Thursday, April 26, 2007

Happy LOST Birthday to Me!

I just realized that the last two LOST episodes took place on my birthday in 2004, and nobody got me a present. What gives?
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Monday, April 23, 2007

Done (Updated)

I know that everyone has been anxiously awaiting my return from filmmaking chaos, so I thought I'd announce that we finished the film on time (barely) last night. We ended up having to turn in a rough cut that could still use some work, but the result is still very funny (at least for those who haven't slept much for 48 Hours). It helped of course, to have my Avid whiz sister behind the cutting the scenes so that our rough cut will probably be comparable to most of the other edits. I served as writer and director of our movie, which is called "Runner's High." We drew the "detective/cop" genre, which generated a few problems in regard to runtime, but was very fun. I'll write more later about my opinion of the festival's format.

We are in group B, which—oddly enough, screens after Group C. The program that includes our film screens at 9:30 pm on Tuesday at the Broadway Centre Cinema. They allege that tickets will sell out, but who knows? Rumor has it that only 3 Group B participants turned their films in on time, but the films turned in late on Sunday will still screen. I don't want to advocate that people pay $7 if they're only going to get a half an hour worth of movies, so hopefully additional films from Groups A and C be added on. Hopefully I will be able to regain coherence soon and resume my blogging duties.

UPDATE: I've been told that there will be additional films after the four from Group B that turned in their work.
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Friday, April 20, 2007

How to Grind, Edit Other People's Movies and Make a Bad One

I'm back in town now, and have somehow found myself working on a film for the 48-hour-film festival this weekend, under the leadership of producer extraordinaire Stephanie Geerlings. Will our film be tons better than any of the other entries? I can only assume yes. (No offense to the losers who aren't on our team. Once 7pm hits, I'll be too busy to post, but here are some articles to tide you over:

You don't need to read my review of "Perfect Stranger" quite as much as you need to avoid seeing the thing.

My guide to "Grindhouse" will tell you all you need to know about the film's visual references to scuzzy movie theaters.

And in case you missed it, my column from last week made fun of so-called open-source cinema.
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Thursday, April 12, 2007

'Who Doesn't Have an Atomic Bomb Nowadays?' Kurt Vonnegut, 1922 - 2007

Few men could express as bleak an outlook on humanity as Kurt Vonnegut while making us laugh about it and give us hope, and no one could do it with the same level of wisdom and insight. One of my heroes, the great Vonnegut died last night as a result of brain injuries sustained in a fall a couple weeks ago. He left behind 14 novels, at least three of which are masterpieces (and I would argue for some of the others as well), as well as a body of essays, short stories, plays and radio programs. Perhaps Vonnegut put it best when he—a lifelong atheist, humanist and joker—gave a speech as the Honorary President of the American Humanist Association. Speaking of the organizations former honorary president, Isaac Asimov, he said, "He is in heaven now."

I fell in love with Vonnegut when I read Slaughterhouse Five in high school for a banned books class. It inspired me to devour everything in his catalogue over the course of a year. Other people got into Vonnegut at that age as well, not because he wrote youth-oriented novels, but because his humor, unmistakably unpretentious voice and fearless exploration of the profound questions of humanity are refreshing to teenagers surrounded by adults who prefer to ignore such questions. Without Vonnegut, I cannot say with any certainty that I would have made it through high school.

Slaughterhouse Five, written in 1968, dealt with one of the defining moments of its author's life: the British fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany. Vonnegut witnessed the obliteration of an entire city as a POW in World War II. Vonnegut wrote that he was originally looking to capitalize off his experience with a macho military picture, until his friend's wife reminded them that they were just babies during the war. Vonnegut's end result was a brilliant mish-mash of science-fiction, dementia and troubled memories.

Delving into his catalogue yields more riches. After finishing college, Vonnegut wrote two novels, Player Piano and The Sirens of the Titan, in the 1950s, and finished his first stone-cold masterpiece in 1963. Cat's Cradle created a religion, Bokononism, satirized the short-sightedness of military science and taught us why we should never write our own indexes.

In 1973, Vonnegut's experimentation reached its pinnacle with the unforgettable Breakfast of Champions a masterful meditation of what it means to live in this modern world, what it is to means to make decisions (if the chemicals in your brain don't make them for you), what it means to be alienated, what it means to write a novel and what it means to go insane. Filled with simplistic illustrations of assholes and American flags, references to himself as a deus ex machina and reminders that he knows how it ends. That a film of this unadaptable work was made is baffling. That it in no way lived up to its source was no surprise.

Vonnegut finished his last novel, Timequake, in 1997, vowing never to write another because it is too difficult and, since he's still in print, too hard not to repeat himself. Hocus Pocus, his novel before that, is one of his best later works. He kept the promise to stay out of novels, but did turn two collections of essays, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, in which he takes a a series of trips to the after life, and A Man Without a Country. He continued to write attacks on the Bush administration for In These Times and practiced his illustrative talents.

Vonnegut's endings always linger. After all that came before, it would be easy to be disappointed at the conclusions. But they were vibrant, hopeful and alive, begging you to turn a few pages back and take them in again. Vonnegut's 84 years may be over, but he left us a hell of a lot of stuff to go back to and read.
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More Than the Daily 'Grind'

During the climactic car chase in "Death Proof," Quentin Tarantino's half of the double feature "Grindhouse," two old-school cars that had heretofore been duking it out on empty highways and dirt careen onto a main road. Tarantino suddenly reminds us that this film doesn't take place in the 1970s, but in 2007. The high-speed drivers race around and smash into bland, modern SUVs, posing the question: Is there a place for this kind of film in these modern times?

The question lingers throughout the film, which suggests that between the occasional prestigious art film and the polished, PG-13 crap shoveled out to junior high students every weekend, we've lost the joy of exploitational trash. We don't have the films that kids see posters for and describe—with an active imagination and bated breath—to their friends, the films that promise hot women, bloody decapitations and tense explosions beyond your wildest dreams.

For many, the simple existence of these films is lost. Stuntman Mike, the cheerfully ambiguous character played by Kurt Russell, talks about the TV productions he worked on, and realizes the young, hot young girls with whom he's conversing have no idea what he's talking about. Tarantino knows that his own encyclopedic pop culture knowledge is lost on most of his audience.

Yet he has made a brilliant homage, part recollection and part deconstruction, to this lost age, merging the stalker/slasher and the female revenge genres into a glorious, constantly surprising game.

Many of the best stalker films take their time establishing the nonviolent life that the ticket-selling violence encroaches upon. "Halloween," for example, spends more time in the creepy, pre-murder atmosphere than on the actual killings. Lesser exploitation films use cheap drama to fill out the runtime. The difference between Tarantino's development and most grindhouse films is that it's detailed, observational and entertaining. Tarantino wants to get to know these women in all sorts of light. They aren't women of the road, they're local girls who like to go out and party, and their car lets them drive from place to place, hitting a few bars before heading out to their cabin. Although they don't actually go to most of their destinations, the possibility itself is exciting.

Russell stands (or maybe lurks) in the center of it all with an outstanding performance that's both personable and creepy. He tells stories, makes small talk, and observes everything that goes on around him: the text message love scenes, near sneezes and fights. Everyone knows him, but no one actually knows anything about him.

[SPOILER NOTE: You can't really discuss the film without giving stuff away, so consider yourself warned.]

Abruptly after our four initial females are killed off in less than a second (although Tarantino gives us a closer look at each one's demise), a new story starts. Stuntman Mike is at it again, and he has his eyes on four more ladies, who are working on a film production. After the initial chase, which interrupts a helluva game called masthead, the ladies decide to strike back. They are not helpless females in distress. Russell is no longer the calm, methodical madman, but a shrieking, crying baby. Tarantino's women are empowered in a very different way than those in most revenge exploitation films, and they're having a hell of a lot of fun as they go on a wild ride and track down their pursuer. Their sense of adventure lacks the desperation of typical film portrayals, and bears more resemblance to the audience watching the film, cheering for the bad man to get what's coming to him.

[Awkward pause.]

Robert Rodriguez's "Planet Terror" is also good cheesy fun, more notable for its study in scratches than anything else. And "Shaun of the Dead" director Edgar Wright's trailer is pure genius. Of course, if you've seen "Grindhouse," you already know that, and if you haven't, you need to see it for yourself.
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Movie-to-Musical Mania

For last week's colum, I totally stretched out that thing about a "Goonies" musical. Enjoy
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Friday, April 6, 2007

You Know What You're Seeing This Weekend

So, I'm sure that everyone is going to "Grindhouse" this weekend anyway, but a quick warning: Stay the fuck away from "The Reaping." More on both films soon...
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Thursday, April 5, 2007

The Man Who Created a Christmas Tradition: Bob Clark, 1941-2007

Not all of Bob Clark's films were great, but one is all you need, and "A Christmas Story" will be a holiday favorite as long as people remember what it's like to be a kid, dreaming of a perfect present as if it's the most important thing on earth. Clark and his son died in a car accident yesterday, leaving behind an immortal film that required more than a decade of commitment.

The film, written by Jean Shepherd and culled from his short stories, was a passion project for Clark, and he was trying to finance it long before its 1983 release. He was only able to make it thanks to rousing success of his previous effort, the raunchy high school sex comedy "Porky's" (1982). If the MGM executives wanted a sequel, they had to let him make "A Christmas Story." But the studio didn't want to make it, and they sure as hell didn't want to release it. After a sparsely advertised opening that garnered greater ticket sales than expected, "A Christmas Story" abruptly disappeared from screens. The film seemed destined for oblivion. But it continued to air during Christmastime and became a tradition for more and more families each year.

My dad was a fan from the beginning, and I remember watching it each year after decorating the tree. As the years passed, my perspective changed, and Ralphie's desires and his fantasies worked on new levels. Age has only improved my appreciation of the character study of family dynamics and its humorous portrayal of how young minds that get worked up over the magic of the holiday. The 1930s/40s setting lends itself to the bygone memories of the past, when we felt innocent and safe in our own world. The betrayal of Little Orphan Annie's secret message is as funny now as it was anti-climactic for the excited child who had, against all logic, hoped for something truly adventurous. Clark perfectly cast Darren McGaven as The Old Man, who embodies fatherhood like few characters in cinema history.

Clark would never reach such grand heights for the remainder of his career, the nadir of which is surely the two "Baby Geniuses" movies. And even as they earn more recognition, his early horror-comedy B-movies, like the recently remade "Black Christmas" (1974)—which went on to inspire John Carpenter's "Halloween" will probably only be remembered by a small cult audience. (One of Clark's upcoming projects was a remake of his 1972 horror comedy, "Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things.") But for one great moment, Clark was able to make the film of his dreams, and it's become an important memory and tradition in many people's lives.

UPDATE: Dennis Cozzalio and Kim Morgan have more on Clark's "Black Christmas" (originally titled "Silent Night, Deadly Night," making me eager to re-watch it after many years. Cozzalio also has some great insights on Clark's warm personality.
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Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Don't Get Too Excited Just Yet

Everyone is buzzing about the news that Orson Welles'sincomplete final film may finally see the light of a projector. Welles spent five years making the "The Other Side of the Wind," starring John Huston as a film director who—ironically enough—dies while working on his final film. The flashback structure that follows sounds a bit like an obscure Welles film called "Citizen Kane." Welles presumably figured that no one had seen that one, so he could get away with re-using the concept.

"The unedited negatives of the film have sat in a Paris vault for more than 30 years, unseen by anyone other than Welles, who died in 1985."

In his infinite, I-Knew-Welles-and-interviewed-Howard-Hawks-and-John-Ford-too wisdom, director Peter Bogdanovich decided to announce, unofficially, that "the deal is 99.9% finished." Other men might wait for that final tenth of a percent to make things definite so that they don't get burned (again) when things fall through, but that's not how Bogdanovich rolls.

Hopefully this time Bogdanovich's efforts will bear the cinematic equivalent of tasty fruit, but it's important to note that "The Other Side of the Wind" is very incomplete. Welles editted 40 to 50 minutes and, if the New York Sun is to be believed, no one but him has seen any of the raw footage, which he said was pretty much done complete. What happens when Bogdanovich finds the footage and realizes that he has no idea what the fuck he's doing?

Did Welles share his plans for the film with any collaborators prior to his death? Did he take extensive notes? Can we ever really get something close to "The Other Side of the Wind" that Welles would have made? If we do and it is great, can we give it awards and include it on our top 10 lists like some did with "Army of Shadows?" Until these questions are answered, don't set your expectations too high.
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Sunday, April 1, 2007

On Easter Candy

I would be remiss in my duties if I didn't advise people that Cadbury Royal Dark Mini Eggs are not as good as the company's original, milk chocolate Mini Eggs. While the combination of dark chocolate's sensual flavor and the addictive decadence of Mini Eggs may sound like a combination that's too good to pass up, it sadly is a dissonant disappointment.

The Cadbury Royal Dark bars are undeniably delicious, but the chocolate doesn't mesh with the crisp, sugary-shell with the same orgasmic taste stimulation that the milk chocolate Mini Eggs deliver. When you're buying your Easter candy, stick with the classic. (Or, in the very least, sample a small pack before buying the big bag.)
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