GASM Media’s newest project–written by me–is DICE LORDS!
A group of roleplaying gamers are mistaken for the characters they play in a magical ritual. As a result, they’re granted incredible powers and a mission: save the world from an interdimensional invasion. The only problem is, the newly gifted Dice Lords are anything but heroic. The world just might be screwed.
The six episode series is up now on youtube and on http://www.dicelords. See what happens when the wrong people have all the luck.
If you’re still out there, subscribed to this blog, then you are truly a survivor, willing and able to weather long, cold stretches of nothingness. What have you been eating? I hope you’ve been writing a memoir to pass the time, because I would read that shit. Seriously.
For the last year or so, I’ve been working with GASM Media, a small media company and sister company to Atlanta geek mecca Battle & Brew. I wanted to take a moment to share a project we made together for the Atlanta 48 hour Film Project, a suspense/thriller called THE WARM VACATION.
I wrote this thing in a few hours, then handed it off to an amazingly talented cast and crew who turned it into an excellent, intense little film, the most gut-wrenching walk in the woods you’ll see today. (Especially for Benjamin Mitchell’s incredible performance as Robert, which was nominated by the 48 Hour Film Project as one of the best male acting performances in the entire festival).
Couldn’t be prouder of this film, so please take a moment to support me and support GASM media and check out our little short, THE WARM VACATION. And when you’re done with that, stick around to see the other projects we’ve been producing at GASM, from comedy series RIVALS to the anime fandom show EYE BLEACH. Enjoy!
If you’re a new visitor to this (mostly neglected) page, you may have found your way here via the bonus material found in Dwayne Epstein’s fantastic book, LEE MARVIN: POINT BLANK.
For those of you who haven’t read this book yet, it’s a comprehensive, meticulously-researched biography on one of the great heroic character actors of the 60s and 70s, and it’s available right now over at Amazon (click HERE). The paperback versions feature my interview with the author as part of the supplemental material. It’s a must-read for fans of old Hollywood.
For anyone wanting to catch up with my current work, you can read my retro primers and the occasional extended piece over at ATL Retro.
Click HERE to see what’s new!
Subscribe to this page if you want to see new content if and when I return!
If Jamie Lee Curtis is the star of Blue Steel, the gun is her unofficial costar. Scan the poster for another face and you’ll eventually find Ron Silver’s deranged Wall Street broker-cum-serial killer in a tiny box off to the side, less than half the size of Curtis’s drawn weapon. In this image he’s the devil on her shoulder, which makes the gun the angel by default. The gun is good, someone or other once said, and Blue Steel is a believer.
By the time the film begins, even Curtis defers to the gun, as the opening credits play over what I can only describe as a striptease seduction scene highlighting the weapon’s contours and curves. The camera first slides smoothly down the barrel and along the textured grip before peeking softly down into the bullet chambers. The sequence is downright naughty, gun porn all the way, and slyly warns the audience that what they’re watching is a step sideways from the boilerplate cop dramatics. Blue Steel has something else entirely on its warped mind.
BLUE STEEL is not Kathryn Bigelow’s best film. Frankly, it’s kind of a mess. The story, such as it is, concerns Megan (Curtis), a rookie cop disgraced on her very first night on the job by a shooting gone wrong. She confronts and finally kills an armed robber at a convenience store (Tom Sizemore), but the perp’s gun disappears in the chaos, winding up in the hands of a bystander named Eugene (Silver), an oozy stock trader so overwhelmed by the experience of becoming a burglary victim that it drives him insane. He fixates on the gun and on Megan, ultimately committing a series of random murders using bullets he’s etched with her name. While Megan and her partner (Clancy Brown) piece together the murders, Eugene weasels his way into Megan’s life, threatening her family and her friends before finally confronting her.
The screenplay is by The Hitcher’s Eric Red, and like that film’s John Ryder, Eugene displays an almost supernatural knack for his new hobby, and a talent for turning the tables on Megan every time she has him caught. But The Hitcher worked partly because of its isolated location that left its protagonist with no help and with nowhere to go. In Blue Steel, the heroes are cops in the biggest city in the world, and the script has to go through increasingly frantic gyrations to keep its villain from simply being locked away. The result is a film constructed of uncommonly dumb logic and far-fetched decisions. Watch it with care or risk straining your eyes from rolling them too hard.
But Red’s script has a secret agenda, and in Kathryn Bigelow’s hands, Blue Steel becomes something more than the action movie claptrap it seems destined to be. The project was Bigelow’s coming out party for Hollywood after her skuzzy, wooly vampire movie Near Dark (also written by Red) turned heads, and her hunger is unmistakable; a young filmmaker’s eagerness to transform the medium drips from every frame. Bigelow pinpoints the psychological subtext inherent in the script, finds her bin marked ‘subtext,’ burns it, and then with nowhere left to put the stuff, throws it right up there in the text. When she’s done, Blue Steel quits being a cop thriller and instead becomes a Freudian nightmare and the gun a phallic avatar in the war between the powered and the powerless.
Take the character of Megan. Bigelow cannily casts Jamie Lee Curtis whose physical androgyny makes the presence (or not) of her firearm a defining trait. With her gun, Megan can traffic in the macho male cop circles and stand up to Eugene, who has tragically confused his stolen gun with his masculinity. Both Eugene and Megan need their guns to avoid becoming the victim—Megan has watched her mother wilt in an abusive marriage and violates a family code against cops to empower herself, while Eugene feels powerless during the stickup and only gets his strength back when he’s armed.
Megan is stripped of her gun (and, therefore, her power) when she’s removed from the case, and she spends the rest of the film attempting to get back to where she was. She doesn’t seek violence, not consciously, but without her job, her gun, Megan is out of balance. For Eugene, however, balance is never again an option. Somehow, his murders seem only a prelude to the grossest misuse of his stolen power, that of a gunpoint rape that becomes the logical extreme of his other sexually-charged crimes. The movie explicitly suggests that Eugene can’t find arousal without the gun, without pointing it and making a decision to snuff out a life. For Eugene, murder is a sexual release. Folks, sometimes a gun is just a gun, but not today.
If Bigelow has made one thing clear in her action films, it’s the idea that, despite the great myth to the contrary, there’s no such thing as meaningless cinema violence. There’s a communicated message behind every bullet that the audience receives. It’s one thing to depict two men in a room firing guns at one another, but audiences, especially American audiences, have historically layered their own meanings into that action, specifically associating violent success with masculinity. Ask Americans to name the most masculine icon in our history and you won’t have to wait long before hearing the name John Wayne, he who may have fired more bullets on screen for more audience members in the history of the form. Bigelow directed Blue Steel in 1990, during the last days of a decade partly defined by thickly-muscled demigods carrying impossibly large guns. Blue Steel is her answer to that, her first attempt to flip the script on the boy’s club and pop their pectoral balloons.
Bigelow’s ideas, though, bring out the weird and turn out to be more than the film can handle. Silver, especially, mugs like crazy for the camera and as he becomes further unhinged, he just loses his damned fool mind. Bigelow highlights his performance with a visual landscape that’s at turns erotic and frightening, using strategic slow motion and smoke machines to craft a steamy, dreamlike atmosphere. Paired with Red’s disjointed narrative, Bigelow’s style transforms Blue Steel into a fairly surreal, and singular, experience. There’s literally nothing out there in mainstream movies quite like this one. Is it action? A thriller? Watching it again recently, I finally settled on the term “Eroticop.” One gets the feeling that a gunfight or a sex scene could break out at any moment, and neither would be particularly pleasant.
The Kathryn Bigelow Project
6. Blue Steel
Bonus: The Loveless
Kathryn Bigelow’s Soviet submarine drama K-19: The Widowmaker had a no-doubt premise, a top-tier movie star, and an established, bankable action director. It’s the kind of total package that studio executives snuggle up to as they drift off to sleep.
Naturally, the film was a total disaster.
To understand how K-19 went so wrong, let’s turn to a story Bigelow herself shared in Time Magazine.
“I remember sitting in some executive’s office, and they said, ‘O.K., but who are the good guys?’ ‘What do you mean? The Russians are the good guys.’ ‘No, I mean who are the Americans?’
That quote has mysterious depths. Stare at it too long and you might see sounds or swallow your tongue. Here was Bigelow—still at that time known primarily for the megahit Point Break—peddling a tale about a heroic crew racing against time to avert nuclear disaster. The stakes: no less than the survival of every living being in the world. The story contains tension, danger, sacrifice, and a couple of meaty roles to attract big names for the poster. And the story happened to be 100%, absolutely true. Roll your money wheelbarrow to the back of the line, please.
The only way we could make more money is if the submarines make out.
But even for an America that’s left the Cold War behind, that’s shifted its attention to the burgeoning superpower of China or the specter of global terrorism, the fact that the story’s main characters wear Russian uniforms was enough to transform K-19 from no-brainer to a tough sale. The true story of the K-19—not actually called “The Widowmaker” by anybody, but given the far-sketchier nickname of “The Hiroshima” after the incident—remained classified until the 1990s, 30 years after it nearly wrecked the world.
In July of 1961, the ship was performing maneuvers out in the Arctic, pretending to be an American sub attacking Moscow. The Cold War was good like that. On the way home, the K-19 sprung a reactor leak that turned the ship into a nuclear oven. Considering the state of international relations, everyone reasonably presumed a seaborne meltdown could be perceived as an act of war and so, rather than allow their deaths to put fingers on the big red buttons, the ship’s crew underwent drastic, deadly measures to save the reactor. If you didn’t start your day wrestling with a giant cancerous rat for the last known can of chicken soup, then you probably know how the story ends.
With yellow shirts and, somehow, Fredo Corleone.
Bigelow’s first attempt to finance a film adaptation was halted by the release and mediocre box office of the 2000 sub drama U-571, and so, frustrated, Bigelow turned her attention to The Weight of Water, a movie that developed a toxic reputation at festivals before languishing away on a distributor’s shelf. That movie eventually made it out into the wild, but not without some problems of its own.
In the space of a few years, Bigelow’s bright career had suddenly flickered. Originally, she had wanted to tell the story of the K-19 crew. Now, she needed to. Bigelow eventually found her funding, but all outside of the traditional studio system, making K-19 the most expensive independent film ever made at that time. So not only did Kathryn Bigelow seemingly need K-19 to be a hit, but so did a bunch of investors whose pockets weren’t as deep as one might expect.
(One of the film’s major contributors was the National Geographic Society, who may have had their plans to enter the big budget movie scene dashed by K-19’s failure. This melancholy little site is still out there, promising that the film is opening this July 19th, every July 19th, the internet equivalent of the Mary Celeste. Somewhere, a marketing guy’s wife stands on the shore, hoping he’ll someday find his way home.)
To be fair, I’ve included a healthy amount of my own speculation into this history, and it’s hard to really know for sure what Bigelow was thinking or what she wasn’t. Maybe Bigelow approached K-19 like just another movie, and maybe the version that finally made it to the screen is exactly the movie she always intended to make. It’s irresponsible for me to just assume that the film was compromised except, well, K-19: The Widowmaker just feels so damned compromised.
“This time, nerds, I can breathe because I’m inside the sub.”
There was a magical time in the movies when all you needed to open your blockbuster was Harrison Ford on the poster, and baby, Harrison Ford is all up on this poster, despite the fact that he’s all kinds of wrong for the part. The term “miscast” doesn’t even cover the notion that fans would line up to see Ford, the most Midwestern-American action star to ever grace the screen, play Captain Vostrikov, the crusty leader in charge of this particularly crusty ship. Worse, somebody allowed Ford to do the part in a blisteringly awful Russian accent, which Ford delivers like he’s trying fit his mouth around the fat part of a soda bottle. In 2013, it seems crazy to think that Ford would have been handed this role while a perfectly good Liam Neeson is standing right there, but in 2002 it was Ford’s name and face that held the burden of bringing the customers.
“Four-Quadrant” is a marketing term meaning that a movie appeals to every demographic, and K-19 does its utmost to be a four-quadrant performer. The threat is appropriately apocalyptic, but surprisingly clean, barely leaving a mark on the crewmen dying of radiation sickness. The K-19 herself is one of the most brightly-lit submarines in the sea, revealing a dull, repetitive set design. The sitcom-style lighting dispels the ship’s shadows and opens the place up. Gone is the claustrophobia needed to bring the setting to life. For a story that could have ended with the annihilation of the world, it’s strangely antiseptic, with all the sharp edges dulled so that it’s safe to handle. Even the film’s cumbersome title suggests a compromise between two different names in an effort to make everyone happy.
“We can all agree that we’ve eliminated ‘Was’sub!?’ as an option, right?”
One hurdle K-19 had to overcome is that the submarine movie is well-traveled. People know what a sub movie is supposed to look like and sound like, and any deviation or experimentation in the form comes off as false. Unless your sub is helmed by Roy Scheider and has a talking dolphin in the crew, your ship better look like a damn submarine. The K-19 doesn’t really cut it in a world where Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot and all of its gloomy tension exists. For a sub movie to make its own mark, it has to find another way to distinguish itself, such as the way Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide filled the cramped setting with Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman’s war, and while there’s a little equivalent tension in K-19 between Neeson and Ford’s characters—and even a minor mutiny subplot—it never really gains traction. Instead, the audience has to decide how invested they are in the struggles of the crew to stop the leak, and the film provides few reasons to get invested, especially since we already know the ending. Films like Crimson Tide and others get around that problem by making the obvious global stakes seem deeply personal, but we get very few hints about the lives of the soldiers away from the sub, or about the people they personally hope to save. Their noble sacrifice is both suitably epic and really, really generic, as if Bigelow expects the fact that the crew is Russian to make us surprised when they start acting like human beings.
This person is in the movie for 10 seconds and is the most significant female in the film. This is not a joke.
K-19: The Widowmaker strikes me as hollow and false. Again, maybe this is exactly Bigelow’s movie, and I’m totally wrong, but she’s never made anything that felt so lifeless and inert before or since. K-19 is little more than a series of facts capably strung together in the proper order, like IKEA furniture that somebody forgot to screw together—it looks like the real thing, but a gentle tap is enough to tear it apart. That just isn’t how Bigelow works. Whether her films are up or down, and she certainly has enough of both directions in her career, they are always personal. Even The Weight of Water, for all of its problems, feels like an artist is guiding the movie in the directions she wants it to go. The film still feels like a statement.
K-19 doesn’t feel like anything other than perhaps a missed opportunity. Bigelow has made a career out of exploring makeshift families, especially within groups of men—the SEALs in Zero Dark Thirty; the bomb squad in The Hurt Locker; the desperate bonds between the main characters in Strange Days; the surfers in Point Break; the bikers in The Loveless; the vampires in Near Dark are like a family of cowboys, and even the girls are covered in dirt and absorbed into the whole. Here, Bigelow has at her disposal a group of men who rely on one another, live and die and each other’s mistakes, and who agree to make sacrifices to save lives. Do they care about the rest of the world, or is the sacrifice only to save the man who sleeps in the next bunk? We’ll never know, because the theme goes almost entirely unexplored. This movie feels like it was shipped in from someone else entirely.
It’s easy to suppose that after Strange Days flopped and Bigelow ran into trouble financing her next projects, that she threw up her hands. She went from being one of the most electric and in-demand young filmmakers to an outsider nearly overnight. It’s hard to imagine men like James Cameron or John McTiernan being given so little rope at that same time. (McTiernan, especially—he directed the legendary bomb Last Action Hero, but still had a new, great Die Hard sequel out two years later.) I’m sure that K-19’s disappointing reception made that film executive, the one who wondered about the Americans, feel pretty good about himself. But K-19’s failure doesn’t seem to come from its premise, but from a filmmaker who’s pushing the material in an uncomfortable direction, a filmmaker exasperated by needing to prove herself again so soon. K-19 feels cynical, which could explain why it failed to connect with pretty much anybody. After its release, Bigelow retreated to television for years, waiting until the right project came calling. Which, of course, eventually, it did.
I’ve wasted an unusual amount of fake ink in this post discussing the business end of K-19, its budget, its failure, and all of that boring stuff. But in trying to appreciate and explore the career of Kathryn Bigelow, it helps to understand how something as impersonal and blank as K-19 can even happen. A career is a weird journey, and it helps to know why sometimes we end up on the calmest, least interesting of seas.
The Kathryn Bigelow Project
7. K-19: The Widowmaker
Bonus: The Loveless
(Sorry for the lateness of this review, my last from AFF. Check out my other AFF reviews ATL Retro!
You’ve probably heard of Rule 34, the tongue-in-cheek internet law that states that if a thing exists, somewhere in the depths of the internet, there is porn of it. As the landscape of the web continues to fracture and reform into infinite tiny and tinier niches—Fan of a show? What about a character? What about an episode?! TEAM SUPERNATURAL EP#615 NEVER DIES!—the law itself seems increasingly redundant. If something exists, anything about it can be found on the internet.
The internet continued our march to filling every niche by helping fund Magic: The Gathering: The Musical, a delightful little short film I managed to catch last week at the Atlanta Film Festival. If you’re feeling alone, depressed, despondent because nobody understands your need to see muppet-style puppets sing songs about the world’s geekiest card game, then never you mind, child. There is a place for you in the world at last.
Director Molly Coffee (I now regret forever not having a name that awesome) premiered her film to an appreciative, screaming crowd at “Touch the Puppet Head,” an evening of puppet-themed shorts and live performances. Her film was the last of five to screen—the first four were mostly delicate, elegiac fairy tales produced by Heather Henson—and it was welcomed by a cheering, thriving crowd of locals. Group support has been a staple of the project, a grassroots indie project that collected its budget from the goodwill of others through a successful Kickstarter campaign. The film features a hand-performed cast of geeks and nerds converging on a comic book shop for a Saturday Magic: The Gathering tournament. Those familiar sports movies will recognize the types. Jake is the talented everykid whose just out to have a good game. Doofus is the sad nerd who never wins because he’s a little lost. Heidi is the sexy roleplayer who can’t hear her Vampire LARP over the sounds of geek card gaming.
OK, so I think maybe her type is new.
The trio sing their felt hearts out as they go through a day of ups and downs, cheating and betrayal, wins and losses, and a triumph of sportsmanship over win-at-all-costs. The songs are all original, catchy and bouncy and more than a little influenced by the irreverence of the most well-known of puppet musicals, Avenue Q. (The intro song title is the same as the film’s tagline: “It’s a Magical Fucking Day”) Coffee has a background as a production designer and artist, and her skills shine through as the puppets sing and dance their way across a stage that honestly looks like a million bucks. Every Kickstarter dollar and then some is on the screen. I got lost in one scene just admiring all of the original art pieces lining the walls.
This is a film by and for geeks, and the more hardcore will enjoy spotting references. As a man who once did my fair share of World of Darkness LARPing, I had a blast listening to Heidi sing about her Giovanni Embrace, a reference that’s going to sail right over most fans’ heads. But the ones who get it, well, Coffee’s got them locked in for life, and that same in-crowd spirit shines through in a number of bits, from comic book references to bits borrowed from other films.
The only geekly faithful who might be disappointed are, surprisingly, the fans of Magic: The Gathering. Wizards of the Coast (owners of the Magic game) refused to sanction the film when asked, and so Coffee was forced to limit the game as seen on screen. No actual cards or even game mechanics make it into the film, which feels to me like a gross mistake on the part of WOTC. Fans of Magic are the ones most likely to eat this project up, and Coffee’s film could have been a fun bit of sanctioned free advertising, and the company’s refusal to play ball comes off as weird, corporate, and a violation of the community trust geeks usually extend to the people who make the stuff they like.
M:TG:TM is review-proof. It will find its audience and delight them no matter its level of quality. That the film also happens to be fun, charming, and well-made is nothing but bonus. After the show, Coffee explained to the crowd that the film’s origin came from a drunken Jesus Christ Superstar sing-a-long. If so, this is the best musical related to Andrew Lloyd Webber in many years, and a damn fine endorsement of getting drunk with your friends.
Magic: The Gathering: The Musical is making festival rounds at the moment, but will likely make it online at some point in the future. Follow the film’s progress HERE
(I’m helping to cover the Atlanta Film Festival for ATLRetro, but for movies without a retro angle, the reviews are going to live over here. Enjoy!)
We all know the beats of this story. A child is missing, the parents are frantic, and the police walk into the home full of questions and grim determination. No matter what, they will find this boy. Congratulations!, a new film by Mike Brune and local Atlanta group Fake Wood Wallpaper, sets up these familiar story beats, but then turns them inside out. In this surrealist spoof of a procedural, police work is the very last thing on the film’s agenda. Instead, the movie tilts off into unusual and unexpected directions, creating something funny and fresh, equal parts weirdly exhilarating and exhilaratingly weird.
A little boy named Paul vanishes from his own living room, and Detective Skok (John Curran) leads a team charged with cracking the case. But none of Skok’s efforts get him any closer to Paul. Actually, none of Skok’s efforts even make sense. The script acts as an anti-procedural, gleefully turned in on itself. Paul went missing at home, so the police focus their efforts there, plastering the house with posters and searching every room dozens of times. A hundred times, whatever it takes! Skok leaves no stone, rock, or clothes hamper unturned. As the weeks drag on, the police become part of the family, pitching in on household chores and learning the weekly schedule while occasionally continuing their efforts to find Paul, mostly by looking around and shouting his name.
The film’s premise seems designed for a lean single comedy sketch, but Brune finds surprising legs in the concept, dragging laughs out of the material long after the audience gets the joke. Most of the laughs come from the film’s deadly straight-faced tone, as the actors treat every ridiculous incident and line of dialogue as if it were all that matters in the world. “We will never stop looking for your son,” Skok promises. “They say ‘never say never.’ Well, we say it all the time.”
Skok is the key to the film. Played by Curran as a lonely man married to the job, Skok is Dirty Harry by way of Andy Sipowicz by way of Sledge Hammer!, a gritty man so obsessed, he’s willing to stay in the house long after the rest of the force has given up hope and gone home. His single-minded devotion to such a silly search anchors the film and keeps the audience invested through a story that, by definition, never really expands or changes at all.
Congratulations! is a film to see with an audience. The sold-out crowd around me laughed hysterically at all the right beats, but the laughs gave way eventually to a different kind of vibe. If you see enough movies, occasionally you catch one where the comedy on the screen feels dangerous and subversive, and the people sitting around me seemed overjoyed at the film’s audacity to choose such a non-story, shoot it with such love and care, and cast so many talented actors to portray it. The film feels like a trick being played on the movies, and the experience of watching it is like seeing Brune and Fake Wood Wallpaper get away with something in real time.
Congratulations! drags a bit towards the end, but never quite wears out its welcome and earns its running time with a hilarious finale and a pitch-perfect final shot. Those exhausted from decades of Law and Order and CSI’s neat little mysteries and tidy solutions will enjoy this movie, which proposes the joy of the mystery isn’t in the destination, it’s in the pleasures of not getting there.
The AFF has added a second chance to see CONGRATULATIONS! on the screen. It will now play on Sunday night, March 24, at 9:00 pm in the Plaza’s upstairs theatre.