Friday, October 31, 2008

ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO - The Film Babble Blog Review

ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO (Dir. Kevin Smith, 2008)

Seems like the world of movie comedy has passed Kevin Smith by these days.

From the many Judd Apatow approved projects to the likes of Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, and Adam Sandler dominating the raunchy guy genre is there really any place or need any more for Jay and Silent Bob? 

Well, thankfully they’ve been left behind (though Jason Mewes does show up) for Smith’s new chance to play catch-up and show he can still make with the crude and rude gross-out gags. 

Highjacking major Apatow-player Seth Rogen and basking in the low budget roughness in which he created his best work, Smith gives us Rogen and Elizabeth Banks (also a Apatow veteran) as broke best friend room mates who...oh, you know the title.

The use of the word “porno” has caused mild controversy with some markets refusing its title and original promotional images were changed to feature stick figures to both appease the MPAA and make cheap fun of it.

The film was heavily edited to avoid a NC-17 but I doubt any of that material was any dicier or outrageous as the film wants itself to be.

The lowdown is that it’s filled with scads of scatological humor, which is mostly tossed of in casual banter, and a lot of nudity (filmed in probably the most unsexy way I’ve ever seen) but nothing that would shock anybody who hasn’t seen the trailer and got already the gist.

That’s not to say it isn’t fairly funny and very watchable - Rogen and Banks are good together with amusing turns from the obligatory real porn star cameo by Traci Lords, Smith stock company member Jeff Anderson (Randal from CLERKS), and the bemused Craig Robinson (The Office, PINEAPPLE EXPRESS).

It appears from the duo’s ideas for a adult movie effort to help pay their bills that Smith’s pop culture reference lingo has really dated - enough with the STAR WARS whatnot! “Star Whores”? Really witty, Kevin. The Star Bucks stand-in “Bean ‘N Gone” that Rogen and Banks work and are forced to film their porno project at (further echoes of CLERKS) reeks of left-over retail complaints you’d think that Smith would be over at this point.

Smith delights in characters and premises that refuse to mature and that's fine, I just wish his film-making would grow up. Crude, badly cut, and just barely holding the narrative together, this movie is not the work of a polished confident director, but I bet he would take that as a compliment.

Rogen carries a lot of the film on his affable back, rolling with a laid back nature while Banks’ spirit and go-with-it timing are a welcome contrast to her current portrayal of Laura Bush in W. They're both big reasons to see this movie whatever your views on the View Askewniverse. ZACK AND MIRI... has the soul of an 80’s teen movie, most definitively the oeuvre of John Hughes.

Its heart and motives are a pastiche of well worn tried and true predictability - the funny audition sequence, the on-the-fly dance number, the aim to make a distinction between sex and “making love”. The fact that it has a heart probably won’t concern those who want old school Kevin Smith shenanigans so the best I can say there is that this is much better than CLERKS II

ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO has too much worthy competition (PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, TROPIC THUNDER, FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL) to be considered one of the best comedies of the year yet it is still likable enough even though it’s not as laughable as I would’ve liked.

More later...

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

7 Years Later, Does MULHOLLAND DRIVE Make Any More Sense?

Short answer: Maybe a little.

Long Answer: Last Friday night as part of a series on film noir, the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh had a screening of David Lynch’s twisted surreal drama MULHOLLAND DRIVE. The film was introduced by Independent Weekly Arts Editor David Fellerath who considers the film a masterpiece and one of the greatest of the last 10 years. 

Fellerath asked how many folks were seeing the film for the first time and a surprisingly huge amount of hands were raised. After some background and an attempt at plot summary, he assured the almost full room that 95% of the film holds up to “logical scrutiny.”

I’m not so sure about that, but the film did seem to gain levels of coherence that it lacked for me back in 2001. Fellerath had also stated that if anybody still had problems with the film’s meaning afterwards - “there’s lots on the internet.”

There sure is lots on the internet, starting with one of the lengthiest Wikipedia entries for a film that I’ve ever seen with content headings like "Interpretations and Allusions," detailed character breakdowns, and long intricate paragraphs on the style and critical reception. 

The references for the entry site 82 articles with such titles as “Nice Film If You Can Get It: Understanding Mulholland Drive (The Guardian) and’s “Everything You Were Afraid To Ask About Mulholland Drive” (which Roger Ebert considers “the best explanation”). 

Another worthwhile read is Anthony Kusich’s “Mulholland Drive…Explained” which deals which the 10 clues that Lynch included in the notes for the original DVD release. The existence of the clues is curious because Lynch was quoted in the New York Times a few years later as saying that DVD extras can “demystify” a film. 

Perhaps what Lynch and many critics have proposed is the most sensible way to take MULHOLLAND DRIVE – not to try and make sense of it. Just absorb the mood and visual tones winding through the various narrative strands. Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring are either friends turned lovers named Betty and Rita in a dream or the former lovers now estranged Diane and Camilla in reality or vice versa. 

It appears that Justin Theroux is one of the only constant characters – an arrogant film director who is pressured by Mafioso types, to cast Camilla in his newest film. In one of the most memorably amusing scenes has Theroux meet a cryptic character called “The Cowboy” (Lafayette Montgomery) who tells him: “A man’s attitude goes some ways. The way his life will be.” 

When The Cowboy can be seen passing through the background of a party scene later on it is impossible not to take as intensely comical.

A turning point comes when Betty and Rita doing some detective work because Rita has lost her memory (she took her name from a Rita Hayworth movie poster) locate a woman’s dead body.

Identities then blend (the Igmar Bergman-esque screen capture above says a lot about the merging of identities I believe) with Rita donning a blonde wig and then they shatter completely with the aid of a shiny blue box (that of course appears with no explanation) and then reassemble or emerge from a dream - as when The Cowboy says: “Hey, pretty girl, time to wake up.”

Many elements familiar to fans of Lynch fill the frames throughout - among them the darkened old fashioned back room of the mysterious movie studio string puller Mr. Rogue (Michael J. Anderson) wouldn’t have been out of place in the dreams of Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) on Twin Peaks and the creepy Club Silencio that Betty and Rita attend one fateful night is somewhere you would expect to see Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) from BLUE VELVET lounging around in.

Writting before about the “love/WTF?” relationship I’ve had with the films of David Lynch (“Inland Empire Burlesque” and “Hey, I Finally Saw...ERASERHEAD”) I had decided to let go of the idea of determining definitive meanings and just go with the freaky flow. 

Wading through the various analyzing articles previously mentioned of this particular film though is still extremely fascinating because many interpretations can exist side by side, none more valid or more convincing than the other. 

Maybe MULHOLLAND DRIVE doesn’t make any more sense now than it ever did but its captivating spell has indeed grown and its perverse passion is definitely more powerful than when it was first shown in the heady distracting days shortly after 9/11. 

For those who haven't seen it before and lived with it for a while, I have to relate this - while the end credits were rolling at the Art Museum last Friday, a irrate woman who was obviously one of those who had earlier raised their hands, was heard complaining: “I’m very upset - it didn’t make any sense! Even PULP FICTION made sense! At the ending it all came together. I mean even AMERICAN BEAUTY made sense too!” 

So much for discussion, huh?

More later…

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Clooney Tunes, An Assassin’s Lament, & Lou’s Lost Lullabies To Die For

Time for some more reviews of new release DVDs. Let’s get right to ‘em:

LEATHERHEADS (Dir. George Clooney, 2008)

It’s doubtful that anybody will ever mistake this for a comedy classic.

George Clooney’s period piece football follies opened last spring to mixed reviews and bad box office and it’s immediately easy to see why.

The first few scenes involving a comic contrast between college and professional football in 1925 breeze by setting the lightweight tone with the tried and true jazz scoring.

The all too familiar sense of a by-the-numbers conventional comedy is set in place with only Clooney’s self deprecating charm to elevate it. As you should well know, the man is not above cracks about his age (he’s called “old man” and “Grandpa” throughout the film) and his getting punched in the face is a almost cartoonish given so there’s that.

There’s more than a little of Ulysses Everett McGill from O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU in Clooney’s Jimmy ‘Dodge’ Connelly – captain of the Duluth Bulldogs who, of course, are cast as lovable underdogs.

Clooney evidently learned a lot from his three-time collaborators the Coen Brothers, with décor and dialogue that echoes greatly of their particular brand of old timey screwball.

This also applies in the case of the fast talking quick witted newspaper gal that sets out to expose a “boy wonder” a la THE HUDSUCKER PROXY except that here Renée Zellweger actually pulls it off better than Jennifer Jason Leigh did. Clooney plots to save his team, and pro football in the process, by exploiting the celebrity of a war hero (The Office’s Jon Krasinski) as a new team member. 

Everybody’s working their own angles in this enterprise especially a sly Jonathan Pryce as Krasinski’s agent who even tries to throw his hat into the predictable romantic triangle of the three leads. As for predictable goes, there’s the obligatory bar brawl, much farcical bickering, standard montages of sepia-tinted photographs, and the ole climatic final game that everything hinges on. Yep, we’ve all seen this many times before.

It helps that Clooney and Zellweger have wonderful chemistry in their snappy repartee and a slow dance in a speakeasy certainly gives off sparks, but this is a forgettable formula film.

It’s the kind of movie one would watch in a hotel room while going to sleep or glance at randomly while reading a magazine on a plane. I’m sure it'll be playing forever on TBS because it’s exactly their kind of safe family fare.

LEATHERHEADS isn’t a bad movie, it just lacks the vital energy that flowed through Clooney’s first 2 films as director - the weirdly absorbing CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND and the sublimely supreme GOODNIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK.

I doubt many people would seriously regret watching it, I just think they’ll feel the same indifference that moviegoers and critics showed on its first run. I know I did.

This also died a quick death at the theaters for good reason:

CHAPTER 27 (Dir. J.P. Schaefer, 2007) 

Was it really any big deal that pretty boy actor Jared Leto put on 67 pounds to play Mark David Chapman, the deranged murderer of John Lennon?

I mean we’re not talking Robert De Niro in RAGING BULL here, are we?

Actually, it’s another De Niro movie that CHAPTER 27 wants to evoke and that’s TAXI DRIVER.

Much like Travis Bickle’s inner dialogue raged about loneliness, rain washing the streets clean of trash, and personally vowing to rid the world of scum; Chapman’s focuses on the phonies he hates inspired heavily by Holden Caulfield in “The Catcher In The Rye.”

Titled as such because J.D. Salinger’s book contained 26 chapters (get it?), this film depicts the three days in December 1980 that Chapman stalked the streets of New York, lurking for long hours at the gate of the Dakota (where Lennon and wife Yoko Ono lived) with evil intent.

He befriends a friendly Beatles fan, played by Lindsay Lohan of all people, named Jude – that’s right. Jude didn’t exist in real life and really shouldn’t exist here but it seems that first time writer/director Schaefer decided there had to be more of a dynamic to this dreary material.

That Leto’s work is the best acting I’ve witnessed of his and the film is reasonably well made is the best I can say here. I could never get over the question of “why?” Why recreate the incredibly unpleasant pathetic circumstances of such a wasteful tragedy?

Doesn’t making Chapman into a tortured dark cinematic character like De Niro’s Travis Bickle romanticize him in a disgusting manner that really doesn’t fit with his pathetic psyche? Never when watching this film did I feel there was any art or worth in dramatizing these events.

At one of many absurdly fictitious moments, Lohan introduces Leto to Lennon’s nanny strolling in Central Park with a young boy supposed to be Sean Ono Lennon. It’s an icky offensive scene that defines how misguided this project was in every sense. The real Sean Ono Lennon called this film “tacky” which is a major understatement; CHAPTER 27 is severely unnecessary but worse, it’s an insult. Schaefer should be ashamed.

Whew! Those last few films weren’t very appetizing. Maybe a rock concert film will lighten things up. Oops, not sure that’s quite in the cards with:

LOU REED’S BERLIN (Dir. Julian Schnabel, 2007)

It has been a trend of late for an artist or band to perform a classic album from start to finish. Patti Smith performed her seminal “Horses” for its 30th anniversary in 2005, Sonic Youth not long ago trotted out “Daydream Nation” (1988) to the applause of aging hipsters everywhere, Public Enemy played “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” (also 1988), and Liz Phair was able to raise her ticket prices due to resuscitating her “Exile In Guyville.”

But while those albums were undeniably classic or at least huge fan favorites, even hardcore Lou Reed fans have had troubles with “Berlin.”

I myself didn’t “get it” back in my youth when going through an extreme Velvet Underground phase and devouring all things Lou. It was too dark and repetitive for me so I opted for “Transformer” or “Rock ‘N Roll Animal” when it came to early-mid 70’s Reed repertoire. 

So grim that I put it on the shortlist I had of albums to contemplate suicide to you understand? Well, it’s been years since I’ve heard it and like Lou felt now is as good a time as any to rediscover what I originally thought was a very odd and overly orchestrated song cycle. 

Schnabel, a huge fan of the album, filmed Reed and a full band including horns and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, NY over 5 nights in December of 2006. Lou’s longtime guitarist Fernando Saunders and the highly acclaimed Rob Wasserman on stand-up bass make up the band with, most notably, guitarist Steve Hunter who played on the album back in the day. They deliver mighty arrangements for these songs rescuing them from the synthesized chill and giving them much needed warmth, even if it is desperate warmth. 

Reed looks like he means every word of such weepers as “Caroline Says” (both I & II) and “Sad Song” while “How Do You Think It Feels” as a more straight forward tune (though no less theatrical) is sung with none of his typical detachment. 

Knowing that Reed isn’t Mick Jagger and wouldn’t work the audience or cameras in any way Schnabel incorporates film footage that is shown on a screen behind the band and also is intercut through-out. 

The footage, filmed by Lola Schnabel, depicts the doomed lover characters from the album mostly Caroline (Emmanuelle Seigner – Roman Polanski’s wife!) in purposely blurry artsy scatterings. LOU REED’S BERLIN may not be the most compelling concert film (that would be Jonathan Demme’s STOP MAKING SENSE) but it may prove to be the most haunting. 

It’s not for the casual fan in that there’s no “Walk On The Wild Side” or “Satellite Of Love” and the long moody pieces may being boring-city for some less loyal Lou fans. However just about everybody should appreciate that when savoring the power of the band punching out a furious version of “Men Of Good Fortune” behind him early in the film, Reed actually sports a big smile. And that really is saying a lot. 

More later...

Friday, October 17, 2008

Dubya Gets Stoned! W. - The Film Babble Blog Review

W. (Dir. Oliver Stone, 2008)

If NIXON was a symphony, this is more like a chamber piece and not as dark in tone. - Oliver Stone (Daily Variety 1/20/08) 

 Since his paranoid thriller epic masterpiece JFK (1991), Oliver Stone has developed a reputation for throwing people off what his suspected tack will be for hitting his targets. 

Most thought NIXON (1995) would be a savage dressing down of the fraudulent former president but what emerged was a grand (and at at times surreal) sympathetic portrait of a man stalking the corridors of power tormented by demons. 

There were no 9/11 truth movement conspiracy theories or any political agendas in WORLD TRADE CENTER (2006), it was simply the story of a couple of firefighters struggling to survive while buried in Ground Zero rubble. 

Now Stone gives us W. (pronounced Dubya as some in the press have dubbed him), the first ever feature length drama focusing on a President while hes still in office. 

While it does contain plenty of grist for the Bush haters mill, it is actually an empathetic study balancing swift satire with earnest melodrama. W. skips back and forth timeline-wise from Bushs ANIMAL HOUSE-esque frat days to the Oval office Iraq war strategy sessions up to his re-election in 2004. 

Josh Brolin embodies our 43rd president with a swagger and ever present determination; sometimes overly arrogant, sometimes an impulsive hothead who cant seem to relax even when lounging watching Sportscenter drinking a non-alcoholic beer and munching on miniature pretzels (if you know your history, you know what happens with those pretzels). 

This is a man with major Daddy issues as seen in the recreations of his early days, who disappoints his father (James Cromwell as George Bush Sr.) right and left with his constant career failures and constant drinking. Ill never get out of Poppys shadow! he exclaims as he attempts to get a grasp on his destiny. 

As the decider he surrounds himself with some of his Papas former staff including Dick Cheney (a strangely subdued Richard Dreyfuss) and Colin Powell (a stoical Jeffrey Wright) who come off as the devil fighting with the angel on Bushs shoulders in meeting after meeting. Bushs reasons for the war in Iraq are angrily off the cuff: I dont like mud suckers who gas their own people!" and I dont like assholes who try to kill my father! 

Despite Powells voice of reason deterrents Bush goes to the Cheney darkside believing that he is serving a higher power than his father and never letting consensus criticism get in his way. 

Extensively researched and layered with obviously labored over exposition, Stanley Weisers screenplay mostly speculates about what goes on behind closed doors more than the already documented public record. 9/11 is thankfully not dramatized or even visually referenced, likewise Katrina and the extraordinary events of the 2000 election (see RECOUNT for that), though there are a number of restaging of W.s greatest hits. 

The Mission Accomplished aircraft carrier episode and various press conference and interview examples of embarrassing statements (Is our children learning for one) are given Stones patented cinematic treatment albeit with a more restrained and less flashy presentation than in his previous work. 

Dont worry though, Stone staples like glow lighting on actors in dark interiors, seamless blending of real footage into the movie mix, and a quality ensemble cast (including Scott Glenn, Bruce McGill, Toby Jones and Stacy Keach) are all on vivid display. Unfortunately a long time complaint about Stones work bears true as the women characters are underwritten and cliché driven. Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush mostly sits on the sidelines looking pretty offering trite support to her man while Thandie Newtons snippy take on Condoleezza Rice barely registers in the many boys club discussions.

Of the ladies only Ellen Burstyn has some good blustery moments as Barbara Bush but she too has a very limited point of view. Brolin though is the show as he carries the entire movie with his performance. With his concentrated vocal inflections and intense brow furthering he pulls off a Bush that is not a caricature but a believable guy which is quite a feat in the world of non-stop Daily Show jabs and SNL impressions of what many consider the worst President ever. 

James Cromwell, who never attempts to imitate Bush Sr.s voice, should be recognized come awards season for his measured and sternly nuanced work here - his presence is the finest and most effective in this film. W. gives a wide personal perspective to a man who many feel doesnt deserve one. 

It will play as a broad comedy to some audiences with folks mining the material for mirth but the poignant sadness of a powerful world figure standing in an empty stadium imagining cheering crowds and a possible grab for baseball star greatness will linger longer than the laughs. 

Oliver Stones chamber piece as he calls it, isnt a typical biopic but a dramatic thesis that goes out of its way to avoid cheap shots supremely aware that its choir has already been inundated with them. W., while no masterpiece, is a great gutsy and ambitious movie about a not-so great gutsy and ambitious man. 

It succeeds on helping us relate with, not hate on George W. Bush even if you, like me, cant wait to see him leave office. 

More later...

Sunday, October 12, 2008


FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL (Dir. Nicholas Stoller, 2008)

This is one I really wish I had seen when it came to theaters last spring. The raving reviews and accolades have piled up so much that by this point it can’t possibly be as funny as all that, can it? Almost comparable to the hype of THE DARK KNIGHT being immediately called one of the greatest films ever, this got an instant comedy classic stamp on it and I’ve seen it appear on several premature “best of 2008” so, yeah, my expectations couldn’t help from hitting the ceiling.

Well, after watching it on DVD I can say that it definitely was far from a letdown with many laughs and likable characters though not exactly the experience Richard Roeper gushed about: “I want to just get down on my knees and declare my undying love for this movie”. Boston Globe critic Ty Burr also seemed a bit over the top when he wrote: “it delivers belly laughs that explode from the meeting of wit and shock”. But to be honest, I believe that if I had seen it on its original release I probably wouldve gotten carried away and might have said some similar things too.

Sure, it has a flimsy sitcom premise – boy loses girl, boy goes on Hawaiian vacation in order to get over girl, boy runs into girl with her new boyfriend who happen to be staying at the same resort, crude wackiness ensues etc. but the whole deal is as affable as its protagonist. The boy is Jason Segel whose persona as a hapless schmuck he began perfecting on the late great one seasoner Freaks And Geeks.

He’s an LA musician who writes incidental music for a CSI-derived TV drama starring his girlfriend (Kristen Bell). Bell tells him that their 5 year relationship is over in a scene that sets the tone by featuring Segel refusing to put clothes on as his heart breaks: Oh, would you like to pick out the outfit that you break up with me in?!!? Segel, who wrote the screenplay, appears to have no shame portraying a guy who feels nothing but shame as he cries in the nude and shakes uncontrollably in emotional pain while eating from an oversized bowl of cereal.

After some comic consoling by his best friend (SNL’s Bill Hader who spends most of the film as a head on a laptop) he makes that fateful trip to one of the world’s most famous vacation spots and, yep, he has to face his former love in the arms of a major pop star played by the sleazily charming Brit Russell Brand.

 Luckily there’s Mila Kunis (That 70’s Show, voice of Meg Griffin on Family Guy) as a flirting hotel clerk that may be the key to helping him recover (you think?), Paul Rudd as a perpetually stoned surfer, Jonah Hill as Matthew the Waiter who is obviously hiding a man crush on Brand, and a Christian newlywed couple (30 Rock’s Jack McBayer and newcomer Taylor Wily) who are definitely not having a good go at consummating their marriage.

FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL is another in the series of Judd Apatow produced flicks about pop culture obsessed immature men coping with growing up as they endure a plethora of awkward sexual circumstances - i.e. THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN, KNOCKED UP, and SUPERBAD. It helps that this has a few somewhat plausible female characters and an actual moral code beneath the scatological silliness.

None of things realy matters though as what folks were raving about is simply how freakin funny this flick is. It is certainly much funnier than many comedies, especially recent rom coms (a genre this film seems to want to reconstruct by way of just add more dick jokes) so maybe those people were on to something. But comedy classic? Lets just give it some more time and I'll get back to you.

Post Notes - Bonus Material With A Shout Out: 

There is not much difference between the unrated extended version and the theatrical cut on the DVD except for some excised lines and a mildly amusing Kristen Wiig (SNL) yoga class scene. 

The gag reel is, like the movie, funnier than most flicks flubs while the patented Apatow “line-o-rama has a lot of great alternate lines like Segels reaction to Kuniss over-reaction to seeing her ex-boyfriend: "You were like David O. Russell when he was yelling at Lily Tomlin! Jonah Hill has some good unused ones too: “I think its cool though, you just come and eat dinner by yourself. I wouldnt do it, I would rather stay in the room and jerk it, if you know what Im saying? Dont tell anybody I said that.

The shout-out goes to the great barely known comic actor Bill Hader who was in a couple of other possible future comedy classics over the last few months. 

Though many would classify them as bit parts - his turns as Private Miller in PINEAPPLE EXPRESS and studio executive Rob Slolom in TROPIC THUNDER, which had him hold his own up against Tom Cruise, are great sideline roles. With hope he will get some more substantial film work alongside his current gig at SNL but with projects like NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM 2 and something called CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS on his cinematic horizon, I wouldn't hold my breath.

More later...

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Religulous - The Film Babble Blog Review

RELIGULOUS (Dir. Larry Charles, 2008) 


A while ago I had an extremely non-religious friend who announced one day that they were going to church the next Sunday. I asked “Why? Are you planning on heckling Jesus?” 

That’s what comedian/agitating TV talk show host Bill Maher set out to do as he went out globe-trotting with BORAT director Larry Charles with eyes set on sarcastically deflating followers of all faiths. 

Well, not all faiths but he goes from Jeruselum to a Trucker’s Chapel in Raleigh, N.C. (actually its mis-identified - the chapel is in Charlotte, N.C.) the to the Vatican (he gets thrown out almost immediately) to Salt Lake City get the idea. Maher taunts all of his targets with how the tales of “Adam and Eve, 5,000 years ago with a talking snake” are so mind bogglingly ridiculous (get the title? Might as well be “Religion - Bad!”) that it is destroying us as a society to believe them at all. 

I once wrote that Michael Moore wasn’t really a true documentarian but more “a comedian who hi-jacked the documentary format in order to stage his routines” and that goes double for Maher (but then he is an actual comedian so there's that. 

He gives us his own religious background via old family photos and grainy stand-up clips and spends a lot of the film talking directly to the camera. None of the people he speaks to knew it was him that was going to do the interviews and more than once there are protests to the effect of “I don't know what kind of documentary you’re making but...”

A bit with a man dressed as Jesus at a Florida theme park (pictured above) actually provides some spiritual food for thought as amusingly the guy is never thrown by Maher’s quizing. George Carlin’s “can God make a rock so big even he can't lift it?” constantly came to mind while watching this movie (it may have even been quoted - I can’t remember), and that is undeniably fitting because Maher is a definite disciple of Carlin.

Unfortunately a lot of this falls flat as Maher’s smug nature sabotages some of his strategy. 

An interview with ExChange Ministries director John Westcott, who considers himself an ex-homosexual, seems to exist just so Maher can be all “C'mon! You’re gay!” Cheap shots, contradicting subtitles, and an overusage of footage from cheesy TV shows (not sure what point the excerpt from the 1985 Robert Blake show Hell Town was making) and Biblical themed movies all mar (had to go there) the ultimate thesis.

Still, there are a lot of laughs throughout and the most lasting impressions are ones that will inspire much discussion and debate for years to come. In taking on theology Maher had his heart and mind in the right place it’s just too bad his funny bone got in the way.

More later...

Friday, October 03, 2008

Talkin' 'Bout A Generation Gap With 2 New Release DVDs

A couple of new DVDs to review - one that has barely legal kids singing punk rock and the other features really old folks way past retirement singing, yes, punk rock. Let’s start with the old folks and then move backwards:

YOUNG@HEART (Dir. Stephen Walker, 2007)

I was hesitant about this indie documentary about a vocal group comprised of 22 senior citizens singing pop, rock, and punk songs.

I mean, though this is a chorus that has been at it with different members for the last 20 years the prospect of hip-ifying old folks brings to mind Pepsi commercials with rapping GrandMas or lame cheap comedies that have elders speaking in hip-hop jargon made me think this was a possible gimmicky cringe-fest. 

Well, moments into YOUNG@HEART those short-sighted fears disappeared as choral director Bob Cillman introduced his singers to a song they’ve never heard by a band they’ve likely never heard of: “Schizophrenia” by Sonic Youth.

They don’t seem to take to it (sideline sound bite interviews show that most of these folks prefer classical music and show-tunes) but Cillman presses on. They are more receptive to Jame's Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)” though the rhythm and getting the lines right throws members Dora Morrow and Stan Goldman as they prepare for a concert in their hometown of Northampton, New England. 

The day to day toll of getting old hinders some rehearsals as the beloved Bob Salvini’s health worsens and his duet partner Fred Knittle struggles with his absence. They all struggle with the 71 “cans” in Allen Toussaint's “Yes We Can Can” which frustrates Cillman who threatens to scrap the number but nobody wants to give up.

Not giving up is the-show-must-go-on bottom line here as these resiliant and enthusiastic folks do their best to get their vocals right and find harmony with each other knowing that every extra day to do so is a gift. At times cheesy (I could do without the flashy music video sequences for the Talking Heads’ “Road To Nowhere” and the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive”) but mostly a funny and heartfelt ride, it's impossible to not be emotional when watching the climatic concert finale of this film. 

Knittle’s soft voiced emotional version of Coldplay's “Fix Me” (pictured on the left) ripples through the hall with the light glimmering off the tears in the eyes of people of all ages. It’s not a spoiler to tell that they nail every “can” in Toussaint’s punchy positive action anthem; it’s really just an enhancement to my endorsement.

And now a DVD (complete with 80’s-style promotional buttons!) that I was very happy to win from a contest on one of my favorite film/music blogs ThePlaylist: LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE FABULOUS STAINS (Dir. Lou Adler, 1982) What?!!? You’ve never heard of this film? Well, you’re not alone - very few have seen it as it has never before had a proper home video release and has only has the occasional revival screening. 

With this new DVD release that will likely change because I think they'll be plenty of people who will want to see a 15 year old Diane Lane as the singer, songwriter, and manager of the Stains - a punk trio rounded out by a 13 year old Laura Dern and the still unknown Marin Kanter.

Virtually unrecognizable from his recent roles in THE DEPARTED and the last INDIANA JONES flick is Ray Winstone with a wardrobe cribbed from Joe Strummer as the leader of the Looters, a British punk band that tours with the Stains. Real life punkers Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols along with Paul Simonon of the Clash make up Winstone’s band who go head to head with an aging hard pyschedelic rock band named The Metal Corpses fronted by Fee Waybill of the Tubes.

After learning some sleazy lessons about life on the road and a drastic change in their appearance (mostly see-through blouses and white stripes in their hair) The Stains gain a following not from their talent (a few performances prove that they have none) but from some TV appearances. 

“Because they were on TV” one of their minions explains to a smirking overly ambitious newslady (Cynthia Sykes). “I'm perfect but nobody in this shit-hole gets me because I don’t put out!” Lane yells and it becomes a mantra of sorts to the copycat crowd that comes calling. “I don’t put out” doesn't necessarily mean what you’d think - she does engage in sex but it’s on her own terms or something like that. Not sure if the movie makes a compelling case for that but what does it matter?

Director Lou Adler, whose only feature film before this (and after) was CHEECH AND CHONG’S UP IN SMOKE which says a lot, was no visual stylist and the film is certainly badly edited.

Reportedely its original screenplay was so mangled that writer Nancy Dowd took the pseudonym Rob Morton as credit but as it stands it’s still such a scrappy, yet very guilty, pleasure. The DVD features a very funny commentary by Lane and Dern who seem so amused, and many times embarrassed, to be watching it again. Dern remarks: “We were just babies”. Lane: “I thought I was so experienced!”

With its sloppy unbalance between a gritty social statement and ABC afterschool special aesthetics, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE FABOULOUS STAINS is simply great schlocky fun. Thematically this exists in the weird realm between such a lofty loved work as Elia Kazan’s A FACE IN THE CROWD and the 80’s tacky yet still very much loved THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN. For a could-be cult classic that’s not a bad place to be.

More later...