Monday, February 20, 2012

That goddess is fit for burning

(The piece below was for a series of articles at the LAMB website on this year's Oscar nominees. Anyway, it's been up on that site for about a week or so, so I figure I can put it up here now as well.

Of the 5 nominated films in this category, I only missed out on
"W.E." (I watched about a reel of "The Artist" before having to leave on some work-related shit. I'll definitely come back to that one soon). Anyway, I had stepped up to the ticket counter, asked for 1 ticket to the Madonna joint -- then promptly changed my mind. I just couldn't do it, folks. If I did, I'd know that she got the best of me  -- and my eleven dollars -- every time I see her do something self-aggrandizing/lame on television, acting like she was Queen Awesome. FUCK THAT SHIT.

Old, irrelevant, and painful to watch. But enough about Billy Crystal, let's talk about the Oscars – particularly the category of Best Costume Design. Why? Because that's my assigned category for The LAMB Devours The Oscars, brother. But it's just as important as the more popular categories, considering that without costumes, we'd be watching a bunch of naked thespians doing their thing. That can be a good thing or bad thing, depending on who's in front of the camera. So I'm gonna judge the nominees on that aspect, as well as how well the costumes look on the actors, in a sex-type way, of course. Because as they say, clothes make the man...want to have sex with someone.

And now, the nominees:

Anonymous – Because this film takes place during the Elizabethan era, costume designer Lisy Christl had to bust out with the gowns and doublets. This kind of clothing works when you have an attractive bird like Joely Richardson looking all elegant and queen-like, which might have something to do with her portraying the young Queen Elizabeth I. But it also works when you have a cast that primarily consists of pasty Englishmen like David Thewlis and Rafe Spall.

Also, Rhys Ifans is in this flick, and if you've seen his bright white beanpole physique in Notting Hill, then you know Christl was doing us a favor covering that shit up from head to toe. Some of these guys are old too; so I'm giving this movie props for covering these dudes up in a way that leaves everything to the imagination, provided you even want to imagine someone like Derek Jacobi completely starkers. I sure don't. I couldn't handle that much sexy.

The Artist – This is probably gonna win, because nominee Mark Bridges did an excellent job in evoking the Hollywood fashion style of the late 20's/early 30's, and because the Academy is full of oldsters and this flick probably brought up happy memories of a bygone era -- the Good Ol' Days That Never Were (but nostalgia's quite the convincing beast, so good luck telling them otherwise). Some of them are probably old enough to remember dressing up in the same style as the characters from the film, either for the movies or for getting laid (or both).

Bridges had to deal with attractive actors, though, so he couldn't fuck it up, he had to make them look like the 20's/30's equivalent of Damn I Want To Bang Them. He succeeded; the French actor whose-name-I-don't-know looks dashing and debonair, the French chick whose-name-I-don't-know looks glamorous and gorgeous, and Penelope Ann Miller looks happy to be in a good movie again. They look as good in their tuxes and flapper-wear as they probably look when naked, so thumbs up to Mr. Bridges for working his magic in a costume-designing way.

Hugo – Man, I don't want to see little kids with no clothes on, and neither did Sandy Powell (thank God), so she clothed them up real good. While this film takes place around the same time as The Artist, Powell couldn't just dress these tykes like they were in a Hollywood film from that era. She had the unenviable task of having to clothe the actors in costumes that were both 1930's Paris authentic and have a touch of the fairy tale about them, because Hugo's one of those magical stories that could only come from a storybook (which is exactly what it is).

I liked Sacha Baron Cohen's station inspector costume the most, because it's the most representative of the real/slightly-unreal combo look they were going for (his blue getup looks like it was cut from the same material used for Adam Sandler's suit in Punch Drunk Love), and because it covers the actor from head to toe -- a fitting punishment for an actor with a tendency to show off his hairy body whenever possible. He did it in Borat, he did it in Bruno, and he'll probably do it again later this year in The Dictator. That's enough, Ali G, maybe your wife Australian Amy Adams likes looking at that, but as far as I'm concerned, you can take it outside, Cohen.

Jane Eyre – Costume designer Michael O'Connor covers up the actors in frumpy clothing, but hey, it was the 1800's, that's how they dressed. Plus, thanks to Shame, we've already seen about as much of Michael Fassbender as he's willing to show in front of a camera (everything), so being covered up in riding coats and breeches does him some good. And you know what? Mia Wasikowska and Jamie Bell are cute enough to wear their frumpieries well, so no complaining there.

But that still doesn't excuse O'Connor for bringing down some serious fashion hurt on poor Imogen Poots. Just look at that picture of her. I mean, it's bad enough that she has that name, but now she's got to deal with wearing this shit and looking happy about it. For that awful joke, the Academy should take away his previous award for The Duchess and not give it back until he apologizes to Ms. Poots (without laughing, of course, I mean c'mon -- Poots? She should hook up with fellow unfortunate-named thespian Alison Doody, they can make a buddy film together -- Poots & Doody).

W.E. - For this flick, nominee Arianne Phillips had to create costumes that represented late 90's New York fashion, in addition to recreating the kind of fancy duds worn by Wallis Simpson in late 30's England (on account of being one of those films that jumps back and forth in time & place). All this, and she also had to deal with working for Madonna as a director; I'm pretty sure Mads was a lot like fellow diva filmmaker Barbra Streisand and put a lot more thought into the wardrobe than most filmmakers usually would, so can you imagine being a costume designer and having one of those hens micromanage your shit? Damn.

Just on that, I'm not only gonna demand that the Academy give the Oscar to Ms. Phillips, they should also give her a fuckin' medal for putting up with Madonna's shit. Barring all that, she definitely deserves a win for coming up with some really nice outfits for the actors to wear -- and they sure do wear the hell out of them, as you can see. Even the biggest nerd around is gonna look too cool for school while wearing some of these clothes. Or at least come off as a well-dressed nerd.

Who will win? - If I had money, I'd pay my bills. Then I'd put the leftover money on Mark Bridges' work on The Artist taking home the golden Emilio Fernandez statuette. Having said that, I'm not sure how to feel about the Academy only honoring films that took place in the past – hell, three out of the five nominees take place in the 30's. They should've thrown some love over to the more modern joints, like Sanja Milkovic Hays' work on Fast Five; she had to create costumes with material strong enough to contain the gallons of torrential downpour sweat coming from Dwayne Johnson's 'roided-up body. Or how about Michael Wilkinson's pelvis-inspired costumes for the wanktastic Sucker Punch; man, those outfits were like the Albert Brooks-in-Drive of costume design -- criminally overlooked.

In conclusion, I'm probably gonna DVR the Oscars this year and fast-forward through all of the Billy Crystal hilarity, because he's too hardcore for me. If he starts singing songs based on the nominees, I don't think I'd be able to handle that much awesome.

Friday, February 3, 2012

"With Nonoxynol 9, knock that shit right out."

She was a cute girl, wearing a pretty sweater & jeans ensemble that tellingly clashed with her shiny knee-high fetish boots. The young woman led me into the small auditorium at the AMC and said that I could sit anywhere in the first five rows located directly in front of the screen, because the rest of the auditorium was reserved. It was a 162-seat theater, which meant that about 50 seats were available to the 200 or so "unreserved" people who came to see the Navy SEAL action film Act of Valor. Of the 50 seats, only about 10 were left. I had been among the first to arrive.

My friend, meanwhile, was out getting popcorn. So with my speed, cunning, and jacket, I managed to snag two seats, one behind the other at the far corner of the screen. Bowfinger seats. Chinaski in "Hollywood" seats. The hallway entrance got increasingly jammed up as those in front of the line tried in vain to spot any available place to sit, while Fetish Boot Girl tried her best to apologize about the clusterfuckery that was this advance screening. People were getting increasingly frazzled, as one would be after waiting up to 90 minutes in line and being among the first to arrive, only to find that all those careful precautions did not save them from a latecomer's fate.

I'm not in a finger-pointing mood, and even if I was, I certainly wouldn't point my fingers at the contented non-line-waiters who happily waltzed in minutes before showtime and looked over the many available seating options, before finally settling on the place they liked best. For one thing -- the only thing, perhaps -- it appears that a number of them were military. They, like us, were guests. Hell, they could've all been military, this could've been a military screening, and the Act of Valor people probably figured, hey, let's invite some civilians to this as well. I'm totally down with giving the military dudes top priority, just like I'm totally down with the idea that they should make a law that says if you're in the military but you're under 21, fuck it, you should be able to buy a fuckin' beer if you want to. So if I was gonna point my finger at anyone -- and remember, I'm not going to -- I'd say it was whoever picked one of the smallest screening rooms at this establishment to have this screening. AMC? Gofobo? I wouldn't know, I'm not pointing fingers, remember?

I looked at the happy people in the good seats -- by the look of their complexions, this was the Whites Only section -- and then back over to the Soylent Green human sardine can of despairing humanity struggling for seats/room/air in the hallway entrance (which mainly consisted of dirty Hispanics and sneaky Asians), and for some reason I thought of that scene in Summer Rental with John Candy and Richard Crenna at the nice seafood restaurant.

Two ladies in their late 30's began giving it to Fetish Boot Girl about the seating arrangement, reminding me yet again why I could never do any kind of job that required customer service: I would start punching people. The ladies then walked over to the row in front of me and found a couple of seats besides a cap-wearing gentleman in his late 40's/early 50's. They then asked in a demanding tone if those seats were already taken. He said yes in a purposely not-true way, and then stretched his legs over to take the empty seats. This put the ladies in the redline; the lead lady insisted that he was not being truthful and that she was going to take the seats anyway.

The cap-wearer looked at her and said in a 1980's high school cool guy manner "Calm down, it's a free movie" and the lead lady responded in an increasingly bordering-on-tears voice with "You know what? You're a real jerk!" and then the cap-wearer turned his attention back to the dark screen and chuckled. I looked over to the Whites Only section and noticed an Air Force recruiter observing all of this, which made me wonder if that guy ever has second thoughts about the choice he's made in his life -- defending a country of people who can't even agree to be civil about a fuckin' movie theater seat.

If he has had that thought, I'm sure he then countered it with the sad realization that the entire world is like this. It's in our blood, you see, and unfortunately, the closest thing to a blood transfusion for this dying planet is probably gonna be when we finally Alpha/Omega our entire species into the Big Black, as we've been threatening to do ever since that fuckin' ape cracked that other ape in the skull during the Dawn of Man. I know that's a scene from a movie, but still, I'm sure something like that happened back then, because I'm an idiot. Anyway, a security guard came to see if everything was all right/put them in their place and eventually the women found seats elsewhere. Or they left. I don't know. After what had just fuckin' transpired, I don't think it makes a difference either way, really.

My friend came back, the lights went down, and before the flickering digital presentation of Act of Valor, there was a brief video intro by the two directors of the film. They talked about how they used real active Navy SEALs (which I wasn't aware of) as actors and that they only had a few hours at a time to shoot with them (because of everything that being a Navy SEAL entails) or to use the real vehicles and various other Navy transporation, and here's the best part -- they used real live ammunition during the action scenes, because I guess those SEALs go all the way or no way at all. Holy Shit. If you know of anyone who acted in Act of Valor and/or performed stunts, but never came back from the shoot, well, now you know why.

They talked about other things but I was too busy trying to get comfortable with the terrible seat that I was so lucky to find; everything was at a terrible angle and way too close. I'm not against sitting up close if I have to -- I understand that Peter Hyams prefers sitting at the 5th row because he can't see the edges of the screen and therefore it's like literally being in that world, and if its good enough for the director of Busting, it's good enough for me -- but sitting up close with you head tilted up and all the way to the right is just, uh, it's just fuckin' awful in the First World definition of the word. But hey, "calm down, it's a free movie", right?

Also, because I am forever doomed to live in interesting times (as far as moviegoing is concerned), I ended up sitting next to a chatty family and the young man sitting next to me was like Michael J. Fox giving Muhammed Ali a handjob after 40 shots of espresso with a Red Bull diuretic chaser; he never stopped bouncing/shaking his leg, which meant I felt every single bounce/shake. Eventually I started bouncing/shaking as well in an attempt to counteract his bouncing, hopefully cancelling each others movement out by creating a kind of calm eye-of-the-storm effect, or at the very least, annoying the everlasting shit out of him. It took me about a good 20 minutes to finally make peace with the fact that I just wasn't gonna be able to take in the on-screen events with anything more than a basic primal understanding: guns go bang, bombs go boom, people fall down.

The best that I can put together is that this doctor chick has a cell phone, which must be, like, the greatest cell phone ever, even though it's a Blackberry and everyone's all about the iPhone now. It's the greatest cell phone in the world because it has info on some drug smuggler who has hooked up with a Muslim terrorist leader and Filipinos and Mexicans are involved. But here come the Navy SEALs to clear all this shit up and keep all that foreign menace from invading our precious soil with their terrorism plot of blowing shit up and destroying the American economy. Regarding the latter goal, it just shows that these guys are very impatient. Give us time, bros, we'll fuck that shit up soon enough.

So essentially what you're watching here is 100 minutes of Navy SEALs ventilating the Mexicans of Southeast Asia, the Mexicans of Eastern Europe, and finally, the Mexicans of Mexico. If you're an action fan, you'll find plenty to like and get your dick hard about -- and if you're a White conservative from Orange County or really just anyone-anywhere -- you'll also have the extra bonus of ejaculating from said erection into your tighty-whities at the sight of all the brown bullet-ridden corpses. 

There are also sequences between the action devoted to the SEALs during those non-ass-kicking periods of their life, you know, when they're chilling out at home with their families or surfing on the beach with their bros. It's all done to the voiceover of one of the leads as he writes a letter to his unborn son (the film focuses on two particular SEALs, who come off as affable monotone-voiced chaps who are refreshingly lacking in Macho; they don't put up a tough guy act, they just do kickass things when it's Go time). I kinda dug those scenes, and it's unfortunate that they spend less of the film's downtime on this stuff and more on lame scenes of the "real" actors hamming it up with their terrorist plannings.

I think the filmmakers were going for a hybrid of fly-on-the-wall Paul Greengrass-style docudrama along with the kind of Hollywood shit you see in a Bruckheimer joint. But it's those Hollywood moments -- the secret conversations between covert CIA agents, the MWAHAHA scenes between terrorists -- that hurt the film, rather than make it feel like more of your usual action entertainment. It's weird, because I think the scenes between the SEALs work a lot more than the scenes with the legit actors, even though the SEALs aren't the best actors or even good actors. That's not a diss on the SEALs, by the way; those guys were too busy keeping up their standards of badassery to work on their performances. Because in their line of work, it does them a lot more good to know the insides of a Kalashnikov, rather than the many facets of Stanislavsky.

The best actor in the film, believe it or not, is a member of a SEAL team; I don't know his name because like the rest of the active duty SEALs in this film, they're not credited with anything other than their character names (which may or may not be their real names as well). Anyway, he's the guy with the bushy Galifianakis beard and he's an expert in interrogation, and he's really funny. Homeboy has a tendency to reference films in his dialogue, but my favorite line is when he refers to a terrorist having "pulled a Roman Polanski", rather than just saying that the guy fled the country to escape sentencing. I also like how he casually calls the enemy "savages", and that had a bit of a chilling effect on me because the shit felt real, kind of like how they'll call any Iraqi insurgent "haji" or any low-budget militia as "skinnies". Because it's harder to send a motherfucker to the next world when you humanize them, I guess.

I loved the scene where he actually puts his interrogation skills to work. While watching that scene, I realized -- of course! -- that it makes perfect sense that he would be the best actor of the SEAL team because I'm sure there's a lot of that kind of shit needed when trying to get the goods from the interrogatee. Beard Guy shows up wearing a suit (up until now he's dressed in either ratty civvies or his uniform) and speaks in an easygoing manner to put the bad guy at ease. It's only a matter of time before he gets into Bad Cop mode, and even the way he plays that role is pretty surprising. He reminded me a lot of the head of security from one of my previous jobs, Ed.

Ed was a guy with a balding buzz-cut and a non-ironic mustache who was ex-military but now ran the security at this joint like it was the CIA. Once we passed each other in the hall and I said something because I can't do uncomfortable silences. He stopped, gave me his typically cryptic smile and said "You know what I like about you? (beat) You always have something to say", then turned back and continued walking. It was tough to tell whether he was being genuine or giving me some Clint Eastwood-style putdown shit. Anyway, I could see Ed doing military-style interrogation in a past life.

While watching the film, I had come down to the conclusion that it was shot with what appeared to be the entire range of digital cinematography from the last ten years. Some shots looked like expertly-transferred HDCAM (meaning the shit still looks like video) some shots have that DVX-100 24p standard definition look, other shots look like they were filmed on one of the REDs, and the rest is good ol' HDLSR. Later, I found out that it was pretty much just shot with the Canon 5D, so I guess the look of the film was really just a result of getting the footage by any means necessary, and not whether that shit was perfect quality or not. Don't get me wrong, I'm not dissing it, in fact, I applaud the look/style of Act of Valor -- for the most part.

When it works, the action cinematography has a great energy to it -- Christian Bale's favorite cinematographer, Shane Hurlbut, took these little cameras and really pushed them to their limits, forgoing the precious Theo Angelopoulos-in-comparison look most people tend to do with these babies and instead just grabbing the motherfuckers and MAYBE using one of those steering wheel Fig Rigs but otherwise just using the wonderful never-fail handheld stabilizer known as Your Fucking Hands. Pretty much anything not involving the SEALs has this raw look, while the stuff with the real actors is far more polished and even cranes and jibs appeared to be used.

Some scenes go crazy out-of-focus, and I can only assume that was either intentional, or as I mentioned before, these Bad Ass SEALs ain't got time for the camera jibber-jabber. Whatever the case, I thought I was watching the smooth rack-focusing of Todd Barron sometimes. They also throw in a lot of POV and damn-near POV shots of SEALs shooting, reloading, aiming, even driving. It's pretty neat, and it would probably be even more impressive had I never played Call of Duty.

But it's still pretty fuckin' awesome to watch these SEALs do their thing, because that's what they're doing -- their thing, not some action choreographer's thing. You watch them perform in re-creations of scenarios they've gone through or at least been trained for; the movements, the communication -- it just has that Real feel to it. You can't help but geek out at the way they dispatch a "savage" who's standing next to a lake; if I had seen Jason Statham do that shit, that would've been cool, but because I'm watching a guy who probably did that shit to another human being at least once in his career, it's just cool on a different level -- the level of actual ownage inflicted on another human being, permanently. Hey, I never said I was exempt from the frailties of the human soul. We like violence. As I said earlier, it's in our blood -- hence our need to see so much of it.

Speaking of blood, this is an R-rated film, but not Verhoeven "R" or the last Rambo flick "R". It's more like red bullet holes in foreheads and the occasional pink mist. There is one character who gets tortured pretty badly, I'd say that's where most of the R-rating went. I have to give the filmmakers props for not Hollywooding that scene up -- not that you see much of it, but you do see the results and without giving much away, it wouldn't have happened that badly to that kind of character in another movie. But since this is being played out like real life, well, Real Life doesn't give a shit who you are or how you look or how your kind of character would get treated in another film. Whether you're a Hard Motherfucker or not, Real Life is like Gloria Estefan's proverbial rhythm -- it's gonna get you.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers didn't seem to trust the action scenes and verisimilitude enough to completely forgo the industry standard Confuso-Vision style. Instead they found a frustrating middle ground that combines Spielberg/Ridley Scott-style war chaos with Neveldine/Taylor-style anything chaos, rather than committing fully to one or the other. It's like they shot half the film with jittery in-your-face handheld setups, and then took it to the editing room and hadn't decided whether to cut the already energetic footage with an emphasis on pacing/flow or to cut it with an emphasis on just being a fuckin' dick by Cuisinart-ing that shit. So they did both -- sometimes during the same sequence.

Now, there's a good chance that this wouldn't be as big an issue if I had been watching this flick in the Whites Only section, but I wasn't -- I was in the I Want A Crick In My Neck And A Headache Afterwards seat and it was just too much for me to take in, so yeah. Sorry to keep harping on that, but really, who LIKES those seats?

Script-wise, this flick would barely qualify as a C-level programmer on the second half of a double-bill. But the idea of watching real Navy SEALs doing their thing is innately awesome, and that's what gives Act of Valor its total entertainment value -- not to mention the only reason for this film existing in the first place. I wouldn't pay full price and make it a night at the movies with this one, but I'd definitely get some friends, some beer, and some pizza for a Blu-ray viewing (double-billed with something else a bit thicker to pick up the slack). Having said that, I'd love to imagine what the general national attitude about this movie would be, had it been about, say, the PLA Special Operations Force or something.

The real bitch of this rambling is that I'm talking all this Navy SEAL shit and I still haven't seen the film Navy Seals. What the fuck. That shit has Michael Biehn, Charlie Sheen AND Bill Paxton. From the director of Collision Course, no less. And yet I haven't seen it. At the risk of stating something that everybody already knows: I am such a fuckin' lame.