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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. 

by Bill Gibron

7 Nov 2009

It is perhaps the most maligned Best Picture Oscar winner of all time. While Sam Mendes’ equally misjudged American Beauty gets an equal number of harsh dismissals, it doesn’t have the artistic albatross of beating Quentin Tarnatino’s Pulp Fiction hanging off its hefty gold statue’s neck. Indeed, Spielberg protégé Robert Zemeckis will perhaps never live down the fact that Academy voters favored his Establishment romp through history over the Reservoir Dogs’ auteur’s genre-bending genius. Even now, some 15 years later, the critical throwdown still gets Messageboard Nation in a froth. For some, there is no forgiving the meandering manchild haphazardly wandering his way across the entire post-modern cultural spectrum. To them, there is no defending Zemeckis, his movie, or its motives.

Not even a new 15th Anniversary Box Set, fashioned like a collection of yummy confections (just like ‘Momma’ spoke about) will ease the controversy. Indeed, since it became a monster hit both in theaters and in the minds of award season voters, Forrest Gump fails about every test of cinematic classicism. It feels dated and of its era, the optimism of a pre-Dot.Com bubble burst awash in every eager, overly earnest narrative beat. It has the feel and focus of a determined epic, something that everyone involved believes is important without any of the onscreen scope or power to prove otherwise. Even worse, it’s become part of the standard bearers of satire, lampoons and spoofs of Tom Hanks’ take on the title character driving any available artistic measure deep into the ground. Oh, and did we mention it beat Pulp Fiction for the 1995 Academy Award?

Perhaps time will never be completely kind to this film, but the overall outrage over its existence is way overblown. In truth, Forrest Gump is a fine motion picture - nay, even at times, a great one. Sure, the whole feather motif is heavy handed and syrupy and the title moron as innocent everyman can get so saccharine and cloying as to almost cause diabetes. But Zemeckis is not some hack, manipulating his audience with false sentiment and unearned emotions. Everything about Forrest Gump feels natural and organic to the story being told. Indeed, it’s the tall tale itself, and not the way that Zemeckis presents it, that should cause the most consternation. Over the course of five seminal decades in the post-war “adulthood” of the United States, this movie takes the side of the jingoists and the patriots - and never once parts company.

For those unfamiliar with the narrative, the film follows the adventures of a Southern rube named Forrest Gump. Loved by his Momma and shunned by the community, his only friend is a poor abused girl named Jenny. As he grows, our hero is deemed ‘retarded’, but his domineering parent won’t let society treat him as different. Capable of running at amazing speeds, Forrest gets through high school and into college on his amazing athletic skills. After graduation, he fights in Viet Nam and becomes an army ping-pong champ. Out of the service, he hooks up with former commander Lieutenant Dan, and the two go into the shrimping business together. When that turns from a bust to a bustling success, Forrest tries to find solace in his former friend, Jenny. Yet their relationship has their bumps and bad patches. Befallen by tragedy and a last act attempt at escape, Forrest resigns himself to being alone - that is, until Jenny comes along with some sad/glad news.

The most important aspect of the story, however, is the way in which Forrest seeming steps into the annals of US history time and time again. He watches as George Wallace tries to stop the integration of Alabama’s schools, meets Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. He attends an anti-war rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the height of the ‘60s, and even inspires John Lennon to write “Imagine.” From suggesting the successful bumper sticker “Shit Happens” to inspiring the iconic yellow “Have a Nice Day” smiley face, Forrest Gump is the reason the country forges ahead through turmoil, strife, and illegal break-ins at the Watergate hotel (that’s right - he rats the burglars out). Between his personal pitfalls and his professional accomplishments, Forrest is the American Dream personified - and all inside a naïve country bumpkin who barely manages of 70 IQ.

In the telling commentary track included as part of this DVD release, Zemeckis tells you all you need to know about Forrest Gump‘s continued contemptuous reputation - and shockingly, its hidden political agenda. According to the director, the hero represents all that’s good, noble, loyal, and honorable about the stereotypical US citizen. Was he literate enough to coin it, Forrest would be first with the phrase “Our Nation - Love it or Leave it”. He never grows suspicious of the government or its goals, never questions authority or its perversion of power. Instead, Forrest falls lockstep into what every little boy and girl is told about being part of the civic fabric, and it pays off in wealth, property, and (after a while) personal happiness.

Then there is Jenny, clearly crafted to represent the counterculture. She is the true outside, the sexually abused Cupie doll who believes in all the beatnik/hippy promises and winds up a strung-out cocaine casualty attempting suicide and struggling for self esteem. She buys into Dylan and Baez’s foolish notions about art changing the world. She seeks dignity in the struggles of the anti-War and Black Panther movements. She loses herself in drugs and debauchery - and when all else fails her (and it always does) her retarded Rock of Gibraltar is always around to kiss the karmic boo-boo and make it all better.

Toss in Lieutenant Dan as destiny deferred by Forrest’s optimism and Momma as a less than virginal Mary and you’ve got the Bible as written by polarizing pre-millennial Neo-Cons. In fact, why Gump is not the poster boy for every Palin and Buchanan on the pundit circuit is astonishing - especially when Zemeckis admits that he is, indeed, the dimwit who finds a way to breeze through the more complicated parts of life. None of this really detracts from the movie itself, mind you. Tom Hanks still gives a heck of a performance, reminding the viewer of his ability to truly get lost in a meaty role. Robin Wright Penn is still underused as the object of his affection, the Job-like Jenny. Gary Sinise is all fire and battle weary brimstone as Forrest’s reborn disciple, and Haley Joel Osment is the best second Messiah a mentally challenged Jesus could ever hope for.

Pushing aside all freak show philosophizing for a moment and looking at the main reason we go to the movies, Forrest Gump definitely provides a powerful entertainment experience. We get caught up in its rooting for the underdog storyline, hiss when our hero is bullied, and cheer when he finds a way to overcome some obvious self-inflicted adversity. We marvel at the bows to pop culture (young Forrest - in leg braces - teaches Elvis to dance) as well as the nods to noted events in our country’s past. Sure, the ending turns all treacly when Jenny reappears bearing baby, but by then we’ve come to expect such schmaltz from this film. Zemeckis is no hack, but he’s definitely made better movies in his career. Indeed, Forrest Gump can’t really hold a candle to the value inherent in Back to the Future or Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

That doesn’t mean it didn’t deserve the Oscar, though. Hollywood is not noted for championing the unusual and the groundbreaking, and still they gave Tarantino and his co-writer Roger Avary trophies for Best Original Screenplay that year. In their mind, Forrest Gump was the more Academy Award appropriate offering, and they were probably right. It’s a movie that plays by the rules instead of deconstructing them. It was a recognizable type instead of a revisionist genre reassembly. It was uplifting instead of complicated, wholesome and heartfelt instead of violent and vicious. Besides, did you really think a movie that has a major character raped by another man would wind up walking up the red carpet that year? If anything, Forrest Gump was designed and destined to take home the gold. It makes the legacies of both movies all the better. 

by Tyler Gould

6 Nov 2009

Monsters of Folk continue to blanket the airwaves and intertrons with performances from their self-titled debut, which we found to contain precisely 8 PMEUs (PopMatters Enjoyment Units) out of 10. “Temazcal” is a cool affair, maybe deserving better treatment than the video can deliver, what with its sepia tone and cheesy scratched film effects and all, but such is life.

by Tyler Gould

6 Nov 2009

Grizzly Bear continues to get mileage out of Veckatimest with this video for “Ready, Able”. The song is as good as ever, but the stop motion video by Allison Schulnik is the real star here.

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