Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Verve: A Storm In Heaven

The Verve
A Storm In Heaven (Virgin, 1993)

Head Heritage

The Verve were a British band that were at the outset lumped into the shoegaze circle. They had all of the trappings of shoegazers like My Bloody Valentine--a strong reliance on guitar effects and other electronic devices that could alter the sound of the traditional rock instruments. The Verve, however, had something which made them superior. They had a wider range of influences. These influences (especially Krautrock) made them look to the stars rather than to their shoes and set them apart from the alternative music of their time.

Like the Hendrix Experience or Floyd, the Verve had a master guitarist as their epicenter--Nick McCabe. Rather than merely burying his guitar under studio generated noise as did Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine or countless other shoegazers, McCabe spent less time in simply hiding the guitar under layers of sounds and more time doing what was the hallmark of all great psychedelic music--bending the notes in new ways. David Gilmour is still renowned not because of his effects arsenal or technical proficiency but simply because of the slow, ponderous emotion that he could wring out of a few simple notes. Like Gilmour, McCabe did not focus on the riff or on noise, but on what can only be termed "washes" of sound that paint the backdrop of the songs while the rhythm section (the bass/drums) do what they do best--keep rhythm.

Another thing which set the Verve's debut LP A Storm in Heaven apart from their peers was, of course, their total defiance of genre. The Verve painted their songs not only with misty and intoxicating guitar washes but also with a breathtaking and inspiring array of various instruments, such as saxophones, trumpets, and flutes, which attested to their experimentation not only with jazz fusion but with atmosphere, in general.

A Storm in Heaven has a Zen/Taoist-tinged sense of beauty illustrated by the cavernous guitar of Nick McCabe, as well as the album art: a front cover with a womb like cave and a figure of rebirth and a back cover with an old man giving a peace sign in a cemetery.

The first track on A Storm in Heaven, "Star Sail", establishes a pattern which recurs throughout the album--what can only be described in the analogies of darkness and illumination, silences and awakenings, oceanic rising and falling, journeys through inner and outer space.

With this first awe-inspiring track, the Verve create a foundation for the entire album which can be discerned in the paradoxical quality of the album's title: a blurring of the lines between chaos and cosmos, between yin and yang, between a rock-solid rhythm section and an oceanic guitar of drifts and squalls. And lost in the center of this vortex is Richard Ashcroft.

A burst of distortion tapers off into sonorous distance. The guitar then begins a melody with ringing notes that becomes doubled after echo and delay. The bass and drums are thrumming a steady beat like the buildup to a rocket launch. The rhythm opens into a wider vista and a wordless mantric "ahhhh" wells up out of this brief interval, tunneling skyward. Another rhythm is opened up--no, exploded--by the reemergence of the reverb soaked guitar, illuminating the darkness of space as the rocket ship hurtles into the void.

"Hello, it's me, it's me, calling out, I can't see you/Hello, it's me, crying out, crying out, are you there?" asks lead singer Ashcroft pleadingly, wandering adrift in this starry limbo.

"I've been calling home for 20 years and in that time I heard the screams rebound to me while you were making history," Ashcroft later declares. Then he yells in his mystical madness, "I could see the fires!" McCabe's guitar captures that image in bold, surging space-rock glory, showering meteoric sparks in spiraling arcs. The song reclaims its original chiming melody and then fades into silence.

It is only on songs like "Slide Away" and "Blue" that the rhythm section is a stronger force, pulling the melodies back to earth as they dare like Icarus to kiss the sky. "Slide Away" opens on Simon Jones' sculpted, icy bass groove that remains the song's focal point as Nick McCabe once again takes off on airy, cloud borne expeditions which mirror Ashcroft's eye-opening epiphanies of beauty: "I was thinking maybe we could go outside/Let the night sky cool your foolish pride/Don't you feel alive?/These are your times and our highs".

It is drummer Pete Salisbury who is the driving force of "Blue" as his cymbals are fed through a backwards tape loop which, in all of its
psyched-out fuzz, keeps a relentless beat that firmly grounds the song in Ashcroft's grimy city streets and references to Ecstasy, a murder and the wildest party you never remembered: "Conceived in a chrome dream/I was a crease in the shirt that this world wears" Ashcroft confesses in his rock'n'roll rebel swagger and splendor. "Blue, I've got a question every time I hold you/Yeah, Blue, I've got a question every time I swallow you it's true".

The album is also constructed like the best of classic vinyl. The first side of the album (the first five tracks) is a journey through outer space (tracks 1 and 2) and inner space (tracks 3 and 4)--it is the "Heaven" of the album's title. Tracks 3 and 4, in particular, convey the most blissed out depths of the album's sound.

"Already There" is the album's hidden highlight. This track best encapsulates the incredible and mesmerizing pattern of alternating spaces of silence with awakenings of consciousness. The song glides in and unfurls out of quiet darkness as McCabe's guitar sends out equal parts shadowy and shimmering echoes that resemble a harp submerged underground or underwater. The subtle tapping of Pete Salisbury on drums slowly leads the traveling passenger on the Stygian bark into the light.

"Seen it all I'm already there" Ashcroft intones in a mysterious and ghostly voice. "Save your books and your pills/I don't need them I'm there," Ashcroft repeats as the tone of McCabe's scintillating guitar slowly hums in expanding glows.

"I thought the best days had left me/My best years had left me behind," Ashcroft ruminates in wistfulness and nostalgia. "Then I watched them come back," he reveals and the fragile monochrome filigrees are shattered into jagged jewelled fragments.

Then Ashcroft truly gets into the mystic: "If trees cut stars and eyes to heaven/I'll bend them back and bend them again/If my skin looks tired and old from living/I'll turn right back and live it again/You better pray when the music stops/And you're left alone in your mind/I'll be hearing music 'till the day I die". The guitar shifts into a higher plane as the intrepid traveler ascends for a moment into the shining presence.

"Then I heard it turn off," Ashcroft blazes amidst the trance. The guitar drops into earthbound power chords which drown Ashcroft's voice as he struggles to emerge from his memories of ancestors and the spirit world: "I swear I heard the screams/And all the wild eyes/All the wild eyes know what I mean/They're scared they've lost their dream/They press down on me".

"You know I thought I was there," he admits in clarity as darkness falls once more. "Hello, high, are you?/Yes, well that explains it/Oh you were walking round like some kind of angel/You were walking round like some kind of angel/Hello, high, are you?/Yes, well that explains it/That explains it".

"Beautiful Mind" finds the listener in the cave which adorns the album's cover. Everything is more subdued now as shivering reverberations resound through the peaceful stillness. Ashcroft muses once more upon moving back home and about continuing his quest for mind and spirit in the heavens or simply returning to earth and to the body. The song drifts towards waking life but remains in the womb of sleep.

"The Sun, The Sea" is the most powerful track on the entire album and it closes the first side of the album with a definite answer to the mind/body question. The body and earth have reclaimed their son. "It amazes me how I broke free/And got brought back in".

In the midst of a song of secret love and desire, Ashcroft becomes a seer who through a systematic derangement of the senses finds the meaning of life in his lover who has nicknamed him after their unity (and ostensibly a Rimbaud poem).

Tidal waves of feedback and frenzied, turbulent riffs crash down in tempests amidst a fiery sun that burns so brightly that the lead singer goes blind as he searches for a woman's outstretched naked body on his bedroom floor. Then comes a climactic orgasm, a paroxysm of fury and euphoria as Ashcroft holds to the mast of his capsized raft upon the ocean and chants: "Hold on now/Hold on now/Here it comes/Here it comes..." and trails off as the guitar has become not a wall of sound but a hurricane of sound that descends upon him into the abyss. The swell from the speakers is accompanied by raving saxophones that wail out a swooping and diving free jazz air raid that perfectly complements the multi-layered typhoon guitars.

"Virtual World" is, of course, the return to earth and to the "real" world on the second side of the album. Ashcroft (and the band) have, indeed, returned home and it is twilight, that ambiguous time between night and dawn, as fog shrouds the landscape. "See the water break my hand/No one knows my name/I'm not in demand", Ashcroft begins in a near whisper that has touches of melancholy and resignation. Ashcroft reflects upon not only his return home and his return to earth, but also broods over the machinations of relationships and of the record/music industry, and finally society, in general. His contemplations are not vitriolic nor satirical, they are merely meditations in the "dirty half-light where time means nothing at all". Flutes enter the crystalline dreamscape, fluttering and trembling like a winter morning breeze beckoning at the curtains of a half-open window (or a half-open mind) as the grayness of daybreak enters.

"Make It Till Monday" follows perfectly and is the shortest song on the entire album, acting more as an atmospheric interlude as the wanderer (as well as the listener) rubs the sleep from his eyes and wipes the steam from his home and car window to travel back into the world of his home town. Except things have changed.

"Hey my friend are we gonna make it till Monday?/Another Friday night waiting for a revelation/I can see a million faces in the condensation"
The trippy moods of sensual and passionate catharsis which would have accompanied these lyrics on the first side of the album have now been restrained by a cerebral detachment that is both hypnotic and melancholy.

"Butterfly" is the storm in heaven. It can only be described in elemental or meteorological terms: gusts of wind and rain, flashes of thunder and lightning, rolling vapors. Guitars are layered atop one another and build and build until the clouds burst. The wanderer (and the listener) are caught out in the weather as maddening saxophones and trumpets freeze the downpour into hail, ice, and snow which plummet in a blizzard upon the lost soul as he struggles to find his way back home.

Finally "See You in the Next One (Have a Good Time)" is the calm after the storm, the shelter from the storm. It is bittersweet and intimate as a reverbed acoustic guitar and piano leave glistening tears like rain on the windowpane. They also bring a sigh to the listener as the end of the journey has been reached. There is a sense of closure as Ashcroft plaintively and earnestly sings from his melancholy and childlike view: "Eyes they open wide/I like the way it was/Hate the way it is now". When the storm has passed, heaven can be seen again (in a new relationship or love, in the next phase of one's life, or in the next life itself).
-Graveyard Poet

Saturday, October 10, 2009

uncertain virtue

Ayn Rand
The Virtue of Selfishness (Signet, 1964)


This book posits an empowering ideology that encourages individuals to pursue their interests with self-determinant agency. In Virtue of Selfishness, Rand unveils the Objectivist ethos: a life in which an individual acts for one's self is properly the highest moral life one can live. Objectivism is an attractive philosophy in its exaltation of the individual and his personal achievement as the ultimate end-game of existence. However, ultimately Objectivism is reduced to the ethics of egoism: acting selfishly is inherently acting morally - merely assuming an inverted form of the "beneficiary criterion of morality" it assails in altruism. Inevitably, the philosophy merely substitutes the individual for the collective as that beneficiary.

Rand and Objectivists alike vehemently deny this assertion. Rand demarcates what exactly constitutes a moral action. Designating Objectivism as a "morality of rational self-interest," Rand claims that as living entities biologically constituted to value our existence and the objects that sustain it, we are morally obligated to act efficaciously to those ends - existence in itself induces an ethical responsibility of self-progressing action. Therefore, in crude biological terms, it is not God nor society that composes moral authority - instead it is our very nature itself. Rand argues that "the fact that a living being is, determines what it ought to do." (17) All who live implicitly understand existence as 'good' - and that the continuation of this existence is the first and highest moral edict nature affirms. Those who reject this basic truth subsequently contravene not only the first and highest law of nature but also transgress the very essence of existence.

Consequently, an action is ethical only if that action advantages the individual to the attainment of greater 'value' for one's life. Rand attests that life is in end in itself, and that an individual can objectively ascertain what serves his greater existence and what does not. At a most basic level, this reality is signified by the physiological phenomenon of 'pain' and 'pleasure' (17). Perhaps this is the best encapsulation: "The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics - the standard by which one judges what is good or evil - is man's life, or: that which is required for man's survival qua man. Since reason is man's basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes, or destroys it is the evil." (23)

Upon this exposition, Objectivist critics promptly declare that individuals can murder, steal, and cheat their way to Objectivist heaven. This is not necessarily the case. Rand would assert that individuals will rationally conclude that destructive actions that harm others' self-sustaining interests incidentally do not serve their own. Such actions encourage collective behavior that compromises one's ability to pursue his own self-interest. In immediate terms, I should not wrong my neighbor precisely because such an action entails the risk of incarceration, execution, or retaliation. Inevitably, the morality that results lacks the 'thou shalt not' categoricals of most ethical modes. Instead, the correct moral choice for a singular event is properly arrested by an ad hoc calculation of an individual's ultimate benefit. Each individual event requires an individual deliberation - because the broad contours that comprise the class of actions that can best benefit an individuals' acquisition of value/life can not be properly circumscribed by any categorical rules of morality.

Thus the flaw within the Objectivist ethics is not that it does not forbid most conventionally immoral actions; it is that it does not forbid them unilaterally. If my self-interest is the standard by which actions are ethically judged, then the prohibition against murder becomes a conditional rather than a categorical one. Thus, in Objectivist eyes, murder is not inherently wrong. Instead, murder is only wrong because it is an action that does not serve one's own self interest (I risk incarceration, execution, reprisal, etc). Hence, if murder did serve my self-interest, it would not only be morally permissible according to Objectivism, but also morally sound. If I can murder someone - accrue substantial personal/pecuniary gain - and no one will discover my actions, will I suffer any negative ramifications to my self-interest? Subsequently does that murder not have moral sanction? Objectivism could resolve this issue by claiming that harmful acts against others still don't serve one's self interest, in that they incur latent consequences not immediately palpable. For if everyone acted against one another (even in the absence of ostensible ramifications), the society encouraged would be one comprised of insidious backstabbers who harm one another the moment they sense no evident consequences. This society would doubtlessly compromise the pursuit of self interest. It would thus be ethical as well as pragmatic to forbid all such transgressions categorically, in that such prohibitions protect individual self - interest.

But this reasoning merely circles back to the methodology of discerning the correct moral action in the first place. The claim that injuring another - in the absence of overt injury to my own self interest - still bears an opaque consequence is an abstract claim that often opposes an action that bears apparent and concrete self-interest. One could rationalize that destructive actions against the interests of another are categorically unethical in that they ultimately harm one own's self interest. However in practice, individuals confronting such an action could easily rationalize exemptions, particularly when an action that harms one another carries a patent benefit with no known ramifications. In fact, the 'opaque/distant' consequences mentioned regarding actions committed against others appear contrived to place Objectivism in greater harmony with more conventional modes of morality.

And so the circle continues, and Objectivism veers in vertiginous circles of reasoning to this contradictory conclusion: In Objectivist ethics, transgressions against others is both always and never permitted. Ascertaining the correct moral action shouldn't entail such convoluted abstractions. This problem originates from the methodology applied to discern the relationship between self-interest and morality: reason. Objectivists insist reason is a foolproof faculty {Rand calls its potential for knowledge 'limitless' (18)} that objectively gleans the substantive (and thus moral) worth of an action to one's self.

There are also issues with Objectivism's implied 'by any means necessary' consequentalism towards 'being' - any action that enhances survival is thus 'good'. This is a tough proposition to swallow - and when one does - this cocktail tastes like the hard liquor of Darwinism chased by a sweet twist of ethics. Our genetic identity proscribes a biological - not a moral - blueprint for existence. The confluence of biological fitness with moral worth is problematic, for morality is an evaluative construct derived from our biological constitution - a composition that is not ab initio moral but just 'is'. Survival is antecedent to morality rather than concurrent with it. Thus why must an organism sustain itself? Why is it unethical for an individual - as the true sovereign of his being - to terminate himself, especially after rational deliberation (i.e. in the situation of a life of total suffering)?

Objectivists claim reason forbids actions that jeopardize self-existence. But if reason is the penultimate force that frames our purpose and morality, then Objectivism simply substitutes Reason for God. Since reason functions only parochially for the self (according to Rand), then the self becomes God. But critical to the integrity of such a position is the discussion of the place of reason. Camus claimed that the purpose of epistemology is not to extinguish reason entirely nor to aggrandize reason as infallible. Instead, the purpose is to lucidly acknowledge its limits. Rand eschews such humility, and in her book, reason - paradoxically - exalts itself as a nearly omnipotent instrument for truth. The other side of the coin, where reason falls on its own sword, is no less ironic. Whereas one might argue that Rand applied reason poorly in imparting it with such objectivity and omniscience, philosophers who reason most prudently (which is in itself a problematic evaluation) are often the ones who subsequently depreciate the faculty most (Hume, Kant). Every episode of reason evaluating its own efficacy is doomed to paradox (it is akin to a student grading his own test without an answer key - there is no external/objective standard for evaluation). Most attempts at such inevitably result in epistemological suicide.

Rand's assertion that reason can convey moral proclamations from a superficial throne of its own construction is illusory - for its scepter is its own hand. The problem is not that morality itself is subjective or relative, it is that Rand's particular claim to objective morality - that rationality affirms selfishness (acting on one's own behalf) as the consequent ethics - is flawed: the rationale expressed is less than compelling, discordant with many other sound ethical reasonings, and presumes to crown itself as 'objective' without 'objective' proof of such a designation.

Can one live unequivocally selfishly and morally? This is the question explored in the Virtue of Selfishness. Certainly, any 'beneficiary criterion of morality' presents an ethical system fraught with contradictions. It is not surprising that philosophers in academia scoff at Objectivism as unsound and sophomoric. It is an empowering ideology, but poor philosophy. In terms of the individual/collective egoism/altruism opposition, it can best be resolved by a holistic incorporation of the two seemingly disparate interests. Formulating a moral framework that eschews this either/or construct would be ideal. -David Metcalf

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Michael Myers minus "The Shape"

Halloween II
(Universal Pictures, 1981)
Cast: Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis
Director: Rick Rosenthal
Producers: Debra Hill, John Carpenter
Screenplay: John Carpenter, Debra Hill


"The main problem is the film's underlying motivation. Halloween was a labor of love, made by people committed to creating the most suspenseful and compelling motion picture they could. Halloween II was impelled by the desire to make money. It was a postscript - and not a very good one - slapped together because a box office success was guaranteed. Carpenter and Hill didn't believe in this project the way they believed in the original, and it shows in the final product. The creepiness of the first movie has been replaced by a growing sense of repetitive boredom. The Shape, who was an ominous and forbidding force, has been turned into a plodding zombie. The characters have all been lobotomized, and, in keeping with the slasher trend, the gore content is way up. There was virtually no blood in Halloween; Halloween II cheerfully heaps it on. (Rosenthal reportedly wanted to honor the original movie's low-key approach when it came to the murders, but Carpenter, concerned that the picture would be deemed too "tame" by the slasher audience, re-filmed several death scenes with more gore.)"

"Adding a backstory to explain why the Shape is relentless in his pursuit of Laurie is a mistake on Carpenter's part. One of many reasons that Halloween worked is because the Shape represented an implacable, inexplicable, unstoppable force of evil. He existed to stalk and kill; there was no reason for it. Offering an explanation emasculates this image. He's no longer "the Shape," but "Michael Myers." The depiction of evil incarnate has been replaced by a slow-moving guy in a Captain Kirk mask with some serious family issues. And, instead of always hovering around the edge of the frame or just outside of it, he becomes the focus of shot after shot. Gone is the malevolent figure in the shadows; now, he's striding down long hospital corridors under the baleful glare of fluorescent lights. Michael is an icon that should never have been explained or humanized - not even a little bit.

The saving grace of Halloween II is Donald Pleasance. More than any of the other films, this one belongs to Loomis, the gun-toting action figure who arrives in the nick of time and has more good one-liners than everyone else put together. (I won't print any of them here, since they lose their zing when taken out of context.) Pleasance, who accepted Loomis' role in Halloween with reservations, seems to be enjoying himself immensely this time around. The actor would return to reprise this role three more times - in Halloweens four, five, and six. He died shortly after making the penultimate (and worst) Halloween sequel.

There is a way to enjoy this movie, and it has to do with lowering expectations. Halloween was a classic - the kind of film that will cause you to walk a little faster on your way home after a screening, or, if you travel by car, to check the back seat. The sequel doesn't offer the same kind of horror. However, it is a passable piece of camp. There's some genuinely funny material in this movie, although I can't guess how much of it was originally intended to generate mirth. Consider, for example, the scenes near the beginning of the movie where Loomis empties his revolver into the Shape, then runs around screaming, "I shot him six times! I shot him six times! I shot him in the heart! I shot him six times!" That's enough to get a hearty chuckle out of any one, especially when you consider that the good doctor has a problem with basic mathematics. He actually shot him seven times. (Don't believe me? Count for yourself.)

As slasher movies go, Halloween II is far from the bottom of the barrel, but, given its pedigree, one has a right to expect a higher degree of quality that what is delivered. The film offers more laughs than scares, and, if watched in concert with the original, has the unfortunate effect of diminishing the earlier picture. When John Carpenter went to work on Halloween, the project was all about generating tension and toying with the viewer's expectations - lessons learned from Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho. With Halloween II, it was all about graphic, grisly murders and a high body count - lessons learned at the box office. And that disparity, more than anything else, illustrates why Halloween is a classic and its first sequel is a sloppy afterthought." - James Berardinelli, Reelviews (2/4)

Monday, September 17, 2007

Best and Worst wrestling videos

These are reviews I've either searched for on the net or Amazon's wrestling Listmania. They are somewhat tracked in terms of overall consistency (per event), and the results are fairly cut-and-dry, good or bad. Though obviously this is subjective, I'm doing this for everyone who wants a feel for what people are saying.

(As of 9-17-07)


Backlash 2000

Great American Bash 1986, 1987, 1989* ("The 1989 show is generally regarded as the best non-WWE PPV event ever") [4]

Judgement Day 2000

King of the Ring 1998 ("Hell In A Cell"), 2001

No Way Out 2000, 2001

Royal Rumble 2000, 2001

Spring Stampede 1999

Wrestlemania 3, 13, 17*, 18, 19, 20, 2000



December to Dismember 2006

Great American Bash 1991*, 1992, 2000, 2007 ("...and the 1991 show is considered one of the worst wrestling shows ever.") [4]

Heroes of Wrestling 1999
"The show was heavily criticized and ridiculed by the wrestling press, some going as far as calling it the worst wrestling PPV event ever produced. Heroes of Wrestling was declared a failure by the wrestling mainstream." [1]

"On the same note, anyone know where I can buy a PAL copy of Heroes of Wrestling? I can't find it anywhere. One of those "so bad it's bad it's good" type deals." [3]

King of the Ring 1995

NWO Souled Out 1997

WCW Uncensored 1995
"I'll go with WCW Uncensored.... 94? Maybe 95. Whenever they had that Flat Bed Truck match with Dustin Rhodes and ,uh, The Blacktop Bully? So horrible I've almost completely blocked it from my mind. Almost." 3]

WOW Unleashed 2001 [2]

Wrestlemania 10
"and i might get flamed from a few angles for this but with the exception on ONE really good match i thought WM10 sucked!" [3] (I most often hear that the only two good matches are Hart vs. Hart and The Ladder Match.)

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

At the family dinner table

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) A-
"What separates Texas Chainsaw Massacre from its predecessors is its anarchic, cynical hysteria—its bizarre and dark-as-hell gallows humor. Watching Night of the Living Dead today with the wrong audience can turn the one-time king of terror films into a monotonous and campy affair, thereby sabotaging the film's 11th-hour plunge into hell. But because Chainsaw is often as audaciously funny as it is distressing, no one dares laugh. In many cases, the juxtaposition of horror with comedy is so confrontational, it can have a stultifying, choking effect. When the first victim wanders into the lair of the infamous Leatherface and is beaten to death by a sledgehammer, Hooper mutes the man's screams and substitutes them with a frightened hog's squeals. That's just one of many examples of Hooper using the friction of stylistic dichotomies to create an atmosphere of perversion and dread. In addition to the horror-comedy split, there is also a persistent tension between the film's monochromatic, grainy, hand-held verité cinematography and the abstract rusty-razor editing, and between the campy tin pan guitar on the van's radio and the mechanical nightmare music score (which had to have been a primary influence on Trent Reznor's Downward Spiral). The only place where some semblance of balance exists is in Franklin's sister Sally (Marilyn Burns), and when her stolid composure is brutalized by the Leatherface family, it damn well knocks the film's fragile grip on sanity into the void. In the final, prolonged dinner sequence, the film's pseudo-documentary realism gives way to arrhythmic editing, more non-diegetic animal sound effects, and extreme close-ups of the broken, red capillaries in Sally's eyes."

"Throughout the film, Hooper maintains a level of miasmic, grimy funk that is just about unparalleled in horror cinema. Much has been made of how Texas Chainsaw Massacre is hardly as gory as its reputation suggests and that much of its ingenuity is attributable to its power to strongly suggest gore and blood. One could add that it's infinitely more impressive the way Hooper elevates human sweat, clinging dirt and tangled hair to the harrowing effect of gore. When Pam (Teri McMinn) wanders into the aforementioned room of bones-on-twine, it's almost as distressing to see her collapse, choke back vomit and struggle not to inhale the floating chicken feathers as it is to see her walking toward the house (in a stunningly non-verité low-angle tracking shot earlier in the film) or later being hung up on a meat hook. And Sally's night escape from Leatherface through the woods is made terrifying not so much by Franklin being sawed to death in his wheelchair moments earlier, but by the way her wispy, long hair seems to constantly wrap itself around tree branches and thorns as she herself runs around in an ever-tightening circle like a clueless farm animal." -Eric Henderson (4/4)

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Enshrined in stereotypes

Memoirs of a Geisha
(Columbia Pictures, 2005)
Director: Rob Marshall
Cast: Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanabe, Michelle Yeoh
[One of the] Producers: Steven Spielberg
Grade: D

"The controversy surrounding Memoirs of a Geisha's Chinese-as-Japanese thesping has threatened to derail this big-screen adaptation of Arthur Golden's bestseller for months now. Rob Marshall has been on the receiving end of most of this flack, but is the man a racist or just another Hollywood sell-out? In casting Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's two female stars—the Chinese Ziyi Zhang and the Malaysian Michelle Yeoh—as geishas, Marshall chucks more coal into the bottom-line-driven fire of the Hollywood machine. Maybe it's because I'm used to this sort of thing and have compliantly accepted over the years that a Puerto Rican playing a Mexican is preferable to, say, Marlon Brando playing Emiliano Zapata in brown-face, but I see this typecasting as a laughable transparency rather than a deliberate attempt to spread pan-Asian stereotypes. Since the dehumanizing Memoirs of a Geisha's view of Japanese culture isn't designed for people familiar with the works of Mikio Naruse, Yasujiro Ozu, or Kenji Mizoguchi, but rather a mainstream crowd that fondly remembers singing "Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these!" as children, it only makes sense that this three-ring show's actresses hail from the only foreign film its target audience is likely to have ever seen."

"Marshall doesn't hype the soul of Japan, only its artifice. He isn't obsessed with the psychological toil of his female characters (that devastating sense of resignation Mizoguchi and Naruse understood so well), only the flamboyancy of their trade. To Marshall, the geisha is less a woman than a performance artist, and though Zhang's runway-style dance number in the film is more dazzling than anything in the director's insipid Chicago, it means nothing emotionally. The film's swooping aesthetic (no cherry blossom or stepping stone is safe from its exoticizing gaze) tents the canned intrigue of the story's circus burlesque. Marshall is the ringleader, prancing around his back-lot vision of Japan and allowing his audience to gawk at the freakitude of Sayuri's blue eyes (a white-identifiable, sans-context conceit that exists to stress some hoary notion that she is like water, and as such is able to wash away earth and put out fire—or something ridiculous to that effect) and a gorgeous Gong Li jumping like a lioness through hoops of fire and scratching those who threaten her place on the geisha food chain. Given the film's thin social perspective and parade of cardboard villainy, after a while it all comes to strangely resemble a Walt Disney animation." -Ed Gonzalez, Slant (.5/4)

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Ed Wood Jr.?, Part 2

(Romar Entertainment, 2006)
Starring: Ben Kingsley, Michael Madsen, Billy Zane, Meat Loaf

Slant (.5/4)
Less pleasurable than the throbbing bladder pain begat by too much movie theater soda, BloodRayne ably continues Uwe Boll's indisputable reign as the worst filmmaker on the planet. Once again adapting a videogame for the screen, the German director's latest load of cinematic poo is ever-so-slightly more technically proficient than last year's Alone in the Dark. But whatever minute newfound skill Boll exhibits behind the camera—and let me be clear, it's very minute—is predictably offset by his film's staggeringly incompetent writing, staging, special effects, and performances, the latter of which are so monumentally lethargic and inept that they nearly cry out for "Most Lackluster Ensemble" recognition from SAG. It's almost too easy to pile on BloodRayne, a pathetic amalgam of Dracula and The Lord of the Rings that boasts not a wisp of an original idea in its gory, D&D-influenced head. And yet the sight of prominent actors (including Academy Award-winner Ben Kingsley!) greedily opting to use their considerable industry clout to help make such incontrovertibly mindless dreck (presumably for a hefty payday) is nothing short of dismaying and disgusting. So let the critical carnage commence. -Nick Schager

Mr. Filthy (1/5)
Like all Boll movies, Bloodrayne is based on a moderately successful video game whose rights he got cheaply. He got a hack (Guinevere Turner) to crap out a script, and shot it on the cheap in low-budget foreign locations with Z-grade talent like Kristianna Lokken, Meatloaf, Matt Davis, Billy Zane, Michele Rodriguez, Michael Madsen and Ben Kingsley. For the actors, appearing in a Uwe Boll is a declaration that they act for money and have costly addictions that must be fed. It also declares that they have less self-respect than a Tri-Delt. It's like falling on a spiral of shame and bumping your head on every step all the way down to the bottom.

Ed Wood Jr.?, Part 1

Ed Wood Jr.?, Part 1

Alone in the Dark
(Lions Gate Films, 2005)
Starring: Christian Slater, Tara Reid, Stephen Dorff

Slant (.5/4)
Saying Uwe Boll's Alone in the Dark is better than his 2003 American debut House of the Dead—possibly the worst horror film of the past decade—is akin to praising syphilis for not being HIV. The director's second straight videogame-to-film misfire boasts slightly bigger stars and higher production values than his previous catastrophe, but neither comes close to obscuring the fact that Boll remains mainstream cinema's most awesomely incompetent living filmmaker. One would have to list every facet of filmmaking basics to catalog Alone's innumerable shortcomings, but suffice it to say that jagged pacing, laughable use of slow-motion and bullet-time effects, seizure-inducing strobe lights, mismatched editing, ready-for-TV framing, a constantly unmoored camera, and jumbled audio mixing all rear their ugly heads at one point or another during this cataclysmic, cacophonous fiasco. -Nick Schager

Mr. Filthy (1/5)
Supposedly this dungheap cost 20-million bones to make, but it looks a hell of a lot cheaper than that. It's filmed in dim light, not for style, but to hide the cheapness. The dialog is so routine that I could have predicted every single line after seeing Sci-Fi Channel Originals like Boa Vs. Python and Sabretooth, or the one about squids that can instant-message submarines. Other movies this reminded me of are the appalling Arizona Werewolf in which an Eastern European playing an American says in her best phonetic English "You and Dr. Noel is only in it for fame and forchoooon," and an old Golan-Globus disaster called Treasure of the Four Crowns that at least was in 3-D. All of these movies are notably lousy, but better than Alone in the Dark.

Ed Wood Jr., Part 2

Note: Score ratings in bold are Select Reviews, and "( )" the authors cited.