Saturday, March 15, 2014

East Meets West: The Good, The Bad, The Weird

South Korean cinema seems to be caught up in the rapture of a cultural renaissance. Their films crackle with the energy and inventiveness of a newly successful moviemaking machine, like Pixar at its prime, from Oldboy (2003) to Pieta (2013). I’ve never seen a better example of this than Kim Jee-woon’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird, which owes its existence to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti tour de force The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, but diverges from this legendary source material in creative (and often hilarious) ways. It’s not really fair to compare the two – one is a literal masterpiece and the other is a fun period action feature – but The Weird models itself too closely after The Ugly to ignore the similarities.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird takes Leone’s southwestern epic across the Pacific and seventy years into the future, landing us in 1930s Manchuria, where a hitman (Lee Byung-hun, “The Bad”) is hired to rob a train of a Japanese treasure map. An enterprising thief (Song Kang-ho, “The Weird”) interrupts this scheme and escapes with the map. Meanwhile, a bounty hunter (Jung Woo-sung, “The Good”) arrives to claim the bounty on The Bad. The film plays out from there in a series of escalating (and increasingly ridiculous) chases and escapes, until The Bad, The Good, a gang of Manchurian bandits, and the Japanese Army are all chasing The Weird towards the treasure’s hidden location. Only the three title characters make it there, where they engage in a classic Leone-style Mexican standoff. So the plot is almost exactly that of The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, albeit with a shot of Eastern flavour (the film is actually referred to as an “Oriental Western” in the end credits). It can’t exactly be called a remake, because the basic plot structure and rough character outlines are pretty much the only things that are the same. The Weird simply takes The Ugly and injects it with adrenaline – it’s almost the antithesis of The Ugly in terms of pacing, speed, energy, and humour, all of which it provides in spades. Where Leone’s film was laconic, Kim’s is hyperactive.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Neglected Gem #51: Something Wild (1961)

Ralph Meeker and Carroll Baker in Something Wild (1961)

No one in Hollywood in the late fifties and early sixties attempted anything remotely like Jack Garfein’s movie Something Wild (1961). (The movie has no connection to Jonathan Demme’s great romantic comedy of the same name, made twenty-five years later.) I first saw it on Saturday Night at the Movies when I was in high school in the late sixties, and though I didn’t know what the hell to make of it, for years afterwards my mind retained images from the dream sequence, where the protagonist, Mary Ann (played by Carroll Baker), in a gang of schoolgirls, stares at a painting with a moving eye in a museum and then endures the mocking laughter of her classmates as the features of their faces vanish. Garfein and his co-screenwriter Alex Karmel, adapting Karmel’s novel Mary Ann, had clearly absorbed the lessons of the Surrealist painters – De Chirico especially seems to haunt Mary Ann’s nightmare – as well as the Expressionist playwrights of the 1920s, and applied them to the conventions of film noir in a more florid and inventive way than anyone had previously. Visually the film noirs of the forties and fifties had always leaned toward that style; of all genres, noir was the one that gave directors and cinematographers the greatest license to import the ideas of the German Expressionist pictures of the silent and early talkie eras, and naturally that was the genre toward which filmmakers who ran away from Hitler and landed in Hollywood tended to gravitate. But Something Wild takes a more experimental approach to the narrative elements of noir, particularly the portrayal of the city as a weird and dangerous place.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Politically Radical Content That You Dance To: Sini Anderson's The Punk Singer‏

The Punk Singer, Sini Anderson’s profile-style documentary about the rock star, “riot grrrl” movement figure, and provocateur Kathleen Hanna, is a scrappy (but rousing) snapshot montage of someone who can be seen as embodying the best of the D.I.Y. spirit of the American punk culture of the ‘80s and ‘90s. At times, Hannah—the front woman for the bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre—comes across almost as the scene’s Zelig: she was a friend of Kurt Cobain’s, and she was the one who came up with the phrase “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” (She actually scrawled it on the wall of his house one night, explaining that “We were so wasted. Soooo wasted. So fucking wasted!”) The movie makes a pretty fair case that Cobain was strongly enough influenced by “girl art punk” that, without Hanna and her acolytes, there would have been no Nirvana as we know it. The thought of what the 90s would have been like without Nevermind could send a chill down the spine of many folks of a certain age, not that the thought of what the 90s would have been like without Bikini Kill, or Le Tigre, should make them feel any warmer.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Play it Again: Adrian Raso & Fanfare Ciocarlia's Devil's Tale

Adrian Raso isn't exactly a household name when it comes to the Canadian music scene. Raso was born in Guelph, Ontario. At a young age, he started playing guitar beginning with rock music, but with a keen ear for Mediterranean musical forms. By 2005, he formed his own instrumental trio that drew crowds at home and abroad. Raso and his band were very successful in Italy gaining recognition for their musical skills and spirited music. His latest CD, Devil's Tale (Asphalt Tango), features the guitarist with a band called Fanfare Ciocarlia from Romania. The 12-piece brass band features trumpets, tubas and percussion in a lively, spirited mix that is fresh and optimistic. It's an album of original compositions by Raso that is immediately accessible and eclectic right from the first note.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Hard Burn: The Expanse Trilogy

I was surprised to learn that James S.A. Corey, author of the tremendous SF series The Expanse, is actually a pen name shared by fantasy author Daniel Abraham and his collaborator, Ty Franck. The three novels which encompass the series so far are so seamless and well-crafted that they hardly feel like separate books, let alone three huge books written by two different people. They combine everything I love about SF into a slick and accessible package, with the electric action of modern fantasy and the moral and philosophical nuance of classic sci-fi. These novels illustrate a fictional universe which is incredibly compelling, and it behooves any SF fan – or anybody interested in being one – to bump them up to “must-read” status. Franck built the universe of The Expanse as a singular project, initially intended to function as the setting for an online multiplayer video game. Then Abraham signed on to flesh out characters and fill Franck’s setting with a compelling narrative. 

Unlike other SF works which vault humanity into the far reaches of the universe, depict faster-than-light interstellar travel, and show people coexisting with extraterrestrial organisms, The Expanse has a more grounded speculative setting. Our species has spread out into our own solar system, but no further. Mars has been colonized, and there are agricultural and industrial outposts as far out as Neptune. An invention called an “Epstein drive” decreases travel time between celestial bodies, but forces ships to fly with extreme thrust, which causes fatal g-forces. To compensate, crew members must sit in gel-filled couches which inject them with stimulants and muscle-control chemicals, keeping them from blacking out during a “hard burn.” This is a far cry from the fantastical hyperdrives of Star Wars, blasting characters across galaxies in maximum comfort. But these depictions of advanced technology, realistic as they may be, still take a backseat to the human element – this is a very human society, driven by interplanetary politics and economies. Mars, for example, has a distinct culture, separate from that of Earth, which is removed even further still from Belter society (the nickname for those who occupy the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter). The total human population has become a vast melting pool of races, most characters sharing in an incredibly diverse genetic lineage. Martians of the Mariner Valley affect a quasi-Southern accent, and Belters have elongated skeletal frames from generations spent in lower gravity. A character might appear Chinese, but have a Portuguese name. This creates enough racial tension to make for some solid space drama (one character notes that “a certain death rate [has] to be expected” when you keep so many highly-evolved primates in the same box for months and months on end), but even that isn’t the focus of the story – simply an example of the excellent worldbuilding that defines the series.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Chekhov and Baryshnikov: Man in a Case

Man in a Case, featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov (center)

At the end of Chekhov’s short story “About Love,” the narrator Alehin reveals that only in the last moments he spent with the married woman with whom he had fallen in love – when he kissed her for the first time before she traveled away from him forever – did he understand that “when you love you must either, in your reasonings about that love, start from what is highest, from what is more important than happiness or unhappiness, sin or virtue in their accepted meaning, or you must not reason at all.” Man in a Case by the Big Dance Theater, which has been traveling around the east coast and played a handful of Boston performances in the Arts Emerson series, dramatizes “About Love” and “The Man in a Case,” two of the Chekhov tales from 1898 that begin as conversations between the veterinarian Ivan Ivanovitch and the schoolmaster Burkin, who are hunting companions. And I think it’s that comment of Alehin’s that links them. The title story focuses on Belikov, a schoolteacher whose cautious disapproval of anything with the mere whiff of impropriety has the effect of making everyone around him feel constrained. Improbably, he becomes enamored of a young woman, but he can’t rise above either his prejudices or his pride. Belikov’s story, which is comic and tragic by turns – the Chekhovian balance – ends when, after he’s scandalized to observe his beloved on a bicycle and gets into an argument with her brother over her, he’s thrown down the stairs and dies as a result of his injuries, or perhaps of some combination of shame and heartbreak. He’s “the man in the case” who has sealed himself off from humanity; he seems to break out of it when he falls in love but he can’t allow that love to alter his nature. It’s quite a strange story (and, like “About Love,” a beautiful one).

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Mind Games: Third Time's Not the Charm for Kyle Killen

The cast of Mind Games, now airing on ABC

Kyle Killen's career as a television writer and creator is odd, even by Hollywood standards. In 2009, despite almost unanimous acclaim by the critics, his first creation Lone Star was famously cancelled by FOX after its second episode. He moved to NBC and put out Awake in 2012. That time around he got to air the show's full 13-episode first season, but the network officially pulled the plug long before its finale earning the show first place on my brilliant-but-cancelled list for that year. I wrote at length about Awake at the time, but even two years later it still continues to represent for me one of the best examples of what can be done within the American network television model. A fantasy crime procedural, Awake was ambitious, innovative, smartly written, subtly acted, and always deeply human all within the frame of what was still a traditional format.  It was a show that did everything right, except of course finding an audience. Two years later, Killen is back with Mind Games, this time on ABC. Mind Games is Killen's third series and third network, and I had medium-sized hopes for the series. Unfortunately, it looks like the third time is very much not the charm for Killen.