Saturday, May 17, 2008

Storywh0re from the vault - Eagle vs. Shark (2007)

Okay, I usually like to let a new movie sit for at least a day before responding to it, but I just watched something that I hated so much that I have to write right now.

It's called Eagle vs Shark, and it's my first time renting from iTunes. The movie poster got my attention last year. For whatever reason, I was expecting Office Space with a costume party. The marketing hinted at a new rivalry along the lines of Pirates vs. Ninjas, with people choosing sides. What I got instead was a New Zealand comedy with a quirkiness similar to Napoleon Dynamite, but without the warmth.

It begins with Lily, a cashier at a burger joint, who has a crush on Jarrod, a DVD store employee who comes in every day. She gets laid off, allegedly randomly, only to learn later that the selection was rigged. Jarrod invites one of her co-workers to a party, but Liliy crashes it instead. They hook up afterwards, and become a de facto couple. Eventually, Lily goes home with Jarrod to visit his family. She gets drawn into their dysfunction, and into Jarrod's plot to street-fight a high school bully.

The awkwardness and flat affect of the characters are what first reminded me of Napoleon Dynamite. “Freakin Idiot” is replaced by “Cockhole”. The biggest similarity, however is the concept of the crystal dragon—a phenomenon found in martial arts and in paganism. A crystal dragon is someone (often male, often young) who makes claims to great power, skill or training that they don't really possess. They are shaped like something fierce, but you can see right through them.

There is so much wrong with Lily and Jarrod's relationship, I don't even know where to begin. In their first love scene, he's sexually unskilled in a way that goes past normal or endearing. Instead of cuddling or talking with her afterwards, he makes a threatening phone call. He stands her up for a date, then tracks her down at her house, where he cuffs her on her arm and accidentally smashes a cake she made him. This he chalks up to his “depression” and “intensity”. On their car trip, he is rude to her and her brother. Once they're with his family, embarasses her with inflated claims about her. He has a daughter that he didn't tell her about, but he clams up about his dating past. He dumps her, stranding her away from home, and goes out with another woman to please his father.

Let's be real clear: many of these are classic warning signs of an abuser.

Jarrod's absurd revenge fantasy culminates in him attacking a man in a wheelchair, only to loose the fight anyway. After all of this, Lily takes him back, just because he finally figures out that a woman named Lily might like lilies, and because he gives her a gift that he's already tried to give to two other people. She's already reclaimed some of her power by taking the center of attention at a party, but still, it made me twitch.

Why is the audience supposed to be happy about this? Because we love happy endings? Because being in a couple is better than not? The underlying idea seems to be to me that that Lily is there for Jarrod's redemption—to do the emotional labor at which women excel--whether or not its good for her or he's good enough. No, no, no, no no. I am beyond sick of these ideas, and I would feel the same if the roles were reversed.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

"Kiss her good"

Does anyone else out there who watches The Office think that Pam has a case for sexual harrassment?

If that ultra-creepy moment at the end of tonight's episode wouldn't do it, then the "she will do you" comment at Career Day would. And this is coming from someone who usually understands Michael Scott as just being well-intentioned but stupid.

Plus, this comes on the heels of the hand-on-the-knee incident in the "Chairmodel" episode...and the crude, thinly veiled oral sex joke in the "Dinner Party" episode. Neither of those were Michael, of course. I wonder if they're going somewhere intentional with this.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Storywh0re's summer movie kickoff

I would like to mark this fine Mayday weekend by reviewing two of the first films of the Summer movie season—The Forbidden Kingdom and Iron Man

As much as it pains me to say it, The Forbidden Kingdom was forgettable. There is almost nothing about it that stays with you after you've left the theater. In brief, it is the story of a young boy, a fan of Wuxia films,who gets transported back to a fantasy version of ancient China. He aquires two mentors, played by Jackie Chan and Jet Li, who recognize him as the prophesied hero who will rescue the magically imprisoned Monkey King. None of the characters are three-dimensional, none of them grow or change emotionally or psychologically. It bothered me that a secondary protagonist who is eaten up with rage dies without getting past it. For some reason, not even the fight scenes hold the attention—which is tragic, considering how long Jackie Chan and Jet Li have wanted to work together.

The very best part of the movie is the Monkey King. Not only is he a joy to watch, but The Forbidden Kingdom would be a good movie for anyone who wanted to better understand the concept of the Trickster God.

One review that I read compared The Forbidden Kingdom to Willow as a movie that a ten-year-old might enjoy and remember fondly. I was that age exactly when Willow came out, and I think it's the better movie of the two.

Coming out of that disappointment, I saw Iron Man this morning, and now I feel that summer has truly begun.

Iron Man begins in the Afghan desert, with the kidnapping of brilliant multi-billionaire weapons developer Tony Stark. A rogue warlord tries to force him to recreate one of his newer and deadlier weapons, but he escapes instead, by creating a robotic soldier suit. Once selfish and irresponsible, Tony returns home with a new perspective and new energy technology (also his design) keeping him alive. His former captors soon want the suit for their own. To the frustration of the military, Tony, still characteristically reckless, acts on his own to stop them and to help the civilians in the area. His best friend and his personal assistant help him (as does a robot with an adorable canine disposition), but another old friend turns out not to be what he seemed.

I really enjoyed this movie. The action sequences were engaging, and the beautiful, super-cool gadgetry will appeal to the kid in everyone. (There were times when the audience literally moaned over the suit—even the girls.) The story has been updated for our complex times without taking a divisive stance, or losing touch with the themes that make comic books meaningful. (The scene where Iron Man targets baddies using human shields made me wish for a real hero so adept at avoiding “collateral damage”) The movie takes full advantage of Robert Downey Jr.'s comic talents, including one moment at the end that will leave you laughing and saying “Hell, yeah!" We get to see Tony Stark grow up, and the process, as other writers have observed, mirrors Downey's own redemption. (As a former heart patient, I really appreciated the very symbolic “heart” subplot.)

If you do go to see Iron Man, stay for the clip after the credits. It reveals a bit of future Marvelverse casting that had my audience—mainly gamers and comic fans—squeeing. It's been a while since I've been around that many people that happy at one time.

Part of the fun today was seeing trailers for upcoming movies, like The Dark Knight and The Incredible Hulk. Summer is the time for being outside and playing in the water; but it is also the time for slick, big-budget spectacles featuring talented and beautiful folk embodying beloved archetypes. I can't wait!

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Storywh0re goes to the Nashville Film Festival, Part 2 - Tennessee Film Night 1

My second night at the Nashville Film Festival was a redux of Tennessee Film Night One. I got to see a number of enjoyable and well-made films, and hear about them from those involved.

The first film was Electricity: Unplugging the Myth , the 2007 48-Hour Film Festival Winner from Marflux Productions. The character that all of the teams were given to work with was an electrician. The result in this case was a very cute moc-doc predicated on the idea electricity is not real, but really just the actions of microscopic workers. (Needless to say, this theory is disproved in the end.) You could tell that the movie was made in limited time, but it looks really good considering.

Also screened was Blindsided, by Eleven After Films, which won the festival's Tennessee Independent Spirit Award. In it, a young man brings his girlfriend to meet his family for the first time. They are startled that she is blind, but not nearly as startled as she is by the toxic family dynamics into which she has been thrown. The parents' marriage is falling apart, and they and the young man's siblings air their conflicts with each other. This film was filmed in twelve hours, with stage actors, and it practically crackles off the screen. It is by turns funny and shocking, as everyone is “blindsided” by something. While the wisdom proffered at the end is hardly original, it is well worth the reminder.

Fight It, by Darrin Dickerson of Ghostwater films, is perhaps best described a public service announcement for personal activism. We see a young man using money that he has earned and collected at a gym to feed the homeless, provide toys for orphans, and donate to cancer research (his mother is ill). At the end, the viewer is encouraged to “choose one thing and fight it”. The DVDs include include envelopes for related charities, and are available for free. Ghostwater can be contacted online, and Dickerson wants the DVDs to be shared between people and used by various groups to foster discussion and action.

Watkins College was well-represented by recent graduate Brent Montgomery, who directed and starred in The Pugilist. It is the story of a boxer who doesn't realize that he has been the beneficiary of rigged fights, until he is asked to take a fall. One of the most interesting things about this film was its sense of timelessness. There are elements—not just costumes and set, but also newsreels and home movies—that appear to be from different points in recent history. The movie as a whole has a 1920's or 1930's feel. The acting is good, and the boxing elements are well-researched. There are many dry, intelligent laughs, and a tentative love story which ends the film on a tender note.

The evening wrapped up with The Mother Hen, by Carlos Griffin of Half and Half Productions. Set in Middle Tennessee, this is one of the best films I have seen about the topic of immigration. A young Hispanic woman shows up with a baby at the home of a friend of a friend. Her husband has just been picked up by ICE, and she needs shelter until her brother can come get her. Her host is reluctant. The women gradually develop a connection, but not before ICE comes knocking. I felt that this piece told a very human story about the two biggest issues in America today, and managed to do so without being heavy-handed or divisive.

Tennessee Film Night One was an enjoyable and informative evening that highlighted the amazing film talent that we have here in Music City.

Storywh0re goes to the Nashville Film Festival, Part I: Trailer Park of Terror

Last week, I was lucky enough to spend two evenings at the Nashville Film Festival. This is the first year that the Film Festival has officially categorized their late-night showings.

The first night, I saw Trailer Park of Terror, based on the Imperium comic book series of the same name. It was directed by award-winning music video director Steven Goldmann. Several of the film's stars were there, including Trace Adkins, who has a running cameo as the Devil himself.

The film begins with the tragic story of Norma, a young woman who tries to run away with her fiancee to escape the baseness and poverty of the trailer park where she lives. (A few small details, including the opening graphics and a later newscast, set the story solidly in our own beloved Middle Tennessee.) The ensuing confrontation is a perfect illustration of the “crabs-in-a-bucket” phenomenon: if the people around Norma can't get out, they don't want her to, either. When the lecherous redneck men who control the community accidentally kill Norma's fiancee, and the Devil helps her get her due.

The film picks up a few years later, with a youth ministry group of troubled teenagers whose bus wrecks on a rainy night. They soon find that Norma and her neighbors are still in the trailer park, and don't plan on letting them go.

If you don't like horror movies, Trailer Park of Terror is obviously not for you. If you do, however, then you will consider it an almost perfect example of the form. It's campy supernatural horror, more akin to Rob Zombie's movies than to the self-important solemnity of The Ring. The characters, while they hardly need to be three-dimensional, are distinctive and well-acted. It is highly gory, with elements of sexual and psychological cruelty. There are a lot of dark laughs, but there is also one scene in particular that had me wishing for a character's suffering to end.

Trailer Park of Terror operates on typical horror movie morality, with death and dismemberment as the consequences for sex and drug use. (Interestingly, this provides the context for some of the most beautiful drug visuals I've ever seen in a movie.) The one character who sees the light of of the following morning might be the last one you'd expect; but then, as with all horror movies, we're here to see the protagonists die, even if we're ostensibly rooting for them.

While I actually enjoy a good horror flick more than many people, my favorite part was the music. It runs the gambit, from songs by Adkins to heavy metal to what can best be described, to borrow from Rob Zombie, as Hellbilly--Heavy Metal with a mixed retro gothic and rockabilly aesthetic.

It was interesting to stay afterwards, and hear Goldmann talk about the frenetic 18-day process of filming the movie. Trace Adkins joked that he signed on just for the Devil's “pissin' scene”.
Goldmann said that he made Trailer Park of Terror for Southerners, that he wanted us to consider it “Our fuckin' horror movie”. I have mixed feelings about this. Norma's trailer park at the beginning represents a very extreme picture of only one slice of Southern culture. At the same time, it rings true enough for Southerners to appreciate it; and he did get one thing right: we really do deep fry everything.

Friday, May 2, 2008

"Empty" Idol.

This is a blog about popular culture, but I try to avoid the subject of reality TV. It's not Story....or is it? A recent incident illustrates why I despise American Idol.

American Idol is nothing more than a record-industry machine set up to discover the next undistinguished voice in a can. Yes, it's true, many of the singers are not ready for a record contract. Many more, in the early elimination shows, are simply awful; but I believe that most people can a be trailed to at least sing passable. Just as many performers who get savaged weekly by the petty and cruel Simon Cowell--who has never, to my knowledge, sung publicly--already have voices that are assets to their communities. Idol looses site of the fact that music is not just a business, it's a force of nature. I go to work and hear "Idol"chatter in the breakroom, and all I can conclude is that "Idol" is there to help people who are out of touch with their artisic passion feel superior to those who aren't.

I'll admit to enjoying the occasional Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood song, but think about this: Idol would have never given us such unconventional voices as Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, Janis Joplin or Joanie Mitchell.

The only reality show that's ever really held my attention was Rock Star: INXS. INXS was my favorite band at one time, and the outcome was important to me, even if it was a done deal before the last show. I'm not sure whether this incident indicates that American Idol is rigged, or just that Paula Abdul is loosing it (which we knew). Either way, give me a sitcom, courtroom drama or police procedural instead, any day.