The Comedians Of Comedy (2004), or I Think I Know What Funny Is…

31 08 2009

If you’ve never been to this website before today, let me preface this by saying that I love alt comedy. I LOVE ALT COMEDY. And I think that where alt comedy really shines is in front of the microphone. Today I discovered a small goldmine with this live concert footage of four of the best alt comics out there; Maria Bamford, Brian Posehn, Zach Galifianakis, and Patton Oswalt. It’s bad-ass, and if you love live comedy, this is one for the books!

Culled from a series of concerts in ’03, this film sets the tone for the rest of the decade in terms of pure creativity. Set in indie rock clubs instead of comedy clubs, this set of shows is superb in terms of the material these guys (and girl) have up their sleeve. The stand-up is inter-cut with their life on the road and all the zany stuff that happens to them. It’s a trip to watch some of the things they get into on the road, and gives an interesting up-close view into the life of a traveling comedian. Dealing with lame radio DJs and associating with fans across the country, these four comics pave the way for a whole new generation of comedy that won’t play easily by anyone’s rules.

What I really liked about these performances was they were not merely creative for the sake of being different, but that they were different because they had something unique to add. Comedy isn’t always about the big laughs, but rather about how you can get people to think differently about something. And these four comics do it better than few I’ve ever seen. Patton Oswalt in particular, the ringleader of this strange alt-comedy family, is just on a whole other planet with his material. He goes from simple topics like hating Bush to strange tangents like fat guys at the Soldier of Fortune convention. He’s a wonder to behold on stage, seeing his presence unload onto the crowd. It’s a shame we almost lost him to the Disney crowd with Ratatouille

The other comedians are equals to him, but in other aspects. Brian Posehn is like an observational comic mixed with a heavy metal enthusiast. He has a way of phrasing things in his whiny, nasally voice that tickles me pink. Maria Bamford is the impressionist. She likes to do weird voices and mock up-tight WASP-y culture. She really digs into characters like her mother (Margaret Cho style) with a tenacity that belies her soft-spoken quirky mannerisms. And Zach… well, what else can you say? He’s the wild man. The guy you don’t expect to make it through a set. He’s so hammered, so crazy, and so spontaneous that you’re never sure what will burst out of his mouth next. Like David Cross, but without the consistency (he’s fucked up/wasted a LOT). If there was a weak link, I’d say it’s Bamford. She has the presence, but her material is kind of weak compared to the boys. I don’t believe that men are funnier than women, but the three men here just happen to be funnier than her.

Check this out if you get a chance. It’s a valuable addition for anyone who collects stand-up DVDs. This is stand-up for the new millennium; weird, dark, and incredibly gutsy. Check it out for some of the best stand=up I’ve seen this decade. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry (from laughing too hard), you’ll learn to love again (because of all the raucous laughter going on). It comes highly recommended by me, with a sterling rating of 8 KFC bowls out of 10.

Tomorrow I explore a lost comedy tribe from the early 2000s, huddling together in the dark that I like to call Reno 911: Miami! Until then!

The Night Out: Halloween 2 (2009), or My Giant

30 08 2009

I just saw the new Rob Zombie film Halloween 2 a few moments ago, and the first thing that comes to my mind is this: Tyler Mane is a massive man. I mean, the man is 6 ‘9″, 275 lbs., and built like a skyscraper. I can’t even imagine being that large. If you want something from the top shelf, you have to bend down to get it. If you want work as a bouncer, all you have to do is fax a picture of yourself to the bar. And if someone asks you to open a jar of pickles, you can beat them to death with it and continue your plan of sororicide. That’s what Tyler Mane pretty much does in Rob Zombie’s sequel to his 2007 re-imagining of the Halloween franchise, Halloween 2. It’s brutal, visceral, and leaves most of the boo scares to the new Final Destination movie that also came out this week; just what I wanted from the director of House of 1,000 Corpses.

So, if you saw the first Zombie Halloween, you’ll know that at the end, young Laurie (who is *spoiler alert!* Michael’s little sister) shoots Michael Myers in the face, effectively ending Michael’s reign of terror throughout the sleepy little hamlet of Haddonfield. Well, apparently when you shoot someone in the face, you better get a size-appropriate weapon to do the job, because there was plenty of brain left for Michael to use for escape purposes after the police start trotting him off to the morgue. He escapes, but instead of going straight back into town, he bides his time. He waits an entire year for his prey, living as a wild man in the surrounding farm land, feeding off the land and letting the vision of his dead mother guide him to his destiny. So on Halloween, one year later, Michael Myers decides to come back to Haddonfield to find his sister again, who isn’t all there after the attack last year. She has horrible nightmares, visions, and violent mood swings. Could she be going as insane as Michael? Will her brother finally get her this time? And will Sheriff Brad Dourif ever get some peace and quiet on an October 31st?

Questions abound this time around. Most people were not expecting a new Halloween after the original Zombie film ended so abruptly, as if to signify that there would be no other films proceeding it. But I have to say that while it certainly wasn’t necessary to the franchise’s plotline that there be a sequel, I had a lot of fun with it, and it did not harm the integrity of the series in any way. Halloween 2 is the sequel that knows it’s not needed but tries extra hard to impress because of this.

And does it ever impress! If you thought the original was brutal, go down to Tink’s place and get some more Fairy Dust to whisk yourself home, because THIS movie is fucking brutal! Michael Myers is a gorilla, and he treats his victims like they were rag-dolls; picking them up and slamming them down, smashing their bodies into things repeatedly, and random acts of extreme overkill. Especially the head; Michael Myers hates your skull, and anyone’s skull that looks like yours, so you’ll be seeing a LOT of blunt head trauma. And Rob Zombie has a habit of not turning away from his violence, as so many of his peers do. He likes to sit there and watch it all go down. So while you’re watching this, you might have to be the one to look away, because Zombie won’t be performing that function for you.

The acting, for the most part, is pretty good for a horror movie. Tyler Mane dazzles as Myers, a freak who has a singular and devastating purpose. He can only act with his body, but that’s good enough when you’re massive and your motivation is “beat things to death”. Malcolm McDowell is Dr. Loomis, and for some reason his character almost completely changed in this one. Here he is more of a money-grubbing sleazeball, as opposed to the noble psychologist trying to get to the root Michael’s madness in the first film. And while Loomis certainly pulled a 180, it doesn’t make it any less of a good performance. He does very well; in fact, everyone does a pretty good job here except Scout Tayler-Compton, who plays Laurie. She really grated on my nerves with her incessant cry-baby attitude. She shows no strength in the face of her trials, and presents no signs of growth as a person for her experience. If she were just completely catatonic, I would understand, but she is fully capable as a person and is surrounded by people who love her and care about her, so her angsty weakness only makes me want to see her meet her fate sooner rather than later.

But Zombie is a good director, despite these character discrepancies. He really knows the genre inside and out, and I can tell that he really, really loves it. He takes us through this horrific journey with a smile on his face, and his exuberance with the project makes me a little exuberant myself. At times, I felt like his work in music videos had somewhat altered his artistic expression for the worse, especially during the dream sequences where Laurie is confronted with ghastly Gothic imagery. But, overall, he is a horror director that knows what he’s doing and that is competent in the genre, even if I don’t always agree with his aesthetic choices.

So check out Halloween 2. If the first one was your cup of tea, then you will be blown away at this latest entry simply because Zombie throws out all the stops. You are not leaving until you’ve grimaced, looked away, or dropped your jaw out of sheer gut reaction to some of the incredibly-shot murders here. If you like Zombie, or if you’ve at least seen the first one, give Halloween 2 a chance; if you don’t, Tyler Mane will come into your house and step on your head like a jar of pickles. I give it 8 sleepy little hamlets out of 10. Check it out!

Tomorrow I dig into the stand-up comedy world with The Comedians of Comedy! Until then!

Krull (1983), or I Feel Like A Little Kid Again

30 08 2009

Wow. All I have is “wow”. I just saw Krull for the first time, and I feel like I’m in elementary school, pumped full of sugar and ready to take on the universe. I’m electrified by it; it may well be one of the most entertaining fantasy films I have ever laid eyes on. It has absolutely everything to just rock the world of anyone who’s a fan of the fantastic; lots of quests, funky-but-effective special effects, plenty of medieval rapport, magic and sorcery up the wazoo, and a score that will have you bounding with delight. It’s just wonderful, and if you can get out of the hum-drum adult mindset for a second and get your imagination going, you’ll be in for quite a treat while you’re watching this.

The journey begins on the far-away planet of Krull. It’s kinda like our world, but a lot cooler. Evil aliens called the Slayers have invaded the somewhat-peaceful medieval world, and the inhabitants seem powerless to stop it. In a desperate bid to counter this evil, the two great kings of Krull decide to allow their respective son and daughter to marry, allowing for the unification of their kingdoms in the face of the Slayer presence. The two prospective rulers of the new kingdom, Prince Colwyn and Princess Lyssa, fall instantly for each other, and the match-up between the two seems perfect, but the Slayers have other plans. They stage a bold attack on the castle on the eve of the wedding, killing both kings and capturing the daughter for an unholy inter-species marriage between her and the Beast, leader of the Slayers. Prince Colwyn is left alive, however, and is that ever gonna come back and haunt them! He and a wizened old sage band together a motley crew of people who are much more effectual than they are, including a band of thieves, a semi-powerful wizard, and a cyclops, and OFF THEY GO! on a magical adventure of whimsy and wonder, questing here and there for all kinds of things. Can Prince Colwyn save his beloved wife-to-be from some inter-species love and save his planet from devastation? Not alone, that’s for sure!!!

Man, just talking about it gets me electrified. I haven’t seen a movie like this in SO long.I’ve seen Masters of the Universe. I’ve seen Conan the Barbarian. I’ve seen The Princess Bride. They all have good elements between them that make them adequate fantasy films. But Krull takes everthing that makes fantasy so good and it combines it into one delicious, delightful bite that goes down smooth. It’s 100% fantasy; it’s like watching someone play an RPG or reading a David Eddings novel to you. There’s magic, fantastic creatures, quests to complete other quests, and bad guys that are just so ambiguously evil that they incense me with the persistence of their ambiguity!

The score by James Horner is just awesome! It’s jaunty, medieval, and upbeat, punctuated only by a single synthesizer to symbolize the alien presence. It’s orchestral, lush, and powerful, just like any good fantasy film score. Imagine the power of Excalibur‘s score, the jauntyness of Ladyhawke‘s score, and the imagination of The Neverending Story’s score, and voila! Just listen to one of these tracks. It just screams whimsy!

The direction by Peter Yates is powerful and majestic. The thing about fantasy film directors, by and large, is that they hit it and quit it. They try the genre once, and feel almost instantly that they cannot do another one. Most of the time it doesn’t bother me, but I really feel crappy that Yates never tried his hand again, because Krull was a sweeping success. He made all the right decisions, got all the best shots, and set the right tone for a fantasy movie that goes above and beyond the line of duty. My favorite thing about Yates is that he doesn’t pull any punches. He SHOWS what the characters are talking about. When they say, “Oh, we must go to the Cave of the Widow and face the evil Giant Spider!” , they don’t cut away and show them talking about how cool it was to go there and talk to the Seer. No, we actually go there and see some cool stuff! We go all over the place and see all the cool stuff that is mentioned in the story; there’s no wait, like in some movies (I’m looking at you, Star Wars…)

Ken Marshall IS Prince Colwyn. He never really went on to do anything else, but at least he gave us one good thing before he fropped into film obscurity. He is the classic fantasy protagonist; a Shakespeare character with magical accessories. He inspires people all over the place, he emotes a little too quickly a little too much (see what happens when he learsn of his father’s demise), but he drives the story with his whiny, princely problems, and for that role he was brilliant. Alun Armstrong plays the leader of the bandits, Torquil, and he seems to be the unsung hero of the film. He brings character, humor, and street-smart insight into the plot that can be a little blinded by Colwyn’s search for his Lady Love that was in his life for a good 12 hours prior to her kidnapping. Keep an eye out for a young Liam Neeson as one of the bandits, as well. Looking at him now, it seems like he was a bit of a scrapper in his youth; he was bulky, tall, and a bit of a wiseguy, not the regal old man we all know and love. It brings our favorite English gentleman into a whole new light, and I enjoyed seeing him here free of his usual British scruples.

Run, don’t walk, to see Krull! It’s a high-flying adventure that actually keeps me entertained enough to suspend disbelief. I’m thoroughly impressed by this film, and although I’m an incurable FILM SNOB these days, I still have a place in my heart for good fantasy, and I can recognize quality when I see it. Krull is quality, through and through, and I give it my highest rating of 10 alien-on-lady rendezvouz out of 10! Huzzah!

Keep an eye out later today for my review of Halloween II!

The Pornographers (1966), or Somebody Please Wake Me Up

28 08 2009

Japan always has plenty to offer in the world of international cinema, but much of its post-war art has been dominated by a few select names like Kurosawa, Ozu, and Suzuki. Rarely on the surfacedo we see any other players in this tumultuous period of the 50s and 60s who seemed to add anything of merit to the proceedings. But if you take a closer look than just what your community college course will tell you about Japanese film history through your own research, you’ll find a whole generation of Japanese filmmakers who, in many ways, defined the generation of dangerous, thought-provoking directors just as much as the Big Three. Today’s film is heavy, amusing, surreal, and anything but ordinary. It’s by the amazing Shohei Imamura, and it is one of the best Japanese movies I’ve seen in a while.

Based on a novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, the title is exactly right; this movie is about pornographers. Specifically, it’s one pornographer in particular named Mr Ogata. He lives a strange life and has strange problems, most of which are caused by his own twisted behavior. He has a tormented wife, an ambitious young step-son, and a step-daughter he is a little too attracted to. He is making nudie flicks on the sly so the local mob won’t interrupt and ask for their cut. And his wife’s dead ex-husband is haunting them in the form of a household pet. It’s not a very good setup over at his house, and things go from bad, to worse, to bizarre when he asks for his step-daughter’s hand in marriage! Whoa!

As weird and creepy as that sounds, the walls of reality begin slipping from the movie as time goes along, so the movie begins as a somewhat dry and dark comedy and ends up as a surreal and frightening statement of personal and universal truth that really evokes a sense of bewilderment that I’ve rarely felt watching a movie. It’s a movie that defies any logic you put to it, because it runs the gamut so much I can’t even put it in any particular genre. It’s somewhat a comedy, somewhat a surrealist experiment, somewhat a drama, and somewhat a twisted forerunner to Ghost Dad! It’s all these things in one, and I was totally impressed by how well it was all balanced.

Imamura was a man who could look into the heart of man and take it for what it really was, which was imperfect and fractal. The Pornographers is like a waking nightmare; it’s the height of the perfection of imperfection, a movie that perfectly describes how fucked up we are using the strange landscape of the mind to put it into perspective. Imamura takes seemingly innocuous images like a fish to make us feel uneasy about everything we thought we knew about these characters. And even there, we’re never sure of anything. On one level, this is just a disjointed about a porno director looking to expand his business under the nose of the Yakuza and get the younger version of his wife to show her a good time beneath the sheets. Can it be that easy, though, after all the strange things that seem to happen?

I don’t know if  you or the rest of the world will, but I loved this film. It is something that modern movies need to take note of; it’s exotic and truly bizarre, not because it looks better, but because that’s the only way the story can be told. It’s a truly ingenious movie that needs to be seen to be fully understood. Imamura was a great director, and I hope this lives on as a testament to the terrifying and hilarious images that were in his extremely creative cranium. I give The Pornographers 10 freaky fish out of 10. This is something special, and I hope you watch it and enjoy it as much as I did.

Tomorrow is Bren’s birthday, so if you have any delightful wishes to give to my better half, feel free to shoot them out here! I don’t know what movie I’ll be doing tomorrow, but I’ll be sure to do something really nice; just for you!!!

Fire Down Below (1997), or His Acting Is Bad, But His Energy Drink Is To Die For…

27 08 2009

Steven Seagal; the sleepy shaman, the mayor of Murderville, Jackrabbit Slim, Captain Scoop. So many nicknames for such a legendary action star. I have yet to do a Steven “Talk To My Ass” Seagal movie yet, and the only reason I can come up with for this is that I’m actually clinically dead from the heart down. Steven Seagal, in his tenure as an actor, or as I like to call him, an artist, has run the gamut from little-known nobody, to widely-seen action star, to rarely-seen action star, to widely-mocked nobody in his career, but what makes him special is that he keeps on going. Somehow Seagal, a man well into his 50s, is still cranking out movies like they’re going out of style. They’re all pretty much the same movie, with the same plot, dialog, and archetypes at work, but the message remains strong nevertheless. He writes and performs his own music, he’s formulated his own energy drink (seriously), and he’s even designed his own aftershave called Scent of Action (seriously). All this wonder at the ripe old age of 57. Few people would have guessed that Seagal would even be working at all after 1997, when the box office dud Fire Down Below was released to America’s disappointment and his fans’ chagrin. It’s not a very good movie that features some good actors lowering themselves to the iron-lad will of Seagal’s eye-rollingly god-like character. I feel a little worse off for having watched this, so let me fill you in on why this seemed like the end of Steven “Asian Experience Flavored Energy Drink” Seagal’s illustrious career.

Basically, an evil corporation is dumping chemicals in the old mines of the Eastern Appalachians, and it’s causing a lot of problems for the people who live nearby. An EPA agent/omnipotent sky-king named Jack Taggart is sent to investigate reports of this dirty business, but he meets a surprising amount of resistance from all over the peaceful town. Reasoning that everyone is employed by the toxic dumping company and are fearful of their jobs, he understands this transgression and spares their lives. Instead, he puts pressure on evil coal kingpin Orin Hanner while searching for hard evidence of this illegal dumping that is making the townspeople sick. Can our hero save the tiny Appalachian paradise before it’s too late for its denizens and the hot-but-disturbed young woman he was looking to score with? Oh, who are we kidding; you bet your ass he can!!!

This movie features Seagal again going for a good cause, like he did with his previous flop, On Deadly Ground, but like that one, he does not have it in him as an actor to step aside and let the message take precedence. Steven Seagal, for better or worse, IS Fire Down Below; it’s a shoe tailor-made for him by Nepalese monks who also grow the ingredients for his energy drinks, and while it fits very well, it doesn’t allow for anything else to enter into the equation.

Taggart is THE MAN, much like Seagal is always THE MAN in his films. He almost never gets hurt, he always has a solution for every problem, he’s wise beyond his years, he’s supposedly handsome and girls want to jump his bones, andhe can handle all the world’s evils by himself. He’s THE MAN to the point where it just can’t be believed anymore. It’s fucking ridiculous! By the end of the movie, he has nearly single-handedly shut down the evildoers, saved the town, and hooked up with the girl. It’s not as bad as On Deadly Ground, where he purported his character to be The Chosen One, but even in the action world, he’s conspicuously perfect.

The periphery around Seagal is pretty; the Appalachians truly have some of America’s most breathtaking vistas. And the actors around Seagal do their part, although the love interest Sarah, played by Marg Helgenberger, is just grating to me for some reason. She seems a little too, well, not from Kentucky to be living there, and it bothers me every time she talks about “the people of Jackson this” and “the people of Jackson that”. You sound like you’re from fucking Michigan, Marg, no matter how much you mask it; that’s all I’m saying. Harry Dean Stanton plays Cotton, who is an honest man working an honest day’s wage, and he should be respected more by the script, but he isn’t. Instead, he’s Taggert’s uneasy informant and deeply inferior friend in Kentucky. It’s a shame, because I liked Stanton in this, and appreciated the earnestness he lent to the role. And I think Kris Kristofferson plays Snidely Whiplash here, but the credits list him as Orin Hanner. I dunno, but whoever he is, he’s getting bamboozled by Taggert too much here for him to stand out as even a viable obstacle for Steven “Blood and Thunder” Seagal.

Fire Down Below was one of the last Seagal movies to make it into theaters, and I can see why. It doesn’t have anything new to add to the legend of Seagal, other than his obvious status as THE MAN. And while these days he’s hoping to make it big again with straight-to-DVD titles and a reality show on A&E, I think I’ll remember him mostly for the times in the late 90s when he fumbled uncontrollably but couldn’t let go of his omnipotent persona, a problem he still deals with to this day. But until he finds a way to deal with his and his characters imperfections, I give Fire Down Below 3 1/2 Scents of Action out of 10.

Tomorrow we have a treat; the rare and re-released classic The Pornographers! Until then!

Wages Of Fear (1953), or The Agony Of The Unsettled Imagination

26 08 2009

One could call Wages of Fear a horrifying trek through a single unbearable journey. One could call it a bleak, hopeless film about modern man’s struggle to survive amongst one another. One could just call it plain scary. They’re all correct things to say about this captivating piece of work, but words are somehow inadequate to accurately describe this frenzied film about the bitter dregs of capitalism. It’s not an easy view, but trust me when I say that it’s worth it.

Four displaced broke fellows are down on their luck and stuck in the armpit of South America, a tiny town called Las Piedras. Everyone needs money in the poor, labor-class village, but some jobs even the most cavalier worker wouldn’t risk. Or, at least one would think. The four previously mentioned gentlemen are hired out of a maddeningly high amount of hopefuls by an oil company for what is basically a suicide mission. They’re to deliver two large trucks full of nitroglycerin to cap an oil well fire many miles away from the town. They’ll be paid $2,000 a driver, which is great money, but the trick lies in the terrain. In between Las Piedras and the oil well are miles and miles of incredibly dangerous weather-worn mountain road. One slip of the truck, one bump too many and BAM! the nitro ignites. It’s a terrifying job, and not one they do gladly, but it’s a way for these strange displaced Europeans to fund their trip back home across the ocean, as long as they make it back in one piece…

It’s a scary concept, and one that most people find bizarre in its grim realism, but one that rings with the sickening thud of a true story. Wages of Fear is a movie that rings with a social and political agenda, and it was indeed taken as a stab against America when it was made in 1953, and subsequently edited to fit the prevailing party’s agenda of the time. The Criterion Collection release of this DVD was actually one of the first unedited editions to be found here in the States, if that tells you anything about the insecurities the powers that be have about this film. What it really seems to be is an indictment of capitalism on both sides of the oil company; it indicts the truck drivers for mindlessly filing into the office to get their checks for their suicide work, and the company for practicing reckless and dangerous practices that are demeaning at best and psychotic at worst. Whatever your interpretation may be, it definitely has something to say.

The movie is divided into two sections; the setup of these characters in the cantina, and the drive across the mountains. While one can say that the cantina scenes were useless pap, and I would almost agree for many of the characters, I like to think that they were very revealing into the two real powerful characters in this film, Mario and Jo, played by the great Yves Montand and Charles Vanel respectively. Pay attention to these early scenes very closely as Clouzot frames their dialog and actions around these troubled frames, and I think you’ll agree that these two characters really take the movie from a simple thriller to a fear tinged drama that makes you feel for these two as the world begins to become enveloped in a shroud of terror.

I won’t go on too much about the second half of the film, i.e. the truck-driving scenes, only to say that to see them is to contemplate the idea of your life under a constant threat of instant annihilation. it is something that is not easily conjured up in the heart, and only a great director like Clouzot can make one not only feel a time and place, but also make one, in a certain aspect, live it. You can’t watch it without putting yourself in those shaking, trembling shoes of theirs, so it ends up being a very effective sequence that will live on for ages to come.

You need to see Wages of Fear. For the sake of your cinematic credibility, your curiosity, and your conscience as a capitalist, it’s another movie by Henri-Georges Clouzot that takes the kaleidoscope of human emotion and shakes it as it spins before out eyes. He shakes it until we feel like we could explode at any moment, and in this situation, that’s not such a bad thing. And if you don’t watch it for the nitro scenes, watch it for Mario and Jo, two of the great unsung characters in cinematic history. I give Wages of Fear 9 vicious capitalists out of 10. A high recommendation!

Tomorrow we’re off to see the Prince of Squint, the Sultan of Slob himself, Steven Seagal! Check out my review of Fire Down Below then!

Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978), or A Day In The Life… Of Mediocre Musicians

25 08 2009

If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you guys know I love The Beatles. I like everything about them, whether we’re discussing their influence on music, fashion, or even movies. That doesn’t mean that I can’t contemplate their faults; I’ve seen All You Need is Cash by Eric Idle, I’ve listened to We’re Only In It For The Money by The Mothers of Invention. And I can see that they perhaps weren’t the best band of all time, but they are still one of my favorites for being the innovators that they were. They had intelligence, they had ambition, and they had unadulterated talent. That’s why seeing a movie like Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band really chaps my ass. For the 10th anniversary of the album that opened a whole new musical world up to the masses (although Zappa totally beat them to it years before…), some people thought it would be good to bridge the musical worlds of the late 60s and the late 70s with the conglomeration of the two biggest bands of the eras, specifically the Bee Gees and The Beatles. It would be a movie LOOSELY based on the concept of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band as an album, and would feature the Bee Gees as characters covering Beatle tunes. A couple problems arose though from such a bold concept, the most glaring of which was that The Beatles were a good band and the Bee Gees were generic pap. And the producers of the movie knew that despite the Bee Gees being hot shit for a couple years, they were going to need help selling this piece of shit, so they hired other big musicians of the day to bolster this Leaning Tower of WTF. But there was no hope for this movie. Never has been, never will be. It’s a bitter reminder that for all the fads of all the history of rock and roll, there will be bands that stick out of the era, becoming immortal and timeless, and there will be bands that fall deep, deep, deep into the age in which they were produced, creating timely, disposable music. And while not all the bands featured in here fall in the latter category, that just makes it all the more poignant to see them mingle with the inferiority of disco.

The plot is a loose translation of the “concept” of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, a “concept” that even the Beatles gave up on by the album’s third track. Basically, listen to the song “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band” to get an idea of the prologue:

Got that? Well, as they say in the motion pictures, THAT’S ONLY THE BEGINNING! If we’re acting like a bunch of feeble-minded jerks and are actually taking this idea that there was actually a Billy Shears, quite a few years after he made people laugh and dance and sing and feel all gay and carefree, his grandson reforms the group with brothers Mark, Bob, and David Henderson to make people smile again in the lovely hamlet of Heartland. But things get scary when an evil record label decides they want the Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band legendary instruments (with +5 for magic defense), which have mystical properties and could make them a lot of money. Can Billy Shears, with the Hendersons in tow, be able to thwart their bad vibes and make things groovy for everyone again?

It’s laughable to even consider the implications of such a loose idea being turned into the inspiration for a movie. And Sgt. Peppers is only a tiny component of what makes The Beatles oeuvre something different. It’s like making a movie based off of only ONE Muppet. Pirates of the Caribbean was a fucking THEME PARK before it was a movie, though, so maybe it’s not so far-fetched that so much extraneous plot could be pulled from thin air. What is crazy, however, is the sheer number of people that were lured into this folly. Some really, really big people of the age were signed on to this. Besides the obvious losers at the front who play the reformed SPLHCB, we have Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Steve Martin (???), Earth, Wind and Fire, and Billy Preston. All of whom were assured that a rock-opera based on Beatles music with George Burns serving as narrator would be a good idea. They were fools, and now they have to endure their presence in this film like a set of embarrassing class photos.

As I said, this is all based around not only the lame Sgt. Peppers concept, but it’s a rock-opera based on Beatles covers. And I’m using the term covers loosely here, because instead of the lively sound inherent in all Beatles music, this music seems inherently stale and slightly dead, lifeless and limp against a world that never wanted it. The title track by Frampton and the brothers Gibb sounds forced and joyless, like the performance a son gives when his showbiz father pushes him on stage and forces him to sing. Steve Martin’s rendition of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” might as well have been sung by Spike Jones, it’s so god-damn corny and Vaudevillian. And I don’t even want to get into Billy Preston’s shame-tastic musical number… I will say that Aerosmith’s heavy, raspy version of “Come Together” was pretty good, a ray of sunshine on this abysmal idea, but overall I was very disappointed.

But I’m not telling you anything new. Most people know to stay away from a DVD box that features the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton hopping around with band leader uniforms on. But I will say, and this might surprise a few people, that if you come in wanting to laugh, you’ll get more than a few unintentional laughs from this movie. It’s so crap it might just be amazing. It’s on a MST3K level of anti-brilliance. But from where I’m standing, from the Tower of Objectivity, as a film of its own merits, ironic laughter notwithstanding, SPLHCB is pretty fucking terrible; The Beatles’ legacy might never have been as tarnished as the day the 70s thought they could take on the 60s. It’s so terrible that it gets my stamp of disapproval with 2 1/2 enchanted instruments out of 10. Boo.

Stay with me folks! Wages of Fear coming at you tomorrow!

Interview With The Vampire (1994), or Dark Reverie

24 08 2009

Bren decided that I needed to watch this movie, if you’ve seen the recent comments. Everyone knows that Bren is a huge Anne Rice fan; I’m not sure, but I think she has a tattoo of Lestat on her right eyeball so when she looks at me from certain angles, she can pretend I’m a vampire. Vampires are kind of a big deal around our house, especially sexy, steamy, unusually handsome French Quarter vampires, and none is more celebrated than the big man himself, Lestat. He’s dreamy, kind of a jerk, and totally delicious for a corpse. It’s every woman’s fantasy for some reason to get it on with a vampire, because apparently living dudes aren’t nearly as sexy, and Anne Rice figured this out in the year of our Lord 1976, when she wrote Interview with the Vampire. This steamy tale of blood-drinking, 18th century New Orleans carousing, and hunky undead dudes has been doling out lady boners since Carter was in office, and in 1994 her Vampire Chronicles series had reached a fever pitch, and a movie came out as a result. It had two of the biggest young actors in Hollywood as the leads and a script that was potent, to say the least. And while I won’t say that it is the best movie of all time, Interview with the Vampire is a well-choreographed semi-period piece that puts Twilight to glittery, sparkly shame.

In the 90s, some guy named Malloy is interviewing a man who claims to be a vampire. He is, of course, skeptical at first, but the man, named Louis, has a very convincing story to tell. He tells him about his beginnings in Louisiana in 1791. He was turned by a very flamboyant bon vivant vampire named Lestat who rather fancied the sad young man after he lost his wife and daughter. The two form a rather odd relationship over the years as Lestat teaches Louis how to live as a vampire. Louis despises having to attack humans and at first tries to survive on animal blood, but finds he cannot and is driven to kill his housemaid and attack a young girl. Lestat sees that the young girl could be put to good use as something to assuage Louis’s damaged heart and bend him to his teachings, so he turns the young orphan, named Claudia, into a vampire. Louis takes a liking to the girl, but grows increasingly detached from Lestat and his inhumane treatment of his human victims. The two butt heads more and more,until a breaking point is reached and he can stand no more. What will become of these two strange, battered souls and their twisted relationship throughout the infinite recesses of immortality?

It’s actually quite good, despite any misgivings you might have about Anne Rice. The story is solid; a Louisianian dandy walks around being conflicted and staving off sexual overtones from his friend and teacher Lestat. Sounds strange, but with a great cast and a director who knows homosexual overtones, this one soars right from the start.

Brad Pitt shows off his early dramatic flair, back before he was just “that guy with all the adopted kids”. He plays Louis like a character from Shakespeare, though not nearly as formed. He is instead an embodiment of regret. He regrets his life as a human, and he deeply regrets his life as a vampire. Doomed to be an outcast, he is bound to Lestat through that curious way that all polar opposites become bound to one another. And Lestat is another rare instance of Tom Cruise earning his keep. Cruise plays with such a disdain with humanity that he must have carried some of that home with him as we can see in his fervent Scientology fanaticism. He IS Lestat; the beautiful, vivacious young man with a thirst for excitement. Both leads not only give a lot to the proceedings, but they seem to respect the material with a gravity that even today’s super-serious paranormal romance cannot match.

Director Neil Jordan was the perfect choice for this movie. He likes to play with complex characters, like in The Crying Game. These two characters that he deals with are complex indeed, and I admire his attention to detail as he brings these bourgeois New Orleans undead night fops to life. The characters are counter-balanced by the director, who made sure to give them a wide berth to create; they never get too weepy or emotional, because as soon as they do, Jordan turns up the heat. He also knows when to ratchet up a scene, especially during Louis’s moments of agonizing hunger. If there was a flaw, it’s that not enough attention was paid to the side characters, including Claudia, Armand, and Madeleine. Certainly the core audience of this film was not overly concerned about this turn of events (unless you’re a die-hard Antonio Banderas fan), but they made me curious and I was left wanting.

It’s really not what you think. I was expecting a 2 hour long treatise on vampire wieners. But whatever I thought turned out to be wrong. It’s a pretty good meditation on desire and regret, the two dual sides of the coin that is Lestat and Louis’s relationship. It seems a little underdeveloped at some points, and a little overdeveloped at others, but these complaints are trivial compared to what we get, which is a grand gesture of drama in the old tradition of silent film; bold, flashy, and elegant. It’s somewhat of an oddity these days, and a movie really hasn’t been made like it since, so I recommend it just for posterity’s sake alone. Check it out; I give Interview with the Vampire 8 1/2 lady boners out of 10. A high recommendation!

Tomorrow we take a look at Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band: The Movie! Until then!

House On Haunted Hill (1999), or Flashes Of Ingenuity, Long Stretches Of Normal

23 08 2009

Remakes are a dime a dozen nowadays, and they are pretty banal on the whole, to say the least. On a good day, if you watch twenty remakes, odds are that three of them will be good. I usually don’t put too much faith in them, but every now and then they can surprise you. Today’s feature actually surprised me quite a bit. House on Haunted Hill was a 1999 remake of the exploitative and gimmicky 1959 William Castle horror movie of the same name. It has a decent cast, a not-bad script, a surprisingly good aesthetic style, and scares that hit their mark. If you look at the advertising, the box, and the extremely 90s attitude that pervades every pore of this movie, you’ll likely dismiss it as a trite cash-in on the Thir13en Ghosts popularity bandwagon, but it’s got a lot more potential than its looks would reveal.

It’s all set in an abandoned mental institution. A wealthy roller coaster tycoon named Steven Price and his cuckold wife have set up a wild, extravagant, and dangerous Halloween party set up in a burned-out old asylum where the doctors experimented on the patients before it caught on fire. It’s a party that challenges the guests to stay alive through the night. Whoever makes it out alive wins $1 million, and gets to keep the loot of whoever doesn’t make it out. The party list was made up of five strangers, and when they arrive, they have no idea what they’re in for. Because while the “surviving the night” part of it was originally intended to be a joke, the guests soon come to realize that things are not always as they seem. People aren’t who they say they are, there is an ridiculous amount of animosity between Mr. and Mrs. Price that borders on homicidal, and the asylum itself seems to have a mind of its own, almost as if the victims of the fire cannot rest. With all of these things standing in their way, these strangers might actually have to worry about surviving the night after all…

House on Haunted Hill isn’t perfect, but it works. I was refreshed by its vitality and its willingness to scare. It doesn’t have a lot of money to spend on effects, so it focuses on the basics, namely keeping the tension ratcheted up tight. There are a lot of moments in this film where you don’t know who to trust. Even the movie seems suspect at times; you’re constantly wondering what’s going on, and whether or not there even IS a supernatural presence. Steven Price is a special effects guy, and an expert at scaring people, so you have to wonder if all that stuff about ghosts and vengeful lunatics is just a myth. Even if it has you guessing for just a moment, it becomes a pretty long, confusing  moment while you’re in it.

The effects, while not terribly shiny or impressive, are effective nonetheless. There are ghosts, and, whether real or imagined, are pretty neat. Their main strength is that they tease an awful lot. All the horror and terror is confined to one or two seconds of intense on-screen WTF-ness during the scary scenes. I’m also impressed with the frightening style Dark Castle production showed in the ghosts. They are creepy! And they do that strange unnatural movement thing where it seems like they cut out frames people walking so they seem to disappear and reappear closer and closer to someone. Cheap, effective stuff like that is what terrifies people, not a $40 million ghost made entirely from CG effects.

The cast is damn good for a movie like this. Future superstars Ali Larter and Famke Janssen sizzle, although they’re not too worried about raising the bar for emotional credibility. Current superstar Geoffrey Rush plays the enigmatic Steven Price, and he gives the role 110%. I was really very impressed at how much he gave to the movie, considering how low-brow it is. But I think it’s a good role for him, all things considered, so his mad genius goes far towards establishing Price as a weirdo. Taye Diggs is another party guest, but he can hardly be counted due to his incredibly cliched role. He’s the typical heroic protagonist who’s not allowed to laugh or cut up unless it’s with the heroine. He didn’t add a damn thing except as a tool to move the plot forward. And Chris Kattan is also in here, but the only reason I wanted to talk about Chris Kattan is because I wanted to be the first person in 8 years to type the name Chris Kattan.  And now that I have, I’m finished talking about him.

So, go watch this movie. It’s a cheap, cheesy horror movie that’s just what the doctor ordered. It has a little of this and a little of that, and it’s not exactly what you think. It has its moments of extreme boneheadedness and eye-rolling shame, but it has a lot going for it that I would not have surmised going into it. It has weird-moving ghosts, murder and intrigue, and THE Chris Kattan. What more do you need? I give House on Haunted Hill 6 1/2 Mango-licious remakes out of 10.

Tomorrow I guess I’m watching Interview With The Vampire, as per my requests! Until then!

The Night Out: Ponyo (2009), or Do A Voice Or Go Home

22 08 2009

Oh, anime. One of my most beloved art forms. It has the power to capture my imagination from start to finish, a feat not easily accomplished. Compared to American animation (what’s left of it, anyway), Japanese anime has so much to offer in terms of culture, innovation, and pure imagination. And forget about Inuyasha and Bleach when I’m talking about anime. I mean films and series’ that offer something more than trite cliches and banal anime teen action. Movies like Grave of the Fireflies, Paprika, and the ultimate anime movie Akira have something that American animators can learn from in terms of pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. Hayao Miyazaki is an anime director who knows how to innovate. His family-friendly features for Disney are among some of the best titles out there. Today’s feature is his latest work, Ponyo, or Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea. It’s geared towards the younger audiences, but fans of animation will marvel at seeing a hand-drawn feature back on the big-screen again. And while it’s not his best work, Miyazaki shows that he is a true visionary when it comes to making a world of his own.

It begins in the ocean near a tiny Japanese village. A strange man in a submarine is doing experiments in the water when his daughter, a tiny fish-like creature with a face, leaves the boat and finds herself floating to shore amidst some garbage. She finds the surface to be a fascinating place where she meets a human friend named Sosuke who picks her up and takes care of her after getting stuck in a piece of trash in the sea. They bond very, very quickly, and although Sosuke is five, and the fish-like creature is a fish-like creature, they really grow to care about one another. He names her Ponyo and promises to protect her forever. But shortly after that promise is made, Ponyo’s father comes to rescue her from the human. Sosuke is heartbroken, but Ponyo is downright infuriated! Through sheer power of will and some unnamed magic she possesses, she grows legs and arms like the humans and tries to go back. Her father imprisons her on the boat, but that only makes it worse. She goes on a rampage trying to escape, and eventually she does, but not before undoing the balance of nature by knocking over all of her father’s strange and exotic magical elixirs and giving the fish in the sea access to them. Everything goes haywire, and nature runs amok. Ponyo turns into a little girl with the magic from the elixirs, and her desire to be with Sosuke again causes a mini-typhoon! Will she reunite with her human friend, calm the rage of the sea, and put balance back to nature, or does her father have something else in store?

This is a very kid-friendly time to be had for all. This is as G-rated as you can get without it being a Baby Einsteins video. Everyone is drawn very soft and round, there’s little to nothing offensive or scary, and the message is pleasant and seriously uplifting. Everyone has a good time here, and it’s all done with some of the most beautiful animation I have ever seen. Miyazaki makes the strokes of a pencil look like a knife on cake icing; everything is so smooth and soft. No sharp edges for the toddlers to poke their eyes out with! It seems like the supreme work of a child. This is what a child imagines, but cannot create with his or her inadequate skill. Miyazaki seemingly translates that image ontot he screen, and it is simply breathtaking.

The story is somewhat derived from The Little Mermaid, but mostly derived from the magical, mystical Japanese mythos that Miyazaki has in his head. All of his movies seem to focus on the magic that happens in small, close-knit towns. There’s always about 50 people that live in a Miyazaki village, and they’re all either characters or extremely friendly passers-by. In Ponyo, there are a lot of characters, but mostly just generic friendly people who have names like Noriko, The Young Mother, and Karen, and they always have something cheerful and encouraging to say. It’s really not as derivative as that might sound. It’s a rather pleasant experience, and makes one forget the conveniences cities offer for a moment and makes one long for the simplicity of small-town life.

Everything about this movie is great; until it scampers into North America. Simple, stupid Americans don’t like to have subtitles in their movies for fear of having their brains catch on fire, so we had to have an English dub track. And Holy Mother of Fuck, is it awful! Almost every voice actor failed me in some way, and the reason for this is that the main cast is CELEBRITIES. Nobody here is a professional voice actor, which would have been nice, but rather someone with a recognizable name that they can put in big lights on the marquee so Americans will flock to it like zombies to a shopping mall.  We have Miley Cyrus’s little sister Noah as Ponyo, who nearly surpasses her sister in the annoying department. Sosuke is played by Frankie Jonas, the Konas Brothers’ little brother. He was all right, but he didn’t bring anything to the equation that couldn’t have been added elsewhere without the ridiculous price tag a Jonas Brother would probably fetch. I don’t mean to rag on children, but these kids should not have been in this movie. They should have been at home, playing games or trying to live a normal life.

But they shouldn’t be singled out, because even trained pros had a hard time here. Liam Neeson totally jumps the shark (HA!) by giving his 50-something, grizzled European voice to a 30-something sea wizard with long red hair and what looks to be tattooed-on makeup. He doesn’t even try to do a different voice besides his own, and it seems unnatural for a voice like his to be coming out of this guy:

Julianne Moore is Ponyos father in Ponyo!

Julianne Moore IS Ponyo's father in Ponyo!

Tina Fey similarly un-acts as Sosuke’s mother. She doesn’t change one octave, one note. It’s like listening to a weird, weird episode of 30 Rock. Cate Blanchette is the ONLY person to do an accent or a different voice. And she only has like 7 lines! Kudos to her, boo to the rest of the adult cast, and a hearty GO TO YOUR ROOM for the children.

Ponyo is an amazing movie that takes me to places I’ve only dreamed of. It’s a journey that everyone should take, young or old. You might think anime is for the kids and under-developed teens, but you’ll find that, with Ponyo, anyone can enjoy it, and probably will. I found it to be one his most beautiful creations, and a thoroughly joyous film. It’s not very sophisticated or intelligent, but we needn’t be so erudite all the time to take pleasure from life’s simple bounties; imagination. I’d give it a 9 1/2, but the version I watched was marred by lazy celebrities, so I give the North American version of Ponyo 8 long-haired Irish dandies out of 10. Kampai!

Tomorrow is another mystery movie! I don’t know what I’ll see! Tell me what you’d like me to watch, and I’ll watch it. Until then!