Sunday, April 13, 2014

My Ten Favorite Dance Dance Revolution Songs

I was in the throes of a strange adolescence when I fell in love with these songs, and I do not have the musical vocabulary to reason through my choices with anything other than free association and reactionary sentimentality. Proceed with caution.

10) Jenny - Do You Remember Me
Original: Not sure - I read many years ago that this is a cover of a Japanese pop song from the 1970s, but I've since learned that the Internet isn't always a trustworthy place.
First appeared in: DDR MAX (6th Mix)

My friend and I played this at our joint 16th birthday party and my mom told me that I should turn it off or people would start leaving. WHATEVER. For some reason, this song always stuck out amidst the deluge of generic Eurobeat that slammed DDR some time around 5th Mix. It may be Jenny's subtle ESL cadence ("I am gonna g'you a start"???), or that her vocals are tender in a way that the genre rarely manages, or its ridiculously fun Heavy stepcharts, but Do You Remember Me has a lot of personality. I think most people skipped over this song because it was super girly and Dance Dance Revolution is all about looking as cool as possible.

9) Jennifer - If You Were Here
Original: None
First appeared in: 2nd Mix

For better or worse, this song screams DDR. Most people familiar with the game would probably cite's Butterfly as the franchise's most notable contribution to popular music, but let's be real - Butterfly is annoying as hell. If You Were Here serves up twice the synthesized Italo Disco goodness with only half of the shrill vocalizations and none of the dubious Orientalism; it's a perfect little encapsulation of the cool-uncool divide that Dance Dance Revolution spent so long trying to navigate. Strange that (if you choose to believe the online whispers of yesterdecade) the opening 13 seconds of this song inspired Naoki Maeda to write MAX 300, the series' first definitive step away from its dance game pretensions.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Profiting from the Revolution in 2013

This post contains spoilers for The East, Closed Circuit, and The Fifth Estate. Of the three, only one is actually worth the time, so if you have any intention of watching The East then read at your own risk!

When Occupy Wall Street burst into life on September 17th, 2011, there was a collective reticence amongst mainstream media outlets to substantially cover the movement. Plenty of coverage on the lack of coverage, sure, but nothing that demanded any investigative clout. Nate Silver estimates that, between approximately four thousand American news outlets, an average of sixteen stories per day were produced about the movement. It wasn't until a certain act of police brutality that major television and print news networks were spurred into action, at least temporarily - viewers may not always show up for stories of protest, but they sure love their institutional violence. Comparatively, social media mentions of Occupy Wall Street totaled at around fifty thousand as quickly as the first day of the movement, a figure that multiplied five-fold after the pepper spray incident and only increased in the following days.

These figures have been echoed by a persistent sentiment in the political discourse of the last two years: there can be no dependence on the systems of old to enact social change, whether those of the government or the media, and the burden of revolution must fall on the common man. The film industry, finger ever on the pulse of popular opinion, has hardly ignored this. Asking audiences to willingly involve themselves in a movie that demands serious systemic introspection, however, is growing increasingly more difficult. Consider the glut of War on Terror films that came out in the mid- to late-2000s, every one of them not named The Hurt Locker failing to make its budget back in America. Domestic film production companies have since been reticent to finance movies about hot issues, perhaps for good reason: The East, Closed Circuit, and The Fifth Estate were all box-office disasters in this vein, "thrillers" cleaving to contemporary questions that simply didn't sell tickets. Conversely, The Dark Knight Rises came out in 2012 spouting almost the exact opposite message, that an impoverished and angry proletariat should wait around for the billionaire heroes of old to bail them out of trouble, and it made 450 million dollars on our shores. Are these the failings of a populace increasingly tethered to escapist entertainment? Can you sneak pro-corporate imperialism into a movie as long as you put a mask or cape on it?

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Disappointments of 2013

10) The Canyons 

Blech. This movie is gross and dumb and not fun at all. Paul Schrader owes Stephen Rodrick a fruit basket for that piece in the New York Times. Lindsay Lohan is one of entertainment's most tragic figures, painted in front of hundreds of millions of faces as a child star too weakened by her own vices to function, and Rodrick was wise enough to pour that narrative into a greater piece about failure in the film industry. Schrader, who once wrote with Scorsese, unable to get funding and forced to make micro-budget smut with Lohan and James Deen! It would be easier to feel sympathy for him if he hadn't chosen to film a Bret Easton Ellis script, or if the movie itself wasn't lit like a dive bar and completely lacking in even a single distinctive image. Ellis' script is overwrought hokum, as always, his gallery of drug-addled amoral nudes doing and saying nothing of interest. As for La Lohan herself, it's a bad performance, its marginal trainwreck appeal mostly drowned in mawkish amateurism, but it's fairly low on the list of things wrong with The Canyons. It would probably be easiest to list what's not wrong with it: it has boobs, and Deen's dead sociopath eyes are just right to play his menacing Hollywood wannabe role. And that's it. Any other compliments might cause you to actually watch the film, because admittedly it's quite a curiosity. I would recommend reading Rodrick's article, far more generous to the movie than it deserves, and then never thinking about this sorry black mark on the name of independent cinema again.

Friday, February 28, 2014

My Favorite Films of 2013

10) Computer Chess

Period pieces have an unusual burden. They must present a series of values and customs that are antiquated enough to appeal to an audience's historical curiosity, but they also can't be completely unmoored from contemporary framework, for fear of alienation. In that regard, Computer Chess is an anomaly. Shot on analog video cameras and improvised from an eight-page treatment, the film is formally vexing. Dry as a bone, rhythmically uneven, and laced with complex computer jargon, Andrew Bujalski doesn't transport you to the 80s so much as strand you in it, shooting "actors" on obsolete technology as they interact with obsolete technology. To call this niche would be charitable. But Bujalski's fourth feature is more relevant than its creaky exterior lets on, and once this tournament of competing computer chess programs sneaks in plot threads about a budding romance and a government sponsor, you're suddenly smack in the middle of an allegorical story about the birth of a new technological era. The film's freewheeling structure and casual engagement with genre elements allows it to bounce between the intersection of scientific growth and militarization, the human urge to reject new experiences, and the first inkling of a computer's capacity for intelligence, chillingly rendered through a series of simple messages. And this is to say nothing of the fetus or the prostitute or the army of cats. Difficult to watch, not for everyone, but unique enough to really stick.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

La residencia (or The House That Screamed): Quasi-Lesbian Fascist Hijinks

This entry comes to you courtesy of Final Girl's December Film Club. Viva Ponder! Spoilers for the whole movie.

Yesterday I was given the opportunity to watch La residencia, a slice of late-60s Spanish-produced horror that has exerted considerable influence on the genre despite its cult status. The film is excellent, calling on antecedents from earlier in the decade such as The Innocents and Psycho; it is a delicate (if not soapier) depiction of the madness that germinates in isolated, sexually repressed minds. Its brutality is minimal but perversely poetic, and although its unconventional structure owes a debt to Hitchcock's earlier masterpiece, writer-director Narciso Ibanez Serrador's invocation of Fascist imagery and methodology gives his work a critical charge all its own. Produced and released during the twilight hours of Francisco Franco's dictatorship, Serrador's flirtation with strategically deployed nipples and incestuous kissing speaks to the crumbling of Spain's heavy cultural censorship, a product of an authoritarian environment quite like La residencia's titular boarding school. The moral is universal, though: save for its noticeably vintage fashions, La residencia is atemporal, and thanks to its spirited English dub and multicultural cast, the movie, although it takes place in France, could ostensibly be staged anywhere.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The 2013 Horror Digest, Part 3: The Killer Inside Me

I was really busy this week and I only wrote four entries instead of the typical five. I'm sure you are all beside yourselves about it. If you're curious, the omitted film was World War Z, which is probably my favorite blockbuster of the year. Who would have thought?

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane will probably be remembered more for its nightmarish release history than its content, a seven-year cautionary tale that catches Bob Weinstein in one of his more tone-deaf moments. Unshackled from the horror trends of 2006, a year glutted with remakes, sequels, and cheap torture flicks, Mandy Lane was cursed with a negative box office prognosis and bounced from studio to studio until the Weinsteins inexplicably purchased it again in 2013. That the film went on to double its budget in a limited international release may be a result of this sensationalized hype, but wouldn't it be nice if we could shelve the drama and give credit where credit is due? Mandy Lane, directed by the same Jonathan Levine behind this year's Warm Bodies, is a stylish and intelligent teen slasher sensibly rooted in the insecurities of its youthful cast. Mandy Lane (Amber Heard, better here than ever) is a stunning high schooler routinely hounded by boys, one of whom dies trying to impress her. Her enigmatic charm tarnished, she becomes something of a recluse, breaking out of her shell only long enough to attend a remote countryside party with a few acquaintances. As horror dictates, most of these teenagers are raging assholes, but Mandy Lane is sensitive enough not to fully place the blame on them. Their maladaptive behavior is instead shown as an extension of their self-hatred, manifested through body image issues and challenged masculinity; the film at large is a treatise on the corruptive influence of sexuality, and how complex the lives of the young grow when conscious attraction is introduced to them. Levine's emphasis on failed flirtation and body-shaming creates an embarrassed, uncomfortable atmosphere, one that the film only escapes during the moments where the gang forgets their sexual agendas and just has fun. The script is pitched a bit feverishly so as to facilitate the horror elements, which has led to reviews decrying its generic nature, most of them ignorant of the fact that this is a genre film and thus created in service of the aforementioned elements. It would be a different story if the ideas were stale (which they're not, as few teen horrors have such capably explored empathy for their victims) or if the execution was botched (which it wasn't - the movie looks gorgeous and the kills are solid). In their defense, Mandy Lane's greatest failing is that it can't fully reconcile the medium and the message, most noticeable in its clever but wobbly ending. Levine more than acquits himself with excellent craftsmanship, a talented cast, and the best damn soundtrack I've heard from the genre in years. Where else are you going to get a spread like Peaches, Beethoven, "Sister Golden Hair," and this lovely Bobby Vinton cut? Cool in 2006, cool in 2013. B+

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The 2013 Horror Digest, Part 2: Beasties/Boys

Berberian Sound Studio

Since horror is so dependent on culturally recursive imagery, often scaring us with things that we know we'll be scared of, it proves itself a fertile ground for namechecking, parody, and homage. None of these intrigue me more than the giallo homage. Despite the fact that Italy's wackiest subgenre is characterized by arrhythmic narrative structure, unpredictable editing, and shot after non-sequitur shot, films attempting to pay their dues to such a singular cinematic phenomenon often employ these techniques too academically. Berberian Sound Studio, arriving three years after staid but enjoyable Amer or Dario Argento's God-awful Giallo, mostly manages to avoid this. Toby Jones plays a sensitive introvert who, having only designed sound for nature documentaries, finds that his new overseas gig producing gory sound effects for an Italian horror movie exacts a high emotional and mental toll. This movie has no aspirations toward true giallodom, instead borrowing giallo's delightfully squishy sound design (what do you think that produce is for?) and baroque low-key lighting to grant style to a mostly conventional narrative. Berberian Sound Studio is a far cry from generic shock horror, though, instead a sinister character piece as portrayed masterfully by Jones and facilitated through a series of increasingly oppressive interpersonal encounters. The problems set in during the final fifteen minutes, when the house of cards finally collapses and our protagonist finds himself in a set of alien circumstances that do little to illuminate what we've already seen of him. Far from the Berberian Sound Studio that wet its hands playing in the blood of giallos past, the ending swings wide and fails both in the typical and atypical realms the rest of the movie bounces between. It has its own intrigue if you're into random things (see also The Lords of Salem), but thrust like a knife into a carefully written screenplay, it makes sadly little sense.