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Monday, Jun 4, 2007


It’s another odd week for the home video aficionado. On the one hand, you’ve got a true celluloid auteur getting the digital admiration he so richly deserves. On the other hand, you’ve got the clear frontrunner for Worst Movie of 2007 – maybe of all the ‘Naughts’. There’s a new take on the same old moldy J-Horror, an even older Oliver Stone effort, an imaginative take on a silent classic, and a callous cash grab for fans of a certain comic book foursome. When you add in the completely gratuitous sex comedy from the late ‘70s, and the rest of the aluminum disc dregs, the payout potential is limited at best. But it’s a weak Friday for first run films (your choice – another Ocean’s sequel or more Eli Roth ‘gorno’) and Lord knows what the pay cable channels are about to cough up. So do yourself a favor, stick with the rock solid SE&L pick and kiss the rest goodbye. It will make your 5 June all the more productive:


The Sergio Leone Anthology


Drop whatever you’re currently doing, grab your cash card, and head out to the local B&M the minute it opens and plunk down your pennies for this amazing spaghetti western box set. Featuring the entire Man with No Name Trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly) along with Leone rarity Duck, You Sucker! , all four films are given a Special Edition treatment that is long overdue. That means you get a quartet of Italian gunslinging goodness, eight DVDs, and lots of cinematic supplements for a minor monetary outlay. And if you want to add a copy of the director’s masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West, to your shopping cart along the way, no one will complain. Long considered a filmmaking genius, Leone’s legacy has only grown in the DVD era. Perhaps it’s because the format fits his wide open epics so well, giving them room to breathe and grow. Or maybe it’s his amazing artistry. Either way, it’s film fans who win.

Other Titles of Interest


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari


This is either a really creative idea or cinematic sacrilege. Using modern technology and the original film’s inventive Expressionistic designs, writer/director David Lee Fisher scanned the original sets into a computer and then digitally inserted his modern actors. The story’s the same, and in this version, the characters speak for themselves. Think of it as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow mixed with the classic silent film and you get the idea.

Fantastic Four: Extended Edition


How do you make a mediocre movie a little less lame (and a lot more profitable)? Simple - revamp the narrative with added scenes, reconfigure the film for DVD, and sell it just as the real sequel is about to hit theaters. That’s the case with this rushed to retail redux of the mangled Marvel mess. Initial reviews claim the changes are for the better. Considering the source, that’s not saying much.

The Messengers


The Pang Brothers, Hong Kong’s premiere horror maestros, come to America at the very end of the Asian angst fad and proceed to sink the final nail in the slick subgenre’s coffin. Aside from the fact that they’re three years too late, the subtle scares of the whole ghost world spook show have long since been decried and dismissed. Not the best showcase for a pair of foreign fright film icons.

Norbit


Oh Lord, this is BEYOND bad. Everything you’ve heard is true – this is a ridiculous, racist mess, the kind of unbelievably bigoted filmmaking that should set the cause of African American pride back 400 years. Eddie Murphy is awful, desecrating geeks, the obese, and Chinese people everywhere. This entire film feels like the beginning of a mean-spirited gag that never discovers its punchline. Sadly, the joke appears to be on us. 

Seizure


Here’s an intriguing title finally arriving on the digital domain. It stars Dark Shadow’s Jonathan Frid and Fantasy Island favorite Hervé Villechaize, and was co-written and directed by a young maverick named Oliver Stone. The plot sounds like the ‘Old Dark House’ married to a proto-slasher feast. Could be good. Could be garbage. Whatever the case, it could make for an interesting night of early auteur nostalgia.


And Now for Something Completely Different
H.O.T.S.


This film always tried to position itself as the modern female equivalent of Animal House. Part of the problem of course is that the National Lampoon classic was more concerned with satire and less with skin. All this film has going for it is boobs, boobs, and more boobs – that and some very gratuitous Danny Bonaduce (who actually looks halfway human here). The title sorority – the name is taken from the four main girls (Honey, O’Hara, Terri, and Sam) in the club – is the bane of Fairenville University, or F.U.’s, existence. There’s a crusty old dean, some snobbish villains, and a last act game of strip touch football.  Along the way, our gals discover sex, self-esteem…and umm, more sex. Indeed, softcore eros is the point behind this collegiate comedy. If you’re looking for story, move along. If all you’re interested in is curvaceous pre-‘80s flesh, then step right up. This so-so silliness will be your cup of carnal tea. 

 


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Monday, Jun 4, 2007

PSF writer Calliope Kurtz is profiled in this San Francisco Bay Times article, talking about how transgenders (not to mention women) get little respect in the music biz.  You’d think with all the gender-confusion that’s been a rock tradition for decades, it would be otherwise…


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Sunday, Jun 3, 2007


That’s it. Mark it on a calendar. 2007 is the year where we officially no longer matter. Film critics, that is. Where once we set the standard for discussion on film, we’ve been marginalized by a medium that believes us to be out of touch, self important and far too fanatical in our devotion to quality over quantity. Newspapers are dropping us for generalized wire service hype. Messageboards are alight with conversations and condemnations of our efforts. Even fellow members of the Fourth Estate are tearing us a new class hole. David Poland, former film festival director and currently owner of industry information source Movie City News recently ripped into reviewers who loved Judd Apatow’s latest comedy classic Knocked Up. He did so with a joke that marginalized anyone adoring the film into a “middle-aged person who is so tired of studio movies that you will desperately overpraise a so-so film”. As Allison Porchnik once said, you gotta love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.


This is what film criticism has been condensed into—personal attacks/obsessions passing as viable cinematic analysis. It’s prevalent. Someone hates Mel Gibson for the horrendously racist things he said last August, and said writer translates that anger into a complete dismissal of the actor/director’s inventive action film Apocalypto. Then there are those so-called journalists who can’t make up their own minds. These supposed writers scan fan forums and other analytic websites to get ‘impressions’ of what the average man and/or woman is thinking about a specific film. They then roll all those thoughts into pure populist pap and pawn it off as well considered conclusions. Perhaps the worse example of this trend remains the film fetishists. To them, everything they love is legitimate, from the best example of Hollywood’s Golden era to a wonky little horror film that no one has ever heard of. In both cases, however, their overdone praise moves from meaningful to sickeningly sexual in its depth of desire.


Part of this is in response to the new found community of self-described know-it-alls called the Internet. In a realm where everyone has a forum, it logically figures that everything would be legitimized. There are six billion potential pundits in this world, meaning that all entertainment genres, from mystery to science fiction, action to heartbreaking drama will definitely find their champions. Taking it even further, within each subset will be people who love/hate a particular product with as much sense/insanity as they enjoy/despise something else. It’s an inferred universe without consensus, a place where even a one time motion picture masterpiece—say Citizen Kane—will eventually find an entire website devoted to how overrated and unremarkable it really is. And since there is no true guiding aesthetic (this is everyone out for themselves, remember), nothing is held in particular esteem. That means everyone is right. It also means that everyone is wrong. It’s merely a matter of perspective.


Take last year’s amazing movie The Fountain. Critics couldn’t handle its intertwining storylines and emotional reach. So instead of meeting it somewhere around the middle, they declared Darren Aronofsky the latest Emperor auteur and helped the viewing public rent his brand new cinematic skivvies. Similarly, Zak Snyder’s 300 burst onto movie screens back in March with a wave of invention that few films in the last few decades have managed to muster. But since the narrative was mired in old world machismo and dotted with homoerotic leanings, the proud carriers of the pro-PC banner took the movie to task. Some even disregarded it as being too action/aggression oriented. Last time anyone looked, the movie was about a battle between badly outnumbered Spartans and invading Persian hordes. So where, exactly, is the subtlety supposed to go? There are weekly examples of this kind of critical contradiction. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End will be both vilified as an overstuffed example of Hollywood hubris while simultaneously being celebrated by those who believe it to be a throwback to the original ‘70s blockbuster.


Because of the number of outlets for so-called legitimate cinematic reportage, because of the lack of an ongoing critical accord on what constitutes art and what equals artifice, because we can no longer sit idly by and watch geeks give us the metaphysical finger, we’ve decided to bite back. And the wound is now fully festering and gone gangrenous. We currently exist in a freakish film industry time when Grindhouse, a well received revamp of the exploitation film earning an 81% overview rating on Rotten Tomatoes (a database for storing critic scores), is considered a massive flop, while two atrocious titles from the same time—Norbit and Wild Hogs can earn a 9% and 16% rating respectively and still be massive mainstream hits. Some would call such movies ‘critic proof’, but there’s more to it than that. Bad is bad, but somehow, that message is not translating to the public.


And those who argue that it shouldn’t matter do indeed have a point. Movie reviewers, by their very nature, are product testers. They sample the motion picture wares coming out each and every week and let you know how their particular tastes reacted to it. From then on, the next step is wholly your own move. You don’t have to agree, and you may go into a screening and have the exact opposite reaction. But in the end, all the writer is providing you is an opinion. Sure, it may be steeped in a great knowledge of the medium or a singular joy for cinema, but these are not Gospel conclusions. They are—for the most part—the genuine reactions of a film fan. So Norbit should not live or die by what 123 critics from around the globe say it is. If you go to the theater and enjoy it, more power to you. And it’s that previous statement that sets up a potentially dangerous precedent.


While it may have at one time been about creativity, 2007 Tinsel Town is definitely a cash and carry conglomerate, period. Dollars are the determinative factor in why many films are made. Sure, we can see occasional gambles (the aforementioned 300, Apatow’s previous hit The 40 Year Old Virgin), but the major motion picture studios have the profit margin down to a slick hard sell science. They don’t go into a Little Man believing in failure. Indeed, they view certain production plans (horror sequels/prequels, comic book characters franchising) as money making its way to the bank. So when Disney greenlights two more Pirates movies on the back of the first one’s success, they are counting on a pair of separate yet simultaneous situations: (1) that the eventual release on home theater will continue to whet your appetite for more and (2) that their experience in repeated past successes is astute enough to get them through this risk.


Thus a critic proof film is not really able to avoid a journalistic smear campaign. No, what the film is truly protected from is any negative impact from the audience. What Hollywood has gotten dead brilliant at is marketing movies in such a way that, even if your best friends told you it was the biggest stinker this side of Waterworld, you’d still get in line on opening weekend to see for yourself. And this of course ties in directly to the Internet ideal. Since the number of websites catering to criticism have skyrocketed in the last few years, as well as the availability of high profile portals (blogs, myspace pages, YouTube) for opinion placement, the mainstream media no longer holds any sway. Norbit may hold a less than 10% approval rating from regular reviewers, but on a place like The Internet Movie Database, the score goes up to over 30. Such a strident difference empowers the audience and leads them to believe that their own conclusions are valid—even more so – than the person who makes viewing film their career.


Are there pompous scribes who ruin it for everyone? Absolutely. Are there people in the film fussing trade so out of touch that they can actually champion something like Are We Done Yet? over David Fincher’s fabulous Zodiac. Definitely. Is there someone already chomping at the bit, ready to scream that both films deserve to be dumped in the nearest cesspool as examples of cinema at its most stagnant? You know it. But something odd has happened over the last couple of months. The loudest voices are not only being heard, they are drowning each other out, creating a weird wall of sound that turns off everyone who comes in contact with it. Mr. Poland himself is one of those individuals who likes to say “it sucks, because I said so” and then tosses in a few rationales for his rejection before moving on to his next insider tip about the future of film.


Again, what’s missing is context, the notion that cinema is not a disposable commodity easily interchangeable with any other kind of pulp product. Disregarding critics is similar to stating that superficial summer paperbacks represent literature as its most artful. Popularity does not equal perspective. Instead it’s a sign of mere mass acceptance. Independence Day is not a great science fiction film, just a well liked one. Similarly, 2001: A Space Odyssey remains a fixture on Best Of lists because individuals with a wealth of experience in the medium recognize its inherent value. Sometimes, a movie can combine the two (Pulp Fiction, for example). But without a voice outside the din discussing the difference between the two, the result is a watered down aesthetic—and the current state of mainstream moviemaking.


You think endless sequels and slight summer blockbusters are seen as proud accomplishments by the studios? No, they represent the fast food of the business, the guaranteed dosh makers that allow them the luxury of jeopardizing their revenue on a few prestige pictures come Awards season. They want you to believe a critic doesn’t know what he or she is talking about because it protects their investment and leads to greater returns come opening weekend. Thus the continuing decline in preview press screenings. Of course, they don’t mind turning around and using contextually suspect blurbs to support their hype machine, and they love to tout the number of Year End lists their movies appear on. Talk about your hate/tolerate kind of relationship.


When you boil it down to its basics, criticism is suffering because, in general, it’s poorly thought out and equally illiterate. Scan the web for other reviews of Knocked Up and you will find people actually using the attractiveness of actor Seth Rogen (or repugnant lack thereof) as a means of rating the film’s comedic viability. Talk about using high school standards as a means of making adult decisions. Why not just have Paris Hilton tell the moviegoing public what’s “hot” and what’s “not”. From poor sentence structure and a self-determined desire to be cleverer than what you’re reviewing, the critical community continually shoots itself in the foot. But instead of being merely hobbled, it looks like, this time, the damage may be permanent.


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Sunday, Jun 3, 2007


PICTURE OF ME PLAYING GUITAR (FANTASTICALLY) IN CONCERT WITH MY SON AND DAUGHTER
June 20, 2006

(Note: pulled under threat of lawsuit by some future production company teeming with shifty lawyer-like types.)



My boy is on the verge of feeling his rock oats. After years of my entreating him to bring his drum, piano and vocal skills over to my band, he up and formed his own! Which is what 16 year-olds do, I suppose.


“Later, Dad.”


Sigh.


His band just had their second session over at our house. Fresh off nearly cracking the windowpanes with their fuzzed out bass and guitars (and I’ll be damned if I’ll ever let that happen again!); but how can you say “no” when you see those hyper-stoked kids with grins that won’t quit on their faces, flush from those first few empowering moments of “we-can-do-anything-because-we’ve-done-nothing-and-it’s-all-in-front-of-us”.


God, how I miss those times!


Practically, what that means is that my stealing him back into the fold to work his chops with his sis and me and our band-on-hold, won’t be happening for the next few months, probably years—by which time I will be so doddering that the point will be moot: who‘d want to play with me anyway? I mean, Mick and Sir Paul and B.B. King are still tolerated cause they built up a following the previous 40 years. (And, besides, Mick and B.B. can still make magic tracks).


All of which goes to prove that rockers are allowed to live forever, if they can manage to get born first!


But I guess I’m just letting the scent of my sour grapes out.


 


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Sunday, Jun 3, 2007

Last month I bought a copy of Pliny’s Natural History at a library book sale. Now I know at least a dozen things that I hadn’t known before. For example, if I am having trouble with excess phlegm, I should kiss “only the little hairy muzzle of a mouse.” That will make the phlegm go away. If I am eating bread and a crumb gets lodged in my throat, I need to take two pieces from the same loaf and place them in my ears. That will dislodge the crumb. If I have the same trouble with fish, the cure is to take bones from the fish and put them on my head.


To give birth to a black-eyed child, eat a rat. To heal a cancerous sore of the gums, administer powdered sheep dags. The “black liquor” found in cuttlefish, if burned in a lamp, will “make all those in the room to look like blackamoors or Aethyopians.” Blackamoor isn’t Pliny’s word, of course. The Natural History I bought was a reprint of the 1601 translation by Philemon Holland, Doctor in Physic. A wonderful book. It cost 50 cents.


Our largest local library, a 20-minute walk away, has one of these book sales every month. The Friends of the Library lay out tables and boxes of books, they man the grey tin box in which money is kept, they offer help to people who are struggling with armloads. They can be frosty if crossed. All are named Joyce.


Normal prices range from 50 cents to a dollar. The larger books are set aside and individually priced: three dollars, five dollars, depending on the book. For two months running they had a special price, five paperbacks for a dollar. That’s Trainspotting, Women in Love, all four of Colette’s Claudine stories, A Spy in the House of Love, an autobiographical Michael Ondaatje, and so on, all for 20 cents each. They’re good for gloating, library book sales.


I hoover up stacks of books and retreat into a corner by the men’s toilets to sort them out into piles which I mentally label ‘Keep’ and ‘Put back.’  At least one person will come and hover wistfully over my pile. Occasionally they try to steal a book. “Sorry,” they say when I fix them with my glowering eye and frowning brow. (To darken the eyebrows rub them with ant eggs, writes Pliny.) “I didn’t realise that was yours.” I believe them; they didn’t. They’re so flustered. A middle-aged Chinese woman once trailed me around the room, lusting after my Bacon.


“He is a very good writer,” she said. “The book is a very good book. I wish I had found it.”


She was right, he is, but I wasn’t going to give him up. Is it strange to wonder why a Chinese woman with hesitant English should be so in love with to Bacon’s essays? Well, I once found a copy of Paradise Lost in a Japanese library with Japanese annotations hand-written in the margins from beginning to end—translations of words like “glozed” and “virtuosest”—so why shouldn’t she be? How many English-speaking readers finish Paradise Lost, never mind Japanese-speaking ones? Who wrote those annotations? And what were they doing in Mito, a middle-sized administrative town known for fermented beans and a dead aristocrat? Lord Misukuni Tokugawa was an author, though: he started a series of history books, the Dainishonshi. There is a copy of this series in the Mito City Museum, another wonderful place, dark inside, full of glass cases and stuffed animals and insects in dioramas. The museum in Melbourne used to be like that before they built a new one and rehoused the dusty animals (the tiger with its glazed and gleaming teeth; the native fauna staring glassily) in a series of well-lit, open spaces that stole away their mystery and made them seem tatty.


There’s territoriality at book sales. People shove. If confronted, they apologise in pale, blushing voices. They do not shout. The only person who raises his voice is a bearded man who comes along every month and declaims at the Joyces. In an ideal world he would be a Dickensian figure, a dotty Mr Dick, fixated but loved. In reality he is self-important and bossy and he irritates them. He never seems to notice. Pliny does not give a solution to the problem of deluded men with beards. But did you know that “malefactors or suspected persons” can be made to tell the truth if they consume the herb Achaemenis in wine? “For in the night following they shall be so haunted with spirits and tormented with sundry fancies that and horrible visions, that they shall be driven perforce to tell all”? Do the people at Guantanamo Bay know about this? It sounds a little quicker than the current system.


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