Tuesday, October 11, 2011

THX and Don Pedro Colley Superstar

I purchased a copy of George Lucas' redigitized "directors' cut"
of THX-1138 for Christmas.

It is a fascinating time capsule but way more work than I am
inclined to invest in most cinematic offerings. Frankly, I fell
asleep during the first viewing which was akin to watching
Shakespeare performed by mimes. I employed the directors'
commentary option for my second viewing, which was like
watching a foreign movie with subtitles. Lucas admits that he
wanted THX-1138 to look and feel like a movie not only from the
future but from another country using another film language. On
this point he succeeds masterfully.

Watching THX-1138 is initially a disconcerting experience as
pictures and the audio often do not match. Sometimes you hear
a sound for which there is no visual cue and vice versa.
Apparently, Lucas edited the film and his collaborator Walter
Murch edited the "sound montage" in the same room at the
same time but working separately, then Lucas would re-edit his
film to capture the sound and Murch would remaster his sound
to "match" Lucas' visuals. It takes a bit of getting used to. I can't
even imagine how disconcerting it would have been in 1971
without the subtext of the internet and one hundred and fifty cable
channels to orient you. The remastering with THX Dolby sound
is sumptuous.

THX-1138 originally cost one million dollars. By comparison
"Beneath the Planet of the Apes," made at approximately the
same time, cost six million. Lucas managed to get all of his
money on the screen by use of some fortuitous circumstances.
Filming in the San Francisco area turned out to be among the
most fortunate. Lucas was able to use the finished by not yet in
commission tunnels of the BART subway system and a regional
AT&T switching station that was still functional but about to be
decommissioned, as AT&T prepared to switch from rotary dial
service to touch tone service, as sets. Also, Lucas was able to
satisfy his need for hundreds of bald-headed extras by using
members of San Francisco based Synanon, a AA type self-help
organization for drug addicts that morphed into a religious cult.
Synanon required all of its members to shave their heads.

For all of the refurbishing and remixing, THX-1138 never quite
sheds its origin as a student film. The humor that Lucas and
Murch speak of in their commentary is so "dry" and film student
insular that you would not know anything funny was going on if
they didn't point it out to you. Also there is a mishmash of "big"
ideas that must have seemed bigger while on campus at USC.
It must have been hilarious in late 1960s and early 1970s to
create a society where the government would jail you for NOT
using drugs.

Still, many aspects of the THX-1138 paradigm are startlingly
prescient. THX-1138 (Robert Duvall) works at an extremely
dangerous robotics factory (one of golden robot torsos looks
startlingly like a precursor of C-3PO) where the workers are
routinely drugged to steel their nerves and to steady their hands.
Still there are tragic accidents - Duvall's unit is commended for
only having a 158 casualties. A cog in a consumerist society,
Duvall stops on his way home to make an obligatory purchase
and to stop at a prayer kiosk.

THX-1138 lives with his roommate LUH-3417 (Maggie McOmie).
On first viewing it appeared he was trying to hide his purchase (a
red diamond-shaped carton) from his roomie when, in fact, he
was doing an obligatory discard so he could purchase the same
thing again the next day. Murch explains that THX and LUH are
pronounced phonetically as "sex" and "love," and that is the
crime these two state-sanctioned platonic roommates are guilty
of -- being in love and having unsanctioned sex (not to mention
not taking their drugs which allows them to break the laws
against having sex and making love).

After work and his obligatory consumer and spiritual
consumption, Duvall vegetates in front of the holograph
projector, channel-surfing through the offerings that consist of
soft porn, sadistic violence and insipid sitcoms. The soft porn
channel features fetishistic naked nubians while the comedy
channel looks like "Amos and Andy in the 21st Centry." The
channel Lucas dubs "the Rodney King Channel" features a
robotic policeman repeatedly beating a defenseless citizen with
his nightstick. This is the channel the anethesized Duvall
returns to repeatedly before settling in to watch it.

SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasance) is the serpent in the garden
(SEN=Sin) except he doesn't tempt the couple until after he
witnesses them having sex. Pleasance develops a lust for
McOmie and plots to get her as his roommate. His actions and
Duvall's undrugged reactions lead to all three of them going on
trial. Duvall and Pleasance end up in state prison, a white-
washed void with no walls, ceilings, windows or doors. Duvall
eventually discovers that if you "free your mind, your ass will

Enter the "Magical Negro."

Like Punjab the genie from "Little Orphan Annie," SRT, the
hologram appears. SRT (Don Pedro Colley) is like something
out of Stephen King. He is out-sized, bald-headed, "magical"
and loves him some white folks. He shows Duvall and
Pleasance the way out of the void and back into the "free" world.
For some reason Colley is a surprisingly clunky "hologram." He
can be seen; he can't walk through walls; he can't drive a
souped up rocket car (but, not so surprisingly, Duvall can). Still,
Colley is an arresting presence. Such an arresting presence
that it is surprising his acting credits are as scant as they are (he
played "Negro" in "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" and Sheriff
Ed Little from Chickasaw County on "The Dukes of Hazzard").
With his height, stature and baritone voice, it is surprising Lucas
didn't think of him when casting Darth Vader.

THX-1130 lives in an orderly society and when the cost of
pursuing him exceeds by 20% the amount the state allows for
recapturing escapees the search is called off. And that is the
way the movie THX-1130 is - ending, perhaps, when the money
ran out. The actual ending is one that may have been shocking
when the movie was made but has become almost cliche thirty
odd years later.

Some interesting themes in the movie that hold resonance
today: in THX-1138 there is no evil empire or cabal. The Society
is the villian, but it is a suprisingly benign one (As Walt Kelly in
the guise of Pogo says, "I have seen the enemy, and he is us").
The police-robots are unfailingly polite and the state prison can
be walked away from if only one has the imagination and the will
to do so.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Program of Interest

Person of Interest is a mashup of The Bourne Identity and Minority Report brought to you by the co-writer of The Dark Knight. I am not a Jim Caviezel fan but it appears he was born to play two roles: "The Christ" in The Passion of... and ex-CIA hitman, John Reese. Whereas the erstwhile Jason Bourne can't remember anything, poor John Reese knows what he was; what he did; and only wants to forget about it.

When we are introduced to Mr. Reese, he is a bearded bum about to be accosted by a gang of obnoxious prep school boys (is that an oxymoron?). Tit leads to tat and Mr. Reese is taken into custody after dispatching the Breakfast Club with extreme prejudice.

Watching the surveillance video from the subway car, Detective Carter (Taraji P. Henson) suspects there is more to the bearded bum than meets the eye. Using the old fingerprints on the glass trick, she runs his prints but before she can get a hit, Reese has been sprung by the enigmatic Fitch (Michael Emerson).

Mr. Fitch is a billionaire inventor who has created the perfect all-invasive, all-knowing, all-seeing, post 9-11, super-surveillance network - except, after selling it to the government, he only has "backdoor" access to it, and to conceal his backdoor access, he can only extract social security numbers - or something. Anyhoo, he is able to determine that a crime is about to occur only not when or (apparently) to whom. All Fitch is able to do is determine a "person of interest." He needs someone to connect the dots and slowly convinces Mr. Reese to become his highly skilled blunt instrument.

The set-up set, Person of Interest moves jauntily along with periodic bursts of brutal, well choreographed action, competently sold by the loose-limbed Caviezel, mixed with a healthy dose of social paranoia.

If the notion of Big Brother constantly watching everything you do doesn't chill you to your bones, Person of Interest may be the show for you.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Out-Source(d) Code

I have had a DVD copy of Source Code on hand for some time now but I decided to pop it in the VCR today.

Verdict: I have decided this could have been a really good movie but, alas, it is just okay.

About two decades ago, I was a huge Doom addict and a major part of the appeal of that game was getting killed over and over again but each time learning enough to eventually complete a level. And I thought it would be really cool if you could actually send a soldier into a dangerous situation, have him do recon, and then, when he inevitably gets killed, reboot him and have him do it again. It is a peculiar but beguiling brand of invulnerability.

And I thought the movie could have done with a lot more of that. For instance, I wish Captain Colter Stevens (as played by Jake Gyllenhaal)'s deaths and reboots had been more visceral. Further, I could have done without the exposition - where Stevens asks and is told stuff. In fact, I could have done without all of Stevens' back story because it is irrelevant to moving the story forward. Ditto for the "boy-meets-girl" subplot involving Michelle Monaghan. The whole enterprise could have been moved forward strictly by what Stevens learns during his eight minute source code sorties.

What should be the focus of the movie - finding a mad bomber - is actually a "McGuffin" - as the filmmakers appear more interested in questions of dying, existence, unfinished business and "what is fate?" - big questions all - but questions that have no business in this movie. I wish the filmmakers had trusted the audience more. Or, perhaps, I wish they had trusted us less.

Some of the problem, I suspect, is the casting of Gyllenhaal. As blasphemous as this sounds, this would have been a much better movie if Keanu Reeves had been cast as Captain Stevens. This movie requires Reeves' blank, zen-like athleticism. There is almost too much going on in Gyllenhaal's eyes; in his face.

The same can be said of Vera Farmiga's casting as Air Force Captain Goodwin. As an actress, she is so intelligent and sensual, her face is so full of "stuff," that like Captain Stevens, you just want to know more about her and it is distracting.

Michelle Monaghan, however, is perfectly cast as Christina Warren, the girl Stevens meets on the train. She is so centered and present that you will believe a man would die for her - and do it again, over and over, until he finds a way to save her.


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Hail Caesar!

Rarely has a hero's journey been as finely delineated as it is in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Caesar, as essayed by Andy Serkis, is a great cinematic creation. From his birth as the only spawn of a genetically re-engineered mother to his grabbing the mantle of a full-scale primate rebellion, the digitally rendered chimpanzee is as full blooded as Kenneth Branaugh's Hamlet and as fully realized as Paul Robeson's Emperor Jones - yet there is nothing tragic about this hero.


Sunday, August 7, 2011

Wisonsin State Fair?

This is an open letter to Jim Stingl of the Milwaukee Journal regarding his Sunday, August 7th opinion column: http://www.jsonline.com/news/milwaukee/127077078.html

Mr. Stingl,

The recent events at Mayfair, Riverwest and State Fair can be construed as a cry for help or a call to arms, but it should not be dismissed as "wilding" youths who should be put down with extreme prejudice.

Ignore the root cause of these escalating public eruptions at your own risk.

I have heard so many funny, contradictory and simply wrong-headed things in the aftermath of this incident. To those people who pronounced they would not be attending the State Fair - now is the safest time to go. To Police Chief Flynn who "beefed" up police presence at African World Festival, thank you but it was not necessary - for the second year in a row, African World Festival was the chillest location in Milwaukee - although all the officers I encountered seemed to be having a good time.

Take Knuckle-headed Alds. Bob Donovon and Joe Dudzik (please!) - Tweedledum and Tweedledummer - who had the unmitigated gall to opine in a joint statement "Let's face it, it also has much to do with a deteriorating African-American culture in our city. Are large groups of Hispanics or Hmong going out in large mobs and viciously attacking whites? No."

To which I respond, give Hispanics and Hmongs fifty years of the treatment African-Americans have suffered in this city and they will be "wilding," too. (Funny thing: whites don't tend to flee when Hispanics and Hmongs move into their neighborhoods. Could it be the hair?)

I challenge any race to endure generations of poverty and lack of job opportunity - and by that I mean constant rejection for any the most menial of positions and not be just a little bit perturbed. During the Reagan Depression, I was unemployed for two-and-a-half years and - despite being a high school honors student with five years of work experience - I could not find a job at a car wash. So, imagine, if you will, what is a high school drop-out with no work experience is up against.

What are we, as a people, to make of studies done all over the country where blind tests prove employers are more likely to hire a white ex-con than a black college graduate http://millionsforreparations.org/wessel.html? Where does that put your prospects if you are a black high school drop-out or a black ex-con? How do you pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don't have any boots?

I constantly tell my children - both on academic scholarship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and both graduates of Milwaukee Public High Schools - that the only difference between poor, uneducated black people and poor, uneducated white people, is that poor, uneducated white people have jobs (the same apparently applies to Hispanics and Hmongs).

We are currently being governed by the evil spawn of those who fled, politicians inbred in Waukesha and Washington Counties. These elected officials, who have only second-hand - and tainted - knowledge of Wisconsin's inner cities, believe in a "get tough" stance that not only hasn't solved the problem, it hasn't contained it. And, mark my words, it will spread further.

If those marauding youths did nothing else on a steamy Thursday night in West Allis, Wisconsin, they made you look. Unfortunately, they could not make you see.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

Real Men Don't Equal Ratings

TNT has decided to cancel Men of a Certain Age, the wonderfully evocative slice of life series created by Ray Romano and his creative partner, Mike Royce. I am sorry to hear this. Being a man of a certain age, I really enjoyed the show. But, I am well aware that although I continue to consume a lot of television, mostly non-network, I am no longer part of commercial television's coveted 18-49 year-old demographic. So fuck me and anybody like me and anybody who likes anything somebody like me likes.

But I digress.

This was a particularly good season for actor Andre Braugher. His character, a soft, brow-beaten man who suffers from diabetes and sleep apnea, magnificently rises to the challenge of saving his debt-ridden family business. He is something you rarely see on television, an ordinary black man who loves his wife, is loved by her in return, takes care of his children and slogs off to work every day - even though he doesn't particularly like his job or his boss - kinda like all the rest of us men of a certain age.

The show will be missed.


Sunday, June 26, 2011

Men in Hats

The Adjustment Bureau may be the best "men in hats" movie since Rusty Cundieff's Fear of a Black Hat. And this is not my left-handed attempt to praise the movie with faint damns. There is real appeal in first time director George Nolfi's grim fairy-tale about the path of true love. The two leads, Matt Damon and Emily Blunt have a lot to do with this. Improbably there is real chemistry between them. I say "improbably" because this is a role that should be essayed by a young John Edwards and would have better suited Damon's brother-from-another-mother, Ben Affleck, or Blunt's real-life husband, John Krasinski (The Office), to name two. Matt Damon is miscast as David Norris, the charismatic political wunderkind at the core of the Bureau in much the same way he was miscast as Jason Bourne and the talented Mr. Ripley. Which is to say, he is terrific.

When The Adjustment Bureau was released three short months ago, it seemed a little improbable that the political freight train that was the senate campaign of Congressman Norris could be derailed by the inopportune release of college pictures showing him mooning his frat brothers but, of course, this was before Weinergate and the circus of the absurd that dominated the news cycle for nearly two weeks. Norris goes down in inglorious defeat but all is not lost as he and Blunt meet "cute."

Then boy-loses-girl and they meet cute again when angel-cum-organization-man Anthony Mackie literally misses the bus. This is noteworthy because it quickly becomes apparent that it is imperative to the Men-in-Hats aggregation that is the Adjustment Bureau to keep Damon and Blunt separated at all costs. Why? Who knows. Suffice it to say that the Big Boss Man has a plan and it is verboten to deviate from that plan. When you do veer off course, as Damon repeatedly does, the Men-in-Hats must make adjustments to get you back on the straight and narrow. Damon is such a tough nut to crack that the Men-in-Hats must do something they have only done once before - they tell Damon everything and then attempt to coerce him into compliant complicity.

When senior Man-in-Hat John Slattery, who wears his fedora as nattily as he does on Mad Men, fails to talk sense to Damon, the even more senior Terence Stamp is brought in to "hammer" Damon into commission.

On the whole, The Adjustment Bureau is a little pokey and the business with the hats is a little hokey (as a unrepentant hat wearer I cannot condone the profiling - "never trust a man in a hat") but, as mentioned before, the chemistry between Damon and Blunt is appealing and the last act all-or-nothing flight from downtown Manhattan to Liberty Island in New York Harbor is quite rousing.


Saturday, March 19, 2011

First We Pray

Nate Dogg is dead. It don't even seem right to be writing that shit. How the fuck Nate Dogg gone be dead? I'm about to hit a double-nickle and Nate couldn't have been no more than - dayum - 41 years old. Fourteen years my junior - but Nate Dogg weren't never no junior. He was always a grown ass man. And maybe that was the fuckin' problem. Nate always seem too grown for this silly ass rap game - which has always been a province of little boy posers. But as I said, Nate was always a grown ass man with a grown ass man's voice and a grown ass man's soul.

I stumbled across his great album, G-Funk Classics, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, by accident. It literally fell off the roof of a moving car. Possession being nine-tenths of the law, I loaded it into my CD player and there it stayed for the better parts of the next six months as I played the hell out of it.

The two disk G-Funk Classics, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 is a ghetto elegy delivered in Nate Dogg's inimitable buffed-up baritone - which could have been described as silky-smooth if it hadn't been so rough-edged. Nate Dogg's voice told you he had been places and seen things - hell, done things - and that he had had a few drinks and a lot of smokes while he did so. If Luther Vandross and Tone Loc had had a bastard child, Nate Dogg is what he would have sounded like.

That voice infuses and informs everything on G-Funk Classics, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. I call Classics an elegy but while it is melancholic and plaintive, it is a lament for the living, not the dead.

Black people dont have no, no where to go
you know, all we got to do is kick it
we gonna kick it in our hood, you know
what we gonna do, we might
we might go kill a couple of niggaz mane
you know, go in they hood and do a drive-by
then come back in the hood and laugh about that stuff
you know, its just a thing
("First We Pray," G-Funk Classics, Vol.1&2)

Now the above lyrics are (or were) standard ghetto poetry. What elevates the song to greatness is the chorus:

First we pray, then we ride
First we pray, then we ride

The first time you hear Nate Dogg croon those first three plaintive words: First we pray, you'll never get them out of your head. The way he stretches and caresses the word "pray" and makes it soar will borrow into your consciousness like some insidious viral worm and your brain will never be the same again.

Rest in peace, Nathaniel Dwayne Hale.


Sunday, January 30, 2011

Cuts Like a Machete

Grindhouse was the ode to 70's era exploitation movies Robert Rodriguez co-directed with Quentin Tarantino. Machete is the grindhouse movie Rodriquez promised but failed to deliver in his half of the twin-bill extravaganza. Machete which appeared in Grindhouse as a cheeky one-off trailer for a movie never made, is everything Rodriques' bloody but aimless Planet Terror is not. It is forward-paced kinetic thriller and classic 70's grindhouse actioner with plenty of bad(ass) dialogue and gratuitous nudity glommed on like so much icing on a cake.

Hatchet-faced Danny Trejo was born for this role as "one mad Mexican" who has a literal axe to grind with evil political operative Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey) who double-crosses him while in the employ of evil Senator John McLaughlin (a thinly veiled John McCain), played with giddy, greasy slipperiness by Robert DeNiro, and under the thumb of the even more evil Steven Segal, who essays the paunchy but serenely venal power broker, Torrez.

Add to this savory stew a estrogen heavy dose of Michele Rodriguez as a tough mama amalgram of Cesar Chavez and Che Guevara and Jessica Alba as a sweet-faced Federal Agent who plays "beauty" to Trejo's machete wielding "beast."

The gratuitous nudity is delivered in a small but bracing dose by actress Mayra Leal as a naked chica who gives new meaning to "reaching out to touch someone" in the opening sequence. It is delivered in large, loopy, (hopefully) drug-induced gallops by former A-list actress Lindsay Lohan, who plays Jeff Fahey's wild-child daughter, and Alicia Rachel Marek, who plays Lohan's alcoholic mother. Lohan looks great naked but you can't help but wonder "WHAT WAS SHE THINKING?" when she agreed to take this role.

In one great set-piece, a character explains how the human body has twenty feet of small intestines right before Machete puts the knowledge to bloody and effective use. You'll never think of seven yards of guts in the same way again.

Machete the movie holds together better than most Robert Rodriquez movies, which often come off as half-baked despite great cinematic ingredients. One wonders whether to ascribe this Rodriguez or his credited co-director, Ethan Maniquis or, perhaps, even his co-writer, Alvaro Rodriguez. In any event, rarely has ten million dollars been better employed on the big screen.