Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)

Journalist Edward R. Murrow goes on a witch hunt against Senator Joseph McCarthy, and for decent reason: McCarthy's hysterical "red scare" tactics in Washington are trickling into the greater American experience. Mere accusations of Communist sympathy are suddenly enough to ruin careers, marriages, lives. Murrow takes the high ground, using McCarthy's tactics against the man himself. But will his own career survive when the inquisition inevitably boomerangs back to him? George Clooney's history-as-allegory is suitably presented in black and white, as that's the way he's shaded the story. This is not a biopic, not a film focused on subtlety of character; it is very cleanly fictionalized events washed in appropriate sociopolitical philosophy, and presented with documentary aplomb. The principals are conduits for their belief systems, but the fine performances keep the proceedings from being a simple lesson in civics -- as in the tiny moment when Murrow (David Strathairn) completes a vacuous interview with Liberace: the On Air light dims and Murrow's smile implodes, exposing his professional dyspepsia at having to stoop so low. The radical idea that reporting should not necessarily pretend to be non-biased, especially in self-evident cases of injustice and democratic crisis, is played well against the more commercial notion of simply giving the people what they want: sheer entertainment. What good is a light in a box if it doesn't provide some warmth?

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Repo Man (1984)

Otto (Emilio Estevez) is disaffected, ambitious but dulled by empty opportunities, disconnected from his burned-out parents, and bored with his dead-end supermarket job, shelving generic products for zombie consumers. Like all good monomyth heroes, he enters an underworld to ultimately emerge a Repo Man -- where the life is "always intense." Loosely strung vignettes detailing Otto's education as a repossession artist at the hands of old pros Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) and Lite (Sy Richardson) are bisected by scenes featuring a rogue 1964 Chevy Malibu. Seems J. Frank Parnell, the raving crack-up aimlessly piloting the Malibu, is keeping a secret in the trunk. The secret might have to do with aliens, or with neutron bombs, or maybe with time machines, nobody knows and to a great extent it doesn't matter -- but the Government is for sure trying to retrieve it. So too are the repo men, because there's a $10,000 bounty attached to the car. Dioretix, anyone? 

Alex Cox's first feature film, shot guerilla-style around Los Angeles, features many players (Dick Rude, Zander Schloss, Miguel Sandoval) who would grace his later classics Walker (1987) and Straight to Hell (1987). Like Gilliam and Romero, Cox is an underappreciated (and usually underfunded) master of subversion. A savvy social satire, with allusions ranging from Kiss Me Deadly (1955) to Close Encounters (1977), not to mention enough inside jokes, sly cultural references, and running gags to make Thomas Pynchon's head spin. A cult classic, totally.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Serenity (2005)

What more do you want out of a SF western? Checklist: bank robbery; dizzying chase across high plains; vicious bounty hunter; Indians vs. Cavalry-style ambush; various standoffs and shootouts; to top it all off a saloon brawl (but, this being a Joss Whedon flick, where a teenage girl whups everyone singlehandedly). In this continuation/conclusion of the Firefly television series, Captain Mal Reynolds comes to terms with his sublimated freedom-fighter ideals as he escorts the babbling River Tam to a hidden planet, hoping to unlock both the secret of her madness and a truth that will bring down the authoritarian Alliance. Only problem: the Alliance is hot on their tails -- as are a tribe of (literally) bloodthirsty space zombies known as Reavers. Suddenly, there's no safe place in the 'verse for the hero-pirate crew of Serenity. Whedon understands well everything George Lucas forgot with his Star Wars prequels: a keen sense of ongoing fun, logical accelerating stakes with consequences from all sides, zippy characters who can quip their way to a happy-ish ending. Deserves a sequel. Or a revival television series...

see also: Firefly (2002)

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Firefly (2002)

Gene Roddenberry famously pitched his original Star Trek (1966) as "Gunsmoke set in outer space." Joss Whedon actualizes that pitch with Firefly -- right down to the long-barrel pistols, cattle rustlers, and hyup-flavored rustic dialogue. After Earth becomes uninhabitable, a slew of Eastern Rim planets are terraformed through Yankee ingenuity. Eventually, civil war erupts between the Alliance (a kind of corporate government, formed by merged superpower companies from China and the US) and the "Browncoats," consisting of a scrappy clutch of small outer planets and moons declaring their independence; the Browncoats fight valiantly but are ultimately doomed. The truncated series takes place a few years after the end of this Unification War.

Mal Reynolds, former Browncoat, now captains the Serenity, a Firefly-class cargo/transport ship. He retains his ideals (the ship is named for the bloody, deciding Battle of Serenity Valley), buried as they are in a life of smuggling operations, the occasional Robin Hood-like gesture, avoiding the Alliance whenever possible. This quiet, personal rebellion is endangered when he takes onboard Doctor Simon Tam and his sister, River. Turns out River suffers from a lab-created psychosis, courtesy of the Alliance, who now want her back -- discovering the secrets of her strange powers and knowledge, and the quest to keep her hidden and safe until she can be brought back to normal, are the undercurrent story threads for Firefly.

But the show is truly buoyed by its characters, all of whom are cookie-cut in the shape of stereotypes, but crumble to subvert those very stereotypes. Serenity's crew consists of: loyal first mate Zoe, who fought beside Mal in the war and has never left his side. Zoe is married to wise-cracking Wash, pilot and resident peacemaker. Jayne Cobb is the proverbial numbskull thug-for-hire, always carrying too much ammo, and ready to rat out the Tams for the reward money. Kaylee is the ever-beatific mechanic, radiant despite ever-present swatches of engine grease on her cheeks (and not-so-secretly in love with Simon). Shepherd Book is a mysterious, dogma-free holy man -- never actually delivers a sermon, still functions as moral compass. Inara is Serenity's associate "Companion," a cross between a Geisha and a high-class call girl; Mal disapproves of her profession but keeps her onboard out of necessity (she's often their cover for landing clearance on Alliance planets) ... and out of underlying romantic friction.

After the fashion of the characters, several episodes make use of stock plots, only to transcend them. There's a train robbery; an outlaw township whose citizenry worships Jayne as a folk-hero; a femme fatale who tricks Mal into marrying her so she can pull off a heist; even a brothel-set recasting of Seven Samurai (1954). The characters, continually cracking wise, move through these scenarios with a kind of "Oh, this old story" attitude that refreshes the entire enterprise. (And there's blessedly little "reverse the polarity of the neutron flow" gibberish, even in "Out of Gas," the one episode revolving around the technical operation -- or lack thereof -- of Serenity.) The milieu is so complete and enchanting that the lack of any scaly or slimy aliens is hardly noticeable. This is a human 'verse -- these characters and the worlds they inhabit feel real and knowable, and you want to keep knowing them...

see also: Serenity (2005)

Monday, January 16, 2006

Aeon Flux (1995)

Lithe cartoon female assassin/espionage agent in skimpy dominatrix gear continually thwarts the leader of the neighboring authoritarian state in this ten-episode series. Based on a menagerie of animated shorts initially shown out-of-order on MTV (now stitched into a sort-of cohesive whole for home video), the individual episodes honor those origins with loose, dreamlike (read: incomprehensible) narrative structures. No episode necessarily connects to any other, and Aeon dies at the end of at least two. Interest is maintained chiefly by the lush visual design, the amusing philosophical rants of the main characters, and the occasional creepy plot element. Best enjoyed after midnight, when sleep is elusive.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Slasher (2004)

John Landis directed this IFC documentary about a wiry and wily mercenary-for-hire used car salesman. The Slasher (aka a dude from California, name of Michael Bennett) swoops down on a moribund auto dealership in Memphis TN in order to boost sales on a holiday weekend. Aside from a stone-faced DJ and some trucked-in beauties for eye candy, the chief bait is an "$88 car" supposedly hidden somewhere on the lot. The awful truth is that in the depressed local economy, the only car people can afford is an $88 car, so nobody has any interest in shopping beyond the gimmick, or even listening to sales pitches. When there's anybody on the lot other than the inflatable tube dancers, that is. Bennett, obviously accustomed to success, crashes and burns as gracefully as used-car-selling con man can -- smoking and drinking the whole way down. Several moments will induce flinches in veterans of the retail wastelands. At least the Slasher has opportunity to get elbow-deep in a plate of Memphis BBQ before returning to his loving family at the end. Meanwhile, that $88 car is still out there somewhere....