Thursday, February 27, 2014

Live and Alive

The ongoing saga of the struggling artist:
Always on a stage where everybody doesn't know your name.
Great music has always made me feel more alive, especially when I hear it live.

However, you won't catch me at any stadium-filled concerts featuring choreographed dance numbers, cookie cutter song choruses and musicians whose acts are as ostentatious as their lyrics are superficial.

And don't even get me started on the sky-high ticket prices which proportionately reflect the number of hit songs and the overall cool factor involved in associating with an eye-candy-coated celebrity who oozes sex and mass marketing appeal. I don't buy into that (figuratively and literally). I've never been cool enough and I don't intend to start now.

Instead, I gravitate towards the overlooked geniuses that nobody has discovered yet... or at least, not nearly enough people appreciate. Perhaps I can relate to them more because they exemplify the struggle of the perennial underdog, or perhaps they actually generate songs that speak to a deep-down part of me that is mired in silence too much of the time. It's probably a little of both.

These hidden gems can most often be found in intimate and more comfortable settings where their tickets are inexpensive and easy to come by. It's actually quite awesome. It's like having the entire movie theater, restaurant or mall all to yourself.

Ah, but that is also the rub.

As Neil Young once said, "the same thing that makes you live can kill you in the end." Becoming a fan of these artists can certainly lead to countless hours of unmitigated pleasure, but it often leads to heartbreak, as well, precisely because their tickets are inexpensive and easy to come by.

It kills me — absolutely kills me — every time I go to watch a gifted performer, full of passion, creativity and talent, play to a small venue with only a handful of people in the room.

Matt the Electrician sports what I like to call the
"polite lumberjack" look.
It happened again recently for the umpteenth time. Downtown, the hottest Billboard-topping group may have been playing to tens of thousands of screaming fans while singing about their "humps" or "how they got it goin' on like Donkey Kong." In a small back room at the Uptown Arts Bar, however, my wife and I joined nine other people to watch Matt the Electrician (left).

In this modest-sized gathering we all were absolutely mesmerized as we listened to a stirring, melodic narrative about how this particular singer/songwriter (whose unhip fashion sense and facial hair could best be described as the "polite lumberjack" look) tried to help his wife find strength after her father passed away. The song was startling beautiful. Its sentiment was heartbreaking, to be sure, but more so because there were so few hearts present to be broken by it.

Just to make matters worse, shortly after finishing the profoundly touching tune, the troubadour admitted that the last time he was in the city (about ten years ago), he simply played on a stool at the bar because there was only one person there to hear him play. The weird thing was, he wasn't complaining. He genuinely appreciated the Hell out of the one person being there that night and the 11 people on this night because he actually has something he really wants to say... something that goes way beyond overplayed epiphanies such as "My vibe is too vibelicious for you, babe."

Without a set-in-stone song list, without another band member or instrument to share the stage, this type of pure, bare-bones artist has no choice but to sing with all of his heart (no matter the size of the crowd) because the alternative would be to die inside. He might be unknown to the world at large, but he is appreciated by his modest body of fans on a level that goes way beyond pop culture popularity and a flavor-of-the-month fan base that wants the same overproduced drivel everybody else has on their iPhones and iPods.

It depresses me to no end that many big teen stars likely make more money in one night's sold out extravaganza show than what some of these hard-working nomads make all year touring night after night after night, playing every song request, playing various small back-alleyed clubs and even in people's homes, just to keep their careers one step above life support.

What can a true music fan do? Show up every time they play within 100 miles, of course. I also try to buy the t-shirts, the CDs and the other merch for sale. When it's possible, I attempt to do the latter in person. I believe the musicians make more money this way and I'm happy to oblige. But then, they are, too. They will stay late and talk with everybody who showed up, look them in the eye and have a real conversation, sign anything that needs to be signed, etc.

Basically, I try to let them know they are appreciated because it might not be something that is painfully obvious to them day after day on that long and winding road they perpetually find themselves on. The other small pockets of fans who show up do the same. We all understand how important it is that this unique and unusual artist keeps producing original music, even if it will likely never see the inside of a Top 40 chart.

It's kind of crazy, though, when you think about it. You can take in a show, buy a CD and talk to an artist and pay about $20 to $35 altogether. That won't even get you the nosebleed seats in the cordoned-off general public section of an arena show. Not even close.

Admittedly, it sounds like a relatively cheap hobby until you realize just how many artists there are out there who deserve to be heard but aren't even noticed. Once you like one of these artists, that exposure inevitably leads to another discovery of somebody else nobody has ever heard of who plays songs that actually enable you to stop thinking about all the day-to-day trivial minutae in the world for three-and-a-half minutes of unencumbered bliss.

Perhaps popular or casual music fans might see five concerts a year or less, which can be quite expensive if you're wanting to see the Justin Beibers and Shakiras of the world. I probably spend the same amount of money, though I certainly make up for it in quantity. Hell, February isn't over yet and I've already seen over 30 acts this year for about the same price it would cost to buy a lower level ticket at the Sprint Center for Miley Cyrus (granted it's been a busy two months thanks to a local Folk Alliance Conference, but you get the point).

Of course, I've also bought a ton of new music, as well. The money is well spent, though. I harbor no doubts that I am the one who benefits more in this relationship. Nothing breaks up the drudgery of a long drive or work day quite like singing along to one of your favorite tunes. Quite simply, it makes me feel happy. It infuses me with an extra dose of energy. Even the sad and angry songs are cathartic whenever I feel the need to unleash those negative pent-up emotions.

Music, when it's done right, has the amazing ability to help people gain perspective. It can refresh a person's diminishing optimism. It can bring you back to life. It really can.

Even as I write this, I find myself laughing with a sense of irony. I am listening to Matt the Electrician sing about being in Denmark, reading a novel by Junichiro Tanizaki and feeling homesick. His writing is detailed and evocative, much like the accompanying guitar work. It's exactly the type of unique and audacious song that so rarely makes it to the radio playlist.

One lyric in particular echoes the sentiments of that endless sea of struggling artists who sometimes sink into despair when they see more empty chairs than full ones in the audience: "The radio is playing a song by Shakira. I've heard it twice already. I'm going to hear it again..."

Well, for this moment anyway, one person is not listening to what everybody else has on their stereos. One person is enjoying those original voices that are too often overlooked... waiting for the next unappreciated artist to announce a tour date close to his general vicinity so he can feel more alive again.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Why Do We Enjoy Movies So Damn Much? (Part Two)

German director Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man) once said that “Film is not the art of scholars, but illiterates.” Not much of a punch puller, that guy.

I don’t agree. Films can, occasionally, be complex and, personally, I believe the best ones can be a reliable source for some of the greater truths of existence, which is another reason to love movies so damn much. (For more reasons, go back to Part One of this series.) 

For example, if you want to know the meaning of life, a good place to start is to watch Monty Python's film of the same name. At the end, we are told: "Well, it's nothing special. Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations."

Well, there you go. That was easy.

Actually, life does indeed get a lot easier if you watch more movies. There are a lot of nuggets of wisdom to be found. I’m not just talking about the importance of shouting witty catch-phrases and keeping your shoes on when you fight a skyscraper full of terrorists. I’m talking about really important life lessons. I’ll sum up a few.

Be careful what you eat. It might be people. (Thanks for that phobia, Solyent Green!)

Most people tend to fall in love while participating in several random humorous activities accompanied by catchy music. But, before that can happen, shy and nerdy women must undergo a full makeover that involves removing their glasses and taking out their hair barrettes to reveal that they are absolute bombshells. Meanwhile, men are relatively perfect save for one pesky character flaw (usually a fear of commitment) that they must overcome about the same time the object of their affection is preparing to leave the city forever on a last-second airline flight.

Singing makes almost everything better, especially if it's a catchy tune that somebody can instantly perform perfect choreographed dance moves to in perfect rhythm with complete strangers.

If you are followed by a six-foot tall bunny rabbit, you are probably mentally compromised (Donnie Darko and Harvey, I'm looking at you!). But, hey, at least you're interesting.

Always avoid basements especially in cabins in the woods. Nothing good will be found there. Unless you think an agonizing death is good, then I suggest having sex down there. That should seal your fate. Also, on the way to that cabin in the woods, be sure to stop at a gas station in the middle of nowhere that looks like a derelict automobile graveyard and is run by an incoherent hillbilly with horrible customer service skills who likes to say ominous warnings that you can ignore at your own peril.

Leading men are quite capable of handling intense pain and even torture, unless a female happens to be cleaning his superficial wounds. Then, they wince and gripe like nobody's business.

The most appropriate way to react to somebody you love dying in your arms is to look up at the sky and scream "No!" or "Why?" or, failing that, the name of the villain responsible for killing them. Anything short of this reaction means you are not suffering appropriately.

If you ever go back in time, it's best to avoid having sex with the younger version of your mother or trying to change your strongest regret in life. Or, conversely, if you travel to the future, it's not a good idea to bring back a sports almanac containing all of the future winners of sports events for years to come because you will inevitably let it fall into the hands of your worst enemy. Just to be safe, it is probably better to shoot yourself if you do time travel. That should end the space-time continuum chaos you have accidentally engineered. Or, accidentally destroy all of existence. It could go either way.

Most psychotic bombers are actually very thoughtful. After all, why else would they design their explosive devices to contain helpful digital clock readouts that show EXACTLY how much time is left before they explode? These same bombers also like to supply bomb squad experts with a quick and easy deactivation method, i.e. cutting the red wire. 

During all police investigations, it eventually becomes necessary to visit a strip club at least once. Also, most of the strippers there are unfortunate victims of circumstance, they are usually single mothers and, almost always, they possess hearts made of gold and the looks of an A-list or B-List celebrity. As a side note, most policemen cannot solve a crime until they've been yelled at repeatedly by their superior or have had to turn in their gun and badge.

Machine guns are horribly, horribly inaccurate (for bad guys). It is far easier for one person with a handgun to shoot 25 people with machine guns than the other way around. I am sure there is a mathematical equation that explains how this is so, but I don't need it because Bruce Willis, Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger and others have demonstrated this notion time and time again. 

If I go to see a movie, finding a parking spot usually takes almost as long as the film's running time. However, everybody in that film will immediately find close parking spaces even when they are in a busy downtown location.

Bad guys like to label the damning files on their computer with titles like "Top Secret" or "Master Plan" or "Schematics for Doomsday Device" right on the desktop. Also, somebody working on the side of the good guys always uses a flash drive that copies those files exactly one second faster than it takes for the aforementioned bad guy to come back to his or her office.

Be careful online. Or, don't be: Almost 90% of all anonymous online chat buddies are stalkers. Those who are an exception to this rule, however, are usually your soulmate.

Adoption is a crapshoot. About half of all orphans grow up to be a superhero, chosen one or some sort of savior for all mankind. The other half tend to have evil parents, either the Devil himself or a demented individual who will one day return, with various sharp cutlery on hand, to take back their child by any means possible.

Your life may be riddled with unanswered questions and seemingly impossible problems, but eventually someone who looks or sounds like Morgan Freeman or J.K. Simmons or Linda Hunt will explain to you EXACTLY what you NEED to know PRECISELY WHEN you NEED to know it. In the rare cases that these people do not show up in a timely manner, simply turn on a television set and you will likely find a news story conveying the helpful exposition you need to advance in your journey.

The surest way to ultimate success, be it in a sporting event or even in other aspects of life, is to surround yourself with misfits, underachievers, social outcasts and anybody else who has been written off by the world at large. For some reason, the weaker components of each individual will pale in contrast to the insurmountable collective strength of their combined positive attributes. Then, the same society that has previously rejected the band of losers will suddenly be encouraged to root for them and celebrate them achieving their end goal.

Alien invaders are stupid. I mean, really, really stupid. Sure, some such civilizations are capable of inventing technology capable of spanning mind-blowing distances in relatively short times, but they are ill-prepared for the most basic of wrinkles in their plans of grand conquest. If they aren't stopped almost immediately by catching a bird flu (The War of the Worlds), then their entire armada can be crippled by a simple computer virus (Independence Day). Worse, if their biggest weakness is exposure to water, why on Earth would they attack Earth since it is comprised 70% of water on its surface (Signs)? 

And, finally, though we now have about 2 MIILLION cell towers and antennas in the U.S., cell reception is unreliable 100% of the time if you are being chased and/or hunted by a homicidal maniac wielding a sharp weapon or a power tool. Also, it is highly likely for the person being pursued in this scenario to trip and fall, or if they reach their car, it will not start immediately. Chances are, a cat will jump from out of nowhere at this time and hiss for no reason, as well.

Those are just some of the more common and obvious examples. Sometimes it feels like we keep watching the same movies over and over again, albeit with different titles. That's only because that is exactly what is happening. In my next blog, I'll examine the repetitive nature of movies and the finite number of basic plots and why we love them despite this aspect.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Why Do We Enjoy Movies So Damn Much? (Part One)

After a few calculations, it occurred to me that I have probably stayed awake for over 10,000 movies in my lifetime. I can't be sure, of course, because I haven't kept an official count, but I know the tally is way, way up there. 

Not so originally, it intensely kick-started when I saw Star Wars in a theater when I was six years old and realized my less-than-awesome life would never be filled with wookies, lightsabers, jawas and other amazing wonders. Thus, I was hooked on celluloid for life. 

I realize that 10,000 movies is lingering near (or, perhaps, waist-deep in) Obsessionville. I would call it certifiably crazy, but then, most people I know have seen thousands of films in their lifetime, as well. We can't all be insane. So, why do we watch so many movies? Why do we enjoy them so damn much?

Admittedly, the answer does not seem to be difficult. Quite simply, they entertain us... but I think it’s more than that, obviously. I think we need them. Like oxygen need them.

For starters, movies often enable us to run a full gamut of emotions in a relatively short time, which is extremely cathartic by the way. Each of us forms our own visceral connection with certain films. How odd is it that many people cry more watching a movie than they do in their everyday life?

I have often wondered why many of us are this way. The way I see it, maybe people prefer to suppress their emotions in front of other people in their day-to-day lives because they don't want to burden others or they simply don't want to appear to be a glorified psychological mess. I suppose that plays a vital role, but it's really a matter of biology.

According to PsychologyToday, movies make us cry because of oxytocin (the so-called love hormone released by the pituitary gland). It acts as a neurotransmitter to the human brain. The problem is, it isn't tuned just right, so we become incapable of recognizing the difference between actual human beings and flickering images of human beings on a screen. Either one is enough to trigger our oxytocin into high gear and jump-start our empathy. So, we may know on one level what we are watching is fake, but the feelings movies generate in us can seem quite real and powerful to us as if the events we are witnessing are happening to people in our everyday lives. 

Also, the reason we experience a hyper-heightened emotional reaction is that films are designed that way. They are crafted deliberately to manipulate us on a primal level. We are addicts. The more adrenaline courses through our veins during a horror movie, the more we crave it. The more laughter that escapes your lips, the more you want to see a comedy film again and again.

Even the makers of movies are addicts. Actors try to make you fall in love with them or break your heart. Emotional reactions are the currency that thespians use to measure how well they are doing their job. The more you smile in a comedy, the better the performance. The more you cry in a drama, the more you cared about their character and the more the actors affected you. 

And, of course, the director will do his part to make sure you never forget his film. Every trick is employed. The dying character speaks his last lines of sage wisdom and deep regrets. Then the orchestrated music slowly rises and our hearts swell. Cut to an image of a photograph or a character's beloved piece of jewelry (employed throughout the film) bathed in light and it triggers something in you, just as cherished items do in your own life. 

If you think about it, a really good film makes you feel like you just experienced real life at the highest degree.

As a result of that emotional connection we feel, movies will often inspire us to live our lives better or enjoy each moment more (at least for a little while). We will witness a hero endure tragedy or hardship and find a way to move on, knowing we must do the same in our own lives. (If Rocky can beat Mr. T, then surely I can finish these TPS reports by Friday.)

It's funny. We can listen to a million different inspirational speeches, but sooner or later one infiltrates us to our cores because we respond to that particular film or situation or character and we internalize it to match up to our own experiences. In that way, movies are a way for us to celebrate our own lives, in many cases... our own accomplishments and successes, even our failures and their subsequent consequences. In that manner, we relate to fictional characters and it temporarily lifts us from our burdens, secure in the knowledge that we aren't alone in our struggles. Our pain is universal.

But then, movies do a lot more than entertain and inspire us. They take us places we have never been before. A film is someone’s imagination come to life and we, as moviegoers, get to escape into that world for a short time (and escape this crummy world, as well).

Actually, it’s more like a collective imagination come alive, mainly the writer’s musings and the director’s vision, but there are so many creative people involved. The actors. The set and costume designers. The makeup artists. Special effects artists. Musicians. On an on. They each add their stamp to the final product to make it more intricate and to enrich our submersion into that wondrous alternate plane of existence.

I would also argue that movies contain substance, too, and appeal to us intellectually. They can be quite cerebral (perhaps not as often as they should, but still...). I believe at the crux of this window to imagination is a reflection of reality. Oftentimes that reflection is a more idealized or brutal form of reality, but either extreme is capable of fascinating our minds. No matter how fantastic a film is conceptually or visually, it still needs to be anchored to our experiences as human beings in order for us to process it intellectually. To that end, great films use elements of fiction to illustrate profound truths or illuminate a better understanding of our nature in the real world and that stimulates us.

In some cases, movies may seem more real to us than reality, as odd as that sounds. I suppose that’s where the oxytocin comes into play, but I think All About Eve director Joseph L. Mankiewicz underscored this notion well when he said: “The difference between life and the movies is that a script has to make sense, and life doesn't.”

That seems like a good time for me to fade to black, but not before a quick offering of a coming attraction. In my next blog, I will explore what valuable lessons and nuggets of wisdom movies have taught most of us.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Looper (Hopefully) Represents the Future of Time Travel Movies

Time travel movies are essentially about the desire to fix the mistakes of the past.

Typically, they fall into two camps: one where such disappointments can be successfully prevented or suitably altered; one where regrets just seem to grow exponentially no matter how hard we try to make things better. 

Actually, in both scenarios, things tend to keep spiraling downward for most of the movie. The divergence usually comes right near the end. For example, Marty McFly (Back to the Future) threatens his own existence before he unites his parents just in time to travel back to a new, much-improved version of his life that he never truly earned (not to mention, he no longer really knows his parents since his actions caused them to fundamentally change their personalities).

On the other side of the spectrum, a classic film example is when long-suffering James Cole (12 Monkeys) questions his sanity and eventually fails in his mission to thwart the release of a deadly virus that will devastate the human race. Making matters worse, he even becomes the unwitting catalyst of a bleak scenario that has haunted him in his dreams for most of his life.

Oh, right. SPOILER ALERT. 

Yeah, that came a bit late. Don't you wish you could go back in time now if you haven’t seen either of those movies? Don’t bother. Time travel is like scratching an itch that itches more each time you scratch it. It's usually best never to start scratching it in the first place.

At any rate, my friend Caleob and I discussed some of these ideas and he pointed out to me that the difference between the aforementioned categories inherently lies in the application or absence of free will. 

Time travel movies where the past can be changed to fundamentally rewrite the present suggest that free will exists, that we are all capable of making choices unencumbered by certain constraints. However, if changing the past still leads us to the same result, or one that is tragic along the same vein, then the suggestion is that we are ultimately not the architects of our own destinies. Even with access to time travel, we lack the ability to change things in the past more to our present liking.

Occasionally, an excellent time travel movie comes along that attempts to tread into deeper philosophical territory. Such films suggest that maybe we do possess free will, but may lack the cognition necessary to recognize the ramifications of our choices.

The root of the problem is that, no matter what we do to try to revise events in the past, eventually our emotions or faulty internal logic will compel us to act on behalf of our best interests or the interests of those we care deeply about. Unfortunately, such actions can inadvertently lead us right back down the same path that caused the initial regret in the first place. 

Or, worse, we could discover that our past-changing maneuverings have now placed us on a different path that leads to a whole new set of regrets which, in turn, motivate us to go back in time once again, creating a new timeline where our same old emotions and faulty internal logic propel us down yet another unsatisfying path that guides us towards more pain and heartbreak so that we inevitably feel a need to go back and... well, you get the idea.

Looper certainly belongs in the excellent time travel movie category and it gives me hope that the future of the genre is indeed promising.

No matter how you slice it, Looper is still about fixing mistakes at its core, as well as the ensuing bedlam and bloodshed that stems from using time travel as a form of self-help... but it's about so much more than that. It's also a morality tale.

It's the type of movie where you see one man's old self try to convince his young self how to do things differently while his young self tells his old self that he’s an idiot as he tries to kill him. Both are partially right in their way of thinking and both are partially wrong. 

During the first half of the film, I tried to decide which Joe was the hero and which Joe was the villain. Then, I realized it was even more complicated than that.

Looper will leave you with more questions than answers, but they are really good questions, such as: If you could travel to the past and shoot Hitler (or the future’s equivalent of him) before he comes of age... would you? Or, would it still be the murder of an innocent boy? What if you had to kill two kids to be sure his legacy never came to be? Three? Does the end really justify the means?

For that matter, would you even be able to perform the deed? Would time somehow correct itself in spite of the anomaly created by your efforts? Would another monster fill the vacuum you created? Would anything you do ultimately matter because every time you change one past event to benefit somebody, somebody else usually suffers as a result of it? 

Or, in other words, if you keep scratching enough, soon EVERYBODY will itch and feel a need to start scratching.

Sometimes, there is no definitive right or wrong answer to a problem. Sometimes there are only actions and their consequences. Sometimes, there are just people doing whatever is necessary to stay alive and keep what's theirs.

Then again, sometimes your head hurts a hell of a lot from thinking about all of this crap. 

Keep in mind, this movie is best watched with someone who likes to ask difficult questions and then attempt to answer them. Just be sure to save time for a meal or beverage afterward.

The premise itself, though, seems simple enough. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises) is Joe, a hitman known as a “looper” who works in the year 2044, three decades before time travel is invented and subsequently outlawed. 

Joe’s job is to kill and dispose of people for the mob who send their victims 30 years back in time to him, bound and gagged with a payment strapped to their backs. Apparently, bodies are much harder to dispose of in the future, not to mention, it’s probably a hell of a lot cheaper to pay somebody without a few decades of inflation factored in. Then again, the mob doesn’t seem too imaginative because they aren’t using time travel to go steal Egyptian treasure or hunt dinosaurs for sport.

Regardless, it’s an easy job that any grunt can do and Joe is well-suited for it because the only thoughts he has of the future are learning French so he can one day move to France and keeping a steady flow of income so he can afford more mind-altering substances. 

Joe works under the subtle-yet-intimidating Abe (Jeff Daniels, Dumb and Dumber) who was sent from the future to oversee all loopers. Part of his job is to make sure they close their loops when the appropriate time comes. Closing a loop is when a looper shoots his older self from the future so that time travel remains a tidy endeavor. Those who refuse to do this will be hunted down and... well, it isn’t pretty.

Fortunately for the mob, Joe likes his job and the lifestyle that goes with it so he has no intention of straying from the agenda. However, one day a kill job arrives a few minutes late, untied, staring at him with all-too-familiar eyes. He recognizes his future self (played by Bruce Willis, 12 Monkeys) and a moment’s hesitation is all the older Joe needs to make his escape. 

Young Joe knows his life is on the line and he needs to hunt down his future self. His future self, however, has other ideas that include erasing a big regret from his life killing the young version of a mysterious criminal figurehead known as the “Rainmaker.” After all, the Rainmaker is the one who is directing the closing of all of the loops.

OK. Maybe the premise is not simple at all... not one damn bit. I haven’t even mentioned the fact that, in the future, about 10% of humans have developed mild telekinetic powers, just to make things even weirder. Looper is definitely strange, but in a good, unpredictable WTF? way.

Truth be told, I loved the movie even though its story does not always make sense to me. For example, I wondered: why not have loopers close out other loopers’ loops so there is no possibility they will hesitate when shooting their older selves? Or, better yet, why don't the criminals just kill the loopers and send their corpses back to the past where the loopers can ensure they disappear without a trace? But, time travel seems to create unforeseen messes so I can accept this aspect of the movie without having it detract from the story.

The same can be said of the paradoxes, and yes, there are a few paradoxes here and there (a time travel inevitability). However, I was OK with them because part of the enjoyment derived from a time travel movie is talking about how it does and does not make sense afterwards. Looper may leave you feeling a bit loopy at times, but that's a big reason why it is so much damn fun.

The rest of the fun comes from trying to predict what direction Looper will go next. It's brimming with elements of humor, action, suspense and drama, and there is enough surprise that will keep most viewers absorbed enough in the story to table some of the trickier time travel notions for the time being and just focus on the human struggles.

That particular sentiment is echoed succinctly when older Joe faces off with his younger self in a diner, saying: “I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.”

Director Rian Johnson (Brick), a gifted storyteller, pays great attention to detail and giving a tangible texture to the characters and settings in his own private universe. 

He elicits strong performances from his actors and he offers up an appropriately dystopian view of Kansas City in the future that is just the right amount of wacky.

Sometime in the middle of the story, the movie takes an odd u-turn when younger Joe hides out at a farm where tough, over-protective Sara (Emily Blunt, The Five-Year Engagement) watches over her adorable ward Cid (Pierce Gagnon, The Crazies). He is exceptionally gifted and seems to be the most likely candidate to become the horrific Rainmaker. While their relationship is anything but stable, it is heartfelt and tender enough where you find yourself hoping their future can be changed for the better. 

But then, everybody in this film has just as much at stake, particularly young and old Joe who are pitted against each other on a collision course. Old Joe may be equipped with more wisdom, but he is a desperate man shaped by a lifetime of bad choices he keeps repeating. Young Joe, on the other hand, has spent most of his life feeling abandoned and lonely and has never been capable of making a real human connection. Neither are good candidates to be a hero. Yet, both stand to lose everything they hold dear and will stop at nothing to keep that from happening.

To reveal more about how this conundrum plays out would be a crime. One of the best strengths of Looper is the elegant solution to that problem and all the other problems that compound and multiply every time somebody tries to alter the course of the future. 

Ultimately, Looper ends in the only way that it makes sense and even then you'll find yourself looping the film's chain of events over and over again in your mind... trying to find a way to scratch an itch that will never quite go away.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Deep Fried, Never Tender: Killer Joe Movie Review

There is a seemingly innocuous scene during William Friedkin’s polarizing film, Killer Joe, an NC-17 adaptation written by Tracy Letts and based on his off-Broadway play of the same name. The heart and heroine of this darkly twisted southern-fried fairy tale is Dottie Smith, a young and mostly innocent girl who snaps at her brother Chris when he turns off a cartoon she is watching in a diner. She wants to know how it will end, after all. 

The joke, of course, is that cartoons don’t really end. The crazy whirligig of violence and mayhem keeps moving as the characters chase and debase each other over and over again. There does not need to be rhyme or reason. It is simple mindless entertainment... a slapstick opera of pain and pointlessness begetting more pain and pointlessness.

It would be easy to make that last sentence a metaphor for this film, but it would not be 100% accurate. There is plenty of substance underneath the extra crispy exterior of this film... even if it is often charred and bitter to the tongue. The meal itself may leave you with an upset stomach, but that does not mean it lacked plenty of nutrition.

Friedkin has long been an undisputed master of the disturbing and bizarre. He has balanced humor and macabre well before but never quite this effectively (his 2006 film Bug accomplished this juggling act until it began to collapse from its own ridiculousness). Killer Joe’s tension and stinging wit represent each side of a spinning coin that never stops until the final credits roll. 

It may be his best film since his 1973 masterpiece, The Exorcist, which alienated horror audiences in a way never seen before... it sort of played like a knife blade pressed against the frazzled last nerve of those who prefer a world where good ultimately triumphs over evil. Yet, in the Texan world of Killer Joe there is only evil and various degrees of more evil, ranging from opportunism and greed to unflinching, merciless retribution. 

Then, there is a different breed of immorality: the titular character who is calm and collected on the surface and batshit bonkers just underneath. Matthew McConaughey is mesmerizing with his unsettling performance, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The plot follows the plight of Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch, Into the Wild), a perennial loser who owes money to all the wrong people and their deadline for patience has long expired. Chris hatches a scheme to hire someone to kill his mother and cash out an insurance policy in an attempt to save his own skin. In order to do this, he needs the help of his laconic and dim-witted father, Ansel (Thomas Hayden Church, Sideways), since the policy names Ansel’s youngest child, Dottie (Juno Temple, The Three Musketeers), as the beneficiary. 

If the movies have taught us anything it’s that families usually run into trouble when they hire a hit man to kill off one of their own. 

The problem is that the gunman the Smiths solicit only takes payment up front. However, in this case, he is willing to make an exception if he can keep the young, virginal Dottie as collateral.

Now you can probably guess why this movie ventures into NC-17 territory.

If this synopsis sounds disturbing that’s only because it is. The script plays like something from the poisonous pen of Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner, but the drama is more taut and palpable because of the immensely talented cast that makes the trailer park trash characters seem mostly real, even if their existence itself is outlandish. They may be human cartoons locked in a cycle of directionless desperation without any hope of a happy ending, but they do not seem to realize it.

Hirsch takes turns at playing angry, almost-but-not-quite tender, seemingly clever and perfectly clueless with surprising ease and Church absolutely steals every scene he’s in with his perfect comic timing and tone. His character is not overly loquacious, but his observations are so simple (though often a step or two too late) that they seem profoundly hilarious. He is fun to watch and he plays off Gina Gerson (Bound) extremely well. She is remorselessly nasty... just the right amount of over-the-top ornery as Church’s second wife, the cold-hearted and conniving Cleo, who may have bitten off more than she can chew with the Smith family.

Of course, the highlight of the film is McConaughey who inhabits Killer Joe with a courteous charm to offset his sadistic savagery. In his day job, he is a detective so he has the skills to make murders look like accidents. He is a step ahead of everyone else, but never reveals what cards he holds in his hand.

He is downright hypnotic at times, completely unpredictable. You don’t know if he’ll laugh at a joke or beat someone senseless with a can of food. McConaughey’s always been an impressive physical force in the past, but his portrayal of Killer Joe is often more menacing when he seems soft-spoken and in control because you know his next eruption could occur at any moment. No doubt, he will be up for a few acting award nominations if the critics can look past the film’s dreaded NC-17 status. (Side Note: Since the debut of the NC-17 rating in 1990 with Henry & June, such rated films are rarely profitable at the box office. The highest grossing NC-17 film is Showgirls with just over $20 million. It had a production budget of $45 million.)

The emotional core of the film certainly belongs to Dottie. She’s a rag doll belle, a delusional waif who is beginning to see through the cracks in her own crazy family. She is a heroine who lost the battle before she was even born... but that does not stop her from hoping for a better life. Unfortunately, she may have to swim through some murky, polluted waters to get to a better shore.

But then, everybody in the world of Killer Joe is trying to do the same thing and they don't care who they drown in their wake along the way.

Overall, Killer Joe is uneven enough so that the viewer never can really get solid footing. The laughter comes often, but much of it is anything but comfortable. The drama is ever-present, but it’s anything but formulaic. The end result is certainly brutal and not compatible for every palette. However, even those who cannot find any joy from watching this depraved look at the worst of humanity can be assured that it is stunningly original and its voice is almost impossible to ignore.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Free Falling Almost Comes with a Heavy Price

So, um, Noah had an airplane, too?
After two cancelled dates due to inclement weather (heavy winds one weekend and rain the next), I was finally heading to Noah's Ark Airport (WTF?) to skydive. It has been something I have wanted to do for as long as I can remember.

One of the first things I heard when I started the sign-in process was that the jumps could be halted any minute if the winds became a greater concern. Admittedly, the thought of another cancellation seemed agonizing. How many times can you pump yourself up for something only to be disappointed?
The thing was, though, I was still pumped up, completely excited and not even remotely worried. You see, I’d gone on every roller coaster, every amusement park ride, tried ziplining... heck, my brother and I once attempted our own brand of “parachuting” hanging onto each end of a giant blue tarp and jumping off the roof of our house on a particularly windy day. We chose the side with the steep-dropping driveway so we could be in the air a good 20 feet up or more.  
That was all loads of fun, but I was ready for something more. Through all these adventures, I had never been one to get a queasy stomach or feel a nervous pinch right before the thrills started. But, I knew skydiving would be a different animal.
I was concerned that the drooping feeling of my stomach falling out from under me as I fell to the earth might overtake me so I planned perfectly to counteract the threat of potentially losing my lunch. I simply would not have one. I ate an early light breakfast and knew I would be starved by the time I landed, but then I could promptly go eat a big, celebratory meal.
Problem was, it took all day to finally jump. 
Things did not start off on the right foot, either. Upon arrival, I was taken to a trailer to watch a five-minute video on the “risk assessment of skydiving.” The dull colors of the image and the faded fashion of the narrator’s polyester suit told me it was probably produced in the 1970s or early 1980s. He bore a long, shaggy, ZZ Top-style beard and looked more like an extra from Deliverance than the inventor of the tandem skydiving process and technology that was to be employed this day. Aesthetically, he did not inspire much confidence.
His words were even worse. He proceeded to deliver a lengthy list of all the ways that you could easily die while skydiving. There is no such thing as a perfect parachute, a perfect pilot, a perfect airplane, a perfect skydiving instructor, etc. Basically, any one factor could prove faulty and the result would surely be a terrible, serious accident or, more likely, an interesting death. So, because there are approximately one million ways to die while tandem skydiving, everybody present had to sign a waiver that we would never, ever sue any of the makers of any of the equipment, the plane, or the company we were skydiving with, no matter what. 
And, if we did sue for some strange reason, we’d pay for all the court costs for both sides.
This was not the most comforting opening video to have people watch. 
My head was, in fact, bigger than the plane.
After that, the head honcho of the company stressed the importance of complying to every order we were given and he added that nothing frightened him more than people who weren’t scared (since they usually did stupid things). 

No problem there. I was scared enough at that point. Then, just to sprinkle a bit more fear on, he kept muttering that the winds were perilously close to the “unsafe” zone. Already, many jumps had been pushed back that day in the interest of safety and the winds were right at that border between “OK” and “What the Hell do you think you’re doing?”
Again, comforting.
So, my 2 p.m. jump time was pushed back for an hour. Then another. Meanwhile, I watched a pleasant video of a woman who had skydived with the company and it looked like a fun, easy five minutes of her life. So, I relaxed. I had watched all the videos and now I just had to wait my turn and hope the weather would hold.
By 4 p.m. my stomach was growling, badly. I still didn’t want to eat only to have it come up on the way down. (We were taught that if you must lose your lunch, you are to do so by lifting your shirt collar and putting your face in it, using it as an air sickness bag.) There was no way I was going to let that even POSSIBLY happen.
The jump time continued to be pushed back. The wind was up to 30 m.p.h. and higher at times. Since there was nothing to eat at the place, I had a lunch consisting of six peppermint Altoids. I cut back on the water, too. I only had a few cups all day, partly because the only bathroom was a porta-potty, and partly because I didn’t want a full bladder when I jumped.
By 6 p.m. I was dying. My body was telling me this was not acceptable. I discovered that they sold soda and snack crackers so I enjoyed half a Pepsi and six pepper jack cheese crackers in a futile attempt to silence my stomach, but keep it virtually empty.
Finally, at 7 p.m., we were told to harness up quickly as it was finally time to go and we were losing daylight. 
Harness? Check. Instructions? Not so much.
All day I had watched jumpers who were given instructions while they suited up so it didn’t seem odd to me that, as my instructor tightened my harness, he only gave me a few comments on the landing part of it. 

Basically, the tandem jumper must lift his feet up with his knees tucked as he pulls down on the handles until they reach his waist, then he continues with his hands until they reach behind his back. This creates an updrift right before you hit ground and makes for a smooth, soft landing (by theory). Piece of cake.
Since I paid for the video option of the experience, my instructor attached a small camera to his wrist and started asking me questions. Things happened so quickly that I don’t remember what I was asked or how I responded. (I’ll watch the tape later and grimace, I’m sure.) Before I knew it, we were told to rush to the plane as they were concerned about the setting sun (another load of jumpers still to go). So, within minutes from being hooked up with the harness, I was on the cramped, small plane, ready to take off. I didn't even have time to say goodbye to my wife despite the hundreds of ways I could possibly die in the next twenty minutes.
It was then that two extremely disturbing thoughts penetrated my mind.
First of all, I realized that I was a bit tired and not as mentally sharp as normal, most likely due to the insufficient dietary regime for the past eight hours. I was very disappointed in myself for my brilliant plan of not having anything in my stomach or bladder to lose during the jump because it also meant feeling weak and tired from dehydration and starvation.
After waiting all day, it was suddenly go, go, GO!
So, that was anything but comforting. 

Then, another thought struck me with a deep, primal fear: I never really received any instructions (though I was there all freakin’ day) and I was not remotely prepared for what I was supposed to do (except for the landing). I figured I should mention this before we take off. I started to, but was cut off by my skydiving instructor who filmed a quick pre-take-off interview for my stupid video. By the time I answered the question, the plane had started and we were speeding down the tiny-ass runway.
Oh shit to the highest conceivable order!
So, I quickly mentioned that I didn’t know what I was supposed to do UP UNTIL THE LANDING. He was behind me, so I could not see his face, which was probably better for both of us.
“Didn’t you watch the tape?” he asked nervously.
“What fucking tape?” my mind screamed.
“I watched the one with the crazy beard guy talking about how easy it is to die while doing this and the one with the lady jumping and talking about how awesome everything is. Nothing instructional,” I shouted, over the roar of the engines.
“Really?” was all he said.
Really? Really? Fucking really? This was not comforting. Not one damn bit. We were nowhere near the vicinity of somewhere remotely near the edge of anything resembling comfortable.
Fuck me!
Now, I just felt stupid. I probably should have made sure I received proper instructions, but had spent most of the last two hours thinking about how hungry I was and how I was going to make sure to be good and famished while I jumped out of a plane at over 10,000 feet up. I only had myself to blame.
So, my instructor proceeded to hastily describe to me what to expect... what he would do and what I would need to do, even as we quickly climbed higher and higher. First his wrist device showed us at 1,000 feet, then 2,000 feet, then 3,000... all the while, he quickly relayed to me everything I would be responsible for and I frantically tried to commit it to memory knowing I was minutes away from doing it.
Somehow, I remained relatively calm through all of this. At this point, it occurred to me my life depended on this information, literally, and I listened intently figuring that, at the very least, I am a smart guy and I will be all right. But, I kept asking him to repeat things as I had trouble remembering. For some reason, this did not strike me as odd. Of course, the rising altitude was not helping matters.
He told me when we jumped I would have to assume the “banana arch” position. I would crane my neck back, protrude my chest and stomach out and kick my feet together back towards his butt behind me, all the while holding on to the harness straps on my chest. In short, I would act as the “fuselage” and he would act as the wings and steering in this equation. 
No problem. 
I hope I don't hit a bird...
I did that much almost perfectly. However, the second we leaned out of the airplane and proceeded to breathe in the light air and feel the wind whip us at impossibly fast (and deafening) speeds, I saw my first glimpse of the Kansan landscape almost two miles up. That's when my IQ immediately dropped 70 points, maybe more. My memory also seemed to fall out of the airplane with me.
Keep in mind, I was told later we traveled through the air at about 134 m.p.h. when we jumped from about 10,300 feet. We proceeded to free fall for the next 31 seconds, which seemed like about seven hours to me as I literally had a million thoughts bounce around my head in that span. It went something like this.
Oh shit! Oh fuck! Look at that! That’s fucking incredible! That’s absolutely amazing. The ground is so far away and I am falling terribly fast towards it. This is not natural. This is not REMOTELY NATURAL. Why do people deliberately do this? Oh, right. Because it’s amazing! Fucking awesome.
Let me interrupt for a second. I wish I could say my thoughts were fluid and poetic and worth reading, but, frankly, I was a magnified mental mess at this point.
Are those trees? Where are we landing? It’s so fucking green. Fuselage position, fuselage position, or is it banana posture? I don’t really remember. I think it was both. Are my feet high enough behind me? Neck is back, good good. Holy fuck, look at that view! I hope I don't hit a bird.
That all occurred literally in about the first two or three seconds. It was about that time when a wave of complete nausea and disorientation completely overwhelmed me. 

I suddenly felt unbelievably weak and a tingling sensation invaded my body from head to toe. I was pretty much brain dead, in hypnotic awe, and suddenly felt as if I contracted an intense head and stomach flu during the middle of the most amazing and exhausting marathon sex session imaginable... and somehow I managed to drink a 12-pack of beer sometime in the middle. I was high, confused, devastated and in rapture all at the same time.

I was in ecstasy. I was sick and dizzy. I was insanely weak and tired. I was trying to remember how to think. I was wondering if I was actually dreaming the experience. And my eyes were absorbing every scenic detail below me as the ground seemed to approach dangerously fast. It was beyond surreal. 

In fact, in retrospect, part of me wonders if I was experiencing vertigo even though I’ve never had any problems with heights and actually love the thrill I get when I am high up. Or, it could simply be my body was extremely weak and fatigued from not eating, which, combined with the high altitude (and low oxygen levels) and the intensity of the experience, made things extremely difficult. I don’t know. At this point, I don’t care because (SPOILER ALERT).... I survived the experience.
Mind you, all of this was happening within the first five seconds of jumping out. In all honesty, I would have completely panicked if I had the energy, but I was just too damn tired. My first coherent thought (after the initial jumbled explosion) was: This is going to be a lot harder than I thought.
When I spoke to my brother on the phone after, I described it like this. Imagine you are fighting Muhammad Ali in his prime. You step into the ring in the first round and the first thing he does is smash you with a haymaker that rattles you harder than you have ever been rattled in your entire life and you feel like you can’t help but drop to your knees. Except you can’t drop to your knees. If you do, the fight will be over. So, instead, you have to find a way to make it to the last round even though you already feel completely defeated.
Free falling, but not Tom Petty style.
This metaphor is perfect for how I felt. 

I was ready to pass out. I am at a loss to explain how I didn’t. I’ve never felt so much of a need to just give up and lose consciousness, but knowing you are strapped to another man whose life depends on yours almost as much as yours depends on him scared me more than anything. The truth is, with our combined weights, the instructor was simply not strong enough to perform certain maneuvers, especially the landing one. Passing out would be about the worst thing I could ever do, yet I felt on the verge of doing so for the entire jump.
In the meantime, I was numbly terrified and in sweet, sweet bliss at the same time. The experience was absolutely, positively, utterly indescribable.
Back to the free fall. I had to concentrate harder than I have ever had to before, knowing full well that both my brain and body were desperately working to sabotage my efforts to not create a nice big hole in the ground below. Those 30 seconds were insane. Nothing at all like Tom Petty’s Free Falling song. 
Then, the parachute deployed and it felt like going from 130 m.p.h. to like 20 m.p.h. in half a second. C-R-A-Z-Y.
At this point, I was told to hold the handles tightly with my arms stretched up as high as I could... but I COULD NOT PULL DOWN on the handles. This is not easy to do, especially when your arms feel as if they weigh 400 pounds a piece and you are dizzier than you have ever been in your entire life -- including the times as a kid that I would spin in circles in my room during the entire “I’m Henry the Eighth I Am” song before I would bounce off the walls and floors and laugh hysterically.
My instructor tried to coach me through everything and I tried to listen, but I also kept wanting to relax my sore, tired arms. We both knew the danger that presented. If I let go of the handles, that would certainly screw us completely. So, I held on.
Next, we tried to practice our landing maneuvers. This is when things got really ugly. My brain was not cooperating. I tried holding my arms all the way up (not pulling down on the handles until his say-so), then I bent my knees and lifted my legs. I was so tired that it felt like I was doing the 500th sit-up in an endless workout. I reached the right point and he signaled me to pull down on the handles, which I did, but only to my shoulders for some strange reason. I forgot to pull them all the way down to my waist. Meanwhile, my arms felt like two wet spaghetti noodles trying to support the weight of everything that has ever existed.
The first two attempts were miserable failures and this greatly discouraged my tandem partner. He began slamming his right hand on my shoulder a few times in a fruitless attempt to communicate to me what I needed to do. Again, I felt like giving up. He might as well have been a Nobel prize-winning scientist trying to explain Schrodinger’s cat and quantum mechanics to a box of tissues.
Right as I started to ask him “What am I supposed to do?” it hit me. Right. I have to pull the stupid handles down further. Got it. 
He was quite nervous because we were supposed to have achieved a couple of upswings already, but instead we kept plummeting down to the ground faster and faster with no prospect of a proper landing. Finally, we tried again and I did it right. Then, we repeated. However, the practice took what little energy I had left and basically pistol-whipped it to death.
The work part was over. Now we were supposed to just breathe in the atmosphere and enjoy the view. I still felt as if I would pass out any second. We spun around a few times. I pulled on one handle so we would turn sharply in the air. It was very cool, but I couldn’t believe how fatigued I was. Somehow, I helped to steer us where we needed to go as he barked out the orders (a bit frantically, sure, but who can blame him).
At that point I remember thinking the experience was absolutely nothing like I had expected. It was still profoundly wonderful... easily the most thrilling thing I have ever done by far... and I mean fucking far. But it was so much harder than I imagined it could be. 
At any rate, I was shocked at how fast the ground kept approaching. I thought it would feel like a slow, gradual fall... that is what it looks like from the ground, after all. But you drop fast, even with the chute deployed.
When we did the landing maneuver for real this time it was perfect. We both landed on our feet despite some nasty wind gusts. I feel this is most impressive because as soon as I was unstrapped from the chute, I hunched over and grabbed my knees trying to breathe and not collapse. 
How on earth am I still alive?
Barb, watching all of this, assumed my back had snapped in two. The truth is, the pressure and the exertion on my back muscles during this whole process was so severe that my back was the most relaxed it had been in 13 years. But, now on the ground, with the massive strain (and the adrenaline of trying to stay alive) over, I was even more exhausted. 
It took me a few moments to recover and walk back to everybody. I was completely high, and, as it turned out, I still feel that way the next morning, over 12 hours later.
It’s mostly a blur to me, albeit a very pleasant one. I am not exaggerating when I say I think that was probably the closest I had ever been to dying... and that counts the time I had an inflamed appendix for half a year before the doctors discovered why I was having horrible stomach pain and sickness AND the time a huge, heavy tree branch fell on the car with me in it.
Regardless, it was by far the best birthday gift I have ever received. It was more thrilling than every ride at Universal Studios Orlando (my favorite theme park) COMBINED.
However, when most people ask: “Would you do it again?” I have to respond honestly: “No. I don’t see how I would.” The truth is, once is enough. I am not sure I could survive another attempt, even if I ate and drank properly beforehand.
Although, it would be tempting simply because, after I became reunited with terra firma, I enjoyed the best tall glass of Boulevard Wheat and pound of spare ribs ever. Food and beverage always taste better following a long fast, but free falling adds an extent of flavor to all things that I never thought possible.