Saturday, May 30, 2009

Gonzo: The LIfe and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson: A Goggle-Eyed and Sleep-Deprived Appreciation

I spend a lot of nights staying up way too late, way too long, attempting to find my muse.

The computer screen is often a pupil-less eye that stares at me more mercilessly than any God, Devil, or jackbooted authoritarian figure, and often its cold unflinching blankness will leach the motivation, the desire, the sheer heart-bursting joy of creating that writing gives from me. I allow the simple mundane reality of daily life to become, in its own beige way, a lazily-lethal beast that sucks my soul like a hyena extracting marrow from a zebra's scarlet-caked rib bone.

I've recently discovered that the best thing to do, especially if you can't set the ego aside and just roll your eyes back in your head and create, is to set the ego aside and to look outward for inspiration. So having just finished viewing Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson feels like a massive adrenaline shot to my insides, despite (because of?) the fact that it's 4:30 in the AM and I'm running on too damned little sleep in the first place.

Thompson, in case you're too young or too culturally unconcerned to know/care, was a journalist, usually writing for Rolling Stone magazine. He was (in)famous for leading a life full of sex, drugs, and rock and roll as he covered social, political, and personal events that transpired during some of America's most tumultous times. His life followed the pattern of many an artist in the 20th/early 21st centuries: Years of incredible productivity and artistic genius, punctuated by living as far on the edge as his muse took him; that distinctively modern-day affliction of his immense talent and success breeding a notoriety that hobbled/subsumed his identity and productivity; and his own very deliberate, literal (suicide) self-destruction.

But the great thing about Gonzo isn't that it covers Thompson's life and excess. It's that it gives solid consideration and emphasis to the man as a reporter and writer. It places his literary output squarely front and center, and it also provides a fascinating glimpse of American history through the eyes of one of its most cauterizingly eloquent observers.

Yes, Thompson ingested more chemicals than any thousand normal human beings. Yes, he allowed the celebrity generated by his talent to ultimately denegrate, even steal away outright, his great gifts towards the end. And no, he wasn't always a nice guy. But he was an incredibly vivid reporter and storyteller; a man who saw and related in passionate detail such earthshaking events as the pivotal presidential elections of 1968 and '72, the civil rights movement, the clear-eyed optimism that spurred the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, and the death of the American Dream when excess and the stone wheels of establishment politics/thinking crushed that idealism.

As a film, Gonzo's a tight and focused documentary, giving a simple and direct chronology of Thompson's life and work through the eyes of loved ones, friends, politicians, and admirers. In the end, though, the thing that utterly galvanized me was hearing the author's words (read with loving directness by Thompson portrayer Johnny Depp), whether it was Thompson's rough-edged, beat-tinged reportage of the hard-living Hell's Angels, his evolution from court jester to socially-aware firebrand as he made a seemingly insane run for the Colorado sheriff's seat, or the stirring and wrenching fears wrested from his typewriter over President Richard Nixon. Go figure that his words about the latter snake-oil peddler could (and do) easily apply to the cowboy-booted jackass who served as a key architect for this country's current economic abatoir.

I learned a lot about American history from Gonzo. I got a more complete picture of a misunderstood artist and sage from Gonzo. And despite the ostensible sadness of Hunter S. Thompson's ending (God, could we use his voice in these times), Gonzo--and the man's words--fill me with a lot of happiness at the prospect of being alive. Consider the muse stoked.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Zombies on Parade at the Seattle International Film Festival

Regular visitors to this here corner of the Blogosphere surely know of yours truly's ardent fondness for a good--OK, make that any--zombie flick (see this sub-folder of said corner for material evidence of said fondness). So imagine my joy when the Seattle International Film Festival unleashed two--count 'em, TWO--cinematic odes to the living dead as the opening salvo for their Midnight Adrenaline midnight movie series. And imagine that joy amplified by the fact that both zombie movies delivered.

The one with the biggest buzz, Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola's Dead Snow, brought its packed house everything a discerning gutmuncher fan could ask for: Nazi zombies, plasma projected by the gallon, rended limbs, tongue-in-bloody-cheek humor, and--yes--gutmunching.

The Cliffs' Notes setup (as if most zombie movies require something more substantial than a Cliffs' Notes pamphlet for setup): A group of Norwegian med students trundle up to a remote ski lodge for some relaxation. They're visited by a creepy old villager who regales them with stories of the cruel Nazis who ran rampant throughout the nearby village during World War II. He warns the reckless youths to get the heck outta town, but his warnings go unheeded. Then the med students discover a stash of Nazi gold...and the recently-resuscitated Nazi zombies who're out to retrieve it.

Wirkola does not reinvent the wheel here. The setup's pure Evil Dead, the survival scenario sketched out over the movie's running time comes grafted wholesale from any one of scores of horror flicks over the last twenty years, and the only thing distinguishing Dead Snow's zombies from any generic pack of undead hordes would be their snazzy wardrobes.

Then again, you don't watch a zombie movie for radical innovation. Most of the things you do watch a zombie flick for, however, surface in nifty fashion in Dead Snow. After the slow-ish first quarter, the movie puts the pedal to the metal with high-speed pacing, hearty helpings of blood and viscera, and a goofy sense of humor that owes a lot to this generation's Godfather of the Ghouls, Sam Raimi. And while you won't find a lot of outright innovations on display, a few twists to the established cliches liven things up: The paunchy movie nerd emerges as the only one of these sex-obsessed characters to get some nookie (right on!), and one character hastily patches up his bleeding zombie bite with some fishing wire...and duct tape (DOUBLE right on!).

I Sell the Dead, meanwhile, provides a stylish and smart contrast to Dead Snow's low-brow yocks and shocks. It's a good old-fashioned horror flick--in the best, most loving way possible.

Most of I Sell the Dead is told in flashback by Arthur Blake (played by Dominic Monaughan of Lost and Lord of the Rings fame), a young graverobber unjustly accused of murder and awaiting a trip to the same guillotine that claimed his partner in crime Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden). Blake relates the story of his evolution from scared slum kid to professional graverobber to an unconventional monk (played, twinkle in eye, by Ron Perlman), but his narrative soon departs from the traditional Burke and Hare graverobbing skullduggery, giving way to tales of turf wars with a pack of rival body snatchers, and details on several corpses that refuse to stay dead.

Sure, there are some spatterings of Romero-esque undead gore scattered hither and yon, and the influence of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead flicks surfaces occasionally, but I Sell the Dead mostly works a much different side of the street than Dead Snow. The emphasis here is on character and atmosphere: Writer/director Glenn McQuaid spends a good third of I Sell the Dead getting the audience well-acquainted with the resourceful and funny Blake and his slightly addled mentor/partner Grimes before throwing them hip-deep into the monster show.

McQuaid's engaging script doesn't so much travel straight from Point A to Point B as it meanders to said point, sketching out the characters with humor and sharp relief (when was the last time you actually relished, you know, dialogue in a modern horror movie?). He's well-served by a great cast that hits all the right notes. Monaughan makes for a funny and self-aware protagonist, New Yorker Fessenden plays cockney oddball to game perfection, Perlman lends a faultless Irish brogue and wry wit to his clergyman, and Angus Scrimm does his best Boris Karloff as Blake's and Grimes's least agreeable client.

Best of all, I Sell the Dead parlays a carefully-crafted atmosphere totally at odds with current horror trends. McQuaid and company are clearly juggling a limited budget here, but they inject their little chiller with a moody visual style that riffs on Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe flicks of the sixties, as well as the great old Hammer films of the same era (the movie also includes nods to Euro-horror chestnuts like Black Sunday and Eyes Without a Face, and to the EC comics of the 1950's, in case you're keeping Geek-Reference Score). In its own modest way it's as visually immersive as Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, only (likely) done on one-twentieth the budget and with (swear to God) a much better script. It's not some lost masterpiece, but I Sell the Dead is the kind of heartily-entertaining dark comedy/horror film that they don't make 'em like anymore. And that's a compliment of the highest order.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Flight of the Conchords: A One-Two Punch of Humor and Harmony

Every now and then, you get to experience art from someone so damned perfect at what they do, you question whether anyone will ever be able to touch it. Not in a jaded, cynical way, mind you; strictly in a "Man, the bar's been raised to the Stratosphere, dude" manner.

Ironic, then, that Kiwi pop jokesters Flight of the Conchords--two guys who've made a career out of poking fun at their own foibles and shortcomings--inspire that kind of awe in me, and apparently a lot of other people, too. The Conchords sold out three shows in a row at Seattle's sizeable Paramount Theater May 11, 12, and 13, and the missus and I coughed up the bucks to see all three performances. Yep, they're that kind of special; that kind of funny; and that kind of genius.

Calling Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement's act stand-up comedy or rock parody sells 'em short. Sure, like a lot of Weird-Al-come-latelies they co-opt current and past pop music and reconfigure/regurgitate it through a funhouse mirror. And between songs, they can still work an audience into spasms of uncontrollable laughter as capably as any stand-up comics. But the Conchords add two elements that, to date, have largely been forsaken in the 'novelty song' genre/ghetto--musicianship and real, stick-to-your-ribs songwriting. It was all on display in spades at the Paramount last week.

The straight skinny on all three shows:

Arj Barker (who plays deadpan a--hole Dave on the Conchords' hilarious HBO sitcom) opened each set with a stand-up routine somewhere between George Carlin and, um, Dave on Flight of the Conchords. It says something that I laughed all three nights, despite most of the jokes being the same.

Bret and Jemaine played for about an hour-and-a-half each evening. Certain elements remained consistent: The great new cut, "Too Many Dicks on the Dancefloor" (presented by the boys replete with cardboard robot suits) opened each set, the hilarious "Hurt Feelings" came up second on the bill, and all three nights saw a great Johnny Cash riff, "Stana," get stretched like taffy. Their off-the-cuff banter kept things from getting too redundant from night to night, and they weren't afraid to tweak the songs to engaging effect: Jemaine threw a hysterical Ahnuld impersonation into the stew on "The Humans are Dead," and they turned the R and B throb of “Sugalumps” into a slow a cappella jam by welding it with “We’re Both in Love with a Sexy Lady”.

The second show on Tuesday May 12 was my favorite, in large part because the Conchords played the most songs. It also marked the only one of the trio of dates in which they played the mighty “Bowie,” my choice for the best satiric rock song this side of Spinal Tap.

All three nights, in between hearty chuckles, I kept finding myself in ardent admiration over something that these guys don’t always get a lot of credit for: Their musicianship. Bret and Jemaine both play guitar pretty damned capably for a couple of self-proclaimed folk parodists, and Bret switched from guitar to keyboard to drums on a dime. Moreover, the songs they played and sung couldn’t be better. Seriously.

The key, so simple but so blasted important: Write a brilliant pop song, with truly sublime hooks, melodies, and harmonies, and your humorous song grows legs that’ll keep running to infinity. Yeah, “Carol Brown” is a funny riff on a poor schlemiel plagued by a chorus of ex-girlfriends. But it’s wedded to an enchanting tune that the Beatles or Robyn Hitchcock would be proud to call their own. And both Conchords possess genuinely beautiful voices that add to the pop yumminess (even when they’re horsing around).

Which, for me at least, gets back to the whole bar-raised-to-the-stratosphere equation. These guys jab needles into the balloons of pop-music pomposity so effectively that it’s cast a whole new light on every other pop song I’ve listened to since, and they’ve done it with songcraft so formidable that it puts most so-called ‘serious musicians’ to shame. All the while, Bret and Jemaine still come off as regular joes who’re just horsing around.

My favorite example of the week: The recording of “Ladies of the World” (a rib-tickling Kool and the Gang parody) ends with about a minute of acoustic strumming, hand-claps, and the Conchords crooning layered falsetto harmonies. It’s one minute of pop beauty so sublime that I found myself replaying just that minute, over and over again, during one commute last week. The Flight of the Conchords were both probably just horsing around when they recorded it, and they’d likely just laugh at the notion of said horsing-around being taken seriously, but those 58 seconds sorta made me swoon.

Speaking of swooning, the missus surely aroused the envy of many of the ladies of the world on a couple of levels. First, she brought her camera and exhaustively documented the May 13th show (feel free to head over to her Blog for more pics AND video, and please don’t sue her, HBO…). And second, we hung out after that night’s show and met both of these Smart-Girl Heartthrobs face-to-face.

Bret and Jemaine couldn’t have been nicer, enduring a sound soaking from some extra-precipitous Seattle skies with nary a peep of protest and treating all of the fans outside with attentiveness and respect. Music nerd that I am, I had to tell them what great songwriters they were (a compliment that seemed to really surprise and delight the both of them), and Rita just went the gracious and polite route and thanked them for playing three nights in a row in the Emerald City. Swoon away, girls.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine won't give The Dark Knight Night Sweats

There's this stack of papers, about 100 sheets or so. On those papers are letters. Those letters form words; and the words, sentences. Some of those sentences form dialogue--words that come out of the mouths of characters in a film, play, or TV episode--and combined with descriptive paragraphs, they form a story.

It's called a script. And the guys who made X-Men Origins: Wolverine forgot one. 'Nuff said.

OK, maybe not. A few random observations, more interesting than the movie itself:

1) You know you're on shaky ground when one of your movie's superheroes is played (badly) by a member of the Black-Eyed Peas.

2) I dare you to find a cheaper-looking $100-million-plus event movie than this one. It's shot with the workmanlike indifference of a Sci-Fi Channel late-night schlocker, the action scenes looks utterly cut-rate, and the CGI version of Patrick Stewart that surfaces at the film's end makes the cut scenes from the cheapest videogames look David-Lean-epic by comparison.

3) The relative merits of a Hugh Jackman movie seem to run directly in proportion to how much of his admittedly well-defined body is exposed for the camera; in otherwards, the more skin, the crummier the movie. Exhibit A for the Prosecution, your honor: The only film I've seen of Jackman's in which he's shirtless as frequently as this one is Van Helsing.

4) As disappointing as the third X-Men film was, I'd lay dollars to donuts that Wolverine stinks more. The former sported enough ideas for four movies and enough script for a half-of-one: The latter has enough ideas for a quarter of a movie, and enough script for one-eighth of one.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Random Plugs and Frippery

So what, might you ask, have I been doing lately, besides--y'know--working and sporadically microscoping the Petri Dish? Lotsa stuff.

Natch, there's the whole working thing. Seattle Opera opened The Marriage of Figaro this evening, and it looks like a hit, so I'll be a busy man for the next few weeks. But not entirely to the exclusion of creative fun and pop culture imbibement, thank God.

The Petri Dish entry from last October about walking my workplace neighborhood (replete with photos) inspired me to actually do a Blurb book collecting several of my photos. Blurb's incredibly easy and fun to use, a user-friendly bit of layout software that even a thick-neck like me can use with ease. I'm pretty pleased with the resulting tome. Feel free to go here and take a look (you can even preview some of the finished product).

I'm also experimenting with writing (shudder!) fiction and free verse on a new WordPress blog. It's over here if'n you'd likewise like to take a peek. It's been a long time since I've actually cut loose with something like this, and I have to admit it's fun as hell.

Don't worry: There's still more ramblings on Pop Culture on the way. But now you know where (else) I am. Sorry I've been such a stranger.