Thursday, August 30, 2012

Apophenia - Another Thing Europe Apparently Does Better Than Us*

*For most of you who are, justifiably wondering 'What the Hell is Apophenia?' it's a psychological obsession with the number 23, often associated with Illuminati conspiracy theories.

With that curious little factoid, we begin this week's discussion (and in case the title hasn't made it clear, no, it's NOT The Number 23.)  The concept of apophenia makes a notable theme for this week's movie - the German feature '23'.

Loosely based on a true story, the film concerns real-life 80s computer hacker Karl Koch (played by August Diehl.)  A rebellious, if somewhat dispassionate teen, his love of the Illuminatus! novels has instilled in him the legitimate belief that a worldwide conspiracy is in power over all.  This belief eventually leads him to the earliest phases of the internet and the hacker subculture.  After making a name for himself at a computer show, he and a friend are approached for a job.  What follows is a series of hacking jobs carried out for, and payrolled by, the KGB.  The increasing pressure from the job, as well as drug use, fuel Karl's own paranoid fantasies, sending him further and further off the rails as the film plays out.

I have to admit, there's something a little surreal about watching these scenes and realizing, relatively speaking, just how far the tech has evolved since this pointPrimarily in realizing this is still younger than I am.

The more I look back at this movie, the more I keep finding myself comparing it to David Fincher's 'The Social Network.'  Both based on true stories, and while each starts with an interesting external event (in this case, the hacking and espionage storyline) in both films, the real meat of the movie comes from its focus on the protagonist and their own internal workings.  In this regard, the film holds up pretty well.  The hacking storyline could have made a good movie in its own right, and for its part it makes for some good scenes of interaction between the four main players (alongside Diehl there's Fabian Busch as his friend and fellow hacker David, Jan Gregor Kremp as the more business-minded Lupo, and Dieter Landuris as the group's KGB contact and drug dealer Pepe.)  As the film goes on, however, we become more pulled into Karl's world and see how his theories go from simple theories to full-on delusions.  So much so that many of the more interesting parts of the later half come from seeing just how his heightened paranoia has driven rifts between him and his partners in crime, whose responses range anywhere from concern to beleaguered amusement.

As Karl, Diehl really manages to carry the range necessary for this transition.  I have to admit, this role caught me a bit off guard at first, as I had previously only seen him in Tarentino's Inglourious Basterds (wherein he was several years older and on the other side of the line between authority and anarchy.)  At the start of the movie, he comes across as your classic sullen teenager, especially in the few scenes he has against his father (Hanns Zischler.)  From there, we see him gain a sort of self-confident air as a hacker only to watch as the downward spiral turns him into an introverted mess of a human being.  It's a lot to cover and Diehl does a good job without overplaying his hand at any point.  Likewise, his costars take on their respective roles well, especially Busch who goes from a good friend to becoming increasingly uncertain of their work and friendship as things come apart.  After a while, you feel bad for the guy because you can tell he's trying to get Karl to snap out of things, but it's a futile effort that came too little, too late.

The one other thing that I'd say really stands out for me on this film is some of the sound and music editing.  Some of the most memorable sequences for me were involving just simple background audio or music, such as the opening titles (panning over Karl's collection of conspiracy notes set to Deep Purple's 'Child Out of Time') and a sequence early on involving Karl and David driving through city streets set to Iggy Pop's 'The Passenger' as they note the many occurences of '5' and '23' in everyday life around them (both considered crucial numbers to the Illuminati.)  Even when not employing music, they still make good use of other audio editing - featuring the real-life events of the time in newsreel montages, while a bit of a cliche, is still played well here, especially in the second half as these events start to feel to Karl as more than just seeming chance occurrences.  There is one other moment would like to mention, but as it's something of a spoiler, I'll just say it's near the end of the film and hope that gives an additional incentive to look up the movie.

Which makes for one Hell of a more interesting road game than the usual 'I Spy...'

Overall, I'm not sure I'd call this one of the greatest movies ever made.  At the same time though, I was very pleasantly surprised by it.  For something I discovered entirely by chance in a wikipedia chain (I can't even remember how it started...but then that's always the start with something like European economics, cut to an hour later as you wonder why the Hell you're looking up the musical career of William Shatner [I'm not sure exactly how that one would work, but if someone can find a way, feel free to post the directions for warped curiosity's sake]) this exceeded what I was expecting.  All in all, still a rather interesting biopic/character study set against an equally pretty cool bit of history.

Wow...been a while since we got a single full-on good review here.  It feels a little bit weird.

Rest assured though, we're diving back into the bag of pain for next week's entry, so the craziness hasn't been abandoned yet.  We're just diversifying is all!

...yeah, I think even here I'd argue this still was better than our attempt. 
Not much in this one case, but still better.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Less Than Rare Exports

Yes, I know I usually try to stick to just discussing film and film related material here.

Every so often though, something happens that just prompts a train of thought.  Admittedly, this one also DOES tie in to film to a degree, but as it is now, the problem is really more focused around television than film.

That said, this week saw a rather curious debut.  With much bemused skepticism about it on the internet, MTV aired the first episode of their American remake of the British comedy The Inbetweeners.  On having recently watched it, I can honestly say the naysayers had the right idea here.  Even when not comparing this to the original, this was just painful to watch.  The kind of show that feels like it's trying too hard for the laugh and never really gives itself time to breath and just let the jokes flow naturally.

For  the sake of comparison:
For the record, the car door isn't a recurring thing.  From the looks and sounds of things, this is quite literally a remake of the British show.

Though to me, the saddest part of this is that, in this day and age, there was really no need for this.  Not just that it was bad, but the entire idea of remaking it.

I mean, I can accept the fact that there was once a time when I could see the case for trying to pick up a British show for more American tastes.  They've tried to do this off and on for years now, and the internet is littered with the discarded shells of pilot episodes for aborted American runs of popular British titles (such as Red Dwarf or The IT Crowd) or failing that, at least publically disclosed tales of attempts that failed (such as Roseanne's attempt to bring over Absolutely Fabulous, or the Fox network's attempt to bring over the Edgard Wright series Spaced, a reboot that star Simon Pegg looks back on as an utter mess.)

Back in the day, I could dislike it but at least see the logic - for the longest time, British television had almost no airwave play over here, shy of whatever your local PBS took it on themselves to air.  For my part, this was what introduced me to things like Monty Python's Flying Circus, Red Dwarf, Are You Being Served? and 'Allo, 'Allo, but that's a story for another day.  Point was, these shows were always kind of in a niche back then.  They had pretty strong followings, but always on the smaller side.

Then that all changed within the last decade thanks to two things - the increase in prominence of the channel BBC America and the ushering in of internet streaming as a means of television broadcast.

With these two elements in play, British television became quite popular, almost mainstream, in the US.  This is probably best embodied in the major boom of the sci-fi cult hit Dr. Who (a show that was also once tapped for an American reboot that never made it beyond pilot movie)-A series that had formerly been a niche within the nerd culture became a regular part of the modern parlance and has even gone on to achieve major attention here in its more recent forms.  Additionally, its spinoff series Torchwood has gone on to achieve similar levels of praise, even leading to the Starz network funding a new sequel season to the show, with the surviving (Seriously, emphasis on surviving) cast returning.

Likewise, the drama Downtown Abbey enjoys a strong following here stateside, and despite what some would argue in defense of many remakes, the distinctly British nature of the show has not hampered Americans from taking to it and allowing it to gain a considerable fanbase here as well.  Alongside just the fans, this is also worth noting for the fact it has gone on to achieve both critical acclaim as well as landing attention from the Emmy Awards committee.  Not bad, all things considered.

Additionally, as mentioned, the advent of technological developments like Hulu and Netflix have broadened the horizons for titles people have access to and see.  Alongside the above mentioned successes, shows like Spaced, Black Books, Sherlock, Misfits, and The Inbetweeners (to bring this all around again) have all gained interest and followings here.

So we now have the means and we've proven cultural barriers are not as daunting as network executives seem to believe them to be.  Despite this, there remains an assumption that these shows need to be rewritten, recast, and made more 'American' to be enjoyed. 

Now, this isn't to say an adaptation will automatically be bad.  One of the most prominent exceptions I'm sure I would be reminded of if I didn't mention it would be the successful American run of The Office. This show didn't simply recast the same characters and film the same UK scripts- it developed new characters, a new environment, gained a following in its own right. Currently, it has held out for many seasons and made its share of award wins.  Given the timing, I'd actually argue that may have been one of the last shows to still make a decent case for full re-adaptation at that point.

For many of these shows, however, for the reasons listed above, just don't interest people.  Especially not those who are already familiar with the original.  In the case of The Inbetweeners, this proves particularly interesting, as this makes MTV's second attempt to try and Americanize a well-known and well-liked British title, only to have it backfire on them.  Especially strange that they'd try again after the debacle that ensued with their attempted version of Skins.  Despite its apparent failure, they still felt determined enough to try and adapt a series that has gained a following strong enough to see the post-series movie lined up for a run in some US theaters next month.  On top of which, the humor in the original is pretty accessible.  About the worst newcomers would have to worry about is learning some new bits of British slang, and even that's pretty easy to pick up on. In fact, my girlfriend uses "gash" and we both use "wanker" on a consistent basis.

The saddest part is, they should have seen this coming.  Much of the response on the web was the same as people had when Skins US was announced.  Rather than excitement, people simply asked "Why bother?"

Now, and as I understand it, the reception to the Inbetweeners US has been...let's just say I'm apparently not alone on this one and leave it at that.  So will MTV learn this time? More to the point, will the industry in general learn now?  Especially given there's still talk of trying to make an American version of the series Misfits, a show whose popularity on streaming sites has even been noted by the people in charge of the remake.  That's right.  They're acknowledging people love this and they're still gonna try and remake it.

It's like we forgot what happened the last time they had this sort of a set up and how well THAT sold:

See?  I told you I'd bring it around!

Really, I've tried to wrap my mind around why there's such a fixation on doing this.  About the only theory I have left is that, in a system that is now fast being reworked by the new technological breakthroughs, remakes and Americanizations are one of the few ways the 'old guard' (as it were) still has to try and maintain a degree of control over media that, more and more people are being able to see without going through them or their check points.  A theory that I will admit sounds slightly like a  conspiracy theory, but given just how much of the 'entertainment vs technology' battle comes down to the question of control and who has it, this is one that DOES have some grounding.

But, for now, this will only remain speculation.  I will keep an eye out to see how long this new remake lasts, but based on what I saw, I am NOT hopeful.  Much of what made the original appealing is gone, and what's in its place feels much more...let's just go with disposable for a word.

In the meantime, what else can I say?  It's a new age of entertainment distribution, and if you haven't looked into these originals yet, by all means, see what you can find.  we have a lot more to see than we used to be able to, and it'd be a damned shame not to take advantage of it.

Till next time, when I promise we'll be back onto film a bit more and I may be (slightly) less ranting.

Until then, a reminder that all hands and arms stay inside the car cause we can NOT afford another lawsuit this year.

Thank you
--The Management

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Nothing Quite Like Watching an Artist Take a Baseball bat to His Career's Kneecaps.

"Never give an epic saga an even break."
--Mel Brooks (tagline for Blazing Saddles)

Well, as people may have noticed, things got a bit quite here for a few weeks there.  This has been due to a couple of larger scale projects in the works for the future that will be turning up in due time in the future.

In the meantime, what better way to show that there's still life here than to salute it with exploring one of the all-time great 'career killers' of film.

That said, this is a movie I'd always heard about in passing prior to finally deciding to watch it.  One of those films where you hear almost nothing about the movie itself, and everything about its reputation.  In fact, I had no real idea what it was even about until reading the review from The Onion's 'My Year In Flops.'  I filed it away to look into later, but hadn't acted on it at the time.  Then this year, to the surprise of many on the web, this film, infamous for its borderline legendary history of production problems, and its renowned failure at the box office that the director still never quite bounced back from, was tagged for a release by the esteemed Criterion Collection.  This latter moment is what bumped it back to the forefront of consciousness that leads us to where we are now.

Have you guessed it yet with this clues?  For those playing at home who haven't guessed it yet, we're talking about Michael Cimino's infamous career-killing epic 'Heaven's Gate.'

That's right.  I blame you guys for this.

The weirdest thing about this movie is, taken just on paper it sounds good.  I mean REALLY good.  At the time this was made, Cimino was fresh off the success of making The Deer Hunter, netting wins for Best Picture and Director, and was effectively given the keys to the kingdom by United Artists.  Thanks to 007 movies keeping them pretty consistently in the black, they were a bit more free-flowing with the money for ambitious directors.  Much to their surprise, this would come back to haunt them later, but that's getting ahead of things.  Alongside the director, the cast is a veritable who's who that actually sounds even better nowadays thanks to several of the actors being established further since (to list off just a laundry list of players: Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert, Sam Waterston, John Hurt, Jeff Bridges, Brad Dourif, Richard Masur, Joseph Cotten, and in smaller side roles Terry O'Quinn, Mickey Rourke, Tom Noonan and the uncredited debut of Willem Dafoe.)
...suffice it to say, this was a loaded cast, with an epic storyline to go with it, setting a love triangle against the larger scope of the Johnson County War of the late 19th century.

Taking this into account, one could see how this seemed like a good idea.  I mean, even on looking at the initial pitch, I was stunned to hear the absolute failure it turned into.  So going into this, I was expecting a crash the likes of which would make the Hindenburg look like a mild slip-up.

However, it's worth noting in advance half of this film's grave was dug before it was even released.  Cimino's production history has been fairly well known and documented, especially in the book "Final Cut" by former UA executive Steven Bach.  Nowadays, it's known alongside Apocalypse Now as a spectacle of production mishaps, budgetary problems, and one director who seemed to be dancing on the line to madness.  Several stories have circulated of Cimino's rampant perfectionism and the copious amounts of money it bled from the film, including as many as 50 takes for shots as a baseline.  In fact, the idea that there isn't a documentary about the movie's production (that I'm aware of) floors me.

Looking at him back in the day, it's a little like seeing Stanley Kubrick clean-shaven.  Sadly, this also suggests a Samson effect - remove his beard and he keeps the perfectionist from Hell at the cost of the successful results.

Why am I going on so much about the production history?  For two reasons.  One, because it puts the film's subsequent failure into a much better sense of context.  Two, to be honest, it's actually the more interesting story to tell.

This isn't to say Heaven's Gate is a bad film per se.  The story is one that has potential to be good, and at times even touches on said goodness.  The problem is, like the production of the movie itself, the movie's story tends to go overboard on moments that, while sometimes very well filmed, don't add that much to the overall film.  Cimino definitely has an eye for arranging some of these sequences, and makes for some great individual shots: Walken's first scene on-screen, for example, is a well-arranged little piece of suspense to his reveal as a cold-blooded killer.  Other sequences, however, including two full dance sequences and a cockfight scene add little to the overarcing proceedings beyond padding the movie's run time.  It's even hard to argue that they can be seen as development moments, as many of them focus on characters that don't really come back later on, or their roles for the main cast are then reaffirmed in other scenes anyway.
A sample of one of the dances for those who didn't believe me
Because it was the 70s and roller dancing was still big!

It feels like part of the problem lies in Cimino on this one.  Again, this isn't to say the man has a lack of talent, because he certainly proves he's got some skills in shots such as the above mentioned Walken arrival.  At the same time, his desire to make this film truly epic is as problematic on screen as it was off.  Extra sequences like the above mentioned dances could have been done in less time, and often don't really seem to do much for the greater scope beyond simply padding for time and distracting from the core narration.  Saying this really creates a conflict for me since, while I usually will side with a director and argue it's important to maintain their vision, in this case it feels like Cimino's ambition is his own worst enemy.

Which is probably the saddest part about this movie.  It's a film that feels like there's a very good movie buried within it.  Somewhere, under the close to 4-hour running time of the Director's Cut (3 hours, 40 minutes to be exact), there's a fairly well acted tale of the darker side of American history, as Kristoffterson's somewhat idealistic James Averille travels out west and has his view of the country run through a wringer when the local immigrants in the county he's sworn to protect are targeted for elimination by cattle barons.  Even the love triangle between Averille, brothel owner Ella Watson (Huppert) and friend turned rival Nate Champion (Walken) has some interesting moments and a nice dynamic at times, but unfortunately falls apart as the movie speeds into its violent second half.  With more attention paid and a bit more guidance, these ideas could each have made great stories, and even potentially been run together in a film that could have played like David Lean takes on Americana.  Unfortunately, the overall effect feels like, as stories gain new focus, the older stories are neglected until it's convenient to prioritize them again.  With the stakes in play here, it's a hard balancing act even for a director at the top of their game to do right, and sadly Cimino just feels like he keeps trying to throw more things on to make the balance even more impressive, only to throw it off by mistake instead.

Further adding to these strands of good movie buried within, the cast are largely in good form on this one.  Despite his Razzy nomination for this, Kristofferson makes for a fairly good lead, or at least as good as the script allows for, and Waterston as the head of the cattle barons plays a suitably despicable, but plausible villainous bastard, ordering the deaths of over a hundred people without so much as batting an eye.  Further, in a sort of sad 'then and now' moment, Walken and Dourif both remind us that, for a while there, they were both known as respected actors who would get some great work sent their way; a reminder made even sadder by realizing they still have this talent nowadays, though they sadly don't get as many opportunities to show it anymore.  As the female lead, Huppert carries her role well, though admittedly there are a few scenes where she comes across as flatter than she was likely meant to.  Especially strange, given many consider her to be one of the greatest living actresses even now.  Still, when the emotions run high, she proves she can deliver as needed after all.  Of the other main performances, the two others worth mentioning are Jeff Bridges who, despite being only a supporting role, makes for a pretty show-stealing role as a local businessman with a charismatic way with the locals, and John Hurt as one of Averille's old college buddies who has long since turned to drink out of his own disillusionment with the west.  The latter is another case where this movie leaves me conflicted.  Hurt plays the character well, and he's an interesting character at first, in particular thanks to the dynamic the movie's (rather long) prologue builds for him alongside Kristofferson.  We start the film off with the impression that his friendship with Averille will be a larger element of the film than it turns into.  Instead, when we meet him during the movie proper, his appearance in the beginning never really winds up adding much to the movie beyond a fairly impotent voice of protest among the cattle barons.  About his only real purpose in the film seems to be to tell Averille what they have in mind.  After this, he simply floats around in the background of scenes, quite drunk and wryly commenting on the situation.  By the time the movie's bloody climax is unfolding, his stay in the film sadly feels so overextended that his final scene feels less tragic and more a sort of 'waiting out the clock' to the fate we all can see barreling down on him.

To bring the history back around one last time, as stated above, the movie itself landed with a resounding thud.  While the film itself was panned critically, the brunt of the damage, it's important to remember, was done by Cimino himself during production.  Even before the film came out, the numbers it cranked up meant it would have to perform with a vengeance in order to even come close to making back what it cost to produce.  It was half-way to a dead man walking by the time it came out.  The fact that the movie then underperformed from there just ensured the film would take UA and a good chunk of Cimino's career standing down with it.  People have since speculated its production history may have had a hand in why people came down so harshly on it when it first came out.  Given people still speak of it in somewhat mixed tones, I would say there's something to that.

At the same time though, watching it for myself all these years after, doing my best to keep the shadow of its reputation from swallowing it up, I would be lying if I said I didn't agree with the critics of yesteryear on this one.  Not entirely, anyway.  I certainly wouldn't call this movie the worst I've ever seen by any stretch.  At the same time, however, I can't say I'd call it a diamond in the rough or a lost treasure of a film.  More than anything, it stands out to me as a curious piece of film history - a would-be epic, both on and off screen that collapsed under the sheer weight of its own ambition more than anything else.  That said, I will admit, the more I read on the history of it, the more I would be legitimately interested in seeing a film based on the movie's production itself.  It could actually make an interesting companion piece to the movie itself, in a way - two tales of a man's journey into a bold new frontier and the mishaps and tragedy that ensued.

Overall, I will admit to a certain fascination with this movie.  Just strong enough to not be bad, but flawed enough to keep me from really calling it good, I actually feel kind of glad I finally got around to watching this.  I just wish it could have had a stronger sense of itself than what we got.

There's reports that the Criterion release may be a restoration, with some talk that it may come closer to the movie's talked about, and somewhat infamous, 5 hour cut.  I'm not sure how true these stories are, but if they turn out to be legitimate, I may just feel inclined to check it out when the time comes.  It may risk adding the already problematic bloat that has hampered the film as it is now, but at least it will be impressive looking bloat.

Well, this was a rather curious one.  I mean, after the last 'you were warned' entry here, this one went pretty well...albeit long...very long.
Still, I feel like it was worth the experience.

Till next time!
I tried to promise myself I wouldn't make some sort of Walken-based caption.
...then I saw him sporting a Ron Swanson mustache and that went out the window.