Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The First Annual Bob Barker Memorial Awards for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Game Show Humiliation (Retroactive)

Next week Bob Barker will pick up his skinny microphone for the last time, and another chapter in American television history will end. Barker will take with him one of the last survivors of real game shows, leaving only the equally-ageless Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek to carry on the legacy started with early quiz shows. I'm not going to play the 'no respect' card here, because Barker is getting plenty of it from the national press, including a generous tribute in Time and a meaty turn as this month's 'What I've Learned' subject in Esquire. In the Esquire piece, Barker states 'In all truthfulness, television is at about its lowest ebb right now.' From Barker's profession, how can you argue this when a network expect viewers to tune in to see numbers drawn for a chance to win a $5 gift certificate to K-Mart?

For quite a while now I haven't watched much television, but as a child I did little else -- especially during summer days when there was little else to do ... except go outside ... in beautiful ... Northeast Portland? (damn my misspent youth!) What I was able to glean from thousands of hours of daytime television was a good appreciation for game shows and an even larger fixation on those rare times when someone screws up so bad that you feel sick to your stomach. That's what this post is about, with me honoring three golden game show gaffes forever burned in my memory. This is by no means a complete awards list, feel free to add your own.

Youthful Incompetence
Winner: Double Dare dunderfuck
I think I may have watched every episode of the original Double Dare, a Nickelodeon game show for kids that combined easy trivia questions with moderately gross physical challenges and a seriously obsessive compulsive host. There were many things that you could count on for each 'Double Dare' installment: a lot of promos for British Knights sneakers and Huffy mountain bikes, a few questions that even insulted the intelligence of the 10-year-old contestants and no matter how uncoordinated the winner was, they would at least make it past the first station in the obstacle course.

This last part is what makes this kid's failing so unbelievable. The obstacle course was actually a very challenging event where the show winner had to find the red flag in all nine station. While this usually involved climbing through monkey bars or any other playground feat, there were always a few stations that required the kid to root around in dog food, and this ate up a big chunk of the one minute time limit. The kids were rarely successful, but they were almost always competitive ... outside of this kid, that is. Let me educate you on the first station in the obstacle course -- it's a slide covered in chocolate syrup that you have to climb to the top of. Since the slide is covered in chocolate syrup and thus slippery, you need to put your feet on the side railings and climb up in some sort of crab-like fashion. Every single competitor in the show's history understood this point except for today's genius: who spend the ENTIRE MINUTE TRYING TO GAIN HIS TRACTION ON A CHOCOLATE SYRUP-COVERED SLIDE! It was bad, so bad that an assistant director person had to come out on to the set and basically tell the kid: 'look it's your life, I'm not going to have to live with this moment forever, but really -- just put your goddamn feet on the side and climb up like everyone else has.' Of course he didn't figure it out in time, and collapsed into a sugary mess that he surely never recovered from.

Youthful Obesity
Winner: Video Power pudge
Video Power was an obscure video game-based game show that was aired during weekday mornings to the select group of adolescent boys who dream of their video game abilities translating to some monetary value (check out this interview with a former contestant). This was a very hard edge game show, in that the set made it appear that it took place in a very small warehouse before an audience of rowdy, friend-less boys who cheer behind a chain link fence. To fill time, one segment of the show was devoted to the audience stumping 'Johnny Arcade,' the hideously knowledgeable and nearly-good looking video game nerd who hosted the show. No matter what obscure video game question the lucky audience member threw at him, Johnny Arcade would promptly answer. I think he was stumped a total of three times, and in one of those instances I swear the little brat made up the name of the video game he posed the question about.

This blunder actually could have been much worse. In the final round of Video Power, the last two contestants donned a smashing Velcro vest and answered questions, to which they were rewarded with a Velcro slice of pizza to place on their Velcro vest. The winner of this award happens to be an unfortunate young man who was so fat his vest barely covered his shoulders, and made for some awkward moments when Johnny Arcade tried to 'slap' on the pizza slice he was due. To make matters worse, during this trivia session, the fat kid is furiously trying to fasten the vest -- never coming closer than 14 inches from success. Luckily this boy did not advance to the prize round, where our competitors raced through shelves of Velcro video games that they would attach to their vest before the time ran out. It could have been even more tragic, seeing as part of the prize round is sliding through a small tunnel. Thankfully, our award recipient saved some face as he congratulated his opponent after a successful jaunt through the prize round -- he really tried hard to hold back the tears, and even gave his vest one more try.

Economic Incompetence
Winner: The Price is Definitely Wrong
This has to go down in the long history of 'The Price is Right' as one of the all-time greatest chokes. I've never been so angry watching a game show (or maybe any television program) as I was this day seeing this fool embarrass himself. We're in the Showcase Showdown, and the lucky bastard has himself one of the rare quality showcases: a nice car (Chrysler 300M) a Greek vacation and like a dinette set and a tobacco pipe organizer. The 300M alone goes for about $27,000 -- so I'm guessing the showcase will go for about $34,000. The idiot of course takes much more time than necessary to decide his price, and this is what he spits out: $16,000. I just wanted to ask him: 'Have you ever seen a new car before? That isn't a Geo Metro? Do you know how much they cost?' But here's the best part -- the actual retail price was exactly twice what he guessed, leaving him with a look on his face of utter destruction.

Any other nominations for this first-ever awards banquet?

Monday, May 28, 2007

'Let's take a turn around the town ...'

While reading the comic book that comes inside the Rio Bravo: Ultimate Collector's Edition DVD, it occurred to me that this movie is done no justice in print (whether on a blog or a blandly-drawn comic). Translating Rio Bravo to a comic book couldn't have been fun since it's such a dialog and atmosphere-driven movie. It's hard to convey in print why a Western with a couple of explosive shootouts and an unremarkable story can be one of the genre's very best. Rio Bravo's perfection lies in what cannot be translated by any print medium.

The first time I saw Rio Bravo it didn't affect me immediately, but for the rest of that week I couldn't stop thinking about how much I wanted to watch it again. It's one of the few movies I can see myself starting over immediately after the credits roll. What makes it so memorable for me is that its structure is unlike almost any other film: it's long and delicately paced, but never loses your interest; the main villain is rarely seen, but his presence plays a large part in almost every scene; our heroes are committed to defending a town whose residents we never meet, and the lawmen seem to spend most of their time discussing why and how they're doing their job.

And though it's an outright classic, Rio Bravo will never be accused of being an epic Western in terms of story. In simplest terms it's the tale of Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) and his two sidekicks -- a drunk (Dean Martin) and an old cripple (Walter Brennan) -- who refuse to back down from their duty as lawmen, even in the face of wealthy land baron Nathan Burdette, whose brother just happens to be jailed for murder. It's an underdog story: Burdette's confidence in his money and hit men, and overestimation of Chance's motley crew is his undoing. But as Chance is quick to remind, he and his men are simply doing their job, so what's the fuss? It's this last part that famously made Rio Bravo a personal retort from director Howard Hawks to 1952's High Noon, which finds Gary Cooper's sheriff soliciting help from any and everyone in town before the vengeful brute Frank arrives on the train. Hawks' undressing of this concept often comes across in non-too-subtle terms: Chance says that any extra help will merely be "more targets" for Burdette's crew, and even though Dude and Stumpy may not be the best, they're still professionals and ahead of any able amateur. In response to "that's all you got?" Chance puts it bluntly: "That's what I got!"

Chance's unflinching confidence in his situation is what drives the movie. Outnumbered with federal help at least six days away, Chance nonetheless goes about it business-as-usual, and that includes his ritual for entering the Sheriff's Office: hat on the rack by the door, gun in the rack on the back wall, butt on the seat and feet on the chair. We see this ritual numerous times during the movie, and Wayne is able to make it come across as something Chance doesn't even think about. Smarter people than I have related this to a near tai chi or ballet that Chance habitually practices, which is one of the reasons Rio Bravo is pretty much alone in its genre of Horse Ballet (or ballad, take your choice).

I likened The 'burbs to Rio Bravo in that the locale is so blissfully limited, and after awhile you start to think you could get by OK in this one street town: there's the hotel with great service (and a nice dame serving drinks), the doctor around the corner, Charlie's bar (with a front and back door, a hidden loft and a shotgun under the counter) and at least two other bars (no shortage of nightlife in Rio Bravo). So Rio Bravo feels like a real Western town, but it also acts like one. Notice how we never really see any townsfolk after the opening shooting -- for the rest of the movie the streets are almost always deserted and it seems only Burdette's men fill the saloons (perhaps they've been through this sort of thing before and are wise enough to stay inside?).

We may never again see a dramatic trio so in tune with each others' melodies as we have with Wayne, Brennan and Martin. For Brennan and Martin, they find themselves in the unquestioned roles of their lives, perfectly suited to their strength with writing that never lets them down. Martin obviously had experience playing a drunk, and he's always able to show that underneath all that alcohol is a talented lawman with a fragile ego who's dying to do good for Chance. Brennan brings everything he can to the table, which is his prototypical old coot no bullshit humor -- he finds a way to turn any interaction into a crowning bitch fest, and it's beautiful. Both shine in their opportunities to show Chance he was wise not to doubt them -- Dude's triumph in Charlie's bar leaves the room silent, and Stumpy's shotgun improvisation literally saves the day. Of course, it's not actually a trio of heroes with the introduction of the young and fearless Colorado (Ricky Nelson). A quick-shooting pretty boy, Colorado adds another dynamic to the movie as he has to overcome the age difference with his friends and foes and also convince himself why he shouldn't just get on his horse and leave this God-forsaken town.

And I haven't even gotten to Angie Dickinson's character Feathers, who helps bring an element of To Have and Have Not interplay with Chance to the film. There's so many outstanding supporting characters (Ward Bond, Claude Akins, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, anyone?), it's amazing there's even room for them with how the four main characters dominate the script. Watching Rio Bravo, you feel yourself wanting to make like the characters -- but not to replicate their stunts or bravado -- but simply to toss your hat on the rack and kick your feet up, it's a relaxing 141 minutes.

The DVD: Long, long overdue for an upgrade, Rio Bravo comes (like The Searchers did last year) in a two-disc special edition and a slightly snazzier Ultimate Collector's Edition. Headlining the extras is a commentary track by recently-maligned film critic Richard Schickel and director John Carpenter, who needs no introduction. Both obviously idolize the movie and speak in a loving tone throughout, with Schickel dominating the track with informative takes on his personal experiences with Hawks and anecdotes from the set. Carpenter says right up front that Rio Bravo is one of his all-time favorite movies and Hawks is his favorite director, so it's interesting to hear a sort of 'fan boy' take from a veteran director. Carpenter has obviously researched the movie and its director a great deal, and it shows (he keenly informs us that Charlie the bartender is played by Robert Mitchum's brother, John). The two men obviously recorded the track separately, so there is no conversational element to it, but it is also apparent that they are speaking spontaneously and from memory, not from a rehearsed essay (an effect that plagues many critics' commentaries).

The featurette 'Commemoration: Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo' is a new look at the film from a variety of rich sources, such as Dickinson, Carpenter, Peter Bogdanovich and Walter Hill. Some of the material from the commentary track is repeated here, but it's mostly an entertaining half-hour that fans of the movie will eat up (Dickinson reveals how big a part she played in the title, as she objected to the original 'Bull By the Tail,' to the delight of Hawks, who felt it was an important critique in a city full of yes-men). 'The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks' was also put on the Bringing Up Baby DVD and is a rich, but decades-old biography. "Old Tucson: Where the Legends Walked" is a fun and short look at the Arizona faux town where Rio Bravo and many other Westerns were shot.

If there is any complaint with the DVD it is with the Ultimate Collector's Edition upgrade, which has a value and price that will be tough for even the most ardent of DVD completists to defend. The MSRP for the upgraded set is $20 more, yet all you are getting is a small comic book, press book and more glitzy packaging. This is consistent with what Warner Bros. did with The Searchers last year, but it was hard to complain in that case because for only about $10 more you could buy the John Wayne-John Ford Film Collection, which contained the aforementioned Ultimate edition as well as seven other quality movies. With Rio Bravo there is no such defense, and it's even more of a rip-off because the un-Ultimate edition comes with exclusive glossy on-set photos. In the Ultimate set, you're stuck with bland lobby cards. It basically comes down to the question of if you want to pay almost double the price for more handsome packaging (and it does look nice). I say skip the Ultimate edition.

Friday, May 25, 2007


There appears to be a method for Squish "My Nickname is Better Than Yours" Lessard's madness: for all of his reviews at Film Squish, he breaks the films down into categories, which earn numerical grades. But while his reviews may be scientific, there may be no explanation as to why he enjoys toying with his readers by posting quizzes that make even the most bulging film buff feel like some boob who heads straight for the Shannon Tweed VHS section at Blockbuster. Through his clever skills of manipulation, Squish is able to make even the most recognizable of belt buckles seem as foreign as squid pizza toppings. Squish just may have the widest variety of reviews of any Screen Tester thus far (a Nordic genre section, anyone? Oceanic?) So he's definitely worldly, which may explain why Film Squish actually looks like a Web site, not like some template-chained blog that so many of us trogs lend our names to (tone it down a lil, Squish -- you're making us look bad!).

'Just this week I've been contemplating creating a special page for all my 'Hidden Phlegms' someday soon. Most recently I enjoyed how Starcrash (1979) pulled off trying to be good and failed so wickedly. Bloodsuckers (2005) was some low budget zen too. I spend far too much time away from my 'serious' film study looking for tragically awesome tripe, and I find myself usually quite disappointed, but finding that Re-Animator class greatness is well worth it.'

IF YOU'RE GONNA BUY, BUY -- DONT' TALK: 'I have 2 categories of film purchasing: 1. I've seen it and must have it, and all the DVD extras too .. This is reserved strictly for my "favourite films ever," quite a short list. 2. I'll only buy "never seens that I want to see" if they're cheaper than the cost of rental. By the end of last summer's Ottawa annual massive garage sale event, I had about 30 titles for under 40 bucks. You don't feel guilty when you buy Footloose for a dollar. The dollar bin at the grocery store occasionally has some gold classics too, from Stooges to Stewart.'

VICIOUS SQUISH: '[I watch movies] daily and usually twice a day on weekends. I used to watch more, but I found it interfered with my review writing, an ironically vicious cycle indeed ... Sometimes when I'm behind on my reviews, I'll watch a television series on DVD instead. I've been told that a movie a day is quite the endeavour ... I don't see it.

THIS WEEKEND ONLY AT CINEMA SQUISH: 'To fill the house, I'd crack out the Pink Floyd synchronicity trilogy: The Wizard of Oz to the music of "Dark Side of the Moon" (otherwise known as "The Dark Side of Oz"). The Good, The Bad and The Ugly synchs up with "Animals" and Blade Runner synchs up with "Wish You Were Here." If it were merely a venue for expression, Samurai, Apocalyptic, Zombie or classic 9-part horror serials would certainly be my bag. Got a touch of the Grindhouse in me for sure.'

TALK LIKE A SQUISH TODAY!: 'I try to keep away from the all too familiar:'
"Ain't nuthin good never come out of Missourah!" (Outlaw Josey Wales)
"What the hell you wanna fuck around that river for, anyway!?" (Deliverance)
"I like this one -- one dog goes one way, the other dog goes the other way." (Goodfellas)
"I bet you're the kind of guy who'd fuck a person in the ass and not even have the goddamned common courtesy to give him the reacharound!" (Full Metal Jacket)

ITS GETTIN COLD IN HERE: 'I'd have to say it's a toss up between the climaxes of Requiem for a Dream and Irreversible are the most powerful and goosebump-inspiring moments in Squish's film history ever for icky, and most scenes in Secretary for the good kind...'

THANKS, MAN: 'The most memorable encounter would have to be Korbett Mathews, less than a year ago. He's an independent documentary film director based in Montreal who taught a course I took. After the course I decided I'd take the plunge and start making some real films myself, and have been blowing my paychecks on 16mm film equipment ever since...'

BOOK OF THE DEAD (SOCIAL LIFE): 'Before I received a tome called 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die for Christmas 2005, I was more a contemporary modern day film fan. Since that time I've delved into, pretty exclusively, classic films and having discovered so many silent era titles that moved me so much, I'm a changed man forever.'

SOME FRIEND: '"I can't believe I INVITED people to see this garbage! What must they think of me!?"'

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

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Reconfiguring the saga

Note: This is the second of my two posts for Edward Copeland's Star Wars Blog-a-thon

I'm sure I wasn't the only one who fantasized about seeing the numerals I-VI gracing DVD spines along my shelf someday. It would finally be complete: a full Star Wars saga along my DVD shelf, just waiting for me to watch in sequence over the course of a weekend. Even though I have owned these six DVDs for quite awhile now, this post is how last week I rearranged them for good -- because I will never watch them in the intended order again. Acting on a tip I read on some forgotten message board last year, I discovered the Star Wars configuration that allows for maximum enjoyment:

1. Episode IV: A New Hope
2. Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
3. Episode I: The Phantom Menace
4. Episode II: Attack of the Clones

5. Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

6. Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

When viewing Star Wars in the intended order, one thing you will notice is how much the drama in IV-VI is diminished from the knowledge you gain from I-III: "I am your father" (yes, we know!), "there is another" (one movie too late!) and "I'm Luke Skywalker, I'm here to rescue you" (and get out of that alluring pose -- you're my sister!). Vader's confession in Cloud City is one of the series' defining moments, and when you already know the for some time it loses most of its dramatic effect, because the revelation only involves Luke, and not the audience. By knowing of Leia's identity, there is an asterisk placed next to most of her and Luke's interactions, because we know that there is no way they could possibly have a real relationship. In the new configuration, there is genuine tension within the Luke-Leia-Han love triangle because we're not sure who to root for and who they would be best suited for. After watching I-III you know right off the bat that Han is the one for Leia because really -- he's the only one. Yoda is also a character who suffers when the saga is viewed in its intended order: one of the greatest parts of Empire is Luke's interaction with this strange goblin-like creature, and the revelation of how powerful he is as a Jedi. After seeing his battles against Count Dooku and Darth Sidious, you find yourself wondering when he's going to break out all his acrobatics, instead of "this guy, a Jedi?"

So with A New Hope and Empire right up front those movies retain all their emotional and dramatic impact, but they also give quite a boost to the prequels. As the first episode, The Phantom Menace is a terrible way to begin a monumental sci-fi opera -- the movie itself has little urgency, and it contains scant clues that it is the precursor to five more movies. If you watched The Phantom Menace without seeing any of the other installments, would you really believe that it spawned five wildly popular and influential sequels? Despite Palpatine's presence, Darth Maul is movie's main villain, and he obviously dies. You really have to strain to catch that Anakin has any evil in his body, much less the capacity to become the galaxy's greatest monster. But when you view it after seeing IV and V, you already know Anakin's future and that forces you to pay more attention to an otherwise unremarkable character. You also know about Obi-Wan and the huge role he plays in Luke's development and the fact that somewhere along the line he and Anakin had a bad break up. This knowledge lends more meaning and urgency to The Phantom Menace.

This fact carries over to Attack of the Clones, as we see Obi-Wan and Anakin's relationship filled with tension but hardly murderous motivation. The knowledge that Anakin will eventually become apparently grossly disfigured and join the Dark Side also forces you to pay a closer eye to the character, as well as Palpatine. Episode III exists well on its own, but it becomes more grim when you know just how encompassing and oppressive the Empire will be in the future, and how ignorant politics played a role in it.

Return of the Jedi is obviously a rightful final chapter to the saga, but viewing it right after Episode III enhances it greatly. For one thing, Jedi as a movie is more closely related to the prequels as it is to the original trilogy. The final installment feels little like the purposeful concisely-plotted movies that originally preceded it, rather it has the grand scale and big budget feel of the contemporary installments. A New Hope and Empire carry a lot of weight because of all the story they bring to the table -- Jedi is a crowd pleaser, but it's also pretty much about one singular event save for the opening sequence. Like the CGI heavy prequels, Jedi earns its stripes by expertly putting the audience in the middle of an epic war for survival -- which distracts you from its minuscule story. But Jedi gains a legitimate emotional boost from the events in Episode III, namely the interactions between Anakin and Palpatine.

This enhancement occurs even when the saga is shown in the original sequence, but the connections are more focused when VI follows III. With knowledge of the Sith in hand, we as viewers know that the Emperor's true motivation for Luke is to have him slay his father, which in one swoop of a light saber will push him over to the Dark Side and allow him to be the Emperor's new protege. As we learned in Episode I and saw first-hand with Palpatine and Count Dooku in Episode III, there can only be two Sith Lords at a time -- a master and a protege. Palpatine needed Dooku out of the way to make room for the more powerful Anakin, and in Jedi we find Vader nearing the end of his line. The master/protege concept adds another layer of intrigue to the events at the end of Jedi, because Vader stated in Empire that he and Luke could "rule this galaxy as father and son," which now takes on the meaning of Vader or Luke slaying the Emperor. The fact that Ian McDiarmid was able to reprise his role in the prequels is a major asset for the whole saga, because it allows a near seamless bridge between III and Jedi.

But what narrative explanation is there for the series suddenly shifting backwards 20 years after Empire? One explanation is that the prequels exist in Vader's subconscious, after his failed overture to Luke he takes a rare inward glance to when he resembled his son. Vader appears more civilized and familial toward Luke in Jedi, and the idea that he recently traced his own footsteps to how he became Darth Vader may make it easier to explain why he suddenly grew a heart. Even after Anakin's warpath in Episode III, you never get the sense that he has truly become the evil, iron fist Darth Vader of the original series -- time has obviously shaped him since his Mr. Roboto turn, and his actions at the end of Jedi may show that he has remembered his true persona.

It's obviously a stretch to explain the new configuration narratively, but it is undoubtedly more entertaining to view them out of sequence. There's obviously a few other configurations for the saga -- its theatrical chronology seems like an easy choice -- but it would be difficult to really justify another radical sequence like this one because Episodes I-III really need to be seen consecutively. The prequels really do have a huge story arc, and when viewed out of sequence they become less meaningful. For me, I've altered the order of my DVD shelf and that's how it's staying.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Can't we all just enjoy 'Attack of the Clones'?

Note: This is the first of two contributions to Edward Copeland's Star Wars Blog-a-thon.

When I first heard about the concept of three Star Wars prequels, my first thought was "man I can't wait for the third one!" I'm sure this wasn't too different from a lot of fans, as the third prequel would no doubt fill us in on how Darth Vader came to be (cape, voice, name and all), and give audiences a glimpse at how the Empire routed the Jedi -- an event that is eluded to throughout the saga. No matter what other gaffes were made with the story or characters, the third one would have to deliver because it had built-in gold. This suspicion largely came true, but during a recent run through all six episodes, I kept coming back to this thought: "Episode II kind of, well, rocks."

You might say it was damaged goods coming into the theater because it was riding the bloody coattails of Episode I: The Phantom Menace, or that it gets pushed aside in our memory by Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, but whatever the reason, Attack of the Clones did not (and does not) deserve the mud thrown at it. I remember seeing it on opening day with my expectations mostly riding on the long-awaited Yoda light saber action, but I wasn't counting on the best non-New Zealand-produced CGI battle sequences, the opening of strange new doors in the Star Wars universe or an air of mystery and intrigue that is truly unmatched by the other five episodes.

AOTC feels like a direct response from George Lucas to the angry masses that stormed out of The Phantom Menace. Too much talking and meetings? Why don't I just double the number of large-scale action sequences. JarJar? Gone (mostly). You don't like CGI effects? Well what if I told you CGI could make Yoda do upside-down bicycle kicks and bounce around with a mini-light saber like some kind of drunk spider monkey? Lucas doesn't hold back on any level, and that's also part of the movie's undoing in many viewer's eyes. Lucas seems intent on proving without a reasonable doubt that Padme and Anakin are in love. None of that 'you need a scoundrel in your life -- let's kiss' bullshit, no this will be real -- as in about five scenes and half an hour real. The Padme-Anakin scenes are unfortunate in many respects, mostly the fact that they weight down a relatively large-but-lean film and are almost always unnecessary. If Padme and Anakin are in love -- great, we have another whole movie to help sell this concept so no need to go overkill with rolling around in grass fields and feeding each other fruit.

While Padme and Anakin are frolicking, we're treated to scenes that lend genuine intrigue and urgency to the movie, something that was completely missing in The Phantom Menace. Who the hell is behind this legion of clone soldiers? What is Count Dooku's role? How the hell are Obi-Wan, Anakin and Padme going to survive this insect arena spectacle? Where The Phantom Menace goes to great lengths to establish excitement (the pod race, the three-pronged final battle), in AOTC the action sequences feel more naturally conceived and genuinely earn your interest without any false drama (do we care if Qui-Gon dies? the Gunguns?). And when the excitement comes, AOTC is able to tease you (Jango Fett's pistols, Mace Windu's badassittude) and summarily smash whatever high expectations you dreamed up.

Even AOTC's shortcomings are entertaining. You can think up a dozen honest questions about the Camino business, such as: wouldn't they have at least called this Sifodyas fella after the first eight years passed after he placed an order for 300,000 clone soldiers? What is the time table for Yoda going to Kamino, deploying a quarter million troops and amassing them on Geonosis -- more than the implied 12 or so hours? And just how many things had to fall exactly into place for Darth Sidious' ultimate plan to work -- 15? 25? 200? Not to mention those crafty "ultimo transport ships" that are revealed in the last act -- they seem to have enough firepower to win a war singlehandedly, yet apparently contain about as much mechanics and electronics as a Volkswagen Beetle (the original, not the new one). They're all genuine questions, and some of them may even have answers, but none of them are in the confounding head-slapping arena of The Phantom Menace's (why so much effort to convince us Padme has a good body double? Who is taxing who, and why don't they just pay it if they have enough money to buy a glitzy army? ... etc.).

The other two prequels seem to exist as a way to answer perceived questions raised in the original trilogy -- providing backstories on characters, and needlessly explaining technicalities of the Force -- but AOTC actually has more questions than solutions. Most of these questions thankfully go unanswered, enabling the movie to broaden the Star Wars universe as the other two prequels narrow it. Just as The Empire Strikes Back serves as the unofficial standard of the original saga, the middle child of the prequels showed that in between all the whine about a needless CGI money machine, you got some actual bang for your buck.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Overdue Thoughts on the 700

It's been a few weeks since I dropped my 700 Possible Blog Names on the world, and I'm finally ready to offer some thoughts on it. Like I said in that post, the idea for it hatched from John Hodgman's amazing 700 Hobo Names -- that list which got me to thinking about what kind of creative power a person would need to write something like that. After debating it for weeks, I decided to simply write five blog names a day and just see where it went ... I figured it would take me a couple months. Well, I wrote the first 200 over the course of 2 hours one weekend and finished the first half in about a week. Hodgman said in an interview that it took him a little over two weeks of solid writing to come up with his 700, so I figured I was on a pretty good pace.

I wrote the blog names everywhere: at home, at work, on a plane, poolside at the Arizona Biltmore while drinking the world's worst $9.75 bloody mary (yes, you're allowed to put alcohol in it). The first 400 or so just flew by and I figured the list would be complete in another week, but this is where it got interesting. I started to feel creatively drained and it was a chore just to think of even a few worthy names at a time. The last 200 was legitimate work and after publishing it, I felt so relieved because I didn't know whether I could come up with another 10 if you put a gun to my head.

Looking back at the list now, I'm not happy with the first 150 or so. As I went, it seems my definition of what I wanted as blog names started to evolve, and the results got more satisfying. Which brings us to -- what is a blog name? There's no answer to it, but when you scan through a bunch of real blogs (an exercise I did quite a bit for inspiration) what you see are a few different categories: an explicit description of what the blog is (my favorite being Tuwa's Stairs In Movies), some play on the blogger's name, some are puns and some are simply bizarre. This was another reason I wanted to write the 700, because (like hobo names) blog names are entertaining and play a big role in whether you read the blog or not -- think about how often you scroll through a long list of blog links, would you be more inclined to read Joe's Thoughts or Double Chin Shotgun (No. 306)?

This brings us to where I've been for some time: disappointed in my blog name. This blog started out as an online companion to a short weekly DVD column I wrote for my newspaper, under the pseudonym Frank Burton. At the end of the column it would say "to read more of Frank Burton go to" And while I had fun writing that column, it didn't seem to translate into more hits on the young blog and soon a new editor moved into that section, and with him went Frank Burton. Since the column was about DVDs I wanted the blog to reflect that, and I took the name from Auto Panache -- a now-defunct exotic car dealership in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which I always thought had the perfect name (it just rolls off your tongue). Eventually I started writing about much more than DVDs and it became a slightly misleading title (which is why I added "a movie blog" to the header), leading me to wonder about what I would have named this blog had it not started out as a companion to that column. I never actually thought about changing the title of this blog, but many of my "what if?" names ended up on the list.

In the end, the 700 was a success for me personally, because I was challenged creatively as never before. Many times I had to literally wrack my brain to come up with some new pun or stupid word -- exhausting all the in-jokes, childhood insults and advertising slogans I could imagine. I was also pleased that in all the feedback I received on it (whether by email or comments), everyone cited a different name as their favorite of the list. Two comments put it best: "congrats on proving that the world is filled with idle pursuits just waiting for those with ambition enough to prove that they can be done" (Johanna Custer) and "I can say with confidence that no matter what a person has named their blog, if they read this list, they will find their title mocked" (Chris Stangl).

And remember, this list can be used in conjunction with Hodgman's list to create a NASA-sized number of blog name combinations (i.e. Plausible Zane Scarrey's Generic Control Panel).

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


Steve Carlson reviews movies like Steven Seagal dispatches henchmen. That is: with alarming frequency and noted consistency. At The Ongoing Cinematic Education of Steve Carlson, the title author has been firing out reviews in short, clever and effective bursts since 2002. While some of us in the movie blog-o-sphere waste our time with idiotic lists and ramblings, Steve sticks to the goods (reviews), and the man delivers. With a review index roughly ten feet high, Steve has spanned the gamut, from The House With Laughing Windows to House of the Dead, and Laugh, Clown Laugh to Killer Klowns From Outer Space. Steve is also nice enough to solicit opinions on what he should review, but please don't torment the man by telling him to review The Jar -- or if you do, at least have the courtesy to tell him you're only half serious.

TALKING IN YOUR SLEEP: 'I fell asleep during a classroom screening of Solaris, and I'd wager I might have been snoring a bit. Otherwise, not in any way I can think of. I did embarass someone else because of my inability to stop vocally mocking Underworld during a screening on its opening weekend -- does that count?'

SO MUCH TO LOVE: 'John Goodman bellowing, "I WILL SHOW YOU THE LIFE OF THE MIND!" in Barton Fink, Adam Sandler freaking out at the phone booth in Punch-Drunk Love, William H. Macy finally solving his problems with his wife in Boogie Nights, the big reveal in Fight Club, Dennis Hopper telling Kyle MacLachlan, "You're just like me," in Blue Velvet, the closing credits of Night of the Living Dead, the kid getting the hypo in the heart in In a Glass Cage, the freeze-frame at the end of if...., the last shot of Rejected, the eyeball and the razor blade in Un Chien Andalou, "Freebird" in The Devil's Rejects... the list never ends, man.'

TALK LIKE A STEVE CARLSON TODAY!: 'I use, "Well, they can't all be winners, kid, now can they?" from Bad Santa like it was tattooed on my tongue. I'm also quite fond of "Are you ready for the fun part? 'Cause here comes the fun part," from Super Troopers. Nothing profound, alas, but they get me through the day...'

TIS THE SEASON TO BE ...: 'Other than my habit of watching anti-romantic films on Valentine's Day (i.e. Multiple Maniacs, Blue Velvet, etc.), not really. I do try to watch something -- anything -- on Christmas in a theater, just because. Wasn't able to do it this year, alas...'

NOW PLAYING AT CINEMA CARLSONO: 'I'd do a whole month of Midnight Kink -- midnight showings of movies with oddball sexuality. I'd try not to leave anything out, either. From S&M (Maitresse and Sick) to transvestiteism (Glen or Glenda?) to transexualism (Let Me Die a Woman) all the way to necrophilia (Nekromantik) and bestiality (The Wedding Trough), plus a few catch-alls (Visitor Q, The Telephone Book, a '70s porno roughie or two)... I'd try and represent all I could. Just seeing the crowds that showed up would be entertaining enough.'

HEY MAN, THAT'S WEIRD: 'As a devotee of Something Weird, Shock Cinema and '70s cult madness, I've seen more than my share of bizarre, incompetent junk. I'm particularly fond of Herschell Gordon Lewis's crazed The Wizard of Gore, Jackie Kong's hysterical Blood Diner, the crass and goofy Mexi-madness Night of the Bloody Apes and the mind-melting Nude for Satan.'

DAMN IT ALL: 'Used to be one [movie] a day, if not more. Lately, though, work and other commitments have cut me down to about five a week. Not so bad, I suppose.'

PLEASE STAY: 'I almost never walk out on films. It's not that I don't believe in it -- it's just if I waste my money, I'm at least going to tough out the whole thing. This fortitude has only been sorely tested twice that I can recall right now -- I left the Sri Lankan feature Mansion by the Lake near its end because it was awful and my companions couldn't take any more, and I breezed out of Scary Movie 2 for about fifteen minutes because I desperately needed to keep my head from collapsing in on itself. Giving up on a film when it's on video, however... that's another matter.'

SICKO: 'My favorite year in recent memory was 1999 -- not just because there were more memorable films than any other year I've been alive, but also because it was the first year I was really able to cruise the New York City arthouse and indie-film scene. I moved to the East in mid-'98, and the first film I ever made a specific journey to see was Affliction in December of that year. 1999 was when I realized that I could make those journeys all the bloody time if I so wished. As a result, my obsessions mushroomed. It's a sickness from which I have yet to recover. If all goes well, I never will!'

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

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Stay Tuned???

My set of Tom Goes to the Mayor: The Complete Series has been a near-permanent fixture in my DVD player since I bought it a couple weeks ago (read my full review here). It's one of the best examples of how a niche series can be done so right on DVD: you get every episode and more extras than you need for an affordable price (less than $30) and in a creative presentation. I watched the show quite a bit when it was on, and was always slightly-fearful that it wouldn't get its just due on DVD, but I was glad to be disappointed. The fact remains that even with the generous treatment television series have been afforded on DVD, there are still many beloved series that have yet to make the transition and may never escape the television-to-DVD limbo. How can it be that Rambo: The Animated Series, Captain N the Game Master and The Ghost Busters (live action) have comprehensive DVD releases but not The Wonder Years, The Real Ghostbusters or Dexter's Laboratory? For some it's a matter of music rights, for others we can only guess. Let's take a look television series that are at the top of my wish list:

Dexter's Laboratory (1996-2003)
Status: Unreleased
Chance for life: Not good
For many years this was one of my top three favorite shows on television. It was not only a marvel of creative animation and comedic writing, but it struck close to home with me personally. For a lot of my early childhood I
was Dexter, or at least I wanted to be: being young mad scientist was my dream, and I even introduced myself as a scientist for a couple years when meeting adults. I don't believe this thinking was limited to myself, and that's why Dexter was so popular among adults and kids -- it touched on that "science can do anything" mentality that kids possess until they realize jet packs and baseball on Mars will never happen. From the wonderfully-warped mind of Genndy Tartakovsky (Powerpuff Girls, Samurai Jack, Star Wars: Clone Wars), Dexter's was nominated for Emmys and picked up a few other children's programming awards. For many years it occupied multiple daily blocks on Cartoon Network and even had a limited line of merchandise. There are so many Dexter's episodes that could be called "the best," but Mock 5 has always been my favorite, and it borders on genius for anyone familiar with Speed Racer.

And yet, it's not on DVD? Not only that, it barely got on VHS: all that was offered was a small best-of compilation and a video of the Ego Trip mini series. Cartoon Network has shown a willingness to put its best series on DVD, with nearly all the Adult Swim shows as well as Samurai Jack, Powerpuff Girls and Ed, Edd and Eddy all making the jump -- why not Dexter's? Reportedly, a recent Warner Bros. chat on their web site went so far as to say there were "no plans" for a DVD release. I would jump at even a compilation of episodes at this point.

Freddy's Nightmares (1988-1990)
Status: Available
Chance for Life: N/A
Until a couple of minutes ago I was under the false impression that this great series was unavailable, but you can apparently buy the complete set from a couple of sites and even download all the episodes for free from! If I didn't know about this, a lot of other people are probably in the dark as well, so I'm including it in this list. Freddy's Nightmares was a show I watched a lot as a kid when I couldn't sleep, because it was on late at night on ... USA? If you're thinking to yourself that this was an unproductive act since the show would give a young child nightmares you are correct, but I couldn't turn away from many of the episodes. Structured like a Twilight Zone serial, Freddy's Nightmares would present evil tales from the town of Springwood that usually centered around children. One episode that still haunts me is "Do You Know Where Your Kids Are?" (
download it!), where a mother locks her murderous step-daughter in the basement rather than turn her into the authorities. A young girl babysits the families younger (less evil) daughter, but is lured into the basement by the evil daughter, who then pulls a dastardly switch-a-roo on her.

The Real Ghostbusters (1986-1991)
Status: Partially released
Chance for life: Moderate
I'm not going to say "they don't make 'em like this anymore!" because I think the opposite is true: a lot of today's semi-disturbing kids cartoons resemble this one. Rather, this was one of the revolutionary 80s kids cartoons that aimed to elicit frights as well as laughs from kids. The Real Ghostbusters (so named because an unrelated cartoon had already
taken the name) was an excellent take-off on the movie and furthered the group's adventures in New York, usually pitting them against terrifying ghosts and monsters that were often based on mythology and literature. For at least a couple seasons, The Real Ghostbusters was a perfect blend of comedy, action and horror, with many episodes venturing into genuinely scary territory (anyone remember the Cthulhu episode? The show had excellent voice talent, with Lorenzo Music (Garfield and Friends) as Peter and even Arsenio Hall as Winston. I was a nut for anything Ghostbusters related, so this cartoon meant a lot to me, and even more so when some episodes were tied into Ghostbusters 2 plot elements.

It's kind of sad when the knockoff Ghostbusters cartoon is on DVD, and even the 1970s live action show of the same name, but not this series. Presently, the best you can do is see a couple episodes on the Ghostbusters 2 DVD and track down a couple discs that have random episodes on them. In a world when all the terrible Mario and Zelda cartoons have made it to DVD, this one deserves a better release.

The Wonder Years (1988-1993)
Status: Partially released
Chance for life: Not good
What introduction do you need? Was there anyone who didn't watch this show? I remember watching the pilot with my family, and continuing on through the weaker latter episodes when Kevin was getting ready to graduate from high school. The Wonder Years was blessed with a great cast, with only Olivia D'Abo able to escape the shadow of the series and go on to a successful career (where have you gone, Jason Hervey?). There were countless "moments" from this show: Kevin and Winnie's first kiss, Kevin flicking a spoonful of mashed potatoes at Wayne's face during a silent family dinner, the underlying tension between Kevin and his dad and up-and-down friendship between Kevin and Paul.

Realistically, it's hard to get too upset that The Wonder Years hasn't gotten a full DVD treatment. With the problems WKRP in Cincinnati had with rights to songs, The Wonder Years have to be much more complicated, starting with "A Little Help From My Friends" being the title song and multiple seminal tunes used throughout its run. It seems every year there are rumors of season releases, and 2007 is no different, so who knows. Presently the only DVDs of The Wonder Years are long out of print and subpar best-of and Christmas editions that often fetch triple digit prices on eBay.

Amazing Stories: Book Two (1986-1987)
Status: Unreleased
Chance for life: Good?
The first season of Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories had a great
DVD release last year, but the superior second season has still not been announced. The first season got the ball rolling with a couple gems, but the sophomore effort included the hallmarks of the short-lived series: Lane Change, What If?, Miss Stardust (with Weird Al Yankovic) and of course the timeless Family Dog, directed by Brad Bird (this used to be on YouTube, maybe it got pulled with the Viacom noise?). Bird went on to do The Simpsons, The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, and you can see signs of his future fame in this little episode. The animation is just superb, with Bird's trademarks of top notch body language and facial expressions on display. It's a hilarious tale of an undersized family watch dog and his battles for attention. I would buy the whole second season just for this episode.

Thursday, May 10, 2007


Thom Ryan certainly has something going over at Film of the Year. On the surface, the thesis of his blog is simple: write a post about a film from each year. Simple, until you realize how serious he is about that -- he started with the Lumiere Brothers' initial effort in 1895 (Planet Earth's first movie), and he doesn't plan to start until he catches up with the present day. In each year Thom examines the film as it stands, but also looks at the evolution film has made since the previous year. Through Thom's blog it's sometimes hard to imagine just how we ended up where we are (it's not until 1902's A Trip to the Moon when Film of the Year examines a piece longer than two minutes), and maybe more than any other blog I've found, Film of the Year challenges newbies to 'catch up' to the current lesson by pouring through the archives. Film of the Year's thesis has evolved as well, sometimes looking at more than one picture per year (really, how could you choose just one for 1931?), making the possibilities of Thom's long and winding road toward 2008 all that more exciting.

LOOK WHAT YOU DID YOU LITTLE JERK: 'As a teenager I once sneaked a bottle of beer into a small theater showing a midnight movie. I was just trying to impress my friends ("stupid is as...etc."). I had the bottle hidden in my coat and it slipped out. The screening room had a bare concrete floor so there was a crash, and glass and beer everywhere. The worst part was that they hadn't brought the house lights down yet so everyone in the place (including the management who were not amused) knew I did it. I was invited to find the nearest exit. Embarrassing but true.'

I typically watch a movie on DVD or HDTV every other day or so, and study at least one additional film per week for my blog. I used to be rather strict about seeing a movie every week at the theater but I'm much more likely to watch in our home theater these days.'

When you've dissed me: "What have I ever done to deserve such disrespect" (paraphrasing The Godfather 1972); After you apologize: "And I hope you will have the deceny to clear my name with the same publicity with which you have now besmirched it." (The Godfather ll 1974); When you're freaking out: "Luke, you've switched off your targeting computer, what's wrong?" (Star Wars 1977); When I'm freaking out: "Stay on target...stay on target..." (Star Wars 1977); The way I vow revenge: "Apology accepted...Capitan Needa" (The Empire Strikes Back 1980); My views on capitalism: "Well, it's easy to make a lot of money...when what you want is to make a lot of money." (Citizen Kane 1941); Keeping it real: "Gov'ment do take a bite, don't she?" (Raising Arizona 1987); When you ask for advice: "A man looks in the abyss he's got nothing looking back at him. At that moment a man finds his character." (Wall Street 1987); Walk in my office and I'll tent my hands and say: "We meet again..." (Hell's Angels 1927); When I just feel like annoying someone: "What's a pederast?" (The Big Lebowski 1998); My best threat in a fight: "You're going to wind up in a fucking bin-bag!" (Shallow Grave 1994); In the bedroom: "What a minute. What a minute. You ain't seen nothing yet!" (The Jazz Singer 1927); I'm working on find the perfect time to say, "Sweet mother of mercy! Can this be the end of Rico?" (Little Caesar 1931).

For raw sentimentality that scene in The Kid (1921) where the Tramp and the Kid are torn from each other and the kid runs after him, gets me every time.'

There's no thought police (yet) so if I'm really not enjoying something bolting the theater is an attractive option, sure. Can't remember when I've done it though. Maybe I Love You To Death (1990)?'

When I was a kid I used to drop everything Saturday afternoons and watch a Horror Double Feature show broadcast on a UHF channel from Detroit. Some twisted genius crafted the show's open. It featured a montage of shots from this mega-trashy 70s zombie flick while the freak-out section of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" blasted from the tiny TV speaker. It was enough to turn my young brain to mush and scared the pants off me! Those disgusting images of zombies crawling out of the fog-machine infested earth were always more frightening than whatever cheapo-flick was actually playing on the show. Trouble was I had no idea what movie provided those creepy shots. Flash forward twenty years and 2,000 miles from home: I'm rifling through the sale bin at my local video store, pick up a copy of Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things (1972) and look at the pictures on the back of DVD box. I freeze in my tracks, regress back to a nine-year old boy, and look wide-eyed at the guy behind the register. "Dude!" I suddenly shout at him, and he looks more startled than I am. "This is the movie!" Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things, a low budget undead-fest that sees a film director and a group of hippy actors travel to an island graveyard and try to cast a spell on a corpse to star in their movie. Nothing goes as planned (of course). The spell doesn't work so they take the body back with them and have a corpse party in a house on the island. Meanwhile, all of the other bodies buried on the island begin to "wake up." Pure trash but fun for the hippy-speak, clothes and excellent lo-fi creature effects. A guilty pleasure worth the long unholy grail quest I had to undertake to find it.'

The name of my revival theater is Leave Your Cellphone at the Door. We enforce the policy too, but you get a free issue of our zine in return. Friday: The Wrong Trousers (1993), What Happened at 23rd, New York City (1901), It (1927), The Seven Year Itch (1955), Saturday: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920); Ugetsu (1953), Celine and Julie Goat Boating (1974), Mulholland Drive (2001); Sunday: Lumiere shorts series.

I'm more likely to watch certain movies on a particular day of the week. For example, nothing fits friday nights like The Big Lebowski (1998), saturday afternoons like Shallow Grave (1994) or Vertigo (1958) or Sunday mornings like anything by Frank Capra.'

1977. Star Wars. My first conscious movie memory, and favorite childhood movie experience.'

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

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Outside the Gates of 'INLAND EMPIRE'

There's a moment in David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE where it seems like the director is sympathizing with his mostly confused audience: one of Laura Dern's characters is telling her story to a silent therapist and says 'I don't know what happened first, and it's kind of laid a mindfuck on me.' This line works on many levels: not only does it describe what the audience is experiencing at this point of the movie, but it also references an oft-quoted description of Lynch's movies: mindfuck. INLAND EMPIRE is so often frustrating and inaccessible that indeed my own mind may have been a victim of a Lynchian fucking -- I could have sworn this Dern line included a remark about not knowing about the future, but a Google search only contained quotes of what I printed above. It doesn't surprise me, as there's so little structure and narrative to INLAND EMPIRE that it's hard to recall the movie as a whole, only individual moments.

While Dern's character experienced a mindfuck, and many of Lynch's movies so enjoyably fuck with the viewer's mind, I can only describe my experience with INLAND EMPIRE as a mind-assgrab: it's only mildly offensive and rarely arousing, and the grabber gains only minimal enjoyment from it. David Lynch said during the making of this film that even he wasn't sure what it was going to be about, but rather 'I have this feeling that because all things are unified, this idea over here in that room will somehow relate to that idea over there in the pink room.' This is rather disconcerting for the viewer, because many movies require deep thinking and multiple viewings -- but if you're not sure there's actually something there, what's the point? In some ways, knowing that Laura Dern wasn't quite sure about the movie's meaning made feel better about not understanding it myself; but it also made me question just why it was made and/or released. Dern's apparent ignorance about the movie also speaks greatly about the actress' ability an d Lynch's talents, because her performance is the highlight of INLAND EMPIRE (and maybe her career).

INLAND EMPIRE is a claustrophobic experience for a viewer, because you have no clue where you are, and no sense of where you're going. I knew going in that it had a 170-minute running time, but I found it difficult to keep track of time during the movie because the scenes jump between delicately slow and maddeningly quick. If there was a redeeming aspect of
INLAND EMPIRE, it's that it physically puts you into a dream-like state -- constantly questioning where you are and what you're seeing. Lots of movies feel like dreams, but this is the only one I can think of that actually feels like a dream (do I have you in la-la land yet?). There are moments where beauty emerges out of bewilderment: a roomful of stunning hookers who transform from gleeful bullshitting to synchronized dance in an instant, an eerie scene on a movie set that hints at a temporal causality loop and the infamous family of rabbits that look somewhat like donkeys. In between these scenes are moments that draw you in because they hint at an actual narrative or plot, and you start to think about where it's going next.

I waited quite awhile before writing this because I wanted to think about the positive opinions I had read. Chris Stangl called it his favorite movie of 2006 and the always-keen Ed Gonzales gave it four stars -- what was I missing? I wanted to chalk it up to the fact that although I enjoy Lynch movies, I have also not seen them all, and some reviews hinted at belonging to a broader narrative that Lynch's movies have been building to. I also usually find myself defending the so-called 'confusing' movies such as Eyes Wide Shut and Syriana, which can sometimes be attributed to viewers not willing to give the effort needed to understand them. With INLAND EMPIRE, I never got the sense that there was something waiting to be discovered, and some of that may be due to the quotes from Lynch and Dern.

Exacerbating this sense is the fact that INLAND EMPIRE is not all that fun to look at. Beyond its digital video medium (which I kind of liked), the main problem is that the film is filled with jarring close-ups and angles which puts you right inside the life of someone you don't really want to meet (a seemingly useless late scene focusing on a grotesque conversation between homeless people is a chief offender of this). The next time Lynch makes a movie, I hope he knows what it's going to be.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Ape Day Afternoon

Instead of seeing Spiderman 3 this weekend, I spent my free time on a much overdue back-to-back viewing of the original King Kong and the extended edition DVD of the 2005 ape caper. For those counting at home, that's 305 consecutive monkey minutes. Some thoughts:

  • What caught my attention the most when watching these two back-to-back is how much more effective a character Kong is in the original, when he is portrayed more as a juvenile creature, as opposed to the grumpy brute that stars in Peter Jackson's version. When we first meet the 1933 Kong, he's huge and terrible but has some kind of smile on his face, and he treats Ann carefully like a fragile toy. The 2005 Kong is capable of all sorts of realistic ape expressions, but kindness and glee don't seem to be in his arsenal -- maybe it's due to the fact that real apes cannot exactly portray these facial emotions, and as a result the new Kong never achieves that playful quality of the original.
  • Indeed what makes the original movie so endearing is the sympathy you feel for the title character. When he gets shot down at the end, you see it as an innocent creature being tormented and unfairly killed. Kong earns this sympathy by never showing any malice, and coming off as a confused, youthful creature. Though he does wreck the train and throw an innocent woman to her death in New York, they can both be attributed to his frightened ignorance of this terrible new world he inhabits -- the train resembles the snake he fought on Skull Island, and the woman was the first Ann-like creature he found.
  • Compare this to the personality of the 2005 Kong: he seems full of rage, and it feels like a miracle that Ann survived the night with him. In all his action sequences, Kong 2005 comes off as a juggernaut, taking on foe after foe with ease, while the original Kong was a clumsy fighter who got about as much as he gave. Whereas the original Kong instantly showed a connection to Ann (whether it be out of novelty or love), it's hard to tell just what value Ann holds to the 2005 Kong: he's obviously gone through many of these 'gifts' from the natives, and appears to be somewhat amused by her vaudeville antics, but all in all doesn't seem to be that smitten with her. In the original, we find Kong trying to impress Ann (picking flowers just before the snake attack) and obviously has a huge interest in her: Kong famously is delighted by her alien scent (he amusingly sniffs his fingers twice after brushing her hair), and takes interest in her strange clothes and foreign appearance.
  • Jackson's Kong (especially in the 38-minutes longer extended edition) raises the action stakes to a near-unprecedented level and almost always exceeds your expectations in this regard. The tri T-Rex battle has to be one of the most thrilling action sequences in the past 20 years, and is easily my favorite of the CGI era. Sure, Lord of the Rings had epic battles and Spiderman 2's train battle is right up there, but we're talking about three ferocious dinosaurs against a 25-foot ape -- how can you top that? Purists can bash CGI effects all they want, but Weta Digital's are in a different league for the physical weight that is given to these monsters: every punch, crash and plunge feels like a few tons of bricks, never like a cartoon or video game. Credit Jackson too for creating the most frightening locale since Terminator 2's future Los Angeles war zone: the original Skull Island was pretty bad, but you want no part of the natural terror in Jackson's version.
  • When did Hollywood get into the mindset of having summer epics be no less than 2 1/2 hours? Even though Jackson's Kong is only about 30 minutes longer than the original, it never settles into that movie's rock 'n' roll pace, due mostly to the lumbering first act. Too much screen time is devoted to setting the scene of the Depression era, and the relationships inside the boat. In the end, none of that matters -- it's all about Kong, Ann and Carl Denham. Jack Driscoll may play the part of heroic human love interest, but in both versions it's pretty hard to care about him (Ann seems to share this sentiment). Watching Jackson's movie, I couldn't help but wonder what it would have been like if it opened as the boat disembarked -- with all the introductory New York scenes excised. Exposition such as Denham's troubled film career and Ann's vaudeville background could have easily been explained en route to Skull Island, and starting the film off on the boat would have made it easier to digest all the action of the film's final two acts.
  • As hard as it is to say, I think I prefer Jack Black's Denham to Armstrong's. Black's character gets off to a rough start with the clunky New York scenes, but once he gets to Skull Island the character is more realistic and three-dimensional than Armstrong's. The new Denham slowly starts to unravel once the carnage on Skull Island happens, which makes his dreams of grandeur more believable after Kong is defeated. Armstrong's Denham gives us little more than a doubtless showman, who has nothing but confidence in his plan of showcasing a monster to the world. Even when Kong routs his men, the 1933 Denham barely blinks, and at the end of the day on Skull Island he's the same man he was in New York. With Black's portrayal (and of course due in no small part to the direction of Jackson and his Lord of the Rings writing duo of Phillipa Boyens and Fran Walsh), Denham is clearly shaken by what happens on Skull Island and the brute force Kong is capable of -- the fact that he thinks he can safely showcase him in America sells the fact that he is now somewhat deranged.
  • Credit Jackson for keenly keeping his movie in the world of fantasy and not trying to sell it as reality. The original Kong lived in fantasy: the Empire State Building is seen as a towering spire, fictitiously dwarfing the rest of the city; and we are given no reason to believe that Denham's ship could have carried a slumbering Kong back to New York. I loved how Jackson paid a shot-by-shot tribute to this latter bit of unrealism, as in both movies the story simply jumps from Skull Island to Manhattan with no mind given to how the giant ape was transported (a seemingly impossible reality, given the nature of Denham's ship and the fact that Kong would have had to sleep through the whole journey).
  • Jackson's recreation of the infamous lost spider pit scene is one of the most generous extras to ever grace a DVD, but I think the original does fine without it. We don't need any more convincing that humans are no match for Skull Island's inhabitants, and the mere glimpse of that terrible half-lizard/snake thing crawling up from the chasm provides enough evidence that we have only seen a sliver of the island's natural terror.
  • Another reason to cut more of the opening scenes from Jackson's movie: the newly restored swamp scenes on the DVD did not need to be cut. The water monsters we see (a huge catfish-like creature and many aquatic scorpion hybrids) are fantastic and terrifying, and would have enhanced the Skull Island adventure more than any of the early Denham/Ann scenes. Also, though I loved the bug pit scene -- what does it say about the MPAA that such intensity made it into a PG-13 movie? Not only is it a terrifying sequence, but the shot of a man being graphically eaten by huge worms is hugely grotesque and seems out of place in a movie many kids would be seeing. Long gone are the days when studios could afford a quick tit shot without an R-rating, but King Kong is a great example that more concessions are made toward gore and violence in PG-13 than ever before.