Wednesday, December 31, 2014

So How Was Your Year?

Major accomplishment of 2014: performing a 50-minute set of standup comedy.  I was a bit unsatisfied with the conditions, so I didn't go through with my plan of posting the audio as an "album," but I posted the video on YouTube.  I may try to re-record it at some point, but I dunno, I'm onto new material, so...we'll see.  Anyway, I got some really good responses to this, and I'm quite proud of it, so here it is:

I also recorded eight episodes of Sleestak Lightnin!!!, the musical podcast that literally no one listens to!  So hey, if you want to hear some eclectic tunes and madcap commentary, download some of these.  (Episode 12 is a good starting point.)

And we continue to build the reputation of our venue, Tao Comedy Studio.  We have an open mic every Friday night, a women-only open mic (Laugh Riot Grrrl) every Monday night, a variety of shows and workshops.  The feminist-themed Pussy Riot show is starting to pick up a following.  We have made it a goal to run a safe space for female comics, and we book the shows and run the mics accordingly.  And the space is available to rent for shows, classes, meetings, readings, whatever. 

Plus, I got to see Acid Mothers Temple live.  So I had a pretty good year.

What I Watched in 2014: Movies

The Ten Best New Movies I Managed To Watch This Year:

1. We Are The Best! - Three middle school girls in 1981 Sweden decide to form a punk band.  Two of them can't play at all, but they have a lot of fun.  We Are The Best! is a perfect example of a small indie film brimming over with enthusiasm, and focusing in on character and relationships.  And the band's anti-P.E. anthem, "Hate The Sport," deserves to be this year's "Let It Go." Also, lots of Ebba Gron.

2. Grand Budapest Hotel - You often hear about such-and-such a movie being "like a live-action cartoon."  I don't think that phrase has ever been more apt than it is to this film.  Look at all those perfectly-framed shots, all that vibrant color, and marvel!  It's also fascinating as a pitch-perfect parody of a genre of fiction that I've never encountered, but which must exist, or how else would Wes Anderson have nailed it so well?

3. Jodorowsky's Dune - I've heard people talk about Alejandro Jodorowski's failed attempt to make a movie out of Dune before, but it always sounded like a joke to me.  I guess I thought it was just an idea in Jodorowsy's crazy brain, and I was sure if it actually had been made, people would be talking about how they wish David Lynch had had a chance to make it.  This documentary changed the whole way I look at the project.  I had no idea how far the thing had gotten, and the collaborators that Jodorowsky had signed on.  There was a thousand-or-so-page storyboard/comic drawn by Moebius, additional design work by H.R. Giger and Chris Foss, Dan O'Bannon was signed on to design the special effects, Pink Floyd and Magma were going to compose original music for the film, and Orson Welles, David Carradine and Salvadore Dali were attached to key roles.  It seems as though the only reason it didn't get made is that Jodorowsky insisted, quite insanely, that it be 14 hours long.  AND the documentary goes on to argue that the project was strip-mined for inspiration for dozens of influential sci fi films of the late 70's and 80's, a sort of ghost-father to the modern blockbuster.

4. Inherent Vice - IV is an odd film.  It's not like any other film P.T. Anderson has made, but it totally feels like a P.T. Anderson film.  It's a hilarious stoner comedy--I can't think of a film with more pot smoking in it--but probably not destined to become the kind of Saturday night pizza party staple that, say, Dazed and Confused or The Big Lebowski or Up in Smoke are.  It's just a bit too odd, and most of the jokes are sort of thrown away.  It feels like it was written by someone really, really stoned (which, I guess, would be Thomas Pynchon).

5. Night Moves - Not even sure what I like about this movie, which tells the story of some eco-terrorists attempting to blow up a dam, but looks at everything from an odd angle, focusing on small moments while the "big action" is taking place in the background.

6. Obvious Child - Jenny Slate is great in this indie drama/comedy.  Gaby Hoffman is pretty great too.  Even if it weren't that great, I'd probably want to put it on my list just as a fuck you: this is a movie where the main character wants an abortion, and goes through with it.  And not even in some worst-case scenario that absolves her of responsibility!  Since we're on the subject of SNL actors doing a great job with semi-dramatic roles, let me also use this space to give a shout out to The Skeleton Twins, with Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig delivering some kick ass performances.

7. The Rover - It's the slow-burn neo-noir version of Mad Max that you didn't know you needed!

8. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - It was a pretty good summer for blockbusters: two good Marvel films, a Godzilla film that left me very satisfied (even if it failed to make me care about the human characters), and another excellent entry in the rebooted Planet of the Apes series, which is really surpassing the original in my mind.  The secret is that these films understand what made the original so appealing, and they work at bringing those qualities into the modern film universe.  It's emotionally upsetting, politically honest, and still a thrilling action film.

9. Locke - I dunno, I'm just a sucker for these high-concept films.  You tell me "it's just a guy in his car on his cell phone for 90 minutes," and I'm hooked!

10. Journey Into the West - Unlike Stephen Chow's recent films Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, Journey Into the West is a big ol' mess.  It makes little sense in terms of character motivation or plot mechanics.  But if you like wild monster design and crazy kung fu moves (and of course you do!), there's more than enough to satisfy you here.

The Best Old Movies I Watched This Year:

Sante Sangre (1989) - This film has been on my radar for years.  A friend told me about it, and was very enthusiastic that I had to see it, but also made it sound like a real slog to get through, a dark, nonsensical and very long, slow film.  Maybe I was just reading that into what he said (I keep meaning to talk to him about it), but now that I've seen it, this impression was completely wrong!  Sante Sangre is easily Jodorowsky's masterpiece, a completely flipped-out tribute to Fellini (with some Hitchcock and Browning thrown in), as lively and colorful as anything from the 80's, AND just as weird as I expected.

Sweet Charity (1969) - Did you know that the first film Bob Fosse directed was a musical version of Fellini's Nights of Cabria starring Shirley McClain?  And, as you might expect, it's a completely bonkers musical that makes beautiful use of the wide screen.

Privilege (1967) - I'm obsessed with the rock musicals of the late 60's and early 70's.  This is one of the most interesting, portraying the music industry as a sort of fascist brainwash machine.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) - This movie came out when I was in elementary school, and I remember a couple kids who got to see it.  They all seemed particularly fascinated with the shot near the end of a dog with a human face (the story may have gotten a little confused--I remember being told it was Leonard Nimoy's face).  Finally watched it this Halloween, and man, what an interesting movie.  Lots of visual references to the original (one of my favorite films), but all in that New Hollywood style, like Philip Kaufman was taking everything done over the course of the decade and applying it to a sci fi-horror film. 

Something Wild (1961) - This is a weird one.  Starts with a young woman sexually assaulted, and for the first half it's a surprising (for its time) portrayal of PTSD, as she walks around in a daze, disconnected from the world and always on alert.  Halfway through, things get weird, as another man holds her prisoner in his home.  I can't really figure out what I'm supposed to take away from this, but it's so offbeat that I have to go with it.

The Gang's All Here (1943) - Busby Berkeley in eye-bleeding technicolor, with some really psychedelic Carmen Miranda numbers.  Makes even less sense than Berkeley's 30's movies, but who cares?

Zardoz (1974) - I'd heard a lot of different opinions on Zardoz: it's a bizarro masterpiece, a complete disaster, a "so bad it's good!" classic.  Having finally seen it, Zardoz is a movie that exists beyond "good" and "bad."  It's outrageous, trippy, satirical and awful in equal measure.  I will say this: it would be improved a LOT by casting someone other than Sean Connery to play the barbarian protagonist.  I don't know if he's a bad actor, or just so completely miscast that it can't be overcome, but I can't look at him and see anyone other than Sean Connery.

The Avenging Eagle (1978) - Saw this Shaw Bros. flick on the big screen at the New Beverly, and I loved the way the fights build.  Early on, they seem pretty standard, but each fight is just a little bit crazier than the last, until the final showdown, which is just an off-the-charts acrobatic extravaganza!

Monday, December 29, 2014

2014: The Year Everything Broke

Sitting here on the wreckage of the last days of December, I feel myself resisting the urge to look back on 2014, a depressing, awful year.  Not for me personally--I've had a pretty good year, and that will maybe be another post--but for this country, and the world in general, things are not good.  ISIS, ebola, letting ourselves get dragged back into the quagmire of Iraq.  The emergence of Putin's Russia as a military actor, as if we needed another goddamn problem.  A string of police shootings of unarmed people, resulting in a string of acquitals and failures-to-indict.  Bill Cosby being revealed to the world as a serial rapist.  The torture report revealing the full depth of horror that our country perpetrated in the name of the War on Terror.  The continuously depressing statistics of campus rape, and the miscarriage of journalism at Rolling Stone that provided a full compliment of ammunition to the reactionary forces.  The depressing, never-ending culture wars rippling through comedy and video games.  And to cap it all off, a Hollywood studio bowing to the demands of terrorists.  How do you process all this shit?

Some of these things just don't have a bright side.  The situation in Iraq, for instance, is just bad all the way down.  This army of evil fundamentalists plowing through the country, murdering masses and subjecting the survivors to their totalitarian regime is horrible.  Us allowing ourselves to get pulled back into the war we fought so hard to extricate ourselves from is horrible.  And, if you accept that we had a moral obligation to go back in (not an unreasonable position), the half-ass way we're doing it that ensures no real victory is horrible.  There's just nothing good there.

But a lot of these things that seem depressing now, really do have some positive to them.  I mean, the things we've learned from the torture report (That the program was not limited to "the worst of the worst" in "ticking time bomb scenarios," but rather was a vast program where we tortured 119 detainees, at least 26 of whom were wrongly held in the first place [often based on bad information from other torture victims]; that the program was set up by an outside company who were also charged with evaluating its success, for a cost of over 180 million dollars; that the tortures themselves were far worse than anything we were told about; that the agents carrying out the tortures protested against the methods; that we got much less actionable intelligence from torture than we were led to believe; and that the terrorist threats we were supposedly being protected from were wildly exaggerated in the first place) are horrible, but at least the truth is out there in the open now.  Whether that will make a difference after the next attack remains to be seen, but at least our eyes are now fully open.

It's incredibly frustrating that we're still dealing with the same police situation that we had in 1992, but doesn't it feel like, for the first time, this is being seen as a national issue?  People are angry.  I don't expect change to happen quickly, but I feel like it's going to happen, because there is a political will there now.

And while it seems like there's a lot of rape stories in the news, that's not a bad thing.  It doesn't mean there is more rape, just that people are paying attention to it.  I really think there's a huge cultural shift going on right now, where things that were more or less accepted at one time are not being accepted any longer.  That's what's happening with Bill Cosby, and why a story that's been around for decades is suddenly a story.  Yes, Cosby was supported by a whole system of people who were financially invested in protecting him, but on some level, I just don't think what Cosby did was considered that horrible in the 70's.  Bill Maher even talked specifically about this, recalling the scene in Animal House where a frat pledge ponders raping an unconscious woman.  As it happens, they were running a Cheech & Chong marathon on TV on Christmas Eve and I saw about the same joke in two different Cheech & Chong movies.  People just thought differently about rape, about what rape even is.  And what's going on with the Catholic Church, the military, Penn State, colleges, Cosby, none of these are new situations.  People are just suddenly saying "Hey, that's not OK."  Expect a lot more stories like this over the next decade.

Similarly, those culture wars, specifically Gamer Gate and the various outrages over "politically incorrect" comedy are the result of changing attitudes and triumphs of a progressive agenda.  The only reason Gamer Gate exists is because the world has already changed.  The only reason reactionaries are angry about "political correctness" is that they've found that audiences no longer respond to their "naughty" rape jokes and "transgressive" racist jokes the way they want.  These are the death throes of an old world.

Which leads me to The Interview.  I've been trying to figure out the silver lining here.  Things have settled down a bit now, and I watched the movie on demand last night.  (The hype it inspired probably works against it, making us expect something a bit more substantial for all the fuss when all it has to deliver is a typical Seth Rogan bro comedy with a few good laughs.)  I mean, it's awful that North Korean terrorists (apparently) are hacking Hollywood studios, it's awful that a studio gives in to terrorist threats, you might even argue that it's not that cool to make a movie about assassinating another country's leader (I don't really feel that, but I could see the case).  What good actually came of all this?

Maybe the answer is that people have seen the need for an independent infrastructure for getting movies made.  Movies and TV shows are expensive and complicated works of art, so it's understandable that they haven't really been able to become as independent as music or books or art, but maybe The Interview will be seen as the beginning of a change.  Maybe someone can start working toward building that infrastructure where films can be made outside of a corporate system.  It's a big jump, but hey, bigger changes than that have occurred.  We've passed the Winter Solstice, and these long, dark nights are getting incrementally shorter.  Maybe there's some light on the horizon.

What I Watched In 2014: TV

Another year is wrapping up, and I have a blog, so let's talk about what I watched this year.  I'm careful with how I phrase this, because I didn't watch that much.  I'm a busy guy, you know?  For me, this year has almost been more notable for what I didn't watch.  I finally gave up on Walking Dead, for example.  Sorry, life's just too short for that shit!  I watched the pilot of Turn, the series about George Washington's spy ring, and loved the hell out of it, but the episodes just kept stacking up unwatched on my TiVo until I finally admitted to myself that I wasn't gonna watch the thing.  I started on The Leftovers, a very interesting show with a unique tone and perspective, but just couldn't keep up with watching all the episodes.  And there were some I watched, but don't plan to return to next year.  I see the promos for the 2015 season of Girls, and there are a lot of good lines in there, but I keep thinking "do I really want to spend any more time with these people?"  And Veep...I mean, I LOVE Armando Ianucci's dialogue, but now that the dazzle is wearing off, I'm realizing that there's really nothing else about the show that's any good.  All the characters are the same, and as satire, it's just giving us one message over and over: that the people in power are concerned with staying in power, with enforcing petty grudges, with anything other than the welfare of the people they're supposed to be serving.  And anyway, Orange is the New Black does a much better job of getting the same message across (mostly because it looks at it from the POV of the powerless rather than the powerful).  And while I get some trashy entertainment out of American Horror Story, I just can't imagine making the effort to finish this run out when it returns in January.  On the other hand, I'm still watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a show that seems about 20 years behind the time in terms of genre storytelling.  So who can plumb the mysteries of the mind?

Another quick thing: I've decided to retire A Game of Thrones and Mad Men from this list.  It's understood that GoT is the most thoroughly entertaining genre show ever put on TV, and that Mad Men remains the absolute state-of-the-art for quality TV-making.  You don't really need to read me say the same thing every year.  (Although I thought Mad Men had a really good season, especially with the recurring Kubrick riffs.)  Anyway, my favorite shows:

Broad City (Comedy Central) - This is just the funniest goddamn show on TV.  Manic anarchist Ilana and sad sack loser Abbi make one of the greatest comedy duos I've ever seen, and the scripts are as raunchy as they are hilarious.  It also has a very specific, scuzzy NYC feel that really enhances the sense of a world where this lunacy could take place.

Black Mirror (BBC) - Both seasons (a total of six episodes!) of this sci fi anthology show are on Netflix Instant right now.  Each episode paints a technological dystopian near-future that seems, as all great scifi futures do, very similar to our present, each a unique nightmare.  An episode about a world powered by wage-slaves on exercise bikes who are constantly fed commercials and distractions haunted me for days, but then I found myself laughing silly at the next episode, where people are able to store photographic video of their memories and drive themselves crazy looking for evidence of infidelity and other slights, because it seemed such a plausible future based on human nature.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (Fox/National Geographic) - When you look at how much Cosmos sets out to do--explain on a basic level what the universe is, what it looks like and how it works, in a way that viewers can easily understand; give some background on the scientists who made these discoveries; orient viewers to the scientific method; get young people excited about science and (hopefully) STEM careers; express the urgency of our environmental predicament--it's kind of mind-boggling that Neil DeGrasse Tyson and his crew were able to accomplish all that in less than 13 hours of TV, all while being thoroughly entertaining.

Louie (FX) - This wasn't my favorite season of Louie (with far too much time devoted to Louie's annoying relationship with Pamela), but even when the show is off, it's remarkable for being so unpredictable, idiosyncratic and just unlike anything else on TV.  But mostly, I'm including it for two great episodes: "So Did The Fat Lady," which is almost painfully honest in addressing sexism and body issues, and the 90-minute "In the Woods," which could just as easily have been a great little indie film.

Olive Kittridge (HBO) - Well, I only watched the first half of this 4-hour drama, but it was enough to make me include it on the list.  The second hour climaxes with the title character acting horribly at her son's wedding, and as repulsive as it is, you understand it.  But not in the shallow, pop-psychology way we're used to these days, where they go back and show you the childhood trauma that lead to someone becoming Darth Vader or the Wicked Witch.  Just a portrait of a nearly-unknowable peson.  You know, like all of us.

Adult Swim Informercials (Cartoon Network) - Yeah, everyone loves "Too Many Cooks," and they should cuz it's great, but I would like to make the case for the nightmarish horror of "Unedited Footage of a Bear."

Orange is the New Black (Netflix) - What a great case of cultural smuggling: OitNB was sold to Netflix as the story of Piper, the upper class blond woman who provides us white yuppies with a POV character to enter the world of a women's prison, but by the second season, Piper subtly became just one of the many characters floating around this ensemble drama, allowing the spotlight to drift among the women of diverse color, age and class that fill out the world.

Orphan Black (BBC) - The first season is on Netflix Instant, I had to go get the second season DVD off of Amazon, but this is a really good scifi show (even with a few missteps in the second season).  Tatiana Maslany plays a young woman who discovers she is one of several clones.  She also plays all the clones, and it's an amazing performance.  Maybe there are many other actors who could do just as well--this is what actors do, after all--but the way Maslany creates the illusion that these are eight distinct individuals is quite a feat.

Inside Amy Schumer (Comedy Central) - I was surprised last year by how much I liked the first season of Amy Schumer's sketch show.  I'd always liked her stand up, but never really thought of her as a comic genius or anything.  That first season really changed the way I looked at her, but she went all in on this second season and really wowed me.  The centerpiece, of course, is the sketch she did on the subject of rape in the military.  Inspired by the documentary Invisible War, Amy plays a Call of Duty-style videogame in which her playable female character gets raped and finds it extremely difficult to get any kind of justice in the military bureaucracy.  It's the knid of sharp satire that we need more of, and that outlets like SNL just aren't equipped to give us.  Comedy Central in general is really beginning to live up to its potential, with Schumer, Broad City, Key & Peele...even Nathan For You cracks me up.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) - For the first half of its maiden season, this show struggled to distinguish itself as something other than an extension of the Daily Show brand.  The breakthrough came in episode 11, with a long segment dedicated to the subject of America's incarceration state.  Half satire, half...journalismtainment?...and as funny as it was disturbing, it was one of the most important comedy segments on TV this year, and Oliver's team repeated the trick several times throughout the rest of the season.

David Bradley in The Strain (FX) - Guillermo Del Toro's vampire story is pretty decent genre TV, but man, David Bradley's performance is a fucking revelation!  Bradley has become familiar in recent years playing cranky old men in fantasy properties: the caretaker in the Harry Potter films, the wedding planner in A Game of Thrones.  But seeing him in full-on Van Helsing mode here, he could give Peter Cushing a run for his money!

Louis CK, Sara Silverman and Chris Rock opening monologues on Saturday Night Live (NBC) - Having marquee-name stand up comics host the show is a great idea, and ensures that, if nothing else, the opening monologue will be worthwhile.  And each of these comics brought it hard.  I want to point out that, while Louis didn't do an hour special this year so he could concentrate on his show, he did almost the same set of feminist material that he opened SNL with in a standup segment of Louie, so clearly that material was important to him.

An interview with a climate scientist on The Newsroom (HBO) - I've been fascinated by Aaron Sorkin's shows lately, despite the fact that I deeply hate them.  With all the great TV on, why can't I stop watching a show I hate?  I dunno, but this one segment may have made the whole thing worth it.

Fargo (F/X) - I liked this show so much that when it was over, I went back and rewatched the Coen Bros. movie on which it was based.  Let's just say that the comparison does the show no favors.  But it remains a pretty fun show, with Billy Bob Thornton really stealing the show as a Satanic figure that leads weaker souls into temptation and sews chaos just by implanting vague ideas in people's heads.  Probably the most fun I've ever had watching ol' Billy Bob.

Finn Wittrock on American Horror Story: Freak Show (F/X) - I got a lot of trashy pleasure out of American Horror Story: Coven, so when I heard that the next season was going to try to play even more to my fetishes by being set in a carnival freak show, I got excited.  Freak Show, as it turns out, is not very good, and certainly not good enough to overcome its icky, outdated ideas about "freaks," but Finn Wittrock's performance as Dandy Mott, a demented young man who acts exactly like a spoiled child, is one of the most hilarious things I've ever seen.  It's a classic sitcom character, in that Dandy has just one dimension regardless of the situation he's put in, and Wittrock sells it for all it's worth.

Shaw Bros. films on The El Rey Network - Feels like they're about 50% commercials (remember when people just used to accept this as a way to watch movies?), but hey, it's a lot cheaper than buying 200 titles on DVD.  Great way to expand your kung fu knowledge.