In case you missed it, here’s a chance to catch up with PopMatters 2008 Fall Preview
In case you missed it, here’s a chance to catch up with PopMatters 2008 Fall Preview
You can’t capture lightning in a bottle, according to the old cliché. Such electrical discharges also never strike in the same place twice, if you believe the rap. Applicable to hundreds of situations, we film critics tend to pull these maxims out whenever a sullied sequel rears its dreadful, usually unnecessary head. Almost always a clear case of cash from commercial chaos, revisiting a previous success ups the amperage for such a potential kinetic crash. Thus, the proverbial responses. Retardead, the new film from Monsturd makers Rick Popko and Dan West, wants to revisit the scatological success of that previous crap creature funny business. Unfortunately, the wit and weirdness of the first film just doesn’t translate over to a flailing zombie stomp.
Although everyone in the tiny county of Butte thinks that their fecal nightmare is over, the truth is far more disturbing. Seems the creator of the scat monster, Dr. Stern, has found a way to escape his fate, and is now teaching at the local institute for students with special needs. His goal is simple - use a hyper-intelligence serum to turn a group of mentally handicapped kids into abject geniuses. There’s just one side effect, however. After a while, these buffoons to braniacs start snacking on human flesh. It’s not long before Sheriff Duncan, Deputies Dan and Rick, and FBI Agent Susan Hannigan are ass deep in zombies - and desperate to find a way to stop the cannibal corpse holocaust. Oddly enough, Stern might have an answer for that as well.
There are times when a movie hits you in a certain way. Perhaps it’s the material, or the sort of day you had previously, but when a film that shouldn’t actually clicks, you wonder if it can happen again, and if not, what caused the connection in the first place. Monstrud, the first horror comedy from duo Rick Popko and Dan West, is this kind of non-quantifiable quackery. While cornering the market on mieda humor, it also worked as an effective bit of b-movie schlock. Of course, one is convinced that revisiting the title now would probably result in the aforementioned ambivalence. After all, the story of a killer stool sample would seem to have a limited shelf life. Still, Popko and West hope that Retardead offers up some similarly stupid fun. And for the most part, it does.
Of course, that also means there are some gaping flaws in the filmmaking reasoning. As Shaun of the Dead taught us, the living dead can be hilarious - that is, as long as you concentrate on the characters and circumstances surrounding the satiric scares. Here, Popko and West rely on our previous knowledge of the Butte County citizenry instead of reintroducing their individual quirks. Similarly, gore is rarely handled with humor. Sure, we can laugh at a particularly outrageous bit of arterial spray, but for the most part, blood letting is the perturbing pause before any other slice of slapstick. But Retardead thinks fiends feasting on spinal chords and bodies blowing apart is the height of hilarity. Sadly, sidesplitting is NOT sidesplitting.
Even worse, this is a movie that wusses out on the most important facet of their (potentially) tasteless humor - the retards. After all, if you’re going to call a movie by such a politically incorrect term, you should treat the material in an equally offensive manner. At first, it looks like Popko and West will come through. We get a rogues gallery of identifiable idjits, from the inappropriate pee girl to the oversized homunculus with a safety helmet and hygiene issues. As we are introduced to Dr. Stern’s class, each cretin getting their individual moment to shine, we keep waiting for the filmmakers to break free. Instead, they immediately jump into “Flowers for Algernon” mode, turning their punchlines into frequently unfunny props.
Still, there are some reasons to rejoice. As the most dip-sticked deputies in the history of law enforcement, Popko and West are a cunning comedy team. There is a sequence when they are sharing some porn and a beer that’s a classic of understated spoofing. Also, the technical ambitions and actual achievements are well worth celebrating. The movie looks larger, the scope matched well by the improvement in cinematic technique. Sure, there is still too much padding here (a zombie comedy shouldn’t last longer than 85 minutes - Retardead is 100), and Dan Burr’s Dr. Stern is a fairly ineffectual villain. Instead of being over the top and evil, the actor turns on the seriousness and subtlety. A movie about retarded kids turning into bloodthirsty killers doesn’t need such nuance.
In fact, it’s fair to say that most of Retardead suffers from the seminal sophomore slump. It’s too ambitious, too overloaded with feigned confidence to completely succeed. Granted, in a realm where most homemade horror movies are a single step away from being digital chum, Popko and West deliver a fun and somewhat solid experience. But they also suffer from the same lo-fi failings that most no budget efforts experience. Instead of simply doing what they do best (and did well before), they purposely try to up the ante. And just like the concept of capturing lightning in a bottle, they barely manage to make it. This is a film that should be better than it ends up being - and perhaps it’s not Popko and West’s fault. Their Monsturd was a noxious little novelty. As the old saying goes, it’s almost impossible to repeat such accidental anarchy.
If art were easy, everyone would do it. And if it were a purely private endeavor, few might pursue such a lack of fame. Still, some prefer to work their particular brand of magic outside the glare of the ever-present camera, their concern being that pure truth and absolute beauty only comes from a secure sense of privacy. When former Velvet Underground guide John Cale set out to make his album 1989 Words for the Dying (a tribute to poet Dylan Thomas) with superstar musician/producer Brian Eno, he asked filmmaker Rob Nilsson to tag along. He thought that the recording process would make a decent documentary - or at the very least, a clever commercial tie-in. Upon arriving in Moscow, the crew discovered something quite disturbing. Eno wanted no part of the project - and his objections were strident.
Thus begins the cinematic presentation named for the LP, an incredibly intimate and often unwieldy look at the creative process. Never simple, always impassioned, and technically rife with all manner of mood swings and personal/professional pitfalls, why anyone would want to invite unattached eyes into the process seems arrogant at best. Lucky for us film fans, such ego overdrive has resulted in some classic motion pictures - Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, DiG, and now Words for the Dying. While Cale can occasionally be a figure of feigned experimentalism, gravitating toward the avant-garde and the unusual because it seems to satisfy his lingering sense of importance (and this is meant in a good way), his work on “The Falklands Suite” and other Words tracks making up this album argues for a musician of much broader scope.
Eno, on the other hand, comes off as the kind of snickering dick you’d immediately want to shy away from. Nilsson listens to his surreal psychobabble explanation of why he doesn’t want to be filmed (and this after Cale warned him and he relented), and even stands on his head to get the producer to acquiesce. Instead, Eno sets up three rules of filming which could easily encapsulate the entire recording process. It seems strange to watch the same man who hogs the screen during several U2 clips (the rehearsal video for the hit “(Pride) In the Name of Love” comes to mind) act like a pissy prima donna. The few glimpses we catch suggest a meticulous taskmaster, a Kubrick like magician who won’t let his artist rest until he gets the exact performance he hears in his head. While such a stance might be embarrassing, it’s also quite engaging. We want to know the mechanics of making music. Eno’s demands strangulate the insight.
Instead, Nilsson is left looking for other areas of focus, and Words for the Dying (new to DVD from upstart distributor Provocateur) is better for it. The first section of the film takes place in Moscow, in the still Soviet Union. Perestroika has given Cale the chance to work with a major orchestra, and the conductor praises the rock God turned composer to the point of embarrassment. It’s quite the contrast from Eno’s frequent faultfinding. Similarly, when a legendary soloist comes in to record, his moment of singular glory is immediately undercut by our beloved producer nitpicking over improvisational choices. It’s an odd experience, like watching someone complain to Picasso over his lack of symmetry. Much of Words for the Dying takes this tricky approach.
Much of the mixed messaging falls on our man from Wales. He is supposed to be celebrating a comeback of sorts (this was his first album in almost four years), and yet he allows Nilsson to do things that deaden the merrymaking. When he has to “trick” his mother into signing the family house away, the director follows Cale to the nursing home, and through the uncomfortable moments between the two. Similarly, a group of snooty pseudo-intellectual fans rag on their imperfect hero in a backstage parlance of self-righteous smugness. After finally covering the creation of Words, Nilsson then offers Cale a chance to see this prosh predetermination. His response? A second or two of feigned acceptance, and then a literal run off into the English countryside.
It would be nice to understand why the filmmaker took such a confrontational conceit. Unlike previously mentioned movies, Words does not do the inward soul searching that Metallica or The Brian Jonestown Massacre/Dandy Warhols offer. On the DVD’s only major bonus feature, an interview with Nilsson, offers limited explanations. Much of the blame is foisted on Eno, the director stating rather emphatically that if said producer had only allowed for greater access, we wouldn’t have the overall piecemeal paradigm, shooters struggling to find material to fill the frame. But this doesn’t address the implied disdain for Cale. Why hurt a man already suffering? Even better, what does seeing the trailed twinkle in the musician’s mother’s eyes add to the creation of an album?
Indeed, the biggest flaw in all of Words for the Dying is the lack of clarification and context. We never get to hear the final tracks, much of the music presented in snippets or snatches. Cale’s previous career is given an equally cursory montage, allowing the elitist dreck spewed by those so-called devotees to remain our lasting impression of his post-Velvets years. Unlike other making-of movies, Nilsson’s cinema verite variations never offer the true backstage experience. Of course, some of this could be Eno’s fault, but one senses a loss of interest in the subject at hand. As state before, Words is at its best when it’s talking to Russian rock bands, listening to a female violinist discuss the chauvinistic Soviet view about women in the workplace, or capturing Cale with his precious daughter Eden.
Again, if any of this were easy, films like Words for the Dying wouldn’t be necessary. For all its turmoil and travails, for allowing Eno’s attitude to drag everything down to his illogical level, Nilsson deserves censure. Luckily, the small amount of music we hear in combination with the inherently interesting man that Cale appears to be mends most of the fences. It’s hard to argue against Words wounded effectiveness. It may come off as coarse and unsympathetic, especially when one realizes that actual professions and reputations are at stake, but the ancillary aspects surrounding the sturm and drang continuously draw us in. Clearly, Cale deserves better. His entire career can’t be marked by what happens here. For Eno and Nilsson however, the results do feel like jeering just desserts - at least for now.
Sometimes, an excess of talent can lead to very little in evidence. Put another way, you can overload a film with artistic aspirations, failing to see that several pluses can still create a great big minus. Ten years ago, any film starring Robert DeNiro and/or Al Pacino would have been cause to celebrate - or at least to pay attention. And after Spike Lee’s sensational take on his Inside Man, screenwriter Russell Gerwitz also represents a fairly hefty amount of commercial viability. Toss in a decent supporting cast that includes John Leguizamo, Donny Wahlberg, Carla Gugino, and Brian Dennehey and stick them all under Jon Avnet’s capable if sometimes clunky direction and the results should speak for themselves, right? Well, in the case of the new cop thriller, Righteous Kill, the resulting oration is not exciting. In fact, it’s ordinary at best.
Turk (DeNiro) and Rooster (Pacino) are two longtime partners in the NYPD. Both have seen their fair share of injustice, and when a child killer is set free, the duo decides to frame him. Shortly thereafter, more scumbags start turning up dead, their bodies riddled with bullets, a nursery rhyme like poem left at each scene. With the help of officers Perez and Riley, and forensics specialist Corelli, the pair hone in on the potential murderer. One lead takes them to a nightclub run by suspected drug dealer Spider. Another takes them directly to the door of one of their own - namely Turk. Seems everyone on the case considers this seasoned veteran the prime suspect. After all, he had access, motive, and a means of covering it up. Of course if it does turn out to be a cop, it could be anyone on the squad…even someone himself desperate to solve the crimes.
Righteous Kill is so average that the standard bell curve can’t calculate just how general it is. Locked into the standard crime and punishment paradigm, with a genre mandated twist at the end, this is not so much a missed opportunity as a subpar story making the most of its limited appeal. The pairing of our former powerbrokers, each one covered in the less than appetizing patina of tainted Oscar, has none of the indomitable force we were promised. Instead, as in Michael Mann’s Heat, DeNiro and Pacino play off each other marvelously - and then that’s about it. The script provides inadequate opportunity for the (former?) A-listers to move beyond their basic personalities. Of the two, Pacino comes out the clear winner. His Rooster character is a collection of snarky comments and lightning one-liners. Most of the time, Big Bob is like Travis Bickle with a goiter, indigestion, and a tight fitting truss.
The rest of the cast is really no help. Leguizamo and Wahlberg pull shtick that seems left over from their often spotty resume, and Gugino is given the thankless role of a polished professional who trades it all in once the badge comes off for some dangerous and kinky sleazeball sex. With 50 Cent along for added street cred (which the movie fails to capitalize on, by the way) and various faceless performers playing random felonious archetypes, DeNiro and Pacino are left doing most of the movie’s manual labor. There are scenes where you can literally see the former giants pushing the plot forward. Avnet, for all his hit or miss mannerisms behind the camera, really can’t be faulted here. He’s firm, if a tad too flashy. No, all the flaws extend directly from Gerwitz’s work. The story is less than solid, and some of the sequences definitely needed another trip through the word processor - or a toss in the trash.
Maybe the real reason Righteous Kill is not more engaging is that, as an entertainment, the police procedural has gone the way of the romantic comedy and the erotic thriller. Call it the CSI influence, or better yet, the overexposure of the category via the direct to DVD market, but every time your turn around, another 88 Minutes or Untraceable is stinking up the Cineplex. DeNiro and Pacino would have to be packing major motion picture moxie to reinvigorate the format, and they don’t appear too excited to be taking on the challenge. While not quite the perfunctory payday of some of their recent efforts, Kill does contain enough problems to prevent its straightforward embrace.
And yet, thanks to the inherent nature of the storyline, the desire to get to the end and see how everything wraps up, we more or less stick with this unspectacular stuff. Oddly enough there are some big laughs here, moments where Rooster ridicules his fellow boys in blue with a kind of loveable crassness. We also find some solace in that the victims are all vile, indefensible scum of the earth. But then Gerwitz gives us the aggravating narrative device of having DeNiro appear on screen, right up front, and ‘confess’ to the crimes. It deadens the impact of the true finale. The film would work much better if the story was left open, the eventual lead to a cop coming from hard work and deduction, not a cinematic gimmick. But then we wouldn’t get those meaningless monologues, Turk looking into a surveillance lens and spilling his (or someone’s) guts about the joys of killing.
Because they do work well together, because we get the innate appeal of having the two major league Method actors tumbling within a formula they are familiar with, Righteous Kill gets off easy. Taking away our touted leads and substituting any number of nominal celebrity skins would result in something almost wholly unwatchable. But with DeNiro and Pacino at the helm, and Avnet doing little to get in their way, we end up with a decent, derivative journey through material that should have crackled with sizzling urban suspense. Such lax results couldn’t have been part of the plan. But then again, putting these firebrands together was never a guarantee of success in the first place. Nothing they’ve done since turning in their talent for some trinkets indicates otherwise.
There is a fine line between illustration and exploitation. Put another way, there’s a clear delineation between drama and dreck. Dress it up any way you want, but penetration turns the standard soft stuff into hardcore pornography thanks to the flagrant full view factor. Once it’s shown onscreen, the bloom is off that particular motion picture rose, to turn a phrase. So how does one defend the sexualization of children, especially when the elements of such an approach are plastered on a canvas 35mm wide? That’s the question one must confront when examining Alan Ball’s fetid follow-up to American Beauty. And in either form - Towelhead or Nothing is Private - the answers are disturbing and unwelcome.
In all honesty, there is nothing new about this Arab-angled coming of age saga. When she is caught having her pubic hair shaved by her mother’s boyfriend, 13 year old Jasira is sent to live with her strict Lebanese father in Texas. Preferring the suburbs because they are safer, Rifat works for NASA, and while putting on airs of sophistication and patriotism, he burns with a chauvinistic and racist fire. While under his emotional and physically abusive care, Jasira learns about her period, about tampons, about dirty magazines, about masturbation, and about the predatory habits of two new male influences in her life. One is fellow middle schooler Thomas. The other is the family’s next door neighbor - a bigoted reservist with an unhealthy eye on Jasira’s budding sexuality.
Ball clearly wants to redefine the maturation experience for kids circa the new millennium. He wants to break down barriers, tackle taboos, and in general toss out into the open the private topics and traumas that every young girl faces. It’s the kind of thematic universality that drives both the movie and the semi-autobiographical novel (by Alicia Erian) upon which it is based. There is no real discussion of religion (“we’re Christians, just like everyone in Texas” Jasira chides to a clueless kid) and for a film founded in the first Gulf War, there is precious little politics. No, Towelhead revolves exclusively around sex - menstruation, orgasms, molestation, virginity, blood, condoms, lies, seduction, underage nudity, and the adult manipulations and misunderstandings that occur because of same.
When Larry Clark does it, critics complain. Movies like Kids and Ken Park have been labeled pornographic and offensive, treating the teenage years of its characters like a visit to Caligula’s falling Rome. Towelhead is not that bad. In fact, it’s worse. Clark doesn’t dress up his portrayals in symbolist bullshit, nor does he try to apologize for his film’s hedonistic tone. In his mind, he is telling the world about the reality of youth culture - it’s emphasis on drugs, debauchery, and the decision to overindulge in both. Ball doesn’t dare bring this angle to Towelhead, perhaps because the book doesn’t lend itself to said approach. But when dealing with the horrific consequences of abuse - sexual or physical - it seems disingenuous to spin it within a slick suburban pseudo-satire.
Towelhead never tells us what to think. As we stare at a young girl sitting on the toilet, her period soaked panties filling the screen for all to see, we wonder what the point is. Can Ball really believe that such shock value adds to the effectiveness of his film? Is it merely menses for menses sake, a Clark like truth taken to Tinsel Town fantasy extremes? Something similar happens when the filmmaker focuses on Jasira’s discovery of masturbation. We see her scissor legs strategy in class, while babysitting, in the school cafeteria. It’s not really a question of inappropriateness. It’s an issue of purpose.
As stated before, this is the kind of film that embraces its own sense of fearlessness, that focuses almost exclusively on how much it can get away with in the name of 2007 social malaise. When Jasira’s father smacks her square in the face, when he bruises her leg and spits on her, we never get the required retort. He’s just a mixed up MAN from the Middle East, that’s all. Similarly, our military pedophile, drooling over Jasira the minute he sees her, gets a last act slice of redemption that’s supposed to soften the blow of his battery. Yet Ball can’t manufacture the necessary outrage or criminal context. Even as Aaron Eckhart is faux fingering 18 year old actress Summer Bashil, it’s like the writer/director never saw There’s Something About Amelia.
Indeed, Towelhead‘s biggest crime remains the blasé belief that audiences want to see a 13 year old engage in well defined adult behaviors. Perhaps Ball thought that he was creating the ultimate adult nightmare, an experience in which everything you suspected about your barely tween son or daughter was disturbingly true. For a seminar of sociologists, maybe but not for a crowd just coming down from Summer’s popcorn swelter. It’s hard to imagine adolescents flocking to this film, especially given the sheepish, almost consensual way Jasira treats her ordeal. Dad beats her? She simply bows her head. Mom lays into her about any and every thing? She’s apologetic. Classmates call her all manner of racial epithets? She finally gets up the nerve to hit a neighbor in the arm. That’s courage.
Maybe they are counting on the carnal curiosity factor. After all, a review like this could easily spark the imagination of the more sleaze minded moviegoers in the demo. One can just see a certain kind of teen boy giggling in the back row, digital camera capturing the few brief glimpses of Bashil sans skivvies (she is never shown full on naked)…and let’s not even mention the adults who are titillated by this kind of content. Naturally, there will be apologists, people who can easily overlook elements like age, age, and age to suggest that Ball has tapped into the harsh realities of growing up. Right…and Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door is a mere lesson in making better guardianship arrangements.
It’s not just that Towelhead is tawdry and tasteless. It’s not the oppressive unrelenting focus on Jasira’s warp speed hormones. It’s not even the notion that someone without a clear frame of reference can proclaim to understand the teen girl experience from the inside out. No, what Ball does here is something similar to an old ‘60s parental caveat - i.e. some things shouldn’t be aired in public. In book form - and especially considering the potential for authenticity from an experienced author’s standpoint - this material may work. Most literature can manage this kind of material because the theater of the mind is so selective and personal. But when given a concrete depiction, the surrounding social/legal/public facets fill in gaps that some of us may not want to see.
In many ways, Towelhead is like Funny Games without the snooty Euro-centric sneer. Ball isn’t out to rub our nose into the notion of middle schoolers gone wild, and the appearance of a hippy dippy couple as cultural conscience toward the end seems to suggest a kind of metaphysical mea culpa. Indeed, the film takes us through some horrifically uncomfortable material only to attempt to make it all better in the end. As the movie moves along, you can literally feel the shift - Eckhart’s sex scene with Bashil is all suggestion, unlike the similarly styled moment between Kevin Spacey and Mena Suvari in Beauty. But that doesn’t excuse the underage aspect, or the clear come-on/tease element inferred. On some level, Ball appears to suggest Jasira deserves what happens to her. Open up the personal Pandora’s ‘box’ and…
It’s all a matter of taste, of course. Critics are allowed to like or loathe anything that falls into their professional lap. But as with the aforementioned affront by Michael Haneke, Towelhead is provocation for the sake of being sensational. We don’t feel any empathy or come to any clear conclusions. Instead, we spend nearly two hours in voyeuristic disgust as a young girl is ground up like grist for a lax media mill. There is no denying that there is honesty here. But it is buried in a sloppy cinematic strategy that can’t stop fixating on the physicality of its lead. Everything here - from the Busby Berkeley inspired Playboy centerfold photo shoot fantasies to Jasira’s asexual striptease - is meant as nothing more than confrontation. After a while, we simply grow tired of the assault. Too bad Ball and his characters don’t feel the same.
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