Sep 26, 2015

My Summer at the Alamo

I was going to start this piece off by addressing my dedicated readers, but that would be a misnomer. Indeed, I have some friends and colleagues who seek out what I have to say, to which I am flattered, but in order to be dedicated, there must first be something to dedicate oneself to, and the fact is that I've barely written much of anything for almost a year, and the writer's block had started kicking in well before that. One of my editors offered, some time back, that it seemed like I just didn't love writing about movies anymore, and he was right, no matter how much I didn't want to believe it.

I don't intend to dwell on this, but instead to embrace it as some sort of necessity in my personal life. I moved to Pittsburgh following my mother's passing, and for all of what seemed like the right reasons, I moved to Denver earlier this year. It didn't take long to realize that I need to go back, for reasons I couldn't see except from afar. I'm comfortable with this, but it doesn't mean the temporary limbo I've found myself in is any less strenuous. For now, though, I'm optimistic, and I trust in patience and my gut, and that they're pulling me in the right direction. They have so far.

Denver it is for now, and as I so often have, I've found some refuge from life's more weathering aspects at the movies. Work, exercise, and sleep (even more of a necessity than usual as I'm trying to kick caffeine for good) take up most of my time, otherwise, and at this point, there's no sense in trying to maintain much sense of objectivity. I've been a fan of the Alamo Drafthouse since a trifecta of visits I made with a friend to one of their Austin locations in the summer of 2010, at which I was blessed with the opportunity to see the now cult-certified Miami Connection in its effective public re-premiere. When I recently learned that Film Freak Central critic and friend Walter Chaw had become the general manager of the new Littleton location, I was ecstatic, and seeing this location was near the top of my list of things to do once I got to Denver.

Walter proved to be just as affecting and generous in person. We first met at a further nexus, of sorts, for yours truly. One Matt Zoller Seitz was attending the screenings of two films in a cross-promotion of his books on the films of Wes Anderson and the not-yet-published Oliver Stone Experience. Matt's presence in both the film world and my life, and as someone who has also experienced great loss, can't be put in words that I think do it justice. He's been like a personal lighthouse, or Yoda, perhaps. We spent the night talking about the films being screened, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Natural Born Killers, and also “Bojack Horseman” and the yet-unreleased Jurassic World, and how fucking hard and great life can be. Whatever forces are or are not at work in the universe, it felt like exactly where I needed to be, wherever else I'd go from there.

That was the best Alamo experience I've had so far, and I don't expect it to be topped. But one of my first – the opening night of Mad Max: Fury Road – came close, and that the movie itself represents a sort of encapsulation of my life right now (Charlize Theron helped me see the Furiosa in my own life, and patriarchy just sucks, seriously) makes this all feel like a memoir chapter just waiting to be written. It's certainly defined my summer. To make some perfect even better, opening night of Fury Road was screened with one of the Alamo's famous multi-course, beer-paired meals served throughout the movie. Black bean pork chili, served with tortillas and – I love this – in a can, because Mad Max.

You'd be fair in thinking that the servers walking about during the movie would be terribly distracting, but on the whole, I find they're not. In the dozens of visits I've made to the theater since, I keep experiencing moments where my drink or check seems to have suddenly apparated, because I wasn't even aware the runner had stopped by. Tip them well. They deserve it.

Anyhow, Mad Max, opening night. There almost aren't even words for it. I've seen it now seven times theatrically, plus I don't know how many times at home, plus twice in manually-adjusted black and white, plus once in the newly-unveiled fan edit subtitled “black and chrome.” I've come to the determination that it's the greatest action film in at least a quarter century. It has the cinematic moment of the year to date, for my money's worth, and it was that moment that solidified just how capital-M Motherfucking awesome the Alamo is.

You know the moment? Yeah, you remember it. When Nux has chased Furiosa into the storm, and Max grabs the flare at the last second, and the two vehicles collide, and the flare drops, and expires. I get chills just thinking about it. That moment proved that the Alamo was a special place because, for the next 45 seconds, the movie is essentially silent, and so was the audience. No talking. No whispering, which is also talking. No clanking glasses or silverware in a theater full of delicious food and beer that had already been served to its patrons. Other audiences I've seen it with have somehow been noisier, with only their asses in regular movie theater seats and popcorn and Skittles as their instruments. Some great feeb even made an MST3K-esque joke once, at a second run theater, about Max's car insurance going up (which literally makes zero sense in context). Not us. We were in rapture. I had found my place of worship.

The diversity and emphasis on the quality of the films that play at Alamo are well worth what is, in my mind, the most significant investment I have to make when visiting it – the time. 40 minutes' drive each way, if I'm lucky, and the necessary return drive limits one's alcohol choices, not that a second feature with a quesadilla isn't a bad way to sober up (and hey, I thought Trainwreck was kind of awesome, too).

In the further interest of full disclosure, I feel that I should add that while I have been a paying customer at the Alamo, I have also been treated as a guest on a number of occasions. My budget at the time of Matt Seitz's visit did not allow for me to attend both screenings; I committed to Life Aquatic, no offense to Mr. Stone and one of the best films of the 90s. Walter had me as a guest at Natural Born Killers, which also came with three beers and an amazing cheeseburger that they then replaced with a fresh cheeseburger when I asked for a doggy bag! It was, no doubt, one of the great nights of my moviegoing life, and an oasis in my own personal desert, and without Walter's generosity, it likely wouldn't have amounted to a third of what it did.

I assume that it's stating the obvious that the moviegoing experience kind of blows these days, mainly, if you're not careful. I saw a Terrence Malick film with a general audience once; never again (which is to say, no evening shows at the cineplex, which is where I saw his The New World. I similarly refuse to go to a horror movie on an opening night anymore, although the exception I made for It Follows at Pittsburgh's Hollywood Dormont theater was carefully vetted and ultimately rewarding one, because great horror films rarely play better than they do with a mostly full and respectful audience at a professionally maintained, classy theater. (If you get a chance, their 35mm copy of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is beautiful). The Mile High Horror Film Festival is next week, and I'm silly with excitement. Typical horror movie crowds notwithstanding (words I hate to write, for I love the genre so), I feel like I'll be able to trust my fellow patrons. It took three months of regular visits for me to see someone on their phone there, during a movie, and the offender was quickly removed after myself and others had already complained. That level of infrequency is, as far as I'm concerned, a miracle. But maybe it isn't. It only makes sense that great business courts great clientele, and Alamo has both.

There's so much going on at the Alamo that I frequently have to pick and choose, not just because of the needs of my wallet, but because the screenings are literally overlapping. Alas, you can't do everything you want, film or otherwise, a fact that has resulted in a much more humble and rewarding life since I've taken it to heart. What Alamo guarantees, however, is that there will always be something awesome there, whenever you can go, and as a proponent of film exhibition, screenings of Chinatown, The Dark Crystal, Grace of My Heart, Do the Right Thing, Time Bandits, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Creature from the Black Lagoon (in 3D!), Scanners, The Abyss, Never Been Kissed, and an amazing genre oddity known as The Devil Fetus, among others, on 35mm, have been a great boon to my soul. This coming month sees a lot of great horror fare on the format, from The Changeling to Carnival of Souls to Antichrist. I wish I lived closer; it's the largest contributor to my odometer, by a walk.

As someone with experience both showing movies (I was a projectionist at Allentown, Pennsylvania's 19th Street Civic Theatre) and serving food in exchange for an hourly pittance, I know how hard it is to pull off either of those things with consistent quality. Alamo does well by it's customers, and everything else is just superlatives at this point. The extent and variety and creativity of their events is mind-boggling, from exquisitely curated meals based around a particular movie (the molten lava cake at the end of Terminator 2 was a brilliant touch) to filmmakers and other artists visiting the theater (tonight, I'll be seeing L.A. Confidential with James Ellroy in person), to all manner of audience participation (the Inside Out message board, pictured, broke my heart even more than the movie itself), concerts, and special menu items. At the Littleton location, you can still order the They Live-inspired Kick Ass Bubblegum Milkshake, and you should.

To brings things full circle, the melancholy heart of the matter of my life now is, I don't feel at home in Denver. My family and loved ones are far away, and my family, as am I, are getting older, and as much as I'm glad to have made a change in my life, I don't think this is it. It reminds me of Matt Seitz's blog The House Next Door, and more specifically, the adage from which it takes its name: Sometimes in life, you have to drive around the block backwards in order to get to the house next door. I think that that's what I'm doing.

Until this leg of the journey ends, the Alamo feels like home – as all good movie theaters do. Every Alamo location I've been to is second-to-none by any standard, and the fact that a good friend is holding the reigns to this particular location only makes it better that I'm lucky enough to be there this much at this time of my life. If justice prevails, there will be one in every major city before three more Star Wars movies are released, at which point you can all tell me how right I am.

Jun 12, 2015

Rebels of the Neon God (1992): A-

After the existentially fraught, almost magnificently crushing experience of Stray Dogs (released stateside last year), Tsai Ming-liang's debut feature, 1992's Rebels of the Neon God, feels positively mainstream. Never officially released in the United States before now, it's a remarkable film, not only for the fact that Tsai's use of composition and extended, languid takes was already formidable-bordering-on-consummate, but also for the rear view it offers into the west's own global effects, now presented not unlike something preserved in amber.

The neon god of the title refers to Nezha, a Chinese deity evoked explicitly by at least two characters, but more so does it refer to the cityscape habitat this film's small band of characters find themselves struggling vainly against, almost unaware. Two small-time thieves are our introduction to this world, as Ah Tze (Chen Chao-jung) and Ah Bing (Chang-bin Jen) break into a payphone and various other vending machines for the loose change waiting inside. One senses that their handiwork is less out of financial need than because they're feeding into their own projections of machismo; a telling moment occurs early in the film when Tze's girlfriend, Ah Kuei (Yu-Wen Wang), asks him after a night of drinking if they raped her, her tone equal parts casual and disturbed. Their story intertwines with that of Hsiao Kang (Lee Kang-sheng), a troubled student struggling to satisfy the wishes of his parents.

Rebels features many cameos by popular works of western cinema, from a poster of Rebel Without a Cause in the back of an arcade to an implied shout-out to Taxi Driver when one of the characters purchases a gun for some casual target practice.  These hallmarks are but a piece of the socio-cultural architecture that at once shapes and torments these characters, who spend most of their time laying down (not necessarily sleeping), or pleasuring themselves, and each other. A flooded apartment building suggests another metaphor for a roving, ill-defined existence within the film's larger microcosmic framework; sandals, cigarette butts, and other detritus is cast about as dirty water surges upward from the floor's intended drain, much like these characters have less autonomy than they realize within a society unable to quell its own moral plumbing.

Tsai's film is nothing if not a great expression of sadness and longing, particularly the kind so often impossible to articulate when one is in the midst of depression. Numerous details are left unexplored -- why Hsiao Kang's scooter is towed, for instance -- with the cumulative impact being that so much of life affects us without explanation, and maybe it's fruitless to dwell on those aspects. The minimalist story, such as it is, is tertiary to Rebels' lyrical and visual qualities. The acts of vandalism perpetrated by these characters seem minute compared to the larger dehumanization implicit in nearly every frame. An act of revenge instills one of these souls with a momentary catharsis, but the scenes proves melancholy, as the viewer knows better the fruitlessness of such deeds (see also: the wasted efforts to plug the aforementioned apartment drain). Rebels of the Neon God is one of the great films about modern unrest and the pangs of youth. I can't wait to watch it again.

Sep 30, 2014

Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell (1968)

It seems impossible to not mention the similarity between Goke, the Body Snatcher and the same year's Night of the Living Dead. Both are quasi-science fiction/horror films about, among other things: a small band of people trying to survive, interplanetary happenings, racial politics, humanoid monsters that devour their victims in whole or part, and a conclusion that doesn't aim to have you skipping out of the theater. In it's own way, Goke is just as brilliant, beautiful, and entertaining as Romero's first zombie masterpiece. Here, it's a flight of passengers that crash lands on a remote island, after sighting a UFO. Divulging further details would be criminal.

Visually, Goke is almost an inversion of Night's impressionistic black and white imagery; the widescreen Fujicolor images burst with hypnotic splendor, suggesting nightmares remembered with all the exuberance of a kid in a neon-colored candy store. The opening setpiece is a hard achievement to top, yet the film continues to outdo itself, barreling through character drama and dreamy monster menaces with a remarkably elastic sleight of hand. As archetypes, the broad-stroke characters fit the B-movie bill snugly, not that it matters in the bitter end. Already a great achievement, Goke fully commits to the course of its vision, and the end result is something at once savagely beautiful and sure to have caused many nightmares in those whose young eyes saw it.

Sep 12, 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

Have my tastes changed since I last saw the original 2005 Sin City, or is it nine years later and we now have a shitty sequel on our hands? The latter possibility is the obviously correct one to these eyes, not the least because the original film had its pick of the litter from Frank Miller's original serialized creations. Nor is it entirely the fact that new work from the past-his-prime (some would also say taste) artist comprises around half of this new feature, and also to blame, clearly, is Rodriguez himself, who has now slid into laziness courtesy his self-indulgent and shapeless love affair with the ease of digital cinema.

No doubt cinema comes in all shapes and sizes, but it's to no one's advantage that the recent work of Rodriguez (the horrid Machete jokes and now this, both outdone by the perfunctory fourth Spy Kids film, which is specifically not saying much) is defined by its half-assedness, in all of the ways that that sounds bad, and them some. Every take feels rushed, perfunctory, and unfelt, and many of them insincere at that. Some of the performances still bring the pathos of the original film, but at best, Sin City: A Damn to Kill For can be described as the talented performers of an apathetic circus master, all wound up with no place to go (or, in the words of Trent Reznor, an echo of an echo of an echo).

Reciting plot points from this bastardization of a sequel is enough to nudge me towards depression – not just because the worldview the film espouses is ultimately bitter and cruel, but more so because it lacks the courage of its convictions. Rodriguez sells these ideas without owning up to any of them. It's nihilistic dress-up. Maybe he only fooled me last time, but he still did so beautifully. The permeation of death here is, on the other hand, is not only meaningless, but soulless, less neo-noir than Underworld bullshit, and without enough of a context to establish, say, why Mickey Rourke is back after biting the dust last time (some of us haven't committed the books to memory, mind you – it's called having a functioning adult life, paying off debt, and being interested in things from before the year of one's birth, among other things), or even just simple stuff like visceral edge and narrative thrust, the effect is that of the kind of stale greatest hits albums Aerosmith seemed to put out every three months during the 90s. We remember how you used to kick ass - now please do more than just remind me of what once was.

While there's still something stirring about Nancy (Jessica Alba, still not nude), here edging closer toward self-destruction, with Hartigan (Bruce Willis) now forced to try to help her from the other side of mortality, these are moments adrift in a nothing with a great choice of skin. Is it a memory, or a fluke? Maybe both. It can be well argued that the movie looks good, but without a reason to care, why should I want to look at it? What with the tsunami of violence herein so lacking in wit or substance (and, frankly, the style isn't all that this time around, either), it becomes full-on parody without even necessarily recognizing it, and quite possibly everything the detractors of the original said was wrong about that film. Rodriquez is not without talent, but I can't tell why he does it anymore.

Jul 22, 2014

Rage (2014)

Rage (aka Tokarev) begins with what appears to be unbridled enthusiasm for otherwise well-worn genre trappings, although it's difficult to determine just how much of this is the film riding the coattails of one Nicolas Cage's particular brand of bottled-lightning near-hysteria. Cage is Paul Maguire, a former criminal whose long-standing efforts to go straight are infringed upon when his teenage daughter is kidnapped, ostensibly by Russians with a long-standing grudge. With no shortage of bloodshed or cruelty, Paul enlists some of his friends to search for clues as to his daughter's whereabouts, and the motives of those who took her.

An early scene in which a near-catatonic drug addict is tortured for information is but the first of many miscalculations that rob the film of its initial gusto without adding anything in the way of moral gravitas. The theme of cyclical violence is an admirable one to unpack, particularly within the context of what is ultimately a nihilistic thriller, but ultimately both this narrative conceit and director Paco Cabezas' bag of tricks wear thin, and even a small parade of faces familiar to such proceedings (e.g. Peter Stormare, Danny Glover) are unable to do much more than go through the motions. Rage is less disrupted by moral confusion -- indeed, it's sense of ambivalence towards violence is almost necessary, in the same sense that even anti-war films can be exciting -- than by a stultifying apathy, it's sobering conclusions heartfelt, but ultimately unearned.

May 4, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

Despite the talent put into it, 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man failed in large part as a result of its own redundancy. Not merely serving as an almost-remake of a film barely a decade old, the entire affair reeked of something thrown together as a last-minute necessity (which, after Sam Raimi walked away from a potential fourth film), its plot mechanics an unfortunate amalgam of franchise-establishing necessities and screenwriting so perfunctory, one almost wishes it had been written via formula instead. The in-film absence of pathos overwhelmed any flashes of wit or emotion, and the result felt stillborn at best. (My review of that film, penned after a midnight screening that barely enthused my caffeine-addled eyes, was entirely too kind; a second viewing negated most of my residual fondness.)

With some skepticism, then, I approached this follow-up, which, at least on the page, is looks like a committee project run amok, so jam-packed with antagonists and character crises that it rivals the overstuffed lineup of Raimi's ultimately doomed third film. As an example of how the auteur touch can enliven any otherwise waterlogged corporate product, I still champion Spider-Man 3 (the first two films of that cycle are nearly perfect), and now The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (hereafter Spidey 2) joins its ranks. Webb's affecting lightness finally manifests amid the competently (if obviously) delivered plot, and the tone is so distinct and personable that even the choices that could be justifiably considered mishaps (particularly Jamie Foxx's nebbish villain, taking a cue from The Incredibles' Syndrome before going all Dr. Manhattan) still feel genuinely lived-in. Spider 2 is, ultimately, product, but in a genre of increasing sameness, it's tactile emotions leaves a potent impression.

I was fortunate enough to see the film projected on 35mm, a welcome opportunity for the increasingly rare Hollywood film shot on the format. The quality of the image was noticeably better than other films with CG effects transferred to celluloid (the next to most recent Marvel film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, suffered for the transfer), and speaks to Webb's desire to ground the material in something of genuine substance. Without a cast capable of enlivening the otherwise xeroxed archetypes (among the collective resumes of the three credited screenwriters, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Jeff Pinkner, the best film prior to this one is the excellently disposable Mission: Impossible III), it's hard to imagine this material working, but therein lies the spark of this kind of spectacle. Difficult choices and personal demons -- from what we do for family and love to a surprisingly political acknowledgement of class struggle -- roil beneath the surface, and if Spidey 2 ultimately resolves without quite plumbing its own depths as much as I'd have preferred, I'm still more than impressed with where it opts to go in the first place.

Apr 30, 2014

Under the Skin (2013)

The impulse to compare filmmakers (especially those whose work might be described as "slow" and "arty") to Stanley Kubrick is one I wish we would get away from. Much as it might laud the man who might be my favorite to ever make movies, as a comparison, it's overused, reductive, and does nothing to illuminate the many ways these directors (e.g. Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher) are great; it merely states with hyperbolic obviousness that they are great, and it dulls appreciation of why and how they do what they do in favor of trivial flattery. Those feelings notwithstanding, it still seems within reason to note that the opening sequences of Under the Skin reminded me potently of 2001: A Space Odyssey. On first viewing, this was because of the basic connection of space-like darkness and star-like light; on second viewing, and more importantly, it was because I realized that I felt not unlike that film's primate characters, in awe of the monolith before then, transformed by sonic sensation, and more, into something unprecedented. Writer-director Jonathan Glazer isn't merely inspired by Kubrick's genius; he's standing on his shoulders (and Hitchcock's, and Roeg's...), and earning his place.

These quixotic opening images (and most of the film) refuse to provide any surrounding context, and as a pre-title plunge, they're an excellent primer for the dreamy, terrifying, sporadically funny, almost mathematically acute experience that follows, like a pressure chamber one might use to adjust to otherwise uninhabitable conditions. (Spoilers ahead.) A dot of light forms from seemingly nothing; an apparent detail shot suggests that this is the birth of a star; something aligns, something enters, a dulled voice begins cycling through the phonics of language, and the Kubrickian comparison is invited again by a jarring cut to Scarlett Johannson's eye. Named Laura in the credits but, as near as I can tell, nameless on screen, her character is everything and nothing, human yet not, that which we long for and that which keeps us from sleeping at night. I imagine these opening images to be her birth -- perhaps some metaphysical computer system coming online, or a virus downloading itself into the viewer -- but the film is better for leaving such literal interpretations there, in the realm of imagination. Under the Skin is among the most aptly named films I've ever seen, and Glazer's third feature is nothing if not an intense meditation on what it means, not to occupy a body, but to be one.

Under the Skin's loosely-drawn plot -- a female, ostensibly extraterrestrial, prowls Scotland for men, whom she lures into a black pit for mysterious and unknown reasons -- adapted loosely from Michel Faber's eponymous novel, isn't so much about the telling of a story as it is carrying a mental drag net, through which all manner of stimuli catch and mingle. As an alien invasion, the literal menace is subdued and distant -- the film hints at some larger plan spreading the countryside, if not further, and later implies that Laura's experience infiltrating humanity fails in part because she ultimately becomes too human (an unlikely correlation with the almost-equally batshit Robot Monster) -- but what stands out most is an unspoken essay on empathy, epitomized in a touching scene in which Laura offers a kindness that would seem to go against her directives, and which arguably sets up a later scene that acts as both savage humor and heartbreaking insight. (If Under the Skin can be said to function as a feminist statement, it's telling what many male critics assume about this woman, and women in general.)

Seen through Laura's eyes (she's arguably a proxy for the victims, and would-be victims, of sexual violence, and although the film eschews strictly feminist readings for something more thorny and universal, some implicit suggestions are eventually realized), Under the Skin allows us to see even basic things (shopping malls, parking lots) anew, with an emphasis on life being frequently definable as discomfort bordering on terror. The sins of human selfishness (the covetous man; the parents who think of themselves before the child) and the often cruel randomness of life (the man with a deformity condition) themselves become as terrifying as the black abyss in which Laura's unlucky prey find themselves. Scarlett Johansson's celebrity and sex appeal are recast as something, essentially, too good to be true, and between this film and last year's Her, it's fitting to see this talented woman finally reaping the fruits of her work in Lost in Translation (with the upcoming Luc Besson film Lucy, Under the Skin seems destined to be the central panel in an unofficial triptych of soul/body/mind), as good here as she has ever been, as capable of insect-like coldness as tender frailty.

A pair of scenes come as close to suggesting a character arc as anything else in a film with unspoken disdain for plot delivery, although, like everything else in this mad beast, they raise greater questions and deepen the surrounding mystery. An errant ant invites Laura's intense curiosity, her scrutiny later mirrored when she unexpectedly encounters her reflection, after a particularly shaping experience with humanity. The desire to know what lies behind our eyes is a uniting facet of existence, and therein her dawning realizations and autonomy lies...something, ineffable, beautiful, unforgettable. Metaphorically fertile and stripped of clutter, Glazer's achievement is pure cinema -- a philosophical line in the sand in a medium defined by such achievements. Under the Skin doesn't just affirm the movies' ability to draw us out of our worldview: it raises the bar. I can't wait to watch it five or six more times, at least.