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by Bill Gibron

16 Oct 2008

How did it happen? How did a man with limited governing skills, a track record of career calamities, a laundry list of personality (and parental) issues, and a jerryrigged jailhouse conversion to Jesus end up as President of the United States? Was Al Gore that dull, John Kerry that tenuous? What, exactly, about the son of a former failed Commander in Chief indicated he was ready for the job, or should have his Constitutional contract renewed for another four years? Were we in need of some post-Clinton jingoism, or a bugf*ck shoulder to shiver on when the bad guys showed up to terrorize us?

Perhaps the bigger question is why? Why a war in Iraq? Why a pro-corporate stance that seems destined to lead to one of the longest and deepest recessions in US history? Why the lack of an exit strategy, a balanced domestic and foreign policy approach, or a smidgen of basic humanity in all the pro-fear, anti-dissent smirks? George W. Bush may not be the worst President in the history of the US, though he seems to be willing to fight for said slot. And outside of his cavalcade of crazed advisors, one senses he may be a decent enough man. This is the angle taken by Oliver Stone in his sensational example of present political theater, W. Turns out, the answers to any and all these questions have their roots in family, not party affiliation.

From the beginning, the young George W. Bush had big shoes to fill. His grandfather was Senator Prescott Bush, and his father was a war hero, a millionaire oil baron, and an eventual Washington mainstay. It was therefore never a question of “if” the boy would follow in his dad’s demanding footsteps, but “how”. This is the dilemma Stone wants to explore, the rise of an expected prodigy that has little ability or capability of complementing his establishing legacy. As the current incarnation of W. discusses the possibility of war with his A-list brain trust, we see the portrait of a disappointment as a young man. Stone avoids certain situations - there’s no cocaine use, National Guard controversy, or in-depth analysis of his bad business acumen. Instead, like a grand opera or studio era Hollywood epic, we watch a boy grow up to be a very incomplete man.

When W. does pop psychology - or perhaps a better term would be “Popi” psychology, considering how much screen time Bush Sr. gets in his son’s story - it’s superficial but fun. Clearly, the standard eldest boy issues apply, as confrontation after confrontation confirms the father/son disconnect. Even better, whenever W. does something and succeeds (as when he wins the Governorship of Texas), all Bush Sr. can think of is how disappointed he is for Jeb (who ran in Florida at the same time, and lost). We get it early and often here - nothing W. did was ever good enough. But then Stone stops feeling sorry for the man and starts explaining the mania behind the mess we are in, and suddenly, the gloves come off.

This is one of the few movies that accurately explains post-modern politics, that is, the notion that a President is only as powerful (or persuasive, or important) as the people he has in his pool of advisors. From Toby Jones’ dead-on Karl Rove to Richard Dreyfus’ bald-headed devil Dick Cheney, we see how a simple ideologue became a crackpot demagogue. With Thandie Newton’s perfectly pinched Condolezza Rice and Scott Glen’s clueless Donald Rumsfeld rounding out the reactionaries, it’s crystal why the US is now a country unnaturally divided. Stone must absolutely adore Colin Powell, however. As flawlessly executed by Jeffrey Wright, the ex-Bush confidant is offered up as the only rationale voice in a din filled with self-satisfied fools.

One of the best things about W. is the casting. Watching dozens of high profile performers sinking their teeth into these roles satisfies on a cinematic level almost unimaginable. Whether its Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush, dressing down her cowardly son, or an almost unrecognizable Stacey Keach as smooth talking evangelist Earle Hudd, we are in wonder of the talent on display. Everyone brings their best to the project, but no one is better than Josh Brolin as the flawed Defender of the Free World. You can see the gears clicking off in W.‘s mind the minute he hears something he likes, and the No Country for Old Men star has no problem allowing that inspiration to drive him to distraction. W. is seen as someone who means well, but often finds the wrong path for achieving said aims - or lets others lead him down said boneheaded boulevard.

Brolin does something that’s more sly than a mere impersonation. He takes the elements of the Bush that we know best and finds a way to make them a truly organic part of who the man is. The out of touch reactions to simply suggestions? Something he’s been doing since his time at Yale. The angry confrontations over small, insignificant issues? A reminder of the living room clashes he had with his dad? The smooth talking slickness that resembles a car salesman shilling white slaves? His form of man of the people seduction, from the moment he met his wife to be Laura (a wonderful Elizabeth Banks) to the preparations for his Presidential campaign. Everything we’ve grown to love, hate, admire, and despise about the man is on display and defined.

Of course, this doesn’t mean everyone will enjoy this experience. Revisiting a leader who lost his way early and often, who seemingly betrayed the tenets of his party to protect the powerbase of a bunch of cronies who couldn’t care less about the smaller issues of the nation, may seem like two hours too much for some. No matter the amazing performances, the pain of reality is just too strong. Similarly, Stone doesn’t go for the knockout punch. He’s not out to debate the Bush mythos, but fill in some of the personality gaps. Clearly, the men and women behind the crown get the kind of dressing down reversed for war criminals and sleazy sycophants, but not the king himself. Stone may stray into territories of sympathy, but W. never excuses the man, just explains him…sort of.

All of which winds up as devastating cinematic strutting. W. is evocative and aggravating, as open with its ideas as it is insular about the issues that matter most. It’s the kind of ambiguous account that reflects an audience’s reaction as much as a filmmaker’s feelings. When it was announced, many familiar with Stone’s motives imagined a fiery satire, a Dr. Strangelove for the Patriot Act era. Instead, this is genealogy gone gangrenous, a look at royals in ruins similar to the predictable period pieces that come out of England every now and again. W. may not deliver the answers to the many questions the current administration stirs, but it’s so much fun following along Bush’s bell curve that we can’t help but enjoy the downward spiral. Oliver Stone has fashioned a fair and balanced distillation of how George W. Bush became President. The ‘why’ one imagines, will have to wait for another day.

by Rob Horning

16 Oct 2008

Growing up, I was often guilty of using the word gay as a synonym for lame, a bad habit for which there is no excuse. So I’m glad to learn, via AdFreak, that the Ad Council is making public-service spots that point out the unacceptability of the pejorative gay. I don’t think that the word can really function as a compliment either; ideally it works as a neutral, descriptive word, typically applied to people. But can it be used also to suggest certain qualities in certain species of pop culture? I’ve said that Magnetic Fields 69 Love Songs is gay, and in a non-pejorative sense (though I could understand why my interlocutors would be confused, in that I also think it’s annoying), but I can’t quite articulate what I even mean by that—not that it is made for and by gay people; not that it’s conforming to certain gay stereotypes, as in being campy or flamboyant; not that it addresses gay themes in the way that say, the unequivocably gay Bronski Beat did. Coldplay seems “gay” to me in the same way, and John Mayer too. The TV show Three and a Half Men. I’m probably not making any sense. Do these things share some ineffable quality that can be called “gay” or am I merely transferring the negative valence of homophobia to pop culture that is lousy? (Also, the uncertain status of the word suck needs to be reconsidered in this context as well.)

by David Pullar

16 Oct 2008

It’s strange to believe that in these days of the twenty-four hour news cycle a minor scandal can be caused by something as old-fashioned as a book.  But this is exactly what has happened in the latest chapter of the Bill Henson case.

If you haven’t followed the story, a Sydney exhibition by the photographer Bill Henson was shut down in May following a complaint about the content of the show—namely nude photos of pre-pubescent boys and girls.  There was moral outrage from the tabloids, condemnation from the Prime Minister and defensiveness from the arts community.

There was a lot of discussion about the boundaries of art and pornography, none of it very edifying, but it did remind us of the strong differences in outlook between “middle” Australia and the creative community.  One side thought that there were few, if any, circumstances when depicting naked children was appropriate—parent’s bathtime photos of their own children being about the limit.  The other caught a whiff of censorship and feared a return to the 1950s or worse.

As things played out, Henson was investigated but not charged with any offence.  Things were quiet for several months, then it all blew up again with the publication of excerpts from David Marr’s The Henson Case.

Marr is a prominent journalist and intellectual.  His treatment of Henson was sympathetic and presumably he intended to defend Henson from the accusation that he was…well, a bit of a perv.  The problem was that the book included a brief reference to Henson visiting a Melbourne school to identify possible subjects—a red rag to the mainstream media bull if ever there was one.

The big question is what Marr intended by relaying the story.  Was he merely following a good reporter’s commitment to disclosure?  Or was he oblivious to the likely reaction?

The second option seems particularly unlikely, given Marr’s familiarity with the best and the worst of the Australian media, but perhaps it’s closest to the truth.

If the Henson case has revealed anything, it’s that Australian public dialogue is hampered by a lack of mutual understanding.  The “truth” seems to self-evident to most people—but that “truth” is different depending on a number of factors.  There seems to be genuine bafflement by the Henson supporters that the majority fail to understand the merit of Henson’s work.

Naturally it’s the job of artists to challenge the status quo and show us new perspectives, but hopefully the arts community will stop being so surprised when the public don’t take too kindly to what they see and hear.

by L.B. Jeffries

15 Oct 2008

One of the interesting problems that the entertainment industry must confront in an economic downturn is finding a way to turn consumers onto new characters and games. In regards to video games, people are more inclined to spend money on sequels and games they’re already familiar with because of the supposed quality assurance. At the very least, even remaking an old classic banks on people’s nostalgia and will score a few buys. So D3 Publisher’s ad team at Maverick Public Relations had a major problem when they were handed a brand new, original Intellectual Property (IP) involving a protagonist named Matt Hazard. It involved guns, grizzled space marines, and most dangerous of all, comedy. Naturally, since they didn’t have any nostalgia or pre-existing fan base to work with, they did the next best thing and made one up.

  Starting with a satirical fan site, the ad team created a long and sordid history for the Matt Hazard franchise. What began as a successful 8-bit Arcade game led to success on the consoles, 3D shooters, and adventure games. Alas, the IP had its weak moments as well such as creating bizarre spin-offs like a go-kart game and replacing an old game with Matt Hazard images. Everything from Super Mario Brothers to Duke Nukem get a smart-ass nod in the long catalogue of games such as ‘A Fistful of Hazard’, ‘Goonzilla Versus Matt Hazard’, and ‘Choking Hazard: Candy Gramm’. The website has been followed up by a mock blog created by a developer ranting about the industry and the downfall of the Matt Hazard IP he worked so hard on. It also contains the ominous screenshots of a new game that will redeem the doomed franchise. A recent Youtube video, featuring an interview with Matt claiming he nailed Lara Croft, ditches any doubts about how far they’re willing to take the joke. As commenter Lord Andrew notes on one website, “Oh man, this **** is awesome. Bring on the Hazard!” For a good interview with the ad team, check here.

I don’t normally take much interest in games that aren’t available yet just because we all know the only true test for a video game is playing it yourself. Still, one has to pause and admire a good advertisement sometimes. Given the economy and forecasts for doom & gloom in the months ahead, perhaps the ad team realized that people could use something far more important than a fake history or familiar franchise. They could use a good laugh.

by Bill Gibron

15 Oct 2008

Though fans love to toss them into the same supernatural boat, Clive Barker and his main inspiration Stephen King have very little in common. The man from Maine works in a traditional terror territory while Barker believes in the mantra “blood, beasts, and bedevilment.” King claims the rank of best selling genre author of all time. The brazen Brit’s resume is a little less successful. So it’s safe to say that in meaningful macabre circles, they are as different as Bram Stoker and Anne Rice. But they do share one thing in common. Each has had incredibly successful novels and/or short stories destroyed by hackneyed Hollywood film adaptations. However, in the case of Midnight Meat Train, Barker finally sees his ideas wholly realized in brilliant fashion.

Though he’s very good at what he does, photographer Leon Kauffman is barely making a living. His girlfriend Maya believes in him, but that doesn’t help to pay the bills. So when his pal Jurgis gets him an interview with influential gallery owner Susan Hoff, Leon thinks his ship has finally come it. But the shrewd businesswoman sees nothing that interests her - that is, until she comes across as particularly grim photo. She suggests Leon head back onto the streets and capture the real city - mean, vicious, unrepentant. During one of his night shoots, our hero comes across a brawny man in a well tailored suit. Following him around, Leon soon discovers that he may be a serial killer. Intrigued by the motive behind this butcher, he continues his surveillance. What Leon doesn’t know is that he is putting his life, and the life of everyone he knows, in mortal danger.

Midnight Meat Train can best be described as splatter noir. It’s Fritz Lang by way of an abattoir. It is part genius, part genre excess, with enough inventive gore to make even the most seasoned lover of arterial spray sit up and take notice. Thanks to the visionary work by Versus helmer Ryuhei Kitamura and the most unsettling kills this side of Eli Roth, we get a true gut wrenching experience. This is a movie that grabs you by the errant body parts and literally rips you apart. Kitamura is a big fan of over the top violence - his infamous zombie mob movie from 2000 is second only to Riki-O: Story of Ricky in individual offal spilled. But in Midnight Meat Train, he makes every death count. By keeping the camera locked on the victim as eyes fly out and faces crumble, he turns the cinematic threat intensity up to near apocalyptic levels.

It helps that he balances things out with a romantic subplot that’s deep with emotion. Actors Bradley Cooper and Leslie Bibb turn Leon and Maya into a couple you can root for. She only wants the best for him and he loves her unconditionally. Even when her beau goes bonkers and starts acting odd, she does nothing but support him. Some might question her dedication - she ends up putting herself right in harms way during a typical “what were they thinking” brand of inappropriate snooping - but even at the end, she’s determined to stand by her man. Cooper compliments this devotion nicely. His decent into obsession may seem abrupt, but a story element near the end may help explain the sudden shift.

But it is UK thug mug Vinnie Jones who steals the show as Mahogany, long pig butcher to…no, that would be spoiling things. Indeed, the famed onscreen heavy portrays someone so enigmatic, so full of secrets that part of the joy in Midnight Meat Train is uncovering all his character clues. As they fall into place, one by one, the portrait painted is unsettling indeed. In fact, the minute Jones is proven fallible, or even worse, human, we start to really hate him. Unlike other famed mass murderers, Kitamura and his writers aren’t out to make another Voorhees. Mahogany has a purpose, and you’re enjoyment of the movie in general just may turn on it.

In fact, the ending reveal is the make or break point for Midnight Meat Train. The explanation for all the deaths, the reason the cops don’t care, how one man manages to dispatch dozens of people without raising much of a stink is satisfying if slightly surreal. It does explain what Kitamura was doing with all those remarkable CG shots of subway trains careening down unearthly tracks, and it pays off in ways that are plausible. But horror fans are a notoriously persnickety bunch. Fail to fulfill your promise or try to trick them and they will laugh you out of the fright fraternity. But Midnight Meat Train does deliver. It may require a bit more of that patented suspension of dread disbelief, but thanks to the visionary behind the lens, we enjoy the deferment.

As usual, the studio behind the film unceremoniously dumped it on a few dozen “dollar theater” screens this past August - and this after touting it for months as some kind of macabre milestone. It just goes to show how marginalized and misunderstood the genre really is. Of course, the track record of the brain behind the bloodshed may have given some of the suits pause for concern. Ryuhei Kitamura is far from a household name, and Clive Barker may be a fascinating individual and celebrated writer, but as the foundation for a film, he has very limited appeal. Midnight Meat Train might have changed all that, had the fright community been given a chance to celebrate its paranormal panache. Sadly, it looks like DVD will have to save the day - which is typical for terror.

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