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December 12, 2006

Filed under: movies»reviews»cult

Review: It's All Gone Pete Tong

Maybe It's All Gone Pete Tong is funnier if you're a DJ, but I doubt it. This isn't a Spinal Tap, where many of the jokes become funnier if you've experienced the soap opera of rock band membership. And Pete Tong isn't without humor, but it seemed to me to be unsure of itself: is it a mockumentary, a cautionary tale, or a satire of club culture?

The center of the movie, Frankie Wilde, is a hotshot DJ spinning in clubs on Ibiza when years of drug abuse and loud music take their toll. The increasingly-deaf Wilde tries to hide his inability to hear as long as possible, but since he's producing an album (horribly) and still trying to match beats (badly), it's not much of a defense. "Generally, the field of music, other than the obvious example, has been dominated by people who can hear" says one interviewee. Eventually, Frankie loses his little remaining hearing in a monitoring accident, his wife leaves him, and he locks himself up in a soundproof room to try to recover. When he emerges a year later, it's with a new sense of purpose. He finds a lip-reading teacher, learns to DJ by feeling the bass through subwoofers, and ditches his addictions.

Part of the problem is that this plotline is really very trite--a standard recovery story--and the filmmakers aren't capable of finding a solid approach for it. Sometimes they shoot interviews (including plenty of cameos from real DJs like Paul van Dyk) and hand-held shots, documentary-style. But that approach is intercut with elements from a more traditional screwball comedy: one running gag has Wilde's cocaine habit represented by a man in a giant, filthy rat costume, who forces his face into huge piles of the drug. The inconsistent shift between those extremes means that the wilder jokes are too dry, and the dry humor too overcooked.

Which is not to say that this isn't a funny movie. There are moments, like the interview line above, or a scene where Wilde's agent tries to get his attention by yelling and hammering on a glass door, only to be thwarted by Frankie's deafness. And the last half-hour handles the issue of hearing loss with surprising sweetness and sensitivity--for a film that also includes an obviously illegitimate biracial son as an unspoken joke.

The art of old-school DJing is all about matching the rhythms, tempos, and sounds of records in order to fade from one to another. With digital music came a number of new techniques, like beat-slicing, time-stretching, and sampling, but even tools like Ableton Live still prominently feature an A-B crossfade function. But for It's All Gone Pete Tong, there's no smooth transition between its disparate sides. It's got a nice beat in there somewhere, but you can't dance to it.

November 29, 2006

Filed under: movies»reviews»foreign

District B13

This is not actually a movie. It's a sketch. An outline. A way for future film students to study the buddy-cop action film without being distracted from the structure by acting or clever dialogue.

B13 is a French film set in a future that extrapolates two trends--first, that the car-burning riots were symptoms of a class struggle that continued until the Parisians finally just walled off their criminal districts and abandoned them, and second, that parkour becomes a common urban sport. The latter is particularly important, because it's a big part of all the movie's chase scenes.

The basic plot is that a clean nuke has been stolen in one of the most dangerous criminal districts, and it will go off and kill everyone there unless one cop--teamed up, of course, with an edgy young native--can defuse it in 24 hours. Along the way, the plot hits all of the cliche points for one of these genre pictures: there's the family member held captive, the criminal with the heart of gold, the unbelievably deadly police officer, the tense conversation where the cop and sidekick agree to work together, and the tables turned on corrupt officials, finished with an unsupported "romance." The script seems embarrassed to be so blatant, and glosses by each of its plot points with almost a nod to the audience that yes, this is that part of the movie.

There's not necessarily anything wrong with such self-awareness, but the actors have so little chemistry with each other that it infects everything else with a kind of malaise. Say what you like about the Lethal Weapon series, perhaps the iconic example of the genre, but Glover and Gibson were fun to watch together. There's none of that rapport with anyone in District B13--maybe because, at just over an hour and twenty minutes, there's no time for it. In its quest for dizzying chase scenes and stunts, it speeds past everything else.

November 13, 2006

Filed under: movies»reviews»documentary

Review: Long Way Round

When I was in high school, going nuts in a small rural Virginia town, my family used to watch Lonely Planet on the Travel Channel. Our favorites starred a short, gregarious Englishman named Ian, who habitually got drunk on a local beverage. In one South American country, he sat on a park bench with a ranchhand and learned how to pick up women. He would eat anything. Living in the Shenandoah Valley, a place my mother occasionally compares to Communist Russia in terms of accessibility, watching Ian wander around the world in such an infectious good mood was actually a real inspiration for me.

Some of the better aspects that made the Lonely Planet series great are present in Long Way Round. A 7-part series that originally aired on Bravo, it follows Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman as they traveled from London to New York by way of Eastern Europe, Mongolia, Russia, and across the US (i.e., the Long Way Round). It gets off to a slow start as they prepare for the trip, but once the pair starts traveling through the less-developed parts of Europe it becomes more interesting. Perhaps because they're traveling through such backwoods areas, McGregor's fame is basically irrelevant, so he and Boorman (plus their cameraman, Claudio) take part in different cultures unencumbered. One of my favorite moments is a night at a Russian gangster's house, where the host climbs down the stairs to entertain his guests with a guitar in one hand and an AK-47 in the other. They also have prairie oysters in Mongolia, and put up with constant police supervision all through Kazakhstan (quite different from Borat, obviously).

Of course, once they cross into Mongolia and Siberia, the show changes from a mostly feel-good cultural vacation into a harsh slog (for the travelers, not for the viewers), as the motorcycles become bogged down into increasingly boggy and punishing terrain. At points the team has to stop completely as the bikes break, or as the rivers are simply too high to keep going--and at one point on the Road of Bones, even the support team's 4x4s have to be towed across a river crossing by enormous Soviet trucks. Perhaps the best take on this comes from a Russian doctor hired for the trip. "These men, they have families, children," he repeats over and over. "What are you doing this for? Why?"

It's not a question I can answer, because I probably would have given up after the second week. But it makes for pretty good television.

October 23, 2006

Filed under: movies»television»galactica

Belle Watches the Battlestar Mini-series

  • On the first thirty minutes: "Is he gonna get killed? Is that going to blow up? Are they going to kill all the children? When does stuff start exploding?"
  • On the Adamas: "They're father and son, right? So why is Lee White and the dad looks Hispanic? I want to see his mom."
  • On Starbuck: "I don't know what you see in her. She's kind of mannish."
  • On the last thirty minutes: "So there is an Earth on this show! Where do you think those people will live when they get here? Maybe Djibouti. Or Utah."
  • On the first episode: "This makes so much more sense now. I can't believe you thought people didn't need to see the miniseries."

October 13, 2006

Filed under: movies»television»project_runway

Television Week, Part 5: Runway Landing

To say that fashion is not my strong point would be the understatement of the decade, which is coincidentally about the last time that I probably gave any thought to my wardrobe. T-shirts, cargo pants, and Chuck Taylors do not a fashion statement make, and I'm pretty happy about that.

So why do I get as much enjoyment from Project Runway?

For those of you who have skipped past Runway, the show is a competition for clothing designers, who each construct a new garment every show. Every week one designer is eliminated, there are different requirements for each challenge, standard reality show blah blah blah. Of course, where most reality shows are concerned, the contestants aren't using any particular trade skills, and the competition is fairly silly. The winner of Survivor doesn't go out and live in the wilderness, and the contestant on the Amazing Race probably doesn't go traveling after the show ends. America's Next Top Model, of course, involves primarily the genetic lottery of being freakishly tall and skinny women.

Runway, on the other hand, does involve people who will leave the show and try to make clothing. In some cases, you wish they wouldn't. But either way, every week the designers are creating a new garment using a combination of talent and training. And here's the thing: even if (like me) you hate fashion, and you can't stand models, it's still impressive to watch the contestants put their clothes together--not the least if they've had to make them from recycled materials, or whatever ridiculous conditions apply that week.

And even though I personally have no knowledge or interest in fashion, that still doesn't stop me from watching each outfit walk down the runway at the end of the show and deciding whether or not it looks good on the model. Because deep down, I think everyone probably suspects that they have fantastic taste in clothing, all evidence to the contrary.

There are other aspect to the show that are fun to watch. Tim Gunn, the visiting advisor from Parson's School of Design, has a kind of warm geniality that Santa Claus would envy. The contestants themselves, being creative and hard-working people, are interesting to watch. But I never, ever thought that I would ever find myself watching a reality show for the clothes.

October 12, 2006

Filed under: movies»television»star_trek

Television Week, Part 4: Generation Shift

I was a dyed-in-the-wool trekkie when I was a little kid. I had seen the original episodes a few times--I remember watching them with my father, but I guess when I was six or so, The Next Generation began airing, and I was hooked big time. So it's funny, when recorded episodes started showing up in my TiVo and I began rewatching the show after a 10 or 12 year gap, the things that I've noticed about it. Be warned, some of this is pretty geeky stuff.

  • TNG was pretty diverse for its time. Not just in the bridge crew, which was where all the diversity on the original series pooled, but in the extras. There are a lot of different faces in the background.
  • ...that said, it had a lot of room for improvement. The chain of command is mostly White men, and women are often relegated to stereotypical roles (the doctor, the psychiatrist, the wife) with the exception of Tasha Yar, who was quickly killed off. The Klingons are a barely-disguised parody of African-American savage stereotypes. I've noticed very few Indian, non-Japanese East Asian, or African characters. Also: no gay people.
  • What's with the regionalism? Okay, I understand that Earth still apparently plays a role in the Federation, but this series supposedly takes place 300 years from present day. Why does Colm Meaney still have a recognizable Irish accent? There are supposedly lots of human colonies and starbases scattered around--why haven't they gotten their own accents and dialects? It's just kind of weird.
  • Man, this show was cheesy. Given the chance between a dark but thought provoking ending that exposes more of the characters, or a feel-good platitude, TNG went for the platitudes just about every time. There are some of these that I can't even watch, they're so over-the-top.
  • The military heirarchy sometimes seems like an odd choice. TNG operates on a lot of Culture-lite conceits: no money, lots of automation, people do whatever it is that they want to do. In the middle of this is Starfleet's rank system. I understand that they need a way of resolving situations and giving orders, but the connotations kind of work against the Enterprise's supposedly peaceful mission.
  • While we're at it, what does the crew actually do? You know, for such a smart and advanced set of people, they have problems delegating. Every time there's an away team, out goes Will Riker and Data, or a set of other high-ranking, hard-to-replace characters to investigate the possibly hostile situation. The regular crew doesn't seem to do anything particularly useful, apart from taking phazer blasts for the bridge crew. Starfleet officers are the absolute managers from hell.
  • That's a nice computer. Shame if anything happened to it. So the computer going horribly awry is a common theme on the show. Apparently it's very fast, but not actually very intelligent, although it spawns AI at least three or four times. For all the good the Enterprise computer does, you still have to wonder sometimes if the crew wouldn't be better off with a cheap webserver and a TI-82. And what's with the crazy multi-colored interface? I guess you can't touch-type in the future. I wouldn't want to be a writer there.

October 11, 2006

Filed under: movies»television

Television Week, Part 3: Pitiless

It would be a poor discussion of TV without mentioning Television Without Pity, which is (as far as I can tell) the definite recap site on the Internet. What an oddity: before cheap online publishing, who would think that someone would take the trouble to write detailed summaries of television shows, episode-by-episode?

I visit Television Without Pity on a semi-regular basis, once or twice a week. I started when Belle and I first started dating, and she was looking forward to the season of Alias. In that case, I wanted to catch up on the show so I could watch her with it--I was using TWoP (as it refers to itself) for its supposedly intended purpose. But with a little more perspective, I tend to disagree that strict recapping actually is the purpose behind the site anymore, if it ever was. It's not why I keep reading, and I can't imagine that it's why other people do.

I read it nowadays for a couple of shows, Galactica of course but also Project Runway and occasionally Veronica Mars. One reason is that the recappers, who have clearly watched the shows over and over again in order to write about them, often catch things that I didn't see on the first viewing, and they don't hesitate to hold opinions on the plot and the characters. Considering that media have become so plentiful and audiences so fragmented (with the exception of the big hits like Lost or Grey's Anatomy), I wonder if TWoP isn't a sublimated way of "discussing" the last episode with a friend.

There's also a whole set of recaps on the site that cannot possibly exist for any purpose other than satire and "ironic commentary." 7th Heaven? Is there really anyone who was worried about the huge creepy Christian family and their constant counter-cultural plotlines? Writing about this is a kind of hipster thing to do: pick something that everyone loathes, and then use it to highlight your own relative coolness, all under the cover of irony. It's not about the show at all, it's about the writer and the readers admiring the writer, united by their mutual distaste for the subject.

I'm split between admiration and revulsion on that one. But in that urge, Television Without Pity exposes something of the relationship with media nowadays. Entertainment is created, and then fed into a huge grist mill of analysis, which in turn has become entertainment in and of itself. We are, just as with a comedian who must be shown on huge screens and sound systems for his "live" show, farther removed and mediated from the stories that surround us.

October 10, 2006

Filed under: movies»television»x_files

Television Week, Part 2: Strange Chemistry*

Night Stalker is one of those shows I wouldn't have ever watched if it weren't for TiVo. Its run on broadcast TV was vindictively short, its rebroadcast on SciFi is at a timeslot that I'll never be capable of viewing, and its DVDs pale in priority compared to other series I still want to watch (Six Feet Under, for example). Ah, but TiVo'd Night Stalker fills a lag between Netflix disks regardless of my schedule--and with only about nine episodes ever made, it's not going to tie up my life, either.

The show is a remake of the 1970's movie and series Kolchak: The Night Stalker, starring Darrin McGavin, who might be a little better known as the Old Man from A Christmas Story. He was a middle-aged, washed-up newspaper hack who didn't let the supernatural interrupt his snappy delivery: "I promised I'd show up with a haircut, a new hat, and pressed suit... but I lie a lot." For the new show, they kept the journalist, the mustang he drives, a few of the character names, and that's about it. The new Kolchak is young, played by Stuart Townsend, smug, and hunting down a string of supernatural murders as a crime reporter in Los Angeles. The deaths are interrelated, with some kind of internal mythology involving Kolchak's murdered wife and post-mortem markings on their wrists.

If it sounds a little X-Filesish for your tastes, that's because it is. According to IMDB, the head writer and producer of the show, Frank Spotnitz, was closely involved with Mulder and Scully's exploits and scripted a lot of their conspiracy episodes. The writers on the X-Files were reportedly big fans of the original Kolchak, hence the remake, but Night Stalker fails to live up to either of its precursors.

In all honesty, it's not a bad show. The portrayal of journalism, even crime journalism, is bizarre but acceptable for dramatic purposes. The mythology is a little weak, but it could have developed, and some of the monsters-of-the-week are well-done. Mythology is overrated anyway: Lost exists in large part for its bizarre conspiracy theories, which are rapidly spiraling out of control. Although The X-Files also had its increasingly nebulous and unbelievable backstory (to list a few: alien abductions, Mulder's sister, alien/human hybrids that are killed with an icepick to the neck, the black alien oil, Tunguska experiments, genetically engineered bees, clones of Mulder's sister, the Smoking Man, Scully's baby, plans to evacuate NWO executives before the aliens attack, smallpox scars, Mulder's father, and so on...), those threads were tied more closely together, instead of overwhelming it with surrealism. Besides, I would argue that this is not the legacy that later shows have fallen short. Where Night Stalker fails is its lack of chemistry.

The original show, by all accounts, was enjoyable in large part because of the interplay between Kolchak and his editor, each of which loathed the other. Kolchak himself was part earnest reporter, but also part unrepentant sleazebag, and the police treated him as such. Likewise, the X-Files may have had its share of mysteries, but the chemistry between Mulder and Scully--that will-they-won't-they question at the heart of every show--was what really drove it forward. The show began to droop once the romance was made explicit, and quietly died when Duchovny left and was replaced by the decidedly less romantic Robert Patrick.

The new Night Stalker has elements in place for its own mutual attraction--Townsend is not completely charming, but he makes a passable leading man, and his fellow crime reporter Perri Reed (played by Gabrielle Union) is very cute despite her tendency to play second fiddle. Frankly, she'd make a better main character. Within the episodes produced, however, the interaction between the two is generally limited to Kolchak producing a wild story supported by an anonymous source, and Reed lecturing him on journalistic ethics. It's possible that there were plans for more personal character exploration later, or that they were worried about being seen as too much Newspaper X-Files, but without that core the show just isn't very compelling.

* Yes, I am going to use one of my song titles for this post. Ego 1, Taste 0!

October 9, 2006

Filed under: movies»television»galactica

Television Week, Part 1: The Precipice

Perhaps the most surprising change of the third season premiere of Battlestar Galactica has been the madness of Col. Tigh. Previously the alcoholic, easily-manipulated Executive Officer on Galactica, Tigh was captured and tortured between the end of last season and the beginning of this. Now he stalks around as head of the insurgency against the Cylons, one eye gone, muttering dark words in support of suicide bombings and other brutal resistance. "Which side are we on?" he asks. "We're on the side of the demons, Chief. We're evil men in the gardens of paradise, sent by the forces of death to spread devastation and destruction wherever we go. I'm suprised you didn't know that."

Tigh was never a stable or laudable character. Like much of the cast of Galactica he had significant weaknesses. It's a show about putting pressure on its protagonists, and where other shows would use that pressure to make diamonds of their heroes, on Galactica its purpose is expose those flaws and sometimes (particularly in the case of all-too-human Baltar) to crack them open entirely.

We should have known, really. When the second season ended by skipping ahead a year and completely changing the military dynamic of the series, it was a clue that the third season wasn't going to be a rehash of the first two. The cylon Sharon aboard Galactica has become the admiral's confidante, and a member of his crew. Baltar as president achieved power only to become even more a figurehead under the occupation. And Starbuck is now locked into an apartment with Loeben, the Cylon she waterboarded in the first season and who now insists that they were meant by God to be lovers. All of these are basically logical, but they're engineered to shine light on the same people from different angles, so that where we might once have seen something admirable it is now less flattering, or vice versa. Col. Tigh simply best illustrates this to me: formerly almost a running joke for viewers, he now radiates malice. Although he wouldn't have wanted to admit it, terrorist is a role that suits him, just as other Galactica characters have flirted with authoritarianism and genocide.

Waterboarding was a clue that Galactica has always been tinged with politics, but it's undeniable now. The use of "insurgency" and suicide bombers must bring certain conclusions to mind, as the writers must know, and turning them on their head to put the humans in the terrorist position will have conservatives screaming about moral relativism. I am less convinced that this was done out of liberal bias. It's more likely to be provocation, and nowadays that doesn't take much.

For example, one of the cliches of modern action movies is the scene where a hero is given an opportunity to solve his or her problem in a particularly brutal way. Tension is raised--will he really apply the electrodes?--before the protagonist casts aside the grisly instruments of torture and says the immortal words: "No, that would make us just as bad as them." I wonder sometimes if George W. Bush simply never watched any movies after, say, 1962. Perhaps that explains why he is capable of leading a movement to favor torture, rendition, and destruction of civil liberties--actions that imply we are "just as bad as them," and destroy our moral high ground. Only in this political atmosphere could Galactica's muddled moral compass be called liberal.

And it takes a simple mind to view this as "objectively pro-terrorist," or whatever phrases will be bandied about. The show clearly doesn't condone Tigh's suicide bomb tactics, any more than it condoned President Roslin's attempts to steal the election--another politically-charged plotline, especially since Baltar's victory proved so disastrous for the colonists. Galactica's stock in trade, both for plots and for its characters, has always been shades of grey. To reduce it to black and white is to miss the point, and to miss the finest moments that it has to offer. On most shows, when Caprica Sharon becomes Adama's advisor and puts on a fleet uniform, the moment would be treated with more reverence--a convert to the side of Good! But on this show, even those of us who have rooted for Sharon over all of last season find ourselves uneasy about her new loyalties. We know that these characters are more complicated than that, even if we don't know exactly which way their complications will lead.

September 20, 2006

Filed under: movies»reviews»horror

High Tension

To indicate exactly how bad High Tension is will require what we now call "spoilers," although as one critic noted, the movie itself is already beyond spoiled in the traditional sense of the word. It is, in fact, rotten.

A French slasher flick walking a fine line between incompetent homage and lazy theft of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, High Tension centers on a law student named Marie, who takes a trip with her friend Alexia out to the friend's family farm in rural france, where they'll study for what I assume is the French equivalent of the bar exam. It becomes obvious fairly early on that Marie has an unrequited crush on Alexia, and that Alexia is completely oblivious.

But first: what's this, as the girls arrive at the farmhouse? Why, it's a filthy, heavyset figure in an old rusty truck, having some sort of sexual congress with a severed female head, which he dumps out the window when the task at hand reaches completion!

Subtle. I'm guessing a lot of people are going to stop the disc right there, but I've watched Audition. I've seen worse.

Before long, of course, the killer breaks into the house for no apparent reason, butchers Alexia's family, and kidnaps her. Marie narrowly escapes detection and sets off to rescue her friend. At this point, High Tension is derivative and a little strained, but not beyond the horror films it so obviously apes. Director Alexandre Aja knows his way around a camera, even if he doesn't have a lot of original ideas--there's the obligatory gas station scene, the unhelpful phone call to the police, and a power tool straight out of Chainsaw.

Where the movie goes horrifically wrong, and where I will be spoiling what little narrative creativity that High Tension boasts, is in its "twist ending." See, once Marie manages to catch up with the killer, gruesomely dispatch him, and rescue her would-be romantic interest, it is revealed that she was the killer all along. What had appeared to be a flawed but sympathetic description of a strong lesbian protagonist turns out to be a sociopathic sexual deviant.

Even ignoring the gay-bashing incongruity of this Fight Club ripoff, it's just incredibly poor writing. Although the "Keyser Soze" reveal has been around for decades, it still manages to work in films that use it as the final piece of a puzzle, causing viewers to say "ah-hah! now it all makes sense!" Whereas High Tension's twist actually destroys what little narrative coherency that it had left. If she's the killer, then where did that big, rusty truck come from? How does she drive two cars at once? Why did the gas station attendant (and indeed, every other character) treat the killer as an entirely different person? Who called the cops? And why did the psycho spend so much time hunting through the house for her, when there wasn't anyone else to hunt for?

We could try to come up with psychological explanations for these glaring plot holes, but it hardly seems worth it. Clearly, the filmmakers didn't make the effort. I'd recommend you do the same, and leave this one unwatched.

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