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Sunday, Sep 30, 2007

Why does he do the things he does?
Why does he do these things?
Why does he march
Through that dream that he’s in,
Covered with glory and rusty old tin?
Why does he live in a world that can’t be . . .


What Do You Want of Me, The Man of La Mancha


This is the song that has been going through my head of late, since I end up listening to it every time I ferry my daughter to and from school, ballet class, voice lessons, her SAT tutor. Wherever. We listen to it (well, she sings along, so I listen to it) since she’s thinking of auditioning for that part in the up-coming school play. She’s rehearsed it so often, though, that it is now lodged in my mid(-to-middling)-term memory. Which probably accounts for why the words came on thick, accompanied by full orchestration, last night when I went to my son’s ninth grade parental mixer.

Because—what a bunch of bluster that was! Twenty-five bucks a plate, endless wine refills and hot hors d’oeuvres from roving people-in-waiting, main course of roast beef—medium—and blackened rosemary chicken, two kinds of salads, four kinds of dessert, and plenty of adult puffery, all at a former Nobel Prize-winning physicist’s ex-abode. A stone’s throw from CalTech and light year’s away from my income bracket. Enough to get my pipes working on that other La Mancha tune: “The Impossible Dream.


 


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Sunday, Sep 30, 2007

What was so surprising and maybe refreshing about Robert Plant’s announcement recently wasn’t that a Led Zep tour wasn’t going to happen along with their upcoming UK reunion show, it was this quote:


“When I do come back from touring I’m shocked to find a lot of my mates tend to be going to bed far too early and that means I should probably be doing the same. Maybe I should stop having a good time and get old.”


Plant’s been as conscious about age as Neil Young from his salad days in the 70’s: he often referred to himself as “Old Robert” even back then.  But to hear him talk now goes against the grain of most other long-time stadium-fillers.  It wasn’t just the obvious lyrics to “My Generation” or the loss of their rhythm section that made the Who’s future shaky- Daltrey’s throat problems along sidelined them.  Ditto the Stones not just when Richards tumbled out of a tree recently but also when Jagger had similar problems with his voice.  At this point, both bands seemed like the types to tour ‘til they literally dropped but age kicks your ass no matter what your income bracket is. 


Plant realizes it and not only says it but also lives it.  Age is catching up with his peers whether they like it or not and one day, they’ll have to admit it too.  But that doesn’t mean that they all should just pack it because they’ve hit a certain age.  Obviously, everyone ages differently (my grandma is 90 and she’s able to still live on her own).  Or look at the many jazz, country or blues musicians who live out their golden years on stages.  The fact that rock icons were able to do this also took the stigma away for being over 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 and still doing concerts in that genre.  Nothing wrong with that and in some cases, it’s commendable, especially when some of them still make good albums.  But even the Godfather of Soul couldn’t do leg splits in his later years and classic rockers who reach the AARP threshold will have to make compromises too, whether they or their fans like it or not.


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Sunday, Sep 30, 2007


It’s important to remember a film’s intended demographic. A gross out slacker comedy to some will be a realistic look at a life among one’s peers to another. It’s the same with comic book adaptations. While the genre was always geared toward post-adolescent audiences with a healthy nostalgia for their collections and the characters, there remains an equally thriving underage contingent that doesn’t respond well to all the introspection and brooding. So when the initial Fantastic Four film decided to drop the existentialism and go for the grade schooler, the obsessive reacted like someone had dismantled and played with their limited edition action figures. What they failed to recognize was that not every movie has to be focused directly toward their mentality. Sometimes, a family friendly approach can find a payday as well.


Of course, this doesn’t excuse the first installment in the proposed franchise. It was a tripe trifle, forged out of the flimsiest of scripts and topped with the most awkward of casting considerations. For those who couldn’t imagine a worse take on the material than the 1994 Roger Corman reject (made to settle a rights issue), the update was equally awful – what with it’s reliance on cornball humor and blatant Hollywood hokum. Yet even with the inconsistent acting – Jessica Alba and Michael Chiklis just can’t make the superhero thing work, period – and less than impressive F/X (especially in connection with Reed Richards’ shoddy CGI shape shifting), the movie made a profit. And if there is one constant in the motion picture biz, is that success demands a sequel. Equally important is remembering to copy exactly what made the first effort fiscally viable.


Our new saga (now on DVD from Fox) starts when a planet in a nearby galaxy suddenly implodes and splits apart. From the chaos comes a silver streak of light, its path marked directly for the Earth. In the meantime, Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) are trying, once again, to get married. They’ve failed four times before, and they’re hoping that the fifth times the charm. During this stressful time, brother Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) has been living it up, womanizing and trading on the Four’s good name for his own fame whoring needs. Old pal Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), on the other hand, has finally settled into his all rock persona, and is even enjoying a romance with blind gal pal Alicia Masters. When the Army contacts Reed about building a machine to track the cosmic radiation generated by some newly discovered holes in the planet’s surface, the bad news is discovered – The Silver Surfer has come to our world. And eight days after he arrives, the occupied planet simply dies. 


With director Tim Story back behind the lens (a call many feel belies the franchise’s biggest flaw) and a new character to carry us past the problems, The Rise of the Silver Surfer is definitely better than you’d expect. It’s also a popcorn flick full of the same old slop. For everything it gets right (the reverence toward the title entity, the epic arrival of Galactus) it provides even more fuel for the faithfuls’ ire. Granted, Stan Lee never intended this quartet to be taken too seriously. Unlike other comic avengers, the Four were a dysfunctional family that actually catered to and basked in the limelight. But with Alba’s Sue Storm even drippier as the narrative’s main wet blanket, and superficial supermodel Julian McMahon’s dreadfully dull take on Dr. Doom, our newly introduced chrome conqueror has a lot to countermand. For the most part, the metal man succeeds.


Indeed, after seeing this outing, there is hope for the planned Silver Surfer spin-off project, thanks in part to the stellar reading Laurence Fishbourne brings to the role. When combined with the state of the art computer animation (it’s a Weta level of realism that the first film avoided), and some old fashioned stand it work, our interstellar sentry with the planet prepping mandate definitely comes alive. Although he’s hardly a main character – The Thing’s blind babe gets about as much screen time – his impact is such that we actually anticipate his next appearance. Thanks in part to a broadening of scope (we’re dealing with a world killer here), the accompanying action that surrounds the part, and the last act change of heart, we get a well rounded, three dimensional star who is stuck as a supporting player in a meandering mess. 


This makes the main foursome seem all the more minor. Chiklis cannot overcome his man in a costume conceit, and every time The Thing interacts with the others, it’s like stepping back in time to the less convincing era of pre-‘80s make-up work. Richards’ stretch skills are more believable this time around, though they almost always wind up part of some slapstick gag. One of the main narrative elements in the film – the Surfer interaction side effect of Johnny Storm switching powers with his fellow crime fighters – makes for some interesting sequences, especially during a midpoint problem in London. Yet the firestarter character remains a cloying card, the kind of slick, look at me loudmouth that can grow annoying very easily. Luckily, actor Chris Evans has little to worry about when it comes to grating. Jessica Alba’s whiny, wounded Sue Storm is enough to drive any sane superhero lover to irritation.


Still, you can sense Story’s fascination and love of the material, and it’s an opinion seconded by the bonus features found on the new two disc digital edition. The director’s commentary is especially enlightening, since we learn of his outright geek love for the Four, as well as his desire to stay as true to the comics as possible (who knew). Even in the documentary featurettes provided on the making of the movie, Story is a stone cold nerd. Creating and controlling the world that these beloved icons exist in seems to bring out his inner child. Among the rest of the cast and crew, it appears to be nothing more than business as usual. A second alternate narrative track (featuring a producer, writer, and editor) is a dour, overly technical affair that saps any possible enjoyment out of the project. Similarly, the F/X and design overviews often provide little more than electronic press shilling. The only legitimate look behind the scenes comes from a near hour long backstage glimpse. It’s great stuff.


It’s just too bad then that Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, plays to such a specific demographic. This is the kind of movie that requires a viewer who’s still open to the magic of movies while not being so dense that they miss some of the more satiric bits. Be a little too lost and Tim Story’s take on this title will seem like advanced trigonometry. Know a little too much about the comic in question and the many liberties taken with the characters, and you’re going to be angry at every single frame. Viewed with the proper eyes and processed by the necessary mentality, this plaintive blockbuster wannabe really rocks. Any other critical consideration argues for its slightly average amusements. Figuring out where you stand on the subject will end up being the best guide for your potential pleasure


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Saturday, Sep 29, 2007


It gets marginalized and joked about, but few film fans really understand the importance of exploitation. Like labeling a movie “Troma-esque” or referencing a title as “torture porn”, the stock cinematic categorization has become a buzzword, a term used to undermine a movie by giving it tacky tenets it may not actually own. Sure, a lot of the films that played in Pussycat Theaters and drive-ins nationwide were geared toward busting taboos and violating common decency. Yet without their envelope pushing chutzpah, their desire to do more with the medium than the cowardly Hollywood hacks, the post-modern phase of filmmaking would have never arrived. It’s true. In addition, without that sensational ‘70s epiphany, a moment where the artform truly found its finesse, new age architects like Quentin Tarantino wouldn’t have an inspirational pool to dip in.


Throughout this anarchic auteur’s reign of referencing, the entire history of celluloid has been his memory bank. But when it comes to specific statements, the Me Decade makes this director all hot and bothered. One need look no further than his contribution to the Spring 2007 experiment entitled Grindhouse. In collaboration with fellow indie icon Robert Rodriguez, the man responsible for giving outsider filmmaking its maverick flair decided to revisit the days when double features ruled, and coming attractions were often more impressive that the picture they supported. At over three hours, many moviegoers couldn’t handle the skin and splatter glory of what these inspired box office bad boys were attempting. Now separated for DVD by Genius Products/Dimension Films, and released separately, we are treated to a longer, European cut of Mr. Pulp Fiction’s fabulous Death Proof. Even without its zombie stomp accompaniment, we are witness to everything that made exploitation so important. 


Our story begins when three Austin gals – disc jockey Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier), her buddy Shanna (Jordan Ladd), and visiting vamp Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) – end up at a local dive bar. Celebrating a girls-only weekend, they run into the creepy, middle aged maniac who calls himself Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell). After an eventful evening of cat and mouse, they wind up going head to head with the psycho’s souped up car. A few months later, a quartet of no nonsense chicks – production hairdresser Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), stunt driver Kim (Tracie Thoms), fresh faced actress Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and visiting Kiwi daredevil Zoë (Zoë Bell) – meet up with Mike on a lonely Tennessee back road. He wants to taunt and tease them, using a 100 mile per hour chase as a means of getting acquainted. But unlike the Texas talent, these babes have the ability to fight back. And when they do, Mike will need more than a well armored vehicle to stop the rampage.


As a greatest hits package of every grindhouse conceit ever considered for heating up a local passion pit, QT’s dazzling Death Proof stands as a sensational slice of electrified genre porn. From subversive slasher like violence to 440 horsepower white line fever, it walks the freak show divide between reverence and rip-off so well that we never once feel the obvious nods and callbacks. Taking the best bits of b-movie masterworks like Vanishing Point and Dirty Harry and Crazy Mary among many, many others, the jigsaw genius with a seemingly endless frame of allusion proves his continued dominance of the filmic language. Not only is he rewriting the rule book and all its potential translations, but he’s going back over the work of those that preceded him and giving those movie maxims a good tweak along the way.

For anyone well versed in the original version, there is definitely more meat here. We are treated to a mid-narrative sequence where Mike literally stalks Abernathy and her pals. It’s a peculiar moment, since it seems to indicate that this character’s pathology is based as much in machismo as it is murderous rage. Also enlightening is Arlene – aka “Butterfly’s” – missing scene lap dance. As he does with most music based moments in his film, Tarantino maximizes the effect of this bravura bump and grind. The rest of the material is marginal – little snippets of conversation, extended moments of non-erotic female bonding. Many of these segments do help flesh out previously paltry backstories, as well as give us a chance to hear more of this man’s amazing dialogue.


Indeed, some consider Death Proof far too talky, and for those who think the original cut was verbally overwrought, this version will test their conversational tolerances. From this critic’s standpoint, the wordiness is warranted. Two hours of Stuntman Mike ramming young blonds into his windshield with his modified auto would be an open invitation to misogyny. One can practically hear the PC proponents complaining that QT is a director who hates women. Hardly – but that’s because of the characterization…which comes directly from the girl’s interaction. In fact, it’s easy to see the 30 minute rap sessions as the set up for what will be a huge horror/high speed chase payoff. The car crash that ends section one is remarkable, perhaps the most grotesque display of gear to gal gonzo ever attempted. Even better, the last act street race showdown is spectacular, a stunning reminder of how effective physical effects and real stuntwork can be.


As part of the ample added content on the two disc Extended and Unrated Special Edition DVD, we get lots of how-to featurettes. Tarantino talks openly about wanting to emulate the old school method of machine mayhem, and he introduces us to the masters of such disasters. We also get some insight into the casting process – why Kurt Russell was a genre must and how the various female faces have intriguing lineages all their own. As with most of his movies, our filmmaker is hyper to the point of distraction. He can barely contain his thoughts, and rambles on almost incoherently about the many bows he built into the film. Without a commentary track which actually highlights these hints however (it’s a feature the disc definitely warranted), we occasionally feel lost. Not to worry though. Death Proof works perfectly well without a brain steeped in the blaxploitation/action epics of the Watergate era.


In fact, part of the fun of this fantastic movie is rediscovering these forgotten filmmaking facets sans their outright connections. Of course, there will be those who don’t know them from a Herschell Gordon Lewis splatter sensation or a David F. Friedman flesh feast. If there was one flaw in Tarantino and Rodriguez’s designs, it was assuming that all movie geeks were as goofy for a slice of raincoat revisionism as they were. Part of the problem with Grindhouse as a concept was a lack of proper context and audience perspective. Not everyone in the demo owns the Something Weird Video catalog or rereads The Psychotronic Film Guide like it was a Bible. These novices needed to be immersed in the genre for a while in order to appreciate such worship. Instead, they were tossed into the mix pell mell, and came out confused.


And that’s a shame, because Death Proof has a helluva lot going for it. The performances are flawless, with special recognition going to Russell (who is as terrifying as he is pathetic) and Rosario Dawson, who makes self-effacing cockiness seem downright desirable. Add in Sydney Poitier’s diva dimensions and Zoë Bell’s star making turn and you’ve got a film that easily walks the walk that it talks. Yet it’s Tarantino that once again deserves an equal amount of credit. Only a filmmaker as accomplished as he could take a lamented cinematic style and reinvent it to fit his own diabolical needs. As he did with martial arts in Kill Bill and crime in Reservoir Dogs, Death Proof is ample evidence of this man’s moviemaking prowess. You may bristle at his tricks and transparency, but no one keeps film as kinetic as he does. If anyone could give exploitation a good reputation, it would be this amiable anarchist – and this movie is confirmation of such an artistic acumen.


 


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Saturday, Sep 29, 2007

Maybe that’s wishful thinking but the Motley Fool site has a good article about how their court cases are not only turning sour but also turning against them, threatening to upend their whole shaky legal arguments that they’ve been trying to perpetrate.


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