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Sunday, Sep 9, 2007

You decide.  It’s a cartoon ad that’s aired on BET network.  The comment section alone at YouTube has been providing an interesting conversation about this.


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Saturday, Sep 8, 2007


It’s an interesting time for the once dead film genre known as the Western. Ever since Clint Eastwood snagged an Oscar for his “revisionist” revival of the spiraling cinematic favorite, post-modern moviemakers have embraced a more deconstructed version of the oater. In their mind, the standard element of black hat/white hat, good vs evil no longer holds sway in a society far more ambiguous and ethically unsure. While recent horse operas have tried to trade on those wholesome, old fashioned values (the recently released 3:10 to Yuma), others have actually tried to dig deeper into that dilemma. The 2006 Australian hit The Proposition was one such example, as is the upcoming Brad Pitt ‘epic’ The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Both movies see the stereotypical symbolism inherent in the category as a means of making larger, more metaphysical points.


It’s the very reason the spaghetti interpretation of the material made such a splash 40 years ago.  Treating the genre as a combination of considered iconography and classical tragedy, the mannered, manipulated imagery created by these foreign films generated a whole new emblematic appeal. Unlike the Hollywood way of the sagebrush saga, which used character as a catalyst for its bigger right/wrong dynamic, Italian directors like Sergio Leone skipped the personal and went right for the problem. They elevated disputes into wars of karmic calculation, and blurred the lines between villain, victor, and victim. It’s no wonder the western faded away after the influx of the Mediterranean influence. With the exception of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s brilliant El Topo, few could find a way around the contrasting combination of clipped heroics and glimpsed Hell. That is, until now.


To call it genius would be a gross understatement. To label it a homemade homage to an equally endearing artform would also be too simplistic. For filmmakers, musicians, and friends Mike Bruce and Kirkpatrick Thomas, the Once Upon a Fistful fabulousness of the pasta prairie parade is merely a jumping off point for a combination lampoon and love letter to the works that rewired their cinematic sensibilities. The result – the magnificent Legend of God’s Gun, a shot on video fever dream filtered through the latest high tech post-production optical candy factories to produce one of the most original and unforgettable films of the newly crowned “noughts”. While it may seem like nothing more than a copycat compilation of Leone, Corbucci, and Barboni riffs, with just a little sidewinding psychedelia thrown in for gonzo measure, the opposite is actually true. What Bruce (director/actor) and Thomas (writer/actor/composer) manage is nothing less than a brilliant distillation of everything the reformulated artform stood for.


The story is devastatingly simple. A one time gunslinger turned Preacher (his woman was murdered by a band of ruthless outlaws right before his eyes) wanders the desolate desert countryside, seeking salvation and revenge. He’s after the scorpion poison drinking desperado, El Sobro. Along with his gang of craven killers, the villain has cut a trail of death and destruction all across the West. Sought by a Bounty Hunter desperate for recognition – and financial returns – these divergent individuals will eventually face off in the small town of Playa Diablo, a place where the Sheriff senses his wife is cheating on him, and the Deputy is the dog doing it behind his back. Of course, there’s some sacred gold involved, and more than one personal vendetta to settle, as gunfights turn into glorifications for everything the winning of the Wild West ever stood for or signified.


Sadly, such a description doesn’t do The Legend of God’s Gun justice. It’s one of the most artistically accomplished and visionary self-made movies since Cory McAbee’s The American Astronaut and Jim Van Bebber’s The Manson Family. Not only does it flaunt our expectations of spaghetti worship, but it takes the era in which the cinematic revolution occurred and channels it through the genre formulas as well. The results rip through your brain and sever your synapses, shredding what you know about film and replacing it with a brand new celluloid language. There are moments here of visual grandeur that top the most accomplished moviemaking recreationist. There are also sequences of significant reinvention that speak to Bruce and Thomas’ talent both in front of and behind the camera. This is not just some celebration of cinema. It’s a bow to all the media this duo dig – comics, the music of Morricone, pop art, action movies, and the always systemic image of a poised gun.



In its mannerism and make-up, The Legend of God’s Gun plays like a series of climaxes waiting for the context to catch up to them. Backstory is hinted at and inferred, while characterization is kept to costuming, quirk, and straightforward sonic signatures. This is not the Penny Dreadful style of shoot ‘em up that monopolized the Western myth for the first 60 years of modern moviemaking. Instead, Legend channels more bizarro attempts at reviving the genre, like the works of Dennis Hopper (The Last Movie), Marlon Brando (One Eyed Jacks), and the Sams - Peckinpah (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), Fuller (Forty Guns), and Raimi (The Quick and the Dead). It also invests in its own naiveté, understanding completely that it can never fully recreate the slow burn significance of the films that came before it. Instead, this is an effort of insinuation, to use a more Madison Avenue approach to the subject matter, meaning it hits the high notes, the recognizable rigors, and then invents its own clever combinations to compensate for the lack of legitimacy.


And it’s not just an internal conceit. As stated before, this is a basic camcorder production, a shot on video version of every other outsider attempt at moviemaking the new science can support. But thanks to the computer, and its ability to tweak colors, create age, provide purposeful defects, and give each frame the full Peter Max dynamic, Bruce and Thomas can indulge their every creative whim. They exploit long forgotten film elements like split screen, freeze framing, multiple exposures, fish eyed lens, kaleidoscope effect, and insert montages. In combination with the astounding score by Thomas’ band Spindrift (so sonically right it’s frightening), the amateur acting from the cast (complete with mandatory ADR voiceover work), the backdrop’s bravura grandeur (it’s ghost town-irrific) and the many little moments of outright gadgetry make for a movie that revives your faith in filmmaking.



Since it is only available directly from the filmmakers (through their production company, Razor Tree Films) and lacks the full blown digital directness of a professionally distributed product, there will be those who dismiss the polish of this project. They will look at the self-helmed hucksterism and argue that it’s no different than dozens of other moviemaking wannabes selling their wares out of the metaphysical back of their van known as the Internet.  But that would be missing the point. Decades ago, Francis Ford Coppola argued that cinema would finally find a populist position, technology allowing anyone with an idea to bring their vision to the otherwise myopic masses (it’s a position supported by such diverse entities as Martin Scorsese and Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman). The Legend of God’s Gun is a clear indication of this new media mandate. It’s an explosive, eye popping expression of full blown film geek love measured through an aesthetic sensibility that flawlessly recreates its own insular inspiration.


Not only that, but it’s a nod to the filmic forbearers who had the wisdom and wherewithal to see that the Western wasn’t dead, just in need of a major artistic overhaul. Bruce and Thomas follow the footpath carved out by brilliant, bloody works such as The Wild Bunch and Once Upon a Time in the West and then invert it all for the socially hip. It’s a blatant doom trip, a droning drive directly into the sand washed mythos of the cowboy, the gunslinger, and the cruel, callous killer. In The Legend of God’s Gun, we are not dealing with law and order, civilization vs. savagery. Instead, this is the amazingly muddled and fertile fields of the genre expressionists, people who propose there existed more going on behind the scenes of any storyline than just upright citizenry, quiet desperation, and wanton wickedness. There was a meaning that reached far beyond humanity to address the very nature of being. Luckily, these filmmakers found a way to guide their vision. It’s now available for all who are interested – and it’s amazing


 


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Saturday, Sep 8, 2007

So far, in my three days here, I have seem some crazy stuff go down in Toronto at the film festival: I sat next to Marilyn Manson (at the world premiere of In Bloom), I saw literally every inch of Viggo Mortensen’s naked body thanks to David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (which has nothing at all to do with the stellar review I plan on giving it), and then I saw a bicyclist get hit by one of the city’s hundreds of scary taxi drivers (he is fine, don’t worry!). Then a woman that I am pretty sure was a prostitute or a stripper (maybe both) told me that I didn’t “sound like an American” while we were both waiting on a shady corner for a streetcar. Is it weird that I took it as a compliment?


Oh, and I have now seen ten films in three days. In the theater. This would be overwhelming for even the most hardcore festival fan, with or without seeing Viggo’s religion. More on that (and the flat-out brilliance of Eastern Promises) tomorrow, though; along with some insights into Helen Hunt’s surprisingly assured directorial debut Then She Found Me, the hopelessly mediocre The Jane Austen Book Club, and Vadim Perelman’s curious, strong In Bloom, starring Uma Thurman and Evan Rachel Wood.


For now, let’s do a little globe-trotting over to the Middle East:


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Saturday, Sep 8, 2007

Is there anyway to avoid the sort of NIMBYism that leads to teh inevitable outcome of poor neighborhoods being saddled with toxic waste, pollutants, garbage dumps, waste treatment plants, and undesirable industrial activity? An article by Amanda Griscom Little in last week’s NYT magazine took a look at the problem, focusing on the concept of environmental justice, which presumes all Americans have an equal right to a safe environment—a wonderfully egalitarian notion that few would disagree with, until the consequences are considered.


are environmental-justice goals always compatible with economic growth? There is a debate, says Daniel Doctoroff, New York City’s deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding: “On the one hand, environmental issues, versus having more jobs.” Real estate is scarce. No matter how clean and efficient industrial sites are, he says, “there will always be things that nobody wants, and we have to find places to put them.” And taxpayers will inevitably question why they should foot the bill for a sewage-treatment plant on the Upper East Side when it could be placed in a far less expensive neighborhood.


Some critics of the environmental-justice movement go further. It is not surprising, they say, that land near toxic sites is inexpensive and that the people who live there are poor. “It’s neither possible nor desirable in a free society to have all groups living equally close to everything — be it libraries or landfills,” argues Michael Steinberg, a Washington lawyer with clients in the chemical industry. “Even the old Soviet Politburo would have a hard time pulling that one off.” The mere fact of disparate impact, he says, is not evidence of intentional discrimination in the placement of polluting facilities — it’s just economics.


Despite the purely demagogic reference to the Soviet Union, I find myself surprisingly sympathetic to the corporate lawyer’s point of view. Wherever you locate certain undesirable facilities, the land around them will become devalued, creating slums. I have friends who live near a recently constructed bus depot in East Harlem; they were none to pleased about its being built and participated in some fruitless protests against it. They thought it might be relocated in the Upper East Side, only what would happen then? The value of the land around it there would decrease—hitting the city’s tax take much more drastically and thus compromising the sort of services it could provide. Or the depot could have not been built at all, thus debilitating the transportation that people in neighborhoods like East Harlem tend to particularly rely on.


Is it unfair? Yes. I’m sure the lawyer would advise those living in undesirable areas to make more money and move elsewhere. That’s the basic economic solution to everything—let the money do the talking via “free” markets. Of course,the markets are free only to the extent that opportunities for amassing money are equally open to all, and that’s obviously not true—the poor begin disadvantaged in that regard, and then the consequences of being poor—insufficient and inferior education, limited access, internalizing self-defeating habits, etc.—widen the opportunity gap. The alternative to the free market solution to the Nimby problem is to either forbid residential use of the land near dangerous facilities, or to force industry to take further precautions to prevent its making the surrounding environment unsafe—this is probably what the environmental justice crusaders are concentrating on. The point at which class discrimination rather than the dismal realities of economic distribution enters the scenario is when firms capitalize on the disorganization and helplessness of poor populations to break the laws that are meant to control the damage they do to the surrounding environs. Sustainable South Bronx, the group Griscom Little highlights, wants to usual legal challenges to prevent polluting industry from coming in, while simultaneously encouraging the development of green energy. But the same sort of economic problems emerge with this sort of solution as with the bus depot, only in reverse—if green energy concerns thrive, they make the locus of such industries desirable places to be, eventually crowding out the poor who may happen to live near them. Ultimately, those with means will avoid undesirable locales and buy up more-desirable land unless state intervention prevents Nimbyism by fiat. And the money involved in democratic politics will assure that never happens. What good is the bourgeois state if it can’t protect property rights, and by extension the best property money can buy?


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Saturday, Sep 8, 2007

If you’re looking for the culmination of the last two decades in filmmaking, if you need a movie that provides nothing but hair trigger pop shots, if your standard action movie is just too slack paced and remedial for your Red Bulled synapses, Michael Davis’s deconstructionist marvel will fuel inject your fun factors in quick order.

Welcome to the world of adrenaline amping gun porn. Maybe a better term for it would be “ammunition oriented erotica”. While there is technically nothing sexy about the arterial spray and wonder weaponry of Michael Davis’ demented actioner Shoot ‘Em Up, one does get the distinct impression of watching a XXX title where handguns substitute for hardcore. Grooving on its gratuity to the point of plentiful premature climaxes, and referencing the John Woo School of snail-paced mayhem to the point of stalker status, this demented director, previously known for nothing very much, has created the first freak geek manifesto. He has made a movie that does away with unnecessary cinematic standards like dimensional characterization, narrative clarity, physical logic, and any sense of subtlety. In its place are never-ending firefights, cut to the chase action sequences, bullet ballet, and a weird obsession with breast milk. Seriously.


The plot, when we finally find one, is an intriguing amalgamation of exploitation excess and Jackass level joke. While sitting on a street corner, minding his own business, the illusive Mr. Smith (a marvelous Clive Owen) sees a pregnant woman being chased by a murderous mob. Stepping in to protect her, he ends up with her newborn child, and a mob of angry hitmen on his tail. Led by the lecherous, leering Mr. Hertz (the brilliant Paul Giamatti), this craven crew has been given strict orders to destroy the kid at all costs. Hoping to find a substitute mom, Smith seeks the aid of prostitute pal DQ (Monica Bellucci as rather dandy eye candy). Initially rejecting his request, she relents, and suddenly, the faux family is on the run and looking for an escape. But they’ll have to get past a presidential candidate, an influential weapons manufacturer, the Second Amendment, the anti-gun lobby, and about 9000 members of the gang that couldn’t shoot straight before uncovering the truth and foiling Hertz’s fatal plot once and for all.


There’s no rationalizing a movie like Shoot ‘Em Up. There’s no way to excuse its excesses or validate its unavoidable volatilities. Instead, one simply has to sit back and enjoy the highlight reel histrionics of the action, the pure visual pleasure of watching choreographed actors exchange pot shots like gun toting gladiators. While really nothing more than a glorified game of one-upmanship where Smith and Wesson replace sword and saber, and everyone has a vendetta driving their designs, director Davis should be commended for making all of this negligible nonsense work. He takes what is, in essence, a Six Shooter Territory Wild West stunt show gone Gotham and turns it into a magical motion picture experience that borders on the epic. Granted, he doesn’t have the added Asian ideals of honor, duty, and loyalty down yet, and his characters tend to talk in blurbs from the back of old pulp novels, but viable action is an art. From what we see here, Davis is a punch-drunk Picasso.


It’s hard to hate this movie, try as it might to tweak your PC sensibilities. This is the kind of craziness that offers necrophilia as an offhand snicker, uses an infant as a precarious prop, and proposes that the entire world is run by corrupt corporate and government entities that pat each other on the back before planting a 9mm round in it. Emotions are for dames and dunce caps, and wit revolves around how successful you are in rearming your pistol before your opponent airs out your entrails. Sure, it’s all so hyper-stylized and mannered that it’s similar to hallucinating anime after a peyote and Pixie stick binge. Or maybe a better way of putting it would be to say that Shoot ‘Em Up is the naughtiest non-nudity the NRA ever fantasized over.  The well staged sequences of unbridled mayhem may help us to forget the overall lack of substance, but there’s no denying the high spirits hangover we feel once it’s done. 


Making matters even more complicated is the outstanding acting job by the two main leads. Clive Owen has crafted a nice little niche as the day saving action hero with the hobbled heart of a human being. As he did in Sin City, and again in Children of Men, he’s a capable champion made even more valiant by our obvious rooting interest in his success. Sure, he’s responsible for the death of hundreds, but who could hold a grudge with that cool and calculated chin butt. Similarly, Paul Giamatti gives a new meaning to the term “hygienically challenged” with his scraggly faced, sweat stained Mr. Hertz. Given lots of juicy lines to work with, and a character dimension that has his unstoppable anger deriving from a horrible home life (this mobster is the most henpecked hitman in the history of organized crime). Together, they form the core of some brilliant byplay, a cool for cat and mouse that adds an element of sly substance to what is basically kids playing cops and criminals.


There are a few elements here that will try your motion picture patience. Since its budget was obviously limited to the lower end of the financial scale, some subpar CGI had to be used to realize a couple of the stunts (one involves a classic moment between Owen, Giamatti, a couple of cars, and an infant in the middle of the road). Similarly, Davis does indulge his technicians a few too many rapid cutting conceits. When you watch a John Woo film, the last thing you notice is the editing. It’s easy to fall into an MTV style stance when dealing with this type of material, but for the most part, the director keeps it under control. And then there’s the lack of estrogen. Granted, Bellucci’s around to look fetching and fertile, but the lack of other female facets here is more than noticeable. When they’re not being gutted or gunned down, they’re part of the periphery, nothing more. Frankly, it would have been nice to see a long legged counterpart to our pair of provocateurs. It would have really pushed this project over the top.


Still, you gotta love the primal potency of Shoot ‘Em Up. It’s been a long time since any movie has made such a strong connection to our cave dweller cravings. This is hunter/gatherer grandness, the sort of symphonic splatter statement that turns ordinary people into obsessives. Though it all feels so superficial and slight, even with all the corpses piling up, the undeniable attraction to orgiastic violence provides enough entertainment heft to leave us spent and satisfied. Certainly this movie will rub some the wrong way, questioning the glorification of gunpowder as yet another scar on the already mottled match-up between the media and society. Even worse, they will point to adolescents, already ripe with retrograde notions of right and wrong via videogames, and vilify both the messenger and the missive. But sometimes, all we ADULTS want is cinematic junk food, and Shoot ‘Em Up is definitely more filling than equal entries like Smokin’ Aces, The Marine, or Crank.


In fact, if you’re looking for the culmination of the last two decades in filmmaking, if you need a movie that provides nothing but hair trigger pop shots, if your standard action movie is just too slack paced and remedial for your Red Bulled synapses, Michael Davis’s deconstructionist marvel will fuel inject your fun factors in quick order. It’s rare when a movie can elevate both your blood pressure and belief in the artform, but Shoot ‘Em Up definitely deserves such recognition. It’s not a full blown masterpiece, or something that will stand the test of time, but for what audiences are looking for in 2007, it will fit the bill with ballistics to spare.



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