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Sunday, Apr 15, 2007


Dear Weinstein Brothers. We know things aren’t going particularly well for you right now. After severing ties with the notoriously bothersome House of Mouse and striking out on your own, you’ve found nothing but roadblocks in your Neuvo Miramax highway to success. Your recent releases have all underperformed, and now, that 2007 tent pole, the fascinating Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez retrofest Grindhouse is being buried under a bounty of bad press. The entertainment community, desperate to see you fall on your flabby behinds, has come after you like sharks on a wounded whale, and the foreseen flopsweat is ripe with potential failure.  It’s gotten so bad that you’ve even been thinking of taking both movies, expanding their individual running times, and releasing them as separate cinematic experiences.


Guys….guys…guys…calm down. Grab a bottle of Artesian spring water, a couple of prescription sedatives, and rest for a while. The LAST thing you want to do here is split apart this already intriguing return to the drive-in dynamic of three decades ago. Film fans of a certain age and demographic get what you were going for and really appreciate the time, talents, and tenacity you showed in getting it released. This was never going to be an easy sell – for one thing, Tarantino and Rodriguez are Grade-A certified geek meat if ever audiences tasted same. Their projects are propelled from a dork driven place so deep down inside their idiosyncratic ideals that basement dwelling film nerds feel unworthy in their presence. If you thought you were about to make mega-bucks with these oddball directorial dweebs, you must have been smokin’ screener copies of Shakespeare in Love.


Grindhouse was destined to be a tough ticket for numerous, obvious reasons. You’re dealing with horror and other genre elements, facets that most film fans tend to kvetch over, and critics can’t understand or appreciate. Next, you’re dealing with a category of cinema that few comprehend, let alone welcome. Ask someone what they think of exploitation, and you’re likely to get the regurgitated opinion of some overly academic dickweed who doesn’t cotton to any aspect of the raincoat crowd. Add in the uneven tone, the tendency to associate the entire project with the outer fringes of major mainstream motion pictures, and the lack of genuine buzz (thank you so bloody much, 300!), and you’ve got a dead on delivery dud. Even if you gained a 100% “fresh” rating over at Rotten Tomatoes, audience ennui would be enough to give your business plan agita before the Friday estimates were released.


But this doesn’t mean you give up. You shouldn’t conform to a viewing going public too dumb to fathom what you’re doing. As a matter of fact, the failure of the film has nothing to do with what’s up on screen. Grindhouse remains a witty, inventive, highly satiric, and gross as all get out experience that’s practically overpowering in its artistic energy and invention. Tearing it apart and turning it into a crude competition of sorts (and between Rodriguez and Tarantino, one can almost envision where your cash is landing) will destroy everything your filmmakers fashioned. And let’s not forget the fake trailers. Those who participated in making those marvelous mock ads deserve some respect as well. Yet the question becomes, how do you solve this seemingly impossible problem. How do you make audiences interested (or in some cases, re-interested) in a title already tainted by a group of jaded journalists? The answer, oddly enough, is right in front of you.


Like the fabled producers of old, the men who made exploitation the historical hinge for all post-modern cinema, you can’t take failure as the final response. David F. Friedman, Dan Sonny, Harry Novak and Bob Cresse didn’t make mountains of money – and a ballbusting reputation - by moping around the minute the public rejected their efforts. No, they reinvented these projects, using the standard carnival barker approach of bait and switch to change the perception of their problematic productions. Sure, this SOUNDS like what you want to do, but there is a big difference between cutting your losses and trimming the fat. These men made their all important names out of never failing the public, by understanding what the people prefer, and more importantly, what they’d be willing to pay for. If a standard sexless thriller didn’t work, they’d tack on a scandalous ‘square-up’ reel to increase the erotica. If the horror wasn’t high enough, more blood drenched gore was quickly inserted. Entire films were re-edited, sequences reshoot, and plotlines changed to find the right combination of salable shuck and jerryrigged jive.


So, following this pattern, here’s what you should do. First, pull this daring double feature from the theaters before more self-styled pundits can piss all over it. Take stock in what you have already available in cutting room trimmings and existing tweak time, and get your auteurs involved. Make them part of, not the reason for, this process. Don’t dawdle over money or creative control – the ship is sinking and the rats have already ponied up and abandoned you. Look to the future – say the end of August/beginning of September – and get your accessible forces poised for war. It’s going to be a long and involved process, but in the end, you could be looking at 300 style returns at the end of the day.


In the case of Planet Terror, reinsert the “missing reel” sex scene between Rose McGowen and Freddy Rodriguez, turn the Bone Shack into a combination barbeque pit and badass biker bar, let the chopper riding rejects rumble with some good old fashioned fisticuffs, give us more of the stoic stripper storyline (including lots of shots of nubile naked torsos) and then tell Robert Rodriguez to remove a little of the freak show spectacle. Granted, no one enjoys mindless bloodletting as much as this considered critic, but fountains of grue spouting over and over again can get a tad, well, old. Instead, how about more of those amazing moments when deconstructed corpses are examined in nasty, nauseating detail. In a world awash in CGI chum, physical effects can really help you stand out. Besides, nothing will sell the fright flick facets of this production better than more shots of Fergie’s hollowed out head.


As for your main man QT, tell that diva director to turn down the chatter. The dialogue in Death Proof is amazing, the kind of potent palaver that Tarantino carries Oscar gold for. But in a film that’s a self-described “slasher flick”, what we need is more slice and less nice. Listening to girls gossip and give their unique opinions of sex and self within the context of a killer action thriller is like featuring random shots of kittens during a snuff film. Trim a few minutes of their minutia driven confabs, give Kurt Russell more lines (he is an endlessly fascinating character who we need to know more about) and provide another stellar suspense sequence like the one where the car’s characterization is proven on Rose McGowen’s unsuspecting person. Make it lean and mean and you’d have one amazing movie on your hands.


Finally, find a few more famous filmmakers willing to give you some new and novel trailers – perhaps approach members of the referenced and revered like John Carpenter or Herschell Gordon Lewis. And then tell the MPAA to go to Hell. That’s right, thwart convention. Take a stand for all lovers of cinematic extremes. Position yourselves as the artist’s advocate, and let the marketing challenge chips fall where they may. It’s going to take you a good few months to get the interest level back up again, and to purge the perception of failure from almost all elements of this movie. Again, breaking them in two won’t do that. You’ll just double the disgust, making movie fans, in their mind, choose the lesser of two unexceptional evils. To revamp awareness and create curiosity, you have to reposition everything about your concept. 


And the only way you can do that is via education. Time to teach the public what they obviously do not know – that is, that exploitation rewrote the motion picture roadmap. It created a freshness and openness that most filmmakers never even considered. Better yet, when foreign films couldn’t find a footing on American shores, the Grindhouse gang rescued these movies, exaggerated their simplistic sexual freedoms, and turned the arthouse into the cathouse. Recognize that you’re going to have to do a lot of explaining and hire someone happy to oblige – say Something Weird Video’s Mike Vraney, or Psychotronic’s Michael Weldon - and walk the viewers through a short lesson in the genre’s mesmerizing history. Get the remaining members of the 40 Thieves together for a series of interviews, or better yet, have IFC, Sundance, Encore, or any other cable channel that’s willing to work with you do a series of Grindhouse specials. Showing a certain style of movie once a week won’t cut it. You need constant coverage of the category with input from the people who provided the foundation for your post-millennial homage.


Then, create a documentary mini-series. Get QT and Rodriguez to go coast-to-coast, roadshowing their new versions in a day long grindhouse extravaganza. Let them position their films midway through, and then surround them both with a dawn to dusk collection of classics, cult faves and unknown gems. Toss in a few real trailers, a bunch of those clever, kitshy ads from the era, and make it a magnificently misguided marathon. Turn it into the Lollapalooza of b-movies madness, a real event that will proceed the regular theatrical showing. Of course, this is just the suggestion of someone who loves the original double feature and would hate to see it die from what appears to be a predetermined desire to see you fail. You’ve worked your magic on other minor efforts before. Here’s your chance to show the entire world that you can, and do, mean business. You can’t let audience apathy wear you down. Grindhouse is a good movie. Now it’s time to convince everyone else of that fact.


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Saturday, Apr 14, 2007


The world has ended. All that is left behind are individual beauty cults, groups of girls seeking safety and identity in numbers. Basing their bond on hair color and giving themselves strangely evocative gang names, the blond Phayrays (King Kong), the brunette Satanas (Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!), and the wicked, redheaded Tempests (as in Storm, the stripper) are constantly battling the brutish cavemen roaming the afterworld ruins and looking for potential dye job converts. Only one group tries to incorporate all follicle factions. They are the Superstarlets. The dark haired leader Naomi, along with her goldilocks lover Rachel are on a quest: they want to find a link to the past, Naomi’s grandmother’s long lost stag reel which she hopes will provide some insight into who and why she is.


But if it’s up to the fiery leader of the henna honeys, Jezebel, everyone will be dead or have red on their head. When a mysterious vixen named Valentine shows up, she throws a wrench into everyone’s agenda. In this aftermath of austerity, there are no clothes. A reliance on the homosexual fashion industry (which is now extinct) and an inability to sew means that everyone in the brave new world surrounding Femphis is forced to walk around in skimpy lingerie. But Valentine knows where there are dresses to be found. And she is willing to play all sides against each other to see the various factions destroy themselves. It’s bitches against broads, battling with gossip and guns, as we await the fate of those involved in the decidedly dark, self-indulgent society of Superstarlet A.D.


Superstarlet A.D. is a jaw-droppingly bizarre, outrageous exercise in kitsch and camp. It proclaims itself a morbid, deviant comedy but actually plays more like a smart collection of vintage porn magazines come to life. Telling a detailed and intricate sci-fi Judgment Day story of femme fatale fashion victims roaming a desolate landscape in like hair-colored harems, this is gang warfare, Vogue style: a never ending power struggle between Mary Kaye and Maybelline for supremacy over the lipstick lesbian population of power babes. Sexy, sultry, and drenched in a heaving knowledge of smoker/exploitation films of the 1930s thru ‘60s, this ambitious, baffling stag loop for the new millennium creates a private, provocative universe of glam gals with firepower battling each other and bemused de-evolved Neanderthal men in the name of domination and dominatrix.


The dialogue is arch and obtuse. Characters occasionally provide voice-over monologues that sound like Marshall McLuhan meets Penthouse Forum. The production design is wasteland chic. And the women are bountiful, beefy maidens of hot sexy death. But this is not really a trashy take-off on post-apocalyptic action films. Superstarlet A.D. is actually more of a meditation on pop, sexual ambiguity and the role that pornography and fashion photography have played in blurring the lines between genders and lowering feminine self-esteem. On one hand, this is a twisted tawdry treat filled with bodacious broads and blazing artillery. On the other, it’s an insane statement on empowerment gone awry.


Director John Michael McCarthy cannot receive enough praise for the impressive look and visionary style he gives to this film. What he accomplishes with lighting, makeup, location, and a single 16mm camera is a lesson for all would-be auteurs to learn by. Every image is like a long lost still from a smut producer’s press kit, and McCarthy creates comic book compositions (his origins are in comics) that are a feast for the eye and food for thought. He constantly references pop culture, social stigmas, and mainstream mantras to make his cracked commentary as recognizable as it is profound. While it’s true he is treading ground already worked well by similar minded madmen like John Waters (Eat Your Makeup, Female Trouble), Russ Meyer (Faster Pussycat), and Kenneth Anger (Scorpio Rising), McCarthy has a freshness born of nostalgia, of being a generation removed from the areas he’s exploring which allows him to add a more modern sensibility to his homage.


Not everything works here. The Sappho scenes have a strange staginess to them, the actresses so outrageous that it feels like we’re watching The B-52’s have sex. Also, star Kerine Elkins has a singing style only a crack whore could love (it does work within the confines of the film, but it is a chore to endure). And the movie has one too many endings. Once Naomi’s vintage film is located and its contents revealed, there is a sequence of events that leads to a natural conclusion. But McCarthy just doesn’t leave well enough alone. He lets the movie take yet another mind blowing meandering step into another realm before finally putting on the brakes, and this destroys the near perfect symmetry he had previously created. A little tighter editing and this would have been a startling cinematic revelation. As it stands, it’s a stunning work of art that needs to be seen to be believed


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Saturday, Apr 14, 2007

Ezra Klein linked to the chart below, a graphic representation of the money flow through the American health-care system. As his commenters point out, this is a streamlined portrait, and the reality is actually much more complicated.


This makes it clear how many entrenched parties would need to be “disintermediated” before any progress could be made toward a simplified system, which would not only save American tax dollars but would remove the disincentive from seeking medical care that’s created by the complexity and confusion. Of course, the confusion may be a feature rather than a bug, meant to accomplish precisely that (just as voting registration is sometimes made more complex to keep the wrong sort of people from voting). It heaps shame on those who need medical attention but can’t afford it, as if being sick in the first place wasn’t already troubling enough. Instead we built into the health-care system assumptions that (a) health insurance is necessary to use as bait to keep people productive and working institutionalized sorts of jobs (ie insurance is a management tool, not a social service) and (b) people must be assumed to be abusing the health-care system (for who knows what perverse reason) and should be treated with suspicion.


Perhaps the burdensome health-care system is just a reflection at the institutional level of the fundamental conflict that haunts health-care provision—a patient comes in with a selfish investment in the unique severity and significance of his symptoms, and the system must gently remind him that there are scads of people who are just as sick, and there is nothing special about his mortality. Does the American system mystify that conflict and lessen its sting? Would a more transparent payment system, organized more clearly for society’s benefit, remind us all too much just how minute we and our medical problems are when compared with society as a whole?


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Friday, Apr 13, 2007


Coca-Colonization


With One, Two, Three, Billy Wilder confirmed what everyone already suspected about business interests abroad: that it’s espionage with fringe benefits. One, Two, Three is a movie that satirizes the great American executive lifestyle - the suited stiff glued to the phone, golf on Saturdays, the 2.5 kids, the luscious secretary.  And it does so in the unlikeliest of places – West Berlin circa 1961. To ease America’s anxieties about the spread of Communism, Hollywood producers realized they needed less stodgy suspense thrillers (The Ipcress Files), and more screwball comedies with hapless Bolshies and thwarted plots (think Boris, Natasha and Fearless Leader). More reassuring was the idea of a US multinational stationed in a dangerous foreign outpost, generously doling out enticing consumer products to the starving masses. Pop culture is the most effective, insidious colonizer. Every hot-blooded anarchist eventually succumbs to its seduction in the form of Marvel comics and Wrigley’s Bubblegum. It was how America won The Cold War.


Wilder must have been thinking along these lines when he and his long-time collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond, penned One, Two, Three in the early ‘60s. Wilder, an Austrian émigré to Hollywood since the late ‘30s, was all too familiar with the hot-air pomposity of totalitarian politics. He wanted to mock Soviet pretentiousness just as his mentor, Ernst Lubitsch, had done deftly in Ninotchka. But rather than mimic Lubitsch’s effervescent style of romantic comedy, Wilder stamped his own brand of cynicism onto this tale of bungled corporate intrigue.


He couldn’t have found a better star than Jimmy Cagney, who imparted all the wiry, bantam energy he brought to his famous criminal roles into this lead.  Wilder, a playful provocateur, in casting Cagney as an executive, was making a bold statement about American business—scratch a businessman, find a gangster, vice versa.  Cagney, who hadn’t made a movie since the late 40s, was called back to cinema to essay C.R. MacNamara (a wry nod to then Machiavellian Secretary of Defense, Robert MacNamara), a fast-talking, scheming executive for the Coca-Cola Corporation stationed in West Berlin. There, he tries to advance Coke to the neighboring Russians in East Berlin in an effort to be promoted to head of European operations, located in the glamorous London office. To MacNamara’s dismay, all headquarters back in Atlanta requires of him is to chaperone the CEO’s daughter, a perky sorority socialite, Scarlett Hazeltine, around Germany on her Grand Tour of Europe. Scarlett, played to broad comic exaggeration by the lovely Pamela Tiffin, comes across as Brittney Spears in pearls and gloves: a boozy, lascivious mess of a woman who can’t control herself around men.


To MacNamara’s worst fears, a few weeks into her stay she elopes with a hot-tempered Communist revolutionary from East Berlin, Otto Piffil. Doing what any decent surrogate father would, he concocts a plan to get Otto arrested by the East German police and away from Scarlett. Once Otto’s motorcycle whirrs through the Brandenburg Gate with large balloons emblazoned “Go Home Russkies,” the poor boy doesn’t have a chance. But before Otto can waste away in prison, Scarlett reveals she’s pregnant, and MacNamara has to not only conceive of a way of bribing the officials to release Otto, but to transform Otto from a unwashed, angry beatnik to a Brooks Brothers-suited Count (there’s nothing an American robber-baron loves more than European minor royalty) charming enough to please Scarlett’s parents.


In a veritable symphony of high-speed commands, MacNamara micro-manages every aspect of Otto’s transformation. He bribes a monocle-wearing, impoverished Count, who works as a valet in the men’s restroom of The Hotel Kempinski, to adopt Otto. He meticulously picks out tube socks and demanding ties straight off of his employees’ necks. MacNamara throws himself at the task with the kind of gusto he should be using every day at work but never gets the chance to because his corporation is such a well-oiled machine it doesn’t really need him in the first place. But he delivers in the end. MacNamara is so successful that Scarlett’s father decides that Otto is the man to head Coca-Cola’s European operations. MacNamara must settle for a vice-presidency in the Atlanta office, a city that he acidly refers to as “Siberia with mint juleps.”


One, Two, Three has never been considered one of Wilder’s best movies and it’s obvious why. It lacks the innovative twisting of genre he showed in Double Indemnity, the romantic gloss of Sabrina, or the sinister, elegiac quality of Sunset Boulevard. As far as Wilder goes, One, Two, Three, is average, with some recycled elements of his peerless screwball masterpiece, Some Like it Hot—a cross-dressing scrawny man and the men who lust after him, a jiggly buxom blond, the riotous confusion that ensues from mistaken identity. But as a political comedy, it is inventive and daring.


It pushes all the sensitive buttons of America’s complacency in foreign affairs, particularly as The Cuban Missile Crisis made everyone uneasy. The New Yorker nervously suggested Wilder had pitched his “circus tent on grounds that threaten to become a cemetery,” and other reviews were notably hostile. Abby Mann, who wrote the screenplay for Judgment at Nuremberg (the year’s other movie about postwar Germany), thought Wilder’s movie so tasteless that he apologized for it at the Moscow Film Festival. The public’s anxiety to Wilder’s farce was not unlike the jumpy nervousness that followed our own brazen political satires, like Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s underrated and quickly hidden, That’s My Bush!  But true to form and genius, Wilder couldn’t have cared less. Comedy comes with no apologies.


One, Two, Three  looks ahead to the two great black comedies of the 60s, the playfully dark and brutal Dr. Strangelove and The Producers maniacal and relentless Nazi baiting. It’s a clever movie that shows that people are seldom loyal, least of all to ideology. And the film works well for all its incessant one-line gags pulled straight from the headlines (when MacNamara cautiously warns his tailor not to tell Otto that the cufflinks he’s wearing are French “with the whole Algeria situation being what it is”). One enjoyably ridiculous moment occurs when the East German police torture Otto into confessing he’s an American spy by playing a high-pitched, squeaky version of “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” over and over again till the young man screams to submission. One, Two, Three is full of shrewd jokes about America’s gift for exploiting its cultural power and of the eagerness of countries willing to be exploited and the futility of those who try to resist.


C.R. MacNamara’s vision of the world isn’t altogether far from the truth. No other American product has had the imperial power enjoyed by Coca-Cola. It’s everywhere. I went backpacking through Malaysia last summer and was reluctantly convinced to go boating through the dense, lush jungles of Sarawalk. It was a haunting, ethereal experience right out of Apocalypse Now.  When my friend, a hardy Peace Corps alum (the sojurn was his idea), needed to go to the bathroom, we stopped at this makeshift rest area, a wooden shack that served as a provisions shop. The shop sold only three items: broken flashlights, cigarettes, and numerous cases of lukewarm Coke. The same situation exists in India, where people who are afraid to drink the local water constantly swill bottles of Coke. Three-fourths of the world’s population suffers from tooth decay and doesn’t seem to care. Coke is the poor man’s nectar, the self-anointed elixir of democracy, and it’s taken over our planet with its rapacious corporate tentacles. Its power is an undeniable fact, and since we can’t control it, we can at least laugh about it.


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Friday, Apr 13, 2007

There’s an old song that describes the budding relationship between the beleaguered Los Angeles Times reporting staff and the paper’s new owner: Getting to know you, getting to know all about you

Check out the Times’ interview with its new owner, mogul and motorcycle enthusiast Sam Zell, who claimed to see the purchase as a business deal and hinted he would not dismantle the paper. This information was probably intended as good news, but it would have been more reassuring if Zell had expressed enthusiasm for the importance of newspapers to democracy. Sure, newspapers can be profitable; but they are way too much trouble to own for money alone, if only because they are run by pesky, nosy and trouble-making reporters. This is a lesson Zell may have learned already when Times columnist Steve Lopez wrote about going to Zell’s Malibu digs last week to grill him on a local civic issue: illegal gates erected by Malibu residents that make it hard to get to the public beach.


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