Monday, July 25, 2016

I can't stop watching the Wonder Woman trailer

This is actually happening, people.
We live in an age where big budget movies are promoted a year or more out from their release dates and their trailers—especially the all-important debut trailers—can make or break their success. I watch most of the trailers when they first blow up online, when my friends' Facebook and Twitter feeds won't let me ignore them. But I still tend to ignore most of the hype around these movies because, frankly, it's just a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I kind of miss the days when a movie wasn't spoiled a year out, or when people hadn't made up their minds about it based on a few trailers. That said, I saw the Wonder Woman trailer along with the rest of the world after it debuted over the weekend at San Diego Comic Con. Any sense of cynicism or annoyance with the big studio machines and their endless cycles of promotions completely vanished after I watched that trailer. Folks, this movie looks phenomenal. I mean, I can't stop watching it and geeking out every time I watch it. Here, check it out and tell me you aren't excited, too.

Okay, I hear what you're saying: it's one trailer, Mike, isn't it a little too soon to get that excited? Of course it's too early, but I'm throwing any notion of caution out the window because, come on now, this is Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman kicking major ass on the battlefields of World War I. You might remember that Ms. Gadot was my favorite part of Batman v Superman, so my anticipation for this solo movie was already high but after viewing the trailer, it's shot into the stratosphere. The recent Warner Bros. movies based on DC Comics properties have been, to put it kindly, a bit disappointing. Sure, they have vocal fans, but the overwhelming opinion of the first two Superman films was mostly "Eh" or "Hell no, that's not my Superman!" That second reaction is important and also my biggest complaint about the films so far: Warners seems to fundamentally misunderstand Superman and the qualities have made him so popular for more than seventy-five years. That's a shame because he's so important to our pop culture. It also concerned me for how they might interpret Wonder Woman on screen—in her first solo movie ever, remember. That fact is mind boggling, first of all—she's the most popular female superhero of all time and is only know starring in a movie!—and it's also leading to a lot of pressure on Warners to get it right. Based on this first two-and-a-half minute trailer from Comic Con, they're off to a great start.

I've read a lot online about how Gadot is too small to be Diana, too slight and not beefy enough. It's made me realize how everyone has different mental images of characters like Wonder Woman. Clearly, a large group of fans see her as possessing more of a bodybuilder shape, while others see her similar to Gadot and her lithe but powerful looking frame. I fall into the latter category, mostly because I never recall Diana being drawn as exceedingly muscular—her strength derives from her fantastical Amazonian roots,  not from working out at the gym. That said, she's usually tall and powerfully built, while also remaining slender and agile. I'll concede that she does normally seem to be drawn with a bigger frame than Gadot possesses, but she's not usually drawn as muscularly as, say, She-Hulk. So, I'm okay with the fact that Gadot isn't overly muscular because of a few reasons. One, Wonder Woman is a fantasy and allows for major suspension of belief when enjoying her stories. Two, have you seen Gadot in her costume/body armor?!? She rocks it and absolutely looks the part—I'll fight anyone who disagrees (see, I'm throwing rationality out the window, like I said earlier). Seriously, Gadot looks fabulous and iconic in both the Wonder Woman getup and when she's wearing cool Amazonian robes or dressed in evening gowns and business attire. Gadot just looks right in the role to me. Her face certainly screams "Diana!" to me. It's not just her physical attributes either, but also the way she's playing the part that impresses me. She seems to understand the importance of this role. A lot of people, especially women, feminists  or anyone who cares about women's representation in film and popular culture are watching this one closely, hoping for the best. Gadot's treating it with respect and that's important. It can't be understated how important Wonder Woman has been and remains in our culture, so it's refreshing to see how much Gadot seems to appreciate this and wants to honor the tradition of the character.

I haven't talked much about the trailer itself yet, but let me start by simply saying this: WOW. The action scenes are incredible, with Gadot's use of the magic lasso in particular being ridiculously cool. Like, off the charts cool. Watching Gadot emerge from the foxhole into battle, where she begins mowing down the armies of men attacking her was one of those moments where I felt like I was thirteen again and all I could croak out was "Whoaaaaa." My toddler son likes to say, "Whoaaaaa" after he does something that he clearly thinks is super cool, like throw his ball and hit daddy in the head with it. So I'm with him on this one: Whoaaaaa, indeed. Gadot, the filming, the editing, and the choreography of the fight scenes are all on point in this trailer. The quieter scenes are just effective, with a look at Themyscira, Amazons on the battlefield, Chris Pine looking suitably amazed at Diana and her world, and Gadot bringing some humor to the proceedings in the trailer's final scene featuring Etta Candy. Throughout, Wonder Woman looks and acts just like she should: badass, powerful, honest, stoic, elegant, knowing, and intelligent. There's a moment that perfectly encapsulates who Diana is when Pine's Steve Trevor tells her, "I can't let you do this" and she replies, firmly, "What I do is not up to you." Badass! That's Wonder Woman in a nutshell, son. That's why she's been a feminist icon for decades and why director Patty Jenkins and the filmmakers seems to understand her essence better than any of the Superman films understand his. If the movie really does portray Diana in the way she's presented in the trailer, then you're going to see geeks the world over lose their minds. Euphoria in the streets, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria. Why? Because geeks take this stuff seriously and Wonder Woman is the feminist role model in comics. A lot of us care about that fact and know the character deserves the best representation possible in a film this big. Because over the years, she hasn't always been portrayed in this light, due to changing social mores and clueless male writers, but in recent years there's been a concerted effort from DC's writers, editors, and artists to bring her back to her pioneering roots as an icon. Now it looks like Warners is following suit, which is a big reason why this trailer blew up over the weekend—people really love Wonder Woman and have waited decades for her to star in a movie.

June 2017 can't get here fast enough.
I must admit I'm very excited to watch this movie with our kids one day. I'm not sure they'll be old enough to see it in theaters next June, but we'll definitely watch it together at some point. I'm especially pumped for my daughter to see it. I want her and my son to grow up with heroes, characters they can see themselves in or aspire to be like. I did, and it's healthy for kids to have that outlet growing up. For a lot of us, that geeky fandom never really leaves you (ahem, I speak from experience) and you get to relive those feelings of awe and wonder all over again when you see something as inspiring as this trailer. It's important to still be able to feel awe and wonder over simple things like the Wonder Woman trailer because life is so unrelentingly hard sometimes that we need these outlets, if only to remember to breathe. It's encouraging to think that my daughter will have a feminist hero to look up to at a young age, a woman who makes her decisions based not on a man's opinion, but on her own. Reading X-Men comics as a kid showed me how women could be portrayed just as autonomously as men, which was rare back then. Today, kids have more positive female portrayals in pop culture than ever before, and this movie will seemingly add to that list. If the first trailer is any indication, it looks like we might be getting the Wonder Woman we actually deserve. The only downside so far? That we have to wait almost 11 months to see it! Excuse me, I'm going to watch the trailer again.

Friday, July 22, 2016

I'd rather be reading

I'll be in here while you're at the hardware store.

The other day I was listening to author Chuck Klosterman discuss his upbringing on a farm on WTF with Marc Maron. Klosterman talked about his utter lack of handiness, especially in contrast to his father and brothers seeming so effortless in the art of fixing stuff. And not just fixing stuff, but knowing how to fix stuff. He said his first reaction when something breaks is never to fix it. Do you ever have that moment where you hear someone express something that so perfectly encapsulates how you feel about that same thing? This was one of those moments for me. I'm what you would call unhandy. There's an absence of handiness in me, a large void resides in its place instead. I recognized this early on in life but have only recently come to accept about myself. Some people would rather tinker on their cars or build a new front porch than read, create art, or just think about stuff in conceptual ways—some of my favorite activities. This is not to say that people can't be into all of that and still be great at fixing things. Those men and women exist as gods and goddesses that walk among us. For the rest of us mortals though, we tend to live on either side of that divide.

Growing up, I paid zero attention to things breaking in the house or how they were repaired. My dad took care of it, somehow. It was all very abstract to me. Some tools were used, probably a lot of sweat, maybe a magic potion or two, who knows? My dad wasn't a wizard with house repairs, but he was competent and made an effort now and then, at least. He was from a generation that simply figured out how to do things like that. The man built a deck in our backyard with his own two hands! He used to change the oil in our cars! Meanwhile, I was reading science fiction, fantasy, and comic books, and daydreaming about who would win in a fight between fictional characters like Wolverine and Freddy Krueger (claws everywhere!). I'm of the generation that still wears Thin Lizzy and Ghost Rider t-shirts into our middle age (and likely will continue to even beyond that) because we're staunchly holding on to stuff that gave us a sense of identity over the years. I don't think I have to explain to you how that does not exactly bode well for my fixer-upper skills. I've fixed a few things and installed a couple of others over the years—I used a drill to put in a baby gate at the top of our stairs this year!—but while I try now and then, I'm usually too disinterested to bother. I once heard about a guy who installed a hot water heater in his basement with a friend. That sounds like the worst day ever to me. When I do try what I consider simple jobs—because I can't spend the money on a repair person or I feel like challenging myself—I tend to fail repeatedly at them, which I've been told is normal. "Expect to make several trips to the hardware store today, trust me," says every person ever who's into this stuff. I hate going to the hardware store, it makes me anxious. Plus I could be browsing a bookstore instead. The thought of locking myself into a day of home repairs and Home Depot runs sounds torturous. I don't doubt that I could figure out how to repair stuff. I've even done it a few times! What I lack is the interest to do so and that's where my concentration lags and I start drifting off in my mind to stuff I actually care about. I'd rather figure out what made Edward Hopper such a successful chronicler of the human condition in his paintings. Trust me, I know how obnoxious that sounds. But I have to be me!

On several occasions as a home owner over the years, I've been slightly to heavily intimidated by guys who knew how to do this stuff. Whenever I had to interact with plumbers or carpenters I felt exposed, standing there wearing that Ghost Rider t-shirt. It's never helped that so many of these guys were clearly just as intimidated by whatever the hell I am—some sort of dilettante who's more interested in ideas than anything quantifiable like a drill gun. We're like aliens from distant planets to each other. Neither of us needs to be the enemy, but we tend to feel like that anyway. Alpha males have always put me on edge, so I usually use my sense of humor to disarm them and, you know, calm them the fuck down. Those guys always seem so worked up about one thing or another. They get excited explaining to you how they're going to cut new pipe and create a "j trap" or some such thing. Meanwhile I'm drifting off while they babble, thinking of a striking picture I saw earlier that I might use as a photo reference for my art. Once I started to think about this more critically—these guys probably care as little for my interests as I do theirs—then it was sort of liberating. Who cares if I'm not interested in home repairs? There are so many things I am passionate about, so many that I'm often overwhelmed at not having enough time to devote to them. So I've tried unburdening myself of the notion of needing to fix things when they break—and by "things" I don't just mean household items. Yes friends, the hidden subtext in that statement is "people." Your broken door needs to be repaired, but you don't have to be the one to do it. Your friends, family members, or life partners might seem broken at times, but you don't have to be the one to fix them. In fact, you shouldn't try to fix them. You should just try to listen to them, maybe provide a shoulder to lean on as well. Your love for them makes that difficult to do, of course. Thankfully I'm finding this approach far less difficult to do when it comes to my house.

In recent years we've been fortunate to find a terrific plumber. He never talks down to me and in fact seems very much like the kind of thoughtful and introspective guy I never imagined would be a plumber. It's good to see my misconceptions shattered sometimes. We had replacement windows installed in the house recently and the local guy who did the work was fantastic—funny, self-deprecating, kind, and honest. Plus he wasn't pushy and he talked to me, not at me. In fact, he explained how he'd replace the windows and made it seem so intuitive that even I could have done it. Not that I would have, of course. He was a pleasure to work with. A consequence of the glorious new windows is that I now need to cut a piece of wood to fit into one of the sills upstairs so our window-unit air conditioner will have a level base on which to rest. After work the other day, I plugged in the saw and fired it up—you're cringing already, I bet. After cutting off a small piece, I realized I'd need to do a lot more cutting for it to fit and the saw didn't seem particularly stable. And I couldn't find my goggles, which I knew my wife would want me to wear. I went in to tell her about the situation and, no surprise, first thing she asked: "Did you wear goggles?" After I apologized for my lack of precautionary measures, she suggested I go to Home Depot or the like and get them to cut a fresh piece of wood into the size we need. It can't cost much, we both reasoned. I was relieved because I didn't want to do this anyway. I wanted to spend what limited time we have at night together and with our kids She's good like that, always absolving me of any self-loathing that creeps into my mind about being a beta male. It helps me to accept that the tools I'm most comfortable and compatible with are my pens, pencils, sketchbooks, and computers. You like power tools and things that make a lot of noise? Good for you. I'll be in the other room with my ear buds in and my sketchpad open, building something from nothing with a pencil on a blank canvas.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Bukowski's poetic naturalism

Years ago, tucked away in the shadow of the Hynes Convention Center in Boston's Back Bay, I discovered Bukowski Tavern. I'd read some of poet and writer Charles Bukowski's work in high school or college, or both, but it had been a while. Walking into the tavern to meet a friend for drinks and dinner, my first thought was, "Yeah, this seems right for a place named after Bukowski." Great beer selection, old-time neighborhood bar feel, and packed tight with unpretentious locals and visitors alike. Seemed like the kind of place where Bukowski might feel at home. That's assuming it was possible for him to feel at home anywhere, because his writing was often expressing a desire to retreat from the world, from what he and his characters saw as the inanity of daily life in America. That had always been my impression of Bukowski's work. After visiting the bar all those years ago I resolved to return to his work at some point. It took a while but I finally did and I've realized there's a more to his work than just a desire to be left alone.

There's a strong sense of longing to belong in the best of his prose and poetry. He wasn't simply raging against the system (although he certainly did do that and with gusto), but was also questioning why the system raged against him and others like him. He exposed the inequalities in our social classes, how often times opinions are formed about you before you even have the chance to grow up and determine who you actually are. In Ham on Rye, one of Bukowski's semi-autobiographical novels, his literary alter ego Henry Chinaski is practically set up for failure from the start, with his appallingly unfit parents—a father who alternates between excoriating and beating him and a mother who stands idly by while it happens—and schools that allowed bullies and violent children to exert control over their classmates. Chinaki's life is often unrelentingly brutal, almost from the start,with nearly everyone Chinaski comes into contact with lacking basic compassion or kindness. It's a series of depressing encounters with parents, friends, teachers, doctors, and employers. It's not surprising that Chinaski longs to simply be left alone, wishing to just sleep for five years, uninterrupted. It's a crushing portrayal of depression and loneliness, reminiscent of "God's lonely man" Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or the unnamed (and unreliable) narrator in Notes from Underground. There are moments where Chinaski expresses anger at how life continually beats him down and keeps him locked in his low social station, but at other times he reveals a need to actually connect with someone, anyone. For the vast majority of the time he's just disinterested though, unmoved by the daily machinations of those around him. He understands how someone from his socioeconomic background will face more roadblocks to success than the privileged classes. He's powerless against most of life's obstacles, so he exerts power in overtly masculine endeavors like fighting and sports in order to have some level of control over something, no matter how trivial. In books like Ham on Rye, the brutality of the narrator's life is suffocating at times. But Bukowski layers plenty of humor in as well, especially through mocking contempt for how hilariously absurd life can be.

There's a quote from the Los Angeles Times on the back cover of Ham on Rye: "Wordsworth, Whitman, Williams Carlos Williams, and the Beats in their respective generations moved poetry toward a more natural language. Bukowski moved it a littler farther." That perfectly encapsulates what he did with his prose and poetry: using naturalism as his style, Bukowski helped pushed the boundaries of what could be considered poetry or literature. His writing was raw, naked, honest, brutal, sincere, unapologetic, and direct. When you read Bukowski, you feel like you're catching a glimpse into the lives of people that society would rather forget than bother to help. You might even be one of those forgotten people and recognize yourself in his work. He's been derided, along with several other prominent writers that share his pulp fiction style of writing, as being symptomatic of the cliched tough-guy, drunken, loutish male author who inspires slavish devotion and puerile imitation from legions of meatheads everywhere. Still, there's more than a nihilistic desire to retreat from society in his work; Bukowski provides insight into why someone might feel that lonely and isolated to want to retreat in the first place. In Bukowski's world, his narrators aren't against people; they're overwhelmed by them. There's a sensitivity, and yes a real humanity, to his work that lies just below the surface, if you care to find it.

I haven't been back to Bukowski Tavern since that visit, but that's not for lack of wanting to do so. I fully admit to being a sucker for literary themed establishments, but there's more to it than that. There's something perverse about naming a bar after an alcoholic. There's also something deeply honest about it though, and that seems entirely appropriate given how brutally honest Bukowski's work was.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Cult Classics: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

Our hero, Stretch, before everything goes to hell in a handbasket.

The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre was shot on a low budget and in a cinema vérité style that makes you feel like what you're watching isn't faked, but in fact seems all too real. It's a horror classic, no question, and it scared the living hell out of me when I saw it as a teenager. I'd been hearing about the film for years, usually in hushed and reverent tones, as if the older kids who raved about it were still traumatized. Well, it lived up to the hype, and then some. It took twelve years for a sequel to materialize, but in 1986 Leatherface returned to terrorize theater goers again with his favorite power tool, the chainsaw. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 has a lot in common with its predecessor, most notably an admirably perverse goal to scare the living daylights out of you while rarely, if ever, taking a break to let you catch your breath. In most ways though, it's also a very different film from the original, and at the time of its release these differences seemed to mark it as a failure. However, as the film survived and thrived on home video it gained a fervent cult following, and now is considered another horror and cult classic. If you're squeamish and scare easily, this one might haunt your nightmares for a while. Its outrageously exaggerated performances and tone mitigate a bit of the horror, but just barely. Banned in Australia for twenty years and still banned today in Germany and Singapore, Chainsaw 2 was originally rated "X," (in the pre-"NC-17" era) prompting the filmmakers to just release it unrated. It stayed unrated for almost fifteen years on home video before being given an "R" rating for a 2000 DVD release.

"Why choose when you can buy both" is Lefty's philosophy.

A not-so-subtle homage to the
poster for The Breakfast Club.
Watching Chainsaw 2 is like being strapped into an amusement park ride that has gone completely off the rails: it's a manic thrill ride that just might kill you. Seriously, from the start, director Tobe Hooper (who made his bones—ha ha—with the first Chainsaw) establishes a relentlessly punishing pace. Chainsaw 2 adds a heavy dose of black comedy to the mix this time, and the results are ridiculously entertaining. If you like to see actors behaving like lunatics on the verge of a nervous breakdown, then you're in for a treat here. Not only does it feature Dennis Hopper as an obsessed lawman and relative of one of the victim's from the first film, teetering on the edge of losing his mind at all times, but it also stars Bill Moseley as the amusingly terrifying Chop-Top and Jim Siedow as the comically put-upon Drayton "The Cook" Sawyer, both chewing scenery so hard it's amazing they didn't crack some molars. Between Hopper's Lieutenant "Lefty" Enright and Chop-Top and Drayton, we're surrounded, nearly at all times, by actors behaving like rabid dogs. Chop-Top and Drayton do not shut up. Ever. They are two of the more nonsensically loquacious serial killers you'll ever care to meet. Lefty is a bit more subtle than the others—he quotes scripture and calls himself "The Lord of the Harvest"—but also has those crazy eyes that are constantly bulging out of his head with maniacal intensity. For a religious man, Lefty has very few qualms about using Caroline Williams's "final girl," radio DJ, Vanita "Stretch" Block, as bait for the crazy cannibalistic killers.

Speaking of Williams's performance as Stretch, she enters the Scream Queen Hall of Fame with this film. She exhibits tremendous range here, playing Stretch as a funny, confident, and determined woman, one who will eventually need all the determination she can muster to escape the living hell that awaits her in the film's brutal second half. Stretch knows something's up, that the chainsaw killers from years past are in her radio station's listening area now because she receives a call from two obnoxiously drunk frat boys who are murdered on air by a chainsaw (surprise, it's Leatherface (Bill Johnson), who impressively accomplishes this task from a moving vehicle). In films like this, no one ever believes the person who can see the obvious danger ahead, and in this film that person is Lefty. Stretch believes him though, and she sets out to help him find the chainsaw killers. After broadcasting the tape on air again, per Lefty's request and not a smart move on her part, she's paid a visit by Chop-Top, her number one fan. He's been dispatched by Drayton to take care of Stretch because, you see, Drayton can't have anyone finding out about what he does with all of those chainsawed bodies (hint: he wins a Texas-Oklahoma chili cook-off earlier in the film). It's an eerily disturbing scene, which Moseley simultaneously plays for laughs and chills. Stretch is trapped in the radio station with this lunatic, who becomes less funny and more threatening the longer he has her cornered. He asks for a tour of the offices, leading to one of Williams's best moments as she leads him on an extremely abbreviated tour, holding up one item after another from her desk (lamp, typewriter, assorted radio promo toys like "Rubber Man"), then quickly ends it with, "And there's the exit sign, tour's over!" Williams combines humor and terror in this scene—you know Stretch is scared silly here, but in keeping with the film's black humor, she still makes you laugh out loud like when she holds up the snapper stick toy she calls "Mr. Shark" and snaps his mouth open and shut quickly.

Caroline Williams got her scream on with this film.

Soon after Leatherface bursts into the room, chainsaw blazing. While Chop-Top bludgeons her poor producer L.G (Lou Perryman), Leatherface is about to saw Stretch to pieces, when he realizes that she's quite fetching, especially in those Daisy Duke shorts. From that moment on the hulking monster-man is hopelessly smitten, even protecting her from death several times. At one point, the two have a Beauty and the Beast moment when Leatherface covers Stretch's face with L.G.'s freshly removed and bloody-as-all-hell facial skin, slaps a cowboy hat on her head, and then begins gleefully dancing with her like he's at the county fair. Ah, young romance. This is how Leatherface courts women, apparently. Murdering hapless victims with chainsaws may be his primary hobby, but dancing ranks a close second. Through all of this madness, Williams is fantastic, constantly alternating between screaming for her life (and her screams convey a believable terror throughout) and trying to appeal to Leatherface's attraction to her in the hopes that he'll help her escape. I can't even imagine how exhausting this role was for her. Actors in movies like this never get awards recognition, but for her sheer perseverance in the face of such unrelenting chaos, Williams at least deserved a Joe Bob Brigg's Drive-In Academy Award nomination and win. Williams is another in a long line of "final girls," a horror film trope that may have originated with Marilyn Burns's character in the first Chainsaw,. Williams isn't just a victim here, but a survivor, bringing more intensity and charm to Stretch than most actresses in similar roles ever have, before or since.

The family that slays together stays together.

Did I mention that Lefty embarks on a mission to save Stretch while wielding not one, not two, but three chainsaws of his own? He carries a big one while strapping two smaller backup saws to his hips, like an Old West cowboy carrying his shotgun and two six-shooters. His descent into the killer clan's cavernous home—an old abandoned carnival elegantly decorated with human bones (because, of course)—provides Hopper with some of his best moments. This is when he starts going full-on southern preacher while chainsawing the killers' home to pieces. The problem is, the grounds are enormous, and Lefty spends an excruciating amount of time plowing through them but not reaching Stretch until late in the film. In the meantime, Stretch does her best just to stay alive, while Lefty distracted with cutting channeling his rage into sawing down support beams throughout the maze-like compound. Lefty eventually winds up in a chainsaw duel with Leatherface himself—and you thought lightsaber duels were cool??—clearing a path for Stretch to escape, but she's pursued and caught by Chop-Top. She fights him off, repeatedly, until finally besting the sick son of a bitch with yet another chainsaw, this one pilfered from the dead and decaying body of the clan's beloved grandma. Appropriately enough, our final scene features the final girl herself, full of adrenaline, holding her chainsaw above her head while twirling in place and shouting triumphantly. She's earned that moment of release, don't you think? It's an iconic shot, mirroring Leatherface's final scene in the first film. While it might not be as revered as the original, this film deserves recognition as an extremely effective horror flick. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is both frightening and funny, which is a tough thing to pull off.

Stretch, triumphant.