Monday, May 25, 2009

In Praise of Swayze

I just watched "Point Break" for the first time in awhile tonight.

I remember being captivated by the adrenaline junky/surf philosophy/heist flick combo back in high school, when that kind of thing could really resonate. Obviously, parts of the film have not aged well (super shitty early 90's alt rock soundtrack, overly romanticized surf montages), but it's still a wonderful genre mashup done with style by the highly underrated film diretor Kathryn Bigelow. It's pacing and action scenes match the emotional momentum of its characters, particularly an extended foot chase sequence.

Another element of the film that has remained compelling is the performance of Patrick Swayze. Now I don't want to get into the performance too much, except to say that Swayze really nailed the uncharted acting waters (sorry, had to say it) of playing a "zen" ocean guru/criminal mastermind. But what's even more interesting to me is the fact that Swayze has been in a few films that really defined certain cultural moments:

Dirty Dancing

This was one of the first independent blockbusters of the 1980s and helped to establish a cultural foundation for the independent film boom of the 1990s. "Dirty Dancing" showed audiences and producers alike that quality, widely-appealing and highly profitable entertainment could be made on a low budget outside of the major studio system.


This movie was a sleeper EVENT. The story was ridiculous (dead/alive romance mediated by a kooky psychic with a crime thriller subplot), the cast was all over the place (Swayze on the upswing from "Dirty Dancing", Demi Moore gaining her professional footing post-Brat Pack, Whoopi Goldberg working on her crossover), yet it had an earnestness and tragic romance that really held the public's attention, in the same way the "Titanic" would years later. The question wasn't who had seen "Ghost", it was who HADN'T seen "Ghost".

Donnie Darko

Again, a totally random movie that somehow hit upon the public's imagination. The cast was pretty much unknowns, it was the director's first film, and the story was cryptic to the point of vague. Nonethless, "Donnie Darko" had an interesting tone that mixed melancholy, nostalgia and dread, with genre elements of sci fi and coming-of-age 80's teen dramas. All of which made for a very unique film that initially flopped but eventually gained an extremely devoted fanbase which supported it through midnight screenings for over 2 years. This created enough demand that the film was theatrically re-released, even after being released on dvd.

In addition to these films, Swayze has also been in two classic, modern B-movies that are defended vigorously by shlock-lovers like myself: the aforementioned "Point Break" and the criminally overlooked "Roadhouse"

"Roadhouse" was a great, gulity-pleasure of a film done with smarts and craft. It featured Swayze as an in-demand bouncer/manager who relies more on his wits than his fists.

Here's a signature scene where he breaks down his work philosophy:

The film also featured B-movie heavyweights Sam Elliot and Keith David, who are always fun to watch and add grizzled cool to whatever project they're doing. And for extra gravitas, John Cassavettes-regular Ben Gazzarra played the heavy with playful abandon. This movie was top loaded to deliver it's meat-and-potatoes storyline and orchestrated throwdowns with some class. "Roadhouse" has gained its own kind of cult following as a film that is better than it should be. This following was enough to turn it into a successful off-broadway show a few years ago.

So Swayze...not just an actor, but also a man whose presence in a film often predicates some kind of cultural relevance. The reason for this? That's as elusive as the perfect wave man.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Space XXX

I should more regularly promote myself and my friends, so here's something that features both:

Air Kiss on Mars is the brainchild of fiction writer Paul Ohan. It's a mashup of electro, hip hop and anal penetration. Paul writes wonderfully twisted tales of bathroom sex with terrorists and searching for the sublime in depravity. The music is stylishly tongue-in-cheek, but serious in its intentions of melding the party with the intellect. Paul worked with a variety of producers for his first batch of songs, included yours truly on the track "World Trade (Gigilo Remix)"

Def worth a listen!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Space Camp

Two of my favorite film and television producer/directors

J.J Abrams

and Ryan Murphy

have new projects that have recently been released. Abrams with the franchise prequel "Star Trek"

and Murphy with the "High School Musical" network tv appropriation "Glee".

While each project has the clear stamp of their maker's style and thematic interests, only one is a true winner.

What I like about Abrams is that he has a strong command of the three key ingredients to a successful adventure story - character development, hairpin plot turns and technical virtuosity. The extensive mythology and plotlines in "Lost" and the very premise of "Alias" demonstrate that Abrams understands a good yarn in a modern context. He combined this with popcorn thrills to great effect in "Mission Impossible 3", which was the best of the series and featured some great action scenes. He clearly has spent some serious time studying the sequences of Steven Spielberg, Sam Peckinpah and John Woo. Abrams also always takes time to establish his characters and let them develop with his twisty plots, so there is a core of emotional authenticity to the stories.

All of these were put to good use with "Star Trek", but there was one additional element of Abrams's repetoire (that he has used in every project) which diminished the overall experience: time travel. (kinda spoiler) "Star Trek" could have been perfect if Abrams had followed through with the linear narrative he was establishing by introducing each character and letting the plot move at a mid-boil. Instead, he felt the need to go all "Lost" on us, with multiple realities of time occurring simultaneously for the sake of sneaking in Leonard Nimoy. I get it, he wanted to bridge the old and new series. But Abrams should've just trusted his own storytelling facilities and let the kids have their run on the Enterprise. Enough with the time crap already J.J.!!!!

So surprisingly, Ryan Murphy wins with "Glee". Now this is surprising for a couple of reasons. First off, "Nip/Tuck" seriously sucks now. It started out as a culturally transgressive show where a plastic surgery office was a springboard to explore issues of morality, beauty, age, sexuality, and emotional intimacy. This was done through (at times) shockingly raw and outrageous plotlines that nonetheless allowed the viewer to reflect upon serious ideas. Like the best Aldomovar films, early "Nip/Tuck" rode a successfully delicate line between camp, tragedy, parody and drama. But that period is over, and "Nip/Tuck" is now a parody of itself.

I had assumed Murphy had lost his touch, but he has really regained it with "Glee". On paper, this show is simply riding on the coattails of the "High School Musical" franchise. The premise is simply one teacher's attempt to revitalize his old high school's glee club (which for those, including myself, who don't exactly know, is essentially a musical theater club). So my second surprise is that "Glee" takes all the best elements of the "High School Musical" series (charismatic young performers, strong production numbers, playful self-awareness of high school narrative tropes) and mostly one ups them while forgoing the chaste, vaguely christian, blandly multicultural atmosphere of its predecessor. The tone of "Glee" winningly flips between Murphy's signature poles of camp and drama, and can at times be humorously harsh. For instance, the football team mockingly signs up for the club under the name "penis" and the star singer belts out a wholly compelling ballad before the scene quickly cuts to her having red fruit punch thrown in her face. My only concern is that Murphy further develops the secondary characters, who in the pilot were relegated to the wheelchair kid as comedic relief, the black girl as deliverer of sassy one-liners and the asian girl as inarticulate sexpot. So I'll keep my fingers crossed on that.

On another plus side, Murphy is working with a fantastic music director who not only chooses very cheeky, clever songs for the production numbers ("Rehab" by Amy Winehouse, "Dont Stop Believing" by Journey") but employs accapella music as the background score, which both supports the show's premise and adds wonderful texture. DEF check out "Glee" online and when it returns in regular rotation.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Keep Your Social Issues in Documentary Form

There is a moment in the new film "Sugar" when two baseball players are talking on the team bus. One is from the Dominican Republic and has never graduated high school, the other just finished Stanford. Both are black. They trade notes on favorite ball players, laugh at each other's cultural differences, and then the American player asks "Hey man, have you heard TV on the Radio?" This is then followed by a rousing montage of baseball moments set to the TVOTR tune "Blues from Down Here".

Wow! An Ivy-League educated, Black baseball player who listens to TV on the Radio and is getting "hip" with his DR bro-han. High five everbody!!!! Now let's go watch "The Wire". Awesome. Everything around me is more colorful and less burdened by social inequality. I haven't felt this good about myself since Natalie Portman showed me how to change my life:

Directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden really let me down with this one. I was a pretty big fan of their last film, Half Nelson, but this time they skirted the deep character study in favor of liberal pandering under the guise of a sports film. The standford-grad player is the perfect example of someone who may represent 2% of pro players, but had a solid supportive role in the film because he is easy to relate to for the target audience of liberal/progressive, multi-culti hipsters. I mean hey, they got my ass in a seat.

Too bad, because "Sugar" started out pretty interesting. We saw the day-to-day operations of a US baseball franchise camp in the DR and how the players dealt with the dangling promise of playing for a pro team while still living a world away from it. But by the end of the film, the protagonist, Sugar, has gone through such a cliched set of "immigrant" experiences that I could just feel Fleck and Boden trying to squeeze every last issue they could into this guy's story while affirming the core values of their audience. They should watch some more John Sayles movies to really get how to combine narrative with social issues, or just move to documentaries.