Thursday, November 26, 2015

Throwback Thursday Throwback: Fight Club

The 'B' is for 'Bitch Tits.'
The AFOS blog's year-long Throwback Thursday series concludes its run on December 10. Today's edition of TBT is a repost of a TBT piece from April 9. It's perfect for the day before the day when consumerism whips its dick out and unloads on every single crazed shopper's face.

Cell phones have ruined movies forever. They've made it more difficult for screenwriters to come up with suspenseful situations. You couldn't write either Rear Window or North by Northwest today because every moment of suspense would become impossible for the nitpickers in the audience to take seriously due to "Hmm, you know he or she could use his or her smartphone to save his or her own ass in this situation." The constant advances in cell phone technology have even affected movies that have aged pretty well--when they don't involve phone scenes, that is. The appearance of any kind of phone in a largely timeless movie that's not a present-day cell phone immediately makes that otherwise timeless movie dated.

Thanks to the cutting-edge work of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and director David Fincher, whose visuals have always been cutting-edge and distinctive (whether in Fincher-directed music videos like Aerosmith's "Janie's Got a Gun" video or more recent Fincher films like the Cronenweth-lensed Gone Girl), the 1999 anti-consumerism cult favorite Fight Club looks like it could have been filmed yesterday, and it stands the test of time--for several minutes. But then Edward Norton is seen standing in a pay phone booth to dial up his new soap salesman friend Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), and Fight Club instantly becomes dated.

I had not watched Fight Club in 16 years, before rewatching it as prep for today's edition of Throwback Thursday. In addition to containing the only film score by the Dust Brothers of Paul's Boutique fame (who really ought to compose more scores, due to their outstanding work on the 1999 film, which can be heard during either "AFOS Prime" or the first 33 seconds of the trailer below), Fight Club remains my favorite Fincher film. It's still my favorite even when the appearance of a pay phone wrecks the timelessness and anonymity both Fincher and the various adapters of Chuck Palahniuk's thought-to-have-been-unfilmable 1996 novel of the same name, including credited screenwriter Jim Uhls and uncredited Andrew Kevin Walker from Seven, tried to aim for in their portrayal of modern-day malaise (the city Fight Club takes place in is unspecified, despite the frequent use of L.A. locations, as is the name of Norton's narrator character, although the shooting script referred to him as Jack--we'll call him Jack from this point on).

Much of the appeal of Fight Club stems from the fact that we've all experienced Jack's feelings of malaise (he's nameless for a reason: so that male audience members can name the narrator after themselves). Okay, so you may not be a privileged white male yuppie like Jack, but you can definitely relate to his dissatisfaction with his job as an auto recall specialist and the feeling of emptiness that triggers his insomnia and has him doing anything to feel alive, whether it's going through an IKEA shopping phase, faking diseases and crashing support group meetings with his frenemy Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) or forming with Tyler an underground fight club to blow off steam, for men only (no Marlas allowed).

A good example of the film's ability to connect with viewers long after it tanked at the box office (Palahniuk's material isn't unfilmable--it's unmarketable, as 20th Century Fox realized while inanely trying to sell Fight Club as a TBS Movie for Guys Who Like Movies back in 1999) was when former editor Jim Emerson interestingly called Fight Club one of the most accurate depictions of clinical depression ever made and praised how it captures the way that depression is all-consuming. "It helped shake me out of the grips of a depression that was sucking me down at the time," wrote Emerson.

Funny how the most dated thing in this shot is not Brad Pitt's Soul Train outfit. Instead, it's that fucking pay phone.
(Photo source: DVD Beaver)

(Spoiler time. Weirdos who have never seen Fight Club can leave now.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

If the end of Jessica Jones has created an empty #Showhole, Gianna Jun's 2012 heist flick The Thieves might briefly pull you out of it

I love the heist genre so much that whenever I encounter a serious article about racial inequality, I like to always take that article and envision it in my head as a crowd-pleasing heist flick where mistreated characters get revenge on the ones who mistreated or subjugated them by stealing their enemies' shit. For instance, that happened while I read "Not All Nerds," Christopher T. Fan's terrific 2014 New Inquiry critique of the ways Silicon Valley handles its diversity problems.

A heist flick where a crew of Asian American men and women sticks it to the racist and corrupt Silicon Valley tech world they used to work for has been playing in my head for a long time. It started out as a story idea I called Robbery in Progress (it included Quincy Jones and the Don Elliott Voices' "Money Runner," the primary theme from the 1971 heist flick $ [Dollars], as a song I wanted to feature--"Money Runner" is, by the way, now playing on AFOS--and it would have revolved around a much smaller, much younger crew of three inexperienced Asian American thieves getting even with the racist small town they live in and receiving robbery lessons from a criminal who's the cousin of one of the three teens). If such a heist flick ever gets made, and maybe by someone else, I hope it turns out to be as satisfying as something like Set It Off or 2012's even better The Thieves.

In South Korea, Assassination director Choi Dong-hoon's heist flick, about a crew of Korean thieves and a crew of Chinese thieves that unite to steal a diamond at a Macao casino, is currently the fifth highest-grossing Korean film of all time, sitting right below Bong Joon-ho's The Host. But over here, the solidly made 2012 blockbuster is a bit under the radar and well worth discovering on Amazon Video or via Netflix's DVD rental service.

Critics frequently compare The Thieves to Ocean's Eleven because of the starpower of the multilingual film's Korean and Chinese actors and the casino setting, but the casino and a healthy dose of humor are all they have in common. Unlike both the 1960 and 2001 Oceans, the thieves are constantly double-crossing each other, which makes The Thieves more like a glamorous and comedic Friends of Eddie Coyle, plus it's no sausage fest.

A lot more women are involved in the heists, and, as reviewer Seto Kit Yan noted in 2012, "they are not there as mere distractions or love interests." Without giving too much of The Thieves away, most of the film's juiciest material, both story-wise and performance-wise, involves the female characters, including Pepsee (Kim Hye-soo), a safecracker who's just been released from prison, which makes The Thieves a perfect chaser after marathoning the entire run of Jessica Jones, Marvel and Netflix's similarly female-character-heavy but much more dark (and wonderfully subversive) neo-noir drama.

You'll enter The Thieves being familiar with only one or two of the huge, Furious 6-size ensemble (in my case, the only stars I recognized were Simon Yam as the Chinese team leader and Angelica Lee, the star of the original version of The Eye, as Pepsee's safecracking counterpart on the Chinese team), and then you'll come away wanting to see more of the work of many of the film's other stars, particularly Gianna Jun, who's a comedic standout as Yenicall, a beautiful and snarky cat burglar. Yenicall is basically two different Leverage teammates, Parker the pickpocket/acrobat and Sophie the grifter, in the same body. Even though some of the ensemble gets killed off, a Thieves sequel is inevitable, and I'd like to see the surviving thieves mix it up with criminals and cops from a much different corner of Asia: are the likes of Deepika Padukone and Hrithik Roshan available?

Yenicall from The Thieves, illustrated by Rizky Nugraha

Friday, November 20, 2015

A new doc careens down the twisted path of Steve McQueen's gritty, Michel Legrand-scored Le Mans, an auto racing film that's like no other

With Le Mans, Steve McQueen, an auto racing enthusiast, set out to make as authentic an auto racing film as possible. The result, which was credited to a director from network TV, frequent '60s Mission: Impossible episode director Lee H. Katzin, was an unconventional, existentialist and documentary-style sports flick that baffled film critics in 1971--they wanted way more melodrama than the scant amount the film preferred to give them--and was ahead of its time. The story of an introverted man who doesn't know how to do anything else, except drive fast, was essentially a Michael Mann movie long before such a thing existed. And what are most Mann movies about? Introverted men who don't know how to do anything else, except break into vaults or track down criminals.

Le Mans isn't the best auto racing film ever made--that spot belongs to the offbeat Talladega Nights ("I like to think of Jesus as a figure skater who wears like a white outfit and he does interpretive ice dances of my life's journey"). But as an auto racing film, Le Mans is more powerful and rewatchable than either the soapy and overstuffed Grand Prix--if John Frankenheimer pared that film down to just the excellently shot racing sequences, it would have been an action masterpiece--or Quentin Tarantino's favorite racing film, the similarly soapy Days of Thunder, Don Simpson's 107-minute love letter to his own coke-fueled self. The power and rewatchability of Le Mans are mostly because of what Le Mans doesn't show and what it doesn't have the characters say.

McQueen looks like an astronaut checking out the planet Poonanny. Shout to the late Warren Thomas for the 'planet Poonanny' term.

The subplot about Michael Delaney, McQueen's racer character, and his tentative friendship with the widow (Elga Andersen) of a racing rival who died during one of Delaney's racing accidents barely qualifies as a love story, but the minimal dialogue between McQueen and Andersen and the details their scenes leave out (did Delaney and the widow sleep together in his trailer?) automatically cause their subplot to be far more intriguing as off-the-race-track material than any of the off-the-track Grand Prix scenes that don't feature a hot Françoise Hardy or an equally hot Jessica Walter. I love how all the exposition in Le Mans is delivered by a barely audible PA announcer and the film--several decades before the invention of the closed captioning option on Blu-rays and DVDs would have made it easier--deliberately makes the audience work hard to understand what the announcer's saying.

I don't even like auto racing, yet Le Mans somehow comes up with many effective ways to make me give a shit about it, whether it's keeping the dialogue to a minimum, staging the racing sequences so that they're not the "disorienting, incoherent blur of mindless action" Nathan Rabin complained about in his Dissolve reassessment of Days of Thunder or capturing remarkable footage of either the actual 24-hour Le Mans race or the onlookers that would be impossible to capture today, perhaps for insurance reasons or simply because it's not 1970. It's hard to dislike a sports flick that comes up with a shot of a spectator like my favorite shot: a young lady is too passed out from drinking to bother to pay attention to Delaney's pit crew springing into action and assisting Delaney out of his Porsche at the end of his latest shift behind the wheel.

She did the same thing while trying to sit through the movie Pan at the Alamo Drafthouse.

Behind the scenes, Le Mans was such a difficult film to make: it started filming without a script; the enigmatic McQueen was at his worst behavior and was at odds with everyone from studio execs to Le Mans' original director, John Sturges, who directed McQueen in The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape; McQueen and his then-wife were cheating on each other; and a stunt driver had to have his leg amputated after an actual car crash on the set. The Le Mans shoot's endless troubles have been the subject of both a 1999 book (Michael Keyser's A French Kiss with Death) and now a documentary, Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans, which hit select theaters last Friday.

The Daily Beast calls directors Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna's new McQueen doc "a warts-and-all portrait of a man at an unstable time in his life" and is appreciative of how the doc "doesn't look away from the people who were hurt by McQueen's actions." But the Beast isn't as enamored with the doc's overexplanatory nature, in comparison to Le Mans' not-so-explanatory nature ("We don't need to hear someone tell us that McQueen cared about where the camera was, or what shots he was going to be in, because to look at scenes from Le Mans is to immediately understand the artist's curiosity to capture action in images").

The best thing to come out of Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans has taken place outside the movie. That would be the bonus tracks on the Varèse Sarabande release of Jim Copperthwaite's ultra-solemn score to Clarke and McKenna's doc. The bonuses are highlights from Michel Legrand's occasionally treacly but otherwise vibrant and effective jazz score to Le Mans.

In 2007, Legrand's Le Mans score--it's basically Legrand in froufrou Thomas Crown Affair mode--was reissued with additional tracks by Universal France, but Varèse's treatment of the Le Mans cues isn't too shabby either. Fortunately, in this incarnation, the Le Mans cues are without the Le Mans race track sound FX that were edited into the music on the 1971 Columbia Records LP release of the Le Mans soundtrack (and then were mostly omitted by Universal France, to the delight of film score music fans who don't like hearing sound clips from movies during those movies' score albums).

"The Race, Final Laps" was cut out of the 1971 film, but it's the best and most energetic of the cues Legrand wrote for Le Mans and Varèse added to the Man & Le Mans album, and it's currently in rotation on "AFOS Prime." It best captures Delaney's intense drive to get his team to the top, even when he himself isn't in first place, as well as the very subject of The Man & Le Mans: McQueen's ambition and desperation to make Le Mans the way he wanted, even at the cost of several friendships, a marriage, a guy's leg and perhaps his own sanity.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Source Code (with guest blogger Hardeep Aujla)

If Source Code wasn't sufficient enough as an unofficial movie version of Quantum Leap starring Jake Gyllenhaal, go watch Gyllenhaal sing 'And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going' in drag. Just pretend that SNL sketch is one of those various Quantum Leap episodes where Sam leaps into a woman and has to sing in front of people in order to leap again.

Every Throwback Thursday, I randomly pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket stub I saved, and then I discuss the movie on the stub. This time I've gotten Hardeep Aujla, an album reviewer for a U.K.-based hip-hop blog I've contributed pieces to, Word Is Bond, to come back after his guest TBT post about The Cabin in the Woods and discuss the movie on the stub I drew. Spoilers ahead. The AFOS blog's year-long TBT series concludes on December 10.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Netflix's Master of None is revolutionary, and not just because it's the first half-hour comedy filmed in pimptastic 2.35:1 (ask your film nerd friend)

The 80-year-old tribute from The Hunger Games's crooning game is on fleek.
The following contains spoilers for the final two episodes of Master of None.

Asian American men have been so badly stereotyped and emasculated by Hollywood (peep the Long Duk Dong catchphrase montage from "Good Morning Orlando," last week's Fresh Off the Boat episode, for a refresher course) that several Asian American male indie filmmakers have worked to counteract those stereotypes by casting either themselves or much more polished Asian actors as romantic leads, one of many kinds of roles Asian American men only rarely get to play outside the indie world. But to be honest, even though it's nice to see these directors defying stereotypes, too many of these indie flicks--or more commonly these days, YouTube shows--have turned out to be underwhelming or banal in execution. (A rare example of an indie flick with an Asian American guy as a romantic lead that isn't so underwhelming as a movie is 2011's struggling musician comedy Surrogate Valentine, and although it was directed by a white guy, Dave Boyle, it's thoroughly suffused with the creative voice of Surrogate Valentine star and co-writer Goh Nakamura.)

It's not surprising that the similarly conscious-about-race Aziz Ansari and his fellow Parks and Recreation colleague, writer Alan Yang, the creators of Netflix's remarkable new half-hour comedy Master of None, chose to open their show's very first episode with the ultimate in "Hey, I have sex too! I ain't no emasculated dork like how Hollywood likes to portray me!" moments during stories told from Asian American males' perspectives. Master of None's first glimpse of TV commercial actor Dev Shah, Ansari's alter ego, is Dev in the middle of banging Rachel (former SNL featured player Noël Wells), the record label publicist who will become Dev's permanent love interest later on in the season. The opening scene is the first of many figurative middle fingers Ansari and Yang, whose counterpart on the show is Kelvin Yu's Brian, satisfyingly deliver throughout the show to racist power players from Hollywood who either contribute to marginalizing Asian Americans, whether they're Indian or, in the case of Yang and Yu, Taiwanese, or continue to be in doubt about giving them screen roles like "one of the jobs Bradley Cooper's characters do in movies," as Dev says at one point.

But because Ansari isn't such a vain comedy star--you can tell how much vanity a male comedy star has by how often he gets the staff writers to write shirtless bedroom scenes for him, like the bizarre amount of shirtless bedroom scenes that were written for the late Richard Jeni during his short-lived '90s sitcom Platypus Man--Ansari amusingly cuts short his own first-ever on-screen moment of athletic, TV-MA-rated (but without any nudity) lovemaking. He has his own character's condom suddenly break.

The broken condom scare leads to both frantic Googling of fun facts about pre-ejaculate and an emergency Uber ride for both Dev and Rachel to the nearest pharmacy for a Plan B pill and--because Dev is as passionate a foodie/drinkie as Ansari--an irresistible bottle of Martinelli's apple juice. The mishap perfectly kicks off a series of anxieties Dev experiences about children (he doesn't completely hate them, but like Ansari, he doesn't plan on having any), marriage (again, like with Ansari, the idea of it intimidates Dev), texting etiquette (another subject Ansari has been preoccupied with in his stand-up act), accepting certain acting roles that would pay well but could also cause him to be labeled an "Uncle Taj" and various other life choices.

Master of None--which gets its title from a 2006 Beach House song about a person who hops from fuckbuddy to fuckbuddy but winds up being lonely (the tune is featured at the end of the third episode, "Hot Ticket")--is Ansari's first big endeavor into auteurist TV (he also directed two of the 10 episodes that Netflix dropped all at once last Friday). The show interestingly structures itself as a series of mini-movies--hence the "Master of None Presents" logo during the main titles of each episode--and breaks away from both the joke machine rhythms of network TV ("Alan and I didn't want the show to be so cut-y. Sometimes I'd watch Parks and it's so fast-paced," said Ansari to the A.V. Club) and the studio set-bound nature of many network sitcoms like Parks.

Instead, it embraces the commercial-free pacing of Netflix and favors long single takes during street conversations or hallway exchanges like Dev's amusing exchange with his friend Arnold (Eric Wareheim) about the frustration of being unable to tell if Eminem's 8 Mile theme "Lose Yourself" is being rapped from the point of view of Em or his 8 Mile alter ego B-Rabbit ("[Linklater] has been a huge influence on me, and he has been for a few years," said Ansari in that same A.V. Club interview, while discussing his love for the long takes during Linklater's Before trilogy). The show also favors location shooting in New York (and, for one episode, Nashville) and, in what has to be a first for a half-hour comedy, cinematography shot in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. That's the same aspect ratio all the Star Wars movies and Bond flicks (except Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun) are filmed in.

Master of None cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard makes beautiful use of the ultra-widescreen frame. At first, the Scope aspect ratio seems like a bizarre choice for a half-hour comedy. But when Schwartzbard continually composes shots as clever and playful as the one where Brian and his laconic immigrant dad Peter (Clem Cheung) finally bond while reading The Economist, but due to Peter's Ron Swanson-like discomfort with expressing any kind of emotion, they're sitting far apart and at the edges of the frame rather than shoulder to shoulder (or when Schwartzbard sometimes composes shots that are just plain gorgeous), the aspect ratio suits the show.