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by Bill Gibron

1 Nov 2009

It’s a shame that John Hughes died when he did. In self-imposed exile for most of the last decade, he was clearly talented and certainly had more to offer the world of entertainment than his flawless teen comedies of the ‘80s and the less successful remakes and family films of the ‘90s. Proof of such possibilities came back in 1987, in the form of his first “adult” effort, the holiday themed Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (recently re-released on DVD). Relying on the undeniable chemistry of comedians Steve Martin and John Candy, and trading on the Thanksgiving theme to explore issues of family, friendship, and loss, it marked a radical departure from the coming of age growing pains of his previous films. It also proved that Hughes could direct something other than slapstick and/or schmaltz. For all its physical shtick, this is one buddy film that relies less of humor and more on heart.

Our story begins the week of Turkey day. Advertising executive Neil Page (a nicely moderated Martin) is in New York, trying to wrap up an account before the holiday starts. Desperate to get home to his family in Chicago, he dreads the next few hours. Still, all he has to do is catch a cab, make his plane, survive the flight, and it’s a few fun days of wife, kids, and candied yams - that is, until he boards the aircraft. There he meets traveling shower curtain accessories salesman Del Griffith (Candy at his very best). A massive mountain of a man, this overly earnest passenger takes an instant liking to Neil and as they prepare to depart, they strike up a casual friendship. Then, disaster hits. O’Hare is snowed in and no flights can land. Neil and Del end up in Wichita, Kansas and with hotels all booked and no rental cars available, they have to figure out a way to get from the Midwest to Lake Michigan, less the miss the festivities all together.

One has to give Hughes credit - the premise for Planes, Trains, and Automobiles remains as unique today as it did 22 years ago. Sure, now we have cellphones and PDAs, means for any traveler to take the bullshit by the horns and improve their chances of getting home for the holidays, but way back during the waning days of the Reagan era, getting around during the madhouse that is Thanksgiving week was a challenge of low tech Herculean proportions -and the talented writer/director makes the most of it. Some of the material may be straight out of an old burlesque skit (Candy and Martin having to share a bed) and a few jokes do trade on the guys’ individual flaws (Neil marveling at Del’s cavernous underwear), but thanks to the shared experience that both of these divergent personalities have to go through, because of how their yin/yang archetypes play against and into each other, we come to identify and sympathize with their plight.

And then Hughes pulls out all the sentimental stops. Few can remember how devastating Del’s secret is now that it’s become part of cinematic common knowledge (don’t worry - we won’t spoil it here), but it stands as the kind of risk that the Ferris Bueller filmmaker wasn’t really known for taking. Most of his movies ended happily, narratives tripping over the occasional problem or personal pothole before reaching a kind of zany Zen optimism. But Planes, Trains, and Automobiles was different. It was mean to be serious and edgy. It was made to explore more mature elements in a person’s life. Martin’s harried ad man just wants his workday to be over so he can find his way back home. Candy, on the other hand, must cover up the truth so as not to look desperate or pathetic - and he does such a great job that when the reveal arrives, it’s stunning.

Indeed, this is the best these two ‘70s icons have ever been in a comedy. Both are poised, polished, and well moderated. Martin is more or less the straight man, forced to forage for laughs in hilarious putdowns of car rental agency personnel and his traveling companion’s cockeyed cheerfulness. Candy’s part is more complicated. Sure, he’s the fat man with quasi-questionable social skills (never, EVER, take off you shoes in a closed aircraft, John) and many of the jokes come at his physical expense, but this makes for a more meaningful finale. It’s a mutual discovery that both Neil and the audience have misjudged Del, elevating his human pratfall into something almost noble. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role, especially since Candy was a genius at finding the complexities within the cliché. In a film that has basically two main focuses to lead us through the plotting, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles couldn’t ask for two better guides.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this film is nowhere to be seen on the new “Those Aren’t Pillows” Edition of the DVD. According to reports, Hughes shot almost twice as much film as a normal production does, leading to an initial three hour cut that is less a movie and more a montage of alternate takes, extended sequences, failed bits, and other character subtext. While this “holy grail” version of the film has long been coveted by fanatical lovers of the title, Hughes himself hinted it would never see the light of day. Not only was it a mess, he argued, but it was more or less “rotting” away in Paramount’s vault. Now, with his death, there is probably no call to see such a sloppy first attempt. At least this new disc has a few fun features, including three EPK like looks at the film itself, Hughes’ attempts at making movies for adults, and the talent that was John Candy. The sole deleted scene about airplane food is interesting, but not necessarily funny.

Hughes would go on to try another adult theme with the pregnancy-oriented She’s Having a Baby, starring Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth McGovern. It was not as successful for reasons that continue to remind us of how wonderful Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is. No matter what you think of Martin now (Pink Panther remakes? Please…) or how Candy eventually ended up, this was a pinnacle for all parties involved. It was the moment when Hughes was seen as finally casting off the angst of adolescent America and instead embraced the equally complicated complaints of 20 to 35-somethings. While we’ll never know if he had another classic in him (one can’t judge based on the silly scripts he contributed recently), it’s safe to say that John Hughes has a secure legacy in Hollywood laughfests. No matter the age bracket, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles stands as one of his very best. 

by Bill Gibron

1 Nov 2009

While it’s rare, it is indeed possible for a single element to save an otherwise standard piece of cookie cutter cartoon entertainment. For the last few decades, Hollywood has been cranking out the CG family films, animated efforts relying on quirky pop culture riffs and stunt voice casting to provide minimal amounts of superficial entertainment. While character and narrative depth are often secondary considerations, the funny business formula forged after years of Shrek-ccess must be met. Luckily for the latest installment of the Ice Age franchise (Dawn of the Dinosaurs, new to DVD and Blu-ray) that Simon Pegg came along. While the rest of the movie meanders along like a miserable Mastodon, this engaging tre-quel uses the Shaun of the Dead star to singlehandedly revive the series’ sagging fortunes.

The story picks up after the big Meltdown of the previous picture. Mammoth Manny (Ray Romano) and his equally hulky honey bunny Ellie (Queen Latifah) are expecting a child, and with the responsibility of fatherhood comes the inevitable cracks in close friendships. Sabertoothed Diego (Denis Leary) feels the need to leave the pack, while simpleton Sloth Sid (John Leguizamo) wants kids of his own. When the dim-bulb beast falls into a sinkhole and discovers a group of eggs, he immediately adopts them as his own. When they hatch, Sid is suddenly the father of…three baby Tyrannosaurus Rexes. When Manny and Ellie find out, they insist he return the foundlings to their rightful species. But this causes a major problem when the group gets lost in an underground domain of dinosaurs. Thankfully, heroic weasel Buck (Pegg) is around to protect the neophytes from danger while showing them the survival ropes.

It’s a little off-putting at first. Fans of the Ice Age films really don’t come to this material expecting danger and derring-do, but the moment our one-eyed adventurer shows up, all the cloying skrat love and kiddie oriented concerns fall by the wayside. While parents might balk at the notion of having to put their wee ones through a mega monster mash, Dawn of the Dinosaurs is clearly out to be a meatier, more menacing version of the series. Like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen without Michael Bay’s desire to play sledgehammer visionary, this installment takes everything that made the first two films tolerable, tweaks it with the addition of some genuine action energy, and the pours on the 3D gimmick du jour to make sure we get the appropriate cerebral overload (sadly, home video can’t recreate the real dimensional feel of the theatrical film).

For their part, the regulars show up and earn their paycheck. Romano does urbanized Droopy better than most similarly styled comedians, while her Majesty has little to add. Leary is really the odd man out here, shuttled to the side so that Leguizamo’s Sid can play proportionally dumber than ever before. Primary director Carlos Saldanha (also on hand for the first two films) does make great use of the supporting characters, including Seann William Scott and Josh Peck as charming frat dude possums Crash and Eddie. But it truly is Pegg that saves the day. While the four credited screenwriters are busy trying to find a continuous string of jokes, the English icon’s dry, devil-may-care wit takes everything Buck does and turns it into a post-modern manipulation of old school Hollywood heroism. He’s like a combination of Errol Flynn and Eric Idle.

If there is a flaw in the execution, however, it’s in turning the dinosaurs into one dimensional villains. Instead of infusing them with the same complicated characteristics of the stars, it’s all teeth, terror, and really bad attitudes. Mama Rex gets a moment or two of maternal attention, but that’s it. Like the water - both frozen and flowing - in the first two films, this inarticulate element really adds very little to the narrative…and that’s a shame. Kids really love those prehistoric creatures, and by giving them some basic personality traits, the series would have a whole other tempting talent pool to draw from. As it stands, Ice Age 3 feels like a film that said everything it had to say this time around. Where the series goes from here is anyone’s guess (and, one assumes, on the mind of everyone currently working at Fox).

At the very least, the recently released Blu-ray version of the film looks fantastic. The high definition medium really enhances the detail and depth put into CG film like these. Granted, there’s no 3D option, and the 1080p image can only go so far in recreating the theatrical experience, but the end results are stunning - specially when our heroes enter the lush, verdant dinosaur world. As for bonus features, Fox really lays out the content. We get a great commentary, a series of behind the scenes featurettes, a look at some deleted scenes, and a piece with Pegg about creating his character. There are also several episodes of Fox Movie Channel Presents, all focusing on different actors from the film, as well as a clever compendium of Skrat Shorts (known as the “Skrat Pack”). Each one illustrates how the mute little mouse-thing singlehandedly strives to revive the art of slapstick. While a few wear out their welcome before long, the entire package (including a regular DVD and digital copy) supplements the main feature effortlessly.

So it’s clear that there is more to Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs than Simon Pegg and his fearless ferret. Indeed, from the look of the “lost world” to the various interpersonal (or interspecies) issues drawn upon, the movie is definitely an improvement over the standard stereotypes and formulas employed by the genre. On the other hand, Saldanha and the gang have kind of painted themselves into a corner. The next film in the franchise will have to focus on kids, since the whole third act centers on Ellie giving birth, and when movies take such a turn toward the juvenile, a huge section of the audience ends up being left out. Still, if any series can find a way to make their next installment work, it’s Ice Age. While other wannabe franchises have come and gone, this one remains flexible, and fun. And as long as they keep casting talent like Pegg, they’ll be perfectly fine.

by Bill Gibron

1 Nov 2009

We will never see the final version of Michael Jackson’s This Is It concert. We will never experience the full blown macabre mastery of the epic “Thriller” number, complete with 3D zombies and a stunning recreation of perhaps the most well-known dance in all of pop music. We will never get to see how a 50 year old Jackson would truly sell his pre-teen Motown legacy, the perfunctory run through as part of Kenny Ortega’s inspired film doing little to inspire confidence. We’ll also never know how audiences would react to the moment in “Earth Song” when a giant bulldozer crashes through the stage backing and threatens the fading King of Pop. In fact, we will never know if the actual event would have lived up to its creator’s varied vision and posthumous hype. One thing is certain, however, Jackson was game to try.

Offering little of the money-grubbing graverobbing that the project’s announcement inferred, This Is It is like a DVD bonus feature without an actual movie to support. One could easily see this hodgepodge of rehearsal takes, expertly edited together by a team that deserves some kind of award for consistency and continuity, as a guide or animatic. Indeed, it is very much like the computer created cartoons that action filmmakers used to pre-visualize their stunt sequences, except this time, we have our own human special effect at the center. Jackson, acting half his notorious age, dances, prances, demonstrates, and illustrates as he puts his band and back-up “flare” through their paces. While the opening of the film gives us a glimpse at the devoted artists who come whenever Mr. Jackson calls, any additional personal insight is decidedly absent. In its place are several sensational musical numbers, followed by a few flashes of what this famed 50 show stand in London would have looked like.

As with many of Jackson’s shows, this is a greatest hits package carefully choreographed for maximum impact and guaranteed audience appreciation. The King is not breaking out new material, or mining his albums for unusual cuts to spice up the set-list. We move from dance hit to power ballad, “Wanna Be Starting Something” reminding us of how fresh early Michael sounded, while “Human Nature” highlights the singer’s sensational voice. Sadly, there is no take on “Rock with You” (Off the Wall is almost always forgotten by Jackson live) and the equally effective title track to Bad is missing as well. Other major hits not making the cut include “Remember the Time”, “In the Closet” and “You Are Not Alone”, while you can forget about seeing anything from Invincible. Indeed, what director Kenny Ortega (who also handled the same duties for the concert “experience”) understands is, as an elegy to a man taken too soon from his fanbase, familiarity eases the lingering pain.

Still, it’s hard to sync up the man on stage with the media maelstrom of the last five months. There are no signs of drug abuse or use, no obvious physical symptomology of the addiction that would supposedly kill him. In his element, Jackson is strong, if scarily bone thin, and while a bit out there in his ability to interact, he is still in command of his craft and how it is presented. He comments frequently on preserving his voice, admits to slacking off in some of the dance numbers to guarantee that the staging is just right. He is present for all the film work forged to amplify the overall live show experience, and even adds his two cents to sequences he feels need to “sizzle” or “simmer” more. As his muscular back-ups bob and weave around him, Jackson’s ever-present magnetism never lets him down. Even when he’s merely going through the practice motions, he’s as dynamic as he ever was.

All of which begs the question - what happened? How could someone this confident and carefree onstage (he is so light on his feet and lithe that it’s the very definition of “effortless”) become a press room pariah, unable to live a leisurely life in the public eye. It’s a weird dichotomy, one that This Is It has no desire to delve into. Even with all the tabloid tattling and clever character assassination surrounding the icon, his musical ability belies all the gossip and grotesqueries that have come to define him - even in bereavement. As a matter of fact, one of the best things that This Is It does is rewrite the legacy that Jackson left at the time of his death. TMZ nation would have us believe he was half off his nut, doped to the gills with human aesthetic on top of an already near-lethal cocktail of various narcotics. But reality - or careful editing - argues otherwise.

And then there is the notion of Jackson repeating this immense spectacle day in and day out for 50 grueling shows once he headed over to England. It’s sad to think that some promoter saw an opportunity to exploit the entertainer’s recent financial distress and decided to bludgeon his coy cash cow for as much milk money as possible. One truly believes the singer when he smiles and says “this is really it” during the promotional press conferences that announced the “tour”. No matter what he did after the concerts, he could never top the ideas he was trying to showcase here. That this rehearsal material provides actual glimpses of what could have been stands as a testament to what Jackson conceived, as well as how nimble Ortega is at cobbling together what was clearly meant as nothing more than random reference footage.

So instead of spending almost two months making sure that fans from around the world got one last shot of seeing their idol in person, This Is It will be the event that facilitates the final chapter in the myth of Michael Jackson - and then that’s truly “it”. Even if another album of amazing material is lifted from the vaults (and the original tune presented here as the movie’s theme is no great shakes) and the artist who once owned the pop charts scales them once again, there will never be more than “this”. No more videos. No more news cycles. No more music. As titles go, Jackson’s own self-penned label lingers with hints of what could have been and what never will be. Still, for anyone still looking for a little bit of his magic, This Is It contains more than enough.

by AJ Ramirez

31 Oct 2009

August marked the 30th anniversary of the release of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”, the first single by goth pioneers Bauhaus.  I knew in the back of my head that the song would hit the three-decade mark this year, but the exact date of release slipped my mind, otherwise I would’ve written a glowing tribute to the song two months ago.  My forgetfulness works out all right, given that there’s no better time to ruminate on “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” than in the light of Halloween.

Listening to “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” provides the rare opportunity to hear a style of music emerge fully-formed.  Sure, there were clear influences (David Bowie) and important predecessors (Joy Division).  But on that 1979 release, Bauhaus pulled all that had come before it together to present something unique: goth.  In this nine-and-a-half-minute requiem for the actor who played the title character in the classic 1931 film version of Dracula, Peter Murphy, Daniel Ash, David J, and Kevin Haskins lay out all the tricks of the form for later practitioners to follow: the ominous bassline, the spectral guitar, the foreboding low-range vocals, and (of course) the horror-movie imagery.  Most importantly, Bauhaus constructs the perfect mood: sepulchral, gloomy, and with a hint of fear.  Will Hollywood’s most famous bloodsucker stay in his tomb?  When Peter Murphy switches his mannered intonations from commenting “Bela Lugosi’s dead” to repeating the word “undead”, it seems frighteningly unlikely.

Even if one is not a fan of gothic rock (and there are a lot of people who aren’t, finding it too pretentious, too introverted, too silly), Bauhaus’s importance as the author of the first goth single cannot be denied.  But there’s another honor owed to “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” that is largely unrecognized: it can be very well be called the first true alternative rock record.

by Bill Gibron

31 Oct 2009

One of the most profound dogmas in Chinese (and other Asian) philosophies is the notion of balance, yin and yang, the equilibrium between light and dark, good and evil. It’s a basic ideology, a mindset that is applied to elements as divergent as cooking and art, science and interior design. Yet within each discipline, the same faith in stability and the strength from same applies. As part of their Halloween release schedule, newly formed Palisades Tartan offers up to excellent examples of this foundational back and forth. The excellent ghost/demonic possession tale P offers a subtle, often scary look a life as a Thai bar girl in Bangkok, with some frightening folklore and magic thrown in for good measure. On the other hand, The Butcher is the kind of geek show nightmare that makes Hostel look like a sunny Eastern European travel ad. Gory and gruesome with no more desire than to completely shock its audience, this Korean scandal was recently banned in its own home country as being too brutal for audiences to endure.

In P, we meet up with notorious “witch’s granddaughter” Aaw. In order to help the child’s failing self-esteem, the aging relative teaches her magic. Laying down both the benefits and the backlash, the girl grows up into a beautiful teenager. When the local merchant demands reimbursement for all the credit she’s given the family, Aaw is sold into white slavery and shipped off to Thailand’s sex capital to work as a dancer in a bar/brothel. The madam sees real possibilities in the new country rube virgin, and the re-named Dau is soon seeing customers, getting paid for unspeakable acts she could have never imagined during her life back home. Suddenly, she remembers her magical gifts, and starts using them to get revenge on those who’ve wrong her. But she fails to heed her grandmother’s rules, creating a demonic entity that invades Dau’s dreams - and then heads out into the night to feed.

As for the storyline in The Butcher, there isn’t much of one. The premise is rather simple - a filmmaker hires local mobsters to kidnap people. He then brings them to a remote location set up as a combination studio and slaughterhouse, attaches cameras to his hostage’s heads, and then he films them as a masked maniac in a pig get-up murders them in completely inhuman and horrific ways. During this particular session, a married couple are caught, and the filmmaker has a field day with this unusual dynamic. While making his sickening snuff entertainment, he gives the husband an actual chance at survival. All he has to do is suggest a new, nasty way for his wife to die and the auteur of atrocities will let him go. Of course, there is a catch. Just because one member of this perverted production company says he will live doesn’t mean the man with the chainsaw agrees.

The differences between P and The Butcher are a primer in conflicting approaches to terror. One is a sly story of prostitution and personality clashes inside a combination of superstition and supernatural sorcery. The other is a first person POV assault on the senses, a nonstop stream of video splatter inter-spliced with endless screaming and character pleading. P plays on its characters with style and a sense of purpose. One could easily see The Butcher as a cruel commentary, a slap in the face of foolish American audiences who, as the “director” here laments, simply can’t get enough hardcore violence. While both rely on the culture and customs of their particularly country, one makes better use of the sinister subtext they provide. The other simply sits back, turns on the ever-present camcorders, and watches while people are vivisected with vicious callousness.

P is the much better film, for reasons that have little to do with the amount of blood being spilled. In fact, there is probably as much arterial spray in Dau’s demonic revenge as there is throughout The Butcher‘s callous corpse grinding. Western filmmaker Paul Spurrier, no stranger to Thai ways, also recognizes the need to keep his fellow fright fans laden with grue. But unlike the 8mm miscreance of director Kim Jin-Won’s eviscerating excess, we shudder at the thought of our heroine’s horrific secret. Indeed, The Butcher is more for the confirmed gorehound, the person who can’t enjoy a scary movie experience without seeing organs removed and eyeballs garroted. There is nothing wrong with such an approach: it has its own unique, visceral qualities that when handled properly, make the menace practically leap off the screen. But P finds a way to make it work as part of an actual story. The Butcher is just a sideshow with a high tech sheen.

There’s also another issue with the latter title that bears discussing. With everything from Paranormal Activity to Cloverfield mimicking the now infamous Blair Witch style of handheld shaky cam creep-outs, it’s hard to look at The Butcher as something new. In fact, films like The Pooghkeepsie Tapes and [REC] have illustrated caught on tape carnage better than most of the material here. In fact, the only thing this movie really has going for it is the insane killer with a passionate Porky complex. Watching this animal-headed freak walk down a dark corridor, his fatalistic intent ever-present and palpable, is more than enough to conjure up a good case of the willies. But then the rest of the narrative is taken up with endless whiny, our husband begging for his life like a schoolgirl being unfairly grounded by her parents. In the end, we enjoy Dau’s determined attempt to rise above her degrading circumstances. The Butcher just wants us to wallow around in its senseless splatter.

Still, as perfect illustrations of the whole hard and soft, subtle and sledgehammer style of Asian horror moviemaking, this duo is almost definitive. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find two films as patently polar opposite of each other than these - and yet, we can still see the same traditions and cinematic trademarks within both. For all its sleazoid suggestion and underage smuttiness, P is really a tale of payback gone mystical, while The Butcher breaks down the basics of onscreen violence into three practical components - maker, murderer, and those who enjoy watching both. And the determining factor for both is blood - lots and lots of blood. While that meaningful monochrome symbol showcases the inherent concept of yin and yang, P and The Butcher discuss the conceit in clots of brazen blood red. While neither film is perfect, one clearly wishes to engage, not enrage, its audience. 

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