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Sunday, Oct 19, 2008

Has another filmmaker had the same amazing meteoric rise from novice to name as Peter Jackson? A mere 21 years ago he was an unknown Kiwi geek who had spent four years making his own monster movie. A quick sale at Cannes and his alien cannibal comedy was a glorified cult smash. But consider where he was in 1999. With only six feature films under his belt, and limited commercial cache to show for it, New Line named him the guide for their all important Lord of the Rings franchise. Three epics, billions of dollars, and a trio of Oscars later, Jackson is now a monumental moviemaking figure, an example of talent trumping the standard studio thinking. Looking back at 1987’s Bad Taste now, it’s clear that this was a director worth watching. But it’s also clear that, within his limited budgetary purview, there was more ambition than ability. 


The entire town of Kaihoro, New Zealand is missing, and its up to the Astro Investigation and Defence Service to figure out why. While Derek determines the extent of the damage, Barry explores the deserted city. He is attacked by a zombie and barely escapes with his life. Frank and Ozzy phone in, explaining they will be delayed in providing backup. In the meantime, Derek watches over a captured creature, hoping to determine their extraterrestrial flesh eating motives. An accident puts the mission in jeopardy, and when a charitable collector named Giles comes to town, he is kidnapped by the fiends. Turns out, aliens have indeed landed, and they intend to use Earth for some nefarious culinary aims. It is up to our foursome to put a stop to the plot, to save Giles, and keep the rest of the universe from experiencing the Bad Taste of Crumb’s Crunchy (Human) Delights.



Revisiting this film after almost two decades reveals something very interesting - not only about what Jackson managed to accomplish, but with regards to that other rarified element, selective cinematic memory. Fans fondly remember Bad Taste as being an over the top splatter fest loaded with blood, bile, and body parts. In the windmills of one’s ever mottled mind, it was an action packed farce, denim clothed zombies carving up the community while oddball government agents pass ironic judgment on the entire proceedings. With a last act that loses sight of the sluice and a gonzo gross out sense of humor, it was the first real film dork delight…


…except, none of this is really true. Like most myths, the legend of Bad Taste has been expanded (and exploited) to fit the gore lovers revisionist nostalgic needs. Compared to Jackson’s brilliant Braindead (known to most as Dead Alive), this first film is relatively sedate. The arterial spray is evident, but slyly spaced out over the longish 90 minute running time. Similarly, the Kiwi genius has been funnier. Bad Taste is not as clever or cutting as Meet the Feebles, and lacks the consistency of his lauded later works. Finally, the film is not as frightening as one recalls. The final fifteen minutes is taken up with an extended gun battle which grows redundant after a while. Indeed, much of the movie plays exactly like what it is/was - a weekend workout among a bunch of schlock supporting fanatics.


It’s a situation that stands repeating - Bad Taste is not a classic. It’s not even the best example of this kind of cracked carnage. Instead, like most first efforts, it’s the foundation for a filmic type, the natural extension of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead dementia filtered through a legitimate horror fan’s fancy. Jackson is a noted student of the scary, able to wax wonderfully about everything from early Universal frights to the most obscure foreign fear factors. Bad Taste relishes that referencing. Rumor has it that Jackson fashioned it as a tribute to Tom Savini and you can see other noted homages throughout. Again, this doesn’t make the movie a milestone, just a smart, sometimes special experience.



It’s fun to watch Jackson in the unusual mode of actor, and a clean shaven one at that. As Derek, the head of Astro Investigation and Defense Service, he is almost unrecognizable. Talking in a high pitched accent that gives his entire demeanor a wimpified gloss, he’s hilarious and hopeless at the same time. When he puts on the familiar facial hair to play tongue tied alien Robert, it’s back to the human hobbit we know and love. The rest of the cast, made up of mates, chums, and other local well wishers, offer nothing more than glorified line readings, if that. Only a couple went on to pursue a career in film after Bad Taste. So this is clearly a homemade effort, a combination of desire and unbridled gumption given over to frequent fits of brilliance and, sadly, boredom. Viewed within the confined of contemporary splatter, Jackson’s jaunt is almost inert.


In fact it’s hard to champion long sequences of walking and worrying, the amazing New Zealand landscape providing the only real interest. Even more frustrating is the lack of continuous action. We don’t expect a film from 1987 to be Shoot ‘Em Up, but the lack of unbroken energy does undermine things. Once we get into the alien stronghold, things pick up immensely, and there’s no denying the effectiveness of Jackson’s handcrafted F/X (he even baked his monster masks in this mother’s oven). But then the guns come out and Bad Taste shifts into creative cruise control. Watching extras flail wildly as they are riddled with squibs is one thing. Seeing it for several similar minutes feels like padding.


As a way of looking at Peter Jackson Version 1.0, the man who would later evolve into a myth, Bad Taste is a telling template. It offers up many of the things he would later explore in his creative canon, while suggesting that something happened along the way to significantly amplify his game. Watching any number of his recent films - from Heavenly Creatures to Return of the King - argues for Taste‘s treatment as a fluke. It’s as if Chris Seaver went from making Mulva: Zombie Ass Kicker to The Dark Knight in the span of a decade. When legend slams head on into the truth, the pile up is never pretty. Luckily, Bad Taste is better than such a collision suggests. It’s also rather underwhelming.


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Sunday, Oct 19, 2008

Stuart Gordon’s career as one of the post-modern masters of the macabre happened quite by accident. As a graduate of the University of Wisconsin in the ‘60s, the self-described radical spearheaded controversial productions with his notorious company The Screw Theater (whose main objective was to stage shows that would force the audience to leave). He would later go on to form Chicago’s Organic Theater Company, and seemed content to pursue combustible live performance. In fact, when it was suggested that the H.P. Lovecraft tale “Herbert West, Re-Animator”, would be an interesting project to pursue, the lifelong fan originally thought about doing it live. When that idea was scrapped, a TV script found its way to an interested producer. Reimagined as a film, and the rest, as they say, is splatter comedy history.


Yet Gordon is more than just body parts and black comedy. While many of his films have stayed within the blood and gore genre, he’s dabbled in sensationally schlocky science fiction (Robot Jox, Space Truckers), fantasy (The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit), and intense urban drama (his adaptation of David Mamet’s Edmond). Horror is just one of the many caps this creator wears. Now comes the delightfully disgusting thriller Stuck (new to DVD from Image Entertainment). Based ‘loosely’ on an infamous real life case in which a young woman ran down a homeless man with her car and left him to die positioned in her windshield, Gordon finds yet another opportunity to take a typical genre and thwart its conventions. In this case, he takes a nail-biting thriller and turns it into a sly, substantive social commentary.


Brandi Boski is a collection of contradictions. As a nurse’s assistant in an old folks home, she loves her patients and cares for them with a sincerity and devotion. It doesn’t go unnoticed by her stickler boss. But when the working day is done, this girl just wants to have fun - ecstasy-fueled, rap music-inspired, club and bed hopping fun. With her African American drug dealer boyfriend Rashid by her side, it’s a headlong hop into full blown hedonism. On the day she learns she may be up for a big promotion, Brandi really ties one on. That night, her DUI driving meets Thomas Bardo, a recently evicted, at the end of his rope ex-professional. He flies into her windshield, getting stuck in the process. Instead of dying, however, he is badly, badly injured. In a blind panic, Brandi simply drives home and puts her damaged car in the garage. She can’t let a little thing like a mangled human ruin her chance at career advancement - or personal gratification.


Stuck is the kind of film you’d expect from Stuart Gordon. It defies convention as it finds unusual ways to make its many captivating and insightful points. For those familiar with his blood and guts grandstanding only, there is ample accident-based arterial spray, and there is a darkly humorous cloud covering everything that Brandi, her beau Rashid, and a desperate Bardo does. Sure, the first fifteen minutes of the film finds actor Stephen Rea putting on a nerdy drawl as his life systematically crumbles around him. The upwardly mobile Brandi meeting the downwardly spiraling Bardo is the perfect cinematic set-up. It provides both players with a reason to react, and a motivation for their eventual actions. Where Gordon decides to take everything next is why he’s considered one of the medium’s most outside and outrageous thinkers.


At first, the symbolism in Stuck is rather sketchy. Mena Suvari, her hair braided in some dated ‘wigger’ cornrows, plays Brandi like a beat-happy culture-robbing lightweight. She just wants a paycheck, a partner, and to party. Bardo is a typical post-modern white male - unimportant, powerless, and disposable. Rashid is the balance between the two - successful but for sketchy reasons, a bad-ass who turns tail whenever trouble rears its lifestyle stealing head. As a threesome, we see contemporary populism captured in all its pale perfection. Our heroine turns out to be cutthroat and ruthless, wanting nothing to interfere with or steal her status. In her mind, it’s all Bardo’s fault. Her man talks a good game, but literally can’t deliver the death blow. And caught between the two is the victim, the former paternalistic heart of our once structured society, now left to rot in the windshield of a vehicle like so much meaningless road kill.


But Gordon doesn’t stop there. While Bardo is trying to make an escape, there are neighbors who discover (or almost redirect) his predicament. One is a self-absorbed homosexual who is so concerned about the blood on his shirt (thanks to his pet Pomeranian who accidentally discovered the garage crime scene) that he ignores the more obvious question - where did such grue come from? The other is an immigrant family who, after discovering Bardo’s dilemma, fails to act because of their own illegal status. The iconography is obvious - here is the white man, once powerful, now unable to escape the grips of women and the strong minority men who now intrigue them. He’s figuratively fractured her well placed glass ceiling, and she responds like a serial killer. Sadly, the only fringe elements that could or would help have their own majority made issues that keep them distant and insular.


It would be nice to hear if Gordon purposely sought this approach, or if it was an organic result of the careful casting. Sadly, Image’s DVD offers little in the way of added context. Aside from a standard trailer, there’s nothing else. For a movie like Stuck, it seems a commentary would be mandatory. Gordon does a good job with these full length feature narratives, and one imagines he would fill in the blanks that some of the script purposefully leaves out. Granted, a lot of what he wants to say here is fairly self-evident. Suvari’s hairstyle, Rea’s unrealistic voice, the opening sequence where Brandi must clean up after a soiled and filthy old man (a WHITE man), and the constant hammering of the decency along the fringes (Bardo is initially befriended by a fellow homeless man in the park, much to his surprise), makes Stuck more than suspense.


Oddly enough, the dread ends up being the least important element in the entire film. We get the typical cat and mouse, Bardo finding ways to improve his lot (a cell phone, random tool-based weaponry) while Brandi and Rasheed plot and argue. We never feel the film will do something completely unexpected and fail to wrap things up in an action packed denouement. It’s just a matter of who will win and who will pay for what they’ve done to the other. If you’re coming to Stuck hoping for another dizzying dose of Stuart Gordon splatter, gore mixed with a goofball sense of humor, you may be disappointed. This is not From Beyond retrofitted to a modern suburban setting. Instead, this maverick moviemaker has decided to discuss the current state of society circa the new millennium, and in that regard, Stuck is very special indeed. If you get the message, you’ll respect the movie. Even if you don’t, you still have to admire the man. Stuart Gordon will always be an enigma. Something like Stuck suggests he’ll never change. 


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Sunday, Oct 19, 2008

According to a recent L.A. times article, Howard Stern has lost most of his audience.  Even if you’re not a fan of him (like me), it’s still significant ‘cause if the self-proclaimed ‘king of all media’ can’t make it on satellite, what kinda hope is there for the other shows out there?  Granted, he still has a relatively big audience but it’s still a fraction of what he had on traditional radio.  Verdict: satellite still ain’t a standard yet and has a ways to go.  Even the merger between Sirius and XM might not seal that deal.


Next up is a Guardian article that says politics and music can be a mismatch, citing the most obvious example of Reagan (mis)using Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” for his campaign.  It also made me think of poor ol’ John McCain who’s been slapped around by a number of artists who don’t want their songs used by his campaign- the list now includes Heart, Jackson Browne, Foo Fighters and Van Halen.  Didn’t it occur to his handlers to ask before they did this and then get embarrassed? Did they just figure that they’d get turned down anyway?  And if so, did they think the bands would just shut up and not say anything?  Add this to the long list of blunders that have plagued McCain’s campaign and yet another cautionary example that it provides.


And finally, there’s yet another study linking music loss to MP3 players.  I know, I know… we’ve heard this before but it bears repeating because we’re gonna have several generations with tinnitus soon ‘cause they don’t know better than to turn their players down.  Eventually, you’ll see public service announcements about this, warning iPod owners to cool it but why wait?  We should have Apple sponsoring these commercials NOW, with artists participating to drive home the point.  I’ll even write the damn spot for you “Hi, this is…. and I want you to hear my music and keep hearing it so please don’t blast your ears out.  All you have to do is turn it down a little and you’ll keep hearing my songs for years to come.  Hearing damage is a serious problem that can lead to hearing loss.  So play it smart.”  How’s that?  I’ll even waive my writer’s fee on that, OK?


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Saturday, Oct 18, 2008

Just like other fine arts - of conversation, of letter writing, of human compassion - debate has been downplayed and demonized by modern society. We don’t like dissent. Instead, we enforce compromise, or even worse, claim that disagreement is something unfair or “Un-American”. Even our political candidates shun the once important intellectual exercise, instead opting for prepared questions and talking point laden speech/statements. Television, the great wasteland of McLuhan fame, has become the last bastion of anything remotely resembling discourse, and even then, it’s usually reduced to punditry vs. perturbing on the idea scale. Lewis Black’s newest TV venue, Comedy Central’s Root of All Evil, wants to advance the cause of discourse, and within its limited purview, it definitely does.


Using a mock trial format, Black introduces two famed ‘advocates’ (read: noted comics from the world of stand-up) who argue over which is worse - Oprah or the Catholic Church, Beer or Weed, for example. Like extended onstage riffs, the talent takes their position, and using quips, jabs, and other humor-based briefs, they try to convince the judge (the host) and the jury (a studio audience) of their position. Black asks questions to trip up the speakers, and something called “The Ripple of Evil” is also discussed. The attending crowd is asked to vote, Black reads their opinion, renders his verdict, and sentences the loser. Among the already mentioned conflicts featured on this Season 1 DVD (from Paramount Home Video) are YouTube vs. Porn, Donald Trump vs. Viagra, Las Vegas vs. The Human Body, Kim Jong-IL vs. Tila Tequila, American Idol vs. High School, and Paris Hilton vs. Dick Cheney. 


For a long time now, Comedy Central has tried to come up with a successful comedian clash format. The most interesting was Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn, a proposed companion piece of sorts to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. During its run, four stand-ups would battle it out over current issues of the day. Quite contentious - and entertaining - the show didn’t last long, mostly because of problems with production and topicality. Now we get Root of All Evil, and in some ways, it’s even less successful. Not that the show isn’t funny, engaging, irreverent, or controversial. In fact, it’s one of the best examples of the format. But with the focus on popular culture, and some clear interference from the network, Black and company are missing a golden opportunity to become the McLaughlin Group of mirth.


Frankly, for all his current stature, Black should be bigger. Outside of his Comedy Central co-star Stewart, and his slightly less exacerbated twin Bill Maher (whose Real Time has a hand in Evil‘s production) he’s one of the rare voices on the meaningful issues of the world. He’s like Mort Sahl stricken with Tourettes, a clever political satirist who never seems to get the respect he deserves. Granted, his attacks sound more like rants than reasoned arguments, but when you cut out all the curse words and sideways references, he’s right on target. If anything, Root of All Evil gives him a half hour platform to magnify his popularity. But when the company paying your bills nixes certain ideas (Comedy Central rejected a first season showdown between Scientology vs. Disney), your ability for an individual showcase is limited.


Still, the show is very good at taking down its intended marks. Highlights include Patton Oswalt’s flawless deconstruction of Dick Cheney (“He’s the leader of the free world, and the world has never been less free.”), Andy Kindler’s vivisection of American Idol (“calling it a ‘guilty pleasure’ is just another way of saying ‘I’m dead inside…’”) and Oswalt, again, on YouTube (”…and while we were all laughing (at online videos), we invaded Iran!”). Sometimes, the takes are rather obvious (beer = bad judgment) or overdone (“At least when you hang out with cokeheads, they only have one theory…what if we could get some more coke.”). Yet within the context of the show, almost all of it works. And you’ll be surprised at how serious the comedians take their charge.


Indeed, one of the show’s more compelling elements is the adherence to the format and the desire to be persuasive. Sure, this is really nothing more than well-prepared comedy bits strung out over a legal theme, but there are times when you can tell that the performers have forgotten about being funny and are really trying to make a salient point. Black sets the tone, opening the show with a patented screed and statement, and throughout the proceedings he drops in little bilious bon mots. It helps that his first season cast is so capable. Along with Kindler, and Oswalt, Greg Giraldo, Paul F. Thompkins, Andrew Daly (the series’ unsung hero) and Kathleen Madigan manage to make the most of their time. Still, there is an inherent flaw in the overall presentation. Sometimes, a subject is so ripe for ridicule that we, the home audience, can come up with equally clever insights. When the comics don’t completely deliver, Root of All Evil appears to underachieve.


Still, for what it manages to accomplish in the name of entertainment, Lewis Black’s Root of All Evil is an intriguing, often insightful offering. It dares to challenge conventional wisdoms while dragging spurious social topics through the satirically-slung mud. It may not be the best situation to platform the talent involved, and the areas of interest tend to stay within the easily recognizable. Yet with real debate a dead proficiency, and the media’s desire to make everything a clash - of cultures, of concerns, of commerce - there is something quite satisfying about Black and his buddies. While they may not be able to resurrect the artform, they always make us laugh. And in today’s troubled times, that might be what matters most.


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Saturday, Oct 18, 2008

This NY Times article points out the simple equation of what happens to cute electronic toys in tough times- less money means less gadgets, not just for yourself but also as presents for friends and loved ones for b-days, holidays, etc..  That also means less of a chance for manufacturers to try out their new licensing deals on any new phone or music player and so they’re have to produce less of them or cut the prices way back.  It also means that the phone and MP3 players will be more frugal and cautious about the deals they make, meaning that they might also fall behind with making headway with consumers in getting them to buy more authorized songs as sound files or ringtones.  It’s kind of a vicious spiral downwards…


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