Saturday, December 31, 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

As a defender of Guy Ritchie's first Sherlock Holmes film, it pains me to admit that pretty much everything critics complained unjustly about last time is actually true in the sequel.  Everyone I saw the film with enjoyed it, however, so I suppose it depends on what you liked the first time around.  I also think that I might just fundamentally be not on "A Game Of Shadows'" wavelength.  I strongly disliked 85% of this film, and that's a whiff in my book.

So much that I enjoyed in the previous "Sherlock Holmes" is not here that I can't appreciate the elements that remain.  The sets are still nicely stylized, but in the exact same way.  The erudite dialog of the first film is back, but the characters aren't saying nearly as much of interest.  After all, in this episode Holmes and Watson pretty much trot from place to place following an endless series of breadcrumbs and running from explosions.  A few perfunctory scenes of quick deduction don't accomplish much except to say "I ASSURE YOU THESE PEOPLE ARE BRILLIANT".  It almost seems like they're contractually bound to have a scene of pseudo-Victorian banter every 5 minutes or so because it's inherently funny when people talk quickly and precisely using big words.

Behind our heroes, a mystery is solved!
I enjoyed how the action scenes of the original seemed to have a real thought process to them: Holmes would think quickly, then something would muck up his plan mid sequence and he would readjust on the fly.  In this film, we still slip into Holmes-O-Vision where Sherlock runs through the upcoming action sequence in his mind before actually doing it, but aside from the whole "I've seen this before" element, it verges on a flat out cheat at one point.

I'm referring to a scene where it looks obvious that Holmes and Watson are about do meet their end.  Suddenly a high speed flashback occurs that shows how Holmes thought ahead earlier, somehow predicting that this instance would arise, setting a trap for his assailant.  Maybe it makes logical sense if you go back and examine it, but in the moment it reeks of Deus Ex Machina.  It's like those scenes in the Bill and Ted Movies where people continuously reveal that they travelled back in time over one another to set a trap to save them from the other guy's trap, except that this isn't a joke.

The obvious, but completely suitable gay subtext of the first film has been blown up to the point of cartoonishness.  The script hammers on it relentlessly, and I wouldn't mind so much if it weren't such an obvious goof.  If you're not going to actually engage the subject seriously, then have some restraint for the love of God.  Scene after scene of Holmes being jealous of Watson's wife, making single-entendres left and right, and giving constant significant looks that scream "WHAT ABOUT MY NEEDS?" are tedious, tedious, tedious.

A nice surprise is Stephen Fry giving a well rounded portrayal of Sherlock's similarly brilliant but terribly boring brother Mycroft.  I expected him to be the comic relief, but he played an actual character very well.  A story that examined the relationship between the brothers Holmes could have been very interesting in a different sort of movie.  I could have done without a "comedic" scene involving Mycroft's nonchalant nudity, because it pushed him from the realm of not caring what people think into being a complete weirdo.  Only Dr Manhattan can get away with that sort of thing.

Rachel McAdam's Irene character is brought into the plot only to be swiftly removed in a way that pissed me off right from the get-go.  Why introduce her at all?  She's replaced with Noomi Rapace as a gypsy fortune teller in a role that is not defined in any way except "she's a gypsy".  Guy Ritchie seems to have told her to not emote at all, lest she imbue her character with a personality by accident.

Jared Harris makes a fine nemesis as Moriarty, but his scheme is a bit obvious and more fitting of a Bond Villain than someone in a mystery of any kind.  The first film showed a villain doing impossible things, and the fun was in watching Holmes determine how they were actually possible.  This time, I was basically checking my watch until the final showdown.

What movie am I watching?
Speaking of which, the climactic sequence finally delivers what I'd been hoping for throughout the entire film.  Watson gets a chance to show what he's truly capable of, and the way that a bad guy is unmasked is legitimately clever.  Meanwhile the film's most effective use of Holmes-O-Vision makes the ultimate confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty fascinating and even moving.

The problem is this:  Since the series is now an established franchise, it's taken on a life of its own and become a shambling colossus propelled forward by millions of dollars.  Where Ritchie had something to prove the first time around, he's content to just spew out scenes in the exact same way this time because what the hell, you know he can at least get a trilogy out of the deal.  Any possibility that this is Holmes' or Watson's final adventure is a complete joke because that would be bad for business.  That the film spends so much time mining this territory for drama shows that it has its priorities in the wrong place.

Guy Ritchie has breathed new life into the Holmes character in a wonderful way, and if it weren't for the previous film we wouldn't have the excellent BBC series "Sherlock", which is similarly inspired.  But "A Game Of Shadows" feels like a "Pirates of the Caribbean" film, where a script that could have come from anywhere is gussied up with period attire because people think it looks neat.  There's still hope for the series as long as Ritchie reins it in just a bit and gets back to smaller scale stories that involve actual thought.  He's clearly capable of it, but if he follows this trend, it's only a matter of time before Nazis and frickin' laser beams get involved.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Nineties - "Radical" Doesn't Exactly Describe It

On SomethingAwful's excellent film reviews column, they frequently poll the readers to choose a film from Netflix Instant Watch for the critics to review.  This usually results in punishment such as "Thomas Kinkade's Christmas Cottage".  In one case they picked one of my favorite terrible films, the Vanilla Ice star vehicle "Cool As Ice".  The review was wonderful, but at one point the author claimed something to the effect that the film shows everything that was wrong with the nineties.  Do not confuse your eras, children.  Vanilla Ice was not from the nineties.  He was from 1990-91, when the 80's had still refused to die.

Let's back up a little.  The 80's were an interesting decade.  Americans had reigned in the rampant hedonism of the 70's because they had all woken up very depressed the morning after.  While America grew more fearful and conservative, its pop culture grew more outrageous and silly.  By the end of the decade, "Hair Metal" had taken over pop music to the degree that Bon Jovi was considered Metal, and every actual Metal band tried at least one ballad.  Pop success was synonymous with some L.A. guitarist with teased hair up to the sky drinking and carousing all day.  It had gotten dreadfully stale by about 1990, but what else was there?

Nirvana changed all that.  Well, honestly it wasn't Nirvana that changed it, but the marketing push behind them.  Kurt Cobain was an extremely personal, unconventional songwriter who happened to create a big shiny pop record once.  But while the music was very accessible, the band's look and attitude was something "new".  It had already existed, but now the record industry realized they could sell it.

What happens when people
stop being polite, and start
getting real
A funny thing happened after that.  Record labels started selling "artistic integrity" as a commodity.  It's a common misconception that the nineties brought in a new era of "sincere" rock music.  In reality we all swapped one uniform for another.  Instead of leather, there was flannel.  Long hair was still okay, but teased manes were out.  Instead of endless song titles like "Girl, We're Gonna Party Tonight (L.A. Lovin')", nineties songs all had to have lower-case titles like "sponge", "dirt", or "drain".  The music was just as formulaic, but the formula was different.

Oh, and all Metal was now banned.  The word Metal was synonymous with teased hair, partying, Warrant and Ratt.  When I finally met a kid in high school who listened to actual Metal, I was completely re-educated by his CD collection.

Anyway, Since the Internet hadn't taken hold yet, this was allowed to happen.  This was before everyone got to customize their YouTubes and Tumblrs and Google+'s.  Back then our entire pop culture diet was dictated to us by shadowy men in suits.  We all watched MTV!  We knew it sucked, but what else was there?  The only way we discovered new music was from the radio.  And by the way, those 5 Pearl Jam songs that you still hear constantly on Rock radio?  They were overplayed back then.  The only difference was that there was nowhere to change the channel to.  And as a Spin Doctors fan, even I started to hate "Two Princes".

I <3 Shirley Manson
It was no longer okay to have fun.  At least that was the party line.  The strangest example of this was the band Garbage.  Garbage was founded by Butch Vig, a successful record producer who decided to form a pop group with two other producers.  This was a very 80's idea.  To market themselves better, they hired gloomy-girl Shirley Manson as lead singer/diversion.  Garbage played fun pop music, but had to wrap themselves in grunge clothing with distorted guitars and lyrics about being a "stupid girl" and "only happy when it rains".  By the time of their second record they just ditched the artifice entirely and became unashamed synth-pop.  By then it was okay because legions of Garbage fans were already going to buy the record.

Now we find ourselves in a strange era, pop culture wise.  The Grammy awards and even their hipper cousin the MTV VMA's no longer have much relevance.  The Industry doesn't really dictate what people are into.  Instead, pop culture is dictated by YouTube and 4chan.  Essentially people like what they want, and have the freedom to want anything because it's all there for the taking.  I like to think that the return of the nineties will be improbable.  But the lesson of my teenage decade is an important one:  Sincerity can be marketed, and the herd mentality is a funny thing indeed.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Best Movies Ever, Kind Of

While at a lovely holiday party on Christmas evening, I was engaged in a spirited discussion about movies, and it must have become clear that I was a bit of a cinephile.  Someone at the party who I had never met before then asked me "So have you seen a movie called Citizen Kane?  What did you think of that one?"  In my heart, I danced a merry jig because being asked that question means that someone thinks I'm a real movie critic!

Okay.  Calming down.  Honestly, I don't get asked the "Kane" question unprovoked very often.  I do, however, get asked frequently what my favorite movie is.  I insist on responding with a short list, which frequently changes.  Most of the movies on there are probably going to stay there, however.  For the record, Citizen Kane is a really good movie.  It's not on my list, and you can live a fulfilling life without ever seeing it.  But it is tasty.

Here's the first 10 on the list as of December 26th 2011, with a few notes:

1) Pulp Fiction (1994, d. Quentin Tarantino)

If I had to pick just one film it would be this one.  It essentially contains three great movies that hang out with each other for three hours and chat.  Not every scene is a winner, but every time I watch the film I see some angle that I never saw before.  It's a lovely little puzzle box.  Tarantino's gift that keeps on giving.

2) Top Secret! (1984, d. Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker)

The funniest movie I've ever seen.  A sadly overlooked parody of WWII thrillers and Elvis musicals.  A young Val Kilmer's teen-idol charms shine through even the stupidest jokes.  Highbrow cinematic parody sits alongside poop jokes, and incredible set pieces lovingly crafted just to deliver terrible, terrible puns.
3) Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002, d. Park Chan-Wook)

A film that stares deep into the abyss, finds no comfort, and no company within.  A deaf-mute factory worker turns to an ill-conceived kidnapping plot to afford a kidney for his dying sister, leading to tragedy.  Soon a cycle of retribution begins that drags all within it down, down, down to the depths.  I don't think any film can match "Mr Vengeance's" bleak, barren heart, at least no film that's anywhere near this good.  Just thinking about it still makes me shiver.

4) Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987, d. John Hughes)

Here, John Hughes crafted a story that's far more profound than it had any right to be.  A straight arrow businessman (Steve Martin) tries to get home for the holidays as everything goes wrong, constantly accompanied by an oafish salesman (John Candy).  But Martin's straight man causes just as many problems for himself as the world dishes out, and Candy's buffoon is a legitimately sweet man.  What should have been a cardboard comedy is much more fulfilling because its characters are real, and likable.  And I can't see the ending without crying.
5) The Turin Horse (2011, d. Bela Tarr)

A somber, black and white meditation on the inevitability of death.  Good times, especially when filmed by the master Bela Tarr.  The 10 minute long takes and virtually nonexistant dialog cause you to actually grow fond of certain patches of wall plaster, or a nifty patch in the main character's beard.  Possibly the most focused and effective film Tarr has ever made.  It asks us to confront the fact that someday we will die.  How will we react when it's just a matter of time?
6) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2003, d. Michel Gondry)

Loopy science fiction follows a dysfunctional young couple (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet) trying to determine why they ever decided to fall in love in the first place.  After a fight Winslet opts for an experimental procedure that literally removes Carrey from her memories.  An infuriated Carrey decides to "erase" her right back.  The film follows him as he psychedelically relives the relationship in reverse and begins to have second thoughts.  Layer after layer is stripped away until one moment of simple, perfect truth remains.
7) The Thing (1982 d. John Carpenter)

My ultimate horror film.  Only Carpenter could have made this meat-and-potatoes story of a bunch of dudes trapped in a research station with the universe's ultimate killing machine.  No fat, no filler, no big philosophical themes.  Nobody cares why The Thing is here because they're too busy not dying.  Unbearable silence and that classic John Carpenter one note soundtrack ratchets up the tension to the breaking point.  Plus a crazed Wilford Brimley with an axe.  And the gore.  Oh the gore.

8) From Hell (2001 d. Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes)

A lush gothic thriller that I wrap myself up in on cold winter nights as I shiver  with anticipation.  From Hell is a what-if story about Jack The Ripper that is crackers from a historical standpoint, but fantastic cinema.  Johnny Depp is the unforgettable Inspector Abberline, famed for his opium-induced "visions" that turn out to be right.  The diseased heart that beats beneath the streets of London is laid bare, and the film-making is unceasingly beautiful.  Never has bloodshed been so gorgeous (and terrible) as it is here.  Contains my favorite final line in all of cinema.
9) The Big Lebowski (1998 d. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen)

The Coen Brothers' finest work.  Jeff Bridges' "The Dude" is one of the all-time classic movie creations.  A slacker ex-hippie drifts about LA, White Russian in one hand, joint in the other, trying to unravel a mystery of no great importance.  He's surrounded by colorful characters all trying to use him for various purposes, and somehow he blunders through the film unscathed.  The directors even have the balls to paint him as some kind of prophet or philosopher, which is probably the funniest joke of the entire film.
10) Lust, Caution (2007 d. Ang Lee)

My favorite of Ang Lee's films.  Every frame is gorgeous, even when venturing into the troubling aspects of Japanese-occupied Shanghai.  The effect is to show that despite the terrible things that happen in this place, it will always remain beautiful.  Lee's love for China makes me ache every time I watch the film.  Wei Tang and Tony Leung Chiu Wai form a powerful connection, but the war has forced them to meet behind masks.  Leung is aiding the Japanese occupiers to save his own life at the possible cost of his soul, while Wei pretends not to care about his unforgivable work while secretly working to have him killed.  In another world, they may have really loved each other.  Maybe they do here.

I could go on, but I'd never stop... For example, how could House Of Flying Daggers or Punch-Drunk Love not have made the cutoff?!?  I will say that I will watch anything produced by the following brilliant directors:
  • Quentin Tarantino
  • Ang Lee
  • Park Chan-Wook
  • Bela Tarr
  • Paul Thomas Anderson
Movies are metal. Enjoy them with the blessings of the ancient ones. \m/

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Overlooked Albums - Spin Doctors' "Turn It Upside Down"

One of my favorite albums is selling for less than a dollar on  There is no excuse for you not to own it.

The Spin Doctors' second album, "Turn It Upside Down" is one of the most underrated records I've ever heard.  For some reason, it has been condemned almost universally as a total flop and failure.  Of course, Spin Doctors fans will tell you differently.  The problem was that when it came out, people were already sick to death of the Spin Doctors, mostly because "Two Princes" was being played on the radio once every 20 minutes.  Their follow up to the multiplatinum album "Pocket Full Of Kryptonite" is easily its equal, and one of my favorite records.

On "Turn It Upside Down" the band paints on a wider canvas, experimenting when they used to reign it in.  At the time of release, everyone obsessed about the weird, funky numbers like "Biscuit Head" as evidence that the album had "no hooks".  I never understood that, because the album is packed with hooks.  Even those funky experiments have hypnotic riffs that have stuck in my head for years.  And if you want straight up pop, the pop tunes here are better written than the ones on "Kryptonite", if not as instant in their appeal.  "You Let Your Heart Go Too Fast" is a country experiment that should have been a big radio hit.

Throughout the album, Eric Schenkman plays screaming guitar leads like his fingers are on fire.  He heads up a backing band that is just as together as they were on the first album, but now has room to show what else they can do.  Chris Barron's vocals are still a little weird, as is his tendency to add vowels to the end of every word.  But who else could make a song as weird as "Cleopatra's Cat" so interesting?  That song is a rambling, goofy story involving Cleopatra's favorite cat stealing Caesar's clothes.  Lyrics like "Caesar never got them back / cause they killed his ass in the second act" are delivered just this side of ridiculous so that the song still hasn't worn out its welcome after almost two decades in my CD rotation.

A few songs stand out above the others: "Indifference" is a great ballad with an emotional climax that nobody would have thought the critical whipping boys in the Spin Doctors capable of.  "Mary Jane" is a wistful number that may be about the sweet leaf, or a lost love, or both at once.  "Hungry Hamed's" is so New York that you can almost smell the restaurant the song is about, and has a killer riff as well.  and "Big Fat Funky Booty" is an old live favorite packed with double-entendres that kicks the album off on just the right note.

Heavier tracks like "Beasts in the Woods" and "Bags of Dirt" show an intensity that the Doctors never returned to after this.  I feel like some wind was really taken out of their sales when "Turn it Upside Down" was so condemned by critics.  That combined with the backlash of their audience seems to have caused them to play it safe from then on, leaving this album as the only evidence of their true awesomeness.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Make your own religion! It's Easy and Fun!

You all make excellent points...
Do the Big Questions keep you up at night?  For example:
  • Is there a God, many Gods, or no Gods at all?
  • What happens to us when we die?
  • How should I live my life?
  • Why do bad things happen to good people?
Because of questions like these, we have religion!  For thousands of years people have turned to a belief in something unverifiable to give their lives peace, comfort and direction.  There certainly are many religions to choose from, but did you know you could make your own?  It's easy!  And it can be spiritually fulfilling as well.  Just follow this handy step-by-step guide.

Step 1: You can totally do this!

It's a little-known secret, and fun fact, that all religions are made up.  It's true!  At the beginning of every religious tradition, a person had an idea and a religion was born.  Whether that idea came straight from the person's brain or was put there by a deity, nobody will ever know.  The most successful religions resonated with other people and became popular.  Every great tradition's got to start somewhere.  Why not with you?

Before you begin, it's important to understand that just because a religion is made up doesn't make it frivolous or invalid.  Religion is a powerful thing, and can make a big difference no matter how it was created.  Ask yourself why you want to create a religion.  For the purposes of this guide, we'll assume that it's to pursue spiritual enlightenment, improve your own life, and perhaps improve the lives of others around you.  If it's to enslave legions of gullible followers, a different guide may be more useful to you.

Step 2: Do your homework!

As mentioned in step 1, you're not the first person to try this, so why reinvent the wheel?  Odds are that if millions of people share a religion, there's at least something useful in it for you to learn.  Start at Wikipedia, a great resource for theological and philosophical study.  Study the major religions of the world, as well as any minor ones that sound neat to you.  The more you can learn, the better equipped you'll be to make religion work for you.  Here are some religions I've found it enlightening to study:

  • Christianity
  • Islam
  • Buddhism
  • Taoism
  • The Church Of Satan
  • Discordianism
  • Wicca
Make sure that you don't get too attached to the first religion you see.  Even if you like one person's answers to the big questions, there might be a more fulfilling belief system just around the corner.  For this reason, it pays to shop around!

Remember, it doesn't matter how ancient or recent a religion is.  Whether a belief system was created thousands of years ago somewhere in India, or last Thursday in New Jersey, it's equally worthy of your attention. 

Let's consult "Old Thinky"
Step 3: Think "Fruit Salad".

Religion is not professional sports.  You don't have to choose a team and wear a uniform to have spiritual beliefs.  If you like the teachings of Jesus, but also the Hindu concept of Karma, why not take both?  And if you like most of a belief system except for one or two crazy things about it, feel free to ditch those troublesome verses.  People of all faiths have been doing this for thousands of years, so nothing's stopping you from doing the same.

By the way, you're encouraged to add bits and pieces of your own invention.  This way you can tailor your faith to better fit your needs.

Step 4: Don't neglect rituals.

A lot people like to make fun of the rituals that go along with many religious beliefs, and this is unfortunate.  Rituals are very powerful things, as Anton LaVey in particular realized.  They can be inspirational, a way to make abstract beliefs stick in the mind and resonate with the heart.  People who go to church every Sunday enjoy the fellowship of others, united in the same spiritual pursuit as themselves.  In addition, the rituals that worshippers engage in at church and at home are comforting, can stir the emotions, and are a good way to inspire people for the week to come.  Even something as simple as taking the time to reflect on your life once a day can be very effective.

Step 5: Remember these helpful tips:

Religious beliefs are as diverse as the world's people, and you're free to make your own choices about what you want to believe.  However, you may want to pay heed to the following suggestions, which will make your belief system more robust, and help you get along with others (which is a pretty important thing):

a: Don't be a dick!
This is a generally good life lesson, but it's particularly relevant to religion.  If you feel mandated by your beliefs to constantly harass non-believers about how to live their lives, that's not going to get you many friends.  In fact, it could possibly get you severely beaten.  Allow others the freedom to make their own choices, and the peace to do so free of unwanted conversion attempts.  After all, you chose your beliefs freely.  Why not grant others the same privilege?

This looks like an awesome place
to spend a Sunday morning

b: Let other people use their brains too!
If you find someone willing to listen to your spiritual theories, allow them the right to disagree.  Telling them that thinking differently from you makes them a heretic isn't a very nice thing to do.  Even if you're able to intimidate them into obedience, how confident can you be that they aren't just paying lip service to you to avoid getting killed?  Let others improvise using your belief system as a starting point.  Heck, you might learn something from them!

c: Remain flexible!
Make sure that whatever beliefs you choose can be easily modified later on.  Maybe you're in a hellfire and damnation mood today, but feel more into crystals next week.  If you've already decided that your holy text contains the unchangable truth, you've kind of painted yourself into a corner, haven't you?  Always remember that your beliefs are at best an educated guess, and might not be completely true.  If this line of thought makes you uncomfortable, maybe you should reflect on that for a while.

Step 6: You're done!

Congratulations!  You've become actively involved in your own spiritual welfare.  You've taken part in, and hopefully made useful contributions to an ongoing quest shared by all of humankind.  I hope that your life has a newfound clarity of purpose.  And I hope that you and those around you can enjoy the rest of their days content, at peace, and leaving other people the hell alone.  Have a great idea?  Share it in the comments!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

This Post Has Been Optioned For A Turkish Remake in 2013

Apparently David Fincher's "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" is a fine film.  Nevertheless, its existence makes me sad.  The books that inspired it are wildly popular in America.  Film adaptations of all three books in the trilogy have already been made (in Swedish).  Reportedly they're excellent.  Two years later, they're remaking them in English.  Isn't that a bit of an insult?  I once read an interview with the original film's director Niels Arden Oplev which I'm sad to say I have been unable to locate.  He essentially said that he was so proud of Noomi Rapace's performance in the original that she deserved international recognition.  He hoped that whoever they got to play Lisbeth in the American version didn't steal all of her thunder.  He makes an excellent point.

Some remakes make sense.  Especially in the case of comedies, cultural differences can have a major impact on how a film plays to various audiences.  Sometimes dramas touch on sensitive issues that could distract a particular audience from the larger focus of the film.  In that case, I have no real problem with a remake, since it allows more people to enjoy the story.  From what I understand, however, "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" was not sanitized for an American audience.  David Fincher has reportedly delivered a "Hard R" faithful remake.  Why?

This isn't a new thing.  Remember the wave of Japanese horror pictures in the early 2000's (The Grudge, The Ring, etc).  For some reason, when Hollywood executives see a great foreign film, they decide that the best thing to do is to remake the film at great expense with a new cast.  Why not just subtitle the original and give it wide release? 

But "We hate subtitles!", I hear you cry.  As an anime fan back in the nineties I have very little sympathy, but why not just dub the film?  A good dub is perfectly acceptable!  Heck, most countries dub foreign films for theaters.  At least then you're still seeing the same performance.

Every time I see an excellent foreign film immediately optioned for an English remake I get a sad feeling in the pit of my stomach.  How would you feel if every time a good American film was released it was remade in French, people from other countries went on and on about how brilliant some French director was, and nobody outside the US knew or cared who Nicolas Cage or Stephen Spielberg were?  I suppose most Americans wouldn't care, which is pretty much the problem.

A recent Spanish thriller called "Cell 211" is a great film, already optioned for a remake.  It has nothing in it that would prevent an American audience from enjoying it except that maybe they don't know who Basques are.  God forbid anyone would be exposed to different cultures or world events from a movie.  Rent it from Netflix before they put Colin Farrell in a remake and replace the Basque prisoners with Al Qaeda sympathizers or something.

Oh, and for her trouble Noomi Rapace got a supporting role in the recent Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows as a gypsy fortune teller.  Now that she's proven she's a capable leading lady, I'm glad America could give her a leg up into playing a kooky ethnic sidekick.

Friday, December 16, 2011

True Norwegian Black Metal

Something about the dead of winter demands that I listen to black metal. Black metal is a truly fascinating sub-genre, one of the many extreme metal styles that have splintered off of thrash since 1980. A bit of background for the uninitiated:

It's not black metal without an
illegible band logo!

Thrash metal was created in the early 80's. Innovators like Metallica and Exodus merged the technical skill and style of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden with the raw approach and intensity of hardcore punk to create music perfect for mosh pits. Thrash is probably my favorite musical style, and it evolved rapidly. Within a few years, the earliest thrash records had already begun to sound dated. In latter half of the 80's the genre reached its peak of innovation. Albums like Slayer's "Reign in Blood", Metallica's "Master of Puppets" and Megadeth's "Rust in Peace" seemed to leave little room for improvement.

Death metal was a splinter from thrash around this time, pushing metal into entirely new extreme territory. Death metal was harsh, bleak, and violent. The music was technically complex and nearly emotionless with its emphasis on indecipherable "death growls". It was certainly heavier, but not to everyone's liking.

Black metal was primarily a reaction to death metal. Early 80's artists like Celtic Frost and Venom are considered influences, but the Norwegian black metal scene marked the true flowering of the style. This music seemed tailor-made to be blasted out of cheap stereos in the middle of the Norwegian forest. The guitars were as fast a death metal, but usually much more melodic. The vocals ranged from standard "clean" singing to a kind of raspy shriek, lending them more range and humanity. Keyboards were highly prominent, as was Scandinavian folk music and the occasional acoustic guitar.

Often there was hardly any bass at all, and the guitars were almost uncomfortably trebly. It's not clear how much of that was intentional, or simply because a lot of the early bands couldn't afford decent production. The feel of the music was stripped down and primitive, with lyrics to match. Popular subjects included folk tales, paganism, satanism, and vikings. Black Metal bands adopted an iconic fashion style, frequently incorporating corpse-paint, spikes, black, black and more black.

Not the best Rotting Christ album,
but I love the cover!

I don't own much Black Metal, mostly because so much of it has terrible production. Even now that the style has become to an extent globally popular, many of the most successful artists still insist on emulating the awful dental-drill treble sound of their inspirations. Thankfully there are exceptions. One the coolest black metal bands is Borknagar, a fairly melodic band that goes way overboard on the folksy stuff and has produced a healthy body of work. Some of Einherjer's early work was great Viking raiding party music, but they have long since jumped the shark into self parody.

Ulver have also produced some interesting work, though their best albums came after they abandoned black metal and went experimental. Their last record before doing so almost seemed to be a parody of black metal's stylistic restrictions with intentionally ear scraping and terrible production. The rumor is that they took most of the album's budget and spent it on nice cars.

My favorite band in the genre has got to be Rotting Christ. They're a Greek band whose music almost always sounds like the processional music for some kind of black mass. Despite their name, they don't really rip on Christianity much in their music  Most of their lyrics just focus on incomprehensible occult imagery. They've got riffs aplenty, and though their music can sometimes become a bit repetitive they've been very prolific over two decades of existence. In recent years they've embraced their heritage and added more Greek lyrics and folk singing to their music to excellent effect.

In the dead of winter, after a fresh snow, with bare trees under a clouded sky, there's nothing like some crunchy, evil black metal to make me throw the horns.

Album recommendations:
Einherjer - Naar Hammeren Heves
Borknagar - Oceans Rise
Rotting Christ - Theogonia

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The NC-17 Rating Should Not Exist

There is no defensible reason for the NC-17 rating to exist.  It does no useful service to anyone and actively harms artistic freedom.  It stays around because nobody stops and thinks about it for a moment.  Currently the motion picture rating system in the US contains the following ratings:

G - General Audiences
PG - Parental Guidance Suggested
PG-13 - Strong Parental Guidance Suggested.  Fine for most teenagers.
R - Contains Adult Material.  Nobody under 17 admitted without an adult.
NC-17 - Adult.  Nobody under 17 admitted at all.

The ratings from G to R make sense, even if I disagree with the way they are applied.  If a film is deemed sufficiently mature, it makes some sense to at least require that a parent show up to buy their child's ticket.  If they are required to accompany them to the movie, I think that's a bit excessive.  After all, maybe someone is fine with their child's love of horror films, but don't want to share the viewing experience.  Still, that parent can always just buy a two tickets, walk their child into the theater, then leave.  No big deal.

The point is that a child should be able to watch whatever their parents deem it okay for their child to watch.  That's both their right and responsibility as a parent.  Why does the CARA (the Classification And Rating Administration) get to take that right away from them?  If the film is rated NC-17 children and teenagers are flat out barred from the theater.  There is no law that makes this so, but most mainstream theater chains automatically institute this policy on any NC-17 film that they decide to show.  More importantly, most of these theaters will not show a movie at all, unless it is rated R or below.

What usually happens is that the film is recut to satisfy whoever rated it.  Most of the time, films backed by major studio money (i.e. most of them) will not see release unless an R rated version is made.  Many investors are aware that the NC-17 is a financial kiss of death, and for this reason many directors are contractually bound to deliver a film that the CARA gives a specific rating.  The uncut version may eventually appear, but most people's initial exposure will be to a compromised artistic vision.

The CARA's ratings guidelines are completely arbitrary.  For example, there is no rule saying "If you have X occurences of the F word, the rating is an R".  The anonymous rater (identities of raters are kept secret) can make any justification whatsoever for their rating, and these justifications are not published.  If a sex scene is "too saucy" or has "too much thrusting" the rater can say "Hmm... trim a second here, and cut that shot there... yes, I think that will be better.  Then you'll get an R".  The raters become unofficial co-editors, in effect.  If a film makes the raters uncomfortable for any reason, they can demand it be toned down and threaten an NC-17.

Doesn't the R rating signify "adult content"?  How do we determine that a film is "adult" versus "really adult"?  Is this ridiculous to anyone else?  Some people argue that there's a difference between regular movies and porn.  They seem to believe that if there wasn't a "really adult" rating, then porn would be shown in the multiplexes.  This won't happen, because nobody wants to watch porn in mainstream theaters.  They want to watch it in seedy downtown dives with low lighting where nobody asks questions (most people watch porn on their home computers instead nowadays).  These are two separate markets.  Nobody submits Horny Housewives Vol. 23 to the CARA because they're just going to show it unrated at porn theaters, and sell it through adult video channels.

Incidentally the NC-17 rating does not signify that a movie is porn.  A film doesn't legally qualify as "obscene" or "pornographic" because it carries that rating.  Many films of valid artistic merit are slapped with it for just being too hot for Middle America in the eyes of an anonymous group of people.

Nevertheless, an NC-17 carries special significance.  It's essentially a blacklist keeping controversial films out of the closed ecosystem of mainstream theaters, since barring very special cases, most theaters flat out refuse to show anything with the rating of death slapped on it.  This wouldn't bother me if theatrical distribution weren't so important for allowing films to be made at all. 

Is this a first world problem?  Perhaps.  I can, after all, wait for the possible release of an uncut version on Netflix.  But sometimes this doesn't ever happen.  Even if it did, don't I have as much of a right to see the movies I want to see on the big screen as you do?  Anyone who wants to see movies like "Requiem for a Dream" is not going to want to be sold a compromised product.  Anyone who doesn't want to see those movies... why do they care?  Unfortunately, since most people don't care about art films, the Think Of The Children brigade shouts much louder than I do, and nothing changes.

When has the NC-17 ever actively helped anyone?  Never.  Nobody needs a cinema-daddy to restrict how they parent their children.  It's unnecessary, insulting, and damaging to artists.  The ratings system may be imperfect, but the CARA does provide a useful service.  Good on them.  Now please just do a bit less.  That's not very hard, is it?

Further research: (Classification and Rating Administration information page)

Also, check out the brilliant film "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" for a study of the ratings board and its impact on artists.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Why Gamers Should Care About Skyrim

It's pretty astounding that after only being on the shelves for about a month of the judging period, Skyrim been declared the most played game of 2011.  Anyone who's touched it can tell you that there's a certain kind of magic that's been harnessed.  Unlike the fanfare that greets, say, the newest Zelda game, this isn't a case of fans being given exactly what they want and applauding loyally.  This author has a particular distaste for High Fantasy, meaning fiction in the vein of Tolkien, with elves and orcs and dragons and stuff.  I've avoid The Elder Scrolls games like the plague because of their name alone for years.  But setting be damned, this is an astounding piece of art.

What's really revolutionary about Skyrim is that it takes a lot of the good things about Western RPGs and removes so much of the garbage that spoils them for me.  The interface is simple, and clear as a bell.  Magic users will spend more time than they might like switching between spells, but barring a keyboard full of hotkeys, how else would you fix that problem?  The game plays like a first person shooter, but unlike the Fallout games FPS tactics aren't too necessary this time around.  Battles are as strategic as they ought to be.  My orc pretty much swings a huge sword in the general direction of enemies and hopes they die, while my mage has tons of options and ways to dispel his foes, at the expense of having to actually think.  True, it's buggy, as all Bethesda products are.  Compared to the Fallout games, however, it's notably more stable, and a robust auto-save system compensates for a lot of smeg-ups.

The game's most revolutionary innovation is the character and levelling systems.  For too long, Western RPGs have been slaves to D&D, constantly forcing you to choose races, alignments, manipulate base stats, etc.  Skyrim has no classes or base stats at all.  You do have to choose a race, which might give you a starting boost to some skills or maybe a special ability you can use now and then, but that's it.  In addition, you don't get big bursts of XP from completing quests in the typical way.  You level up by basically doing anything productive, ranging from killing stuff to brewing potions from wildflowers, or working in a smithy all day.  The upshot of this is that you don't have as much of an incentive to game the system, to race to a high level quest to get a big XP bomb and break the game.  You can, of course, do silly things like cast Muffle constantly to watch your Illusion skill skyrocket, but that won't do much for you.   A skill is no good for you unless you're legitimately going to use it, and if that's the case, you'll level it up naturally.

One morning in Tamriel I woke up from a good night's rest at the local inn (for the Well Rested experience bonus, natch), and went off to sell my lootings from the previous night's tomb-raiding expedition.  I spent the whole day bartering with shopkeepers, purchasing components from them, brewing potions or crafting armor, selling the fruits of my labor for a profit, and chatting up the locals along the way.  After a while I noticed it was getting dark, and perhaps I should turn in for the night before moving on.  I returned to the inn and was welcomed back by the friendly barkeep, requested a tune from the Bard, and retired to my warm inviting bed for the evening.  I had just spent and entire day of game time being a productive citizen of Skyrim, and gained a level or two by doing it.  When can I say that has ever happened to me in a game before?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Lust, Caution

Ang Lee's 2007 film "Lust, Caution" is gradually becoming one of my favorite films.  Lee is a first-tier director, and his follow up to "Brokeback Mountain" unfortunately gathered far less publicity than it's predecessor.  Part of the difficulty had to do with the silly NC-17 rating, as well as the fact that it actually requires some knowledge of 20th century history to appreciate.  More importantly, however, "Brokeback" was a straightforward story of tragic romance despite the unusual genders of its lead characters.  "Lust, Caution" is trickier, more complex.  It's not as easy to sum up in a few words why we should care about "Lust", and since the movie takes about three hours to unfold that's a pretty important question.

It takes a lot of confidence to let a story that most studios would only greenlight for 90 minutes or so take twice as long, and Lee earns every minute of it.  The film is a sumptuous elegy, its characters nostalgic not for what was, but what might have been.  This sentiment could be killed by a speedy script, or an overly flashy director.  Lee doesn't stun us with unconventional shots.  Rather, almost every shot is a delicate postcard of a marvelous era that may or may not have existed.  It shows a true love of China, and depicts a time of great change, just before the upheavals that would alter it forever.

The time and place in question would be Shanghai during the Japanese Occupation of WWII.  Wong Chia-Chi is a semi-reluctant spy for the resistance, played by the luminous Tang Wei.  Brought into the struggle partly out of a schoolgirl crush on a revolutionary upperclassman, and partly due to simple peer pressure, she soon finds herself out of her depth.  Wong is forced to grow up very quickly when her objective becomes seduction.  The target of their haphazard assassination plot is Mr Yee, a collaborator with the Japanese, and the sparks between the two of them are painfully clear.  The plan becomes for her to seduce Yee, to distract him long enough for the rebels to kill him.

Unfortunately, the poorly-thought-through plan goes wrong (oh kids), and several years later, she finds herself again pressed into service.  By now, Yee has risen to a very high position in charge of the interrogation of Chinese rebels.  Despite Yee's healthy paranoia, he seems to have a blind spot for Miss Wong, and the rebels want to exploit this.  Seducing him is not difficult.  Quickly she is spirited away in his private cars to erotic rendevous.  The sex is certainly eyebrow-raising, and at first quite rough.  Yee's reserved exterior, carefully composed, falls away abruptly as he seems to take out decades of repressed living in one frightening encounter.  "Love Story" this ain't.

As is Lee's tradition, he doesn't show any sex that he doesn't need to.  Oh, he needs to show a lot, don't get me wrong.  These people live their lives behind masks to such a degree that if we cut out the sex, we'd miss the bulk of their relationship.  Only behind closed bedroom doors can they both drop the facades of their lives and communicate truthfully, even if their communication must be silent.  Yee spends each day torturing and executing his countrymen, and their screams echo in his head day after day.  He is forced to compose himself simply to stay sane.  For her part, Wong may or may not love Mr Yee.  She can't love a man who does the terrible things he does.  But in another world, where they weren't enemies, and where the real Wong could be with the real Mr Yee, who knows what could have been?  During their increasingly acrobatic sexual encounters, we see them flouting the restrictions and norms of their lives, shattering their masks temporarily by being completely uninhibited.

To Yee, Wong is more than yet another mistress.  She can sense his sadness, and is able to soothe it, even more because she purposely avoids talking about his work or the war.  The most touching scene is when Yee calls her to meet him in the Japanese district.  Decked out like a terrible neon parody of Kyoto, it's full of Japanese officers smashed on sake teasing geisha girls.  Yee is despondent, tired of the constant crooning of geisha girls, longing for the China of his childhood.  Wong closes the door to their room, and sings a pure, beautiful Chinese folk song.  Yee applauds, his stoic face on the verge of tears.

There is a climax to this story, a tragic one, as any fan of Chinese dramas would fully expect going in.  But it isn't punched up for dramatic effect.  It's astonishing how quickly it occurs, and how quickly it's over.  Shanghai continues on as it did before, the war continuing much as it probably would had this plot never happened.  The only people affected by it were those that it happened to.  But nobody has the luxury of a big emotional speech or resolution.  Life must go on, but behind everyone's eyes, you can see the beauty of the China they carry in their hearts, the life that might have been.

Hey, Ho, Let's Go!

Why am I the Metal Philosopher?  Well, mostly because the first 20 or so names I came up with were taken.  It was a desperation choice, but I like it anyway.  Philosophy is the discipline that I have the most passion for.  I live it, I breathe it, I can't get enough of it.  I can't think of a better thing to do with my life than to learn to understand life more while I live it.  The more I can understand myself, other people, how we're the same, and how we'll never be the same, the more fulfilled I feel.  All other concerns of import flow from philosophy.  Before you ask how to do something, you need to understand why you do it.  If you believe something, you need to understand why you believe it.  A heckler once confronted the late comedian Bill Hicks with the following: "Shut up! We don't come to comedy to think!".  Hicks responded "Well where do you go to think?  I'll meet you there!"

Philosophy means many things, but many people claim to have a philosophy for life.  If I did, mine would be Metal.  Not just because I love loud noises, thundering rhythms, insane music, and the darker things in life (though I do).  It's because Metal is about having the balls to live your life the way you want to live it, to enjoy the things you want to enjoy, and to speak the truth without fear.  The loud guitars and songs about Satan simply aid the message.  When I really love something, I will claim that it is Metal, and this is the highest compliment.

The some topics I plan to rant about on this blog are as follows, in no particular order:

  • Philosophy
  • Music
  • Movies
  • Video Games
  • Education
  • Theology (if you must know, I'm a Quaker Buddhist)
  • Ethics
All good things.  And there will be more.  So much more.  Welcome to my interwebs.