This Is Spinal Tap (1984), or Mime Is Money

30 04 2009

Today’s feature has not only shaped my own sense of humor, but my idea of comedy as a whole. I’d never seen anything quite like This Is Spinal Tap before, and afterwards my concepts of what was and wasn’t funny were forever derailed from the norm forever. No longer could I watch Booty Call or Overnight Delivery and find the humor. No longer would anything from the Cartoon Network line-up (with the obvious exemption of Adult Swim) make me giggle with delight. Even the great Jay Leno, who had never made me laugh before, ceased to not un-amuse me. Now I am an adult with a very particular (i.e. odd) sense of humor, hard to please, and it’s all this movie’s fault! But, damn it, I love it for just that reason.

So just what is this movie? Well, for the few left uninitiated, This Is Spinal Tap is a fake documentary chronicling the fake exploits of the fake band Spinal Tap during their American tour in the early 80s. It’s an eerily accurate spoof of real-life rock band situation; life on the road, band politics, on-stage antics, and everything else you wanted to know about a rock band but never wanted to ask. With a camera manned by fake documentarian Marty DiBergi (played by director Rob Reiner), we are taken into the immersive world of an over-the-hill rock group with heads that are way too big, pants that are way too tight, and members that are way too clueless. Band members David St. Hubbins (vocals, rythym guitar), Nigel Tufnel (lead guitar), Derek Smalls (bass guitar), and the latest in a long, long line of drummers recount their 20+ years in the business, from their days in England playing Beatles-like pop and psychadelic rock, to the natural progression of heavy metal (?!?!?!) in the latter half of their career. Trying to find the stage at confusing venues, empty autograph signing sessions, and being detained at the airport for a foreign object in a band member’s pants are just a couple examples of the everyday hassles of life on tour with the greatest heavy metal group in Britain, and Mr. DeBergi captures it all in hilarious detail.

What a great idea! Written by the principal players of Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Chrostopher Guest, and Rob Reiner (playing David St. Hubbins, Derek Smalls, Nigel Tufnel, and Marty DiBergi respectively), this is the best lambast of the rock world that anyone has ever come up with. It’s one of those movies where the things that happen are so insane, you know that they probably happened somewhere in real life. In fact, a lot of real musicians have come out and admitted that a lot of the horrible things that happened to Spinal Tap during their tour in the movie happened to them too. Eddie Van Halen reportedly saw it and did not laugh once, citing that everything in the movie had happened to him! Tough luck, Eddie! Grow a funny bone!

The humor is such that no jokes are told, no pauses to laugh are given, and everything is presented to the audience with a straight face. It makes for a disheartening experience for watching it with a group of friends, because every now and then you’ll hear the dreaded line, “Oh, that was supposed to be funny?”, which is the comedic equivalent to “Are you sure you’re hard yet?”. This line is usually followed by the ending of a friendship, but more people need to be made aware. Let me spell it out for you: THAT’S THE JOKE!!!!!! It’s a little more subtle than your average comedy, and that makes for a bit more confusion among people as to what’s a joke and what’s minutia, but if you’re really good at what you do, then there shouldn’t even be a difference.

The Spinal Tap songs are so good, I actually have the CD! They’re all fantastic! Christopher Guest and Michael McKean are actually very talented musicians, and the songs are not just hilarious (with titles like “Sex Farm” and “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock Ya Tonight” what’d you expect?), but pretty toe-tapping in their own right. The lyrics are some of my favorites in any song EVER. Take for example the understated beauty of “Big Bottom”, in which David St. Hubbins, ever so gently, intones: The bigger the cushion, the sweeter the pushin’; that’s what I said! /The looser the waistband, the deeper the quicksand, or so I have read! /My baby fits me like a flesh tuxedo/I wanna sink her with my pink torpedo! Isn’t that just beautiful?!

Something is never as funny when you’re talking about it compared to when you’re there experiencing it, so what are you waiting for? Go watch this movie! It’s out-and-out hilarious, and if your sense of humor is a bit sharper than most, you’ll catch more humor than you thought could fit anto just one movie. This is a must-see for fans of rock and roll and fans of alternative comedy. If you haven’t seen it yet, go out and rent this TONIGHT! I give it 10 pink torpedos out of 10. A very high recommendation!

Tomorrow we take a gander at the Tom Cruise/Ridley Scott slice of fantasy Legend! Until then, a question: what was your favorite scene from this movie! Discuss this in the comments section. This one, hands down, is mine:

The Apartment (1960), or Can I Hang Out At Your Place Tonight?

29 04 2009

Ah, Billy Wilder. Among his many, many accomplishments, Billy Wilder should be recognized as the king of the slightly naughty black-and-white comedies. He ruled in an era when cursing was simply not done, sex was only ever implied, and women who weren’t housewives or virtuous, virginal working girls were synonymous with hussies and sluts. But these weren’t your stock 50s cardboard cutout characters he was using; Billy Wilder was very progressive for the time in which he worked, and that fact is reflected in the intelligence of his characters and the caliber of his scripts. From Double Indemnity all the way to The Fortune Cookie, he seemed to have a sixth sense for what American audiences wanted and how they wanted it, especially their laugh-out-loud comedies. Today’s Billy Wilder film, The Apartment, is very smart if anyone cares to look a bit beneath the suface, but anyone looking too deep on the first viewing might just miss a very funny feature right before their eyes.

Jack Lemmon stars as C.C. Baxter, a wage slave at a large firm in New York City. He longs to get ahead in the business and make a name for himself in the higher offices of the building. He gets his wish, but it costs him quite a bit more than he was expecting. Four of the executives in his firm have each asked to use his apartment to bring their mistresses to for a little “wink wink nudge nudge”. Baxter, wanting ever so badly to get ahead in the firm, agrees to all of their requests. This causes him more than a little duress, especially when a personnel director gets nosy and decides HE wants a place to to “hang out” with his mistress. And things go from bad to worse when he finds himself enamored with the elevator attendant at his job, Miss Kubelik, and he has nowhere to take her with his apartment slamming all the time. Is all this craziness really worth that promotion, Baxter?!?!?!

This is a damn fine comedy. Everyone who accuses black and white of being stuffy needs to watch The Apartment. It’s virtually electrified by everyone’s enthusiasm with the project. Jack Lemmon in his prime is worth 15 Matthew McConaugheys 3.2 Richard Geres and 572 Ashton Kutchers in Leading Man Currency (patent pending). He plays Baxter with the nervous energy we all feel on a first date or the day after an employee review at work. Shirley MacLaine is quite the looker here as Miss Kubelik, who plays the sexy elevator girl with that extra depth that MacLaine became famous for in her later years. Fred MacMurray is the personnel director Mr. Sheldrake, and he just oozes the slimy charm that comes naturally from anybody who works on a floor higher than 18 in a New York office building. He is unabashedly evil, and he’s not apologizing to anyone. That makes for a bad boss, but an awesome villain for the story.

The great part about this is that I can actually picture this happening. Wilder came across an idea that is just so sleazy it somehow works as a comedy. The reality is that this was common practice in a day where every man making over a certain amount had a girl on the side to keep him warm during those “long hours at the office”. It can’t be said that Baxter is necessarily innocent, though. He IS putting up with all this for a measly promotion, and even when he gets the promotion he still allows it to go on. Would you let four executives make a mess of your bed for a promotion? Either way, it’s a great concept for a concept-driven comedy. Discuss in the comments section. I would say yes, because its hard for me to say no to people (plus, it’s money for nothing and I’m such a layabout)

Everyone has their favorite scene from this movie, so I’ll tell you mine. I don’t know why this tickles me so much, but when Baxter and Kubelik are having some light conversation, this little piece of dialog comes up (picture Jack Lemmon schmoozing it up with all his might):

Kubelik: I never catch colds.

Baxter: Really? I was reading some figures from the Sickness and Accident Claims Division. You know that the average New Yorker between the ages of twenty and fifty has two and a half colds a year?

Kubelik: That makes me feel just terrible.
Baxter: Why?
Kubelik: Well, to make the figures come out even, if I have no colds a year, some poor slob must have five colds a year.
Baxter: Yeah… it’s me.

I love it! I don’t know why. He’s such a likable guy, you almost forget he’s been sleeping on wet sheets for the past couple months.

You need to see this film. It’s a classic; it won an Oscar for Best Picture, if you don’t believe me! The Academy is never wrong (cue laugh track)! Seriously, though, I smiled a lot in this fun-filled 120 minutes. I didn’t completely burst at the seams, mind you, but I don’t know if I was supposed to. Billy Wilder, you mensch, you gave the world yet another superb piece of film-making with this one, and I’ll appreciate it for as long as I and the rest of the world will miss you. You’ll get a lot more than you bargained for with The Apartment; I know I did. I give it 8 1/2 superior leading men out of 10.

Whoo!!! Now that I’m all caught up, tomorrow I’m giving myself a little break by watching one of my favorite movies for the PSA; a film that everyone needs to see for the costumes alone! I’ll be back tomorrow with Spinal Tap!

Gummo (1997), or I Never Saw The Cameras Growing Up When They Were Taping My Childhood, But Here It Is

28 04 2009

Big thanks to Kevan for recommending this movie to me! What would I do without people who recommend stuff to me? I’d probably just watch nothing but Throw Momma From The Train or B.A.P.S all day, and nobody wants that.

Sometimes a movie will come along to challenge people, and people are up for the challenge of being confronted in such a way. It happens all the time, and most of the time you can prepare yourself beforehand to ground the experience and keep your head on a swivel. Every now and then, though, a movie comes along that just totally assaults me, bowls me over. I can’t do a damn thing about it, and I am left speechless by what has transpired on the screen. Gummo is a movie that is so hyper-realistic it borders on the truly insane, and although it can be seen as mercilessly harsh and condemning of the lifestyle the film’s characters portray, it cannot be said for one second that it isn’t believable.

Gummo takes place in Xenia, Ohio, where life is horrible, short, and full of rednecks. It is a series of fictional vignettes about down-on-their-luck people trying to eke out an existence, however frightening and disgusting it is. We follow Solomon and Tummler, two teens who kill feral cats and try to sell the meat to the butcher. We find ourselves privy to snippets of conversations, telling bits of information that reveal more than a lifetime of friendship would. We look at the lives of people we never think twice about; the local skinheads, the boys selling candy for “cancer patients”, the high-school dropouts who can barely raise themselves out of their alcohol-induced comas to make any sense out of themselves. It’s alarming, sad, very genuine in most cases, and it makes me want to question my Southern heritage at times.

Directed by Harmony Korine, this film is hard to comment on. It plays by its own set of rules, and they don’t necessarily coincide with the typical rules of film-making. This is an experimental film that doesn’t even have a plot, per se, much less main characters, but its haunting imagery is enough for me to deem it extremely important.

The people in Xenia are all a little deranged, in some form or fashion, and it makes for an interesting commentary on society’s tendency to discard people, and the South’s unseemly habit for breeding discardable people. With the exception of one person, who I call Bunny Guy (he walks around Xenia with a set of bunny ears on his head), there is not an ounce of sanity, happiness, or even the semblance of normalcy. The strangest part for me is the fact that Ohio is hardly the South, so I can only imagine the horrible things going on in my home state of Texas. Yikes!

I found it to be an extraordinarily special and personal affair. Like listening to a Godspeed You! Black Emperor record, it’s something perhaps best enjoyed in private. It means so many things to so many different people, you might as well just watch it alone instead of arguing with your friends all night. For something as utterly bizarre as this, I suggest dimming the lights and watching it at midnight. You might have nightmares, but you’ll rarely have a more interesting time watching a film.

If you like experimentation in your art, this is dynamic innovation at its highest caliber. If your taste is more pedestrian (I don’t mean that in a sneering, high-and-mighty way; this is an INCREDIBLY STRANGE MOVIE), you might want to stay away. I really appreciate the level of detail (keep an eye out for a piece of bacon taped to the wall in one house) and the actors’ seeming comfort in front of the camera despite their almost complete inexperience. It is a beautiful piece of artistic expression that should be watched and re-watched, and I guarantee that with an open mind anyone can come through this movie unharmed, even through some of its admittedly scarring moments. It’s not graceful, elegant, or stylish, and that is fine by me. I give Gummo 9 taped strips of bacon out of 10.

Keep an ever-vigilant eye out for my review of Jack Lemmon’s The Apartment later tonight! Stay up late with me!

The Ring (2002), or Japanese Horror Redux

27 04 2009

Remember the big Japanese horror boom a couple years back? What happened to that? I thought that it was going to be the next big thing, and last time I checked, I don’t even think Japan even makes horror movies anymore. Or if they do, they stay far away from the American box office. The Japanese horror had an interesting spin on things that American horror movies could never put a finger on before, a twisted supernatural element that had eluded our shores until the turn of the millennium. Two American remakes really put the scene on the map here; Sarah Michelle Gellar’s remake of Ju-On (aka The Grudge) and today’s film, Naomi Watts’s remake of Ringu (aka The Ring). And judging by the two of them, its clear that this one was the superior of the two despite the similarities.

We all know the story, so I’ll keep it brief. Rachel is a journalist who keeps hearing strange rumors and urban legends about a videotape with a sinister backstory, and that if one watches it, that person will die seven days later. Well, Rachel is intrigued after learning that her niece died recently, and the night of her death just happened to fall seven days after watching the tape. She begins to learn the origins of the tape, and the strange images contained therein. Can she unlock the mystery of the tape before it kills somebody else?

Now, this movie commits a trademark sin of horror films by over-explaining the mysteries surrounding the beginning to the point that by the end everything seems so pedestrian that we feel ashamed to have been afraid in the first place (I like to call this phenomenon EXPOSITION POISONING). It’s a common tactic used to pad the running time of a film to that golden delicious 90 minutes, and it has been around in the business for years. But here’s the catch; the premise of The Ring is so damn creepy, it breaks through the haze of its own self-appointed EXPOSITION POISONING. It doesn’t matter who the director or the cast is, as long as they can at least make an attempt to film a script like this without embarrassing themselves here, they’re in smooth waters. And luckily enough, the creators of this film had just enough in them to not screw this up too badly.

It’s an eerie thought that something as innocuous as a tape could kill you, and its equally intersting to note that by the time that this movie came out, VHS tapes were falling by the wayside. There’s a certain mystique about a defunct medium that invites a lot of uncertainty and dark curiosity. Like silent, black and white films, it would be very disturbing to watch a grainy, sepia-toned murder taking place in the 1920s, or a phonograph recording of a violent suicide. It’s the idea of finding something lost that time had forgotten about, and although a tape isn’t that uncommon, it’s something that anybody could put anything on, and that is bothersome when the recesses of our world could decide at any moment to leave us a memento of its cruelty or its unsavory activities.

The cast and crew are, as previously mentioned, capable enough. Naomi Watts has more talent than she uses here, where as the journalist Rachel she projects intelligence as much as she does a single-dimensional personality. The rest of the players are good enough, with Brian Cox coming in to look dour and concerned and two, count ’em TWO, creepy kids for the price of one here (one is good, however, while one is undeniably e-v-i-l). They actually have a better cast in the sequel to this film, to be honest, but that’s neither here nor there. It’s a cast that is able enough to let the horror happen to them, which in this case was definitely needed.

There’s good atmosphere here, a plot that can’t really be de-railed by anything ignorant Americans try to throw at it, and the famed director of Mouse Hunt, Gore Verbinski. What more could you want? It really is a decent horror film, and despite the fact that the original film, Ringu, is much more beloved by fans of the genre than this version, it has its own merits that cannot be ignored. I liked it, and you might too. I give The Ring 7 1/2 doses of EXPOSITION POISON out of 10.

Tomorrow I take a reader recommendation from long-time fan Kevan, where I will watch Gummo! Until then!!!!

The Night Out: earth (2009), or Wonder In Motion

26 04 2009

Well, folks, it was my Night Out today, and I saw the new Disney documentary, earth. Well, I shouldn’t say new, because this is actually a movie from 2007. That’s right, this movie is just now reaching our shores. Why, you ask? Well, there are a couple of reasons. First and foremost, this is a British film, originally produced by the BBC. It wasn’t going to come out in America for that reason, but the newly formed Disneynature, a division of Disney, decided that it would distribute the film in the tradition of the old True Life Adventures series Walt Disney used to put together. The other reason this is just coming out is that Disney was probably giving the States just a little time to forget about the Planet Earth series that the Discovery Channel put together two years ago, because this movie is in actuality not a movie at all, but a pared-down edition of that very series. So you might have seen most, if not all, of this footage already if you watched the mini-series intently enough. Not to say that it’s a bad thing, though; the only thing better than seeing nature in high-definition is seeing it on the big screen, after all.

Narrated by Darth Vader himself, James Earl Jones takes us on a journey through an entire year of our planet’s seasons, migrations, and constant shifting of equilibriums. We follow fresh water as it weaves its way through the entire world, and all the animals that have to quest for it, year after year. As the frigid places of the world lose their frost, the water trickles down from the mountains and the natural world awakens from their slumber, everyone hungry and everyone thirsty. We track the hunted, the innocents; deer and antelope, ducks and whales. We also keep an eye on the hunters, who are not bloodthirsty out of spite, but need to feed themselves as well; the cheetah, the polar bear, and the wolf are all documented in their own search for food (i.e. all those hunted animals). It is a glimpse of the circle of life that we find ourselves so far removed from in these days of man’s utter dominance, and a sobering reminder that all of the beauty in the world is at stake if we do not act in time to clean up our planet.

Using some of the most advanced camera technology available, the filmmakers capture nature’s fierce majesty with a clarity in theaters that rivals even the best-looking HDTV. It really looks terrific, and it takes in some really amazing moments with their ultra-clear slow-motion. The arc of a great white as he rises from the surface of the water and swallows a seal in one bite is absolutely breathtaking¬† when you can see every minute detail of the kill. The rapid-fire growth of flowers in the spring brings a tear to my eye as the music swells, announcing the birth of a new generation and the awakening of the old from winter’s icy grip. The BBC has outdone themselves in unlocking the simple wonder of nature and presenting it to us in an eye-popping 100 minute package.

The real miracle of nature documentaries is that they take us out of our self-absorbed existences for one moment and force us to think about the big picture. We can look at a picture of a lion all day and it becomes as sterile as wallpaper or plastic-lined furniture, but to watch in vivid detail a lion as he stalks and hunts with uncanny power and speed is to see the lion as something real, something dangerous, something to be respected. earth excels in making animals and nature very real to someone that has little concept of the harshness of being. To hear children gasp in horror as the food chain is revealed to them for perhaps the first time is somewhat jarring in today’s modern gentility, but it is something we as a species must never forget, no matter how far removed we become.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. There are plenty of joyful moments, as life itself still has plenty of joy to offer. Watching a group of baby ducks jumping gaily out of a tree, learning to fly by plummeting to the ground, is a definite smile-inducer (they look so happy that they’re falling!), and monkeys never fail to make for good clean G-rated comedy. My personal favorite scene featured a bird of paradise and an extremely elaborate mating ritual. The bird tidies up the forest floor around him, making everything spotless; checking and checking again for some sort of incomprehensible mistakes on nature’s part in his intricate mating design. And after he makes everything perfect, he calls for the woman and does the freakiest little dance you’ve ever seen, completely transforming himself for a moment to look as garish as possible. Humans don’t even get this elaborate most of the time! Well, most of the time…

So, all of the natural world’s cornucopia is sampled here. Not a deep look at any one section of the world, any one animal, or any one subject, but a fair view of most things in our planet Earth. James Earl Jones lent regal baritone only completes one of the most powerful nature documentaries in recent years. It was not as surprising and dazzling for me, as I had seen Planet Earth already and thus some of this wonderful footage had become familiar to me by the time I had seen this. But anyone who has never seen the Discovery Channel mini-series, and anyone who really enjoyed it will love this little refresher course on out planet’s life cycle. I definitely recommend it, and I give it 9 Darth Narrators out of 10.

Tomorrow is your lucky day, because I’m going to watch everyone’s favorite defunct technology horror movie, The Ring! See you then!

Scarface (1983), or Fuck Is Such A Versatile Word

25 04 2009

What is the deal with this movie being so damn popular? I don’t get it. I’ve always seen Scarface memorabilia in my life for as long as I care to remember; posters, T-shirts, screen-savers, baseball caps, personalized debit cards, super-soakers, lawn darts, garden gnomes, space stations, empty beer cans, strains of diseases, and a myriad of other random words strung together for comedic effect. I can’t understand the appeal for the life of me. Perhaps on some distant world where the rivers and oceans consist of pure testosterone and people make a living by acting like a bunch of thugs this sounds epic and meaningful, but in the real world, where I’m living right now, I don’t see anything really outstanding about the idea.

Al Pacino apes a bad Hispanic accent as he plays Tony Montana, a Cuban immigrant who comes to America after the Mariel Boatlift incident in 1980. Tony is a ruthless criminal who sees the American Dream as a template for his own garish designs for money, power, and women. He starts off as just a low-level drug dealer, but as time goes on his ambition pays off. He takes more and more high-risk jobs, eventually getting in good with his boss and rising quickly in the ranks. But that’s not enough for him. He wants it all, and he’ll do whatever it takes to get it. It’s a series of Machiavellian twists and turns that leads straight to where one would expect it to.

Nothing about Scarface is very adequate to me. It’s the same old admonishment/celebration of a lifestyle that is as real as it is hollow and pointless. Tony is both beloved and reviled by the camera, who, while understanding the folly of it all, shows his rise to power as something of a fulfillment of the American Dream when Tony is just using that ideal as an excuse for the behavior he exhibits. This is a permutation of a story that has passed on down the ages for as long as there have been people around to tell it: ambition is good, but too much of it is bad.

Tony Montana is the main problem for me. Al Pacino plays him like Speedy Gonzales with an itchy trigger finger and a coke problem. It’s borderline insulting to watch this “Cuban” gallivanting around, spraying lines at the screen like, “I’m Tony Montana! You fuck with me, you fuckin’ with the best!” I’m surprised that a lot of people think that this is a good performance. This is bottom-tier work for him. He could do a lot better, because all I see here are stereotypes and bad one-liners that ring very hollow despite the apparent “realism” of it all.

The soundtrack is horribly dated. It’s all club music! Every single song is drenched in the blood of disco, and it grates on the nerves after about three seconds.It might be faithful to the time, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing here. European super-freak Giorgio Moroder composed most of the songs, so the blame is pretty squarely on him, but keep an ear out for a laugh-inducing song featuring Debbie Harry here called “Rush Rush”. It’s dance-tastic!

This was supposed to be a remake, believe it or not, of the Scarface from 1932. That film directed by the ingenious Howard Hawks and produced by the eccentric Howard Hughes, was good in its own right, though perhaps not on par with some of Hawks’s later films. It was also based on the life of Al Capone, who caused a bit of an uproar around that time for his ultra-illegal activities. Well, for the 50-year anniversary of the original, I guess they decided that the movie needed a little 80s chutzpah, so they put in a director that had done a lot of horror/thriller work to punch it up to 11. Brian DePalma is a good director, but in Scarface he throws out a lot of mixed signals. For the action sequences he saturates the screen with a surreal amount of violence and hyper-emoting. But for most other scenes, he drains the emotion out of everything and leaves the characters with nothing but greasy street-smarm. Is that how people are on the streets of Miami; walking receptacles of insults and attitude? It seems a little disingenuous, and it is a strange seemingly-conscious decision on DePalma’s part.

I did not care for this film at all. As I said, DePalma is a good director, and I think he does a good job when it came to the shoot-out sequences (of which there are plenty), but that could not save it for me. Pacino and supporting cast members, including Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Loggia, really stink up the joint, and considering how long the movie is I was hoping to get more emotional or intellectual significance out of these characters. But, alas, it was not meant to be. It’s a tired story of blind ambition retreaded for the cocaine decade, and while that’s interesting in theory, in practice it falls apart under the trappings of a stale concept that needed revitalization instead of just resuscitation. So if you like action sequences scored to a track of 80s Euro-beats and Loggins-esque drum machine antics, fake Cubans with filthy mouths, and off-kilter remakes of 1930s hit films, Scarface is your movie, and you’ve probably already watched it, own it on DVD, and have a Scarface-brand Band-Aid on your booster shot right now. Me, I’ll pass. I give Scarface 3 1/2 “Cubans” out of 10.

Keep an eye out today for my review of a movie still in theaters! Coming up: The Night Out!

PSA: Blue Velvet (1986), or Never Order A Heineken In Front Of Dennis Hopper

24 04 2009

It’s everybody’s favorite segment, and my own personal public service announcement to get the word out about movies I either love or loathe, the PSA! Today’s selection is one of my personal favorites, and I don’t know why. I don’t think it’s David Lynch’s most well-crafted work, nor do I think that it is his most important. It is a great film, though, to be sure, and it has a lot more discernible subtext than most of his other endeavors (including my last Lynch PSA, Lost Highway). There’s just something so enjoyable about this dark film that I find myself liking it over more accomplished works. I suppose, in a way, that makes it just as amazing as the others, but its something very unquantifiable that makes it just a little more than what it is, and that little more makes all the difference.

Blue Velvet centers around unassuming college-boy dope Jeffrey Beaumont. He is visiting his father in safe, suburban Lumberton, after he receives word that he had a heart attack and will be recuperating for days. On his way home from the hospital one day, he makes a horrifying discovery; a severed human ear on the ground in an empty field. Frightened but curious, Jeffrey takes the ear to the police, who thank him and say that they will handle it. But we discover very quickly that Jeffrey is not someone who can just let things go. He decides to do some investigating of his own, which upsets Sandy, daughter of the detective assigned to the ear case and goody-two-shoes love interest for Jeffrey. She agrees to help him with some independent investigating by providing him with info she sneaks out of her father. The info all leads to a nightclub singer named Dorothy Valens, a beautiful older woman with a constant air of worry about her. Jeffrey decides to sneak into her apartment one night and search for clues as to just whose ear was in that field. What he finds are only more questions, sobering questions that may be best left unanswered by unassuming college students. The film tracks his assimilation into a sick underbelly of the suburbs, where he is taken on a twisted sexual odyssey by Dorothy and a terrifying trip through the mind of Frank Booth, a perverted criminal who might just be the key to everything. Can innocent little Jeffrey get out of this mess alive without getting his blackening his heart?

The exploration of a suburban underworld was certainly something that had been done before by 1986, but it had never been done in such a strikingly surreal way before. Lynch probed the artificiality of American suburbs and the blind eye turned to crime and violence within communities in a way that can only be described as severely intense. He creates this hyper-intensity by contrasting the blandness of middle-class American living with a very palpable source of evil in Frank Booth. It is this at-times disorienting gear change that turns this mystery/thriller into a surreal, almost hyperbolic nightmare that is as engrossing as it is insane.

Not to say that the oddball Lynchian touches don’t add anything to the experience. Jeffrey has one weird sense of humor. Check out this clip of Jeffrey and of his lines while trying to impress Sandy during an moonlit walk, starting at 4:35 and ending at the 5:00 mark:

Genius! Who else could turn something as innocuous as an evening stroll into…that! Even Sandy has nothing to add! There are plenty of the strange moments one would expect from a film like this, including a cameo by Dean Stockwell as an ultra-creep named Ben who has some sort of morbidly-obese harem and a lip-synching performance of “In Dreams” that will take you right out of a comfortable mood.

The cast is right-on here, featuring Kyle MacLachlan performing ably for the director who discovered him only a couple years prior. Even though at the time he was over 30, he plays a sense of wide-eyed wonderment and intense curiosity that totally endears one to him. Jeffrey is the explorer, the braver of the dark places, the one who is secretly pleasured by all the shadow around him. Its an extraordinary role, and matched only in magnitude by the nefarious Frank Booth himself, played by Dennis Hopper. Hopper should have won an Oscar for this disgusting pig of a character he plays. Frank is a murderous psychopath with no scruples about what he does or how he does it, and the way he carries himself is quite intimidating, to say the least. Hopper imbues him with a constant sense of unpredictability, as well as a sinister affectation, a hip-holstered tank of a mysterious gas he breathes into when he wants to start trouble, that is Oscar-worthy in itself. Isabella Rossellini plays Dorothy exquisitely, and I truly admire her for the deep performance she gives, both emotionally and physically. It is rare to see someone giving it all up to the camera, but here she leaves the frame with almost nothing left. It’s amazing, and her character is certainly a highlight.

If all this doesn’t seem good enough to you for it to be deemed a classic by much of the world, there’s also something else here that I cannot put into words about this film that makes it special. It is an aura, a feeling of dread, a certain unidentified something that makes its way onto nearly every frame that propels Blue Velvet further down the rabbit hole. If you watch it like I have, religiously, you might start to notice it as well. Maybe its my imagination, but I think that you can see something that is more deranged and diseased than even the bleakest of horror film in these characters, and that really goes a long way with me. I really enjoy this movie, despite my acknowledgement of some of his later works as superior pieces of art. It’s my own personal favorite, though, so I’m biased. Either way, I give Blue Velvet 9 1/2 “chicken walks” out of 10. I loved it, and you might too.

Tomorrow I will be throwing out my thoughts on a little slice of Miami life called Scarface! Until then, I leave you with my favorite line from this kooky, kooky movie:

Solaris (2002), or Stars At Elbow And Foot, Indeed

23 04 2009

Wow. Yesterday seems so far away now, doesn’t it? Only yesterday I was brushing my long, luxurious rock & roll hair, writing down my thoughts on the 70s Russian classic, Solaris. Mmm. Those were the days. But today is another day, and so I watched another movie. Kinda. If you recall, in 2002, Steven Soderbergh remade this gem of a film and cast George Clooney as the lead. Wait, nobody remembers that? Nobody? *crickets chirping* Oh, that’s right! I forgot! Nobody saw this film! Out of the $47 million it took to make, it made an estimated $10 million. Oops. Why is that, I wonder? Well, after taking a look at it, it might not be the obvious reason you might think.

I’ve already gone over the plot to this film in my review of the original. Consider this a companion piece and read my take on the original Solaris here!

Now that you’re up to speed, let me first say that I liked this movie. I liked it even though it had a lot going against it as far as I was concerned. I was against a few hiring choices they made here, chief among them the director and star. I thought some of the artistic decisions were a little off. And if that wasn’t enough, they cut off an entire HOUR compared to Tarkovsky’s 163 minute opus. But I liked it.

Secondly, let me say that I don’t really think this is a remake. It’s more of an alternate interpretation of the source material. There really aren’t a lot of similarities between Soderbergh’s film and Tarkovsky’s other than the main plot. All the aesthetics are different, and the focus here has shifted even more from Lem’s novel, focusing HEAVILY on the relationship between Kris (here called Chris) and Hari (here called Rheya). And Solaris even represents something different for these characters, something quantifiable and less mysterious. If this is a remake, they did a piss-poor job. But I’m willing to bet that it isn’t.

Let me reiterate what I meant by disagreeing with some of the hiring choices. Steven Soderbergh makes movies that, for me, could mean something but do not. Solaris is a book that means a number of different things, and so it seems from a distance that perhaps these two would not mesh well together. Soderbergh, however, succeeds in finding meaning here, but only one. It is frustrating and distracting for me at times, but not nearly as distracting as George Clooney. I think it must be hard for Clooney to make himself vulnerable in a role, because he always has this movie star aura around him that follows him from scene to scene. Clooney’s Chris is not so much of a psychologist as much as he is a movie star playing a psychologist, and I can’t reconcile with that fact. I will say that he bares a lot of himself here, beyond his normal, stronger male roles. But perhaps he should not have been Chris Kelvin just because he was the biggest name on the casting sheet.

Now, after all this bitching, what do I like about this movie? Well, long-time Soderbergh composer Cliff Martinez turns in what might be his finest work on this soundtrack. It is truly, truly beautiful and heartfelt. I firmly believe in the power of music, and this score really has the power to break down one’s barriers. It’s a recommended buy on its own, as far as I’m concerned. I also like the ending, one of a handful of mysterious moments to be had during this breezy 95 minute affair. Clooney also gives Chris a particular atheist sass when it comes to arguments of faith that I particularly enjoy, but that’s really just a personal preference (though I feel as if his faithlessness gets swatted down at the end, and that bugs me a little bit). And, all in all, it’s quick and easy to watch. It’s not as engrossing as the Tarkovsky film but still asks all the mandatory questions, so it’s like a diet soda version of the 1972 version. And I can live with that.

It’s not bad. I liked it. I wouldn’t feel right saying much more than that, so I’m sticking with my gut. People probably did not flock to this in droves because the previews all sold it as “A GEORGE CLOONEY SCI FI MOVIE” instead of giving it the credit it deserved as being a smarter-than-your-average-science-fiction-film philosophical drama. It’s timeless love in space, and I can respect that notion as a hapless romantic. The soundtrack is great, the special effects are nice and shiny, and the acting keeps pace with Soderbergh’s vision. If you’re looking for something a bit more substantial, though, check out Tarkovsky’s unique version. I give this version of Solaris 7 1/2 sassy atheists swatted down by the Man out of 10. Check it out, all you fans of the original, and at least give it a chance.

Tomorrow is the PSA, where we fall into the abyss with Blue Velvet!

Solaris (1972), or A Planet Of Mind

22 04 2009

In the annals of sci-fi, there are few movies that really, REALLY make you think. It’s difficult enough to have a sci-fi movie be good, but to be truly thought-provoking and original; that is a pinnacle most simply do not reach. Today’s film goes above and beyond what people ask of in a science fiction film. Solaris, as I found it, not only questions the nature of man, but his ability to cope with his own mercurial essence. In mysterious images, it paints a picture of human pain that is infinitely vast and paradoxically infinitesimal in comparison to the ceaseless black of the universe.

The film deals mainly with Kris Kelvin, a psychologist in the perhaps-distant future. He is being sent to a space station orbiting a far-off planet called Solaris, a mysterious ocean planet. It seems that after years of research, few conclusions have been reached about the planet, and so Kelvin will go to determine whether or not the expedition can be saved. After saying goodbye to the earth and his old life, he hurtles through space towards the enigma of his destination. When he reaches the space station, he finds only two people there, a Dr. Snaut and a Dr. Sartorius. Both of them act strangely and caution him of bizarre happenings caused by the planet itself. Solaris itself is revealed to have a mysterious sway over human consciousness and possesses something of an intelligence. But once Kelvin realizes what is happening, Solaris has already tapped into his thoughts and created a guest on their space station for him; Hari, his dead wife.

I fell in love with this movie. It is a journey into the self. Solaris exists as a cosmic mirror in a way, pressing itself in the face of those who would watch it. It is a film that is not about the depths of space, but the complications that exist within each of us. Director Andrei Tarkovsky asks a lot of tough questions here, and not all of them are even answerable, but the complex ideas of human self-loathing, the grief of loss, and the relativity of love are all pondered upon here.

This is a Russian-language film, so for those of you who don’t like to “read your movies”, don’t watch this one, and never talk to me in person or I will have to politely walk away mid-sentence. The script is eloquent and crafted with care, and there is a magic in these characters and this situation that touches me in my deepest sense of self. It was adapted from the Stanislaw Lem novel of the same name, and although the script is substantially different compared to the book, a number of philosophical touchstones shine through to wonderful effect. I enjoyed all 163 minutes of this incredibly compelling story.

The leads, Natalya Bondarchuk and Donatas Banionis, are merely marionettes in the hands of Tarkovsky. It is simply mesmerizing to see a director in such total control. That doesn’t happen too much these days, so watching a director’s words inhabit an actor’s mouth is something to behold. The movie is said to be too long, like all of Tarkovsky’s work, but I feel as if Solaris were one second shorter this vision would not be nearly as complete as it is. It is something almost approaching sacred, and not a single haunting frame could be taken away without compromising the meaning of Tarkovsky’s slow-building epic.

I was really taken aback by how much this film resonated with me. Even now, I can’t comprehend just what it is that Solaris represents for me. I wager that it varies from person to person, and my experience will be completely different from yours. This was a landmark picture for the cinematic world, and it has yet to find an equal in today’s less meditative sci-fi movie. I recommend watching this in conjunction with 2001: A Space Odyssey. They are two sides of the same coin, and their genius is only magnified by their lack of peerage. It’s a flawless, well-made movie, simple as that, so I give Solaris 10 mysterious ocean planets out of 10. I highly recommend it.

Tomorrow, I’m going to watch this movie again, albeit with a different cast and crew. That’s right; I’m going to watch the recent remake of Solaris starring George Clooney! Will it be as disastrous as its budget deficit? We’ll find out tomorrow!

Species (1995), or Alien Love Is Difficult To Maintain

21 04 2009

People have a fascination with aliens that will never go away. They assume that just because there might be intelligent life somewhere else in the universe, they would automatically come here first thing and rectally probe us. But here’s the thing; if there is intelligent life out there somewhere, they probably don’t possess the technology to traverse the millions of light years between worlds. And if they did, what makes Earth so interesting that they would eschew all the other mysteries of the cosmos just to come and dick with a bunch of farmers and cattle like sexual deviants? That doesn’t stop most people, though. Despite the fact that no human being has ever seen an alien before, they’ve not only come up with the names of their worlds, spaceships, and leaders, but they’ve even superimposed faces on these oft-visiting farmhouse menaces. Take a look at this clip, which is essentially a lot of time and hard work spent on conjecture and unadulterated madness.

Uh… “secret shadow mlitary activities”? Well, maybe I can understand that, after watching today’s feature, Species. It’s probably the best movie I’ve seen about an alien fucking a human since David Bowie’s classic 70s porn, The Man Who Fell To Uranus.

The film stars Natasha Henstridge as an alien bred by scientists after a transmission from outer space tells them how to create an alien-human hybrid. Why this is done other than for the sake of doing it is never explained. Oh, well. The scientists create this hybrid, much to the confusion of the audience. They call her Sil; she looks like a normal little girl, but looks can be deceiving. She matures into a 12 year-old girl in about 3 months from just a baby, and that freaks the scientists out quite a bit. After a failed attempt to kill her, Sil escapes from the scientists and, in response, the government assembles a team to kill her comprised of an anthropologist, a tracker, a molecular biologist, and a damn psychic!!! But the alien is difficult to track, because now Sil is a full-grown voluptuous woman who wants to mate with and kill a male of our species. The B-Team, as I call them, refuse to let that happen, and will stop at nothing to recapture and/or kill her. Will they succeed, or is Sil just too damn sexy?

This was a movie that existed for the sole purpose to admire Natasha Henstridge’s breasts. It is an exploitation flick of the highest order, and while I cannot fault them for that, they could have at least made it more fun. There is absolutely NO tongue in cheek here, no laughs coming out of this potential chuckle-factory. It’s trying to be a deadly serious sci-fi movie as well as the breast-in-your-face movie of the century. It could have been a lot better by being a lot less stoic, and I’m just amazed that they themselves didn’t really recognize this fact. I’m confused, and a little turned on.

The script is a mess. I’m not sure whether it even wanted to be an exploitation film. Most of the time the actors all treat it like it was Shakespeare, but that’s incredibly misleading when they must have known the material they were dealing with. I’d equate it to a $20 million remake of Manos: The Hands of Fate; everyone knows its a monumentally bad idea, so why even bother? It’s a mystery, and we’ll probably never get to the bottom of it, now that everyone involved with this film would probably rather be stabbed in the cheek than be reminded of this eye-rolling masterpiece.

Nobody can say that they didn’t have the best people working on this at the time. Sir Ben Kingsley is slumming it up yet again as the head scientist!!! Gandhi is looking more and more like a fluke every day, Sir Ben. Forrest Whitaker is the empath (aka useless psychic) assigned to the case, and approaches it with the same false excitement he approached Vic Mackey with on The Shield when he wanted some information out of him. Michael Madsen also pokes his head out for a quick paycheck to play a pig and an unlikeable “tough guy”, but even he can’t do anything about this. Natasha Henstridge plays Breast- I mean Aereola- I mean Mammery- I mean Sil! This was her first acting gig, and while she put up a valiant effort, I have a sneaking suspicion that she was still a bit unpolished, which resulted in her grating “predatory” lines, including the classic “Don’t go. Please! I want a baby!”.

The special effects were good for ’95, I will admit. The alien designs by H.R. Giger, while by no means his best, still created a macabre and complicated portrait of an alien whose main mission is to reproduce. The alien part of Sil is not as realistic as she is grotesque, which in its own weird way adds a realism unattainable any other way. Her transformations from a human into an alien have not aged well as far as special effects go, but it at least didn’t distract from the overall picture.

I recommend Species to pre-pubescent boys with no access to internet pornography. There are some good Natasha Henstridge shots here that even my 10 year-old body could recognize as pretty hot when this came out on VHS. If you are not a fan of exploitation, though, I wouldn’t put my stamp of approval on it. It’s not dramatic, funny, or even that sci-fi. It’s about a group of scientists, a tracker, and a psychic (!!!) hunting down an alien whose only crime was being born too horny. And murder. If you find you can’t get behind this idea, I would pass. To all others, I give Species 4 “secret shadow mlitary activities” out of 10.

Tomorrow I’m going to watch Solaris! Until then, I leave you with one more example of insanity and mental infirmities I found on Youtube while discovering weird “alien” stuff.