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Month: July, 2013

Docu-Mental!

Film #25: Bully
(Director: Lee Hirsch)

The problem with Lee Hirsch’s Bully is one of intent. What is Bully trying to achieve? If it is merely to bring attention to bullying, I’m not sure that Lee Hirsch tells us anything we didn’t already know. Yes, the kids that get bullied are human and it hurts them. Yes, the families that lose children to suicide hurt too. It isn’t that these things aren’t worthy of being documented. In fact, this film is full of powerful moments around these very things. The problem is that Hirsch is so committed to his hands-off style that the film often stops when it could really push forward into interesting avenues. There are even moments where that stylistic choice puts Hirsch into ethically questionable situations.

Bully is pretty frank in its depiction of bullying. This film received some notoriety when the MPAA initially decided to give it an R rating because of language. The filmmakers and their supporters argued that this would deny the film to its intended audience, school-age children who are both the perpetrators and recipients of bullying. The rating was changed after a few edits. And there are definitely some troubling sequences. In particular, the main subject of the film, Alex, is often shown being physically assaulted. While these scenes are incredibly sad, its actually more troubling that Hirsch doesn’t intervene. He just sits back, records, and lets the abuse happen. Later, he shows the tape to Alex’s parents and it’s left to them to go to the school and try and get something done. Regardless of his desire to stay neutral in the filmmaking process, wouldn’t Bully have been much more insightful and powerful if Hirsch had confronted Alex’s bullies as they were hitting him? Wouldn’t it have been much more interesting and provocative to force the bullies to explain themselves?

The most interesting sequence in the film also illustrates this weakness. After the bus incident, Alex’s parents confront the vice-principal, Kim Lockwood. As they explain to Lockwood what has happened, she says that she’s ridden that bus and that those students are “good as gold.” She then deflects their inquiries as to what will happen with pictures of her newly-born grandkid. It’s a surreal exchange that paints Lockwood as willfully and devastatingly ignorant. As disappointing as her handling of the situation is, what’s even more disappointing is that the meeting just ends. We know that Hirsch has the footage! Why doesn’t he force this idiot to explain how the same students that slam Alex’s head into a seat are “good as gold”? Why doesn’t he do any sort of investigation into the school district policies that may hamper Lockwood’s ability to root out bullying?

The observational, verité style works in some instances, but it really is a matter of subject. This would have been a more powerful, provocative documentary if Hirsch was willing to open up and become more responsive to what was happening in front of his cameras. Instead, we get a documentary that tells us what we already know.

Film #26: The House I Live In
(Director: Eugene Jarecki)

In contrast to Bully, Jarecki’s investigation into the war on drugs, The House I Live In, follows each new question raised to its logical conclusion. It works more as a video essay than a documentary, which is to its benefit and its detriment.

The House I Live In links the nation’s war on drugs with its endemic racism. According to Jarecki, each new movement in the battle was spurred by a new ethnic tension. The wave of Chinese immigrants into California led to the criminalization of opium, the influx of migrant workers from Latin America led to the illegalization of marijuana, and the introduction of crack cocaine led to unfair punishments towards blacks. This is a compelling argument, and depending on your worldview, a sadly believable one. I could see people objecting that this view of the war on drugs over-simplifies the issue and unfairly turns criminals into victims, but it’s hard to deny the timeline.

Luckily, he doesn’t let this linkage blind him from the newest wave in the war on drugs, meth. This is primarily a white drug, and thus poor whites are the most affected. Here, Jarecki opens up and explains the economics of drug use and drug policing. From the user’s end, drug use is generally spurred on by economic struggle, and the poor are disproportionately imprisoned (this is illustrated in the radical discrepancy between minimum sentences for possession of equivalent amounts of crack and cocaine). From the enforcement perspective, the war on drugs has become an economic boon. Cities are built and sustained by local prisons, enforcement agencies use money taken in raids to fund themselves, and prisons are run by private industries that must make a profit. Thus, we are left with a cycle that just intensifies itself with little hope of actually helping the people affected by drug use.

As a teacher of argumentative writing, I just love how efficiently this is put together. Each link in the chain is perfectly placed next to the one before it, and by the end, it’s forms a pretty convincing whole. It isn’t a particularly artistic documentary and certainly not one that takes many creative leaps, but it achieves exactly what it set out to.

Comics Round-up?

Well, looky here. I’m geeky for comics still! It’s new comic book day, so I thought I’d doodle something up about three awesome books I read today.

Prophet #37 (Image Comics)
Writer & Artist: Giannis Milonogiannis
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Prophet continues to be my favorite comic. I love the sparse, almost anti-writing that propels the narrative, but the art is just incredible. The last couple issues have seen Simon Roy and Giannis Milonogiannis split art duties as their two separate stories have started to merge, but here we get Milonogiannis all on his own, without scripting by Brandon Graham. On the story level, this is less successful than Simon Roy’s solo issues. Milonogiannis doesn’t have that poetic weirdness that has marked Prophet thus far. It’s a little stiff and on the nose. We are introduced to a new prophet who is tasked with completing a mission initially attempted in issue #31. It’s useful to re-read that before this issue but not necessary. It’s pretty sparse, with a handful of pages that are completely silent, and the story is fine, but not thrilling. But I’ll be honest, I’m here for the art. Giannis has easily become my preferred artist on Prophet. His scratchy style mixed with his beautiful coloring fits his story (again, he and Roy are really telling two separate sides of the story) so perfectly. He works fast and it shows, but it is also essential to his style. He’s can create epic, contemplative landscapes (or spacescapes), but he’s also the best action artist on the series. Great visual storyteller.

Grade: B

Ballistic #1 (Black Mask Studios)
Writer: Adam Egypt Mortimer; Artist: Darick Robertson
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This came out last week, but I picked it up after reading a couple interesting reviews. So glad I did. I’ve figured out that I’m most drawn to weird, off the wall comics. The only limitation in comics is the imagination of the creators and the talent of the artist. So why not go nuts? Ballistic is basically David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ meets Brazil meets Lethal Weapon, but on drugs. Weird ones. Butch is an air conditioner repairman in a future where technology and biology have mixed. Everything is alive, and it’s all pretty gross. Butch has a sassy, sentient gun, and together they plot a bank robby. Except the gun does drugs and decides he doesn’t want to rob banks. This is so weird, yet so funny and Robertson’s art is incredible. There is so much gruesome, disgusting, vibrant detail here that you could pour over it for hours. I hope this is an ongoing, because I want 100 issues of this.

Grade: A

The Invincible Haggard West: The Death of Haggard West (First Second)
Writer & Artist: Paul Pope
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I’m embarrassed that this is the first Paul Pope comic I’ve read. He’s a pretty legendary figure in the comic world, but his stuff has eluded me. This is a one-shot prequel to his upcoming book Battling Boy. This issue is numbered as The Invincible Haggard West #101 and does indeed show the death of the title character, so it’s interesting to read it and imagine the huge backstory that could have led to this issue. The story is pretty standard, but Pope does a great job of making these characters real within a few panels. Again, I wish I could read the 100 issues that led up to this. Like Prophet, though, the art is the real draw. This is just beautiful. I don’t feel capable of describing it because it is so unlike anything else I read, but it’s obvious why Pope has the reputation he does. What really sticks out is his character work. The faces are so animated and clear, that he gets away with fairly little dialogue or narration. The action is so easy perfectly rendered and I love the sound effects embedded into the art. Based on this, I’m definitely on board for Battling Boy, whatever that turns out to be.

Grade: B+

Woo! WOO!

Even though I’m working less than usual, this summer has been crazy. Going places, doin’ thangs. The biggest news is that MAH WAHFE was offered a job at the VA. She’s worked her butt off for 9 years to get this very job, so it’s awesome that it is actually happening (and it was certainly a roller coaster getting there, especially in the last few weeks). I’m so incredibly proud of her.

Last week, I had one of the best meals of my life. The college I teach at has a pretty renowned culinary arts program, and they have an on-campus bistro that is run by students (with the help and guidance of the culinary arts faculty). A group of us from the Writing Center went on Thursday and it was spectacular. I think Lizz and I counted 9 courses (of varying size of course). Salmon, tuna, black cherry sorbet, creme brulee, bacon-wrapped pork belly, homemade butter and bread. Ah. I’m dozing off just thinking about it. Here’s a link to their website to get a taste: Sage Bistro

In nerd news, my movie viewing has slowed down quite a bit. Lizz and I finished Firefly and Serenity, so that took up some of my time. It was totally worth it though. Fantastic series and the film actually did an incredibly job of wrapping things up. I have watched a couple of other things though.

Film #24: Brooklyn Castle
(Director: Katie Dellamaggiore)
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This is an amazing documentary about the chess team at I.S. 318, a middle school in Brooklyn, New York. They are the best chess team in the nation, even though most of the students live below the poverty line. The film was shot right in the midst of the financial crisis, so much of the film deals with the students coping with the forced budget cuts. The film works because these kids are incredible. You just instantly fall in love with all of them, and their ability to persevere and overcome their economic situation is humbling. I also love the way Dellamaggiore shoots the matches themselves. We don’t see the boards or even know what’s happening in the games; instead, we just watch the kids. At points, she employs slo-motion panning shots of them in deep contemplation, and they suddenly turn into epic heroes. And like any good documentary, Brooklyn Castle tackles issues of class, race, and gender head-on, but through the frame of these incredible kids. If you can’t fall in love with Brooklyn Castle, you aren’t a human. Prepare to cry.

2013 Film #3: Spring Breakers
(Writer & Director: Harmony Korine)

Spring Breakers was one of my two most anticipated films of the year (along with Only God Forgives), and sadly, it failed miserably to live up to my hopes. This movie is just so disingenuous. It indulges a vapid narrative and aesthetic in an attempt to critique hedonistic consumerism, but it’s ironic sheen only serves to cover up for lazy filmmaking. I should have loved this movie. I love the idea of the aesthetics of this movie, but every image just feels forced. It feels like Korine is trying to do Terrence Malick and Spring Break, and every frame is burdened with that trying. My biggest problem, though, is that it is just damn boring. And not in a good way. The characters are forgettable (save for Franco’s Alien, although he is only memorable by force) and the writing is TERRIBLE. The voice-over narrations from the film’s female leads are some of the worst shit ever put on film. But again, and this is the real problem with the movie, Korine is so gutless in his filmmaking, that I imagine most of his supporters deflecting this criticism: “That’s the point of the movie! They are supposed to be inane, vapid materialists.” Blargh.

2013 Film #4: This is the End
(Writers & Directors: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg)
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This, on the other hand, was the perfect summer movie. The gimmick is that all of the actors in this film play themselves: Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, James Franco, Jonah Hill, and Danny McBride form the core group (there are a ton of cameos that I don’t want to spoil. Half the fun of the movie is seeing who shows up). While at Franco’s house warming party, the Biblical apocalypse goes down, and the group try to hold out in his mansion. While the actors play themselves, they obviously are playing heightened, stereotyped versions of themselves. It’s awesome seeing these guys indulge and make fun of these stereotypes and their careers (Franco, for example, has a giant penis statue in his house and they frequently make fun of him giving blowjobs). We even get a sort of Sweded version of Pineapple Express 2 midway through. This film is just an assault of jokes and it will take 10 viewings to catch everything. It’s the 21 Jump Street of 2013. I’m sure critics will claim this is just another bro-mance about guys incapable of growing up, but, you know, so what?

2013 Film #5: Man of Steel
(Writer: David S. Goyer; Director: Zack Snyder)

This is the worst film I’ve seen in ages. Goyer and Snyder team up to ruin Superman for a whole generation! I can’t even begin to list the things wrong here: Zod’s goatee, an F5 tornado in the sunshine (which is, ironically, one of the only times this bleak-ass movie about a dude WHO RUNS ON SUNSHINE actually uses it), Superman destroying both Metropolis and Smallville, *SPOILER* Supes killing people?!?!?!!, and the most boring, endless fight scenes of all time. This movie never ends. I’m still watching it.

Hannibal

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Network TV is a wasteland, and NBC in particular seems a barren desert (minus Parks & Recreation). So I’m as shocked as anyone that the second best show on TV calls the dying peacock its home. Yes, I’m talking about Hannibal. Yes, it’s that good.

At first glance, Brian Fuller’s Hannibal might seem like the newest incarnation of the crime-scene detective show. Like Criminal Minds, it focuses on serial killers. Like C.S.I., it pieces together crime scene details to help catch the killer. The genre, both on film, television, and in literature, is endlessly replicated because it is fairly self-contained and self-generating. Each episode follows the same arc and allows any viewer to play its game, regardless of whether they are new to the show or a longtime fan. The only real distinction between these shows is the type of crime investigated, the geographic setting, and the quirky personalities and styles of the investigative teams. Hannibal certainly carves out a unique niche in all of these categories: it only investigates particularly showy serial killers, it is set in blue-collar, non-descript places like rural Minnesota and backwoods Virginia, and its protagonist, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), has a unique skill that allows him to mentally reenact the killings to generate startling psychological profiles (the show calls them “leaps”). All of these traditional genre tropes are heavily emphasized in the early episodes, but it quickly becomes clear that Hannibal is a completely unique beast.

Am I burying the lede? If so, its only because the show does as well. The titular Hannibal is that Hannibal, Dr. Lecter. The show chronicles his early years, well before Buffalo Bill and those fava beans with chianti, but it does so in an incredibly fascinating way. Played brilliantly by Mads Mikkelson (like, give him the Emmy NOW brilliantly), this Hannibal looks almost nothing like Anthony Hopkins’s take on the fictional killer. This Lecter is refined, thoughtful, charming, and even empathetic. He comes off as caring and even loving at times as he helps Will battle the growing instability within his mind. For the first half of the season, he is a fairly minor character, showing up intermittently to listen to the worries and fears of both Will and Jack Crawford (Lawrence Fishburne). For a show called Hannibal, we really don’t see that much of him.

But the show knows we know who Hannibal Lecter really is, and it takes great joy in teasing us as it slowly makes him more prominent in the story. Each beautifully cooked meal is a reminder that this man is pure evil. Who’s tenderloin is Jack eating? Who did Hannibal kill to get that pan seared steak? The anticipating is a killer: we want to see Hannibal be Hannibal.

Until we don’t.

And this is where the show turns. As the facade of Dr. Lecter slowly falls and we get glimpses and visions of the famous killer, we are left to dwell on the consequences. As Todd VanDerWerff brilliant details in his piece for the AV Club, this is a show obsessed with death and obsessed with making death meaningful. Finding the killer doesn’t bring resolution on Hannibal. Instead, the murders haunt the entire show and its characters. These 13 episodes are essentially the story of Will’s descent into madness as he tries to cope with the investigation and “resolution” to the Minnesota Shrike case that opened the season. As we realize just how big of a role Dr. Lecter has played, that descent becomes even more heartbreaking. This Hannibal isn’t an endearing, quotable, campy killer. He isn’t one of those fictional serial murderers that we secretly (or openly) want to get away with it. He is terrifying and truly scary.

I can’t even begin to describe how dark and menacing this show becomes as it nears its finale, but it is unlike anything I’ve seen on network TV (and really in any TV show). This sense of doom is aided by the brilliant cinematography, sound design, costuming, and set decoration. Everything is washed out grey and maroon. From the barren, wintery landscapes to Hannibal’s immaculate office, the imagery is always cold and always beautiful. The show is also incredibly violent. There is no shortage of blood and splatter, often shown spraying out of wounds in beautiful slow motion.

In particular, the crime scenes are exceedingly over-the-top. I said earlier that this show is focused on showy serial killers, and this comes across in these sequences. Bodies are artfully arranged, perfectly dissected, and presented like pieces in a museum. Their elaborate nature makes them decidedly unreal. Is it really possible for an aging serial killer to create a totem pole of bodies? Could a man really carve his back into wings of skin and hoist himself into the rafters of a barn? Hell no. Almost every one of these crime scenes is framed the same way. Low, extremely wide camera angles, with the body (or bodies) perfectly centered in the frame, often against a beautiful backdrop. They are surreal, beautiful, and grotesque. But why?

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You could argue that Fuller and company are taking a little bit too much pleasure in these crime scenes. Are we equating these killers with artists? Should we take still shots of these bodies and hang them on our walls? Is the show violent for violence’s sake?

It is certainly a risky choice on the creators’ part. These crime scenes and the ridiculous way Will interprets them threatens to pull you out of the story. They are both deliriously fake and contrived. Lizz was instantly turned off by the leaps in logic that help Will solve these elaborate crimes. But I think this is exactly the point (and the show frequently pokes fun at these leaps. At one point, a couple of the other investigators joke about finally using science and reason to solve the crimes). The show is actually less about the crimes and their motivations than it is about their aftermath. And the aftermath is treated with startling realism. For me, it would actually be way more disturbing if the crime scenes were realistic at all. Considering the weight of the rest of the show, you need a little levity. The fact that the crime scenes themselves provide that levity certainly complicates things, but that’s what’s so twisted about this show.

While nothing will trump the final season of Mad Men for me, I can’t help but be nearly as excited for the next season of Hannibal. I really hope it finds an audience, but I also suppose it is understandable if it doesn’t. NBC also isn’t helping by making the show fairly difficult to access. It isn’t available in its entirety on Hulu or even the NBC website. For a struggling network with a genuinely awesome new show, you’d think they’d try to push it as hard as they could. Now that I’m caught up (through my own means), I think I’m going to try to catch the episodes live when they come back, which isn’t something I’ve done for a show in a long time.

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