The brooding apocalyptic teenager, the flouncing, flower-tossing nature lover, the novice scientist with quizzically furrowed brow all have this in common: they will love, if they do not already love, the History Channel’s stellar series, The Universe, seasons one through three, and they will simply devour this box set which includes those shows plus feature-length Beyond the Big Bang. “We’re all gonna die, anyway” pessimists and “Isn’t life glorious?” optimists can share the couch and the popcorn bowl on this one. Simultaneously terrifying and inspiring, touching every nerve that inspires human storytelling past and present, and sparking our imaginations about the future, I’m thinking the only kind of person who would not find fascination in this series might be unconscious, and I wish them a speedy recovery.
Latest Blog Posts
In the early 1950s, Hank Williams could be heard performing every weekday morning on radio stations all across the southern United States. These 15-minute “morning shows” were pre-recorded in Nashville and many of the songs Williams recorded for these broadcasts thankfully survive. Packaged like its predecessor, Hank Williams: The Unreleased Recordings, as a three-disc box set, Hank Williams Revealed features three full programs in their entirety exactly as they were heard by listeners more than half a century ago, as well as stand-alone songs, in-studio conversations with Williams, and banter between him and the members of his band, the Drifting Cowboys. These candid conversations are something rare as far as Williams is concerned, and they provide unique and intimate insight into a man who, for as much as he is an icon of country music, has always been something of a mystery. The recordings reveal a personality that is much more lively and filled with humor than one might expect from listening to his most popular songs. Williams tells stories and talks easily about his music and his life as he performs his songs, many of which are alternate arrangements to familiar favorites, and some of which were never performed by Williams outside these studio sessions.
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!
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.
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.