Wednesday, December 31, 2008

TV is Your Father Now

Television in 2008 was a bit on the slow side. Damn those writers and their legitimized complaints! Hollywood has never been about sensible contracts, it's been about paying millions to Jennifer Aniston.

With the writer's strike behind us we can get back to what we all know best: socially isolating routine. Television in 2008 DID have a few things to teach us, especially profound as we bring in the New Year. So now for the best and worst -- and those shows just shameful enough to guide our lives in the right direction -- I present TV Teaches 2008. Television has raised you so well, so heed its solid advice.

Learn from Your Disappointments:

True Blood

Lesson: Lightning does not strike twice. (And can't reanimate the dead.)

How did Alan Ball's knack for creating fascinating character studies on Six Feet Under translate into the lifeless caricatures of True Blood? How does a telepathic woman named Sookie Stackhouse -- who freely masturbates on her front steps AND hooks up with the undead and a shape-shifting man-beast -- manage to be that excruciatingly dull? I guess Alan Ball really is trying.

This show's still in the grave, struggling to claw its way out admirably with gratuitous nudity and slapdash violence. But a corpse is a corpse no matter how you dress it up. Here's hoping that second season finds its footing. And a pulse.


Lesson: Like any good high, it eventually wears off.

Mary Louise Parker is still effortlessly stunning, even when her character makes absolutely no sense. Part of the fun of Weeds in its solid first two seasons was that willingness to go anywhere and subvert the family sitcom dynamics. But I'm not sure I like when "anywhere" consists of young son Shane talking to his dead father and masturbating to photos of mom. This is ditch weed, pure and simple; worth a couple laughs before you feel sick to your stomach.

Learn from Your Guilt:

The Real Housewives of Atlanta

Lesson: Money can't buy you happiness or talent, but it can pay for your divorce lawyer or someone to raise your child.

As with most reality television, you'll hate yourself in the morning, but not as much as you'll hate other people. Take the lineup of edited-for-their-degradation personalities this season:

Sherée wants to be a fashion designer, minus that whole design thing. With all that expensive planning for the debut party of her line, she can't be bothered to have any actual clothes to show for it. Meanwhile, Deshawn sets ridiculously high but spirited goals for her charity auction, while the Atlanta elite offer up disgruntled shrugs instead of bids. Her grand total? Zero dollars and everyone's condescending two cents. And then there's Kim, a twenty-nine-going-on-fifty mom who spends thousands of her "Big Papa's" dollars trying to put out her country album. If only she cared about music or could sing. There's also brash Nene and boring-because-she's-friendly Lisa. It's trash television that does society a service: it helps you look down on the people that look down on you.

Learn from the Best:

Summer Heights High

Lesson: You were the awkward kid in high school, and you still are.

HBO made a smart move picking this one up. Chris Lilley's Aussie mockumentary about personal lives at a public school is hysterical and his triple performance is just astounding. It's contrastingly sweet and crass, and consistently clever, and manages to transcend the format in a way that even Christopher Guest could respect. All the better that Lilley uses actual high school students to meld with his troupe of delusional characters. Also impressive that, as a comedy about high school, it actually manages to capture the atmosphere perfectly while still managing to be broad and offend absolutely everyone.

Mad Men

Lesson: The old days weren't any better, but you could drink in your office... Legally.

Drama with subtlety, rich in character and nuance, with episodes that merit repeat viewings? If you had told me I could find this on AMC, I would have told you to step out of the sixties and into the real world. This kind of quality is so rare nowadays, even on cable television. Even more marvellous that a show about selling an image actually manages to live up to the advertising. I'd say Don Draper is the new Tony Soprano, without the therapy and the mob connections. He's at the top of the world, unknowable and fascinating even to himself, and yet the cracks of the facade are starting to manifest and shake the ground of those in his path. I look forward to the elegantly marketed aftermath.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Stocking Stuffers

This Christmas Eve: clear the chimney, prep the stockings, and set out some protein shakes... It's Santa's turn to sit on your lap!

It truly is the most wonderful time of the year. A (very PC) Happy Holidays to you and yours!

I'd like to send a special yuletide thanks to Nathaniel at Film Experience for graciously letting me spout off on his fantastic blog.

I saw Nat kissing Santa Clause! Lucky bastard...

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Late to the Party

This blog has become a cinematic graveyard of late. I've been all too focused on movies of the distant past. It's most noticeable in a time when everyone's discussing the cinematic year that's been. On the other hand, I probably can't be expected to make a sufficient Top Ten List until June of 2010, given the vast holes in my 2008 viewing.

In place of that, here are my brief thoughts on two of 2008's new releases, believe it or not. "New" is relative of course... They've been out for some time now. As always, remember to check out Club Silencio two months from now for all the latest in film.

Rachel Getting Married was a lot like attending a wedding actually. If it were a wedding of someone I didn't know and wasn't sure I cared to know. I wandered around, meeting the crowd and sharing a laugh here and there, followed by more than a few glances at the open bar. But just like a wedding, it sits better in my memory.

I can remember some of the touching human moments and the real purpose of it all -- which has a scope both small and emotionally grand. It's often sweet, occasionally cringe-inducing, and filled with equal parts misery and awe. I'll raise my glass to Anne Hathaway for once again making the most of minor moments, and to Jonathan Demme, whose invasive camerawork somehow manages to be a fly on the wall. They may have to send me to rehab after the ceremony, but I'm glad I RSVP'd.

As with the openings of Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet, I was baffled at Baz Luhrmann's flustering thrust into exaggerated screwball with the intro to Australia. It's like an editing slaughterhouse in here! I was ready to press fast forward, even though it felt like that's exactly what Baz was doing for me. Once it settles down there's still a bit of awkwardness -- namely in Nicole Kidman's comic-to-crushing turn as Mrs. Boss, Sarah Ashley -- but then it finds its epic beats and plays them fairly well.

That said, while admirably vast in scope, everything that occurs in this movie feels so often inauthentic. Every turn of the plot and directorial cue is calculated to fit into that epic mold of classical Hollywood, to the point of my numb disinterest. The enormity of it all is rare nowadays, but the story and sweep still feels too common -- like a "Paint by the Numbers," it's pretty but programmed. I was emotionally left in the dust like a piece of stray cattle, and I wished Baz had wondered off course a bit as well. The performances are solid, if unremarkable, and Kidman eventually falls into character once Baz reins in his mood swings. Admirably Hugh Jackman is exploited like a piece of meat, and for that we can thank Baz and fast forward directly to the beef.

Cult Oddities: The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

The Town That Dreaded Sundown looks back on some of America's most shocking true crimes and the resulting fear and paranoia unleashed on a vulnerable community. But Zodiac this is not...

The savage crimes that rocked Texarkana, Arkansas in 1946 remain unsolved to this day, and one assumes this movie only led to the disinterest in finding the killer. Narrated like a newsreel or classroom educational video, it's almost like we're meant to take some sort of message from the film -- like "Duck and Cover" or "Puberty is a Part of Life." The best we get is, "You CAN Sleep with Your Eyes Open." Or at least that explains the pillowcase.

Rain soaked woodland settings, a maniacal killer stalking young lovers... Sounds like perfect slasher movie material. But director Charles B. Pierce isn't all that interested in that. Nor is he interested in suspense, intrigue, character or -- outside of Ben "Sam the Lion" Johnson -- serviceable acting. Unless you count all that melodramatic head shaking.

has a tone as bumbling as its central police force. It aims for a documentary-style recreation of true events mixed with more modest genre aims, and admittedly it has momentary successes with both. The attack scenes have the occasional unnerving air about them given the Phantom Killer's forcefulness and his KKK/pre-Friday the 13th Part 2 appearance. Unfortunately that's underscored by the rest of the film's slogging narrative, as well as the fact that the killer might as well be passing you at the mall for as much he's casually bandied about onscreen.

Even his methods for murder are a snore. The Phantom Killer's mostly prone to a swift clubbing or a no-fuss-no-muss shooting. Although that's not to say he's entirely devoid of creativity... Given the inspiration he binds a woman to a tree and trombones her to death.

He blows alright. He blows HARD.

Don't bother dreading Sundown. It really is the best time to fall asleep.

Relax... It's Sunday!

Amber: I don't want to do this anymore, honey -- I just can't. Let's have fun NOW. Let's just go and go and go, because it's over. Too many things. Too many things. Too many things. Too many things. Let's go walk!

Rollergirl: I don't wanna leave this room.

Amber: Me either! I love you, honey.

Rollergirl: I love you, Mom!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Cult Oddities: Thriller: A Cruel Picture (1973)

I don't know what I was expecting from that title. Thriller: A Cruel Picture certainly wasn't going to be about kittens and inspirational triumphs over disability -- even if our heroine, Madeleine, is a partially blind mute. Nevertheless, given the immediately vicious subject matter, I couldn't help but admire the restraint of director Bo Arn Vibenius.

Until THAT happened... And that... And let us never forget about THAT... Or those...

Mere moments later I was admiring the director's complete lack of restraint. Instead of having us feel a more simplistic pity at witnessing such disgusting acts befall an innocent girl, Vibenius places the viewer directly into Madeleine's one-eyed perspective. Her turn from idealistic child to doped-up prostitute to bad ass action star is about as cold and calculating as her sadistic clientele. Subjecting us to the graphic displays of penetrative rape and ocular savagery exacted on Madeleine makes us feel more than a little dirty, and just a little bit violated. Like a prison movie, we're watching her cleverly bide her time. Like one hell of a revenge movie, we're anticipating that big, bloody payoff.

Once Madeleine finally does master her revenge training, we get many of those now cliched slow-mo gunshots that are used to lesser, nauseating effect in shameful action flicks everywhere (aka John Woo's career). You know, the sort where people fly into cardboard boxes with muffled, trailing cries of "BWAAAHHHH..." Here these scenes are stylistically significant and remarkably innovative, if eventually a bit tedious. It's glorified violence filmed gloriously, and it fully satiates the carnal bloodlust the viewer's been building. It also manages to fill in a third of the film's runtime, but who needs story developments when you have this much pent up rage to unleash?

Thriller: A Cruel Picture is skillful, high-caliber exploitation. Quentin Tarantino most famously translated his love for the film into Kill Bill. Just like that film, Thriller goes far into extremes of violence, and in this case sex as well, but similarly pulls back in its final moments for a more thoughtful characteristic tweak. Madeleine's a bad ass to be sure, but she's above the ugliness exacted upon her, or at least her enjoyment of it. For Madeleine it's all about the statement.

Hence she has an appropriately quirky and self-aware fashion sense. Madeleine transitions from bright and bewildered in golden yellow, to her "rage period" of blood-red crimson and matching eye patch. Then onto your standard hipster black -- best for mourning and mass annihilation.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

This is a Winter Weather Advisory

All area key parties have been postponed until further notice.

The weather outside IS frightful...

Bundle up, kids.

I Want Gael To Want Me

You must check out gorgeous Gael's music video promoting his latest film Rudo y Cursi. The film reunites him with Y tú mamá también co-star Diego Luna under director Carlos Cuaron. The scantily clad women in the video hint at less man-on-man action this time around, although the plot description "dueling brothers on a banana ranch" invites some hope.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Movin' On Up with Maggie Gyllenhaal

"I'll suck your dick if you give me the job I want."

Woah, Maggie! First off: I'm broke. Second: I'm not an employment agency. And third: I'd rather be discussing this with your brother.

In the meantime read up on my latest "Signatures" post at The Film Experience in which I discuss "The Maggie Gyllenhaal Method" of how to get ahead.

...Well, alright Maggie, but I've only got twenty bucks on me...

Cult Oddities: Season of the Witch (1972)

...or "Desperate Pagan Housewives"

Season of the Witch (aka Hungry Wives) is like George A. Romero's cinematic stepdaughter. She's not the prettiest in the bunch, she's gone largely ignored, and her father has barely a kind word to say about her. Certainly her zombie brothers have stolen the thunder in Romero's long genre career, but that's not entirely surprising after watching this hard-to-find early effort. It's stilted, stylistically awkward, and oftentimes distancing. That said, some of this seems very much intentional, and it does remind us of what was so brilliant about seventies horror. Even when they were at a questionable level of quality or content, there was always something substantial brewing beneath the surface.

The plot here concerns a housewife, Joan Mitchell, who tires of mundane social connections, her wayward daughter and dismissive husband. What does she have to turn to other than alcoholism or the dark arts? Her suburban malaise morphs into magic and murder, but then Joan's never been very good at baking or the PTA.

Romero's films are always tinged with social commentary, and in keeping, Season of the Witch marks his first foray into post-feminism mixed with his usual stabs at middle-America. Many of these digs come about in the disorienting dreams of Joan -- the film's best cinematic highlight. Joan's fantasies begin to meld with disturbing reoccurring nightmares of a home invasion, in which a masked man traps Joan inside and violates her. Joan seems pathetically lustful for sexual encounters, even working herself into a frenzy during her daughter's forays in the next bedroom. But these particular dreams seem at odds with that -- she genuinely fears them. It's no coincidence then that soon the terrifying invader crosses with the reality of Joan's husband returning home. Joan's nightmare IS her reality.

The way that witchcraft involves itself is what makes the film unique, and also what makes it a bit of a mess. It's exactly that supernatural angle with which the film struggles. Not the least of which is a humorous montage set to Donovan's title-track "Season of the Witch," which seems to be invoking Joan's escape from suburban hell via an urban occult shopping spree. Her dabbling in the craft becomes almost a secondhand joke, but perhaps even that's intentional. She takes it up like someone would take up knitting. Joan doesn't know what she's doing but becomes completely invested in it -- too much so. It ultimately just magnifies her desperation. Clearly the woman's in need of something when THIS guy causes her radical sexual awakening...

Romero's said before that Season of the Witch is the one film of his he would consider remaking, and given the flat performances and sometimes dodgy direction, it wouldn't be the worst idea. It's time to reunite with your stepdaughter, George. The devil knows there's a wealth of wit hidden under that patchouli haze.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Last Retro Posters on the Left!

If I can't creatively thieve the archive at Wrong Side of the Art, what will become of Retro Posters, and of life itself? The amazing and comprehensive collection assembled by Bosnuk has been a prime source for my artistic pillaging, and hours of amusement. Tragically the site could very well go into retirement. Let's hope not, but if so here's to a great time while it lasted -- and to many more historically questionable artistic choices.

Oh to be a child again. THAT child.

(The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation)

Bleeding's a good color on you!

(Linda Lovelace for President)

Because deep throating IS foreign policy experience.

I passed for white and all I got was
this lousy suburban home and 2.5 kids.