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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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Saturday, Sep 29, 2007


When the western finally wore out its welcome on both the big and small screens, it required that most reactionary of entertainment ideals – revisionism and/or deconstructionism - to mark it’s marginal return. Beginning with the sensational spaghetti phase, and working through phases both existential and esoteric, filmmakers found hidden facets of the genre, exploiting realism and debunking myth in an attempt to make the category compliant to a contemporary audience. While many still can’t cotton to its outlaw glorification and “violence answers everything” ideal, the creative forces in filmmaking still try to revive its fading fortunes. With a few startling examples – Unforgiven, for example – the horse opera is still considered an artifact of a less sophisticated entertainment era.


Perhaps that explains the lax, almost lost quality of Andrew Dominik’s fascinating if flawed The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Not really an oater in the traditional sense, yet restricted by the undying spirit of the wild, wild west, this is a biopic as a beautiful collection of landscapes, a project where vistas and visuals are far more impactful than characters or individual interaction. Instead of giving us reasons to care about the title icons, people who’ve remained intrinsic to the pulp culture collective since fading from physical view, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is hollowed out history. It’s a Ken Burns documentary without all the style and none of the substance. It’s one big long love letter to the notion of a nation without laws, and a stunning example of overreaching aesthetic dismantling a rather decent idea.


Our tale begins with Ford trying to join Jesse’s gang. Brother Frank (a blink and you’ll miss it turn by Sam Shepard) rejects the oddball kid outright, but the celebrated criminal finds his fawning…interesting. After a set piece train robbery, the boys disband, heading to safe houses in and around the Midwest. James meets back with his family, while the Fords - Robert and his older sibling Charley (an excellent Sam Rockwell) – head to their sister’s farm. There, they get involved in various personal problems, including unnecessary romantic relationships, conspiracies against Jesse, and back door deals with local law enforcement. Naturally, James finds out about these transgressions, and uses his own brand of six shooter justice to right the wrongs. As the Fords continue to befriend the seemingly psychotic criminal, it’s clear that James is planning something sinister for his compadres. It is up to Robert to act, even if it means destroying everything he’s ever cared about.


At the core of director Dominik’s take on this material (by way of Ron Hansen’s novel) is the idea that fame always has its flunkies, that even a notorious murderer and criminal like Jesse James would have at least one glorified groupie on the range who’d desperately want to emulate him. Our fanatic is the noted weakling Ford, a spineless sycophant with as many nervous tics as personal problems. He’s an obsessive, a stalker in an era where such menace was begged off as eccentricity, or ignorance. By the time this film finishes setting up the last act killing, it’s not a surprise. Instead, it becomes a natural extension of our current tabloid take on such matters. Ford may seem forced into acting – he’s supposedly saving himself and his brother from James’ unpredictable nature – but his is a response to rejection, not a matter of actual self defense. 


All of this could make a fine film, especially one that never looses its focus to feature unnecessary supporting characters and insignificant subplots. But The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is almost all ancillary players and narrative asides. Whenever we are introduced to a new member of the gang, or walk into the home of a distant relative, Dominik disembarks from the story at hand to bring us backstory, historical context, and expositional explanations. It’s like listening to a lecture by an old time recreationist, complete with a vernacular heavy narration that frequently undermines the mood. No matter how much we enjoy the company of Charley Ford, Wood Hite, Dick Liddil, or Ed Miller, we spend way too much time with them.


And then there is the acting. When it comes to supporting performances, everyone is aces. They bring a nice level of authenticity, never coming across as too contemporary or overly modern. But our stars are scattered to say the least. As James, Brad Pitt decides to invest his killer with a Zen sense of nature, as well as a weird sort of insomnia that only arrives when the story needs him awake. He’s like Jeffrey Goines from 12 Monkeys on personality altering chemicals and a couple of quarts of moonshine. It’s a take that kind of grows on you, as well as a Method maneuver that never really pays off. As Ford, however, Casey Affleck is quirkiness incarnate. When we first meet him, his line readings resemble the disconnected ramblings of a borderline imbecile. His toothy grin and stammering, starstruck qualities are downright creepy. But when viewed in contrast to what Pitt is producing, a sly symbiosis occurs. It’s as if, by allowing his actors to go in totally different directions with their interpretations, Dominik is trying for a single three dimensional whole. And he nearly achieves it.


What he does get right, however, are the gorgeous cinematic compositions that give The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford its optical splendor. While there are rumors swirling around the production of interference from studios and stars (Pitt is an executive here, as well as Ridley Scott), it’s clear than Dominik has an eye for pretty pictures. From the dynamic night robbery with its snow-covered, near monochrome menace to a stunning shot of Jesse riding down a hill toward a guilty co-conspirator’s shack, there are enough evocative sequences here to stir even the most hardened motion picture heart. Yet they continue in the service of a narrative that never comes alive, that fails to fulfill the story’s numerous possibilities, and trudges along tentatively, only to go on for another half hour after the finale.


Oddly enough, the epilogue material is indicative of what’s right – and very wrong – with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. When we learn of the conflicting feelings toward Ford, of how James’ unusual fame produced a clear cut dichotomy between people who loved his criminal bravado and those who suffered at his hands, it’s a fascinating bit of history. Likewise, the stage show where the killing was recreated nightly, plus the eventual backlash that caused Ford to go into hiding, are similarly evocative. Soon however, we realize where the flaw in the film exists. When dealing with James and Ford, their unintentional battle of wills intertwined with their individual shortcomings and psychosis, we get the outline for something truly remarkable. But when viewed in response to the rest of the movie proffered, the reaction is far more muted.


Fact is, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford should have been better. It should have followed the real focus on the story and done away with at least an hour of subplotting. Good work by genial actors just can’t make up for a lack of direction or an overreliance on atmosphere. Director Andrew Dominik gives great mood, and when paired with the right project, the results should be astounding. But this movie is a western for those not steeped in the genres generic trappings, who see majesty in the mundane and brilliance in the disconnected and dour. The only thing epic about this otherwise slight film is its ambition. You can tell that everyone involved thought they were creating a post-modern masterpiece. What we end up with, however, is a collection of pretty canvases without a single gallery conceit to hold them all together. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford could have been heroic. As it stands, it’s nothing but scattered.



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Friday, Sep 28, 2007

When preachers preach about the deadly sins (gluttony and whatnot), it’s difficult for them to do so without getting into at least some description. The impact of a sermon fulminating about the depraved sins of the flesh would lose some of its oomph if the preacher in question—eyes bulging and lips flecked with righteous spittle, of course—left out the juicy details. The flock must understand what exactly is so wrong about whoring and debauching, and where and how these luscious sins are being enacted, if they’re to properly avoid them.


We who consider ourselves part of (or at least neighbors to) the intelligentsia tend not to go in for such déclassé spectacles, but we have our own ways of finding out about what happens in the dark crevices of society. There’s well-meaning documentaries, of course, not to mention HBO Undercover, and, least we forget, National Public Radio. Peter Sagal, the host of NPR’s Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me! takes a page—well, whole chapters, really—from Dan Savage’s blueprint for Skipping Towards Gomorrah: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness in America for his guide to the nation’s seamy under(and over)belly: The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things (And How to Do Them).


Pretty much just like in Savage’s book, Sagal takes readers on a humorous tour through all manner of activities traditionally considered sinful, from lust (swinging) to gluttony (insanely high-end dining). Like Savage, Sagal is a quick wit, and he has no illusions about his own ability to fit into the various subcultures he comes across (at a swingers party: “In a lifetime in which I’ve been to all kinds of sexual marketplaces—bars, parties—this was the first time that I was going to get ignored because I wouldn’t put out”). But whereas Savage is an alt-media journalist and stiff-spined defender of personal freedoms and liberties who brings an acid touch to his writing, Sagal doesn’t really have that much of an agenda here, he’s just the public radio smartass who wants to have a good time and make a book out of it.


Sagal is certainly an intrepid enough guide to his (not so) lowly endeavors, whether it’s the soulless “fun” of strip clubs or that time he won $157 playing blackjack in one of Vegas’ lesser casinos. Being a radio host who needs to keep his own amidst all those college types listening to NPR, he’s quick with the quips, and even tosses off some borderline insightful cultural commentary along the way (as well as some helpful and well-learned advice: when going to strip clubs, “bring along some female Ph.D.‘s in sociology”). But the pleasures here are relatively thin and fleeting, made all the more so by a self-satisfied tone that veers too often into smugness. It’s one thing for Sagal to have the commendable honesty to point out that many of our society’s commonly accepted vices are, in fact, not that fun at all (like the $750 dinner at Chicago’s food-fantasy headquarters, Alinea), and quite another for him to have traveled to the dark side and come back with little to report.


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