On DVD: I'm Still Here

Joaquin Phoenix's and Casey Affleck's "film" I'm Still Here has one mildly amusing inside joke in it, and that is its title, and that particular play on words will only be meaningful to those who saw Todd Haynes' daring and difficult cinematic treatment of the life and personae of Bob Dylan, I'm Not There. That the joke isn't even all that funny even to those who've seen the Haynes film is only the tip of the iceberg. I'm Still Here is an offensive, suffocatingly smug and self-satisfied piece of faux-introversion that gifts those patient enough to sit through its entirety with the kind of obscene lack of thought one might associate with frat house gang rape - which isn't unrelated to the way one feels after watching it. Phoenix and Affleck are both talented actors who I generally enjoy watching on-screen. Here, they have fallen victim to the single most common mistake made by actors who unwisely reach beyond their given talents: they believed that they knew something about how to tell a story. I'm Still Here proves a whole slew of negative stereotypes about actors, and may very well occasion a renewed interest in dismissing them as a group of infantile chauvinists who relish their own creative byproducts the way pigs relish bathing in their own shit.

A couple of years ago, Joaquin Phoenix, working with co-writer, co-producer, and director Casey Affleck, staged a surprisingly elaborate hoax in which he claimed to be re-inventing himself as a hip-hop artist. Physically, he underwent a transformation that found him looking quite unlike any previously known rapper: a paunchy Phoenix let his hair go and grew a bushy, unruly beard. The hoax never really got beyond the "what's this about Joaquin Phoenix becoming a rapper?" stage, and neither does the film, which documents the hoax with a straight face, pretending that this artistic transformation is really happening.

Only a duo with the combined Hollywood credentials of Phoenix and Affleck could have roped "guest stars" such as Sean "P-Diddy" Combs and David Letterman into the proceedings, which helps invest the film with the weight of legitimacy. A prologue featuring purported archival footage of Phoenix performing with his siblings as a child, and the vérité shooting style, also help generate a sense that Something Interesting must be happening here. However, a baffling and pointless interest in showing male genitalia and some raunchy "crazy musician" behavior thrown in for good measure merely remind us that this is amateur hour at its worst.

But alas, that isn't the worst thing about I'm Still Here. The worst thing about it is its total lack of purpose. If this is all just a big joke, as we now know it to be, whither the hoax? What does it reveal or perpetrate that is in any way significant or meaningful? Is there a satirical angle here? I don't believe there is. Maybe the point was that Joaquin Phoenix got the most press of his life for simply acting like an asshole. That's kind of funny, but it doesn't merit making me watch a film that highlights the exhibition of his jiggly midsection and several penises flopping haphazardly about. I don't believe there is anything to "get" in I'm Still Here, because all it is is a couple of distracted fooles playing around with equipment they haven't the slightest interest in using appropriately. If filmmaking were masturbation, Phoenix and Affleck would win the Oscar for Best Circle Jerk. 

On DVD: Countdown to Zero

I went to elementary school in the early to mid-1980s, the heart of the Reagan era, during which time duck-and-cover drills were conducted approximately once a quarter. These exercises will still be familiar to California schoolchildren, where they are applicable in the event of an earthquake. But "duck-and-cover" grew out of another, more dire fear - nuclear bombardment. (For the sake of discussion, let's pass over the exponential disparity between the relative benefits of hiding under one's desk during an earthquake versus during almost guaranteed annihilation.) It's only been about 25 years since duck-and-cover drills - or any other routine exercise of preparedness for nuclear attack - have been a regular part of American life. Their diminution coincided immediately with the conclusion of the Cold War, a largely fictitious "conflict" that consisted of a series of fantastic narratives told to us by our government (and by other governments to their populations) that pitted mainly the US and the USSR against each other in a deadly struggle to prevent each other from exploding a nuclear bomb - something neither nation ever intended to do. When the Cold War ended, nuclear weapons were utterly forgotten, and in the space of no more than five years, the threat of a nuclear holocaust - a dominant feature of global discussion for four solid decades - simply evaporated.

Of course, now we face other, more imminent and obvious threats, although there is also a sense that these, too, are nonetheless overplayed by the enforcers of "safety" that we elect to public office. But these newer threats both conceal and intersect with the quietly persistent danger of nuclear weapons, and Lucy Walker's skillful and responsible documentary does us the invaluable service of bringing our heads out of the cloudy smoke screen of "terror" and back to a certain level of reality. Countdown to Zero recounts how we came by nuclear weapons, their role in the last half century of global affairs, and the continued post-perestroika threat that they present - in our own hands, in the hands of our allies, and in the hands of non-aligned states and their potential use by terrorists.

Far from being alarmist or propagandistic, Countdown to Zero is a sober film that includes a multitude of voices, including some who once believed in the strategic value of nuclear weapons as a deterrent. We also hear from scientists, journalists and historians, and former heads of state, including Mikhail Gorbachev. The film cribs its structure from President Kennedy's famous address to the United Nations on the topic of nuclear weapons: "Today, every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable. Every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us."

The film is divided into sections roughly organized around the three factors included in the phrase "by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness." These sections examine the history of nuclear technology, the stakes of the Cold War, the ease with which military nukes can be deployed (and the ease with which relatively simple communications errors can lead to a launch), the mechanics by which terrorist organizations could obtain and use a nuclear device, and the exact countries that have nuclear weapons and the approximate total number that exist. Walker assembles a variety of talking heads, some of whose contributions are plain and direct (Valerie Plame, Ahmed Rashid), and some of whom seem merely self-serving (Tony Blair, Pervez Musharraf). But the specifics are urgent and compelling - the story of inter-agency quarrels that led to American nuclear enable codes all being set to zero during the height of the Cold War is all too credible.

Walker's film has a very plain message, a refreshing boldness of purpose that puts Michael Moore's condescending and unappealing films to shame. Countdown to Zero is a reasonably apolitical film that brings us back to brass tacks on the subject of nuclear weapons, which will remain the direst of threats until they are verifiably eliminated from the face of the earth. 

Read the full review here


On DVD: The Complete Metropolis

At age 83, Fritz Lang's Metropolis has been given a new lease on life. Not that it needed it, exactly. Lang's immensely influential vision of a dystopic future society had enjoyed a full restoration of its known elements in 2001, playing theatrically to much fanfare. I saw it for this first time that year, on the big screen. I was totally dumbstruck by the movie as a technical and visual achievement, and as a moving, involving story. To that point, I had viewed silent films more or less as interesting curiosities, films that lacked a crucial communicative element; movies from the pre-sound era seemed handicapped or unfinished. Seeing Metropolis for the first time, I realized that silence could be used, even embraced, by filmmakers who had mastered this very specific form of the medium to tell stories in ways that sound films could not and never did again after the release of The Jazz Singer in 1928 - the film that destroyed an art form in the name of technological progress. 

For me, seeing Metropolis carried the realization that silent films were capable of a very specific kind of storytelling unavailable in any other medium - the highly physical acting, the use of music as a kind of "narrator," the development of camera movement and other photographic techniques - among other stylistic devices, these marked the silent film era as the period in which people taught themselves how to tell stories on film. Since seeing Metropolis a decade ago, I have delved deeper into the silent era and have fallen in love with Pandora's Box, Sunrise, The Kid, and Asphalt, among others, and have learned that the silent era was much like our own - in the sense that most of the films were bad, but they were also capable of being as masterful as anything we might expect from the great filmmakers of any age. Metropolis towers above most of its peers.

Famously cut upon its original release (the film was a financial failure), a fully-restored Metropolis was thought to be impossible - and probably is. But a huge step in that direction was made in 2008, when a nearly-complete 16mm dupe negative was discovered in an Argentine film archive. Previously missing footage - amounting to about 25 minutes' worth - was edited back into the already-restored 2001 cut. The reinstatement of this footage rounds off the film's heretofore jagged narrative edges. The whole thing plays significantly better, providing numerous contextual shots, plus a few longer sequences that clarify plot mechanics, and character dynamics. Given that the restored footage comes from a degraded 16mm source, its aspect ratio is slightly altered, and damage to the negative is obvious, despite an intensive year-long restoration process.

Lang's narrative takes us to an unnamed future city called Metropolis. Presided over by master architect Joh Frederson, the city is operated by an army of drones who, with their families, live and work deep underground. Above ground, only the privileged and wealthy see sunlight, living lives of frivolity and ignorance. Frederson's son, Freder (ugh!), begins to wonder about these unseen workers after a beautiful woman named Maria appears above ground one day with a group of workers' children. She is sent away, but the sensitive Freder pursues her and discovers the underground world of the workers and the gigantic machines that they operate. When Frederson discovers his son's newfound empathy for the plight of the exploited workers (what an undergrad!), he sets in motion a plot to tear the workers' movement apart from the inside. Frederson enlists the mad inventor Rotwang and his proto-robot, the Machine-Man, which he disguises as Maria, who is also the workers' spiritual leader. The Machine-Man, in Maria's guise, foments a violent revolution, which Frederson intends to use as justification to bring the workers more firmly under his thumb.

The storyline of Metropolis is philosophically muddled, demonstrating a naïve and incomplete command of the socio-political "machinery" it means to discuss. There is a strange, unexplained reliance on Christian imagery and allegory that doesn't exactly mesh with the film's already otherworldly setting. As a character, Maria is strongly mystical at some moments and incredibly vulnerable at others. Freder comes off as an over-the-top bleeding heart with no real charisma, although he redeems himself through direct action in the picture's final act.

But Metropolis's successes massively outweigh these thematic weaknesses. Despite being cast as under-developed characters, Brigitte Helm and Gustav Frohlich shine as Maria/Machine-Man and Freder, respectively. Helm is particularly fascinating when she takes on the part of the Machine-Man-as-Maria, head twitching mechanically in gestures that come off as creepy and surprisingly un-human. The other performers are good, too, including Alfred Abel as the moody, powerful Frederson, and Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Rotwang, the mad inventor. 

But really this is Lang's show all the way. Metropolis is a powerhouse of Deco-era design, evident in everything from the sets and background paintings, down to the costumes and smaller décor. There's the M-Machine, which Freder envisions as Moloch, a demon that actually consumes workers whole with a mouth filled with fire. There's Frederson's office, a sparsely-furnished model of the Deco era's love of space and flatness. There are the multi-matte shots of Metropolis itself, with Frederson's New Tower of Babel dominating the skyline, replete with elevated highways and a variety of flying vehicles. There is the Machine-Man, that iconic centerpiece of the film's design sense, a sculpted femme-bot with flared forearms and hip joints, and an electro-charged life-giving aura.

Lang's command of the film's huge sets - and how to place and move the camera within them to create a sense of space and action - is supreme, particularly in the context of the silent era. Silent films tend to feel physically stiff - Lang's gigantic environments allow actors to move freely, creating more credible settings and situations. Silent films love to place women in peril, of course, and an unopenable door often spells doom. In Metropolis, Maria is chased by Rotwang at one point, and she isn't just prevented from opening a single door, but a whole hallway of them, and when the doors don't open, she finds other means of escape. This pattern continues, with the actors moving through one large set into another, as one means of escape leads to another moment of impending danger - it's an incredibly fluid, tense sequence that utilizes huge resources in the service of masterfully-escalated suspense that is more involving and more realistic than the average chase - then or now.

Metropolis is enormously involving from beginning to end, even at its longer restored length of 149 minutes. A gripping plot, a gallery of individuated characters, endless visual delight, and a monumentally ambitious production scale don't just maintain our interest but make us stop to think about the prodigious skill and conceptual balls it took to pull it all off. The restoration leaves the story feeling fuller and better-shaped than any previous cut. Add in a new recording of Gottfried Huppertz's original 1927 score in 5.1 surround, and this Metropolis is easily the biggest cinematic event of 2010. 

Read the full review here


On DVD: Sex and the City: The Complete Collection

What a bizarre phenomenon Sex and the City was. Beginning on HBO in 1998, the series' setting tells us everything we need to know about it: late 1990s New York. In other words, right smack dab in the middle of New York's Giuliani era, a time when the streets were cleaned up and made safe for young women to leave their apartments dressed exactly as they pleased. Now that Times Square's pornographic smorgasbord had been transmogrified into a family-friendly Walt Disney spectacle, ladies of means were unaware of the ironic circumstances that freed their vaginas in ways that the fear of rape had previously prevented. Also, this was before 9/11, when New York became a TARGET and a focal point in America's newfound suspicion of Muslims (a suspicion that was slow to creep its way into the world of Sex and the City, showing up in the second feature film in an extremely uncomfortable form). 

The first three-and-a-half seasons of the series were about young women in a wonderland vision of pre-9/11 New York, an extraordinarily decadent time and place that enabled the frivolous, dream-like lifestyles of these four amoral characters and rewarded viewers with that particularly insidious form of self-hate that only indulgence by proxy can produce. But the show did capture a certain reality -- these characters lived fantasy lives that were not wholly untenable during that time. When I moved to New York in 2000, I experienced some of the intoxication that Carrie Bradshaw often feels in the show, and it wasn't just because I was a kid from the suburbs living in the Big City -- it was because it was a time of great wealth, confidence, and indulgence. The technology boom had enormous influence on New York's economy, and everyone seemed to be riding high in spite of the fact that the bubble was about to burst. So I can't fault the show's first few seasons as far as their embrace and glorification of that period, because that is what the times were about: spending shitloads of money on utterly needless things and going wild in the streets with frenzied abandon.

What is odd, however, is the consistency of the show's tone over the next two-and-a-half seasons, or the series' post-9/11 period. Carrie and her three compatriots hardly acknowledge the events of that date (there are one or two fleeting references). Couple 9/11 itself with the economic problems that were already developing, and there was no way of escaping the fact that the 1990s were unmistakably over. But Sex and the City never acknowledged this. The show continued to showcase lavish behavior at its most indiscreet, heedless of the demands of money, or the fear that gripped New York for years after the day of the attacks. In this way, Sex and the City morphed from a fantasy rooted in reality to a delusional daydream, and this willful denial on the part of the show's creators and characters built into a crazed explosion of whorish decadence by the time the series reached the big screen. By this point, the characters themselves had been abandoned and replaced by caricatures of flamboyant drag queens on holiday.

So the show began as a social portrait of a particular moment, but when that moment passed, it never adjusted, leaving its characters looking deluded and incredibly trivial. But I was never the show's target audience, which will lend any review I write a certain prejudicial cast, at least in the eyes of its most devoted fans. Still, notwithstanding the somewhat philosophical objections above, I enjoyed much of the series. The show's strength was in its ability to create odd situations, to carry off a certain witty flair, and to keep even a 30-ish married hetero male interested enough to finish off all six seasons. 

The movies, however, are, as I suggested above, another story. They are nothing less than grotesque self-parody, abandoning the series' character-based approach to storytelling, and veering unwaveringly into the high camp we associate with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Myra Breckenridge. In the first film we see Chris Noth's Mr. Big behave in an incredible out-of-character manner when he gets momentary cold feet. This kind of fundamental character inconsistency is a trademark of both films, which fling all plausibility out the window in favor of hyper-lush accoutrement, exotic settings, and bodily fluid jokes. 

I felt strongly about including another voice in this review, given that my own fairly strident opinion represents a decidedly male viewpoint and because the show has such a devoted following. So I decided to interview the member of that following to whom I happen to be married.

He: I understand that you are a fan of Sex and the City. When did you starting watching it?

She: I started watching it sometime in 2001. The first episode I saw was the one where Carrie goes to Los Angeles. After I saw that episode I rented the first season and started watching it from the beginning.

He: Okay, a quick Wikipedia search tells me that the LA episodes were in 2000. It was the third season. Those were good episodes.

She: Yes. I watched them on DVD at my friend Madeline's house in LA.

He: Perfect. You probably thought you were going to run into McConaughey at Starbucks. Hoping.

She: Yeah, that dreamboat.

He: So what appealed to you about the show? And what kept you watching all six seasons?

She: I was single at the time, so initially it was funny because the girls on the show were having a lot of the same dating problems my friends and I were having. I watched the first three seasons with my roommate at the time, Becca, and we both identified with the "bad date" thing the show did so well at the beginning. As the show progressed, so did the characters, and it became less about being single and more about their relationships with each other and the men in their lives.

He: So you could find parallels in your own life and the lives of your friends, and so you identified with some of this stuff.

She: Sure, like you would identify with any comedy. It is only funny when there is some truth to it.

He: But women respond differently to Sex and the City than men do. I always thought the show was pretty funny, and enjoyed it when it succeeded in the storytelling department. I found the main characters quite grating, however, and often had a hard time empathizing with them and their "struggles." Did you like the characters?

She: When we watched the whole show together all at once, I definitely grew more irritated with the characters than I did when I only saw a few episodes at a time. When I first started watching, we were renting discs, one by one. I think there were four episodes per disc, so it forced us to take a break and watch it over a longer period of time. The second time around it definitely got hard to watch Samantha have sex over and over and over again. It is different watching a character do that over a span of six years vs. a few weeks. But yes, I liked the characters. Carrie was annoying at times, but her flaws created much of the plot. She was also the easiest to identify with in a sense because she was the least exaggerated character on the show, so she had that working in her favor even when I was frustrated by her.

He: Sure. What did you make of the male characters on the show? Were they as realistic as the females? Were they treated the same?

She: The show definitely gave the women the power. The exaggerated male characters mostly came off as kind of sad and idiotic. They never really got into what the men on the show were thinking, so you never really empathized with them.

He: I was put off by the grotesque indulgence of the female characters, which contradicted all of their moaning about how tricky men were. I mean, maybe a shallow woman who gets all excited about $900 shoes and has to have them doesn't deserve her Mr. Wonderful. I also thought it was bizarre that when Carrie and her friends are together, their mouths are like these confused flapping gab-holes, but then when Carrie sits down at her computer, she's full of this sudden wisdom, like some spoiled white Oprah.

She: I don't think the show was meant to be realistic. The behavior and lifestyles of the characters were an exaggerated fantasy. The point was that every girl loves her shoes and has splurged at one time or another when she shouldn't have. I think one of the reasons the show was so popular is that it was the first time a television show really sided with the women's point of view. In a lot of ways I think that Sex and the City did for women what Playboy did for men in the 1950s. It allowed us not to feel guilty for wanting $900 shoes, hating baby showers, and resenting married friends. Playboy did the same thing for men who did not want to have a family. Both things idealized a lifestyle that had previously been seen as sad or taboo.

He: I think those points are really good. Let's move on to the movies. Did you feel they were a fair continuation of the series?

She: Sure. I know the second one got terrible reviews but i thought they both stayed true to the series. I think the problem with the movies is that the actresses had gotten so old. It was depressing seeing them act the same way as they did ten years ago

He: Yes, and the characters didn't mature.

She: Exactly right. The characters did not evolve.

He: I had a problem with Big's behavior in the first one. His momentary "cold feet" set the whole plot in motion, but it was so unlike him.

She: Agreed, I thought that part was out of character as well. I wished they had thought of a different way to get to the same point. I thought about it afterward and it was really important that the audience empathize with him so they could forgive him afterward.

He: What about the second movie? It seems like it was made only for gay men.

She: The whole show was made for gay men, by gay men.

Me: Do you hope there will be another movie?

She: I don't really care. The series seems kind of done to me. I'm not sure what else they could do with it without abandoning the whole idea of the show.

He: Maybe they could wait 20 years and do one where they are all grandmothers and get trapped inside a posh estate with a murderer for a weekend.

She: Yeah, maybe you don't know whether or not Big did it, but Carrie is accusing him.

He: Yeah, maybe Big could kill Steve. Yelling, "Shut up, you whiner!" while bludgeoning him.

She: Right. And Charlotte could be trying to calm everyone down.

He: With tea and cakes. I think if there's another Sex and the City movie, all four leads should have to show their vaginas. You know, to "close the loop."

She: Gross.

He: The whole show is about vaginae and you never see one. It's a cop out.

She: It was on TV, Casey. Television


On DVD: The A-Team

I was all set to make excuses for the unremarkable action of The A-Team on the grounds that it is harmless; but nothing that occupies two hours of your life for no particular reason is necessarily "harmless." The A-Team requires little discussion, little description, and is best enjoyed on a beer-infused Saturday afternoon. It's a well-cast retread, souped up with some outrageous pyrotechnics and a plot that tries to be twisty and topical. Given the film's source, it was never going to be a classic. But it works as a tribute or remake of the series, capturing the fuck-it-all playfulness of '80s action, and director Joe Carnahan works hard to maintain our interest with a solid visual sense and absurd but well-handled set pieces. The actors enjoy themselves, too, which helps us have a good time even when we're rolling our eyes (which is often).

Stephen J. Cannell's hyper-destructive group of mercenaries is recast as a ragtag bunch of Army Rangers who get caught up in a scheme to recover plates from a mint used by Saddam Hussein to counterfeit American currency. Amid inter-agency bickering, the plan is thwarted by an evil group of military contractors (read: Blackwater), who seize the plates and kill the operation's authorizing general (Gerald McRaney). And here comes the ol' frame-up, disgracing our heroes, who are stripped of their ranks and thrown in prison. A shady CIA operative known as Lynch (Patrick Wilson) comes to their "rescue," however, with an offer to arrange for each of the four to escape from prison if they promise to recover the stolen plates. Seeing an opportunity to avenge his friend, the murdered general, Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson) agrees to the scheme and helps break Faceman (Bradley Cooper), B.A. Baracus (Quinton "Rampage" Jackson), and Murdoch (Sharlto Copley) out of their respective correctional facilities.

The characterizations are fairly consistent with the personalities we came to know through the original series. Neeson's Hannibal is grizzled and weathered, chomps cigars, and tosses off occasional one-liners, although he does so with less mugging and bravado than George Peppard. Cooper's Faceman is a bastion of self-confidence and baseless charm, marginally winning us over with his sheer disregard of all danger and protocol. Copley musters a passable "Southern" accent and exhibits what appears to be a strong improvisational ability as the loose cannon Murdoch. As B.A. Baracus, Jackson is the weak link. He lacks the charisma and ferocity of Mr. T. is famous for, and comes off as inarticulate and bland.

Plot-wise, The A-Team strives to land somewhere between an episode of the original series and the Bourne thrillers. There are at least one too many layers of intrigue, which come across as obligatory anyway. Why not just set up a villain and have the group go after him (or her)? That kind of directness usually works best in action pictures, especially ones with ambitious set pieces. Director Carnahan handles these with wit and a good sense of space, even when they are totally cartoonish (i.e., the scene with the airborne tank). Unfortunately, the final action sequence is the weakest - its staging is clunky, almost veering into Michael Bay territory, and is further hampered by some terrible CGI work. 

The musical score by Alan Silvestri strays too far from the martial themes of the original series for my taste; the electronics are jarring and oddly inappropriate somehow. But the supporting cast is quite good, particularly the likable Wilson as the iffy CIA operative, and McRaney as the slain general. Jessica Biel is just absurd as a military attache to the State Department. Keep an eye out for a bizarrely brief cameo by Jon Hamm.

Note: Fox's DVD includes two versions of the film - the theatrical version (118 minutes) and a longer "Extended Cut" (133 minutes). I did not see the movie in theaters, and chose the longer cut for my first go at The A Team. Although there were no particular passages of the film that felt extraneous, I felt that the film was "fat" overall. I suspect very strongly that the shorter theatrical version plays better in terms of pacing. 

Read the full review here


On DVD: Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child

In just seven years as a practicing artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat produced over 2,000 works and made himself enormous amounts of money, gaining praise and notoriety as the defining artist of the early to mid-1980s. In Tamra Davis's absorbing new documentary, the layers of his legacy are examined and carefully demystified, from his shadowy beginnings as a graffiti artist known only (at that time) as "SAMO" to the height of his fame as a painter whose gallery sales commanded huge sums, through his final sad years, marked by drug use, paranoia, and withdrawal from public life. Basquiat emerges as a fascinating and complicated human being, somewhat de-romanticized by Davis, and made difficult through discussion of his less charming qualities, but whose accomplishments as an artist continue to bloom as new angles of interest and significance in his work come to light.

Davis opens her film with never-before-seen interview footage of Basquiat that she and a friend shot about two years before the artist's death. In this footage, Basquiat speaks openly and frankly about himself, his work, his peers, and his critics. He comes off as mildly uncomfortable, even though this was essentially a private video made with friends. He doesn't relish discussing his work, and betrays a certain amount of bitterness about his position in the art world. Although a success - even a sensation - in his own time, there was a sense amid the media frenzy over the artist and his work that Basquiat was an oddity, a "special case," coddled by the liberal art world establishment, a situation specifically highlighted by the otherwise clueless Hilton Kramer in archival interview footage. But Basquiat seemed aware of this, and that, beyond the perceived value of his art itself, there were those around him who benefitted socially and financially from turning him into a celebrity. 

More than two decades after his death, Basquiat is broadly regarded as one of the most influential artists in recent memory, if not the entire twentieth century. His colorful, semi-abstract expressionist paintings feature recurring, recognizable motifs that stem from Basquiat's interest in politics, social justice, jazz music, Black American history, and human anatomy, all interwoven with painted text. Basquiat is famous for having become close with Andy Warhol during the Pop Art pioneer's final years; Warhol died at a time when their relationship had become strained over the famous failure of their collaborative exhibition. Warhol's unexpected death prevented Basquiat from reconnecting with his dear friend and was a contributing factor in Basquiat's own decline immediately thereafter.

Davis does an excellent job of untangling Basquiat's considerable legacy from the distancing threads of mythologizing, politicizing, hype-making, and romanticizing that occurred both during the artist's life and afterward. Davis shows us Basquiat at work in his studio, a precocious and intelligent artist capable of tapping into deep mental and emotional resources, a keen awareness of history, and a voracious consumption of cultural produce. His paintings are far removed from the crass, commercially-minded hoopla orchestrated to "sell" the artist to the public by his handlers and the media; the irony is that the prices fetched by his paintings are far more a result of this "inside sales" work by gallerists and dealers than they are a product of the artist's own self-promotion, and yet those prices are exactly the evidence used by Basquiat's critics to discredit him as a mere media celebrity. But Basquiat worked alone and was furiously productive; he worked to sell, it's true, but his paintings are remarkably consistent. His vision rarely falters into simplicity or bears any other traces of having been compromised for the sake of speed and income.

Davis includes new interviews with many of Basquiat's contemporaries, including artists Julian Schnabel, Kenny Scharf, and Al Diaz (Basquiat's SAMO partner); gallerists and dealers like Gagosian and Bischofberger; museum curators, musicians, and a few former girlfriends. Each interviewee provides a slightly different perspective, and there is a clear divide in the tone of the comments by those who had a professional interest in the artist and those whose interest was simply personal. Davis's own interview footage from 1986 shows that the artist was well aware that he meant something different to many different people. (That footage also affords a new level of appreciation for Jeffrey Wright's performance as the artist in Schnabel's 1998 biopic; it's pitch-perfect mimicry operating at a very deep level of comprehension.) 

Read the full review here


Fiction: A Day in the Life of a Silicon Valley Professional (Male, Age 40)

I get up in the morning in my three-bedroom bachelor pad and clean up the newspapers my dog has shit on overnight.  I keep him inside when I go to sleep for security purposes.  The smell doesn't bother me. 

I usually have a quick breakfast: either coffee or a packet of energy goo, which is mostly chemicals, but isn't everything when you break it down?  I don't believe in that stuff about breakfast being the most important meal of the day; besides, cutting back at breakfast has helped me lose some weight over the last four months (down 8 pounds to 245) and it allows me to eat a larger lunch and dinner, which is where I allot my protein, fats, and sugars.

I jump in the shower, scrub down, and jump out.  I don't like to be in the shower for long, as I have a tendency to fantasize, usually about the Eastern European ladies who clean the office.  I only shave once a week, as I'm sort of prepubescently hairless.  There's a pile of shirts on the floor, and I grab whatever clean-looking pants I have, and make sure all my electronics are charged and on my belt before I leave the house.  In the cooler months, I also wear an old plaid-lined Eddie Bauer parka that still has ski lift tickets on it from my high school days.

Most people hate the commute, but I love it, especially now that I have my new Gigantic Car.  I leased it for two years, during which time I will spend about 66% of the cost of the car's purchase price.  I live alone and don't have a lot of friends, so the only people who really know about the car are my co-workers, but they love hearing me talk about it.  The car needs a lot of dealer fixes and utilizes gas in a way that makes Congress look efficient, but I don't mind because it's so big and expensive - and because the model number alone is so meaningful to so many of my peers.  Plus it makes my penis feel larger.

By the time I get to work, I've already planned one or two snappy things to say to my co-workers.  Yesterday it was raining, so I thought if someone said anything about the rain, I'd respond with, "It's wetter out there than a Vegas whore" or something.  Something about a prostitute's vagina, anyway.  But when I said it, I think it came out wrong because it didn't get the laughs I thought it would.  (I'll have to work on my delivery.  At night, I go over improv technique before I hit the sack.  It's very free-form and off-the-cuff, but it helps me with confidence as far as speaking in meetings and giving presentations goes.  I'll look at some magazine article headline and just riff for awhile.)

My boss does certain things to me throughout the day that cause me discomfort, and that I'm unable to express for fear of reprisal or falling into even further disfavor.  So instead of standing up for myself and either owning my mistakes or defending my actions, I pass off my fears and pressures to my direct reports or junior colleagues, lambasting them in front of other employees, sending brusque e-mails, or simply ignoring them for long periods of time.  This makes my penis feel bigger and enables me to feel something like the thrills my ancestors must have felt while chopping wood, fording rivers, or slaying their enemies.

Lunchtime is a special time of day because I enjoy shoving large amounts of bad, bad food into my mouth while seeming extremely important.  There's a direct relationship between my need to appear busy with deadly important work and the vastness of the food I shovel down my throat and/or the intensity with which such shovelings are accomplished.  The worse I feel about myself, the more furiously I review paperwork, sign things, and type on my laptop, and the more heedless I am of my physical ability to consume unconscionably large quantities of processed glop.  I'm so effective at portraying an extremely busy man at lunchtime, that I generally eat alone.

By the end of the workday, I have usually changed my shirt twice and get busy attuning my ears to try to catch wind of rumors of after-work bar visits and other extra-curricular activities.  If I'm lucky, I'm able to ingratiate myself in some conversation about after-hours social gatherings or happy hours, and glean an invite here and there.  That probably happens about once every other month, and I look forward to such outings.  The average night, however, finds me either back at home or hanging out in a Starbucks near the local junior college, checking out the latest on Hulu and eyeing girls far too young for me but who could very conceivably become interested given my youthful look (my secret: black hair dye and vests!).  Occasionally when I catch the eye of a lady, I fleetingly feel as if I have a very large penis, but usually they're looking behind me at a movie poster or at something in the middle distance or trying to figure out where the napkins are.

Then I go home and plug in all my electronics so they'll be ready in the morning when I get up and check my e-mail and social networking sites.  I'll usually post thoughts from the evening before powering them down ("Good turkey club tonight at Togo's;" "Funny how people keep mistaking me for Alfonso Ribeiro in my new sunglasses;" "Anyone know the best way to remove necrotized bedsores?") and then practice improv, thinking of Howie Mandel and Steve Harvey and all the greats.  Then I get cleaned up and masturbate furiously (and in vain) before falling asleep and dreaming about my dog licking mayonnaise off the crotch of my pants while I present a hilarious PowerPoint on product development to a packed room.


Essay: Groping for Fish in a Shampooless World

When I was in college, I had a dream that took place in a vague future version of our society, in which all objects that could potentially cause bodily harm were banned.  One such "weapon" in my dream was fishing line, considered dangerous as a possible garroting tool.  In my dream, an active black market in fishing line (among other black markets in numerous other "dangerous" but practical objects) kept well-to-do anglers active in their now-underground hobby.  I was a sophomore (it would have been 1996 or 1997), and this marked the first time I used dream-matter as inspiration for  fiction.  The resulting novella was poorly developed, with only a handful of moments that I was happy with.  (I have not reviewed the manuscript in at least a decade, and I doubt very much whether I would be anything but depressed by its contents should I do so now.)

However, reflecting on recent events from the past several years - up to and including this week's banning of toner and ink cartridges from cargo flights - I have come to feel some small degree of personal satisfaction at least insofar as the (wholly unintended) prophecy of my dream-story can be appreciated.

Paranoia forces us into a protective, defensive stance that naturally close off avenues of freedom as we set up and enforce new rules and regulations to make us feel "safer."  The tendency of post-9/11 Americans to embrace restrictions on liberty in the name of ensuring their own safety has been documented widely by writers far more perspicacious than I.  But let's think about this in the context of fiction for a moment.  In my dream, I found material for an outlandish, satirical story.  As with twenty-year-old jokes on The Simpsons, and several of the more outrageous concepts developed by the Monty Python troupe upwards of four decades ago, satire has an uncomfortably regular tendency to morph into some form of reality.  My amateurish novella was nowhere near the league of these great contributions to the form, but what I'm getting at is: Are we that far from effectively banning certain hobbies and other routine activities in the name of safety?  

We have our toiletries routinely seized and trashed; we are forced to remove some clothing; lowly airport workers are now allowed to see the most intimate contours of our genitals; and, most recently, printer cartridges have been added to the "banned" list.  (I love that toiletries are disallowed, but complex electronic machines - such as computers and cell phones, things that are actually capable of carrying or communicating with bombs - are not.  This is to say nothing of the loaded firearms routinely carried by air marshals.)

This is all very old Bush-era news, but under Obama this liberty-curbing approach to "security" continues wholly unchecked, and news stories like the one about the toner cartridges, that would have set liberals aflame with righteous indignation a few years ago, are now treated like commonplace occurrences.  

Satire is a warning system; it hopes not to be prophetic but to avoid whatever imagined hell it portrays.  But we're there now, in a place that satire dreads, and most of us haven't noticed.  And when you drill past the inflammatory nonsense, that's the only really scary part:  We don't care.


On DVD: Predators

Predators isn't bad, but it isn't good, either, and it's really, really unnecessary. Predators probably would have been more effective had it been released twenty years ago as a direct sequel to the 1987 Schwarzenegger original. It has the feel of the first Predator, and some of the spirit of 1980s action films in general, especially in its creative use of gross-out effects and gore. But we already know what the monsters look like and how they behave, a mystery that provided much of the original movie's suspense, and although a valiant effort has been made to script a new and unique group of ragtag characters, and good casting choices fill those roles, Predators doesn't feel like a sequel. It feels like a desperate grasp into the past in search of material that is more than twenty years past its sell-by date.

A great opening sequence places us in mid-air, tracking a startled Royce (Adrien Brody) as he hurtles down through the clouds, opening a parachute just in time to break his fall before plunging through a tropical canopy to the forest floor. As he collects his wits, he also collects a group of strangers around him, all of whom have been kidnapped, knocked out, and thrown from the same plane. They include a death-row inmate (Walton Goggins), a Mexican enforcer (Danny Trejo), a Yakuza (Louis Ozawa Changchien), a sniper (Alice Braga), and an American doctor (Topher Grace), among others. The group is a little slow on the uptake, but they ultimately realize that someone has dropped them into these unfamiliar environs to be hunted - but by what, they don't know. Unfortunately, we
do know, which kills much of the movie's suspense before it hardly begins.

Predictably this group of anti-heroes is killed off one by one, until they are given a brief respite by the appearance of an alarmingly bloated and wickedly funny Laurence Fishburne. He plays a left-over, surviving member of a previous group of humans dumped on what is now known to be an alien planet - not just a strange rainforest.

From here, the suspense simply disappears. Fishburne goes for a Colonel Kurtz-ish eccentricity, but his character as written goes precisely nowhere. His role, like much of the rest of the script, is just one big McGuffin. We don't know who is behind the conspiracy to transport our human anti-heroes to the Predators' planet, or why they are doing it. The film is, like the other
Alien and Predator features, a desperate struggle for survival against unthinking demonic killers. That's a scary premise in and of itself, but the first two Alien films explored that concept so splendidly and thoroughly that everything else just looks sad next to them. Director Nimrod Antal delivers the goods when it comes to staging and editing exciting action, but in terms of plot, character, and style, Predators is old hat.

Read the full review here

On DVD: Bomber

Bomber is a small comedy done on a small scale, betrayed by small ideas and a lack of ambition. Although it captures memorable images of western Europe's backroads, its sitcom approach to comedy, unrelaxed performances, and unconvincing character dynamics render Bomber an inert bore.

Alistair is 83 years old and filled with a rarely-expressed regret. He has planned a trip to Germany with his wife Valerie for many years. Alistair fought in World War II as a British bomber pilot, and wishes to revisit a place he was responsible for nearly obliterating. Alistair and Valerie's son Ross, in the midst of a touchy crisis with his long-term girlfriend, is roped into driving his parents to their destination on a road trip scheduled to last only a few days. Things boil to a head when Ross's girlfriend breaks off the relationship two days into the trip. Ross blames his father, and this tense father-son dynamic then drives the rest of the picture, as we follow Alistair and Ross's mutual attempts to understand one another from opposite sides of a significant generational gap.

Bomber is peppered with credibility issues. Among them is the fact that Alistair is an 83-year-old WWII veteran with a 20-something son. Not impossible, but improbable, especially since Valerie is understood to be Alistair's wife of many years and his contemporary. Next is Ross's decision to accompany his parents to begin with. This is a conversation that writer-director Paul Cotter conveniently leaves out of his narrative. Ross's relationship with his girlfriend is on the verge of collapse. And, he doesn't appear to have any kind of strong relationship with his father. Why he agrees to risk his romantic life in service of a father he hardly converses with belies the shakiness of Cotter's conceit. Equally unconvincing and improbable is Ross's surprise - even shock - when his girlfriend breaks up with him via cell phone halfway through his roadtrip with his parents. We've seen this coming from the film's second scene, and there's no reason Ross shouldn't have been able to detect this danger. This, of course, brings things to a head between Ross and his father, with his mother standing by as a concerned but somewhat ineffectual peacekeeper.

Truly, there's not much in Bomber that feels genuine or emotional. Bomber plays out like a trumped-up Reader's Digest story calculated to evoke tastefully restrained familial turmoil that is ultimately dipped in a palatable if overly sweet coating of chocolatey resolution. These three characters don't for a second feel as though they are related by blood, or otherwise. The film's setup is sloppy and dry, which leaves the film's second half borderline meaningless, despite an effort by Cotter to access an interesting comment on mutual comprehension between generations separated by vastly differing experiences. 

Read the full review here