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by Bill Gibron

8 Nov 2009

In the ‘80s it was called the high concept film. The basic premise was that studios, desperate for guaranteed, easily marketed moneymakers, would come up with outlandish, can’t-miss ideas, fuse them together with high profile talent, and pray that audiences would respond favorably to the predetermined package. Sometimes they did, but more times than not, the results were neither abstractly or cinematically significant. When indie films came in and swept the system clean during the ‘90s, it looked like the days of the high concept were all but over. Indeed, superstar power and go-to genres now rule the day - except in the case of Fox’s stilted Summer flop, Aliens in the Attack. Like the worst of the hair band decade, this movie is a single specious idea dragged out for 86 agonizing minutes.

When the Pearson Family head off to their vacation home for a little requisite R&R, several elements conspire to try and spoil their quality time together. Moody teenager Carter can’t get along with his seemingly perfect sister Bethany, or his doting, demanding parents. Even worse, his sibling’s smarmy boyfriend invites himself to the remote Michigan shindig, and then makes up excuses why he must stay…overnight. Uncle Nathan then shows up with his goofball clan, including geeked out twins Art and Lee, as well as irritating adolescent Jake, and grizzled grandma Nana Rose. The icing on the uncomfortable cake, however, is a squadron of miniature extraterrestrials, beings from the planet Zirkonia bent on enslaving Earth. Naturally, it is up to the young Pearsons to save the day (in this kind of movie, adults need not apply).

So indicative of decades past that it should come with a speech from Gordon Gecko and a mandatory bottle of New Coke, Aliens in the Attic suffers from several of the current artistic afflictions that make today’s family films seem like nothing more than glorified digital babysitters. Parents needn’t worry that their children will be adversely affected by the drivel on display here since it’s clear that any thinking person wouldn’t subject their offspring to such an IQ squandering effort. Clichés abound, as do questions of pure logic and reason. In order to keep the focus on the underage set, the film even makes up some unlikely sci-fi strictures, the better to keep anyone with the power to actually affect the outcome of things completely removed from the action. This is post-millennial slapstick at its worst - all pain, no attempt at wit or cleverness.

We’ve come to expect crap from director John Schultz. With a resume that reads like a criminals rap sheet, he’s the hack responsible for one of the worst excuses for cinema of all time - the African Americanized update of the Jackie Gleason classic The Honeymooners (oh…the pain…the pain…). True, the script is just as shoddy - Mark Burton (a UK TV talent) and Adam F. Goldberg (nothing of note) concocting a crude reassembly of Gremlins, batteries not included*, and Small Soldiers. In fact, if we didn’t know better, we’d swear that Joe Dante had gotten drunk, fallen repeatedly on his head, wandered onto a soundstage, and dreamed up this cornball cavalcade during one of his less than lucid moments. This is the kind of effort that makes direct to video cheapies like Ghoulies, Hobgoblins, and Munchies look like works of Ingmar Bergman…well, maybe NOT Hobgoblins.

It might have helped had the humans not been so outrageously ignorant. They stare at a rotary phone in dumbfounded disbelief, and even with their wealth of videogame oriented technological know-how, they barely find ways to thwart their three foot tall adversaries. The ETs themselves look like rotted reanimated bread dough, voices given over to tired archetypes and personalities. It is some of the lousiest CG this side of an independent Shrek knockoff. About the only interesting element comes late in the game, when Nana Rose is turned into a kung-fu fighting drone, obviously aided by lots of special optical effects. With an ending that’s neither inventive nor exciting and a bevy of simpleton laughs aimed at anyone too young to know better, Aliens in the Attic is an unbelievably bad film. It’s not incompetent, just inane.

All of which makes the tricked out Blu-ray disc currently available from Fox seem all the more surreal. Does a movie this limited in entertainment value really mandate an alternate ending, deleted scenes, gag reel, a behind the scenes Making-of, a series of star featurettes for Ashley Tinsdale (High School Musical) and Doris Roberts (Everybody Loves Raymond), and a new animated short focusing on the Zirkonians themselves? Heck, there’s even a music video, a Fox Channel Presents episode, and a digital copy of the film on a separate disc. One can easily name Best Picture Oscar winners that don’t get this kind of fancy home video packaging. While the company has every right to treat the title the way it wants (for the record, the sound and image are excellent in the 1080p HD qualities), it seems pointless to pile on this much content for a film few will care about.

Indeed, the main failing of Aliens in the Attic is within its intended demographic. When kids, easily wooed by even the lamest attempts at amusement, can’t cotton to what you’re offering, the results should be exiled, not available for purchase. Adults should probably care more, but in a social dynamic which sees DVDs as a means of keeping Junior and the gang occupied for a few seemingly stress-free minutes, anything is better than a blank big screen. Two decades ago, when Tinseltown excelled at ideas like this, Aliens in the Attic would be a fondly remembered bit of geek nation nostalgia. While clearly trying for the same sense of Reagan-era action and adventure, John Schultz again shows he has no business being behind a camera. This is one outer space spectacle that’s light years away from finding anything remotely engaging or interesting. 

by Bill Gibron

8 Nov 2009

Holiday films earn their place as categorical ‘classics’ in a couple of significant ways. The first is in the standard language of film itself. They’re funny or sweet, dramatic or creatively compelling, outside of the need to express a certain seasonal sentiment. Naturally, the next element in play is the found festive value. Either a movie encompasses what you feel about Easter, or Halloween, or Christmas, or it misses the emotional benchmark by miles. And then there are those titles that transcend both, to combine solid (if now sketchy) cinematic value with precise focused celebratory fellowship to make all other offerings pale in comparison. Just in time for Noel 2009, Paramount it putting out a pair of these timeless attempts - White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life.

Like Miracle on 34th Street or A Christmas Story, both of these old fashioned merriment masterworks celebrate the best of December 25th - peace on Earth, goodwill towards men, harmony, unity, friendship, and humble appreciation. They also touch on darker, perhaps disturbing themes for holiday fare. White Christmas, while most of the time a sunny Irving Berlin musical, has a down on his luck WWII vet as part of the plotline. It’s a Wonderful Life is even more austere, using the attempted suicide of a main character as a way of showing him the value in hearth and home. While they me be right out of the Saturday Evening Post with their Norman Rockwell-esque moralizing and message, one cannot deny how thoroughly entertaining and iconic they both are.

Of course, the 1954 Technicolor epic starring Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen has the advantage of Berlin’s unbelievable score. Though the title song was originally introduced in 1942’s Holiday Inn (also starring Crosby), it resonates here with a yuletide magic all its own. The narrative revolves around Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, a pair of army buddies who become a major post-war nightclub and Broadway sensation. As they tour around the country, they are asked to audition Betty and Judy Haynes, a sister act. Happenstance puts them all at the failing lodge of ex-General Tom “The Old Man” Waverly. Having sunk all his savings and pension into the business, the performers decide to put on a show, in hopes it will save his sagging fortunes. Filled with amazing musical numbers and old fashioned Hollywood hokum, this sublimed styled extravaganza is a genuine expression of pure holiday cheer.

On the other hand, while Christmas’ Michael Curtiz is no slouch (he did direct Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy after all), It’s a Wonderful Life has the undeniable immigrant genius of Frank Capra behind the lens. Responsible for such memorable masterpieces as It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and A Hole in the Head, this black and white wonder sees Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed star as George and Mary Bailey. He is a sentimental old dreamer who has sacrificed his dreams of being a builder to run his family’s savings and loan. Years later, scheming slumlord Henry Potter uses a mistake by one of George’s employees to place the bank in jeopardy. When he asks the crooked old coot for help, he is soundly turned down. Wanting to kill himself, George is stopped by an angel who offers him a chance to see what life would be like if he were never born. The results help George face the challenges ahead.

It’s amazing to think that both of these films are so well-loved and embraced, especially when you consider how different they are. As with many off-the-cuff showcases, Berlin’s music is shoehorned into a standard rags-to-riches-to-reciprocity plotline, Kaye and Crosby wanted to do good for an old friend and fellow war veteran. With Clooney and Ellen as enviable arm candy and a collection of superbly craft numbers (including “Sisters” and “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep”) White Christmas works despite itself. Indeed, there’s hardly a dry eye in the house after a rousing finale that shows allegiance and camaraderie never go out of style. It’s a Wonderful Life is a much more complicated film. In fact, when it was initially released, it was considered a flop. The material is very dense, dealing with failed ambitions, unexpected consequences, and the frequent disappointments and disasters that befall everyday life.

For George Bailey, everything is a matter of corollary - his father’s failed health, his marriage to Mary, his decision to create an affordable housing project in town, the evil manipulation of Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore is a revelation in the villainous role). Everything links together, making his wish to be dead even more significant. By seeing what he means to the rest of the town, to people as important as his own family and as fleeting as his customers, George realizes there is more to living than getting what you want. Appreciating what you have is equally important. While Capra has often been accused of being a grand manipulator, working his scripts into specific servings of cinematic schmaltz, It’s a Wonderful Life suffers little from such saccharine conceits. It is frequently hard, often uncompromising, and rarely lets its characters off the hook. While White Christmas breezes along like a shimmering, singular snowflake, Capra post-war commentary is the blizzard that usually follows.

While they’ve been released and re-released any number of times, Paramount’s attention to added content details and final visual polish makes either title a must-own. It’s a Wonderful Life comes in a dimensional box featuring a commemorative tree ornament, as well as a chance at eight free holiday MP3 downloads. Inside, you will get both the bold monochrome and the unnecessary colorized version of the film, as well as a documentary on its making and a tribute to Capra by his son. White Christmas, on the other hand, is overloaded with bonus features. There is a commentary from the late great Ms. Clooney, a collection of backstage recollections, an overview on each of the main actors involved, and a chance to see the new theatrical version of the film come to life onstage (the live version is currently in previews around the country). As a means of remembering that special someone this gift giving season, either digital package is just perfect.

Of course, cinema scholars will hem and haw at the praise given to either film. For many, White Christmas is all tinsel and not real lasting impact, a bright and sparkly vehicle for seasoned performers to do what they do best. It’s a Wonderful Life, on the other hand, is often dismissed as too idealistic (the FBI at the time even branded it “Communist” for making a banker the bad guy) and naïve. In fact, it is often pointed out that the movie was never considered a yuletide treat until it slipped into the public domain in the ‘70s, and then repeated ad infinitum on numerous TV stations ever year. Still, those sound like the grumblings of Grinchs who find anything merry and mistletoed to be worthy of contempt. Before it became a crass commercialized excuse for going broke, the holidays used to be a commemoration of existence. Films like White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life remind us of that, no matter how hokey, wholesome, or homespun, there’s a reason for the season. 

by tjmHolden

8 Nov 2009

Brown Eyed Girls

 

If you don’t believe me, watch this.

 


 

 

by Bill Gibron

7 Nov 2009

Sometimes, the cinema can be a lot like oil and water. Certain facets of a film can struggle to stay together, eventually separating like the fabled proverbial liquids. While it’s possible to try and force them to gel, hoping they coagulate long enough to fool the audience (and the occasional know-nothing critic), the telltale signs of disconnect soon become self-evident. Take the massive international phenomenon known as Mamma Mia! Based on the boffo jukebox musical featuring the fabulous ear candy of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, otherwise known as the songwriting duo behind ‘70s supergroup ABBA, this surefire smash has been taking worldwide theaters - and now Cineplexes - by storm. But if you look deeper, as the latest update and tricked out Blu-ray release from Universal points out, the element that makes this movie watchable is in constant conflict with aspects that threaten to fracture it into a billion baffling pieces.

For those unfamiliar with the clothesline plot, it goes a little something like this: Sophie, the daughter of former rock star and current Greek island resort owner Donna Sheridan, is getting married to her studly UK boy toy Sky. Hoping to meet the father she never knew, our heroine sends out three letters to three strangers she reads about in her mother’s diary - American businessman Sam Carmichael, Swedish adventurer Bill Anderson, and British banker Harry Bright. All feel compelled to attend the nuptials, if only to find out if they are the father of Donna’s child. All still have a mad crush on the middle aged maverick. With the Mediterranean locals along for the ride, and Rosie and Tanya, a pair of former backup singers/Donna’s best friends in attendance, it promises to be a wild weekend filled with revelations, revelry, and resplendent sing-along songs.

At first, it’s easy to forgive Mamma Mia!‘s many flaws. Director Phyllida Lloyd is a newbie when it comes to making movies, having gained her name and fame as a worker of theatrical wonders. By all accounts, her staging of this very show is not to be believed. However, working in the 3D space of an auditorium and transferring that to a 2D piece of celluloid clearly perplexed the novice auteur. Even though she sounds relatively confident about the movie she made, there are giveaway comments (found on the Blu-ray) which indicate that she’s poorly versed in the realm of motion picture musicals. During “Super Trooper”, Lloyd states that her “gut” told her that the camera should always be moving during the songs. Even though decades of standard cinematic style argues that a series of static shots and forward flowing edits make for more successful showpieces, she decides to track, dolly, and circle the actors like they’re quarry for a particularly famished predator.

Proof of what this film could have been had Lloyd ignored her off-base instincts arrives in the form of another extra - a deleted scene for the song “The Name of the Game”. Here, our heroine Sophie confronts potential father Bill beneath a windswept ocean side moon. As the song’s lyrics look for answers and acceptance, Lloyd basically shoots reactions. That’s it. No random pans. No sweeping photographic gestures. Just two talented individuals, acting and reacting. That’s what makes the music important - letting it, not the camera trickery around it - speak to the story. This is ably illustrated toward the end, when Lloyd’s lunatic tummy makes its most aggravating appearance during the powerhouse ballad between Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan, “The Winner Takes It All.” Here, decades of pent up love and frustration pour forth in a performance truly stunning in its power. But then Lloyd starts looping the set-up, our duo becoming enveloped in an unnecessary moviemaking maelstrom. Where once we could sense the connection between the couple, now we’re just nauseous from all the motion sickness picture making.

Lloyd is also in love with everyone who made her Mediterranean locations and surreal studio mock-ups “work” so “seamlessly”. Clearly, she is looking at a different version of the film than the audience is. During the commentary track, she speaks of how “flawless” the transition is between Greece and some interior backdrop. All we see is glowing, greenscreen digitalis (especially in that more unforgiving of high definition formats). During the title number, Streep scrambles around the top of her hotel, and the editorial whiplash we get between real life splendor and obviously faked scenic simulations is painful. Sure, Robert Altman suffered mightily when he outfitted the Isle of Malta into a working soundstage for his production of Popeye. But in that woefully underrated film, we never once doubted Sweethaven. Here, Skopelos looks like something straight out of a computer’s conception of a travelogue (extensive CG imaging was used).

No matter the wealth of added content extras (this latest version tosses in sing-a-longs, outtakes, and a music CD) or Electronic Press Kit praise heaped on the filmmaker and her cast and crew faithful, no matter the joyful noise made by untrained actors giving the words and music of ABBA their very, very best, nothing can eradicate the fact that Mamma Mia! is a very badly directed film. Little can take away from how finger-snappingly fun it is either. Obviously, viewers have been more affected by the way in which the songs celebrate life and love than care about issues like mise-en-scene or narrative logistics. The mega-millions aren’t bothered by the cardboard cutout characterization or “moon/June/spoon” sentimentality. These songs, so formative for many (even though few would be willing to express such adolescent appreciations), work like an enjoyment elixir, providing the subtext and strength the movie’s makers fail to find. For something to look so unprofessional to feel so polished is pictographic prestidigitation indeed.

Besides, an underserved demographic doesn’t like to be told that its prepackaged and programmed product is anything less than stellar. Call it the ‘Bridges of Twilight County’ Syndrome, or anything satisfies a borderline old maid, but Mamma Mia! has so many amazing things going for it (all the actors, no matter the vocal limits of some, are wonderful) that it shouldn’t have to suffer because of some first timer’s filmmaking naiveté. The ability to crossover from one medium to another is never easy - ask the bevy of wannabe thespians who got their start as musicians, and visa versa - but one should also recognize the inherent differences between the two before jumping in. Phyllida Lloyd will always be a wondrous West End Girl. She should simply give her regards to Broadway, and leave the moviemaking to those who have a cinematic clue.

by Bill Gibron

7 Nov 2009

Take trailer park titan Giuseppe Andrews, marry him to the king of trash John Waters, let them procreate under a sleazy South Park sky, and wean their wicked offspring on a deranged diet of former Soviet Union austerity and lunatic local color and you’d have the wonderfully wicked work of Yakov Levi in a nut-case-shell. Inspired by present patron Troma, as well as a myriad of hilarious homemade titles from around the globe, this Ukrainian crackpot is part jester, part janitor. He’s the humor section of a soiled Hustler Magazine come to life, a vaudevillian of the vile who works in outright sex and scatology.

Sure, there will be some who see him as nothing more than an arrested adolescent who probably should be, a grown man who should know better than to exploit toothless old hags the way he does. But after sitting through the recently released DVD from Lloyd Kaufman and company, it’s clear that Levi is as smart as he is smutty. Offering almost everything he’s done to date - The Killer Bra, Matroshka Dolls of Doom, Vanity Insanity, The Ghost of the Marquis De Sade, Penisella, Parts 1 - 4, Tasteless and Shameless - plus a bevy of bonus features, we get a rare glimpse at a cinematic universe that seems strangely familiar, and yet far removed from our own sense of social propriety and acceptability.

Levi will be the first to tell you of his love for Pink Flamingos and the whole of anarchic auteur John Waters’ work. He constantly references the man, making use of an aging old bat nicknamed “Baba Alla” (rumored to be a real life 80-year-old prostitute) as his own personal combination of Edith Massey and Divine. Trading on the whole “beauty in the grotesque” motif, Levi throws everything including the carnal kitchen sink into his silly short films, turning outrageous acts of deliberate debauchery into punchlines to jokes no one wanted to hear. Yet oddly enough, a lot of his oeuvre is made up of goofy little softcore sex farces, excuses for some comely Eastern European strippers to drop their shirts and show off their formerly Behind the Iron Curtain assets.

Indeed, both The Killer Bra and Matroshka Dolls of Doom use the horror genre as a basis for some otherwise inoffensive skin flicking. The first film focuses on some lethal lingerie, and the gullible girls who fall for its intangible ability to lift, separate…and slay! While it goes on a tad too long, it is definitely the most polished production here. Far more fun however is the juxtaposition of the recognizable Russian novelty and haughty hot honeys. Using the standard superstitions that still permeate the culture, Levi sets up a situation in which Baba Alla (keeping her clothes on for once) sets the perfect seashore tourist trap. Visitors to the beach rent a room from the creepy old crone - and suddenly find themselves transformed into those rolly-poly nesting toys.

Considering his love of gross-out gags and humor, Vanity Insanity is an oddly serious piece from Levi. It centers on a possessed mirror, a young woman, and the evil obsession with beauty and attractiveness that permeates the media. If anything in his creative canon has any kind of message, this mini-movie definitely strives for one. On the opposite end of the spectrum are The Ghost of Marquis De Sade and the Penisella series. The latter centers on a well-endowed woman (no, not where you think) that feels persecuted because of her massive male member. Over the course of four funny shorts, she celebrates the good - and the disturbing - about being a chick with a…you get the idea. Ghost, on the other hand, is a grindhouse stripshow with a whisper thin storyline. It features three pseudo skanks, a desperate plea for a French lover, and the séanced spirit of the famous sadist himself. From then on, it’s all pantomime porn.

The best material here remains Levi’s latest, self-described attempts to make the “worst, most irredeemable movies ever”. Frustrated by the many production problems he had on other films (especially Killer Bra and Marquis De Sade), he got his octogenarian hooker, tarted her up like trash, and featured here in two films focusing on young men desperate for action - and getting an atrocity instead. Loaded with sickening, over the top sight gags (including every bodily fluid known to man…and woman), Levi literally lets it all hang out here, tapping into his hapless horndog Id and releasing a pair of depraved demons in response. In the world of strident cinematic slaps in society’s face, Tasteless and Shameless are propriety’s Scylla and Charybdis.

The first film deals with a group of young men who come across Baba selling herself to help feed her middle-aged son’s heroin habit. A few revolting fake sex acts later, and its all bodily functions and foulness. The second short centers on a chronic masturbator who would prefer a little female companionship to his constant self-abuse. A call to an escort service later, and Baba is at his door, tormenting his raging libido in ways he can scarcely imagine. Both movies seem like mindless miscreant escapism, shock value for the sake of additional distress. But if you look closely, you can see Levi criticizing the paternalistic nature of his newly liberated culture. Even in a world opened up to the enlightened progress of the rest of the planet, women in the Ukraine appear to be slaves to the old school structures - no matter how old and ragged.

Indeed, the best aspect of the entire Shameless, Tasteless DVD experience - aside from the sick, twisted Jokes from the John nature of the humor - is the rare glimpse into this formerly closed off country. Levi’s commentaries discuss the standard amateur filmmaking woes, but every once in a while, he’ll say something that argues for the constant back and forth between antiquated and still forming ideologies. Even in the interviews with Kaufman and others, Levi’s perspective appears shrouded in said truths. While underground film is always a source of controversy and contempt, Levi has clearly tempted proto-party fate with his desire to explore the unnatural and the unholy. It’s a struggle that this wonderful Troma title reminds us of over and over again.

As we slowly march into the next decade of the newest millennium, it’s refreshing to see someone embrace the “Toxic” tenets of the last production company still producing real independent motion picture art. While Kaufman and company may be dismissed as nothing more than purveyors of filth, fright, and juvenile funny business, it’s hard to deny their impact on the artform in general. For every one director striving to be the next Hitchcock, there’s literally hundreds who see the DIY spirit of Troma and shout, “ME TOO!!!” One such voice is Yakov Levi. Call him an opportunist or an outrage, but one thing’s for certain. In a world awash in mainstream mediocrity, he’s decided to buck - and bugger - the trend. The results are truly shameless, tasteless…and hilarious. 

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