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by Bill Gibron

8 May 2008

David Mamet - a name that means theater at its very best. With such plays as Sexual Perversity in Chicago, American Buffalo, and Glengarry Glen Ross, he has literally helped the arcane aesthetics of the stage grow up and mature. With dialogue that crackles with witty profaneness and a keen ear for newfound colloquialism, his efforts are usually a feast for the ear, and the brain. And now, apparently, it’s time to address the brawn - at least, when it comes to his work behind the camera. As a director, Mamet has given us such complex fare as House of Games, Homicide, and Spartan. None would be considered films of far thinking physicality. His latest endeavor, Redbelt, juxtaposes Asian codes of honor and duty with the growing phenomenon of mixed martial arts. It makes for a sometimes sloppy combo.

Mike Terry is a jujitsu instructor who specializes in his own take on the Brazilian form of the art. Noble to a fault, his business is failing, partly because he views his teaching to be more about life lessons than money made. Of course, his fashion designer wife sees things differently. She is sick of being strapped for cash and turning to her family - part of the professional extreme fighting circuit locally - for loans. One night, Mike helps aging Hollywood star Chet Frank fend off a group of attackers. Suddenly, he’s a possible part of show business, with a producer interested in buying in to his novel competition concept. Mike’s wife Sonya then borrows $30K from a loan shark to help Chet’s wife stock her boutique shelves. A misunderstanding leads to a tiff, and soon the debt is being called in. Mike has no choice but to enter the big fight, hoping he can show everyone the value in what he believes in while paying off the marker. 

If there’s one thing Redbelt isn’t lacking, it’s plot. Mamet, known for his knotty narratives, literally overloads this film with more twists and turns than a Rocky Mountain roadway. Just when you think he can’t plow more storylines into his situations, the slightly bloated script finds room for five or six more. This doesn’t detract from the movie’s many charms, nor does it destroy the excellent performances overall. But when you, as an audience member, require a firm handle on what’s happening as a mandate for enjoying an already multifaceted story, being constantly sideswiped by more narrative is rather disconcerting. By the time we’ve been introduced to the lawyer with a past, the mobster with a decent heart, and the entire MMA universe, we’re woozy from all the overtures. And, of course, Mamet isn’t done misdirecting us.

Luckily, we enjoy the subterfuge, up to a point. Redbelt languishes over scenes of simmering rage, people loaded with pent up anger waiting for the right moment to strike out and make others suffer. The two or three fight scenes are sensational, but Mamet isn’t out to make a thinking man’s action flick. Instead, he hopes to use the brutality of the sport to underline the Zen within the discipline. He gives this job to actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, and he couldn’t have made a better choice. Body primed to play the part, and demeanor indicating a level of philosophical calm that’s almost impossible to illustrate visually, he gives a stirring, commanding turn. As Mike Terry, Ejiofor is required to be both hero and chump, vindicator and victim. He manages each move with wonderfully understated grace.

Equally compelling is the usually middling Tim Allen. Playing an egotistical superstar whose alcohol fueled folly gets Mike in trouble - and then in touch with Hollywood - there’s a real arrogance to his slightly paunchy persona. Other standouts in the cast include Ricky Jay as bad guy Marty Brown, ex-boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini as George the stunt coordinator, and David Paymer as bookie/loan shark Ritchie. Of course, there are some weak links as well, characters that come across as half shaped and ill-advised. Emily Mortimer’s shaky attorney has more personality quirks than a room full of theater majors, and Alice Braga can’t keep her put-upon spouse from being anything but a shrew. Luckily, they represent the only misgivings in what is a uniformly fine company. 

Mamet’s script is no slouch, either. Again, it contains way too much plot for its own good, but a least the writer gives his characters some wonderful lines to speak. While Ejiofor occasionally sounds like a shaman in overdrive, there is a great deal of meaning in his mantras. Equally effective are the many “this is how the real world works” rants coming at Mike from all sides. Sure, all the ‘duty to the academy’ stuff can be a drag, but we enjoy the sentiment anyway. Indeed, much of Redbelt‘s success stems from how easily we forget Mamet’s convolutions and get caught up in the situations. This is a movie that actually works better in its individual moments than as an overall effort. Even the mandatory fisticuffs seem welded on from somewhere else.

Of course, no one expects the mind behind Speed-the-Plow to totally abandon his artistic intentions, and he wasn’t about to make the kind of popcorn fluff the summer season thrives on. But somewhere in Redbelt‘s running time is a mean, lean extreme fighting machine desperate to get out of all the metaphors and machinations. Mamet can be faulted for falling back into puzzle box mode. It’s what made his first films such tight genre gems. Here, there’s a feeling that some of the layers are illegitimate, added to make the butt kicking more palatable to a non-six pack crowd. There is no doubt that this writer suggests the literary art at its best. Redbelt may not be representative, but it sure does satisfy at times

by Bill Gibron

8 May 2008

Aging in America is its own prison, a metaphysical place where family members forget their loved ones because the stench of mortality is too great to bear. Even worse, because of horrific diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, the elderly are viewed moreover as ticking time bombs, burdens placed on relatives for reasons that are uncomfortable and unavoidable. It may seem like a trap, but the prison is more than reciprocal. So how refreshing is it to see a group of septa- and octogenarians expressing themselves in song as part of the community chorus. Even better, these good timing geezers use The Ramones, David Bowie, and Sonic Youth, as points of aural reference.

Thus we have the set up for the fantastic feel good documentary, Young@Heart. Director Stephen Walker chronicles the preparations by the titular Massachusetts based choral for their latest world tour (that’s right - WORLD tour), using the various members as a starting point toward a greater understanding of how we age. From the moment we see Eileen Hall onstage, her bawdy British pepper-pottiness caressing the lyrics to the Clash classic “Should I Stay or Should I Go”, we know the juxtaposition of song to senior will be part of this movie’s main modus. It continues as various others wrestle with James Brown’s “I Feel Good”, and the Talking Heads “Life During Wartime”

And for the most part, we don’t really want much more. The rehearsal material is so warming, so undeniably uplifting and joyful that we need the occasional (and because of the subject matter, unavoidable) tragedy to keep us grounded. Since we get to know many of the faces here, their voices giving way to backstories loaded with compelling history, the pain we feel is as pure as the passion these oldsters have for performing. One of the most intriguing scenes in the entire film shows Young@Heart overseer Bob Cilman growing tired of missed lyrics and off beat stumbles. The moment he threatens to cancel the tune, the entire chorus responds. Give them a chance, they chime in, they’ll figure it out. Watching them prove him wrong (or right) symbolizes everything that makes this movie so special.

There are other sentimental set-pieces as well, moments director Walker knows will leave the audience grasping for the nearest pile of handkerchiefs. When the group is invited to serenade a group of local prisoners, their jailhouse rendition of “Forever Young” is just devastating. Equally compelling is Hall, in her mid 90s, roaming the lobby of her nursing home as she prepares to leave for a gig. Given her own key by the facility, she’s like a breath of recognizable life in an institutional situation sadly lacking same. Of course, the entire narrative revolves around the return of Fred Knittle and Bob Salvini, retired ex-participants. Both stricken with serious illness, they want to celebrate their friendship and time in Young@Heart with a dynamic duet of the Coldplay song “Fix You”.

Though we’re hopeful that the men can pull this off (Knittle, while more or less immobile, seems far more capable), there’s an aura of finality that washes over the entire proceedings, making this documentary far more powerful on a personal level. Something similar happens with Joe Benoit, a World War II vet who has used up eight and a half of his cat-like nine lives. Because of the reality of what Young@Heart stands for (these are people solidly in their 70s and 80s), we know that death is always around the corner. But their undying spirit, in combination with the timelessness of some great music, makes it hard for us to fathom - or face - their impending transience.

There are a few gaffs along the way, times when Walker should have pulled back on the ‘cute old coots’ conceit. Additionally, Cilman gets way to much screen time considering what he contributes overall. Sure, he’s called a task master and a hard to please perfectionist, but all of that washes away the second his participants charge up the scales. There’s a tiny bit of stage mother in the man, someone looking to parlay the success of someone else into his own personal import, but it’s a minor expression at best. Instead, what Walker does deliver is scene after scene of sound as celebration, people at the end of their allotted time taking one last drink from a melodious fountain of youth before shuffling off forever.

True, we really don’t get to know these people beyond a certain shorthand sketch (Joe - great singer, Fred - funnyman cut up), and when death finally does visit the group, it’s handled in an almost perfunctory, matter of fact dullness. Or it might just play this way since we want each and every member of Young@Heart celebrated like the hero or heroine that they are. It’s why Knittle’s work with the Coldplay tune becomes a heart-wrenching masterwork, a brilliant combination of music, musician, and meaning. The auditory stars rarely align like this, but when they do, the results are rapturous.

While those in the chorus’ senior citizen demographic might not appreciate how prescient Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia” sounds coming out of a pair of aged old biddies, and won’t see the irony in a group of curmudgeons warbling “Staying Alive”,  Young@Heart - the movie and the membership - understand exactly what they are doing. While it’s clear we’re looking at another stellar documentary destined to be left out come Oscar time (Walker began this project, and broadcast part of it, as a BBC television special in 2004), make no mistake: Young@Heart is a classic. May we all live to be so youthful in spirit and soul.

by Bill Gibron

8 May 2008

Candy colored dreams descend down physically impossible angles, shapes shifting across plains of apparent non-reality while simultaneously simulating real life. Cartoon icons come to life, reduced to clichéd contradictions in a classic tale of good vs. very, very evil. Family is the focus, but not to the detriment of all that effervescent eye candy, and modern technology never trumps the skills inherent in masterful moviemaking. This is what the Wachowski Brothers have created with their homage to the classic ‘60s anime series. Speed Racer is that kind of a thesaurus level triumph. One needs an extended vocabulary to work out the descriptions necessary to explain this amazing movie.

Ever since he was a small boy, young Speed Racer idolized his brother Rex. When tragedy takes him away, the lad is determined to follow in his footsteps. Speed has always had driving in his blood, and as he matures, he becomes one of the sport’s best. Unfortunately, racing is controlled by corrupt corporate conglomerates with connections to mobsters and other shady characters. When Speed wins an important contest, he is approached by the owner of Royalton Industries, who makes him a sizable offer to join his team. Naturally, family comes first, and Speed would never leave his home crew - Mom, Pops, mechanic Sparky, little brother Spritle, or pet monkey Chim-Chim. He also has a thing for gal pal Trixie. Naturally, rejecting Royalton causes a rift which threatens to bring down the entire Racer team.

Forget all the curmudgeonly criticism that argues for this movie’s optical overload capacity - Speed Racer is a modern masterpiece, no two ways about it. Andy and Larry Wachowski have succeeded in creating a living, breathing comic book, complete with nods to psychedelic pen and ink designs, four panel editing, and overflowing visual pizzazz. Anyone who can’t see the brilliant blockbuster fun the brothers are having with this material has spent one too many hours staring at gloomy independent dramas about siblings struggling to deal with their dysfunctionality. This is filmmaking as fireworks, directorial innovation that, while not as media morphing as The Matrix, stands as the highest level of celluloid creativity. From races that routinely flaunt the rules of realism to a story that stresses the noble over the nasty, Speed Racer soars to the highest levels of movie magic.

It all begins with the actors, and the Wachowskis once again choose wisely. John Goodman and Susan Sarandon make an excellent Mom and Pops Racer, their wholesome genuineness beaming from every homespun word of wisdom they proffer. Equally endearing are Speed’s baby brother and his pet chimp. Spritle and Chim-Chim are characters clearly aimed at the PG-oriented audience this movie is geared toward, but unlike other examples of obvious demographic pandering, they play perfectly - and hilariously - to all ages. Christina Ricci’s raucous Trixie is like a hooker with a heart of gold, except here she’s selling self-esteem and girl power. Supporting players are well padded with sensational turns by Matthew Fox (as Racer X), Roger Allam (as main villain Mr. Royalton) and Benno Fürmann as the iconic Inspector Detector.

That just leaves Speed himself, and Emile Hirsch successfully sells what has to be the hardest role in a summer 2008 popcorn romp. Instead of being ironic and self-effacing, our hero is just that - a carbon copy cutout of what Joseph Campbell proudly proclaims. Hirsch has to balance determination with humility, never crossing over to the dark side to circumvent his friends and family. We also have to believe in Speed’s ability, and this is one actor who understands the greenscreen dynamic instinctually. The concentration and determination we read in Speed’s eyes is part of what made the cartoon so enduring, and it really rewards this movie as well.

Of course, the Wachowskis step up and deliver on the promise they provided throughout several trips through a virtual reality revolution. The races are ridiculous, giddy examples of vehicles as veiled gladiators. Drivers don’t merely careen around a course. Instead, they jump, dive, clash and crash, using secret gizmos and good old fashioned strategy to better their rivals. Some of the sequences are so jaw droppingly deranged that we wonder how the filmmakers made them viable. Imagine The Phantom Menace‘s pod race amped up by several thousand (and sans Lucas’ sloppy prequel predictability) and you’ve got a tiny inkling of what Speed Racer accomplishes, action-wise.

But the smaller moments here work equally well. When Racer X, determined to help Speed uncover the corruption in the sport, removes his mask to answer a movie long query, there is real emotion behind the reveal. Similarly, when the Racer family is inundated with calamity following Speed’s rejection of Royalton, we sense the heartache and pain. For all its whirlwind flash and CG stuntpulling, Speed Racer is really a movie about relationships and the ties that bind. Even as the Wachowskis pull another physics defying mindblower out of their fevered brains, we connect with the Racer clan and want to see them succeed at all costs.

Anyone predisposed to hate what the brothers are attempting clearly won’t cotton to the sugar spun splendor offered here (must be hard to hold all that Matrix sequel hate inside you, huh?). And there will be so called professionals who balk at all the primary color hoopla and prove just how sour their cultural disposition has become. Sometimes, a movie needs to be nothing more than a throwback to a simpler, more entertaining time. Speed Racer is that, and then some. It’s the added emotional element that turns it into something close to timeless. 

 

by Rob Horning

8 May 2008

For a long time, I have wanted to read Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place, a notoriously lascivious book about the seamy secrets of a small town in New England. This grand ambition of mine was fueled not only by my academic interest in “commercial novels” (i.e., novels interesting primarily for their commercial success) and my fascination with Twin Peaks, which seems deeply influenced by Peyton Place‘s core idea, but by the line on the cover of the edition I bought at an Astoria junk store: “The best-selling paperback novel of all time.” Surely something so popular would yield some sort of insight into the American reading public and the nature of the mass market of the Eisenhower era. A 2006 Vanity Fair article about Metalious’s own sordid life offered this about the novel:

Fifty years ago, Peyton Place helped create the contemporary notion of “buzz,” indicted 1950s morality, and recast the concept of the soap opera, all in one big, purple-prosed book. It would spawn a sequel, a smash film nominated for nine Academy Awards, and television’s first prime-time serial. A week before it hit bookstores, on September 24, 1956, it was already on the best-seller list, where it would remain for half a year. In its first month, it sold more than 100,000 copies, at a time when the average first novel sold 3,000, total. It would go on to sell 12 million more, becoming one of the most widely read novels ever published. During its heyday, it was estimated that one in 29 Americans had bought it—legions of them hiding it in drawers and closets due to its salacious content.

Clearly it was widely bought, but whether it was widely read can’t really be known. Having just slogged through it, I figure most readers skimmed it, looking for plot points and dirty parts.

On the whole, the book is shoddily constructed, veering from one “shocking” event to another with apparently only a sense of how outraged people would be guiding Metalious as she proceeded. This leads her to be radically frank for her era about the reality of familial sexual abuse, but it also leads her to create such ludicrous scenes as the one where a minor character loses an arm in a carnival-ride catastrophe. Though it seems now to be populated with Main Street caricatures, Peyton Place was heralded at the time as an expose of small-town hypocrisy and breakthrough for freedom of expression about the kinds of problems that were probably pretty endemic in town life, and probably still are. And some scholars regard it as a feminist work, probably for its handling of female sexuality (though like most romances, the only woman who has a positive sexual experience has to basically be forced into it, have her animal nature awakened by a brute show of force by her mate) and its efforts to call into question domestic pieties. Mostly, though, the book seems animated by the spiteful sullenness that marks the main character, wanna-be writer Allison McKenzie, who, interestingly enough, in the novel mines small town life for material for her own frank stories. It’s like the novel depicts its own creation within itself, so maybe it’s a self-mythologizing postmodern classic. It is certainly chaotic enough to be postmodern, shifting registers and genres and eschewing careful development of characters in favor of lurching from mini-plot to mini-plot haphazardly like the soap operas that would come in its wake. No effort is made to explain events; they happen simply because of an evil destiny settling on the land. Unlike Twin Peaks, which with its Lodges and feints at mysticism, tried to cook up a cosmogony to explain why events unfolded and where the submerged small town evil came from, Peyton Place revels in the unexplained evil, takes superstitions as given, and offers by way of spiritual subplots an unintegrated story about a Congregationalist minister who decides to become a Catholic basically because he is Irish.

If anything unifies the hodge-podge of the novel’s incidents other than their calculated potential to outrage, offend, and titillate, it’s the development of Allison as writer, with her ethical quandaries worked out by the novel’s form as it unfolds: basically the novel’s structure seems to be in dialogue with Allison, showing her that the way to get a novel written is simply build every chapter around some secret someone wouldn’t want told, whether it’s secret drinking parties, oral sex, or a mother’s getting off on enemas and breast feeding. Secrecy becomes the essence of what makes for plot, all other possibilities for development are foreclosed—so there is no bildungsroman organized around Allison, or Selena Cross, the working-class girl “from the shacks.” Instead, the novel just jumps in forward in time at arbitrary intervals and makes no effort to develop themes linking the two characters’ development at any but the superficial ways their lives intersect. We can do the work on the novel’s behalf and come up with ingenious comparisions, but that is not what was expected of the original audience for this book. That audience, as the marketing campaign detailed in the Vanity Fair article suggests, was meant to be salaciously enticed and afforded a delicious chance to wax righteously indignant while thrilling at the sexual perversity.

So the whole novel feels very cynical, mainly because it is prurient but also because none of the characters are very sympathetic from a contemporary perspective. When they are not mouthing some hypocritical idea about not wanting to be talked about, they seem like puppets contrived to act out preconceived sensationalistic tidbits. Because Metalious seems to have decided from the outset that readers would only be interested in juicy scenes full of the seemingly unsayable, she makes little attempt to supply anything else, aside from the odd awkward poetic passage.

The book pretends to reveal the secrets of small-town life as if these reflect some core truth, as if these would dispel hypocrisy, but instead it partakes of that same hypocritical spirit, the refusal to grant people their private lives, and it comes across as a gossip dump, with the effect of making the story feel unverified and exaggerated despite purporting to be fiction (and despite the fact that much of it was drawn from Metalious’s life and her home town of Gilmanton, New Hampshire, apparently). And though the characters are obsessed with being talked about, as if this were their worst fear, it reads more as though its what give them an identity—the fear of being watched seems more like a secret wish to be noticed. The idea that you become an indvidual when you are noticed, hailed by your society in the way it has settled on offering recognition—à la Althusser’s argument in the “Ideological State Apparatuses” essay: “Ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: ‘Hey, you there!’ “) It’s not the police who do the interpellating in Peyton Place, it’s the town’s network of gossip, occasionally dramatized by the chattering in the diner or on the street by various yokel characters, or by Metalious simply attributing certain views to the town, as if it were a character itself. It’s out there, giving each person it notices some internal coherence in its eyes.

One can construct noble reasons for Peyton Place to have existed and become popular after the fact; one can argue for a liberating effect it may have had on its female readership and so on, but that requires a blinkered reading of the text. In the novel itself, the most palpable motive for what it exposes about small-town life is that it will boost the book’s sales, the lesson Allison seems to learn in the book and a lesson proven by the novel’s marketing campaign and its subsequent success across several media platforms. For though Peyton Place seems like a critique of small-town gossip’s regulatory function of enforcing a moral and traditional code of conduct—and it certainly indulges the juvenile fantasy of being the herald who broadcasts all the secrets that structure the repressive code and thus brings down the walls of Jericho—the novel is just that gossip served up for consumption by strangers with nothing invested in the code. It doesn’t destroy the code’s power, it just amplifies the code so it has power on a bigger stage, transforming it at the same time so that its prohibitions become provocations. On the small town level, gossip is like a confession carried out by townsfolk that serves to solidify the individuality of its subjects, but on the level that Peyton Place as media phenomenon promises, being talked about just makes one famous and interesting, to those who have no reason to want to see you disciplined according to the local mores.

Thus the novel supports an ideological framework that has become omnipresent now: that you want to be gossiped about, as that is what makes you exist in a way that transcends friends and family. Being the subject of gossip is the pathway to fame, and media creations like Peyton Place will spread your notoriety. The novel can be seen as a guide to what sorts of behavior counts as exciting scandal, thus updating for the mid-20th century the information supplied by scandal novels since the invention of the genre. Peyton Place is a bourgeois version of Delarivière Manley‘s romans à clef from the early 18th century that tracked and popularized aristocratic scandals of the time, helping forge the very definition of what was to be considered scandalous. (Incidentally, her books—The New Atalantis is the most notable—are as unreadable as Metalious’s.) Being talked about no longer individuates one simply to impose disciplinary control, instead it calls one into being for a mass audience, on a level where personality traits are irrelevant compared with the sensations one can transmit vicariously for captivated observers. In other words, one goes from being a shameful internal exile in a small town to becoming a celebrity who is beyond moral judgment.

The lesson of Peyton Place as a phenomenon is that on the level of mass popularity, being interesting trumps being moral. And a new set of values is born that applies not to communities (and is unenforceable by communities) but instead applied to individuals participating in a mass culture that isolates them from community with a promise of larger-than-life notoriety. Thus “being a slut” is bad when it is restricted to the eyes of your neighbors; on The Real World though, it is awesome. What makes you scandalous locally makes you fabulous nationally. Hence the impulse to disclose all sorts of embarrassing personal incidents are on TV that one would other wise keep private. And when they are disclosed, they are shared in the manner that Peyton Place exposes them, with a ruthless bluntness that presumes that secrets are always best exposed, for everyone’s sake—that anything less than full disclosure an exposure is some form of prudish hypocrisy. The shallowness of the novel’s characters is now the shallowness we aspire to, for it seems to promise the most widespread recognition we can hope for. We can spread ourselves thin across all the media available for us to disseminate our image and maybe if we are lucky disappear into a sublime ubiquity.

by Nikki Tranter

8 May 2008

At least once a week in the video store, a high school kid will ask me this question:

“Have you got The Accidental Tourist?”

It’s gotten so that I sigh as I tell them we don’t. “But I can get it for you,” I say. “It’ll take a week.”

“No,” they say, sprightly and carefree. “I need it for an exam tomorrow.”

Ooh. I wonder if they can actually hear my soul snapping in two?

And then they ask for phone credit.

If it’s not The Accidental Tourist, it’s Of Mice and Men or To Kill a Mockingbird or I’m Not Scared. And it’s not all high school kids—a university student asked me for Tom and Viv a few weeks back and outright admitted she “couldn’t be bothered reading it”. That’s the same excuse I got from one of my own employees who wanted a copy of The 39 Steps. He didn’t want to read the screenplay, which was required at his school prior to viewing an updated version of the stage show.

It happens all the time. So, I was moved ever so slightly today when I saw this article. According to a study, kids somewhere in the world do actually enjoy reading. Dr. Seuss, it would seem, is the most popular choice among young readers. 

I guess that means I don’t have to fear a first-grader coming up to me and asking for the DVD of Horton Hears a Who!, because he just can’t be bothered ... well, you know.

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