Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Café Flesh (1982)

X rated Sci-Fi hardcore of the retro kind

"So close you can almost feel", a porn movie about porn movies, in a thematic sort of way. The director claims in an interview that he originally intended this to be more of a softcore sci-fi piece, but the only backer he could find for it was a hardcore financier so he slipped in the insertions and money shots to make his investors happy. 

Cafe Flesh even had a brief theatrical run in an R-rated version with all the fun stuff cut out because believe me, minus the hardcore sex, there is a cerebral nice sci-fi heart hiding beneath in this adult comedy. Cafe Flesh gives us a post-nuclear holocaust world hobbled with radioactive fallout where 99 percent of the population has been rendered "sex-negative" (i.e) incapable of achieving orgasm and suffering nausea at the touch of another. The sex-negatives, men and women alike, become sex addicts as they watch "sex-positives" - those whose potencies have been left unscathed - perform sex acts at racy nightclubs such as Cafe Flesh. In doing this they hope to fulfill the lust that war has made insatiable. 

The setup is perfect for offering the conventions that are the skin flick's stock-in-trade: a fantasy-world where nothing except sex is important, and where women are as obsessed with watching people screw as men are. (Cafe Flesh's audience I guess is roughly 50/50 men and women, which is generally not the case with your average real-life porno theater.) But unlike most adult movies, Cafe Flesh is aware of these conventions and reflects them back at you. 

During the sex scenes the audience's faces become blank, pained, fixated stares (and if you quickly grab a mirror you might catch yourself with the same expression). Cafe Flesh's emcee, Max Melodramatic, provides intermittent commentary explaining the audience's pain. It has to do with dwelling on a need you can't fulfill, trying to think about it until you make it happen. It's the porn-movie equivalent of the TV spots that tell you to stop sitting around watching TV. You'd be better off getting off your ass, the movie seems to scold, and trying to find a date for Saturday. But since you can't always do what's best for you it's probably okay to watch this movie once -- if you take the phone off the hook and stop going to work, you might want to entertain the possibility that you have a problem. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Exclusive Interview with Brian Stewart

Meet the force behind "Jake and the Giants (2015)", one of the best indie animated movies of the year.

To find an indie animated movie for small kids is a rarity these days. "Jake and the Giants" may not be your typical Disney fare but it has its heart at the right place and an inherent innocence in its characters. And good folks like Brian Stewart make it possible. Brian not only helped producing it but also wrote the script and helmed the beautifully composed music and songs. 

Brian Stewart is a writer, composer  and producer, known for A Federal Case (2008), Sugar Baby (2011) and Inside Out (2011) besides the super group Northern Light Orchestra.  A native of Bay Village, Ohio; he  is a graduate of University of Arizona  where he studied screenplay writing and drama. Brain is also the author of the popular children’s television show - Adventures of Donkey Ollie which is shown on many  popular cable and satellite stations throughout the  world.  The Forty Tales of Donkey Ollie is a popular books series having been translated for Ethiopia and Mozambique by Aberle Film Group  and  this is currently being taught to young children as part of an ongoing sports camp outreach.

Along with Ken Mary, former drummer for the Alice Cooper Band,  Brian also plays keyboards and writes song  for the  Christmas themed superband – Northern Light Orchestra which features musicians from popular Heavy Metal and Classical rock groups such as Kansas, Korn, Megadeth, Beach Boys, Def Leppard  and many others. Their hit song “Celebrate Christmas” has been featured on many well known radio shows including Dee Snider’s and Alice Cooper’s  weekly radio show.

Brian Stewart works as the  program director for Boat Angel Outreach Center which also produces the episodic television show "Hollywood Makeover” a series geared to helping high school and college students learn about independent film making.

Here's a small chit-chat with Brian on his role in the making of Jake and the Giants.

1. You seem to have an eclectic career transcending music, writing, TV and movies. How do you get to blend this all and why? 

My favorite writing combines my love of songwriting and story writing. It is nice to combine the both it works especially well in children’s animation as the songs can drive the story forward and give the director an area for his or her personal vision. 

2. How did you begin writing? Did you intend to become an author, or do you have a specific reason or reasons for getting into writing? 

First time I remember was 7th grade my teacher put a bunch of words on the blackboard and said make a poem. I did and I loved it. And that's how it all started,

3. How did you end up writing Jake and the Giants and what were the challenges you faced while writing it? 

It was a gift to a film Company in India - Laughing Lions. When they were not able to produce it, we pitched in and decided to do it ourselves as we loved the idea. We trimmed it down a bit as we did not have as big of a budget as they did but we are glad, it still came out to our satisfaction.

4. Tell us a little more about Jake and the Giants and genesis behind it? 

It is based on the everlasting story of David and Goliath.. The small can overcome the big when their heart and cause is right. Evil does sometimes win but it will never triumph over good. Our kids need to realize this basic concept of good vs evil. 

5. What do you think makes Jake and the Giants a special kind of a kids movie? 

I think the characters are unique a little like the Dutch Paint Boy and the Jolly Green Giant with a bit of an Irish feel to the clothes and a Maxwell Parish color scheme. For an indie budget, we created a distinctive look, plus how can you miss out the flying Monkeys. 

6. How was it to compose music for Jake and the Giants ? How would you rate your work? 

With my musical background, it was rather easy getting the song keys but it was a challenge getting the right singers and musicians. This work is close to my heart so I would rate it one of my best. 

7. When did you start composing film music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? 

I loved the theme for Chariots of Fire by Vangelis and have always loved the theme song Beauty and the Beast. My first favorite was the song from Sound of Music.. the Hills are Alive I learned a lot of that soundtrack in college while studying jazz. 

8. What do you personally consider to be incisive moments in your musical career?

There are incisive moments all the time. I mean, it is always developing as you go from project to project and when you go back to listen to some of them you sometimes say.. “Wow, I don’t remember writing that but is seems to work well with the show.” “I feel fortunate to work with a great producer Ken Mary who makes everything sound great. 

9. What, to you, are the main functions and goals of good scripts and film music and how would you rate their importance for the movie as a whole?

Wow, that is a hard question. The story has to be unique.. You have to care about the characters, the villains can be bad but they have to be more than one dimensional and they definitely cannot be stereotypes.. There must be something likable in everyone. No one is all good or all bad. The music gives the characters a chance to stretch out to show who they are. Sort of like the office party when you learn the secretary has a great set of pipes and can belt out a mean Christmas Carol or your boss can do a great impression of an actor. 

10. What do you think is the harshest reality for indie film makers and producers? 

The reality is you are the small guy. You are up against a machine that has billions and billions and want not just the majority but wants everything. They want every screen, every TV station, every spot on every shelf and they are looking to keep their market share and have no problem crushing everyone who gets in their way. It is like our story the corporations against the indies. The thing is you do it anyway because that is who you are and that is what you do. If you get lucky you get lucky, if not you know you gave it your best shot. If you don’t try what do you get ….Nothing.. So you try you get better at what you do and with help from the good Lord above sometimes you might get your lucky break.

Know more about Brian Stewart on his IMDB profile here or visit the Jake and the Giants website. And here's a trailer for your viewing pleasure! 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Girl, Interrupted (1999)

A melodramatic biography that will open your eyes on mental illness

The title of Girl, Interrupted bears a singular subject, but audiences would have felt to walk out of James Mangold's adaptation of Susanna Kaysen's memoir thinking of two "girls"- Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie, who fully cemented their reputations as two of the most gifted young screen actresses of the late 90s. It's unfortunate, however, that the script often isn't as strong as they are. But what is fortunate is that their performances more than compensate for the shortcomings in the writing department. 

Ryder plays the "girl" of the title, Susanna, who in the 1960s is sent to the Claymoore mental hospital after pressure from her parents and a therapist. Though she is hospitalized for chasing a bottle of aspirin with a bottle of vodka, Susanna is more depressed and unmotivated than truly mentally ill - a statement which doesn't necessarily hold true for her peers at Claymoore. Her roommate is Georgina (Clea Duvall), a pathological liar; she also spends time with self-inflicted burn victim Polly (Elisabeth Moss) and laxative junkie Daisy (the late Brittany Murphy). 

Susanna ends up bonding most strongly with the most volatile patient, Lisa (Jolie), whom we first meet being dragged back into the ward after an escape attempt. Dangerous, carefree, and intensely charismatic, Lisa cannot help but captivate Susanna's attention - and that of the audience. It's a role perfectly suited for Best Supporting Actress Oscar aspirations, and Jolie (who did go to win a Oscar besides a Golden Globe and the Broadcast Film Critics Association's Supporting Actress prize) runs with the opportunity. There's more to her performance than the expected fits and teary breakdowns; she is able to make Lisa into a multidimensional person, with real humanity behind the histrionics. 

By comparison, more likely to be overlooked is Ryder's performance, which is very much Jolie's equal. Susanna is basically the calm audience surrogate in the middle of the storm, but the fact that she remains a strong presence amid the flashier turns is a tribute to the effectiveness of Ryder's measured, no-frills work. Despite the many spotlight-stealing moments afforded to Lisa, Girl, Interrupted is Susanna's story of growth, and one is able to see her progression through Ryder's nuanced performance. 

Less subtle, however, is the script by Mangold, Lisa Loomer, and Anna Hamilton Phelan. While one may think the honest portrait of these troubled young women makes engrossing enough viewing, the writers decide to manufacture blatantly "movie" situations for dramatic purposes. It's an understandable decision, but the mechanics behind such contrived scenes as an angry, tear-stained climactic confrontation between Susanna and Lisa are a bit too obvious and distracting to be completely believable. 

Yet one does buy into such scenes to a certain degree, again thanks to the work of the cast and the overall power of the story. Girl, Interrupted may ultimately be a film, underrealized; but its desired emotional effect is more than adequately achieved. M.D.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Lazarus Effect (2015)

JohnnyTwoToes trashes this insipid thriller that tries hard to blend Flatliners with Pet Sematary and fails!

In 1990, Joel Schumacher directed a film called Flatliners with starred Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt and William Baldwin as med students who decide to explore the near death experience. They would slow the heart down of a subject (themselves, actually), somehow record what the brain sees and record what their body does while in this state. Afterwards, they are revived and talk about what they saw and felt. It was a remarkable film and did a good job of probing the psyche of each of the students. It really explored each of their own demons and how traumatic events shaped their lives to make them the way they are now. Flatliners was a sharply observant and intelligent film. The Lazarus Effect tries to be Flatliners but, unfortunately with its horror and supernatural undertones, cannot make up its mind what it wants to be. 

The Lazarus Effect refers to the Biblical figure of Lazarus who was brought back from the dead. In the film, a group of medical students led by Frank (Mark Duplass) have seemingly found a way to bring back the dead. This film also stars Sarah Bolger, Evan Peters, Donald Glover and Olivia Wilde as Zoe, Frank’s girlfriend and fellow student. When an accident kills Zoe, they use their new found technology to bring her back with limited success. She is still Zoe……..or is she something else. Since the students are not even supposed to be in the facility they are using they are now at the mercy of whatever Zoe has returned as. She ain’t the old Zoe, that is for darn sure. 

I did not have any problems with the premise and kind of knew what to expect. But The Lazarus Effect seems bent on being a horror film. The problem is that it is not scary. We get lots of jump scares but no sense of real terror. So does it try to be a deep film about life and death and how it affects us? No. The acting is decent enough and I especially like Sarah Bolger and Olivia Wilde’s interaction together, but the film is in such a hurry to give us another jump scare that it never develops any of the characters. They are simply used as plot devices that are to be eliminated one at a time. 

The Lazarus Effect is rated PG13 and is only 83 minutes long yet, it goes absolutely nowhere. Instead, what the viewer gets is a film that is not scary enough to be a horror film and not smart enough to be a psychological thriller. Everything seems to be hampered by its rating and run time. The characters have apparently never have seen a horror film either, since they decide to go off on their own, one by one. These are med students and to be in med school means you have to be a smart person. But, in this case these characters are only as smart as the action of the film dictates. The characters so underwritten and uninspired that I never believed any of them were in into med school. I did not buy a minute of this film, have any vested interest in these characters or see this film as anything other than a sloppy and unfocused mess. 

Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater’s script is nonsensical and never gets into the brain of any of these characters.Slater (who is credited as one of the writers for this summer’s atrocity Fantastic Four) and Dawson (writer of the B-titled horror film Shutter) have only written these characters as one dimensional so there is no emotional hook in any of them. First time director David Gelb lets the pacing of The Lazarus Effect sputter along and although this is a short film, it seems longer than it is. It is basically the same scene over and over. The characters talk and yell at each other and then there is a jump scare. Then, more talking and yelling and another jump scare; maybe a quick shot Zoe tilting her head in an ominous way. It takes mere minutes for the viewers to figure out that Zoe is evil, but the smart med students don’t catch on until the whole place is locked down. By then it is too late for them and for the viewers 

The Lazarus Effect has a great idea, the acting is sufficient and I liked the score by Sarah Schachner, but it is so ineptly handled that it becomes a burden to get through. I almost turned it off a couple of times just to take a break from the banality of it all. It was still a chore to get through. Save your money and watch (or re-watch) Flatliners a ten times better film or Stephen King's Pet Sematary. The Lazarus Effect-*1/2 out of 5

Sunday, September 13, 2015

5 Great Films Marlon Brando Turned Down

The 5 Most Memorable Roles Brando Turned Down 

Once upon a time, long long ago, there was an actor was so huge (in stature), so ground-breaking (in acting style) and so bankable (at the box office) that virtually every A-project was tossed his way. That actor was Marlon Brando and for your reading entertainment, here are 5 roles Brando turned down, screwed up or was kicked off of... 

1) The Egyptian (1954) - After the huge success of Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata and On The Waterfront, Brando found himself on the hook to Twentieth Century Fox to star in a sword-and-sandal epic called The Egyptian. Brando quickly realized the film’s script was el stinko and endlessly sought a way out, even diagnosing himself as “very sick and mentally confused,” and “under a mental strain and facing a personal crisis.” Fox head Daryl Zanuck, who saw the film as a prime vehicle for his mistress Bella Darvi, was outraged and hit Brando with a $2 million breach of contract lawsuit. Ironically Brando eventually broke free of the film that co-starred Victor Mature and Jean Simmons, only to star in another horrid period costumer Desiree, about the troubled romance between Napoleon and the secret love of his life, his seamstress (Jean Simmons, again). And Darvi? After the film was eventually released, one critic sniped she was nothing but “a high price harlot who comes off like a five cent piece.” 

2) Mister Roberts (1955) - Henry Fonda was Mr. Roberts on stage in the late ‘40s and everyone assumed he’d also be Mr. Roberts in the big screen adaption to be directed by the legendary John Ford. Instead Brando was courted for the part of the stoic and rugged individual who does psychological battle with his tyrannical commanding officer (James Cagney). Fortunately cooler heads prevailed and Fonda, a native Nebraskan like Brando, got the part, one of his most lasting creations. Still, one can't help but wonder what the Brando-Cagney star clash would have yielded as well as how the notoriously rigid Ford would have handled method actor Marlon. 

3) Lawrence Of Arabia (1962) - David Lean’s epic historical and psychological film had been in the works for some time and Brando’s name had always appeared at the top of everyone’s wish list. Brando and Lean met several times and eventually had a falling out with Marlon later complaining "Damned if I wanted to spend two years of my life out in the desert on some fucking camel." Marlon would quickly move on to star in another historical epic, (and his own personal Waterloo), the remake of Mutiny On The Bounty. Of course, Peter O’Toole ended up getting the part of Lawrence and stardom, for him, was born 

4) Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969) - Brando was originally set to play the Sundance Kid to Paul Newman’s Butch Cassidy in hit cult american western. Things, as usual, didn’t work out which some critics claim was because Brando was already committed the critically acclaimed Italian action drama Queimada aka Burn (1969) while others comment Brando found it too similar to his role in One Eyed Jacks (1961), the only film Brando himself directed too but still even now the idea of Marlon and Paul together, makes film aficionados drool. Newman had long been a serious rival of Brando and had even begun his career as something of a Marlon clone, witness his acting style in The Left Handed Gun.

5) Child's Play (1972) - Not to be confused with the Chucky killer doll horror series, this was instead a mystery drama with subtle horror overtones from the early 70s (when acting and not killer dolls were the rage), about dueling Catholic school teachers at a boy’s school. Brando, who was to star opposite James Mason, got as far as even filming a few scenes of the Sidney Lumet helmed feature when he was let go by producer David Merrick who told the LA Times, “Disagreement? There was no disagreement. I simply threw Mr. Brando out of my film. He wanted to make basic changes in the story and I could not accept that.” Robert Preston took over for him in a film Leonard Maltin called, “Well acted but somber and confusing...”JC

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Love Captive (1969)

Bewildering soft-core weirdness from the 60s

"This painting is a bit obscure in meaning; it was painted by a madman a week before he died." so say Sybil, the fugitive on the run.. A conscious evocation of Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse, The Love Captive, is a 60s pioneering stream-of-consciousness sexual horror narrative in which a painting figures prominently as a metonymic representation of the text's overarching structure. This insightful comparison (if I do say so myself) only collapses once you realize that Virginia Woolf was one of the great writers of the twentieth century, whereas the makers of The Love Captive were probably drugged-out, illiterate maniacs. 

A blonde woman steps out of a subway stop and strolls down Greenwich Village while a narrator monitors her, making sure not to help us at all by confining his observations to the visually obvious -- "she's evidently a stranger to these parts," he informs us. "With a [hand]bag like that, she could be a model, or an actress." Yeah. Thanks. 

The woman, Jane, checks into a hotel and as the desk clerk moves his lips to the accompaniment of silence, we realize that the film has no synchronous soundtrack. Instead, director Larry Crane has tried to dub the film in post-production, and poorly -- spoken lines often follow lip movements by several seconds, or emerge magically from closed mouths. 

Jane takes a guided tour of a museum of the macabre next to the hotel, and gets locked in. She appears to have done this intentionally. A vampire rises out of something, a hunchback shambles around for a while, and another vampire (indicated by the presence of makeshift fangs) is remarkably sanguine while a slobbery werewolf kind-of drools on her. Piercing screams surge from the soundtrack, but the vampire actually seems to be suppressing laughter. She and two other gals bob up and down with the werewolf for about five minutes and forty-five seconds while bongos play. Maybe they're supposed to be phantasms who haunt the museum, but it's hard to say for sure. Jane watches patiently, with no appreciable reaction. 

Back at the hotel (the next day, the previous night, ten years later?), the desk clerk strolls in and casually undresses Jane, and the two make out while the narrator expresses his disapproval. Meanwhile Gail, another tenant, straps on a dildo alone in her room. Cops next door are pursuing a fugitive, Sybil, and play a series of tape-recorded accusations ("We know who you are, girly") through speakers pressed against the hotel-room wall. But they don't know which is Sybil's room and press the speaker to Gail's wall by mistake. Gail hears the disembodied voice, freaks out, and flees to Jane's room. Jane and Gail make out. This time, however, the narrator doesn't complain. 

The sinister Sybil, as close to an antagonist as a film without a clear conflict can come, is unperturbed by the accusatory voices. She seduces the owner of the museum, then takes over the establishment after convincing him to go on a long vacation. Her guided tours are more suffused with sex and violence than the museum owner's had been, and she figures out how to make a little money on the side by selling Gail into prostitution. The cops come back and play the tape recording some more, once again using the wrong wall. This puts Jane into a confessional mood and she opens her closet door to reveal that she's been keeping the cowed hotel clerk in shackles as a "love captive." Once more the narrator disapproves. Where would we be without his moral guidance, I wonder? Trying to summarize this "movie" is like trying to tell somebody about a dream you've had. Its narrative is largely incoherent, and the only way to understand it at all is as the cinematic equivalent of a psycho-sexual rant. Then it starts to adopt a sort of deviant logic: the clumsy voice-overs throughout make the characters' conversations almost indiscernible from internal monologue, as though they were communicating by telepathy. The cops, with their motiveless surveillance and their accusatory tape recorder, embody a sort of hallucinatory paranoid delusion. In no way, though, is the film about these things; it's more accurate to say that the film is affected by them, that it is, on some level, an acting out of hallucinatory and delusional fantasy. 

When Gail straps on the dildo while evaluating her reflection, Freud's primal scene and Lacan's mirror phase simultaneously spring to mind: "Aw, that should do it," she says, "I'd fool my own mother." She really wouldn't, of course - though she has this funny thing stuffed into her underwear she's still every inch a woman. Perhaps in her own mind she appears literally male, and this is Lacan in its essence: our sense of identity is troubled from the outset, presenting us with a self-image immediately distorted by cathexis and psycho-sexual illusion. Strange enough. Naturally Larry Crane manages to make it still stranger, introducing this fascinatingly perverse notion of fooling one's mother by wearing a prosthetic phallus. Fool her in which sense, Mr. Crane: by preventing her from recognizing you, or by using it and making her believe the phallus is the real thing? 

This is one of many scenes that raise the question whether Larry has packed enough sandwiches for his picnic. It's probably relevant that the narrator never ponders the reason behind Gail's autoerotics, instead praising her for how well she's managed to make herself look like a man. I reach for the rewind button here, figuring I must have missed the scene that explained why Gail's doing this in the first place. But it's never explained, just as it's never explained why the two cops broadcast recorded accusations instead of eavesdropping, or why Jane imprisons the hotel clerk. They are simply to be taken on faith, just as the schizophrenic never feels it necessary to clarify the mechanisms by which he has mysteriously become Lyndon Johnson, or reveal who paid to launch the satellite that is now beaming microwaves into his brain. These events exist not to forward a plot or to get at any character's interior life* but to construct disconnected images. In other words, they are fantasies apparently intended to assuage the sting of some psychological pain, since obscured by the passage of time and by the sufferer's lack of insight. 

This person suffering this pain is probably not Gail but the narrator - and probably, by extension, Larry Crane. Among those with severe personality disorders Crane is at least fortunate enough to be able to turn his image formations into feature films, however shoddily crafted. Another of his works - on my "to-see" list, as soon as I recover from this one - is instructively titled All Women Are Bad. Poorly sublimated much? 

And yet for all The Love Captive's unembarrassed weirdness, it is most entertaining and informative (all the time despite itself) when you realize that this is, after all, a soft-core porno movie from the late 60s. This coarse act of genre classification serves to answer some questions, though maybe not others: why does Gail get mostly naked and strap on a dildo? Why does a werewolf appear from out of nowhere and molest a vampire, who also appears from out of nowhere? What's with all that languid bobbing up and down, and who's playing those bongos? 

Well, the most obvious answer is that it's all an excuse to show nude or semi-nude women. And though that interpretation encourages a dismissive response to more interesting interpretations of The Love Captive, it also helps illuminate a notion that's lost in better-made adult films. Whatever else these movies are about, they are also about fantasy, and its oft-forgotten connection with confusion and pain. Remember that the next time you check out some flick such as White Bun-Busters or Gang-Bang Girls . They lie. At least The Love Captive gives it to you straight. M.W

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Jake and the Giants (2015)

You're indeed never too small !

My friends at Boat Angel family films have made a genuinely pleasant and kid friendly fantasy adventure for children of all ages or lets say anyone young at heart. 

Jake and the Giants directed by Kent Butterworth may not have the big budget of your typical Hollywood animated blockbuster but it has all it takes to appeal to young kids. Watch the trailer below or hop on IMDB and learn more! Support independent cinema! 

Watch out for Jake and the Giants at the American Film Market between November 4 - 11 at Santa Monica and help spread the word! 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Beavis and Butt-Head Do America (1996)

Great stupid fun.. B & B super style!

This movie didn’t suck. It ruled! When I went to see Beavis and Butt-head Do America, it didn’t immediately occur to me how long it had been since I’d seen a film I could call truly remarkable. The dream sequence which opens the movie has the world’s most famous dilholes as modern-day King Kongs, stomping through a city and wreaking king-size havoc. They swat planes, crush cars, and reach at girls through broken skyscrapers, and it was hard not to read this gleeful gigantism as a metaphor for their own success. 

Who would have thought, five years ago, that one of the surprise Christmas-season movie hits would be an almost incompetently animated feature about two chronic masturbators who are unwittingly guarding a secret weapon? Beavis and Butt-head creator Mike Judge stays true to the tone of his MTV series by piling on one ridiculous episode after another and adding a leitmotif of enthusiastic anal-cavity searches, and the movie is a ride worth taking. 

Beavis and Butt-head fall asleep on the sofa and awake to find that their television has been stolen. Searching for the cathode rays they need to sustain them, they stumble into a room in a cheap motel, where they meet a very drunk and dangerous redneck who offers them money to go to Las Vegas and "do" his wife. Beavis and Butt-head can’t believe their luck: They’re gonna score! And they’re even going to get paid for it! Thus ensues a round-trip cross-country odyssey that includes peyote, guns, nuns, the duo's long-lost fathers (fathers and sons remain oblivious to their relationship), and a cameo appearance by a cartoon Bill Clinton. Even Easy Rider didn’t offer such a smorgasbord of delights. It is very easy to like this movie.

The thing that's always fascinated me about the legions of Beavis and Butt-head fans is how they seem to feel like they have to justify it. "Hey, I went to school with people like that," they will say, defensively with an undercurrent of apology, as if acknowledging a visible birthmark. I've often tried to figure out what's implied by that statement and its remarkably few variations. 

We don't necessarily watch programs which recall for us the caste system of our youth, or else, for instance, My So-Called Life would never have lacked for viewers. We don't necessarily watch what assures us of our superiority to the life forms onscreen. You went to school with people like what? People without ambition, shame, or the communication skills necessary for successful negotiation outside a small homogeneous circle. (Huh huh huh – I said "homo.") People who make a career out of sitting in the back row of the classroom, willfully not learning anything. People left to their own insufficient devices, so much the objects of derision that this defines their social existence. 

If you didn't know I was talking about Beavis and Butt-head, would you still be settling back in anticipation of a punchline here? And, at the risk of being accused of various hypersensitivities and/or sympathies, would the moronic duo be as funny if they weren't middle-America white boys? My own theory is that B & B creator Mike Judge has tapped into the zeitgeist (and don't tell me that the trend is played out; I was in the line that snaked around the corner of the theater, and I've seen the grosses) by discovering a strain of humor just short of real horror. Because at face value, Beavis and Butt-head are castaways, doomed to a life at the helm of the deep fryer. I don't want to lose sight of the discontinuity between sociology and entertainment.

And I'll be the first to admit it, Beavis and Butt-head are really, really funny. This, I think, was Judge's intention, back in the days of animation-festival shorts featuring the boys – the I-can't-believe-my-reaction reaction. "Frog Baseball" hits the same chord as does the scene in Goodfellas where Joe Pesci shoots the kid in the foot during a card game for not bringing his drinks fast enough. It can be exhilarating to watch something so gross, or so violent, because it confirms our collective address not in the same neighborhood as such acts as these. I bet you didn't go to school with guys like Beavis and Butt-head. The ones you're thinking of as cartoonish hammerheads nevertheless had some level of self-awareness, and they either knew exactly what their place was in the pecking order (and I bet they started working out) or bamboozled themselves into thinking that the idea of a pecking order was society’s malicious joke (and I bet they got knives, or had restraining orders slapped on them). Or, more recently, they made the decision to embrace Beavisness and become louts on purpose, because Fools have a slight handicap in the social game and can at least rise above the bottom. Have some self-awareness yourself, and think about it for just a moment: Beavis and Butt-head have crossed the line, and they are cartoons of cartoons.

It was MTV that brought Judge's rude conception to its apotheosis. On one early episode of B & B, one of the boys says, "Man, the last eleven videos have sucked. Maybe the next one will be better." After the initial novelty of MTV wore off – and what with the game shows and gimmicks and all, this probably took a lot longer than it should have – that attitude is what we were left with. When Beavis and Butt-head assumed their places on their sofa in front of their crappy TV set, it was like the royal wedding of ennui and anomie. I can attest that the appeal is hard to resist. 

I used to live in a house full of marginally employed men in their early twenties, and B & B with Olde E was the highlight of the day. Someone would go from bedroom to bedroom knocking on the doors and saying, "Time for church!" Bad day on the job? Bad day not having a job? Feeling like a loser? Don't worry, Beavis and Butt-head will never make you feel worse. Because Mike Judge knows that his program is a spectacle but the spectacles themselves are blissfully unaware, you can laugh at and laugh with at the same time – in this sense the program is one smart product. 

James Wolcott wrote in The New Yorker that after watching many hours of Beavis and Butt-head in order to write an article on the series, it was weird to see videos without the yellow B & B logo in the corner, as if it were the series that identified the network instead of the other way around. The increasing tendencies toward the hormonal and the ironic (Remember J.J. Jackson? Martha Quinn?) in MTV's staff and programming would suggest that the network has embraced the laugh-at/laugh-with aesthetic. In this sense the patients are running the asylum. Beavis and Butt-head engender a sense of anarchy and liberation which is missing from most of what we can see on television – what's not to like?

I know: the movie, the movie. We are here today not to explicate Beavis and Butt-head but to praise them. You have to accustom your eyes and your brain to the low production values onscreen without the respite of videos, but Judge keeps the action moving briskly, and there are pseudo-video segments such as Beavis and Butt-head's dance-floor antics in Las Vegas, Mr. Van Driesen's hilariously, unconscionably P.C. "Ode to a Lesbian Seagull" (sung by Tom Jones), and, best of all, the Starsky-and-Hutch-style opening credits. Everything is over the top except for our two stars, who manage to stay reassuringly in the gutter. It's great stupid fun, and we are all invited to be in on its central joke. Which is, of course, that the two biggest screw-ups on the planet save all the rest of us and are acclaimed as quick-thinking, selfless heroes. Beavis and Butt-head snicker, we chuckle, and Mike Judge laughs all the way to the bank. What a country! A.G

Monday, August 17, 2015

Runaway (1984)

Evil robotic spiders from the future  versus an acrophobic super cop!

This tacky sci-fi thriller from the 80s was written and directed by Michael Crichton. Yes, before he took off with big-budget projects like Jurassic Park, E.R or Disclosure. Crichton made tacky movies like Looker and this one. But there's one constant in his work - Conservative Technophobia! And even though this was pre-marketed with great fanfare, James Cameron's Terminator completely nailed it. 

Tom Selleck plays Jack Ramsey, a cocksure cop on the Runaway squad. A few years earlier, Selleck passed on the lead in Raiders of the Lost Ark in favor of High Road to China. Apparently, he didn't learn from that mistake. Smart moustache, foolish choices. The very blonde Cynthia Rhodes plays Jack's new partner, who can't stop drooling over him. (Just like she threw herself at John Travolta in Stayin' Alive).  Together, they hunt and kill robots on the rampage! 

Technology is bad. It's supposed to be the future, and robots are working as maids and construction workers, so why are the cops driving Ford Tempos? Big Problem with this movie: robots aren't very scary. If you don't believe me, rent breastcentric filmmaker Jim Wynorski's Chopping Mall (1986), a cheesy horror movie where robot security guards zap teens with lasers. Although the movie is set in a mall, there is no chopping. I felt gypped but its at least good fun. 

But I digress... Jack, a widower, has a young son and a robot housekeeper named Lois. She looks a lot like Rosie from The Jetsons. "Lois, you can't keep giving him hot dogs for dinner," says Jack. "It is all he would accept," says Lois. Jack's partner warns of the perils of the older model maidbots: "My mother had a Series 10. It kept burning the toast." or so the dialogues run.

KISS fame Gene Simmons is miscast as Dr. Luther, the mad scientist who is making the robots wreak havoc. He's got a big gun! It shoots heat-seeking bullets that can go around corners in pursuit of their targets! "You've heard of a bullet that has your name on it? Well, this one really does." Without the aid of his KISS makeup and costume and axe bass, Simmons has trouble being menacing. Even though he leers and over-acts, the other characters feel the need to keep reminding us that he's the villain. "This is a bad guy" "He's evil, I'm telling you!" "His name is Luther...like Lucifer." Luther launches little spider-like robots on his enemies. They're kinda cute. "My little machines will follow you wherever you go. They're loaded with acid!" C'mon, Gene, show us your tongue just once. No? You're no fun at all. 

A cute looking Kirstie Alley plays  Luther's secretary/girlfriend who helps Jack track down Luther, then reconsiders and begs forgiveness. Luther kisses her, then stabs her in the back of the head! Yeah, her head!

In the first reel, we're told that Jack has only one weakness as a supercop - he's pathologically afraid of heights. How ironic that the finale takes place at a skyscraper construction site! Luther has kidnapped Jack's son and climbed to the top. And the spiderbots are everywhere! RENT IT YOURSELF to see the exciting conclusion. I'll tell you this much--the spiderbots kill somebody and it's not pretty. I won't tell you who, but apparently they like ham. Also watch out for Jerry Goldsmith's great score, it was his first all electronic soundtrack. 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Radiohead - Kid A (2000)

The weirdest Alt rock album to ever sell a million copies 

The English rock band Radiohead’s fourth studio album, the radically different Kid A severely divided critics when it was released, some ruing that it probably would not sell many copies. Cant blame them too much because this is indeed a challenging, often downright confusing piece of music that will leave even ardent Radiohead fans scratching their heads. The trademark guitar bits are few and far between, there are large chunks of experimental avantgarde orchestration, the vocals are often ambient & distorted, and the songs rely more upon mood and rhythm than actual melody. No wonder Radiohead chose not release a single from this album – there simply aren’t any either
But while Kid A is a difficult record, it is also an extremely rewarding one. In fact, it is a reason why Kid A is still remembered as the best album of the year 2000 and a deserving winner of a Grammy award for the Best Alternative Album. One could say, no other album released in 2000 even came close to matching the daring and complex artistic vision that Radiohead brought to life with Kid A. While evidently a giant leap away from Radiohead’s early guitar-based brand of rock and roll, Kid A was as big a leap from 1997's OK Computer as OK Computer was from 1995's The Bends. At the time, OK Computer sounded like an exciting and entirely new direction for modern music. Instead, we now realize that Radiohead was just taking a small step forward with that release. 

On Kid A's hypnotic opener, “Everything in its Right Place,” lead singer Thom Yorke repeats the song’s title as a mantra. This song could be about our search for order in a society that is beginning to lack any semblance of order – a time when nothing was/is really in its right place. Even as Yorke sings, his own vocals are repeated back to him backwards and distorted – out of place. Later, the heavy bass line of “The National Anthem” propels Yorke to new heights of angst and tension. The last three minutes of this track is a wonderfully chaotic piece of experimental jazz – horns wail, screech and collide to create a sheer wall of noise. 

Kid A then returns to earth with “How To Disappear Completely,” a song that features acoustic strumming coupled with a simple, wailing two-note echo. Heartbreaking in its beauty and simplicity, this track ranks right up there with Radiohead’s best work yet. Yorke’s high-pitched vocals perfectly complement the other instruments as the song enters an achingly moving rhythm. 

While there’s technically not a “single” from Kid A, “Optimistic” was the first song sent to radio stations and has been called the “target track” by some of the band’s publicity. This claustrophobic-sounding track finds Yorke singing, “You can try the best you can/ The best you can is good enough.” Later, “Idioteque” opens with an electronic drum rhythm followed by a wash of keyboards. Yorke repeats the line, “Ice age coming” with a growing intensity as the track progresses. This psychotic episode is similar in form to OK Computer’s “Climbing Up the Walls.” Kid A closes with “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” an epic, plaintive ballad with Yorke singing, “I think you’re crazy/ Maybe.” 

Fifty years from now, young bands will still be inspired by the music Radiohead has created on albums such as The Bends, OK Computer and Kid A. With these three albums, Radiohead established themselves as one of the most important and most creative bands of the 90s/2000 era. So even if Kid A didn't please all critics, you can be rest assured that people will still be listening in the future to Kid A long after most of those other bands have long gone. As a matter of fact, it still ranked 67 on its Rolling Stone list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Why I love Movies ?

Much more than just a rarefied vacuum of a shared obsession

It happened to me again last weekend. At my cousin's birthday party, which I had not expected to be a stinker by any means but honestly had neither expected to put me in a state of being all fired up about anything – no offense, cousin, and many happy returns – one of the party guests and I discovered that we were both cinemaphiles or shortly cinephiles. ("Movie freaks" is probably the term everyone else in attendance would have used, but we wouldn’t have heard them call us that or worse, because we were operating in the rarefied vacuum of a shared obsession.) 

And suddenly there was one of those moments that all of us movie freaks simultaneously crave and dread: "All right," said my cousin’s friend, giving me a sly look as if he had my number and it wasn’t as great as I thought it was (We love that look!), "Night on Earth."

What the look and the identification mean, loosely translated, is as follows: "It seems to me from my interaction with you thus far that your film creds check out and that you are at least of mammalian-level intelligence. I now wish to bring our collegial vibe to a slightly higher frequency and either build a sense of case-specific solidarity with you or see with what bonhomie and pluck you are able to argue your opposition to my perspective. The film I have most recently named is one which, for some reason which I will later describe, resonated powerfully with me. Without having clued you in to that reason, I will now judge you based on your response to the same film

Got that? I will judge you. I’m not judgmental, we say, and Everyone is entitled to an opinion. Mostly this is true. You like dogs? I prefer cats, big deal. But it’s the case that in some ways it’s easier for me to be friends with someone whose politics I almost loathe, for instance, than with someone who thinks that Robert Altman's Nashville is boring and dated. And, as Don Corleone said, it’s nothing personal – this film meant something to me, note emphasis, and if it left you cold, then I am left with a practical tool, a partial map of what you and I won’t have in common. Why shouldn’t I have that? Why shouldn’t I want it?

Sometimes a movie is more than just a movie; sometimes it is a thing to go to battle over. It’s as if I’m both dictator and loyal resident of a peaceful, neutral republic (work with me on this metaphor, if you would), the boundaries of which are constantly being redrawn. 

I can give you directions to get there, I can brief you on our constitution, but I can’t promise you a visa. For that, you have to be of some proven use to me and my country: a friend of the cause, or something against which I can set myself and look all tough and purposeful and not impotent. (Do I take myself way too seriously here? Please go ahead and judge me, judge me right back.) When confronted with a circumscribing challenge like I was at the party, I similarly have two options, diplomacy or nationalism. "It was all right; on the whole I enjoyed myself," I can say when I don’t want to risk being offensive (or when I don’t want to bother engaging an uninspiring opponent in a skirmish), or I can channel the spirit of Tom Paine and start declaiming. On the basis of my fervor, I declare my due citizenship. 

Back to the party. It so happens that yes I do have strongly held beliefs about Night on Earth, and about one segment in particular. At a cozy family party of all places, where I didn’t know any of the non-family guests, maybe I should have just bowed and smiled. Instead I swung the bat hard, and I can still hear the whistle of it slicing through the air. Times like that remind me all over again why I love movies. Thanks for stopping by. Let us know what you think. A.G

Sunday, August 2, 2015

What I Saw Last Night - 6 Movie Reviews

Its been a busy month but here are some of the films that have kept me awake.

Armored (Nimród Antal, 2009, Crime, Thriller) - With a stellar cast comprising Matt Dillon, Jean Reno, Skeet Ulrich, Lawrence Fishburne, Fred Ward and more, this should have been a winner. Yet, this 2009 heist gone wrong thriller of Armored Guards making the perfect robbery has an uncanny feeling of “been there, done that” throughout its 90 minutes runtime. However, if you have nothing else to do and are willing to ignore the countless clichés, it’s a not so boring time passer. This is a dissapoitment considering its from the same director who gave us the Kate Beckinsale horror film Vacancy (2007) and the superb but dark Kontroll (2003)

Der Baader Meinhof Komplex / The Baader Meinhof Complex (Uli Edel, 2008, Crime, Thriller) - Based on the best selling book of the same name by Stefan Aust, this is a sensational piece of German cinema chronicling the rise of the left wing Baader Meinhof (Red Faction) radical group that was famous in the 1970s and the 1980’s for staging audacious arson attacks and bombings in West Germany and beyond. With spotloss performances from it stars Moritz Bleibtreu, Martina Gedeck and Johanna Wokalek and a water tight screenplay, this is a pleasure to watch. No reason why this was nominated for an Oscar under the Best Foreign Language Film in 2008. Truly unmissable. 

Lucky Luciano (Francesco Rosi, 1974, Crime, Drama) - This Italian-American co-production was a disappointing attempt to cash in on the Godfather craze of the early '70s. The talented Francesco Rosi, known for capturing detail in his films, here uses authenticity to his disadvantage. The movie plays like a mediocre documentary. It is disjointed, with frequent crosscutting between New York and Italy and unannounced flashbacks and flash forwards. Gian Maria Volante, a very good actor, does a credible job here as Luciano when he speaks Italian, but when he speaks Brooklynese English his voice is poorly dubbed.

Peggy Sue Got Married (Francis Ford Coppola, 1986, Comedy, Fantasy) - Never has Coppola been so lighthearted and romantically bittersweet as in this candy-colored retro fantasy that was nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Actress, Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design. Kathleen Turner delivers an impressively nuanced performance as a soon-to-be-divorced woman who goes back in time to the '50s at her high school reunion. Suddenly she's a cheerleader dating her future husband again (played with false buck teeth and unintended Pee Wee-isms by Nicolas Cage). What would Peggy Sue do if she could change her destiny? Funnier, flakier and more poignant than the similar Back To The Future (1985). Kevin J. O'Connor makes an impressive debut as the wild-eyed, poetry-spouting Kerouac clone Peggy Sue secretly desires. 

The Servant (Joseph Losey, 1963, Drama) - In his first collaboration with playwright Harold Pinter, exiled director Losey creates a stunning surrealist look at power plays and decadent perversity in the relationship between a handsome, very proper member of the British upper crust (James Fox) and his seemingly dutiful manservant (Dirk Bogarde). All runs smoothly in their tasteful townhouse until the arrival of Bogarde's so-called "sister" (played with youthful sensuality incarnate by a nubile Sarah Miles). Then all hell breaks loose, including the notorious concluding orgy scene. A distinctive ever roving camera, brilliant performances and psycho-sexual dynamics with homo erotic overtones make this one of Losey's best. 

Under Fire (Roger Spottiswode, 1983, War, Drama) - A gravel-voiced Nick Nolte stars as a photojournalist asked by Nicaraguan Sandinistas to photograph their murdered leader as though he were alive to save their cause. This easy-to-swallow primer of Nicaraguan Revolution that toppled the Somoza regime has lots of great kinetic action complemented by a great Jerry Goldsmith score. Cinematography by John Alcott (who shot Kubrick's Barry Lyndon) is consistently inventive. Good peripheral performances from Gene Hackman, Ed Harris, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Joanna Cassidy (who has a stunningly cool-sensual presence) make this a solid political thriller along the lines of Costa Gavras' Missing (1982).

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Paul Weller - Illumination (2002)

Chas Newkey-Burden warms up to the original Modfather

Illumination, the sixth studio album of celebrated English rocker, singer & songwriter Peter Weller released in 2002 can be described as Weller's boldest solo effort, bursting with soul, character and sentimentality. Weller's never been one to play the game in the music industry but you sense that this, more than ever, in this album. It as if he didn't give a hoot to the music industry or the critics or whether they like it or lump it. 

It opens, as did his last two studio albums Heavy Soul and Heliocentric, with a long, mellow and mysterious track - 'One x One' which clocks in at over five and a half minutes. Featuring Noel Gallagher and Gem Archer of Oasis, it builds into a pleasing crescendo and grows with every listen. After the many masterpieces he produced with The Jam, The Style Council and during his solo career, for a song to be called a 'classic Weller tune', it has to be something special. 

The album's second track 'It's Written In The Stars' is something very special - a soul jive Stevie Wonder would have been proud of. With interesting brass effects, it deserves to be the soundtrack for driving around on a sunny day, with the roof of the car back. Also oozing with soul is 'Standing Out In The Universe', which marked the welcome return of Carleen Anderson and Jocelyn Brown on backing vocals.

So too is 'Leafy Mysteries' which is one of the catchiest tunes on the album. If it's rocking tunes you're after, you'll enjoy 'A Bullet For Everyone' which takes us back to the territory Weller stomped over during his Stanley Road era. But it's on 'Call Me No. 5' that your air guitar will get some real punishment. Weller duets the song with Kelly Jones of the Stereophonics, and the senior statesman wins the who-can-sing-the-most-croakiest-and-bluesiest contest hands down. 

But such noisy moments are few and far between on the mellowest studio album Weller's ever released. There's lots of quiet, acoustic stuff going on here with 'Bag Man' and the title track 'Illumination' most enjoyable, particularly to those still hooked on his acoustic live album Days Of Speed. They're sound of a mature artist for sure, but one who is quite at ease with his age. 

There are a few tracks that don't quite do it. 'Who Brings Joy', the album's most sentimental moment, is the musical equivalent of being cornered by a slightly tipsy man who has just become a father and wants to show you his photos. It's so slushy, it makes his last weepie, 'Sweet Pea', sound like 'Eton Rifles' in comparison. Some people will enjoy the mysterious two and a half minute instrumental 'Spring (At Last)'. But for me, it sounds a bit too much like the background to a self-help hypnosis tape. The final track, 'All Good Books', is a decent enough gospel tune but lacks the importance to work as the closer to the album. 

Overall, though, a cracking album. Weller, his superb material oozing soul, humanity and musicianship, continues to stand head and shoulders over any other British artists of his time. Perhaps his best studio album since Stanley Road, Illumination reminds you that we bandy around the world genius with far too much aplomb nowadays. Weller's one of the very few around at the moment to richly deserve that title. So lets paray he doesnt go hanging up that guitar for a while.  

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