Monthly Archives: January 2013

HOW TO WATCH: ‘SAMURAI COP’

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1. Get invited to a dinner party your friends are hosting. Text the hosts asking if they would like you to pick up a film at Le Video for later. When one of them texts back Samurai Cop understand that this is not a joke. You may think that it is, but it’s not. They want you to go into Le Video and ask the cashier for Samurai Cop. They want you to embark on an adventure.

2. When you enter Le Video check your text to make sure the film is actually called Samurai Cop and not Karate Cop for if you ask for Karate Cop, you will feel like a fool and walk out of the store filled with a shame that you will carry with you for many years to come.

3. When you do ask for Samurai Cop, the first cashier will pause to think if they have it, while the second one will quickly say in a whisper: “Upstairs. Action.” You know then that he has seen this movie more than once, and probably more than twice.

4. When you slip the DVD out from its hiding place, marvel at its cover. It’s a hand-drawn cop holding a bloody samurai sword in one hand, and an even bloodier head in the other. Think to yourself, “I think this is good. I think we’ve chosen right.” Then notice the wedding ring on his finger. Samurai Cop is taken. But that’s okay, he wasn’t your type anyway.

5. Pay for the movie. Don’t shop lift! Le Video needs your help. Get a little sad when you realize you have to renew your account and it costs an extra five dollars. Feel poor. Remember to go back to that one Indian place you saw that had a help wanted sign. Look up some other Indian dishes besides naan and tikka masala when you get home. You want to seem qualified.

6. Decide you will make garlic bread for the dinner because people like garlic bread and garlic bread is easy. Get all the ingredients. Bread. Garlic. Butter. Parmesan. Parsley? No, that’s too much. You’re poor, remember? Realize you’ve never made garlic bread before and you and your boyfriend are already roasting the garlic wrong. Decide it doesn’t matter. It will probably be better this way. High-five and feel confident.

7. Show up to your friends house with brownish chunky garlic bread and at least two bottles of wine. Don’t worry, there will be at least one more bottle there.

8. Have a delicious meal with friends and talk expectations. What is a samurai cop? A cop who fights with a sword. Is he Japanese? No. Can he speak Japanese? It says he does on the back of the case. Decide that you should all just wait to watch it. Start talking about how to fry tofu. Apologize to the one guy you didn’t realize was vegan because all you brought was delicious buttery garlic bread. That’s okay. More for you.

9. Drink more. Watch one of your friends play Hotline Miami. Putter in the kitchen. Repeat.

10. Fill your glass. Insert disk. You are now ready to begin.

11. Try to watch the intro with Joe Bob Briggs. Laugh at the beginning because it’s so strange. Then realize it’s too strange and that Joe Bob is actually pretty boring. Skip to the actual film.

12. Realize very quickly that this movie may be one of the worst films you will ever see. Be grateful you just drank a lot of wine.

13. Watch the samurai cop preform only bad karate. Feel better about almost calling the film Karate Cop earlier at Le Video.

14. Realize that Samurai Cop has a black sidekick that the DVD case calls “puckish.” Laugh at this on an off throughout the film.

15. Feel slightly shocked at how sexual the movie is, then grow weary. It is more than once that a dopey-eyed girl will ask Samurai Cop, awkwardly biting her lip, “Would you like to fuck me?” Roll your eyes. Make a joke. If no one laughs make it again: they may not have heard. If after a second time no one laughs just know that it wasn’t funny. Spend the next couple scenes in shame.

16. Laugh at how ridiculous Samurai Cop looks. Extremely tan. Long hair. Small head. Thick neck. Kind of a neanderthal Tarzan. Wonder why he can’t pronounce anything in Japanese and why women are attracted to him. Shrug. Sometimes there are no answers.

17. Keep making jokes until people do laugh. Feel good. You’re so funny! You and your friends are now a regular comedy team. Zings comin’ left and right. Reward yourself with more garlic bread.

18. Get to the part with actual sword fighting. ‘FINALLY’ someone will say. Chuckle. Realize the two men fighting have probably never held a sword. Laugh. They look like children. Then feel a little sad. They look like children. Be glad when they quickly ditch the swords. It was a little too painful to watch.

19. Watch the credits role knowing that a lot wasn’t really resolved. And wait! Samurai Cop isn’t married! And he never cut off a head! Grumble about the deceitful cover.

20. Go to special features. Look at stills. Snicker. Tire. Go to commentary with Robert Z’Dar. See that he’s extremely overweight and sad. Get depressed QUICKLY. Realize you’re about to graduate.Think of the future. See yourself in a button up t-shirt with skulls and flames on it and balding head and small pony-tail. Get depressed. Look around at friends. See them happy and talking. Realize that you all are different from Robert Z’Dar and Samurai Cop. Feel hope. Know that you have a future. Feel relief and also joy for being in a room with such wonderful people. Celebrate with some garlic bread.

21. Return the DVD to Le Video the day that it’s due. Not because you wanted to watch it again, but because you like to live on the edge. Slip it silently into the DVD slot. Wonder where it’s off to next. Wonder where all the people who worked on it are today. Promise yourself you will write something better. Promise yourself you will finish that draft. Promise yourself you will get a job and start saving for your own feature.

22. Enter the store and rent something else. Feel happy that for some reason you’ve never been able to enter a video store without renting something. Embark on another adventure.

-Madeline Mahrer

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Filed under Alt, Reviews, SF Local

MAN-CHILDREN 2012

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“I’m 34 years old. I have nothing. I can’t start from scratch, don’t you understand?” – Anders, Oslo, August 31st. 

Oslo, August 31st; Jeff, Who Lives at Home; The Comedy; Dark Horse; The Silver Linings Playbook

Cinema from a few different corners seems to be riding a wave of aging ennui. A couple of the year’s most extreme protagonists have trouble growing up.

Oslo follows a 34 year-old recovering drug addict who feels like he’s already missed his shot at normalcy, or better, or worse, or something.

Dark Horse follows a moronic, lazy man-child as he grapples with first love. (Sorry, that’s the best I can do.)

The Comedy follows Tim Heidecker’s pathologically insincere uber-hipster as he… lives, barely.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a fantasy revolving around a pothead who lives with his mom.

The Silver Linings Playbook follows a mentally ill man’s struggle to save his marriage after serving time at an institution. He could also be 34.

All these characters are male protagonists, at least two are mentally ill, three live with their parents, all five have unstable housing situations, all are tasked– to some degree, and perhaps least of all in The Comedy– with growing-up.

The trend is also notable then for its considerable genre straddling. We’ve got a kinda austere, philosophical meditation, two hardcore cringe comedies, a fantasy/rom-com, and a plain rom-com. I don’t know what this means, or what it’s about, but keep your eyes peeled. Also leave your thoughts for explanations, theories, or further candidates in the comments.

-Max Berwald

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ANOTHER ‘SPRING BREAKERS’ NOTE

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The debate becomes: at what point do you become the object you’re satirizing? At what point are you supplying the culture with the thing you hoped to skewer? Is Spring Breakers supposed to be a skewering at all? Is the joke so meta that it only works when the artist’s career is scrutinized as a whole? Hopefully not. Hopefully we’ll be able to see criticism unfolding on the screen. Hopefully Spring Breakers will be to pop-reality-TV-superficial-inanity what Funny Games was to commercial-cinematic-sadism: an interrogation, and an exploration, in one cunning swipe.

For now, our only hope for blistering self-awareness comes from a cultish chant, branding the product as we encounter it for the first time. For now all we have is the whispering of two words over and over through the trailer’s climax: spring break spring break spring break.

-Max Berwald

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BAD GIRLS DO IT WELL: ‘SPRING BREAKERS’ TRAILER

Why is it always so good when a Disney girl goes bad? Spring Breakers has not only notable High School Musical dropout Vanessa Hudgens in its cast, but resident bubblegum princess and Beiber-ex Selena Gomez as well. Shit’s about to get dark, ya’ll.

The fact that MTV got exclusive rights to premiering this trailer rings some alarm bells. MTV-backed movies tend to be about two things: white teen boys seeing tits for the first time, and jagerbombs. Having Harmony Korine behind the wheel makes things a little better. It’s unclear what Spring Breakers is actually about. Is this a party girl romper about making bad choices and having a little too much fun with James Franco? A dark psychological thriller about the lengths party girls will go to in order to hang out with James Franco? IS THIS ANOTHER ONE OF JAMES FRANCO’S ART PROJECTS?

While we’re on the topic, it’s completely hilarious that the MTV write-up accompanying the trailer advises us to “keep your eyes peeled for an almost unrecognizable James Franco as cornrow-wearing devious rapper/ drug dealer Alien.” Of course that’s James Franco…he looks exactly like he always does.

From what I understand, the movie centers on four bored co-eds who decide a good old-fashioned MTV spring break is just what they need. Driven by their boredom and greed, they go on a robbery spree in order to raise the funds to get down to Florida(?) (Cancun?). They take their partying a little too hard, and get in over their heads. Enter Franco, the aforementioned drug dealer named Alien. He preys on their insecurities and naievete, luring them into what looks like either A. crime ring B. bling ring C. prostitution ring. It doesn’t really matter.

What does matter is that James Franco is wearing a grill, is continuing to be the worst, and the Disney machine just keeps on churning. Hudgens is no stranger to post-Disney controversy. At this point, she is best known for a string of forgettable roles and a now-public nude photo meant to be for Zac Efron’s eyes. Ostensibly, she is no longer a member of the House of Mouse and can pick any role she damn well chooses. Gomez is different. She is still Disney property, at least in the reruns. Children still have Wizards of Waverly Place t-shirts. She broke up with everyone’s teen dream like last week. And here she is, waving an AK in a push-up bra. Why push for more “adult” roles? It’s simple. Nobody wants to be confined to daytime TV forever. Think about Hilary Duff. Lizzie McGuire effectively severed her ties with Disney forever by having a threesome on Gossip Girl. Homegirl is doing just fine.

Is Spring Breakers the vehicle to take these ladies away from Toontown and into more respectable roles? Not too clear on this one. But I will be seeing it in order to hear Franco say “ya’ll want to die tonight” in real time. I have my priorities, you have yours.

-Samantha Wilson

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RELIGULUST

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I have never been religious. Similar to Bill Maher, I grew up with one Jewish and one Christian parent, though neither of them practiced either faith outside of childhood. I’m often distressed by all the violence committed in the name of God, or anyone related to him. I have often found myself confused and baffled by the strength of what to me seem to be insane and, as Bill Maher puts it, somewhat fairytale like beliefs. This is what originally drew me to Bill Maher’s Religulous. I thought I would be walking into a discussion of belief, how it began, why we have it today, and why so many hold so tightly onto a god that for me has always seemed so obviously manmade.

However, this was not the movie I found myself watching. In Religulous Bill Maher flies himself around the world with a small crew and ‘interviews’ many different people (mostly men) in many different religions and locations. What he seems to find so hilarious is that all the people that he interviews are completely positive, at all times, that they are right. They refuse to listen to anyone else.

Interesting, because Bill Maher hardly let’s someone finish a sentence before he calls them out on their so called ‘bullshit,’ and walks off camera in a huff. At the end of the film he says what exasperates him so is the ‘arrogant certitude’ that these people have about their religion, and that we should remember that ‘doubt is humble’.

I agree, doubt is humble, which is why I find it absolutely maddening that Bill Maher can stand atop the stones in Meggido, Israel yelling about the stupidity of faith. And that he can look down upon all those who claim to be religious, when he has spent an hour and forty minutes not listening to anyone, and preaching the gospel of Bill Maher. The very last picture we have of him is at Meggido, atop a small cliff with the camera looking up at him; this puts Maher in a very god-like position. It would seem, after watching this movie, that the one with the most ‘arrogant certitude’ is Bill Maher himself.

This brings me to ask: What exactly is the point of this film? I mean, besides making everyone who has a faith look like a complete idiot, is there one? The end of the movie is very apocalyptic, as Maher suggests that the end of the world is being caused by religion, and that we (the atheists I presume) must band together to stop this. How is this different than any other religion feeling the need to go door to door converting every sinner? It’s not.

So, I have to wonder, who is this film really geared towards? Bill Maher’s not stupid. He knows the people he’s interviewing aren’t going to be the ones to pick up a DVD, so who is this really for? My guess: middle class, well educated, atheists. If there’s one thing people love, it’s feeling smart. If you aren’t religious, then you already agree with a lot of what Maher’s already saying and you probably already knew a lot of it too. But, when he says it and films the opposing side looking like a regular country-bumpkin nincompoop, well, then we can feel quite good about ourselves. Thank god, we’re not like them, right? But now we have a ‘we’ and ‘them’. Funny, because Maher seems to think this sort of divide only occurs inside religious boundaries.

But these days, with movies like Religulous and Borat, we can see a lust for creating a divide between ‘the well informed’ and ‘the ignorant’. If you are in the ‘well informed’ party you’re probably enjoying the film a lot because (as I said before) they make you look pretty good. In fact you look better, in an extreme way, than those other people, right? But what about those other people? The movie seems geared towards trying to educate them, but is it? Or is it just another good ol’ laugh for the educated middle class?

One of the scenes in Religulous that positively kills me is when Maher goes to a tiny church (and when I say tiny, I mean smaller than the bedroom of my in-law apartment) for truckers. If you are unaware, truckers are the people who sit in a massive truck for hours, usually alone, driving truckloads of merchandise, through all hours of the day and night. Bill Maher walks into this tiny place and starts asking questions. Great, that’s what an interviewer is supposed to do. But what bothers me is when he starts to laugh at them for their beliefs, which to him are completely ridiculous, so of course he does his darndest to make them feel and look ridiculous. ‘Aren’t these little people with their little beliefs so hysterical?’ type of thing. And at the end of his interview he says, “I think being without faith is a luxury for people who are fortunate enough to have a fortunate life…. You’re in a fox hole, you probably have a lot of faith, right? So I get that, but you guys aren’t dumb. You’re smart people. How can smart people, how can they believe in the talking snake and the 900 years old, the virgin birth and that’s my question.”

Yes, clearly these people in the rollaway church the size of a hallway are filled with luxury, Bill. And I’m sorry, did he just basically say: if you believe in God, how can you possibly be intelligent? Very judgmental for someone who later says: “That’s a pretty big judgment for a Christian…. That’s not a judgment that you are sitting here telling these people that you don’t even know that they are incomplete because they’re not like you.” Yes, the guy he is talking to is being absolutely ridiculous (it’s a ‘heterosexual’ man who used to be gay but now has seen the light of God, blah, blah, we know the rest. But basically now he believes homosexuality is a choice and those who have fallen astray are ‘incomplete’ as men or women. Which as most of us hopefully know, is insane.) However, I find it pretty hysterical that Bill Maher states (quite high on his horse) ‘that you are sitting here telling these people that you don’t even know that they are incomplete because they’re not like you.” Aren’t the people Bill Maher interviews portrayed as somewhat incomplete? They’re missing something, right? A few less brain cells, perhaps? I’m just in awe that someone could blindly make a film this hypocritical.

Maher has a lust for tearing people down without any interest in building something in their place. He is a documentary Godzilla destroying everything in his path with little respect or interest in discussion. If you want to see a film make fun of people who are at a disadvantage, and who get Maher’s joke tested on them like helpless lab rats, be my guest. Otherwise, I’d skip. I will, however, take Bill Maher’s advice on doubt, and doubt that I will ever watch this terrible film again.

-Madeline Mahrer

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‘LOURDES’/ “UNCERTAIN CRAP” IN THE QUASI ART HOUSE

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“Miracles happen why play with if or if not. Why not have a movie that does not beat around the bush. Anyone can get healing at any time God wants and He does not jerk people around like secular writers of religious things who write about uncertain crap. He heals who He wants when He wants and it never hurts to ask. if He heals you you are healed – period. Also the half-assed level of faith displayed by many in this movie is frankly the most unreal part about it. The movie is just not how it is, which too bad because it would have been nice to see a more positive display of things. Basically the script is written by a struggling agnostic and represents the typical crap that wanders through their feeble non-commital minds. It is one of the Jesus got people to share the loaves and fishes rather than multiply types – crap. Miracles happen – the pretending what if or if not is literary crap not some dynamic cinematic twisty who can tell it is in the eye of the beholder thing. I can even tell you how the screen writer votes.” (sic) – Netflix User Review. 2 stars.

Some critics have noticed an increasing polarization in the cinema after the year 2000, with the art house becomes more “artsy” and the megaplex becoming more commercial. This is evidenced by the vigorous film culture alive online and at certain festivals, as well as the increasing laughability of any given year’s top ten (at the box office.)

If we take a year like 2011, which I have a noted admiration for, and look at the top ten grossing films, we get this:

  1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows- Part 2
  2. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
  3. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
  4. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 1
  5. Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol
  6. Kung Fu Panda 2
  7. Fast Five
  8. The Hangover Part II
  9. The Smurfs
  10. Cars 2

Well, fair enough with the top 5, I’d say. Hyper-visible, mega-budget franchise breadwinners. Crap, but tried and true and expected crap. Aside from the Tourette’s-like compulsion toward colons and sub-subtitles, nothing out of the ordinary. But what are we to make of the next 5 entries? Laughability turns to horror as we near Cars 2 and The Smurfs. (The latter enjoyed a 500% profit margin at the box office, virtually assuring a hundred years of Smurfs sequels and reboots.) What are we to make of this?

Business, as they say, is business.

And the deliverable product embedded in all of these movies is a kind of certainty. It’s a certainty that nothing will deviate from the sacred code of multiplex expectation. You can take your children and your grandma and no one will be in the least surprised by anything. The producers and directors and screenwriters are complicit, right down the line, and obediently oblige to undergo the transformation from artist to cog.

While the system that gives us The Smurfs 2 and eight Harry Potter films is practically predicated on its own eventual collapse (a blog post for another day) it remains muscular right now. The certainty it pedals seeps down into the farthest reaches of its mainstay audience’s subconscious (or barely conscious) expectations, creating a feedback loop in which the slave becomes the master becomes the slave. (Having formatively molded the wants of their audience, the studios are doing what they perceive their audience to demand of them, and experiencing (not-so) puzzling diminishing returns.)

But the proliferation of entries into the new canon of Contemporary Contemplative Cinema continues to demonstrate its potential for provocation.

When you look at a film by a contemplative director, there’s always a tendency to see their work at the art house as hanging in a naïve void. With art films becoming more durational, and requiring ever more intense commitment, patience, love, and attention, how frustrating it must be to mistakenly believe they exist as abstract or theoretical musings, off to the side of the arterial mainstream.

The truth is that the Cinema of Contemplation is a reaction against the certainty of the box office. Here, the currency is narrative ambiguity. This ambiguity seeds contemplation, because contemplation becomes the only way to derive meaning. The burden of creation is shared between artist and audience.

All that said, sometimes one who enjoys (apparently profoundly, even morally) the certainty sold by Hollywood stumbles across the Cinema of Contemplation. The wheels are greased for this accidental discovery, by online streaming. Netflix and Hulu Plus allowed the user above to stumble across Lourdes (2009.)

Now, Lourdes isn’t particularly demanding Contemplative Cinema. It’s got some of the tonal qualities, and has been clearly influenced by that tendency, but it’s hardly an exemplar. There’s a lot of great conventional drama, commentary, and some humor in Jessica Hausner’s film. The characters are expressive and a lot of the missing context is never called on, so you don’t really miss it. It’s quirkier than it is austere; sillier than it is theologically rigorous, or existentially morose… you get the point.

But often times we’re presented with visual truths that are difficult to explain, to understand, to reconcile. What kind of world is this movie happening in? It looks like a movie, it sounds like a movie, but occasionally it presents bits of evidence that contradict one another. Sometimes characters appear to have souls, concerns, doubts, and sometimes they experience profound difficulty communicating with one another. Sometimes what we see on screen is not clearly explained to us by the characters. One could almost say that Lourdes resembles real life…

But it does not resemble the world photographed (not even) in The Smurfs, nor the one in Harry Potter. For all their magic, you usually know just what’s going on in films like these.

My point is that it doesn’t take much ambiguity to provoke. If you read over the commenter’s problems with Lourdes again, you’ll notice that the hostility is almost always focused at the locus of ambiguity, at certain doubts about the way that the universe works, presumed to be complicit between artist and character.

-Max Berwald

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AGING GAY COWBOY MOVIE

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Brokeback Mountain ages in opposite directions.

Maybe that’s overstating the case. It’s definitely benefited from having a few (seven) years to breathe. In that time, gay marriage has come and gone and come again to the center of social politics. In California, the high profile battle around Prop 8 and its subsequent passage into law in 2008 brought new attention to the lives and concerns of gay Californians, Americans, and people. The Supreme Court is now set to review the constitutionality of Prop 8 before June of 2013.

In 2005, Brokeback Mountain was an oddity. It was marketed as a love story, but how could straight people be expected to care about passion between gay folks? Insult to injury: the casting of extremely palatable, great-looking, and bankable Hollywood stars. I take it back, the real insult: these gay folks talk and look like god fearing conservative good old boys! To put it bluntly: the hyper-masculine, bootstrap-Americana mindset as narrative centrifuge. To put it more bluntly: those ack-sents! And Hollywood has long been one of America’s favorite ways to get itself all riled up.

Brokeback’s Wikipedia entry has 10 sub-sections devoted to “controversies.” (7.1-7.10.) Bill O’Reilly maintained, not alone and not quietly, that Hollywood was pushing an agenda with Brokeback Mountain, and the media pored over all incoming details regarding the film’s revenue (and presumed success or failure.) The group Concerned Women for America was, understandably, concerned. Residents of Wyoming (where the film was set, but not shot) were peeved, presumably because there are no gay people in Wyoming. A Utah theater owner refused to screen the film. On and on and on.

The conventional wisdom here is that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Demonstratively, Brokeback Mountain made back over $175 million on its $14 million budget.

All of this is to say that, when it first emerged, the film was compellingly offbeat. It was attractive because it was weird. People couldn’t stop talking about it, and they couldn’t stop seeing it. But the way a film is sold always differs from the way it is made, and Brokeback Mountain was not made to be an oddity—it was just sold that way. Among other things— observant cinematography, incredible performances, and a crackling script– the film happened to be upsetting to some demographics. That made it a controversy, and controversy is, frequently, good brand posturing.

You can tell that the filmmakers aren’t hedging on the “weirdness” of their screenplay, because that screenplay has aged so well. There’s really not a lot of time to meditate on how controversial gay love is. Every scene has clear direction; no thoughtless lines or glances. It’s an extremely economical story, one that plays to Ang Lee’s strengths as an aggressively visual storyteller (witness The Ice Storm.)

Larry McMurtry, who worked on the script with Diana Ossana, is in similarly top form processing local color into a pleasurably complex geography of fears, desires, and introspection. (The author of the Lonesome Dove books understands well the relationship between the physical world and the internal landscape of men.) It seems to take for granted incredibly sophisticated performances that will make use of key silences, bits of business, and rich art direction/ abundant locations, and, less surprisingly, thoughtful direction (presumably McMurtry knew Lee was attached.)

When I say it’s aging in opposite directions, what I mean is: while removing the movie from the context of its own controversy makes it clearer just how good it is, as the years go by, the painful score and egregious dissolves don’t get any better. The movie has a lot of style: some of it awful. The dissolves are snappy and hope to be casual; instead they operate as a parody of the type of meditative pacing Lee, one hopes, was trying to authentically build. Yuck.

The score is even less mysterious, featuring precisely one memorable track. This track tearfully titters over the action with a frequency that can only be described as humiliating. It’s the canned equivalent of the old-woman-in-front-of-you-in-the-theater repeatedly emoting “awwww.”

But I’m glad that any bad-aging Brokeback Mountain can expect to weather will be related to aesthetic missteps, and not its having pandered. If you’re going to do a movie about gay cowboys in 2005, it’s brave to play it straight (so to speak.) On the other hand, maybe it’s a no brainer that forbidden love ages well. Our culture tries not to let anyone turn 16 without reading Romeo and Juliet.

-Max Berwald

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