Thursday, February 26, 2009

American Teen (2008)--2/5

For all the drama on display, "American Teen" is a hollow candy shell. For one, none of this petty high school bullshit matters after graduation.* The lengths the filmmakers go to make the film seem important are baffling and, in the end, betray the subjects' trust.

The reality-show-as-documentary-film aspect is less troubling. For these teens, in the shadow of "The Hills" and other reality-dramas, camera crews and bulky mikes are assimilated easily. Everything is already half-documented, with texts, emails, digital photos. The addition of cameras makes little difference.

"American Teen" jumps around with little regard to reality. Nanette Burstein, the director, isn't even trying to be sneaky about it. In the first of many staged shots, "rebel" Hannah wakes up on the first day of school. Suddenly, basketball season is starting, which is actually months later. It would be one thing if the movie jumped around for illustrative purposes; here's Colin, he plays basketball, here he is playing basketball, etc. But the voiceover specifies, "It's the first day of school," "It's the first day of basketball season." Very stupid.

Later, at the important—although everything can be doubted at this point—sectional game, Colin sinks a dramatic three-pointer at the buzzer. The scoreboard in the background of a subsequent shot displays the not-even-close score of 50-42.

One more: At prom, that sort-of popular Does It Offend You, Yeah? song is heard. This would be okay on the soundtrack, except it's distorted to make it sound like it was captured live by the cameras. A song from 2008 in a movie filmed two years earlier.

If you know what movie you're going to make, write a script and hire actors. The worst thing to see in a documentary is forced narrative created before filming. Film first, and then see what you've got. Look at the admirable case of how "Capturing the Friedmans" came to be. In the process of making a film about birthday party entertainers, director Andrew Jarecki stumbled upon the scandalous past of one of his subjects. He decided to make a separate movie. Has anybody seen the original film, "Just a Clown?"

*Will the fact that this school year has been immortalized on video make a difference in any of these kids’ lives? Probably not; nobody saw this overhyped movie.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

More Obscurities That Sneaked Into MTV’s Normal Programming

“12 Angry Viewers,” a show in which random people graded new videos in a single-elimination format: Aphex Twin—“Come to Daddy”; Fun Loving Criminals—“The Fun Lovin’ Criminal”

“Oddville MTV,” a cheaply-produced talk show, had the Billy Corgan-produced band The Frogs (w/ Sebastian Bach). You can also see them, “The World’s Greatest Band,” on the Smashing Pumpkins “Vieuphoria” VHS.

Some random guest-VJ’ed set by Moby: Massive Attack—“Teardrop”

Monday, February 23, 2009


At its genesis, M2, the long-needed solution to MTV’s well-documented refusal to play music videos, was the best thing ever associated with MTV. For its first year or so of existence, as a promotional thing, I was able to watch 2 on 1 at 2:00. For an hour on every snow, in-service, or otherwise off day, I was glued to the screen. Jancee Dunn, M2’s dreamy anti-VJ, would stumble through awkward chitchat and viewer-mail readings to introduce some of the newest, most obscure and most radical content ever seen on MTV. This stuff was way beyond even the progressive playlists of the Sunday night stalwart (until it was quietly dropped) “120 Minutes.”

Just look at this list of bands I had never heard of until I saw them on M2. Some are one-hit wonders, some not as good as initially advertised, and some not good at all. Regardless, this lineup is off the hook (in 1996-97 parlance):

Atari Teenage Riot
Cibo Matto—“Sugar Water”
Daft Punk—“Da Funk” and “Around the World”
The Goops—the video that describes “How to Make A Movie Tie-In Music Video When You Can’t Get Spike Jonze by Jay and Silent Bob”
Local H
Michael Penn—"Try"
MxPx—"Chick Magnet"
Sneaker Pimps
Spice Girls
Sugar Ray
Tracy Bonham
Tricky—Yeah, there’s a lot of trip-hop on this list.
White Town—"Your Woman"

Some of the bands whose older, non-hit videos got play on the station include:

No Doubt
The Chemical Brothers—“Elektrobank,” in which Sofia Coppola performs a gymnastics routine
Bjork—many, including Michel Gondry’s video for “Bachelorette.”
Smashing Pumpkins
Yo La Tengo

This is only a taste of the variety on display on M2. Occasionally, they would devote a video block to offbeat themes, such as animated or one-shot videos.

M2 is now MTV2. It rarely shows videos.

p.s. Wow, I just found this New York Times article from 2000:

“To kick off the millennium, [MTV2] carved out three and a half months to broadcast every video in the MTV library in alphabetical order. ‘I think the final number was around 18,000 videos,’ said David Cohn, general manager of MTV2. ‘It was the heights to the depths.’”

Jancee Dunn

And the Winner is...


Saturday, February 21, 2009

Le Trou (1960)--5/5

“Le Trou” corrects the problems of most other prison escape and heist movies. In meticulous detail, it’s only about the escape. Characterization is meted out only by way of the prisoners’ involvement in the escape.

A stand-in for new prisoner Gaspard, the audience is at first about half a step behind the plot. Once he joins in on the plan with his four hardened cellmates, we’re along for every (sometimes excruciatingly) tense moment.

Compare this to the average heist flick. In most, three quarters of the movie are devoted to the planning of the heist: assembling a team, mapping the scene of the crime, inventing gadgets, and so on. Once the crime actually begins, the conveniently—and arbitrarily—unrevealed characters and methods are put in play. Why are heist movies like this? To get to know the characters? I don’t think genre exercises are popular for their memorable characters.

Maybe it’s unfair to compare “Le Trou” with heist films. Escape films are generally more giving of information. It’s just that “Le Trou” is so striking in its deconstruction.

For the actors, “Le Trou” is a demonstration of sheer physicality. They actually hack thousands of times at the concrete floor to create the first of many holes. (They do this during the day, masked by the industrial sounds of working prisoners.) For about ten minutes, the camera is unblinking at their toil. If this sounds boring, it’s not at all. The frame vibrates with every blow. And compare the pristine concrete from the beginning to the end result of pulverized pebbles and dirt. It doesn’t matter what these guys did to be imprisoned. With every correct move, failure becomes unthinkable.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Appaloosa (2008)--3/5

Viggo Mortensen, sere and sepia-toned, is the real star of “Appaloosa,” a traditionalist Western from actor/director Ed Harris. The few Westerns that trickle into theaters anymore are either exceptionally bleak (“The Proposition”), self-aware (“Sukiyaki Western Django”), or both at the same time (“The Claim”). Hitting all the beats of a traditional oater, the film is fresher for it; Harris isn’t trying to reinvent the genre.

“Appaloosa” nails the details just a little bit better than most films. Allison French (Renée Zellweger), fresh off the train, plays poorly on an out-of-tune piano in the town’s bar. This detail is not mentioned, just left in the background. The end credits feature extreme close-ups of the props made for the film. Cole’s tin star is imprinted with the town’s name and Appaloosa’s laws are carefully printed out.

Everett Hitch (Mortensen) is Virgil Cole’s (Harris) deputy. As marshal-for-hire, Appaloosa turns over the right of law to Cole in order to bring down the scoundrel Bragg (Jeremy Irons, admirably downplaying the malevolence). Hitch is the narrator of the film. He’s also Cole’s strongman and confidante. Viggo Mortensen once again brings his mesmerizing, solemn screen presence to the role. “Appaloosa” smartly builds confidence in the instincts of Hitch. His actions at the end of the film are necessary and logical. In a film of predictable turns, what seems surprising has been shrewdly telegraphed all along.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Super Mario 64 Endless Stairs

By guest blogger GK.

Here's a remarkable piece of music we discovered last decade while playing Mario 64. If you find it completely unremarkable, think of Escher. In the game, after achieving a certain number of stars you could be admitted to a staircase but attempts to climb it to the second floor of the castle were thwarted: you could climb as long as you liked but when you turned around to descend you'd discover it was just three or four steps back to the first floor. Later, with even more stars in hand, you could finally get to floor two. M64 was the best video game ever IMO, very cute and fun. My spawn liked to watch me play, for the stunning displays of incompetence.

Big Wednesday (1978)--3/5

Before the days of computer effects, filmmakers either wowed with practical solutions or embarrassed with hokey overreaching. Though it’s got both in equal measure, “Big Wednesday” manages to precariously succeed. The gauzy sentimentality of the film excuses the limitations of the surfing footage. Plus, a young Gary Busey plays a crazy person. Radical!

Director John Milius intercuts close-ups of the principal actors surfing admirably with long shots of almost-look-alikes tearing up the waves. The film requires no terribly substantial acting skills. Still, for a character piece like “Big Wednesday,” surfers who can kind-of act aren’t the same as actors who can kind-of surf. Anyway, part of the fun—in this and in other effects-heavy pre-CGI movies—is figuring out the logistics that went into the (hopefully) seamless whole. In addition to the traditional shots of surfers, Milius incorporates claustrophobic on-the-board footage from IMAX auteur Greg MacGillivray.

The three types of shots cohere well enough to create the desired surfing meditation. Until the action-ish end of “Big Wednesday,” the film shares a kinship with “Paranoid Park.” Surfing—in “Park’s” case, skateboarding—is a way of life, not a cynical plot device. In movies like this, surfing always comes off as a bit more mystical, zen-like, and pretentious than the common art of skateboarding. See also: “Point Break,” or “Tapping the Source” versus “Wassup Rockers.”

Vietnam brings an abrupt and symbolic halt to surfing and lolling on the beach. Busey’s plan—one of many concocted by the surfers—is to dress in homeless rags, pour wine on his head, and shout non-sequiters. Essentially, he turns into “Gary Busey,” the memorably unhinged “Entourage” guest star. Anybody who’s seen “Entourage” knows this is worth checking out.

Friday, February 13, 2009

One More Picture

A picture of Shortz and the winners in front of the completed grid:

(Picture from Westport Now)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The New York Times Crossword, 12 February 2009

Finally. GK came up with this theme idea over a year-and-a-half ago.

One cool thing--Will Shortz used it as the final puzzle in a crossword tournament last weekend:

(Picture from Rex Parker)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Brideshead Revisited (2008)--2/5

The clear winner of the English castle-size cold war, Brideshead is as large as a small nation’s capitol. Since the first law of British movies (which I just made up) describes the direct relationship of house size to familial nuttiness, the Flytes who live here are something else. Charles Flyte (Ben Whishaw) is the ostracized gay son. Older brother Bridley hides behind an elitist, mannered façade. Lord Marchmain has fled to Venice with his mistress. Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), the root of everyone’s problems, is concerned only with pleasing God.

Daughter Julia may have some inner conflict. Sadly, Hayley Atwell is the least-interesting actor in the film. In “Cassandra’s Dream” and now “Brideshead Revisited,” she’s yet to prove herself as more than just a pretty face. Even worse, here she looks exactly like that vapid Camel Cigarettes spokes-illustration.

"Brideshead Revisited" is a handsome, if undistinguished, story about, um, revisiting Brideshead. Charles Ryder's (Matthew Goode) first glimpse of the "stately home" is brief and memorable. Subsequent returns are increasingly tragic.

Charles and Julia’s relationship is supposed to be the strongest thread among many. Due to the anti-chemistry between the leads and, possibly, the abridgement of Evelyn Waugh’s book, this is not the case. They seem to be interacting in a parody of a British drama. Since they’re the only straight characters of the same age, they have to be attracted to each other. There has to be some tragic circumstances to keep them apart. And they have to find each other later. Blah.

True, these are the elements of most films in the genre. In better attempts, the leads are somewhat appealing, excusing the clichés.

Hayley Atwell in "Brideshead Revisited"

Monday, February 9, 2009

Garbage Warrior (2007)--4/5

Mike Reynolds, inventor of the self-sustaining "Earthsip Biotecture" movement, claims to not be a hippie. Ha! The documentary "Garbage Warrior" barely breaks a sweat in lionizing him.

"Earthship Biotecture" is not another P-Funk spin-off. Rather, it describes the living spaces Reynolds and his followers have been making in the deserts outside of Taos, New Mexico for almost thirty years. They truly are self-sustaining. The sun fulfills most needs, powering solar batteries, heating up insulation, and enabling greenhouse agriculture. Night and day, the houses maintain a temperature of seventy degrees. Water is provided from wells or collected as rainwater. Sewage--well, mention is made of sewage treatment under living rooms, but we never see it up close. Barring a sun-blocking catastrophe, Earthships are the solution for post-apocalyptic living.

Reynolds and his band of bohemian carpenters experiment in the hopes that something, anything, will find its way into the world of modern construction. They build the houses around themselves, tinkering until everything works well enough.

For his troubles, Reynolds is forced to surrender his architect’s license and pay exorbitant sums to the city. Yes, he willfully breaks every code in the book. That’s the point. The current laws are financially and environmentally wasteful. “Garbage Warrior” is shrewd in presenting this turn of events. For the first half-hour, Reynolds’ buildings are seen as delightful, harmless spaces. What they lack in aesthetics, they make up hardiness and functionality. Later interest from city council is seen as the ultimate in bureaucratic cluelessness.

Reynolds trip to the tsunami-destroyed Andaman Islands draws a clear parallel to the American resistance to change. He balks at the trucked-in freshwater, this on an island with regular torrential downpours. Using tires, plastic bottles, and dirt, Reynolds et al heroically create a handsome water-collecting hut. In a country that has nothing, innovation is welcomed.

Entertainment that Moves Backwards in Time




Seinfeld—“The Betrayal”


The Last Time They Met by Anita Shreve

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Lawless Heart (2001)--3/5

The cover image (of a woman stripping) and title of “Lawless Heart” make it look like a Skinemax “Red Shoe Diaries” rip-off. Instead, it’s a puzzle of a movie concerning three men in the aftermath of an acquaintance’s death. Yes, the cover model is in the movie—as a minor character. The reason she’s on the cover? Bill Nighy’s a fine actor, just not really a sex symbol.

At Stuart’s funeral, we meet Dan (Nighy), Nick (Tom Hollander), and Tim (Douglas Henshall). They are Stuart’s brother-in-law, lover, and long lost friend, respectively. After the first half hour, chronicling the married Dan’s attraction to a French shop owner, the film starts again at the funeral, following Nick through the same period of time. Tim’s story likewise follows suit. The effect is not unlike that of “Noises Off;” confusing and/or barely seen moments from the beginning are (often poignantly) explained later.

“Lawless Heart” adds up to an overstuffed, well-meaning, and superbly acted character study. It’s less than the sum of its parts.

If one doesn’t know the central gimmick of the film, the first rewind to the beginning will be jarring because Dan’s first third of the story is smart and subtly written. It could feasibly be feature-length.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The State on DVD

In a new interview, David Wain, of MTV's The State, offers the annual glimmer of hope for a DVD release:

"AVC: So where's the State DVD?

DW: We put together these beautiful masters of our entire series, did commentary on every episode, threw in tons of extras, deleted sketches, never-before-seen material of all different types, in a beautiful package, mastered, everything all done. And for some reason, there's been this unwillingness to actually release it. The latest that I've heard is that they are planning on releasing it, probably in the first half of this next year, but I would be foolhardy to promise anything."

I spent approximately half of my high school career quoting the "Pope-a" sketch and others, so many of The State's sketches have been completely internalized. Part of the joy of the show has been sharing bootlegs and YouTube clips with those who haven't seen it before. So far, it's been universally loved.

But I'm terrified that the original music, so necessary to the State experience, will not be present on the DVD's. An AVClub commenter, regarding the "Pants" sketch, laments, "If you've seen the re-relese's of season 1 from I tunes this sketch isn't half as funny with the genneric music they added." [general sic] The song in question is the Breeders' "Cannonball."

I'm totally making up this theory that MTV was able to use any song they wanted on their shows, as long as they had the rights to broadcast the song's video. At that time, the songs were advertisements for albums. Now, with the threat of lost revenue--silly, since they won't release the sure-to-sell DVD's in the first place--royalties are sidestepped.

This same oversight diminished much of the value of "The Real World--The Complete First Season." Dippy synth arrangements instead of B.A.D. II's "The Globe?" No thanks.

Gran Torino (2008)--4/5

Intentionally or not, “Gran Torino” is a hysterical comedy from Clint Eastwood. As Walt, a Dirty Harry-esque retiree, Eastwood emphatically reinforces every stereotype about grumpy old men. The comic-book world in which he lives kind of justifies his attitude.

Typically, Walt is the only resident on his street who still maintains his house and lawn. At the very sight of his next-door neighbors, a Hmong family, he stares and growls. He even tells them to “stay off my lawn” at one point.

They’re the least of his problems. Apparently, every young man in Detroit is part of an ethnic gang. Cruising the streets and flashing Uzis at each other, they make "Gran Torino" resemble a daylit counterpart to “The Warriors.” Walt really gets angry when his neighbors are victims of a gang drive-by.

Without the reliable magnetism of Clint Eastwood, “Gran Torino” would be nigh-unwatchable. The interaction between Walt’s eventual protégé Thao and the Hmong gang is straight out of an After School Special re: peer pressure. The Detroit Hmong population must be pretty small for the gang to be so insistent on initiating the wussy, taciturn Thao. Besides, he doesn’t have a car (spoiler: yet) and they can’t fit more than five people in their tricked-out Civic.

And for the most part, the non-actors are dreadful. One gets the feeling that Eastwood moved into a house in Detroit and just started filming the neighborhood. Thankfully, when sparring with Eastwood, their performances are slightly less anemic.

Providing much of the comedy in “Gran Torino” is Walt’s endless supply of ethnic slurs. They sting at first, before the true craziness of the film sinks in. After awhile, new scenes are suspenseful new opportunities for him to denounce an entire immigrant group. Take a shot every time he busts out a new one.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

New and Notable Nail Damage

Warning: this was hard to write so it's probably hard to read.

Amores Perros—The old homeless guy clips his groady (sp?) toenails in extreme close-up. This isn’t painful, I guess, but it’s still gross.

Demons—(See “Thriller”)

Max Payne—A tweaking junkie tears his nails out on a brick wall before falling many stories onto a car.

The Orphanage—Heroine Laura’s hand is slammed in the bathroom door. In extreme close-up, she inspects her broken nail and pulls off part of it.

The Ring—Fingernails in the wall are evidence that the creepy killer girl, Samara, was alive after being thrown in a well.

Stuck—Mena Suvari sneaks up on co-worker Rukiya Bernard just as she’s about to clip a nursing home resident’s toenail. Instead, a stream of blood begins running down the toe.

Syriana—I haven’t seen it, but people tell me George Clooney gets his fingernails pulled out.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)—A victim is dragged to the basement, leaving fingernails on the concrete wall.

“Thriller”—As Michael Jackson transforms in to a werewolf, claws break through his nails.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me—Murder victim Teresa Banks’ fingernail is removed to reveal a mysterious letter “T.”

Monday, February 2, 2009

Paul Rudd is often funny on Conan

And this visit is no exception:

Sympathy for the Devil (1968)--4/5

Sorry, "That Thing You Do!" In the small company of movies with a title song repeated countless times, "Sympathy For the Devil" has got you beat. Using uninterrupted shots, Jean-Luc Godard’s film details the evolution of the “Beggars Banquet” track. Starting out at half-tempo, the song picks up speed, percussion, and backup singers (the famous “woo-woo”). Lyrics—disturbing in their divergence from the eventual track—come into their final form. E.g. the opening line “Please allow me to introduce myself” starts off as the syllable-deficient “Please let me introduce myself.”

It’s a great song, and it clearly disturbs Godard to have captured something so openly entertaining. In counterpoint, half of “Sympathy For The Devil” is devoted to equally-lengthy swaths of Marxist propaganda, Black Power training, and inversions of celebrity culture. It’s your typical Godard wankery, made expressly to be unpacked by film theorists.

But it works! Godard has long known the formula to making entertaining proselytization. Because of their obnoxious length, the disparate strands of "Sympathy for the Devil" have time to freely bounce off of one another. Processes and meanings confront the audience, lessening the importance of simple actions. The afterimage is a not-unpleasant melange of patterns, repetition, and style. Godard leaves the usual linear satisfaction of films to those with standard narratives.