April 27, 2007

The Trash Report

Hate to promote I Viddied it on the Screen while on this blog but I finally finished my Grindhouse review. Some three weeks after the fact, but I'm finished. I see writing a lot like Tony Soprano sees therapy: it's like taking a shit. Just glad to have that thing out of my body.

Speaking of which, I recently saw one of Quentin Tarantino's favorite movies: Revenge of the Cheerleaders. Buried treasure it is not. Yes, the anarchy is infectious. Yes, the music numbers are fun. Yes, it's dirty in an earthy way. Yes, Rainbeaux Smith is nothing short of magical. Yes, David Hasslehoff embarrasses himself. But none of that much matters. The film is cinematically uninventive and the narrative barely makes sense. It's all frosting and no cake. I couldn't find any ideas, characters, or story to engage myself with; just these petty simple pleasures. Perhaps I'm overly traditional.

I've been becoming addicted to
Criticker. This is a site where you rank movies on a scale of 1 to 100 and then have your taste compared with other users and critics. My top users are age 14 and 17. My bottom critic is Stanley Kauffman, though Tasha Robinson and Noel Murray of the Onion A.V. Club are on there too, and the beloved Kim Morgan who likes Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Kaufmann is a loon though. He liked Junebug, Dead Poets Society, In The Company of Men, The Hours, and Seabiscuit (?!); and hated Elephant, Barton Fink, Kill Bill Vol. 1, Dogville, Unforgiven, and Terminator 2. I don't get how that could be interpreted as anything other than a hatred for cinema. Particularly bizarre is that he praises stuff like Seabiscuit and In the Company of Men in terms of the great filmmaking. Kill Bill fails because it's not scary. Birth because it's not believable. Forgive me for my naivety, how did this guy become a respected name in criticism? I mean, this is just plain unbelievable to me.

April 23, 2007

The Trench


I was born in the United States in a little town at the foot of the Rocky Mountains called “Golden” after the carrot that coaxed it into existence, I guess, way back when. There’s a sign that stretches over the main street of the downtown still that welcomes visitors. I grew up, for all intents and purposes, in Norman Rockwell’s America, Western-style: I shined shoes at the barber shop on the corner that was owned, and operated as it so happens, by the mayor of Golden at that time (Frank, was his name), and with the nickels I was paid, mostly to refrain from shining shoes, I suspect, I would go across the street to the 5 and 10 to buy Silly Putty and comic books. I didn’t speak a word of English until I was five or so, but it didn’t matter, and in truth, I don’t really remember not speaking English – but I do remember getting teased in Kindergarten, mercilessly.

I remember, too, being teased for not knowing the difference in pronouns – there’s no such thing in Chinese, right? – and I recall my classmates in the affluent upper-middle class neighborhood where I went to school, commenting that I looked like a Jap and why didn’t I go back to where I came from. First grade or so, it’s hard to look at that sort of thing philosophically. I don’t suggest that things were worse where I came from; in fact, I suggest that things were better. This is long about 1979.

When first reports started coming in about the shooting at VTech last week, one of the early reports on MSNBC proclaimed that the shooter was a Chinese national. Later, when it was revealed that the guy was South Korean, nobody bothered to make a correction. It didn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.

I stuttered – and badly – all through my early childhood. It led to a lot of time alone, unable to communicate, watching movies and television and reading the bookshelf of collector’s editions that my parents bought at some garage sale at some point somewhere along the line. In sixth grade, as part of commencement at my elementary school, a story that I’d written about my time in school was chosen to be read, by me, in front of the entire student body. My grandfather flew in from Taiwan to watch me deliver it – it was one of maybe three times that I saw him in his lifetime. I remember that he used to play cards with me. I think it was Crazy 8s.

The next day – hour – week – I stopped stuttering. I make a good portion of my living speaking now; I make the rest of it writing.

I think I stuttered because I had anxiety about my ability to communicate. I think that I didn’t end up a lot like Cho first, obviously, because I’m not insane – but also because I was able to make friends through soccer until I could make them through my ability to communicate. It’s tempting to say that everything happens for a reason because if you’re not dead, then it’s possible to justify everything. I want to paraphrase something from Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, that every living being on this planet is a badass evolutionary killing machine.

Without forgiving a thing that Cho did, let me say that I was heavily in the therebutforthe camp for a while and it was sobering. Stephen King wrote something for the EW website about this mess – the suggestion buried in there seems to be that Cho happened because Cho didn’t have any talent.

I think that’s, all irony aside, really fucking fascinating. I think that it’s dead on.

David Halberstam died today. He was a helluva journalist and a damned graceful writer. His The Best and the Brightest is essential and mad-influential. His books on baseball ain’t bad, either. This is what he said last year at a conference about government criticism of journalists covering Iraq:

"The crueler the war gets, the crueler the attacks get on anybody who doesn't salute or play the game, and then one day, the people who are doing the attacking look around, and they've used up their credibility."

At the risk of too much solipsism, I substitute “war” for “film industry” and I think back on the reams of hate mail our review of Episode II generated at the time. Sometimes it’s better to be right than popular. The sad thing about film criticism in the United States is that in just a couple of decades of pinheads trying to make it as democratic a medium as film itself, it’s just about destroyed any chance there might be for actual film critics to make a living anymore. If any chucklehead with the ability to turn a cheerfully smug phrase can get a position at a major daily, why bother with the ones that make people angry? More, why hire your own when you can download wire? There are already only something like a dozen papers left in the United States that have homegrown book reviews – give it time and there’ll be five working film “critics” left making a traditional living in all of this great land of ours.

I can feel that stutter starting up again.

April 21, 2007

Philly Leftovers

The 16th Philadelphia Film Festival has finally wrapped up, so while I finish off a few more capsules for publication next week, just a few more errant thoughts.

The festival's Closing Night film was Waitress, my belated introduction (save her brief role in Factotum) to the late, lamented Adrienne Shelly in her final film as writer, director, and actor. It's a light, fluffy thing, a movie that's built on a foundation of silly tragicomedy convention but also takes the time to examine the stereotypes that we so often assign to southern caricatures. Perhaps the most pleasant thing about it, however, is confirming that Nathan Fillion is more of a well-rounded actor than people give him credit for, too charming to be shackled to genre pictures alone. (After seeing him as a small town doctor/earnest weirdo in Waitress, I'd like to see him try his hand at a "Rex Morgan, M.D."-style melodrama.) It all might be a little too mawkish for its own good, but imagine my surprise when tears came streaming down my face once the end credits rolled and "In loving memory of Adrienne Shelly" came up. You can tell, just from Waitress, that the woman had so much love and hope in her, and this was probably the film that was going to catapult her into the mainstream consciousness. The fact that the little fucker that murdered her tried to make it look like a suicide seems that much more wrongheaded, that much more nonsensical from every possible perspective.

The spectre of the Virginia Tech massacre hung in the air in the festival's final days as well, as they featured two films starring "rising star" Mark Webber as a disturbed, potentially violent loner desperately looking for an emotional anchor: The Memory Thief, wherein Webber is a toll-booth collector without a past who attempts to identify with the pain and the suffering of the Holocaust, and The Good Life, where he's a poor schmuck stuck pumping gas in a sports-obsessed town, looking for solace in a depressed singer (Zooey Deschanel) and a senile movie theater projectionist (Harry Dean Stanton). The latter tacks a ninety-second happy ending onto a straight hour-and-a-half of emo misery (imagine if Capra had agreed with the despondent George Bailey until the very end of It's a Wonderful Life); the former, however, is a somber contemplation of replacing the void with the abyss, so to speak--the essential danger in attempting to correlate inhumane acts that were, nevertheless, committed by humans. The difference between the two works has been on my mind lately as experts and pundits attempt to find rhyme or reason in Seung-hui Cho's horrifying rampage.

Also saw Alan Cumming's "solo directorial debut," Suffering Man's Charity, more or less an excuse for Cumming to scream and ham it up for a straight hour, Bette Davis/What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? style--but at least it finally verbalizes what people find so damned appealing about David Boreanaz: he looks a lot like Warren Beatty from Splendor in the Grass.

I hope you'll read my review of Fracture that's up on the site--it was the festival's annual sneak preview screening, and a far cry from last year's Lucky Number Slevin. Be sure to also check out Walter's review of Hot Fuzz; it takes active resistance to not place an exclamation point at the end of that title.

Speaking tangentially of Edgar Wright, I saw Grindhouse for the second time this week in an attempt to see it in its natural state as many times (and with as many friends) as possible, before it's taken out of theaters to be chopped up into nonsensical halves. It's been said before, but I'll say it again: Planet Terror is tiring junk, but I can't see my grindhouse experience being the same without it. I do wonder, though, what Planet Terror would have been like if it was shot in Rodriguez's vaunted 3-D process--maybe it would have put the man in a better frame of mind concerning exploitation sensationalism, or maybe it would have just been unbearable like Spy Kids 3-D and The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl. Considering that he too often views the cinematic experience as masturbatory stupidity (think about what Planet Terror essentially skips over with its "missing reel"), probably the latter. But I'm curious.

And finally, check out this fine bit of hypnosis: David Lynch Thinks About Thinking.

April 16, 2007


It's nice to have some good news to report in a week that has seen not only the death of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. but also the release of a new Avril Lavigne album: Keith Gordon's directorial debut The Chocolate War is coming to DVD!

I'm excited about this for a variety of reasons, not the least of which that The Chocolate War has long been a holy grail of mine. I also feel an obligation to put my proverbial money where my mouth is, having acted as a mediator of sorts between Señor Gordon and content producer Greg Carson in one of the initial attempts to get the film out on disc in a form that honoured its cult status. (Or at least its status as virtual Cliffs Notes for the Robert Cormier perennial on which it's based.) This was in September of 2003; things got as far as a marketing proposal, and then MGM merged with Sony, shaking the studio's release slate like an Etch-a-Sketch. I didn't know until recently that Gordon and co. had finally made some headway.

Fox has really picked up the slack since taking over the home video arm of MGM. This week alone the Lion brings us Robert Altman's fine Thieves Like Us, Ulu Grosbard's underrated True Confessions, Mike Hodges' inscrutable Pulp, and, of course, The Chocolate War, a movie I can't recommend highly enough and will (re)review in short order. I'm also supposed to interview Keith Gordon sometime in the coming weeks, and while I'm hesitant to pass up the opportunity (mostly because I flaked on a chance to sit down with the late Bob Clark not too long ago, something I'll always regret), the truth is that between his commentary track and 51-minute talking-head on The Chocolate War DVD, Keith has left very few stones unturned--at least where his first feature is concerned.

Anyway, The Chocolate War streets tomorrow, April 17th. Fox has furnished us with Quicktime clips from the film, which I've linked below. (Aside: I'd be remiss if I didn't also steer you towards Ian Pugh's tireless coverage of the 16th Philadelphia Film Festival.) I'm particularly eager to know how a whole new generation of readers will respond to the film's Bizarro interpretation of the book's coup de grâce, surely the finest revision since they scrapped the upbeat ending of David Ely's source novel for Seconds.

Everybody always says "the book was better," but what movies do you think are superior to their literary counterpart or at least improve upon it in some way?

Clip 1: Brother Leon and Archie discuss the chocolate sale.
Clip 2: Jerry refuses to sell chocolates.

April 13, 2007

The Trench

So with my review for David Lynch’s astonishingly unpleasant Inland Empire lodged in my craw like a fetid chicken bone (hey, it’s a masterpiece) – I open the Times today to find that Kurt Vonnegut has died at the age of 84. Funny, I thought to myself, he already seemed a lot older than that when I saw him on some television show a couple of years ago. Truth is, I hadn’t read any of Vonnegut’s newer novels (I gave up on Timequake after about thirty pages), but his essay a few years ago on war and religion and politics and addiction and general madness (it’s called “Cold Turkey” and it’s required) reminded me of the quicksilver of his erudition when aimed at subjects close to my heart.

“Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith. I consider the capacity for it terrifying.”

My first exposure to Vonnegut wasn’t through Slaughterhouse 5 as it is for many – but rather Breakfast of Champions, in junior high. For a thirteen-year-old, it’s pretty much life changing. Like figuring out when the protag in London’s “To Build a Fire” doesn’t actually, that there is such a thing as irony and unhappy endings in art and life. It causes a moment of cultural clarity; an existential displacement wherein, suddenly, things lumped into “pastime” and “entertainment” can actually hold lessons for life looming in the shadows of all that positive affirmation. A lot of people point at movies and say that they don’t want to go see something they see everyday on the news – that they go to movies to “escape”. But in saying that, as in so many similar statements, I have a lot of doubts that these people watch the news at all.

But Breakfast of Champions, yeah, and from there it was Cat’s Cradle and the end of the world – and then Slaughterhouse 5 and the Americans (!) raining liquid fire on a civilian population that included Vonnegut and a few other POWs from the Battle of the Bulge – and of course aliens and time travel because what other explanation, or surcease, could there be from that kind of madness? I learned a lot about writing from Vonnegut – not that I write like, or as well, or with as much wit and insight – but what I did learn was that it was all right to be angry with the status quo and with the happy acceptance of it, even when all evidence seems to point to Abyss. I’m not up to writing a proper eulogy of someone like Vonnegut – but the irony is that Vonnegut makes me want to do it anyway.

“How on earth can religious people believe in so much arbitrary, clearly invented balderdash?....The acceptance of a creed, any creed, entitles the acceptor to membership in the sort of artificial extended family we call a congregation. It is a way to fight loneliness. Any time I see a person fleeing from reason and into Religion I think to myself, There goes a person who simply cannot stand being so goddamned lonely anymore.”

With the collapse of Grindhouse at the Almighty Box Office and the Weinsteins’ quick assertion that the audience is too stupid for it and that they will split it into two films for possible re-release in order to recoup their costs, Vonnegut comes to mind again as a guy who resists the very madness represented by the ABO. That we care at all is a function of bean counters and publicists. That it has begun to inform opinions of quality is frightening in the sense that anything can still be frightening that is so much part of the vulgate. Incidentally or not, I had a letter this week asking me to reconsider Blades of Glory.

G'night, Billy Pilgrim.

Went to a screening this week of Hot Fuzz and was gratified by the amount of gore in it. It’s surprising and extremely well done.

Of the seven or so major releases this weekend, the only one I screened (due to illness, availability, and so on) was Perfect Stranger and that at a last minute event designed to retard the number of reviews for it. I’ll do it on the radio, but I doubt that I have the energy to write about it with other, more worthy pictures, waiting to be reviewed. Writer’s block is blazing as well. As it is, I’m doing this little piece with a 101 fever that I’ve been nursing like cinder Otik for five days now. The flick is vaguely racist and certainly misogynistic, but then, you knew that.

Watched Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, a little horror picture that’s been making some waves lately on the Internet. It’s diverting, I’ll give it that.

Doing a presentation of Rabbit Proof Fence tomorrow and then, on Saturday, of North by Northwest. One is critic-proof, the other is misanthropic: discuss.

Question of the moment: why did Grindhouse crash and burn in the popular conversation and what’s the fate of Tarantino’s creative freedom from this point forward as a result of it? For my part I should have said in the review for what it’s worth that I had more fun watching Grindhouse as part of a packed screening audience than any film since the first Jackass.

Also: best Vonnegut film adaptation? and best non-official (as in non-Vonnegut, Vonnegut) Vonnegut film? And, of course, best Vonnegut not yet-adapted and/or dream director/Vonnegut piece. . . say. . . Alfonso Cuaron and Cat’s Cradle?

April 05, 2007

CanCon Confidential #2

In the perhaps vain hope that anyone still cares, more of my nationalist cinematic sentiments:

MONTREAL MAIN (Frank Vitale, 1974) ***1/2
Frank Vitale is an American photographer who sojourned in Montreal, hung out with most of the participants of this movie, and for his troubles turned in one of the best films to come out of this country. Vitale essentially plays himself, a sort-of gay photographer who strikes up a friendship (maybe more) with a twelve-year-old boy and winds up censured both by the boy's parents and the gay/bohemian circles in which he runs. It's remarkably sensitive, highly evocative of the 70's milieu, and never once breaks the spell with a misplaced line or a stilted performance. Made all the more remarkable by being largely improvised, and for including the co-writing/acting talents of Allan Moyle, who would wind up making teenpic slop like Pump Up the Volume.

THREE CARD MONTE (Les Rose, 1977) **1/2
The loser-on-the-move archetype of Goin' Down the Road finds its supreme expression in this film about a gambler/drifter and the runaway kid whom he befriends. The film tries way, way too hard to sell its grubby milieu, and thus flaunts the gambling argot, barroom-brawling and bare breasts to the point that it's sometimes clearly artificial. It's somewhat tax shelter-y, and might easily have been much less if more craven sensibilities were at work- but the script seems to have been written out of desire rather than necessity and that counts for a lot. When it sticks with the hidden desperation of its lead, who makes fortunes only to blow them, and who eludes the encroaching suckers only until they catch him- it lucks into a character who's sympathetically pathetic when the chips are down. Not a great movie, but sometimes surprisingly resonant.

RUNNING TIME (Mort Ransen, 1974) *1/2
They actually made musicals in the panic-stricken NFB of the seventies; this one is sort of a Brechtian Harold and Maude with animated superimpositions, which sounds like a swell idea right up until you see the movie. Jackie Burroughs plays an elderly lady who's run off with a longhaired teen David Balser; seems they're both victims of "the system," and are pursued by her son and his father with some vague and out-of-date hippified sentiments. To be sure, it is its own entity, and you're not likely to mistake it for any other movie, but the abuse of chroma-key, bad lyrics and Ryan Larkin's animation never once jells into something credible, believable, or watchable. It's remarkable as a freak (and for costing a million dollars when the NFB probably couldn't spare it) but not as an intellectual or artistic statement. However, it's far more interesting than the other NFB musical that year...

A STAR IS LOST! (John Howe, 1974) 1/2*
...which shows that making a joyous, fun-filled item in that genre might be beyond the kids at the Film Board. I'm told that this item- in which superstar Gloria Glide (Tiiu Leek) is threatened by her stalker on her new musical superproduction at a big studio (shot around the NFB, and looking it) and goes into hiding- was designed to teach English as a second language; all I know is that in any language the film is forced, unfunny, and without home or purpose. Jack Creley has some moments as a flustered, possibly-gay director, but the rest is a total wash.

DON'T LET THE ANGELS FALL (George Kaczender, 1969)***
This unassuming drama from the nascent feature mandate of the NFB took me by surprise: though it's marked by the same suburban anomie that marked the earlier Nobody Waved Goodbye, it somehow seems more merciful and sensitive. The film begins with a sheepish ad man being interviewed for a TV documentary, and then recounts the trickledown of his pointless existence, which includes sleeping around on his wife and transfers to his college-age son, who talks big revolutionary talk but can't deliver the goods (naturally, the school-skipping 13-year-old seems the most genuine). Certain sixties with-it-isms date the piece, but enough of it shines through to make it worth more than a second glance. Written by Canlit icon Timothy Findley; also the first Canadian film to be invited to Cannes.

April 03, 2007

Go Ninja, Go Ninja, Go

Hey folks--it's been a while since my last blog entry, so I thought I might throw out a few things that have been on my mind lately.

First off, I'd like to offer Bill a hearty welcome back as he gives us his first piece (DVD specs on Bielinsky's The Aura) since his fateful surgery. I also hope you caught his epic update on the mothersite last Friday, which included Blades of Glory, Shooter, and The Lookout from Walter and Saw III from Travis. That Bill Chambers, he's one tough bastard--and he wasn't about to let some pissant hernia interfere with his incredible dedication to this site. I'm really proud to call him my editor and my friend.

Also today: my review of "Extras: The Complete First Season". Are you 'avin' a laugh?

FYI: I'll be attending the Philadelphia Film Festival from April 5th to the 18th, logging (and maybe blogging) capsules for FFC; promises to be an exciting two weeks.

Proving that I'm a bit behind everyone else, I'm currently on the second season of "Six Feet Under" (wherein Ruth discovers The Secret The Plan) via Netflix. In a bit of bad luck, several of the series' final whammies were ruined for me by an episode of "Jeopardy!" and later by my barber--but it's so damned good that it hardly matters. Kind of leads to a simplistic question, but one I'd like you to weigh in on: What's your opinion on the importance of remaining spoiler-free? Do you avoid/go looking for spoilers on a case-by-case basis, or do you have concrete rules?

Also from Netflix: Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator, which will have to keep me sustained until I can get my hands on the brand new two-disc'er from Anchor Bay (complete with syringe-shaped highlighter in reagent green). It stands alongside Raimi's first two Evil Dead films in the realm of horror/comedy, I think, in the sense that it can't be carelessly picked apart. Sure, I love the last fifteen minutes of Re-Animator--as much as I love Evil Dead II's shotgun-chainsaw finale. But while those scenes can be (and probably already have been) described to you--maybe even shown to you, outside of context--you'll never really get them until you see the films in their entirety.

Compare that to Peter Jackson's Dead Alive. It's pretty gross, all right, and it's agreeably silly, but it's more or less a collection of sketched-out concepts, designed with a certain isolation in mind so that you could describe them to your friends later; Army of Darkness suffers from the same pitfalls as well. (Perhaps both films suffer from fanboy expectation imposed by earlier efforts--Bad Taste and Evil Dead II, respectively.) The lawnmower, the kung-fu priest, the medieval mechanical hand, blowing away your evil twin--how many times did you actually hear about them before you saw the movies, and were you slightly disappointed when you found out that they existed exactly as they were described to you? Maybe this is the litmus test by which we'll eventually judge Grindhouse.

In the end, it's a reflection of Ebert's old "it's about what it's about" credo. No fewer than three different heads (from all walks of life and undeath) go smashing against walls throughout Re-Animator, leaving gooey blood stains in their wake--pretty amusing on their own, but the real hilarity of the film lies in realizing how fragile we all are. But then, you'll just have to see it. Onward to Bride of Re-Animator.

Speaking of rejuvenating green liquid, some friends and I rented Michael Pressman's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze in preparation for TMNT, which apparently takes place after Ooze, a la Superman Returns. Yeah, it's film rife with embarrassment, the unsurprising peak of which is Vanilla Ice's "Ninja Rap." If the modern CGI film has an equivalent to that scene, it's probably a slapstick chase sequence set to a particularly obnoxious rendering of "Black Betty," a cover of Ram Jam's arrangement of the song. Since the Turtles franchise has always been more about being hip and accessible instead of viable and entertaining, it makes me ponder modern adolescent cinema and its propensity to use cover songs from its target audience's parents' generation--which in turn makes me wonder what it is, exactly, that constitutes as "hip" anymore.

And speaking of Superman, Tom Welling possibly signs up for Teen Wolf III, or maybe Ginger Snaps IV.

Even with nukes, coup d'etats, and dying presidents flying all over the place, "24" (aka "The Jack Bauer Power Hour") has been a bit sedate lately. (You have to admit that the artificial drama surrounding the recent cabinet vote on presidential competence was more than a little silly.) Have we reached a point where "real" excitement can only come in the expectation for self-parody? Regardless, I can't stop watching. Maybe it's how the series effortlessly co-opts moments in cinema that everyone has seen, then brings them into its own crazed realm. The James Bond slant that this season seems to take whenever Jack disarms/disables a nuke, for instance--or this week's shootout, which transformed the climax of Touch of Evil into the climax of Sudden Impact.

Anyway, on to Philly--next time I see you folks, it'll probably be after I've seen the Festival opener, David Wain's very own decalogue, The Ten.