September 2010

Clank: Movies About Robots

The concept of human-shaped constructs is far older than the machine age. The ancient Greek myth of Galatea depicts the fantasy of all sculptors when an ivory statue of a woman is given life by the goddess Aphrodite. The medieval Jewish fable of the Golem finds a clay man first protecting, then harming the people who created him. But with the advent of robotics, the idea of anthropomorphic machines has really taken off. Androids are characters used to reflect something about humanity. Here are a few memorable films about robots and what they represent to people.

Violent Versus Sexual Films

Many of my friends and family may disagree with me here—what else is new!—but I’m extremely more against violent films, when it comes to children, rather than sexual films. I’m much more comfortable with, say, the big-breasted tree in The Last Unicorn than I am with the scene where the vulture eats Mama Fortuna (or whatever her name is). Many of my friends, however, don’t mind violent scenes so long as sexuality stays out of a picture.

Honkytonk Man: Clint Eastwood as Folk Singer

At this point in his career, Clint Eastwood can basically decide what he wants to work on next and then do it. Very few people attain that sort of self-determined career. Even fewer reach that point and hold on to it for something like thirty years.

Eastwood’s always claimed a great affinity for music of pretty much every variety. His films attest to the fact – Bird being a particularly obvious instance. Less blatant, if you’re not really paying attention, is 1982’s Honkytonk Man, based on a novel penned by Clancy Carlile, who wrote his first novel in less than three weeks.

Telstar: Joe Meek, the Super Producer

If you’re only remembered for one thing after you die, but that one thing is incredible, it was a successful life. Of course, there’s no way to know if your work’s appreciated after you’re gone. And even if there was a way to figure that out, you’d still be dead. That’s always a bummer.

Joe Meek felt like he got screwed over by the record industry in England. And while he wasn’t exactly right about that, the producer and song writer scored a few big hits in addition to helming hundreds of dramatically unique recording sessions.

Suck: A Vampire Story too Easy to Mock

All vampire movies are not created equally.

When the script for Suck first started getting sent around, looking for a production company or some sort of financial backing, there weren’t hordes of little kids day dreaming about disturbingly sexy vampires or waiting for another installment of whatever movie or television show.

Since 2005, when Suck was rejected out of hand a few times,  this kitsch has gained a footing in the entertainment industry and perhaps provided an avenue for this film’s success.

Leaves of Grass: Ed Norton(s) Get High

Pretty much everything about Leaves of Grass is at least a bit clever. Granted, it’s a pot movie. But it’s not about pot so much as the messes we all make of our lives, how we figure a way out and whether or not we wind up being a good person after it all transpires.

Tim Blake Nelson, who pretty much everyone should be acquainted with as a result of his performance in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?, wrote and directed this feature. And oddly enough, Blake-Nelson’s background, to a certain degree, mirrors that of the Coens. Each was brought up in a place – Minnesota and Oklahoma, respectively – that Jews aren’t really associated with. And both the Coens and Blake Nelson insert a bit of that into their films.

An American Crime: Torture as Entertainment

The travels An American Crime underwent to wind up being displayed on Showtime are probably enough for a movie in and of itself. But as it is, we’ll have to suffice with a pretty distasteful true crime plot, plucked from 1960’s Indiana. If that state were troublesome to you in the first place, watching this film certainly won’t do too much to endear that place to you.

Keep in mind, this happened. And as the film figures during its opening titles, what transpires is based upon court testimony and its related transcripts. Creepy already, huh?

Machete: Purposefully Kitsch, Accidentally Boring

Before we wade into this one, let’s just get this out of the way. Regardless of their actually familial backgrounds, it’s endlessly weird to hear Steven Seagal or Jessica Alba speak Spanish. Apart from that there aren’t too many actorly things that get in the way of pretty much anyone enjoying Robert Rodriguez’ Machete. Well, apart from the fact that there’s nothing to be on the edge of one’s seat for.

That being said, the impetus for the project might be as interesting as actually watching the film.

Dogs in Space: An Aussie Punk House with INXS?

This fellow over here – David Nichols, a smart guy judging from his scribblings – places Dogs in Space within a proper context.

Anyone even remotely familiar with the machinations of a punk house, or any scene within a small community of people, should have understood what was going on in the movie. It should be noted that while the above writer decries the films characterization as plotless (kinda), there isn’t really anything that goes on. It’s just the viewer getting to watch the disintegration of a cohort.

Revision: Meet Joe Black

Filmmaker Martin Brest is something of a creative curiosity. His films display his oddly distributed competence, how he's excellent in some ways and bafflingly clueless in others. He does so much better in action-driven comedies like Midnight Run and Beverly Hills Cop than in classed-up dramas like Scent of a Woman and today's feature, Meet Joe Black. By the time his universally panned flop Gigli limped in and out of theaters, Brest had completely lost touch. Meet Joe Black is the key picture in Martin Brest's oeuvre to understanding the director's merits and failings.

The Wrekcing Crew: A Family History through Music

A few years back Standing in the Shadows of Motown, a documentary focused on the Funk Brothers, was released and received pretty wide acclaim. It wasn’t the start of all these music documentaries being issued. But it was one of the first – if not the first – look at a crew of studio players and how that set up worked.

In that Detroit focused film, it becomes clear relatively early that the outcome of everyone’s life would eventually be affected negatively by the deals struck with Motown and subsequent exploitations. That might not be the fairest assessment of the situation – everyone had a contract. But the songs the Funk Brothers recorded are some of the most played tracks on the radio even today. And none of those musicians get any money for ‘em.

Mother, Jugs & Speed with Keitel, Welch & Cosby?

There’s no real reason for anything called the Raquel Welch Collection to exist apart from looking at the women. So, the fact that there’s sound on all of these movies is a bit beyond me. Maybe, we’ve all just been missing her keen acting ability for all this time.

If that’s the case, at least the marquee on this film should have juked a few folks into seats or DVD rental places – they still exist, right?

Either way, Mother, Jugs & Speed deals with the shady business side of the ambulance industry. You remember that Nicholas Cage movie with “T.B. Sheets” on the soundtrack. Yeah, this predates it by a few decades – and is unquestionably not as engaging. But what the plot lacks – and it lacks a great deal – it’s made up for with that crazy, cobbled together cast.

The Dungeon Masters: A Documentary

Starting in 2005, filmmaker Keven McAlester set out to capture the lives of three people who have thrown themselves into the popular tabletop role playing game Dungeons and Dragons for his documentary The Dungeon Masters. We meet his three subjects at Gen Con, one of the biggest RPG conventions in the world and the official D&D convention in the United States. The early part of the film wanders around the Indianapolis Convention Center where the movie's three main figures stand out among the other self-identified geeks either because of their age relative to the average convention-goer or, in one case, because of an elaborate costume that keeps her in obsidian makeup all day. The film that proceeds is less about the complex ins and outs of D&D and more about how people grow to use it as a form of extreme escapism in difficult times. The three subjects (Elizabeth Reesman, Richard Meeks and Scott Corum) are used by McAlester more as stand-ins for some of America's troubled demographics than as representations of the average gamer.

The Nomi Song: Eighties' New Wave as Art and Art as Documentary

There’s nothing remarkably unique about the structure or content of Andrew Horn’s The Nomi Song, which focuses on Klaus Nomi’s brief ascent to stardom – even if it was only in Europe.

The standard, who was where at what time and what they saw is all still there. Of course, the fact that Nomi never became a huge star in the states, even if he briefly flirted with David Bowie’s cohort, really relegates most of the interviews to second tier status. It’s not that the folks seated for interviews weren’t interesting, it’s just that no one’s engaging in the way reminiscing stars are.

A Bret Easton Ellis Filmography

Author Bret Easton Ellis has made a career of skewering the vapidity, materialism and moral bankruptcy of America in the 1980's. Many of his most acclaimed (and controversial) novels have revolved around this topic, though the most compelling part of his stories is how so much of them ring true still today. Only one film adaptation of Ellis's work was actually made in the 80's. The rest have emerged over the past decade to varying results. Here's a quick primer on the works of Bret Easton Ellis as made for the big screen.

Class of Nuke 'Em High: Punks in Movies from the '80s

After punk showed up, freaked everyone out and found itself mutated in the public eye until it was New Wave, there was  still a need for ‘the cultural other’ in movies. At such a late date, it had become culturally insensitive to pawn it off on black folks and homosexuals weren’t as completely vilified as they’d become until after everyone was aware of AIDS. So punks were the left overs capacious of terrifying straight audiences, looking weird and appearing to be wasted, even if they weren’t.

Iron Man 2: Modern Sculpture and Marvel Comics

If the Marvel Universe wasn’t a part of your childhood, then you might not be a real American – or at least one affixed the general mainstream of the country. The Marvel world as rendered by Stan Lee and his cohort’s gone so far as to impact pretty much every medium of culture this country – and the world at this point – has to offer. Apart from being in print form, it’s on TV, in movies (natch), on clothing and in toy stores. There’re even probably a few places I neglected to mention.

That’s why the first Hulk movie was such a disappointment. It stunk. Visually, the film wasn’t stunning or even really too well put together. And while the first Iron Man movie did well in the box office, having Robert Downey Jr. in there as the leading man still seems bizarre.

On the Waterfront: Is Elia Kazan a Good Guy?

At this late date, On the Waterfront occupies a peculiar space in popular culture – hopefully, it’ll become more bizarre after reading this.

Apart from the fact that the 1954 film being considered a towering achievement in post war work in features, it stars Marlon Brando at what most consider to be the peak of his career. Certainly there were early appearances the act might have touted as the pinnacle of his filmography. But The Godfather and Apocalypse Now were still to come a few decades on.