Scanners (1981), or I’m Gonna Suck Your Brain Dry!!!

12 05 2009

Before I go onto the movie, let me just first preface this film by saying that the trailer from YouTube featured above is awesome! That’s the mark of quality when you let the movie sell itself! All they had were a couple of cards and a scene! Try doing that in 2009!

David Cronenberg is a mad genius. In the tradition of, well, nobody else, he has constantly pushed the boundaries of what is art, horror, and science fiction. Starting with Stereo in 1969, Cronenberg has touched on deep philosophical questions about the metaphysical, the eternal, the mental, and the sexual, all while remaining vehemently entertaining. Today’s feature, Scanners, is one of his most famous movies, and while everybody knows the concept by now, the younger generation (Did I mention I’m only 22?)  has little time or interest to actually watch the damn thing. And while I can’t say that they’re missing the experience of a lifetime, it’s still a winner that could use a bigger fan base.

As I said, we all know what’s up with the plot. Out of the billions of people on the planet, about 200 of them have special telepathic powers. Dubbed “Scanners”, these people have powers over the mind and can do horrible things to others using only the power of their thoughts. Cameron Vale is one such Scanner. He is a hobo who wants to be alone due to this great and terrible power given to him. Vale is desired by a weapons manufacturer named ConSec who wants to twist him to their will. They want to use him to destroy a renegade group of Scanners led by a man named Revok, who has his eyes on possibly creating an army of Scanners. Questions abound: is ConSec just as evil as renegade Revok, who kills with impunity anyone who questions his diabolical plan? Will Vale join the fight and use his powerful Scanning ability to destroy Revok? And how is someone with Scanning abilities produced, anyway?

It’s a special effects extravaganza/action/mystery/exploding head film (!!!) that might be the single most important film of its genre. Scanners is a fabulously unrealistic look at incredibly powerful individuals with the power to end people’s lives with a single thought. It amazes me how Revok is the only one bucking for power. Not to be cynical, but if there were incredibly telepathic individuals on the planet, wouldn’t you think that more than just one of them would have vied for control of the planet? I know if I could destroy with a thought, I would be so ruthless that if you thought one bad thing, ONE BAD THING about me, Bren, or Mystery Science Theater 3000, I would turn you into Scanner dust faster than you could say, “MY BRAIN!!!!

Cronenberg usually directs movies that force you into questioning what it was that you had just seen. Scanners is different, though. No second-guessing yourself here. He makes a straight-forward film for what might have been the second time in his career, other than the infamous Fast Company. It is a clear path straight to the end, with nothing but the mystery aspect to obscure your view of the titanic climax. There’s nothing wrong with that, certainly, but it makes you wonder if the film would have carried more impact if the movie had been darker and denser. As it is, he turns on all the lights in the room, making the world of Scanners a lot less creepy.

I have a confession; I loved Michael Ironside here. He is a top-notch character actor who plays the villain to the nines. Ironside is Revok, and in his third film as an actor he is already blowing up people’s heads! If that’s not progress, I don’t know what is. I honestly didn’t care for the rest of the cast. Even Vale, played by delightful painter Stephen Lack, is lackluster compared to this insidious villain. While it’s traditionally true that the villain is more interesting than the hero, the villain is more interesting than the entire cast combined! If anyone ever says the name Michael Ironside, I will think first of this movie, then his equally villainous turn in Total Recall, then his virtuoso heroic turn in Starship Troopers. A fitting legacy for a man whose veiny, white-eyed visage will always grace the cover of this fine film.

If a genre-defying film about telepaths dueling for the fate of the world sounds like a good Wednesday night to you, I can vouch for Scanners. It’s not for everyone, and it’s certainly not Cronenberg’s best, but it might be his most accessible work of the 80s. It’s great for a night of popcorn and festoonery, just don’t think about the premise too much or your head might explode. I give Scanners 8 veiny, white-eyed visages out of 10!

Tomorrow I begin to pack pretty hard-core for my move to a new apartment! I’ll keep you posted as to what tomorrow’s movie is, but whatever it might be, the review could be tragically brief. Just anticipate it, and don’t hate me for moving!!!

Christiane F (1981), or Still Think Drugs Are Cool?

11 05 2009

I never did drugs. Not once. Sounds pretty awesome, right? Well, it’s not as glamorous as it sounds. Whenever people ask me if I smoke (I have long hair, so everyone assumes I just walked off the set of Dazed And Confused 2) and I tell them no, they give me that look of utter disdain, like I was a piece of gutter trash. Whenever people talk about their cool drug stories, like how they only have one working nostril from all the coke going through their nose, or how they don’t have any protruding veins on their arms anymore because all the good ones have been tapped, I have to sit there like a Pollyanna and giggle like a brain-dead ox. And when all my friends are cleaning their used needles with toilet water in a public bathroom, I always have to be the guy who’s genuinely in there to take a piss! Okay, that last story originated from a scene in my film today, Christiane F, but the rest are true-life experiences; don’t mock me!

Christiane F is a German fictional film shot documentary-style about the famous heroin addict of the same name. It chronicles her transformation from a naive 14 year old girl who dabbles in some drugs to a full-blown heroin junkie and prostitute. Her transformation begins when she hears about a hip new disco called Sound, where all the kids are cool and do lots of drugs. Christiane falls into the wrong crowd and together they go on a drug-addled odyssey into the darkness of addiction. Christiane falls harder and farther than most, and it doesn’t seem like there is much hope in sight for the naive young girl trapped at the Sound club.

This film is brutal. It gives a very up-close look at the world of German hipster junkies that I was not even aware existed. I was prepared for something painful, but I found something much worse here than just pain. We are taken into the bathrooms and the private rooms to shoot up, snort, smoke, and ingest all types of narcotics for some temporary pleasure that quickly morphs into days of misery. The filthy poor teenage drug culture was a very ugly thing, and, ironically, it is the stark portrayal of that culture that lends to this film’s smoldering beauty.

Christiane lives in a repulsive world, trapped between a lonely home life and a dangerous life on the street, and she chooses what she feels to be the lesser of two evils. Everywhere there is a sort of gnawing ennui in her life written on the walls and the floors, and all the drugs do, unbeknown to her, is exacerbate the problem instead of cleanse the wounds of teenage depression. Cracks in the ceilings of the filthy houses dotting Christiane F speak volumes more than simple dialog. There are little snippets everywhere of addled, brilliant poetry, especially in the most obvious place to look for evocative language; the bathroom at Sound.

The dialog is rough, colloquial, and very much German. I didn’t care too much for the dialog, to be honest, but in all fairness I have heard that the DVD English subtitles are mediocre at best, so I have to give it a mulligan on that one. It just seemed unnatural and uninspired to me, but let’s not cry over spilt subtitles.

The acting is unbelievably good, to the point where I was concerned for the actors’ safety. It’s not hard to look like a junkie, but it takes a lot of skill to inhabit a junkie’s skin. Two of the characters in particular, Christiane and her lover Detrev, have to go through some withdrawal symptoms, and I felt a cringe on my face that lasted for minutes while those two tried quitting the stuff on their own. When you would rather see a couple shoot heroin into themselves than see them withdrawal, that is a good performance.

Oh, and David Bowie is in this movie!!! He plays, you guessed it, David Bowie at a club. If you’re a big David Bowie fan, and you don’t mind watching the last sad remnants of his 70s genius slink off of him like a clown costume, I think he has some non ear-melting tracks on the soundtrack, like “Station to Station” and “Heroes”. It’s still depressing to watch the last great era of a legendary artist float away in a heroin withdrawal fantasy, but I still like the guy and I understand he probably had to either put more keyboards in the mix or face a slow death in the Virgin Records dungeons.

I can’t think about this movie too much more or I’ll become very morose. It is an extremely visceral film about the dangers of being sucked into the drug culture too far. Some people make the case that it glamorizes drugs, with the characters and their cool mode of dress, as well as the hipster music they listen to, but after watching Christiane F all the way to the end, I can safely say that I am in NO DANGER of trying drugs. I would rather shave my eyeballs with a rusty tuna can lid than live in Christiane’s shoes for a day. It’s a good movie that anyone interested in German filmmaking should see at least once. I give it 8 Thin White Dukes out of 10! Check it out!

I’m done for tonight!!!!! Finally! Check in tomorrow for my review of Scanners!

The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928), or Passion Plays And Silent Screams (Part 4)

11 05 2009

Carl Theodore Dreyer, the aforementioned director, was a visionary whose career took some strange twists and turns along the way. Besides making serious religious crises dramas, he also made light comedies (Thou Shalt Honor Thy Wife), horror films (Vampire), and one of the first films ever about a gay relationship (Michael). He was a Renaissance man, in that regard, but he always brought the same level of organic naturalism to his films, which really allows them to stand out from the completely over-wrought films of the era. Watching a Dreyer picture is like watching a documentary of incredibly interesting people; they’re just like us, only cooler. And he could always come at you with a different angle. He could be sweet, he could be full of regret, or he could be down-right terrifying. In The Passion of Joan of Arc, I think he’s coming from a very wistful point of view, as if he regrets humanity on a whole for what has been done to her, and he wanted to apologize with an 82-minute love note.

In the pantheon of film, I think that this one will always stand out. Not only for its groundbreaking techniques, its incredibly talented cast and crew, and its powerful subject matter, but for its wonderfully understated and organic style, its piercing tone of desperation, and its underlined portrayal of religious fanaticism and psychotic ecstasy. Whenever I think of silent film greatness, one of the first images to pop into my head will be that of a forlorn Renèe Falconetti silently weeping in her jail cell, waiting to be sacrificed for a petty crime in the name of a God who would rather watch and smile than act and be judged. It’s an undeniably strong image, and it will stay with me the rest of my days. I give The Passion of Joan of Arc 10 sad-eyed saints out of 10. My highest recommendation!

Keep an eye out later today for my take on Barton Fink and, even later, my viewing of The Running Man

Barton Fink (1991), or Creativity Meandering Into The Meat Grinder

10 05 2009

It’s not easy being creative. I should know; I write movie reviews all day (critiquing other people’s creativity is creative, right?). Often, we don’t always appreciate the ideas that float through our social and personal consciousness and the people they come from, nor do we often ponder the work it took to take those ideas from someone’s head onto a palatable medium. In our enlightened age, where ideas and creativity are so abundant, it doesn’t occur to us that perhaps the artist is sometimes a victim of exploitation, a worker like you and I whose pressures and deadlines are just as real as ours, and not a Hollywood elite or a high society snob who would not be caught dead with a proletariat philistine. After watching today’s film, the eerie Barton Fink, I have a whole new appreciation for the artist that I cannot say I had before, although the plight of the artist is only the most obvious connotation to take out of this dense and claustrophobic work.

Barton Fink is a writer in 1941 celebrating the success of his first Broadway play. Word of the play’s success reaches a bigwig from Capitol Pictures, and he offers Fink a job writing screenplays for his studio. He agrees to the offer, and begins writing a script for a wrestling movie after checking himself into the nearly-deserted Earle Hotel. There, while struggling to come up with good ideas for what is obviously a B-movie, he falls into the complicated lives of the wounded denizens of Hollywood, including a drunken chauvinist novelist, his beautiful and deceptively intelligent secretary/lover, and a charming man named Charlie who might be more than he seems. From there, the road only grows darker, and by the end all that may be ascertained is that the audience has witnessed something very special.

The Coens, yet again, prove that they have something that other directors don’t have. This film about the life and the craft of writers is an intensely obfuscated piece that has no easy answers, but plenty of stirring conjecture as to what those answers might be. It’s an intelligent genre-defying movie that begs intelligence of us. After only seeing it once, I am already hoping to see it again sometime soon, to better acquaint myself with what I just saw, and whether or not I can even fully grasp it.

John Turturro gives the performance of his career as Barton Fink, a man who puts himself at hazard by agreeing to work for Capitol. Barton is a very human character, a writer who bemoans the life of the common man, but deigns to truly understand what a common man’s life really means. He grows and evolves throughout the movie into a man who can scarcely be called the same man he was at the beginning, and in that journey Turturro delivers a virtuoso piece of work. His neighbor Charlie, played by John Goodman, is another milestone character in the career of an actor, as I have never and probably will never again see such a multi-faceted performance from a man who has been unfortunately type-cast in comedic, second-banana roles. Goodman’s Charlie is the unofficial heart of the film, and one would do well to listen to every line he has to say very carefully. There’s something very special about him, and I wager that he is the key to the mysterious events surrounding the final third of the film.

The Coens decided to fill the atmosphere with ominous, powerful music surrounded by dreary tunes from the 1940s. It really highlights the distinction between the outside world Barton visits during his off time and the Hotel Earle, the place he holes himself up in to create. The hotel itself is a character in a way, as if it holds Barton under a spell and keeps him there to write but prevents him from writing. There are a lot of mysteries I’ve yet to unravel here, such as the picture in Barton’s room, Charlie’s past, and the infamous box. There are so many touches here that I can’t even begin to take them on after only one viewing. I would definitely popping this one in again right after you watch it. There is so much subtext, it feels like there’s another movie underneath.

I feel totally emasculated by Barton Fink. It hit me in a very vulnerable spot. Perhaps I’m the confused writer, or the man trapping himself in a place he shouldn’t be at. Whatever I am, I know that I am completely outclassed by the Coens’ symbolism at the moment. If I can carve out some time in my busy movie schedule, I’ll view this again, but at the moment I’ll just have to let this enigma lie. Don’t let me stop you, though. This is a movie unlike any other you’re bound to see in your lifetime. It’s an unlit road into the cramped and dank mind of a writer, and it’s more disturbing than perhaps even I had previously calculated. I am totally impressed, regardless, and I give Barton Fink 10 self-imposed prisons out of 10. My highest recommendation!

And if you thought that was it, I have even one more review today! That’s right! Another reader request, I just finished watching Christiane F and am writing a review on it parallel to this review! I’m a workaholic!

The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928), or Passion Plays And Silent Screams (Part 3)

9 05 2009

As I said before, Maria Falconetti is wonderful as the eponymous Joan, but what makes her so special? What did she do differently from so many other able silent film actors? She puts it all in the character. Every fiber of her IS Joan of Arc. I do not see an actress who lived comfortably in the Italian hill country. I see a tortured spirit, a woman who suffered needlessly and often. When the guard in the clip above takes her ring, she knows there is nothing she can do, and without being able to raise a hand, she wounds us with her facial expressions. The long takes only accentuate this, not to mention the lack of make-up on any of the actors to bring the end of the Hundred Years War to dirty, torch-lit life.

Does Joan want to hurt these people who question and assault her? Does she scorn them, despite the outward cries of Godliness? Does she obfuscate the answers to their queries out of pride and defiance, or is she truly “touched” by the hand of God? Falconetti’s face is an enigma, a truly beguiling portrait whose expressions will always make us wonder. I would say that perhaps she put something of a quiet strength to Joan that arises from a more natural source. In subtle ways, I believe Falconetti brought a more human feel to the long-suffering French soldier than people would give her credit for. While it is open to interpretation, I would recommend watching the interrogation scenes a second time through. She is not the picturesque angel clad in flesh and bone that most people associate with this film. I almost found her to have a sense of humor, as she brushed off certain questions with ease, as if she had better things to do than rot in a jail cell.

But Falconetti and Dreyer unwittingly create something here that must be commented on. It is the madness of faith. Joan of Arc was not just any old victim; she is a saint, for crying out loud! And Falconetti’s recreation of Joan’s religious fervor colors the movie eight different shades of deranged. Her wide, spaced-out eyes beam with what she thinks must be heavenly effulgence, but what appears for the audience to be the onset of a psychotic episode. She looks immensely disturbed, and Dreyer’s artistic decision to have the film side completely with Joan puts The Passion of Joan of Arc in a strange position. It is a religious movie about a religious icon created by a religious director that depicts faith in a terrifying and unstable light. What does it say about Christianity that a saint, one of the holiest honors placed upon a human being, looks like she just escaped from Bellvue and all but froths at the mouth when confronted with the concept of going to Heaven? What does it say about religion when behavior like this is condoned and accepted as having “great faith”? Whatever the answers to these questions may be for you, I fully back a movie that, even unknowingly, creates a case against faith.

Tomorrow will be the conclusion of my discussion of this fine movie, which will include my take on director Carl Dreyer and this film’s contributions to cinema. See you then!

Altered States (1980), or Carlos Castaneda In An Isolation Tank

9 05 2009

People throughout history have often considered hallucinations to be very important spiritual and personal experiences that represent the unseen forces at work behind the veil of the cold and unforgiving universe. It’s a fascinating concept and the impetus of a number of important works in the Pantheon of art. In reality, of course, they don’t mean anything; they’re malfunctions in the brain caused by any number of different catalysts resulting in a disturbed and warped reality. But the power of the phenomenon persists, and if used appropriately it can be a powerful device for any art form as a mercurial metaphor. In 1980, Ken Russell broke new ground in exploring the occurrence of hallucinations and their significance with his film Altered States, and after watching it today, I’m more interested than ever at the mystical periphery at the edge our consciousness.

William Hurt stars as a college professor Edward Jessup, who discovers a surprising link to our waking state of being and our other subconscious states. While studying schizophrenia, he postulates that perhaps the selves beneath our commonly accepted reality are just as real and as palpable as the people we are everyday in our awakened life. To study this idea further, he starts taking hallucinogenic mushrooms and creates a sensory deprivation experiment in a flotation tank at the school (what a cool teacher!).These experiments open up his subconscious mind and release some surreal, powerful visions that completely transforms his mental state. To his shock, however, he finds that his postulations are correct, and the older, more primordial selves beneath the conscious mind are indeed real. Because the experiments are making him change physically, de-evolving him into something not quite human…

It’s one thing to introduce the possibilities of something like this, and it’s another to actually pull it off. Altered States is a gloriously gutsy picture about navigating the limitless possibilities of man’s transcendence/de-evolution through the awakening of our older, animalistic selves. I found its ambition refreshing, although such ambition is not without costs. It asks a lot of questions, and filling in the blank with your own conjecture is fine, but asking any serious questions of the film in return pokes a hole in the facade and it begins to border on ridiculousness. Jessup’s transformation is a terrifying prospect on the surface, but to take it seriously and extrapolate the concept makes it all feel a bit silly. Enjoying it at face value, though, and going along with the pseudo-science makes for a very compelling cinematic experience.

There are some remarkable effects here that I can’t see being done in 2009 without computer-generated assistance. Six-eyed beasts, tiny primordial men, alien landscapes, and William Hurt’s unfathomable transformations are all done with make-up and a good ol’ fashioned SFX department. It’s quite admirable in this day and age that in 1980 something so mind-blowing could be made without any help from a computer. The hallucinations are a mix of both well-performed effects and editor Eric Jenkins making some expert decisions on how a scene would be best placed within a nightmarish dreamworld. The results are spectacular on a scale that most other mind-bending films just cannot compete with.

William Hurt, in only his second movie role, dazzles with a confidence and a strength that would later define his roles in classics like Body Heat and Kiss of the Spider Woman. He plays Jessup with a deep hunger for knowledge that might never be satisfied until it becomes too late. It’s a wonder to watch anyone try to carve out a niche for themselves in the industry with a role, but especially Hurt because he had more than just a desire to get a gig after this, he had the talent to back it up. Blair Brown plays Jessup’s wife Emily, and I was quite taken with her in parts of the movie. She doesn’t have that eerie artificiality that comes with most actresses. She seems warm and incredibly human, which works extremely well considering that she represents Jessup’s ties to the waking world.

It’s a daring film, one of Ken Russell’s best directorial efforts, and a standout performance in William Hurt’s amazing career. Other than an ending that felt disingenuous and banal, as well as a willingness to play along with pseudo-science being a prerequisite for maximum comprehension of the plot, it hit all the right notes for me. I found Altered States fascinating and bizarre, just at that threshold between terrifying and humorous, where a concept is almost laughable but grossly stoic simultaneously. It’s a film that probes the darkness of our minds; not so much looking for anything, but just to see what’s in there. I enjoyed it, and it makes for a great Saturday night movie to watch in the dead silence of the evening (hint, hint: go rent it, people!!!). I give it 8 1/2 tiny primordial men out of 10.

Come back tomorrow, where I ask all of you a serious question: what’s the deal with Barton Fink?

PSA: Pootie Tang (2001), or I Am The Fifth Person To Ever Watch Pootie Tang

8 05 2009

You know, there have been quite a few films to push the boundary of what’s considered funny, but I think this movie has a special place in that realm. There’s weird, there’s unexplainable, and then there’s Pootie Tang. It all sounds so innocent; a comedy helmed by funnyman Louis C.K., produced by Chris Rock, inspired by a sketch on The Chris Rock Show, and featuring a cast of exceptional talent (including Wanda Sykes, Jennifer Coolidge, and Dave Attell!). It sounds like something I would watch on a Saturday night after I sneaked into all the dramatic films playing at the time. But of all the sketches of all the episodes of The Chris Rock Show, they picked the absolute most bat-shit insane concept of them all. It’s a film for a select few, and that’s probably why it did so horribly in theaters, but if you like stuff that’s off the beaten path, you can’t get much more off it than this one.

The premise doesn’t even sound that wacky. It focuses on the ultra-famous music mogul, crimefighter, ladies man, and super-suave playboy Pootie Tang. Everything this guy touches is gold, and everything he does, no matter how ludicrous or unnecessary, is taken as genius. And while not saving the hood from drug dealers, deflecting bullets with his ponytail, selling hit singles without making so much as a peep, and frustrating the ladies with his unwillingness to bed women he doesn’t care about, he makes PSAs (like me!) telling kids to be good, stay in school, and eat their vegetables. So these PSAs, like everything else Pootie does, are TREMENDOUSLY successful, setting kids straight all across the nation. But the evil LecterCorp., run by an even evil-er Robert Vaughn, is not pleased with this, as his products are designed to keep kids down and addicted to fast food, cigarettes, and alcohol. So he and Pootie’s arch-rival, Dirty Dee, try to find out the secret of Pootie’s power, which might be concealed within the magic ass-whoopin’ belt (!!!) he uses to beat down criminals with…

Okay, a little weird, but it sounds okay, right? Magical ass-whoopin’ belt aside, it doesn’t sound like anything that would be off-putting for a large portion of the country, does it? Well, I forgot to mention one thing. Pootie Tang, the main character who happens to have a fair number of lines, doesn’t speak English. He doesn’t really speak any language, per se, but rather a dialect that makes Ebonics read like Lord Byron. It doesn’t make one bit of sense in context with anything, but everyone else in the movie, in the tradition of Charlie Brown’s parents and teachers, seem to understand exactly what he is talking about. Examples of this, in no particular order, include, “Wa-da-tah!”, “Cleepa!”, Sepatown!”, “Cole me down on the panny sty!”, and the immortal, “Sine yo pitty on the runny kine!”. What? Huh? Excuse me?

Completely pointless and confusing, this sounds like a concept that a director might stretch for about 10 minutes, or a bit throughout the whole movie, but Louis C.K. happens to have the biggest balls in history, and he keeps it going THE ENTIRE MOVIE! Completely dead-pan, totally confident in the delivery, whatever Pootie Tang says, people nod their head and go with it. I couldn’t help but laugh considering just how weird and unnecessary it was, and laughing at a comedy is always a plus.

The majority of the movie is spent selling just how cool Pootie is. He doesn’t look it, he doesn’t act it; he just IS cool, and the rest of the cast acknowledges this fact to an obscene amount. This leads to a lot of scenes of people selling this concept, with some hilarious results mostly emanating from Chris Rock, who takes on three different roles for Pootie. He plays Pootie’s father, who first bestows upon him the power of the amazing belt, one of his entourage members, and a DJ who talks about Pootie’s amazing exploits on the air. He put a lot of time into this project, and his particular brand of loud matter-0f-fact wisdom is stamped all over our field of vision.

And what kind of guy is Pootie Tang? What would inspire a studio to spend one dime of their money on this? Well, I think this clip says it all, without saying a word:

Indeed. Pootie done did it again.

It’s not high-brow, by any means. It might be downright brain-dead. I can’t really tell for sure, but if a dumb kid pops his own spit bubbles and laughs every time with a particularly wry smile on his face, just how dumb is he? We’ll never know. I mean, it’s not perfect. I would’ve taken out maybe 90% of the characters, leaving Pootie, his best friend Trucky, Robert Vaughn, and filling up the rest of the film with unknowns and set them up as cardboard cutouts for Pootie to interact with, because a lot of personalities, including the cheese-grater-on-my-balls sound of Wanda Sykes’s voice, irritate after a few minutes. But I honestly wouldn’t change much else. It’s a breezy 70 minutes of really smart/dumb humor involving made-up languages and undeserving bravado, and more people need to at least see the damn thing before they say, “HOLY SHIT! I’M NOT WATCHING POOTIE TANG!” It’s funnier than you think, if you have a very particular sense of humor. Here’s a good gauge: if you liked the Lil’ Jon sketch on Chapelle’s Show, you’ll love Pootie Tang because of its unbelievable dumbness. If you like Doctor Who and Black Adder, or at least pretend you do so your high and mighty friends won’t look down on you, then you will hate Pootie Tang with a passion because of it’s unbelievable dumbness. It’s something that has to be experienced at least once. I give Pootie Tang 6 1/2 Cleepas out of 10. Wa-da-tah!

Tomorrow I hope to get a little crazy while watching some Altered States. Until then!!!!

(Oh, and who of all people asked me to review this movie? Why, it was none other than BREN! She balked at me after watching this, reminding me of how dumb it was, and then she asked me to write about it. Cyclical logic or what?)

Star Trek (2009), or To Boldly Go (Or Not?)

7 05 2009

Every review on this movie is going to start off with a fondly-remembered story about the reviewer’s first experience watching the original Star Trek television series, what it meant to them, and how they are changing it up for this 2009 re-imagining by J.J. Abrams. Well, here’s my story: I loved the original series, really liked The Next Generation, loved Deep Space Nine, disliked Voyager, and barely paid attention to Enterprise. The movies, for the most part, were passing, although I recall liking some that most others didn’t (Part V). What attracted me to the series were the unusually deep and mature concepts introduced in the scripts that were above and beyond anything I ever saw on television. They explored philosophy, difficult moral quandaries, and the limits of science, man, and even God. What I hated about the series was that they also had a lot of throw-away episodes that relied too much on technobabble, action sequences, singular-episode character development, and (URGH) forced comedic situations. There were so many of these, in fact, that they ended up choking the franchise to death with them. Today’s feature, the shiny and taciturn new Star Trek entry from J.J. Abrams, has a script resembling that of a fifth-rate Trek episode and enough plot-padding to fill up a completely new movie with unrelated information, but manages to remain afloat due to the willingness of the peripheral cast members to go the extra mile and give noteworthy performances and the sheer power of $100 million special effects. If this is the evolution of a series, I’m a little confused on how this would have been different if they had just chucked 9 figures at the cast and crew of Enterprise.

For this re-tooling of the series, we go ALLLLLL the way back to the beginning, with a re-telling of the history of the U.S.S. Enterprise’s first crew as they face their first crisis together. An evil and mysterious Romulan named Nero has caused untold devastation on and around the planet Vulcan, and it’s up to the young and sexy crew of the newly-christened Enterprise to discover his motives and a means to stop him. Along the way they form relationships, feuds, and friendships together as officer-in-training James T. Kirk takes the reins of his destiny and begins to discover his innate ability to lead and inspire. Oh, and be a jerk.

This all sounds fine on paper, and I admit being taken with the visuals and the chance of revisiting some of my favorite characters at the beginning, albeit with more lithe bodies and taut skin than I recalled. But not too far into the movie, perhaps 30 minutes or so, I began to get the sneaking suspicion that the film was taking a MAJOR downturn. And, much to my chagrin, it was. The plot, around 45 minutes in, takes such a nose-dive that oxygen masks deployed in the theater and I was forced to use my chair as a flotation device. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but let me just warn anyone that thinks that time travel of any kind is an unforgivable plot construct to stay far away from this movie. It’s unbelievably padded, with ironically only enough plot to fill an hour-long episode being stretched out to 120 minutes.

It’s entertaining and visually arresting, I’ll give it that. When it wants to, this film can really knock you off your socks. The Enterprise looks very real, fleshed-out for the first time on such a grand scale, and in the space battles she finds herself in she attention to detail is astonishing. Space is exciting here, not the merciless cold void of Solaris but the raucous and action-filled fun-zone of Star Wars. The graphics depicting astral phenomena have a $100 million feel to them, and even I can appreciate that. Surrounding all this computer-generated wonderment, though, is a lot of excitement and some well-choreographed fight scenes that put the other films to shame. If you’re an action-oriented fellow, you could definitely do worse than seeing this new Star Trek. It will keep your attention the entire time, and I never found myself bored with the affair, whatever that is worth.

The actors were a mixed bag. Chris Pine plays the new Captain Kirk, and he is a real jerk. I don’t remember Kirk being such an incorrigible punk beyond redemption, but what do I know? He seems very thirsty for the position that is promised to him by destiny, and he seems to relish the moments where power is given to him a little too much. That is not what I want in a captain, especially not the captain of a ship I currently reside in. Zachary Quinto shines as Spock. He has very unique features, and that adds greatly to his alien appearance and the projection of his personality. I would have liked to see more of him in the film, as he is over-shadowed by that mongrel of a captain, and if they make a sequel to this re-imagining, I would like to see much more focus more on him. And kudos to Simon Pegg for playing Scotty. He doesn’t really play Scotty as much as he does Simon Pegg with a Scottish accent, but I can’t really fault him for that. He makes the audience laugh, and with all the heavy space stuff going on, I’m afraid we all need a bit more comic relief than Spock saying something “human”.

It would be an inappropriate blanket statement to say that fans of the show will not like this movie and that people who are new to the franchise will. What I will say is that this film would most likely be easier to engage with if you have never seen the show, because this isn’t a film for Trekkies or followers of the canon. It’s a film made for a younger audience using a familiar and recognizable franchise that was made to attract the largest number of people possible, and in that I’m sure they succeeded. But fans of the series might be put off, as I was, by the flagrant disregard for anything resembling canon and the lower-tier script that could have been passed for an episode of Enterprise. Lousy plot+mixed acting results+great visuals+engaging action=a little better than average, but is only a little better than average worth your time? That’s your call. I give Star Trek 5 1/2 shiny Enterprises out of 10. Make it so, Number 1.

Come back tomorrow for the PSA! I’ll be watching a little film called Pootie Tang, and… well… it’s a reader request, that’s all I’ll say. Until then!!!!

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), or Passion Plays And Silent Screams (Part 2)

6 05 2009

A little history lesson for you folks. Joan of Arc isn’t just any sexy short-haired strumpet. Way back during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), while English chevauchèe and a plague-stunted population made life very hard in lower-class France, one girl rose from her station in life and became a soldier for God and for her country. She was Joan of Arc, and she was way ahead of her time. She dressed in armor unbecoming of a woman during that time, cut her hair very short, and fought and won a number of battles for France. She was a revolutionary, in that sense, and I respect her resolve to go against social and religious taboos for her cause. She also heard voices, however, from God and from the angels, who told her that she needed to free France from English domination by His decree. And, because of her devotion to God’s word and His everlasting mercy, she was captured by the English, tried by a court of ecclesiastics, and burned at the stake for her refusal to wear women’s clothing. And England beat France in the War anyway.

Ouch. And if that’s a feel-good thought to you, then today’s subject, The Passion of Joan of Arc, gives us a look into those depressing final days and her subsequent execution. It was a silent film made in 1928, created using the actual transcribed testimonies of the heresy trial and conjecture at the hands of famed silent movie director Carl Dreyer. Many people consider this to be one of the greatest silent films, and I am tempted to side with them here.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is something very special. It doesn’t look like many other silent movies I’ve ever seen. There’s something very visceral and base in its nature that I thnk perhaps most other silent films eschewed for a softer, less intense experience. It’s unrelenting in its drive for a naturalism that borders on discomfort. For a camera that can only shoot so many frames before having to stop, the shots are extremely long for the period, and most of the time the camera is pointed squarely at the visage of the saint herself, played by Renèe Falconetti. Her performance is truly legendary.

Stay tuned for more on this timeless film, including more on Renèe Falconetti as Joan of Arc and why this might unwittingly be one of the first movies with an anti-religious message. Stay tuned tomorrow for part three!!!

Pretty Woman (1990), or This Is EXCRUCIATING!

6 05 2009

Rom-coms rub me the wrong way sometimes. They all seem to insist on a very banal but very validated romance that I don’t believe in. It’s a very uninspired yet very intimidated form of passion that’s based on the physical and the material rather than the emotional or the intellectual, the immature teenage attraction instead of the underappreciated appeal of a lasting relationship. They seep the idea of love in something that’s not to my liking, and then they twist the knife by implying that it must be everyone’s fantasy to fall in love with someone classically “beautiful” and “postured”, as if life would not be unfathomably shallow and disgusting if the Barbie and Ken ideal became a reality. I do not enjoy the concept, so I had some hesitation when I decided to watch today’s feature, Pretty Woman, which might just be the most well-known romantic comedy of the past twenty years. Within the first ten minutes, I found myself completely validated by its asinine concept, its implausible wish-fulfillment plot, and its ham-handed performances turned in by actors who were obviously hired for their names rather than their chops.

Listen to how much this resembles a sappy romance novel. Richard Gere is Edward, the suave corporate playboy. One day he’s driving around in Hollywood when he suddenly realizes he’s lost. Being a corporate bon vivant, he usually never needs help, but he’s more sensitive than most businessmen, so he asks for directions from the last person he’d normally be caught dead with; a mouthy prostitute named Vivian. Offering to give him directions herself, they find their way back to his posh hotel, where one thing leads to another and he ends up hiring her for a night. In the morning, when they both wake up after a night of wealthy passion and soul-searching inquiry, Edward asks her to be his personal date for the week, the lady on his arm, if you will, offering to pay her $3,000 for her services. She takes him up on the offer, liking the idea of being treated to luxuries and upper-crust living for a little while. But while they both have their reasons for being around one another, it soon becomes apparent that Edward and Vivian are falling for each other. But will years of living the cold-hearted life of a corporate “raider” prevent him from expressing himself, thus sundering them apart? Or can he pull it together at the end and get the hooker with the heart of gold as his woman? What do you think?

This movie gave me a headache. I cannot believe it’s so popular. I might offend a number of sensibilities by saying this, but I truly believe that this is a subpar film that does not deserve the huge place in pop culture it has carved out for itself. And before anyone decries my status as a male for immediate disqualification in this arena, let me quelch your stereotypical worldview. Believe it or not, I’m just as sensitive, if not more, than you ladies are. I believe my main squeeze, who just happens to be a woman, has more than once referred to me as a “big baby”. So when I say that Pretty Woman sucked the emotion out of me and spit it in my face like I was an indentured servant, you can trust me.

It all comes down to one huge factor; relatability. In a typical wish-fulfillment fantasy setting, there’s your average guy/girl and the unattainable HIM/HER. Now, every one of us has some sort of low self-esteem issue, honestly, so on a certain level, whether or not we choose to admit it, I think we all put ourselves in the shoes of the average guy/girl, and our potential partners always feel like the unattainable HIM/HER. The problem here is that this concept is way too messed up to have anyone want to be in the shoes of either character. You either have the cold-fish businessman with daddy issues or the hooker who has an attitude and most likely a past that would horrify the average person on the street. Wow, I get to imagine myself being either a rich asshole or a loud-mouthed nightmare in leather boots and a wig? Gee whiz!!! That’s…really not so great…

It doesn’t help that director Garry Marshall decided to cast Richard Gere and Julia Roberts as the leads. I have nothing good to say about these two here. They don’t act for one second. They speak the lines with the right inflections, but they’re not inhabiting a character in the slightest. They’re Richard Gere and Julia Roberts calling each other different names on-screen. Is the only prerequisite for being cast in a romantic comedy physical attractiveness? If so, I propose a remake with a cast made up entirely of Sears mannequins, because that’s how much I was affected by their acting skills. I know it’s all entertainment, and it’s just supposed to be a feel-good movie, but if I’m not connected in any way to anyone in the whole movie, how am I supposed to feel good?

I would call Pretty Woman a waste of my time. I have seen romantic comedies I have enjoyed (The Holiday), to be sure, and I have seen some that weren’t very bad (Serendipity). But this one crept under my skin like a rash and I am ready to go find some ointment. If I had one good thing to say about the film, I would say that the cinematographyby Charles Minsky is impressive at times, and I would certainly hire him if I were ever to make a film myself. Other than that, though, I have nothing to add to this disappointing endeavor. I give Pretty Woman 2 1/2 loud-mouthed nightmares out of 10. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to enjoy a real, fleshed-out romance with a real human being.

Tomorrow is a surprise film! Check in periodically during the day, and I’ll poke my head in with a mystery review, just for you!!!