Monday, January 27, 2014

Like MacArthur, Odyseuss* and the Local Fish Graffiti, I Have Returned!

See that fish up there? He’s a piece of graffiti in my neighborhood, and whenever he’s painted over, he appears again in a few days. That fish rules, and is an inspiration.
Go, Fish! GO!

Wow! The time I have been taking between posts is inexcusable!
I do apologize, but lack of writing for LERNER INTERNATIONAL certainly doesn’t mean that I haven’t been busy.

Oh lordy, have I been busy!

[* = Odyseuss? He’s the guy who wrote Green Eggs and Circe’s Curse and The Scylla & Charyrbdis in the Hat, remember?]
I’ve been busy trying to find work, busy trying to keep work, and busy getting paid for working.
But as anyone not stupid will tell you, times are tough.
While I won’t go into details as not to jinx myself, fingers are crossed! Good things are on the horizon, but unfortunately however, this has resulted in almost no writing of a fun sort, and a grand reduction in entertainment consumption.
And honestly, through no one’s fault but my own (mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!) my life’s been a tad hellish at times lately.

Then this cold! It really cramps my style! (But certainly provides many fascinating images…)
(And just because I’m finally publishing again does not mean my schedule is getting back to normal—if anything I shamed myself into finally finishing this.)

Now onto the Movies!

GRAVITY is the Best Science Fiction, Best Contemporary “Man-Against-Nature Fight For Survival” and/or Best Animated Film of the Year!

Originally seen in October 2013, Gravity (2013; Alfonso Cuaron) is a wonderful hybrid: the best genuine “hard science” science-fiction film that has been made in ages—as opposed to fantasy or Star Trek-like supertech that might as well be magic— and the film is also the finest “Man Against Nature Fight For Survival” movie released in a long time. Gravity is a nerve-wracking nail-biting thriller. Fantastic stuff that really should be seen in the theater.

Technically superb, Gravity is a simple tale, told intensely with so much style and verve that the flick almost becomes experimental—without gravity, there are no points of reference, no up, no down—Director Cuaron is kind enough to always frame the actors so their heads are pointing “up,” but after that the audience is given no breaks, and some might find themselves nauseous from vertigo.

The camera circles and spins around weightless astronauts being tormented by the Laws of Thermodynamics, especially that one about “bodies in motion…” The weightlessness is so flawless that I have to wonder how much of this movie is animated. I almost want to say that Gravity is also the best animated film of the year.

As sci-fi, it is almost perfect, as there is nothing “made up” in this flick, except perhaps our protagonist’s incredible luck.
I’ve heard of genuine astronauts scoffing at Gravity, but the film is entirely based off of what actually exists, what is known to work in the “real world,” and extrapolating off of that data, the filmmakers give us a grueling, almost psychedelic thriller.

Despite being set in on the edge of the vastness of space, the flick is strangely and incredibly claustrophobic (we’re trapped in those astro-suits as well), and packed full of Lovecraftian cosmic dread and terror: The Universe seems actively hostile towards humans.
This is a mind-blowing/tension-packed film, creating anxiety that’s almost unbearable. It’s a grueling, incredible tale of survival. After a swarm of space junk clobbers the NASA space shuttle, astronauts George Clooney and Sandra Bullock (“I hate space,” she gripes) struggle to make it to “safety” on the International Space Station. It’s an insane chance, but better than just floating away and dying.

Cuaron continues to impress—it’s been a few years since Children of Men, but there is no doubt the director has been busy. Gravity looks like a logistical nightmare, at least from an effects point of view. It’s also the best kind of remake: an unofficial one that doesn’t remind you at all of its sub-par “source” material—in this case, John Sturges’ lumbering Marooned (1969), a flick I like, but cannot recommend (watch the “bad” Apollo 18 before the “classic” Marooned).

The funny thing is that some of the best most intelligent and hard-science-driven science fiction films have needed to “make stuff up:”
Both 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Andromeda Strain needed aliens to drive their plots (in the former, the extraterrestrials were incredibly advanced; in the later, incredibly simple).

Thankfully, Gravity doesn’t introduce ultraterrestrials of any sort, and so becomes intensely existential—
Our hero is reborn (via some heavy-handed symbolism) into a new human being, one living in the NOW.

This is why I sometimes find myself arguing that an “okay” flick like 1974's Earthquake is better sci-fi than GREAT flicks because those classics have to rely on fantastical/impossible elements like alien life, while everything in Chuck Heston's disaster soap opera, or something like The China Syndrome, is already in place to happen—like with Gravity, it just takes one little thing to launch a maelstrom of destruction!

Speaking of “gravity”—I would love to see Hal Clement’s old school science fiction classic Mission of Gravity faithfully adapted into a film—it’s a simple tale of an Earth astronaut’s survival and exploration, but set on a very weird planet (shaped like an egg), whose gravity stretches between 3g and 700g, and whose inhabitants are intelligent centipede-creatures. After the aliens learn English, the book concentrates on survival in such a strange environment (on parts of their world, despite their hard shells, a fall of approximately an inch could kill them).
Almost an ultra-detailed Popular Mechanics article, Mission of Gravity is fun stuff that still holds up.

Here’s The Cinema Screened In
November 2013

Utu (1983; Geoff Murphy) Anzac revisionist western/
Not the typical revenge flick/Great performances, and good action/kind of a sleeper, a bit too self-consciously “quirky”—but this made it more interesting as well.

Pretty Poison (1968; Noel Black) Classic Tony Perkins/Tuesday Weld “good girl secretly evil” flick that needs to be seen by everyone. Part of Weld’s “Secret Homosexual” trilogy from the 1960s, that included Lord Love a Duck and Soldier in the Rain

Bonnie’s Kids (1973; Arthur Marks) A new fave! Reviewed HERE!

Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975; John Huston) Saw this as a kid during its original run in Times Square, loved it then, still love it now. Almost perfect filmmaking that really showed Huston’s mastery. The direction feels effortless, but the storytelling is as intricate as a Swiss watch. Connery & Caine are superb, but I can’t help but wish I could also see that alternate universe version of The Man Who Would Be King that Huston wanted to make in the 1940s with Bogart and Clark Gable.

Grabbers (2012; Jon Wright) is a very Irish movie, almost to the point of annoyance. Goofy “Paddy” humor interferes with a potentially interesting story of an alien invasion thwarted by alcoholics. What we have feels like a short that’s been, heh-heh, padded out a bit too much. Despite my gripes, Grabbers is worth a look for weirdness/uniqueness value.

“Fall Out” The Prisoner (1968; episode written & directed by Patrick McGoohan)
Probably one of the greatest moments in TV history. The final episode of one of the greatest and weirdest television shows ever, where questions grow exponentially, but it sort of doesn’t matter: “I! I! I! I!”

Here Are the Films Viewed During Those Halcyon Days of
December 2013

The Brute Man (1946; Jean Yarbrough) Like Freaks or Michael Winner’s The Sentinel or Coffin Joe’s movies, The Brute Man is sleazy and exploitative—a.k.a. wonderful—in how it uses genuine human deformity for our entertainment and sick fascination. In this case, star Rondo Hatton, whose infamous mug was courtesy of the disease acromegaly, but whose acting was genuine, guileless and directly from the soul. Hatton is a merciless psychokiller in the film, but he’s also an everyman out of a Bukowski story—at odds with the world and only wanting to be left along, and his scenes with a blind girl are moving.
The film had zero budget and reuses stock footage relentlessly, but also moves at a brisk pace—matched by the sly banter between the two smart-aleck cops assigned to the case, and Hatton’s soulful emoting.

Iron Sky (2012; Timo Vuorensola) Turned my cousin on to this magnificent piece of satire, that I’ve praised before.
Iron Sky is really a new fave of mine: weird, smart, seditious, and sometimes silly, it uses the outrageous plot of Nazis hiding on the Dark Side of the Moon (which is a fallacy: there is a Far Side of the Moon—one side always pointed away from Earth, but no Dark Side—that side gets plenty of sunlight. But anyway….I’m a nerd).

The Lunar National Socialists are planning an eventual conquest of Earth, and the film uses this to take potshots at popular culture, especially American politics. Wisely the movie doesn’t get bogged down in small, petty details—like how did the Nazis get to the Moon in 1945?—and sticks to twisted, very European swipes at super-nationalism and resulting brainpower loss.

In a reelection bid (as well as the secret mission of finding super-fuel Helium-3), the Sarah-Palin-like U.S. President has returned America to the Moon. Surprised by Moon Nazis, one astronaut is killed and the other captured—but the Germans are flummoxed when they discover the survivor is an African-American.

Meanwhile, Renata, born and raised on the Nazi Moonbase (shaped like a swastika), is a schoolteacher (and fiancé to the next Moon-Fuhrer), who was raised under Nazi propaganda, but is genuinely sweet and caring. Just misinformed. She believes that Hitler’s message was of love—and she wants to go to Earth and spread the “Love.”

A Finnish, German, and Australian co-production, shot in those nations, but also in New York City, Iron Sky is the type of political satire that is never made in the U.S., unless on some ridiculous micro-budget.

Without giving away any of the plot (this film should really be seen cold), I genuinely feel Iron Sky deserves to be on the shelf next to the best work of Alex Cox and Terry Gilliam: visually inventive (this film is a steampunk delight!), and subversive on many socio-political-racial-artistic levels—while being packed with detail and incident, but with a truly swift pace. A Five-Star Must-See, if you ask me!

Homeland: Season Two (2012; series created by Howard Gordon & Alex Gansa) Wow, this soap opera is really getting illogical—although I love its (perhaps unintentional) thesis that all intelligence analysts are borderline psychos who cause more damage than they prevent. However, this nonsense that Al Quaeda is anything more than a gaggle of reckless rabble has got to stop.

Hannah Arendt (2012; Margarethe von Trotta) is a perfect biopic: I feel biopics should only concentrate on their subject’s most important five to ten years. The movies that go from birth to death (the Andy Kaufman bio, Malcolm X) are absolute snoozefests. Good biopics, like Patton or Ed Wood, stick to a limited timeframe. Hannah Arendt does the same, sticking to the years where the eponymous philosopher developed her theories on The Banality of Evil, and all the controversy it caused. A thoughtful film that inspires reflection.

Sightseers (2012; Ben Whatley) Whatley is a filmmaker to watch. Just because none of his films I’ve seen have really resonated with me doesn’t mean I don’t think he hasn’t got a certain “something.” Sightseers is a black comedy about murderous nitpickers on a caravan holiday in the UK’s more dull places—and there’s plenty to like about the movie, but like Whatley’s previous Kill List, I couldn’t completely connect with the flick. Maybe with the next one, eh?

Stoker (2013; Park Chan-wook) So brilliant; one of the year’s best [reviewed here]. 

The Wire: Season Four (2006; created by David Simon) Such an incredible series! This is the second (or third) time I’ve watched the episodes centering on Baltimore’s struggling education system. As someone who is planning a career switch into teaching, watching Prezbo’s imitation into the meatgrinder of the public schools was certainly sobering, if not shocking and moving.

Books, etc. read in November 2013 (“(*)” means I’ve read it before)

(*) ALIEN (script) by Walter Hill & David Giler, based on a screenplay by Dan O’Bannon, from a story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett—
A classic script, deservedly praised for its stripped-down, almost-haiku-like style—a real game-changer in how screenplays were written. All cinema students should read it

Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs by Ted Morgan—fascinating, illuminating stuff; a great biography as it brings its subject very much to life, despite/because of the contradictions. Helps if you’re already a fan of Uncle Bill, though; then much of the book is attention-seizing.

The Amazing Screw-On Head, and Other Curious Objects by Mike Mignola (graphic novel)—fantastic and fantastical stuff; very steampunk—but I honestly think that the short film of this is actually better than the book!
That said, I’m reading and rereading this comic as many times as I can before I have to return it to the library. Jeez, I love Mignola’s art! Beautiful!

Baltimore: The Plague Ships, Volume One by Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden and Ben Stenbeck (graphic novel)—spooky horror tale, that’s also very moody and depressing. I didn’t love it, and cannot recommend it.

Books, etc. Read in December 2013

I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High by Tony Danza—Moving, inspirational and full of hints for the new and undaunted teacher.

Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of “The Devils” by Richard Crouse—
Good stuff about the making and impact of one of the greatest films ever made—Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971)—but the book is too much like a magazine article that’s been very padded out: full of unnecessary fluff. Only for monstro-fans of director Russell, star Oliver Reed, or the film The Devils itself.

Fires in the Bathroom: Advice for Teachers From High School Students by Kathleen Cushman (and the students of What Kids Can Do Inc.)—
Honest answers from HS students about what they need and expect from teachers. Short version: Be very organized; take authority; have high expectations; and don’t worry about understanding, just be respectful.

Hellboy: House of the Living Dead by Mike Mignola and Richard Corben (graphic novel)—
A fab tribute to Mexican wrestling/horror flicks that really captures those movies’ insane twists-and-turns, as well as their inexplicable religious cosmology: a mutant combo of blood-drenched Catholicism and Aztec Sun God sacrifices. A must-read for horror fans, even the ones unfamiliar with the character of Hellboy. And Corben’s art certainly deserves a shout-out!


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