Saturday, July 28, 2007

everything is mostly bad

I've been procrastinating on writing a review of LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD long enough that it's probably pretty pointless to say more than a little about it. First off I should probably say that I had no real intention of seeing the movie in the first place, I had no real interest in it. Actually, the movie I wanted to see was SICKO, Michael Moore's new documentary (you knew that, I don't know why I felt the need to explain that, I suck), but it wasn't listed on the marquee of the theatre where it's supposed to be showing (and still isn't almost 4 weeks later, even though I'm sure the problem has been brought to the theatre's attention. I'd blame it on the right wing conspiracy if it weren't probably just a symptom of people in NYC generally always doing everything as half-assed and user-unfriendly as possible). Anyway, because it wasn't on the marquee, I assumed it wasn't showing, but I still felt like a film, of which FANTASTIC FOUR- RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER was, sadly, the least unappealing movie screening at the appropriate time. Not that it was even that bad a movie, actually. I mean, it was pretty stupid, and I don't really like their take on the Fantastic Four, but there was one cool scene where they're chasing Dr. Doom, who has stolen and is riding the Silver Surfer's cosmic surfboard, through the air in their flying, modular Fantasticars, over the Great Wall of China, that, more than anything else I've ever seen in a comics-based movie, actually felt like the cinematic representation of a comic book, so that was good for something.

Even so, as a film FANTASTIC FOUR_ RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER was slight, to say the least, and after seeing it, I still felt like seeing a film, so I did something I'd never done before and snuck into the next movie that was showing, which was DIE HARD. About the only good thing I can say about LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD is that it wasn't boring. On the other hand, it made the FANTASTIC FOUR seem both highly realistic and extremely intelligent by comparison. Apparently in 20 years since the first DIE HARD the Bruce Willis character has become not only superhuman but such a supreme badass that everyone knows how cool and dangerous he is just because. In a word, yuck.

What's worse, the film has one scene of supreme racism and misogyny, enacted by the supposed hero, that also, for whatever reason, seems to bring out the worst in audiences. One the film's villains is a woman, played by an actress who calls herself Maggie Q, who is apparently part-Asian. She doesn't really look Asian, but I guess we're supposed to know she is because as soon as she steps out from behind a computer (the film's villains are programmers, or hackers, or something) she starts doing kung-fu. This is a bad enough stereotype , or set of stereotypes, in and of themselves- all Asians knowing martial arts; The Dragon Lady - Asian female villainess. It's also pretty stupid just from a narrative standpoint, there's really nothing in the film to indicate that the computer savvy characters would have any kind of fighting skills as well, but there you have it- dumb characterizations in a dumb ass movie.

That's not even my issue with the film, though. The Maggie Q character reveals her martial arts skills in a scene where she knocks the Bruce Willis character around some, about the only time in the movie Willis' ubermensch takes any licks (seriously, the guy spends half the movie dodging flying cars, missles, jets and giant explosions without getting more than a few scratches). He responds by attacking her with such unrestrained brutality one might reserve for a lifelong arch nemesis. Aside from pounding on her severely with his fists, he hits her with a truck and throws her down an elevator shaft. It isn't just about a good guy beating up a bad guy (or gal in this case), it's about him HURTING her as much as possible. What's worse, the audience went wild during this scene. It was fucking disturbing and ultimately saddening. Her character, up to that point, hadn't done anything especially insidious, she was just one of the bad guys, one of many killed by the Bruce Willis character in the film, but the only one to receive such a raccous response (or such a brutal dispatch) from the crowd in the theatre.

This was troubling enough, but a couple of scenes later, the Bruce Willis character boasts, with great pride and pleasure and relish, to the main villain, about how he's just killed his "Asian ninja bitch girlfriend", to another round of ghoulish applause from the audience (which was quite mixed, both in terms of race and gender). What can I really say about this, except that it's just straight up, flat out jive-ass motherfucking racism and misogyny, and the audience was cheering for it, an audience in New York City, no less, supposedly one of the world's cultural and intellectual centers. The whole thing just fucking sucked. It made me sad to be alive.

It gets worse, too. A couple of days later, I was visiting my friend at her job, and I was describing the scene to her, the audience's reaction, and how much it bothered me, when another customer in the store, who had been eavesdropping on us, chimed in indignantly with his approval and the shit that had gone down in the movie, going so far as to begin applauding when i recounted the 'ninja bitch' line to my dismayed compatriot. This wasn't some sloppy teenage frat boy looking to get a rise out of us either, but a well-dressed 30-something-ish African American man, and he seemed genuinely angered by my objection to the scene in question ("Yay, casual racism and sexism," my friend replied laconically).

I guess I've said all I need to say on that. It was fucked up, it made me unhappy, and it's a sad indictment on not only the state of American popular culture, but on America and Americans in general. People just can't get past the racial shit, it's this country's great shame, and it's been fucking us up for hundreds of years.

Oh well, on a more positive note, I finally did make it to see SICKO and found it very effective and moving. Michael Moore always turns me off with the self-aggrandizing self-promotion surrounding his films, but I always wind up liking the films themselves. SICKO is even better, in my opinion, than FAHRENHEIT 9/11, though not quite as good as BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, which I think is his best. People attack Moore's films on formalistic and factual grounds, but morally and ideologically, I think he's unimpeachable. Really, to oppose the kind of universal healthcare proposed by Moore you'd have to be an extremely callous and uncaring person, kind of a monster. It's too bad America's most important documentary filmmaker is also kind of smarmy and boastful. To me, it's kind of distasteful, but I guess that's why I'm a person who writes a blog called NEGATIVE PLEASURE and not UP WITH PEOPLE.

Monday, July 16, 2007

cyborg hooker vs. creepy D&D nerd

Rather than complain about my lack of dedication and my inability to update this blog more regularly, I'm going to get right into trying to reconstruct about three or four weeks worth of things I wanted to write about. These ideas will no doubt be somewhat diluted by the amount of time I've been sitting on them, but what the hell, if I didn't have something to feel ashamed and disappointed in myself about, I wouldn't be me.

First off, I wanted to put up this response to my last post. This comes from my friend Miriam, who runs the TV-crit website McBeeves (I've written a thing or two on that site, but you should check it out anyway). Miriam is something of a TV guru for me, she's the person who turned me onto two of my favorite shows, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and VERONICA MARS, both of which I criticized in my last post. Miriam offers what I think are some very valid counterpoints to my concerns about these shows. She writes:

"I enjoyed your last blog entry, btw. I'm glad you're writing stuff. (your thesis was awesome, too. I really enjoyed reading it. I'm a dummy when it comes to comics, so it was educational as well.) is it all right if I disagree with you a little bit about vmars and battlestar galactica? I think both shows treat invasion of privacy/torture with ambiguity. in the case of bsg, I don't think the use of torture on the show has ever yielded a positive result for the parties doing the torturing - it actually directly led to two suicide bombings: 1) the number six that was tortured on the pegasus set off the nuke that baltar gave her and 2) colonel tai and the resistance on new caprica. then there's last season's baltar being tortured, which didn't help a soul (although I still don't know what that scene was about). this is definitely different from 24, where jack saves the world again and again using information obtained through torture. in the case of vmars, her identity as transgressor (with respect to the law as well as social conventions) is what makes her powerful, but it's also caused a lot of problems in her relationships. the finale this season (which was awesome, btw) showed just how much her actions cost keith. and then there's the whole paranoid suspicion thing she used on logan. it's like her ability to see/know too much about others kept her from being able to trust people, which only drove her to dig even deeper into other people's business as some sort of control thing... whatever it was, I definitely don't think it was portrayed as a positive thing (even if it was the thing that helped her solve the mysteries)."

So, there ya go, BSG and VERONICA MARS are cool, I can continue to watch them guilt-free, although I guess not VERONICA MARS, because it got canceled, which sucks, but at least it took GILMORE GIRLS with it, one final noble act...(I watched GILMORE GIRLS on-and-off from the beginning, but towards the end kind of obsessively, and hated it so much I died a little inside every time it came on, yet couldn't turn away. Seriously, it was easier for me to quit drinking than to stop watching GILMORE GIRLS...)

The next thing I wanted to write about goes back to my comments in my last post about the 40 YEAR-OLD VIRGIN being a racist film, and the topic of political correctness. As I'm actually sitting down to write this, I'm starting to realize how difficult it is to write about political correctness without sounding like an asshole. I mean, political correctness is basically a good idea, it's basically all about not being racist, not being sexist, not being a number of things that, in general, it's not all that cool to be. The problem with it is that the term has become something of a dirty word, because the movement surrounding it was so knee-jerk, reactionary and humorless, and the whole thing supposedly got taken so far beyond a reasonable point that it turned into something repressive and maybe even somewhat destructive. Well, up to a point.

The issue came to mind in part because of an article I read I read in the New York times a couple of weeks ago about some controversy surrounding the film CAPTIVITY, another torture-horror film in the vein of HOSTEL and SAW. CAPTIVITY I guess received some flack from the National Organization of Women for its advertising, which either depicted or suggested some form of violence against women. Now, I can tell you in advance, knowing almost nothing about it, that CAPTIVITY is going to be a nothing movie. When you've seen as many horror films as I have, you develop something of a sixth sense about these things, and also learn how to interpret small clues in a film's trailer, advertising, cast, distributor as well as the general 'buzz' surrounding it. I could be wrong, but I feel pretty confident saying that CAPTIVITY is pretty much going to be bullshit, and almost nobody would really care anything about it if it weren't for this minor controversy. Which is to say that if NOW had ignored the movie, it probably would have gone away pretty quickly on its own.

That said, there was some pretty disturbing shit from the producer of the film, Courtney Solomon (who directed the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS movie from 2000), who seemed to take a great deal of pleasure from offending women's groups. Granted, a group like NOW can be a little over-the-top and humorless, but their general m.o. is pretty admirable. Anyway, the article centered on Courtney Solomon's plans for a big party promoting CAPTIVITY, one which he was attempting to engineer as a scary, dangerous happening. Of course, in the post-9/11 era, scary and dangerous are relative things, so I doubt the party's planned appearances by Suicide Girls models and Ultimate Fighting champions are really going to come off quite as "Extreme" as I suppose Mr. Solomon imagines they will. What is pretty fucked up is his take on his films detractors. From the article: “The women’s groups definitely will love it,” Mr. Solomon hinted. “I call it my personal little tribute to them.”

I don't know, there's just something kind of gross about this. Like, I can totally imagine the guy, although I have no idea what he looks like, a little coked-up, kind of sweaty, rubbing his hands together all sinister-like, a demented little grin on his face, as he imagines the indignities he's going to inflict upon a group who's basic motivation in this case is the opposition of the glorification of violence against women. Like, he really thinks he's getting one over on them, that somehow they've wronged him. It's just not really cool. It's creepy to take such an aggressive, defensive stance on something where you're not really making any counterpoints, or putting your film into any kind of context, or even bullshitting that you're making a political statement. Basically, this dude is just saying he's down with violence against women and he won't take any shit from anyone who isn't.

The thing is, for me anyway, the issue of political correctness is relative to context, and also to quality. Like, I know William Lustig's MANIAC is considered a really misogynist film, and some of that criticism I think is justified, but I'm sort of willing to overlook up to a point it in that case because it's technically and stylistically so successful a film in creating an atmosphere of real dread, drawing not only on the movie's technical qualities and the sweaty, creepy performance of star Joe Spinell, but also on the general sociopolitical vibe of NYC in the late-1970s and early-1980s, just a few years after the Son of Sam killings and at a time when violent urban crime was on the rise. Likewise, a film like I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE explicitly depicts scenes of violence against a woman, but the violence is portrayed so disturbingly, it's really difficult to imagine the filmmakers intending anyone to get any pleasure out of watching it (which is definitely a kind of negative pleasure, since the film is engaging, but not pleasurable in any conventional sense, it confounds enjoyment with displeasure, yet, well, something or another). Context can mean everything. Like, there's a big difference between using the N-word is a classroom and using it on the street.

Anyway, this all sort of brings me to the main point of what I wanted to write, which was basically about two pretty politically incorrect films that I've seen recently and enjoyed quite a bit, in both cases much to my surprise. The first was THEY CALL ME BRUCE?, a 1982 film I had enjoyed as a preteen and then totally forgotten about. Back in the day, you'd have probably called it a cult film, but whatever reasons the cult of BRUCE has diminished since its video heyday, which is too bad, because I've got to say, watching the movie again nearly 20 years since the last time I saw it, THEY CALL ME BRUCE? is a genuinely funny film.

On the surface, THEY CALL ME BRUCE? is pretty offensive. Most of the gags in the film revolve around racial stereotypes. To the movie's credit, it doesn't really single out one group, but pretty much puts it to everyone, which I think saves it from seeming racist. Adding to this, there's much more of a sense of everybody being put-on, rather than being put-down. Also, the film's star, Johnny Yune, is so smart about playing dumb, it just sort of elevates things to another level. Yune's timing is pretty great, he sort of tosses out a lot of goofy jokes really offhandedly, for instance a scene between him and some rednecks where Yune keeps saying "Sushi" and the redneck keeps hearing his girlfriend's name, "Suzy." Hey, I said it was goofy and stupid, but it also works. It's too bad he didn't do too many more movies other than the sequel, THEY STILL CALL ME BRUCE, which I know I've seen but can't remember a thing about.

Johnny Yune, though he plays a Chinese character in the film, is actually Korean, as is the new movie NEVER BELONGS TO ME, a super low-budget, shot-on-video underground/exploitation piece that, so far, has only been shown at film festivals, including the recent New York Asian Film Festival, where a friend and I caught a screening of it and were both fairly delighted what we saw. NEVER BELONGS TO ME is a perfect example of a movie (can't really call it a 'film' cuz it's shot on video, not that there's anything wrong with that) that pushes the boundaries of good taste and I guess what you could call political correctness, and still comes out not just engaging, but surprisingly endearing as well.

Directed by Nam Ki-Woong, NEVER BELONG TO ME's decidedly convoluted narrative centers around Gun-tae, sort of a goofy, luckless dude who, after a failed robbery attempt with a half-tiger (or is that dog?) man who may or may not be Gun-tae's half-brother (and who accidentally shoots himself in the face before the robbery begins), is convinced by his sort-of girlfriend to have his penis replaced with a gun in order to take vengeance upon the 'Three Bastards' who had previously turned her into a cyborg hooker. The Three Bastards, for whatever reason, have also been attacking Gun-tae everytime he goes to the local noodle stand, and wind up breaking his thumbs (I think) which somehow necessitates to implementation of the penis gun, as opposed to him just using a normal gun or knife on them. Oh, and the penis gun only fires when Gun-tae ejaculates, meaning he has to masturbate every time he wants to shoot someone. This becomes an issue as well, as Gun-tae can only arouse himself with a poster image of a ballerina. Things become even more complicated when the tiger man, lobotomized by the gunshot wound to his head, eats Gun-tae's normal penis (being kept in a cooler by the gun implanting surgeon, Dr. Hell). Thus, Gun-tae is cursed to have the gun penis forever. More violence ensues.

If it sounds confusing, it pretty much is, but it's also pretty damn charming in its own way. In fact, NEVER BELONGS TO ME's success lies in the movie's keen ability to confound expectations. The movie comes from a particular brand of decidedly grotty Asian exploitation movies, particularly Japan's low-budget Roman Porno/pink film, or underground gore pictures like the infamous Guinea Pig and Entrails films, and yet one can't help but leave the theatre feeling a little warm and fuzzy. Despite a scuzzy veneer, it's neither alienating nor repellent, and as much effort it makes to appear stupid, it's actually surprisingly intelligent. As a protagonist, Gun-tae isn't especially sympathetic, but he is identifiable and generally pretty fun to watch, as is the somewhat schizophrenic tiger man, who starts the movie by saying," I want to fuck every living thing on the planet" and ends it as a kind of ersatz superhero. And lest we not forget the slinky, enigmatic cyborg hooker, who looks and acts like she could have walked out a background scene in BLADE RUNNER, only funnier. Which all goes to say that a movie doesn't have to be excessively politically correct to work if it's reasonably intelligent and creative, and has a purpose or ethos behind its offensiveness. (In the time it's taken me to write this, CAPTIVITY has been released to generally pretty dismal reviews, which suggests that maybe it doesn't have the intelligence or creativity of NEVER BELONGS TO ME or even THEY CALL ME BRUCE. Granted, I haven't seen it yet, so I can't totally pass judgment, though the overall creepiness of the film's producer as evidenced above might just be enough to keep me away from it until it shows up on cable someday, or something...)

Hopefully, NEVER BELONGS TO ME will rate at least a DVD release if not some kind of limited theatrical showing. It'd be hard to go the rest of my life without ever seeing it again, or not being able to talk to anyone about it less my one friend who came to the screening with me. As of yet, it hasn't even rated a page on the imdb. I'd also be curious to get a chance to check out Nam Ki-Woong's tantalizingly titled other movies, TEENAGE HOOKER BECOMES KILLING MACHINE IN DAEHAKAROAH (which appears to be out on DVD) and CHOW YUN FAT MEETS BROWNIE GIRL.

Coming up next, reviews of more films from the New York Asian Film Festival, some shitty Hollywood movies (guess what- the new DIE HARD film is racist and misogynst AND it sucks) and the surprisingly awesome new horror film JOSHUA.