25 October, 2013

Shotgun Blast of White Trash

Killer Joe is not so much a crime film as it is a kaleidoscope of scum. And not your average scum, either. The kinds of scum that walk the earth of Killer Joe need to be scrubbed from the earth with chemical fire. If there was ever a film that would make you want to take a shower, this is the one.

A more snide director would look down on the target family of the film and a more exploitative one would look up to them, but Freidkin is far more intruiged by looking at them dead in the eyes. It isn't that he avoids judging them, it's that there'd be no point to it. It'd be like explainingthe meter of a sonnet to a pig eating a boot. Morality and judgement would be wasted on this family, and for that they are sort of likable. Sort of. In the same way dive bar vomit might have a kind of charm. We like them enough to see what horrid shit-pile they'll roll into next.

I was talking to a friend of mind and she said that after a certain point, she just stopped watching Kiler Joe. This strikes me as a sane response to this movie. For the rest of us, the ones who want to see humanity at its Biblical worst, this movie is the movie for you. Just, you know, make sure you have a luffa handy.

A scene that does not stick out in Killer Joe.
All of this is tied to together by Matthew McConaughey's titular character, a merciless man who seemed to have missed his calling as either a cult leader or a super-soldier made out of the husbands of 1970's porn actors. He's clean and competent and for that, he acts as a welcome respite from a universe that really needs a bath. Or a wetnap, at least.

Not to get off topic here, but it kind of reminds of The Great Gatsby. Yes, that The Great Gatsby. Now stick with me here.

To me Tom was always the least terrible of any of the character (which in the context of The Great Gatsby means that he least resembled a weapon's grade goat asshole). Sure he drank, cheated, had strong feelings about the dominance of the white race, and hit his wife, but at least we knew where he stood. There was something honest about him. Myrtle is run over he's the only one who seems to feel bad about it outside of how this dead body was going to eat into this mid-morning squash session. He's capable of love, while everyone else, from Nick to Daisy to Gatsby himself are self-obsessed, vapid bores who think that not having a soul can be made up for by having a really great head of hair.

This is what makes Killer Joe a kind of hero of the film. He's the most insidious and violent, yet he's the only one with any measure of honesty or competence. Everyone else is exactly who they appear to be (with one, notable exception). You sort of root for him, as much as you can root for a murderous, border-line sex criminal. That, if anything, indicates just what a morally bankrupt film that Friedkin and Letts have constructed.

As disgusting as this movie is, in the end, it manically and brutally wraps everything up with such suddenness that you feel as though someone was fucking with you the entire time, and instead of it being a moment of annoyance, there's this sense of pleasure that you've been fucked with by somebody who is really, really good at it. Killer Joe feels like what would happen if the Jackass guys were really into committing crime. I don't know that there are many other experiences like that in film.

As it turns out that's a good thing.

12 October, 2013

"In Space Life is Impossible"

"In Space Life is Impossible:" 

A review of Gravity.

From the first moments to the very last shot, Gravity doesn't let up for a single second.As I write this, my stomach is in knots, my heart rate has only gone down just now, and I think I almost tore my handkerchief in half. If my sweaty palms are any indication, Gravity is a very accomplished film. If you want a movie that feels like a 90 minute panic attack while hand-cuffed to a rollercoaster, this is the movie to see.

It's kind of hard to believe that Gravity is the only film Alfonso Cuaron has made since Children of Men. Considering how Children of Men combined a pulp adventure story with a Biblical allegory, while at the same time quietly redefining cinema, a gap of seven years isn't just conspicuous, it's depressing.We have an answer in Gravity. Apparently this is what he was saving it up for.

The anxiousness and thrills that Gravity delivers are entirely down to how impeccably well constructed it is. We saw how well he could wield a camera and construct a scene in Children of Men and with Gravity we see that same talent turned towards a film that is much more sparse, yet somehow bigger. Children of Men is a film about a particular kind of world, while Gravity is a film about the vastness of the universe and just how large a human being can feel.

It's a film that is so consummately constructed that not only does the 3D work, it actually adds to the tone of the film. The use of 3D gives the film a sense of dimension and space that a 2D film doesn't have, while at the same time only calling attention to the 3D for a greater effect. Maybe I'm saying this because I was so impressed with the movie that I didn't let the 3D get in the way, but I'll be damned if I didn't feel that it made the movie somehow bigger. If stereoscopy is a gimmick, then I can live with that gimmick if it means we get more movies like Gravity.

The 3D seems as cinematically important as Cinerama is to 2001: A Space Odyssey.* The Cinerama simply makes 2001 bigger. It doesn't change the film, yet it transforms it into a greater film. The same is true in Gravity's case. The sense of scale and space that this movie uses to tell a story isn't possible 2D. The greater triumph, though is, even if that isn't true, it feels like it's true.

I mentioned 2001: A Space Odyssey, not because they're both movies about space (though, that helps), but because Alfonso Cuaron's cinematic eye is no less dynamic or exacting than Stanley Kubrick's was in his own epic. These are men who understand how to use the movie in its most basic, primitive sense. That is why both of these stories exist primarily without words. They can hold our attention without having to talk to us or tell us what is happening. While they each include simple, yet important character interactions, their triumph is the use of film's most primitive tools-- sound, colors, motion-- to tell us things that, in many cases, simple words cannot. This strong, directorial hand is why 2001 is still studied and debated today. This is why Gravity carries so much weight with so few words**.

Cuaron gives you an ending and a sense of awe that you can only earn after ninety minutes of fear and trembling. He doesn't ever need to tell you what you're supposed to feel. You simply know. You know, because that is what movies are supposed to do. As much fun as Gravity is, it also feels like arriving at some sort of fundamental truth. In that sense, it is the complete opposite of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It is in these grand strokes that the movie shows its brilliance. There is nothing complicated or difficult to understand, yet this is deceptive in a way that makes movies so great. For all of the craftsmanship that went into this movie, it all disguises itself in service of this story. It's a magic trick. You don't see the years of work that went into it, the failures leading up to it, or the simple slight of hand that makes it all possible.All you see is the trick and all you feel is a sense of wonder, the knowledge that you just saw something that is impossible.

All of this is in service of telling a story, one about a person's desire to live. It isn't about the physical facts of the matter, it is about emotional reality of these characters. What they feel is no less real than the laws of physics that this movie is so (seemingly) concerned about. It is as simple and as profound as all of that. In that sense, it is like 2001: A Space Odyssey, because they're both about the wordless wonder that a great movie provides. There is a symphonic, wordless well beneath all of this that I cannot quite put into words, nor would I want to if I could. But I think I love this movie.

I'm still shaking and maybe that isn't the most objective way to review a film. I don't really care, because this is how I feel about Gravity. For as much fun as I had watching the movie, what I know is true about this movie is what I felt walking home from the theater, wide eyed and rubbing my head with both hands amazed at what I just saw. That experience is something that I cannot write here. What I can write, in whatever meager way, is that this movie has made me feel in a way and with a strength that I have not felt in a long, long time. Movies are great. Being alive is great and all I want to do write now is to sit here a while. I want to sit here and take deep breaths and try to take in what I just saw.

I am going to sit here a long while.


My friends and I are working on a follow-up to our first comic book anthology. Naturally, that means we have a  Kickstarter going. Any little bit helps and, hey, if you're actually interested in the project, that's even better. I'm really looking forward to getting this thing out in the world, but, yes, we do need your help. 


 *Which is to say that you have not actually seen 2001: A Space Odyssey until you've seen it in Cinerama. It's like when you take off your sunglasses after wearing them for a long time and wondering if colors were always this bright).

**There, I fixed the worst sentence I've ever written! Happy now!?

07 October, 2013


Or why seeing this woman chopped up and eaten is the most fun I've had on TV in years.
There's just something about serial killers that gets me going. Unlike with a lot of things, I know that I'm not alone on this one, either. It's why we have The Killing, Dexter, The Following, and the Millennium Trilogy. It's why Seven is so well respected and copied or why we still make movies about the Zodiac Killer. . . Or why David Fincher has a career, really. Human beings are drawn to the morbid. With Hannibal we are shown the madness of serial killers without having to deal with its grotesque realities. It's gory fun from a distance.

Or, well, maybe not "fun" exactly. . .

Hannibal, as a show, strikes a particular nerve, one that is deep seated in our psyche. It combines our basic, human love of bizarre, incomprehensible violence with a basic, artistic skill. It is titillating without being exploitative and, whatever it is, at the end of the day it is a well shot, well written, and well acted work of art. There is madness, yet there is a method to it. These things combine into what I would like to call "good TV."

Despite the fact that Breaking Bad is  over, there's plenty of good TV out there. We have other FX and HBO shows and even Showtime have their own quality shows. Hannibal being good though, isn't what makes it exceptional. Neither is the gore. Or the half-nakedness. What makes it interesting is how it treats relationships in the midst of abject grotesqueness.

Episode 2: Living Diabetic Mushroom People.

Weird or unusual sexuality and gender identity has always been an integral part of Thomas Harris' mythology. Buffalo Bill was a hyper-cross-dresser, the Tooth Fairy was a  homophobe with mommy issues, and then there's the guy without a face in Hannibal who can't get off unless he's abusing somebody. Even Hannibal Lecter himself eventually became the lover of Clarice Starling (after a bit of brain-washing-cum-psychotherpay), which is a far weirder pairing than anything else on the Kinsey Scale.

I'll let you mull over that last development while I go out to get a glass of water.

Still there? Alright.

Psychosexuality is integral to Harris' work.These stories are about human extremes and if you look at many serial killers in reality, they have some very unsettleling corollaries.

Evil in his world still boils down to the baddies being some sort of crazed gay person. There isn't a straight male in the bunch. . . or any sort of female for that matter, now that I think about it. Harris' vision of sexuality and psychopathy is much richer and more complicated than the type of queer baddy that you get out of 1970's exploitation movies or, you know, some contemporary opinions of the community. Yet, at the end of the day, queer characters are ultimately still the people who need to be solved.
So damn pleased, aren't ya?
Hannibal, for better or for worse, moves around these problems, if not entirely beyond these problems. It's concern is not with sexuality or about how we see ourselves, but about the connections we have with one another.

The horror in Hannibal is about relationships. It is about relationships between fathers and daughters, between friends, between bosses and employees, between doctor and patient, and between men and women. It's about boiling human interactions to their most basic and then turning that into something extreme and upsetting. It's one thing to say that schzoid, gay crossdressing Nazis are weirdos, but the American atomic family? That's slightly more challenging. It is also something we can relate to without having to judge it. Watchng "Ceuf," I can see why NBC might have blanched at broadcasting it. There is something far more unsettling about people trying to love each other and failing than about somebody who just has a problem with tabloid journalists.

At the very least, we all understand that continuing to portray ax murderers as repressed homos with mommy issues is a played out trope. If that isn't good for society, it is good for the artform. Even though it doesn't feature any queer characters, as such, it doesn't feel the need to single them out as grotesques. Personally, I think that the Harvey Firestein school of thought which is that “Any exposure is good exposure.” If that's the test one applies to Hannibal, then it fails (though it does pass the Bechdal Test).

You'll never guess what the secret ingredient is! (It is people.)
Despite its heritage Hannibal pulls off the psychological procedural in a way that works and doesn't feel as though this is something that has done before. It's a great parlour trick and what's more is that however much it is a trick, it is one backed up with solid writing, carefully laid out camera work, and some excellent acting. It exists to show all of the other shows on TV, the ones indebted to Silence of the Lambs, how this sort of thing is done.

This program could have easily just been a re-hash of other programs in the past. It could have been a cash-in and it also could have leaned into the older, more troubling parts of this series' canon as a way to generate controversy or attention. Yet, despite the odds, somebody managed to make an intriguing program about one of the most parodied pop culture icons of all time. That's exciting. Hannibal isn't new, it just feels like it. Maybe that's because it's so well done.

Season 2 should be a real blast. Or, well, not a "blast" exactly. . .


(My friend Cruz and I did an episode of our podcast about the show. There might be some crossover between here and there. Give it a listen, won't you?)

(Some other friends and I are making a comic book anthology. If you can't give on our Kickstarter, tell a friend, or better yet, buy a copy of our previous anthology. Or even better yet give to our Kickstarter, tell a friend, and then a buy a copy. Everybody wins!)


A) Goooooooddamn is this show gory. How the fuck did anyone ever get away with this stuff? And on network TV!

B) Years and years ago I wrote a top ten list of serial killers. It is not as good as I remember it being.

C) Lance Henrikson appears in an episode as, you guessed it, a psychopath. Considering the story arc Will is going through, and considering that Henrikson played Frank Black, an FBI profiler on Millennium, this means that the series is smart enough to get post-modern without calling attention to it. Good for them.