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Sunday, Sep 14, 2008

You can’t capture lightning in a bottle, according to the old cliché. Such electrical discharges also never strike in the same place twice, if you believe the rap. Applicable to hundreds of situations, we film critics tend to pull these maxims out whenever a sullied sequel rears its dreadful, usually unnecessary head. Almost always a clear case of cash from commercial chaos, revisiting a previous success ups the amperage for such a potential kinetic crash. Thus, the proverbial responses. Retardead, the new film from Monsturd makers Rick Popko and Dan West, wants to revisit the scatological success of that previous crap creature funny business. Unfortunately, the wit and weirdness of the first film just doesn’t translate over to a flailing zombie stomp.


Although everyone in the tiny county of Butte thinks that their fecal nightmare is over, the truth is far more disturbing. Seems the creator of the scat monster, Dr. Stern, has found a way to escape his fate, and is now teaching at the local institute for students with special needs. His goal is simple - use a hyper-intelligence serum to turn a group of mentally handicapped kids into abject geniuses. There’s just one side effect, however. After a while, these buffoons to braniacs start snacking on human flesh. It’s not long before Sheriff Duncan, Deputies Dan and Rick, and FBI Agent Susan Hannigan are ass deep in zombies - and desperate to find a way to stop the cannibal corpse holocaust. Oddly enough, Stern might have an answer for that as well.


There are times when a movie hits you in a certain way. Perhaps it’s the material, or the sort of day you had previously, but when a film that shouldn’t actually clicks, you wonder if it can happen again, and if not, what caused the connection in the first place. Monstrud, the first horror comedy from duo Rick Popko and Dan West, is this kind of non-quantifiable quackery. While cornering the market on mieda humor, it also worked as an effective bit of b-movie schlock. Of course, one is convinced that revisiting the title now would probably result in the aforementioned ambivalence. After all, the story of a killer stool sample would seem to have a limited shelf life. Still, Popko and West hope that Retardead offers up some similarly stupid fun. And for the most part, it does.


Of course, that also means there are some gaping flaws in the filmmaking reasoning. As Shaun of the Dead taught us, the living dead can be hilarious - that is, as long as you concentrate on the characters and circumstances surrounding the satiric scares. Here, Popko and West rely on our previous knowledge of the Butte County citizenry instead of reintroducing their individual quirks. Similarly, gore is rarely handled with humor. Sure, we can laugh at a particularly outrageous bit of arterial spray, but for the most part, blood letting is the perturbing pause before any other slice of slapstick. But Retardead thinks fiends feasting on spinal chords and bodies blowing apart is the height of hilarity. Sadly, sidesplitting is NOT sidesplitting. 


Even worse, this is a movie that wusses out on the most important facet of their (potentially) tasteless humor - the retards. After all, if you’re going to call a movie by such a politically incorrect term, you should treat the material in an equally offensive manner. At first, it looks like Popko and West will come through. We get a rogues gallery of identifiable idjits, from the inappropriate pee girl to the oversized homunculus with a safety helmet and hygiene issues. As we are introduced to Dr. Stern’s class, each cretin getting their individual moment to shine, we keep waiting for the filmmakers to break free. Instead, they immediately jump into “Flowers for Algernon” mode, turning their punchlines into frequently unfunny props.


Still, there are some reasons to rejoice. As the most dip-sticked deputies in the history of law enforcement, Popko and West are a cunning comedy team. There is a sequence when they are sharing some porn and a beer that’s a classic of understated spoofing. Also, the technical ambitions and actual achievements are well worth celebrating. The movie looks larger, the scope matched well by the improvement in cinematic technique. Sure, there is still too much padding here (a zombie comedy shouldn’t last longer than 85 minutes - Retardead is 100), and Dan Burr’s Dr. Stern is a fairly ineffectual villain. Instead of being over the top and evil, the actor turns on the seriousness and subtlety. A movie about retarded kids turning into bloodthirsty killers doesn’t need such nuance.


In fact, it’s fair to say that most of Retardead suffers from the seminal sophomore slump. It’s too ambitious, too overloaded with feigned confidence to completely succeed. Granted, in a realm where most homemade horror movies are a single step away from being digital chum, Popko and West deliver a fun and somewhat solid experience. But they also suffer from the same lo-fi failings that most no budget efforts experience. Instead of simply doing what they do best (and did well before), they purposely try to up the ante. And just like the concept of capturing lightning in a bottle, they barely manage to make it. This is a film that should be better than it ends up being - and perhaps it’s not Popko and West’s fault. Their Monsturd was a noxious little novelty. As the old saying goes, it’s almost impossible to repeat such accidental anarchy.


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Sunday, Sep 14, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

Palin / Hillary Open
Gov. Palin and Senator Clinton address the nation


And here’s what else happened last night…


Digital Short: Space Olympics
The year is 3022 and this galactic sporting event is having some financial issues


Michael Phelps Diet
You too can eat 12,000 calories a day!


The Charles Barkley Show


T-Mobile Fav 5
Shot on location in Las Vegas, Charles Barkley welcomes Michael Phelps and Bela


Jar Glove
There’s got to be a better way



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Sunday, Sep 14, 2008

The Internet is alight with the news of David Foster Wallace’s suicide. This is hitting me hard, not only because of Wallace’s youth, talent, and unfinished business, but because of my sense that he was not the type of artist who did this. In his writing, and especially in his magazine writing, I always found an authenticity and decency and all-around avoidance of self-tortured preening. I’m not saying we can spot suicidal hints in an artist’s work, but I am saying Wallace connected to real emotions and real concerns in a way that separated him from many of his pomo peers.


This doesn’t feel like the time to track down who broke the news, but I found out via the LA Times‘s blog. In choosing an image to accompany the story, their reporter posted the wrong book cover—not of Wallace’s opus, Infinite Jest, but of Stephen Burn’s David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest: A Reader’s Guide, a short volume in the “Continuum Contemporaries” series.


The Times’ unintentional slip feels like a fitting sort of tribute—with possible implications for Wallace’s style and audience, his relationship to academia, and even the state of fiction today—but I don’t feel like parsing it. I just feel sad.


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Saturday, Sep 13, 2008

Coming off the lively snap of “I Saw Her Standing There”, a song with a melodramatic title like “Misery” seems almost bound to be a non-starter. And, to a certain extent, that’s true of “Misery”. It’s a pained account of love lost that heavily wallows in neediness and self-pity (“The world is treating me ba-a-ad / Misery”). Based on his lyrics, John Lennon is positively inconsolable. Oh that his dearest would undo the hurt. Though certainly not always the case, cheerless and rather dull subject matter of this kind can have a deflating effect on a song and, as follows, the listening experience.


Even so, “Misery” is a more compelling number than its drab lyric might indicate. First, there’s the backstory. As it turns out, John and Paul did not write “Misery” for the Beatles themselves. It was originally intended for a young British pop star named Helen Shapiro who was in need of potential country/western material for a future release. Shapiro, however, never recorded the song (although another British artist, Kenny Lynch, later would). Eventually, when George Martin was compiling tracks for Please Please Me, he had the Beatles record, effectively, their entire backlog of songs, one of which was “Misery”. 


Side note: I’d be curious to know to what degree John and Paul consciously designed “Misery” as a song for a female performer and how the initial version and the Beatles’ own rendition may have diverged.


Within the song itself, the Beatles made several interesting decisions concerning its mechanics and structure. What stands out most is the song’s moderately crisp pace. Though “Misery” is nothing if not a bummer tune, the Beatles don’t match that feel with a plodding, despondent tempo. After the slow intro, they proceed into a steady gallop, with Ringo’s bouncy percussion as the dominant presence. Throughout, the three guitarists don’t really assert themselves but the pace remains active enough to prevent “Misery” from becoming a total mire of melancholy.


The verse/chorus pattern is also of note. “Misery’s” running time is a brief 1:50, which might reasonably suggest inadequate room for a fleshed-out structure to the song. But that’s misleading. The chorus consists of just one word, “misery”, and, furthermore, the Beatles opted to not include a guitar solo, both of which open up space. To fill that void in a not so predictable manner, John and Paul wrote two modulated verses (only slight variations of each other) to accompany the normal verses. The back-and-forth switch between normal and modulated gives the song a somewhat dynamic flow and hints at the Beatles’ desire, even at their start, to be more than paint-by-numbers songwriters who also happened to be infectious entertainers. They aspired to be serious craftsmen (though, admittedly, “Misery” is a humble offering).


The song’s single best moment, however, arrives at the 1:35 mark. It’s when John lets loose one of the most pitch-perfect and almost comically wounded moans (“oww-o-ow”) that you’ll ever hear in pop music. Few bands could prompt such pleasure with just two seconds of discardable vocal filler.


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Saturday, Sep 13, 2008

If art were easy, everyone would do it. And if it were a purely private endeavor, few might pursue such a lack of fame. Still, some prefer to work their particular brand of magic outside the glare of the ever-present camera, their concern being that pure truth and absolute beauty only comes from a secure sense of privacy. When former Velvet Underground guide John Cale set out to make his album 1989 Words for the Dying (a tribute to poet Dylan Thomas) with superstar musician/producer Brian Eno, he asked filmmaker Rob Nilsson to tag along. He thought that the recording process would make a decent documentary - or at the very least, a clever commercial tie-in. Upon arriving in Moscow, the crew discovered something quite disturbing. Eno wanted no part of the project - and his objections were strident.


Thus begins the cinematic presentation named for the LP, an incredibly intimate and often unwieldy look at the creative process. Never simple, always impassioned, and technically rife with all manner of mood swings and personal/professional pitfalls, why anyone would want to invite unattached eyes into the process seems arrogant at best. Lucky for us film fans, such ego overdrive has resulted in some classic motion pictures - Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, DiG, and now Words for the Dying. While Cale can occasionally be a figure of feigned experimentalism, gravitating toward the avant-garde and the unusual because it seems to satisfy his lingering sense of importance (and this is meant in a good way), his work on “The Falklands Suite” and other Words tracks making up this album argues for a musician of much broader scope.


Eno, on the other hand, comes off as the kind of snickering dick you’d immediately want to shy away from. Nilsson listens to his surreal psychobabble explanation of why he doesn’t want to be filmed (and this after Cale warned him and he relented), and even stands on his head to get the producer to acquiesce. Instead, Eno sets up three rules of filming which could easily encapsulate the entire recording process. It seems strange to watch the same man who hogs the screen during several U2 clips (the rehearsal video for the hit “(Pride) In the Name of Love” comes to mind) act like a pissy prima donna. The few glimpses we catch suggest a meticulous taskmaster, a Kubrick like magician who won’t let his artist rest until he gets the exact performance he hears in his head. While such a stance might be embarrassing, it’s also quite engaging. We want to know the mechanics of making music. Eno’s demands strangulate the insight.


Instead, Nilsson is left looking for other areas of focus, and Words for the Dying (new to DVD from upstart distributor Provocateur) is better for it. The first section of the film takes place in Moscow, in the still Soviet Union. Perestroika has given Cale the chance to work with a major orchestra, and the conductor praises the rock God turned composer to the point of embarrassment. It’s quite the contrast from Eno’s frequent faultfinding. Similarly, when a legendary soloist comes in to record, his moment of singular glory is immediately undercut by our beloved producer nitpicking over improvisational choices. It’s an odd experience, like watching someone complain to Picasso over his lack of symmetry. Much of Words for the Dying takes this tricky approach.


Much of the mixed messaging falls on our man from Wales. He is supposed to be celebrating a comeback of sorts (this was his first album in almost four years), and yet he allows Nilsson to do things that deaden the merrymaking. When he has to “trick” his mother into signing the family house away, the director follows Cale to the nursing home, and through the uncomfortable moments between the two. Similarly, a group of snooty pseudo-intellectual fans rag on their imperfect hero in a backstage parlance of self-righteous smugness. After finally covering the creation of Words, Nilsson then offers Cale a chance to see this prosh predetermination. His response? A second or two of feigned acceptance, and then a literal run off into the English countryside.


It would be nice to understand why the filmmaker took such a confrontational conceit. Unlike previously mentioned movies, Words does not do the inward soul searching that Metallica or The Brian Jonestown Massacre/Dandy Warhols offer. On the DVD’s only major bonus feature, an interview with Nilsson, offers limited explanations. Much of the blame is foisted on Eno, the director stating rather emphatically that if said producer had only allowed for greater access, we wouldn’t have the overall piecemeal paradigm, shooters struggling to find material to fill the frame. But this doesn’t address the implied disdain for Cale. Why hurt a man already suffering? Even better, what does seeing the trailed twinkle in the musician’s mother’s eyes add to the creation of an album?


Indeed, the biggest flaw in all of Words for the Dying is the lack of clarification and context. We never get to hear the final tracks, much of the music presented in snippets or snatches. Cale’s previous career is given an equally cursory montage, allowing the elitist dreck spewed by those so-called devotees to remain our lasting impression of his post-Velvets years. Unlike other making-of movies, Nilsson’s cinema verite variations never offer the true backstage experience. Of course, some of this could be Eno’s fault, but one senses a loss of interest in the subject at hand. As state before, Words is at its best when it’s talking to Russian rock bands, listening to a female violinist discuss the chauvinistic Soviet view about women in the workplace, or capturing Cale with his precious daughter Eden.


Again, if any of this were easy, films like Words for the Dying wouldn’t be necessary. For all its turmoil and travails, for allowing Eno’s attitude to drag everything down to his illogical level, Nilsson deserves censure. Luckily, the small amount of music we hear in combination with the inherently interesting man that Cale appears to be mends most of the fences. It’s hard to argue against Words wounded effectiveness. It may come off as coarse and unsympathetic, especially when one realizes that actual professions and reputations are at stake, but the ancillary aspects surrounding the sturm and drang continuously draw us in. Clearly, Cale deserves better. His entire career can’t be marked by what happens here. For Eno and Nilsson however, the results do feel like jeering just desserts - at least for now.


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