Sunday, October 28, 2007

Pop Culture 101: Today's Class - KNOCKED UP

I finally got to see Judd Apatow's hit comedy KNOCKED UP (newly released on DVD) which I really regretted missing last summer in the theaters. I thought it was very funny though it was more of a James L. Brooks style drama than I expected - the 2 hour 13 min. running time should have tipped me off. What really got to me about this anti rom-com about slacker stoner Ben (Seth Rogen) unintentionally impregnating way-out-of-his-league Allsion (Katherine Heigl), is the incredible amount of pop culture referencing going down. The abundance of name dropping, bad impersonations, and snarky wise-cracks would put Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarentino to shame! It's almost like without these media touch points these people would have nothing to talk about at all. Since I would have nothing to talk about without them let's take a look at the cinematic schooling KNOCKED UP provides us in pop culture profundity: WARNING : Many Potential Spoilers A large percentage of the riffing comes from Ben's room-mates (Jason Segel, Martin Starr, Jay Barachel, and SUPERBAD's Jonah Hill - who all use their real names in the movie). They all have a what they call "the dirty man competition" - a bet that air-headed Martin can't grow his hair and beard without cutting or shaving for a year. If he lasts that long they have to pay his rent for a year - If he caves and shaves he'll have to pay all of their rents for a year. So they hurl insults relentlessly at him - calling him SERPICO, Charles Manson, Chewbacca by way of Jay's horrible impression, and Jonah asking him if he had a hard time changing his name from Cat Stevens to Yusef Islam. Martin: "yeah, it was awkward." The gang has a website in the works - Ben's pitch: "only at fleshofthestars.com * will customers be able to find exactly into what movie their favorite stars are exposed". It seems to be a premise created soley to riff on Jamie Lee Curtis' infamous full-frontal in TRADING PLACES, Julianne Moore's pantless appearance in SHORT CUTS , we actually see them watch the Denise Richards/Neve Campbell lesbian love scene in WILD THINGS on TV, and Meg Ryan's nude scenes in IN THE CUT. To their later dismay Pete (Paul Rudd) tells Ben there is already a celebrity nudity website called Mr. Skin. Ben rationales - "Good things come in pairs you know? VOLCANO, DANTE'S PEAK. DEEP IMPACT, ARMAGEDDON, right? WYATT EARP, TOMBSTONE." To which Jay adds - "Panda Express, Yashinoya Beef Bowl." * Yep, it's a real site now. Random Reference Riffing : Shortly before Ben and Heigl meet, the guys discuss Speilberg's MUNICH - all agreeing on its awesomeousity. Ben : "Dude, every movie with Jews we're the ones getting killed. MUNICH flips it on its ear. We're capping motherfuckers!" They all drink to Ben's proclamation - "if any of us get laid tonight it's because of Eric Bana in MUNICH!" Paul Rudd's character Pete is a A & R guy for some never named record label. Photos of him with Elvis Costello and framed album covers (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers "Damn The Torpedos" can be seen a few times) decorate the walls of his suburban home. Pete does a number of impressions throughout the film including Robert Deniro (not bad) and in the deleted scenes - Austin Powers (awful). He and Rogen disagree on music - Ben: "If I ever listen to Steely Dan, I want you to slice my head off with an Al Jarreau LP!" The most defining straight-forward statement that Pete makes of course is encased in pop culture - "marriage is like that show, Everybody Loves Raymond but it's not funny." Pete and wife Debbie (Leslie Mann - Judd Apatow's real-life wife) have kids (played by Apatow's daughters Maude and Iris) who argue over whether to listen to the soundtrack to "Rent" or the band Green Day from the back seat of Allison's car on the way to school. Not far from the tree obviously. Of course you've got to have a "boy loses girl" 3rd act conflict development with both couples spliting temporarily. Ben and Pete take a trip to Las Vegas in which they plan to take mushrooms (acquired by Pete from a roadie for The Black Crowes no less) and go see Cirque de Soleil quoting SWINGERS all along the way - "you're so money!" On a hotel room TV a scared Ben, tripping out of his mind on those Crowes roadie 'shrooms, watches CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN (we see shots of Steve Martin running around surrounded by his kids' wacky shenanagins) and remarks "He's got 12 kids...that's a lot of responsibility to be joking about. That's not funny." When Ben starts getting his life together and moves out of what was essentially a clubhouse into a respectable apartment he replaces his framed Bob Marley smoking a big ass spleef poster (obviously pictured on the right) for a ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND poster which he hangs in the soon to be nursery. Dr. Kuni (Ken Jeong) who delivers the baby angrily tells Ben in the hallway - "if you want a special experience go to a Jimmy Buffett concert!" In the bonus features there is a line-o-rama feature that has dozens of alternate lines for many scenes. There's an amusing run with trying out variations on the Jimmy Buffett line - some examples: "go to Disneyland", "go to freaking Busch Gardens", "go to Korea", and "go to my apartment, it's phenomenal." Another run on the line-o-rama has Jonah Hill saying "Mr. Skin is like the Beatles and we're like the Monkees" and "Mr. Skin is like Alec Baldwin and we're like Billy Baldwin." The opening credits sequence shower scene from CARRIE is viewed by Ben and Allison for further fleshofthestars.com research. Loudon Wainwright III plays Dr. Howard and also contributes the songs "Daughter", "Grey In L.A.", and "Lullaby" to the soundtrack. One of the deleted scenes has Jonah spouting out a hilarious rant about BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN which he says "was made by, like, fuckin' homophobes in my mind!" He drags MASTER AND COMMANDER and Bruce Willis's full frontal in COLOR OF NIGHT down into his profanity filled diatribe. Harold Ramis makes a nice (albeit too brief) showing as Ben's father. He attempts to console his son in an extended scene with an Indiana Jones analogy - "So, he could be like little Indy and you could be Sean Connery." Ben: "Or, I could be the guy that got melted when he looked in the Ark." Uncredited cameos by obvious Apatow and Co. friends Steve Carrell, James Franco (plugging SPIDERMAN 3 which was released at the same time as KNOCKED UP and is mentioned several times), and Andy Dick are brief blips on the reference radar - helped by Heigl's character being a reporter for E! Entertainment Television. That definitely hooked up the attitude-infused Ryan Seacrest appearance. Also swift bit parts from SNL's Kirsten Wiig and Bill Hader should be noted too. Whew! That's a lot of TRAINSPOTTING for one movie. I didn't even mention the mentions of Robin Williams, Taxicab Confessions, Martin Scorsese, Cartman from South Park, Doc Brown from BACK TO THE FUTURE, Ben's Mr. Bill T-shirt, Pete's Tom Waits "Rain Dogs" T-shirt, Vince Vaughn, Matthew Fox from Lost, Fellicity Huffman from TRANSAMERICA, as well as Ben and gang's posters of Pink Floyd, Hunter S. Thompson, and Fraggle Rock. Okay, now I 've mentioned them. There will be a test on all this so I hope you took good notes. More later...

Friday, October 26, 2007

THE DARJEELING LIMITED: More Or Wes Worthwhile


Peter (Adrien Brody): He said the train is lost.
Jack (Jason Schwartzman): How can a train be lost? It's on rails.
Film geeks from all markets can rejoice as Wes Anderson's latest opus THE DARJEELING LIMITED today enters its nationwide release. 


Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and a new addition to the Anderson repertory company, Adrien Brody, are brothers who haven't seen each other in the year following their father's death.

In a plan initiated by Wilson they meet up to take a train ride in India to bond and take "a spiritual journey" - also suggested by Wilson. They lug a huge amount of luggage with them on this trip - of course we get the symbolism there - baggage, right? Along the way they fight, embrace, engage in odd enforced rituals, and wonder where the Hell they are really going and what they are going to achieve. It is easy to wonder that about the film as well but Anderson's visual mastery is absorbing as usual, his soundtrack choices exquisite (including The Kinks and music from Satyajit Ray's films), and the acting superb so it's best to just sit back and enjoy the ride.

It is hard though, maybe impossible to not think of Owen Wilson's real-life suicide attempt when his character here had nearly killed himself by crashing his car on purpose and spends the film with his head wrapped in bandages. What makes it so difficult to separate the art from the non-fiction is his character is given practically no back story. In fact we are given so little to go on with just about everybody on the screen - Schwartzman is a published writer but of what type and is he respected or a hack? 

I can't recall at all what Brody or Wilson's occupations are and the info given on their parents is pretty vague too - their Mother (played by Anjelica Huston in a quiet but effective manner) became a reclusive Nun at some point but again we are given little motivation. They seem to have an unlimited amount of fundage to back their trip and to buy expensive trinkets so maybe their family was old money - who knows? These people don't appear to have any life except what we see on the screen but maybe that's the point.

Not fully thought out narrative threads and a pungent lack of pay-offs aside this is still a worthwhile night at the movies. Anderson may be treading water in some respects but it's his own water and he stays afloat more than he sinks. The train of the films title winds down the tracks unconcerned with any existential meaning or the lack of it and that's how moviegoers should be too when they get on board.

Postnote: I didn't realize before seeing the film last night that the 13 min. prequel HOTEL CHEVALIER (reviewed on the post The Darjeeling Prequel - Now Playing On My iPod Nano 10/1/07) was going to be played before the main feature theatrically. It gave me the chance to re-evaluate the short and I admit I liked it a lot better on the big screen as opposed to my previous iPod postage stamp sized viewing. Go figure.

More later...

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Magnificent Andy-Clones


Andy Warhol looks a scream, hang him on my wall. Andy Warhol, Silver Screen, Can't tell them apart at all. - David Bowie (Andy Warhol" off the album Hunky Dory - 1971)


Pop-art pioneer (and filmmaker - though the worth of his cinematic output is highly debatable) Andy Warhol has been portrayed by a host of notable actors since his death in 1987. The latest was Guy Pearce earlier this year in the Edie Sedgwick bio-pic FACTORY GIRL (newly released on DVD and reviewed below). How does Pearce rate compared to the other Andys? Well, let's see...we'll start off with:

Crispin Glover in THE DOORS (Dir. Oliver Stone, 1991) Definitely the best Andy though the next contender comes close, Glover scores because he is in real life almost as eccentric and creepy as Warhol was. Appearing very briefly in an extremely caricaturized version of the Factory scene Jim Morrison (Val Kilmer) in his usual stoned haze stumbles upon Andy holding court and fondling a gold telephone - "Somebody gave me this telephone... I think it was Edie... yeah it was Edie... and she said I could talk to God with it, but uh... I don't have anything to say... so here...this is for you...now you can talk to God." Morrison takes the phone but doesn't make an attempt to speak to the Grand Deity - perhaps he knew he'd get his chance soon enough.

David Bowie in BASQUIAT (Dir. Julian Schnabel, 1996) With his incredibly informed interpretation (he even wore some of Andy's actual wigs) of Warhol's mannerisms Bowie benefited from actually personally knowing the man. Though from everything I've ever read possibly nobody really personally ever knew the man. Bowie's performance is all verbal ticks and unctuous posing framed by a laid-back lackadaisical hands-off approach. Warhol reportedly hated Bowie's song "Andy Warhol" (quoted at the top of this blog post) but something tells me he would've been honored by this depiction. He probably would've thought Bowie made him look fabulous.


Jarred Harris in I SHOT ANDY WARHOL (Dir. Mary Hurrin, 1996) This movie perhaps has the most accurate, or at least most believable, simulation of the Factory scene. Extra points for casting indeliable indie-rockers Yo La Tengo to play The Velvet Underground too. Harris has quite a bit more energy than the others in his characterization of Warhol but it's convincing and captivating at the same time. Dealing with the odd assassination attempt by radical feminist and sociopath Valerie Solanas (played by Lili Taylor) the film, despite a non-endorsement from Lou Reed, made quite a case for how Warhol's smug indifference to the violent nature of the turbulent times could be deadly.

Gregory Sullivan in 54 (Dir. Michael Christopher, 1998) This isn't really a performance - more like a costume party likeness. That is almost any pale skinny bloke can don the glasses and astronaut-silver wig and pull off a Warhol impression. Especially in the crowd scenes that dominate this empty as Hell misreading of historical decadence.

Mark Bringleson - AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY (Dir. Jay Roach, 1997) Ditto. It's a throwaway fake cameo - nothing more.

And the rest : Warhol was also played by Bob Swain in DEATH BECOMES HER (Dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1992), Sergio De Beukelaer in ANY WAY THE WIND BLOWS (Dir. Tom Barman, 2003), Todd Boyco in DRUG-TAKING AND THE ARTS (Dir. Strom Thorgerson, 1994), and Allen Midgette in CALDO SOFFOCANTE (translation - SUFFOCATING HEAT - Dir. Giovanna Gagliardo, 1991) which I haven't seen but the guy was in actual Warhol movies like LONESOME COWBOYS (1968) so maybe it's worth a look.

So again, how does the new guy Guy Pearce rate as Warhol? Let's take a look at the evidence:


FACTORY GIRL (Dir. George Hickenlooper, 2006) "You're the boss, apple sauce" Pearce as Warhol says early on to Edie Sedgwick (Sienna Miller) and that stands as some of the only believable dialogue in this glossy mess of a movie. Sedgwick was indeed a sad victim of 60's excess and her story could make an engrossing and profound film - but this sure isn't it. Despite the use of period methods like split screen and tilted angles - the aesthetic is purely TV movie quality and we're never convinced that we're anywhere but the current day with actors playing dress up.

The basic story is this - ambitious girl comes to the big city and falls into the wrong crowd and dies because of it. Got it? 'Cause there's nothing else going on here. I mean, the only artistic analogy this film tries to make is that Edie is like one of Andy's silver pillow balloons that floated away from his fragile Factory scene. This is displayed in a none too subtle shot of one of said balloons drifting upwards in the New York sky. Is that all you got in your bag of tricks, Hickenlooper?

Bob Dylan lobbied against this movie and wouldn't allow his name or music to be used so we have Hayden Christensen playing a character only billed as "musician" and referred to as "Billy Quinn" though a shot of a newspaper article has him called "Tommy Quinn". That's just one of the many things this film gets wrong. Dylan was right to protest (was he ever wrong to protest?) - the dialogue Christensen spouts is embarrassing and unfathomable that Dylan ever said such garbage : case in point - "Lady, you don't know shit about shit."

I get and appreciate that the premise is that Dylan offered a way out of the Warhol dungeon that Edie stupidly refused and that led to her downfall. It's just that it's such a simplistic dumbing down of their legacy that it leaves a disgusting taste in my mouth. But wait, what about Pearce as Warhol - the conceit of this entire blog-post? He's very good - maybe the saving grace of the entire project. I'd rate him between Bowie and Jarred Harris. He obviously did his homework. But back to the film - as Miller (who does more than a passable performance - the film's failings are far from her fault) as Sedgewick says at one point in the film "Andy took ordinary objects and made them iconic" - FACTORY GIRL, a misguided attempt to make a pop-art ALL ABOUT EVE, takes icons (Sedgwick, Warhol, Dylan) and makes them ordinary. Before seeing it I would have thought that would be impossible. I stand corrected.

Postnotes : I can't leave without mentioning that Warhol actually appeared in some films (always as himself) - in DYNAMITE CHICKEN (Dir. Ernest Pintoff, 1972) with Richard Pryor, TOOTSIE (Dir. Sydney Pollack, 1982), and BLANK GENERATION (Dir. Ulli Lommel, 1980) to name a few. As for television he did a fair share of guest shots - he even did an episode of The Love Boat for Christ sakes!

Also I have to mention that Hank Azaria voiced Warhol in a brief surreal dream bit on The Simpsons. I doubt when Warhol conceived his famous quote "In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes" he factored in the effect that a few seconds on the pop-culture juggernaut that is The Simpsons could have. To be fair he later amended the line to "In fifteen minutes everybody will be famous." Today that line is more apt.

More later...

Monday, October 22, 2007

A Blog-Con Virgin No More - Film Babble Goes To Converge South 2007

I spent most of the weekend in Greensboro, NC attending Converge South 2007 - the blog convention, or more aptly conference which was held at A&T University and offered seminars, panels, presentations, and lots of interesting discussions. Most importantly for the sake of this blog there was a Film Festival - the 1st in the 3 years this event has been held. Here's some of my notes (as non-sensical as they can be) from the last few days : FRI (Oct. 19th) After arriving on the campus and eating some muffins we are welcomed by Sue Polinsky (who has the blog Sue's Place - Controlling personal chaos in a tech-central burg). She tells that the conference was conceived in an instant messenger chat and it was heavily inspired by South By Southwest - the set of interactive, film, music festivals and conferences that take place every spring in Austin, Texas. Then there was a keynote address with Ed Cone interviewing Jason Calacanis - a semi-famous internet entrepreneur and blogger (I had never heard of him before but he was treated like a rock star by the people at Converge). Some stuff discussed : digital sharecropping, statements like "the press is driven by archetypes" (a lot of talk about how the print media was dying out continued throughout the day), and Google analytics. A session called Moving From Old Media to New followed with a panel of bloggers (Dan Conover, Will Bunch and Joe Killian). The one quote I jotted down that hour was "digital is the future; prose is analog". Conover stayed for the next session - Agree To Disagree which mainly had amusing repartee between Ruby Sinreich who does a cool Chapel Hill centered activist blog - OrangePolitics.org and Chris Nabb who also has a cool politically minded blog - Afro-Netizen. After lunch my brother and I split up and I attended a session called We Don't Need No Titles (for blog posts) given by Billy Jones who has copyrighted himself "poet laureate of Greensboro" and is running as a write-in candidate for mayor of Greensboro too. He is also a contributor to a film blog - Hollywood Is Talking. I didn't really learn anything new but the hour was still interesting to say the least. I walked in late to the last session of the day - Sociable Web As A Social Force which involved Calacanis talking more at length about the power of networking and smugly showing off his web savvy by posting his phone number on twitter and having his phone ring over and over. Later on me and my brother went to a BBQ at David Hoggard's house in the Aycock Historical neighborhood which gave us a chance to meet and talk to a number of cool blogger folk.Then after almost getting lost in downtown Greensboro we attended the Green Burro for the Music Fest portion of the Con. I missed seeing any of The Wigg Report's set (I was going to the men's room) but my brother sang the chorus of their last song "Wigg Out" a lot over the next day so I think I somewhat got the gist. We stayed for Little Mascara's full set which I enjoyed quite a bit but they had the opposite of what Christopher Walken's Bruce Dickinson character wanted out of Blue Öyster Cult on that classic SNL sketch - in other words they had way too much cowbell! We were tired so skipped about before Thacker Dairy Road played and we headed back to our shabby Days Inn hotel room. SAT (Oct. 20th) We came in late - around 9:50 (after I had a none too satisfying chicken biscuit from Biscuitville) and missed most of Elisa Camahort speaking about Changing The World Through Blogs but we were just in time for one of the most entertaining panels IMHO - Social Networking which had Camahort joined by Ruby Sinreich and Soni Pitts. One of the best lines - "since Facebook opened to adults we're called 'the creepies'". The rest of the morning was a session called Moving Pictures which was essentially a presentation for CurrentTV - a California based TV Network and online short form video service (much like YouTube except that it specializes in user created non-fiction content - or so they say) with Creative Exec. Brandon Gross, Manager of VC2 Outreach Saskia Wilson-Brown, and producer/actor Jason McHugh. McHugh is hugely involved in a soon-to-be-released mockumentary about a fictional jamband - ELECTRIC APRICOT : QUEST FOR FESTEROO. Unfortunately they couldn't get the sound to work so they didn't show the trailer but we watched it on my brother's laptop back at the hotel room later and it looks like it could be potentially very funny though it's under the NATIONAL LAMPOON PRESENTS label which hasn't been a good sign for a comedy film in a long time. I met McHugh - gave him a mini-flyer for Film Babble and told him I'd look out for the film when it comes to North Carolina. I liked the CurrentTV folk and wanted to see some of their stuff so I stayed for their afternoon sessions while my brother went to a talk on Corporate Wikis. The day wrapped up and Sue Polinsky concluded with a final remark back-and-forth which offered some suggestions for improving Converge next time out. Later on Dave and I dined at Natty Greene's then headed over to Two Art Chicks Gallery for the Film Festival hosted by Andy Coon. We were given a brochure and a sheet on which to grade each film on a scale from 1-10. The lengths of each film varied - some were only a minute or so to others being close to 20 minutes long. They ranged from video podcasts to rock videos to legitimate student short films. You can see a complete schedule of the films with links and all here so I'll just say that my favorites were : "Banana Bus", "Game Over", "Roof Sex", "Falling Together in New Orleans Vignette 3" (couldn't find a link) and "Catastrophe" (ditto). I really enjoyed the martial arts parody that opened the show - "Deadly Finger" but there were too many other films by the same people that made the comical Karate thing grow very tiresome. Also as my brother Dave noted on his Converge Notes - the chairs were horribly uncomfortable so that detracted from the experience a bit. Still it was a really good time and I'm looking forward to finding out which film won. Whew! Well that was my first blog-con and I'm recovering from getting my cyber cherry popped. More later...

Monday, October 15, 2007

Clooney Is The New Redford & 5 Pivotal Sydney Pollack Parts


It's official - George Clooney is to this decade (sorry - I hate calling it the Aughts or Aughties) what Robert Redford was to the 70's. He's the gruff but good looking beacon that guides us through the dark corridors of misappropriated power and serves as the conscience of poli-sci centered cinema. In a run of ambitious films (excluding the OCEAN'S series, that is) like SYRIANA, THE GOOD GERMAN, and GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, Clooney is coming close to matching Redford's run in the Nixon-Ford-Carter era - a run that included such classics as THE CANDIDATE, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, and BRUBAKER.

MICHAEL CLAYTON cements the case that Clooney has definitively assumed Redford's role as symbol of liberal unrest and righteous though mostly impotent outrage against the machine. So here's the Film Babble review :

MICHAEL CLAYTON (Dir. Tony Gilroy, 2007)

As the title character Clooney brings a doomed demeanor to a once prominent NY lawyer who now acts as a "fixer" that is a hatchet or bag man to do his large firm's dirty work. Called a "miracle man" by some but self described as a "janitor", Clayton can't quite clean up the mess made by a fellow tormented litigator - Arthur Edens played to intense perfection by Tom Wilkinson. Edens threatens to sabotage his firm's handling of a multimillion dollar lawsuit against a agrichemical company. Clayton struggles to protect Edens and grapples with overwhelming ethical dilemmas while juggling his own personal set-backs - financial insecurity brought on by divorce and a former gambling problem recently replaced by a risky restaurant venture.

Some of the narrative turns can be seen coming at a fair distance and there are some drawbacks with a few undeveloped characters - specifically Chief Counsel for the bad guys Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) and also the unnecessary druggie brother heavily implies there was some cut material. Sydney Pollack (one of the film's producers) as Clooney's boss does add some clout though it's a character he's played slight variations on before (see below). Tony Gilroy's direction, decorated by hushed grey tones and a overcast aura, is impressive for a first time director (Gilroy scripted the BOURNE series). There's a lot to admire in this anti-slick suspense flick. So as long as Clooney doesn't pull a ELECTRIC HORSEMAN on us - we're heading in a good direction.

After seeing MICHAEL CLAYTON I realized something - I like Sydney Pollack as an actor more than I do as a director. Sure, he mostly plays incidental side parts - giving a folksy gravitas to the proceedings in a the Yoda you may worry 'bout trusting sorta way. Also he re-inforces this blogpost's conceit because of his collaborations with Robert Redford, so continuing my blog's HIGH FIDELITY obsession with lists here goes :

5 Pivotal Sydney Pollack Parts :

1. TOOTSIE (Dir. Sydney Pollack, 1982) It's hard to imagine what TOOTSIE would've been had Hal Ashby (who was originally signed on but after what Wikipedia calls "two years of laborious negotiations" - was axed from the project) directed it. I mean there would have been no hilarious arguments between Pollack and Dustin Hoffman both on and off screen! Pollack signed on to direct but resisted Hoffman's idea that he play the blunt agent character in the film. He finally gave in and it's a great thing too because his part really makes the movie. Priceless moment - Hoffman in drag runs in to an oblivious Pollack, who had told Hoffman's Michael Dorsey character that "no one will hire you" earlier, at the Russian Tea Room. After fooling Pollack with his Dorothy Michaels persona for a few minutes, Hoffman drops his voice low and reveals himself. Pollack : "Michael, I told you to get some therapy!"

2. HUSBANDS AND WIVES (Dir. Woody Allen, 1992) Pollack's biggest role to date and one he excels in though at first glance it's a stock best friend who's having an affair part - a role usually reserved in Woody Allen movies for the likes of Tony Roberts or Michael Murphy. Pollack plays a man constantly on the verge of crumbling during his separation from wife Judy Davis but somehow holding it together. A misguided affair with a ditsy aerobics trainer (Lysette Anthony - pictured on the right) gives some funny yet dark insights into his nature. We're left liking the guy in the end though we don't know why - perhaps because he's just a flawed fucked-up human like the rest of us.

3. EYES WIDE SHUT (Dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1999) Another best friend/mentor/would be Yoda role in this troubled and troubling movie. I won't go into the details about this notoriously comprised Kubrick project - that's well documented elsewhere - I'll just say that Pollack pulls no punches in his portrayal of Victor Ziegler. Woody Allen was originally considered for the role of Ziegler but he claims that Kubrick "came to his senses".

4. CHANGING LANES (Dir. Roger Mitchell, 2002) put this one in the "guys the main character shouldn't trust" file. A fairly lame Ben Affleck / Samuel L. Jackson dueling NY commuters thriller (as if that's an actual genre) features a rare Sydney Pollack as complete bastard role as yet another corrupt lawfirm boss (see above). Especially, in a moment that will come back to haunt him, when he tells Affleck - "at the end of the day I think I do more good than harm... what other standard have I got to judge by?" At the end of the day this guy is judged pretty harshly.

5. RANDOM HEARTS (Dir. Sydney Pollack, 1999) Another flawed as fuck film (only 18% on the Rotten Tomatometer - pretty much consensus says it's a stinker) that nonetheless gives good Pollack. Sure it's another advisor/mentor character but when it boils down to it - he's one of the only interesting elements in this failure of his own making. If Pollack can shine when Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas appear drab and unconvincing then maybe the guy really is a genius director! Nah, I'm just blogging out of my ass again.

Okay! Another post - another list. Next time out : the countdown to my first blog convention - Converge South 2007 - continues and more babble 'bout movies of course.

More later...

Friday, October 12, 2007

Countdown To Converge South 2007 And More...


"You got a VCR in the back of your head? It's like David Cronenberg all up in here!"
- Master Shake (Dana Snyder)

I'm attending my first blogger convention/conference whatever - CONVERGE SOUTH 2007 in Greensboro a week from today. I'm going with my brother Dave who says it is a "small conference devoted to blogging, podcasting and 'new media'". He has been to many of these kinda deals so he'll show me the ropes. I'll blog about it of course so stay tuned.

Just one just seen flick to babble 'bout this time out :

AQUA TEEN HUNGER FORCE COLON MOVIE FILM FOR THEATERS
(Dirs. Matt Maiellaro/ David Willis, 2007)

Once I was angered to find that prissy critic/pundit Leonard Maltin in one of his bulky film guides described MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL as being "for fans only". This was absurd - I've met many people who say that's the only Python they like so it is inaccurate to label it that way. That said this odd flat looking animated full length version of the Cartoon Network's cult fave Aqua Teen Hunger Force is definitely without a shadow of a doubt for fans only. Maybe even just the stoned hardcore fan actually - the only type of people who would truly appreciate a cameo by Space Ghost that is. I've only seen a handful of episodes and found it amusing to a degree but uh, feature film worthy? I think not.

The premise is that a large talking soda cup - Master Shake (Dana Snyder), a goateed talking order of large fries - Frylock (Carey Means) and a baby voiced talking meatball - Meatwad (David Willis) uh, well...they, okay that is the whole premise. I mean they have uh, adventures I guess, but not really. They seem to stand around and say weird twisted things. This "Movie Film" (that part of the title obviously comes from BORAT - with Sacha Baron Cohen constantly referring to his movie in that manner) makes no attempt to be anything but a long episode of the show and involves some kind of evil alien exercise machine that our fast food product pals' crusty wife-beater-wearing neighbor Carl (also voiced by Willis) gets caught in. Sample dialogue from that scene :

Cybernetic Ghost (Matt Maiellaro) - "There's only one way to stop it. You must push the stop button.
Meatwad - "It doesn't have a stop button!"
Cybernetic Ghost - "Well...I...then there's no way to stop it."

Yep, the humour is consistent on that level. There's no point of recounting any other plot points - the characters themselves continually forget there is a plot (Meatwad - "do I remember anything?") If BORAT was rude mean comedy, then this is a model of awkward comedy. Every character has issues and makes inappropriate yet silly comments and the others look uncomfortable and brush it off - "uh, okay!" Which is probably the best response to this movie. Sorry, Movie Film.


Now doing this blog I get a lot of email - content requests, link exchanges, questions, corrections, etc. The moderator at this site - eyje.com wrote me asking for a Review Exchange Request. I review their site - they'll review mine. Okay, so I checked out eyje.com and played around with what they call their "social comment search engine". I put in Bruce Springsteen - "No results for bruce springsteen" I put in Bob Dylan - "No results for bob dylan". Hmmm. I knew Kurt Cobain would get something because his name is on the recently discussed comments homepage - I try Hitler - "No results for hitler". Okay, so it's a new site. These things take time. I'll try back later. Not sure how this is a social network device like it claims to be but again maybe it's too soon to tell. Anyway I'll link to them and stay tuned.

More later...

Sunday, October 07, 2007

1408 And A Cry For Quality Cusack

“But you wouldn’t be sleeping with a person. You’d be sleeping with a whole sad single-person culture. It would be like sleeping with Talia Shire in ROCKY if you weren’t Rocky.” * - Rob Gordon (John Cusack) HIGH FIDELITY (Dir. Stephen Frears, 2000) * A friend emailed me this quote not long ago and asked "what does this mean?" I honestly have to say I don't know. I avoided 1408 upon its original run in theaters earlier this year because I suspected that the explanation (or lack of) for the supernatural premise would really piss me off. However I ordered the new release DVD on up from Netflix because my curiosity got the best of me but also because I like John Cusack (see below) and knew he'd at least deliver. So here's my review: 1408 (Dir. Mikael Håfström, 2007) The premise (based on a short story by Stephen King) is simple - John Cusack gets trapped in a hotel room from Hell. He's tortured by apparitions of the many who were killed or killed themselves there and by images of his own deceased daughter (no, she didn't die in the room). The angle is that he's an extremely skeptical writer of anti-ghost books - guides to hotels that are believed to be haunted that he stays in to debunk. So naturally when he hears (by way of a cryptic postcard) about a hotel room in the Dolphin Hotel in New York City that nobody has lasted more than an hour in and that has been closed off to the public, he gets his publisher to cut through some legal red tape and book the room. He first has to listen to a series of lectures from hotel manager Samuel L. Jackson (whose role is essentially an extended cameo) about the history of grisly deaths interspersed with repeated attempts to talk Cusack out of staying in the room. "It's an evil fucking room" Jackson concludes in the grimmest most intense manner he can muster as Cusack cynically and drolly rolls his eyes. This is where the plot description ends and I just bitch about the movie in full.

As for lasting an hour - the first hour of 1408 is pretty good - sharp and genuinely creepy. The second half however is really ludicrous - literally throwing every horror movie cliché at Cusack as he is almost burned, frozen, stabbed by ghosts, drowned, chased by a corpse in a heating duct, and he almost falls to his death hanging from the ledge when he tries to escape to the next room's window which of course disappears.

These are technologically savvy ghosts - they outdo the AMITYVILLE HORROR's screwing with the bedside alarm clock ploy, though they do that too. Yes Siree - these ghosts can manipulate Cusack's lap-top's video messenger screen and broadcast their own satellite cable transmissions on the room's television. They sometimes even tap into surveillance camera and old family camcorder feeds somehow to better scare Cusack. They can also appear in black and white complete with old film scratches or in technicolor depending on when they died craftily enough.

But of course it's not the ghosts but the room itself as the title implies and Jackson said - it's evil and can take control of everything including time, space, bed, bathroom and beyond. How could that be? You can't have a Indian burial ground beneath a rented space in the sky so what gives? Then we have to filter in the estranged wife (Mary McCormack) and dead daughter (Jasmine Jessica Anthony) - who the room and the film use as heartstring pulling psyche-out set-up punches.

It's the kind of movie that boils down to "we've traced the call - it's coming from inside of your brain!" That said, this is an amusing time waster that has a better than the material performance by Cusack who carries pretty much the whole show. Like those movies depicting plane crashes that are banned by airlines, I think this would be a good one to censor from hotel-chain pay-per-view. I doubt I could sleep in a hotel room after watching it - just sayin'.

Postnote : Not that it affects my review but I only saw the unrated version of 1408 which is disc 2 of the Special Ed. DVD. I wasn't aware that there was an alternate ending that is completely different to the theatrical release's. I thought that the unrated version would be everything, you know? As readers of film babble must know I hate when there are alternate endings - cop-outs based on test screening panic for the most part. A Cry For Quality Cusack So how long since the last really good John Cusack movie? Uh, let's go back through the bad ones - MUST LOVE DOGS, which was a real dog, was 2005, before it there was RUNAWAY JURY which was beneath the bottom of the bail and IDENTITY (another failed supernatural thriller like 1408) were both 2003, and SERENDIPITY and AMERICAN SWEETHEARTS which both seriously sucked so the last really good John Cusack movie was HIGH FIDELITY (2000). Wow, 7 years! HIGH FIDELITY is one of my favorite movies (as the Nick Hornby novel it was based on is one of my favorite books) so because of Cusack's top notch work as heartbroken music snob/geek Rob Gordon (named Rob Fleming in the book) in that film as I read somebody say on The Onion The A.V. Club he gets a free pass. However it looks like the pass is going to expire soon unless he takes some action. It looks like there's possibilities ahead for the upcoming films MARTIAN CHILD (by Menno Meyjes who directed Cusack in MAX - which was decent but unmemorable) and the drama GRACE IS GONE (pictured below) so with hope the 7 year itch will be scratched. Now I don't want to write one of those "open letter to..." or any smarmy "here's some career tips Mr. Big Star", I mean how moronic would that be for me - a lowly blogger to even slightly think I know what really goes on with choosing scripts and signing on to projects but damnit I wish Cusack would do 2 things: 1. Work with Stephen Frears again - 2 of Cusack's best films (THE GRIFTERS and HIGH FIDELITY) were with Frears directing and it seems like a good time for them to hook up again. Also Cusack was great in Woody Allen's SHADOWS AND FOG and BULLETS OVER BROADWAY so another collaboration with him would be great too. How about this being a plea for Cusack to work with better directors in general? The last seven years smell of behind the camera hackery. 2. Host Saturday Night Live - That's right, Cusack has never hosted SNL despite the fact that his sister Joan Cusack used to be a cast member. In his friend Tim Robbin's excellent mock poli-doc BOB ROBERTS Cusack played an actor doing a SNL-type show called "Cutting Edge". Just credited as "Cutting Edge Host" Cusack had a great anti-corporation/anti-right wing folk-singing senate candidate Bob Roberts (Robbins) rant. It would be a great actor exercise for him to do a string of different characters all live on SNL and I bet it would refresh his comedic facilities. But like I said who am I to say such things - nobody that's who! As long as Cusack still makes movies with his sister - the very funny above-mentioned Joan Cusack (they've been in 5 movies together and 2 more coming up) and Jeremy Piven (6 films) I'll stop complaining. In fact I bet Joan would made 1408 quite a bit better if she would've appeared as the voice of the hotel phone operator and Piven as the bell hop - man, that would've added a more chilling effect to the proceedings. So in conclusion - I have to do right by HIGH FIDELITY's Rob Gordon and his obsession with top-5 lists and name: The Film Babble Blog Top Five John Cusack Movies 1. HIGH FIDELITY (2000) - No surprise there. 2. SAY ANYTHING (1989) - Excellent Cameron Crowe high school relationship movie. Best known for the boom box blaring Peter Gabriel held to the skies by Cusack's immortal Lloyd Dobbler character - no, I'm not going to post that picture. I'll go with the one with the Clash t-shirt on the left. 3. THE GRIFTERS (1990) - A con man (Cusack) and a few con women (Annette Benning, Angelica Houston) and a dark uncompromising comic tone that never lets up make this essential on my blog. 4. BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (1994) - One of Woody Allen's best screenplays with Cusack spot-on as a troubled neurotic playwright in 1920's New York who has to deal with mafiaso control of his project. A pleasure from start to finish. 5. THE SURE THING (1985) - Very underrated Rob Reiner helmed comedy originally billed as a college-kids-on-the-road-sex-farce but it has better intentions and results. It makes the Top 5 because it was the first full-length that cemented the Cusack persona - he's one of the only guys who can get away with a line like: "How would you like to have a sexual experience so intense it could conceivably change your political views?" Great Tim Robbins cameo to boot. Came close but didn't make the cut : BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (Dir. Spike Jonez, 1999) That's all for now - next time I'll try not to come anywhere near giving celebrities career advice. I'll leave you with this nice montage of Cusack in the rain which sort of says it all. More later...

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

10 Reasons The 30th Anniversary Of OH, GOD! Should Be Celebrated

Jerry Landers (John Denver) : "If you wanted to see me, why didn't you just appear over my bed?"
God (George Burns) : "Ah, Hollywood. Next question."

The film forums were flowing with tributes to the 30th anniversary of STAR WARS last summer but I think another little movie released that same year should get a shout-out. I’m talking about OH, GOD! – the Carl Reiner directed comedy that had God come to Earth in the form of a wise-cracking smug smiling George Burns. He appears to John Denver, of all people, in Denver's only cinematic acting role and asks him to give his message of hope to the world. Wackiness doesn't ensue like in lesser broader comedies (BRUCE ALMIGHTY - I'm looking in your direction) - no, a measured witty thoughtful tone carries Denver's supermarket manager everyman character through the motions of his doubting wife (Teri Garr), his stern unforgiving bosses, and the scolding from the entire religious community that result.

Released on October 7th, 1977 to good box office and much critical acclaim, OH, GOD! is still not really considered a classic these days. It's not on the American Film Institute's 100 greatest movies list and it only gets a IMDb user rating of 6.2/10 but its Critics Tomatometer 82% approval rating shows there are a lot of fans out there. So, since I'm one of the film's biggest fans I thought it would be fun to celebrate the 30 year anniversary and honor OH, GOD! so here are :

10 Reasons the 30th Anniversary of OH, GOD! Should Be Celebrated

1. George Burns (1896-1996) As God – On the DVD commentary (recorded in 2002) Carl Reiner says "somebody came to me and said 'how about George Burns for God?' and I said 'who else?'" Despite this comment reportedly Mel Brooks was asked first to take the role but as Reiner joked Brooks didn't want to take the demotion. Burns brings a crafty confident component to his portrayal of the grand deity and nails every line. Especially when he takes the stand at the concluding trial scene - "I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me me."

2. John Denver (1943-1997) - As Brooks was originally considered for God, Woody Allen was the first choice to play Jerry Landers - the grocery store manager chosen to spread God's word. Allen turned the part down because he had his own take on God and that wasn't it as the story goes. So they went to a top 40 folk singer who had never acted before - good ol' boy John Denver. Not sure how they arrived there but I'm glad they did because Denver had the chops and plays no false notes here. His exasperating defenses to the skeptical ones around him - "I'm not some kind of nut!" and tense talks/fights with his wife Bobbi (Teri Garr) all show a range though not polished was still perfect for this project.

3. Teri Garr - As the disbelieving worried wife - a role she would perfect in her next film CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND Garr holds her own here. She recounts on the commentary - "around the time of this movie I also made CLOSE ENCOUNTERS... and I remember I used to do interviews and I'd say I just did 2 movies - one in which God is revealed as a cabdriver and one in which God is revealed as a chandelier!" Incidentally Barbara Harris was the original choice - glad they went with Garr.

4. Paul Sorvino - Way before he was an established powerhouse actor in such pivotal films as GOODFELLAS and NIXON, Sorvino had done little besides TV series work and bit parts in a few movies but when he took on the part of Reverend Willie Williams people started to take notice. Williams is a popular evangelist described as "God's personal quarterback" who draws the real God Burn's scorn. God considers him a phony and instructs Denver to tell him so. The Shrine Auditorium sermon that Denver interrupts to bring him that message is show-stopping largely due to Sorvino's invigorated scenery chewing.

5. Great If Largely Unused Supporting Cast - From William Daniels (Benjamin's father in THE GRADUATE, the voice of K.I.T.T. on TV's Knight Rider) to David Ogden Stiers (Major Winchester on M*A*S*H - the TV series) and Ralph Bellemy as Williams' lawyer every part is extremely well cast. Unfortunately a lot of performances appear to have been cut - Donald Pleasance (Blofeld in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, the President in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK among other mostly villainous roles) is given very little screen time and has only one or 2 lines. A montage during the trial sequence indicates there was a lot more material but until a special edition DVD comes along we'll just have to make do.

6. Great Story - Adapted from the book by Avery Corman (who also wrote the original novel of Kramer Vs. Kramer) by Larry Gelbert (M*A*S*H, TOOTSIE) the premise is sound and well plotted out even though it follows a formulaic path it's one well worth taking. Even the courtroom showdown ending which was well worn by '77 comes across as fresh and necessary.

7. Great One-liners - Of course if you've got George Burns you would expect an arsenal of Vaudevillian one-liners and Gelbert's Oscar nominated screenplay doesn't leave him unarmed. Some examples - "The last miracle I did was the 1969 Mets. Before that, I think you have to go back to the Red Sea" and this literary gem "you know Voltaire may have had me pegged right? He said I was a comedian playing to an audience who's afraid to laugh."

8. Minor Miracles - As the before mentioned rip-off - sorry, uh...homage BRUCE ALMIGHTY and especially its lame sequel EVAN ALMIGHTY (with a budget of approximately $140 million - the most expensive comedy movie ever made) prove with their extensive use of CGI - money doesn't equal funny. OH, GOD! shows this by giving us a God who bemoans special effects and considers major miracles beneath him and his message. When a still skeptical Denver insists on a sign to fully convince him - God makes it suddenly rain. The thing is - he only makes it rain in Denver's car. He gets pulled over and tells the cop that he must have gone through a car wash with the windows open. The cop (John Ashton - talk about casting) buys it in a stormtroopers buying Luke by way of Obi Wan's Force tricks way. The only other miracles that our Lord Burns perform is a vanishing card trick and disappearing himself by way of cheap editing in his final court appeal. Those work fine so why bother with big-time spectacle that never really pays off?

9. The Carl Reiner Cameo - Sure, it's not in the league of director doing a cameo in their own film as say Hitchcock but Reiner's appearance alongside Denver on The Dinah Shore show is still good stuff. As further Reiner self referencing goes - on a hotel room television set an episode of the Reiner created The Dick Van Dyke Show plays. God - this time dressed as a bus boy turns off the TV and remarks "so many repeats."

10. A Sincere Positive Message - Yes, shut your mouth you cinematic cynics - it's true, this film has a good solid message that believers and non-believers can embrace - that our world can work and it's up to us. Best said by God himself: "you can love, cherish and nurture each other or you can kill each other."

Okay! So put it in your Netflix queue and honor thy OH, GOD! with me - won't you?

Postnotes :

I've got to at least mention the sequels as inessential as they are. It has been a while since I've seen them but the 2002 DVD of OH, GOD! has trailers for them and they trigger my memory. The thing that has always bothered me about making a sequel to this film is simply this - Burns tells Denver when he first appears - "I picked a look you could understand. For somebody else I would've looked different." The sequels - OH, GOD! BOOK II (Dir. Gilbert Cates, 1980) and OH, GOD! YOU DEVIL (Dir. Paul Bogart, 1984) ignore this and just settle on God being George Burns. BOOK II pretty much repeats the same story as the first substituting a little girl (Tracy Richards) for Denver for extra cheesy results but at least OH, GOD! YOU DEVIL attempts a new premise - Burns plays the Devil as well and pulls off some amusing moments. Still, neither needs celebratory re-appraising - that's for sure.

Then there's the remake tentatively scheduled for 2008. According to my trusty Wikipedia source "there is currently a remake starring Ellen DeGeneres planned, which was confirmed by DeGeneres in a Time magazine interview." It even has an IMDb page and original producer Jerry Weintraub is involved but it looks like no progress has been made since it has been announced and I hope it stays that way. Hey, I like Ellen but this is a bad idea and I'm not alone in that thinking - this John Denver tribute page has a petition you can sign to stop it. I just signed it - hope you do too.

More later...