In a Nutshell Entry: Bubbles from ‘The Wire’

Sometimes in media, one component stands out from the whole and is deserving of its own little examination, for many reasons. It might act as a microcosm for what the whole is about, or it might stand in stark contrast to the rest of the whole–‘In a Nutshell’ entries explore some fascinating component of particular interest without losing focus, or in the case of something that’s really good overall, doing a disservice to the rest of the whole. It’s also a way to introduce a possibly unfamiliar audience to some small piece of an otherwise unwieldy and daunting subject; it’s a ‘way in,’ if you will.

In a Nutshell: ‘Bubbles’ from The Wire

In acclaimed HBO series ‘The Wire,’ which I’m viewing for the first time on DVD, there is a small galaxy of amazing characters. The show has a metric shitload of other great reasons to watch, but for me one very special reason is mumbling heroin addict/police informant Bubbles, so called for the spit bubbles he blows when he slams junk.

Take a moment to verbally express your disbelief and possible disgust; I’ll wait. Bubbles is worth it.

The Unlikeliest of Heroes

As a homeless addict, Bubbles exists at the lowest caste of the Baltimore Street world. Gangbangers and slangers largely ignore him, and so he is able to move freely through their world, collecting bits of information and storing them in an almost photographic memory. His assistance on various operations–everything from helping identify members of the gangs and their hierarchy, to actually wearing a wire, to making phony buys–is pivotal; without him the detectives would be utterly and totally shit out of luck.

According to David Simon, show creator and a former police reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Bubbles was based on real life informant ‘Possum,’ who had a gift for names and faces and was a police informant for over 20 years–think on that a moment. People are proud these days if their careers last over 15, and that’s usually not in a field where you can be shot for looking the wrong way at someone’s shoes. Simon wanted to do a feature story on Possum, but when he went to the man’s apartment for a last interview, Possum had died from complications with HIV. And now, the legacy of an HIV-infected junkie has informed a character within one of the most memorable television shows of our time. Funny old world, that.

Although there are roughly eight billion great moments and characters in The Wire, Andre Royo’s portrayal of a charming  junkie steals nearly every scene he’s in. I would personally like to recommend to filmmakers that he act in more stuff.

In a scene in the second season, McNulty (Dominic West, one of the main characters), who has been busted down to Marine Patrol, reveals how little he gives a shit about his new position by his utter refusal to learn how to tie a simple knot. Each time he docks his patrol boat, he wraps the rope clumsily around the pylons before abandoning the whole thing, probably hoping the boat will just drift out to sea and he can finally be fired and drink himself to death as he secretly wishes. The camera pulls back to reveal a visiting Bubbles, who has tied a perfect maritime-regulation knot, and calls McNulty out on his half-assed attempt. Bubbles the heroin addict chides McNulty the self-destructive drunk police officer on his knot-tying. That’s the perfect summation of the character–drugs don’t waste people, they waste lives, time, potential, jobs, relationships, but the user is still alive. With his charm, intelligence, and ability to ‘talk a cat off a fishcart,’ Bubbles is a walking reminder of how easy it is to just give up, and certainly how hard it is to get it all back–but also that there’s always hope. Which is possibly the cruelest truth of all, sometimes.

There are countless moments like that with Bubbles throughout the series. He’s at heart a good person and definitely cares for others, but at the bottom of everything is his addiction, driving him along like a dog being used by a  bad master. Occasionally he climbs out from under it, and does well for a stretch, but being homeless isn’t exactly ideal for kicking an addiction and cleaning one’s life up. He’s paid about 30 dollars a day to be an informant, but cheerfully and unself-consciously asks Detective Kima Greggs to keep his money for him; the reason is obvious: if he didn’t, he’d just spend the whole nut, overdose, and kill himself.

Watch this moment from the first season, where Bubbles goes ‘fishing,’ and see if you aren’t a little charmed by his audacity and caginess.

We only just finished the 3rd season, so at the time of this entry I’m still not sure what the future holds for Bubbles.  I’d sure like to see him get out of the game and clean himself up, since the show has a high bodycount when it comes to dead dreams.

A New Cult Movie: Black Dynamite

Shockingly, Black Dynamite has not yet received its seating assignment in the Halls of Cult Films; it’s also entirely possible that I am not frequenting the right internet forums or attending the right kind of parties. Either way, it is this blog entry’s intent to spread the word about Black Dynamite and get people watching it, but more importantly, talking about it.

Every few years, the Canon of Cult Movies opens its doors to a new entry; that entry then receives the highly-sought honor of being constantly brought up in Internet film forums, quoted at parties, and turned into memes or Halloween costumes.

Shockingly, Black Dynamite has not yet received its seating assignment in the Halls of Cult Films; it’s also entirely possible that I am not frequenting the right internet forums or attending the right kind of parties. Either way, it is this blog entry’s intent to spread the word about Black Dynamite and get people watching it, but more importantly, talking about it and getting OTHER people to watch it.

This. This here is the movie. It's awesome.

The blaxpoitation genre is one that lends itself to parody almost from its inception: while some lauded Hollywood’s attempt to create entertainment aimed solely at a black audience, many within that audience deplored the stereotypical world of pimps, hoes, drug dealers, violence and bitches depicted. For some, it seemed an attempt to create a ‘get out of white guilt free’ card by filmmakers who wanted to reach an African American audience without actually doing anything different.

But whatever its intent, blaxpoitation films have created an indelible mark on American cinema, love it or hate it. In the case of Michael Jai White (best known for his portrayal of Al Simmons in 1997’s apt Spawn adaptation),  who plays Black Dynamite, it’s roundly a labor of love to spoof the genre. Before the film, he regularly held blaxpoitation-viewing parties at his house, and the film was inspired by his listening to James Brown’s Superbad on his iPod.

There is NOTHING to dislike about this film. Although it explores similar territory as 2003’s Undercover Brother, the latter was based on an existing webcomic; in retrospect UB (though I LOVE IT) felt like an attempt to create an Austin Powers analogue for African American audiences. The modern setting severely limited the possibilities for lampooning the blaxpoitation genre, although the film was entertaining enough in its own right.(I’ve seen ‘I’m Gonna Get You Sucka’ but don’t want to get too far off track–this review is more about Black Dynamite than the blaxpoitation-parody microgenre).

Black Dynamite is ALL blaxpoitation: roundly set against the original 70’s backdrop and even utilizing the same crappy stock footage many of those films used, it indicates an encyclopedic knowledge as well as a love of the genre and distills both into a marvelous recreation. Black Dynamite, with its visible boom mikes, mind-blowing dialogue, gratuitous titties, and sinister plot by The Man could have sprung wholly-formed from the afro of Richard Roundtree. But it’s more than that–it’s a brilliant adult comedy the likes of which I thought weren’t even made any more: one that assumes the audience isn’t just in on the joke, but is smart enough to figure the joke out if they aren’t. It offers a sharp, never-slow take for an audience increasingly numbed by dull entries in action and comedy films.

Black Dynamite bids his bitches adieu.

It’s a joke that doesn’t get old for a minute. Each gag is as unpredictable as Black Dynamite himself, and the cavalcade of supporting characters is perfectly cast. There’s not a weak performance to be seen, and some characters like Honeybee leave you wanting much more from them. Even the action scenes, when they aren’t played for laughs, are meticulous–since White has no less than SEVEN black belts in various disciplines he has entirely earned the right to show off. Also, he’s hot.

Although the idea of an action hero being a closet psychopath has been explored to the point of exhaustion, there are a few scenes that get mileage even from that tired old trope, like this one where Dynamite is leaving new girlfriend Gloria in the care of some hoes he looks after.

The whole movie is a treat. From ‘Who the hell is interrupting my kung fu?’ to Roscoe’s Chili and Donuts to ‘First Lady, I’m sorry I pimp-slapped you into that china cabinet,’ there is nothing to dislike. Just remembering scenes I saw two days ago is making me laugh all over again. That and looking up clips, both original and fan-made, on Youtube.

The only weakness of Black Dynamite is that no one is talking about it.  A few more high-profile cameos might have raised its profile a little, and perhaps spending more than 2 weeks in the theater might have drummed up more buzz about it.

I can’t tell you how often I see a comedy that ‘everyone’ agrees is hilarious and I barely crack a smile–I have an odd sense of humor and I also can’t stand comedies where everyone is an asshole; Tropic Thunder made me laugh, Pineapple Express stole two hours of my life and left nothing in me but hate, and the trailer for Hot Tub Time Machine makes me cringe and wonder if John Cusack owes someone money. So when I find a new comedy that actually makes me laugh, it’s a cinch that it’ll entertain even the most dour of viewers.

Watch the trailer (and other goodies!) here.

Flying Fiery Feets of Fury: Ong Bak & Ong-Bak 2

I was surprised to find that the movie only had a 47% on rotten tomatoes, but on reading some of the comments I realized why: critics complained that the film bore little resemblance to the first movie, which takes place in modern times, and that it didn’t have enough action. But it seems they missed the point entirely–Tien commits some majorly bad crimes as a pirate, and thus his karma (Thailand is a Buddhist nation after all) is stained. Ultimately he is reincarnated as Tien in order to right the wrongs of his ancestor.

When it came time to make another Ong-Bak movie, Tony Jaa and Prachya Pinkeaw had a unique problem: how do you top a martial arts movie whose penultimate stunt has the lead fighting in burning pants.

Tony Jaa FIREPANTS!
Take a moment to savor it

Here’s a link with the aforementioned scene; Fast forward to 1:30, and you might want to mute it too as there’s some kind of annoying music playing. But still–a crazy airborne spin kick with your PANTS ON FIRE is pretty hard to beat.

(Also–Tony Jaa lost his eyebrows during the filming of this scene, and nearly caught his entire head on fire. Also also–Googling ‘Tony Jaa Fire Pants’ did not net the comedy gold I was hoping for.)

In 2003, Thai actor Tony Jaa appeared in Ong-Bak: The Muay Thai Warrior and was touted as the next heir to the Bruce Lee throne. While his actual training background is unclear, what is known is that he taught himself acrobatics by somersaulting off the family elephant (!!!!) into a river, and is credited with bringing awareness of muay thai to a bigger audience than just Asian action movie enthusiasts. And he’s really, really good at what he does.

The story is about Tien, a martial arts-practicing country boy who must retrieve the sacred Buddha head of his middle of nowhere village. The trail leads  him to Bangkok, where he meets up with George, a monk who spurned  rustic village life in favor of drugs, sluts, and betting money he doesn’t have on underground boxing matches. Tien wanders into one of the matches and goes through a giant Aussie competitor as though the latter were made out of fresh creamery butter, and little dollar signs light up in George’s eyes at this walking windfall. Tien doesn’t want to fight though, he just wants to find the missing Buddha head.

Some more stuff happens, Tien’s journey takes him through the seedy Bangkok underworld, which is all filmed to resemble the basement of a Las Vegas bowling alley, he retrieves the Buddha head and finally he finishes his task and attains enlightenment as a monk at the end of the film. Like most Asian action movies, which are much more honest about their purpose,  the story is really just a vehicle for showing off the lead actor’s fighting and stunts prowess.

Which is why the second Ong-Bak was such an unexpected treat: it is actually a prequel which functions as a karmic set up for the first Ong-Bak. OB2 follows the story of Tien, the karmic predecessor to modern day Tien, again played by Tony Jaa and his crazy-ass physical ability, but sets up a plot arc that is one part Thai history lesson and one part sweeping fantasy epic.

Previous Tien is the son of a deposed king, who escapes his father’s murderers only to wind up in a slave camp, fighting a giant crocodile for the entertainment of a crowd with incredibly poor dental hygiene.  He escapes by killing the crocodile, and his prowess as a fighter is admired by Chernang, the pirate king of Garuda Wing Cliff. Chernang takes young Tien under his wing and the latter learns a metric shitton of martial arts and battle tactics from the multicultural crew of pirates and fighters Chernang keeps: everything from Muay Boran (an antiquated form of Muay Thai) to Hung Gar, with weapons training as well. He uses these tactics to become the second-in-command of the pirates, but a memory from his youth of a young girl he became friends with at school makes him realize he has unfinished business in his life. Stuff happens, adventures are had,  but ultimately the story ends unfulfilled–I won’t spoil it, but I found the ending strangely satisfying, if a little abrupt.

People get dirty in this movie. I mean *really* dirty.

I was surprised to find that the movie only had a 47% on rotten tomatoes, but on reading some of the comments I realized why: critics complained that the film bore little resemblance to the first movie, which takes place in modern times, and that it didn’t have enough action. But it seems they missed the point entirely–Tien commits some majorly bad crimes as a pirate, and thus his karma (Thailand is a Buddhist nation after all) is stained. Ultimately he is reincarnated as Tien in order to right the wrongs of his ancestor.

If the first Ong-Bak introduced an unfamiliar Western audience to modern Thailand, the second was a celebration of Thailand’s cultural and historical heritage, even down to the elephants–there’s a scene where showing mastery over elephants proves Tien’s training is complete, and elephants are intertwined with Thai history and culture. The King of Thailand still keeps a herd of ‘war elephants,’ and the great beasts are to be found all over architecture and artwork. Since Thailand was a large nation near the ocean, it has a diverse population, which is reflected by the varied nationalities of the pirates who train Tien–there’s a Japanese guy who trains him in katana and swordfighting, Chinese fighters, and an Indonesian guy. There’s even a scene taking place in the evil usuper’s court showing Thai dancing and pageantry. Which is kind of beyond the scope of the usual action movie–Thailand isn’t just a setting, it’s a costar.

Apparently, the answer to the ‘firepants’ quandary was ‘Elephants.’ This scene was amazing and there was no CG or wires. Just Jaa and his magic powers.

When viewing a foreign film, I tend to take a passive role . Since I’ve never even been out of my home country I assume there is a lot I don’t know about the world and that the film might function as a source of information as well as entertainment. I realize and accept that I am not the intended audience, even if the film has been repackaged and distributed overseas to a foreign audience–sure some stories cross cultural barriers, but ultimately you are viewing the film as a ‘guest.’ Just as you wouldn’t go to a foreign country and bitch that they don’t do things just like at home, why would you hold all films to the same cinematic standard? The Western movie industry might have informed many other nations on filmmaking, but ultimately ours is not the only way to make a film.

The marvelous thing about the Ong-Bak films and part of the reason they’re so popular are the lack of CG and wire stunts. All the stunts are practical, meaning a real dude (usually Jaa since he does almost all his own stunts) is performing. The fight scenes look rough as people really get kicked in the face or chest–sometimes you can see the opponent’s torso folding around Jaa’s foot as the opponent’s body recoils from the impact and you know that poor bastard got hit hard.  Apparently though, there are almost NEVER any serious injuries on the films.

Here’s a completely gratuitous shot of Jaa in the ‘riding the elephant herd’ scene, in which he hops several times from one elephant to another.

This is known as ‘elephant surfing.’ Or it should be.

Note: Tony Jaa’s film career is kind of up in the air, as he became a full-fledged monk in May 2010. I hope he continues making films; he has a real charm and presence on camera. And he’s also just precious–he has a fairly wide acting range, and can either seem like a hardass or a sweet, vulnerable country boy, a necessary part of being an action star; otherwise they’re just a terrifying psycho with superhuman abilities.

He also isn’t a huge guy, so it’s believable when his opponents massively underestimate him–and therefore is so much more satisfying when he effectively ‘bags the trash.’

Photo taken from Cute Overload Martial Arts Demo.

A Night Cap

Working on a longer blog post about something else entirely, but I wanted to show you this little 2 and a half minute video I found on Youtube. It’s amazing some of the beautiful little things you can run across there, if you’re patient enough to wade through the oceans of garbage. As I find them I’ll try to remember to post them here, if they’re available.

It’s a moving, bittersweet video containing Yann Tiersen’s music from Amelie, depicting a scant few moments in a life. Enjoy, but bring a hankie.

I hope you’re having a great weekend–good night!

The Downward Spiral of the Predator

Consider the first act of Predator–an elite commando squad lands in the jungle and takes out a badass drug operation. Maybe not the most original set up, but it introduced you to these guys as they really are: supercompetent badasses who operate as a unit, and who literally laugh in the face of danger. This is the Schwarzeneggar of Commando, of the Terminator, of Conan. He wakes up to a big breakfast of explosions and fistfights, and sprinkles gratuitous violence into his coffee.

I haven’t seen the new Predator movie. I want to, and I might see it in the theater and I hope that it’s good, but today’s post is more about the Predator franchise in general, and what it means to me.

Here is a pic of the exact same poster I had on my wall when I was 13.

I want to believe some little boy out there had one of My Little Pony. Because we would be bestest friends EVAR.

Bitchin, eh?

In 5th grade, I had a few male friends who accepted and appreciated my status as tomboy.

In 6th grade, the game changed.

My middle school was  pretty crappy one, as schools went. Most of the kids were biding their time until they could drop out, and there were always stories on Monday morning about what illicit behavior people got up to over the weekend, especially stories about older brothers or sisters in gangs. I was one of few white kids, and what’s worse I was in regular classes because of my orchestra class. Yes, I played violin. I was just that cool.

I tried to make friends.  But the one nut I couldn’t crack was the Comic Book Kids. They were a group of kids who hung around at lunch talking comics, all attempting to recreate the drawings or make up their own characters. Because I could draw I would sit with them and just listen to their talk, but if I said anything I was immediately shut down for my lack of knowledge. Only one kid would talk to me, a kid named Jose who at age 13 made the work of Todd McFarlane look like the scrawlings of  a palsy victim. He was  a genius: his work had depth, he had an advanced knowledge of musculature, form, and he even knew how to block out a drawing before he started. Best of all, he was my friend and he’d actually talk to me about my drawings.

But he also started telling me about a movie one day, an incredibly awesome movie that he’d snuck into the theater with his brother to see: a movie called Predator.

I wasn’t about to tell him that I’d seen about .4 seconds of it, while I was walking through the living room and my parents were watching it, and I’d hurried to my room because they were watching a ‘grown-up’ movie. Or maybe I did tell him. However it happened, I wound up watching it one weekend, and absolutely fell in love.

When the second one came out in theaters I knew my parents wouldn’t let me go see it, so when I went up to visit my Aunt over the summer I totally rented that shit. It wasn’t quite as good as the first one–even at 13 I realized they had just amped everything up, and to see it now is to contain barely-restrained laughter at the profanity, the violence, everything. It’s so ludicrously over the top for an action movie it approached parody, even in the early 90’s.

I freaking love the first Predator, the second is like an alcoholic uncle I enjoy spending time with but ultimately wish I could save in some way, and the AVP movies are like cousins who should have been aborted in the womb and ruin every family gathering with their existence.

The first AVP was a decent effort, despite its PG-13 rating. I won’t lie, as a nerdy teenager it was my secret dream that a Predator would land and we would totally be BFF. He would teach me how to hunt and crush my enemies, and I would teach him how to play ‘Happy Birthday’ on the violin. It would have been a perfect life. So the whole woman working with a predator against the aliens was kind of neat.

AVP2 reminded me of an experience in real life I’d like to share. I went to the dentist after skipping cleanings for  few years, and learned something interesting: once you hit your late twenties, your gums recede away from the roots of your teeth, exposing more sensitive nerves. This explains why going regularly for cleanings is important–becuse when shit builts up at the base, on the roots,  scraping it off with a metal hook is incredibly painful. I almost blacked out the last time, and I have been a dental regular since. I remember my hands kept drifting up towards the woman’s arm and she had to push them back down, and it was NOT OF MY DOING. My body was rejecting the whole procedure and I wanted it to stop, but also knew it had to be done.

AVP2 was kind of like that. An experience that had once been familiar, even somewhat pleasant when I was younger, became an exercise in nightmare once I was an adult. I think I just demand too much–after all, the first Predator has a lot going for it for a ‘dumb action movie.’

Consider the first act of Predator–an elite commando squad lands in the jungle and takes out a badass drug operation. Maybe not the most original set up, but it introduced you to these guys as they really are: supercompetent badasses who operate as a unit, and who literally laugh in the face of danger.  This is the Schwarzeneggar of Commando, of the Terminator, of Conan. He wakes up to a big breakfast of explosions and fistfights, and sprinkles gratuitous violence into his coffee.

In the second act, when Shit Gets Weird, you see something that seems incredible: these men, these men torn from the thigh of Zeus and who came from On High to Beat Ass, are  . . . frightened.

Now, I am certainly not making the claim that the acting in Predator was unfairly snubbed when it came Oscar-Time. Lord no. But, when these men, these ridiculously overmuscled, walking testosterone doses of men act frightened, it feels earned. It feels like they have every goddamn right to be afraid–for one thing, they’re battling their worst enemy, a hunter stronger, faster, and more technologically advanced than they, who is doing this FOR FUN, and for another, they have been lied to by their government. This was a time in movies when that wasn’t taken for granted, when it wasn’t happening in every film that came out, so it doesn’t feel cheapened by oversaturation.

For another, you couldn’t have asked for better casting. You’ve got the big, muscular guys like Arnold, Carl Weathers (!!), Sonny Landham, and Bill Duke, who may lack bulk but makes up for it with one of the best death scenes in an action movie EVAR. Jesus, I almost forgot Jesse Ventura–there’s so much beefcake I FORGOT ONE. The concepts, like the biceps, are just too big.

Not Pictured: Estrogen

Then there are the littler guys, whose names escape me but who were awesome in their own right, with the jokes and the drama and whatnot.

My point with all this is that any Predator movie has some big goddamn shoes to fill.

It seems like in any pitch meeting for a Predator movie Jack Donaghy from 30Rock ought to pop in an ask ‘Are you ready to put on your Daddy’s shoes yet, boy?’ and any answer except ‘Yes sir, I wore them today, Sir’ will be met with bitter failure. So even though I don’t mean to, I have some pretty high expectations for any Predator movie.

AVP2 was such a bitter, bitter disappointment to me, and while I don’t read every Predator comic that comes out (I know their species name starts with  Y, but damned if I can remember it and I’m not looking it up) I do love the franchise and the world it inhabits. I don’t get why the movies are so lacking in quality lately, either; it’s not like the Predator is an actor who isn’t aging well and can’t do the stunts because of his bad back. IT’S A COSTUME. It requires a different actor each time! Although I do like the idea of a broken-down Predator with a potbelly and a 2k a day coke habit begging some studio exec for one more shot, one more bite at the apple. ‘Come on, Jimmy, you know I’m good for it, you know I can bring it! I’ll get clean, I’ll learn my lines, I’ll train with the same guy who brought Stallone back!’ George Burns was right, show business is  hideous bitch-goddess.

That said, the Predator itself is only the co-star of the movie. If the real stars of the movie don’t represent the humans and bring at least a little pathos to the table, then what the hell’s the point of rooting for them? Why did they bother in the first place?

Yes, we CAN all get long in the face of a hideous anthrophagic alien species! Why is this not on a poster in a classroom RIGHT NOW?