Wednesday, March 28, 2007


Some people are like the friend you never had, Stacie Ponder is like the video store owner I never had. If my small hometown video store had been run by Stacie (instead of a former Mexican gang member who kept a .44 Magnum at the ready), my early movie intake may have included such forgotten horror classics as The Convent or Gnaw: Food of the Gods 2 (this also assumes that Stacie could successfully run a video store). Stacie's Final Girl is the most fun you can have on a horror blog, and the fun continues in the new Final Girl Forum! How cool is Stacie? So cool that reigning Cool Queen Kim Morgan recently called her 'the only living human I would ever marry if she would just have me' (I endorse this potential marriage not only for the Super Blog that would result, but also the obviously cinema-centric gift registry that would precede it). Stacie is a lover of horror, but not a 'fan girl' of it -- she knows bullshit when she sees it, and for your protection does not hold back (here's one lineup of offenders). Ms. Ponder also lends her talents to comics (which she inks by day) -- check out Stick-o-Vision and the bloody epic They Won't Stay Dead!

'It's probably a losing battle to go up against someone who's got their feet planted firmly on [not being scared by movies]. It's so subjective; some people are afraid of zombies, some people are afraid of spiders, some people are afraid of MGM musicals. I'd list a few movies that I find scary to find out if they've seen them to get a handle on their reactions and tastes. Then I'd have them watch a variety of horror films, from all different subgenres: The Haunting ('63), The Ring, The Exorcist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre ('74), The Blair Witch Project, Halloween, The Descent...and if they still insisited that nothing scared them, I'd have to give up. Oh, and then I'd probably push them down.'

WHOOPIE IN HER HEART: 'I've got a little harem of favorites, each serving a different need- The Haunting ('63) (when I want something subtle and scary), The Descent (when I want something bloody and scary), The Shining (when I want something pretty and scary) Airplane! (when I just want to turn off my brain), Harold and Maude (when I want to remember that life is good), Jumpin' Jack Flash (when I want to humiliate myself)...perhaps I've said too much.'

WE HAD CYBER-SEASONS IN THE CYBER-SUN: 'I love talking about movies, even if someone has an opinion that differs from mine. In fact, that's why I started Final Girl in the first place- to have a little place to talk about my most favoritest kinds of movies, horror movies. Now I get to expound to my heart's content on The Internet and people chime in with their comments and we cyber-converse and we hold cyber-hands and it's rad.'

PASS THE HOLY WATER: 'I think seeing The Exorcist during its initial run would've been amazing...if the legends are to be believed, audience members were passing out, throwing up, fleeing the was like armageddon. Linda Blair's wacky, Satanesque antics must have taken everyone by surprise- I know it shocked me the first time I saw it and it STILL scares me more than just about any other movie. Audiences today might be too jaded to react to anything quite like that again, and I think that sucks.'

THIS IS THE DAY: 'Just about every day I throw something on, even if it's for background noise while I'm working (I'm a comic book artist, which means long hours behind a desk). There are specific times of the year when I do a review-a-day (such as SHOCKtober, baby), which means I HAVE to watch a movie every day. That can get tiresome, especially when the movies are lousy.'

EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED: 'I went in to see the Dawn of the Dead remake fully prepared to hate it- I had my middle finger all primed and ready to stick up at the screen, even- but then...something magical happened! The movie was...good. I liked it. I liked it alot. Suddenly, all my expectations about EVERYTHING were thrown completely out the window. When I left the theatre, the world was in complete chaos- up was down, down was up...dogs and cats were getting long last, there was a peaceful resolution to The Cola Wars...'

HAROLD AND MAUDE: 'I adore that movie in a hundred ways.'

CAREER OPPORTUNITIES: 'When I saw Silence of the Lambs I wanted to join the FBI. When I saw The Thing I wanted to learn not only how to fly a helicopter, but also how to pull off wearing the most ludicrous hat possible. Ava Gardner's performance in Earthquake made me want to become a shrewy boozer in flowy fabric, and let's just say I'm still considering becoming a Jedi.'

GET BIT: 'Shark Attack 3: Megalodon is THE greatest bad movie in the history of ever. It's really an awful movie in virtually every respect, but it's also a SUCH joy to watch that it's become one of my favorite movies, period. The effects must simply be seen to be believed there's green screens and stock footage galore. I was literally on the floor at times, howling with laughter. The longer it goes on, the better it gets. I want to buy everybody in the whole world a copy; I want to introduce as many people to it as I possibly can; I want to make out with Shark Attack 3.'

Contact DVD Panache if you are interested in contributing to Friday Screen Test.

Monday, March 26, 2007

'Superman Was Outta Town'

Just like the back-up quarterback, the 'lost' or 'unfinished' cut of a movie will always have a sizable fan base. Film history is chock full of juicy examples of movies that originally existed in a more grand or infamous fashion -- Welles' original ending to The Magnificent Ambersons or a reputed six hour cut of Cleopatra. The 'what could have been' sentiment always rings brighter in our mind because that's the only place they exist. No one will confuse Superman II with these last two movies, but the Sequel of Steel lands in its own unique category -- not only because a new director was brought in to wildly rework the movie -- but because we are now able to see it (mostly) the way it was originally intended. Even if you're not a fan of the series, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is a rare success in turning back the hands of studio interference and presenting a completely new vision. Through the thankful cooperation between Warner Bros., Donner and many others, the end result is a more enjoyable piece of comic book popcorn fare that largely works despite a disastrous new ending that shouldn't have left the drawing board.

The controversy of Superman II seems written for an episode of E! True Hollywood Story, and you may want to read Wikipedia's detailed entry on it so I don't have to rehash everything about it here. When Donner was replaced as director by Richard Lester, the franchise took a serious u-turn: starting with the sequel, Superman movies would never regain the noble and epic qualities of Superman: The Movie. Instead, charm and care were traded for camp and stupidity. Imagine if Spiderman 2 featured scenes about Peter Parker getting his webbing stuck on his fly and a subplot with Aunt May turning her house into a coffee shop; and the main villain in Spiderman 3 was a team of international teenage open source vandals intent on discrediting Spiderman's name. This is the kind of shift that happens to the Superman series after the first movie, and if you believe what Donner says in his commentary track, the horrors of Superman III and IV would have never happened if he was allowed to stay on as director of II.

Which is why it's a treat to finally see Donner's cut of his film. Since he was pulled off during production, some of Donner scenes went unfilmed as II made the switch to a campy family comedy, and as a result many of Lester's scenes remain -- but the tone and quality have received a serious upgrade, starting in the first scene where we learn how the rebels escaped from the Phantom Zone. In Lester's introduction, we get a cheap recreation of the trial on Krypton, followed with highlights of the first film interspersed over the opening credits, almost like it's the ending credits sequence of an 80s sitcom. Since most of these rehashed scenes have no bearing on the movie, II instantly feels like a notch below the original, and this feeling continues through a tedious and embarrassing sequence of how a hydrogen bomb planted by terrorists in the Eiffel Tower ends up being hurled into space by Superman, with the ensuing explosion setting Zod and Co. free. Lester's opening sequence is long-winded (about 20 minutes too long) and doesn't move the story along at all.

With the Donner cut, the key events of the first film are explained on the quick, and we see that Lex Luthor's second missile (flung into space by Superman) is what was responsible for the rebels' escape. As the three villains set their sights on Earth, the title credits appear. Not only is this new opening more expedient in its exposition, it's also much more interesting because it enhances the events of the first film. Donner's crafty work with the opening is how he approaches the rest of the new cut: cleaning Lester's trash here and there, while making everything tighter. While only 11 minutes shorter, Donner's cut flows better and doesn't suffer from the early scenes that bog down the theatrical cut.

There are a few Donner scenes left out of the original that now enrich the movie. In the original, Lois tests her guess about Clark as Superman by hopping into a river, only to be saved by a branch that Clark cuts down with his heat vision. The new scene sees Lois jump out of a window at The Daily Planet, with a much more clever and satisfying resolution. Those horrible early scenes at Niagara Falls? Gone, save for the rescue of the boy falling over the ledge. Similarly, the clunky scenes of Zod and Co. terrorizing 'East Houston, Idaho' are almost completely excised. These scenes were the face of all that was wrong with Superman II, with super villains toying with rednecks and numerous jokes falling flat (and watching the original again, is there any explanation why that kid who speaks up to them sounds like Oliver Twist?).

But the Donner Cut is nearly done in by a somewhat inexplicable new ending. Donner explains in the commentary that the 'spin the globe' ending for Superman: The Movie was originally slated to conclude the sequel, but was then swapped over to the first film. Lester eventually used the 'memory kiss' as the ending for II -- a way for Lois to never know about Clark's identity (presumably so the sequels could have more suspense), but in the new cut Donner tacks on the time travel ending, which clouds the whole movie and raises many questions. The chief of these is 'why?' Why would Superman bother turning back the clock when things were already fine? Does he do this after all his adventures now, to wipe the slate clean? Exacerbating this questionable decision is the fact that the scene of Clark going back to the diner to get back at his tormentor is left in -- yet, since time has been turned back this man has done nothing wrong, he hasn't even seen Clark!

Even with the new cut, it's still hard to get THAT excited over Superman II. There's still the failed diner scene (filmed by Donner), where Clark gets beat up and finds out that Zod is terrorizing the world (this could have been a great moment, with Superman seeing the destruction his selfishness helped create, instead it's largely weightless). Despite the infinite power of the villainous trio, you never get the sense that Earth is in any kind of danger -- they seem content vandalizing the U.S. and issuing hollow threats. An underlying question that is never addressed: Superman essentially takes a vacation and lets the world fend for itself, but there seems to be little regret on his part, or even any hesitation in his abandonment.

The latter is where the movie had a chance to be something much more: Superman reveals his secret to Lois, they cuddle at the Fortress of Solitude, and then he's ready to leave his powers behind for good. This is the equivalent of a couple going out on a first date and then coming home married with three kids and a mortage. Superman knows that the decision to become 'mortal' is irreversible, but he seems to show little care for the repercussions, and Lois seems cool with it all. Isn't this a decision you want to think about for awhile, like -- maybe even sleep on?

In the commentary and short featurette on the disc, Donner shows that the Superman series meant a lot to him, and he was genuinely hurt when he couldn't finish his film. The director talks about staying on as producer for the next two installments, with bold plot ideas already on paper. Instead, we got Robert Wagner, Richard Prior, robot woman, super computer, Nuclear Man and Mariel Hemingway.

Note: Super happy bonus points for readers who recognized the title of this post as a line from the obscure AC/DC song 'What's Next to the Moon?'

Thursday, March 22, 2007


Lucas McNelly not only presides over his blog 100 films, but also d press Productions, a 'community of writers, artists, performers, and cinephiles,' where you can also view some of Lucas' short films. Be sure and check out L'Attente, which was made in three hours for $15. At 100 films, Lucas has a cache of rich reviews and exciting blog-a-thon entries. The latter is highlighted by Lucas' own Lovesick blog-a-thon, which collected quite a few stellar entries (hmm, don't know about this one, though). Lucas' latest efforts center on his Uber-Indie Project, which highlights ultra-low budget films you probably wouldn't know about otherwise. Who knows, maybe someday Criterion will release a DVD set entitled 'The Short Films of Lucas McNelly.'

WHAT'S ON THE 'BACK TO THE FUTURE' CHANNEL?: 'What I've never understood is how when a film is in theatres, I won't even consider seeing it, even if I don't have to pay, but if that same, terrible film is later on TV, if it's on TBS some random Saturday, I'll not only watch it, but I'll even sit through commercials, just to find out what happens.'

LOCOMOTIVE BREATH: 'I forget the name of the film, but back in very beginning, before the talkies, before Chaplin, there was the famous footage of an oncoming train that cleared a theater of people who, being unfamiliar with the new medium, were convinced they were about to get killed. Can you imagine being a first-hand witness to that sort of audience reaction?'

THE 'LOST' BOY: '[...] the day I came around to the realization that American television could do stuff on par with film. I'd heard good things about this new series, so when it came around on Netflix, I popped in the DVD and 8 hours later was wondering just how long it would take the next disc of LOST to arrive. I'd spent a lot of time complaining about how bad television could be, but that day I saw the narrative possibilities for the first time. Sure, Bergman had done it in Europe, but that was a whole different animal.'

THE MAN WHO MAKES THE MOVIES: 'I'm kind of streaky. My primary involvement is that of a filmmaker, and when I'm really working hard, I only tend to watch films as research. Partly it's because of overload and partly because I have a lot of trouble viewing films passively enough to simply enjoy them for what they are, especially if I've been thinking actively about it all day. In times like that you can find me watching re-runs of Arrested Development or Seinfeld. Other than that, though, it's not unusual for me to watch two or three films a day, time permitting.'

PLAYING FAVORITES: 'When I was a kid, this was an easy answer–Hoosiers (1986)–no question. But then I went to college and for a couple years it was Swingers (1996). Then, I started delving into film history and it became Casablanca (1942). But, when I'm asked for a top 10 of all-time list, my answer is invariably Kieslowski's Dekalog (1989).'

YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT FILM CLUB: 'I didn't start getting into film (or literature, for that matter) until my junior year of college. A bunch of people were getting together to go see "that street fighting movie with Brad Pitt in it", which we were all sure would be terrible and mindless. Of course, Fight Club (1999) was anything but and blew me away. It was as stunned as I've ever been in a movie theater. We all went for coffee later and discussed the film ad nauseam. Over the next few weeks, we spent a lot of time convincing people to go see it.'

PARADISE FOUND: 'On the worst days, the recipe is something like this: pizza, several good beers, and Smokey and the Bandit (1977). Sequel as needed. Alternately, substitute in good wine and some Woody Allen'

STRANGE MAGIC: 'Kazaam (1996). Not only is it terrible in every way you could possibly imagine–the script, the acting, the directing, the effects, and the production values are all unbelievably inept–but it stars Shaquille O'Neal as a genie who lives in a boom box and only talks by rapping. Not only that, but his performance may be the best in the entire film. At least he seems to be having fun. Only in the 90's could a film like this have been made. Also: I have a brilliant idea for a sequel that I hesitate to include here because I still have a sliver of hope that somehow it might get made before Shaq retires from the NBA.'

Contact DVD Panache if you are interested in contributing to Friday Screen Test.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

They Died With Their Codpieces On

I'll admit it: I liked 300. It's strange in that it's hard not to like, but equally difficult to isolate any particular moments of enjoyment. While I watched it, there was always a sense that something was missing, and later that night I arrived at just what that was: more violence.

Yes, violence. 300 appears to have this trait in spades, but it's never the kind of carnage or gore that makes you wince or appreciatively chuckle. Like the movie itself, the violence and gore is there, but it really isn't. This heavy digital style didn't stop me from enjoying the hell out of Sin City, but with 300 the violence and gore are two of the main characters. A full CGI experience works with lush backgrounds and special effects, but when it comes to a sword ripping through Persian after Persian, for some reason it doesn't translate with CGI.

Brutal large-scale battle movies like Braveheart, Zulu and Spartacus are effective because the characters have genuine fear of their enemies, and would plainly like to avoid being skewered or shot. The carnage in those movies was painful, brutal and most of all -- exciting. In 300 the blood is digital, as are the wounds and stampeding hordes. The disconnected emotions I felt during the grandest of the battle scenes was similar to what I experienced after a nice game of Halo in which maybe 200 aliens met their spectacular demise. In both cases I saw the deaths and was convinced the characters were dead, but didn't feel it at all because it was clearly just some combination of digital bits. I'm more likely to be motivated to pick up the flag of PETA after a game of Duck Hunt than to feel the weight of mass human loss from 300.

That said, 300 does have a lot going for it. The decision to film a comic book adaptation of a historical event dumps a helmet full of potential on the page before a single word of the script has been written. I've read Frank Miller's 300 (hell, it's only like 50 pages) and loved Miller's approach of illustrating an epic event as it would be imagined by a young person. Miller took great creative liberties in his story, but it's nothing that a young imagination wouldn't dream up while hearing about it in history class. In the hands of Zack Snyder, Miller's imagery is brought to life with loving care. The source material is never dumbed down, and the warriors on both sides are lifted up to a level just beyond reality.

After enduring his odd voice in Phantom of the Opera, I could never imagine liking Gerard Butler, but 300 would be nothing without his strong Leonidas. It might help his cause that he's carrying with him into battle one of the greatest beards the world has ever seen. Xerxes is magnificent, better than I had imagined while reading the book. He looks and acts like some obscure X-Men villain, and his scenes are the movie's strongest. It's this aspect where I yearned a little for 1962's The 300 Spartans, which features Xerxes and his camp much more prominently -- and also has a better overall story. In that movie we get much closer to Xerxes, portrayed in a far less interesting (though no more historically accurate) manner, and the give and take between the two sides becomes more developed. I would have loved to see more of Xerxes' horrifying camp -- his 'human guillotine' was perhaps my favorite part of the whole movie, what a spectacularly wretched creation

I will say this about digital combat: it is a proud age we live in for cinematic decapitations. Until this movie I had never seen a full-on believable beheading (guillotine scenes notwithstanding), but Snyder perfects it with his technology. I hope from this moment forward we never get another awkward jump-cut shot to a dummy with a foam rubber head tumbling off.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Class is in session ... again

If you thought spring break was going to be, well, a break -- then you obviously do not attend class at Dennis Cozzalio's Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, where vacations mean another hearty film quiz. Mr. Cozzalio has done this a few times before (he recently posted some of the best answers from his last quiz), and each time I was conspicuously absent. But this week I was in my seat and even turned in my results early, so take a look and by all means take Professor Iwin Corey's Foremostly Authoritative Spring Break Movie Quiz for yourself! Related: I am happy to announce that Dennis will be gracing this site with his presence for a future Friday Screen Test, stay tuned.


1) What movie did you have to see multiple times before deciding whether you liked or disliked it?

I saw Eyes Wide Shut on three consecutive nights when it first came out. Each time I walked out with a different impression of it, and it wasn't really until my fifth viewing when I really wrapped my head around just what I it worked so well and what Kubrick was trying to say with it.

2) Inaugural entry into the Academy of the Overrated
The Blob (1958)

3) Favorite sly or not-so-sly reference to another film or bit of pop culture within another film.
There's a scene in Gremlins 2 of Leonard Maltin reviewing the movie Gremlins only to be attacked by gremlins. This attack is supposed to be happening during the time period of Gremlins 2, which raises way too many questions: Why was Leonard Maltin taping a review for a movie that came out six years ago? In the Gremlins 2 universe, was Gremlins actually a documentary, since the characters in it exist in Gremlins 2 and obviously lived through the original movie? Did the events of Gremlins 2 inspire a similar documentary? Why didn't any of the characters in Gremlins 2 simply say 'didn't you see the movie Gremlins?' when trying to explain the monsters?

4) Favorite Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger movie
'I Know Where I'm Going!'

5) Your favorite Oscar moment
Elizabeth Taylor groaning before announcing that The Silence of the Lambs had beaten out Beauty and the Beast for Best Picture in 1991.

6) Hugo Weaving or Guy Pearce?
Even though I've been mightily impressed by Pearce's recent roles, I have to go with Hugo: He's Nigerian, he has The Eyebrows, he has The Voice, he's Nigerian.

7) Movie that you feel gave you the greatest insight into a world/culture/person/place/event that you had no understanding of before seeing it
Boys Don't Cry, I had never actually believed that people lived in Nebraska.

8) Favorite Samuel Fuller movie
Underworld U.S.A.

9) Monica Bellucci or Maria Grazia Cucinotta?

10) What movie can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?
Thankfully this is a long list for me, and it includes: The Royal Tenenbaums, The 'burbs, Ride the High Country, Ghostbusters and This is Spinal Tap.

11) Conversely, what movie can destroy a day’s worth of good humor just by catching a glimpse of it while channel surfing?
Any movie completely lacking in joy or creativity, this list is always headed by Last House on the Left, though thankfully I've never seen it on TV.

12) Favorite John Boorman movie
Point Blank, one of my all-time favorites.

13) Warren Oates or Bruce Dern?
Wow this is a tough one, but I'll have to go with Warren Oates because I've almost seen his entire body of work, while I have quite a ways to go with Dern. I also loved how Oates worked his whole career as a background character until Sam Peckinpah finally found a leading role that suited him perfectly ...

14) Your favorite aspect ratio
I wish I had a preference on this, but as long as it's not panned and scanned I'm happy.

15) Before he died in 1984, Francois Truffaut once said: “The film of tomorrow will resemble the person who made it.” Is there any evidence that Truffaut was right? Is it Truffaut’s tomorrow yet?
I don't think that future is possible, nor has it ever been because films for a long time have been born from a wide variety of influences and rarely exhibit any more than a sliver of who is truly making them.

16) Favorite Werner Herzog movie
Fitzcarraldo by a nose over Aguirre: Wrath of God.

17) Favorite movie featuring a rampaging, oversized or otherwise mutated beast, or beasts
Well, I know that Troll 2 is certainly my favorite movie featuring 'monstrous beasts.'

18) Sandra Bernhard or Sarah Silverman?
I've never appreciated anything Sandra Bernhard has done, although seeing her drop into a vat of molten gold in Hudson Hawk came pretty darn close.

19) Your favorite, or most despised, movie cliché
I despise the cookie cutter that previews for the last two decades or so have all been put through. There used to be a creativity at work in previews (especially teaser trailers) that has long been pushed to the side in favor of the same tired formula for each genre (this may require its own post someday).

20) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom-- yes or no?
Absolutely yes. It was the first real movie I ever watched and I will always hold it in high regard partly because of that. It's possible that I've seen it more than any other movie, and I will continue watching it around once a year until it becomes unpractical.

21) Favorite Nicholas Ray movie
They Live By Night

22) Inaugural entry into the Academy of the Underrated
The Blob (1988)

23) Your favorite movie dealing with the subject of television

24) Bruno Ganz or Patrick Bauchau?

25) Your favorite documentary, or non-fiction, film
American Movie, each laugh it elicits is multiplied at least 3x when you realize it's 100% true.

26) According to Orson Welles, the director’s job is to “preside over accidents.” Name a favorite moment from a movie that seems like an accident, or a unintended, privileged moment. How did it enhance or distract from the total experience of the movie?
In the VHS version of Pee Wee's Big Adventure there is a strange gaffe that we see as the result of it being filmed in open matte. During PeeWee's drive down the careening road, we see crazy signs whizzing past him on the dark road and in the matted widescreen version that was seen in theaters this was all fine and dandy. But for VHS, it was open matte so we see that the signs are actually on rails being pushed past the camera. This was unintended, but on some level it actually works with the camp level in the film and the celebration of Hollywood cliches at the climax.

27) Favorite Wim Wenders movie
The End of Violence

28) Elizabeth Pena or Penelope Cruz?

29) Your favorite movie tag line (Thanks, Jim!)
'Nine men who came too late and stayed too long...' -- The Wild Bunch

30) As a reader, filmgoer, or film critic, what do you want from a film critic, or from film criticism? And where do you see film criticism in general headed?
Film criticism: To treat each film like they should treat their readers, with some respect.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

FRIDAY SCREEN TEST: Alan Lopuszynski

A former member of The Industry, Alan Lopuszynski has traveled far beyond the reaches of Hollywood (present whereabouts: somewhere in Western Pa.) to give us Burbanked, where he dishes on all the muck and melancholy of popular culture. At Alan's site, you won't find mere movie reviews -- but pleasing skewery of trailers, one-sheets and all that's fit to broadcast. Alan writes with the authority of someone who has been there, which give his posts a bit more punch than most. As someone who has always gobbled up trailers, it's easy for me to feast on Alan's teaser takes (loved this one on the upcoming crapfest Perfect Stranger, and his classic take on Terminator's is dead-on).

SNEAKY GOOD: 'I can tell you about four dozen reasons that Sneakers is a dumb, hacky, contrived movie where it looks like every person in it is slumming for a paycheck; what I can't tell you is why I love it so. There are few things as ridiculous as the idea that 4'2'' Ben Kingsley, holding a gun that looks like a big shiny toy in his hand, would look threatening, but I just dig the hell out of it. Silly.'

LET'S GO TO WORK: 'Having worked int he movie industry, it was a requirement to go see everything, all the time. This functioned not only so that I could be up to date on the good stuff that everyone was talking about, but also to inform me as to what was bad so that I was duly equipped to crush my enemies. These days, moviegoing is not based on compulsion, but rather on what I want, what I'm interested in, what I can make time for and what is truly meaningful to me as a human being. That means I go about one-eighth as often as I'd like.'

OH NO YOU DINT!: 'My brother spoiled the ending of The Empire Strikes Back for me, and after I watched it I wouldn't have minded having a group discussion with him and my fists and his breadbasket . . . that movie probably was one of my earliest subjects of film discussion with friends. All of us had cut our teeth on Star Wars and this rather soundly rocked our worlds.

'I was too young to see a lot of the groundbreaking movies of the '70s in their original theatrical runs -- A Clockwork Orange, The Exorcist, Sergio Leone -- but in the spirit of time travel, I would choose to go back and see the original Terminator in the theater. Watching it for the first time late at night on a crappy dormitory TV was fun and all, but it must have been pretty exciting on the big screen, and I wouldn't mind getting that first time back.'

WELCOME TO THE MATRIX REPULSION: 'I did think that the Matrix backlash was more harsh than it needed to be. I agree that Reloaded and Revolutions have the kinds of problems that only a self-hating gender-bending filmmaker could conjure, but at the same time I think that all three Matrix movies as a whole represent something rather extraordinary, unlike anything we had seen before. Ultimately, the trilogy is a pretty amazing cinematic achievement if we can remove ourselves from the hype and the expectation and our own sense of "what it should have been."'

SEARCHING FOR SOME SCARES: 'I seem to be craving a lot of horror lately, and I've been playing catch-up on recent films like the Saw series, as well as older stuff like the original TExas Chainsaw Massacre. I think the remake/reimagine surge of the past couple years has sent me searching for surprises, for shocks and the unexpected, but I've not been entirely successful at finding them.'

LIKE A STEEL TRAP: 'I use movies all the time to help improve my memory. Like when I wonder why Hollywood keeps announcing remake after remake I can remember how it's done well when I watch John Carpenter's The Thing. That one is also useful in helping me remember John Carpenter. And I have a whole bunch of movies that help me remember olden times before Hannibal Lecter became a cartoon character, and before James Cameron stopped making movies that were fun to watch.'

ROYALLY IMPRESSED: 'I hoped [Casino Royale] would be good, but I was not prepared for how amazed and thrilled and giddy it made me feel. Bond movies haven't held surprises or human drama for a long time, and whoever had the thought to just strip this character down and see how he handles himself deserves to be given a warm frothy beverage of some kind. Or maybe a hug.'

FAVORITE MOVIE?: 'I always think I can do this -- and I usually fall back on Raiders of the Lost Ark being the first and foremost movie that informed my young blah blah blah -- but the truth is that any combination of mood, circumstance, heartache, anger or fear can trigger the desire to rewatch a favorite movie, and the thing that meets those needs today may not hit the spot at all the next time. That having been said, I'm just about never in the mood to watch Driving Miss Daisy.'

Contact DVD Panache if you are interested in contributing to Friday Screen Test.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Analog Nation

Watching Zodiac, it's hard not to feel wistful about that age when information was a highly regarded commodity -- it was not at our fingertips, but usually at the library or in an encyclopedia. Much attention has been paid to David Fincher's brilliant portrayal of the limits of pre-Internet crime work (Matt Zoller Seitz and Jim Emerson have great posts about this topic) and how it may have helped one of the most notorious killers slip through the cracks, but the scenes that really fascinated me were those which portrayed the San Francisco Chronicle offices of the 1970s. Although I loved the movie, the selfish newspaper man in me wanted Fincher to show more of the wonder of following such a glamorous case in the primitive print age before computers.

Thankfully Fincher lets us spend a great deal of time in the Chronicle newsroom, which except for computers replacing typewriters is probably exactly how the Chronicle looks today (newsrooms are like grocery stores -- they're all different, but the same -- every daily newsroom has mostly wall-less workspaces with tons of flourescent lighting). One detail I loved really showed how Fincher did his homework: did you spy the pneumatic tubes in the background of the newsroom? I can't imagine how cool that would be to use those in a frantic environment like that, and I was praying that Fincher would give us a shot of Greysmith or Avery getting some urgent message through the pneumatic tube.

But back to what Fincher didn't show, and what I've been imagining ever since I saw Zodiac. The methods newspapers used to put their product together back then is as dead as the dinosaurs -- even the small weekly in Santa Claus, Indiana has upgraded to today's modern plating and printing technology. Before the digital age of newspaper production, things were harder, but also more romantic and artistic -- and if you want a good idea of how it was done, watch the opening credits sequence in the 1974 Billy Wilder classic The Front Page. That movie took place in the 1920s, but the methods and technology that the Chronicle used in the 1970s virtually the same.

(I realize I'm getting away from anything relating to film, but stay with me, I'm building to something ... I think)

My favorite newspaper line of any movie is in Superman: The Movie when Perry White says to Jimmy Olsen, 'take this to composition!' Back when Superman was made, there was actually something called the composition department, but now if you walk into a newspaper and ask for this area, you will only get blank stares. The composition department represented what today is handled with a single mouse, and in the early 20th century it utilized the linotype -- which some call one of the most complicated machines ever invented, and in the 70s had evolved to the more high-tech phototypesetting.

For a newspaper junkie like me, I immediately connected the technological brick walls the various police departments in Zodiac were smashing into, with the similar 'impairments' that Graysmith, Avery and co. had to hurdle at their day job inside the newspaper. Just as detectives today would go apeshit having to ferry from precinct to precinct in search of one file folder, today's reporters and copy editors would be lost inside the Chronicle newsroom of the 1970s. This is why I was quietly hoping for a quick scene in the primitive composition department for a shot of the next day's Zodiac headline before it went to print.

Zodiac takes us back to a time when the value of information was peaking, and it was anyone's for the taking -- be it police or journalists. It's a police movie first, but I would have loved to see more of the newspaper side -- possibly the pressure of the Chronicle wanting Avery's stories to remain exclusive, without the other Bay Area dailies being tipped off or the Associated Press jumping in.


Something along these lines had been stuck in my head even before I saw Zodiac -- do we take for granted the pleasures that the pre-Internet age offered? What about in regards to movie watching? It's hard to imagine life without, endless reviews and the film blog community. I would say that the Internet has enhanced my film tastes, because I've been turned on to so many movies that I wouldn't have ordinarily discovered. Also, you can't underestimate how much the Web has enhanced the buildup for movies, since we have knowledge of productions seemingly when they're just a concept on a wall. I've debated how a blog-a-thon on this subject could work, but I'm still narrowing down just what the exact topic would be. Stay tuned.

Thursday, March 08, 2007


If you, like I, hunted around New Year's for the best 'year end' blog post, then you may have stumbled upon It's a Mad Mad Blog, where Joseph B. submitted 40 of his favorite 'moments' (not movies) of 2006. It's a fantastic entry and Joseph followed it up with a nutritious Top 20 of 2006. Such surprises are not uncommon at Joseph's blog, where he routinely writes on intriguing, original topics -- his latest gem is an exploration on the similarities between 'The Big Lebowski' and 'Cutter's Way,' a wonderful connection that I never made during my multiple viewings. Joseph also submitted one of the best entries to the Lovesick Blog-a-thon at 100 Films, where he took on The Most Romantic Movie You've Never Seen.

T&A & CONVERSATION: 'I can remember watching "Wild Things" with a bunch of friends one night. About 3/4 of the way through (in an incredible scene by the pool) someone hit the pause button and we immediately began talking through the plot points and just how in the hell did we arrive at this point? Always fun when a film fucks with a group like that.'

'For straight up gore something like "Demons" or "Dead Alive". But if I want something to really crawl under someone's skin, I'd toss up Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Pulse" that builds up an unbearable sense of dread. Also, any one of Matthew McConaughy's recent flicks like "Failure To Launch" does the trick.'

"Casino" 1995 by Martin Scorsese. A near perfect film in every respect.'

I do a very nerdy thing and keep a list of all the films I see in the theaters throughout a given year. As of January 5, I'd seen 136 films on the big screen in 2006. If you add to that the revolving door known as Netflix, that number triples. I'd guess I watch 5-6 movies a week, interspersed with some fantastic TV watching.'

'The first film that I remember seeing as more than just a "movie," but something with an intellect behind the whole affair, staging the action and arranging the camera moves, was Scorsese's "Good fellas."'

I've had a major affinity for director Tony Scott for years now, and I can't figure out why. I once wrote a 3000 word essay analyzing and dissecting his films (in the late 90's I believe, sadly lost 2 computers ago and a message board now floating in cyber space). So, when films like "Domino", "Enemy of the State" or "Deja Vu" creep up on my favorites lists, it always baffles some people. And I have a hard time justifying that these films are more than popcorn action flicks.'

'I went into "A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints" with little expectations, simply because there were very few words about the film floating around the internet or print outlets. I knew it starred Robert Downey Jr. which is usually enough to gain my money. I left the theater amazed and shocked by how searing and truthful the entire film felt. It quickly became one of my favorite films of last year and earmarked the director, Dito Montiel, as a wonderful prospect to follow. I can't gush enough about this one.'

Hitchcock's "Psycho." I think it'd be fascinating to observe the ripple effect of controversy (both socially and cinematically) that this film had on that time period.

I consider myself a fan of the "art house" fare, so when critically celebrated filmmakers such as Bela Tarr, The Dardenne Brothers or Apichatpong Weerasethakul (to name three) produce a film that wrangles the attention and admiration of almost every respected film critic in the country, what am I missing? I loved the 3 hour film called "The Death of Mr. Lazarascu" released last year, but have yet to make it all the way through any one of Bela Tarr's long snoozefests. How different can these two 'demanding' art films be? That's always dumbfounding to me.'

Contact DVD Panache if you are interested in contributing to Friday Screen Test.

Linklater, with fries

Director Richard Linklater has grown an amusingly varied and at times bewildering body of work. On one side he's the maker of such small-budget classics as 'Slacker,' 'Dazed and Confused,' 'Before Sunrise' and 'Waking Life' while some of his other credits appear to be that of a director-for-hire: 'Bad News Bears,' 'The School of Rock' and 'The Newton Boys.' At the same time, Linklater made his name by making quality, no frills movies from meager budgets but now he is known as the pushing-the-envelope artist who invented his own style of rotoscoping for 'A Scanner Darkly' and 'Waking Life.'

In the middle of all this is 'Fast Food Nation,' released this week on DVD. Though it did not receive the acclaim of some of his better known films, FFN broke through some significant filmmaking canons on its way to becoming a memorable movie. It is based on the 2001 best-selling book 'Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the American Meal,' a non-fiction, heavily-researched history and examination of the industry. Here is where Linklater's novel approach comes in: though it is based on the book, FFN is fiction and while it is designed to educate and inspire viewers against the unseen evils of the food industry, it is far from a documentary.

This may be why FFN flew under the radar upon its release, because it could have been easily confused as just another documentary like 'Super-size Me' or 'Fahrenheit 9/11.' Nope, FFN is a weaving narrative that takes elements of the global fast food machine and shrinks it down to the human level -- mostly confined to a small Colorado town. Before entering Cody, Colo., we meet Don Henderson, a sharp but naive executive at Mickey's, a national fast food chain that competes with McDonald's and Burger King. Mickey's CEO puts Henderson on assignment after a group of college students found alarming amounts of fecal matter in Mickey's hamburger patties.

Henderson sets out for Cody, where Mickey's primary meat supplier is located. It is here where FFN blossoms and we meet a variety of characters who are connected to Mickey's in various ways: a handful of recent illegal immigrants who are employed at the meat plant, teenagers who work at the local Mickey's, a rancher who knows the bullying ways of the plant and college students who think they can fight the plant's evils. Linklater could have taken his movie in a 'Traffic'-like direction of quick cross-cutting between stories, pausing long enough to deliver another message, but instead we spend a surprising amount of time away from the industry -- getting to know the characters during their real life hours.

FFN wisely strays away from characters spouting statistics and relies on imagery and storytelling to show how dangerous life in the meat cutting business can be, and how bleak life is at the very bottom of the totem pole. Since they're illegals, the meat plant workers know they're readily replaceable and brutally brave their horrific jobs (Linklater plays his hand masterfully here, holding his killing floor trump card until it will have the most emotional impact). On the other side are the Mickey's teenage workers, who put no value on their jobs, since the only way to go is up.

Those hoping for the shock of modern documentaries, with a narrator who holds our hand through the horrific truths may be disappointed by the film's surface. Taken as a whole, FFN paints a disturbing picture of a vicious cycle where the various sides cannot see or affect each other. Linklater's boldest stroke speaks volumes about his abilities as a filmmaker: FFN's most lasting image is not inside a restaurant or meat plant, but actually a sedentary cattle range where -- despite being apparently freed by young activists -- the cows glumly stay put, unwilling and uninterested in whatever exists beyond their fences.

'Fast Food Nation' arrives in anamorphic widescreen with a good set of extras. The highlights of the special features have to be the series of slick Webtoons that educate on the horrors of big business meat manufacturing. In the three prong 'The Meatrix,' we follow Leo (a pig) from his small family farm to "the real world" as presented to him by Moobeus, which includes de-beaked chickens and cows who never see a sliver of sunlight. The cartoons are well made and deliver some cold facts in an entertaining but upfront manner (see 'Manufacturing Fast Food Nation' is a 55-minute documentary about the making of the film that should have been around 20 minutes. Most of the running time is taken up by un-narrated behind the scenes footage that rarely rises to anything worthwhile. The meaty bits of the docu include Linklater and friends, explaining the process of their unorthodox adaptation (a producer explains that they literally "threw out" the book after taking the title and general theme). Linklater and screenwriter (and author the book) Eric Schosser provide a commentary, that is typical of the laid-back friendly style that graces other Linklater DVDs. And like Linklater's other commentaries, it is easy to listen to, but rarely provides any dramatic insights.

This review is also published at

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Black Snake Groans

In his coming-out movie, Hustle and Flow, writer/director Craig Brewer provided one of the year's best scenes. The bare-bones creation of music -- starting with the lyrics, gradually getting a beat, then a melody, until finally a song was born. I think I watched that scene three times in a row, and each time I was amazed at how Brewer was able to give the sequence a natural progression, showing that when creative minds are put to good use, new art can be born in a matter of minutes. I look at Black Snake Moan as a similar exercise, but this time it's a tribute to blues music -- a genre Brewer shows needs much more than simply lyrics and a melody, but for the artist to use their emotional extremes as an instrument of its own.

When it all comes together, in a crumbling but still lively blues hall somewhere in Tennessee, Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) lights up the place with a hard, menacing number that contains all the strange amounts of anger, strength and salvation he had felt in the past week. It's a scene that almost makes you want to get up and dance in the theater aisle, or at least yell the profane lyrics along with Lazarus. Black Snake Moan shows hints of the sex/race exploitation movie that commercials and promos make it out to be, but it's ultimately about redemption through a microphone -- not a chain locked to a radiator and a delicate waist.

Those last three elements are what get the most face-time in the previews, but they take a backseat to Lazarus and his guitar. Lazarus is a stubborn Tennessee farmer, whose favorite line is 'ain't no way you're gonna move me!' The key word in that quote is 'you,' because Lazarus is intent on solving problems on his own, or through the Bible. Yet there aren't many words in the Bible to explain what to do with a beat-up, sex-starved, half-naked floozie who is dropped near Lazarus' house as if from above. What Lazarus does know is that according to the Bible, there's no reason why Rae (Christina Ricci) should hunger for sex like a hummingbird for nectar. His controversial solution is to put Rae on a rehab program with no Britney Spears-walk-out clause: chain, radiator.

It's in this device that Black Snake Moan will win or lose with the audience. To me, it seems to function more for visual means than anything within the story, while others might see it as Lazarus' way of making Rae experience a normal sex drive. The chain scenes weighted the movie down too much for me, and I had to strain to find anything engaging Rae's plight after the first few minutes. Ricci, looking nothing like the curvy sprite of her early career, does a fine job as Rae -- but it's hard to find too much to like about her. Lazarus sees her as a soul capable of salvation, but do we? Rae kissed her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) goodbye to Iraq in the film's early moments, but it's never apparent what their love is, besides satisfying Rae's appetite (Ronnie is seldom onscreen, and given little to do besides furrow his brow).

It's Lazarus that's easy to root for, as he was once a blues showman in this desolate place, and shows an occasional flare of being the town's troubled hero. Unfortunately, possibly for Brewer's need to 'pulp-up' his movie, Lazarus is given baffling moments such as telling us about losing his virginity to an overweight second cousin, and moments of cruelty that seem out of place with his character. Black Snake Moan's finest moments are when we see Lazarus as a bluesman, such as playing Rae a tune while lightning crashes outside and the power goes in and out, or the aforementioned club scene.

When Lazarus belts out that last song and is on top of his game again, it's easy to chant along with him, but it's hard to feel the sense of his journey because Rae is still largely the same person. Even more troubling is the fact that Lazarus brutally imprisoned Rae, but after the first few hours she appears resigned to the situation and becomes the Harold to Lazarus' Maude rather rotely and unremarkably. Brewer tries to juice up Rae by dropping in a cold subplot about her mother and possibly explain her sickly condition, but it ends up feeling forced mainly due to the lack of script space devoted to it (Rae's confrontation with her mother ends cheaply with nothing resolved). Lazarus' performance is the highlight of the movie, but we arrive there by slogging through an album of songs whose choruses never seem to end. In a movie powered by music, Black Snake Moan only has a single to show for its efforts.

Note: This review is also published at

Friday, March 02, 2007


Please do not judge David Lowery. Yes, he lives in that idyllic American Bohemia known as Austin, Texas where he makes his way as a filmmaker. And since he is a filmmaker, that puts him a few spots ahead of all of us who maintain that if given the chance we would produce a film at least on par with Uwe Boll. But David has been nice enough since 2004 to chronicle his film journey (and criticisms) on Drifting: A Director's Log. What sets Drifting apart from other blogs is that it allows readers to view his movies digitally. David's movies are stylish, original and are a window into the mind of an artist clearly trying to pave his own creative trail, not follow in the footsteps of others. While watching the nearly word-less The Outlaw Son, I found myself moving closer and closer to my monitor, as I (correctly) smelled a satisfying payoff on the horizon of its short running time. My favorite work of his is Some Analog Lines, an essay film that charts his earliest days of a filmmaker and ponders (among other things) the different mediums of filmmaking and how they are viewed by the artist and the viewer.

STOP THE PRESSES: 'I need to stop reading reviews and watching trailers. That said, I was really pleasantly surprised by how much I liked Stranger Than Fiction. I went in expecting to be mildly entertained by Will Ferrell yelling loudly and obnoxiously at that omniscient narrator, and left feeling genuinely moved. It's not a perfect movie by any means, but the ratio of expectation to satisfaction made for one of my favorite moviegoing experiences this past year.'

THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP: 'Watching six movies a day at a film festival makes up for those rare weeks where I won't see anything at all. Generally speaking, and factoring in my completely irregular sleeping schedule, I'd say the average is something close to 1.5.'

TRUST GRANDPA SETH: 'I've always loved good bad movies, especially in crowded theaters at midnight. I used to watch an old Plan 9 From Outer Space VHS all the time, and in junior high even attempted to stage my own take-off of it with a borrowed video camera, paper plate flying saucers, a giant homemade octopus and a few smoke bombs that landed me in hot water with the parents. But I digress. I just learned of a film called Troll 2 that is apparently the best bad movie of all time. I'm going to see it on the big screen later this week (at the stroke of twelve, of course) to confirm.' (Faithful readers know of my affection for Troll 2, read David's account of his midnight screening here -- Ed.)

YOU SEEN THIS ONE BEFORE?: 'I would love to be in the audience for the premieres of The Thing or Frankenstein, just to witness all the people screaming and, even better, fainting. But I'd probably stick with sentimental thrills and go with the first screening of Star Wars at the Mann's Chinese on May 25, 1977. Also, taking a jump into the future, I'd like to attend a screening of one of my own films with temporary creative amnesia, so that I could experience it completely objectively.'

HEY, WANNA SEE SOMETHING REALLY SCARY?: '... things that scare me don't tend to have the same effect on other folks. They usually laugh at me. At which point I show them Cannibal Holocaust out of spite. But yeah, I get scared really easily (and angry at the filmmaker when those scares turn out to be all too cheap- shame on them for exploiting my willingness to be legitimately shaken!), so it's hard to judge. I think Todd Browning's Freaks is always a good choice - it may not be scary, per se, but it has maintained an uncanny ability to really unsettle people.'

BEGINNING OF THE END: 'It was during the first semester of my sophomore year in high school, when I realized the joy of going to see a movie and then going out with friends to an all- night coffee shop to discuss it afterwards.'

KILL YOUR TV: 'On the worst day of my life, I don't think I'd watch a film; I'd probably just listen to music. I'd want to underscore my woe, but not escape from it. Writers (and, I suppose, by extension, some filmmakers) have a tendency to catalog every experience and every emotion in their lives for future use. Misfortune is a writer's stock in trade, and I've found that music has a way of adhering to my own and crystallizing it in my memory. A film would just dilute it.'

BEGINNING OF THE END, PART II: 'I've been in a myopic pursuit of the same career since I was seven years old. Of course, it was a movie that set me on that path, so I suppose the question could be rephrased as "Has there ever been a movie that made every other possible career seem entirely unappealing?" And the answer, as it would be for so many others in this line of work, would be Star Wars.'

AFFLICTED WITH HEINSBERGEN SYNDROME: 'There sometimes comes a certain sort of downcast day when nothing sounds better to me than The Royal Tenenbaums. I think it's the use of the Charlie Brown Christmas music that really does it for me. It makes me happy to be sad.'

Contact DVD Panache if you are interested in contributing to Friday Screen Tests.