Wednesday, December 31, 2008

8 Hours of Power: Steven Soderbergh's CHE and Sion Sono's LOVE EXPOSURE

Taking the time out to view a 4-hour movie certainly requires a real commitment beyond that of time, because it also requires you to psyche yourself up, to prep for taking in four hours of story, characterization, themes, and ideas that could prove a bit much by film’s end. Heaven forbid that the film itself sucks, too, because on top of everything you’re going to feel like it’s been time wasted watching “that” other than wasting your time doing something else. But when films reach a truly epic length one often feels that it’s almost a safe bet, because despite the time, if a filmmaker is going to spend four hours (or more, if possible) telling a story, then that story must truly be something special. GONE WITH THE WIND is one of the most obvious examples (though it comes in under 4 hours), because audiences not only accepted the film’s length before they ever sat down, they also respected it, because the story was that big. Granted, not everyone would be into such a thing, but true cinema lovers would relish the opportunity to take in some kind of 4-hour epic if they felt it was worth their while (and the reviews are good). Being one step head and above of most film aficionados (don’t feel so bad, it just comes naturally), I took the time to do this twice in the space of a week, and I couldn’t find two more dissimilar films to do it with than Steven Soderbergh’s CHE, about the famed South American revolutionary and college dorm room fixture, and Sion Sono’s LOVE EXPOSURE, which is about the importance of sinning and mastering the art of the upskirt photograph, among many other things. I did not say that there was any logic to these choices, other than the fact that I simply wanted to see them both. Needless to say, I don’t really possess much logic to begin with.

Soderbergh’s CHE (which is currently screening in its complete form in NYC, L.A., and in the living rooms of Academy members and other screener participants, before being split into two seperate features) was the closing feature of Harry Knowles’ annual Butt-Numb-A-Thon 24-hour movie marathon, and the general conscientious was that it was a bad call to make that the closer. Even though the BNAT crowd are indeed die hard movie lovers, programming CHE – about as non-mainstream a film as you’re going to get these days – after 20 hours of films like MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3-D and I LOVE YOU, MAN – was simply off-base. That said, it also take a real die hard film lover to still appreciate CHE after all that, and on that simple account, some of us emerged victorious, myself included (hooray for me!). Having had not very much knowledge of the events of the Cuban revolution (other than what I saw in THE GODFATHER, PART II), I can’t really judge CHE for its historical accuracy or for its passion for the subject matter, I can only judge it as a piece of cinema, and on that respect alone I give it high marks. Soderbergh doesn’t seem to be too interested in telling the story of the Cuban revolution so much how one man’s belief in a cause can shape the world, and that he makes it compelling for just over four hours is very much to his credit. Like its protagonist, CHE is full of drive and passion, if only to present a portion of this important part of world history, so if you get lost by who’s who and what’s what (like I’ll confess I did), you can still admire it solely on an aesthetic level, like I’ll confess I did, as well. While watching the film I remember that Terrence Malick was once slated to direct, and suddenly it occurred to me that while Soderbergh wasn’t quite out to make a Malick film, he’s used that style to document these events, especially in the second half (due to be released as GUERRILLA), giving the events depicted a serine, but still lifelike, feel. And taking the film out of the context of “history” and simply making it a “you are there” style also makes it more compelling for ijuts like me, because I feel the need to fill in the gaps of the story and go back to it at some point. Can it feel slow and confusing? Yes, but if that’s the case then the problem is probably more me than the film itself, but my interest is certainly piqued and I’m eager to learn more. But I do know that Soderbergh, as uneven as he can be at times, is unquestionably one of the more challenging filmmakers working in the U.S. these days, and after CHE, my respect for him grows more and more.

So while CHE is unquestionably a serious intellectual enterprise, Sion Sono’s LOVE EXPOSURE may seem incredibly silly, even infantile, by comparison, but that’s definitely not the case. Sono, like Soderbergh, has been an extremely erratic filmmaker for me (I rather enjoyed EXTE: HAIR EXTENSIONS, but walked out of STRANGE CIRCUS at the 2006 Fantasia Film Festival, awkwardly bumping into Sono in the lobby as I did), but there’s no question that he’s struck movie gold with LOVE EXPOSURE, a picture that could quite possibly become the reigning cult film of 2009. This is a picture with a hell of a lot going on and a lot on both its heart and mind, so it can’t quite carry its own weight for the entire time (it drags a bit in the final hour), but it packs in so damn much and does it with admirable heart and drive (not unlike CHE) that one it tempted to rate it higher than they might have otherwise. Yet, it’s so admirable that Sono pulls off so much of it so well, that you just want to say, “What the hell” and set up your own distribution company just to make sure this puppy gets seen. What I particularly like about LOVE EXPOSURE is how it rather successfully jumps around genres for those four hours – it’s equal parts silly comedy, meditation on religious beliefs, and a testament to the power of love – but never feels disjointed. LOVE EXPOSURE is the story of Yu (played by Japanese pop star Takahiro Nishijima), who grows up in a devoutly religious (and happy) household. After his mother’s death, his father enters the priesthood, but is lured away years later when he falls in love with a parishioner. After she leaves him, Yu’s father becomes despondent, urging his son to confess his sins and refusing to believe him when Yu tells him that there are none. Yu soon realizes that the only way to please –and possibly save – his father is to begin sinning, which he does expertly. And if you think I’m telling you too much, don’t worry, because I pretty much just described only the opening 30 minutes or so. Needless to say, there’s a lot more, and you soon realize that the 4-hour running time is pretty much justified.

I’m sure that many legit critics will look at LOVE EXPOSURE as nothing more than a cult item, which I suppose it will be, but as a cult items there’s no question it’s more ambitious than many other pictures out there these days. This is a wild and alive film, heartfelt but also giddy insane and reckless; all over the map but also surprisingly restrained. It’s densely packed, but not jammed with so many ideas that it confuses or alienates its audience, and I’m really in awe of it right now. Is it art? Is it something for the intellectuals, like CHE? Probably not (though I’d sure like it if it did get embraced in such a way), but I have no doubt that it’s going to find an audience. I have no idea if it’s ever going to get any kind of release here (it opens in Japan on January 31), but it’s sure to be hot shit on the festival circuit (I know of one festival I’m pushing for it to play at), and with any hope some brave soul will pick it up here. I certainly hope so, because I have a very strong feeling I’m going to discussing it again this time next year. 2009 already has one film in its cannon that’s going to be hard to top. Four hours or not, we need more movies like LOVE EXPOSURE.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy 80th Birthday to Dick Miller!

With his 80th birthday upon us tomorrow (Christmas day, naturally), I'm reprinting this ode to the great Dick Miller I did this time last year. Can someone forward this to him? That would be just wonderful if you could.

Happy birthday, Dick!


Why Dick Miller is my favorite actor I don’t think I’ll ever know. There are plenty of other actors I love and admire – Burt Lancaster, Harrison Ford, Sam Neill, John Payne – but Dick Miller trumps them all. I see Dick Miller in a movie, usually not for very long, and I’m momentarily very happy, no matter how awful the movie can be, because there’s my guy, my favorite actor. I suppose you can look upon Dick as a guy who comes in, does his thing and does it well, and then gets out, like a true character actor, but there has always been something about Dick to me that has made him more than a mere actor. Dick Miller has a natural quality to him, the appearance that he’s not actually acting but that he’s that guy, a real guy who happens to be in this movie. I’m not talking method acting here, but I’m when I’m watching THE TERMINATOR and I see Dick playing the gun shop owner who tells Schwarzenegger that any one of his machine guns are “ideal for home defense”, I don’t see the actor, I see the gun shop owner, and not just any gun shop owner, but the guy who owns my local gun shop, a next door neighbor or friend of my dad’s who I’ve known in one way or another all of my life. I see Dick Miller on screen and suddenly I get very comfortable. In a rather odd way, I see an old friend up there.

It’s not quite like Dick Miller is an actor who dominates a film with an astounding presence, because he has the look and feel of a character actor, which he unquestionably is. He’s only had one leading role in his entire career, in Roger Corman’s great black comedy A BUCKET OF BLOOD, and though he was terrific in it, Dick didn’t have that “leading man” aspect to him, so he never got those parts. BUCKET apparently did well, but it wasn’t like they were breaking Dick’s door down, so he continued on doing small roles mainly in Corman productions and eventually films made by graduates of the Corman system, people like Jonathan Kaplan, Alan Arkush, Steve Carver and, of course, Joe Dante, the man who has probably done more to grow the Dick Miller legend than Miller himself. I suppose some actors might be bitter about it (and it’s possible Dick has been), but Dick has had a career that’s spawned over 50 years and not a lot of actors can say that. And if you ask me, what a career it’s been.

Dick’s forte has been mainly exploitation and genre films, with the occasional drama or western and a lot of TV work, but so many of those films are among the best of their genres and Dick easily stood out in them. Can you imagine LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, GREMLINS 1 & 2 or HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD without Dick Miller? Don’t even try. A lot of Dick’s films happen to be classics of their genres and that’s no doubt led to his respectable following over the years. I think one of the reasons I like Dick so much is because I discovered him at around the same time I discovered the great drive-in and exploitation movies of Corman and New World Pictures as a kid and so I guess I associate my love of Dick with my love of those films, which is pretty vast. Dante also has a big part in this, as he’s another one of my idols and someone who I think is one of the great underrated American filmmakers (and a Jersey boy, too), so they all go together like peanut butter and jelly, and as far as I’m concerned they’re with me for life. You can’t always choose the things you love, because sometimes they just find you. I think this is one of those times.

I was lucky enough to meet Dick Miller once. It was in January 1995 at the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors in NYC; Dick was there to promote DEMON KNIGHT the TALES FROM THE CRYPT movie that he had a sizeable co-starring role in. He doesn’t make a lot of personal appearances, so this was a pretty big deal for me and I got a big kick out of watching the man do his Q&A, even asking him some questions (I can’t remember what they were, though) and it was very fucking cool as far as I was concerned. DEMON KNIGHT was screening later that evening and when I was leaving the hotel with my friend Michael Gingold (Fango’s managing editor), we bumped into Dick and his lovely wide, Lainie, as they were getting ready to attend the show. We suggested that we share a cab, as they didn’t know where the theater was and also because it was ass-freezing cold outside. I can’t begin to tell you how psyched I was on the cab ride up, to be sharing a cab with one of my idols (yes, one of my idols!) but I have to say I never lost it. When we got to the theater (I can’t recall its name then, but it’s the Imaginasian now) there was already a small line to get in, but Mike got the theater to let Dick and Lainie wait inside while I had to freeze it out in the bitter January cold (and trust me, it was really, really cold). Apparently, while they waited inside Mike informed Dick of how excited I was about meeting him and Dick then suggested that Mike and I join them for breakfast the following morning with journalist Tom Weaver (also a friend of Mike’s)! Breakfast with Dick Miller was too good to be true (this shows how big a fan I am – and how big a geek) and to top it off, DEMON KNIGHT was a pretty good little movie and Dick was great in it, so I couldn’t be happier about the entire thing. The breakfast was wonderful indeed; we got stories about the early days of working with Corman, Dick’s pre-stardom friendship with Jack Nicholson, tales of working on DEMON KNIGHT, but even better was just getting to know the man a little and discovering that not only was he a great actor, he was also a terrific person, too. I attended his second Q&A the following afternoon and afterwards did something I rarely, if ever, do with actors or celebrities – I got my picture taken with him. I still have the picture to this day, although I don’t have a scanner or else I would have run it here, and it’s a prized picture not so much for the photo itself (if I could do it over again I would not have worn the sweater I was wearing) but for what happened when it was taken: Dick put his arm around me and said, “This one is special”. The guy knew who I was. He knew I was a real fan and he knew I was serious in my appreciation of him and his work. It remains the best experience I’ve ever had with a celebrity or a person I admire because it was special. Dick Miller is special. I can’t explain why, but he just is.

Dick Miller will be 79 next Tuesday, Christmas Day (a more fitting day for my favorite actor to be born I can’t even fathom), and even though this Blog-A-Thon has not received many fellow contributors (the only other commitment I received was from Ed Hardy of Shoot The Projectionist), I couldn’t be happier to write about Dick Miller. I wish him a Happy Birthday and many, many more years on this planet and hopefully many, many more movies for him to appear in. He’s the best.

The 8 Songs of Christmas: Day Eight

Well, it's the last in the series. I love these songs, and out of all of them, this one may be the most fun. I love the performance piece that goes along with it, too. I've got zero Wizzard in my collection other than this tune, and I've got to rectify that in '09.

Happy Christmas to everyone!

Santapalooza 2008 Secrets Revealed!

Every year it’s the same; buy a bunch of new music, put together a CD, burn a whole shitload of copies out, send them to friends, and – viola! – it’s a new edition of Santapalooza. I’ve been doing this for several years now and I seem to have it all down pretty well, but the search for new music will always be there. Sure, there’s a ton of Christmas music out there, but for me to put a song on one of my Santapalooza CDs (which always double as my Christmas card) I’ve got to think that it‘s something truly special, or at the very least it’s gotta be catchy, and if there’s one thing that I really like, it’s a good, catchy song. Santapalooza 2008 is full of them.

(Please Note: I’m not offering any downloads of these songs, so don’t ask.)

Peggy Lee, “I Like a Sleigh Ride (Jingle Bells)” – I used to work for EMI (a horrible experience that I don’t recommend to anyone) and one of the few upsides to the job were the monthly MRI’s, which meant you could order up four CDs or LPs from the EMI catalog (Beatles titles excepted). This time last year I decided I should dive into some classic Christmas music, and not having much Peggy Lee in my collection, this one made a lot of sense to me. This is the first track and I knew that I’d heard it before, but I also knew that it would be perfect to include it on this year’s comp. It’s bright and zippy and fun, and I also like how Ms. Peggy Lee takes a classic song but does her own thing with it. It was nice to read in the CD’s liner notes (written by Lee’s daughter) about how Lee really loved Christmas and was fond of this album, which I am, too.

Lou Rawls, “Good Time Christmas” – I love Lou Rawls. Here was another artist who I took advantage of with my EMI MRI’s, and I got some wonderful stuff out it, such his great Christmas comp, which features this wonderful, soulful piece. This is from Rawls in his prime, a real piece of R&B/soul power, and it’s probably the funkiest thing on here. I do love it so.

The Orchids, “Christmas is the Time to be With Your Baby” – Got this one off of a Universal Music Publishing comp that I picked up in Amoeba Music during a weekend jaunt to L.A. last November. That was a good trip, and I found a lot of tunes for this year’s CD from it, like this one.

James Brown, “Signs of Christmas” – James Brown is a Santapalooza staple, and this slower soul piece fits in just right.

Marvin & Johnny, “It’s Christmas Time” – Took this off of a great early 90’s Christmas comp from EMI (now out of print) that I also found at Amoeba last year. A lovely 50s Doo-Wop piece that deserves to be better known than it is.

The Belmonts, “Wintertime” – Taken off of the same EMI comp, this one almost didn’t make the list because it barely mentions Christmas itself. But it’s a beautiful little song that fit perfectly with Marvin & Johnny, so I couldn’t say no, and I didn’t.

Barry and the Highlights, “Xmas Bell Rock” – From Doo-Wop to rockabilly, taken off of the majestic Rockabilly Christmas from Buffalo Bop. One of the great Christmas CDs of all time, I will continue to use it as a source of holiday joy for all my friends.

Cathy Sharpe, “North Pole Rock” – Rockabilly Christmas once again, and what’s wrong with that? Sharpe has a kind of Wanda Jackson presence, which make me love this track all the more.

Albert King, “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’” – I accidentally labeled this as Rufus Thomas (I owe everyone an apology, especially Misters King and Thomas), but it’s a great piece that I couldn’t pass up. Some CDs don’t include this, as it is not all that family-friendly. Sorry if you’re one of those folks.

Isaac Hayes, “You, the Mistletoe and Me” – I had already planned to include this well before Mr. Hayes’ passing this August, and it’s unfortunate that it’s included as a tribute. It’s a great piece of soul music and one of my favorites of Hayes'. R.I.P., Black Moses.

Manfred Mann, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” – A fairly quick instrumental, but so good I couldn’t pass it up. Jaunty and jazzy are probably the best ways to describe it, and though I’m sure it was a throwaway track for the band, they still made it special.

Nat King Cole, “Oh Holy Night” – I tend to stay away from the mainstays – which this number most certainly is – but I’ve loved it all my life, so I knew it was going to end up on one of these eventually. To me, there are few more wonderful moments in song than when Cole sings “Oh night divine”. Real magic.

Absinthe Blind, “Silent Night” – Never heard of this band before until I took a chance on a Parasol Records comp called Stuck in the Chimney at last year’s Amoeba haul, and I knew once I’d heard this track that it would make its way onto this year’s comp. It’s ambitious and modern, but also very respectful of the piece and they really get this piece right. I should look into more stuff from this band.

Apples in Stereo, “Holiday Mood” – I love these power poppers, and I was completely expecting a full-on power pop track from them, but no. This one’s softer, quieter and very easy to listen to, but it strikes the right cord and is a really nice holiday tune all around.

Bobby Goldsboro, “Look Around You (It’s Christmas Time)” – You certainly expect the man who gave us “Honey” to give us a holiday bummer and he certainly doesn’t disappoint, but he doesn’t miss his mark, either. The holidays ain’t always easy and it’s not a bad idea to remind folks of that. A bit of a downer, yes, but a good downer, says I.

Sufjan Stevens, “Get Behind Me, Santa!” – This track comes from the 2005 portion of Steven’s mega Christmas box, and it’s a really fun piece, with Santa defending his actions against those who think he’s a nuisance. Very peppy and lots of fun.

Tralala, “Everybody Christmastime” – This three song EP from Brooklyn hipsters Tralala is full of #1 hits like this one, which is even peppier than the last song. Compliments the Stevens song really well, but I think this is the better track. Expect song #3 to show up next year.

David Carwell and Megan Barnes, “I Wanna Kiss You This Christmas” – More peppiness abounds, courtesy of the It’s a Team Mint Christmas Volume 2 collection, featuring artist found on Mint Records. Nice little ditty, I think.

“Merry Christmas, Baby” – The Beach Boys – Resisting the cry to put “Little St. Nick” on one of these comps (it’s great, but it’s overplayed), and realized that this one fits the bill just fine. Interesting thing about it, if you listen to the lyrics (which you always should), it’s not a song about a jilted lover, but about a cheating jerk who realizes his mistake. Not really great holiday fodder, but I’m still giving this one a pass.

“Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End)” – Just after The Darkness’ Permission to Land was a big hit in the U.K., they released this single, which failed to reached the coveted #1 Christmas spot (a big deal in the U.K.), but it’s a new Christmas classic as far as I’m concerned. I had no idea The Darkness broke up. Damn shame; I liked their stuff.

“A Merry Jingle” – The Greedies – This is one of the great Power Punk singles, and if you’re looking for supergroups, then look no further than this melding of Thin Lizzy and the Sex Pistols. This was one of those songs I’d been trying to get for years, and finally have thanks to that Uni comp I got at Amoeba.

“Truckin’ Trees for Christmas” – Red Simpson’s Trucker’s Christmas gets a play once again, and I think I’ve got one or two more track to use before I’m through with it. And I say without any irony or facetiousness, but we should remember the truckers this Christmas, as they will be out there on the roads, away from their families (or without families), and they deserve to have a Merry Christmas, too.

“Christmas in November”, Slim Pickens – OK, this is the big one, the one I’ve been looking to get on here since I started Santapalooza back in ‘o2. Here’s the story: 20 years ago, I was a freshman at Union County College in Cranford, NJ, where I was DJing on the campus radio station. I found this one in our 45 bin and, knowing who Slim Pickens was, decided to give it a whirl on my Christmas show (which I taped, and still have). Stunned by what I’d heard, I would play it for a few folks over the years with a similarly stunned reaction. When I started Santapalooza, I was hoping to find an MP3 or it (or maybe on CD), but there was nothing out there. Finally, I lucked out last year – a .45 was available on Ebay. Not only was I the only bidder, this was a promo copy that had never been played – insane! I had to send it to a friend of mine in L.A. to get it on CD (no one else I know here has the ability to do this), along with another track, and once I got it I knew it was going in. So what’s so damn weird about it? Well, how many Christmas songs dedicated to dying kids do you know of? Add Slim Pickens to this mix and you’ve got the strangest Christmas song of all time. I had to leave this one off of a few CDs that go out to friends with kids, but if you’ve got then cherish it, because it’s a rarity. And I’m never selling that .45, so don’t even ask. Merry Christmas, Slim Pickens!

Reggae Christmas Eve in Transylvania”, Count Floyd (Joe Flaherty) – The second track I had my L.A. pal burn on CD for me, this is another rarity, although not quite up there with “Christmas in November”. After the success of the Bob and Doug McKenzie album in 1982, Joe Flaherty cut a 4-track EP as Count Floyd, which I picked up a few years later in ’84. Good thing, too, because I’d never seen or heard of it since and it contains this odd, but amusing, Christmas track that’s probably the highlight of the EP. One never really thought to mix Reggae music, Christmas time and Transylvania before, so kudos to Flaherty and crew for coming up with something unique.

“The 12 Days of Christmas”, Bob and Doug McKenzie (Dave Thomas/Rick Moranis) – Could not follow up Count Floyd without Bob and Doug, and I don’t think the two have been heard together since my 1988 WCPE Christmas show. Still pretty funny, and I still love Bob & Doug (and SCTV, of course).

“Sexy Elf”, Canned Hamm – Wrapping it up with one more Canadian comedy Christmas tune, courtesy of Vancouver’s Canned Hamm, off of their 2007 opus, Sincerely Christmas. Sexy elves don’t get enough ink these days, so bless the Hamm duo for this tuneful tribute.

That's it for this year. For more holiday tune info, get an earful at Mistletunes.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The 8 Songs of Christmas: Day Seven

There's a lot of things you can say about Gary Glitter - and we all know what those things are - but I have to say this: Very few rock 'n' roll performers can dance around in a Santa outfit and not look like an idiot, and Gary Glitter is one of them. Here's wishing a Glam Christmas to everyone!

Monday, December 22, 2008

The 8 Songs of Christmas: Day Six

What happend to The Darkness? Everyone loved them so much when they first hit the scene, and then no one cared. Well I care, and I'm happy - and unashamed - to present this contemporary holiday classic to you all. Enjoy it - I know you will.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The 8 Songs of Christmas: Day Five

Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?" is a rarity - a holiday-themed charity song that's just a great song in and of itself, a tune that would have been a hit no matter what the reason or the season. I think people don't give co-writer Midge Ure (or Ultravox) for the success of the track, as he composed the music (Geldorf wrote the lyrics) and was actively involved in the production. It all took a lot of hard work, but the result is magic and is still one of the best Christmas songs of any era.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The 8 Songs of Christmas: Day Four

Greg Lake's "I Believe in Father Christmas" is one of the downbeat holidays songs, but it's a powerful piece, one that would have been a hit had it been about the Easter Bunny or something like that. Still, it's probably Lake's masterpiece, and the guy had a lot of hits. OK, he had a lot of good songs, in addition to hits. Kinda painted myself into a corner there.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The 8 Songs of Christmas: Day Three

Slade's "Merry Xmas, Everybody" is one of the all-time great rock Christmas songs, but it's unusual in that it never received much attention (or at least I'd never heard of it) until the past decade or so. Had Slade fallen in favor that much? No matter, we've been making up for lost time with a big resurgence in this one, and it's unquestionably a favorite. I know that in the U.K. it's almost like "White Christmas", and it may even be the better song. Yes, I did just say that.

It's also worth noting that the entire Christmas Day '74 episode of Top of the Pops (where this clip come from) is available in segments on You Tube. Great stuff.

"I Finish Things". - Clint Eastwood's GRAN TORINO

One other highlight of the L.A. trip was attending a screening of GRAN TORINO, Clint Eastwood’s latest, on the Warner Brothers lot. Though I’ve been on the lot once before, this was the first screening I’ve ever attended there, and though it’s not like Clint himself was there, it was still a cool experience to be on the famed lot to see a movie there. Granted, if you live in L.A. then it’s probably a common thing, but it was a new experience for me and I’m still a little jazzed by it. What also made the experience fun was seeing GRAN TORINO with my friend Devin Faraci of CHUD.com, and it was especially nice that we both liked the picture – me perhaps a bit more than him – and to see a bit of our conversation afterwards show up in Devin’s review of the movie. We both couldn’t help but remark that others in the online film community, particularly those who are in their twenties, are passing off the film and Eastwood’s performance as camp when it seems pretty obvious to me that they’re just not getting it. First off, there’s a lot of intentional comedy to be found in GRAN TORINO, mostly in it opening third, and some of it is really quite wonderful.

Just as Eastwood’s reputation as an actor took a little too long to get recognized, it’s also time that we acknowledge that he’s a wonderfully dry comedian, albeit when the material’s right, which it is here. The opening suggests that the film will be a bit more broad than it ends up as (though it’s not really a problem), so bits like Clint’s scowls and “Get off my lawn” are, rest assured, there for your enjoyment. But I’m also seeing that these younger viewers aren’t getting the film’s message of intolerance, either, and though it’s something that I don’t agree with, I sort of understand it. Some seem to think that the film itself is racist because it wallows in stereotypes and expects us to sympathize with a racist, but once again, that’s not quite right. To start, Clint Kowalski isn’t a racist – he’s prejudiced. That may not seem like too much of a difference, but having grown up among many Irish-Americans who believe that no race or nationality is above the Irish, I understand this character a little bit better than I’d like to. The most telling scene that proves this comes in the film’s second half, where Kowalski takes his Hmong neighbor to the local barbershop to “man up” and trade quips with the Italian-American barber, who jokes with Kowalski about his being Polish while Kowalski mocks the barber for being Italian. It’s all a back-and-forth; rude, yes, but by no means insulting because it’s just all in fun, and if you’ve proven you can take it then you’re OK and you’re part of the group. We used to do this all the time at the old HQ 10, everyone joking on the others nationalities, race or character traits, and it does a lot more to diffuse any possible racial tensions than it does anything else. Clint’s Kowalski is from an older time when certain people “knew their place” and can’t adjust to the changing world and his changing neighborhood. But once he’s able to get people to meet with them on his level, then they’re OK, and one of the joys of GRAN TORINO, for me was watching this character finally learn that he’s never really understood others like he thought he did, and with the shame he feels, there’s also a sense of peace that comes with it. He’s realizing that it never is too late to learn.

This element is another of GRAN TORINO’s joys, its position as a “twilight” movie and as a story of people in the later days of their lives. I groused about this some months back, but it’s obvious that only a talent of Eastwood’s caliber could get this picture made – without studio interference – and it’s nice to see a story about the aged that’s not GRUMPY OLD MEN, THE BUCKET LIST or some such nonsense. Of course, there’s much talk about how this may be Clint’s swan song as an actor - which would be unfortunate, since he so good – but if it is, it’s a fitting coda to such an incredible, iconic career. It’s especially fascinating that it’s Eastwood himself doing this with a story that smartly encompasses so much near-mythic work that came before it. You see traits and elements of so much of Eastwood’s work – from DIRTY HARRY to UNFORGIVEN to A PERFECT WORLD – that it could only have been Eastwood to play this role. And as I think about the film more, I’m finding interesting comparisons to another finale for a film legend, John Wayne in Don Siegel’s THE SHOOTIST. The similarities are numerous: Older man, unable to adapt to a changing world, is looking to leave his violent past behind him and takes a young man under his wing in his final days, but finds himself drawn into one last confrontation. Siegel’s film likewise played to Wayne’s legend with the knowledge that it would probably be the actor’s swan song, but both films are also statements from these men about their lives and careers, but while Wayne pretty much stayed the course and played the same role that Duke Wayne was famous for, Eastwood’s is a bit of a reactionary piece about some of the roles he’s played and the choices he’s taken in his career. It’s funny that this was once rumored to be another DIRTY HARRY movie, because it’s almost an apology to the part that cemented his legend. It seems like Harry’s legacy troubles him, as it personifies itself in the Hmong gangsters who threaten his neighbors, and in Walt Kowalski, a man who has known violence his whole life and can be quick to act on it, but can no longer live with it. One can’t help but think that is Eastwood himself, and if this really is it for him as an actor, it’s doubtful he could have gone out on a piece as soulful as this.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The 8 Songs of Christmas: Day Two

Some people love Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime", while others loathe it as too sugary and simplistic. I'm not one of those people. Funny thing, I don't remember the song when it was new (it's from 1979), and it took me several years to hear it. And then I wouldn't hear it too often, and I could never find it on .45 or LP. For some reason - though I could be wrong about this - the song too some time to take off, at least here in the States. Nevertheless, you here it all over the place now, so I guess all is right with the world. If you actually like this song, I mean. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The 8 Songs of Christmas: Day One

Don't know if this will become a new holiday tradition here, but I'm finding lots of good stuff online and I feel like sharing it. We start off this year with Mud's "Lonely This Christmas", not my favorite Mud song (that would be "L-L-L-Lucy", no question), but it's works well and this vintage video is fun cheese.

Expect seven more of these. Happy Holidays from HQ 10!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Highlights from My Recent L.A. Trip...

If you’re wondering why I’ve been inactive for the last week (admit it, you’re dying to know), I’ve been in L.A. on official Fantastic Fest business, and I do mean business, going around to various companies to pimp the festival and sell them on the idea that it’s a good idea to use the festival to market their upcoming releases to this crowd. I had about nine different meeting all around town, and I have to say I feel it was a pretty successful week overall, although no actual deals were made, though that wasn’t the point. Get to them before next year’s budgets are put together, convince them we’re worth their time, keep in touch and hopefully all my efforts will bear fruit in nine months time. I’m planting the seed for the little baby that will become Fantastic Fest, and this week was filled with lots and lots of sweet, sweet lovemaking.

God, that is the worst analogy ever. I can’t believe I wrote and published it, but there you go.

What I came back with from this trip to L.A., however, is in seeing the business end of the town more than ever before. I’ve been working in film-related jobs all my life, and have done numerous business trips to L.A. before to attend things like the AFM, but this time out I got much more of a taste of the business of things than probably ever before. Not that it was a bad thing, partly because my meetings went well and the festival and I were well-received, but also because it was that everywhere I went I was surrounded by friends and acquaintances that were all in the industry and all presently working. The economy and the actor’s strike were certainly discussed, but at this point in time most everyone I spoke to had plenty of work to do and were all keeping quite busy (it probably helps that they’re all quite talented). Things can always change (and I’m anticipating that they will), but for this moment in time it was business as usual, and it was somewhat reassuring.

It was also a bit of a kick to see L.A. at Christmastime, which I’d never done before, except in Joel Silver movies. It’s just a bit unusual for me to see Christmas lights on houses in neighborhoods where everything is in full bloom and it’s in the 70s outside, but I like the differences about it, and although the various L.A. homeowners don’t trump the lighting enthusiasm of those back in New Jersey (some of the best you’ll ever see), it was quite nice to drive through West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and Hollywood Boulevard itself to see them all lit up (especially loved to see the giant tree on top of the Capitol Records building), so I was happy to see that L.A. is indeed a town with an unquestionable Christmas spirit. Happy holidays, Los Angeles!

The highlight of the trip for me was unquestionably my traditional Sunday brunch with my friend Mark Loughlin at The Milky Way restaurant on the tip of L.A. and Beverley Hills. It’s a lovely little place with a fine menu of delicious kosher food (I’m not Jewish, but I certainly enjoy the food) and an interesting milieu, because it looks like a shrine to Steven Spielberg, which makes sense since it’s owned and operated by his mother, Leah Adler. She runs the place herself and is usually in attendance; though in my previous visits our paths have failed to cross. This time, however, she was there from the moment I opened the door, as if she were waiting for me, this petite little woman who gave birth to one of my favorite filmmakers, and as I walked in and said “Hello”, she looked at me like only a mother could and said, “I know who you’re here to see. We’ve been waiting for you!” OK, so I was a bit late (hey, I called!), but this was a more that surreal experience for me, to have Spielberg’s mother just standing there waiting for me, but as she sat me at my seat she couldn’t have been lovelier, and she, Mark and myself chatted a bit about the restaurant, the food (I had a very tasty Salmon on potato pancakes and some delicious cheese blitzes), and a bit about her son; nothing too gossipy and none of which I shall repeat, except to say that he’s a nice boy who loves his mother very much. After Mark and I finished, we spoke to Ms. Adler for a bit more, who informed us that she is about to turn 89 this January! Having now finally met this little fireball, I can say that I certainly hope that she’s around for 89 years more.

All in all, a pleasant and productive trip. Hope I get back there soon.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Michael Curtiz's WHITE CHRISTMAS: Not A Classic

With the holiday season upon us, we’re once again besieged by those so-called holiday “classics”; songs, TV specials, books, and movies that claim to be classics for no reason more than that they’re set during the holidays. Since Christmas only comes but once a year – and since people most have short memories – distributors all tend to believe that if it’s got anything to do with Christmas, then it’s got to be a classic, even if it is A VERY ROSIE CHRISTMAS, RUDOLPH & FROSTY’S CHRISTMAS IN JULY or CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS. Most people love the holidays and all that goes with it – the songs, the sights, the food – so they seem to be willing to cut second-rate crap a lot of slack if it’s merely fairly Christmasy, and because of that a lot of stuff passes muster that simply shouldn’t. I know that the holidays are all about peace on earth and goodwill to all, but that shouldn’t extend to the likes of the New Kids on the Block Christmas album (astonishingly re-issued this year), don’t you think? Lame is lame no matter what the season, so with that in mind, HQ 10 respectfully asks, can we please stop calling Michael Curtiz’s 1954 schmaltz epic WHITE CHRISTMAS a classic?

Look, I understand that there’s a lot of talent behind WHITE CHRISTMAS: Curtiz, of course, although he seems to be phoning it in; Irving Berlin; the four leads; beautiful Vista-Vision lensing by Loyal Griggs; great Edith Head costumes, ect. There’s no doubt that WHITE CHRISTMAS is a class production all the way, but that doesn’t forgive the film it’s many flaws, namely an incredibly flimsy script and some second rate songs that don’t do much to inflict entertainment upon the viewer. For all that talent, there’s also zero real inspiration, other than to make a little extra money off of the most famous song ever written. All they did was basically rip-off HOLIDAY INN (a much more entertaining movie, albeit a flawed one – that “Abraham” number still makes me wretch) and slapped what feels like a first draft script onto it; there’s nothing of any significance anywhere in this movie. They must have thought this would be an easy sell back in ’54 (and it was, as the film was a major hit), but the fact that it remains so for a lot of people is still a head-slapper. When was the last time you actually watched the damn thing, people?

Now just so you know, I’m not a total WHITE CHRISTMAS hatin’ Scrooge, because it’s not without its pleasures. This is all due mainly to the four leads, the only ones who seem to be making an effort and the only one who give it any value. Crosby is, of course, Crosby, and he’s great at it, though he was a hell of a lot better in HOLIDAY INN, but this slick, stylish crooner could sell pretty much anything and he sure as hell almost sells WHITE CHRISTMAS. He’s well-matched with Kaye, who gives more than the script gives back, and the same can be said for Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney, who really does steal the show. Clooney had the goods to become a real movie star of the era, and why that didn’t happen I don’t know; great voice, good performance, and is a major hottie, too. Why wasn’t she in more movies? If WHITE CHRISTMAS is the best she ever got then Hollywood obviously didn’t know what to do with her, and that’s a shame. The other thing I love about WHITE CHRISTMAS is the look of it, magnificent Technicolor Vista-Vision photography (the first film shot in the format) and even on regular TV airings (which happen every Christmas Eve) it’s still a beautiful-looking picture. I once had the pleasure to see the first reel of a mint IB Technicolor collector’s print of WHITE CHRISTMAS projected in true Vista-Vision and it was sincerely a site to behold. Even with some dirt and scratches it had more depth and texture and brilliant colors than any HD/digital photography or projection will ever have, and I must say that once Paramount gets around to releasing it on Blu-Ray I will probably buy a copy just to look at it with the sound off. Actually, there’s one scene I’d watch with sound, and that’s the number “Snow”, sung by the four leads. Most every song in the film is sub-standard work from Irving Berlin (even the Maltin book claims that “What Can You Do With a General?” is the worst song he ever wrote), but “Snow” gets it all right and I’d buy the soundtrack just to have that one track. Or maybe I’d just download the one song, if it’s available. That should just about do it for me as far as WHITE CHRISTMAS is concerned.



Now here’s a question for you: Do you actually like WHITE CHRISTMAS? Could you tell me why? What is it about this film that brings you back to it? Because I’ve never known who claims to love this movie, and I’ve never once heard it referenced, like by saying, “Remember that great scene in WHITE CHRISTMAS?” or some such thing. If I’m missing something, please tell me, cause I’d sure like to know what it is. We could all use a little more holiday cheer (especially this year), but I’ve never looked in WHITE CHRISTMAS’s direction for it and I doubt I’m going to start any time soon.

Humbug? No, just good taste.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

3 for 3: TRANSPORTER 3

So the good news is that TRANSPORTER 3 is as likeably goofy, lunkheaded, fast-paced and as entertaining as the previous entries in the series. The even better news is that TRANSPORTER 3 is probably the best of the series thus far, with a really good plot hook that helps to keep everything moving, an excellent lead villain in Robert Knepper, and one more rock-solid performance from Jason Statham that not only puts him near the top of crop of the current action heroes, but also adds more weight to the argument that Statham has it in him to go on to be one of the all-time action movie greats, if he wants it. It’s nice to see that the slick, efficient, but not totally overblown action film not only survives, but has a champion in this fun little series. It’s the third film out, and the TRANSPORTER series is, amazingly, 3 for 3.

TRANSPORTER 3 credits may say it was directed by one Olivier Megaton (no comment), but this is Luc Besson’s baby all the way. Besson once seemed like the devil himself, churning out one soulless action production after another, but he and his crew have gotten their act together in recent years and have come up with a solid batch of action films, like these TRANPORTER films, Louis Lettier’s UNLEASHED (probably Jet Li’s best English-language vehicle), and Patrick Laugier’s DISTRICT 13 (Laugier’s TAKEN, starring Liam Neeson, finally opens here in January and I have to say I’m looking forward to it). Besson uses mostly French crews, imports Hong Kong action crews (like Corey Yuen-Kwai, credited director of the first TRANSPORT and martial arts choreographer on many of these films), shoots all over Europe, but is ever-mindful of the international market. Usually working with regular screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen, the premises are typically very pat and always lend themselves to some pretty wild and original stunts that are shot and edited in such an expert style that they always happen to impress. TRANSPORTER 3 is really no different in this regard (although I felt that the constant editing in the fight scenes in this one took away from the inventiveness of Yuen’s choreography), and while it doesn’t ever really feel anything more than part of a franchise, at least it stills like there’s life in it. I think a lot of this has to do with the addition of a hook – Transporter Statham and his lovely companion are both rigged with explosives that will go off if they move more than 75 feet away from the car – that keeps the film on its toes. It makes for a whole lot of clever ideas and unique action (that car can find itself in the oddest places) and in a sense, it makes it the ideal TRANSPORTER film, since the car and the driver are never separated, guaranteed that the chase will keep on going. And thank goodness that it’s Statham behind the wheel, because he’s one of the few modern-day actors who can make a role like this work. The guy is chiseled in every place and is all the more right for it (Jealous? You bet I am!), but beyond the arch stare he does create a character here; we don’t know much about his Frank Martin, nor do we care to, but we understand that this is a guy with a code of honor in the best tradition of such characters, and it’s great that Statham already has a signature role down pat.

Still, let’s not kid ourselves – TRANSPORTER 3 is an incredibly goofy movie, never to be taken seriously, often ludicrous to the extreme and on a few occasions, downright bad, with horrendous dialogue and a few awful performances (lead Natalya Rudakova is lovely, quite fetching looks great next to Statham’s black-suited Transporter, but she can’t act to save her life). As much fun as it is, it’s also incredibly disposable and full of empty calories. Of course, any attempt to make it more of a “real” movie, with believable characters and good dialogue, might not help its entertainment value, but it’s also not going to make it much of a keeper, I think. It is what it is and shouldn’t be faulted for it, but I suppose because Statham and the crew are doing so much good work, I sort of wish that it were a bit more substantial. Look at a picture like CASINO ROYALE, which has all that TRANSPORTER 3 has and more, and you’ll know that this sort of thing can be classic material, and since I can’t wait to see a TRANSPORTER 4 (nothing confirmed on this, but why would they not?), I’d also like to see them kick it up a notch and put some meat on those bones. The car is a beautiful, sleek machine that runs like a beauty, but at this point in time it’s a Lexus. Let’s get it up and running to Porsche quality and see how fast she’ll go.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Forgotten Movies (Thanksgiving Edition): Richard Brooks' FEVER PITCH (1985)

Another Thanksgiving, another "turkey" edition of The Forgotten Movies. Unlike most other sites that decide to focus on "Thanksgiving Turkeys" and just end up re-hashing the same titles over and over again (BATTLEFIELD EARTH and SHOWGIRLS are really bad! Thank you, Ben Lyons.), I like to focus on movies that are truly, unquestionably, unmistakeably bad, but bad in ways that most other movies - be they good or bad - would be jealous of. Truth is, most "bad" movies are actually mediocre ones that don't have a lick of ambition about them, so when a film with certain pretensions flop endlessly like a whale on the beach, it's much more intriguing. It's also a bit more difficult to watch, partly because someone usually had a good idea or had a passion to say something and they simply couldn't do it right. Richard Brooks' FEVER PITCH, I think, is a perfect example of this, because Brooks was a smart filmmaker who could usually be counted on to make smart, slick, professional movies, and he was also a director who would bust his ass to go all-out on making films that would possibly be the ultimate word of that certain subject matter. Ambition was never his short suit, but a misplaced ambition, like the kind on display in FEVER PITCH, is pretty embarrassing to watch. A part of me wants to cut Brooks a break for this, but you can't watch this film and not think to yourself, "Just what the hell was he thinking?" If FEVER PITCH were any more of a car wreck, the prints would have been delivered to the theater in a tow truck.

Pretty much from the outset, you know FEVER PITCH is in trouble thanks to the tone that Brooks sets with his opening montage, set to narration spoken by star Ryan O'Neal that sounds like it comes out of a 40's Monogram rip-off of a 30's Warners social outrage picture. It tries for this hard-boiled, seen-it-all, DRAGNET approach that even in 1985 people would ask the person sitting next to them, "Does anyone really talk like that?" Unfortunately, this is the approach that Brooks takes throughout the entire picture, as most every character speaks like that, putting this film in a non-reality that is just way too out there. ''Gambling. Series. How many people gamble. How. Why.'' is but one example, and it keeps rambling on and on like that for the whole film. People talk in clichés all throughout FEVER PITCH that it becomes maddening, and very quickly in you're thinking, "Does Brooks truly expect us to take this seriously?" But then beyond the dialogue, it's an entire film full of clichés, one where every moment is maddeningly predictable (O' Neal's sportswriter turned gambling addict is writing a series about a gambler named "Mr. White" who is, unsurprisingly O'Neal himself) and laughably hokey; when O' Neal's daughter says, "I sure miss mommy", we're treated to a ridiculous flashback of how his wife died in a car crash while on her way to bail him out of a gambling debt. I mean, this thing is just stupid beyond belief.

What hurts here is that there's a good movie in here somewhere, or at the very least a good movie somewhere in Brooks' honest intentions. FEVER PITCH seems to know a thing or two about gambling (leading one to wonder just where Brooks' inspiration came from) and for 95% of its running time it has its heart in the right place about the subject. Someone could (and should) make a searing film about the subject, but when Brooks ends his picture by having O' Neal - having settled with loan shark Chad Everitt (in the film's one decent performance) - winning back all his debt in one night at the tables, you know this thing is not - what's the word? - good. It's quite possible this was a studio-imposed happy ending (though Brooks commanded enough respect in his career to have achieved final cut), but since this ridiculous is so much in line with the film that came before it, you have to assume that Brooks thought he knew what he was doing. Now, with all this said, I do feel the need to say that FEVER PITCH is also a very entertaining bad movie, and if you're indeed looking for a Thankgiving turkey then this is your cinematic Butterball. It does provide certain unique pleasures, such as the sight of the great Giancarlo Giannini sharing the same frame with Everett and William Smith (strangely enough, I know Quentin Taratino has expressed a certain admiration for it, and even screened it at his 2nd QT Fest back in 1998, but I don't know just what his approach is to this), but it's all still something of a shame. It's a head-scratcher, head-slapper of a motion picture that is out of time and out of place (I didn't even get to the weird Thomas Dolby score), and if it came from anyone else I would say give it a Golden Turkey award, but from the director of THE PROFESSIONALS, BITE THE BULLET, and IN COLD BLOOD, it truly does register as a "What the fuck?" kind of movie. But it does have to be seen to be believed, there's no question there.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Spaces In-Between: Catching Up to Kim Ki-duk's 3-IRON

I suppose that around a year from now I’ll be putting together – be on here or just in my mind – a list of the best films of the decade, and when I do, Kim Ki-duk’s SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER... AND SPRING will most certainly find its way onto that list. Not just the best Asian film I’ve seen this decade (and that is saying a lot), it’s easily the most beautiful, serine and peaceful, a motion picture of absolute beauty and poetry that few other have matched. While I was already a fan of Kim’s output (such as THE ISLE and BAD GUY), SPRING amazed the hell out of me due to its positive, hopeful, Zen-like spirit, which very much went against the brutality of his earlier work (THE ISLE boasting the most infamous use of fish hooks in cinema history). As fine as those films are (and THE ISLE, which floored the hell out of me at the 2001 Fantasia Film Festival, is another one of my favorites of the decade), they were not easy films to sit through, because they seemed to have a bitterness to them, an anger at the world and modern society that were brutal as you watch them, but once you spent time thinking about them (which you always do with Kim’s film) you began to see a different side. Boiled down to their essence, Kim makes films about our inability to express love to those around us, and despite the very extreme methods his characters go about making their feelings known, most of his films are love stories, in a way, albeit extremely fucked up ones. But SPRING proved to be his breakout feature because it not only featured none of the violence of the previous films, but it was something truly unique and visionary, a film that adhered to Buddhist philosophies that could be understood and appreciated by pretty much any audience. Sony Pictures Classics picked it up here, and when I got to see it in '04 I took a date who was aching to see 13 GOING ON 30 instead (she’d just turned 30), but who took a chance on my recommendation and it earned me points for having good taste in movies (the relationship didn’t work out, but she genuinely loved the movie). Later that year, Kim returned to Venice with 3-IRON, a further mediation on some of his past themes in a less violent, more audience-friendly package, and he won the Best Director award and another pickup from Sony Pictures Classics. Despite many raves (with some calling it Kim’s best film to date), I never got around to seeing it until just recently, and it’s proved to be an interesting film for me, proof once again that Kim is a filmmaker whose work I should continue to follow, no matter what.

One thing about 3-IRON that I like is that it’s got a tantalizing premise: A young man passes through Seoul dropping off leaflets for various restaurants, placing them in the doorways of apartment buildings and houses. When he returns the following day to see them unmoved, he knows that the tenants are not at home and he moves in. He’s no thief, however; he cleans the houses, does people’s laundry, fixes things, and replenishes the food he eats. If the people come home, he makes his way out quickly and finds the next place to stay, not really squatting per se, but just experiencing other people’s lives for a bit. But what’s interesting is that he does not seem to be destitute, as he rides a rather expensive motorcycle and is very quick-witted. Of course, he does end up getting involved in the life of one of the homeowners, and yes, it does blossom into a romance, but 3-IRON does not go into any of the directions you think that it would. While there are cases of mistaken identity and hiding from spouses, what Kim does with 3-IRON is what he did with SPRING… and make it a mediation on Buddhist philosophies, here about how we relate to one another in the space that we share. It’s a film about love and about relationships, yes, but it’s also about noticing, understanding, and utilizing all of the world that surrounds us, about how many of us don’t really see or appreciate everything that’s there. It’s about an abandonment of the material and practical world into one where those things that matter, those things that are truly essential, are simply those that appear right in front of us. I know this does not make a lot of sense if you haven’t seen the picture, but once you do, we’ll be on the same page.

What has made 3-IRON particularly endearing to me is how it’s stayed with me for so long after I’d seen it. My initial reaction was not as impressed as I would have wished it’d been, especially after being so knocked out by his other works, and I felt that it wasn’t so much that I didn’t "get it", but that Kim was trying things that simply didn’t work as best they should. But again, what 3-IRON is about is perception in how we truly understand things by seeing them only after we become one with our environments, and while I certainly didn’t have a massive awakening of any sort to make me see the light, 3-IRON just kept creeping its way into my consciousness again and again until it finally began to become clearer and more translucent (and I believe this is the first time I’ve used that word here, so you know this film is something special). Once this got into my head, I also began to see what a hopeful and romantic film it was, because what it really does say is that we don’t have to have anything in our lives except those around us in order to live and that everything else is simply irrelevant (like, say, other spouses). This also makes 3-IRON a bit of an original film, something that can’t be contained or described as anything other than an experience more so than as a movie, although it’s not a blockbuster-type of experience, by any means. It’s a beautiful piece of work, one that I think also speaks to this new world of streamlining, downsizing, and struggling to survive that we’re finding ourselves in. It places the emphasis on what’s important in life and is about finding love and peace in this world. It’s a hopeful film for hopeful times and I think more people need to see it.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Oh... Fudge: 25 Years of A CHRISTMAS STORY

Anyone who knows me (or has been paying attention) knows that I’m a bit of a Christmas nut. Not overly religious by any means, just someone who truly enjoys the sights, sounds and smells of the holidays. I love how it makes the onset of winter bearable, perks people’s spirits up, brings about a reunion of friends and family, and yes, I sure do love getting gifts (I love giving them, too, but the getting’s the real fun). The major downside of the holidays is their over-commercialization, which has always been the case but seems to get worse and worse every year, and the really crappy holiday movies, specials and music that pops up every year. There’s always been second-rate holiday entertainment, but the amount of lame animated movies, TV flicks and albums out there these days is too much for me. It doesn’t exactly take away my holiday spirit, but it’s annoying, especially when you see things that shouldn’t be over holiday-ized but are. This came to mind the other day when walking through a massive Wal-Mart the other day (hey, sometimes you’ve got to go to Wal-Mart) and as I was looking through the holiday section of the store I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at what I was seeing: An entire endcap devoted to holiday merchandise from Bob Clark’s A CHRISTMAS STORY. It went beyond just mere wrapping paper and Leg Lamp ornaments, but there were also snow globes, t-shirts, stickers, and a few too many other items to count. Listen, for the likes of Rudolph, Frosty and Peanuts this stuff is fine, but when I see all these CHRISTMAS STORY products on the shelves like clockwork this time of year, I always get a little sad. Something that’s so good, that began in such a genuine and honest way is now a cash cow that the marketers don’t seem to understand. I’m sure these people have seen A CHRISTMAS STORY, but do they understand it?

Listen, you don’t need me to tell you that A CHRISTMAS STORY is a terrific movie, because we all know that. It’s one of two classic Christmas movies directed by the late Bob Clark (the other being BLACK CHRISTMAS, of course) and I’m happy that it’s become a modern day classic, because it deserves to be called one. I’ve always loved how A CHRISTMAS STORY got what it was to be a kid in pretty much any age and how was very level-headed and down-to-earth about the holiday, about families, and about childhood in general. It’s not about saving Christmas or Santa or elves and reindeer or anything like that. It’s got very modest ambitions and it’s refreshingly not out to give you an important lessons about life and the spirit of giving, it’s just a slice of life and it comes across as pretty true, which is part of its appeal. So to see all this merchandise is more than a little disconcerting, because that’s not what A CHRISTMAS STORY is all about, either. You’ve got to remember that Ralphie nearly does shoot his eye out with that BB gun, and that the leg lamp is to be mocked, not proudly displayed in your own home or on your tree. People don’t understand the bitterness and disappointment that exists through most of Jean Shepherd’s work (even this one) or that A CHRISTMAS STORY was meant to be a sort of anti-Christmas movie that presented (no pun intended) the holiday as it truly was, not how advertisers thought we wanted it to be. Everyone has stories about Christmases that don’t always go right, which is part of the reason why this one has connected with so many people. Its current incantation as an annual source of revenue for Warner Brothers and the estates of Shepherd and Clark is great for them, but for what A CHRISTMAS STORY is supposed to represent, it kinda sucks if you ask me.

Despite all this, it won’t take away from my own pleasant memory of seeing A CHRISTMAS STORY 25 years ago this night at the old Madison Triplex. The place was packed – rather surprisingly, since I hadn’t seen much pre-release press on it – and everyone loved it. Having a bit of a holiday buzz in me already, it was the perfect way to start the holiday season (back in those days the Christmas movie season actually started in December). But what made it even better and all the more memorable was walking home to see the 1983 Madison Christmas tree finally up in the center of town, knowing damn well that the holidays had arrived. The Christmas that followed was a good one, as I remember it, with the usual kids vs. parents crud that went with it, so I'm happy A CHRISTMAS STORY came along when it did, as I wasn't going to be a kid much longer and its magic might not be as potent on me the older I got. It gets childhood just right, and that's why it's a classic.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Real First Black President

No commentary to be made here, just an opportunity to showcase the genius of Richard Pryor in his prime. Certainly attitudes have changed and history has caught up to it, but it's still great stuff.



Note John Witherspoon, Marsha Warfield, Tim Reid, and Johnny Yune also in there. Thanks to Ant Timpson for reminding me about this one.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Is That Your Final Answer? Danny Boyle's SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE

While it shouldn’t be this way, “feel good” (or FG) movies have become suspect. Movies that are supposed to make you feel good about life and the world around us have become so tiresome, so routine, so fucking mediocre, that you want to run away from them as far as you can. Pictures about long shots with gumption who go all the way are among the worst pictures I’ve ever seen, and I’ve come to avoid them over the last decade or so. Of course, when these pictures are good, like ROCKY or even ROCKY BALBOA, then they’re great and well worth seeing and worth praising, too. But for every ROCKY there’s a KARATE KID PART III that just goes through the motions and are so uninspired that it kills the whole genre. In order for a FG picture to work, it has to earn those good vibes, and way too many of them don’t seem to bother or don’t understand how to properly present the struggle. It’s not just that someone has to go through hard times in order for their triumph to work, it’s that the triumph has to be believable, something that the audience must relate to in some way. This is where Danny Boyle’s SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE succeeds where many others fail - you understand the struggle. It’s not just that the lead character goes through a very tough life to get to where he is, or even that he’s a quite likable fellow, it’s that his story is one that you can see happening to people the world over, and it truly makes you feel good to see it resolved in the way it does.

What’s interesting about SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is how Simon Beaufoy’s script (adapted from Vikas Swarup’s book, Q & A) hits so many of the standard feel good clichés (dead parents; tough childhood; lost long love; organized crime), but it doesn’t condescend. What the lead character goes through is fascinating to watch because it hits its emotional marks extremely well, and one feels that what they’re watching is a fairly true representation of life in India. I also admire how it’s not afraid to get into the dirt and grime of it (though I could have done without some scatological humor - not a fan of that stuff), presenting some things that most U.S. audience members wouldn’t be able to stomach unless they saw it in a FG movie. The balance of tough life to good life is not an easy to maintain, so it’s going to take skill and talent to do it right and SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE does. It also helps to have someone like Danny Boyle directing, since he’s been able to balance dirt and grime with style throughout most of his career, and with SLUMDOG the balance works so well that this proves to be one of his finest to date. There’s no cheap sentimentality on display here; Boyle is very much interested in the tough times as he is the ultimate triumph, which very clearly shines through. He may have been the ideal director for this material (and let’s also give credit to his co-director, Loveleen Tandan, for her contributions), and what you see here feels very much lived-in, not merely in the Indian surroundings, but also in what the characters are going through; it seems honest, which is the only way this could have worked. While there certainly are parts of SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE that play into fantasy, there’s zero Hollywood sheen felt, and that’s what makes the difference.

There’s a lot else to like here, too. I love that Boyle doesn’t commit his subtitles to the center of the screen, but rather places them where it emphasizes what the characters are feeling, and that’s damn effective. The picture also looks excellent (shot on a mix of both HD and 35mm) and the Mumbai locations are often quite striking, and you feel like you’re getting a true taste of what the city and country are like. The film is also extremely well cast, with a tremendously appealing Dev Patel and the lovely Freida Pinto in the leads, and a terrific Anil Kapoor as the host of the game show where the center of the film’s action takes place. So sure, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is a total FG movie, but it actually does make you feel good when it’s over and that’s rare that an FG movie can actually pull that off these days. It’s certainly a crowd pleaser, but it’s one that even curmudgeons can get caught up in, which is the greatest compliment one can give it. Definitely worth your time.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Fantastic Fest: Mabrouk El Mechri's JCVD

I think there's no shame in confessing a certain love for Jean-Claude Van Damme. Of all the late 80s/early 90s action stars, Van Damme was always the most likable, although that likability had as much to do with a certain goofball factor than any real talent. There was always something silly about Van Damme, even though he's not a bad martial artist by any means and is certainly physically imposing enough, but you could never look at this guy and buy him as any other kind of character than as Jean Claude Van Damme. I distinctly remember watching KICKBOXER with the old HQ 10 crew the night before its September 1989 opening, and we laughed our asses off during his drunken dance scene (to the tune of the cheap James Brown sound-alike, "Feeling So Good Today"); sure it was supposed to be funny, but he looked real stupid, endearingly so, and as he moved on from project to project - DEATH WARRANT, LIONHEART, DOUBLE IMPACT - trying to become the next Schwarzenegger, you could sense an eagerness to please, an attempt to grow, but no real talent. Unlike Seagal, who one would later come to dispise, Van Damme always seemed like he was trying, and when he started working with directors like John Woo on HARD TARGET and Peter Hyams on TIMECOP, the results were starting to show. The pictures were better, he was better, and you could sense a certain professionalism coming through. But then he pissed it away on second-rate material like STREET FIGHTER, SUDDEN DEATH and THE QUEST (which he directed) and it was all over. Although his two Tsui Hark epics, DOUBLE TEAM and KNOCK-OFF, were wonderful returns to the silliness of old, it was too late for Van Damme. Direct-to-video seemed just right, and that's where he went. Though those pictures typically do well for their limited budgets (they can apparently be depended upon for a few hundred thousand units sold), no one has really missed Van Damme on the big screen; he seemed to be at home on DVD. In an odd way, his latest, JCVD, can not only be deemed as a theatrical comeback but also as a re-introduction to those who forgot about him while the Jason Stathams of the world took his place. More so than putting Van Damme back in the spotlight, it does something for more important: By re-inventing Jean-Claude Van Damme, action star, as Jean-Claude Van Damme, human being, he makes himself relevant for the first time in his career.

There's no question that Van Damme desperately needed a film like JCVD. He had become a joke to some people, an afterthought to many, and an example of the perils of Hollywood. His E! True Hollywood Story is one of the most sobering because he himself participated, coming clean on his many years of drug abuse, failed marriages, and bad career choices. So the fact that Van Damme likewise lets it all hang out for JCVD, portraying himself as a washed-up, desperate version of himself, is to be commended. And that he does it quite well, putting a side of himself on camera that he's never been able to do before, is the film's greatest strength. Van Damme, the man, is what's on display here, not Van Damme, the movie star, and you can tell that JCVD is an opportunity for him to exorcise some demons and make peace with himself and his audience. Other stars have poked fun at themselves before, but I honestly can't recall the last time one disassembled themselves so mercilessly, like Van Damme had hit a brick wall and came to hate himself with all his might. Is it the real Jean-Claude Van Damme? No, of course it isn't, but it's about as close as we're ever going to come to seeing it in a movie and what you see here is pretty heartbreaking, no matter who it really is on screen. There's a moment in the film where Van Damme really lays it all on the line and gives a speech that unquestionably comes straight from the heart, and it's a beautiful thing to see. Other action stars have shown their sensitive sides, but what you see here is Van Damme emotionally stripping himself bare, and it's a hell of a moment. In what you see of Van Damme in JCVD, I now have little to no doubt that he can have a career as a legitimate actor if he really wants one, and if he goes back to the direct-to-DVD stuff he's been doing, he'll have lost my respect. But for now, for this moment, Jean-Claude Van Damme has finally become an actor.

So far as good as Jean-Claude Van Damme is, one wishes that JCVD were a better movie overall. I'd heard about it from the now-famous Cannes market screening where Van Damme received a standing ovation, and have even been driving around a van with "Van Dam" license plates around Austin, all because of Tim League's enthusiasm for the movie. So maybe the hype was a bit much, but JCVD, fine as it was, didn't blow me away as a movie like it has some others. The problem is tone; while El Merchri is admirably trying to make a picture that keeps the viewer on their toes, he's not quite doing right by the material. One scene is comic, the next is tragic; one scene is fantasy, the next is meant to be realistic. He can't really find the right one and it can be a bit annoying. While shooting the film with an intriguing bronze tint, he also robs some of the more dramatic, down-to-earth moments of any kind of impact they might have had because they look like they come from a movie. His non-linear narrative approach is admirable, but also disjointed and somewhat hard to follow at times (and I'm usually pretty good at following non-linear narratives - seriously, I am!). It doesn't derail JCVD - there's still plenty of entertainment to be found here - it just takes a potentially great movie and makes it merely good. I don't want to harp on El Mechri too much, because he's obviously trying and certainly loves his subject matter as much as we do, but it feels like he doesn't exactly have the steady hand needed to make JCVD more than what it is. I respect that it's not another Jean-Claude Van Damme movie (though I wouldn't mind another KNOCK OFF, to be honest), or even a mainstream Hollywood-type movie, but it's still lacking a certain focus that could have put it over the top. Still, it has Jean-Claude Van Damme, and that's what really matters. Before JCVD, a statement like that was meant facetiously, but here it's 100% genuine; Van Damme has made you care about him for the first time in well over a decade. He's getting these kudos and respect because he's finally earned them, and you have to admire that. JCVD is his ROCKY BALBOA.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

All Right, America, I Love Ya! We Gotta Go...

Watched the election returns last night with my friend Maria and a crowd of about 200 at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, with footage alternating between CNN, Comedy Central and various SNL clips and movie clips (whenever a state was called for McCain, they cue up the White House explosion from INDEPENDENCE DAY). There wasn't a single McCain supporter in the room, and like pretty much every place you went there was a lot of excitement and applause for what we all felt was inevitable. So when the word finally came down from Jon Stewart (yeah, THE DAILY SHOW was on) at 10pm CST, it was a moment to remember always, with much hugging and kissing going around.

It wasn't always like this. A lot of people felt he was never going to make it past the Hillary juggernaut, but he was stronger than most had ever anticipated, and he has proven himself to be a master politician who you feel is unquestionably the right man for the job. It's a strong feeling, and feelings can't always take the place of facts, but we've seen enough of this man under pressure (under a lot of pressure) that you have to be a complete nutter (or my old landlady) to not have hope. Hope for the future, hope for renewal, hope for change, and a change for the best at that. This feels right, and that's a wonderful feeling.

Happy to be an American right now. Very happy.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Chewin' Bubblegum and Kickin' Ass - 20 Years of THEY LIVE.

The first presidential election I ever voted in was back in 1988, the big Bush vs. Dukakis dust-up. It was a pretty exciting thing for me to experience, finally being part of the democratic process and maybe playing a role in the future of America. I took a lot of pride and pleasure in voting for the first time, and the '88 election came at a time of great change and new freedom in my life, so it helped to mark an important time for me. No matter that my guy lost, I remember it all quite well: "Read my lips - no new taxes"; Willie Horton; Dukakis in that damn silly helmet; Jon Lovitz's "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy" line from SNL; and best of all, Lloyd Bentsen's legendary put down of Quayle during the debates. It wasn't anywhere near as exciting as this election, but I got a big jolt out of it, mostly because I felt like I was finding my voice a little bit, and I've always made sure I've voted in pretty much ever major election ever since (even took part in early voting here last week).

But one aspect of election '88 that I will also always take to heart was John Carpenter's THEY LIVE, which opened on November 4, 1988, 20 years ago today, and 4 days before the national election. No, THEY LIVE wasn't a major part of either party's campaign, and it sure as hell didn't make any waves in the election, but it was one of the first pieces of political satire that I really got and I loved the hell out of it. Looking at it again a few weeks ago, I was not especially surprised that it held up perfectly (the only Carpenter film that doesn't - at least for me - is HALLOWEEN, actually), nor was I surprised that it's still resonant (unfortunately). It was a perfect coda to the Reagan era, 8 years of the rich getter richer, the poor getting poorer, big business, increased consumerism and corporate greed taking over the country (like I said it's strangely still resonant). But what got to me about THEY LIVE in 2008 is the scope of the piece, which is a surprisingly ambitious one, as it has a lot on its mind and works hard to accomplish a lot with very little. It was the second film in a two picture deal (the first being the under-appreciated PRINCE OF DARKNESS) that Carpenter had with Island Films to make two low budget films (both under $4 million) with complete creative control. Carpenter, obviously relishing the opportunity, went to town with his ideas and desire to make a mainstream, subversive entertainment. It's actually a pretty big story that Carpenter's telling (based on Ray Nelson's short story, "Eight O'Clock in the Morning"), but like such great genre directors of the past as Don Siegel and Phil Karlson, he knows to keep the focus on just one character and let all this stuff happen around them. And like those greats, that character is an everyman, a guy who's seen tough times; who's down but not out and is able to survive on street smarts while the Powers That Be. The thing is, it becomes a pretty big story, but Carpenter just keeps us focused on Roddy Piper's John Nada, and it all makes sense to us in the end. There's a lot going on here, and a heck of a lot of setups for a low budget movie, but Carpenter knew how to shoot fast and knew what he wanted on screen and there isn't anything there that he doesn't want on there. Carpenter is in full control here, and this is what makes THEY LIVE so great.

Another huge part of THEY LIVE's success is Carpenter's obvious joy in what he's doing; this is one unapologetic B-movie, and it's really damn fun. Goofy, silly fun, and yet subversively so, because for all of its action, violence, and machismo, there's a lot going on underneath the surface, beyond the social commentary. For one, THEY LIVE is also a terrific satire of the 80s (one of the definitive of the decade), with Carpenter making sure he lampoons (and literally destroys) everything about the decade that he hates. It's not just the consumerism, but also TV, so-called "entertainment", and the moral and social crusaders of the day (Siskel & Ebert are shown to be aliens, too), making it a damn funny picture, at times. The alien makeups (often cited as one of the film's problems) are lovably goofy, certainly not to be taken seriously, but also outrageous enough and otherworldly to pass muster, so if anyone tells me they hate the movie because they hate the makeups, I can't take their opinion seriously. Even back in '88 you knew that if Roddy Piper was the lead in a movie then you should allow for some silliness, but while Piper does allow Nada some dignity, it's when he says the now-classic line (which Piper improvised), "I've come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. - and I'm all out of bubblegum", that you know he's a willing conspirator in all this. It's not trying to be stupid so much as be cleverly silly, a fine line to walk, but one that THEY LIVE does incredibly well. It's as much of a lark as it is anything else, but one from the heart and one with something to say, told with a lot of muscle and a style that is very much its director's, so as a longtime fan I'm happy to see that it's lived on and become a cult classic. 20 years to the day, THEY LIVE is still living, thriving and potent, yet another earmark of a great movie. Second only to THE TERMINATOR as the ultimate B-movie classic of the 80s, I'd watch it again in a second.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Fantastic Fest Horrors: Jon Hewitt's ACOLYTES and Pascal Laugier's MARTYRS

I don't know who it was who coined the phrase, "I may not know art, but I know what I like", but whoever they were they sure made it easy for plenty of us who may not quite understand the inner workings of true art to cop out real easily. Some people may look at something and say it's art and others may look at it and say it's garbage, while those of us stuck in the middle, the ones with an average or slightly above average intelligence who can't really reason why we like something, simply say that we just do. You don't have to necessarily have to understand Tarkovsky or Bunuel fully to enjoy them, you know?

Pascal Laugier's MARTYRS is easily the most talked-about Eurohorror film of the year, and if were to be seen by more people here in the U.S. it probably will get a bit more attention than it's currently getting. The genre crowd certainly know what it is, but it's being pretty much ignored by the mainstream press, despite a midnight slot at Toronto, though I'm willing to bet $5 that it will turn up at next year's Film Comment Selects at Lincoln Center. But within the genre scene it's been the subject of some intense debate, with some saying it's just another torture movie, while others are calling it one of the most profound horror films ever made. And then there's me, in the middle of both arguments: While certainly intense and incredibly gory, MARTYRS does have something on its mind, something to say, though you have to go through a gauntlet of serious horror to get there. The torture horror sub-genre (I refuse to call it porn) has been the whipping boy of most horror haters over the last few years, but like most things that push the envelope, if someone knows what they're doing with it then whatever they want to do is pretty much justified, as long as there truly is a purpose. Miike's AUDITION is the perfect example of this, a film that goes as far as it does for a reason, though that doesn't make it an easy watch, while the numerous lesser titles in this subgenre (the titles shall remain nameless) just do this stuff because the filmmakers have no real imagination or intelligence. So MARTYRS takes a while to get where it's going and a lot of people are not going to want to stay with it; I myself was eager to get to the point, because there truly was a lot of rough stuff and no matter if you know it's all fake, it's never easy to sit through. So when the point is made, my reaction is, "OK, I'll go with that". It's not "Oh my god, that's so amazingly profound. What a masterpiece!", or "How stupid and pretentious can you get? Fuck this shit!", it's just, "OK, I can go with that". I was down with it, I felt it was an interesting idea, an interesting approach, I appreciate the idea and the concept, but I'm not doing intellectual backflips. MARTYRS goes somewhere where a lot of horror movies don't usually go, but in doing so I'm not 100% convinced that Laugier is the Robert Bresson of the horror genre; I give it a lot of points and respect, but I'm also not thinking that my life has been changed. Is Laugier so many miles ahead of me intellectually that I just don't know it? I am so dense that I don't really "get it"? Or is MARTYRS just a good movie - smart, well-made, and exceedingly well acted and respectable - but not the end-all-be-all of the horror genre? I'm sorry, but I don't know. I do know that I liked the movie, that I recommend the movie providing that people know that they're in for a tough time for a while there, and that the haters are looking at it wrong. But it is art? Is it profound and possessing an intensity that makes it something truly special? I don't know, but I know what I like and I liked (but didn't love) MARTYRS. However, please allow Blake Etheridge and Rodney Perkins to convince you that I'm wrong. You can see for yourself when it hits DVD here on February 24.

In a sense, it's a good thing to have a more straightforward film like Jon Hewitt's ACOLYTES around, because a film like this is a lot easier to take while it's also quite admirable in its more modest ambitions. ACOLYTES doesn't aspire to the heights that MARTYRS does, it merely wants to tell a story and provide some suspense, and it does that very, very well. And I should say that the film does have something to say about the effects of abuse, but it's not trying to be MYSTIC RIVER, it's just trying to do its own thing. To me, the great thing about it is that it has a hook, a killer of a plot point that - providing it's working for you - sucks you in all the way through to the end. ACOLYTES is actually just a really smart mainstream movie, one with a lot of intelligence behind the camera as well as on the screen, and that's what I dig about it. It's a smart thriller; it keeps you guessing, it puts the characters and the audience through an ever-shifting maze that keeps you on your toes, and when it's all over you admire it for that. ACOLYTES is slick and stylish, but smart enough in the filmmaking and storytelling to not let that overwhelm a solid little story that sucks you in pretty easily. Hewitt (a real nice guy and very much a Fantastic Fest cheerleader) has been around a while (I remember liking his shot-on-video vampire opus BLOODLUST back in the mid-90s) and it feels like he's hitting his stride now and deserves to be someone to watch. He's got a really good eye, a solid sense for storytelling, is good with actors (the three teenage leads are all quite natural, while the villains of the piece are appropriately sleazy), and understands how to keep you on your toes. But all in all, what really put ACOLYTES over for me was the hook, the plot points that made you think it was going one way, then went another and you're not sure how it's going to resolve itself. Not a lot of movies can do that right, so all the more reason to respect ACOLYTES for getting it down so well. I know that the film has U.S. distribution (though I'm not sure it's been announced, so I'll just shut my trap on the for the moment) and I hope that you get to see it soon, because it is worth a look. Maybe it's not as deep as MARTYRS, but MARTYRS isn't as slick and entertaining as ACOLYTES, and there's nothing wrong with one not being the other. There's room for everything, you know.

PS - I can't finish this piece without saying this: If anyone has any plans to make a Gram Parsons biopic, all they have to do is teach ACOLYTES lead Joshua Payne to sing like him, because god damn if the kid isn't a ringer for the guy. Strap a nudie suit on the kid and watch the Gram fans lose it. That's all.