Friday, November 8, 2013

Movie Review: "Metallica Through The Never"

Metallica are probably best known to movie lovers as the subject of "Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster", the 2004 documentary where the band came across as cranky has-beens clinging desperately to a lifestyle that had come to define them but which they had no remaining passion for. I can't tell you how happy I am that 9 years later we get "Metallica Through The Never" (2013 dir. Nimrod Antal). It may not be as essential a film as its predecessor, but it sure as hell is a happier coda to the band's career thus far.

Of course, comparing the two is kind of silly, since one is a study of artists in crisis and the other is a concert film. But it really did feel like "Monster" was the beginning of the end, bittersweetly documenting the creation of the band's worst album during a total emotional breakdown. Since then the band has had a massive attitude adjustment, and The Metal is alive within them once more. Any metalhead really needs to make an effort to see this movie, unless they hate Metallica. And let's be honest, any metalhead who claims to hate Metallica is probably just trying to be cool.

"Metallica Through The Never" isn't just a concert film. In the opening we're introduced to a fictional roadie (imdb says his name is Trip) who is told to travel across the city to retrieve a package for the band. From then on footage of the band performing is intercut with Trip's adventures which quickly take a turn for the apocalyptic. I was on the fence about seeing "MTTN" until I heard about this structure. I mean, I've seen Metallica live before, but this had the potential to be something special. In the end, it really is.

So there are two movies to review here, and the most important is the concert footage. Simply put, Metallica are legends for a reason. Mid-life crises fully behind them, they have a swagger and intensity that truly is thrash metal personified. That attitude is intoxicating, and the crowd fires just as much enthusiasm back at the band, who grin and nod approvingly at their cult. The footage was apparently filmed over several nights, which allowed multiple elaborate sets to be used: A giant electric chair shooting lighting across the stadium; a field of eerie gravestones rising out of the fog around the band; and perhaps the most incredible, a statue of Lady Justice which is constructed on stage by a crew then demolished during "...And Justice For All". When that thing blew up I was amazed that Lars wasn't crushed by falling chunks of marble.

The showmanship and enthusiasm are so incredible that it makes up for the band's shortcomings. In the last decade their live performances have shifted to emphasize riffs above all else, at the expense of the subtlety that made their truly great moments on record stand out from other thrash bands. Compared to a Metallica album, their live show is more intent on simply rocking your face off. But an hour of that can get a little tiresome: riffs are all they've got. Great riffs, mind you, but the details needed to give the music life can sometimes get lost amid the band's stormtrooper-like chug.

And yeah, I'm gonna bring up Kirk Hammett, because he's consistently the weak link here. His guitar solos boil down to "SOLO GOES HERE MWEEDLYMWEEDLYMWOOOOOOW", instead of actually hitting the right notes, or keeping tempo. The newer songs are a different story, since his wah-heavy style was actually used to pretty good effect from the Black Album on. But "Lightning" and "Puppets" material is featured heavily here, and Kirk does kinda whiff most of it. Thankfully, outside of the solos, he ends up just another part of the mix.

On the positive side, the rest of the band is mostly solid. Newest member Rob Trujillo is a top notch bass player, with a caveman like stage presence that complements the bands brutality nicely. Lars and James are as great as ever, and the setlist is nearly perfect. I can't think of any truly essential cuts that are missing... maybe "Fade to Black" and "Sad But True", but the movie is only 97 minutes long and something's got to go.

All of this makes for a great time for Metallica fans. But the special element here is the structure that cuts between the concert and Trip's fictional cross-town errand. Most reviews I've seen have complained that the fictional footage is incoherent and stupid, which is probably true if you aren't really into metal. There's hardly any narrative spine connecting what happens, but applying logic to what is essentially music video footage is pointless. This stuff is meant to intensify the band's music, which it doesn't try to do by literalizing the lyrics (thankfully) but by using all kinds of thrash metal imagery: murderous horsemen, riots in the streets, men on fire, etc. The "Battery" section was particularly excellent, and I imagine those visuals will play in my head for me during that song from now on.

Thrash fans will eat it up, and nobody really cares what anyone else thinks. Another advantage of this approach is that the fictional sections are used to paper over the more tedious portions of Metallica's frequently overlong compositions, keeping the film from bogging down. Finally, Trip's journey is a fitting expression of Metallica's well known appreciation for their road crew, without whom none of this business would be possible.

That perhaps is a key to why Metallica, out of all bands, had to be the one to produce this film. While I may like some other metal bands more, I can't deny that I own all of Metallica's albums and listen to them frequently. Let's face it, they're pretty important. And they have an inclusive, populist bent to their persona (as a band) that makes it easy for people to love them. They don't put themselves on a pedestal and show off, they entertain. And watching a 3D concert film in a theatre, surrounded by a virtual audience as well as a real one both throwing the horns and singing along was an incredible experience indeed. "Metallica Through The Never" ain't perfect, but it's just so damn fun.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The One With The Tiger

It's a shame that I just got around to seeing "Life of Pi", since it would have been truly amazing on a big screen in 3D. As sheer film-making it's pretty amazing, but what's more noteworthy is that it's the rare huge box office success that really has something to say. Most big budget films (and this most assuredly was one) go out of their way to not offend anybody, but Life of Pi is strident with its message. Clearly the book's (and film's) pro-spirituality moral has connected with millions of people but has proved off-putting to others. That's the main reason I didn't rush out to see it.

The good news is that "Life of Pi" is still well worth seeing. But the message at the end didn't sit right with me. In short, the film's view of faith is reductive and a bit insulting, denying the possibility that faith and reason could coexist. As befits a film that outright claims its story "will make you believe in God", it writes a few checks its ass can't cash. As a fan of religion myself, I have a few words. And yes, I'm going to blow the ending. so MAD SPOILERS.

So the story begins with is that Pi as a child living in Pondicherry, India. The spirituality of Indian culture completely envelops his life. His mother reads him inspiring stories of the Hindu gods, and when he gets a little older he discovers Christianity and Islam, both of which set his mind aflame with possibilities. He senses that of these cultures touch on aspects of the divine, and he wants to believe in all three. His mother supports him, while his cartoon rationalist father complains. First Pi's father complains about religion being terrible, and later complains that Pi needs to pick one religion and stick to it.

This is all prep work for the meat of the story, where Pi is separated from his entire family in a catastrophic ship disaster and cast adrift on a life boat. His only company are several animals who managed to stow away: a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra, and a tiger named Richard Parker (long story). Soon the numbers shrink as you might imagine: the hyena kills the zebra and orangutan in short order, and the tiger dispatches the hyena. Pi is concerned that "Richard Parker's final meal might be a small vegetarian boy", and has an opportunity to let the tiger drown. However, Pi can't bring himself to do it and saves the tiger. The bulk of "Life of Pi" concerns these two coming to terms with each other's presence and eventually surviving hundreds of days at sea.

The end is where things begin to get tricky. Pi, recuperating in the hospital, is visited by some insurance agents who ask him to tell him what he knows about the ship's sinking and how he survived. They find his story to preposterous to believe, and ask him to tell them something that isn't so fantastical... something plausible for their files. He then tells them a very different story indeed:

Instead of animals, he was really stuck on the lifeboat with three other humans. The zebra was a wounded man, the orangutan was his mother, and the hyena was the ship's cook. The cook ends up killing both of the other passengers, and after his mother's death Pi kills the cook in retribution. Richard Parker was the animal aspect of Pi's character, the one capable of murder.

As he's telling this story to Yann Martel (writer of the book), Martel finds the second story very upsetting. Pi says that both stories describe what happened, and neither can be disproved. He asks Martel which story he prefers. Martel picks the one with the tiger. Pi responds "So it is with God".

The main reason I find this upsetting is that it assumes a certain view of faith: i.e. a story that we know is false or implausible but choose to believe in anyway. I'm sure a lot of people feel this way: they have religious beliefs that comfort them, but that they don't think too hard about. These people see two alternatives: Embrace faith in things that you admit are implausible, or confront the terrifying possibility of a world without it.

What if there's a third possibility? And yes, I think there is. We don't have to choose faith or reason over one another. Scientists have faith all the time in things they don't know are true. That's why they create hypotheses. They then devise experiments to test these hypotheses, fine-tune their studies based on the results, and eventually attain truth. One can approach religion the same way.

I couldn't help but notice the conspicuous absence of Buddhism from Pi's childhood studies, and not just because I'm a practitioner myself. Growing up in India, it's almost inconceivable that he wouldn't have run into at least a few Buddhists, or at least some of the mutual traditions shared by Buddhists and Hindus (Hinduism being vast and containing multitudes). This didn't offend me, but Buddhism's central concept of applying reason and inquiry into the spiritual realm contradicts the film's simplistic moral directly.

In my case, I have spent a lot of time meditating on the nature of my life, body and self. I've thought about things that didn't immediately make sense: my consciousness, the physical and nonphysical components that I believed made up my self. Buddhism posits some rather complex notions of the nature of reality that I won't bore you with. But after much reflection and thought, these notions made sense to me. They have become my hypothesis. I will spend the rest of my life testing them.

Some say that spiritual beliefs can't be tested, but I think they can. For example: If someone claims that the Earth was created 6000 years ago in a flash of Jehovah, there's a mountain of physical evidence that directly contradicts them. They may continue to hold that belief, but the more evidence that piles up to discredit it, the closer to a willful delusion it becomes. Philosophers have spent thousands of years coming up with rational ways to investigate thoughts, notions, and beliefs. Most people don't take the time to investigate what they believe but it can be done.

My beliefs are not bullet-proof. I constantly study other religious and spiritual traditions for further insight. And I don't agree with every Buddhist text I've read (they don't really have a single Bible, and Buddhists tend to disagree on what texts are even canonical). If better theories come along, I will investigate them. It's a life-long journey.

In Pi's case, he knows what happened. My impression was that the more terrible version of the story was the true one... Pi's emotional reaction while telling it would certainly indicate that he wasn't just making it all up. He knows that his mother wasn't an orangutan. But he willingly comforts himself with a delusion. He knowingly chooses a poetic lie over the truth. Honestly, that reaction makes sense, given what he's experienced. But it's a stretch to say that that's why we shouldn't be atheists.

In the beginning of the film, the author says somebody told him Pi's story "would make [him] believe in God". I find it hard to believe that this story could do that. True, if somebody already accepted Pi's implication that confronting reality is too painful to think about, then this film would give them a pleasing pat on the back. And again, it's great any time a movie has the balls to actually have an opinion on anything. But the spiritual world is far too fertile a place to be boxed in by "Life of Pi"'s limited perspective. Get out there and explore it!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Five Jaw-Dropping Movies From the Golden Age of Cinema

If you think you don't like "old movies", you're just not looking back far enough. In the late 1920's and early 1930's was the first golden age of cinema. The best films from this time period are shockingly impressive, even by today's standards. By the mid twenties, directors like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang had developed a mind-blowing set of cinematic techniques that wouldn't be rivaled for decades.

What caused the end of this golden age? Well, the arrival of talkies resulted in new technological and artistic challenges, not just for actors but filmmakers as well. Also, the Hollywood Production Code went into effect in the early 30's and put strict limits on the subject matter and artistic expression allowed by studio productions for decades to come. But that five year or so span represents the most freewheeling and exciting period of cinematic history as far as I'm concerned.

Here are five mind-blowing films that modern audiences just aren't likely to watch. Trust me though, they're well worth your time, and I think there's a little something for everyone on this list. They literally don't make them like this anymore. All of these are available on Netflix instant streaming except Sunrise (which is available on DVD).

The Thief of Bagdad (1924 dir. Ludwig Berger)

Let's start things off with a bona-fide crowd pleaser. "The Thief of Bagdad" is unabashed popcorn fun, starring Douglas Fairbanks as the least convincing Arab ever. Achmed is a carefree thief who breaks into the caliph's palace only to fall in love with a sleeping princess. In order to win the right to marry her, he competes with three royal suitors: the one who returns in a week with the coolest treasure gets the girl. This is all an excuse for epic quests, special effects, thrills and spills.

This kind of fun is timeless, and there's a reason "The Thief of Bagdad" continued to be a hit for years after talkies supposedly rendered it obsolete. My wife and I had a great time watching it, and it's the perfect introduction for people who don't think they like silent films.

The General (1926 dir. Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman)

One of my favorite films, The General was an action-comedy ahead of its time. Every Jackie Chan film owes a debt to this, Buster Keaton's masterpiece. Keaton plays a train engineer in Georgia  who tries to enlist in the Confederate army when the Civil War breaks out. Rejected as unfit for service, his girlfriend misunderstands and thinks him a coward. He soon gets his chance to prove his mettle when a group of Union spies steal his locomotive and his woman for a secret mission of sabotage.

What follows is some of the most impressive action and stunt choreography ever filmed, including two huge chase sequences on train tracks and a closing battle that includes a real train plummeting off of a bridge in a spectacular wreck. Along the way Buster Keaton puts in his best performance, his famous deadpan reactions leading to plenty of comedy, but concealing great depth as an actor. I can't hype this one enough. See it!

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927 dir. F. W. Murnau)

Sunrise is perhaps the ultimate silent film. It tells a story so simple and direct that dialogue might have rendered it sappy or unconvincing. A farmer is lured away from his wife by a seductive woman from the city. She convinces him to murder his wife so that they can run away together, but at the last minute he breaks down, unable to bring himself to commit murder. His wife flees to the city, but he follows, determined to apologize and repair their shattered love.

This movie is artistry incarnate. Its story is heightened and a bit artificial, but that doesn't matter when the performances are so touching. You've also never seen a camera do some of the things it does here, particularly in a legendary tracking shot across a foggy countryside. I was blown away by the film-making technique on display here, showing just how far cinema had evolved before clunky new sound cameras brought everything back to the drawing board. The cracking good story and tear-jerking emotion only adds to the package.

L'Age D'Or (1930 dir. Luis Bunuel)

In 1930 Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel unleashed a tour-de-force of WTF so intentionally provocative that it caused riots and was buried for decades. Even to modern eyes "L'Age D'Or" is difficult, but (if you're weird) a hell of a lot of fun. The core story (and boy does it wander) is a frustrated romance between a young upper-class woman and a sociopathic civil servant. They spend the film attempting to meet for sex, but are constantly interrupted or thwarted by the police, the church, her family, and God knows what else.

This film defiantly breaks taboos both big and small: the main character's job is as a "goodwill ambassador", which doesn't stop him from kicking a puppy and beating up a blind man. At a high-society ball, a screaming maid on fire runs through the party unnoticed. The most famous sequence has a sexually frustrated woman licking a statue's toe in orgasmic ecstasy. There's also a healthy dose of surrealist humor: in one scene a man throws furniture out of a high window to shatter onto the street below. Mixed in with the furniture is a bishop, and a giraffe, who mysteriously lands in a faraway ocean.

Scarface (1932 dir. Howard Hawks)

I'll round off this list with a bad-ass crime spectacle. Maybe Howard Hawk's "Scarface" isn't a groundbreaking artistic pursuit, but it's a great example of how freaking violent and grim movies could be before the Production Code killed everyone's fun. Paul Muni plays Tony Camonte, a mobster with big dreams who tries to take over the chicago alcohol trade during prohibition through lethal force. Audiences of the day were shocked by the casual violence: drive-by shootings, dead bodies left on doorsteps, and in the most memorable shot, Tony giggling like a kid on christmas while playing with a new machine gun.

It's surprising just how much of the 1983 remake was already in the original film. There's nowhere near as much stage blood thrown around, but Tony's borderline incestuous protection of his sister and the "out in a blaze of glory" climax are already here, as well as the important phrase "The World Is Yours". I haven't seen the Pacino version in a long time, but I can vouch for the quality of this one. It isn't just "good for its day", it's just plain awesome.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Metal Roundup - Miazma, Sabaton, Death Angel

Happy America week, folks! Time to celebrate our freedom to listen to whatever the hell we want with this assortment of awesome metal I've been digging lately. Check it out!

Miazma - "Bacteria of This Earth"

I've gushed about Miazma before, but since then I've only become more of a fanatic. Miazma are a band that a bit hard to pin down with a label, and that's just the way I like them. Their debut full-length "Bacteria of This Earth" is a volatile, progressive stew of death, black, and doom metal (but mostly death). As instrumentalists they are quite versatile, playing tempos ranging from a dirge to a riot with complex song structures that avoid stagnation. Vocalist Jackson Smith is a wonderful, diseased-sounding nail-gargler who actually pronounces real words... you could actually sing along to 80% of this. The whole thing is kind of like the cover: bleak, spare, surprisingly intellectual. Oh, and did I mention evil as fuck? Because yes. Rush to iTunes and buy this one.

Sabaton - "Carolus Rex"

Sabaton is a triumphant power metal band that really likes songs about battle and war, with one secret weapon that instantly sets them apart: Joakim Broden's awe-inspiring baritone. I love a good falsetto, but when you're writing battle music it's good to have a nice, powerful manly voice supporting those fancy guitar solos. "Carolus Rex" is a concept album about the rise and fall of Sweden's military might, and comes in a deluxe version featuring both English and Swedish language versions. Both sound good, but I think the concept plays better in the original Swedish, what with the nationalist bent of the whole thing. The band isn't flashy, but they never fail to get the job done. This is fist pumping mead-hall stuff, and when it was over even I wanted to march under the Swedish flag. Gott Mit Uns!

Death Angel - "Act III"

Death Angel's 1990 effort is one of a kind, the culmination of a strain of thrash that vanished shortly after it appeared, never to return. Nowadays thrash is the bastion of throwbacks and moshpits. There was a time, however, when some bands were pushing the music into new and unusual places. With "Act III" Death Angel finally conjured up strong songwriting to match their always top-notch musicianship for one shining moment, then broke up for a decade. This is a diamond in the rough.

In truth, the thrash label almost seems like a distraction here. The first two tracks do everything Anthrax tried to do with "Persistence of Time" only better. Having proved their thrash chops, Death Angel throw the first of many curveballs with "Veil of Deception". It's a melancholy acoustic ballad that is the strongest song on the record, and from then on anything goes. This isn't just unconventional for the sake of it though, rather the band has no fear in following their songs wherever they naturally lead. If this means spending a few minutes of "Discontinued" in an instrumental slap-bass funk-metal breakdown then so be it.

The only knock against the record is that there really isn't a single amazing track that I could point to and say "If you like this, buy the album!". But this is one of those magic records that is more than the sum of its parts. Just take my word for it: "Act III" is necessary for any thrash fan.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

On Free Speech, Hate Speech, and Women

I am a Free Speech Absolutist. I believe that no law should ever restrict speech, art, or any other kind of expression based on its content. I believe this because our minds and the multi-faceted ideas that come from them are what makes us human. To understand ourselves and others those ideas need be expressed and discussed, free of restriction or retribution.

I strongly oppose hate speech legislation. I do not support hate speech, but I will defend any person's right to
espouse ideas that I find hateful. To restrict hate speech assumes that someone, somewhere can be a supreme authority on what makes speech "hateful", when in reality each of us has a different definition of the term. It is far too easy for politically unpopular speech to be miscategorized simply so that it can be banned.

I believe that if somebody supports a hateful ideology, it is the responsibility of all thinking people to engage them in the hopes of reaching a mutual understanding. Most ideas categorized as hate speech do not stand up to rational logic. When exposed to the light of open discussion, bad ideas will eventually wither and die. If those ideas become illegal to express, their supporters are emboldened, keep to themselves, and fester, only to emerge later with more intensity.

Lately there have been many stories on the Internet that have upset me involving women. I will not bother to recount them because they all essentially follow the same template.

1) Somewhere, a woman speaks up about how a comment or piece of media is sexist, misogynistic, or problematic in some way.

2) Anti-feminists rise up from all corners of the internet to smack down the original poster, flooding her pages with the most vile, sexist, threatening mouth diarrhea they can come up with.

3) Rational thinking people are very disturbed by this and immediately the story becomes a huge circus.

4) The misogyny of the opposition's comments now flows out in an unbridled torrent of all-caps textwalls and rational discussion becomes impossible.

Frankly it makes me so angry, every time I see it happen, that it's beginning to wear me down. If you really do believe that feminists (people who support equality between the sexes) are too touchy, then just ignore them. Responding with floods of "Tits or GTFO!" or "Get back in the kitchen" doesn't really help your case, does it? Unfailingly I get more upset by the reaction of screaming Men's Rights troglodytes than I am by the original cause of the complaint. They act as though one woman complaining about something is equivalent to the government wanting to make that thing illegal.

But here's the problem: In some parts of the world, primarily in Europe, it is accepted that hate speech should be censored. People actually DO want to make anti-feminist viewpoints illegal. This is a terrible idea. It pumps up the anti-feminists by giving them actual proof that people in the world are trying to ban their ideas. Let the hate speech flow. We're ready for it. Because their ideas are hurtful and wrong, and after enough dialogue I have faith that in the end they'll be the ones left looking stupid. And they will wither.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Movie Review: Primer (2004)

Movies about time travel never get old because nobody can really agree on what the consequences of the practice can be. If you travel back in time and mess with your own past, will you wink out of existence, or will the whole process sort itself out? Everybody's got their own theory, but the fun is in seeing what the director of any given film thinks would happen. Every time, it's a new experience for the audience, or at least it should be. "Primer" (dir. Shane Carruth, 2004) is, if nothing else, a new experience.

In fact, very little in "Primer" is like any other film I've ever seen. Shane Carruth wrote, produced and starred in the film, which stars a group of hardcore engineering geeks who work practically 24/7: in addition to their corporate day jobs they assemble and sell computer boards at night and engage in their own scientific experiments in a garage during what little free time they have remaining. The dialogue can at time be maddening because all four of them talk over each other constantly, like most real geeks do. Also very little of it makes any sense to laypersons and none of it is explained. Like the dialogue in "Altered States", the point is that these people are very smart and very excited. You're not supposed to follow it.

Two of them accidentally cause a reaction that is impossible according to known science, and stealthily cut their friends out of the loop: whatever they've got it's clearly something big. It turns out that they've invented a time machine that is a royal pain in the ass to use but clearly works. Their first instinct is, of course, to get rich with it by gaining advance knowledge of the stock market. This pays off handsomely, but while high on their accomplishments they begin to think of other possible uses for the machine, and a ten-foot neon sign reading "HUBRIS" should pop into your mind.

At this point the entire narrative goes to hell, which is entirely intentional. Whatever it is that they decide to do with the machine doesn't work out right. Suddenly there are at least two or three duplicates of our heroes running around at any given time trying to accomplish several agendas. It's not clear what happened "first" because it's all happening at once. All that's clear is that they've crossed a line and there's no going back.

I won't lie, "Primer" hurt my head. It's a good thing the film is only 77 minutes long because I was praying for it to end right about when it did. It's exhausting to keep up with, and while I could list the various plot elements I couldn't begin to explain how they tie together. This is obviously the intended effect: the protagonists barely have any idea what's going on, so how the heck are we supposed to know? The chaos of time travel is made very, very clear. The downside to this is that there are several dramatic moments that should have more emotional impact than they do, except that it's so hard to sort out where in what timeline we are and what anybody's doing that the cumulative effect is simply confusion.

And yet I'm extremely grateful to have seen "Primer". Despite the obvious non-budget, the ingenuity of the filmmaking almost qualifies as its own special effect. In my favorite shot our scientists are running an experiment on a weeble toy stuck in a vacuum sealed box with a camera  (because it would be unsafe to look inside directly). The box begins shaking violently and our heroes circle it in fear, watching to see the results of their trial. Meanwhile only we the viewers can see the video feed from the camera inside, which gets more and more alarming. The mounting dread of this shot is worth seeing the entire movie for. That and the ingenuity of their "time machine", seemingly constructed of plastic film and duct tape.

With any movie, the audience needs to know what they're signing up for before going in. "Primer" is a mindscrew from top to bottom, and to enjoy it you've got to work for it. But if you're willing to play along the result is rewarding: Perhaps the most incredible attempt to take a hard sci-fi approach to time travel in a film I've ever seen. If "Primer" were a book it would probably be less frustrating, but I don't know if it could have been bettered. It's as terrifying as it is incoherent, just the way it ought to be.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Novelty Platformer Round-up

No genre has been host to more self-conscious attempts at art or novelty humor in recent years than the platformer. The core gameplay of jumping from place to place collecting shiny bits is pretty timeless and can be made new again by giving it a shiny new coat of paint and a conceptual hook. Here are three that I've gotten into this year...

I Wanna Be The Guy: The Movie: The Game

In 2007, "I Wanna Be The Guy" was released with the stated aim of being the most ludicrously unfair platform game ever created, and it succeeds mightily. Thank God it's free because asking people to pay for the privilege of being psychologically battered would be cruel indeed. Your character is capable of running, double jumping and shooting (which is nearly useless), and every single thing on screen that isn't you will likely try to kill you. Every few steps some part of the landscape (spikes, apples in trees, stars, the ground itself) will try to kill you, and the only way to avoid it is through trial and error. You are meant to die over and over and over again, and as you only have one life and take one hit before exploding into bloody pixels you will be hearing the game over music very often indeed.

Aside from masochism, humor is the only thing leading you onward: the game's graphics and sound are almost entirely looted from various NES games and remixed in pretty entertaining ways that I dare not spoil. Frankly, however, I recommend watching somebody's speedrun of the game on YouTube over actually playing it... life is too short for this shit. Available for Windows.

Potatoman Seeks The Troof

Potatoman is being marketed as a potatosophical platformer, and if you like the sound of that you will probably enjoy the game. Potatoman is an Atari 2600-esque blob of pixels who seems half man / half potato, and is on a quest for Troof. Over the course of the game our hero visits various locales seeking Troof, and almost everything he meets has their own idea of what it is. Like I Wanna Be The Guy, Potatoman toys with the player's expectations of how things in the world ought to behave, but in more creative ways. The running theme is having to think outside the box: For example some things that are scary will only hurt you if you try to evade them... walk straight through them and they will obligingly move aside. You will die a lot, but thankfully you get many, many lives and there's always a way through.

Meanwhile the philosophical themes reinforce the unconventional gameplay and vice versa. Like Potatoman you are seeking insight into the nature of how things really are, and must confront the things that confuse or frighten you. I finished the game in under an hour, but spent that entire time being entertained. For $3 I feel that I got my money's worth, and the ending is simple, but very sweet. Oh, and Potatoman does some adorable things if you leave him standing around. Available for Windows, Mac and Linux

DLC Quest

DLC Quest is one of the funniest games I've played in a very long time, and while the gameplay is incredibly simple the conceptual hook is pure gold: As you begin your adventure there is no sound or animation, and you are only capable of walking to the right. Immediately you run into the handy DLC vendor (Named "Nickel", and you know he's got a brother named "Dime" somewhere) who promptly begins selling you integral functionality of the game you have just purchased. The DLC is purchased with gold coins you pick up while platforming, so don't worry, you don't have to spend any more real money after buying the game.

In addition to purchasing basic abilities like jumping, you will sometimes run into areas of the game that are empty because the developers didn't get them done in time for release. Don't worry, just spend a few coins to "extend your enjoyment!".  At one point you are asked to press X 10,000 times to forge a sword... or you can purchase the speed forging pack to not die of boredom. And of course you can pay to add zombies to the game. No game is complete without unnecessary zombies.

The gameplay is basic jumping and collecting, and isn't very difficult, which fits the theme of the game only existing to collect your money. Meanwhile the writing is great throughout. I laughed constantly and the art style is adorable. There are two episodes of DLC Quest and both are well worth your time.  Available for Windows, Mac, and Xbox 360

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

New Metal: Blacken The Globe Compilation Vol. 1

In a few months I'll be moving to Alice Springs, Australia, a small city in the center of a great desert in the middle of nowhere. So imagine my surprise when I discovered not just a thriving Australian metal scene, but a yearly metal festival in Alice Springs! Suddenly I'm looking forward to the move a heck of a lot more.

The Black Wreath, a record label / collective of local metal bands recently put on the first annual Blacken the Globe festival, drawing bands from across the continent to batter the populace senseless. Though I was stuck here in the US for the fest itself, the folks at the Black Wreath have been kind enough to put up a compilation of all bands present for free download on their website. Which is awesome, by the way.

I've listened to enough metal samplers over the years that I expected to have to sort through a lot of crap. Shockingly enough, every band on this comp is some degree of good, which makes it a mandatory download for any metal fan looking for a new fix. It skews toward the brutal, growling/screaming side, but there are some exceptions (such as the more old-school South East Desert Metal and NoKTuRNL's dance-able funk-metal). Unbroken Expanse even bring some rousing pub-rock to the table, oddly enough. Obviously with only one track to work with it's hard to get a full picture of every band present, and once I move to town, I hope to see a lot of them live for myself :)

I must give special horns-up to Alice Springs band Miazma, who have really got it going on. Technical death metal is style I dig, and Miazma plays it at a generally slower tempo than most. You wouldn't think that would work, but it's different and lets me really appreciate the quality of the music more than when Cryptopsy plays at a mile a minute. Plus, they've got nice, evil, Chuck Schuldiner style death-gurgles, which is always nice.

That's my opinion, but you should really download the comp yourself and pick your own favorite! I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments. Head to the Black Wreath's website and click Downloads to get the Blacken the Globe Compilation Volume 1. Throw the horns! \m/

Here's a list of the bands present on the sampler:

King Parrot
The Horror
Blunt Force Trauma
South East Desert Metal
Unbroken Expanse

Friday, May 10, 2013

Great Directors: Julia Loktev

It's an awesome coincidence that only a few days after posting my top ten films directed by women I should get my first exposure to the films of Julia Loktev, a Russian-American director of incredible promise. In some ways she feels like a spiritual successor to Bela Tarr, her films refusing to spell out the details of their enigmatic stories, and using long takes to force the audience to think actively about what they're observing. Unlike Tarr's work, Loktev's has a stronger emotional pulse, and can be unnervingly intense.  Her two feature films to date have both been shockingly distinctive works, and I can't wait to see where she goes from here.

Loktev is very much a formalist, which is a film-critic term that I ought to explain. Much of mainstream entertainment expects the camera to capture the action unobtrusively, while the acting, dialogue and plot carry the artistic weight. Formalist filmmakers put less emphasis on these traditional elements, using unorthodox editing, direction and plot structure to make their primary statements. That doesn't mean the films don't have characters, dialogue and so forth, but that the filmmakers are playing around with our cinematic expectations to get their point across.

As debut films go, you can't do much better than  "Day Night Day Night" (2006). It's a bit rough, but it's splashy, controversial, and attention-grabbing. The unnamed main character is a 19 year old female who has decided to become a suicide bomber. We follow what are likely to be the last two days of her life as she prepares for, then attempts to carry out her task. Her ideology is never specified, making this an existential film rather than a political one. Thankfully we don't get any "idiot plot dumps": we become a fly on the wall as a clandestine operation is carried out, so it would be unbelievable to have a character spell out all the details for our benefit.

Loktev's debut is almost suffocating in its intensity, as befits the subject at hand. For a solid day the would-be bomber sits in a hotel room waiting agonizingly for her instructions. Each awkward silence with her masked associates becomes more uncomfortable which means that when she finally takes to the streets of New York strapped with explosives we're already wound up in knots. The camera stays frequently within a few feet of her face staring directly into it, implying that all of her thoughts are directed towards keeping her cool and finishing her mission. One moment is perhaps the tensest I've ever experienced in a film, my heart pounding so hard in my chest that it echoed in my ears.

All the while we wonder, if not about her beliefs, her resolve. How much of her willingness to carry out such a suicidal act comes from her own convictions, as opposed to pressure from others? She's obviously under the expected stress of nervousness and second thoughts, but it's never quite clear if this is an act of true belief or cultish indoctrination. Day Night Day Night is a fascinating debut, though it is rough around the edges, and relies so heavily on suspense that I'm not sure it would reward repeat viewings.

While Loktev's next film "The Loneliest Planet" (2011) lacks the attention-grabbing plot hook of her debut, it is a leap forward in technique. The two main characters are a pair of young lovers who have come to Georgia (the Eastern European country, not the U.S. state) apparently to visit the man's family. The couple decides it would be fun to take a backtracking tour of the Georgian countryside and hires a local guide to show them around. They hike further and further into the wilderness chit-chatting inanely with their guide and swapping stories as the camera frequently cuts to extremely distant landscape shots, the three characters mere bobbing dots on the horizon. The pleasures of the film are sensory, the scenery beautiful and the soundtrack conveying the satisfying crunch of every step on the grass beneath their feet.

Then a sudden, unexpected occurrence spins the movie around 180 degrees. Arguably nothing significant actually happens, but the couple's relationship may be forever altered. From this point on the chit-chat ceases as an invisible wall of silence is erected between the two lovers. The script now becomes familiar to anyone who's inadvertently hurt a spouse or girl/boyfriend, then tried in vain to cut through the tension and get back to the love that they pray isn't dead. What is amazing is how this healing process is communicated almost solely with images. Since much of the film is shots of people walking, the placement and movement of actors in the scene takes the place of dialogue.

Much as in "Day Night Day Night", the characters refuse to spew plot for our benefit. Nobody sits down and monologues about their feelings. Instead we see them put physical distance between each other, occasionally trying to bridge the gap but faltering. One memorable shot has a character reaching out timidly to put their hand on the other's shoulder for an eternal moment. That moment is filmed like something out of a thriller film, only instead of an unseen knife pointed at someone's back it's an open hand in a gesture of apology. It's weird to think how tense I felt at that moment, given the almost comically low stakes of the story.

Julia Loktev is a rising star, I'm certain of it. Many directors have one powerful, original work of art in them. So far, she is running two for two. Neither film is perfect, but I love where's she's coming from as a filmmaker. I love directors who want to show me something I've never seen before. So tack these two movies onto my list from last week, and count my butt in the seat for anything Ms. Loktev puts out

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Top 10 Films by Female Directors

I was chatting today with a friend about great films directed by women but it was difficult to come up with any examples that he had seen (apart from those of Kathryn Bigalow). So that got me thinking, how many movies with female directors have I even seen?

Turns out, not very many! Using my Flickchart as a guide, I came up with the following list which, while quite varied in tone, would make a great film festival!

1) Titus (Julie Taymor, 1999)
A shakespeare-punk provocation, updating Shakespeare's most controversial play into an ultraviolent mindscrew of epic proportions.

2) American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000)
Do you like Huey Lewis and The News?

3) Japanese Story (Sue Brooks, 2003)
An odd-couple romantic comedy turns abruptly to tragedy, then heartwarming emotional truth in one of the most surprising and touching films I've ever seen.

4) Wayne's World (Penelope Spheeris, 1992)
Still funny after all these years, dated pop culture references and all.

5) Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, 2006)
It's hard to express this fascinating movie in one sentence other than to say it's practically a religion for my wife... Go see it!

6) Vanity Fair (Mira Nair, 2004)
A bitterly cynical romantic potboiler elevated by stellar performances and heart-pounding visual style.

7) Ravenous (Antonia Bird, 1999)
An uncommonly brainy (ha!) cannibal film set during the American civil war, with a savage wit and unsettlingly cheerful soundtrack.

8) Sita Sings The Blues (Nina Paley, 2008)
Nina Paley brings ancient Hindu legends to life through cheerful animation and hot jazz music in this entertaining little treasure.

9) XXY (Lucia Puenzo, 2007)
A thought-provoking drama about an intersexed teenager trying to make sense of family tensions and first love.

10) The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (Judy Irving, 2003)
Surprisingly, this smile-inducing documentary made me root for a crazy ex-hippie who tends wild birds in San Francisco, and that's quite an achievement

I'm always on the lookout for more films directed by women, so if you have any good recommendations, please let me know!

Monday, April 15, 2013


Two things I love and are extreme metal and J-pop, and they've now been combined in a controversial new act called BABYMETAL. Maybe controversial is a bit strong, but I've seen some very polarized reactions from American metalheads in particular over this ensemble. Basically, it's three Jpop girls fronting an extreme metal band (One lead vocalist and two backing cheerleaders who are mostly there for the cuteness factor).

It took them a few singles to get the mix down right (the style has thankfully shifted from Nu-Metal to Metalcore), but at this point BABYMETAL is downright badass. These two songs in particular point to great things for this group, and anyone complaining that this isn't metal clearly isn't listening. It's metal... with Jpop singers. And that cute little fox head hand gesture ^____^

First is "Headbangeeerrrrrr!", the song that really turned my head and made me a BABYMETAL believer:

Then their next single, "Ijime, Dame, Zettai", complete with a funky bearded prophet dude who looks a little like Fred Armisen now that I think about it...

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Metal Review: Dragonforce - "The Power Within"

There's little to dispute the notion that "Through The Fire And Flames" is a modern day metal classic. But you could easily be forgiven for not caring about the rest of Dragonforce's output. Until now. If you have even the slightest appreciation for melodic metal then run, do not walk, to your nearest record shop (okay, fine, go to iTunes) and pick up their newest album, "The Power Within". Right now. Just go.

Now that you've returned with this smoking platter of digital bits let's bask in its glory. This is a creative rebirth for Dragonforce, which was already a force to be reckoned with. They've long been one of the tightest power metal bands on the planet, with Herman Li and Samuel Totman a formidable shredding duo. Their biggest weakness has been their unwillingness to write more than one song. While "Inhuman Rampage" is still a fun listen, Dragonforce's follow-up album "Ultra Beatdown" made it clear that Totman and Co. wanted to break out of the formula but just couldn't manage it.

Perhaps ex-vocalist ZP Theart was holding them back. Then again maybe the band just felt they had something to prove after such a major line-up change. Theart was a fine singer. His replacement Marc Hudson is incredible. He announces his presence with a full on power metal scream at the start of "Holding On" that Theart could only dream of. For the first time the vocal melodies are the main attraction, rather than just a thing you wade through to get to the guitar solo.

It's refreshing to realize that you can write songs shorter than eight minutes. This stuff is really efficiently written with little wasted time. Even cooler than that, most of these songs are actually about something, not just random gibberish strung into sentences. True, the band's themes haven't changed: it's mostly inspirational stuff about standing strong through adversity. "Fallen World" and "Last Man Stands" both sing the praises of humanity struggling to survive after an apocalypse, and have the most clearly "Dragonforcy" lyrics on the album.

Meanwhile, "Seasons" is slightly melancholy, with a gentle vocal line reflecting on the passage of time. "Cry Freedom" is a Manowar-esque anthem sure to get drunken crowds swaying. "Die by the Sword" even edges towards thrash metal with an aggressive stance I haven't heard from these guys before. That's probably the most impressively structured track on the record, with more ideas crammed into four minutes than in any of the band's other songs.

This new-found songwriting ability, combined with the more accomplished, emotive vocals have elevated Dragonforce to the top of my power metal pantheon. I've been listening to this record for about a month now and it only gets better. And until Lost Horizon manages to reunite, I think Dragonforce's title will be a hard one for anyone to reclaim.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

In Memoriam

Roger Ebert died today. This is kind of a big deal for me, since he's my single biggest inspiration as a writer. It hasn't really sunk in and likely won't until I manage to remove his page from my RSS reader. I'm not ready for that just yet. I never met the man and have no cute personal anectodes about meeting him in the flesh. But I have one thing to say right now as the news is fresh in my mind. I'm still pissed at him about video games.

Isn't that kind of petty? That that's my reaction to the passing of the man I've read weekly for almost 20 years of my life? But he could be a right bastard about video games and the people who played them. He regularly asserted that video games weren't art, even (especially) when nobody asked him. Every now and then he'd stop a review dead in his tracks and snipe at video game players for being small-minded or foolish.

At his peak he wrote an article mocking video game players complete with a picture of a six year old with a ridiculous look on his face gritting his teeth with a controller. I have never forgotten that picture. If you were a gamer, it didn't matter what your opinions were as a cinephile, or how smart you were, that seemed to be his view of you. I got so tired of hearing it that I stopped reading him. I made a point of it. But within a few months I came back. I had to. He's just too good of a writer.

I didn't parrot his opinions as gospel. If he panned a movie that looked great I'd still see it. But I loved reading everything he wrote. The man really got across in a few hundred words the experience of the viewer in a way that no other writer could. I might disagree about how good a movie was, but I'd know what I was in for. His "Great Movies" list is indispensable. Ebert was amazing. And he almost never stopped writing.

Eventually he made peace with video game players, admitting that as someone with no interest in ever playing video games, he shouldn't have stuck his nose into the argument in the first place and would leave it be. That was incredibly classy, and I never thought twice about forgiving it.  Sure enough, two days ago in his blog post announcing a semi-retirement he had to throw in a snipe at gamers, just because he could. Jerk. I knew I'd get over it, but two days later he's dead. I don't know what else to say. I'll miss him. You only have so many childhood heroes. They don't grow back.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Things I Learned While Remixing A Metallica Record

When Slayer was writing the music for "Reign in Blood", they were fans of Metallica and Megadeth but thought their songs were too repetitive. So the band just began cutting everything that was redundant from their own tunes and the resulting album barely broke 29 minutes in length. It was also fucking incredible, which got me thinking...

Fun as it is to bash Metallica, "...And Justice For All" is probably my favorite metal album ever, if we go by amount of time in my main CD rotation (100% for the last 14 years or so). But even I know it's too long and stuffed with wankery. So I decided to give it the Slayer treatment: Find anything redundant and cut it out. Just snip-snip-gone. How much could I remove? Would I ruin the album in the process?
Pretty much what I did
This isn't the first time I've re-edited an album to my tastes, but certainly the trickest job, given the amount I ended up tinkering. While I won't share my results online (because yarrrrr) here's what I learned from the experience:

1) Audacity is a great product. 

It's free, and strikes just the right balance between accessibility and power for what I needed to do. It's definitely what I'll use from here on out.

2) Shitty production can be a godsend

Everyone knows AJFA as the album with no audible bass, but it was also mixed with no reverb anywhere. While this makes the album sound a bit dry and dead (I'll probably try adding my own reverb to see if I can perk it up a little) it makes editing a lot simpler. Metallica's songwriting is so modular that it's not hard to just snip four bars here and there, and I rarely had to worry about echos carrying over from cut sections. Only one edit was really any trick at all (more on that later).

Metallica's mixing console circa 1989
3) "...And Justice For All" is 90% awesome

Some people just hate the songs on AJFA, but I don't. I started with the assumption that the songs didn't need much tinkering, and that I would just trim the deadweight. This turned out to be pretty much true, and separating the wheat from the chaff helps the album's momentum a great deal. My final cut ended up being 10% shorter overall.

Mostly I cut sections of riffs repeating themselves, and a few of those random extra beats thrown in to show off that the band can play tricky time signatures. The biggest cuts were in the title track (about two minutes, mostly the slow section in the middle) and "Frayed Ends of Sanity" (about one and a half minutes). The only songs I left untouched were Blackened (which is perfect) and One (Because I can't just "make Kirk's solo better", and the song doesn't work without it). By the way...

4) "The Frayed Ends Of Sanity" is a terrible song

The riffs in the middle are amazing, but this is definitely the track I hated editing the most. In fact I saved it for last knowing it would be my nemesis. I managed to remove Kirk Hammet's entire solo, where it sounds like James and Lars just sort of spaced for a solid minute and let Kirk murder a guitar. This was the aforementioned edit of doom. I had to do some serious multi-tracking to get this done, but it was worth it. The song has been thoroughly de-Kirked, and is now clean.

Kirk Hammett: Lowering Metallica's
asshole quotient by 25% since 1983
5) Kirk Hammett is probably a really great dude

This isn't a thing I learned, but I beat up on the man constantly and should probably show a little respect. He's a fine guitarist, just not meant to play speed metal. His bluesier work on Metallica's later albums is awesome. "The Outlaw Torn" alone, man... He practically made the sky cry on that one.

6) Remixing is fun!

As tedious as this exercise ended up being in places, I am super jazzed with my results. I love re-editing albums the way I like. Hell, after I clear my head of Metallica for a little while I might even try fixing Death Magnetic someday. Someday when I really hate myself.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Movie Review: "Thirst"

This is part 6 of my Park Chan-wook retrospective. It's also the last until I get to see Stoker, and since I live in the middle of nowhere I don't know when I'll get the chance.

I kind of feel bad being disappointed by "Thirst", but that's what happens when a director has as good a track record as Park Chan-wook. One of the best vampire films of the 2000s qualifies as a letdown. But I'm not going to beat up on "Thirst" too much. In an overstuffed genre it's got a ton of new ideas. And a film failing because it tries to do too much could certainly commit worse sins.

Park regular Song Kang-ho gets an entire movie all to himself as Sang-hyun, a good-hearted priest deeply affected by the number of followers he has lost to a terrifying new blood disease. That disease, named EV, causes patients to grow boils, cough up blood, and die very quickly. So moved is he by their tragic deaths that he volunteers to enter an experimental trial, and facing near-certain death while hopefully helping to find a cure. During the trial he succumbs to the disease, but springs miraculously back to life, making him the sole survivor of the disease (and a makeshift saint among his followers)

Unfortunately there is a side effects to his recovery, namely vampirism. Sang-hyun gradually discovers his thirst for human blood, and is soon siphoning doses from coma victims (who probably wouldn't miss it, I guess) and keeping blood bags in his fridge. If he goes too long without fresh blood the EV symptoms return, so after a suicide attempt proves his immortality he's got no choice but to become a career bloodsucker.

The first third of the film is the most compelling, grounding the vampire elements in reality, and featuring a protagonist who really doesn't want to hurt anyone, just to stay alive. Making him a priest is effective because now he has to reconcile bloodsucking with his faith and vows. This gets even trickier when he notices that vampirism has also caused him to be hypersensitive to smell, and increasingly unable to resist lustful urges. He confides in a fellow priest who disgusts him by demanding some of Sang-hyun's vampire blood for himself... why should Sang-hyun hog the immortality?

At this point Park marries the vampire plot to a domestic thriller, and I'm not convinced that both were necessary. Sang-hyun begins boarding with a dysfunctional family: Matriarch Lady Ra (Kim Hae-suk), her doltish son Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun), and his wife and former adopted sister (eww) Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin). Tae-ju is trouble on two legs, desperate to escape her domestic hell and particularly good at inciting Sang-hyun's libido. He quickly falls in lust with Tae-ju who swiftly begins manipulating him into trying to kill her husband.

This is enough plot for another movie, and at 2 hrs 15 minutes there has to be a shorter, better version of Thirst that could have been made. All the same, Park does this material well, with some great use of shifting focus to direct attention during tense sequences. Yet as the plot goes on, cranking through one twist after another, I began to miss the flashes of light that perked up Park's other work. Thirst might not be the darkest film Park has made, but it's probably the greyest.

At one point I felt like the movie was likely to end, but nope, a third phase begins wherein Tae-ju contracts vampirism. Unfortunately she becomes too much for Sang-hyun to handle, being quite a fan of the killing and the screaming and not much for subtlety. Seeing Kim Ok-bin's portrayal leap over the top from devious to horror film crazy is unfortunate, and in general gas begins to leave the movie at a steady rate about 2/3 of the way through.

Still, almost every part of the film works on its own. There are just too many parts. And it's worth sticking around for the last 10 minutes, which are so well done they make the whole trip worth it. Unlike Park's earlier films this is straight up genre work, efficiently done and with a minimal amount of subtext. If it weren't so bloated I'd be more charitable towards it, but let's keep perspective in mind. Even lesser Park is damn fine film-making, and "Thirst" certainly bears his mark.

Other films directed by Park Chan-wook:

The Moon... is the Sun's Dream (1992)
Trio (1997)
Joint Security Area (2000)
Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002)
Oldboy (2003)
Lady Vengeance (2005)
I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK (2006)
Thirst (2009)
Stoker (2013)

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Movie Review: "I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK"

This is part 5 of my Park Chan-wook retrospective.

Park Chan-wook's charmingly titled film "I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK" (2006) was such a departure from his previous work that it took several years to find international distribution. Of course, if the restlessness of "Lady Vengeance" was any indication, a left turn was to be expected, but still... "a romantic comedy from the director of Oldboy" proved to be a hard sell. Even in Park's native Korea, the film mostly bombed. It had a great opening weekend though because the ladies love Rain, an international pop sensation mostly known in America as Stephen Colbert's nemesis. As this film proves, he's also one hell of an actor.

This film has been poorly described as a Korean "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" which is only accurate in the sense that they both take place in mental institutions. "I'm a Cyborg" avoids several common pitfalls of movies about crazy people. The patients aren't saints, or misunderstood, they're fucking crazy. And the staff aren't a blunt instrument of authority or conformity, they sincerely want to help and try their best. But the fact is that the patients are living on a different plane of reality than the staff. You can tell someone the voices aren't really there, but who's more convincing? You, or the voices?

The film is a love story over all else, and it's a damn charming one, though it gets off to a disturbing start: Young-goon (Im Soo-jung) is working on an assembly line when the radio begins dictating instructions to her, leading her to slit her wrist and stick an electrical wire into it. This is taken as a suicide attempt, and leads to her being committed to the asylum. Young-goon really believes that she is a cyborg, and prefers to talk to machines and listen to the radio for instructions rather than deal with humans. Unfortunately she refuses to eat, since her robot body can't process food.

She attracts the attention of Il-soon (Rain), a compulsive thief who steals intangible things like "Thursday", or people's personality attributes. The other inmates play along, almost as though sharing a group hallucination. At one point he steals someone's famous ping pong swing, infuriating the man who can now no longer play worth a damn. Il-soon does this because he fears that if he doesn't continue to steal he will shrink into a dot and disappear. Rain is alternately hilarious (wearing a ridiculous rabbit mask and overtly sneaking in plain sight) and touching in this role. He's charismatic, but damaged, and quite a handful for the staff.

Il-soon notices Young-goon when she asks him to steal her sympathy. She believes that she is a Terminator style combat robot and wishes to take bloody vengeance on the "men in white" for taking her grandmother away from her as a child (her grandmother believed she was a mouse). Yet she can't bring herself to kill anyone. Il-soon obliges, leading to an over the top fantasy sequence where Young-goon massacres all of the doctors and orderlies while the patients jump for joy. Of course it's all in her head, and she collapses from malnutrition.

As the doctors try every trick imaginable to get Young-goon to eat (electroshock therapy only convinces her that her battery is recharged) Il-soon is driven to save her. He has one skill the hospital lacks: he's insane. More specifically he plays along with Young-goon's delusions to solve it from the inside. At one point he tries to convince her that he can install a "Rice-Megaton" converter that will make her able to eat. There's something very touching about this. In order to deeply connect with someone you need to be able to see the world through their eyes. Most people aren't convinced they're robots, but it's a comic exaggeration of something very true.

Along the way, Park gets to indulge every last quirky device he didn't get a chance to wheel out in "Lady Vengeance". Reality is fluid, as you'd expect when every character interprets the world around them differently. In one touching scene Il-soon confides his deepest fears to another patient while shrinking down to the size of a doll in front of her. The oddest moment comes when he convinces Young-goon that her bed can fly, and begins to yodel a mountain tune as her bed flies out the window to meet him in Switzerland.

So that's what we've got. An adorable love story between two clearly insane people. Park's genre fans may not like the result, but I think it's wonderful and proves that he doesn't have to just make grim, violent thrillers. His two films since this one have gone back to that territory, but I think he just had to get this one out of his system. It's a great tonic for the grim realism of many modern movies, and deserves a cult following.

Other films directed by Park Chan-wook:

The Moon... is the Sun's Dream (1992)
Trio (1997)
Joint Security Area (2000)
Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002)
Oldboy (2003)
Lady Vengeance (2005)
I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK (2006)
Thirst (2009)
Stoker (2013)

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Movie Review: "Lady Vengeance"

This is part 4 of my Park Chan-Wook retrospective

"Lady Vengeance" is the perfect capstone to a series of films that each subvert the conventions of traditional revenge thrillers in different ways: "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance"  removes the divide between hero and villain, sympathizing with every member of the cast. "Oldboy" denies the hero catharsis or even victory. And "Lady Vengeance" depicts a heroine who gets her revenge, but learns that what she really needs is to be forgiven. That proves much more difficult.

The titular Lee Geum-ja ("Lee Yeong-ae") is released from prison after serving 13 years for kidnapping and murdering a young boy named Won-mo. In truth, she was intimidated into assisting the vile teacher Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik) who threatened to kill her newborn child. In the end, she took the fall for the crime, and in the process became a media sensation. The nation fell in love with her youth and beauty, and watched as she had a very vocal religious conversion behind bars, and cultivated a reputation as "Kind-hearted Ms. Geum-ja" (the Korean title of the film, incidentally).

Of course, this was all an act. Behind this mask of virtue, Geum-ja was plotting an epic revenge scheme, forming alliances with other inmates in order to cash in favors from them upon her release. Now that she's out, she suits up on a black coat and puts on shocking red eyeliner: war paint for her costume as an avenging angel. The revenge scheme goes off without too much trouble, but is only one element of a pretty wide-ranging plot that is not afraid of digressions.

This is the most stylistically restless film Park had made to this point, shifting in tone from grim and violent to practically comedic at the drop of a hat. It feels very theatrical, with devices such as the baroque soundtrack and jumbled chronology serving to distance us from the proceedings. The omniscient narrator's identity remains secret until the end of the film, but she tells us events that she could not possibly have seen firsthand. Like "Mr. Vengeance", we are meant to process this story as a parable, with a lesson in mind.

As I mentioned, the narrative jumps around to all sorts of tangents: each of the prisoners Geum-ja befriends gets their own little vignette, revealing that Geum-ja dirtied her hands quite a bit on the inside. My favorite is the story of a married couple very much in love with each other... and armed robbery. Once freed, Geum-ja tracks down her daughter, now living in Australia and a pouty little bastard about it. And she starts a love affair with a  goofy young man solely because he's the same age Won-mo would be were he still alive.

Geum-ja's rage against Baek is muddled by the fact that she was partially responsible for Won-mo's murder. She visits the home of his parents and begins chopping off her fingers one by one in their living room until they will forgive her. Yet this gesture, dramatic as it is, proves to be pointless. In "Lady Vengeance" Park plays a lot with Christian imagery and themes, casting doubt on the idea that you can just fall on your knees and beg God to cleanse your soul. Geum-ja's ultimate quest is not to kill Baek, but to be forgiven. Forgiven for Won-mo's death, for giving up her daughter and for all of the other wrongs she has committed to get to this point. She despairs when she realizes that that this may be impossible.

The stakes are raised further when she learns that Baek killed several more children after Won-mo, whose deaths would have been avoided had she turned him in. Wracked with guilt she (barely) restrains herself from killing him, and instead assembles a kangaroo court comprised of the dead children's relatives. She offers them a choice: Turn Baek in to face a long jail sentence, or exact a "more personal" revenge. This surreal segment is the grimmest of the film, intellectualizing vengeance to the point where it becomes almost mechanical. How satisfying can it be to get your knock in on an incapacitated man years after the original crime was committed? And still, even if Baek is successfully murdered, it's not going to bring anyone back, is it?

This has been the hardest film for me to wrap my head around up to this point in the retrospective. "Lady Vengeance" is nowhere near as airtight as "Mr Vengeance", but it's not that sort of movie. The narrative is big, emotional, wreckless, and messy. But Park's direction remains tightly controlled, and this is perhaps the most cinematically rich film he's made to date. I have spent hours attempting to unpack it in a short review and I just can't do it justice. What I can tell you is that I love it, and it's a damned shame that it's not generally given the same recognition as its siblings.

Other films directed by Park Chan-wook:

The Moon... is the Sun's Dream (1992)
Trio (1997)
Joint Security Area (2000)
Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002)
Oldboy (2003)
Lady Vengeance (2005)
I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK (2006)
Thirst (2009)
Stoker (2013)

Monday, March 25, 2013

Movie Review: "Oldboy"

This is part 3 of my Park Chan-Wook retrospective

"Oldboy" (2003) is the dark heart of Park Chan-wook's "Vengeance Trilogy", which is a hard statement to make following the despair of "Sympathy for Mr Vengeance". But compared to the films on either side of it, "Oldboy" is the most immediate, direct and physical. We spend almost the entire film immersed in the protagonist's battered, tormented psyche, as intoxicated with revenge as he is. For that reason, the gut-wrenching emotional horror of the film's conclusion hits harder, in my opinion, than anything in "Mr Vengeance". Park lures the audience in with the promise of flash, thrills and gore, only to follow that up with an extra course of pain and torment. It isn't my favorite film, but I can attest that it's the sort of movie that can change a man.

While sharing many plot points with the Japanese manga of the same name, Park's film has a very different tone than the more sedate source material, and takes the story in a darker direction. A quick jolt of an intro establishes Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) as a comic book revenge hero, growling his words from beneath a shock of messy hair, dangling a man from a rooftop by his necktie. But we immediately flash back to a very different Dae-su: a drunken boor, causing trouble in a police station. After thoroughly making an ass of himself, he is bailed out by a friend only to suddenly disappear.

Dae-su awakes in a dingy hotel room with no windows, and only a television for company. Food is slid under a slot in the door, and Dae-su begs his guards to tell him why he has been imprisoned, but they remain silent. Periodically he is gassed into unconsciousness only to wake up some time later clean-shaven, showered, and with a haircut. The TV tells him that his wife has been murdered, and that he is the prime suspect. Days, weeks, months, then years pass, without any explanation. Dae-su makes a list of everyone he has ever wronged in an attempt to determine the cause of his imprisonment, but finds no likely candidates. With nothing better to do, he paints the outline of a person on the wall and beats on it with his bare bleeding fists, hoping to someday take revenge on his captors.

15 years later Dae-Su awakes in a grass field with a new suit and cell phone. Why was he released after all this time? Why isn't he dead? And most importantly to Dae-su, who can he destroy for this? After picking a fight with some street punks he quickly learns that 15 years of pretend fighting are easily put into practice. His cellphone rings, his captor announcing that the game has begun: Dae-su has five days to figure out the reason for his imprisonment or this mysterious villain will murder every woman Dae-su will ever love.

"Oldboy" revels in thriller cliches, up to and including the mysteriously trusting woman (sushi chef Mi-do, played by Kang Hye-jeong) who takes pity on our hero and gives him a place to sleep despite his obvious insanity and violent nature. Yet it seems fresh again because everything is amped up to 11. It's in this section of the film that the trap is baited, the audience accepting the parameters of a classic revenge thriller and lapping it up happily. Some of it is gratuitous (one scene of Mi-do tied up half naked leaps to mind), but perhaps this is intentional.

Dae-su's rage is palpable every second he's on screen, visualized most memorably in a now-iconic fight sequence. Dae-su faces off against dozens of armed thugs in a narrow hallway, and as good as the fight choreography is, you don't really see it. Instead you feel the impact of every blow, and watch as these guys spend three entire minutes in real time trying to take down Dae-su and failing. At one point, everybody in the hallway is tired and gasping for breath, Dae-su has taken a knife in the back that he doesn't even notice, and we wait for one of them to recuperate to the point where they can even mount another swing. Finally Dae-su emerges, drenched in blood, victorious.

Only in the third act does Park's game become apparent. The villainous Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae) is not an unlikable figure, and seems much more emotionally fragile than one would suspect. When the truth is finally revealed the audience is thoroughly sucker punched. No happy endings are found, and the "hero" we have come to love is brought to his knees, psychologically ruined and destroyed. And at this point it becomes hard for me to remain objective about "Oldboy".

This feels like audience punishment, and that's something I have a tricky time with. While I appreciate the baroque plot convolutions and violence for their sheer intensity, and the film's characters remain true to their natures throughout, I still have to ask why we were brought along on this journey? "Oldboy" was the first Park film I saw and it hurt. I spent days trying to justify it and while I could intellectually defend the film as a study of revenge, I could never get over the central cruelty of the narrative. Dae-su has no "fatal flaw" in the tragic sense, except perhaps that he was a jerk before the narrative even began. That's kind of crummy tragedy if you ask me.

"Oldboy" is very much a gut-level film occupied with making the audience feel it. And it's not a pleasant sensation. "Mr. Vengeance" and "Lady Vengeance" tackle the same general topic in more complex ways. Rewatching "Oldboy" I find the plot simultaneously more convoluted and less interesting than those of its neighbors, and the intensity that carries the film dials down quite a bit in the exposition heavy third act. For these reasons, I'm not a huge fan. But I can't deny that it's really damn good.

Other films directed by Park Chan-wook:

The Moon... is the Sun's Dream (1992)
Trio (1997)
Joint Security Area (2000)
Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002)
Oldboy (2003)
Lady Vengeance (2005)
I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK (2006)
Thirst (2009)
Stoker (2013)

Friday, March 22, 2013

Movie Review - "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance"

This review is part 2 in my Park Chan-Wook retrospective.

After the runaway success of "JSA: Joint Security Area" in 2000, Park Chan-Wook was given absolute freedom to make the movie of his dreams. Few expected anything as bleak and horrifying as "Sympathy for Mr Vengeance". Audiences stayed away in droves. Even among critics, this has proven to be Park's most divisive work: Many believe it to be his best. Just as many describe it as audience punishing misery-porn. As for me, it's my third favorite film of all time, and I take my rankings very seriously.

The cliche is that Park's films (and this one in particular) are "for those with strong stomachs", and that might lead you to expect a work of unbearable cruelty. Yet for audiences on the same wavelength as the director, it's not cruelty, it's tragedy. In a tragedy, bad things happen for a reason. The audience can actually gain some kind of understanding from the events. Characters are in some sense responsible for their fates, which stem from their own fatal flaws, or at least poor decisions.

Of course, Park stacks the deck against his characters from the beginning. After analysing the Korean war with "JSA", he uses "Mr Vengeance" to tackle a more uncomfortable topic: Korean society. Specifically he argues that Koreans don't care a damn about anybody not in what they consider their own social group or clan. Characters demonize The Other constantly, ignoring the plight of their fellow humans while paradoxically cursing the unfeeling world in which they live. The city of Seoul is seen as vast, inhuman, and uncaring, with static long shots of massive buildings dwarfing the characters we are so invested in. Each of those characters is human and has a heart, but they tend to keep it to themselves.

The narrative initially centers around Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun), a deaf-mute factory worker taking care of his dying sister.  His sister is in need of a kidney transplant, and on a seemingly eternal waiting list. Laid off from his job, desperate to help his sister, Ryu contacts his friendly neighborhood organ thieves (Who helpfully plaster "Need Organs?" flyers on mens room walls in a characteristically dark joke). Sadly, they screw Ryu over and leave him broke, naked and minus a kidney in an abandoned warehouse. Even worse, a donor suddenly appears, which would be great if Ryu weren't suddenly penniless.

Ryu's girlfriend Yeong-mi (Bae Doo-na, recently seen in "Cloud Atlas") is a radical leftist, who half-heartedly hands out flyers for a terrorist group that may or may not actually exist. She claims that the capitalist system is to blame for Ryu's troubles, specifically the executive who laid him off. She proposes they kidnap the executive's kid for ransom. In her mind, this is simple wealth redistribution, nothing will happen to the kid, and in the end the parents will probably love their child more afterwards. Ryu argues that as a recently laid-off employee, he'd be the first person they'd suspect. So they kidnap another executive's kid instead, because they're all fatcats after all.

Anyone who's seen a movie before can tell that this will go spectacularly wrong, and that the kid will die. What isn't expected is the film's shift of protagonist to the child's bereaved father. Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho, established here as a Park regular) is not the fatcat they assumed him to be. In fact he's nearly broke, leads a failling business, and is divorced from his wife. The death of his daughter is the straw that breaks him. Overcome by misery, and driven by a need to extract revenge, he seeks out those responsible for his daughter's death.

The brilliance of this plot is that nobody is innocent. By presenting Korean society as an uncaring agent of chaos, every character can plausibly claim that somebody else is responsible for their misery. Yet every one of them reaches at least one point where they are faced with a choice between pursuing vengeance and just walking away. None choose correctly. Thus begins an ever descending vortex of horror that eventually consumes everyone.

Park's direction is a stylistic breakthrough. This is the first film of his that is clearly the work of an auteur, though his later films would be much less detached and distant. Long takes and long shots abound, without the hyperactive flourishes that would appear in "Oldboy". "Mr Vengeance" does introduce viewers to Park's taste for particularly queasy acts of violence in grand fashion, peaking with one character being stabbed in the neck, falling to the ground and losing control of their bowels. For the most part, the director doesn't show more than is necessary, letting off-camera screaming and horrifying reaction shots do the talking. Though what is seen is plenty, not flinching when displaying the messy after-effects of violence and trauma.

Park's best directorial trick is a fixation on cutting between close ups and long shots to contrast the emotional turmoil of his characters with the cosmic insignificance of what they're going through. The scene where Dong-jin first sees his dead daughter at a crime scene is shot from so far back that you can see the entire investigation happening at once.  Only in a tiny part of the frame, if you're really looking, can you see Dong-jin screaming and weeping in agony. His screams are distant enough to become ambient noise, until Park brutally cuts to a close-up of his tear strewn face, the wailing suddenly overtaking the entire soundtrack before cutting out as the long shot resumes.

It's this focus on the emotional consequences of violence that elevates "Mr Vengeance" above mere brutality. Every death is mourned by somebody, and in the end, we aren't rooting for anyone to win, just for everyone to go home and move on. Yet the plot is so intricate and fascinating that it's a certain kind of pleasure just to watch it unwind. The entire film keeps the audience in a loop of thinking "Good god, that's horrifying! Then what happened?!?"

While "Sympathy for Mr Vengeance" will never play well for multiplex audiences, I believe that it is Park's most accomplished work to date. His style has continued to evolve in future efforts, but like Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" (similarly the result of young talent given infinite resources), I don't believe Park could ever make a movie like this that was better than this. As depressing as it is, it's compulsively watchable, and the screenplay is a thing of beauty.

Other films directed by Park Chan-wook:

The Moon... is the Sun's Dream (1992)
Trio (1997)
Joint Security Area (2000)
Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002)
Oldboy (2003)
Lady Vengeance (2005)
I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK (2006)
Thirst (2009)
Stoker (2013)