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by Eleanore Catolico

28 Nov 2009

In keeping with the spirit of the Montreal based non-profit organization, Yellow Bird Project collaborates with musicians to raise awareness and money for charities of the artists’ choosing. In this fund-raising endeavor, the likes of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The New Pornographers, MGMT and more grace The Indie Rock Coloring Books hand-drawn pages. For those quiet hours before the show, this book provides mazes, connect-the-dot games, and coloring pages to while away the time. Three cheers for hipster philanthropy!

by Bill Gibron

27 Nov 2009

Aiden Dillard must be Harry Novak’s bastard love child. Either that or he’s obviously spent time shoveling sawdust for Dave Friedman on the carnival circuit. If there hadn’t already been an exploitation genre to shake up the mainstream cinema, this uncorked crackpot would be soiling the contemporary medium as we speak. With his first film, 2006’s Meat Weed Madness, he introduced a skin laden allegory about sex, drugs, and rock and roll that was heavy on the first two facets and completely devoid of the third. He mixed Southern Gothic goofiness with a determined desire to show punk chicks sans skivvies, the result being something wholly original and uniquely rebellious. Well, now he’s back, belittling the War on Terror with his Jihadist themed sequel Meat Weed America. If you like your ladies pierced, painted, and in various stage of plump/pulp prettiness, this is the movie for you. If you want something akin to a sensible storyline, you’re clearly smoking something.

We begin sort of where the first film left off. Lord Meatweed is still running his cannibalistic cannabis empire. Jessie Bell is still sitting around, dreaming of a career as a model in New York. Even the beefy Bullpuckey is here, stalking the sexy young things that seem to populate Meatweed Manor like so much body lice. Of course, now there’s a new threat on the horizon. Evil terrorist Bin Smokin has enlisted the aid of a group of determined Jihotties to get revenge for what happened to his missing foreskin. It is his intention to take down the Meatweed family one by one, from insane crippled Tobacco advertising artist Sir Duke E. Weed and his sexy assistant, the Hempress to bodacious nun Sister Mary and her sexually frustrated servants of God. Eventually, Bin Smokin is seduced by the undeniable power of the protein-laced marijuana, destined to become part of the skin flicking Meatweed family - or die frying.

Like hardcore action without the penetration or popshots, Meat Weed America is a ripe slice of scatological satire. It’s an insane combination of bare bodkin and political body shots, an anti-Fox News rant reduced to local emo skanks standing around in nothing but their Ed Hardy’s. It is indeed refreshing to see young ladies without major plastic surgery modification showing off their substrata, otherwise artistically modified mammaries arguing for their body painting enhanced natural beauty. Sure, Sister Mary has a rack that only a purveyor of XXX porn could appreciate and there’s quite a few examples of a less than toned male ‘member’-ship to go around, but Dillard knows how to capture his arrested adolescent audience’s attention. Once you’ve got ‘em ogling these pseudo Suicide Girls, you can turn around and trick ‘em into paying attention to your social agenda.

Meat Weed America is clearly aimed at the cold, callous nature of corporate culture. Sir Duke E. Weed and his “cigarettes are slick” conceits could do more for any non-butt campaign than a dozen of those lame t.r.u.t.h. ads. Similarly, Lord Meatweed’s freedom and liberty riot acts are enough to get even the most craven Neo-Con up and saluting the red white and blue. There are also some nifty pro-vegetarian and anti-sexism sentiments, even if it the ideas revolve around burlesque and barmaids in the birthday suit. It may all look like soft core smut laced with a NORML view of blunts, but that’s the beauty of Dillard’s work. While he’s socking it to your groin and other overused erogenous zones, he’s giving that biggest organ in the bin - the brain - a good going over. It’s carnal carnival barking at its best.

Dillard definitely does a good job with his under the radar cast. The delightful Debbie Rochon essays this kind of cockeyed vamp vixen in her sleep. Here, she is important to the director’s “miscreance as message” leanings. Similarly, Troma titan Lloyd Kaufman shows up as an acerbic art collector, his line readings always an interesting combination of solid professional support and “who gives a shit” showboating. As Jessie Bell, Carey Sveen looks the part of a Southern Belle gone to Meat-seed, while the manor’s lord and master (Carl Skoggard) is an unhinged combination of Rastafarian and right wing talk show host. Perhaps the most interesting performance however is given by Peter Stickles as Bin Smokin’. Avoiding all the Arab hating tenets that such a role would offer, he instead finds a perfect balance between comedy and crudeness. In fact, most of Meat Weed America is made up of the toilet in expert equilibrium with the talented.

Of course, the director really does love languishing in the world of the wanton. Even his own “unrated” introduction to the film finds him in a field, flopping his “fallacies” with nudist abandon. The DVD also offers up some interesting added content tidbits. There are short films, a trailer for the movie, a self-proclaimed “sexy” slide show, and a Behind the Scenes featurette that avoids all the standard EPK idiocy to show how true independent art is forged (read: it’s dang-gum hard!). While Troma tacks on a few of its own corporate sponsorship opportunities to maximize the marketing effectiveness of the title, the rest is pure Weed. While it would have been nice to hear Dillard droning on about his efforts, commentary style, such an otherwise crammed digital package does this movie proud.

It’s just too bad that the grindhouse has passed, the drive-in given over to home video, on demand, and various other forms of instant entertainment. For someone like Aiden Dillard, the raincoat crowd would definitely welcome his flesh and “bone” freak show, a surreal conglomeration of diatribe and debauchery. In the old days, when Hollywood shied away from taking on subject too confrontational or scandalous, Meat Weed America would be seen as a shining example of the ripe redolent rebellion. Today, it plays like a journey to the center of a skid row strip club’s mind. A few decades ago, before the Internet allowed everyone access to the vice-ridden and the prurient, a movie like this would be the only outlet for such “skin-aningans”. Aiden Dillard is clearly indebted to the previous generations of schlock meisters. On the other hand, don’t be fooled by its fetidness. Meat Weed America is clearly smarter than your average sex act. 

by Bill Gibron

27 Nov 2009

It should have been the blockbuster battle royale of 2009, a cinematic smackdown between two toy-based action adventure popcorn epics. One the one side was Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Michael Bay’s bloated expansion of everything the first film got right (or for some, wrong). Clocking in at more than two hours and twenty-nine minutes, it threatened to bludgeon the audience with its gignormous F/X overkill and fetishized shots of Megan Fox’s…face. It’s opponent - another Paramount production, this time based on the ‘80s geek reinterpretation of that real American hero, GI Joe. Subtitled The Rise of Cobra, this beached whale workout offered the king of pointless surfeit, Stephen Sommers, using every CG trick in the book, including robotic running suits and an underwater battle so pointlessly elephantine that it would make Poseidon himself pass out.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the rendering lab - Transformers turned the trick, raking in more cash per critic’s complaint than any film in the history of hack. As audiences tempered on better impressive eye candy like Star Trek, they lined up like loons to prove that the lowest common denominator sometimes equals the biggest box office returns. On the other hand, by the time Cobra’s new world order nemesis showed up, the press held back from passing judgment on its lack of charm, it could barely break $150 million. So why is it that one crappy overdone excuse for Hollywood Summer movie merchandising set the studio coffers ablaze, while the other ran out of steam before it could make back its craft services budget? If the recently released Blu-ray versions of both films are any indication, the answer is quite simple - people are dumb.

That’s right - audiences are apparently retarded. They loved ever inch of Bay’s amped up retreat, never once arguing with its “same thing, just more of it” mantra. It’s a sentiment that’s even more obvious when you re-watch the film again sans 70 foot screen surplus. For all its intricate automaton gimmickry, its empty nest parent pratfalls, and racially sketchy strategies, its one incessantly boring experience. As a matter of fact, if you took away the distractions and simply went with the narrative as presented, you’d be so bored you’d demand dozens of longing shots of Transformer testicles.

GI Joe, on the other hand, is saddled with that most oppressive of moviemaking prerequisites - the origin story. It has to spend time setting up the Joes, why they are so secret and special, and the arms dealer demagogue whose threatening the world. Granted, it’s an equally stupid premise as all that “return of the revenge of the Fallen” falderal, but at least Sommers knows how to have big goofy fun. Michael Bay just seems obsessed with more…MORE…MORE!!!

Spend some time with the commentary track for Transformers #2 and you’ll see what we mean. The director, given over to commercially coaxed delusions of grandeur, makes it very clear that his vision of this sequel was more unrestrained, more plot-riddled, more everything in every way. The script was severely trimmed, says the spectacle savant, the better to give more time to the “characters” (like the motorized minstrel show known as Mudflap and Skids, perchance?) and the chaos. While we don’t get many details on what was removed, it’s clear that a lot of the villain’s backstory was excised, motive and explanation as to goals apparently not as important as awkward moments of aged matron mugging.

GI Joe, on the other hand, knows it’s dumb. Sommers even suggests that he wanted to make a live action cartoon (in keeping with the Greed decade update of the icon and franchise). That he succeeds both in creating flat, one dimensional champions and equally inert scoundrels means he more than lived up to his goals. But the best part about this take on a Hasbro toy line is the desire to make things fluffy and fun. Unlike Bay’s Transformers, which plays it so deadly serious that it’s fatal, Sommers skips logic, realism, context and anything that would make his movie seem like part of the actual planet we live on. Oddly enough, it’s Joe that plays into preconceptions and takes on a the more recognizable appreciable edifice. While the Autobots and Decepticons are ransacking Egypt’s infamous pyramids, Cobra is targeting the Eiffel Tower with its nanotech seeking missiles.

In the battle between more = moronic then, GI Joe clearly wins. It’s a far more inventive movie, trying to turn a child’s backyard game of world domination into a computer generated excuse for printing money. Sommers has always suffered from a desire to drown his viewers in so much optical obesity that they get bad movie diabetes in the process. He knows he’s lethal, but hopes his giddy kid conceits carry him past the morgue with ease. Bay, on the other hand, is cancer. He’s insidious, sneaking into areas of your entertainment consciousness you thought were safe from disease and destruction, and then slowly sapping the life out of each and every one. By the time you’re ready to rely on said centers as a means of salvaging your enjoyment existence, Bay’s blend of wonk and waste have won. You’re spent, subservient to his craven stuntwork sickness, one foot firmly placed in the franchise grave. 

More importantly, GI Joe plays better on the small screen, a reduction in imagery allowing the viewer to see what Sommers was really shooting for. Transformers Dos, on the other hand, becomes the evil emperor’s jockey shorts. What didn’t work in theaters is applied fifty fold by being miniaturized, while the obvious flaws in the basics of filmmaking show through early and often. Bay’s vision is too busy, too based on the 16x9 limitations of the video playback he (and other directors) rely on during filming to clarify their compositions. Sure, the kids who clamored for the title in theaters will definitely delight in witnessing its wanton disregard for intelligence on their own home theater set up, but Joe seems like the lesson that will be learned later, and more favorably. Sommers may not get to make the sequel suggested by the ending, but at least he did his entity proud. Bay just does it loud.

While it may seem silly to scrap over films that obviously had no ambition other than to hammer the viewer with as much synapse-snapping stuff as possible, the success of Transformers and the failure of Joe will remains one of 2009’s greatest anomalies. And when you toss in the equally swollen Terminator: Salvation, it’s clear that if the first nine years of the new millennium have taught us anything, it’s that Jerry Lewis should be shot. No, not for his crazy comic shenanigans, but for inventing the aforementioned technology that allow filmmakers to view their movie through the unnatural window of a portable on-set monitor.

For decades now, novice auteurs have misinterpreted the material they see on such tiny portals as the possible magic they’ll be bringing to the movie. In the case of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, it’s nothing more than brain-death brought to larger than life extravagance. If less is indeed more, both of these movies have created black holes where blockbusters used to be.

by Beth Greaves

27 Nov 2009

All teenagers on TV at this current moment seem to fall into one of two very distinct categories. They are either the rebellious troublemakers who wreak havoc on their parents (see the Scavo twins in Desperate Housewives or Michael Hewes in Damages), or they are the intellectual, well-behaved children who act as foils to their immature and irresponsible parents (see Julie Mayer in Desperate Housewives or Becca in Californication).

Even shows that could once be relied upon to provide us with relatively normal young characters, such as Law and Order: SVU (see Detective Stabler’s recurring spawn), have fallen into this trap. Recently we were given “Swing”, an episode that detailed the life of Stabler’s daughter, Kathleen, and her fall into delinquency because of bipolar disorder. Even the once well-behaved children have been shown to have their moment of rebellion; consider Julie Stark’s (of the legal drama Shark) improbable pingponging between “sweet, smart heart of the show” and “criminal source of personal drama.” They just can’t make up their minds.

Julie Stark (Danielle Panabaker) and Sebastian Stark (James Woods) share a father/daughter moment.

Julie Stark (Danielle Panabaker) and Sebastian Stark
(James Woods) share a father/daughter moment.

My question is: why? Is it impossible to depict complex teenage characters? Writers seem to be almost seduced by the ‘easy drama’ that wayward teens provide, but spend precious little time developing them as people or exploring their motives for such actions. It is not the actions themselves that I resent, but the apparent laziness of the writers while creating such characters. We can have complicated hard drinkers and adulterers like the titular Grace of Saving Grace as the leads when they are adults, but when such qualities are present in the younger generation, they are reduced to mere cardboard cut outs, excuses for more drama in the lives of their frazzled parents.

Take the aforementioned Michael Hewes of Damages. Despite having everything he could possibly wish for given to him by his rich and successful mother and stepfather, he is—apparently—unhappy. He is portrayed as a budding sociopath in the first season of the legal drama, shown sending a bomb to his mother’s workplace and pretending to the school psychiatrist that his mother’s unsettling dreams are his own. Why? It is inferred that Michael longs to see his icy mother lose her cool, to “rock her world”, as Andrew van de Kamp did to long-suffering mother Bree through the second season of Desperate Housewives, yet nothing is confirmed or truly developed. Little of a maternal bond is shown between Patty and Michael, but nothing is shown to suggest that there would be anything else.

I am not saying that I wished for one of those spectacular, Lifetime-esque scenes in which Patty and Michael screamed and sobbed at one another, exorcising demons and unearthing skeletons, but I would have liked to see… something. This subplot was introduced and then rapidly dropped, as commonly happens with subplots that concern a show’s teenage characters. These teens are, mostly commonly, plot devices, but they are very rarely developed people. Why not? Just because adults are a show’s main focus, it doesn’t mean that their teenagers cannot be developed and well rounded.

Veronica Mars is an example of this. It may be aimed at teens, and primarily about teens, but each of these characters are superbly written, flawed, and detailed. Nobody is all good or all bad. For example, even ultimate villain and abusive father Aaron Echolls presents a genuine desire to reconnect with estranged son Logan and love for daughter Trina. Our heroine has her own faults, including a particular bull-headedness and tendency to judge far too quickly. The good guys have their quirks and complexities, while the bad guys are not nearly as two-dimensionally psychotic as they might once appear. I am not holding the Veronica Mars writers in a place above gods; they are not perfect, either, but this is one angle in which they excel. What is stopping their fellow powers that be from following their example?

by Bill Gibron

26 Nov 2009

It was the story that Judd Apatow always wanted to tell. It was the growing pains of a youth spent in pursuit of comedic glory, and a reality bitterly dejected by the lack of success in same. It was a chance to reunite with old buddy and roommate Adam Sandler, to shoot the shit (so to speak) about those salad days of failed auditions, industry indifference, and never-ending hope. Now, with most of the men both behind and in front of the scenes grasping at superstar status, it seemed time to bring Funny People out of the mothballs. Of course, as the new Blu-ray disc presentation more than illustrates, a couple of questions arise. Was this really a tale of stand up comedians and the sad, often sullen life they lead? Or was this just a nepotistic mess that saw Apatow invite in everyone, including his own kitchen sink crowd, to spend some of Universal’s misguided money?

From the looks of it, it was the latter. Sandler plays George Simmons, a jaundiced Jim Carrey type who has made himself disgustingly rich in several surreal high concept comedies. When he learns he is dying from a rare form of leukemia, he decides to mend old wounds and get back to his first love - the stand-up stage - before he passes on. One night, he runs into struggling comics Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) and Leo Koenig (Jonah Hill). While their material is mediocre, it’s better than his self-loathing swill. So he decides to hire them. Only Ira ends up coming along for the ride, a journey that will take George back through his past successes and failures, as well as an attempted reconciliation with the “one that got away”, a former actress girlfriend named Laura (Leslie Mann). Unfortunately, she’s married with children, her good-natured Australian husband Clarke (Eric Bana) a major obstacle to them getting back together.

Somewhere between admirable ambition and outright failure lies Funny People. What should have been a witty, insightful, and often scathing expose about life in service of the ever-elusive laugh turns into a flailing family affair with the previously Teflon Apatow getting stuck with lots of kindred egg on his face. As perfect a comedy as Knocked Up is, Funny People can’t compete. As unusual The 40 Year Old Virgin is in idea and execution, this film is rote and uninspired. We except more from this man, from the individuals he hung around with and nurtured for the last three decades. Sandler is solid as the jerk in retrospect, an A-list a-hole with a heart hardened by the mandates of accomplishment. He carries much of the movie’s emotional weight, even when old bud Judd can’t give him the proper dialogue to deliver the sentiment.

Rogen is also good as the fame obsessed schlep who wants desperately to join his roommates in quasi-LA fortune. His entire shtick - sellout for the sake of something greater - resonates with a post-millennial demo eager to do the same for their allotted 15 minutes. But because he’s lost some of his sad sack sympathy (as Jonah Hill says, it comes with ditching the weight), we view his drive for professional popularity as something new and novel. As his cohorts, Hill and Jason Schwartzman make a nice contrast re: young Hollywood. One is gifted but clearly stunted by his looks. The other trades on his lack of talent for a perfect “sitcom” aura. Together, they flaunt what Ira is not - accessible or artistic. Instead, Apatow makes it clear that this young wannabe will glom onto George for as long as it take for some celebrity to rub off - or until the dying comedian takes things too far.

It’s the latter that happens in fact, for both Funny People and its cast. Instead of staying in the realm of stand-up, a place where he can mine magnificent turns from the likes of Aziz Ansari (as the clueless cult in the making - RANDY! ) and newcomer Aubrey Plaza (as the dour, delightful Daisy), he runs right to Mann her/his own offspring - Maude and Iris Apatow - to turn the movie into a mired, manipulative mess. No matter how hilarious it is seeing Eric Bana in full blown Downunder dickhead mode, this last act shift in tone and treatment seems decidedly dense. We never understood George’s obsession with Laura, so there forced feel good high school puppy love finale falls absolutely flat. So does Ira’s intervention, Bana’s deflated dork, and everything else about Funny People‘s self-destructive denouement.

Of course, to listen to the commentary track featuring the director and his posse, this was always his intention. For Apatow, Funny People is about how fame swallows you up, drains you of your soul, and seals your fate as a lonely, unlikeable jerk. He sees Sandler (who is quite serious at times during the discussion) as a representative of the cold, callous TMZ types he has to deal with all the time. For him, the movie isn’t about comedy so much as it is about how the genre forces you to lose yourself, to cater to a public that always wants you to be “on”. The fact that this tale takes off toward his own home base at the end is never really rationalized. It’s just part and parcel of the way he feels like telling his side of things. While the rest of the Blu-ray basks in what could have been (more vintage footage of Sandler and Rogen, more terrific stand-up, amazing material from Simmons silly-athon movies), we are stuck with what Apatow wanted to say - for good and for bad.

Perhaps years from now, when his oeuvre isn’t so limited and pinched by the near perfection of Virgin and Knocked Up, Funny People can be appreciated as a noble failure. Maybe with a few more movies under his belt, with the patina of phenomenon stripped from his status and reliability regained by some good old cinematic consistency, we can meet him halfway here. As it stands, Funny People feels indulgent when it should be celebratory. It lacks focus when what it really needs is a razor sharp center. No matter how good or gratuitous the casting, no matter what he intended or what the bevy of bonus features argue, this is not a movie that works. It’s like an old car, in desperate need of repair but more comfortable than an old woolen blanket. As its sputters and pops, speeds along and then stalls, you keep wondering why you bother with it. Thanks to a wealth of laughs, and some lessons to learn, Funny People attempts to make up for its misfires. In some ways, it can’t.

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