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Monday
Feb012016

We Are Twisted Fucking Sister! (2014)

Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll

Before watching Andrew Horn's documentary We Are Twisted Fucking Sister!, the only thing I knew about the titular 80s glitter band was that they'd had a couple big hits and that front man Dee Snider became a reality-TV personality in subsequent years. I was too young and too uncool to appreciate Twisted Sister in their heyday, and "We're Not Gonna Take It" stirred nothing more in me than childhood flashbacks to Gung Ho and Iron Eagle (which featured the rock anthem). I approached this film as a fascination, expecting a fluffy, sensational Behind the Music-style journey of fame, excess and burn-out. Instead, I found a resonant and utterly engrossing chronicle of artistic struggle that ranks among the best films I've seen in awhile.

The band got their big break in 1982, playing a condensed, profanity-free set on a Brit-pop TV show called The Tube. Horn opens with a clip from that show, and then rewinds to a decade earlier, when Snider wasn't in Twisted Sister, and the band's identity was still fluid. Guitarist Jay Jay French envisioned a group that had the glam and stage presence of New York Dolls or David Bowie, but who could really play hard-driving rock n' roll. Hence, the hair, the makeup, the attitude--along with fickleness, betrayal, and the distractions of a rock lifestyle that are more conducive to partying than creating art. French reluctantly appointed himself lead singer just to keep his dreams moving forward.

Then Snider joined. A sassy but sheltered Long Island kid who loved music and craved attention, he clashed with French, who was ostensibly wiser in his age, and certainly intimidating as a force in the band. Horn cuts together some great anecdotes of those early days, almost moderating a conversation between Snider and French, who we never see interviewed together. That's not to imply there is or isn't some lingering animosity (my knowledge of the band stops where the film does), but there's an odd rapport between filmmaker and subjects that suggests Snider and French, in talking about each other, are talking to each other through Horn.

Despite their differences, the musicians shared straight-edged sensibilities that helped them navigate all the craziness that was to come. Neither drank or did drugs, and Snider has been in love with his wife, Suzette (also Twisted Sister's costumer), since they met during a gig nearly forty years ago. While other band members quit or were replaced due to substance abuse and violent tendencies, French and Snider focused on raising the bar and boosting the band's profile. Twisted Sister performed relentlessly, gigging five- and seven-night weeks for ten years, and developing a fan base that would travel for hours to see them play a crappy dive bar.

At their pre-global-fame height, the band was the top act on the New York rock-club circuit. Horn interviews several old-school fans (one of whom leans up against what I can only hope was a recently cleaned urinal), who share stories of being ridiculed for liking such a weird-looking, obnoxious rock group in an era where disco was king. These devotees found each other, and recruited more music lovers to check out Twisted Sister. By 1980, the band was selling out club after club, moving up the chain to the coveted 3,000-5,000-capacity venues--all without a record deal or legit radio play. Their success (as argued by some, including Twisted Sister) can be attributed partially to music, and partially to an outrageous escalation of stage antics, from hanging Barry White in effigy during their "Disco Sucks" era, to their unofficial "Club Destruction Period" (which is exactly what it sounds like).

That's a high-level view of the beginning of Twisted Sister's journey. You'll have to let Horn fill you in on the rest. I can almost guarantee you've never heard such messed-up, almost-famous rock stories told by such colorful raconteurs (rockonteurs?). But don't worry, this isn't just a talking-heads piece. Like an analogue version of Amy, We Are Twisted Fucking Sister! is an immersive media tapestry that employs collage, rare show footage, interviews, and text to create an indelible experience. Cell phones and 24-hour media access weren't a thing back in the late 70s, but Horn appears to have scoured the Earth to find every bit of memorabilia, every snippet of a performance, and every articulate storyteller with first-hand experience of that time and place to construct his accessible yet head-spinningly complex narrative.

I can imagine another rock biopic confining the entirety of this film to an off-the-cuff mention of "lots of bar gigs, lots of deals that didn't go through". This movie isn't interested in the artifice of stardom and worldwide popularity. At the end, Horn teases that lots more drama found its way to the band after they hit it big. But Snider, French, and the other members of Twisted Sister speak passionately about the leading-up-to days, the dingy, sweaty times of uncertainty in which they proved to themselves that they were worthy and capable of drinking their naysayers' milkshakes. We Are Twisted Fucking Sister! isn't just an unmarketable title for a movie. It's a call to action for artists of all stripes, a declarative rebuttal to the crippling voice of self-doubt that asks us every day, "Who the fuck are you?"

Friday
Jan292016

Lazer Team (2015)

Earnest Goes to Camp

Remember when Amazon only sold books, movies, and music? Or when Netflix just shipped DVDs to your home? YouTube has joined the entertainment revolution, evolving from a novelty video-sharing site that gave people the opportunity to "Broadcast Yourself" into a largely lawless media galaxy of pirated content, sanctioned content, and funny cat videos. Now, they make movies.

It's fitting that Lazer Team, one of YouTube Red's* first "original" productions, is little more than a re-packaged collection of references to other films strung together by an equally Xeroxed premise. YouTube's users get away with this all the time, uploading mainstream movies in chunks so their friends can skip right to the best parts. Lazer Team models itself as a classic regular-guys-band-together-to-save-the-world comedy, in the vein of Ghostbusters, Independence Day, and Men in Black. Unfortunately, there's also some Green Lantern and Pixels in the mix.

Co-writer Burnie Burns stars as Hagan, a small-town Texas sheriff who never got over losing the Big Football Game in high school. Neither did his former best friend, Herman (Colton Dunn), now the obnoxious town drunk. Herman and his skinny-rube drinking buddy, Woody (Gavin Free), provide Hagan no shortage of grief, as does the current local football star, Zach (Michael Jones), an alcoholic moron who has somehow wormed his way into the heart of Hagan's daughter, Mindy (Allie DeBerry).

The four main players find themselves in the middle of a field one night. Zach is locked up in Hagan's patrol car (the result of a drunken brawl), while Hagan tries to stop Herman and Woody from lighting illegal fireworks. The biggest rocket goes off and, while careening into the beautiful night sky, collides with an alien spacecraft that was about to land at a nearby military base. The aliens, you see, are a race of noble creatures who'd planned to deliver a power suit to the Earth's super-secret "champion", a brave, intelligent defender against a pending invasion of ruthless space monsters. Instead, the suit winds up with our sloppy protagonists, who are each unwittingly gifted (actually grafted) with a single piece of glistening white armor.

Hagan gets a laser shield. Herman gets a pair of super-speed boots. Zach gets a laser-blast gauntlet. And Woody gets a super-helmet, which grants him all the knowledge of the universe--and a British accent because "that's what smart people sound like to stupid people." Before anyone can figure out just what the hell happened, Zach has Tweeted, Facebooked, and Instagram-ed a picture of the guys in their sweet new gear, dubbing them "Lazer Team".

This doesn't sit well with the military, who must change tactics and train Hagan's men to be Earth's mightiest heroes. Their coach is a real Captain America-type named Adam (Alan Ritchson), who was bred to wear the suit, and told that he was destined to save the planet from annihilation. Cue the wacky training montages. Cue the rival alien team covertly landing and possessing another team of soldiers. Cue Hagan and company disbanding and then reconstituting during Mankind's Darkest Hour. Spoiler Alert: things turn out okay, and the filmmakers leave the door wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiide open for a sequel (more on that in a minute).

Here's where things get complicated. I don't like Lazer Team as a comedy, but I really like the cast and the ideas that peek through all the references and lifted material. Burns, co-writers Chris Demarais, Josh Flanagan, and co-writer/director Matt Hullum spend too much time on dick jokes and making sure we know that they know about the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Come to think of it, this movie would have worked much better as a feature-length version of Item 47. In that short film, which was included on the home-video release of the first Avengers movie, average citizens discover some leftover invading-alien weaponry and get into trouble. Imagine if Lazer Team were given the Marvel treatment: a legit action movie, punctuated by levity, with the "real" Captain America having to train a new generation of average-Joe superheroes.**

As it stands, Lazer Team could use a lot more Galaxy Quest and a lot less "Guardians of the Galaxy Best Jokes Clips Pt 5". Hullum, Burns, and company have created a slick, well-acted, and deep-down-earnest effort. The sequel's story could propel this charismatic cast in a hundred interesting directions. I can only hope for an action-comedy so original, so brain-tickling, that people will be anxious to watch it over and over again--and not just on YouTube.

*Do not confuse this with "RedTube"--especially if you're at work.

**It'd be far more interesting than watching the same costumed franchise-bearers video-game the crap out of each other for six movies.

Thursday
Jan282016

Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club (2015)

Dinner Under the Dome

What do you call a family-owned eatery with numbered patron cards on the tables; t-shirt-wearing waiters whose considerable beers-'n-brats guts drape over their jeans; and a menu that includes steak, fried fish, ice cream, and drinks? Most folks would call that a "restaurant". In Wisconsin, it's a "supper club".

To be fair, supper clubs have a few distinct characteristics. Some are neon-accented architectural marvels designed to get travelers off the highway and in front of a home-style dinner. They also serve relish-tray appetizers, feature some form of live entertainment, and boast a clientele so old, white, and moneyed that they can afford to eat at their favorite spot multiple times a week. To hear supper club patrons speak, "chain restaurants" have flushed the American dining experience down the toilet, pulling good food, social graces, and community down with them.

That's crazy, of course, but it's the kind of crazy Holly De Ruyter peddles in her documentary, Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club. On the surface, this hour-long look at the history of supper clubs is a benign trip down memory lane. Look closer, and you'll see lead paint chipping off De Ruyter's merry mosaic of Americana. The film plays like any mid-Saturday Travel Channel program; its photo-montages, talking-heads, and jazzy soundtrack don't push the form of such shows. One might expect as much from a movie with "Old Fashioned" in the title, but the bland presentation is a gateway to an insidious undercurrent: the dangerous dark side of nostalgia.

The interview subjects are mostly supper club owners and patrons, with some Wisconsin historians and a government official thrown in for legitimacy. They all speak proudly of their rural hangouts, insisting that Wisconsin (the supper club capital of the universe) offers dining experiences unlike any other. The servers are friendly; the owners are always there; the food is farm-to-table fresh; there's no rush to eat; everyone knows the regulars, and the regulars will loudly greet each other from across the restaurant. Wisconsinites also know the "secret knock" of ordering a real Old Fashioned, one made with brandy instead of whiskey. The whiskey thing is a big problem when traveling outside the state, because it's really hard, apparently, to tell bartenders in L.A., Chicago, and New York what you want in your drink.

Pardon my cattiness, but the attitudes put forth in Old Fashioned are more country club than supper club. One could modify the Conservative cliché about rural folk clinging to their guns and God to include "grub", as evidenced by the constant references to the nightmarish food wasteland surrounding Wisconsin--an evil network of like-branded boxes run by conveyor-belt robots and patronized by sheep.

If you've literally never left Wisconsin, I can understand Old Fashioned's attraction. Those of us who live elsewhere might bristle at the creepy Stepford quality of De Ruyter's subjects. For them, restaurants seem to exist on a three-point spectrum: high-falutin' expensive French places on one end; McDonald's/Olive Garden at the other; and the vaunted supper club standing tall in the middle.

De Ruyter doesn't interview anyone who's had a bad experience at a supper club, much less anyone who was anything less than enthralled. Neither does she talk with managers/owners of the chains her subjects so vehemently detest (are they really dead-eyed middle-managers who don't care about the people they serve?). Old Fashioned is so insular I wouldn't be surprised to learn that most of De Ruyter's supper club patrons have never been to one of the places they decry, or at least not in a long time. Their generic ramblings about "the way things used to be" and adamant defenses of the supper club as the last bastion of something-or-other sound less like informed opinions and more like well-honed talking points.

In my experience, which is important as a viewer of a film that purports to tell a truth, if not the truth, I found very little to connect with. I've had great service and decent food at a Chick-Fil-A. I've felt positively ignored at a high-end place in London. I regularly visit a family-owned "flapjacks-to-nite-caps" restaurant in the Chicago suburbs, whose patrons are diverse in age and ethnicity, and whose manager rolls up his sleeves to deliver food and jokes whenever his staff needs him. I've never been asked to leave for lingering too long, mostly because I'm usually ready to go home after I eat.

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, supper clubs are dying. It's unclear that there are enough family-owned traditions left to sustain these alleged boutique eateries, especially as more accursed "chain restaurants" pop up, with claims of "traditional", "neighborhood", and "family" dining experiences. No one likes to see people lose their jobs, or watch places with personality shutter their windows. But times change. Tastes change. Businesses, by definition, must change. Hell, even traditions change. I'm sure that at the dawn of the supper club, there was a vocal group of morally outraged, elderly Wisconsinites who couldn't understand why anyone would pay to have a stranger make their dinner ("If you want a home-cooked meal, stay home!").

Having said all that, yes, I would visit a supper club. I wouldn't go out of my way to find one, since it's not clear that the experience differs greatly from any number of options that are available within a ten-minute drive from my house. Before watching Old Fashioned, I envisioned a "supper club" as a classy throwback to an earlier time, a place where people dressed up to go out, eat top-notch food, and enjoy a live band (who would also be dressed to the nines). Unfortunately, the modern incarnation, as steeped as it is in tradition and nostalgia, shares more than you'd expect with its perceived corporate rivals, beyond a highly effective branding campaign.

Friday
Jan222016

Mojave (2015)

Scorched Dearth

In While We're Young, Ben Stiller's character spends a decade working on a documentary he never finishes. Mojave reminds me of that documentary. Writer/director William Monahan's tortured-artist drama is a patchwork of moods, themes, genres, and styles guaranteed to turn the mildly curious into saucer-eyed rubberneckers. Unlike most disappointing films that contain moments of greatness, I'm doubt any one of the film's threads could have been spun into something better. Perhaps Monahan did us a favor by confining his wild, half-baked concepts to a single movie.

Mojave is weird, but never boring. Monahan blends The End of the Tour with The Hitcher, pitting an actor who looks like Heath Ledger's ghost against an actor doing an integrity-infused impression of Adam Sandler's character from The Ridiculous Six. And I can't be sure, but I may have watched a corrupted version of the movie: Mark Wahlberg doesn't really appear as a coked-up movie producer, does he? That's not really Walton Goggins playing his beleaguered attorney, is it?

More on that later.

Garrett Hedlund stars as Thomas, a hot, young director who just can't handle the millions, the French mistress, and the artistic freedom. Indeed, he opens the film by asking, "When you get what you want, what do you want?" Thomas seeks answers in the Mojave Desert. After wrecking his producing partner's jeep, he wanders as far into nowhere as possible before encountering Jack (Oscar Isaac), an odd drifter who apparently never returned his 1920s hobo costume after Halloween. The guys suss each other out over a campfire, both very conscious of Jack's rifle and the seven X's carved into its stock.

Jack is crazy, of course. He mumbles about the government and the Devil, and punctuates nearly every sentence with "brother". A struggle ensues, Thomas escapes, and another event propels him back into his version of regular life. Unfortunately, Jack follows him out of the desert and begins making vague power-plays involving Thomas' mistress, Milly (Louise Bourgoin), and his business partner, Norman (Wahlberg).

Mojave works best when Hedlund and Isaac sit across from each other, spouting philosophy and creating truly bizarre characters. I often found it difficult to figure out who was supposed to be who's id: it seems obvious that Monahan wants us to see Jack as the personification of evil. He could also be God, slapping some sense into an extremely privileged, allegedly talented artist who can't be happy unless he's unhappy. On the other side of the table, Jack sees Thomas as everything he wants to be: recognized for his talent and intellect, and accepted by other people. I'm not sure if there's a movie (or even a really short play) in these terrifically acted scenes, but the material and the performances offer stability in the face of Mojave's shaky vision and shifting-plates narrative.

Why is Wahlberg in this movie? I don't recall him having a single scene with Hedlund (their characters interact exclusively over the phone). Norman's only function is to break up the stalker drama with "funny" interstitials where he yells at underlings and whines about Chinese food and blowjobs. His character (and Goggins', too) could have been replaced by some quick expositional dialogue during the film's climax.

Monahan wrote the 2014 remake of The Gambler, in which Wahlberg starred, so maybe that's the connection. Also of note is that Hedlund and Isaac appeared together briefly in Inside Llewyn Davis. I don't know what, if anything, these bits of trivia have to do with the actual making of Mojave, but the movie definitely has the feeling of favors being called in on camera, and then being spliced together into a psychological thriller. Or a dark Hollywood comedy. Or something.

Wednesday
Jan202016

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)

Freedom of Information

Here's why I'm supposed to hate 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi:

1. Michael Bay directed it, and Michael Bay only makes crypto-racist, crypto-misogynist, jingoistic war porn for uncritical idiots.

2. You can tell by the release date (and the director) that 13 Hours is a poorly made quasi-political jab at a Presidential candidate whose involvement in the Battle of Benghazi has been thoroughly settled in the public consciousness. Bay and writer Chuck Hogan (working from Mitchell Zuckoff's book) are only interested in touting debunked conspiracy theories. Had this film any merit, like the beloved Zero Dark Thirty, we would have seen it during Nominations Season--not the January dumping ground.

3. Like last year's American Sniper, everyone in the U.S. military is portrayed as white, ultra-macho animals who ain't got time to bleed--while the "enemy" are generic in their cowardice, dark skin, and thirst for American blood. As the filmmakers bleach the complexities of war to create a simplistic video game inhabited by "good guys" and "bad guys", human beings become unrecognizable chunks of battle ground fodder.

These would be valid reasons to avoid 13 Hours, if any of them were true.

Michael Bay's filmography is littered with all the offenses listed above, from the Transformers movies to Pain & Gain and beyond, but it's unwise to assume he's incapable of growth. This is the most mature Bay film I've seen, technically, narratively, and dramatically. Sure, there are a handful of minor details that detract from its overall quality, but if you'd told me 13 Hours was directed by someone eager to superimpose Bay's aesthetics onto a legit war movie, I would've totally bought it.

John Krasinski stars as Jack Silva, an ex-Navy SEAL who takes a private security job in Benghazi, Libya. Actually, it's a pseudo-private job: he and five other specialists have been brought in to guard a secret CIA outpost charged with, among other things, monitoring weapons trafficking after the NATO-backed overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The region has splintered into factions of armed rivals, shaky alliances, and a general distrust of outsiders. The CIA needs the expertise of GRS (Global Response Staff) to protect its personnel, and the outpost's director (David Costabile) gives clear instructions not to engage anyone beyond their assigned duties.

Up the road from the compound is a makeshift American embassy, which Ambassador Chris Stevens occupies for a couple of days with his conspicuously small security detail. When dozens of locals raid the compound, one of Stevens' men calls for help. Silva and the unit's leader, Tyrone "Rone" Woods (James Badge Dale), prepare reinforcements, but they're never given permission to act. Turns out one of the problems with being a super-secret arm of a secretive branch of the government is that official authorizations are hard to come by--especially in emergency situations. Woods and Silva break ranks and lead their men into danger, with the aim of escorting Stevens and company to safety, without giving away the compound's location.

Of course, everything goes south. What follows is a thirteen-hour seige spanning two poorly fortified facilities. The attacks come in waves, and Bay's triumph is making the audience feel a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the fatigue the GRS must have experienced. The movie is two-and-a-half-hours long, and by the time Woods and Silva abandon the embassy there's still at least an hour-and-a-half left to go. 13 Hours is like the climax of Scarface played on a Groundhog Day loop (minus the gratuitous bloodshed), with the Americans falling further and further back while losing hope that anyone will come for them. The GRS began the film as tired but jovial jobbers counting the days until they could cash their checks and see their families; by the end, they're exhausted, twitchy, and mindful of the fact that they never should have been there--much like their employer.

You've seen versions of this story before: the invading hordes, the confined spaces, the macho military dudes protecting civilians. But 13 Hours isn't an Aliens rip-off, or a Resident Evil clone. The soldiers aren't just a bunch of Dead Meats whose purpose is to go out on a heroic, "Hey, cool!" note. There aren't any dumb, rah-rah assholes in the group. These men are trained to think first and blow people up if they have to, and it's heartbreaking to see the disparity between them as imperfect fathers and expert killers.

Much of this rests on the actors' shoulders. Hogan's dialogue reveals the biggest cracks in Bay's shiny, new facade: the film does a better job of adding depth to the enemy fighters than the characters' tiresome use of the phrase "bad guys". I buy the lack of conversational nuance, as pertains to the reality of the story, but hearing that Fox News dog-whistle so frequently was a bit much to take. I could have done without the jokes, as well. Perhaps Hogan felt obligated to give the cast (half of whom come from television comedy) a buoy in 13 Hours' roiling sea of dramatic misery, but none of them needed to be saved. You'd never mistake Jack Silva for Jim from The Office, just as no one got distracted when Chris Pratt popped up as a SEAL in Zero Dark Thirty while still playing a fool on Parks and Recreation.

On the topic of Bay-isms, let's declare a moratorium on CGI tracking shots of bombs zeroing in on their targets. And did every historical battle really feature a cook taking up arms against marauding hordes?* I also found a lot of sketchy geography in the film, particularly during the later nighttime scenes, where everyone's covered in beards, blood, and soot. During one five-minute stretch in the middle, I literally thought part of the film had gone missing, thanks to the confusing cuts between constantly moving groups.

Let's talk politics for a second. Yes, one can detect a strong ideological undercurrent in 13 Hours, but it's not so much anti-government as anti-bureaucracy. People might assume that Hillary Clinton is the film's phantom menace, considering the controversy surrounding her Secretary of State role at the time. Clinton is never mentioned by name, and there is no blame placed at anyone's feet, specifically, for the lack of reinforcements in Benghazi (aside from the massive amounts of red tape that, by necessity, surrounds covert CIA bases).

Bay and Hogan's position, if it can be understood by watching their film, is that it takes a special breed of person to voluntarily fight, serve, and protect government interests, especially in Earth's most volatile regions. More to the point, it is the government's responsibility to honor that dedication and sacrifice by not involving soldiers in worthless conflicts (or, at the very, very least, ensuring that they have every available resource with which to do their jobs). Michael Moore made this point in Fahrenheit 9/11 and Where to Invade Next. Want to talk about watchdogs and warriors stranded in unwinnable situations thanks to an absentee government? Have a look at The Big Short and Sicario, two films whose political bona fides I don't recall being called into question.

Some people criticize 13 Hours as propaganda designed to reinforce the stunted beliefs of an already biased audience. The attack is itself propagandist in nature, implicitly aimed at keeping Left-leaning individuals from making up their own minds about a controversial piece of art. "Don't waste your time on this wing-nut nonsense," they say. The CIA has even denounced the film. Hey, if the world's number one spy outfit says there's nothing to see here...

See the movie or don't. And, sure, bring your baggage into the theatre. Just don't unpack it during the show. 

*If so, let's get them off the kitchen line and onto the front lines. They're pretty amazing.