Sunday, June 26, 2005

Disco's Not Dead, But I Hired A Hitman

This Gun For Hire
1942, USA
Frank Tuttle
VHS

This has got to be one of the most depressing movies ever made. Not because of its subject matter, which though not exactly cheery, certainly isn’t the sort of stuff that would make you eat ant-poison while listening to Billie Holiday’s Gloomy Sunday. Rather, it’s because apparently everybody in this movie died from liver failure destitute and miserable. This Gun For Hire launched the careers of both Alan Ladd, the shortest non-Mickey Rooney movie star ever, and Veronica Lake, a beautiful and talented actress who will be forever be eclipsed by the fact that her haircut was the Jennifer Aniston of its day. Both Lake and Ladd shot to stardom and had some success immediately after the 1942 release of the film, but neither capitalized fully on the fame, ending their lives in pools of their Chris Farley-like foam and vomit. Even the film seems cursed by this fate; once popular with audiences and critics alike, it’s now forgotten by all but ardent film buffs, and the print has yellowed with age and jaundice, stinking of badly mixed martinis and stale urine. OK, that last part may be because I haven’t cleared out my closet since I killed that barfly from Mont Bar last year, but you get my point. The film itself is brisk and action packed, following a cold hit man named Philip Raven, played by Ladd, who finds himself on the run from the law after he’s paid off with marked bills. He goes after his employer, Willard Gates, a pompous Peter Ustinov-meets-Victor Buono mix working for a Mr. Burns prototype who runs a chemical plant. Coincidentally, Veronica Lake is at that very moment tapped by the US government to ingratiate herself with Gates, who is suspected of treason. Even more coincidentally, Lake’s boyfriend is a cop investigating Raven’s latest murder. If you can get over the needless complexity and endlessly awkward chance meetings and encounters, you just might enjoy this film. Then again, if you can get over all that mess, then you’re probably the kind of idiot who posts on message boards about how xXx: State of the Union got a bum rap from critics, and you’re no doubt incapable of noticing the fine performances and snappy dialogue that keeps This Gun For Hire afloat. Nevertheless, Ladd’s turn as Raven is especially chilling. The hit man isn’t amoral, nor truly evil. He has the usual Hollywood tough guy honour code, as well as the prerequisite weak spot that shows us he has a heart, but he still kills with a complete lack of remorse, and never once are we asked to sympathise with him. His sole admirable traits exist not to breed empathy, but merely to show us that he is three dimensional and human, though not an admirable one. Through a final act of redemption, Raven manages to do some good in the world while staying true to his fundamentally callous character, something worth watching in the current age of the character arc that turns every Hannibal Lector into Clark frigging Kent by the end of most modern movies. And though Raven is certainly no Hannibal Lector, I would recommend that if he were to partake of liver with his chianti, he should avoid Lake’s, unless he finds that the taste of hepatitis livens the palate.

It’s All Gone, Pete Tong
2005, Canada
Michael Dowse
35mm

It’s All Gone Pete Tong is the much anticipated follow up to writer/director Michael Dowse’ FUBAR, a mockumentary about drunken Alberta hair-metal headbangers. Dowse, judging by the current state of Canadian comedy filmmaking, is the only funny person in Canada who doesn’t base his humor on making stupid faces or making fun of Americans, though he doesn’t show it much here. Where FUBAR was at least funny for the first half hour before it started to drag, It’s All Gone Pete Tong¸ about a famous DJ who starts going deaf, starts out boring. The jokes start to sneak in about a third of the way in, but I found I had already lost interest by then. Again filmed in a mockumentary style, the picture features many cameos by famed DJs from the past and present, like Fatboy Slim, Charlie Chester, and Carl Cox, which I suppose I would care about if I were a loser. I know that sounds harsh, especially coming from someone who has the entire run of the original Outer Limits run from the forties on VHS, but I would like to point out that I am a geek, and there is a huge difference between geeks and losers. Geeks are people who can list all the Green Lanterns in the order in which they were chosen by the Guardians on Oa, and losers are those who stay up until six A.M. in after-hours clubs listening to an amped up video-game soundtrack while trying to score enough speed and GHB to make getting humped bareback in the bathroom by a Spanish guy stinking of sweat and Red Bull bearable. Dance music, or house or jungle or what ever the hell those retards with the candy-colored baby pacifiers are calling it these days, and the culture that surrounds it has always mystified me. Why the hell would you want to spend all night in a sweaty dungeon listening to some guy in $700 sunglasses play two crappy records at the same time while you get felt up by twenty five ugly people at once? Of course, this is coming from a guy whose idea of a good time is curling up on the couch with a tub of Pringles and a snuff film, but at least I won’t go retarded from the snuff film. The star of …Pete Tong, which incidentally is Cockney rhyming slang for “it’s all gone wrong”, is Paul Kaye, an actor who is quite capable in the serious parts, but opts for Jim Carrey-style mugging for most of the comedy, which I found ruined much of the spontaneity and prevented one from getting too immersed in the pseudo-reality of the picture. Kaye plays DJ Frankie Wilde with a boozy, bad-toothed extravagance, but only his calm bits really work. Some of the secondary characters, however, do keep things funny without getting too Saturday Night Live-y , especially Mike Wilmot as Max Haggar, Wilde’s agent/manager, who exudes a ruddy-faced greed that’s quite amusing. The film is interestingly constructed in a sort of Eddie and The Cruisers flashback, but it flips points of view from a documentary style to a surreal narrative quite frequently, which is unusual, but not necessarily a bad thing. This works particularly well in sequences when Wilde battles his cocaine addiction by fist-fighting an enormous raccoon dressed in domestic attire. This works even better if you haven’t seen Sexy Beast, but even if you have, it’s amusing. If only the rest of the film stayed that way, we would have had a winner from Dowse. As it stands, I fear …Pete Tong may not be quite good enough to escape the curse of the Canadian film, which has a tendency to languish in the dusty, cobwebbed corners of Blockbusters all across North America, neither slick enough to fit in with the crappy-straight-to-video Tracy Morgan comedies, nor exotic enough to set foot in the foreign film section, the domain of the black clad fine arts student and leftist musician. Unfortunately, I don’t believe either Morgan or the university drama club contingent like dance music enough to give this film a chance.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Batman Begins, and Two and Half Hours Later It Ends. Thank God.

Batman Begins
2005, USA
Christopher Nolan
35mm

What the hell is wrong with everybody? Are we so starved for films with decent plots and performances that we open wide and swallow anything presented as quality filmmaking so long as it doesn’t star Ice Cube or one of Ben Affleck’s girlfriends? What’s going on with all these four-star reviews? Is our only criterion for greatness a two-hour plus running time? Because that’s all I see going for Batman Begins or Cinderella Man, the best reviewed films of 2005 so far. Don’t get me wrong, Batman Begins is not a bad movie, it’s just not the best movie of the year. It’s not even the best Batman movie. Sure it’s better than Batman & Robin, but I’ve had bowel movements more satisfying than that film, so it’s not really the issue. I guess bat-fans were so desperate to erase the memory of the Schumacher years that they were sold on the new picture no matter what, as long as it didn’t draw its aesthetic inspiration directly from coloring books and Mapplethorpe photos. Batman Begins takes a much more realistic approach to the tale of the caped crusader, showing us the motivations and inner demons that can drive a man to don a ridiculous costume and toe the line between crime-fighter and vigilante. The film follows Bruce Wayne, played by Christian Bale, from his troubled youth, scarred by the memory of his parents death, through to his late teens/early twenties, where he learns kung-fu from Liam Neeson, who has apparently quit his job as a Jedi Master to work as a James Bond villain. Wayne then returns to Gotham, where he becomes the costumed Batman in order to fight crime, corruption, and needlessly complicated terrorist threats. While the film focuses almost exclusively on Wayne’s character, never a bad thing in a film script, Christopher Nolan feels the need to ground the film firmly in our reality, our world, presumably to give Wayne’s character some additional gravitas that might not be present in a world of exaggerated gothic architecture and cackling villains. The problem is, Batman doesn’t exist in our world. In our world, Batman is just a stupid guy in a stupid suit (thankfully nipple free this time around) whose voice sound like he’s really mad about his throat cancer. The collision between our world and the world of comic books is a difficult one to ignore, especially in a film that demands to be taken as seriously as Batman Begins. Tim Burton understood this, as demonstrated by the first two films, but the producers of this film opted to hire talent that, while formidable in their respective areas of expertise, are not suited to this project. Christopher Nolan is a talented director when dealing with fracturing psyche of a crooked cop digging himself out of a moral trench in Insomnia¸ or the time-warped murder mystery of Memento, not when he’s working with a guy prancing around rooftops dressed like a leather-daddy with Spock ears. This is a film about terror, about how fear can drive a man, and how terror is a powerful tool and an even more powerful weapon, but Nolan treats the material so self-importantly and realistically that, while we soon begin to believe and understand the forces that drive Bruce Wayne, the man, as soon as he shows up in the bat-suit, fear is immediately replaced with a giggling fit worthy of a stoned teenager watching Ralph Bakshi films. Plus, in the face of the harsh reality of the early part of the movie, the comic-book logic and unnecessary complexity of the ending become even more ludicrous. Were they to be situated in the already unreal world of the first two Batman films, they would be quite at home. As it stands, it’s sort of like having Ace Ventura, Pet Detective make the final decision in Sophie’s Choice. Where Nolan failed was not committing to his decision for a realistic Batman fully. He left in much that we know and love from the Batman comics, like the costume, the heavy dramatics and the plot holes, but took out the sense of wonder and fantasy, turning Batman into what amounts to a joke that’s not funny. But at least we didn’t see his nipples.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Gridiron, Buttonhooks, and the Engineering Investigation of 620 Oil Cooler Outlet Design.

The Longest Yard
2005, USA
Peter Segal
35mm

Remade from the 1974 Burt Reynolds movie of the same name, Peter Segal’s The Longest Yard aims for awkward territory in the niche market of the summer blockbuster. In a domain dominated by big-budget sci-fi movies and the various irritating female solidarity films that have been counter-programmed by someone who thinks that the opposite of a testosterone-fantasy about Ferraris and explosions is a quirky story about a fat Latina trying to get into a pair of ugly jeans, movies like The Longest Yard get lost in the shuffle. And rightly so, because the movie isn’t any good. It’s not based on a comic book, nor is it computer-animated and voiced by actors from stupid sitcoms, so I don’t really see how anyone thought it would make any money in a world where the top-rated show on TV is one in which third-tier celebrities ballroom dance for 45 minutes. The Longest Yard stars Adam Sandler as disgraced quarterback Paul Crewe, sort of a football Pete Rose, who gets sent to jail for gambling offences, drunk driving, and Big Daddy. While there, various political intrigues dumbed down to an eighth grade level lead him to form a prisoner’s football team to play against the guards, a premise as ridiculous as Spike Lee’s He Got Game, only thankfully not meant to be taken seriously. At least I think it isn’t. It’s hard to tell, because the film suffers from the same problems that plagued the original version, namely that it’s too stupid to be a drama, and decidedly not funny enough to be a comedy. Unfortunately, while the original film had director Robert Aldrich to provided the few necessary intelligent touches to make the film at least watchable, this version only has Peter Segal, who cut his teeth making frat-boys and their clinically retarded girlfriend laugh with Tommy Boy. A moment that perfectly sums up the film comes at around the halfway mark, where Burt Reynolds brazenly strolls in mid-film, clumsily inserts himself into a scene, announces he will coach the team, and then proceeds to pour out his heart, motivation, and a hefty dose of schmaltz. If it’s drama, it’s drama that’s been written in crayon by a precocious and film-savvy kindergarten student. If it’s parody, they should remember to add some humor next time. Adam Sandler appears to be attempting to make the transition from stupid voices and groin-hits to comedy that contains actual jokes, but it becomes rapidly evident that this is not his forte. He can do smarm fairly well, but so can any video store clerk, and they get paid decidedly less than he does. Chris Rock, as a character named only Caretaker, initially shows some promise, seeming to provide at least a touch of comic relief in the early stages of the film, but he is soon relegated to alternating between awkward expository dialogue and bad jokes said directly at the camera with a grin so wide he could swallow James Van Der Beek’s head. The endearing group of felons Sandler gets to join his team include Nelly, who seems confused as to why there aren’t any scrawny black women with inflatable asses standing around in football uniforms and high heels, and an enormous Indian fellow who looks like a tanned version of Richard Keil from Eegah!. Interestingly enough, we never find out what any of these criminals did to get into prison, presumably because it would be more difficult to root for the home team if we knew that the fullback split a 12-year old girl in half while raping an entire Brownie troop. The guards’ team is a little more interesting that the inmates, as it contains the blind guy from Contact, who takes the film entirely too seriously, as well as either Stone Cold Steve Austin or Goldberg from the WWE. I can never tell the two apart, and I am fairly proud of that. Also, the guards team features former Denver Bronco Bill Romanoswki, who was my favorite player back when I watched NFL games with the obsessive regularity of methadone doses. Romanowski, for those with better things to do on Sundays than to lose exorbitant sums of money to an Italian gentleman named Giovanni, was a 16-year veteran of the league who pretty much paid to play in the NFL, due to the fact that his ‘roid-rage caused him to be fined considerably more every season than he probably earned. This guy was a joy to watch, since at any given moment he could seriously injure anyone on the field, referees and his own teammates included. I think he once broke his own quarterback’s arm in preseason once, and he gave a fellow teammate brain damage during practice by punching his eye out. He fits in perfectly here, where the only interesting parts of the movie come when large men are hurting each other with the pre-requisite extensive foley work and sound design. Everything else is just filler, and annoying filler at that. You’d get more excitement actually watching football, though hopefully if you’re reading this you’re too intelligent for that. If not, however, I recommend checking out old Broncos highlight reels. Watch for the incoherent yelling guy trying to break his coach’s ribcage with his head, and revel in the glory of the Romanowski years.

Carnival of Souls
1962, USA
Herk Harvey
DVD

I’m not one to often get excited about films, as I generally have the same amount of interest in what I’m about to watch as I do in the housework I’m trying to avoid by turning on the television, but I can still remember the excitement I felt when I settled in for my first viewing of Herk Harvey’s classic horror film Carnival Of Souls. After all, this was the director of such unsettling and masterfully tense short films as Jamaica, Haiti¸ and the Lesser Antilles, and Tomorrow’s Spark Plug Day. I couldn’t wait for Harvey to break out of the industrial filmmaking world and into the realm of the low-budget feature. Would he bring the charm and infectious effervescence of Speech: Platform Posture and Appearance, or would he be mired in the static camera work and flat performances that marred his first foray into the industrial film, the ironically poorly punctuated Why Punctuate, whose missing question mark haunted him for the entirety of his career? I was not to be disappointed, as the film affected the young me in much the same way a late night screening of Night of the Living Dead did when I was 13, or the first time I saw Fire Safety Is Your Problem. Shot while Harvey was on vacation from Centron, the film company where both Harvey and screenwriter John Clifford worked, Carnival of Souls has subliminally wormed its way into the collective film consciousness in much the same way as the Velvet Underground has with music, not through direct experience, but by the countless artists it has influenced, and the countless annoyingly black-clad coffee shop losers who pretend like they heard of Lou Reed way before Kurt Cobain talked about him on MTV. Echoes of the film can be seen in the black and white aesthetic of many horror films made since, most notably as the aforementioned Night of the Living Dead, and thematic touches can be seen today, in everything from Final Destination to The Sixth Sense to Harvey’s own The Microscope and Its Use. Carnival of Souls tells the story of a the sole survivor of a car crash, who begins to experience strange visions and bad editing after the accident. Though shot on a shoe-string budget, strong writing gives attentive viewers a lot to contemplate, such as lead Candace Hilligoss’ strangely cold and unsympathetic portrayal of the crash survivor, and there are plenty of genuinely creepy touches that liven up the film. Most striking among these is the film’s score, which is performed almost entirely by an organ than brings to mind images of Anton Lavey stroking his goatee while playing the entrance music for a gang of pinhead midgets at a carnival freak show. While Carnival of Souls won’t scare anybody in today’s world, where our fright centers pretty much only respond to loud noises and Republican campaign ads, the atmosphere must truly be experienced to be believed. I know that’s the kind of thing people say about restaurants that serve really greasy food that tastes like shoe-leather cooked on a car engine block but have a working jukebox and a bunch of Marilyn Monroe pictures on the wall, but it’s true. Watch it for the mood, watch for the creeps, or just watch it because you’re sick of seeing Exchanging Greetings and Introductions for the umpteenth time.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Ghosts of Bad Arena Rock

Dogtown and Z-Boys
2001, USA
Stacy Peralta
DVD

I know, it may seem strange that I gave a fairly negative review of Lords of Dogtown, and then two days later I watch the documentary upon which it was based, sort of like when Seth Putnam gathers ammunition for hating Chris Barnes by going to every single Six Feet Under show he can reach via public transportation. But the sad fact of the matter is, I don’t live alone. Well, that’s not sad per se. It’s actually quite beneficial, at it keeps the fridge stocked with food not manufactured by Hostess-Frito Lay, and it keeps me from deliberately driving myself into a sort of racial Tourette’s frenzy by watching BET 24 hours a day. On the minus side, it means that every once in a while I have to endure a Sex and the City marathon while I’m trying to memorize recipes from the Anarchist Cookbook, and I’m never, never, ever allowed to touch the CD player. Also, I’m sometimes subject to the occasional film tangent based upon a previous shared viewing experience, a path which invariably ends with Almost Famous being played for the umpteenth time. It’s funny how these tangents tend to involve 70s rock and pre-teen boys without shirts and never, say, go from the masterful WWF documentary Beyond the Mat to an examination of the wrestling-star turned porn actor sub-genre. Chyna, I’m looking at you. Anyway, I did sit through Dogtown and Z-Boys again, awful cheese-rock soundtrack and all, and remained interested but unimpressed, as with my first two viewings of the film. Some of the players in the film are interesting and all, but the skateboarding itself is fairly boring, and of interest probably only to the fourteen people in North America over the age of 18 who still skateboard. It must be a treat for them, as they can sit on their asses and watch someone else do tricks, which as I understand it is pretty much how modern skateboarding works. Snide comments aside, there are some interesting aspects to the film, namely its very deliberately amateur look, obviously a throwback to skate-videos of yore, where the video is treated to look like grainy 16mm film, but rewound and fast-forwarded like analogue tape. There are also a few strange moments in the film that add to this rough-hewn look, like the part when narrator Sean Penn flubs a line, clears his throat, then continues. It seems like the kind of thing that will be endlessly analyzed in a film class 20 years in the future, when Dogtown and Z-Boys is credited with kicking off a movement of poorly put-together sports films for people too stoned to play sports, instead of just being a screw up in the sound-editing booth. The mere fact that Penn is narrating is surreal enough in itself. Apparently, it’s because Penn spent much of his youth in Southern California skateboarding, but this seems unlikely, as he appears to be so utterly devoid of humour that he would find any form of fun an affront to his dignity and perpetually stern moustache. Nevertheless, the documentary is more entertaining than the fictional film, I found, probably because its flow and story are more organic and less rigidly structured than the Hollywood version. Plus, there’s more Black Sabbath, which almost balances out the T-Rex and Hendrix.

The Locals
2003, New Zealand
Greg Page
DVD

Ah, the world of direct-to-video horror films. A world that at first threatened to overwhelm me with late-period Rod Steiger roles and Angie Everhart performances, but soon won me over with its cheap, poorly lit and badly dubbed charm. Every rental is like an adventure. What washed up 80s television star will rub shoulders with the guy that played the killer in I Know What You Did Last Summer? How long will Casper Van Dien live before he is gutted by a bad special effects technician? Why did they spell “horrifying” wrong on the video box blurb? All these questions and more can be answered by your standard direct-to-video horror film, but, sadly, not by marginally creepy ghost story The Locals. This is mainly because the film is decidedly not local, owing its direct-to-video nature more to its status as a New Zealand import rather than its poor quality. This is not to say that the film is good. No, not by a long shot. It rips off The Sixth Sense to a great extent, a fact quite readily acknowledged on the cover of the DVD. But, since The Sixth Sense takes its twist from Carnival Of Souls, I suppose that’s OK. No, the real problem lies with the Kiwis themselves, as it’s really hard to take dialogue seriously when it’s coming from someone who sounds like a less nasal version of Crocodile Dundee. This might be overcome by a strong performance, but sadly, these are as lacking here as they were in Revenge of the Rats, a particular gem from the DTV crop this year. The Locals is better than I expected, however, with a few nice twists and a tendency not to over-explain things, a trend that has existed in horror since time immemorial, probably due to the fact that most die hard horror fans are either just entering high school or just leaving it about fourteen classes shy of a diploma. I may not be the brightest of the bunch, but I can generally put things together in my everyday life without the benefits of flashbacks or voice-overs, so I don’t see why I’d need them in my films. The Locals nicely avoids those standard pitfalls, though it can’t quite overcome the even more standard obstacles of visible lack of money or experience. But on the whole, it remains a fairly entertaining picture, if you’ve already seen all the Angie Everhart you can take for one evening.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Two Movies That Require Anti-Perspirants

Friday Night Lights
2004, USA
Peter Berg
DVD

OK, OK, I get it already, football is war. Except, instead of young men barely old enough to shave hurling themselves over trench-lines into the midst of battles where victory is measured in yards, it’s a bunch of obese thirty year olds pushing each other while a middle aged white guy throws a ball at a middle aged black guy. How heroic. Friday Night Lights is the kind of movie that reminds us why the entire world thinks of Americans as sweaty hicks with double-digit IQs, because every third film released by Hollywood is about redneck Texas high school football players trying to win a state championship while simultaneously drinking enough beer to drown an English soccer team. The other 30% of Hollywood films are about inspirational Illinois basketball coaches, and the rest have Dakota Fanning in them. This film is based on a true story, that of the Permian High Panthers in Odessa, Texas, which makes sense, because it’s certainly not interesting enough to be made up. To be fair, Friday Night Lights isn’t your typical Bad News Bears-type high school football movie, mainly because it doesn’t rely too heavily on stereotypical characters. Mainly, that’s because it doesn’t rely too heavily on character at all, choosing instead to provide small snapshots into the players’ lives without delving too deeply or overstating the obvious. This is a sort of refreshing change in a time when most scripts have more expository dialogue than actual plot development, but a curious companion to this admirable trait is the fact that the film doesn’t focus terribly much on football either. Much of the team’s successful season is glossed over, much like the Rocky’s first bout with Apollo Creed, which made me question where the last two hours of my life went after the film was over. Of course, I tend to question that often, as a combination of Clozarin and the Space: The Imagination Station often lead to mid-afternoon blackouts, but I’m fairly sure I stayed awake and lucid for the entirety of this film. The movie also does have the distinction of being US President George W. Bush’s favorite film of last year, dubious though that may be. There are many reasons why that could be, possibly because it’s set in his home state, possibly because of its all-American nature, and probably because of the title’s low-syllable count, but he could have picked worse movies. After all, he could have chosen The Passion of the Christ, which, like Friday Night Lights, suffered from a lack of character development or football.

Lords of Dogtown
2005, USA
Catherine Hardwicke
35mm

Ah, skateboarding. One of the most age-specific fads that exist, skateboarding appears to be the be-all and end-all of cool for males aged 13-17, then immediately evaporates into a Trivial Pursuit Pop Culture question as soon as the summer after high school graduation ends. At least for most. There will always be those guys who dropped out in grade 11 and now cook in Mexican restaurants who will defend the ‘sport’ to the death, using words of seven letters or less interspersed with surfer lingo, but most people move on to more challenging hobbies once they read their first book, though the phenomenon of passing around bootlegged skateboard videos like two-paper joints at a Bad Religion concert never seems to go away. Lords of Dogtown is the boring fictionalization of the equally boring documentary about the birth of skateboarding as an act of teenage rebellion. While this may seem exciting to some, it must be noted that this film takes place in the time before Tony Hawk, where skateboarding was just long-haired kids with spotty facial hair spinning around in circles and riding up and down pool walls like a pendulum with an acne problem, only with more bruises. At least nowadays, skateboarders flip their boards in the air a few times before they fall down and everyone applauds. Back then, you were lucky if they didn’t use their hands to stop and start their tricks, paddling around on the sidewalk like a voyageur. The film is entertaining enough, with some fairly diverting performances by the girl from Elephant, and Emile Hirsch from The Girl Next Door. Hirsch puts in a fairly strong performance, actually, as his slightly scary and brow-heavy look is more suited for Jay Adams, the star skater-turned-Latino gang member, than the high school geek from his previous starring role. But the best performance in the movie comes from Heath Ledger, who plays surf and skate shop owner Skip Engblom, nearly exonerating himself for the turn of the millennium double whammy of The Patriot and A Knight’s Tale. Lords of Dogtown departs from the documentary, Dogtown and Z Boys, in many ways, notably changing Tony Alva into a Mexican and making skateboarding look slightly more interesting than a really quick way to break your wrist and waste your allowance on pot. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, from Thirteen, who seems to think that nothing says teen angst like shaky camerawork and quick cutting, the film keeps up a quick pace and never lets you get tired, though it does let you get awfully sick of the word ‘bro’ But so does high school, so I guess as a throwback to the immaturity, stupid hair, and pre-pubescent male musculature, the film is a rousing success.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Scat Meets Sandra Bullock, And You're Invited.

Blazing Saddles
1974, USA
Mel Brooks
DVD

Normally, this isn’t the sort of thing I would watch. I tend to stay away from comedies in general, as I am humorless to the point of gastric ulcers, especially those that focus mainly on bodily odors and people falling down. This tends to exclude much of Mel Brooks’ work, as well as the entire Pauly Shore canon, and allows me to enjoy only the occasional episode of South Park. However, as odd as this may seem, I have actually read quite a bit about this movie in the course of my wasted half-decade of film studies, and have heard more than a few university profs profess a fondness for this film as a sort of anti-western. So, naturally, I had to see what all the fuss was about, neglecting to realize that film profs are filmmakers who can’t sustain themselves by making movies, probably because they’re influenced by films like Blazing Saddles. If I’m meant to believe that a scene featuring cowboys huddled around a campfire passing gas compulsively is meant to function as a deconstruction of traditional Western tropes of machismo and masculinity, then allow me to introduce you to CyberScat, a website which re-imagines and reclaims traditional images of feminine beauty and sexuality by having an ugly Malaysian woman defecate into her own mouth while lying in a bathtub. That said, despite all Blazing Saddles’ crude humor, I did find it progressive in certain aspects, certainly along the lines of racial humor. For goodness sake, the movie has more racial slurs than my high school valedictory address, and that got me on a CSIS watch list. I was actually shocked by watching this film. Not on a moral level, mind you, as my particular moral compass points somewhere between animal sacrifice and prostitute-tipping as acceptable date activities, but by the fact that a film that contains so many off-the-cuff utterances of the N-word could be so successful, especially in the era before rap made it necessary to have that word included in any film that contains more than three black people in any given scene. So, apparently, either Mel Brooks was at one point capable of the fine art of transmitting shock into humor, or he’s just a particularly hateful man. Personally, I’m not sure which I admire more, and I’m sure CSIS would agree.

28 Days Later…
2002, UK
Danny Boyle
DVD

The more times I see this film, the better it gets. This may, however, be because it’s made up entirely of three better movies, The Omega Man, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead, split up almost exactly along act breaks. To illustrate how ridiculous this is, let’s consider how high hackles would be raised if someone made a killer shark movie about a great white terrorizing a resort town, and the two divers who go on a hunt and get left behind by the boat only to be saved by Samuel L. Jackson before he gets eaten mid-sentence. The horror genre, however, thrives on homage, which is a legal term meaning ‘please don’t sue me, it’s a tribute’. But bizarrely enough, in the hands of chameleon director Danny Boyle, the film rises above the blatant rip-offs and becomes almost more than the sum of its parts. Hell, it even ripped off its title from a Sandra Bullock movie, and it still works. How does that happen? And, while 28 Days Later is not better than Dawn of the Dead, it is better than Sandra Bullock. The film is one of the first to make good use of digital video, with the harsh, cheap visuals coming off more as a post-digital-apocalypse look than an I-just-graduated-from-a-communications-program-at-community-college look. The hyper-kinetic editing transcends the music videos from which it was born and leaves the viewer in a hybrid state of panic and excitement, sort of like being on the edge of a really good seizure. But before praise is heaped too heavily upon this film, I would like to point out that this film did not invent the fast zombie, any more than George A. Romero invented the slow one. While slow zombies have been around since the 30s, fast ones have been around at least since Return of the Living Dead and Re-Animator in 1985, and probably further back if I could be bothered to either remember or research to any length greater than glancing slightly to my right to stare at my DVD collection. That’s not to say that 28 Days Later… isn’t a great film, it’s just not an original one. But I suppose if your choices are greatness versus Sandra Bullock, I’ll chose the former.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Boxing with Boredom, TKOed by Tax Evasion.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
2005, USA
Alex Gibney
35mm

Surprisingly, this documentary about the largest instance of financial fraud in American history is not the edge of your seat, roller-coaster ride whirlwind of corporate malfeasance I expected it to be. But to be fair, this is not the film’s fault. I feel fairly confident in saying that my expectation to be entertained by two hours of narrated financial records was, quite frankly, retarded. I don’t know why I thought that this film would be fun, in any way, shape, or form. Fun enough, no less, that it would be worth ten of my hard-earned dollars, dollars that could have been better spent further subsidizing my collection of Namor, the Sub-Mariner appearances. The irony of being ripped off by a movie about the biggest corporate rip off in history is not lost on me, however, though I find I am better equipped to appreciate irony when I’m commenting on it wryly from the sidelines, as opposed to angrily staring directly at it as the credits scroll by. But if not entertaining, the least the film could be is informative. I’m still not entirely sure what it is that Enron did before its collapse, though you’d think that a couple of hours of being lectured by accountants and day traders who have clearly chosen their profession based upon being too acne-scarred or wide-mouthed to do anything else would shed some light on the subject. But no, the concept of energy trading still remains as ephemeral to me as the rest of the language of high finance. Frankly, words like “mark-to-market”, “commodity trading”, and “bank” have little meaning to those of us who keep our money in the thermos of an Army of Darkness lunch box, or have our life savings tied up in Magic: The Gathering gaming cards. Nevertheless, the film does tell the tragic tale of several extraordinarily rich people who tried to get richer and failed, at the expense of what appears in the movie to be one telephone line repairman and an investment banker who lost his job. And to that lineman, I would like to extend my deepest apologies for trivializing your plight. I hope you didn’t pay full price for the movie.

Cinderella Man
2005, USA
Ron Howard
35mm

OK, let’s get this out of the way quickly. If you liked this movie, you are an idiot. I know that may seem harsh, but keep in mind that I’m at least keeping things politically correct by not labeling you retarded, autistic, or American. I’m just saying that if you believe this is a good film, then you’re the kind of person who thinks that Michael Crichton novels are well written, or that Coldplay makes music any more important than the Britney Spears Greatest Hits collection, and are therefore either an idiot or Roger Ebert. Critics across the board are labeling this film Oscar worthy, presumably based upon the assumption that the entire Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will fall asleep during the film and not wake up until mid-January. Everything about this movie is ridiculously predictable, and that’s not because we know how it ends. Ron Howard, the king of directing from the Filmmaking For Dummies handbook, handles everything the way you’d expect him to, in twice the time you’d expect him to take. The film takes place in the depression, so everything is coloured brown and grey, because clearly you need to have money to afford some red, and be practically bathing in diamond dust to catch a hint of green. The boxing scenes essentially just digitally impose Russell Crowe and some colour onto Raging Bull, and the comic relief is dependably provided by Paul Giamatti, who appears to believe that he can yell his way to an Oscar, since acting his way there didn’t work. The bad guy is essentially Ivan Drago from Rocky IV but Jewish, a remorseless killing machine who has the nerve to be rich when many other people are poor. The fact that boxing films still haven’t risen about the need for a villain is a testament to how stock and familiar this movie is. I realize that traditional narrative conventions require protagonists to have antagonists, especially in the cookie-cutter world of Hollywood scripts, but do they really all have to be Snidely Whiplash crossed with Hitler? Christ, they might just as well have written Jack the Ripper into the title bout, for all the depth and complexity Max Baer gets in this movie. Our hero, of course, is absolutely faultless. At least Rocky was stupid. Russell Crowe as Jim Braddock is flawless to the point of annoyance. You find yourself at the film’s halfway mark, begging for him to club Renee Zellweger in the face with a right hook, not to knock that squinty, stoned look out of her eyes, but just to see something other than perfection from Braddock. And in the end, all we get is another rags to riches story, boring as hell, and about as innovative as Howie Mandell’s stand-up. But yet, nearly every critic loves this movie. Sometimes I think people just respond to what they find familiar, kind of like how people still eat meatloaf because it reminds them of their mom’s cooking, but in reality it tastes like sand and St Hubert’s gravy. By that token, Cinderella Man should be a shoe-in come awards season, since it’ll be as familiar as the third season of The Simpsons to anyone who has ever seen a movie before. But if you, say, only see about one movie a year, and that movie has to have Russell Crowe in it, then by all means, knock yourself out. Or let the movie do it for you.