Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Spout #12: Clean (Or; the redemption of Courtney Love)

OK, so perhaps the connection isn't that major, and it certainly isn't anything brought up by the movie itself, but the parallels are hard to deny. It's safe to assume that at some point in the production of this movie, which follows a woman blamed(by some) for the overdose of her more famous rock star husband as she tries to get her act together and regain some of her fame, someone must have brought up Courtney Love and Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. Perhaps Olivier Assayas even looked back to the story of that couple for some inspiration or ideas, but that's probably as far as it went.

At the opening of the film we see Emily(Maggie Cheung) and her musician husband arriving in a small town for a gig. Most of this is irrelevant, and only serves to impress upon us that Emily is a junkie, and she's blamed by those around her for dragging her far more talented husband into her addiction. In fact, the first thing we witness Emily doing is setting up a connection so she can score drugs later that night. Did I say most of this was irrelevant? I suppose it might be, except for that little action there. It's the drugs that Emily buys from this connection that propel the rest of the movie. After an argument(about drugs), Emily storms out on her husband that night, and separately the two get high. Emily wakes up in the morning, her husband does not. Returning to their hotel room, which is now a crime scene, Emily makes an ill-advised emotional outburst, drawing the curiosity of the cops, and landing her in jail once they find the heroin in her purse. Almost overnight, the fame that the drug-addled couple had been searching for finds them. Emily's husband becomes an overnight sensation. It's never stated what his level of stardom is, but we hear that his death made the cover of Mojo magazine, and his family is being helped out by old friend Tricky, so we can assume he was a bit of a one-time superstar in the indie music world. Emily, on the other hand, attracts nothing but derision, and everyone in the world is apparently convinced that she killed her husband. She denies this, to everyone, whether or not she actually believes it herself.

After 6 months in prison, Emily meets with her father-in-law, Albrecht(Nick Nolte), at a small diner somewhere. He offers to give her money, she refuses, he asks her to not visit her son, she agrees. Both of them seem to think that the child needs stability, and Emily can't give that to him. As a father, this sort of thinking bothers me a bit, and although I can't completely agree, I have to give Emily kudos, because this is undoubtedly the best decision for everyone. With the small amount of money left in her bank account, Emily heads home to Paris, where she gets a job at a restaurant, and dreams of regaining the fame she once had as a VeeJay for an MTV-like cable channel. Maggie Cheung here(it's important to give her credit for this, not just her character), is marvelous here, flitting from Canada to Paris to London, alternating between English, Chinese and French with ease, and always looking completely at home wherever she is. The irony is that she never feels at home, and seems endlessly restless and always wanting more.

As much as Emily constantly talks about it, she actually doesn't seem too interested in regaining any fame. Or perhaps it's the work she isn't interested in. She gives her friends some demo tapes, she has an interview with her old boss, but that's pretty much it. She doesn't seem interested in getting some like-minded musicians together or singing in a band, or hell, even karaoke. She just continues her addictions(methadone now, not heroin) and talks about how she should be famous. Eventually, as her life becomes on disappointment after another, Emily moves in with some friends and decides to get clean, taking a menial job at a department store. She even turns down her one best chance at making an album because it would clash with her plans to see her son. Suddenly, with none of the signposts familiar to most drug addiction movies, Emily has matured and started to change her life. Around this point Nick Nolte re-enters the film(Nolte suffers a bit from 'star cameo syndrome,' in that he never interacts with most of the main cast, and often feels like he's starring in a separate film). In London so his dying wife can see some specialists, he reintroduces Emily to her son, and helps end the movie on a positive note.

Clean is a bit of an odd duck; not really gritty or emotional enough to fit into the scores of other drug films, the film is surprisingly upbeat, but never really reaches 'after school special' levels of schmaltz. What it is is a calm, intelligent meditation on addiction and the ways we try to lie to ourselves to make us fit in. Emily, while certainly not the best mother in the world, is still surprisingly honest and open with her son. While not expressly admitting guilt in her husband's death, Emily is refreshingly straightforward with her son, telling him about his father, and their life together, and how drugs gave them both some very good times, admitting that it could have been either or both of them that died(which is true). Like I said, she never admits guilt, but the discussion does bring a catharsis of some sort, and it seems to cleanse Emily of some of the guilt and baggage she's been carrying around. The ending disappointed some, but it felt right to me. Emily is recording in San Francisco, with the prospect of a loving relationship with her son in front of her, and she walks off into the sun of a new morning, clean.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Tales From The Discount Bin: The Forever War

I'm cheating a bit with this entry, because Joe Haldeman is far from discount bin material(The Forever War is widely regarded as one of the 20 best sci-fi books of all time, which is an amorphous but still impressive honor), but considering how often sci-fi is marginalized in popular culture, I'm willing to allow it. Plus I made up the rules, and if you don't like it, tough.

I am not, typically, a sci-fi aficionado. I'm changing that, slowly, with this 'Discount Bin' feature, but it's still a genre that I'm largely ignorant of, and as such I have a fairly basic way of categorizing science fiction novels into two categories; soft sci-fi and hard sci-fi. Hard sci-fi is where the science is front and center, and dense, and often meticulously researched. Soft sci-fi is where the science exists merely as a kind of rack to hang the story on, and isn't explained more than is necessary to propel the story. Hard sci-fi is often full of big mind blowing ideas, but often, by design, is not very emotionally engaging. On the other hand, soft sci-fi, which I have to admit I usually enjoy more, is more geared towards exploring emotional and philosophical questions and uses the science as a starting point. The works of Samuel Delaney would edge towards hard sci-fi, while the works of Kurt Vonnegut would be clearly soft sci-fi.

I shared this viewpoint with my friend Eric, and it turns out he had a complimentary way of categorizing science fiction. He viewed sci-fi as either space opera or deconstructive. Space Opera was basically our myths transplanted to space, a way of reaffirming the truths we hold dear. Deconstructive sci-fi was the opposite, and used the medium to explore, subvert or argue against the ideals we as a society hold on to. Star Wars would be space opera, while Star Trek would be deconstructive(actually, it would bounce all over the place, since they tried to do so many different things with that show). If you were to take those and form a quadrant graph, with each corner of a square devoted to one category, The Forever War would form a pretty symmetrical shape smack dab in the middle.

The Forever War starts in the mid nineties where humans are much more technologically advanced, having discovered near-light speed travel(aided by wormholes which advanced the study of physics dramatically). When one of their research ships comes back horribly damaged, and all of it's crew dead, the military minds become suspicious. When first contact is made with an alien race(dubbed Tauran), humanity shoots first and asks questions later. So begins the Forever War, where the military drafts not dropouts, but the smartest and strongest college students(wanting physicists who would understand the technology needed), and then sends them out into deep space. If they survive, they will return to an Earth several generations on, where everyone they know is dead and everything has changed.

Given the option to resign after his first two year tour, William Mandella returns to an Earth several decades on. His father is dead, but his mother is alive, and Earth is suffering from the effects of a war that steals the strongest and brightest of it's children. He and Marygay, whom he developed a relationship while in space, find themselves unable to fit in to this violent, soul-deadening society, despite being immensely wealthy(military pay plus several decades of interest in their Earth bank accounts), and re-enlist as instructors. The army has other needs, and sends Mandella and Marygay back into battle. And so it goes. The two are sent back into the war, together for awhile until separate assignments make it impossible that they would ever see each other again(relativity being what it is, they will most likely die hundreds of years apart). Occasionally Mandella returns to Earth, or at least to humanity, to gear up with the latest technology and head back to the aptly named Forever War.

There are so many ideas in this book that I don't really know where to start. The science is at the forefront, and each idea is theoretically possible with what we know(or knew, in 1974) of physics. And yet, unlike some novels I've read, the technical details never go too far into mind-numbing statistics. Scratch that, it goes VERY far into the statistics, theories and practical uses of the technology, but it was like a really amazing PBS documentary that makes you want to go out and research the scientific theories at work. Much of this science is applied in weapons, of course, and there are some really fascinating things there, but a lot of it is also given over to relativity and the disorienting affects it has. It's one thing to leave for two years and come back to find Earth is 20+ years on, it's another to never know what type of enemy you're going to run into, whether they will be more or less technologically advanced than you. On first contacts, the Taurans prove to be horrible fighters, completely ignorant of warfare. They have some devastating weapons in space, but on ground they seem to have no concept of hand to hand combat. This changes as things go on, but it's never steady. They never know if, due to the physics of time travel, they will run into a group of Taurans that left port earlier, the same time as, or decades later than the humans did.

I think what makes The Forever War so distinguished among other Hard Sci-Fi books I've read is that he's applied the same conjecture to the social, emotional and philosophical ramifications of such an immense and expensive war. Each time Mandella returns to Earth, we are told of all of the changes on Earth, but also given explanations for how things got that way. For an arm-chair doomsayer like myself, all of it seemed completely plausible, and a bit more subtle than the average 'descent into savagery and fascism' than most sci-fi has. At several points Earth is even better off than when Mandella was drafted, since these things tend to go in cycles; things get better, things get worse.

By the end of the novel, Mandella has lived through over 1,000 years of human history, although of course it's been less than a decade for him. Towards the end he keeps getting sent out on missions because, as the oldest soldier, and one of only a handful to survive more than two encounters, he's become a folk hero, something for the propaganda machines on Earth to celebrate. The ending pulls out some sudden emotion, which seems slightly out of place against the fairly grim and emotionless events recounted prior, but it still gave me chills, and was immensely satisfying. I won't spoil it here, because it's a book that has surprises on almost every page, and really should be enjoyed blind(I've been careful to avoid some of the bigger shocks). I will, by necessity, be spoiling the ending when I review the sequel, but I'll give you all a few days head start.

I know I recommend stuff all the time, but right now I'm going to say that anyone reading this on a regular basis needs to go buy this book as soon as possible. I'm gushing, I know, but it really was a great book and surprised the hell out of me.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Step Brothers

I'm choosing to review Step Brothers not because I have anything incredibly insightful to say about it, or that the movie inspired an intense reaction, but because I've given this movie a 4 star rating on Spout and feel like I need to qualify that a little. For those reading this on my Working Dead Productions site, a rating of 4(out of 5) literally means 'I liked it.' And I did. Kinda.

Oh sure, I got my two hours worth of laughs out of it, but in the end, I don't feel that there's really anything to recommend watching the full movie over the trailer. You get the joke in that short 2-3 minute montage of clips. The only joke. Will Ferrel and John C. Reilly are 40 year olds that aren't just man-children, but children whose bodies have become man-sized. There's some funny bits in between, some of it quite hilarious, and seeing Ferrel and Reilly dropping F-bombs at the top of their lungs never really loses it's comedic charm, but in the end, you see the trailer, you see the movie. I never really understood or agreed with critics who call a movie easily forgettable, but I will say that Step Brothers is just that. I'm sitting here trying to remember some of the one-liners from the movie, and I just can't do it. People will probably memorize and quote the movie, although probably not to the extent of Anchorman, but I won't be one of them.

Critics lately have been complaining about Judd Apatow's theme of arrested adolescents finally having to grow up, but I have to admit i still find it enjoyable. Perhaps it's because I count myself as one of that tribe, with my house full of comic books, video games, action figures and movie/music posters. I occasionally feel like I should grow up and start to put this stuff behind me, but then I realize that's just crazy talk. That scene in the 40 Year Old Virgin where Steve Carrell starts packing up his toy collection, it saddens me every time. The scenes in Step Brothers where the two guys just spend their nights watching Steven Segal movies and eating cereal? I wish that was my life. And I know it isn't just me. Just about everyone I know from my generation is going through the same thing. Apatow has struck a nerve with his films, but this one suffers from his more direct input(he produced, but neither wrote nor directed).

Step Brothers is stupid(purposefully so), silly, crass, and lazy. It's like an SNL skit, where it's a pretty funny idea, and then kinda settles and runs out of inertia as you realize you're going to have to wait for them to drag the gag out to movie length before they end it.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Get Off My Intellectual Property!

I'm halfway interested in the new horror film Mirrors for a couple of reasons. The first is director Alexander Aja, who directed the stylish(but completely inconsistent and mindless) slasher chase film High Tension, and the remake of The Hills Have Eyes. I almost thoroughly enjoyed High Tension when I saw it in theatres, and felt that his Hills Have Eyes remake was technically superior to the original, but emotionally and viscerally not in the same league. The other reason is that the film's central idea is eerily similar to an idea I've been kicking around since high school.

As a teenager I had a dream where mirrors weren't just reflections, but windows to alternate universes that were almost perfectly identical to our own. They looked exactly alike, but I was convinced that people in that mirror world were living their own separate lives. I could only imagine what they were doing when I wasn't watching. In the dream it wasn't malevolent, but it's hard to deny the creepiness in that idea. So it's made it's way into several ghost stories I've tried to write, and I made it a concept in my long(and slowly) gestating haunted house script. It's not a close enough similarity to seem like more than a mild coincidence, and it certainly doesn't mean I need to change my story, but it is a bit irritating now that if I ever do make my movie, I'll have the inevitable comparison to contend with. Or maybe Mirrors will be forgotten by then. It seems likely.

Or, maybe the moral is that I need to get off my ass and do something.

Stay tuned...

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Tiny Apocalypse

So now I'm about to lose all credibility, if I had any to begin with. Last night a friend brought over Doomsday, the latest from director Neil Marshall, who I normally enjoy. Dog Soldiers was fun, but I enjoyed more for it's promise of future delights than it's actual content, and Descent was one of the few theatrically released movies of the last few years that actually scared me. Doomsday continues the theme of unapologetically genre-based films starting with the letter D, and it looks like he's going to keep it up with his upcoming film Drive. Doomsday was not well received, although it didn't bomb, either. Most critics seemed aware of what the movie was trying to do(revive the tradition of 80's era post-apocalyptic action movies with grim heroes), but the main complaint was that the duplication seemed "lazy and uninspired." My only guess is that these same critics were expecting a satire or parody, not a love recreation.

I have to be honest and say that Doomsday is a pretty stupid movie, with very little substance to it beyond cheesy genre thrills. It's basically a hodge podge of 80's post-apocalyptic movies; a little Mad Max, a little Escape From New York, a little bit of The Warriors, and countless other movies made cheaply for the booming 80's video market. But Doomsday avoids the curse that befalls most homage movies by copying not just the setting, but the anarchic spirit of the films it's taking inspiration from. So complete is the insanity in this movie that, when I first watched it, tired and dozing, every time I opened my eyes I thought a new movie had started. Jumping from 28 Days Later style military action in Scotland to Beyond Thunderdome style bread and circus antics, to fucking Robin Hood, I couldn't keep up.

Let's just say the film had me from the moment when the heavily tattooed, mascara wearing leader of the cannibal tribe walks onto a stage and begins dancing and lip-synching to Adam Ant as a prelude to public torture. That's just pure fun.

Sunday, August 03, 2008


And I'm young enough to look at
And far too old to see
All the scars are on the inside
I'm not sure if there's anything left of me
- Blue Oyster Cult

Veteran of the Psychic Wars

The other day, as I travelled around midtown doing some errands, rocking out to BOC's Fire of Unknown Origin, those lyrics struck me. Not as incredibly deep, or moving, or even pretentious, but as highly... nerdy. And it hit me that that was a really big thing in the seventies. People like to credit They Might Be Giants, or even go back to Devo, as the progenitors of nerd rock, but really, it was people like Led Zepellin, with they epic songs about hobbits and elves and wizards, or Blue Oyster Cult with their rockin' singles about Godzilla, or the works of Michael Moorcock(the aforementioned song is narrated by a thinly veiled version of Jerry Cornelius). Hell, even Kiss and Alice Cooper fell into this category, only they were more spookshow oriented.

So if rock and roll in the seventies was all about mythology and fantasy, in the eighties it started to become about the myth of rock and roll itself. Bands like Metallica or Motorhead or even Bon Jovi started to take the focus away from 'isn't this cool and epic?' to 'aren't we cool and epic?'

And then come the nineties, where grunge came along and everyone misunderstood how close to arena rock these musicians actually were. It was, again, the focus that had changed. Grunge was about deconstructing the myth of rock and roll, it was about taking the focus away from the band and putting it back into the hands of the people. If that makes any sense.

Here's a story I read, that is both funny and sad. In the late eighties, Axl Rose of Guns 'N Roses apparently sensed some sort of camaraderie with Kurt Cobain, and he actually tried to get a project off the ground with the rising grunge superstars. You see, in Axl's eyes, they were two of a kind, both making a statement about the stale, corporate world of arena rock. They were both voices of their generations counter culture. But in Kurt Cobain's eyes, Guns 'N Roses were the precise form of cock rock they hated so much, and were so against.

That story made me laugh when I first heard it, but the more I think about it the more tragic it seems. Axl Rose had just been laughed out of the building by the voice of a generation, so of course he fired his band and has spent the last dozen or so years in seclusion, spiralling further into drugs and working on an album that will at this rate only be released posthumously.

Sorry, got off on a tangent there.

So if the rock in the 70s was about mythology, and in the 80s it was about mythologizing rock itself, then the 90s were about deconstructing all of that. That means that the 00's are all about looking back and trying to reclaim some of those styles that were rejected by other generations. Bands like the Darkness or Eagles of Death Metal are reviving the sex and glam of rock, while Tenacious D are handling the mythology front. Bands like The Strokes, The Killers or Franz Ferdinand and even Coldplay are bringing back 80s arena rock. And then you have Nickelback regurgitating all of the worst aspects of grunge.

A friend has a theory about music, and although he probably wont read this, I'll give Eric credit anyway. He says that every genre has three good decades. The first decade, it's unknown. The only people aware of it are the people doing it. In the second decade it's still unknown, but it's starting to catch on. The third decade is where it gets popular, and after that it's a slow assimilation into the generic world of popular music. It happened with country and bluegrass, and now it seems to be happening simultaneously with rock and hip hop.