Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Tiny Tyrant

A few weeks ago, I mentioned my new writing teacher and how pissed off I was at him. We were supposed to meet in his office and have it out that week, and I made it sound like I was gearing up for one hell of a blowout.

Well, the blowout never came. When I got to his office (I did force the meeting on him a day early just to be a dick), he was actually pretty respectful of the fact that I was too sick to go to class. He also knows, as I do, that he can't kick me out of his class for it. So he gave me an extra day to do the first paper and left it at that. I was a bit surprised; here I was, all ready for a fight, and he lets me off the hook. Hey, as long as I don't have to have a combative relationship with another short teacher (it's always the short ones), I'm happy.

Actually, I like this professor. Despite the fact that he looks like he dresses out of a handbook called How to Look Like a Modern Writer, despite the fact that he shows off by yelling out almost everything he says in class, I agree with a lot of his ideas. Since this is a prose non-fiction class, I appreciate that he advocates a total lack of the flowery bullshit so many other teachers think passes for technique. He says things that are actually worth remembering for a writer, such as "Words are like twenty dollar bills; spend them only when you must" and "There's always a word to describe any emotion, no matter how deep, as long as you have the energy." He hates long French words and advocates shorter Anglo-Saxon and Germanic ones. I love it.

The only area we differ in is how people talk. I tend to use archaic words; not to be pretentious, but because I prefer the sound of them. He doesn't quite buy that I use words like "indeed," "perhaps," "whilst," "whomsoever," "whereupon," or "frippery" in typical conversation. But I do.

Besides, he says "trumpery" and "balderdash."

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

I'm going to come out and admit first off that I still don't understand everything that happened in this film. It's about two boys, Damien and Anthony, whose father moves them out to a new suburban development when their mother dies. Damien is very sensitive and talks to saints; Anthony is worried about being popular and normal. One day, a bag of money falls out of the sky, and the two kids struggle to hide it while trying to figure out how they should spend it (preferably before the changeover from Sterling to Euros). The style of the film is very impressionistic, but full of energy and very warm and positive. Like the mind of a child, the film jumps off on tangets that are nearly abandoned, and I don't quite know what happens in the end: is it a fantasy or did it happen? But that actually doesn't curb my enjoyment of the film for one moment. I simply loved this film; at once a study of childhood grief, a meditation on poverty and greed, and a crime thriller. I loved this more than any other movie Danny Boyle has directed (including 28 Days Later and even Trainspotting). And I liked that Daisy Donovan was in it. **** stars.

Well, you don't expect much from a movie made for the SciFi Channel... unless, of course, it stars Bruce Campbell and is written and directed by Josh Becker. And that's why this movie is so disappointing. Maybe I unfairly expected too much; after all, I love Josh Becker's work. Thou Shalt Not Kill... Except was a fun B-movie that made a few points about Vietnam vets and the disintegration of society, with shades of Sam Fuller along the way; Lunatics, A Love Story is a surprisingly sweet-natured comedy featuring a great performance from Ted Raimi in a testament to the power of love over the mind; and Running Time is one of the greatest crime movies I've ever seen, with a depth and gravity that Quention Tarantino could only wank to, as well as great performances from Bruce Campbell and Jeremy Roberts. And Bruce Campbell... well, after Bubba Ho-Tep I think I have higher expectations for his acting ability. And this film was just an incredible disappointment. Bruce Campbell is one of four scientists who come back to Earth after 40 years in space (in cryogenic sleep, of course), only to discover that civilization has been conquered by an alien species of mites. BC (and Xena's Renee O'Connor, who looks beautiful and is a welcome presence but has too little to do) tries to rally the disparate tribes of humanity to fight back, not only against the bugs but also against the human traitors who help to keep the humans enslaved. Let's put aside the terrible and witless special effects (par for the course in a movie like this) and the surprisingly bland production design, and deal instead with the acting and plot. The story is sound, but the dialogue needs a polish; it feels like a script Becker wrote in 1981 that was holding up a doorstop until recently. Did he even rewrite any of this amateurish effort? And Bruce Campbell, who can normally make up for any deficiency in script with his boundless personality, seems to have decided that it wasn't worth trying very hard to make the script interesting. Not that he's bad; I just know he can do better. Every other actor in the movie (except for O'Connor and Peter Jason as the exiled President) is pretty embarrassing; Rositza Chernogorova, as Bizzi, is very cute and appealing, but mumbles all of her lines too softly. And the costumes! Why is everyone wearing a fake beard? The movie is so damn cheesy, but the cheese isn't embraced so much as it's ignored. Becker, Campbell, et al, have tried to make the movie a serious examination of mankind's strength and loyalties (but peppered it with lines that should sound cool coming out of BC but don't; he plays a doctor; after shooting a rapist, the rapist accuses: "You're a doctor, you're supposed to heal people." Bruce replies without conviction: "You're right; your stupidity is terminal. And now you're cured."), but the cheapness of the film betrays its origins. Bruce Campbell is perhaps trying to bring a weary, Richard Widmark in Pickup on South Street weariness to the role, but it doesn't work for a movie that is so arch (and doesn't realize its archness). The back of the DVD box tries to sell the movie as a comedy, but none of the laughs are intentional. I know Josh Becker is better than this; go to his website (hit the "Beckerfilms" link on the right index) and read the scripts for Crime After Crime, Ball Breaker, The Biological Clock, and especially Cycles if you don't believe me. See Running Time and you won't be disappointed. But this *1/2 star failure is not indicative of what he's capable of. Not even a little.

This was a surprisingly sweet-natured comedy that needed a stronger director to really make a point. Beyond that, however, it was enjoyable. The Farrelly Brothers produced it, and I liked it better than their last movie, Stuck On You; maybe they should have directed this one instead. Brian Cox was hilarious, Katherine Heigl was beautiful and appealing (she really makes the most of her role), and the developmentally disabled actors in the movie are wonderfully funny. My only problem with it was that they sometimes felt like a gimmick to add depth; the actor who wins the Special Olympics and become a hero at the end, for example, was not a developmentally disabled actor--right away I recognized him from Galaxy Quest. Johnny Knoxville continues to prove that he is a potentially great comic actor. *** stars.

Martin Scorsese's documentary sounds better and looks better than it did in 1978, which is really saying something. However, it all depends on whether or not you like the music. If the idea of Bob Dylan and the Band singing "I Shall Be Released" on stage while Ron Wood plays guitar, Ringo joins on drums, and Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, and others sing back-up doesn't thrill you, don't bother to see the movie. For me, however, that performance alone makes this a **** star movie.

One of the best movies I've ever seen. Ang Lee tells a love story in such a simple and subtle way that it took the breath out of me. This is not simply "the gay cowboy movie," but a movie about human nature and the way society will reinforce itself on people. The plot is deceptively simple: two cowboys have a romantic fling, go off and marry women, then reunite and spend the next 20 years meeting with one another for "fishing trips" that take them away from everything so they can be together. But the emotional depth of this story is what makes it a masterwork of American cinema, helped along by some excellent performances. I've always liked Heath Ledger, but nothing in his CV prepared me for what he does in this movie. Jake Gyllenhaal, the same. Michelle Williams is excellent in a hard role; she knows the truth for years, but suffers in silence. Sadly, Anne Hathaway has not been receiving much praise for her role, but her final scene in the movie is focused and restrained, and is the best acting she's done yet. This is a hard story, a rewarding one, and one that leads not towards a resolution, but towards a loneliness that is inevitable. The two men never once say they love each other. But the feeling that passes between them speaks volumes. **** stars.

GIMME AN "F" (1984)
It wants to be Meatballs, but this eighties sex comedy about a cheerleader camp actually thinks it's Fame. Sadly, no one is giving anybody an "F," if you know what I mean and I think you do. A total waste of time, no stars.

Yes, a Lifetime original starring a Disney chick. Raven-Symone stars as a Louisiana girl who wants to end her school's 30 year-old tradition of having two separate proms--one for whites, one for blacks. It starts off simply enough--why not pool the money for both proms to have one really nice one?--but becomes an issue of race that divides the entire town. The problem I had with the movie is that it takes place in modern day: 2005, not 1965. I missed the first couple of minutes, so I don't know if this is a true story, or just racist issues moved up to modern times in an effort to communicate the ideas more forcefully to a modern (presumably young) audience. But it seemed incongruous to me. Besides that, there are a lot of cliches that make the movie less than it could have been. Aisha Tyler (how I love her) co-stars as a reporter who gives the issue national attention, and too much is made of her love story with a white teacher and her feelings about whether her father accepts her; so much so that Raven and her racial problems take a backseat for much of the movie. The two storylines don't really gel together, and the ridiculous score (Aisha Tyler and the teacher--Sex and the City's Jason Lewis, looking like Luke Perry when he was only 50--stand against the wall and kiss to the swell of sexy saxophones) doesn't help the supposed seriousness here. A misfire, then, with two good performances (Raven and Tyler) that are utterly wasted on an inconsequential story. Is the prom really that important? ** stars.

Random Things

1. I was scanning channels this morning, and watched a couple of minutes of Charmed (I like a few minutes in the morning to gape at Rose McGowan's bosomy wonderfulness). At one point this morning, a demon turned over to another and warned: "I find your lack of faith disturbing." It reminded me of the rightly-forgotten Kull, in which Tia Carrere's character warned: "I've altered our pact, pray I don't alter it further." Have you ever heard the phrase "If you're going to steal, steal from the best." The arch, lame, pseudo-Shakespearean dialogue of Star Wars is not the best. Don't steal from it.

2. Becca and I caught the trailer for The Da Vinci Code. What the hell is this shit all about? Ian McKellen's character says something like "blah blah blah secret that would rock the very foundations of civilization." To which I ask: WHAT? What is this fucking secret that would blow all of our minds apart like a mouse in a wind tunnel if we knew about it? Give me a fucking break, here. The worst part of this dribble becoming popular is that it shows us how many people apparently take comfort in the idea that "there are things mankind is not meant to know" and "places mankind is not supposed to go" and other idiot cliches espoused by bible fans. This reveals an inherent lack of faith in the human mind and in human ingenuity. Humility is the name people attach to their total lack of drive to learn and discover; and worse, this laziness is in the name of religion. And then people get all tingly over this mumbo jumbo. Westerners are sold this junk so easily.

3. A lady from M80 Entertainment contacted me this morning via e-mail. They're the company behind Free Enterprise, a movie I loathe. The movie is being released on DVD by Anchor Bay Entertainment (one of my favorite companies) in some unneccesary deluxe version, and they must be looking for bloggers to spread the word (a good idea), and she found this post and assumed, quite rightly, that I love Audie England. She asked me, since I was a fan, if I was interested in putting a review or press release on my blog. A sound idea, however what she didn't realize was this: my picture of Audie England was a supplement to this post listing Free Enterprise as one of the worst movies I'd ever seen. That was a fun little moment.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Not Enough Logic

I'm still seeing ads in all sorts of places for Rob Reiner's latest film, Rumor Has It, which has led me to think some more about the premise of this film. I haven't seen it (and I hope never to), so I have just one question: does this movie take place in 1985? Because there's a definite time-frame logic problem here... (NOTE: According to the Internet Movie Database, this movie takes place in 1997.)

Just as Sleepless in Seattle was really about how two chicks liked An Affair to Remember, this movie seems to be about nothing more than how much the writers love the dated, clumsily made The Graduate. Okay, fine. I think it's a movie fewer and fewer people see each generation (one day its influence will be totally discounted), but it's a so-so movie that doesn't really work anymore (it's a satire of a society that doesn't quite exist as it did in 1967, though any script written by Buck Henry retains a nicely biting character). But the real problem with Rumor Has It is this: the original novel The Graduate was published in 1963. So, Jennifer Aniston finds out that her grandmother is Mrs. Robinson and that the events of The Graduate were based on things that really happened to her mother and grandmother. Kevin Costner plays the "real-life" basis for the character Benjamin Braddock, which was Dustin Hoffman's breakthrough film role...39 years ago!

See, this is the real problem for me. First off, there's the age of the actors involved. Shirley MacLaine, playing the "real" Mrs. Robinson, was born in 1934, making her 71 at the end of last year. Improbably (though he looks much older), Kevin Costner was born the same year as my dad, 1955, putting him at 50. Jennifer Aniston, who is supposed to be young enough to be his daughter (thus the air of scandal), was born in 1969 (even though she looks much older), which means she was 36 last year, just 14 years younger than Costner. In a movie that takes place in 1997, this means that MacLaine is playing a 63 year-old, Costner is 42, and Aniston is 28. The movie "slyly" takes place just 30 years after the release of the film version of The Graduate (part of me wonders if the writer, Ted Griffin, even knew The Graduate was a Charles Webb novel before he finished his first draft).

Now, look at The Graduate. The late Anne Bancroft was born only 3 years before Shirley MacLaine, and was 36 years old when she made the film. Dustin Hoffman was a mere six years younger than her, making him 30 when The Graduate came out. Ironically, Bancroft is playing older and Hoffman is playing younger, but that's fine; that's acting. The important thing here is that The Graduate is about a recent college grad who's returned home and is totally aimless, and carries on an affair with his mother's married friend, Mrs. Robinson, before falling in love with her daughter (also a college graduate). So, being generous, lets put the age of Benjamin at 22 and Mrs. Robinson, old enough to have a college grad daughter, around 45.

Taking it a step further, the novel was published in 1963, so (being very kind and assuming someone was willing to publish it right off), the events of the novel (in the conceit assumed by Rumor Has It) must have taken place around 1960.

Do you see the problem here? In 1960, Shirley MacLaine was only 26, and Kevin Costner was 5 years old. So, how is Shirley MacLaine old enough to be Mrs. Robinson, and how is Kevin Costner old enough to be Benjamin Braddock? And before you point out my above comment about Hoffman and Bancroft (that's acting), you have to keep in mind that this is a movie about a very specific film that came out at a very specific time. It may as well be a time travel movie, since the inner logic of the film depends on the absolute rigidity of dates and times. So, not only do we have a movie where all three leads are playing a decade younger than they actually are, but where that sort of manipulation is utterly pointless, because the times are all off, anyway!

And, sadly, this seems to be more thought on a simple motivating concept than Ted Griffin seems to have put into his entire screenplay.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Pink Poseur

"Beige is the color you get when you mix Pink with the kind of crap she records." -- Jack Black

Pink is something of a musical frustration for me. On the one hand, she tries really hard not to follow in the pop music mold of most young girls, who sing about lost love or the thrill of self-discovery, and who are often critically dismissed as bubble gum. On the other hand, Pink is still just doing pop music, and as much as she tries to do what I can only call "hardcore pop," her lyrics and subject tend to be ridiculous.

Pink started off in 2000 with the album Can't Take Me Home, the title of which begins a public assertion on her part that she's not like the other girls. It yielded three singles: "There U Go," "Most Girls," and "You Make Me Sick." The first two videos are so forgotten that MTV Hits never plays them anymore, but the latter shows up in the rotation. This was around the time when Pink's hair was actually pink (which is kind of a cheap identification, especially since the former Alecia Moore claims she took her moniker from the inside of a woman's most intimate area). This was also the time when Pink was apparently trying to claim status as an honorary black woman, fighting with black men in her videos and trying to act tough and hardcore. It could have been ridiculous, but since Pink was new, one could almost accept the presentation: she's the tough, sporty chick who won't take any crap from men.

This all began to change only a year later. First, there was the video from Moulin Rouge, "Lady Marmelade," which was supposed to advance the careers of Mya, Lil' Kim, and Pink, but only made them seem less technically competent than Christina Aguilera. Then there was the second album, Missundaztood. And it's here where the Pink persona goes off the rails and never gets back on. Apparently, being the outcast tough chick wasn't enough for Pink. Now she wanted to confirm that she was both sexually desirable and likeable on a personal level.

"Get the Party Started" was enjoyable fluff, but "Don't Let Me Get Me," "Just Like a Pill," and the egregious "Family Portrait" were all missteps on which she begged and whined for love. Over the space of three singles (widely played thanks to the notereity boost from "Lady Marmelade"), Pink went from tough chick to whiny chick with a complex. First, she asks us to feel sympathy because the other girls never accepted her (too boyish, if the video is an indication); then, she squirms and pines about ideal love; and then she refuses to come to terms with the trauma of her parents' divorce and tries to justify it as the turning point in a life that is putting out a pretty self-regarding ouevre. I have no problem, of course, with self-regard, but it has to be done interestingly. David Bowie's 1970s albums are a sustained inner dialogue replete with moments of self-fascination, but at least he was doing something new. Pink's music is so derivative of both other, better pop music and late nineties adult contemporary music that it's hard to work up any enthusiasm, interest, or emotion over it. It doesn't help that all three of these singles are produced with the typically unimaginitive morass that passes for meaningfulness in pop.

Pink must have been worried about having revealed too much or being too much of a whiner on Missundaztood, because after selling a few million copies she recanted her position as sensitive, easily wounded tough girl. First came "Feel Good Time," the single from Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, which was merely disposable. But from that video through her next two, "Trouble" and the lyrically-insipid "God Is a DJ," Pink became a style exercise in disaffected cool, heroin chic, and trendy nods towards lesbianism (when Pink very quickly lifts a girl's skirt in the "God" video, look at the way she looks at the camera, as though expecting a pat on the head and a treat as validation for being oh-so-naughty). But it was too late to reclaim the tough chick image, because no one had noticed her music much when that was what she put forward. Now she seemed more like the skater guy's annoying, drug-addled girlfriend. The album title, Try This, seemed especially cynical; Pink trying a new image, discontent with the old one, but in such a commercially-honest way that it was pretty much a turn off. "No, no, I'm really tough and hard," she seemed to say, "despite the touchy-feely quality of my last album."

And now, we come to a brand new single, "Stupid Girl." The video is a direct attack on the new millennium girls who have become popular for seemingly no reason; I counted parodies of at least Hilary Duff, Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Lindsay Lohan, Tara Reid, and Jessica Simpson (and possibly Mary-Kate Olsen and, bizarrely, Gwen Stefani, who was around long before Pink and whom, it could be argued, Pink has ripped heavily from in not only content and style, but in persona as well). In the video, Pink at least has the grace to imply that she, herself, has had the odd moment where she wonders if her life would be easier emulating these girls. And the video has some undeniable moments of wit (it was directed by Dave Meyers, whose humor and style is best exemplified by his many videos with Missy Elliott). But I was troubled by a couple of things. First off, the lyrics aren't really as clever as she thinks they are; this is just in musical form what people have been bitching about since the advent of Britney and the Spice Girls in the very late nineties. Secondly, she doesn't make much of an inspiring call for girls to be different from the images they see on MTV; the only things she can suggest for a girl are power ("What happened to the girls who want to be President?"), masculinity (sports), and, of course, imitation of "alternative" role models (herself).

Yes, in the end, it feels as though Pink isn't really warning girls that they shouldn't want to be as useless as a Paris Hilton, but that they should want to be tough and smart, like...well, like Pink, if the video is any indication. So she's really not setting anyone on the path, but merely attacking other pop singers in a futile attempt to set herself apart from them and hold herself up as better. But her abilities and her musical track record don't really justify the ego trip; even the useless Avril Lavigne is better at setting herself apart from the crowd than Pink is, because she rips off better talent. When it all comes down to it, Pink is, like the other girls mentioned above, a pop star, and a pretty minor one at that.

Ironically for a video about female empowerment, the only thing one is really left with after seeing "Stupid Girl" is that she's at least very sexy in it.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Steve Martin: God

Steve Martin: God Posted by Picasa

Anyone catch Saturday Night Live last night? It was a real bright spot in the show's recent history of mediocre crap. From the witty opening to the end credits, it was so nice to see what someone with a sense of humor (and a sense of professionalism) can do with the format. Steve Martin is so precise in his performance, yet he makes it look so effortless. He doesn't go for the easy, cheap laughs; there was no song in the monologue, and the appearances of the regular characters was toned down a bit. There were some excellent backhanded slaps at the entertainment industry (the bit where Steve Martin, playing himself, finds that he's been booked to play at a Hamas gathering was absolutely priceless). This was probably the most genuinely funny episode since February and March 2003, when the show actually managed to have four witty, funny episodes in a row (Christopher Walken, Queen Latifah, Salma Hayek, and Bernie Mac).

I also have to point out Fred Armisen. Sometimes he's a little too broad, but he can focus when he wants to. The Prince Show sketch was especially ballsy, as Prince himself was the musical guest last night. It's usually tempting for SNL performers to take all of the guts out of their parodies by apologizing for them (like when Gemini's Twin, which was basically about how lame Destiny's Child was, had Destiny's Child in their last sketch and told them how great they were). Thankfully, Prince didn't appear on the sketch, and they just made fun of him.

There were only two dull spots. Well, three. First, there was a sketch that was basically making fun of Aaron Neville, Aretha Franklin, and Dr. John for being fat. I hate when they do sketches that are nothing more than exercising ridiculous accents or doing celebrity impressions with no real satirical justification. Sure, Horatio Sanz's Aaron Neville impression is hilarious, but what was the point to it? And why make fun of three boorish musical establishments that nobody much cares about anymore? Way to pick soft targets; maybe next week they'll really get ballsy and make fun of Frank Stallone or Don Johnson.

The second weakness was, as always, Weekend Update. Don't get me wrong, I think Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are funny, but in the age of The Daily Show it just seems redundant to have Weekend Update. The segments are always so loose and informal, and (as they never seem to figure out on SNL), when a performer trips over their punchlines, it robs the joke of any humorous impact. There's been a hostility about Weekend Update ever since Jimmy Fallon, who decided that the important thing about performing was that he enjoyed it whether the audience did or not. The audience is completely superfluous to Weekend Update.

The final dullness was the unneccesary return of the amazingly unfunny Maya Rudolph, who has long been a charisma black hole on the show. This dullness was relieved slightly by her new post-childbirth body, which is round and soft and curvy in all the right places. But that'll fade soon enough.

Despite all SNL has going against it, the show was their best in years. If only they could fix the goddamn thing and do this every week.