Sunday, February 9, 2014

"It’s called internal bleeding, fucker! And then you die!" The invasion of Boltie in James Gunn's meta-tastic SUPER

After the shit-monster invasion of “Slither”, it would seem the envelope of politicized outrage had been pushed as far as even extreme psychotronica fans might desire. But instead of getting more extreme, provocateur director James Gunn—now finishing “Guardians of the Galaxy”--got smarter with 2010’s “Super”. So smart he could create a superhero satire brisling with evangelical satire and punk-ass energy that pulls off the neat trick of being a Trojan Horse for the story of a seemingly secondary character.

That is, “Super” only seems to be the story of a loser fry cook Frank (Rainn Wilson) turned superpowerless superhero--the ‘Crimson Bolt ’. That the widespread critical dis that the Crimson Bolt aspect was one-note and bleh only stands if you think the film is about Wilson’s Crimson Bolt.

Luckily, it’s my stance that it is not the case. The Crimson Bolt is actually a blank page on which Gunn paints his true picture, that of the dynamic, full-character-arced, pants-pissingly hilarious story of Wilson’s side-kick, Boltie (Ellen Page, in a ridiculously go-for-it, sui generis performance.)

Okay, okay. So there are endless films where a secondary character steals the show. This is not that. In my reading—one supported by Gunn’s coherent, self-sustaining choices—it’s Boltie, and her normal self, ‘Libby’, who are the actual centers of this entirely extraordinary film.

We first meet Libby/Boltie after Frank 1. Loses his junkie girlfriend to a horrible dealer (Kevin Bacon, joyously over the top because he hasn’t yet signed to be in “The Following”, which will destroy his soul.)

2. Frank has his prayers answered by an Tentacle-God that slices off his skull and implants his naked brain with the idea of ‘social responsibility’.

3. Frank is awed by a Christianist TV superhero called The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion). Clearly, becoming a superhero—with its attendant thrills of idiocy, violence and fame--is the answer to…something.

But despite The Tentacle God and the The Holy Avenger, Frank is clueless about how to actually do anything.

For that, he needs the Keeper of the Gates of Wisdom, aka Libby (Page), a sexy, hyper-smart, hot comic book clerk, all words never seen before in one sentence until “Super”.

Libby advises on superhero tropes with a coiled, gonna-blow excitement that’s like the uranium to the dirty bomb of his revenge dreams.

Now clued in, he sews his pitiful red superhero suit. Thanks to Libby, he finds a weapon that’s all his own—a monkey wrench he beats people’s heads in with while screaming the tagline ““Shut up, crime!’’ (A problem with quiet criminals.)

Alas, he gets himself shot, so he drags himself to Libby’s house. She’s having a party full of upper middle class hipsters like you might see on “Girls” and making out with a guy you know has a band that sounds like Killers or Arcade Fire or even worse while squeezed into an Urban Outfitters or maybe Anthropologie designer sheath dress.

But when Frank spills that he’s the Crimson Bolt that’s been getting local news coverage, and when she sees the blood of his wound, she comes alive; Finally, something real! And violent! And comic-book-y!

She empties the house of these hipster whiners, and tends to Crimson’s wound. Not only does she promise to keep his secret, she decides to create a secret for herself.

She changes into her own superhero duds, a skin-tight lime green superhero number that shows off the muscles she doesn’t have. Frank is freaked. So being a girl, she goes to auto fallback mode: ‘sexy’.

She poses and self-caresses with all the sophistication of a teen that watches the CW for erotica tips. Sex unnerves Frank so she reverts to a full set of… high school calisthenics. Lunges, jumping jacks, jabs and bounces—Page is now like an insane terrier.

Frank gives in. She can be his side-kick. And her name will be…Boltie!

And so it is Boltie who decides on how to fight the scourge of Evil—by attacking a guy who keyed Libby’s car. Boltie is so hyped she almost crushes his face with a statue of a face.

Now that “Super” is moving towards really being about Boltie, we can think about essential things like ‘Fashion is always identity’, especially in superhero works.

Libby changes so easily into her Boltie identity because for her entire life she’s worn someone else’s identity pre-set—‘comic store casual’, ‘hipster-wear elegant’, ‘indie girl basic’. But as Boltie, the real Libby inside her can finally, with no caveats, manifest. Gunn’s most subversive angle is that Libby has no explicating superhero trauma. Unlike “Batman”, her suit isn’t a function of aberration, it’s the medium for a normal voice turned crazy by twenty-odd years of designer repression.

Once Libby tastes freedom as Boltie, there’s no going back.

She speeds a sedan into an actual bad guys’ thighs, joyously hooting, “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! That’s what you get for fucking with the Crimson Bolt and Boltie, you stupid cocksucker! Now your legs are gone! Ah, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!”

To a crook Crimson shot, she editorializes, “Oh, you too! It’s called internal bleeding, fucker! And then you die! Whoa! Woooo!”

Rainn Wilson tries valiantly not to break character as he attempts to dump Page--now completely off her rocker in full Boltie fettle—into the car’s backseat where she flails and hoots like some adorably super-hyper kid. Who just killed some people. In the name of fighting Evil. Woo hoo!

A digression: We love forgetting recent home-grown genocides and being unable to get over Übermensch fantasies of consequence-free urban-trashing, it's such a luxury! SUPER shrinks that all down to human size allegory that finds us all corrupt and maddened by the con of possibility, of being able to grab goodness by the throat and gagging it to give up the goods.

Of all the characters in “Super”, only Boltie is seething with life, is dynamic, in constant, core recognizable organic change, no matter how crazy the particulars of her situation. She calms down enough to negotiate a new eroticism based on her power and her place in her new world.

Like a soft conjurer, she asks Frank to think of their lives as comic books, and their moments together not fighting crime as “between the panels” where anything, anything, can happen. Boltie is transported by orgasm; Frank manages to not freak out.

And so she will have to be crushed while Frank will survive. And so “Super” critiques superhero conservatism via Libby’s girl-to-woman story that’s completely legible as such, which is why Boltie never descends into shtick and hijinks. To the very end, she’s rocketing to some higher power place as Gunn shows his political cards when that ascension is terminated bluntly in a very specific way.

Not only is Boltie killed in a firefight with Bacon’s goons, she’s killed in a very specific, grotesque way: shot in the head, with half her skull gone, squishy brains showing.

The shot is held so the parallel can’t be missed: When you’re Frank, a dude, your skull is removed and your brains graced by God. A woman? Your brains are bullet-squished. The squishiness links to another moist moment, when an intolerably horny Boltie rubs her crotch and tells Frank, “I’m all mushy”.

The idea of a wet vagina almost makes him puke. But now that she’s dead and really mushy, he can feel—meaning he can kill like a holy avenger.

But without Boltie, the film deflates and drags to its blah finale. We’re just too busy mourning the film’s star and all she celebrates.

*That she expresses her self in the language of violence is, I believe, part of her tragedy. Like Scorsese, Gunn is rubbing our faces in the awful things we want in our ‘entertainment’ and asking us to look at ourselves and, hopefully, feel at least a bit sickened at what we find. I like to believe that, had Boltie survived, she would have learned to calm the fuck down, come up with a code, or some other well-trod comic road to redemption.


Monday, November 19, 2012

Excuse--There are no *made*-old women in Paris (Seine dispatch 32)

When I was writing about how admirable it is in Parisian culture for agism not to demolish chic, that with no horrible self-destructive surgery involved, fashion and style is robustly open to women up to and including the 70s and beyond, my remarks about 'mom's clothes' was *not* a disrespect of the realities of how difficult it is to 'do' style while raising a toddler or three. That wasn't the idea at all. The idea is that in the default conservative American mode, 'mom's styles'--mom jeans, mom hair, that fact that putting 'mom' before something is synonymous with dull and erotically denuded--is a way that conservative culture devaluates, negatively defines and cordons off women from all sorts of power post childbirth. Suddenly they're confined to outfits that are visibly less than what more 'desirable' specimens are encouraged to show off in on the mainway of heteronormative desire trade. It's the one time the GOP and Darwin sort of mix. Suddenly a totally beautiful woman post-childbirth is not longer 'hot' and must wear shapeless Walmart jeans that exist entirely for the purpose of rubbing in this lousy social contract. But in Paris, in Nice, all around Provence, I saw the French proving it need not be so, to a great extent because the culture had *room* for them. Because a woman nursing a baby who's X pounds heavier didn't matter because there's the cultural space for this display--and clothes a few sizes bigger that did not muffle that beauty in an anti-erotic no fly zone. The same deal for grandmothers. Hell, we saw a woman at dinner in Nice who must have been 75. Ice white hair in a blunt cut bob. A gorgeous (but not, I think, pricey) black dress. Pearl and silver earrings. Smokey eyes. Thin lips with lovely pearlescent mauve lips. Deep space mascara. *Stunning*. Self value in style. Because, you get older, there are fewer and fewer things you *do* have control over. And she was just having dinner at a no big deal restaurant with family. No *wonder* Republicans hate and make light of the French--all this must scare the pants off them.

There are no old women in Paris (Seine dispatch #26)

Another admirable thing about Parisian culture: agism and chic are mostly not disconnected. You see 50, 60, 70 year old women rocking brilliant, unique ideas of suave and it's not about having money. Along with the classic gamine is the classic older-Juliette Binoche type rocking rich brown colored hair, draped dark shawls and thin knit sweaters and hardly any make-up because *hiding* is false and therefore un-chic but intentional artifice cool in very targeted ways: Matte crimson or pearl-tone lipstick, but just a blush. The smokey eye brushed in. A freshet of cheek color. There are, of course, lots of moms. But there's almost nobody consigned to the style and sexiness purgatory that American anti-style enforces on motherhood. There's self respect in other words, which I believe translates to less repression and projections of self-loathing onto other people, which is ultimately manifests as true liberating Helen Mirren liberalism via fashion. Example: the cool as fuck STEREO TOTAL. How old is the singer/drummer? 40? 50? Does anyone care? STEREO TOTAL

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The beyonders of metal

Holy moly jeepers-wow. I've been so busy over at PRESS PLAY talking about trauma, Chelsea Hotel, DRIVE and ALPHAS

I've not checked in here to make mention of my latest remarks about dark, dark, dark, really dark but not quite black metal.

Which you can do by clicking the title, which will take you to the world where METAL SUCKS (ironically).

Saturday, July 23, 2011


Hey--It's been a while, but I've been busy writing for my column over at PRESS PLAY.

Anyway, I always come back to needing to write about Ulmer's The Black Cat. Although The Bride of Frankenstein has the rep, Edgar Ulmer's 65 minutes are the true pinnacle of post war morbidity achieved in Universal's 1930s horror cycle. Its tech-deco-necro delirium is by turns hilarious, dated, classic, beautiful, stylistically 40 years ahead of its time, a storehouse of of cinema syntax drenched in true melancholy: this, not Detour, is the film that makes the case for Ulmer’s unjust exclusion from the upper leagues of the pantheon.

In a plot seething with multiple really Old Europe sexual pathologies, Bela Lugosi plays Dr. Vitus Werdegast a psychologist driven nearly mad by the torture he suffered at the hands of sadistic frenemy/architect/Satanist Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris, living dead Karloff) during World War I.

Lugosi and a magnificently naïve American couple (David Manners, Julie Bishop) couple arrive at Karloff's Bauhaus mansion--literally built atop a graveyard--and enact one of cinema's most brilliantly deranged dances to the death.

Dressed in shimmering Mandarin robes, his hair bleached the white of the old dead and cut in scary, unnatural geometries, Karloff creates one of the most glamorously seductive images of unfettered evil ever lensed, while Lugosi commits the performance of his career by actually underplaying his character's bloodlust.

Without showing an inch of flesh or a drop of blood, Ulmer creates a weirdly lyrical nightmare of necrophilia, mad science, implied flaying, classical music appreciation, and, hard to believe, more, as the true depths of the Poelzig’s dementia are revealed.

Without knowing there was an argument, Ulmer’s film shows that Hitchcock actually had style limitations, while actually predating the New Wave in a bravura sequence of elegant, aestheticized, sexual soul sickness that included intended jump-cuts, long single takes, and cross-fade glides from single to third person POV, all while Beethoven’s Seventh, Second Movement, mourns on the soundtrack and Karloff, camp stripped bear, channels the weariness of the first generation to endure the mechanize mass slaughter of modern warfare. “Did we not both die here in Marmorus 15 years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead?

But horror is always just five inches from black comedy and Ulmer’s team doesn’t just cross the line, they dance on it. Perfect example and scene: poor lost Manners freaking out about being isolated in this Bauhaus house of death, and not being able to place a call. And Karloff, eyes glittering with something between Borscht Belt stand up and deep mittel European madness, "You see? Even the phone is dead."

Saturday, July 9, 2011


My new column starts at PressPlay with Parts 1 and 2 of THE TREE OF GAGA about my favorite Mother Monster.

About the whys, the hows, the...whys again.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Hotness that Matters

This is a couple years un-fresh but I think this group collaboration is still fun, accurate
and good argument material (where's Gina Torres???)

Women of The Years
Forget SI's Vacant Swimsuit Smiles--Here's 20 Babes Whose Babeness Matters

By Ian Grey, Emily Flake, Violet Glaze and Bret McCabe | Posted 2/13/2008

ALAS, IT'S THAT TIME OF YEAR again. February is when Sports Illustrated releases its annual swimsuit issue, replete with the usual oiled-up pimping of site-specific liposuction, freakish genetics, rhinoplasty, gym-rat body sculpting, faux-hot thousand-yard gazes, and chemically plumped lips puckered into automaton pouts.

Viruslike, this Photoshopped Frankenstein aesthetic spreads to cinema and mass culture, and/or vice versa, reinforced by lad magazine spreads that make objectification sound progressive and reinforce an obsession for the deathly anorexic. Which helps explain how aerodynamic points-of-purchases such as the Jessicas Biel, Simpson, and Alba, talentless nip/tuck lab creation Fergie (frighteningly, No. 10 on Maxim's babe list), and America's No. 1 Victim, Elisha Cuthbert (Captivity, 24), are bestowed with a dumbed-down mantle of hotness. Their major active effect on males is the nurturing of a fetishistic urge for impossible females; for women, they instill self-loathing about bodies that can never match a swimbot's mechanistic perfection.

But the SI issue also allows us a primo excuse to celebrate women who embody everything Franken-girl culture would have us think doesn't exist or scarcely matters. And so, here are our alternative Top 20 of hotties who thrive outside or in spite of their traditional notions of beauty.

These women are cinematic icons who matter, persist, and are reflective entities in whom we see best-case-scenario versions of ourselves or whom we dream we might be. And for those of us with special needs--the nerdy, the outsider, the literally and metaphorically queer--this reflective quality is even more important.

Whether it's via signature roles, life stories, off-screen behavior, or an alchemical mixture of all those elements, they validate, reinforce, and represent. Like any good relationship, digging their finer qualities takes some effort. It's energy well spent, what with the way these women continue to make our lives palpably better places to live. (Ian Grey)

1) Helen Mirren

Because she embodies a truth that applies to every woman on this list, a truth that those who slaver at the supermodel of the month will never get--that "attractive" is not the same as "perfect," that "beautiful" has nothing to do with "young," and that "sexy" is none of the above. See The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Prime Suspect TV series. (Violet Glaze)

2) Katee Sackhoff

For all her boozing, Cylon-blastin' and--God help us--barely clothed boxing in Battlestar Galactica, it's the way the butch/curvy Sackoff deals with the show's signature agonies that accounts for her thermonuclear hotness. The cockiness melts in slow gradients as the lost girl in Starbuck's backstory emerges, almost scarily naked and vulnerable, followed almost immediately with the delicious tension of waiting to see whether she'll get hard-case stony, get shit-faced, or blow something up in that liberatingly unhinged manner only she possesses. (IG)

3) Michelle Yeoh

A former Miss Malaysia turned dancer turned one of the very few women Jackie Chan lets do her own stunts. The only actress who can not only imbue kicking, punching, and flying through the air with Grace Kelly-style class, but who can share the screen with Zhang Ziyi and not suffer by comparison. See Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Supercop 2. (VG)

4) Sally Field

The great transformation of Martin Ritt's 1979 Norma Rae isn't Sally Field shedding a sexless flying nun habit, Gidget's '60s sweetheart grin, or Smokey and the Bandit's sassy mouth. It's a formidable actress turning a single mother textile worker into the sort of spryly intelligent and charismatic hero typically reserved for the good-looking Robert Redfords and Dustin Hoffmans of the era. Sure, Norma Rae is a very Hollywood version of the real-life Crystal Lee Sutton, but it remains one of the few times mainstream American movies or television ever touched organized labor--and the men and women who fill its ranks--in any way. (Bret McCabe)

5) Jean Seberg

The perfection of Jean Seberg's astonishing porcelain face was rivaled only by the tragedy of her not-long life. Troubled marriages, stillborn babies, suicide attempts, addictions, persecution by the FBI--and still she found time to pretty much invent the close-cropped strong-yet-fragile delight that is the modern gamine. See Breathless, Lilith. (Emily Flake)

6) Alyson Hannigan

That Hannigan--a physically androgynous young women perhaps best described as wallflower-pretty--has forged a career armed only with ace comic timing, huge silent film-star eyes, and bottomless geek empathy is remarkable enough. And that she was able, in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, to make us totally invest ourselves in Willow Rosenberg's somewhat unusual seven-year arc--from education-crazed Jewish outsider to wiccan witch to nontormented lesbian to black-veined villain to happily partnered assistant world-saver--is an amazing feat of extended acting chops. But it was those chops fused with her disarming sweetness that rendered her first-ever TV lesbian kiss, with Buffy co-star Amber Benson, so inarguably dear that even the Fox network couldn't rationalize nixing it. And that's earned Hannigan a deserved place in queer/humanist televisual history. (IG)

7) Katharine Hepburn

Acid-tongued, more handsome than pretty, fiercely independent, and preferring pantsuits to girlie frocks, Hepburn herself was who most succinctly summed up her radical role in American cinema culture, saying "I am a missing link" between the genders. The original drag king, and she wasn't even trying. See Woman of the Year, The African Queen. (IG)

8) Jean Harlow

Even her surname is loaded with echoes of both "harlot" and "hallowed." There would be no Marilyn, no Jayne, hell, possibly even no Pamela Anderson without her. Cut down at 26 by uremic poisoning, her short stint on Earth produced one of America's most beloved archetypes--the Blonde Bombshell. See Red Dust, Saratoga. (EF)

9) Hanna Schygulla

If Josef von Sternberg and Alfred Hitchcock had their druthers, bombshell blondes would fulfill only one role in movies: untouchable ice-queen objects of desire (see: Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly, et al.) Fortunately, German writer/director Rainer Werner Fassbinder met actress Hanna Schygulla in the 1960s, and in their 23 movies together Schygulla completely rewired the archetype into so many different complex women that their work together still mystifies. See Lili Marlene, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Beware a Holy Whore, Effi Briest. (BM)

10) Penélope Cruz

Penélope Cruz is possibly the most glaring example of Hollywood's shameful waste of female talent. It's in the movies of her native Spain that she's truly allowed to shine--and she makes it clear that despite being eye-searingly gorgeous, her beauty is incidental to her real work. See All About my Mother, Volver. (EF)

11) Ida Lupino

The heart-faced, sour-sweet Lupino didn't just play a fatale, victim, or sassy sidekick in classic films noir, she shape-shifted between elements of all the genre's archetypes. Too big in ambition by the late '40 s to play second fiddle to male fantasies, she then became the first--and inexplicably underworshipped--American female to produce, write, and direct her own movies, quickly hitting her fear-free stride with Outrage, an expressionistic noir dealing with rape and its aftermath--and in 19-frickin'-50, yet. See Road House, On Dangerous Ground, (IG)

12) Clara Bow

The "It Girl" of silent movies, as kittenish as Mary Pickford and as fearlessly carnal as Theda Bara. Seen through modern eyes, she's still got an easy smile and giggly wink that promises a strings-free good time--not because she's crazy, slutty, or tragic, but just because she likes you. See The Plastic Age, Children of Divorce. (VG)

13) Maila Nurmi

The protogoth pinup Vampira was nothing more than an elegant fiction created by the self-described ugly, poor, and anorexic Nurmi, but what a fiction! And to Nurmi's credit, no one--not Patricia Morrison, not Lily Munster, and definitely not that tacky blasphemer Elvira--could (re)animate that poison hourglass like she did. See Plan 9 From Outer Space. (VG)

14) Sonja Sohn

Part soul, part Seoul, all hot--Korean-African-American Sonja Sohn's interpretation of police detective Kima Greggs is one of the most finely nuanced performances on television today. The mix of intelligence, strength, tenderness, and humor she brings landmarks the role as a lesbian icon and an instant classic. Are you really, seriously not watching The Wire? (EF)

15) Anne Bancroft

Yes, she won her Oscar for The Miracle Worker. But it was with pencil skirt-powered legs, lust-sheen glare, and toying with a craven, helpless Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate where Bancroft's catlike hotness performed another miracle: During the youth-besotted 1960s, she made older women sexually viable. The original MILF--with a vengeance. See The Pumpkin Eater. (IG)

16) Traci Lords

The angel-faced dirty brat next door. So hot, so blond, so barely legal--whoops, not legal at all. Child porn laws put the kibosh on a portfolio of "performances" made before her 18th birthday, but name one other actress who essentially destroyed the 80-100 films that made her famous and went on to bigger success. See Crybaby, select episodes of Melrose Place, Will and Grace, Gilmore Girls. (VG)

17) Louise Brooks

An ethereally beautiful booze hound with a salty tongue and caustic wit that rivaled Dorothy Parker's, Louise Brooks disappeared from film after 1938--but not without leaving a permanent mark in the shape of her trademark spit-curled bob. The quintessential flapper, bristling with wry, intelligent sexuality. See Pandora's Box. (EF)

18) Sissy Spacek

Transform from trembling geek to drop-dead glamour queen? Stab your psycho fundamentalist mother? Telekinetically whack a future Scientologist? Burn down the fucking high school? Spacek's ultimate grub-to-avenging butterfly in Carrie was the first in inspiring gangly, overfreckled outsiders worldwide not to take this shit. See Three Women, Coal miner's Daughter. (IG)

19) Tallulah Bankhead

A decent actress but a far better sexual provocateur, this openly bisexual originator of ab-fab consciousness was touted in the '30s as the "next Marlene Dietrich." That didn't really pan out, but as the eternally bemused original patron saint of elegantly not giving a goddamn, Bankhead was unbeatable. See Tarnished Lady, Lifeboat. (IG)

20) Summer Glau

The look: Doll-like Victorian manga. Specialty: subverting multiple assumptions by playing mentally discombobulated girlie girls-turned-supersmart ass-kickers. See her seemingly fragile, ultimately heroic, space zombie-whacking telepath in Serenity and emotion-challenged "good" Terminator in this season's funnest guilty pleasure, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Result: Fanboys grow faint, gushes, troubled souls of all stripes gain a new poster girl. (IG)

Graphic by M. WARTELLA

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Kryoburn's readymades

Three Years Eclipsed
Candlelight Records
(Originally appeared at

The dis on the ‘net is that Kryoburn are Fear Factory clones and so much for them. Well, I just want to say this is really unfair. Kryoburn are Fear Factory clones that clone a whole mess of other bands as well, okay?

Now that that’s cleared up, what separates this New Mexico band’s brand of industrialized metal from the Factory is the pleasing swing and openness in their Terminator grooves. We all like to claim that while we might claim to lust after the aural equivalent of having our heads relentlessly beaten with an ultra-loud battering ram sample powered by a Commodore 64, the truth is, a little air and swing between attacks is a pleasure and a relief.

Everyone—okay, Metal Hammer, UK-- is predicting that the band that seamlessly combines electronics and extreme metal will be a Next Big Thing. I think this is kind of a meh sort of ambition, but on “Introspective”, Kryoburn certainly pull it off.

There’s a wall of techno pads and digital chimes as a Strapping Young Lads-y groove head-slams and and the whole enterprise gains texture and catchiness when the growl-sung lead vox are neatly juxtaposed against a pretty chorus of what sound like male madrigals. (Have you been noticing how many bands are getting all madrigal on our asses lately? Is ‘choir metal’ the Next Big Thing?).

Anyway, “Three Years Eclipsed” is produced by Tue Madsen (Dark Tranquility, Moonspell, Suicide Silence) and he gives every track a glistening, 2011 surface. Things pop, punch and slide just so and Hey, remember Curve?

“Reinvention” has a distressed voice sample thingee that the 90s pop-goth-metal combo would proudly call its own lacing a Korn-y riff (in a good way!) And again, out of nowhere, we get a clean vocal singing a line out of Bach or some such shit. It’s like a formula, but only “like”.

“Burning the Doubt” adds Five Finger Death Punch-y macho for immediate ass-kick appeal while “Broken Hero” and its staggering/lockstep riff and slithery-pretty synth legato suggest Rammstein minus the punishing Teutonics. Less endearingly, “Event Horizon” is all generic Sturm und Drang riffing; when that lonely ‘classical’ vocal shows up it just proves that one idea can’t save every song, alas.

But that’s one failure. When Kryoburn are on their game, it’s the shock of the old that makes them special. Unlike Fear Factory’s now-retro,, post-apocalypse digitalism, Kryoburn are doing something that’s essentially modern, in the old, art school sense.

They’re approaching all of metal and looting it for spare parts, for what Duchamp, back in the beginning of the 20th century, called “readymades”--things not usually thought of as art—I think nu metal counts here—and by pasting them to other things, hoping to eventually create something paradoxically newish. They sometimes fail, but the process is a thrill.

Friday, June 17, 2011

James Wan--Hyper Grindhouse Mensch

I interviewed James Wan back in 2007. He was, to put it simply, a delight, a one-person redefinition of his generation's lousier instincts when it comes to grindhouse cinema, free of poison irony, or undue idol worship, or just plain being the sort of dick who would feel comfortable at Kim's video.

I was at the time interviewing many more 'important' filmakers but Wan was the one who was just so much fucking fun to talk to. Plus--great pull-quote from the guy who was inaccurately credited with starting the torture porn blight at the peak of the Bush years.

In my review of SAW I noted that it was not just the defining horror film of the Bush years, but the defining film of the Bush years, period.

As more and more sickening details of Cheney's beyond-monstrous torture for torture's sake program become public, and the public is more comfortable bitching about HOSTEL than men forced to defecate on themselves while dogs attack and are waterboarded in dank rooms from David Finchers private nightmare file. I'd say SAW is the softcore defining film of those noxious 8 years.

But onward...

Despite an awful virus that delayed his interview for an hour for a doctor consult, horror kingpin James Wan is more than happy, in a sneezy way, to talk in a mild Aussie lilt about horror. The reason goes beyond the need to perform promo duties for his long-delayed ghost story, Dead Silence, and have everything to do with who he is. “I am an extreme geek,” he declares. “A horror nerd. Big time. And proud of it.”

Keeping in mind how crazy-busy he’s been for the last three years, the fact that Wan’s immune system has finally succumbed comes as no surprise.

First, of course, there’s the storybook success of Saw, a short film that became a feature whose paltry $1 million budget led to a staggering gross of more than $102 million, which begat a blockbuster franchise with two sequels already released and another in the planning stages and of which Wan had a story or producing involvement in.

Then there’s Dead Silence, once known by the more curt Silence, a neo-Hammer horror that Wan directed and that sat on the shelf for a good year for reasons he’ll explain in just a minute. And finally, there’s his Kevin Bacon-starring genre segue into classic revenge film, Death Sentence, now in post production.

Directing conversation with the hyper-fecund auteur is delightfully near-impossible: We tried string things off by focusing on Dead Silence--which, like the Saw films, features a dummy prominently, this time a mysterious ventriloquist’s dummy. Instead, Wan wanted to know if New York--where he got his cold--still hadn’t gotten any snow. We said, no, and he snapped, “Man, that is strange! The ice caps are melting! It’s like the opening sequence of The Arrival!”

And there’s Wan’s charm--and passion--an in a nutshell: You can’t talk to him about anything without movies coming into it. And dummies. Dummies, like the creepy one in Saw, feature prominently in his films.

“I’ve always had a strange fixation with dummies and dolls. I was scared by Poltergeist at a very young age...There’s that creepy clown doll that attacks the kid? That stuck with me ever since, and I’ve ever since been on the lookout for scary doll or scary dummy films.

On a roll, he qualifies, “I’m not so much into killer doll films--I find the creepy factor far scarier than the killer doll thing. One of my favorite horror films of all time is the British film, Dead of Night. The scene with the ventriloquist dummy is one of my favorite sequences--ever.”

In the autuer's own words, his creepy dummy movie “opens with a young couple [True Blood’s Ryan Kwanten and Judith Roberts] getting a package. They open the package and inside is a ventriloquist dummy. And they’re like, “What the hell is this? Where the hell did it come from?” There’s no return address on it. And then something bad happens.

Another head of steam as he elaborates that “basically, the rest of the film has our lead protagonists trying to find out who sent the dummy and what kind of malevolent evil it holds.

“And that leads them back to the small hometown where he and his wife grew up. The story goes back to the legend of an old ventriloquist, a ghost ventriloquist. The legend goes that if you scream in the presence of this ghost, he takes your tongue and the last thing you hear before you die is the sound of your own voice talking back to you.”

He finally pauses to take a breath. “And that’s what it’s about.”

While the idea of the hearing your own voice mocking you just before you die is an eerie idea worthy of shuddery consideration, I couldn’t help but stress out how this will actually manifest on film.

As in: CG revenants pace the newer, awful The Haunting? “I used some visual effects, but it’s more about mood and atmosphere.

“A big part of my influence for this film was I really wanted a tribute to the Hammer horror films I grew up loving. This film truly has a Hammer horror feel to it but with a contemporary edge.”

So can we expect a shift from the acidic, David Fincher-y color palette of the Saw films to something more akin to Hammer’s trademark saturated Technicolor? “To some degree. I love bright colors, but I also love cold, neutered color.

“But there are moments in Silence--a big part of the film takes place in an old theater, in the 1930s. So that’s very colorful, very theatrical and it has that edge to it, but in modern day, it’s a ghost town, very cold, very removed from reality. It has a very fantasy edge to it.” (And it won’t be like Richard Attenborough’s surface-similar Magic, due to the fact that Wan “never got around to seeing Magic. I did not want to be influenced by it. I kept my influences to Dead of Night and the classic gothic Hammer horror films.)

Meanwhile, in the back of my mind, I can’t help but note the similarity in the mysterious mannequin delivery here and the mysterious videotape delivery used in Lost Highway. “I guess it is [like Lost Highway]. To some degree, yeah. It’s not just an outright horror film, it’s a mystery about what the hell is going on.”

“But having said that--it’s very different from David Lynch. I would never dare to put myself in the same category as David Lynch. Because Lynch to me is King. I’m not worthy of being mentioned in the same breathe as David Lynch.”

His humility is charming. It’s real, breathlessly sincere.

But when I ask why the film has been sitting on Universal’s shelf for a year, real life tragedy tampers his exuberance.

It’s about the sudden death of Saw co-producer and close friend, Gregg Hoffman, 42, on December 4, 2005. Hoffman’s passing during Dead Silence’s post-production turned the film into “one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”

“He became such a good friend, a mentor, a father figure, that when that happened it really effected me in a big way. He was just such a cool guy and a very good friend. For lack of a better term, we were pretty fucked up by that.”

“The studio was kind enough to give me some time off, because it was such a shock for me. He passed away just after I’d shot the film--this was in post [production].

You can almost hear him trying to shrug off the grief. “And so, in taking some time off, I missed an opening [release wise]. Horror films really play best in two slots of the year...early in the year and Halloween, and I missed those two slots completely.”

The reason for the title change from the original Silence to the current modified version is less traumatic: explaining it offers Wan a chance to emotionally regroup.

“It was really simple. Initially it was called Silence. But there’s a not-very-well-known filmmaker named Martin Scorsese--he had that title locked up from a while ago, so we couldn’t use it.

“It does make it sound a bit more, um, ‘B’, but I actually don’t mind! Especially since the films I’ve been inspired by--films that are called, like, Dead of Night”--he chuckles--”So Leigh and I were never offended by that.”

One constant in Wan’s tumultuous career is his relationship with fellow Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology attendee/actor/coconspirator Leigh Whannell. Their working style on Dead Silence was typical of their unique creative relationship. “The way Leigh and I work is we cook up a story together, whether he initiates it or I initiate it. Once we like the overall story, I pretty much leave him to go and write the screenplay. Then he’ll come back to me and go, “Hey James, what about this?” and then I’ll add or subtract to it.”

The constant back-and-forth process has an amusing result. “People will ask who came up with what and we’re not quite sure--it’s really a mishmash of our ideas together.”

This particular mishmash is a departure from the total creativity control Wan enjoyed with the indie Saw. I try to be tactful about possible artistic compromises, but Wan will have nothing of it.

“You mean, ‘What’s it like working on a low budget as opposed to studio film?’ It has its ups and downs. It’s the classic story you’ve heard many times before and which I’m not going to get into because you’ve heard it many times before. It has it’s good sides and its, um, more challenging sides. I know that’s very PC of me to say, but it’s the truth.” (Still, he promises that, next time he visits New York, “over a glass of beer, I’ll let it all loose!”)

Meanwhile, his decision not to direct the Saw sequels leads to very interesting territory, some having to do with Wan’s career direction, his sense of his place in movies in general, and his disquiet with the direction horror films and the world they flicker in have been going in of late.

Wan avoided helming Saw II and III because “I did not want to repeat myself. I wanted to try something different. Leigh and I just felt like we wanted to go off and try a ghost story.

“The funny thing, after Saw came out, even though I hadn’t made any other films, I was immediately pigeonholed as this sick director who makes gory violent films.

“It wasn’t like I was taken aback by that--I felt a lot of people missed the point of the first Saw film. Which wasn’t just about sick traps and a nihilistic way of killing people. Leigh and I spent so much time coming up with a story, plotting it, doing other things people missed.”

In a similar sense, he doesn’t seem to feel particularly allied with the new breed of ultra-violence merchants such as Alexandre Aja, Neil Marshall, Eli Roth, and Rob Zombie and even less in sync with horrors’ devolution into a sort of torture cinema.

“What do they call it? ‘The Splat-pack?” He chuckles. “Don't get me wrong, it’s a really cool title, but I never asked for it. If anyone knows Leigh and myself, they’d know that we are the happiest guys in town. To be branded as part of a group of guys who created this torture film is really strange to me.”

He does agree with the suggestion that the new torture film genre wouldn’t exist or be profitable were it not for the context of the real life charnel house of the Iraq misadventure and the atrocities of Abu Gharib. “I actually believe that. You look back at horror movie history, you look at all the George Romero films, right? They’re a reflection of the times they were made in.

“And a lot of the time these horror films are made at the height of a war that was going on and I do believe that the way America--and a lot of other countries--are taking to these torture horror films is in big part due to all the crap going on in the world right now. I honestly do believe that. If we were living in SmurfLand right now, I don’t think there’d be so much hype around torture films. You wouldn’t have [the popularity of] films like Hostel--or Saw.”

So is he taking the opportunity of his latest film, currently in post production, the Kevin Bacon-starring neo-vigilante movie Death Sentence, as an opportunity to move himself away from the Splat Pack and the genre he loves and made his name?

An uncharacteristic pause, then, “I should be very careful how I say this. I guess I wanted to show that I wasn’t “just” a “horror film maker” [You hear quote marks in his tone.] “That I could do drama as well.

“And despite it’s title, Death Sentence is not a torture movie! It was a natural progression for me to move from horror film to an area that was somewhat similar. I mean, let’s face it, nobody’s going to give me a romantic comedy to do next.

“My progression had to make sense. I’d always been a fan of revenge movies. When the script came along and I really liked it, I was like, “You know, I should give this a shot.”

Considering that Ian Jeffers’ script is based on a book by Brian Garfield--he of the 70s mother of all urban action revengers, Death Wish--should we be expecting something along the lines of that, or perhaps something more like Chan-wook Park’s slick and stylized revenge films?

“This is not Oldboy,” Wan states, “this is Rolling Thunder! This one is 70s revenge. This is old school. It’s like a father goes up against a scary street gang and ends up fighting a cat and mouse game with them.

The designated vengeful Dad in question is played by Kevin Bacon about whom Wan is glad to gush. “I love Kevin! I’m not just saying that. He’s such a professional...He comes to set prepared every day...He’s such a great actor, he’s just so...good! He has so many stories, I love to just prod these stories out of him--he doesn't do it willingly! I love to hear stories about all these great films he’s been in--Stir of Echoes to Apollo 13 to you-name-it. He’s done everything.

“I’ve been very fortunate with Death Sentence, I have to say. In terms of all my actors, with Garrett Hedlund [Eragon] who plays the main badguy, really scary.”

Also featured is John Goodman, whose performance Wan promises will cause folks to see the actor “in a very different light. People are used to seeing him as this nice, jolly, charming fellow. They’re going to be very surprised. I tried to make John as scary in this film as I could--and I think he’s pretty scary.”

In the continuing spirit of being too-busy-for-words, Wan and Whannell are hatching the fourth Saw sequel. But with Jigsaw highly expired in the last installment, where will he go with that? “I was thinking, Jigsaw--The Wonder Years. We watch him grow up as a kid and enter preschool. No--I’m kidding! I have a rough idea; I can’t say what; I’m sorry. They’ll shoot me. Greater powers than us are pushing that thing and talking about it early on is one of those things they’d rather have us not do.”

After polishing his Death Sentence and hammering out the Saw IV details, Wan is looking forward to a deserved period of “chilling out” and regrouping. But even that may entail more creation. “We think we have a noir/sci-fi film in us and we’re working on it right now. But Leigh and I want to go back to our roots to how we came up with Saw. To just sit back and come up with a movie where we’re not pressured and come up with something we just think is fucking cool.”

But we’d probably best not look forward to Wan creating some big dollar gosh-wow extravaganza “because I would love control [over this project]. I never realized how much I respected control until I didn’t actually have it. We want a high concept storyline that doesn’t necessarily cost the Earth, you know what I mean?”

Meanwhile, as an out and proud extreme horror nerd who “grew up with Fangoria” and other devoted horror mags, Wan still can’t still can’t get over the fact of his near-instant transmogrification from fanboy to icon-creator.

“I still wake up every morning going, “How did this happen?” I didn't set out to create that. All Leigh and I wanted to do was make a movie! To write a good script, make it with our own money and if some people saw it, great. I mean, believe me, getting a franchise out of it was the last thing on my mind.” A last, long gleeful laugh. “And it’s great! I can’t lie--it’s a great feeling!”

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Bong Joon-ho's monsters

What I learned from talking to Bong Joon-ho was that I harbored a sort of Asian fetishism in the sense that I transferred onto him a superior way of dealing with my own country's horrific behavior. That is, we spoke in 2006, right in the middle of Cheney/Bush's reign of bloody idiot moral nihilism, and here I was, impressed by my subject's cool and friendliness while talking about his new and awesome monster movie, THE HOST.

What did I expect, for him to leap over the table and rip my throat out while shouting "FUCK THE FTA!" just before snapping my spine?

In a way I kind of was. The US was, after all, deeply fucking Korea's economy on multiple levels in that clueless way that was the signature cruelty of the Bush years.

But I *was* and continue to be impressed with Bong's ability to separate people from their monstrous institutions, whether governments or traditional families.


“Could you please call our creature Steve Buscemi?”, Bong Joon-ho asks, claiming that Buscemi’s character in Fargo was the “character reference” for the while creating The Host’s” title creature. I give it some thought--hmm, Buscemi’s murderous goofball character rep’s a very American sort of monstrosity, The Host deals with the same--and I say, “Okay. Sure. Steve Buscemi it is.”

We’re in Manhattan’s dingy flower district in the ramshackle offices of Magnolia Pictures. Bong is the writer/director of The Host, which is simultaneously the best monster film in forever, the most scathing political film in recent memory and a terrific tale of dysfunctional family bonding.

Bong’s a boyishly handsome 38 year old dressed in the international film director uniform of all black with a smart gray designer sweater as concession to the late winter chill. Talking with him is produces a enjoyable sense of playing cat and mouse with the roles always shifting. He makes very smart films and his one of his greatest skills is finding the absurd in the tragic and vice versa.

He says that the inspiration for his film came “When I was young and I lived by the Han River. From my apartment window I would look down on it and think, ‘What if something like Loch Ness, Nessie, came out of the Han River?’ When I first pitched it to my producer, I actually Photoshop’ed a picture I took of the Han River and Nessie together and said, “This is what the film is.”

Bong sites three films as inspirational influences. Assumably for its water-based anxieties, Bong namechecks Jaws, while John Carpenter’s The Thing manifests in the Host’s use of cool-toned tight spaces to crate a chilly, brand of claustrophobia. Also singled out is M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. “The story deals with the invasion of an alien or something,” he says somewhat dismissively, “but it’s strongly focused on the emotional details of the family.” And the Korean family and society is currently facing challenges as scary as those mucking about The Host. But that’s for later.

Like his excellent serial killer film Memories of a Murder, which eschewed a Seven-ish crescendo of horror in favor of a closing series of meditations on the mystery of human behavior, The Host too subverts Western horror structure requirements for more emotionally resonant goal.

And hence the reason why Steve Buscemi not only appears in the film’s first fifteen minutes, but in daylight. “I really hate the convention [of] waiting an hour just to see the tail of the monster,” he says, which means the audience ends up spending its time simply wondering “what the creature looks like. Or, ‘I wonder how we kill it?’ That would have been very”--a shrug-- “ordinary.”

But doing it his way, “the audience, already having seen the monster, can explore other things. They can concentrate on the needs and emotions of the family.”

Of course, the 800 pound gorilla sitting in on any conversation about The Host is its politics. “When the creature is given birth by an America pouring all this formaldehyde into the Han River, I could say it’s a metaphor for America.”

“When we showed it at Cannes. There was one journalist in particular who, during the press conference, kept repeating, “The monster’s America, right? The monster’s America!””

Beat. “Anyway, it turns out he was from the Middle East.”

After out laughter subsides, he adds, ”But I think it would be kind of wrong to just simplify it so, well...simply.”

True: after the opening salvoes of anti-American sentiment, Bong widens his view to include an inept/corrupt Korean government and the pan-national corporate misery profiteering enabled by Steve Buscemi’s rampage. Says Bong, “The film becomes very universal if you ask the question, “Has any state or country or system ever helped the weak person?”

And so the film is at heart about “the torment of the family--the family not getting any support from the state or the society.”

Adding to the film’s crankiness is the reality of a South Korea grappling with The Korea-US Free Trade Act, the mere mention of which has Bong hooting “FTA!!!” in (possibly) mock horror.

To its detractors--the majority of South Koreans--the FTA is viewed as sweetheart deal for US pharmaceutical and industrial agricultural interests that would totally screw up Korea’s peasant family rice farming tradition, while also erasing regulations that have required that fifty per cent of Korean film be homegrown, thus allowing US film product to flood the Korean market.

“I grew up watching American films,” Bong says, “listening to American music, eating American fast food”-- ‘Super size me!’”

“But at the same time there’s that stress that’s coming from stuff like the FTA and the [resulting Korean public] frustration and hysteria. As a filmaker...the really stresses me out. It’s not just political ideology so much as an everyday life...with the farmer, it’s the same thing: it’s about their harvest. It’s connected to life itself.”

Does he think those stressors explain the film’s incredible success in Korea? He goes for the feint with a grin: “I don’t know. Maybe it was the aggressive distribution?”

There’s no pause when I ask him if he feels a kinship to Guillermo Del Toro and his blend of the beautiful, fantastic and political. “Yes. But I think he’s more visually extravagant than I am, or beautiful. For me, I want to create such images, but at the same time, there’s a twisted part of me that what’s to destroy the beauty!”

With our allotted time running out, I go for the easy closing question. What does he expect US audiences to take from his film?
“My hope is they enjoy this weak family story. Even in America, unless you’re of a very special class, [audiences should be able to] enjoy the everyday Joe, family story....and if they leave the theater thinking, that would be great.”

Even with that scene where the one good American proves himself useless?

A parting grin. “The actor is Canadian. Blame Canada.”

Paula Frazer's hauntings

Paula Frazer
A Place Where I Know – 4-Track Songs 1992-2003

Recorded alone on an analog deck with some guitars, sundry sound implements and a voice that’s seen it all twice, this Paula Frazer compilation is like a dry run-through of Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief experienced from a very slight distance. Featuring songs that first saw dark of night under Frazer’s ex band, Tarnation (and ones that didn’t), it turns out that lurking beneath the accused neo-traditionalist/country/whatever singer is a furtive but superb diarist.

Not having any other humans present improves every version here, as she isn’t freighted with the weight of genre expectations or the glare of an engineer through a recording booth glass. Both soothing and scary, a better title might be Ambient Chill-outs for Hauntings.

Or, to pick up Frazer’s own career-long Southern Gothic implication and stumble with it, everything here is wrought in autumnal tones. Her voice shifts ghost-like from scotch-raw low to double-tracked girly. Structures are sometimes loose, often concise, always deadpan achey. Her twelve tales of lost love and just plain loss employ a weirdly proper folksy syntax, like a poetic cop reading a post mortem. The burned out sadness from one song bleeds into another.

This CD is defined by a steady-state elusiveness: the more you listen, the less you remember later. One returns to the disc, and ends up floating off on sonic and emotional tangents—-on the trail of a blue echo, wondering what a sentence meant, inspecting an overdubbed harmony for...what? Then another song drifts in, another set of gossamer conundrums, tricky, gorgeous, wonderful evidence of the infinite payback of self-set technological limitations.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

JENNIFER'S BODY: great yet hated

I think JENNIFER'S BODY is a fantastic film. Some of the reasons why are included in this article.

Some of the reasons this movie, written and directed and staring very attractive women...what could those reasons be?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Gaga, Queen, Queen, Gaga

I knew she was going to do this!* aka Holy contrasting contexts! So on "You & I" (all "U's" with umlaut, of course), the chords from "Born this WaY" are half-time'd, and it becomes a gospel hymn ('cause that's how it works!) and you throw in Queen's beat and Brian May's wall-of--many-Brian Mays and

Gaga becomes the-sweet-ghost-of-Freddie* and holy moly and the last song being "The Queen" gives you an idea how interlaced all of this is, or rather this final song troika, and the fact that "You and I" ends with one chord voice of pause, the literal edge of...something...

...well, duh, of course we go to "The Edge of Glory", now the Monster Hymn of Chrome and no, I'm not overthinking this, I'm barely touching the surface of a record where she's been the queer messiah-ette, Almodovar kook, constant Xtian inversionist, Denmother of the Darned, Friday Night Goth, seriously, she wears idenities faster than critics will fail to come up with coherently cynical ways to dismiss what she's doing.

*God, it must have been so weird being Brian May, alone with Mutt Lange, with another incredible vocal queen. he must think "I'm so fortunate", "My life is so weird" and "I miss my friend so fucking much".

**"Yes, a post with footnotes. It's the new thing."

BTW: Gaga's techno

Lady Gaga's BORN THIS WAY is this generation's most important recording as depth-y and iconic as BORN TO RUN or New Order and Kate Bush's first three records (I'm still putting together how to contextualize it). I can't be more put my belief of this more emphatically.

So I'm just going to be posting things I observe over the next few weeks or months regarding the album.

Right now, Number 1: Gaga's techno.

In glam and Ziggy Bowie used this "boogie" that nothing to do with no one's idea of "boogie" except "boogie" sounded American which suggested something new and glam certainly was supposed to be that but boogie also suggested viability as in some African American tradition which found it's way into massed saxophones in Bowie's glam.

Which is to say that Lady Gaga is using European "techno" in a similar multi-use manner, to do things it wasn't meant for, to suggests things it wasn't designed to do. So you have "techno" grooves used like they were the Muddy Waters blues Jeff Beck's weren't, you have "techno" as music history lesson as "Government Hooker" kisses New Order/New Wave, or hard rock that isn't "Highway Unicorn".

"Techno" is her roots music.