainment with A-list studio backing. With the exception of Event Horizon, The Three Musketeers and his most recent Pompeii, most of his films, though watchable I suppose, are not really worth mentioning here or anywhere for that matter. Anderson is a generic filmmaker whose style of directing larger action set pieces seems to adhere to whatever the reigning trend. In the case of Soldier, firefights and explosions slip into pre-Matrix slow-motion by the bulk as a means to fill a scene with only half the volume of actual staging. It's thrifty at the very least. Anderson's action sequencing is so ham-fisted and toy-like that it borders on goofy. During the film's intro, Todd and his men step through a brief montage of changing battlefields that conclude with them traversing some distant lunar landscape right out of a comic book, sporting space suites and shooting (space bullets, I guess) in all directions. I dare you two things: 1) not to laugh at such juvenile imagery; and 2) not to secretly love it with boyhood 'gee-whiz' enthusiasm.
Yes, Anderson is generic, but not incompetent. His visual storytelling, though none too original, never falters and quieter scenes between characters even achieve a certain amount of dramatic poise. When Sandra first lays eyes on a bedridden Todd, she steps into four repeating frames, left to center, beginning with a master to master-medium to medium close-up and then full close-up. The effect is notably handsome in its composition. But what really lends Soldier its visual allure is David Tattersall's cinematography and its relationship with the film's production design. A color pallet of pinkish and gold hues that blend with flesh tones and endless dusk light that filters in through stained glass gives the aforementioned scene, among others, a warm vibrancy.
Spaceship interiors, on the other hand, have the look of a live-action cartoon with high-tech blues and greens while Arcadia's vistas are uniformly bronze. Even with a 75 million dollar budget, the film's deep space visual effects are markedly soft focus and look more like illustrated covers to 1980s Trapper Keepers. I'd be lying if I said I didn’t find this charming. Ditto for Joel McNeely's blunt musical score that marches along with all the finesse of those danger themes from heyday Republic Serials.
Soldier at its absolute best -- where action, story and character harmonize -- is the climax fight between Sergeant Todd and the elite mutant model Cain 607, played by Jason Scott Lee. Fight scenes in action movies are the ultimate expression of masculine will power and assertion, cathartic for the male audience who yearn to define themselves with fists. When Cain and Todd square off in the rain, nothing need be said. They put up their dukes and the shit promptly gets real. Martial combat ensues; blood, brawl and wreckage. Stats-wise, Todd is the inferior and cannot beat Cain by strength or speed alone. How he gains the upper hand conveys clearly his veteran experience and, furthermore, his genetically unmolested human advantage to think inventively. It is his defining moment.
The final shot in the film is a frontal of Kurt Russell holding a small boy in one arm and pointing out a spaceship window to the stars. As the camera pans in the object of their gaze, a swirling galaxy appears in the reflection of the glass, thereby overlapping their faces. It's one big hammy denouement for a hammy, cheese-ball film. I enjoy it.

Saturday, March 15, 2014


Highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Raymond Scott Selections

Raymond Scott. Musician. Inventor. Futurist. Possible Time-Traveling Wizard.
Born in Brooklyn, New York circa 1908. He was a Russian-Jew kid (real name, Harry Warnow) who grew up to be a professional pianist first bent on usurping the then common norms of popular Jazz and Swing. Later, from the waning 1940s throughout the 1960s, he was a TV commercial jingle-ist by day and an avant-garde experimentalist of all things electronic sounds by night, so to speak. Below, courtesy of Grooveshark, are but a few samples of his alternate, retro-future-past genius, many of which embody the strange wonders of both the Atomic Age and predawn Computer Revolution.     
2. Vicks

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Perv Edition: 90s Drew Barrymore

This thing happened back in the 90s. It was called Drew Barrymore. For then bursting adolescents such as my self, she was nothing less than seismic. This is the chick who danced atop Letterman's desk before flashing him the goods on national television. Hey, science, whenever you get around to making those time machines, let me know. Because I've gotta date with one very freewheeling, sexually liberated, Gen-X, flower-power pinup girl.
One of 4 reasons why I actually enjoy Batman Forever. Yes, there are another 3.
"Oh, hi, Cannon."