Go see “Crystal Fairy”

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For Michael Cera fans (myself included) “Crystal Fairy” brings good and bad news. The good: The once and future George-Michael Bluth is more than capable of playing non-boyish, non-adorable characters. The bad: Jamie, the deeply odious drug tourist he plays in this film leers through his fright wig mop of hair over a beaky nose that only clarifies his raptor sensibility. By the second time he mentions Aldous Huxley (doesn’t take long) you’re rooting for an overdose, a drunken plunge down the stairs, an ill-intended representatives of a drug cartel. Anything to shut him up.

Happily, the real focus of this way-low-budget-indie film turns out to be its title character, played with frantic innocence by Gaby Hoffman. Or maybe she’s not that spacey, and maybe her homespun version of light and verity springs from the darkest kind of core.

Set in Chile over the course of a two-day excursion centered around a group peyote trip, the Jamie-led journey becomes a kind of grim slog echoing the worst parts of imperialism, stonerism and obnoxious young mannism. As ever, the search for transcendence springs from many visions and not all are entirely pure. A kind of magic results, and the flashes of human generosity and love — particularly from the three Chilean brothers who Jamie has co-opted as friends/guides(played by real brothers Jose Miguel Silva, Juan Andres Silva and Augustin Silva) reveal how far you don’t have to go to find transcendence in the chilly murk of a cloudy beachside morning.

Story of the Month: The Making of Pulp Fiction

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Daniel Day-Lewis as Vincent Vega? Michelle Pfeiffer as Mrs Wallace? Laurence Fishburne as Jules? Paul Calderon as Jules? It almost happened.

Also Honeybunny is named after a rabbit.

No wonder Mark Seal’s fantastic, epic-length (and deservedly so) history of the making of “Pulp Fiction.” It’s full of all this and much, much more.

You know you have to read it. And I know you won’t regret it.

 

The 2013 Academy Awards won’t be as good as the Imaginary Oscars

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…I can’t watch the Oscars tonight, due to a family commitment. But I’ll be live-tweeting my own Imaginary Oscars (#imaginaryoscars) all afternoon and evening. Here’s where the action begins…

…dissolve to stage, where real Crystal bound to chair. McFarlane emerges, shoots betw eyes. Laughs, cheers, welcome! #imaginaryoscars — Peter Ames Carlin (@peteramescarlin) February 18, 2013

 

For Your Consideration: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is a bad movie

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It’s got nothing to do with the torture sequences, or the absence of any real contemplation of the moral/ethical consequences of using inhumane tactics to halt other acts of inhumanity.

Which you’d think would be a thematic pillar in a movie describing America’s aggressive response to the 9/11 attacks. And you could do that in the context of a juicy action film, assuming you create characters strong enough to animate the moral struggle taking place around them.

But “Zero Dark Zero”  has no characters. It has people, to be sure — humanoids walking and talking, arguing and making up and sometimes getting blown up real good. Some of them even have names. But who ARE they? Where do they come from? What drove them to this point in their lives? What do they stand to gain or lose?

“Zero Dark Thirty” doesn’t go there. To wit:

Maya: So she’s strong, stubborn and kind of fearless. She can sit in on torture sessions all day long with the same emotionally detached chilliness in her eyes. She doesn’t seem to have any longstanding friendships or romantic connections. (doesn’t the movie hint that she’s a virgin?)  But where’s she from? What made her this way? What accounts for her blazing determination to off Osama Bin Laden? Why does she weep when she succeeds? “ZDT” never says. In the context of the film Maya exists, period. Like an Orc, only way prettier.

Dan: A torture expert. Seems most comfortable doing the good cop thing, but has no problem being a really terrifying hard-ass. It seems to wear on him — he opts to head back to CIA hq rather than re-up for torture duty. But if his conscience bothers him at all, we never hear about it. As per Maya he comes minus a past, emotional present or dreamed-of future. I wanted to care about him, but had no opportunity to empathize with him. His character has all the emotional depth of  his pet monkeys. Whose deaths (at the hands of evil-doers) occur off-screen and pop up as a kind of narrative after-thought.

Joseph Bradley: He’s a starchy military guy charged with the near-impossible task of leading the manhunt for bin Laden. He gets shit from his superiors and passes it on to his charges. And that’s it. The most fascinating thing about him is the meta-fact that he’s played by Kyle Chandler, who played the emotionally complex Coach Taylor on “Friday Night Lights.”

 The guy James Gandolfini plays: . . .is fun to watch mostly because it’s always a treat to see Gandolfini weave his own charm and complexity into a character. But how deep can anyone get with a character who is known only as: CIA Director?

So okay. “ZDT” does its action sequences really well — the climactic visit to OBL’s neat warren there in Pakistan really kicks ass. When she learns how wildly successful the raid is — and sees the blasted-to-hell remains of her quarry — Maya stands alone and lets a droplet of emotion slide down her cheek. If we had any idea what was going on in her head we might have felt something, too.

 

 

Retrofit Guide:The Replacements and the "Hootenanny" of doom

replacements “The first thing we do when we finally show up/Is get shit-faced drunk and try to sober up…” They were the American Clash. The Rolling Stones of the 1980’s. Somewhere between the greatest American punk band ever and the greatest rock band in the post-everything era. And virtually every sweet, angry, blistering, tender, wonderful note the Replacements played burst from the same impulse that made damn sure they would never amount to anything. “Can you stand me on my feet?” Even in 1983, before they had a chance to start hating themselves for even beginning to seem successful, the Replacements — original line-up: songwriter/singer/guitarist Paul Westerberg, lead guitar Bob Stinson, bassist Tommy Stinson and drummer Chris Mars, all from Minneapolis/St. Paul Minnesota  — stage-dove eagerly onto their own lovingly built petard. They were drunks, screw-ups, addicts, sketchy musicians who got even worse when they were drunk (often) or traded instruments, which they loved to do nearly as much as they loved to get drunk, even (especially?)  when the tape was rolling. Like the Clash, their UK counterparts who truly believed in their political and moral vision, the Replacements believed fiercely in their own incompetence. “The label wants a hit/And we don’t give a shit….”

Right now I’m listening to “Hootenanny,” the 1983 album that pre-dates, by months, the group’s 1984 breakthrough, “Let It Be.” And while the latter album is cetainly closer to the ass-kicking hooks, sardonic sense of humor and when-you-least-expect-it flashes of sensitivity/vulnerability, the earlier album has a rawness that feels closer to the group’s arhythmic heart.   Consider that the title track, “Hootenanny,” is both hilarious in concept — beneath the retro-50s title (and album artwork) resides what has to be the furthest thing from the  sugary neo-folk that popularized the ‘hoot’ idea in the late-50s — and purposefully distrastrous in execution. Once again, the band has traded instruments — I think Westerberg plays drums, bass-player T. Stinson takes up a guitar and drummer Mars is on bass, and Christ only knows how sober they all weren’t at the time — so the two-or-three chord blues-grunge progression carries no strict meter, chords or melody. Westerberg brays “It’s a Hootenanny!” over and over again, and barks/slurs whatever else he has in his mind, which turns out to be not much. “Run It,” comes next, a high-speed, fuzz-guitar ode to the joys of defying traffic signals. Minimal words, minimal chords, mostly noise, attitude and a deceptively clear understanding of how street lights (and traffic laws) read as metaphors for social structure. Which is precisely the sort of thumb-suckery hat requires them to rip doughnuts into professorial front yards: “Ain’t no truth-run it!/Ain’t no good-run it!” A hair over a minute later the car ejects us at “Color Me Impressed,” and the threshold of the Replacements’ (and particularly Westerberg’s) real headwaters: the rowdy, beer-and-coke soaked party where everyone looks so maddeningly hip and cheery. “Everybody’s dressin’ funny,” Westerberg snarls to a double-speed and yet catchy descending guitar riff. “Color me impressed.” As if the ‘Mats were up to anything smarter. Instead, they’re (apparently) snorting cocaine (how else to interpret, ‘Put the party on the mirror/Oh shit, pass the bill to Chris’)? Even more intriguing is the double-meaning (and PW’s ouevre is crammed with double meanings) hiding within the bridge lyric, a simple, “Can you stand me on my feet?”  which means one, or perhaps both, of two things: the singer either needs help standing up, or wonders if anyone even would want him around if he weren’t so amusingly wasted. The next three songs explore decadence and self-destruction. “Willpower” marches grimly over a horror-show bassline, a backdrop of echoing, self-recrimination voices (“I don’t wanna…stop it, stop it, stop it. . . I don’t wanna”) undermining an attempt at self-discipline.  “Take Me Down to the Hospital” paints a jaunty what-if portrait of what could happen if you fail to re-gain some semblance of sobriety. A snarling lead guitar cuts like barbed wire through a two-chord vamp that detonates, pulls back then erupts again, with Westerberg’s threats and admissions (I‘ve already used eight of my lives!” ) climaxing in a wail – Take me down! – echoed by his bandmates – Hospital! A split second later comes the final word in the trilogy, the bizarre plagiarism-fest that cobbles together the opening chords of “Strawberry Fields Forever” to a kind of madman’s spin through “The Twist,” to a beautifully shambolic, guitar-led rip off of “Oh, Darling!” that is actually addressed to (and titled) “Mr. Whirly,” who presents as a kind of pink elephant character, the personification of the feeling you get right before the bed starts to rotate. The suite ultimately collapses under its own sloshy weight, with Westerberg ending things with a phony count-on: “One, two, three, and you are….I said, you’re the— The listener fills in the blanks himself: Out! Then: A loser! Then another taste of PW’s version of romanticism: “Within Your Reach,” its impassioned lyric playing out over a synth-dominated two-chord tune, all juxtaposing images of a world gone insane (sun keeps rising in the west) to the singer’s unexpected feelings of passion and need. He’s so happy, in fact, he can “die within your reach.” Apres fulfillment comes only…..destruction. A scary thought, eh? “Buck Hill” is an instrumental — the first in a series of truly memorable guitar-based, only barely worded tunes, e.g., “Seen Your Video”) followed instantly by its obverse, a wordy, often hilarious speed-rap, “Lovelines,” its giggle-laced lyrics drawn directly from the lovelorn personal ads tucked on the last page of  a 1982 issue of the Twin Cities Reader (or was it the Sweet Potato? One of the TC’s alt-weeklies, anyway). And what the hell is going on here? Is PW truly ridiculing the romantically-bereft? Or putting the boot into the cynical sex-biz types who capitalize on the unrequited desires of others? A little of both, I guess.

A couple of quickies — “You Lose” and “Hayday” — come next, but the real climax, and the signpost to the rest of the ‘Mats’ career can be found in “Treatment Bound,” an acoustic sing-along type of campire tune which describes several disastrous dates on a tour through Wisconsin and Minnesota, the band continually machine-gunning itself in the foot (getting shit-faced drunk, then desperately trying to sober up) at shows where “so-called friends” only buy them more and more and more drinks. “We’re gettin’ no place, fast as we can!” Westerberg boasts/complains. “The label wants a hit/And we don’t give a shit!” He isn’t ashamed. In fact, he’s proud of himself, if only because he’s living down to the terrible self-image that goaded him to pick up a guitar and climb on a stage in search of acceptance. What sort of a loser would do that?  “Yesterday’s trash/too bored to thrash.” It’d be funnier if the song weren’t so tuneful. And if we didn’t know how the Replacements would come so close to having it all, only to spit it back out again, then collapse into themselves without saving American rock ‘n’ roll the way they really could have done. Westerberg seemed poised to do it on his own in the ’90s (see also: Spin’s “Paul Westerberg: The Spirit of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ cover)  And yet even a clean-and-sober (mostly) Westerberg solo career would spark, sputter, spark again and then fade to his current nether-existence as the creator of  muddy,  self-recorded basement tapes featuring his self-loathing self on all the (purposefully?) ill-played presentations of darkly conceived, underwritten tunes. All of which takes us right back to the closing seconds of the tune “Treatment Bound” and the “Hootenanny” album as a whole, just after “Treatment” stumbles to a halt, when Tommy Stinson turns to Westerberg to ask after a chord-progression-gone-wrong: “One of those chords at that one part, you just fucked it up!” Westerberg shrugs and responds simply: “Fucked ‘im up.” And he’s not angry, or even apologetic. Color him impressed.