Posts tagged ‘00s’

Volver: for the love of Woman

Agustina, alone

Pedro Almodóvar is best known among international film fans as a director and writer who loves women, making films with prominent roles for mothers, lovers, and prostitutes. I would agree with this, to the degree that he loves looking at women’s bodies, the potential for fucking those bodies, and most importantly the roles they play in building men’s lives and sparking the fantasies of men’s inner worlds.

I’ll be honest: I’ve held a grudge since 2002’s Hable con ella, which first turned out to not be about the fascinating, fierce bullfighter (who is gored and silenced early in the first act), and then literally made two women into the voiceless objects that allow their creepy male paramours to bond with each other. The only woman who can truly listen and be loved is one in a coma, unable to interfere in a man’s fantasy of his relationship. Thanks, Pedro!

I am being unfair to that film’s characters and rich plot – after all, one of these men does save his beloved, by raping her comatose body and impregnating her with the stillborn infant whose birth will “wake her up.” What a hero!

Volver is less infuriating, but also less interesting in general.  Almodóvar wrote and directed a film about close relationships between women and their lives in the oppressive shadow of death-focused superstitions in Almodóvar’s native La Mancha. The men in their lives are almost incidental – almost.

There are many, many female characters – two sisters, their mother and aunt, a teenage daughter, assorted friends (one of whom is, of course, a prostitute) – but not much characterisation spread thinly between them. They have scandalous secrets, and the slow revelation of these secrets is what passes for a plot – when all has been revealed to the audience, the film ends, leaving all other threads still undeveloped. For instance, the daughter demands to know who her biological father is, and her mother promises to tell her, but the film ends without that revelation. The audience has learned the shocking truth – she is the product of incestuous rape, both her mother’s daughter and half-sister – but she does not. Her arc is a flat line that peters out, like those of every other character.

There are a few keenly observed scenes, particularly in the emptiness and omnipresence of female socialising. Women meet, all kiss each other several times, polite words are shared but not engaged with, and they move on to the next visit, all busy-ness without purpose. At a funeral, the women squish together into a small room and the background conversation is like the buzz of a hive, oppressive and breathless. The buzz is silenced while one women tells a dramatic ghost story, and immediately starts up again at the story’s end. Moments of lives tick away in this, as wasted and ritualistic as the intense cleaning of graves that opens the film.

But none of these women are individual people. They are fractions of Woman, coming together seamlessly when needed, much like Voltron. This claustrophobic, demanding scene is their natural environment. When one demands they hand over their groceries, shelter a murderer, or help bury their husband’s body, they do so immediately. Conflicts are brief and aborted, immediately forgiven in the next scene with a hug and sloppy kisses, never to be mentioned again.

Males don’t fare very well in this film, either. Of the two men who have any driving force on the so-called plot, one is entirely off-screen, and both molested their biological or adopted daughters. The mere presence of pubescent pussy, even attached to someone whose diapers they changed, transforms them into heartless monsters of lust who deserve to die in a fire/leap on a kitchen knife.

Agustina, pictured above, is the best representation of the film. She is a woman who is alone, no family, no children, no job, who nonetheless takes care of an elderly neighbor, checking in on her daily and buying her food. She is tormented by the unknown fate of her mother, who disappeared the night her friends’ parents died together in a mysterious fire. Then, she’s diagnosed with a fast-moving cancer, and when her friends refuse to help her discover only whether her mother is dead or alive, goes on a talk show (in return for money that will allow her to seek life-saving medical attention) to air her story. But, she is too noble to air everyone’s dirty linen, and walks off the set. After all, on some level she knows what everyone else already seems to – her mother was having an affair with her friend’s horrible, daughter-raping father, whose wife set the fire that killed them both and allowed everyone to believe it was her who had died.

Her resolution? The cowardly murderer returns as a “ghost” to take care of Agustina as she dies, rather than confessing and giving the gentle and selfless Agustina some peace, or even providing her with money to receive treatment and potentially live. Er, yay?

This film is much like listening to some blowhard dinosaur expounding on the wonders of women and why he loves them so much: “They share my bed, raise my children, feed me and clean my house, support my community, absorb my abuse, philandering and abandonment, and die overworked and exhausted – such a wonderful mystery Woman is; I, as a mere Man, can never be expected to understand!”

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Lost Season 6: winnowing down the Candidates

The Candidate: KwonsLost Season 6: The Candidate

It’s more than a little sad that the most engaging moment of the last several episodes was the mutual death scene of two characters that have been entirely wasted for two seasons: Jin and Sun Kwon. While entire episodes have been devoted to the eternal romantic connection forged by unconsummated crushes, the only enduring marriage among characters was reduced to a pale reflection of the Desmond and Penny saga, leaving Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim little to do but tag along with B-storylines and spout “Have you seen my spouse?” in alternating episodes. Their long-awaited reunion consisted of a beachside embrace and a hurried conversation in a polar bear cage acknowledging that they’ve produced a beautiful child.

It’s wonderfully human that neither of them mention Ji Yeon, carefully, as they argue whether Jin should leave Sun to die alone in the rapidly filling submarine. The right answer is, of course, that Jin try to escape so that their daughter will potentially have one parent to raise her rather than her terrifying and immoral grandfather. But in this moment, neither wants to be without the other, and Jin’s sacrifice of his own life is flawed self-indulgence.

The two of them are losing their hard-earned future, but the fight for the island’s future is losing much more, particularly a woman who was determined to stand against her father’s selfish machinations to align with those who would control its mysterious and dangerous energy source. But who thinks of this as their linked hands come apart – certainly not the plot, which lost this thread two years ago. Sun was no longer a nascent force of big business but a forlorn wife, needing her husband to be a whole person.

A lot happens in this episode – far too much, really. The Kwons wrap up their attenuated  storyline in minutes, and die. Sayid suddenly redeems himself with a heroic sacrifice. Lapidus dies (possibly), practically off-camera and entirely unnoticed by the other survivors. Jack embraces the way of faith, spelling out the rules of engagement Smokey seems to be held to, and Sawyer refuses to play along with anything he doesn’t understand. Boom. More importantly, Smokey himself is finally confirmed to be evil (at least from the survivors’ point of view), as he is a very resentful babysitter saying anything that might manipulate the Candidates into killing themselves off with some handy C-4. After too many episodes of long green walks, separations, reunions, and seemingly portentous chats that are so often retconned as to be meaningless, this episode was felt rushed and almost slapdash, with promised character revelations whizzing past basely seen.

The entire series is feeling like narrative Calvinball, and the final revelation will be the rules we should have been playing along to the entire time.

Kick-Ass: why?

Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl

a rare un-bloodied moment for Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl

“What works on the page doesn’t always work on the screen, asshole.” – Dave Lizewski

Of the two Kick-Ass texts, the comic is far more faithful to the world it depicts (one seemingly defined by a lack of Alan Moore). The fundamental difference is that the graphic novel blatantly loathes its audience – and is therefore able to more accurately and comically present that group’s foibles and masochistic fantasies – while the film abandons this worldview mid-Act 2 in favor of pandering to the demographic.

Dave Lizewski is an Asperger’s-esque teen who suffers from what he describes as “the perfect combination of loneliness and despair,” which drives him to nick an identity from the comics he adores (obsessively, of course – no fictional fan has any other interests). The film and comic diverge pretty quickly, despite a surface similarity. Both present the sudden but natural death of Dave’s mother as both a vague motivation and something to be resented for lacking a good revenge arc. Neither seems to mourn very much, only noting the effect it’s had on Dave’s dad, who would do well to attend a support group hosted by Charlie Swan. Movie-Dave is a lovable loser who tries to make friends with those even more socially outcast than his geek-clique and picks two men who’ve repeatedly mugged him as his first heroic effort. Comic-Dave seethes with resentment that others don’t see how wonderful he is and picks relatively harmless-looking graffiti taggers as his first target. Unexpectedly (for the genre), both Daves fail spectacularly and spend several months recovering in hospital, and both choose to continue putting their bereaved father through financially ruinous hell rather than give up their delusional identity.

Watchmen was one of the first in-universe texts to confront the fact that anyone who chose the vigilante lifestyle would not only be mentally disturbed but probably only make the world a more dangerous place through their efforts. Kick-Ass attempts to update this concept to the 21st century by using cell phone cameras and Myspace as a direct conduit to Coincidental Broadcasts, upping the childish cynicism by half, and lowering expectations of audience IQ by at least as much. One cover announces its mission statement for the slower readers:

Sickening Violence: Just the Way You Like It!

And yet the comic is less insulting than the film, which promises graphic deconstruction and provides Rambo-esque clichés. Dave gets beaten down, but then gets Real Mad and kills bad guys with a Gatling-enhanced jet pack and a rocket launcher (with no fear of the justice system). He gets the assigned most beautiful girl in school, after shamming as a GBF in order to amass the Nice Guy points that will make her owe him a relationship. He rescues one of the city’s only genuine superheroes and becomes he school “protector.”

All this with nary a synapse spark over committing mass murderer.

In a straight popcorn flick, this might be good enough, given that Kick-Ass was the hero of the movie named after him. But he’s not. He’s a mildly irritating prologue glommed onto Big Daddy and Hit-Girl’s star turn. From the moment the appear on screen or paper, , Kick-Ass becomes part of the audience. This works – on its own level – because the father-daughter team is both more competent and far more interesting than the talentless and asocial imitative fanboy. Watching real superheroes do their thing is his natural level. The film demands a suspension of disbelief and basic humanity appropriate to a later Die Hard sequel, then flings an affectless and brainwashed 11-year-old serial killer at us.

She hacks and slashes her way through a room full of stereotypical thugs – and there is something primal and wonderful about that sight familiar to any fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, just as it’s oddly heartwarming that a father would train his daughter to be tough rather than decorative, how not to freeze when faced with the physical threats a small and pretty girl is likely to encounter as she ventures into the world.

Kick-Ass, Big Daddy and Hit-Girl

Father-daughter bonding, Macready-style

But Buffy spent entire seasons mourning her lost potential of becoming someone who didn’t spend her nights killing other sentient beings. Hit-Girl and, more importantly, her father have no such qualms.

The film takes the easy route again by giving Big Daddy the standard Antihero’s Journey – a good cop framed by the Mob he refused to work for, which somehow leads to his wife’s suicide – and a clear mission of revenge. Comicverse Bid Daddy made this story up and picked a target at random. He was just an accountant, and obsessive comic book fan – an adult Dave Lizewski and obvious sociopath – who ran away from his career and wife into fantasy, kidnapping his daughter and raising her to live out his violent daydreams. He never comes near the bad guys, sending his daughter in alone and watching from a safe distance through the scope of a sniper rifle.

Hit-Girl, the only real superhero (and innocent), is the only comic character who catches a break in the end.  She avenges her father’s completely deserved death and gives up mass murder in favour of a relatively normal (if bully-proof) life with her mother. Actually, Dave’s father, whom the comic never marginalises as much as the film does, also breaks even. His son gives up getting beat up and running up hospital bills, and he even begins to move on from his paralysing grief to begin dating again. Big Daddy and the local Mob branch all die badly, and Dave (thank god) is roundly rejected by the object of his obsession when he confesses his deception and “love.” He tries to comfort himself that he’s changed the world by inspiring a legion of mentally unbalances poseurs, but the last frame goes to one of these deluded souls, the Armenian about to become pavement pizza when his homemade wings fail twenty floors up.

The uncompromising comic is a far superior story…but neither is worth the time it takes to see – or review – them.

dreams whipping by: Coffee and Cigarettes

Coffee and Cigarettes

Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil: Coffee and Cigarettes

Coffee and Cigarettes is a film that is better to have watched than watch, both irritating and enthralling, an impatience I’ve experienced with other Jim Jarmusch projects. It particularly suits this collection of vignettes. though, because it’s a feeling shared by nearly all of the characters. Wanting nothing more than to contemplate the pleasurable minor vices of the title, they are forced instead to interact with other people, to navigate through shared antipathy and neediness.

There’s something painfully nostalgic about these spaces, pre-smoking ban cafes and diners and bars. They offer at their best a luxurious anonymity, somewhere to pause for the price of bottomless coffee with only a pack of cigarettes, a book, or one’s thoughts for company. These places were going extinct when I fell in love with them, uniquely uncool places with an accumulation of calcified locals. It felt like trespassing in another decade, one with real adults, and being tolerated rather than welcomed, a surprisingly fruitful atmosphere for in-depth navel gazing. The drink-up-and-get-out anonymity offered by the chains that replaced these joints (along with their significantly better coffee) just isn’t the same.

Meeting for coffee is defined as undefined, lacking the commitment of a meal or even a drink. Someone’s late, someone’s waiting, someone has someplace better to be, someone really doesn’t. It’s the dentist’s waiting room of sociability, one eye always on the door and wishing the liminal uncomfortableness will mercifully end, wishing for enough time to somehow make it end well. Chess patterns lurk in every vignette, reflecting the patrons’ inability to simply converse or share the quiet, perpetually competing for the upper hand, to be interesting or admired or just the first person to leave the table. Offenses are passed back and forth like sugar jars, but no one has the gumption to fight, cringing at the formica instead. No one comes off well (I found myself really disliking Tom Waits, in fact, who I otherwise admire very much), but they are all too familiar, mapping onto personal memories and tingeing them tragicomic.

It’s a film of fleeting pleasures (dipping into the light nonsense of a conversation shared en masse by everyone with a cup in one hand and a cigarette in the other) and punishing self-awareness amid the impossibility of truly meeting anyone else, blindly focused on how we’re coming across ourselves. We’ve met, we’ve conversed, going through the steps of the dance without ever getting to our feet. Are we friends? Why don’t I enjoy your company, when I want to, when I’ve made the effort to see you? Why can’t we share something as meaninglessly solacing as coffee and cigarettes?

Strange to Meet You: Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni

Strange to Meet You: Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni

Lost, Actually: Happily Ever After


symbolic Driveshaft/Dexter Stratton ring

Happily Ever After is another episode that offers possible big-picture answers, but filtered though one character’s heavily biased perspective. Here, they break out Desmond, Lost’s go-to guy for bringing the heart to lacklustre mini-arcs. Introduced in the second season premier, Desmond is a modern-day Odysseus, spending much of his adult life attempting to simultaneously return to his first love while running from himself – first into a monastery, then the military, and finally the seven seas. He was the rare Islander who got exactly his desired happy ending after much travail – helped along by a contemporary Penelope not content to simply wait at home when she can fund a worldwide search – so he deserves a little celebratory hyperbole where love is concerned.

Daniel and Charlie, however, don’t. And unlike Jacob and the Man in Black in Ab Aeterno, they don’t have a real reason to alter their conversation to suit their reluctant disciple’s mindset. They’re speaking from the heart…unfortunately. Bizarro-world Charlie is following the example of noted relationship guru Bella Swan, seeking near-death experiences in order to have visions of a lost love. Fellow musician Daniel is moved not to compose a Michelle for the 00s but spontaneously emit advanced quantum mechanics equations in his sleep (which is actually a adorable nerdlinger reaction to love at first sight) after spotting a pre-blind date Charlotte. Their Harlequin descriptions (“I’ve seen something real. I’ve seen the truth.”) resonate with Desmond when he has his own magnetically-induced visions and ultimately lead him to resume his role as the helpful visionary spanner in the works.

nerd love

nerd love

There was an awful lot of arc-y goodness in this episode, particularly the hint that Eloise and Charles Widmore are the architects or maintainers of the flash-sideways universe and quite possibly at odds in that venture, but the bulk of the character interactions gave lip service to the Power of Love. Only one kind of love, mind you – platonic or parental or any other sort of love has no place saving the world. No, long-term relationships are a person’s sole anchor (or Constant) in a real world, and the only motivation to return. (Sorry, Ji Yeon.)

Desmond, with his decade of love, loss, and reunion can be forgiven a few goggle-eyed flights of near-poetry, but can Daniel or Charlie’s mutual-but-unconsummated crushes with women they’ve known less than three months really be called “spectacular, consciousness-altering love”? It’s unfair to expect and adult audience the show has often forced to educate themselves in classical philosophy and modern quantum physics to roll with that.

After all, that insane giddiness only lasts during a few weeks of infatuation in any ultimately functional relationship. Then, the connection is primarily fantasy, the unreasonable expectation that this time, this person will fulfill every desire, and it naturally doesn’t last beyond actually getting to know each other. Love isn’t something like an eternal first shot of heroin, wiping away all problems and wrapping both in superficial bliss, despite a total lack of specific connection (sorry, 99% of fanfiction.net). Good long-term relationships are better defined as things that make most aspects of your life happier and more interesting, and provides at least a distraction from the rest. And that’s absolutely brilliant.

I think, as a character, Desmond certainly gets that. I hope the writers do as well (although the Jack/Kate/Sawyer romantic plot tumor doesn’t give me a lot of hope).

LA's only tour de stade venue

Running Man, minus the dignity

Gamer is a terrible movie.

It’s also a strangely written movie, one that goes out of its way to insult its assumed target audience, portraying gaming enthusiasts in lazy shorthand: either spoiled ADHD-addled teenagers or grotesquely obese shut-in perverts.  Who would immediately get the reference to a game changing mod (as opposed to a cheat), or the sight gag of soldiers purchasing upgrades from blank-faced merchants mid-battlefield, but those who spend much of their leisure time gaming?

Also, the aesthetic is an odd choice – in the ersatz Sim world, the clothing, leisure and clubbing set-ups are straight out of Spice World, far more a late-90s hedonistic look than the current scenester gestalt:

Sims 1 didn’t even come out until 2000, and the franchise-defining Sims 2 in 2004 even had an H&M expansion pack, completing the neo-80s modern look of the game. The plotless carnage of the avatar-assisted gameplay is also far more 90s-influenced than the current generation of games, which now more often than not include complex storylines and karmic morality choices.  The hysterical Fake-Violence-Makes-Real-Psychopaths controversy that fuels this ‘sploitation movie belongs to another time, a quaint past that includes Marilyn Manson and a careful hedonism peeking out under the childhood boogieman of AIDS.  Video games want to be your Jiminy Cricket now, putting players through the negative consequences of fun, fun wholesale slaughter.

And yet, it often catches the youthful Web 2.0 drift eerily well, particularly in the cheapness of thrills, the naïve perception that flashing some of your amateur skin is something both expected and hugely valuable.  In fact, the 90s aesthetic would have been a pleasantly nostalgic redeeming feature of this shallow and mean-spirited movie if the Millennial generation’s pre-fab jadedness hadn’t been grafted onto it.

Well, there was a bizarre Michael C Hall dance number.  It’s got that going for it.

All in all: it’s always much more fun to play video games than watch someone else play them.  If nothing else, this movie has left me half-tempted to reinstall Sims 2 (and track down Autonomous Causal Romance mod, of course), but I’m halfway through Bioshock…Mr Bubbles, are you there?