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by Bill Gibron

4 May 2008

What does $100 million mean anymore? Not to the average person, who could bankroll said sum into a whole new life - or at least a pay-off of his (or her) zero down mortgage, and then some. No, what does the figure mean to Hollywood, and specifically, the studio suits and the talent behind the movies. Making that kind of scratch used to be a mind-blowing commercial concept. Ben Hur only made a staggering $39 million in 1959, while The Sound of Music raked in over $70 million. Yet it wasn’t until Jaws that a film officially made $100 million during its initial box office run (and that history has been hacked at quite a bit in recent years). Still, time was that the century mark for money meant something noteworthy. Now, the significance isn’t clear at all.

In 2008, $100 million is not really a milestone, Instead, it’s mandatory. A big budget blockbuster looks anemic without it. In fact, it technically can’t even exist. The faster you get to the number, the better, and it never hurts to do so in record time.  With Iron Man just eking out a $100 million dollar payday over the 2 May weekend (including some early screenings Thursday evening), it joins a very elite group. Few films have done the business it has done this early in the season. It could have taken five days to get there and few would have complained. In fact, reaching the magic number seemed impossible four days ago, according to most prognosticators. They were looking at something closer to $80 million - nothing to sneeze at, but not the cinematic slamdunk $100 million infers.

Of course, there is more cash to be had before Speed Racer and his family step in to rewrite the revenue rules, Wachowski style. Still., by coming in strong, Iron Man settles a lot of questions while raising a few more of its own, specifically regarding the various talents involved. Where does such a fiscal accomplishment lead the powers behind the movie, and better yet, does $100 million really mean much to individuals (and companies) used to dealing in such legitimately large numbers. Of course, we no longer consider a franchise a true blockbuster until it reaches a higher level of accomplishment - say triple the initial take - but in the case of Iron Man, $100 million is major, and here’s the how and why:

The Studios

Paramount
With this long time popcorn factory only handling the distribution, it’s more or less a mixed victory. Success always breeds an aura of same, but without a real stake in the outcome, there’s a hollowness to their dollar sign happiness. At least their next offering, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull flies under their production banner (as does Mike Myers upcoming The Love Guru), so they still have a chance to add real money to their commercial coffers.

Marvel
The decision to drop indirect participation (read: studio made movies) and set up their own projects appears to have paid off - at least for now. Iron Man is a solid mainstream event. The Incredible Hulk will be the real test, considering that there was already a big green meany project a mere five years ago, and the controversy regarding this version’s final cut (suits vs. star Edward Norton) has already tarnished some of its reboot sheen. Still, the new trailer appears promising, and the media’s myopic short attention span means that no one will probably remember the dust up come opening day.

The Producers

Avi Arad & Kevin Feige
As CEO of Marvel and their chief cinematic voice, respectively, Arad and Feige have a lot riding on this Summer. Iron Man is a wonderful first volley, and seems to support their decision to go pseudo-indie. But once again, the Hulk is still sitting out there, ready to divide the devotees and make Ang Lee look like a genius in retrospect. So they better hope Norton and director Louis Leterrier deliver, or this one time windfall will be all 2008 has to offer the duo.

Peter Billingsley
Yes, little Ralphie finally runs with the big dogs. As Favreau’s partner since their Dinner for Five days, he’s been on board for all of his pal’s directorial turns with the exception of Elf. He even gets a clever cameo role. As long as Favreau has a shingle, the star of A Christmas Story always has an awning to hang his burgeoning behind the scenes credentials.

The Director

Jon Favreau
For the actor turned auteur, $100 million means a lot…a whole Helluva lot. It means he can deliver the action goods when necessary. It means a studio can count of him to recognize the difference between art, artifice, and straight up commerciality. It means that film fans can finally embrace someone who shares their aesthetic needs without forgetting that Joe Sixpack also fills theaters seats. Iron Man‘s success may cause some Sam Raimi like repercussions (locked into the sequels, a designer label of his own to distribute subpar genre fare), but for someone whose made respectable, if not quite sensational movies, this opening is monumental. And oddly enough, he seems like the kind of decent, good natured guy who deserves the reward. 

The Actors

Robert Downey Jr.
He’ll never have to worry about money ever again. He can ride this puppy all the way to Westminster if he wants. Here’s hoping he doesn’t do a Michael Keaton and feign disinterest and a “need to grow” instead of hitching his wagon to this inevitable franchise gravy train. There will still be the challenging roles (including comedic controversies like August’s Tropic Thunder), and the ‘aimed at award season’ selections. Clout like this is impossible to come by, and since most reviews have pointed out his crucial role in Iron Man‘s triumph, he’s got more than a couple trump cards up his negotiation sleeves. Let’s hope the contract he signed is flexible, not fatal. 

Terrence Howard
As the next character to get the superhero treatment (along with Samuel L. Jackson, who makes a surprise post-credits appearance as Nick Fury), Howard can bank on gaining some of the series’ cultural buzz. He’s still a very unusual onscreen presence - laconic without being lost, casual while still showing command. While War Machine may be a geek mandate, the novices are still getting used to all the Iron mythos. If anyone can sell future scenarios however, it’s him. 

Gwyneth Paltrow
As Katie Holmes proved in Batman Begins, ladies in superhero films are readily replaceable. Still, Paltrow’s Pepper Potts is pretty great. As long as she doesn’t let the notices go to her head, and doesn’t suffer through another bout of “bored with acting/gotta be a mommy” syndrome, she could stick around for a while. Her cache won’t increase, but she’s already got an Oscar, so what more can she really want?

The Franchise

Marvel’s miracle here is taking a marginal character from their comic universe (unless you’ve followed Stark and his saga since the beginning, you probably only know the hero via the classic Black Sabbath anthem) and turning him into something solid and bankable. Unlike Batman or Superman (and in some post-modern ways, the X-Men), the icon had no real juice prior to the premiere, and they managed to deliver a jolt. Give it up for marketing as well as excellent mainstream moviemaking. If the film goes on to do gangbuster business, earning between $250 and $300 million (as some are predicting), we’ll be involved in this metallic crusader’s cause for years to come. Even with something less in the till, Iron Man is here to stay - that is, until the next tent pole production hits the Cineplex.

by Bill Gibron

4 May 2008

It sounds both sinister, and kind of silly: vagina dentata - literal translation, female genitalia with teeth. Believe it or not, cultures all around the world have legends about this mysterious gender power, a clear cut allegory for the control women have over men. While much of what makes up the folklore derives from ignorance, imagination, and just a wee bit of old world paternal superstition, it’s clear that the biological battle of the sexes is less than a fair fight. Women mandate conception, give birth to the future, and more or less determines the destiny of the human race. The indie horror comedy Teeth wants to add a few more mixed metaphors to this situation. Sometimes, it succeeds. At other instances, it’s the crotch version of a circus geek.

Abstinent Dawn is dedicated to ‘The Promise’, a school program that promotes purity and virginity. Ever since she reached puberty, she’s been at war with her hormones, and so far, religious fervor has kept them at bay. Then Tobey, a new boy in town, tests her moralistic mantle. When an innocent date turns deadly, Dawn fears something is wrong with her womb. Seeking the counsel of the Internet, she learns a shocking truth - she may have vagina dentate, or a toothed vulva. A horrific trip to the gynecologist confirms the worst. With her home life in shambles - sick mother, distant stepfather, perverted stepbrother - she turns to another neighborhood boy for help. But with everyone’s thoughts on sex, it’s not long before her mandibled mommy parts start seeking revenge.

As a first film from Mitchell, the son of famed artist Roy, Lichtenstein, Teeth doesn’t seem like the work of mature 52 year old. Instead, the tone of this devious dark comedy is like John Hughes filtered through John Waters via a teenager’s impression of what a parable is. Much of the material here is mired in a too cutesy, too clever idea of how to portray uncontrollable instinct. On the other hand, the performances of Jess Weixler as Dawn, John Hensley as metalhead sibling Brad, and Lenny von Dohlen as tormented stepdad Bill bring a real truth to the subject’s treatment. What could have easily been a Hustler Magazine level joke gets some subtle, somewhat substantive treatment. Yet Lichtenstein never comes right out and shows us the ‘monster’. Instead, we have to view Dawn as a suggested symbol, and that’s where some of the problem lies.

On the newly released DVD from Genius Products, The Weinstein Company, and their Dimension Extreme subdivision, the filmmaker gets a chance to defend his choices. Over the course of a feature length commentary, Lichtenstein points to the fact that he’s dealing with actual tradition here, and that he’s simply following many of the narratives and myths derived within. Yet he never explains his scattershot approach, randomness taking over moments that need more clarity or focus. Take Dawn’s parents. Bill and his ailing wife Kim seem like nice enough people. But their relationship starts off ambiguously (shown in flashback at the beginning) and never develops beyond that. Even the mother’s terminal illness is kept a secret, the better to confuse our empathy.

And then there is the tone taken toward males. Dawn’s stepbrother Brad only wants to explore the incestual aspects of their relationship. New boy Tobey becomes an ersatz rapist before meeting his demise. A doctor drops the professional decorum to more or less violate his client, and the mixed up neighbor who lusts for Dawn longingly goes the Ruffee route to get in her goodies. To hear Lichtenstein tell it, a man’s libido is the most angry and aggressive facet of foreplay and fornication. Our heroine responds by using her inner ‘protection’ to insure “No means NO!” Much of Teeth is puzzling and rather muddled. For his part, when he’s confused, our director simply calls on the F/X to give us some gory castration shots.

Other potential satiric targets are never explored. Dawn lives, Simpsons’ style, near a nuclear power plant. The potential genetic jerryrigging such a facility could create is completely ignored. So is Brad’s preference for anal sex. Of course, we make the connection (it must have something to do with that game of ‘Doctor’ he played with Dawn when they were kids), but the movie fails to address it upfront. If all that’s important is our lead’s coming of age, and her decision to use her privates as punishment, Teeth certainly spends a lot of time beating around the bush (no pun intended). In fact, if you took away all the periphery and simply focused on the girl and her gimmick, the running time would end up on the short film side.

Clearly, Lichtenstein could have done more with the premise. The ending feels like the middle act of the movie - or worse, the set up for a sequel. It’s possible to see Dawn as a post-modern feminist heroine, a gal harnessing the power of her gender to eliminate those who merely want to exploit it. And unlike men, who are constantly reminded that they think with their penis more than anything else, such a story could be the antithesis of a ‘weaker sex’ sentiment. It could be smart, funny, profane, uncompromising, and deeply thought provoking. None of this is evident in the approach Lichtenstein takes, however. He’s just happy to push a few teen proto-porn buttons and move on. Even the making of material suggests that nothing much deeper than a slightly dirty joke was intended.

Still, thanks to some sensational performances and a clever insight or two, Teeth manages to transcend its implied trashiness. We can even forgive the unnecessary nude scene that Weixler had to endure. Had Lichtenstein taken a more Funny Games style look at his subject (in a good way), deconstructing the sex comedy and our expectations of same, this might have been a minor masterpiece. Instead, it’s a rock solid b-movie, schlock masquerading as something more meaningful. This is the kind of premise that Doris Wishman would have driven into the ground - or better yet, imagine what Dave Friedman or Harry Novak would have done. Teeth is too polite and PC to follow in those glorious grindhouse footsteps. It really should have reconsidered such a stance.

by Evan Sawdey

4 May 2008

Justice’s last two music videos—“D.A.N.C.E.” and “DVNO”—were graphic, fun-filled affairs that were visually engaging, culturally satirical, and just damn fun to watch. With “Stress”, however, the group winds up taking a turn for something much darker.

As you stream it below, you see something that’s very primal and very unpleasant: act after act of mindless, pointless violence. Romain Garvis’ clip features a gang of young hoodlums (all donning jackets with the Justice “cross” logo on it) going about town and destroying bars, throwing tourists cameras away, smashing street performers guitars, hijacking a car and much, much more. It will never get play on MTV, and its violence is tough to swallow: even the one shot at this gang’s come-uppance is foiled after the kids break off from a security guard sneak attack, leaving just one guard to try and stop them ... only to find himself on the floor being kicked repeatedly.

The video ends with the kids torching the car they stole, some of the flame even landing on the videos boom mic operator. They don’t even acknowledge his pain: they soon turn to the camera man, spit on his lense, and after what appears to be a brief struggle, everything turns to black.

Yet the biggest question that lingers after is simply this: what’s the point?

It’s doubtful that a video as well-crafted as this was done simply to provide an unfunny version of Jackass. Instead, given that Justice originated from France, this video could perhaps be seen as an expression of the outrage that the French youth felt during their tumultuous riots a few years back, the ones that shocked and outraged a nation: politicians calling said rioters “scum” and the youth of France returning the sentiment in kind by destorying millions upon millions of dollars worth of property. The “Stress” video could be seen as the youth having bottled up rage, societal resentment brewing in their blood ... and yet not having a single outlet of which to pour their energy. So, the kids in this video take to vandalism, crime, asserting their authority in any/all contexts possible, lapping up their camera-captured spotlight before, ultimately, turning on those who are documenting their accomplishments. Is the implication that such unfocused, unbridled rage will ultimately collapse in on itself, leading to one’s own destruction instead of on exterior, worldly things?

It’s hard to say, and this video does not provide any easy answers. It’s a polarizing clip, but it only goes to show that art of any kind—yes, even big-beat techno—can ignite a serious, pointed discussion.

(Oh, and yeah ... it’s also a great song to boot).

by Jason Gross

3 May 2008

Watching the adorable indie cult film Son of Rambow and remembering the also-recent Be Kind Rewind, I was struck by this adorable idea of film nuts recreating their favorite movies, be it for fame and recognition or desperation and profit.  Both films are hilarious because the subjects are so DIY that they can’t match the originals and instead come up with lovable copies where the gap between the original manufactured reality and the fan’s version of it are so wide and implausible that it’s ridiculously hilarious.

But what if this premise got transferred over to the realm of music?  True that there have been bands that have done full album covers- recently the Dirty Projectors did so with Black Flag and Abbey Road has been covered more than once in its entirety for instance (not to mention Phish’s tradition of Halloween shows where they did whole album covers). 

What I was thinking though was ‘wouldn’t this idea also make a great film?’  Think of it as another mis-matched comedy.  Let’s say that a group of inspired stoners decided to recreate Sgt Pepper with very limited resources?  Not only would it be funny to see them try it but you could also have all kinds of interesting (and insane) conversations and arguments about the songs and the album itself.  Ditto with other classics like Thriller or Appetite for Destruction or Purple Rain or Who’s Next, all high tech monuments of technology that could easily be exploited by unwashed fans.  One request to any producer that does mount such a quest- please pass some royalty points my way, OK…?

by Bill Gibron

3 May 2008

While driving across country a few years ago, filmmaker Todd Haynes decided to get reacquainted with an old friend. The man’s music had always meant something to him, but he never really made the link between the breadth of what he accomplished (and continued to do so) vs. the scope of how he changed the cultural landscape. The name Bob Dylan still demands the kind of respect worthy of a major historical icon, and he continues to make meaningful contributions to the craft of songwriting. But once Haynes began to dig into his four decade long catalog, he realized that there was more to this man than just his art. For his entire career, Dylan was a shapeshifting chameleon who used his place and position to explore many facets of the American experience. As a result, any biography would have to examine him from as many perspectives as possible.

Thus, I’m Not There was born, a sinfully rich reduction of everything Bob Dylan meant to music since his folk revisionism hit New York’s Village in the late ‘50s. Breaking down the man’s personality into his roots (African American adolescent Marcus Carl Franklin), his workingman blues (a fierce Christian Bale), his poetic side (Ben Whishaw), his superstar sizzle (the magnificent Ms. Blanchett), his personal life struggles (Heath Ledger), his conversion to Christianity (Bale again) and his old age iconography (Richard Gere), we get biography as ballyhoo, the truth tempered by the surrounding myths, folklore, rumors and innuendos that tend to make up this legend’s ample aura. Using nods to films and filmmakers of the specific era, Haynes wraps everything up in a visual grace that is astounding, and then populates it with performances that actually boggle the mind.

For Haynes, perhaps best known as the idiosyncratic mind behind the deconstructionist dramas Safe and Far from Heaven, tackling the life and times of one Bob “Zimmerman” Dylan, was not really a stretch. This was a man who had previously unraveled the days and death of Karen Carpenter, and a fairytale view of Iggy/Bowie glam rock. So a musician, even one of his import, wasn’t out of the question. Yet the decision to go with several different actors, including a young black boy and a woman raised a few eyebrows. Then again, few should have stirred. This is the man, after all, who used Barbie dolls to tell the tragic story of the anorexic AOR star. A little invention should have been anticipated. Yet many did question the multilayered motivation. Luckily, we now have a medium that allows for Haynes to provide some backstory.

If you’re looking for a definitive DVD, a combination of movie and making-of material that redefines and expands on the overall experience, The Weinstein Company’s new two disc version of I’m Not There is it. Over the course of a wonderful, informative, and in-depth commentary track, Haynes tells all. He explains the approach, the importance and symbolic stance of each idea and angle. Like learning the secrets of a complicated novel, or unraveling the truth inside a dense allegory, the co-writer/director adds heretofore unknown elements to his film, making the movie that much more intriguing. Wonder why Richard Gere lives in a circus sort of old world weirdness? Haynes explains. Why did he hire a minority to play a precocious, troubled Jewish boy from Minnesota? Again, there’s a reason. Nods to famous films (8&1/2, Masculin Feminin) are explored, as are lines quoted directly from Dylan interviews, lyrics, and other public presentations.

 

It all takes a bit of getting used to at first. While Haynes tosses in all these asides, in-jokes, and visual cues to keep us connected, seeing a small boy of color mimic Dylan’s earliest poses is still visually puzzling. As he makes his way from locale to locale, hoping trains and trading war stories with his fellow hobos, we can just see the dream being formed in a young child’s impressionable head. But that doesn’t explain the weird, almost off kilter design. Dylan’s youth wasn’t factually similar to the events that happen here. Instead, Haynes appears to be reaching across a more metaphysical interpretation of the man’s make-up. Thanks to the commentary, everything is made clear. In fact, I’m Not There becomes the Gravity’s Rainbow of rock star bio-pics thanks to this DVD overview.

Once we get to Bale, however, the cinematic stars literally align. Frankly, had Haynes decided to make a straightforward biopic with the superb UK young gun as his muse, no one would have complained. He’s got the Greenwich glower of the coffee house Dylan down pat, and when he lip syncs to versions of the bard’s best songs, he really does capture the subject’s stern determinism. Granted, Bale is a little too hunky to play the whisper thin folkie (all that Batman bulk just can’t be hidden), but from an inner angst standpoint, he’s amazing. So is the late, great Heath Ledger, as long as we’re talking about enigmatic men. His was and remains a hard chapter to deliver. He’s the private Dylan – married man, cheat, father, deadbeat – and it’s often not a pretty picture. In fact, the emotions are so raw that Haynes chokes up when revisiting the actor’s work.

And then Cate Blanchett arrives. To call her turn here magnificent is too undeserving an understatement. She is regal, almost unrecognizable. She masterfully morphs into the pot-scented genius who ruled his world with a typewriter and a six string. She is I’m Not There’s trump card, its piecemeal paradigm of fame, disillusion, influence, and flaws. During a fictional recreation of Dylan’s disastrous Newport Jazz Festival plug-in, Blanchett is so callous and cool we can feel the vibe resonating off the screen. In the second disc’s deleted/extended/alternative scenes, we can see how her performance grew. The auditions and interview material also provide some insight into how a glamorous beauty turned into an androgynous ‘60s stalwart.

This just leaves Whishaw and Gere. Of the two, the Perfume: Story of a Murderer star comes off best. He’s not given much to do. He simply stares at the camera and reads off a list of inspired Dylan via Arthur Rambeau witticisms. He definitely looks the part – naïve wordsmith playing with his philosophies – but without the commentary, his purpose would be much harder to define. Things are even worse for Gere - until now. In theaters, he was the weakest link in this material, his Dylan as resident of the aforementioned surreal turn of the century backwater burg. The carnival Wild West inferences seem especially odd, particularly when the midsection of his career is so intriguing (we do see Bale, momentarily reprising his role, during Dylan’s conversion to Christianity). Luckily, Haynes is there to uncover the many mysteries. 

One needs to remember that I’m Not There is definitely not a realistic, fact-based overview of the seminal pop culture figure’s life. This is not Walk the Line, or even Ray. It’s more like Lisztomania, and other outrageous biographical freak shows created by that cinematic savant Ken Russell. In fact, with a few more bloody crucifixes and a rasher of naked girls, this could be a hidden gem from the now 80 year old English oddball. Haynes treats his creative canvas like a slightly less sloppy Pollack, infusing his images with a contrasting color/black and white visual friction that breeds both contemplation and contempt. Even more confusing, we get actual Dylan recordings juxtaposed against obvious imitators. It’s as if Haynes decided to throw out the motion picture playbook this time and simply go on instinct. Luckily, most of his impulses are dead on.

If you want a realistic recreation of Dylan’s cultural impact, of how he turned a love of Woody Guthrie and traditional music into a significant social stance, grab a copy of Martin Scorsese’s magnificent documentary No Direction Home and enjoy. If, on the other hand, you don’t mind a wonderful, if slightly uneven, look at how one man becomes many, figuratively redefining his art along the way, stick with I’m Not There. Thanks to its treatment on DVD, what was a daring, difficult masterwork becomes a certified masterpiece.
 
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