Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Morricone Fever - Catch It!

It seems this weekend is Ennio Morricone weekend in NYC, since he’s playing his first-ever U.S. concert at Radio City Music Hall on Saturday evening and will then be receiving an honorary Oscar for his entire career at the end of the month. I’m still trying to score a ticket, but even if I can’t make it I’ll be enjoying his company on Saturday anyway, at a screening of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST at MOMA that’s scheduled to end before the show begins. MOMA is doing a brief Morricone retrospective to go with the Film Forum’s more comprehensive Morricone retrospective that also begins this weekend and lasts for about three weeks. (This Sunday will also host a day long Morricone retrospective with me and my friends where we will screen some of the worst movies Morricone scored, such as ORCA and EXORCIST II. Wish us luck.) While I’d much rather see these films at MOMA’s large screen, Film Forum is a decent substitute, I suppose. The films selected make for an excellent cross-section and include some rare screenings of INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION, DANGER: DIABOLIK, THE BURGLARS, A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY, FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET, MACHINE GUN MCCAIN (highly recommended, by the way) and Sam Fuller’s WHITE DOG, along with all the usual suspects (the Leone films, THE UNTOUCHABLES, ect.) It’s pointless of me to do a list of favorite Morricone scores (although I will say that I want the Claudia Cardinale theme from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST to play at my funeral), since so many of them are truly great, but this weekend’s beginning to a month of Morricone is going to be the start of something really, really, really awesome and I can’t wait.

"Welcome to Costco, I Love You."

"There was a time when reading wasn't just for fags. And neither was writing. People wrote books and movies. Movies with stories, that made you care about who's ass it was and why it was farting."

Over the weekend I got together with some friends and watched IDIOCRACY, Mike Judge’s long-shelved comedy about a future where society is so dumb that everyone drinks a sports drink called Brawndo because it’s got “what you crave”. The film received a token release over Labor Day weekend in a handful of cities (NYC not among them) and some good, appreciative reviews, but it basically got dumped because… I don’t know why. If I did, I’d be a much smarter man than I am.

What amused me was that my friends and I (and we all loved the movie) were all batting about ideas as to why the film didn’t get more studio support. Most of the theories pointed towards the film being too smart for its own good and, because it was produced by Fox, they felt that because it lambasted consumerism so savagely that perhaps The Powers That Be at Fox wanted the film buried. Maybe it tested poorly? That would explain a lot, although Fox released worse films on a larger basis last year, but the answer could simply be that they did not like the movie. Judge clashed with the studio on OFFICE SPACE and clashed with them again here and I get the feeling that maybe it would simply be a good idea for all concerned to just back away, acknowledge that you don’t get each other, and then go your separate ways.

It’s an expensive lesson for all to learn, but it’s a lesson nonetheless. Now that it’s on DVD everyone who wanted to see it based on their love of Judge’s OFFICE SPACE will finally be able to. Fox are looking like a bunch of idiots themselves because IDIOCRACY is a really good movie that is going to enjoy a similar reaction on DVD and TV that SPACE received: great word of mouth and repeat business. They’ll all make money on it, but you’ve just got to ask where the logic is on this. All they had to do was put this out by saying “The new movie from the director of OFFICE SPACE”, have some MySpace screenings and the fans would do the rest. Did their research not tell them this would happen? Do their researchers know what they’re talking about? I wish I knew, I really do. I would have loved to have seen this film with an audience and I would have been happy to pay for it, but I don’t live in L.A. or Austin (often wish I did). IDIOCRACY is worth your time and money and worth starting a campaign to get the film released in theaters again even though it’s already on disc. Everyone thinks that everyone else other than them is an idiot, so the opportunity to share that feeling with a roomful of strangers is one I think most people would appreciate.

Monday, January 29, 2007

The Concept: Aimee Mann and The Shakes

I can’t quite explain it, but there have been two albums that have been occupying my CD/MP3 players pretty consistently of late and for some reason they’re both concept albums. Remember the concept album? It seems like few people have, despite the fact that some of the most successful albums of all time are concept albums (Sgt. Pepper, The Wall, Tommy), although some of the worst and most pretentious are concept albums, too, so I think I just answered my own question. Anyway, I’ve been listening to Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm for over a year now and after a brief period of spending some time apart and seeing other albums it’s back with a vengeance and I swear we will never part. As a longtime fan and supporter of Mann’s work I’m usually quick to pick up anything she puts out, but I was put off by some bad reviews of the album, so it took me a couple of months to make the plunge. I was taken with it pretty instantly and as Mann is one of the best damn hook writers in all of modern music repeating listenings became mandatory. Now, with most albums I go through a period where I listen to it for a couple of weeks and then trail off when new music comes my way, but The Forgotten Arm has been much different. I have the feeling I’m living with this one for the rest of my life and that Ms. Mann will never be able to top this in my eyes. And this received bad reviews? Does The Onion even know what the fuck they’re talking about?

Before I go on I want to make one thing clear: I am not a music expert of any kind. I don’t play an instrument or read music or know that much about music production or songwriting. I couldn’t even give you the standard elementary school definition of just what makes a great song great (although Chris Bell if wrote it, that’s a solid indicator). But like every lame-brained American I know what I like and every part of me loves this album. To start, I find the concept behind it (the love story between an alcoholic boxer and his girlfriend as they travel cross country) intriguing, in part since this territory is one that Mann has covered before (especially with her contributions to the MAGNOLIA soundtrack) but never with such ferocity. The Forgotten Arm feels like she’s making her final statement on the subject of doomed relationships, so she’s going out by holding nothing back and the concept album device works this beautifully. Mann has always been praised for her abilities to understand a character’s desperation (like she does here on “Going Through the Motions and “Goodbye Caroline”), but she's also written one of the best love songs I’ve ever heard, the album’s closer, “Beautiful”. What especially impressed me was how she builds up to all this, with one heartbreaking song after another (“That’s How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart”, “I Can’t Help You Anymore”, and “I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up For Christmas”) and then wraps up with a song so powerful it just breaks my heart the way a great song should. Unlike most concept albums The Forgotten Arm is small but still ambitious and it confirms for me that Mann is one of the best singer/songwriters today. I seriously love this album.

While The Forgotten Arm's success shouldn't come as much of a surprise, considering that it's from a well-established talent like Aimee Mann, The Shakes' The Rise and Fall of Modern Living bowled me over because it came completely out of nowhere. The Shakes are a small L.A.-based power pop band that had previously released two fun but not that remarkable albums on the great Teenacide label in 2002 and 2004. While making one of my spiritual pilgrimages to Ameoba Music in Hollywood on a recent L.A. trip, I happend to zip past the bin for The Shakes and considering that this is how I discovered their first album I felt it only fitting that I pick up the new CD (which I had no idea was out) at this glorious record shop. Playing the CD in my rental car, I expected more of the same fun power pop full of short songs with fast hooks, but from the first moments in this puppy surprised the living hell out of me. One of the first things you hear is a full horn section blasting out some killer pop and I knew instantly that The Shakes were trying something new and I was liking what I heard. Song after song lived up to this initial promise and by album's end I was gaining a massive new respect for this band. The Rise and Fall of Modern Living isn't Tommy, but it has something that a lot of albums today don't have, a point of view and something to say. It's a depiction of life in the Silverlake area of L.A., which is becoming gentrified and starting to lose its charm and personality. I may be taken with this album in part because I happen to live in a similar neighborhood in Jersey City; the residents like it as it is but outsiders with big money are starting to take over and it'll be only a matter of time before everyone who lives there now becomes priced out of the neighborhood. This is a story that exists all over (Austinites drive around with "Keep Austin Weird" bumper stickers) and The Rise and Fall... captures this feeling just right and it's also a lot of god damn fun, and smart, too. Songs like "Mexican Wedding" and "The Greeter of Sandborn Avenue" make you tap your toes while they remind you of places, people and events in your neighborhood, adding to the smile they're already putting on your face. I can't say for sure if this album is a classic, but it sure as hell threw me for a loop and The Shakes have now jumped several notches on my music ladder with it. It's always great when such pleasure comes so unexpectedly, which may mean that The Rise and Fall of Modern Living's joys may not rub off on you like it did me, but if you pick it up chances are you'll get a kick out of it regardless. It's well worth seeking out.

Best Video Ever?

Seriously, what's not to love about this?

John Boorman's THE TIGER'S TAIL - Best Doppelganger Picture Since... Well, DOPPELGANGER

If you can afford it, the annual American Film Market in Santa Monica every November is something of a film fanatic’s dream. Imagine this scenario: Every movie theater on Santa Monica’s famed promenade is closed off to the general public for seven days straight (evening shows only), open only to film buyers from all over the world in town to screen as many new unsold films as they can (before segueing over to the Loews hotel to close the deal). Since the market is now later in the year (it was in February for over twenty years until 2004) the films include a mix of films that have played Toronto, Venice, Telluride, Cannes, and other major festivals but have yet to sell or hit theaters. It’s an extremely pricey affair (a full festival pass cost $775), but if you can get work to flip the bill :) it’s always a fun time, not just because of the wealth of films screened but because unlike those pesky film festivals, those screenings are sparsely attended, meaning that you not only get to see many of the hot new films before anyone else, but you get to see them with excellent projection and in perfect peace and quiet.

In the past I’ve been able to go to AFM (as it’s known as) to mainly see films, but this year I had a lot more work to do in the Loews, so screenings took a backseat to meetings, but of course I was going to make some time for films and with a very good slate to pick through this year I had to make some sacrifices (Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s RETRIBUTION had to wait until next month's Film Comment Selects series at Lincoln Center), but one of the films that I made sure I wasn't going to dare miss was the new film from one of my absolute favorite filmmakers, John Boorman, THE TIGER’S TAIL. Screening at the AFM before opening in Ireland, THE TIGER’S TAIL came only with one semi-major festival screening before it (it was the opening night film at San Sebastian) and I couldn’t help but wonder why that was. I’m sure it must have been submitted to Toronto, Venice, and New York, so why didn’t it show there? I’m the first to acknowledge Boorman has had some duds (although I do not count ZARDOZ or EXORCIST II among them) but I wanted to hope against mounting evidence to the contrary that THE TIGER’S TAIL would satisfy the most important viewer I know of, the one and only me. And thankfully, it certainly did.

I walked into the film knowing only that it was set in contemporary Ireland and starred Boorman regular Brendan Gleeson and Kim Catrall, so I was ready to let the film whisk me off to wherever it wanted to go and from the opening scene, a marvelous sequence set in a prolonged traffic jam, THE TIGER’S TAIL became a series of both unexpected and predictable delights. I suppose it’s not giving away too much that THE TIGER’S TAIL is a doppelganger story (not unlike Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s brilliant DOPPELGANGER from 2003. Are Boorman and Kurosawa doppelgangers?), and with that must come certain conventions that the film does submit to. But they’re there to serve Boorman’s story and like the expert storyteller he is you don’t feel like you’re watching the same old material warmed over. The real doppelgangers in THE TIGER’S TAIL are the two Irelands that have emerged over the last decade, the division between the rich and poor have grown wider there than ever before (just like here). Boorman’s films have always been about man’s relationship to his environment and THE TIGER’S TAIL fits perfectly into this, as it is a film about Boorman’s adopted home country of Ireland in 2006 and how this country has begun to change for the worse and, like the film’s lead character, is losing its identity. As I said to some friends after the film, this is a very Irish movie, but you certainly don’t have to be Irish to get it and like it and I’m sure anyone looking for intelligent, adult entertainment will find it to be more than satisfactory. Gleeson (now on his fourth collaboration with Boorman) gives a pair of superb performances and though Catrall struggles with her accent throughout, she still does fine work as Glesson’s wife, as does Ciarán Hinds (who also appeared in Boorman’s EXCALIBUR) as Gleeson’s priestly confidant. But what I liked the most about it was that this was a John Boorman film through and through and as a fan it’s really nice to see one of your favorites come through once again. It’s not HOPE & GLORY or EXCALIBUR, but it sure as hell isn’t WHERE THE HEART IS, either. As far as I know no one has picked up the film for the U.S. yet and I’m hoping someone like Sony Pictures Classics or Picturehouse comes along to at least give it a chance before it hits DVD because it deserves a shot at finding an audience. After all, this Boorman fan flew across country to attend a 9am Saturday screening, so I’m sure the rest of us will follow suit. At least I hope they will.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

"There's Room For Everybody, You Know."

Only this week did I learn about the existence of a new Julian Temple-directed documentary about the life of former Clash frontman Joe Strummer. It just premiered at Sundance to a pretty good reception and as a fan of Strummer and his work, not only with The Clash but with his later band the Mescaleros, I can't help but be interested. While I'm not a Clash fanatic like some, you'd have to be an idiot to not acknowledge that Strummer and his compadres were truly one of the greatest rock bands of all time and had a profound effect on rock music that lingers to this day. Strummer's life and career is certainly a story worth telling and apparently Temple's film contains a great deal of footage taken at the very beginning of of Strummer's career, as Temple (who also directed THE GREAT ROCK 'N' ROLL SWINDLE) was one of the first documentarians of the British punk scene and had access to pretty much everyone. I can't wait to see it, but I also can't help but think that Temple's film, no matter how good it is, might pale in comparison to an earlier Strummer documentary that hasn't seemed to gain the attention it deserves, one that I might even go so far as calling one of the best rock documentaries of all time, Dick Rude's LET'S ROCK AGAIN.

Like Temple, Rude was a friend of Stummer's who decided to document Strummer's 2001 U.S. tour with the Mescaleros, who had just released their second album together, the magnificent GLOBAL A GO-GO. Having taken the bulk of the 90s off to relax and raise a family, Strummer returned the find that the music world didn't care about what he had to say and even though his name meant that he could always fill a concert hall, everyone wanted to hear the old Clash hits and ask about a Clash reunion. The Mescaleros sound much more of world music influenced than punk (although Strummer would still play some of the Clash hits in concert) and were starting to really find their rhythm as a band. But sales of the first Mescaleros album were disappointing, so Strummer did all he could to raise awareness of the new effort and his new band, of which he was immensely proud. We see Strummer conducting interview after interview, meeting with fans everywhere, and, in one remarkable sequence, standing outside on the Atlantic City boardwalk handing out self-made flyers to uniternested passers-by (only one of whom recognizes him) and then barging in unannounced on the local classic rock station to talk up the show (which looks pretty packed). How much of this is for show and how much it is genuine is really hard to say (I think Strummer may have done it just for fun), but what is undeniable is Strummer's passion, drive, and belief in his music, his band, and his convictions. If the rest of the world doesn't care that this band is out there making this excellent music, that's their fucking problem.

LET'S ROCK AGAIN's greatest strength is that Rude just lets Strummer run the show and we see that the saint so many made him out to be after his passing may not have been that far from the truth. Time and family may have mellowed him a bit but the fire was still there and we see it in several exciting concert sequences throughout the film (which also shows what an superb group of musicians the Mescaleros were). Strummer is always front and center and is a commanding presence through every scene of the film. Filming ended in the fall of 2002 after a tour of Japan and Strummer's unexpected passing gives the film a sense of sadness that is impossible to miss. When it's all over you feel like Strummer was a truly great guy, someone you wish was your friend, and a man who lived by the courage of his convictions because he couldn't do it any other way. Clash/Strummer fan or not, if you love rock 'n' roll then you must see LET'S ROCK AGAIN. It's now out on DVD from Image Entertainment and, needless to say, is highly recommended.

* I have two great stories about Strummer that I heard at the two festival screenings where I saw the film. The first comes from Wreckless Eric, who I met at Kier-La Janisse's Big Smash! festival in Vancouver last spring. After the screening, I saw Eric (who was one of the festival's guests of honor) milling about the lobby of the Pacific Cinematheque, looking a little emotional. I asked him what he thought of the film and he told me a story of opening for Strummer and the Mescaleros in Scotland in 2001. Eric played the gig solo, and as he's going through his set who does he see over to the side of the stage playing air guitar along with him and cheering him on but Strummer himself. Strummer later told Eric that he specifically asked to have him open the show (Eric lives close by) and then Eric looks at me and says, "That was the last time I ever saw him". The second story comes from Dick Rude at the Q&A at the film's premiere at the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival, which he told to give an example of Strummer's view of the world. During an interview Strummer was asked by a reporter what were some of the new bands that he liked and much to the reporter's surprise Strummer mentions Third Eye Blind. He explains that they played some dates together and that Strummer thought they were really good guys. The reporter goes, well that may be, but their music is pretty pedestrian, don't you think? Strummer tells him that he likes their music and doesn't see anything wrong with mainstream pop as long as it's good. The reporter gives Strummer a look of, "OK, if you think so", to which Strummer sternly replies, "There's room for everybody, you know?". It's this attitude and this line that I will always associate with Strummer and the next time I hear Third Eye Blind I think I'll give them the benefit of the doubt.

Friday, January 26, 2007

THE HOST - How Not to Release An International Blockbuster in the U.S.

Before I begin this post I want to make one thing clear: I do not have anything against Eamonn Bowles. I have never met him, he’s never met me, and I don’t think we have any mutual acquaintances or enemies. What little I know of him I actually admire, mainly that he is the president of NY-based indie distributor Magnolia Pictures, plays in a rock band, and is a longtime supporter of WFMU, the world’s greatest radio station. Oh yeah, and I think he’s a dope.

Not many of you know this, but the region 3 DVD for Bong Joon-ho’s THE HOST was released two weeks ago in South Korea and all throughout Asia. THE HOST, if you haven’t heard of it, was the surprise critical hit of last year’s Cannes Film Festival which then went on to become the highest grossing film in Korean box office history. It’s played all the major festivals (I saw it at the New York Film Festival in October) and has received scores of critical praise pretty much everywhere it plays. It’s also a giant monster movie. A South Korean giant monster movie that shows just how to make slick, smart, intelligent, fun, funny, thrilling motion picture entertainment. I’m not saying it’s the second coming of JAWS, but it’s a pretty terrific picture that you’d have to be missing a pulse to dislike. I have one friend, let’s call him “Jason Bylan”, who claims to love horror movies but hates pretty much every horror film made this decade (including, incredibly, THE DESCENT) and even he liked this movie. Damn, it must be good. If you see THE HOST, chances are you will like it, like it a lot, and tell your friends to see it. And Magnolia Pictures, Mr. Bowles’ company, happens to have the U.S. rights to THE HOST and is planning on releasing the film in theaters this March. Here’s a link to the film’s website and trailer that should pique your interest in seeing it. So by all means Magnolia should be getting ready to clear some space in their bank vault for all of the money that THE HOST is going to make, right? Not quite. And the reason being is that Eamonn Bowles, whom I’ve never met and have nothing against, is a dope.

Once THE HOST screened at Cannes, Magnolia picked up all North American rights and quickly set an October release date. Play dates at major North American festivals were booked to build up to the release. And then October became November. November became January. January became March and it’s looking like we’ll see THE HOST finally hit U.S. movie screens on March 7. If you haven’t seen the film, I heartily recommend it, of course, especially on a big screen. But the chances are pretty good that a lot of you will have seen the film before March 7 and there’s little anyone could do about that. They could have, but for some reason the film wasn’t released when it should have been and that’s why Eamonn Bowles is a dope.

I really should make it clear that it’s not so much Eamonn Bowles himself I find to be a dope, but rather the decision (which I have no doubt Bowles was involved in) to keep moving this film back. I understand – and am completely sympathetic to – the issues that go into distributing films in 2007. It’s not an easy (or cheap) thing to do and the market place is very crowded right now. The argument can be made on their end that in order to do this release properly and get the maximum amount of screens they would have to wait until March and maybe they’re right. But anyone who pays attention to this kind of thing knows that by delaying the release they were increasing the chance that the film was going to be bootlegged all over the place. Now that the region 3 disc (which contains English subtitles) is out, the theatrical prospects for THE HOST have diminished significantly. Let me give you two examples of how. Example #1: At the office I work at, a fellow employee has already passed a few DVD-Rs of the region 3 disc around to fellow employees. He’s not selling it to them, he’s just making copies, simply as a friendly gesture. The ironic thing is that I work for a company where piracy has cost us millions (if not billions) of dollars and yet it’s just as blatant in these offices as it is on a blanket at the corner of Canal and Lafayette. Example #2: I pass through a shopping mall on the way home every day and there are two kiosks there that sell bootlegs of martial arts films and other Asian cinema hits. I passed by it the other day to see DRAGON TIGER GATE playing (not very good, I’m told) and, out of curiosity, asked the East Indian gentleman who tends to the kiosk if THE HOST was available. “Next week”, he said, and went back to the martial arts mayhem on the screen.

There are kiosks like this in malls all over (I’ve seen several in N.J.) and nothing is being done about them. They were all selling region 1 bootlegs of DISTRICT 13, THE PROTECTOR, OLDBOY, LADY VENGEANCE, FEARLESS, SEVEN SWORDS and pretty much every major Asian non-animated film made over the last five years. Once they hit theaters most of those films tanked (FEARLESS did OK) and to me the reason is obvious, the audience already saw them. Hell, everyone I knew saw OLDBOY on disc before it hit theaters here. The crowd for these films is very tech savvy and they know when and where they can get these things. If it’s available elsewhere but it doesn’t have subtitles, they can create them themselves. And once a good DVD version is available, you know it’s only a matter of time that a title is available for download on some file-sharing site. That’s not something I really partake in, but I’m sure that for those who do, they’ve already seen THE HOST. And there’s not much you can do about that. Some might say that these multi-region DVD players are the problem, but there are millions of them out there, so you try and stop them. Same goes for all of the online importers and hipster video stores that sell and rent the multi-region DVDs. Besides, studios like Miramax (back in the Weinstein days) already tried, with little success. No, the real answer is to be on the ball and release the film before they can get those bootlegs out. Had THE HOST opened in October like it was supposed to we would not be having this conversation. More than likely the U.S. DVD would be hitting stores around now and Magnolia would be making room in the vaults for all the money it would be bringing in (and maybe picking up a few year-end awards, too). But that’s not the case. THE HOST will probably do some decent business in theaters but it will not have legs and disappear from theaters quickly, hitting DVD by mid-summer. The word-of-mouth on the film is justifiably excellent, but if your 15 year-old nephew has a pristine copy he can loan you for nothing, why pay $10 to see it?

I’m sure whatever Magnolia’s reasons were for waiting almost 6 months to release THE HOST in this country were sound and justifiable in their eyes, but they came at a price to the film and now they’ve done it a disservice. I’d love to see THE HOST become a big hit over here, but I doubt that’s going to happen and it’s a fucking shame. It’s also a shame that you can’t sit back and take some extra time to care and finesse a film into theaters but rather have to run a race against bootleggers, but that’s the reality of the situation in 2007. While the theatrical release of a film is pretty much a glorified promotion for the DVD release these days, THE HOST still deserved more. Someone over at Magnolia must have known that timing was of the essence, but they didn’t follow through. What dopes.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Tonight, After the Movie, We Dine at Denny's!

Another film from the Butt-Numb-A-Thon experience this past December was one that came as a surprise to few in attendance, Zack Snyder’s 300, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller of SIN CITY fame. Obviously, the AICN crowd is the prime target for it (along with the “300 Spartans Re-Enactment” crowd) and they can often times be a little too kind to films like these that only mean anything to the target audience and few others. 300 is another one of those CGI-made films where actors stand in front of a green screen and then the sets and locations are later generated around them. While I usually have a real issue with these types of things, having seen the trailer to 300 and figuring out that this approach was seemingly the right one to take, I decided to give this one a fair shot. The CGI-ness of 300 is not really its problem, although it no doubt would have been a better movie without it, but, yes, it does help keep the film closer to its source. What really is the problem is that this is a film made for and by fans of the comics. If you’re not in the loop you’re not really going to care. It’s the old tale of the 300 Spartans told in monochrome colors with lotsa blood and male posturing and for what it is I suppose it’s OK, but you’ve seen it all done before and done better, frankly. I’m all for tired old clichés when they work, but there’s only so many times a person can hear a Spartan scream, “Tonight we dine in Hell!!!” without laughing for the wrong reason.

One of the BNAT audience members told Snyder at the Q&A afterwards that “there’s never been a movie like this before”, but what that really means is that they’ve never seen a movie like this before, although I’m sure they must have if they’ve seen GLADIATOR or SPARTACUS, BRAVEHEART, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, SIN CITY and I would toss in a little movie called THE 300 SPARTANS which just so happens to tell the exact same story. 300 doesn’t add anything new to either this story (except maybe a giant monster or two) or to this type of picture; like most of these things, it’s nothing more than a bunch of male posturing and talk about fighting and dying with honor and blah, blah, blah. But I’m not going to harp on 300 too much because it isn’t a complete washout. Some of the imagery is indeed pretty cool (and that is the desired effect, after all), the film is incredibly violent (maybe the most violent R-rated film ever) and Gerald Butler gives a solid lead performance that should probably get his career on track at last. I’ve never really warmed to Butler in the past (not like he’s ever had the best material to work with), but he’s just right here. A big, burly brute who is essentially one giant muscle and he’s perfect for the part; often times magnetic, he’ll probably pick up quite a few lady fans after this. And it’s always nice to see Stephen McHattie in any movie, so that’s also a plus. But anyone who does back flips over 300 had also better damn well acknowledge that there is absolutely nothing below the surface on this one, that it’s only spectacle and eye candy and only means so much in the grand scheme of things. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m all for senseless violence on the screen, but senseless violence just on its own is fun to look at, but nothing more. And 300 is whole lotta nothing more.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

But What Will They Call the Porn Version?

First off, welcome to HQ10. Your movie is on the upper level, enjoy the show.

I've decided to run my review of Craig Brewer's new film, BLACK SNAKE MOAN, in part because the film is now screening at Sundance (with some tickets going for $345!) but in part also because it doesn't open for another month and I'm a firm believer in bragging rights. But more importantly, I do so as a tribute to my friend in L.A. who told me "You should really start a blog", not because she said she admired my writing or anything but because it's a good way to showcase said writing to potential employers. Smart woman. Anyway, she's been obsessing over this thing for a while now, and not wanting to rub her face in it (she knows I've seen the film), but I figured that a full scale review of some kind is in order, before the Sundance hordes (and whores) weigh in.

I saw BLACK SNAKE MOAN at Harry Knowles' annual Butt-Numb-A-Thon event in Austin last month and I feel the need to mention that in part because it was easily one of the better films to screen that day, but also because, unlike most of the other films shown (and don't ask me to get into some long rant against Harry and the AICN crowd because I'm not going to), it displayed more real human emotion than pretty much anything else screened. While it certainly looks better in hindsight it looked pretty damn good then, too, and I expect it to get a solid critical and audience reaction when it comes out. I don't know if this is going to be a mainstream hit, but I have the feeling that those who see it will probably like it quite a bit.

BLACK SNAKE MOAN may sound like it has an incendiary premise (Memphis farmer Jackson, hurting from a recent divorce, finds local nymphomaniac Christina Ricci beaten up on the road outside his house and decides to cure her of her wonton ways by chaining her to his radiator) but what's most surprising is how Brewer infuses his story with generous amounts of, well, soul. For a film set and shot in Memphis this would seemingly be second nature, but BLACK SNAKE is more of a blues-styled film and that music becomes something like a third lead to Jackson and Ricci. It's vital to the film and I have to give Brewer an amazing amount of credit for picking just the right music, which is not something I say lightly. I must confess that I'm really not a blues fan, you see. So much of it feels phony to me that I just want to leave the room, but here, it's riveting. There's a scene where Jackson takes out his steel guitar and plays a number for Ricci and you can see that the character is getting out a lot of repressed emotions by playing the blues. It's such an amazing moment that the audience applauded and what's even more impressive is that Jacskon himself sang and played the song. It's a great scene, not just for the music but also for Jackson, who is BLACK SNAKE MOAN's true saving grace.

Many have said that after SNAKES ON A PLANE (come on, it wasn't that bad) Jackson's career has gone downhill and that he's probably just a step away from direct-to-video titles. They're going to have to take that back, as this is probably the best performance Jackson has given to date, more so than PULP FICTION or JUNGLE FEVER. For the record, Jackson has never lost it: he's never given a performance that was bad or second rate, but he has appeared in some bad movies, that's for sure. However, his work in BLACK SNAKE MOAN is something completely different altogether and it's something that truly needs to be seen. I don't want to get too much into it because I feel it's a performance to savor and, more importantly, just watch, so I'll let my comments stand. Ricci is also fine, I suppose Justin Timberlake wasn't that bad, and the always-welcome S. Epatha Merkerson provides excellent support. And I'm told that 70s child star Kim Richards of the WITCH MOUNTIAN movies and "Hello, Larry" fame is in here somewhere, but I can't recall where. If it's in the role I think it is, then Brewer must be a big fan.

One other thing to mention about the film: Despite all the cussin' and nudity (sure to please all of Ms. Ricci's fans) this is also a surprisingly Christian-based film. I wouldn't quite say "holy", but this film respects Christian values more than most mainstream major studio films these days do, and that's something. No doubt many in the Focus on the Family crowd will not see past these elements, but for those who can, I think they will be pleasantly surprised.

I have a feeling that certain friends of mine will likewise not be disappointed.